American art, like American letters, was of slow and difficult growth. The early colonists, even those who, like the Virginia cavaliers and the settlers in Maryland, possessed somewhat of the old-world culture and taste, had little time for the ornamental.
To worry a decent living out of an inhospitable and reluctant soil, and to serve God after their strict and severe fashion, were abundant occupation to the Puritans. Therefore, could we carry ourselves back through the generations and find ourselves in the streets and abodes of colonial New England, we should observe but very few and slight attempts at decoration.
Pictures, unless it were now and then a scriptural or historical print, there would be none on the plain walls with their heavy beams; varnishing and frescoing would be but rare vanities, if indeed such could be anywhere discovered at all; as for rare vases, or bronzes, or marbles, such things were assuredly unknown. The austere simplicity of the place, the people, and the age, forbade not only a footing to the arts, but refused all nurture to imaginative growths. The Puritans especially had the lofty scorn of art which resented the idea of a picture or a statue in a church with as much indignation as they would have shown to the Pope had he invited them to return to the fold of Rome.
As there was very little literature for America to be proud of before the Declaration of Independence, so, in casting our eyes backward over the annals of art, we can discover but one notable native artist in the period between the early settlements and the Revolution. This was John Singleton Copley. He was born in Boston in 1738, and became the pupil of Smybert, an English artist of some talent, who had accompanied Bishop Berkeley across the Atlantic and had settled in Boston. The pupil soon eclipsed the master, and for years Copley stood alone as a popular portrait-painter in New England.
But even the monopoly of his profession did not suffice to give him adequate support, or gratify Copley's ambition; and he was forced to seek in a more art-loving land the full recognition and reward of his genius. He left behind him many portraits which still exist as precious heirlooms in New England families, and just as the storm of the Revolution was gathering, he set sail for the mother country, which he never afterward left. Before he went, however, a son had been born to him in Boston, who was destined long after to reach the highest summit of English legal dignity and rank--Lord Chancellor Lyndhurst. Copley was especially great as a portrait-painter, but he also sometimes adopted historical subjects. Of these the best known is his "Death of Lord Chatham," which now hangs in the South Kensington Museum, in London.
Copley was soon succeeded by an American artist whose triumphs in England afterward far outshone his own. Benjamin West was born in Pennsylvania in 1738, and was the youngest of nine children, of Quaker parents. His genius for art was discovered in an amusing way. When he was seven sears old he was put to the task of fanning the flies away from the sleeping baby of one of his sisters. Instead of doing so, he sketched her face with black and red ink. His mother snatched the paper from him, looked at it with amazement, and exclaimed: "I declare, he has made a likeness of little Sally." From the Indians be got some of the pigments with which they smeared their faces, and his mother's indigo bag supplied him with blue; while from the house cat's tail he took the hair for his brushes. West was well known as a portrait-painter at fifteen. His Quaker friends at first demurred at the vanity of his calling: but in a solemn meeting the spirit happily moved them to bless him and consecrate him to art. He found rich patrons, who sent him to Italy, where he studied the great masters with zeal and enthusiasm.
This sojourn in the favored land of art, and the chance which procured him an introduction to King George III. as he was passing through England on his way home, deprived his native country of this famous artist. Received and petted at the English court, he took up his permanent residence in London. There, with Sir Joshua Reynolds, and encouraged by the king, he founded the Royal Academy, of which he became president; and as long as King George retained his mind, West was constantly in the sunshine of royal favor. He was appointed "Painter to His Majesty," and a splendid income rewarded his labors. He was neglected by the Prince of Wales, but was recompensed for the loss of his court associations by the patronage of the nobles and people. Copley and West were the forerunners of a succession of American portrait-painters not inferior in their art to their European contemporaries. Both Copley and West aspired to something higher and more creative than copying the lineaments of human faces, but it may be said of them that in historical and imaginative painting they fell short of the highest standard.
Following Copley and West came, close together, three painters whose works were of a high order, some of them being familiar to every one in engraved copies. These were Charles Wilson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, and John Trumbull. Peale was a saddler's apprentice, Stuart the son of a snuffmaker; Trumbull, on the other hand, was the son of one of the foremost statesmen of the Revolution. To all three we owe portraits of Washington from life. Peale painted him in his prime, just after the battle of Monmouth; Trumbull painted him as he was a few years later, at the surrender of Cornwallis; and Stuart painted him when the added dignity of age had crept upon him, and he was President at Philadelphia. Both Peale and Trumbull fought in the Revolution. Trumbull is now best known as the painter of the historical pictures of the war for independence which hang in the Capitol at Washington; of which the most familiar is the "Battle of Bunker's Hill."
It could no longer be said, after these great painters had lived and left enduring results of their labors, that America was devoid of a genius for, or an appreciation of, art. The appearance of Washington Allston, who as a colorist won the name of the "American Titian," and whose noble conceptions of Biblical subjects, executed with wonderful power, have given him permanent rank among the best artists of his time; and of Henry Inman, whose versatile genius readily took up portrait, historical, or landscape painting at will, served to carry American art yet another grade higher. Rembrandt Peale sustained the tradition of his father's ability by his own works; Sully came from England to win fame here as a portrait-painter; Vanderlyn and many others rapidly rose to establish art as a profession and adornment in this country. It is worthy of note that two of the greatest of American inventors, Robert Fulton and S.F.B. Morse, began life as artists; but found it more profitable, in fame and fortune, to run steamboats and establish telegraphs.
The sister arts have nourished in this country in a degree scarcely less marked than painting. In sculpture, a later but prolific growth with us, the names of Hiram Powers, Horatio Greenough, Crawford, Ball, Story, Ward, Rogers, Hart, and Harriet Hosmer, sufficiently attest the progress made and the reputation established in this respect. In drawing, caricature, water-colors, and other minor branches of art, our progress has been scarcely less notable; we may fairly claim to have our Gillrays and Cruikshanks as well as our English cousins.
Art, from having been a very rare luxury among our forefathers even as lately as the beginning of this century, has become an adjunct, it may even be said a necessity, of our civilization. Drawing is being taught in our schools, and is regarded as one of the polite accomplishments of educated young ladies. Art galleries have sprung up everywhere, and art stores are popular resorts in our larger cities. Art societies thrive and flourish in many States, and art teachers are in demand in most of our towns. Colonies of artists swarm in stately buildings in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The time has come when no artist of merit need starve for want of patronage.
Thousands of Americans, travelling abroad every year, spend the larger portion of their time in Europe in visiting those splendid art galleries which the munificence and taste of kings and nobles have established, and which are free to all the world. The taste for art has become universal, and has penetrated all classes; few are the American houses, in these days, wherein the evidences of this taste are not apparent.
Music has progressed with the other arts in popularity and culture; though America, like England, has as yet produced no really great composer. Every branch of music, however, is cultivated with us; and music as a profession is even more certainly lucrative than painting. America welcomes the most renowned singers and musicians in the world, and the highest efforts of musical composition are performed here to audiences sufficiently cultivated fully to enjoy and appreciate them. We cannot doubt that the future will still further develop the American love of all the arts; or that, in time, this continent will rival that of Europe in great artistic productions.