John Rothenstein, ‘Painting in America’, 1941

Shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, John Rothenstein, Director of the Tate Gallery since 1938, spent more than six months on official business in the United States. It had been a decade since he had lived there while a professor of art history and in this article he shows genuine appreciation of the country’s flourishing art scene. Although an early proponent of American art, he had been cautious about its quality in the late 1920s but was now impressed by the public art produced under the auspices of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, and recognised the birth of what appeared to be uniquely American artistic styles, including regionalism and social realism.

We were leaning over the parapet of the Groton Dam, New York, four painters, of whom George Biddle was one, and I. American art was the subject of our conversation. ‘It’s so vital and abundant,’ George Biddle said, ‘it could get along without the best American artists.’ ‘And no doubt the best American artists could manage equally well without American art,’ I said, and my observation was approvingly received by all except George Biddle; naturally enough, seeing that they had strong claims to be counted among the best American artists. But their approval mocked me, for as soon as I had spoken I knew George Biddle was right. My remark was based on the arbitrary assumption that quality is at all times and of necessity of greater value than quantity. That masterpieces embody the ultimate values in art George Biddle would not dispute. But the question at issue was not whether a few masterpieces, generally speaking, were more to be desired than a multitude of works of lesser merit, but whether the sudden awakening of an entire, vast people to art as a language and a delight, might not produce, ultimately, more masterpieces than the efforts of a handful of specialists, however highly trained, working in isolation. It was a question, quite simply, whether in certain circumstances success could more readily be achieved by – so to speak – a levée en masse – or by a few regiments of mercenaries.

The answer to that question depends on circumstance, and when I say that George Biddle was right I mean that for the United States, to-day, the levée en masse – for the present nation-wide participation in the arts in one capacity or another amounts to that – is the more hopeful of the two procedures.

And what an astonishing transformation this nation-wide movement has effected in the space of a few years!

During the late nineteen-twenties I happened to be teaching the history of art in the United States as Assistant Professor successively at the Universities of Kentucky and Pittsburgh. At that time I had little contact with the most active centres of scholarship and connoisseurship, yet I have no reason to doubt that, in respect of the attitude towards the arts which prevailed there, the Blue Grass and Western Pennsylvania were typical of the greater part of the United States. This attitude was based upon the assumption that art was an activity which flourished in the Old World, and one in which Americans participated but rarely, and rather even then because they had gone to the Old World and become acclimatized there, than on account of any native talent. From this followed the other accepted notions, such, for instance, as that a work of art was something to be bought rather than something to be made, and therefore intimately linked with social status; that Americans who painted – unless like Whistler, Mary Cassatt or Sargent they had been acclaimed by Europe – were nothing but eccentric tyros. For a time this attitude deceived me into an acceptance of the assumption that here was a continent where no art flourished. Then one day I came upon a reproduction of a painting, lying on a table in a college library – a small glossy cutting from a magazine. The beauty of it, and the knowledge that here was the work of an unknown master, took away my breath. I scrutinized the mysterious figures of Our Lord and the kneeling Magdalen. Some students came in, and I asked them who the artist was. Not without delay, I learned that he was an American named Ryder, and at once I knew that there must be other American painters, unknown to Europe, for even so personal a vision as Ryder’s must spring from a tradition, however fitful or immature. My ‘discovery’ of Eakins straightway followed. What a splendid pair of masters! And how dramatically Ryder’s humble, halting realization of what ‘never was on land or sea,’ contrasts with Eakins’ uncompromising and consummate rendering of the creative and heroic aspects of this world!

In those days I used often, as an Extension Lecturer to the University of Kentucky, to go to colleges and women’s clubs in the Blue Grass, and occasionally in the mountains. Sometimes I spoke about Ryder and Eakins. My audiences were evidently pleased by the news – for news it was to many of them – that American painters had flourished who had remained in their own country, and whose work merited, nevertheless, the most serious consideration. Yet these audiences also found delicate means of making me aware that since ‘art’ was understood to be my subject they regarded my eulogies of these two American painters as digressions, needlessly polite.

In Western Pennsylvania interest in the arts was rather livelier and more widespread than in Kentucky. This must have been due to the International Exhibition, held every second year at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, but it was the foreign rather than the American section that drew the crowds and gave the event prestige. It was, I fancy, when I was in Pittsburgh that John Kane was represented in the exhibition for the first time, and I remember listening to the comments of visitors, which for the most part suggested that the inclusion of works by this Pennsylvanian primitive was prompted by a bizarre kind of patriotism.

John Kane I used to visit in his room in an ancient, decayed building near the railroad tracks, which, I believe, belonged to a convent. He put me in mind of another old painter, whom I had been privileged to see from time to time in London, Walter Greaves. This former Thames boatman painter (whose boatman father in times long past had rowed Turner on the river) whom Whistler had discovered; exploited and inspired, shared with the Scottish-born, Pittsburgh jack-of-all-trades an uncommonly retentive memory and a candour which neither in art nor life permitted anything to be withheld. Both men, at the very close of a lifetime’s neglect, were hailed as masters.

Kane’s art and character so much delighted me that after leaving Pittsburgh in 1929 I wrote a short account of both, but none of the editors, American or British, to whom I submitted it, were interested. A few years later a mutual friend wrote to tell me of Kane’s death. It was not long after this that in a Bond Street dealer’s gallery I came upon a group of Kane’s paintings, priced at figures that would have seemed fabulous to the artist, who remained a poor man to the end.

After an absence of ten years I revisited the United States in October 1939, and remained until the beginning of last May. During these months I enjoyed exceptional opportunities for seeing something of the changes which the decade had brought. Their magnitude surprises Americans themselves; their effect on a visitor, even though he had heard reports of them, was inspiring. As recently as 1933 a commission of experts, set up by President Hoover, reported that: ‘It must be admitted that for the overwhelming majority of the American people, the fine arts of painting and sculpture, in their non-commercial, non-industrial forms do not exist.’ Yet only six years later, the Government regards the fine arts not as luxuries for some men but as necessities for all. President Roosevelt and members of his Administration have shown both eloquence and vision in their treatment of this theme on public occasions; it is not, however, their speeches that have made them unique. To-day tens of thousands of public buildings throughout the country are being enriched by paintings and sculptures. To-morrow the people will have learned from their elected representatives’ courage and faith that such enrichment is not less necessary to buildings than sound plumbing.

Some of the manifestations of this altered attitude towards the arts I found extravagant at the time – for example, the remark of an eminent Columbia professor to whom I confided my intention to purchase designs by two American artists, both of them young and unknown, for the Tate Gallery: ‘Considering how fine American paintings are,’ he said, ‘personally I think it a pity that a single example should leave the country.’ And the claim made by a critic – his name escapes me – that ‘America to-day is developing a school of painting which promises to be the most important movement in the world of art since the Italian Renaissance.’ But if want of balance there must be, what lover of the arts does not prefer such exuberant praise to the tepid suspicion which prevails in Europe and prevailed until yesterday in the United States? Praise is the life-blood of artists.

What has brought about, in the space of a few years, this astonishing transformation? That a great nation so teeming with ideas, charged with so great a variety of emotions should remain indefinitely content to express itself in foreign pictorial idioms was not to be expected. The transformation was therefore bound to take place. But the great depression supplied the necessary occasion. That event was decisive. Before the awakening of the American people from a dream of prosperity without end, their very success had created an emotional climate by which many American artists (among them some of the most gifted) were chilled or sterilized.

Ever since the momentous New York Armory Exhibition of 1912 revealed the splendid and adventurous spirit of French painting to the American public at large, American artists, who had long been drawn towards France, tended in ever growing numbers to make it their place of domicile as well as their spiritual home. And a whole generation of American students flocked to Paris: many remained, and the world witnessed the strange spectacle of a mighty nation at the zenith of its vitality and power struggling for expression in a style of painting language not its own. How strange, how all but perverse they seemed, those refugees from the haunting, moss-draped bayou country of Louisiana, from austerely intimate New England, from Virginia and Kentucky with their exotic grace, and from stupendous Manhattan, who had come to Paris to paint, with an infinity of labour, dish after dish of apples! Dishes of apples nobody wanted, for the simple reason that these expatriates had come to a country where the art of painting apples had been brought to perfection long ago, so that their apples were but shadows of shadows.

Towards the close of the nineteen-twenties the homeland of these expatriates ran into an economic blizzard. It seemed to them at first remote, and later calamitous; but it proved to be neither of these, for out of it came a nation transformed – and a nation that had need of its artists. The rumble of crashing stock markets, the rising tide of unemployment, which for a moment seemed to signify nothing to the life of atelier and boulevard, grew menacing. Then the flow of remitted dollars dwindled; the value of the dollar dwindled also. At last the expatriates were compelled to come home. For the most part they left France with regret in their hearts, for they knew nothing of the high purpose for which Providence had recalled them.

Now that the aims and domiciles of American artists are so entirely altered, those among them who worked abroad are reproached with having wasted their time. The reproach is not warranted. It is nothing more than the thoughtless inversion of the accepted notion of an earlier day that art was an activity best practised away from home. It is my conviction that the splendid achievement of to-day is built upon the solid, the almost too solid, foundations of a deep deposit of laborious, unsmiling ‘still lifes,’ painted years ago in Montparnasse.

The besetting weakness of the American as of the British School of painting during the nineteenth century is rightly held to result from the lack of attention paid to design. Of importance of design the French School on the contrary – though clearly in a state of decline to-day – has shown a constant and conscientious sense. Now although the subjects of the expatriates tended to be trivial and meagre, their contact with French tradition did rescue them from the obliviousness of certain essential facts of picture-making which vitiated the Anglo-Saxon Schools. If an unrelenting critic of the expatriates were to press the question, what did they learn in Paris that Eakins could not have taught them, I could only reply that both American and British artists are readier, as a rule, to learn from foreigners than from their fellow-countrymen. American artists as a whole learned hardly more from Eakins – his marked ability as a teacher notwithstanding – than the British from Constable.

The returned prodigals found their native land changing beneath their gaze, and becoming, to their surprise, a place where as artists they were no longer strangers. The collapse of time-honoured institutions, the pitiful, ominous, standing army of unemployed had banished the old complacency. During the nineteen-thirties a great and legitimate pride in American achievement became tempered by a clearer recognition of the immensity of the obstacles which she had still to overcome. Inequalities of opportunity revealed by the depression aroused the social conscience as never before.

The new national outlook was one which the former expatriates could share. The hearts of many of those who, in their country’s years of success had chosen to leave her, went out to her now in her adversity. They knew themselves Americans, and sensed their destiny from then onward to be part of the American destiny.

This new harmony did not come in a day. For a while America, distressed and anxious, had little time for artists, either for those who had left her, or those who had stayed at home. So the expatriates at first exchanged garrets in Montparnasse for garrets, smaller but more expensive, in Greenwich Village and a score of other accredited artists’ haunts. Presently the rising tide of unemployment submerged most of those who depended for their living on the practice of their art and numberless rentiers besides. Thus a multitude of painters lacked the means to paint, and a large part of the nation’s creative power seemed destined to frustration.

At the eleventh hour salvation came in the guise, unfamiliar to artists, of a series of administrative measures. These were based on the recognition of the right of the citizen to have the beliefs, aspirations, and achievements of his country expressed in pictorial form for all to see; and on the recognition of the value of the artist’s power to give popular expression to these beliefs, aspirations, and achievements, and of the right of the artist to a measure of encouragement from the State, similar to that generally extended to the scholar, the scientist and the farmer. It is a melancholy fact that modern democracy, which has to its credit a long and brilliant succession of triumphs in so many spheres of human activity, has as a patron of art, shown less enlightenment, less generosity, less responsibility, than some of the darkest tyrranies [sic] of the past. Under democracy art had until then flourished as an esoteric cult, a diversion for the well-to-do, and in general, not even a favourite diversion. (The very wealthy have rarely patronized, in modern times, the finest American artists; their princely generosity towards art museums will long be gratefully remembered.)

President Roosevelt’s legislation, which brought into being the Treasury Department‘s Section of Fine Arts and the Federal Art Project, is the only attempt by a modern democratic State to assume responsibilities towards the arts on a scale in any way commensurate with its resources. The way was prepared by the depression, the American artists’ consequent unemployment and change of heart towards their country, and their imperative need for help, for the most momentous body of art legislation in the history of the western world.

I have ventured to repeat facts with which many readers of this magazine will be familiar, and to insist upon the importance of what has often before been praised because I found, to my surprise, a disposition on the part of many thoughtful Americans to question not only the first fruits of this body of legislation (with which it is not difficult to find fault) but with its aims. In particular I recall an article attacking both, which appeared last winter in a New York paper of high standing. The writer is an informed and urbane critic to whose views on art a wide public – including artists themselves – gives ready attention. The article’s theme, trenchantly expressed, was that the art legislation in question was inspired by political considerations, and that the painting and sculpture commissioned in accordance with it were worthless. In private conversation I often heard similar views expressed. One night at dinner in New York I listened to the doubts of cultivated people as to the desirability of a government’s acting as a patron of art. Next day at lunch in Washington I heard a philistine speak glowingly of the people’s hunger for art, for the hell of a lot of art, and of the Administration’s plans to satisfy that hunger. This philistine was a tough (and highly successful) politician, who had never, I gathered, looked at a picture himself. Yet he had, somehow ‘caught on’ to a great conception. I thought his enthusiasm contradictory for a moment, then I remembered how many of the early, fervent advocates of popular education in Great Britain had been men of little education themselves. Anyhow, to-day the distinction between ‘cultivated’ and ‘philistine’ persons has grown hardly less blurred than that between the political ‘left’ and ‘right’. I hope that men like this tough politician are going to play a larger part in shaping the destiny of American art than the seemingly better qualified persons of whom I have spoken. And I believe they will.

For some years, rumours concerning the art policy of the present Administration had filtered across to England, and were listened to eagerly by those who believed that the arts should play an integral part in national life. So when I revisited the United States I was eager to learn what the Administration hoped to accomplish, the scope of its plans, and how the artists were selected. It was largely with a view to finding answers to these questions that I attended ‘The Forty-Eight States Competition,’ at the Corcoran Gallery, Washington, towards the end of last year. As soon as I saw the exhibits I was ashamed of the intellectual curiosity that had brought me there. At once curiosity was lost in pleasure. Some of the work on view, to be sure, showed an almost total want of talent, more showed talent of an average kind. Yet, for all that, ‘The Forty-Eight States Competition’ was one of the most inspiring exhibitions I had seen. What was it that gave to this assembly of studies, mostly by artists whose names were little known outside the confines of their States, and many of them only modestly endowed by nature, this arresting quality? I had regarded art exhibitions as pearl fishers regard oysters: as things unprofitable in themselves but which might contain jewels. But here in the Corcoran Gallery one was not tempted – to vary the metaphor – to search for the roses among the thorns, because it was evident that here was no ordinary rose bush, that these, indeed, were no ordinary thorns. Its unique quality consisted in its being an integral whole, in spite of being composed of paintings by men and women scattered over every part of an immense sub-continent. Even the least study there, gave utterance, however faltering, to what the best so resoundingly proclaimed: that there was a new spirit abroad in America, a spirit by which artists were also moved and willingly expressed in terms which all could understand. This is not the occasion to speak about that spirit, but not the least remarkable thing about it is the impulse it shows to express itself in painting and sculpture. Every shade of the Anglo-Saxon spirit has been reflected in literature, always adequately, often with transcendent splendour but in painting and sculpture how rarely and how faintly in comparison! Truly, Crome, Gainsborough, Constable and Turner gave sublime expression to the Anglo-Saxon love of nature, but in what painting or sculpture do we find, in its plenitude, the spirit of Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, Poe or Whitman? It is not so much that our painters and sculptors have failed to interpret the profoundest intimations of Americans and Englishmen about the world, or of the destiny of our countries, as that they have so rarely made the attempt.

It would be absurd to claim success for the artists represented in the ‘Forty-Eight States Competition’ where Hogarth, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Lawrence, Whistler, Eakins and Ryder failed, but they are, I believe, attempting to interpret with a more conscious purpose their country’s sense of its past, its present, and its future.

In writing about the sweeping changes of the past ten years, I have insisted on the significance of the Administration’s inspiring patronage of the arts because this seems to me to be the spring from which flows the extraordinary vitality now animating American art. I can see none other of comparable importance. There is the momentous example of the work carried out in Mexico by Diego Rivera; there is a great and fructifying influx of artists from abroad. There are, to be sure American painters of outstanding talent who have made reputations without the help of Mr. Roosevelt. But which of these stand highest in the esteem of their fellow artists, and which therefore are most likely to emerge as representative figures, it is very difficult to discover. To the question, which I asked most of the artists I met, as to whom they regarded as the six best painters now at work in the United States, I received a baffling variety of answers. Very rarely did any one name recur.

Great local reputations abound; the most diverse traditions flourish side by side yet without contact. There exists no centre, such as London, where all talent has to run the gauntlet before the assembled critical forces of the nation. Artists are widely distributed over an immense country. It is therefore scarcely possible for the visitor to see American painting clearly, or to see it whole, but I will write a few notes about the painters whose work most impressed me.

Of the older men, none seemed to me to equal John Sloan (b. 1871), who is essentially the painter of the low-life of Victorian, down-town New York. Sloan is a vigorous, scintillating realist, who prefers low, silvery tones, a master of atmosphere and gesture. So close is his affinity with Sickert that I asked whether he knew him. ‘I’ve followed Sickert’s development for many years,’ he said, ‘feeling that we saw things rather alike, but we’ve never met. You see,’ to my surprise, he added, ‘I’ve never been abroad.’

Fig.1 Charles Burchfield, Freight Cars in March 1933

Charles Burchfield
Freight Cars in March 1933
Tate N04833
© reserved

Sloan, a fuller-blooded, less capricious, less sardonic Sickert, belongs to the European tradition, but Charles Burchfield (b. 1893) is unmistakably an American. The art of this remarkable painter is dominated by his passionate attachment to the Ohio countryside where he was born. Frame houses in the rain, tree-margined pools at night, copses and cornfields under the fiery sun he puts swiftly upon paper or canvas, but he subjects them to the same minute and tender scrutiny as the portrait painter subjects the faces that most inspire him. Burchfield is a more dynamic, more various John Nash.

There is no British painter to whom John Carroll (b. 1892) can be compared. This painter once said of the Middle-Western Realist School (of which Grant Wood (b. 1892), Thomas Benton (b. 1889) and J. S. Curry (b. 1897) are the leading figures, and which has a larger following than any other), ‘It gives us a view of American life through a knothole in a backhouse door.’ Nothing, certainly, could be more remote from the robustly if coarsely conceived encomiums and the affectionate satires on life in Kansas and Missouri than Carroll’s ethereal but passionate young girls, who seem rather to have been breathed on to the canvas than drawn or painted – white figures that haunt the memory like people met in dreams.

As Wood, Benton, and Curry take the rural Middle West as their province, Reginald Marsh (b. 1898) takes the teeming various life of Manhattan. Aesthetically Marsh is more ambitious than any of the Middle-Western Painters. Although his work is no less ‘popular’ than theirs, he is not content with their generalizations and their summary forms. Whether his subject is chorus girls in a ‘burlesque,’ or hobos outside a dosshouse, or even a smoke-wreathed locomotive, he shows his awareness of a great tradition of painting.

Paul Cadmus (b. 1904) is another painter of popular New York life, his subjects are toughly vicious where Marsh’s are gay or tragic, and his design and texture are architectural and stony where Marsh’s are fluid.

The Fleet’s In, a painting of sailors disporting themselves ashore, gave him a place among serious painters – and made him notorious. Admiral Hugh Rodman demanded that it should be destroyed. Cadmus has a satanic but compelling vision.

All the above-mentioned painters have established reputations, but I was particularly impressed by the mastery of one entirely unknown painter, a very young man named Symeon Shimin, who is engaged upon a wall painting in the Justice Department Building, in Washington. In this decoration ardent feeling is given expression in a large and noble design. It is the work of an artist with an extraordinary understanding of the potentialities of wall painting.

These six painters have, stylistically, almost nothing in common. A specifically American style has not yet been evolved. One of the most interesting consequences of the Administration’s policy of art patronage is likely to be the evolution, out of what is at present chaos highly charged with life, of a coherent, continental style. Whether it will call great masters into being is another question. It seems likely that in the arts as in other spheres of creation, the American genius, like the mediaeval genius, is adapted rather to tremendous collective achievements than to the studied expression of the individual spirit.