Exploring American Art in the Nineteenth Century

On October 22 I gave a talk at the Bristol Art Museum on the Providence Art Club, and in the course of preparing for this presentation I revisited my art history and my history to get a better look at the year of the Art Club's founding: 1880. Something that came to mind immediately was the proximity of the Club's beginning to the end of the American Civil War, which concluded just fifteen years prior. For comparison, 2017 is of course just sixteen years after the events of September 11, 2001. This correlation made me curious to explore the War's enormous impact on the cultural life of the United States.

It is difficult, or maybe even impossible, for contemporary Americans to imagine what life in the mid and late nineteenth century might have been like in the same country where they now reside. The culture of nineteenth century America was quite different, the nation still so unshaped, that it is as if the Civil War took place in an entirely other country than our own. But the after affects of the conflict shaped the country that we know today. Just one aspect of the changing and coalescing of American society that took place during the Reconstruction Period was in the area of art and culture.

Before the War, and for decades after, the United States was viewed as a cultural backwater. Bereft of their own art institutions, most American artists traveled abroad to study. In ateliers in Paris, hundreds of Americans worked under the tutelage of French artists who themselves were trained in proper academies using well-worn and respected techniques espoused by the art establishment. This temporary diaspora created a class of cultural ex-patriots the likes of which would not be seen again until The Lost Generation of the 1920's.

Scores of these art pilgrims returned to their country to create art with European skill and American vision. And in doing so, these artists realized that the United States would require cultural infrastructure if their momentum was to continue. Artists along with patrons and the growing mercantile and economic elite drew together to create the necessary institutions that would underpin a burgeoning American art scene. Many of the organizations founded to serve the cultural needs of the nineteenth century found a staying power that continues into the twenty first.

An early exhibition at the Providence Art Club, about 1890, founded in 1880 to stimulate "art culture" in Providence, RI. The Club utilizes the same gallery space for exhibitions today.

An early exhibition at the Providence Art Club, about 1890, founded in 1880 to stimulate "art culture" in Providence, RI. The Club utilizes the same gallery space for exhibitions today.

In the period between 1865 and 1900, an astounding number of cultural organizations were formed in the United States. Primarily in the wealthy North; philharmonics, libraries, literary societies, social clubs, private studios, art schools, associations, and museums sprung into existence. Many of these were funded by the wealth being piled up in a country whose rapid industrialization was sparked by the disastrous internal conflict of the Civil War. The vast irony of the creative output in the post-bellum era is that the industrial complex that abetted the War was also, at least indirectly, responsible for the cultural flowering that occurred in its aftermath.

The types of organizations that grew up after the War were myriad. They were professional associations, museums, and institutions of higher learning. The Yale School of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, the Pratt Institute, and the Corcoran College of Art and Design all came into existence in this period. Along with other art schools and private ateliers, they made it possible for the first time to educate American artists at home. This broadened the base of art makers and expanded, democratized, and Americanized points of view presented in the art created in the United States.

In the decade and a half after the War, a slew of art museums were founded, too. These institutions, and their wealthy patrons, would bring the treasures of the world to the United States. Many of the nation's preeminent encyclopedic museums were established in the frenzied nineteenth century, including the Detroit Institute of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Smaller museums like the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts and the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence also came into being. Together, the establishment of such institutions is indicative of the widening audience for culture. As the middle class grew, more Americans were interested in the entertainment possibilities inherent in an art museum.

In the middle of this period, another organization was founded. Not a school, or a museum, but a professional association and social club meant to bring artists and collectors together for the pursuit and patronage of art. In 1880, in Providence, Rhode Island, sixteen men and women came together to found the Providence Art Club. Dedicated to stimulating "art culture" in the City of Providence and beyond, the Club would provide a collective impulse for exhibition and networking.

Some early members of the Providence Art Club, circa 1890.

Some early members of the Providence Art Club, circa 1890.

The Club was the first such organization to be co-founded by men and women, forty years before the female founders of the Club would be eligible to vote. The second individual to sign the Club's constitution was the great African-American landscape painter Edward Mitchell Bannister. This community, diverse and potentially radical in its day, made it possible for artists and patrons to meet, and for artists to exhibit their work outside the constraints of traditional commercial galleries.

Over the course of the last 137 years, many of the aforementioned organizations have thrived and grown. The Art Club is no exception. Since 1880, the Club has ballooned from 16 members to over 600, and it organizes more exhibitions now than ever. On November 12, the Club opened The 113th Annual Little Pictures Show & Sale, the largest and oldest exhibition of its kind in the United States. The endurance of the Art Club is indicative of the quality inherent in many other organizations established in the same period. Though established for decidedly nineteenth century needs, the Club continues to serve today's artists and patrons in the same tradition, albeit with expanded and modernized services.

In revisiting the period of the Art Club's founding, I came to appreciate the Club more for its historical role in bringing artists and patrons together. While art schools and museums provided much needed venues to education and inspiration, the Art Club was a practical necessity for mid career artists eager to court new patrons. The fact that six women, and an African-American were so integral to the founding of the Club adds to the organization's particular uniqueness within its milieu.

The broader story of American culture at the end of the nineteenth century is one of a country returning to normalcy after an internal calamity. Economic progress partially sparked by the Civil War resulted in an environment where burgeoning art organizations were able to thrive. The Robber Barons of the Gilded Age underwrote institutions which eventually came to serve diverse audiences all over the United States. Contemporary Americans ultimately owe a debt of gratitude to the artists and connoisseurs of the nineteenth century. Their enormous investment in a cultural infrastructure for a cultureless nation continues to pay dividends today.

Two Upcoming Talks: Fall 2017

I am pleased to share that I will be participating in upcoming events this fall:

The Providence Art Club, A Rhode Island Institution
Sunday, October 22 at 1:00pm

Bristol Art Museum
10 Wardell Street
Bristol, RI 02809

Admission: $5 for BAM Members | $10 for non-members

This talk will focus on the story of the Providence Art Club from 1880 to the present. Founded “to promote art culture” less than two decades after the American Civil War, the Providence Art Club was part of the cultural flowering that took place throughout the United States in the late nineteenth century. Unique in its day, the Art Club was the first such organization to be co-founded by men and women some forty years before women gained the right to vote. The Club continues its mission today through unique social and educational opportunities for its members and exhibitions in three historic galleries that are always open to the public. I will discuss the Club’s history, traditions, and continuing impact on the Rhode Island cultural scene.

This talk will be presented in conjunction with an exhibition of work by printmakers of the Providence Art Club at the Rogers Free Public Library in Bristol.

 

The Life & Art of Florence Brevoort Kane
Sunday, November 5 at 2:00pm

St. Peter's by-the-Sea Episcopal Church
72 Central Street
Narragansett, RI 02882

Admission: Free will offering to benefit the Community Market at St. Peter's

Florence Brevoort Kane (1895-1956) was an accomplished sculptor who lived and worked in New York, France, and Rhode Island. A passionate member of the Providence Art Club, she left $150,000 to the organization upon her death in 1956 along with the bulk of her remaining work. While the Art Club likely has the most extensive collection of Kane's work, including preparatory plasters and completed works in bronze, St. Peter's by-the-Sea Episcopal Church holds several of Kanes important memorials and religious images. This program will feature three speakers: Judy Landry, who serves on the historical committee of St. Peter's Church, contemporary sculptor Mimi Sammis who will talk about the process behind creating sculptures, and I will be speaking about Florence's work and her impact on the Art Club community. Several works from the Art Club's collection will be on view at this event.

If you're available for either of these programs, I hope you will consider adding them to your calendar. You can also join my mailing list for direct updates about upcoming programs.

Best,
Michael
 

Swann to Offer Important Ossawa Tanner Painting in October Sale

Swann Auction Galleries remains the only major auction house with an entire department dedicated to the consignment of works by African-American artists. In the October 5 sale of African-American Fine Art, there are numerous praiseworthy lots available. Of particular interest though, is a painting by one of the most popular African-American artists of the nineteenth century; the Pittsburgh-born Henry Ossawa Tanner.

The fourth lot in the October sale is from Tanner's series of paintings that focused on the biblical story of the Holy Family's flight into Egypt. The most well-known work using this motif is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In the Met's picture, Joseph, Mary, and the infant Christ are shepherded into the gates of a city under the cover of night. Mary swaddles her newborn son while riding a donkey, the whole scene foreshadowing Christ's entry into Jerusalem in adulthood. The lamp of a faceless attendant lights the path and an architectural background likely inspired by Tanner's travels in North Africa and Palestine. The work is executed in Tanner's painterly style, a later improvisational mode in his technique which blossomed in the early years of the Jazz Age. The rich milky blues in the painting at the Met match tones seen throughout Tanner's work in this period.

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) Flight Into Egypt, 1923 oil on canvas 29 x 26 in. (73.7 x 66 cm) Marguerite and Frank A. Cosgrove Jr. Fund, 2001 Accession Number: 2001.402a The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)
Flight Into Egypt, 1923
oil on canvas
29 x 26 in. (73.7 x 66 cm)
Marguerite and Frank A. Cosgrove Jr. Fund, 2001
Accession Number: 2001.402a
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In the painting that will be auctioned by Swann, Tanner returns to the same story. The Holy Family is pictured in a tight grouping with two donkeys, a town low in the distance and a hazy moon hidden by clouds overhead. This nocturne bears the hallmarks of Tanner's style after the turn of the century, with the same cool blues seen in the Met's painting and throughout his oeuvre. It is a fine example of Tanner's mature work. With that latter-day Impressionist handling of the brush, it could as easily have been painted the artist's contemporaries Sargent or Sorolla. Completed between 1920-1925 it was made at the same time as the Met's version and at the height of Tanner's public fame. He was awarded the rank of Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur by the French Government in 1923. This painting is a bit murkier than its well-known counterpart, but conveys the tense foreboding and drama of a quintessential biblical scene rendered by an artist with a passion for religious subject matter.

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) Flight into Egypt oil on linen canvas, circa 1920-25 23 1/4 x 37 inches, 590 x 952 mm Signed in oil, lower left. Swann Auction Galleries Sale 2456 Lot 4

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)
Flight into Egypt
oil on linen canvas, circa 1920-25
23 1/4 x 37 inches, 590 x 952 mm
Signed in oil, lower left.
Swann Auction Galleries Sale 2456 Lot 4

Tanner was born just two years before the start of America's Civil War to Benjamin Tucker Tanner, a Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and Sarah Tanner, a mixed race woman who had escaped the slavery into which she had been born through the Underground Railroad. His family prized education and independence, and ran in intellectual circles. This included a close friendship between the artist's father and Frederick Douglass.

In 1879, Tanner was admitted to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The only black student in the Academy, then the preeminent art school in the United States, Tanner was able to study directly under Thomas Eakins. Eakins, the master of American realism, would have inspired Tanner with his commitment to new fashions of studio practice, enabling the young artist to explore painting without the burdensome and outmoded practices of more rigid instructors.

Though Tanner is regarded as the first African-American artist to gain international acclaim, he lived most of his life after 1891 as an ex-patriot in France due to widespread racism in his home country. In 1899 he married the white opera singer Jessie Olssen and they had one child together. Such a union would remain illegal in the United States until 1967. The more liberal French culture of his time lead to success and comfort for Tanner. In an interview regarding the 2012 exhibition Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit, curator Anna Marley, PhD, notes that in the United States Tanner was regarded as a "Black artist", while in France he was simply know as Monsieur Tanner, artiste Americain.

Thomas Eakins Portrait of Henry O. Tanner, 1900 oil on canvas 24⅛" × 20¼" The Hyde Collection

Thomas Eakins
Portrait of Henry O. Tanner, 1900
oil on canvas
24⅛" × 20¼"
The Hyde Collection

Tanner's frequent explorations of biblical stories throughout his career underscore his religious upbringing in an erudite Christian home. But his repeated return to the imagery of the Holy Family fleeing King Herod bears a more significant symbolic weight. The images of pilgrimage for safety and freedom pictured in his scenes of Joseph, Mary and the Christ-child are natural metaphors for the journeys of escaped slaves like his own mother.

In using accepted canonical imagery in the genre of religious painting, Tanner avoided being pigeonholed as a "Black artist" while subtlety exploring themes of great relevance to the Black experience. The Civil War was a notoriously religious affair, with both sides claiming God's solidarity with their cause. In the aftermath of the War and in light of the newly held but tenuous rights of African-Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Tanner utilized American religiosity as a means to deliver a message about family, freedom, and love that was powerful for African-Americans who continued to work to see their rights properly recognized.

With an estimated sale price of $200,000-$300,000, it is probable that the painting on offer at Swann in October will be bought by an institution. It will be interesting to see the amount of activity this work generates in the marketplace and if, in the end, it goes into another private collection or if Flight into Egypt becomes available for the public in a museum setting. The potency of Tanner's personal story and artistic accomplishments makes his work particularly prized in any situation, but in the current political and social climate a painting of such quality by a groundbreaking African-American painter may be even more sought after.

Welcome to Michael Rose Fine Art!

Hello!

I'm thrilled to welcome you to my new website, MichaelRoseFineArt.com. This site will detail my ongoing projects related to appraising, advising, and services for working artists. I look forward to using this medium to connect with new clients and colleagues as well as to engage in new projects.

In addition to outlining these freelance projects, I'll be posting regularly here on my Fine Art Insights blog about art makers, art works, exhibitions, and other topics related to the art market and industry. I hope to also occasionally invite outside contributors to share their insights on the goings on in the market and the field as a whole. I think Fine Art Insights will grow to be a helpful resource for artists and art enthusiasts.

If you have any questions about this new venture, suggestions for making this site better, or topics you would like to see covered in the blog, I hope you'll feel free to contact me here at michael@michaelrosefineart.com.

Thank you for your interest and support!

Michael