AMERICAN RENAISSANCE PAINTING INFLUENCED BY EUROPEAN POST-IMPRESSIONIST PAINTING, SYMBOLISM AND SURREALISM. AN EXPLORATION INTO THE ART OF ALBERT PINKHAM RYDER ( 1847-1917) , JOHN LA FARGE (1835-1910) , ELIHU VEDDER ( 1836- 1912) AND ROBERT LOFTIN NEWMAN (1827-1912):PART 1.

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The art of this period was nationalistic art , conservative and religious art and in the case of Vedder a return to an ancient culture most of his images represent ancient rites and customs like his portrayal of the sphinx from Egypt.

As Robert Atkins comments .

” American Renaissance , this tumultuous period was characterised by Labour strife , the accumulation of vast wealth, the acquisition of an American Empire through the Spanish-American War”.[1].

” The American Renaissance was a nationalistic response to these disconnecting social conditions. it proclaimed the Nation’s national unity by simultaneously focussing attention on the American past”. [2].

The development of this art was to signal a reactionary and Idealist view of Art and its greatest influence argues Atkins  was Art for arts sake and a rejection of realism which of course was a retrograde step in artistic development.

” Because of the American Renaissance emphasis on community its influence on architecture and City planning was far greater than its impact on painting and sculpture”. [3].

Matthew Baigell argues in A Concise History of American Painting and Sculpture that the effect particularly with reference to Pinkham Ryder that painting was becoming a personal and mysterious.

” The entirely personal way in which Ryder composed and painted these works allies him with a variety of artists whose paintings border on the mysterious of not mystical. these include Robert Loftin Newman and Elihu Vedder”. [4].

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Vedder particularly takes you back to a forgotten mystical age of serpents , magicians and mystery. I must say that I love his representation of the Sphinx where someone is talking to the mouth of the sphinx expecting it to provide an answer. Ryder reminds me of the hazy colour in Van Gogh’s painting especially Starry Starry night. Much of Ryder’s iconography is full of ghostly apparitions which highlights the rest of the painting.

Baigell starts his commentary on these Renaissance painters with a discussion of Newman.

” Newman a recluse like Ryder studied briefly with Thomas Couture in Paris. in 1850 he visited Millet in Barbizon in 1854. his spectral figures emerge from murky barely indicated landscapes defined as much by arbitrary lights  as by their bodily contours”. [5].

” The paintings of Elihu Vedder especially those of the 1860’s are much more crispy and clearly painted than those of other artists, but their meaning is more obscure and purposely so”.[6].

” Some like the Questioner of the sphinx were painted in the United states between 1861 after Vedder returned from a 5 year stay in Europe”. [7].

If you look at Vedder’s paintings you can see that he had a Romantic feel for Middle eastern art.

” On occasion Vedder allowed glimpses beneath the surface equanimity of these paintings as well as of other works such as his illustrations for the Rubiayat of Omar Khayyam”. [8].

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Baigell explains the History of the American renaissance art movement, its development and its origin.

” The American Renaissance movement was a diffuse affair that like Tonalism arose after the Cetennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 and lasted until the 1920’s. The Art Exhibitions of the Cetennial demonstrated  that American Art had not yet reached the level of sophistication of European art”. [9].

”  The reassertion of the academic ideal was also supported by the publication of walter Pater’s studies  in the History of the renaissance in Italy and Jacob Burkhardt’s The civilisation of renaissance in Italy”. [10].

This form of nostalgia and looking back towards a previous Romantic era was supported by many idealist followers in the United states.

” Proponents of the American Renaissance probably viewed the movement as the survival and continuation of the best qualities in art”. [11].

Baigell now comes on to discuss the relative merits of John La Farge an Idealist and religious painter who was a follower of Bishop Berkeley.

“John La Farge is the major artist of the American Renaissance , a pioneer muralists as well as an important theorist. Born in New York city he was raised in a thoroughly cosmopolitan atmosphere”. [12].

Baigell continues to make sweeping generalisations about La Farge with no evidence. La Farge was an American Renaissance painter with deeply held religious and idealist views which is reflected in his art.

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The last image shows La Farge’s religious influence he painted murals and glass Windows for a number of Churches.

” La Farge’s  precociousness  was revealed in a decorative project of 1860 showing Japanese influence and in his flowers  on a window ledge which combined indoor and outdoor lighting effects and subtle atmospheric changes”. [13].

” La Farge also challenged himself with interesting landscape projects as in Bishop Berkeley’s Rock at Newport whicin which he tried to paint from nature but also to create a work of art -to combine reality with artifice without emphasizing  the latter in typical European fashion”. [14].

Berkeley of course was the 17th Century subjective Idealist philosopher who propounded the absurd notion that there was no such thing as a material object.

He wrote in his philosophical works  ” On the contrary the very idea of an independent material substance is self contradictory and absurd”. [15].

It was Left to Vladimir Lenin the Leader of the Russian Revolution to refute this nonsense in his work Materialism and Empiro criticism in which he demonstrated in a number of questions that the world is composed of Materiality and there is no such thing as God or Spirit. He had to make reference to Berkeley again when he was conducting an Inner Party struggle in the Bolshevik Party against the Machists or God Believers as they were referred to.

” La Farge’s interest in the ideal had begun to dominate his interest in the real in 1870. this led to his participation in the building and decoration of the first great Monument of the American Renaissance Trinity Church in Boston”. [16].

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Baigell suggests that La Farge used Colour and the light to good effect in his glass windows and murals.

” He favoured an eclectic coloristic style based on 16th century Venetian sources as well as the paintings of Eugene Delacroix with occasional glances at the Romantic Florentine high renaissance”.[17].

Ann Lee Morgan comments on the talent of Robert Loftin Newman.

” His freely painted suggestive figure compositions evoke mysterious and romantic content usually drawn from literature or Religion”. [18]

” Mostly self taught as an artist. in 1850 he went to Paris where he studied for a few months with Thomas Couture- in France again in 1854 he met Jean Francois Millet through William Morris Hunt(another American artist) painted at Barbizon for a few months”. [19].

Unfortunately towards the end Morgan tells us that he died in obscurity and poverty. It is important that an artist like Newman should be rehabilitated because much of his art was well painted and at the time attracted buyers for his work. strange how he ended his  life . Morgan suggests suicide.

” Although supported by older artists and a few discerning collectors he died in obscurity and poverty, perhaps a suicide. Newman normally worked on small scale emphasizing  rich colour and brushwork in dark and moody depictions of few figures in limited space”. [20].

This completes my first part of my exploration of American Renaissance painters. in Part 2 I will further explore their contribution to Romantic art in the United States.

FOOTNOTES

  1. ART SPOKE 1844-1948 BY ROBERT ATKINS PG.50
  2. DITTO.PG.50
  3. DITTO. PG.50
  4. A CONCISE HISTORY OF AMERICAN PAINTING AND SCULPTURE MATTHEW BAIGELL.PG.168.
  5. DITTO.PG.170
  6. DITTO. PG.170
  7. DITTO.PG.171
  8. DITTO.PG.171
  9. DITTO. PG.173
  10. DITTO.PG.173
  11. DITTO.PG.173-4
  12. DITTO.PG.174
  13. DITTO.PG.174
  14. DITTO.PG.174
  15. PHILOSOPHICAL WORKS INCLUDING THE WORK OF VISION GEORGE BERKELEY EVERYMAN. PG.INTRODUCTION XV1
  16. A CONCISE HISTORY OF AMERICAN  PAINTING AND SCULPTURE MATTHEW BAIGELL. PG.175
  17. DITTO.PG.177
  18. THE OXFORD DICTIONARY  OF AMERICAN  ART AND ARTISTS . ANN LEE MORGAN.PG.341
  19. DITTO.PG.341
  20. DITTO.PG.341

 

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