Until the first decade of the 20th century, art, whether drawing, painting, or sculpture, was always essentially pictorial, and was based on themes and compositions representing real world ideas. With the emergence of a new ‘Modernist’ thinking, and with an ever-increasing use of machines in industry and daily life, artists sought new ways to interpret the dynamic changes taking place around them. Modernist art imagery first developed in Europe between 1905 and 1920 on several fronts under a number of names such as Fauvism, Cubism, German Expressionism, Constructivism, de Stijl, Dadaism and Surrealism. American artists studied these new styles and ‘isms’ in Europe and brought them back to the United States. Simultaneously, European artists immigrated to the United States bringing Modernist concepts with them.
As an art historical term, modern refers to a period dating from roughly the 1860s through the 1970s and is used to describe the style as well as the ideology of art produced during that era. Beginning in the 1860s, many artists cast aside the traditional limitations of art and began to depict contemporary life through experimental forms and new mediums. These new attitudes were reinforced by scientific discoveries of the time that seemed to question the solidity of the ‘real’ world and the reliability of perception. Darwin, Freud and quantum physics had undercut the certainties of the 19th century. Understanding ‘reality’ became a far more slippery prospect than it was a generation earlier, and modernists reacted by abandoning intellect for intuition and depicting the world, as they perceived it behind the veil of physical appearance. Part of this progressive Modernist perspective had also resulted from the decreasing number of commissioned paintings by society's elite. These decreases in commissions allowed the development of Modernism because artists were freer to explore their creativity.
The term modernism is used to refer to the art of this ‘modern period’. More specifically, modernism can be thought of as referring to the ‘philosophy’ of ‘modern art’. It is generally acknowledged that Modernism in America did not really have a ‘mainstream’, but rather was a multiplicity of ‘isms’ that embraced a fairly wide variety of styles and expressions originating in different parts of the country. ‘Isms’ such as Post-Impresionism, Fauvism, Cubism, and later Dadaism and Futurism all had somewhat porous boundaries. What tied them together was a desire to break away from the conventions of representational art. Some of the many early American Modernists involved in this new era of experimentation were Robert F. Blum (1857-1903), Arthur Bowen Davies (1862-1928), Charles Demuth (1883-1935), Childe Hassam (1859-1935), John LaFarge (1870_1953), John Marin (1870-1953), Theodore Robinson (1852-1896), Everett Shinn (1876-1953), Abraham Walkowitz (1878-1965).
Most art historians agree that the French artist Edouard Manet (1832-1883) is the first Modernist painter, and that Modernism in art originated in the 1860s. Paintings such as his ‘Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe’ are seen to have ushered in a new era, among the reasons being that its daring subject, a nude woman picnicking with a group of men attired in suits, was so startling. Considered by many to be the first American artist to incorporate European modernist ideas, Alfred Henry Maurer (1868-1932) was influential in introducing the innovations of French artist Henri Matisse, Spaniard Pablo Picasso, and other members of the avant-garde to American painters and sculptors. The avant-garde (a military term meaning "advance-guard") artist, in contrast to those who looked to the past and tradition, consciously rejected tradition. Maurer was deeply influenced by the bold, expressive colors of Matisse and the Fauvists. He later adopted a Cubist style. Some of his strongest images are portraits, usually of two or more people with merged facial features. Maurer never achieved critical or commercial success and killed himself in 1932 after the death of his father, a Currier and Ives illustrator who despised modern art.
Another early leader was Canadian American Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924) who led the way, with his emphasis on color and pattern, to the early American modernists. Prendergast’s style is distinguished by its vivid palette and mosaic brushwork, signaling a growing interest in French contemporaries Cezanne, Matisse, Vuillard, and Bonnard- whose work he studied in Paris during the 1890s. Like his French contemporaries, Prendergast was as interested in patterns as subject matter. Although he exhibited with ‘The Eight’, his work stands apart from their dark depictions of urban existence. Prendergast and those sharing his interests used color to revealed personal reactions to subject. While generally topical, images were often fragmented and rearranged to express emotional states, motion, or speed. These concerns can be related to the American modernists that emerged contemporaneously and flourished thereafter. Highly conceptual early 20th century modernists, such as Polish American Max Weber (1881-1961), Abraham Walkowitz (1878-1965), Stanton MacDonald-Wright (1890-1973), Alfred H. Maurer (1868-1932), Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), Arthur Dove (1880-1946), Italian American Joseph Stella (1877-1946), and Charles Demuth (1883-1935), laid a foundation for complete abstraction.
The Effect of World War I, and A Rejection of Existing Standards
Modernism in visual arts, music, literature, and drama rejected the old Victorian standards of how art should be made, consumed, and what it should mean. In the period of "high modernism," from around 1910 to 1930, The term modernism refers to the radical shift in aesthetic and cultural sensibilities evident in the art and literature of the post-World War I period. The ordered, stable and inherently ‘meaningful’ worldview of the nineteenth century could not, wrote T.S. Eliot, accord with “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history."
Around 1910, just as the automobile and airplane were beginning to accelerate the pace of human life, and Einstein's ideas were transforming our perception of the universe, there was an explosion of innovation and creative energy that shook every field of artistic endeavor. Artists from all over the world converged on London, Paris, and other great cities of Europe to join in the ferment of some of the above-mentioned new ideas and movements: Cubism, Constructivism, Futurism, Acmeism, and Imagism were among the many banners under which the new artists grouped themselves. It was an era when major artists were fundamentally questioning and reinventing their art forms: Matisse and Picasso in painting, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein in literature, Isadora Duncan in dance, Igor Stravinsky in music, and Frank Lloyd Wright in architecture.
The excitement, however, came to a terrible climax in 1914 with the start of the First World War, which wiped out a generation of young men in Europe, catapulted Russia into a catastrophic revolution, and sowed the seeds for even worse conflagrations in the decades to follow. By the war's end in 1918, the centuries old European domination of the world had ended, and the "American Century" had begun. For artists and many others in Europe, it was a time of profound disillusion with the values on which a whole civilization had been founded. Modernism thus marks a distinctive break with Victorian bourgeois morality; rejecting nineteenth-century optimism, they presented a profoundly pessimistic picture of a culture in disarray.
American artists were, at first, hostile to European art forms, but particularly after a large and now famous exhibit, The Armory Show, in February 1913 at the Armory of the Infantry in New York City, American artists opened up to new styles and techniques. Free of restraint, they created a variety of idealistic new styles over the next century, including such approaches as Constructivism, Surrealism, Pop Art, and Minimalism.
The Modernist seed was nourished in coming years by the flood of European artists that came to the United States at the onset of World War I. Following the war, fatigued by its horrors, artists and intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic looked to the New World for fresh ideas and inspiration. What attracted them was the vibrancy of American society its industry and technology, jazzy music, and glamorous movies. For example, to Joseph Stella, a Southern Italian immigrant, the Brooklyn Bridge ‘was a shrine containing all the efforts of the new civilization of America. He painted the bridge many times, but perhaps never more exuberantly than in The Brooklyn Bridge (The Bridge), the final canvas in a five-panel tribute to his adopted city of New York. It’s no accident that the work is presented in a format typical of Italian altarpieces, or that its luminous colors recall stained-glass windows. To him, technology was a new religion, the bridge a sacred icon.
Red, yellow and blue rectangles and squares contained by thick black lines, or on a distinctly white background, is De Stijl, as many know it. The De Stijl art movement of 1917 to 1931 included paintings, architecture, furniture, and graphic design, and was based on the idea, or rather the principle, of absolute abstraction, the elimination of all representational images, to be replaced by straight lines, right angles, and the three primary colors. As the movement developed, it became not just a style but also a lifestyle. At the center of the founding of De Stijl in 1917 were its driving force, Theo van Doesburg, three painters (Piet Mondrian, Bart Van der Leck, and Vilmos Huszar), three architects (Jan Wils, Robert van’t Hoff and Gerrit Rietveld), a sculptor (Georges Vantongerloo), and poet Antony Kok. Most signed their names to a manifesto called The Style”, (1918) as proof that they had one dream, one belief and one goal and they were ready to present their worldly solution to post world chaos, which would enable mankind to develop a controllable lifestyle in a post-war world. This lifestyle was De Stijl. Based in the Netherlands, De Stijl art was first influenced by its surrounding landscape. The Dutch landscape with its perfectly rectangular fields and straight roads and canals directly influenced the De Stijl group into sharing the same goal: human control over the forces of nature. Just like the Dutch landscape, De Stijl art strove to show control and order in a world driven by the hatred and disruption of war on the outside, rather than focused from the harmony within our own selves. De Stijl also influenced such movements as International Modern Style and Cubism and has been said to have “pushed cubism to a pure geometric art”
Postimpressionism is a term coined by British art critic Roger Fry to refer to a group of nineteenth-century painters, including Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin, who were dissatisfied with the limitations of expressionism. It has since been used to refer to various reactions against impressionism, such as Fauvism and Expressionism. Post-Impressionism was an important experimental link in the chain of modern art leading from Impressionism to later styles such as Fauvism and Cubism. In European art it denotes the style of a number of otherwise unrelated artists working between 1880 and 1906. They were concerned with Impressionism's dissolution of form and attempted, through further experiments, to reinvest substance and meaning into painting. The form of these experiments varied with the goals of the individual artists. Subjectivity and pictorial surface were emphasized at the expense of illusion, for Impressionism had demonstrated that realistic representation of nature was no longer a necessary or sufficient goal in a painting. Some artists attempted to reinvest meaning by using more intense, brighter or more contrasting colors, as well as outline. They also experimented with the psychological properties of impasto and brushwork. Subject matter changed from Impressionism's sunny, positive landscapes and its interest in portraying the upper classes at leisure to, if not social protest, at least the presentation of the common man. Sometimes esoteric, historical, mystical or religious imagery was incorporated. Artists turned from plein air painting, made popular by the Impressionists, back to working in the studio.
America had relatively few significant Post-Impressionists. Unlike the equally revolutionary style of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism's negative, unattractive or esoteric subject matter did not elicit the patronage of collectors, and its subjectivity and experimental nature didn’t appeal to large numbers of artists.
If Post-Impressionism means experimentation beyond Impressionism, then some of its earliest experimenters and practitioners may be found in the Art Students' League of Los Angeles. Early cityscapes by Stanton MacDonald-Wright (1890-1973) painted in bright, bold colors. Val Costello's (1875-1937) landscapes and blurred figure studies, as well as Rex Slinkard's (1887-1918) softly toned, broadly handled figural subjects might be considered post-impressionistic. Clarence Hinkle is quite decidedly a Post-Impressionist. Other Southern California artists who qualify as Post-Impressionists formed the first group titled "modernists." Arriving in the mid-1920's, they had an interest in bright colors or treating solid forms on a two-dimensional surface. Among these artists are Henrietta Shore (d. 1963), Helena Dunlap, Meta Cressey (1882-1964) and Edouard Vysekal (1890-1939). Cressey's Toys at Rest, (private collection), c. 1918, is a prime example of the return to substantive form and color. Conrad Buff (1886-1975), who constructed massive three-dimensional geographic features with pin-like strokes, has much in common with French Post-Impressionists such as Seurat.
Fauvism, French Fauvisme, was a style of painting that flourished in France from 1898 to 1908 and used pure, brilliant color, applied straight from the paint tubes in an aggressive, direct manner to create a sense of an explosion on the canvas. The Fauves painted directly from nature as the Impressionists had before them, but their works were invested with a strong expressive reaction to the subjects they painted. First formally exhibited in Paris in 1905, Fauvist paintings shocked visitors to the Salon d'Automne, an annual show that had been controversial at its start because there already existed many traditional art exhibitions, but later it was to become very fashionable. One of these visitors was the critic Louis Vauxcelles, who, because of the violence of their works, dubbed the painters "Les Fauves" (Wild Beasts). The leader of the group was Henri Matisse. Not to be confused with parallel art movements such as Post-Impressionism, German Expressionism, Cubism and Futurism, the salient tenets that engender Fauvism are the construction of space with bright color, vigorous brushwork, planar configurations, and the simplification of form.
The first important American artist to be directly involved in the Salon d'Automne of 1905 was Alfred H. Maurer (1868-1932), a frequent visitor to the Gertrude and Leo Stein household in Paris. His extraordinary "Fauve Nude" was executed in 1906 shortly after the revolutionary 1905 Salon. This female nude with its brilliant coloration and slashing brushwork is typical of the Fauves and is reminiscent in its painterly handling to Matisse's "Portrait of Madame Matisse (The Green Line)" created in 1905. "Fauve Nude" is a pivotal work for Maurer as it reveals the artist's unequivocal abandonment of his earlier style of painting in the vein of William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) and James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) for the expressiveness of Matisse. The work is significant as an example of one of the first American artists to effect drastic change in his aesthetic as a result of head-on exposure to Matisse's art.
Morgan Russell (1886-1953) met Leo and Gertrude Stein in 1908 on his second trip to Paris and through them he was introduced to Matisse. Another American Fauvist was Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) who depicted the countryside around Doylestown, Penn., where the artist spent weekends in a farmhouse retreat shared with fellow avant-garde painter Morton Livingston Schamberg (1881-1918). The vivid impastoed paint of one of his expressive landscapes secured its inclusion in the Armory Show of 1913.
Expatriate painter Anne Estelle Rice arrived in Paris in 1905, and quickly synthesized a Fauve-related variant into her pictures. Rice's interest in Fauve painter Andre Derain is exemplified in the work entitled "Ajaccio, Corse".