American Art and American Identity

Can art objects carry and convey any important information about anything? Could American art carry any American identity and did those celebrated artists have any vision about American identity? Well, Jafee and Luftschein (para, 5) point out that most art objects associate themselves with the ultimate purpose of bringing out identity, either denotatively or implicitly. American art has no preclusion from this ultimate purpose of art pieces. Most of it carries American identity by portraying what is important to Americans. Yesteryear artists knew exactly where America headed to and precisely put this across by painting portraits. These artists included Freake Limner, Thomas Smith, Robert Fake, John Smilbert and the famous John Singleton Copley, to mention but a few.

Though dead and forgotten, they speak from their graves. Their works speak volumes about the role of American art in bringing out American identity. Maybe in those times, no one could really understand this critical role, but today it is clear that these ancient art pieces carried important information about today’s American image. Jafee and Luftschein (para, 7) posit that art functions as a representation of a collective identity but not a reflection of the maker. They observe that art actually is a quiet conveyor of identity. These portraits represent American women, landscape, early social life and all areas touching true Americanism.

One may ask, what is American art? This is a collection of fine works by charismatic artists of yesteryear and their counterparts in the current world. Theirs was, and still is a work of passion. However, they quietly delivered invaluable entropy about the American image. Down deep the hearts of these great mavens, was great wealth of important information about true Americanism. Their works encompass pleasant and canonized photographs about the land in addition to forthright portraits of famous and infamous people. They succeeded in reflecting the changes in society both socially and physically and gave impression of how a nation changes thereafter.

What is American identity? This entails the development and sustenance of American culture which cuts across religion, sports, cuisine, history, holidays, literature, music, dance, poetry and everything else that owes its identity to America. America did not spring from trailing arbutus but it came from the bushes and gathered fresh energy every time it touched a new bailiwick (Johns para, 6).

What really remains contested about American identity is its ecology and geography. Many people claim that the indigenous people to settle in America were not actually Americans, but immigrants who considered the land empty, without physical and spiritual occupants and considered colonizing it. So, what is the place of art in all these theories? Johns posits that early literature, art and lore portrays wilderness as a place where rationality knuckles under desire giving the devil an opportunity to woo and corrupt even the sanctimonious (para 7). America emerged from this wilderness but not from a mayflower.

A picture painting by Thomas Cole in 1838 titled the oxbow, comments on the physical state of America. It depicts how wilderness receded under the pressures of civilization giving way to garden practices. This picture shows clearly the struggles that America went through to establish itself as a superpower nation. It did not happen overnight but it took effort and resilience for America to be where she is. She struggled a lot to shake off the wilderness and adopt garden practices and pictorial paintings depict all these.

Portrait painting is a form of art whereby the artist focuses on the visual aspect of a subject. This genre of art has developed through ages and it traces its roots in Egypt where painting was common due to its rich culture. Then it spread to other regions like Greece, China, Italy among others including America. Most of these ancient portraits are not to be found anywhere in Egypt but there are subsisting Chinese portraits dating back to 1000 A.D. In medieval times portrait painting persisted with oil paintings gaining popularity. Even though sculpture gained momentum around this time, this art prevailed into renaissance where its quality improved remarkably under the virtuoso works of people like Michelangelo among others.

In 19th century, portrait painting persisted and French artists dominated the field around this time championed by painters like Jacques-Louis David. Important features of painting like texture, harmony, rhythm among others developed rapidly in this century. In 20th century, portraiture took a new direction with artists using meretricious colors to represent the skin. American portraiture apparently went through all these stages of development to reach the levels of adoration it experiences today. This is a case of a seasoned art having stood the test of time to become fastidious in the present world.

Portrait painting gives the gist of the represented subject not just a mere likeness. This observation must have led Aristotle to concur that, the ultimate purpose of art is not to portray the outward appearance of something, but to bring out their inner meaning, for it is the latter not the former which represents true reality (Aymer para, 3).

Portrait painting plays a vital role in enriching American art. As pointed out earlier, American art entails all the details about America ranging from sports, culture, cuisine, dance, music, social life to mention but a few. Portrait painting ameliorates this art and helps to build American image, that is, the inner meaning of Americans including the things they like.

Americans love a variety of things; however, there are particular issues that stand out in their art. Paintings prepared in the late 1930s and early 40s by Walker Evans and Margaret Bourke-white reflect a posture of disposition and togetherness (Traditional Fine Arts Organization para, 8). These works give a clear American Image. Americans are optimistic and united naturally, hence the name United States of America. This name owes its origin back to the very nature of Americans. What else could propel a country with such a humble beginning to becoming the superpower in the world? It takes optimism and togetherness to attain such a status.

Accompanying these works were the landscape paintings that reflected the cycloramas of changing landscapes from farming practices to urban and industrial scenes. America is really an industrialized country and these artists knew exactly the direction America was to take in near future. True to their visions and dreams, America overcame all the impediments to establish itself as an economic behemoth. Surely, art speaks, and it speaks so silently and designedly such that anyone can hear it. Not anyone looking closely at these fine works by fine artists can fail to savor the identity attached to these works. These are true words spoken by true citizens, not in written words but in painted ‘words.’

Love claims a great part of American image and artists could not divorce it from their portrait paintings. Current portrait paintings bank heavily on the issue of love. A portrait of a young man and a little dotty with a coy girl by Floyd Davis depicts how young American men see love. In another portrait, Alfred Parker depicts a young woman pursuing love with a laugh and this incorporates the sense of humor among Americans. The portrait describes so much about American identity without a single word. Words of Napoleon Bonaparte that a good picture is worth a thousand words could not come at a better time than this.

Music matches love issues in American art and image. Americans are diverse and love different eccentrics of music ranging from jazz through rock to hip-hop among others. In his works, Ray Prohaska brings out the thump of jazz in America. At the first sight of this portrait, it is easy to identify it with Americans. American image here simply means identity. The incorporation of such great identity in art is phenomenal amongst Americans (American Art Archive para, 6).

These modern-day artists are but progenies of icons of portraiture like Copley John Singlet. This great man did wonderful jobs during his life from 1738 to 1815. By 20, he was a successful portrait painter actually people called him the greatest American old master. His works include The return of Neptune (1754), James Warren (1763), The boy with the squirrel (1765), John Hancock (1765), Watson and the Shark (1778), Samuel Adams (1778) and Portrait of the Copley family (1776) among others (National Gallery of Art para, 9).

What is the significance of Copley’s work in creating the image of America? Well, his portraits have profound implications in America’s history. For instance, James Warren is an important feature in American history. He was a remunerator general of the continental army throughout the American radical war. This was a war of independence for America and it marked the initial step towards independence and the subsequent democracy. This portrait represents America’s struggle and gives her identity. How else could Copley honor and identify with the struggles of his beloved country other than painting this idyllic portrait?

Another artistic work by Copley is the portrait painting of John Hancock in 1765. Mr. Hancock played important role in America’s revolution largely because of his colossal wealth during those times. He signed United States proclamation for independence so fashionably that people used his name as a synonym for signature. This represents the audacity of Americans towards freedom. It matters a lot to know that the greatest state in the world underwent the same struggles that all other nations undergo. America was not different, she fought for her freedom and it gratifies her citizens to identify with her.

Watson and the shark portrait, painted in 1778 by Copley, is yet another depiction of genuine Americans’ persona. Watson was a 14-year-old minor when a shark attacked him whilst swimming alone in Havana River (National Gallery of Art para, 11). The portrait depicts a crew on a small boat fighting off the shark to rescue this youngster. What could have moved Copley to do such a masterpiece? The compassion that overflows from the hearts of many Americans convicted Copley to paint this masterwork. The same compassion moved the crew on that boat to rescue the young Watson. These portraits by Singlet Copley truly create an image of true Americanism. These works point out exactly what Americans like. They honor their heroes and heroines, are united people full of compassion among other estimable characters that distinguish them from the other people.

Other renowned artists include Freak Limner, John Smibert, Thomas Smith and Robert Feke. They also embellished America’s art with rich and profound works. Freak Limner did a masterpiece in 1672 that resonates to date. It was a painting of his beloved wife Elizabeth and their daughter Mary. This in itself is an outstanding way to portray love and family unity: a cherished element in American families.

John Smibert on the other hand brings out a very different image of Americans. In 1732, he painted a portrait of Daniel, Peter and Andrew Oliver. These were all brothers and stood together during difficult times. What does Mr. Smibert bring out in this painting? One thing stands out; family is an important institution among Americans.

Robert Feke’s works include a large portrait of Isaac Royall and his family. Isaac was one of renowned soldiers in colonial times. Other works by Mr. Feke include portraits of chief justice Edward Shippen, Thomas Hopkinson and Mrs. Banister among others. He painted all these portraits on a canvas using oil. He concentrated his work on painting rich merchants in Boston between 1741 and 1750 (American Art Archive para, 9).

On his part, Thomas Smith focused on painting self-portraits. His works heralded the entry of baroque predilection in American portraiture. Generally, the works of these astute artists represent the true American identity. Their portraits bring out what Americans really like and it becomes very easy for any American to identify with these works.

American art carries with it thematic issues that speak volumes about Americans. Some artists, moved by the passion for painting, come up with informative masterpieces, which portray deep-rooted issues in the society. Other artists draw their inspiration from problems facing the society. Nevertheless, the source of inspiration notwithstanding, art communicates diverse issues. This is evident from works of ancient artists paralleled by their present counterparts.

Historically, paintings depicted remarkable events of emblematic conduct, chastity and nationalism. According to National Gallery of Art, historical subjects are important in commemorating and aggrandizing scenes of national victory (para 1). Artists used their work to call for action that would bring change among Americans. For instance, Paul Revere in his painting, Boston Massacre, dramatized this massacre to summon colonialists to a radical change that would bring revolution leading to freedom. Many portraits depicted the beginning of civil war and this gives a hint of what America went through in her quest to achieve freedom.

Figure is another element that comes out clearly in American art creating an image thereof. Figure painting portrays more than likeness and appearance. It serves as a channel to communicate narrative and feelings. John Singlet Copley’s portraiture; Red Cross Knight, explains a narrative from the poem, Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser (National Gallery of Art para, 4). Painting women brings out the standards of beauty and elegance. In most of these paintings, women appear stretched and idealized to depict the true picture of quality and adornment in society. Artists use figure painting to register appearance, apparel and traditions. This offers a documentation purpose of portrait painting. George Catlin’s work was full of documentations as in American Indians portraits. Artists also associated figure paintings with politics, gender issues and individuality. Though the emergence of photography is quickly gaining popularity, portrait painting plays a key role in documentation.

Landscapes and topographies also play a crucial role in American art. They bring out an image of an exquisite land full of opportunities. These portraits gained popularity in American art in 1820s. As discussed above, one of the contested areas in American history is its geography and ecology. Art played a key role in explaining these mysteries and corresponded America’s uncorrupt wilderness to its apparently boundless potential. Thomas Cole was an ardent landscape painter probably because he loved his country. This is true patriotism and many Americans remain patriotic to their country. Thomas Cole finally started the famous Hudson River school, a school of exclusively landscape painting artists. According to the National Gallery of Art, these artists enthroned the land with a sensation of national identity; auspicate of prosperity and comportment of God: A perfect image of America and her people (para, 10).

American wealth sprouted and vibrated under marine commerce. Artists could not miss this crucial component of American growth. They painted mariners at Baltimore, New York and Charleston ports among other ports outside the Atlantic. Leisure, a common feature among Americans also stood out in marine paintings. Thomas Moran and Martin Johnson Heade associated themselves with more naturalistic portraits.

Religion plays a major role in the life of many Americans. Americans plainly love religion and they have used art over years to depict this. Portraits based on biblical facts were common in ancient times and persisted into the 21st century. Benjamin West’s portrait named The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise is one of such works. Americans strongly believe in the almighty God who gave them such a beautiful land. Religion forms an important part of the American image. This is only a part of the narrative that portrait paintings play in American art.

Portraiture also depicts ideal scenes of everyday life in America. Thomas Eakins’ portraits of people rowing and in leisure show a strong feeling of naturism and vibrancy. Winslow Homer painted several portraits of people in their everyday lives like hunting, fishing and playing. However, one pictorial that brings out a true American image is Chase William’s A Friendly Call. It centers on the social life in the country and polished domestic quest. It is amazing how Edward Hopper in his work portrayed urban scenes as isolated and melancholic, which resonated so well with the Great depression. Surely, American art speaks of the unfathomable issues affecting Americans.

American art therefore cuts across all corners of her nature and people. It involves still life, scenes of every life, history, literature, music, dance, social life, religion among others. The artists know precisely what to paint. Even though some artists paint out of passion, while others paint to address pertinent issues in society, the ultimate result brings out a true American image.

American art dates back to many years ago and it has traveled the road of adversity and disputes to be where it is. Despite the entry of technology into the art world, portraiture has stood the test of time to be where it is today. Portraiture adorned art giving it a sense of direction and a resolution. Image is everything and in this case, art acts as a vehicle to convey it.

Works Cited

American Art Archive. “We Paint the Love Scenes.”(Nd). 2009. Web.

Aymar, Gordon. “The Art of Portrait Painting.” 2008. Web.

Jafee, S. & Luftschein, D. “Art and the Shaping of Identity.” (Nd). 2009. Web.

Johns, John. “A Brief History of Nature and the American Consciousness.” 1996. Web.

National Gallery of Art. “Themes in American Portraiture.” 2000. Web.

Traditional Fine Arts Organization. “Facing America: Portraits of the People and the Land.” 2006. Web.

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Premium Papers. "American Art and American Identity." December 28, 2022.