The painters discover America
Brooklyn Bridge Photographic Print
12 in. x 9 in.
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It is to be regretted that more American painters have not chosen the subject matter of their pictures from the contemporary movement of life especially in New York. In this respect, John Sloan is rather a solitary figure," Albert E. Gallatin wrote in 1925, in a monograph on John Sloan. "The infinitely varied life of New York offers as wide a field of exploration as did the Paris of Gavarni, who in his Physionomie de la Population de Paris gave us... a judgment of the entire epoch, the conventions, the fashions and all the types that go to make up the population."
In the relatively short time that has elapsed since 1925 America has come into the possession of a voluminous native subject art. We have an exhaustive summation of our own epoch in terms not only of New York City's teeming life, but of the life of Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, and the rural regions of the Midwest, the Dust Bowl and the flood and tornado areas, the agricultural far South, Alaska, and the Virgin Islands. This could not have come about without the unprecedented art activities in America from the beginning of the century to 1925. But the scope and the character of the painting itself are to be accounted for to a large extent by extraordinary conditions in the national life.
Fabulous all-time spending records were being piled up in the United States, including public expenditures for art. In the year 1928 alone, for instance, American art investments totaled a billion dollars. This meant, among other things, unheard-of opportunities for American painters, mature, immature, and uneducated.
An impulse had arisen attracting artists to fresh, native American sources and to a spontaneous painting style in the tradition of the untaught realists of earlier days. Outpourings of lighthearted pictures, amusing or pathetic, followed; literary and sentimental pictures or mere illustrations, many of them presented with artistically correct detail, all of them made to sell. Most of this subject art was offered to the public as a gesture of revolt against imported French art and modern conceptions of plastic construction. After 1929, when an atmosphere of social catastrophe descended over public life and when the artist, in common with other workers, had little continuing market except as it was provided presently by the government under emergency conditions, the mood and the character of the subject can be seen to have changed.
The spectator must, accordingly, find his way about among contemporary paintings amid confusions not only of precedent and tradition, but also of social values and inspirations so complex that they constantly threaten to dissolve into a state of chaos. "American Scene" art at its inception represented the frank intention of its makers to produce a fresh, spontaneous illustrational expression. Their concern was not primarily plastic, but was rather the concern of individual romantic realists, unsympathetic towards official art as well as modern art. Almost simultaneously with it there arose painting representing the workers' struggle for power. It was at first a small effort, essentially communistic and revolutionary. The two movements went far beyond the initial intentions of their sponsors when they reached, together, a sort of climax of popular appeal around 1935, representing opposing and antagonistic ideas of American life. Since that time the gap between popular art of everyday life and art with a social purpose has tended to become smaller.