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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Post-Revolutionary America: 1800–1840

The United States became a continental nation with the purchase of Louisiana from France in 1803 and the settlement of the lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Westward expansion fueled conflict with Native populations and led to their forced removal. By 1820, 2 million Americans lived west of the Appalachians, out of a total national population of 10 million. The regional cultures that had developed along the Atlantic Coast—New England, Middle Atlantic, Chesapeake, and Carolinas—were transplanted into the Old Northwest (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin) and the Old Southwest (Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas). But although Americans had begun to identify themselves as a nation, they were divided by sectional interests that deepened with rapid industrialization and the question of slavery.

Americans steadily achieved economic independence from Europe. Rural Americans, once exclusively farmers, began manufacturing, merchants constructed regional market economies, and state governments promoted economic development. Industrialists remade rural villages into burgeoning factory towns such as Lowell, Massachusetts, the center of cotton textile manufacture. However, many textiles continued to be made in individual households and small weaving workshops. Mill owners called upon machines and factory operatives to boost production. Government leaders and entrepreneurs campaigned for the construction of canals and railroads that helped create a vast national market. Robert Fulton’s (1765–1815; 14.135) steamboat, the Clermont, made its first trip up the Hudson River in 1807. The old Atlantic port cities—Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore—continued to grow with the opening of trade to China in 1785. But New York’s rise was phenomenal, with its great harbor, its growing financial infrastructure, and the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 (1982.4a, b)—promoted by New York Governor DeWitt Clinton (1769–1828; 09.18)—connecting the metropolis with the interior of the country.

Generally factories rose in the countryside next to the banks of rapidly moving streams and rivers that provided water power to turn large wheels for machinery. Remarkable changes occurred within urban workshops. Some artisans exchanged the workbench for the role of manufacturer or businessman, producing more goods by dividing up the tasks by which objects such as chairs and silver are created; as workers specialized in particular aspects of production, the operation became more efficient. Many traditionally trained mechanics and other craftsmen who had expected to rise up the ladder from apprentice to journeyman, and then master, found their social position threatened by these developments. Furniture makers began to maintain well-stocked warehouses of Federal or Neoclassical furniture (1995.377.1). Wealth no longer derived exclusively from landownership. Urban families with great fortunes from new sources—merchants, factory owners, financiers—patronized the workshops of urban cabinetmakers, silversmiths, and other skilled craftsmen.

The political calm that had characterized the first term of President George Washington (1732–1799) was soon disrupted by the rise of party conflict between the Federalists and the Republicans. The presidency of Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) launched a quarter century of Republican rule, interrupted by another war with Great Britain, the War of 1812. The geographic confrontation over slavery would not be resolved by the Missouri Compromise in 1820, which maintained a sectional balance between southern and northern states in the U.S. Senate and set boundaries for slavery in the lands of the Louisiana Purchase. Change also fueled a process of political democratization—an expansion of the white male population able to vote and hold office—leading to the rise of Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; 1978.57; 2000.562) and the new Democratic Party. Foreign observers such as the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) remarked on the democratic character of American society, where families moved frequently and individuals were liberated from the restraints of tradition and hierarchy.

Cultural independence proved harder to achieve. Despite the great focus on nature in American society, tastemakers continued to look abroad for classical and then revival styles. While folk painters roamed rural areas to provide portraits for middling Americans, the European tour and grand historical themes remained critical to the work of academic painters and sculptors. At the same time, new cultural institutions on home soil provided opportunities for artists to study and exhibit. The artistic career of Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872) is exemplary. He began as a rural portraitist, took the Grand Tour of European capitals and art collections, and, upon returning to New York, sought commissions for high-style portraits and historical studies. In 1825, he co-founded the National Academy of Design and served as its first president.