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The Clarity of Things’

The National Endowment for the Humanities, together with the American Library Association, has launched in 2008 a program that will supply classrooms and public libraries with reproductions of significant American art, one example on each side of twenty high-quality posters, forty examples in all, under the overall title Picturing America. It was my idea, invited to give the 2008 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, to use some of these forty works, with others, to pose the question “What is American about American art?” The question has often arisen; it was asked in almost these exact same words in 1958, by Lloyd Goodrich, then the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. His essay was titled “What Is American —in American Art?” and began:

One of the most American traits is our urge to define what is American. This search for a self-image is a result of our relative youth as a civilization, our years of partial dependence on Europe. But it is also a vital part of the process of growth.

My impression is that inquiries into an essential Americanness are less fashionable than they were fifty years ago, since they inevitably gravitate, in this age of diversity and historical revision, to that least hip of demographic groups, white Protestant males of northern European descent. These thin-lipped patriarchal persons figure, as founding Puritans or Founding Fathers, as western pioneers or industrial magnates, at every juncture of traditional history books, and our diverse, eclectic, skeptical present population may have heard quite enough about them.

Yet my skimming survey of our sensitively diverse set of forty artworks cannot avoid these primal Americans. Let us begin with the first great painter cast up by our art-sparse, undercivilized, eastern-coastal New World, a young man as precocious as he was assiduous, John Singleton Copley. Born in 1738 of Irish immigrants on Boston’s Long Wharf, his childhood marred by his father’s early death and then, when he was thirteen, by that of his stepfather, the English artist and engraver Peter Pelham, Copley was all his life a striver and, with what I would like to think of as a typically American trait, a learner.

Colonial Boston, a town of less than 16,000, accounted for 40 percent of the colonies’ shipping; it abounded in shops and skilled craftsmen but was devoid of art schools and museums; European art entered its homes, if at all, in the form of fine consumer goods and inadequate monochrome prints. Copley was to complain in letters that his fellow colonials “generally regard [painting] no more than any other usefull trade, as they sometimes term it, like that of a Carpenter tailor or shew [shoe] maker, not as one of the most noble Arts in the World” and that his native land offered him “neither precept, example, nor Models.” Peter Pelham was proficient in the art of mezzotint, and Copley’s first known work, done when the boy was fifteen, skillfully imposed the head of one clergyman, the Reverend William Welsteed, upon the torso of a portrait print his stepfather had executed of another, the Reverend William Cooper.

Copley’s oil portrait of his stepbrother, Charles Pelham, executed a year or so later, is a typical stiff portrait of the period, with a totally indecisive background and a tabletop in odd perspective, yet with a pleasing care in such details as the pen and the vest and an arresting liveliness to the young subject’s glance. By 1756, the teenage artist attempted, in the portrait of Ann Tyng, a nearly full-length female figure, a landscaped background, and an apparatus of pastoral conceit; by the next year, in that of the aristocratic Theodore Atkinson Jr., who still wears a wary stiffness in the pose and expression, the painter achieved a marvelous virtuosic realism in the white silk waistcoat embroidered with silver thread.

A canvas of Epes Sargent, the seventy-year-old owner of half of Gloucester, shows a textural brilliance of another sort, in the thoughtful aged face and the puffy, wrinkled hand set off against a coat of plain gray broadcloth. The painter’s voracious eye even notes the little snowfall on Sargent’s shoulder from his powdered wig. By the year of this painting, Copley, not yet thirty, was already recognized as a worker of visual miracles, the supreme portraitist not only in New England but in all the colonies, combining a preternatural skill in mimicking fabrics—as marvelous in pastel, as we see in his rendering of the merchant prince Jonathan Jackson and his blue-green silk morning coat, as in oil—with an increasing power of conveying the inner life behind the faces of his New World aristocrats. For instance, in the portrait of Mrs. James Warren, née Mercy Otis, a colonial rarity, a female intellectual, poet, and future playwright and historian, her facial expression is as complex as the folds and lace trimmings of her voluminous blue satin dress, painted when Copley was only twenty-five.

The Copley example chosen by the Picturing America series is his 1768 portrait of a successful Boston silversmith, Paul Revere, whose name, thanks to an 1861 poem by Longfellow, would come to reverberate in the legend of the American Revolution. It is Copley’s only portrait of a craftsman in shirtsleeves, and the painting itself shows some merely craftsmanly qualities. The shirt is splendid but the hand on the chin appears too big for the face, and the reflection of the fingers of the other in the silver of the teapot seems surreally artful. Whatever Revere is thinking about, it is most probably not the midnight ride he will undertake in eight years’ time but the job he will undertake tomorrow morning, its meticulous graving and polishing.

This painting, and one several years later of the rising firebrand Samuel Adams, might lead one to associate Copley with the colonies’ cause of independence, but in fact he married the daughter of Richard Clarke, principal agent for the British East India Company; it was Clarke’s tea, largely, that was dumped into Boston Harbor by revolutionaries painted as Mohawk Indians. In the coming crunch, Clarke was a Tory, and by 1776 Copley had settled with his wife, children, and father-in-law in London’s Leicester Square. But for a decade before this Copley had been seeking to make his painting more English. He wrote in a letter of yearning “to acquire that bold free and gracefull stile of Painting that will, if ever, come much slower from the mere dictates of Nature, which has hither too been my only instructor.”

In 1765, seeking better instruction, he submitted a painting of his half-brother Henry Pelham, titled Boy with a Squirrel, to the 1766 exhibition of the Society of Artists in London. His friend Captain R.G. Bruce, who had carried the canvas to England, sent back the approbation of Joshua Reynolds, the leading British portraitist of the day and soon to be the first president of the Royal Academy. In Bruce’s paraphrase, Reynolds said, “Considering the Dissadvantages…you had laboured under, that it was a very wonderfull Performance” despite “a little Hardness in the Drawing, Coldness in the Shades, An over minuteness.”

The same mail brought Copley word from Pennsylvania-born Benjamin West, who in three years of London residence had apparently mastered English artistic style and manners. West wrote of “the great Honour the Picture has gaind you,” though he and some fellow artists had found fault with it as “being to[o] liney, which was judged to have arose from there being so much neetness in the lines.” Reynolds, by way of Bruce, encouraged Copley to come to England “before your Manner and Taste were corrupted or fixed by working in your little way at Boston,” and the Society of Artists elected him a fellow on the strength of the “liney” canvas; the contemporary art authority John Wilmerding points out that it was the “first major work painted by an American artist for himself, rather than on commission, and it also became the first American picture to be exhibited abroad.” Copley, Tory or not, was the George Washington of American art, and, rather disconcertingly, he knew it, writing Pelham in 1775 from England’s shores, “It is a pleasing reflection that I shall stand amongst the first of the artist’s that shall have led that Country to the Knowledge and cultivation of the fine Arts.”

This picture’s transatlantic intentions give it a schizophrenic quality: the mahogany tabletop, the water glass, gold chain, and the tiny pet flying squirrel have all a dry minuteness, but the subject’s face, unlike that of Copley’s usual hard-faced colonials, is creamy, dreamy, and in romantic profile. Copley’s customers for portraits among the colonial gentry put up with an absence of flattery, a refusal to glamorize, that British sitters of comparable status might not have accepted; even here, Copley’s warts-and-all portrait policy permanized in paint his half-brother’s oddly folded ear, as well as, elsewhere, Nathaniel Allen’s hairy moles and Miles Sherbrook’s acne scars.

Copley’s next submission to the Society of Artists, for the 1767 exhibition, was titled Young Lady with a Bird and Dog. This time, Benjamin West complained that the girl looked “disagreeable,” and conveyed Reynolds’s opinion that

Each Part of the Picture [is] Equell in Strenght of Coulering and finishing, Each Making to[o] much a Picture of its silf, without the Due Subordanation to the Principle Parts, viz they head and hands.

What Reynolds meant is shown by a sampling of his own portraits of Horace Walpole and Lawrence Sterne. In both, light is sharply focused on the head and one hand. Incidental details are confined to papers, since both men are writers, acting out their roles on a minimalist stage. In Reynolds’s more elaborate portrait of Warren Hastings, the first governor general of India, the proficiently painted details of clothing and furniture do not usurp attention from the casually posed nobleman and agent of empire, but frame him, in his relaxed dignity; he has a good opinion of himself, and the portrait agrees.

The confident theatricality of English portraits, when Copley attempts it, seems to embarrass his down-to-earth colonial subjects, and turns their expressions ironical, as we see Sylvester Gardner’s in his 1772 portrait. If their poses are stiff, it is an honest wooden stiffness; in Copley’s paintings of English gentry, the stiffness is burnished to a metallic luster, and rings hollow. Even in his most admired and ambitious English painting, a historical tableau in the approved Grand Style, The Death of Major Peirson, the central pictorial incident, with its single drop-shaped drop of blood, feels staged to the point of farce. And the dying hero’s flowing hair, and the spruce details of the uniforms crowding around him, seem, well, “liney.”

What did Benjamin West mean by this word? A line is a child’s first instrument of depiction, the boundary where one thing ends and another begins. The primitive artist is more concerned with what things are than what they look like to the eye’s camera. Lines serve the facts. Folk art tends to be “liney,” as we can see in anonymous American portraits done well before Copley, earlier in the eighteenth century. Such portraits, executed as a “useful trade” like sign-painting and printmaking, were the sole genre of high art widely practiced in America before the nineteenth century brought in Romantic landscapes. They share a resolute attempt at likeness and an honest notation of such details as fabric patterns but lack a convincing atmosphere and a third dimension; they are, as it were, two-and-a-half-dimensional, and so was Copley’s early work. The conventions of illusionistic painting, providing through tint and brushwork the sense of recession in space and of enclosing atmosphere, are not demanded by every culture. In the art-sparse, mercantile world of the American colonies, Copley’s lavish literalism must have seemed fair dealing, a heaping measure of value paid in shimmering textures and scrupulously fine detail. “Overminuteness” could scarcely exist, as it did not exist for Holbein or Jan Van Eyck.

In the wake of the great Copley retrospective in Boston in 1966, the critic Barbara Novak ascribed Copley’s sensibility not to any artistic predecessor but to a “conceptual bias” present in Puritanism. Jonathan Edwards wrote of “the clarity of ‘things,’” of things as the mediators between words and ideas, between empirical and conceptual experience. “The manifestations God makes of Himself in His works,” Edwards wrote, “are the principle manifestations of His perfections, and the declaration and teachings of His word are to lead to these.” The first great painter of American landscapes, Thomas Cole, who also perpetrated a number of religious pictures and large allegorical canvases, lamented that the public preferred “things not thoughts.” Moving from America to England, Copley passed from an art whose soul was empirical to one whose soul was conceptual, societal, and theatrical.

Two self-portraits record his inner migration: a pastel at the age of thirty-one shows, but for the touch of vanity in the elegant, leisurely costume, an enigmatically bland young man, his eyes watchfully on you. A tondo in oils after a decade in London paints in dashing brushstrokes a faintly haggard man of fashion in his forties (see illustration on page 12). His eyes, directed away from us, are those described by an observer, not long after he had left America, as “small eyes, which, after fatigue, seemed a day’s march in his head.” Always laborious in his painstaking methods—sitters, including the younger daughters of George III, complained of being “wearied” during the many sittings Copley demanded—he had left behind the land that had rewarded him with unchallenged eminence and what he described as a “pretty living” of three hundred guineas a year, for an England where he always struggled to prove himself. Lloyd Goodrich’s essay puts it bluntly: “America lost her greatest artist, to add another good painter to the British school.”

In the ninety-eight years that went by between Copley’s birth and that of Winslow Homer, on Boston’s Friend Street, into the family of a well-to-do hardware merchant, Boston still had acquired no art school and very little of an artistic community. When young Winslow, whose mother was a dedicated amateur watercolorist, expressed a desire to be an artist, the best his indulgent father could do for him was to acquire, on a business trip to England, some instructive lithographs and to arrange for his son’s apprenticeship to an acquaintance, the commercial lithographer John H. Bufford. Winslow Homer did not speak well of his two years with Bufford; he called working ten hours a day for five dollars a week “bondage” and “slavery” and a “treadmill existence.” On his twenty-first birthday, he left Bufford’s and set up shop in Boston as a freelance illustrator; he caught on very quickly, first with Ballou’s Pictorial and then with Harper’s Weekly, in New York.

In 1859, Homer moved to New York, to be closer to his main source of income; there, in what had become the country’s most vital artistic center, he took lessons in painting and enrolled in life classes. His artistic education, however, was interrupted by the Civil War; in late 1861 Harper’s sent him as a “special artist” to “go,” he wrote his father, “with the skirmishers in the next battle.” Instead of going to Europe, as he and his family had intended, he went to war. One of the many wood engravings based on the “special artist“‘s work that Harper’s published in the next two years is titled The Army of the Potomac—A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty; it appeared in the issue of November 15, 1862, with the attribution “From a Painting by W. Homer, Esq.” This was his very first painting, done in his late twenties (see illustration on this page). His friend Roswell Shurtleff attested that he “sat with him many days while he worked on it,” in Homer’s studio in New York’s University Building. It is, in its careful delineation of pine branches and rumpled trousers, “liney,” though the darkness that swallows the marksman’s head expressionistically conveys the “horror of that branch of the service” which Homer shared with ordinary foot soldiers.

The painting by Homer chosen for the NEH portfolio, The Veteran in a New Field (see illustration on page 14), also concerns that most deadly of American wars, but from the happier perspective of disarmament. Painted in 1865, the canvas was used for a woodcut in an issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper of July 1867, illustrating an article celebrating the widespread return of armies from the fields of battle as a triumph of a democratic society. The woodcut is liney, stalk by stalk, but the painting is not; the field being harvested forms a wall of solid golden-brown, and the stalks already cut in the foreground are indicated by a quite loose sprawl of dry brushstrokes. A close friend of Homer’s, the painter Eugene Benson, also the art critic for the New York Evening Post, asserted of this painting that its style was “an effective protest against a belittling and ignoble manner in art”—that is, of the American followers of the English Pre-Raphaelites—and “a sign of that large, simple and expressive style which has made the names of Couture and Millet…so justly honored.”

French art had replaced English as the model; the peasants dignified in the images of Jean-François Millet and the landscapes of the Barbizon School, freed of mythological apparatus, prepared the ground for Impressionism and its vivacious brushwork—“the touch, the sweep, the dash of the brush,” Benson wrote. Without these, “no man can be called a great painter.” In late 1866 Homer and Benson sailed for Europe, and Homer spent nearly all of 1867 in or near Paris; it has been said, in a tone of complaint, that Homer paid insufficient attention to the newest French art, and returned with no sign of French influence; but even a painter as self-willed and individual as Winslow Homer needs courage, and he returned to his studio in the University Building with a braver style.

An oil like Croquet Scene in 1866 has the static lininess and posed “human interest” of his woodcuts. A holiday seaside scene such as Long Branch, New Jersey, of 1869, strikes quite another note—breezier, vaster, with a deep perspective and an overall palette so bright we involuntarily squint. Crossing the Pasture, of 1872, epitomizes the Homeric country idyll —the open meadow splashed with wildflowers, the monumental children caught in a moment of reverie. With little or no recourse to French models Homer has developed an American impressionism—the floating daubs of the flowers, the brilliantly painted tin pail, the dazzlingly white shirt, the dashes of complementary green on the sun-reddened faces.

Another pair, Boys in a Pasture, two years later, gives us a low horizon, a hat of sunstruck straw, a Pythagorean triangle, and beautiful bare feet—we can feel the grass tickle them. The medium of watercolor lightens and loosens his style quite marvelously; in Apple Picking, of 1878, opaque gouache strengthens the sun on the bonnets and skirts while sunlight presses in yellow dabs, the same size as the red apples, through the lacy screen of trees. Red plays about the girls’ shoulders and their all but hidden faces; they are caught in a magic moment instantly freighted with nostalgia. The style, which in some of Homer’s watercolors can be as dry as the pencil underdrawing, is here fluid and wet.

He spent most of his second stay abroad in the North Sea village of Cullercoats, where his paintings of fisherwives, more studied and chromatically subdued than his American watercolors, achieved an uncanny stateliness, as of priestesses from classic Greece. After his return to America in late 1882, up to his death in 1910, his allegiance belonged almost entirely to water—swampy and shadowed in the Adirondacks, sparkling aquamarine in the Caribbean, thunderous, surfy, and titanic off the coast of Maine. His father and brother, early in 1883, had bought up almost all of the peninsula in Maine called Prout’s Neck. Visitors to Winslow Homer’s separate cottage and studio may be struck, as was I, by how closely interwoven it was with the busy resort life his family had created within their compound, and how domesticated the nearby shore was, its walking paths worn through a broad margin of beach roses and grasses.

From this cozy setting Homer wrested images of untamed wildness and power, scenes of water and rock generally unpopulated. High Cliff, Coast of Maine titles a beautifully radical work of 1894 in which the rocks are broken into fragments of color as if by the weariless pummeling of the waves; frustrated by the painting’s failure to find a buyer for nine years, Homer, as if defiantly, signed it twice. But Northeaster, done the next year, is perhaps his signature canvas, unforgettable in the sense it gives us of the ocean’s webbed, heaving weight. The following year’s Maine Coast is similar but freer, almost carefree in the manner of its painting, in brush scribbles and palette-knife slatherings of raw white.

In admiring such pictures, and in gazing at the foaming left half of Homer’s masterly tableau Undertow, painted seven years before Maine Coast, we cannot but be conscious of the paint itself, of thick white dabbled and stabbed, swerved and smeared into place in imitation of the water’s tumultuous action; we simultaneously witness both the ocean in action and the painter at work. These arduous passages of tumbling foam and exploding spray are at once representations of natural phenomena and examples of painterly artifice; thing and idea are merged in the synthesis of artistic representation.

Though Homer observed and imitated the surging waves as intently as Copley did the sheen of fabric and hair, the effect is not “liney.” The opposite of “liney,” it turns out, is “painterly.” It is not an aesthetic misstep to make the viewer aware of the paint and the painter’s hand; such an empathetic awareness lies at the heart of aesthetic appreciation. Beginning as a rather dry, scratchy, anecdotal recorder of military and social life, serving in magazines an illustrative purpose that within a few more decades will be taken over by the novel art of photography and the technology of photoengraving, Homer ended as the wettest of artists, not only our supreme watercolorist but an inventor, on this continent, of Impressionism and action painting in oils.

The liney/painterly dichotomy persists to this day, and in the century since Homer’s last works it has taken many forms. The dry, burnished literalism of Grant Wood and Charles Sheeler followed the ebullient impressionism of Childe Hassam and William Merritt Chase. Thomas Eakins is liney, John Singer Sargent is not; Andrew Wyeth is liney and Edward Hopper not. Among the Abstract Expressionists, Jackson Pollock achieves his signature effects with a welter of lines, and Mark Rothko achieves his by blurring all edges. Among Pop artists, Roy Lichtenstein takes the comic-strip lines and Benday to a majestic scale, while Andy Warhol remains a colorist above all. All, it might be said, employ highly personal techniques to confront the viewer with something vitally actual, beyond illusion.

Two centuries after Jonathan Edwards sought a link with the divine in the beautiful clarity of things, William Carlos Williams wrote, in introducing his long poem Paterson, that “for the poet there are no ideas but in things.” No ideas but in things. The American artist, first born into a continent without museums and art schools, took Nature as his only instructor, and things as his principle study. A bias toward the empirical, toward the evidential object in the numinous fullness of its being, leads to a certain lininess, as the artist intently maps the visible in a New World that feels surrounded by chaos and emptiness.

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