America’s transformation from a fledgling confederation of 13 colonies to a mature republic took a century and a half. The nation was born, settled and then wracked by civil war; it rebuilt, urbanized and emerged in the 20th century as an industrial and international power. To some, its rise seemed as natural as an exhalation. George Caleb Bingham captures the mood in his 1846 painting The Jolly Flatboatmen, part of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition “American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915.” In the frontier era, painters ventured out of parlor studios to document what they saw in the streets and countrysides—or what they thought buyers at art expositions might want to see. Bingham lived in Missouri, but sold his paintings to New Yorkers who imagined an idyllic West and were likely unaware that flatboat culture had already ceded the waterways to the new generation of steamboats.
By the early 20th Century, American masculinity was under siege. The frontier—open ground for rugged individuals—had been officially declared closed by the Census Bureau in 1890; the West was won. Women were entering the labor force in number and agitating into a social force as well. As if in response, the image of a mythic West arose, manifest in Buffalo Bill Cody, Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, and the stalwart cowboys, like those in Fight for the Water Hole, that painter Frederic Remington imagined largely from his New York studio. Right outside Remington’s door, other tensions were simmering. An influx of immigrants—between 1870 and 1915, the population of New York City grew from 1.5 million to 5 million—sparked clashes between ethnic groups and intensified the feeling that one man’s advancement must come at another’s expense. George Bellows paints the atmosphere in dark tones in Club Night, which he based on the goings-on in a saloon across the street from his studio. The scene is a mockery of gentility and contemplation: The well-dressed voyeurs are “slumming,” enjoying the brutality by imagining themselves above it, while the combatants directly engage the reigning natural law.
A decade after the Civil War, the peripatetic painter Winslow Homer visited Virginia to see how former slaves were faring. Dressing for the Carnival seems gauged to reassure. But the original title for the painting, Sketch, 4th of July in Virginia, hints at deeper uneasiness. These were uncertain times, especially for African Americans. Homer’s central figure forges a new identity from colorful scraps of fabric while the next generation looks on. Social horizons were shifting widely too. Americans were growing more cosmopolitan, reading travel magazines and touring abroad. William Merritt Chase’s Ring Toss, from 1896, bears the influence of Diego Velázquez, whose work Chase had studied during a trip to Madrid. Chase depicts his daughters at home, engaged in incidental play—and perhaps training to occupy a widening societal rung, the leisure class.
Many early American artists made a living by painting portraits for well-heeled patrons. The portrait offered both parties an opportunity: for the painter, to express an artistic identity; for the subject, to burnish or even recast one’s social image. Gradually the scene moved from the studio to the outdoors, to capture the patron engaged in some defining activity—fishing as a youth, sculling on a river or, in the case of Charles Willson Peale, excavating the bones of an extinct mastodon. Peale was a wealthy man of science; in 1794 he opened the Philadelphia Museum, a trove of natural wonders and the nation’s first true museum. He was also an accomplished painter; as patron, artist and semi-celebrity, he was a natural subject for himself. In Exhumation of the Mastodon, Peale documents his central role in a genuinely momentous discovery; he’d found the mammoth in early 1801 in the marshes near Newburgh, N.Y., and exhibited it to great fanfare on Christmas Eve. His “Great American Incognitum” (as it was called before its true identity was understood) offered unwavering proof of prehistoric life in North America and helped compel President Thomas Jefferson to invest in the exploration of the West. The young nation had a long past, Peale revealed, and a bright future. Peale’s self-portrait is partly fabrication; although only his son Rembrandt was on hand for the dig, Peale manages to depict all nine of his children, his current and two previous wives, and his brother James.
Originally published in the April 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.