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April 16, 2004

The Structure of Aesthetic Revolutions II



This is the second of my two-part posting on the 'culture-quake' that occurred in America after the Civil War, rendering the Hudson River school of art almost instantly obsolete and enshrining a series of very different art movements in its place. (You can read the first part here.)

The Civil War And Its Acceleration of Social Trends

As I mentioned, a number of disruptive antebellum trends went from ‘subversive’ to ‘dominant’ as a result of the shock of the Civil War itself. Of course, the war itself had a significant impact on American life. And what an impact it was. Out of an American population of 31 million in 1860, the military death toll from the Civil War was in the range of 620,000-700,000 (i.e., 2 – 2.25% of the population.) Obviously, in contemporary terms this would be the equivalent of 6-7 million combat deaths. I’ve heard it said, believably, that everyone in America in 1865 knew someone who had lost a family member to the war.

In trying to estimate the effect of this trauma on cultural attitudes, one can look to other epochal wars. The Civil War death rates of Americans were quite comparable to those of Britain, France and Germany in World War I. Since the Great War is commonly cited as having a transformative effect on European culture, I think one can safely assume a similar effect had occurred 50 years previously in America.

Brady Studio, Dead At Dunker Church, Antietam, 1862

Clearly, the sheer bloodiness of the war dealt antebellum-style optimism a painful blow. One cannot help but suspect that the assassination of Lincoln and the inability of Reconstruction to fully emancipate the now 'freed' former slaves in the face of continuing armed resistance in the South—after all those combat deaths—also had a sobering effect on America’s confidence that all problems were solvable for men of good will.

Moreover, the Civil War intensified the growth of urbanization, industrialization and the financial infrastructure that made them possible. It was plain that these factors had been critical to winning the war for the North. The increased stratification of American society that followed was, if not liked, then at least considered an inescapable part of ‘the order of things’ by post-Civil War society.

Finally, the war seems to have encouraged the adoption of an evolutionary mind-set, if only for its ‘wised-up’ aura of grim realism. (Again, I must remind you, when the term ‘evolution’ is used, this often refers more to Lamarckian and Spencerian ideas about evolution rather than those of the Darwin himself.) As Mr. Menand puts it:

In a society that had just been through a civil war the appeal of [evolution] is plain—as [Henry] Adams, in his mordant way, recognized…[survival of the fittest-style] evolution, he wrote in the Education, was the perfect theory for a ‘young man who had just helped to waste five or ten thousand million dollars and a million lives, more or less, to enforce unity and uniformity on people who objected to it.’
Artistic Reactions To The New Culture

Rather than try to provide a summary of the various schools and artists of the Gilded Age, I thought it would be more interesting to forget traditional classifications and look at how the various intellectual and social trends of the era manifested themselves in post-War art:

Tendency #1—Art as an Expression of Post-Traumatic Shock: The pain and suffering of the war emerged at least in bits and pieces over the subsequent era. The extent of the lasting ‘bruise’ inflicted by the war can perhaps best hinted at by an anecdote of the aged Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. During his service in the Army of the Potomac, Holmes had been seriously wounded three times and lost many of his comrades and friends. The experience left an apparently permanent mark. As Mr. Menand relates it:

Holmes had grown up in a highly cultivated, homogeneous world, a world of which he was, in many ways, the consummate product: idealistic, artistic, and socially committed. And then he had watched that world bleed to death at Fredericksburg and Antietam, in a war that learning and brilliance had been powerless to prevent. When he returned, Boston had changed, and so had American life. Holmes had changed too, but he never forgot what he had lost. “He told me,” [a friend] reported, “that after the Civil War the world never seemed quite right again.”

Holmes' remark is even more affecting (to me, anyway) when you realize that it dates from the 1930s. This sense was well expressed, some 66 years earlier, by Winslow Homer, who served as a graphic war correspondent during the conflict. Possibly as a result of his work as an illustrator, Homer got directly to the point:

W. Homer, The Veteran In A New Field, 1865

Painted only a few months after the end of the war, it shows a Union soldier returning to civilian life, scything a field of wheat. But the “new field” clearly references his “old field”—i.e., the Civil War battleground—where he cut down men, not crops. Can this ‘Grim Reaper’ go back happily to the pastoral existence he knew before the war? Homer seems to be, er, reserving judgment.

Tendency #2—Art as an Expression of ‘Bottom-Up’ Paradigms: A series of trompe-l’oeil still life paintings by John Frederick Peto and his fellow Philadelphian, William Michael Harnett demonstrate the introduction into American art of the ‘bottom-up’ intellectual processes (i.e., those typified in the scientific world by statistical mechanics and evolution.) The use of the trompe-l’oeil still life form to explore the themes of memory, loss and nostalgia seems to have been sort of a delayed reaction to the violent changes brought on by the war. In a world without divinely-ordered continuity, a ‘sense of things’ can only be slowly and laboriously assembled from the jumble of experience.

J. F. Peto, Lincoln and the Star of David, 1904

Peto’s work, focuses obsessively—as much as 40 years after the fact—on the assassination of Lincoln and America’s apparently inconsolable loss. In his painting, Peto introduces a collection of incidental items—a damaged board, some rusty nails, a burned match, a daguerreotype of Lincoln—apparently randomly selected, virtually mute in themselves, assembling the 'meaning' by a process of juxtaposition--and slowly build to a crescendo of emotion.

Tendency #3—Art as An Expression of Loss of Faith in American Exceptionalism and Search for New Models in Art History: Oddly, despite the victory of its government in the Civil War and the country’s emergence as a world power (the USA had by far the largest and most modern army in the world in 1865), America chose that very moment to stage a vigorous retreat on the ‘artistic nationalism’ front. The very name of the dominant post-war movement, the American Renaissance, suggests how far the country was from indulging any antebellum dreams of a purely native art developed from purely native inspiration. This ‘retreat’ or ‘reorientation’ was the result of three factors. First, a great loss of faith in American exceptionalism had occurred. The notion of a benevolent God conferring a unique destiny on Americans seems to have taken a perfectly understandable beating during the war. (What was the unique destiny of Americans—to slaughter each other in huge numbers? Whoopee.) The second was that a sort of historical convergence had occurred between Europe and America between 1800 and 1871. Great Britain and France had both become quasi-American-style democracies, and even Germany had adopted a parliament, on the one hand—and America had fought a bloody European-style mass war, on the other. America was simply no longer quite so unique a society as it had been in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, American art in the post Civil-War era needed a different and wider set of metaphors and models than those available in the antebellum culture to express itself. The Civil War monuments of Augustus Saint Gaudens might draw on Roman and Renaissance prototypes, but where else was he going to find models that addressed the realities of the nation’s recent military experience?

A. Saint-Gaudens, Robert Gould Shaw and the Fifty-Fourth Regiment Memorial, 1900; Classical Frieze
A. Saint-Gaudens, Sherman Monument, 1903; Verrocchio, Equestrian Monument to Colleoni, 1480s

Tendency #4—Spencerian Evolution and Art as An Expression of Fitness: As the industrializing economy of the North had triumphed in the war, so did the business elite triumph after the war. The Rockefellers, the Carnegies, the Fricks, the Vanderbilts, the Goulds, the Astors, the Fisks, the Morgans, et al, felt entitled (or destined) to take their place on the world stage as a successful ruling class in the tradition of previous aristocratic republics: the Athenians, the Florentines, the Venetians, the British, etc., etc. These Americans were certainly far richer than any of their predecessors. Hadn’t they thus proved themselves the fittest? In Spencerian terms, didn’t they deserve the best? Likewise, weren’t they entitled to advertise their superiority?

J. S. Sargent, Henry Lee Higginson, 1904 (Detail); A. Saint-Gaudens, Marcus Alonzo Hanna, 1907; J. S. Sargent, John D. Rockefeller, 1917

Tendency #5—Art as an Expression of Post-War Attitudes towards Work and Nature: The great ‘migration’ of American workers from the farm to the factory, from rural isolation to the crowded big city (already underway in the late antebellum era) swelled to overwhelming dimensions in the post Civil War era. American artists such as Thomas Anschutz and Winslow Homer approached this phenomenon from two different points of view.

T. Anshutz, The Ironworkers' Noontime, 1880

Anschutz provides a visual representation of the way in which industrialization changed how Americans thought of themselves; although each figure in the painting stands its own ground, so to speak, they also clearly operate, and think of themselves, as a team.

The greater importance of teamwork and various forms of social cooperation were clearly a significant element in American life of this era; it was no coincidence that at just this time the American philosopher Charles Peirce was asserting that Truth wasn’t the metaphysical abstraction of Idealist philosophy, but rather that “Truth is social.”

The flip side of urban socialization and incorporation into the industrial ‘machine’ was illustrated by Winslow Homer’s post-Civil War paintings of rural America. Here, when he paints the human figure at all, he focuses exclusively on the men and women that ‘modern’ America is leaving behind—at the seashore, in the countryside, in the wilderness.

W. Homer, The Adirondack Guide, 1894

Unless clearly identified as ‘tourists’ (Homer was not above putting attractive and fashionable young ladies into his pictures from time to time) his subjects are the ‘losers’ of Social Darwinism, those who aren’t trooping off to the city. Intriguingly, Homer doesn’t present his rural subjects as living in loving harmony with a beneficent Nature; rather, he shows them inhabiting (or struggling with) a thoroughly desacralized nature, a nature which is often beautiful but simultaneously cruel.

W. Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1899

It is as though with the rise of the Machine, and the withdrawal from rural life, Americans of the post Civil War era read in the book of nature not the benevolent word of God but an ominous and occasionally threatening message.

Tendency #6—Lamarckian Evolution and the High Aesthetic Experience: The emphasis on private, highly refined aesthetic experience in much of the art of the Gilded Age (including the Tonalists, the artist-dandies like Whistler and William Merritt Chase, the American Impressionists, many of the artists of the American Renaissance, etc., etc.) seems to have reflected the influence of Lamarckian evolutionary theory. Lamarck, of course, taught that children inherited both the genetic and acquired characteristics of their parents. As a result, one of the duties of the American elite was to spend their time having exquisite experiences that would ennoble their offspring. And experiences in painting don't get much more 'exquisite' than in the Tonalist landscapes of John Henry Twachtman or George Inness:

J. H. Twachtman, Arques-la-Bataille, 1885

The offspring of such aesthetically educated adults would, hopefully, have a refined taste and high-minded attitude as part of their partimony. The burden of such aesthetic self-improvement fell as usual on the fairer sex. The extremely widespread use of languorous upper-class women as subject matter for 'high aestheticism'-genre paintings seems to clearly indicate the connection between such art and what might be termed the project of breeding an elite.

J. S. Sargent, Alice Vanderbilt Shepard; T. W. Dewing, Summer, 1890 (Detail)
J. Whistler, Symphony in White No. 3, 1865; A. H. Thayer, Angel, c. 1889

Tendency #7—Art as an Expression of Coming to Terms with Science: The disquieting power of modern science—a discipline what had effectively displaced religion at the pinnacle of intellectual prestige in the post Civil War era—is the subject of Thomas Eakins’ masterpiece, “The Gross Clinic.”

EakinsT1875TheGrossClinicECU.jpg T. Eakins, The Gross Clinic, 1875; Details of Same

Although clearly modeled on Rembrandt’s famously painting “The Anatomy Lesson,” Eakins deliberately contrasts the investigation of a mere corpse in the Dutch painting with the almost Godlike power of the American doctor who lectures while invading the sanctity of the living human body.

Today it might seem a small thing to abandon 19th century Idealist philosophy and come to terms with the new ways of thinking demanded by the scientific advances (such as statistics and evolution) of the post Civil War era, but such a shift involved re-conceptualizing virtually the entire intellectual toolkit of Western Civilization as it existed in 1865. It was not an accident that in such an intellectual environment, the main thrust of American philosophical thought—illustrated, say, by William James’ Pragmatism or by the legal theories of Oliver Wendell Holmes—aimed at stripping intellectual problems of metaphysical irrelevancies. As a consequence, the paintings of Thomas Eakins frequently took as their ‘inner’ theme the sheer amount of intellectual effort that confronted the thoughtful American in this period—who suddenly found themselves living in a strange world in which no benevolent Creator guaranteed that the human mind could ‘make sense of things.’

T. Eakins, Miss Van Buren, 1888; T. Eakins, The Thinker: Portrait of Louis N. Kenton, 1900

So what lessons can we learn from this example of ‘aesthetic revolution.’ Clearly, it’s not possible to be definitive here, but some hypotheses might be ventured:

(1) Sudden, violent shifts in taste are likely in the stepchildren of dramatic social events. War is, quite possibly, the greatest single impetus to such aesthetic shifts. (As I’ve suggested elsewhere, there is almost an umbilical connection between war and art.)

(2) The new, post-revolutionary consensus would appear to be ‘built up’ out of awkward or subversive intellectual tendencies of the previous epoch that are set free by the social convulsion.

(3) While art is ‘derivative’ or a follower of other aspects of society—religion, philosophy, science—it often reacts to shifts in those areas with astonishing speed and almost psychic intuition.

Hope you enjoyed this little whirlwind tour through the art of the Gilded Age. Have you got any more hypotheses to suggest regarding the structure of aesthetic revolutions?



posted by Friedrich at April 16, 2004


Thank you for the wonderful journey through this time and space!

Posted by: susan on April 16, 2004 4:41 PM

My goodness---I've enjoyed it greatly. Why don't you guys just throw in the towel and publish a history book. I would devour it. You might not love your Lousy Ivy University, but the Blowhards certainly do it proud!

Interesting, though, the sense of loss and disillusionment seem to have been focused within the agricultural "average" America and those that had a position of "prestige" and "cultivation" before the war (Holmes). As you noted, the Vanderbilts et al who made out like, um, bandits in the War, felt hightly validated by their great success and had the same bulletproof special destiny feeling that others had had prior to it. That whole feeling of being "special and chosen" just can't be entirely beaten out of us humans, and it isn't an entirely good thing, it seems to me. Breeds a lack of empathy. Leads to more war.

Interesting how much more prominent a role humans play in the art you posted in Part II than the Hudson River school of Part I. Maybe massive, knowable death makes you more cognizant of humans and their ability to enhance or destroy nature. Or did the Hudson River School just paint nature, and were other artists of their time painting more people?

Certainly I sense a much greater sense of emotion and "statement" in the Part II paintings. It makes the Hudson River painters seem talented but detached, a little cold.

Posted by: annette on April 16, 2004 7:21 PM

" It makes the Hudson River painters seem talented but detached, a little cold."

And my thought, after reading what you say here about Homer, was that the Hudson River Group saw Nature as innocent and benevolent,fit to be tamed and conquered. The size of the figures as compared to the landscape only emphasized man's huge potential.

Been downloading a bunch of 19th century paintings from the Art Renewal Center. This helps me understand the meaning and message in the various realisms.

Anyway, superb article. Thank you.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on April 16, 2004 8:18 PM

Hot stuff, thanks. Count me as one of those hyper-sensitive aesthetes -- a "Tonalist" would suit me fine. When you think about it, it really is amazing how quickly American fine art got sophisticated and cosmopolitan, isn't it? The Beaux Arts buildings, the interest in French and Japanese art -- worlds away from American fine art circa 1850. And there was a real market for much of this stuff too, which kept it vibrant -- we were really interested in fine art, at least for a few decades.

What a great period in American art. I even love what's usually, and disparagingly, called the Genteel Tradition from that era. I think it gets a bad press.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 16, 2004 8:57 PM

Mr F.-- I usually enjoy your posts on art but this one was really wonderful.

And is there any correlation in the literature of the period. I seem to remember that this is the time frame for realism and regionalism in literature. How does that compliment the art? Or doesnt it?

Posted by: Deb on April 16, 2004 9:40 PM


Thanks so much for the kind words.


I guess Michael and I are sort of writing a book, bit by bit: The Blowhard Book of Art: What It Means, Why It Evolves, The Impact of Art World Politics and How Ordinary People Can Reclaim A Meaningful Art Experience. Just remember, we both have day jobs, so it may take a few years to get it out.

Your comments about the consequences of feeling "special and chosen" in this era are amazingly on the mark with the thought of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. A few quotes from "The Metaphysical Club":

The lesson Holmes took from the war can be put in a sentence. It is that certitude leads to violence. P. 61

[Holmes had] an intense dislike of people who presented themselves as instruments of some higher power. “I detest a man who knows that he knows,” as he wrote, late in life, to his friend Harold Laski. And he had a knee-jerk suspicion of causes… “Some kind of despotism is at the bottom of seeking for change,” he wrote to Laski. “I don’t care to boss my neighbors and to require them to want something different from what they do—even when, as frequently, I think their wishes are more or less suicidal.” P. 62

What prevents the friction between competing conceptions of the way life should be from overheating and leading to violence is democracy. In the seventy years that Holmes lived after the war, the chief struggle in America was the struggle between capital and labor. Nearly every judicial opinion for which he became known constituted an intervention in that struggle, and his fundamental concern was almost always to permit all parties the democratic means to attempt to make their interests prevail...Holmes did not defend the interests of labor because he wished to see those interests prevail [his politics were quite right-wing]. He defended them because he believed that every social interest should have its chance. He believed in experiment. He knew what the alternative was. P. 67

That last sentence is marvelously ominous, isn't it?

Mr. Macmanus:

Actually, the Hudson River school guys, or at least their founder, Thomas Cole, was pretty afraid that people were going to screw up their American Exceptionalist opportunity by being stupidly greedy and exploitative of nature. Interestingly, such sentiments came, in those days, from the old-money, Federalist elite that was being swamped, politically, by Jacksonian Democrats. Obviously considerations of length prevented me from discussing all this in great detail. Of course, some of Cole's artistic descendants seem to have been supporters of Manifest Destiny politics, so go figure. But thanks for thinking about this stuff at all.


Isn't it weird how American painting of this era is usually dismissed as sort of earnest and clumsy--I don't see how much more exquisite and refined one can get than various patches of Twachtman and Innes, or than the works of some still-life painters of this era. Certainly, Arques-la-Bataille is a remarkable example of Japonaiserie-inspired flatness and design under an overcast French sky. Its as dematerialized and carefully composed as any abstract painting, and yet still possesses recognizable subject matter...!


You raise an interesting question about the literature of this era. I'm afraid I haven't given it the same kind of sustained thought, but going out on a limb, I would absolutely expect it to embody many of the same 'dominant cultural trends of the era.' Certainly the works of Henry James do.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 17, 2004 2:40 AM

Since the Great War is commonly cited as having a transformative effect on European culture, I think one can safely assume a similar effect had occurred 50 years previously in America.

That's what James predicted in his essay "Within the Rim," written on the eve of WWI: He said that Europe would be transformed by the upcoming Great War, as America had been by the Civil War. (BTW, did you know that James's first published work of fiction was a short story on the Civil War? I think it's called "The Story of a Year.")

It's not until the past decade that American Studies scholars have managed to catch up with James's observations and insights.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on April 17, 2004 9:39 AM

How do y'all respond to American Renaissance/Gilded Age art anyway? Like it? Like it but regret the passing of the pre-war zaniness?

I generally like it a lot. It's probably my favorite period in American art. I like the combo of American zestiness and an awareness of the larger world. It seems to me like one of the few times America did "fine art" and did it really well, and in an uncomplicated, not-too-neurotic, not too self-conscious way. It seemed to parallel and enhance (without clashing with) our usual arts menu of folk art and commercial art -- it was American fine art without being fraught American fine art. And there seemed to be a market for classy stuff with fine-arts virtues too -- again, not something that's often been the case here.

I find myself very touched by La Farge, Tiffany, the architects, Twachtman -- they all got close to genuine sophistication without losing touch with America. Beauty became an issue, as did class -- nice! And I like the discovery of Japanese art -- Japanese plus American (with a soupcon of French) seemed like a great synthesis for a future American fine arts tradition.

I'm just guessing, and probably wildly, but it seems to me like a lot of these artists were even beginning to get close to an American eroticism -- something spiritual yet earthy, with sophistication yet also with that kinda-sweet kinda-annoying American over-earnestness. And eroticism's not something Americans generally handle well either.

A great period, much under-appreciated, IMHO.

And what happened? I've got too many holes in my knowledge here to come up with a good explanation. Did the whole movement get sideswiped by modernism and the First World War? It seems like we were on the track to developing a rock-solid, distinctive fine-arts tradition of our own, and then pow, it was over.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 17, 2004 12:05 PM

Hmmm, what happened to the American Renaissance? I regret to report that I have no ready answer. More research will be required. I suppose, having tackled the Hudson River School and the Gilded Age, I need to keep on going.

(Grumbles: That's the the problem with History. There's too darn much of it!)

Okay, Mr. Blowhard, my next assignment is understood.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 17, 2004 10:07 PM

Hmmm, what happened to the American Renaissance?

The term "American Renaissance" was coined by literary critic F.O Matthiessen in 1941. American artists working from 1830 to 1860 didn't see themselves as part of a national culture, and certainly didn't look at their own activity within the unifying framework Matthiessen imposed on it. So one answer to the question of where the "American Renaissance" went (at least if you're talking about the antebellum era and not the mid-twentieth century), is that it didn't go anywhere, because it never existed.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on April 18, 2004 5:23 AM

Wow, what a post!

I never would have thought of Peto in this context. But the explanation of how his Lincoln
And The Star Of David fits into the shattered consensus (and long shadow of mourning) of post Civil War America, is convincing. Amazing what emotional weight a still life can carry.

I had also forgotten Saint Gaudens. What a sense of onward rushing movement in his friezes of mounted and foot soldiers!
His work can be seen, to great effect, at Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza.

Posted by: ricpic on April 18, 2004 12:26 PM

Tim -- My brain was doing middle-aged Alzheimer's flipflops for a sec. I remember the Matthiessen, but I also remember late 19th century American art .... Have I really gone bonkers? So I poked around a few books to renew what memories remain.

I'm surprised to find discover that the term "American Renaissance" is used in two different ways, to cover two periods. Litcrit types use it (or used it, anyway) for the writing of the pre Civil War years, which is how it was taught in college a few decades ago. But artcrit types use it to cover 1870-1910, which is how I've grown used to using it in the years since. Best quick description I turn up is from Hughes:

Beween 1870 and 1910 some Americans, patrons, architects, and artists alike, didn't just want to imitate the Renaissance: it was their obsession, their model, their goal, and their idea of the historical event to outdo. They equated their own robber barons with the Medici and Sforza ...

Americans spoke of their artists as living Old Masters; the architect Charles McKim was familiarly known as "Bramante," and his partner Stanford White as "Bevenuto Cellini."

As never before in America, artists, architects, and decorators worked together on join projrects, in emulation of the famous conjuntures of talent that produced masterworks of the Renaissance ....

At the core of the American Renaissance was a conflicted idea which tried to come out as serene idealism. Essentially, it was that nationalism and cosmopolitianism had to be fused ... Americans were a little embarrassed about their newness, the insecurity of their cultural roots. They therefore made a big point of claiming the roots of others, as a right convferred, ultimately, by might.

The result of this has sometimes been called the "genteel tradition" in America ... It assumed that certain forms had already been perfected, and that the duty of artist and architect was to adapt them to American conditions ...

It was the age of the Newport mansions, of the City Beautiful movement, of the World's Columbian Exposition, the American Aesthetic Movement, of artists making the Euro tour or studying at Euro ateliers, of Bernard Berenson and Isabella Stewart Gardner, the entrance hall at the Metropolitian Museum, of Americans discovering Japanese art, of Tiffany and Whistler and La Farge and Prendergast ...

Phew. A great era, or at least a big fave of mine. But how odd, no, the way the term "American Renaissance" is used in the two ways.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 19, 2004 12:18 AM

Litcrit types use it (or used it, anyway) for the writing of the pre Civil War years, which is how it was taught in college a few decades ago.

It's still used that way.

As for whatever happened to Gilded Age art, I'd say this artwork is still with us today. Just look lowbrow -- in painters like Thomas Kinkade, for example.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on April 20, 2004 11:13 AM

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