What was the place of the artist in a new society? How would he thrive where monarchy, aristocracy, and an established church--those traditional patrons of painting, sculpture, and architecture--were repudiated so vigorously? Neil Harris examines the relationships between American cultural values and American society during the formative years of American art and explores how conceptions of the artist's social role changed during those years.
If one can stand the author's inflexible prose, this study of the formative years (1790-1860) of American art makes extremely instructive reading. Probably influenced by Arnold Hauser's socio-cultural methods, Harris assembles a well-prepared account of the various battles and/or detentes our early painters engaged in or suffered from. Thus the discussion of aesthetics here is largely subservient to a chronological summary of public ideals, or lack of them, from Colonial days to the Civil War. The dim beginnings center on the limitations of the Puritan ethos and the stultifying Philistinism which equated art with effeminacy or a kind of aristocratic subversion. The shifts in community attitudes, the growth of materialism, the establishment of Academies, clerical opposition and political neglect, the slavery to portraiture - all these factors went into the lengthy struggle engulfing such figures as Copley, West, Peale, and Cole. The legacy of the Revolution, the broadening outlook affected through European travel, and the pursuit of an indigenous consciousness are particularly well-developed, as are the complementary literary appeals of Hawthorne and Emerson, Twain and James. ??For the Prof set. (Kirkus Reviews)