Between the eve of the American Revolution and World War I, a group of modest British colonies became states; the frontier pushed westward to span the continent; a rural and agricultural society became urban and industrial; and the United States—reunified after the Civil War under an increasingly powerful federal government—emerged as a leading participant in world affairs. Throughout this complicated, transformative century and a half, American painters recorded everyday life as it changed around them, capturing the temperament of their respective eras, defining the character of people as individuals, citizens, and members of ever-widening communities.
At first, most painters embedded references to everyday life in portraits, which were the only works for which a market existed. Beginning about 1830, however, and largely in response to the development of public exhibition spaces in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, some painters were able to free themselves from dependence on portrait commissions and to adopt new subjects that would appeal to wider audiences. They worked primarily in the form of genre, a French term that means types or sorts and that in paintings refers to scenes of lower- and middle-class characters. William Sidney Mount, who led the way, and his contemporaries favored depictions of courtship, families, and community life in rural settings that were associated positively with fundamental national values. They reinforced in their works popular notions of American identity and competed with contemporaneous Hudson River School landscapists for attention and patronage. American genre painters produced works that were clearly delineated, humorous, and didactic or moralizing, like the old master Dutch or more recent French and English paintings and prints that inspired them.
By the 1850s, American painters of everyday life expanded their subject interests beyond the individual and the family to encompass a wider horizon, especially the nation’s politics and growing territory. The stage-set compositions they had enlisted in the previous decade, derived from European prototypes, gave way to more outdoor images that captured, literally, a wider view of American life. As population and wealth increased, there emerged a newly energetic and diversified art market that included auction houses, art lotteries, and fly-by-night dealers who set up sales shops in the cities. Artistic competition escalated exponentially and the profession opened to more artists, including women like Lilly Martin Spencer, who cast a critical eye on the domestic sphere from an insider’s perspective. Responding to pressure to come up with novel subjects that would distinguish their works at exhibition and attract purchasers, many American painters took on current, complex, and often difficult topics, including the relationships between blacks and whites, men and women, and immigrants and native workers. But they always enlisted euphemism or subtle ambiguity to portray these issues. A few artists explored themes from the rugged wilderness, which appealed to urban viewers seeking vicarious frontier or backwoods adventures.
The unique and overwhelming circumstances of the Civil War and the years of Reconstruction severely challenged American artists. The confluence of charged political and economic events, and profound social change, created such turmoil that many artists chose to examine only small, reassuring slices of the human experience, and to do so in subtle and open-ended accounts. Seeking to assuage the sorrow brought on by the war and to heal the nation’s fractured spirit in its wake, painters turned away from martial and political content. Responding to the assertion of women’s responsibilities after the loss of so many men in combat, artists depicted them in new roles and grappled with issues surrounding their new options. Expressing a longing for prewar innocence and the commemorative atmosphere associated with the nation’s Centennial, many painters portrayed children. And, as the agrarian basis of American life gave way to urbanization and industrialization, artists who lived, studied, worked, and exhibited their paintings in thriving cities looked to the countryside for their subjects. Painters of this era were, however, likely to show rural locales as temporary or nostalgic retreats from urban existence rather than sustainable habitats.
By the mid-1870s, the taste of American viewers and patrons changed in response to their expanded opportunities for travel; ready access to prints, photographs, illustrations in magazines and journals, and other reproductions; and exposure to art in newly founded museums. As these viewers and patrons, principally in the prosperous industrial Northeast, came to value contemporary Continental—especially French—art, American painters embraced an unprecedented internationalism. Easier transatlantic transportation and communication meant that more artists were able to study abroad, live in European cities and art colonies, and investigate a broad range of subjects and styles, from academic to Impressionist. They were as likely to paint people enjoying commonplace events in Paris or the French countryside as they were their subjects’ counterparts in New York or New England. Their works reveal an appreciation of the journalistic, fragmented, oblique narrative that characterized modern European examples and an evasion of the harsh realities of modern existence. By comparison with earlier genre scenes, these views of everyday life are ambiguous and, at times, completely elusive in their content. American painters also operated in an increasingly complex and professionalized art world, which enhanced their opportunities to display and market their works on both sides of the Atlantic. Often in competition with foreign rivals, they attended to the judgments of a newly serious and credible American art press.
Many late nineteenth-century American artists recorded the lives of women as devoted mothers, dedicated household managers, participants in genteel feminine rituals, and resolute keepers of culture. A few recounted the experiences of men at work and leisure and celebrated new American heroes. It is in this period that the cowboy emerges as an icon of American masculinity and of the receding frontier. As tension escalated between fading rural traditions and growing urbanization and industrialization, artists more often investigated city environs, including new sites for leisure, consumption, and entertainment. Beginning about 1900, the Ashcan painters advocated forthright portrayals of life in New York, but typically took a cheerful approach to increasing urban hardships. The Ashcan painters’ sometimes droll images, which they recorded as if “on the run” or from memory with broad, calligraphic forms, reflect the skills that most of them had cultivated as newspaper illustrators.