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.