The American Renaissance 1876-1917


The Brooklyn Museum * Distributed by Pantheon Books, New York 1979 * Part I by Richard Guy Wilson





Expressions of Identity 


(left) FIG. 3: Infant Bacchus, circa 1880. John La Farge (1835-1910). Stained glass window; 226.5 x 114.0 cm. (89 1/8 x 44 7/8 in.). From the Kidder house, Beverly, Massachusetts. COLLECTION: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, Gift of W.B. Thomas.

(above) FIG. 4 Soldiers' and Sailors' Memorial Arch, Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn, New York, 1889-1892. John H. Duncan (1855-1929), and McKim, Mead and White, architects. Sculpture: (top) Quadriga, 1898,(south pedestals) Army and Navy, 1901, by Frederick MacMonnies (1863-1937); Bas-reliefs: (inside arch) Lincoln,1895, by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916); Grant, 1895, by William O'Donovan. COLLECTION/PHOTO: The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

How men perceive themselves influences what they see and how they create their surroundings. A people or a nation may identify or locate themselves in a variety of conceptual molds: particular religious or philosophical dogmas, the natural landscape, the existential here and now, or an epoch of the historic past. For Americans, the preoccupation with national identity has produced a varied body of commentary, literature, and art containing both superficial and profound statements on the nature of American culture. Typically, periods of intense physical and social change have led to alternating visions of the American experience. And while many periods can be pointed to, the era of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has produced some of the more diverse expressions of American art. Here, within the same space-time continuum, exist the low-slung Prairie houses of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Renaissance palazzos of McKim, Mead and White; the futuristic compositions of Joseph Stella and the tradition-laden paintings of Kenyon Cox; the simplified oak furniture of Gustav Stickley and the Colonial Revival highbacks of A. H. Davenport. The visual and philosophical differences in these works have been viewed as representing on one side a nativistic, modern-oriented spirit, and on the other side, a conservative-academic viewpoint tied to stultified Old World traditions. Later generations have easily grasped the modern work, while the conservative work has been viewed as an anachronism caught in the web of the past and having little if any relation to American civilization and identity.

Yet the conservative, largely European-oriented art had an impact in its time; overwhelmingly popular, the art projected an image of culture and civilization that many people approved of. Partaking of the air of genteel idealism and higher service, the art also gave a sense of release from the stuffy confines of Victorianism. An art and architecture of superb craftsman- ship was produced, one of wealth with tinges of exoticism that delighted in ornamental richness for its own sake. Investigation of the art and the surrounding corpus of literature and activity indicates that many people felt it implied a special connection with the grand traditions of history representing what they identified as the "American Renaissance."1

The term "American Renaissance" concerns the identification by many Americans-painters, sculptors, architects, craftsmen, scholars, collectors, politicians, financeers, and industrialists-with the period of the European Renaissance and the feeling that the Renaissance spirit had been captured again in the United States. Concurrently, the Italian Renaissance (1420-1580) came into focus through the work of scholars and provided initial identification for many Americans. This was the Renaissance with a capital R. In time, other Renaissance manifestations were admired and seen as providing important models: France and England of the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, America in the formative years of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and other countries, including the original sources for the Renaissance, Greece and Rome.

Analogies with the Renaissance were obvious. The American robber baron had been preceded by the Italian and French merchant princes.2Artists found an affinity with the Renaissance, identifying each other in terms such as "Old Master" or with personalities such as Bramante and Benvenuto Cellini.3Many aspired to the Renaissance example: Stanford White designed buildings, magazine covers, jewelry, furniture, and picture frames; John La Farge painted, wrote art criticism and history, and designed stained-glass windows (Fig. 3) and interiors; Charles Adams Platt was an architect, landscape architect, painter, and etcher. The collaboration between architects, painters, sculptors, decorators, and landscape architects in world's fairs, public buildings, and city plans received confirmation by the example of the artistic unity in High Renaissance Rome. To some, the periods were comparable. Augustus Saint-Gaudens exclaimed after the initial planning session of the World's Columbian Exposition: "This is the greatest meeting of artists since the fifteenth century!"4The painter Theodore Robinson claimed that many of his comrades "persuaded themselves for a year or so that the days of the Italian Renaissance were revived on Manhattan Island."5The past spoke to today claimed Bernard Berenson, a Boston-educated boy soon to become the world authority on Renaissance art, who wrote in his first book: "We ourselves, because of our faith in science and the power of work, are instinctively in sympathy with the Renaissance.... the spirit which animates us was anticipated by the spirit of the Renaissance, and more than anticipated. That spirit seems like the small rough model after which ours is being fashioned."6

According to the ideas of the American Renaissance, the art of the past could provide useful sources for the development of a national American art. While the reliance on sources or authority would be important, what would be produced would be a unique American art; it would be tied together not only by styles, but also by a unity of tradition and approach. Senator James McMillan, the "father" of the 1901-1902 Senate Parks Commission Plan for Washington, D.C., predicted the future of governmental architecture: "It is the general opinion that for monumental work, Greece and Rome furnish the styles of architecture best adapted to serve the manifold wants of today, not only as to beauty and dignity, but as to utility."7To this end the American Academy in Rome was founded. Charles F. McKim, one of the prime leaders of the school, felt that just as other countries had gone to Rome to learn "the splendid standards of Classic and Renaissance art," so must Americans, and he added, "I pity the artist who does not feel humbled before its splendid examples of art."8But ultimately a new art resulted, for, as John La Farge claimed in speaking about the Academy: "We are going to be established in Rome.... This is in itself a statement that we too are rivals of all that has been done, and intend to rival all that shall be done, and we can then feel that the old cycle is closed and that a new one has begun."9

The American Renaissance, by both definition and action, was intensely nationalistic. It appropriated images and symbols of past civilizations and used them to create a magnificent American pageant. America became the culmination of history for an age that believed in progress. Prime Minister William Gladstone of England noted: "Europe may already see in North America an immediate successor in the march of civilization."10The civilization envisaged for America was a public life, one of the street, the park, the square, or the mall, of large monuments, memorials, and public buildings in the eternal style, adorned with murals and sculptures personifying heroes and symbolizing virtue and enterprise. Several commentators of the period claimed the United States needed a national Valhalla, and in a sense this was attempted with the great arch in Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn (Fig. 4), the projected "Pantheon" of national heroes in Washington, D.C., or the Hall of Fame at New York University.11The projected vision could be caught in a variety of places-ascending the stairs at the new Library of Congress, strolling on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, or visiting any of the dream cities of the great expositions that dotted the American land- scape in these years: Buffalo, Saint Louis, San Francisco (Fig. 5), and others. Walking among the lagoons of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, one could find a Viking ship (Fig. 6) lying next to backdrops of Imperial Rome, Renaissance Florence, Bourbon Paris, and the Far East. Literally all the history of mankind lay at the fingertips of Americans.

FIG. 7 Theodore Roosevelt, 1902. John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). Oil on canvas; 147.4 x 101.0 cm. (581/s x 393/4 in.). COLLECTION: The White House, Washington, D.C.

FIG. 8 Columbia and Cuba, a study for a magazine cover, circa 1898. Kenyon Cox (1856-1919). Pencil on paper; 31.8 x 20.3 cm. (121/2 x 8 in.). COLLECTION: The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
FIG. 5 Arch of the Rising Sun from the Court of the Universe, Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco,1915. McKim, Mead and White, architects. Rendering by Jules Guerin (1866-1946). Watercolor on paper; 101.6 x 96.5 cm. (40 x 38 in.). COLLECTION: San Francisco Public Library, California. PHOTO: Schopplein Studio.

FIG. 6 Viking ship with Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building in background, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893. Charles Dudley Arnold (b. 1844), photographer. COLLECTION: Avery Library, Columbia University, New York City.

The American Renaissance can also be viewed as an imperialistic expression of American culture, not only in the appropriation of forms and symbols from foreign cultures, but also in the creation of the American empire. The Spanish-American War (Fig. 8), the Big Stick of Teddy Roosevelt (Fig. 7), the White Fleet (Fig. 9), the Panama Canal, the Latin American adventures of Woodrow Wilson, are all part of the breastthumping spirit that could move the architect Stanford White, when reproached for importing so many art treasures to decorate homes, to claim: "In the past, dominant nations had always plundered works of art from their predecessors; . . . America was taking a leading place among nations and had, therefore, the right to obtain art wherever -she could." 12

FIG. 9 Return of the Conquerors, September 29, 1899. Edward Moran (1829-1901). Oil on canvas; 91.4 x 137.2 cm. (36 x 54 in.). COLLECTION: U.S. Naval Academy Museum, Annapolis, Maryland. FIG. 10 Panorama, Court of Honor of the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago 1893. COLLECTION: Avery Library, Columbia University, New York City.

The American Renaissance was by nature an art and architecture of capitalism, and this it celebrated publicly and privately. The American Medici spent their time in Italian palazzos for city homes and clubs, Georgian mansions for suburban homes, and French chateaux for resort and country cottages. A setting of aesthetic leisure was orchestrated, one of confidence and complacency. With proper means, the American could escape either physically or vicariously into a world of impressionistic pastels inhabited by thin elegant virgins wrapped in diaphanous gowns seated in front of exedras. The money came from the exploitation of the coal miner in Coketown and the seamstress in Hell's Kitchen who helped to pay for Mr. Morgan's library and the City Beautiful visions commissioned by many businessmen's organizations. Patronage was especially the prerogative of the very rich. The Vanderbilt family, railroad and real estate entrepreneurs, were the quintessential patrons in the years 1876 to 1917, constructing a sequence of at least seventeen large houses, several of which cost in excess of $1,000,000, and at least one, Biltmore at Asheville, North Carolina, that cost $5,000,000. Society and wealth found an outlet in the vision of an American Renaissance, and among its patrons were the Astors, the Whitneys, the Morgans, the Goelets, the Rockefellers, the Fricks, the McCormicks, and others.

Fig. 11 The Arts, 1895-1896, a mural in the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Kenyon Cox (1856-1919). Oil on canvass; 2.9 x 10.4 m. (9 1/2 x 34 ft). Collection: The Library of Congress.

FIG. 12 Twenty-dollar gold piece, Liberty side, 1907 Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907). Diameter 3.2 cm. (11/4 in.). COLLECTION: American Numismatic Society, New York City. FIG. 13 Design for a one-hundred-dollar bill, 1912. Kenyon Cox (1856-1919). Pencil on paper; 30.1 x 45.7 cm. (117/s x 18 in.). COLLECTION: The Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio, Gift of J. D. Cox.

The artist played a leading role. He could provide a setting of leisured elegance bearing the patina of class and taste for people who were frequently one generation removed from overalls and shovel. Fittingly, the artist designed the currency of capitalism -Augustus Saint-Gaudens did the ten and twenty-dollar gold pieces (Fig. 12), James E. Fraser did the Buffalo nickel, Victor D. Brenner did the Lincoln penny, Adolph Weinman did the Liberty dime, and Kenyon Cox did one-hundred-dollar bills (Fig. 13). The artist did not play an avant-garde role, rebelling against society and the inequalities of wealth. Rather, he became part of the elite, and Stanford White, John Singer Sargent, and Edith Wharton stare out from the photographs of costume balls, the opening ofTosca, and twelve-course dinners.

Integral to the elitism was a spirit ofnoblesse obligethat found a release in the grand public gestures of the American Renaissance. The period saw the foundation of many of America's major cultural institutions: libraries, museums, orchestras, operas, and universities. These were founded by the wealthy through direct gifts and philanthropic organizations. The large European Old Master holdings of many art museums were tied directly to both a vision of America equaling the Old World in artistic property and to the pillaging activities of Bernard Berenson, Stanford White, and others. Reform and the City Beautiful movement interlocked; the same individuals promoted educating the immigrant and beautifying elevated railroad sta- tions. Messages of patriotism and citizenship were implicit in all of the public art and architecture. Frequently funded by the wealthy, the gestures can be interpreted cynically as a subterfuge by the elite to patronize the masses or idealistically as an acknowledgment of wealth's responsibilities.13

FIG. 14 Chicago, View looking west of the proposed civic center plaza and buildings, showing it as the center of the system of arteries of circulation and of the surrounding country. From the plan of the city of Chicago, 1909
Fig. 15 The Boston Public Library, 1187-1895. McKim, Mead and White, architects.
FIG. 16 Entrance, The Boston Public Library, 1887-1895. McKim, Mead and White, architects.

In civic art-the City Beautiful movement-can be found a culmination of the aspirations of the American Renaissance impulse. The roots of the City Beautiful movement can be traced back to mid-century and the various park and sanitary commissions, but it was in the 1890s that the dual influences of the period's expositions and various reform movements crystallized a new sense of civic grandeur. The appeal in its widest bounds was "to bring order out of the chaos."14Across the country, municipal art leagues, civic improvement associations, and city art commissions were formed that combined the talents of businessmen, architects, artists, and the new professions of city planner and administrator. The movement followed the United States flag overseas to the new colony of the Philippines, where Daniel H. Burnham and Edward H. Bennett produced plans for Manila and the new capital at Baguio. Burnham and Bennett's plan for Chicago, 1906-1909, is certainly the best known and one of the most comprehensive of the City Beautiful plans (Fig. 14). The impressionistic renderings by Jules Guerin and Fernand Janin turn grubby commercial Chicago into Parisian boulevards and Venetian lagoons. Consummating the City Beautiful movement was Congress's establishment of the Commission of Fine Arts in 1910 to guide the development of Washington, D.C., and to carry forward the work of Senator James McMillan's Park Commission of 1901-1902 (Fig. 49).

FIG. 17 Delivery room, The Boston Public Library, 1887-1895. McKim, Mead and White, architects.

The large civic beautification and decorative schemes were portrayed as quintessentially "American and democratic."15Will Low, a leading muralist, claimed that "every American artist ... should be born with a missionary spirit," and with all seriousness wrote that the White City of Chicago represented "a realization that art of the people, for the people had come to us." 11 In the large public building with a comprehensive decorative scheme, the American identity was found; or as Edwin Blashfield, another muralist, wrote: "The names of public buildings are the century-marks of the ages. . . . wherever the footprints of the spirit of civilization have rested most firmly some milestone of human progress has risen to be called the Parthenon or Notre Dame, Giotto's Tower or Louvre, and to teach from within and without, by proportion and scale, by picture and statue, the history of the people who build it; to celebrate patriotism, inculcate morals, and to stand as the visible concrete symbol of high endeavor."17

In buildings such as The Boston Public Library (1887-1895; Fig. 15), can be grasped most firmly the aspirations of the American Renaissance. Financed with public funds but supported by the cultural and economic elite of Boston, the building, in their eyes and the eyes of its creator, Charles McKim, ranked on a par with any of the great monuments of the past. Built in the form of a large Renaissance palazzo, the calm form and light pink Milford granite exterior contrast with the dark colors and excited picturesqueness of its neighbors. Encrusted with fragments and memories of European origins, the building stands aloof and withdrawn, a sanctum of idealism against the clamor of Copley Square. To Ernest Fenollosa, the library was "the veritable Assisi of American art."19At the entrance, twin statues by Bela Pratt personifying Science and Art guard the main doors. Above the central portal is the seal of the library, designed by Kenyon Cox and carved by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Also in the center, carved into the belt course and the frieze are the phrases: "Free to All" and "Built by the People and Dedicated to the Advancement of Learning" (Fig. 16). On the inside, an elaborate spatial and decorative sequence contains statues and memorials of heroes and patriots by Louis Saint-Gaudens and Frederick MacMonnies and murals by artists such as Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (Spirit of Light), Edwin Austin Abbey (The Quest of the Holy Grail; Fig. 17), and John Singer Sargent (The World's Religions). Rich marbles, ceiling paintings in the Venetian and Pompeiian styles, bronze doors by Daniel Chester French, the noble spaces, the stairhall, the courtyard, and the great reading room across the front give the message that this is not merely a building for housing books, but a ritualistic center of civilization.


Expressions of Identity 



(left) FIG. 25 Minute Man, 1871-1875, Concord, Massachusetts. Daniel Chester French (1850-1931). Bronze; statue height 213.3 cm. (84 in.).COLLECTION/PHOTO: The Library of Congress, Washington, D. C. FIG. 26 Puritans Going to Church, 1867. George H. Boughton (1833-1905). Oil on canvas; 35.9 x 63.8 cm. (141/8 x 251/8 in.). COLLECTION: The Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, Gift of Florence Scott Libbey.

The physical and social changes, the new nationalism, the genteel tradition, and cosmopolitanism were cultural conditions that prepared the way for the American Renaissance, but it was a new sense of history that most directly formed the mental set of the American Renaissance. One element of American mythology has always been the American Adam stepping ashore at Jamestown or Plymouth without a past. Alternatively, there were those Americans who, from the very beginning, attempted to record and preserve selected aspects of the past. In the 1870s a change took place, and Americans discovered that history did not mean the far distant Holy Land, Greece, Rome, local geneology, and a few selected Revolutionary heroes, but that a more immediate past existed in both European and American history.

Discovery of the concept of the Renaissance as a historical-cultural event occurred in the mid and later nineteenth century. The word "Renaissance," referring to the Italian revival of classic antiquity in art, architecture, and letters in the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries, first came into English usage in the 1840s.1For many English commentators and artists attracted by the Middle Ages, and especially the Gothic past, the classical Renaissance was an anathema, a modern revival of paganism. John Ruskin and his disciples of the 1850s and 1860s such as James Jackson Jarves, Charles Eliot Norton, and Russell Sturgis led the way. While Ruskin could admit a small amount of genius in the Pre-Raphaelite Renaissance, in his view the high point of culture and civilization occurred in late medieval Venice and Pisa.

Beginning in the 1870s, books and articles appeared that viewed the Renaissance period in a positive light and set in motion the American infatuation with it. Several books were of particular importance: two by Englishmen, Walter Pater's Studies in theHistory of the Renaissance(1873) and John Addington Symonds'sThe Renaissance in Italy, The Fine Arts(1877; the third volume of a five-part work), and two by the Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt,The Cicerone: A Guide to the Works of Art in Italy(1873; originally published in German in 1855) andThe Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy(1878; originally published in German in 1860).2Unifying the different approaches was the theme that a high point of Western civilization, especially in the arts, occurred in Italy during the Renaissance. American reaction in general was positive; a reviewer of Symonds claimed that the "mark" of the Renaissance could be found not only in Italy "but upon the productions of the whole Western World" and that the artistic force of Greece, which Symonds saw as the generating element of the Renaissance, "is travelling onward with ever-increasing vigor along a path which is constantly tending upwards, but whose end is lost in the dim distance of the future."3A reviewer of Burckhardt for theNew York Heraldclaimed: "We are children of the Renaissance. And not only are we children of the Renaissance, but as Burckhardt truly says the influence of that mother age is still at work among us."4

Other publications appeared in the late 1870s, the 1880s, and the 1890s that further served to bring the Renaissance into perspective. In popular magazines such as Scribner's, there were articles on pictures of the French Renaissance, Savonarola, Leonardo da Vinci, and others.5Former medievalists and followers of Ruskin frequently reoriented their assessment of the Renaissance. Charles C. Perkins, a Bostonian and prolific writer on the arts, published in 1878Raphael and Michelangelo: A Critical and Biographical Essay, and then in 1883,Historical Handbook of Italian Sculpture. William James Stillman, the editor of the very Ruskinian art journal The Crayon (1855-1861) and a personal friend of the master, became less enamored in his later years and wrote on the importance of the Renaissance. ForThe Century MagazineStillman prepared notes to accompany a series of engravings by Timothy Cole that were later published under the titleOld Italian Masters(1892). At. Yale University, James M. Hoppin, an avowed "true disciple" of Ruskin, felt the need to correct him and claimed: "The Early Renaissance [of Florence, 1420-1500] may be compared to morning after night-the night of bar-barism, ignorance and intellectual bondage."6

Simultaneous with the discovery of the Renaissance by historian and critics, American artists who had been studying at various European academies returned with new knowledge. Italy had earlier been a popular spot for work by American artists, but mainly for the poetry of ruina and atmosphere, not for any concentrated, intense study of the Renaissance: period. The generation of American artists that returned home in the 1870s and 1880s learned about the Renaissance through art schools in Dusseldorf Munich, The Hague, and Paris. Differences existed between the academies between instructors, and certainly students absorbed and carried away different emphases. In general, however, most of the academies saw the fountainhead of modern art as the Florence and Rome of the Renaissance. Hence the various prizes and the national academies in Rome.

Paris and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts were the most popular places to study, and there American students were exposed to the architecture of the Italian Renaissance through the lavishenvoidrawings ofPrix de Romewin- ners or the accurate steel plate renderings of elevations and details of the Palazzo Cancelleria in Paul Marie Letarouilly'sEdifices de Rome moderne(1840-1857) or the Pitti Palace in Auguste Grandjean de Montigny'sArchitecture Toscaine(1815). Augustus Saint-Gaudens studied in the atelier of Fran~ois Jouffroy, who led the movement away from cold neoclassicalism to the naturalism of the Italian Renaissance. Painters such as Walter Gay Henry O. Walker, and Edwin H. Blashfield studied in the atelier of Leon Bonnat, who in his salon pictures openly quoted from Velazquez and Michelangelo. Jean Leon Gerflme, known for convincing historical illustra- tion, attracted the largest contingent: Kenyon Cox, Thomas Eakins, Abbott Thayer, George de Forest Brush, Robert Blum, and others.

Not every American artist and architect studied on the continent, and in England a sizable group paused-at least briefly-and discovered the Renaissance. The Pre-Raphaelite movement and its successor, the Aesthetic movement, were important in awakening Americans to the art of decoration and also in directing them towards their own Colonial past and ultimately to the Italian Renaissance. Painters such as Frederic Leighton, Alma-Tadema, Edward John Poynter, and Albert Moore exploited Greek and Roman motifs in their work. The vast decorative program and historical paintings for the Houses of Parliament, even though stylistically different, undoubtedly helped inspire American visitors. Some chose to stay, and among the American colony were Francis Millet, Edwin Austin Abbey, John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, and George H. Boughton.

Concurrent with the discovery of the Renaissance, Americans found another past: their own of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. To most Americans, even the highly educated, American history had meant ancestor worship, a few heroes (George Washington mainly), and the explorers. Other aspects of the past were a blank. Beginning in the 1870s, however, Americans discovered their past. This discovery can be traced to several causes: the burgeoning nationalism, the genteel concern that a lack of history meant decadence, and finally the year 1876. At the Centennial celebration in Philadelphia, Americans saw not only curiosities such as Washington's false teeth, but eighteenth-century portraits, a survey of American painting, an "Old New England Kitchen" (a log cabin), antique spinning wheels, and Queen Anne chairs. Other aspects of the inquiry into the American past took the form of articles inHarper'sandScribner'son life, battles, and towns in the eighteenth century; serious scholarship such as Moses Coit Tyler's books on early American literature; S.W.G. Benjamin's on early portraitists; andThe Magazine of American History(1877-1893).7

Artists and architects also participated in this rite of self-discovery: they created in wood, paint, stone, and bronze images by which Americans could identify themselves. One of the first and certainly the best known of the patriotic symbols was Daniel Chester French'sMinute Man, unveiled in 1875 (Fig. 25). The work was based at least in part upon the antique statueApollo Belvedere, and French invested his work with emblems of peace and war; the plow and the gun. 8 Simultaneously, Charles F. McKim commissioned the first photographic record of Colonial architecture and produced the first example of the Colonial Revival in the remodeling of the Robinson house in Newport, Rhode Island. The value of studying the Colonial past was noted by many architects, such as Robert S. Peabody, who in 1877 rather rhetorically asked: "With our Centennial year have we not discovered that we have a past worthy of study?" 9 Painters responded to the increased historical sensibility with iconic visions. Monumentality exists with accuracy of detail in paintings such as George Boughton'sPuritans Going to Church(1867; Fig. 26) and Thomas Eakins'sWilliam Rush Carving the Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River(1877). Another vital expression came through the illustrators for the popular periodicals, such as Edwin Austin Abbey and Howard Pyle, who would soon emerge as leading history painters.

FIG. 27 Admiral David Glasgow Farragut Memorial, Madison Square Park, New York City, 1877-1881. Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907). Design of base by Stanford White (1853-1906). Bronze and granite. PHOTO: Bob Zucker.

The monumentalization and memorialization of the American Colonial and Revolutionary past increased in force in the succeeding decades; and in the 1880s the Civil War, too, entered the realm of history. Time had softened many of the brutal memories and had begun to claim many of the survivors of the carnage. The conflict was viewed in a new light, as the acting out of archetypal themes of brother versus brother, of ritualistic initiations under fire, of badges of courage and manhood. For the United States, it secured admission into a pantheon of nations possessing a stock of noble themes. Augustus Saint-Gaudens's Admiral Farragut Memorial in Madison Square Park, New York City (1877-1881; Fig. 27), set the stage with a simplified naturalism learned from fifteenth-century Florentine sculpture. Caught in a moment of action on the bridge of his ship with the wind tugging at his coat, Farragut transcends the place and action with his expression and carriage to become a symbol of stoic heroism and commitment. The pedestal designed by Stanford White and the carvings by Saint-Gaudens explicitly refer to the Renaissance in the calligraphy, the emblems, and the twin semireclining figures personifying Courage and Loyalty.

As the War Between the States passed into history, grand army plazas, soldiers' and sailors' monuments, memorials to regiments, tombs, and statues of leaders and heroes became omnipresent. Both leaders and foot soldiers were recognized, and in Saint-Gaudens's monument to Colonel Robert Shaw in Boston, the black soldier's contribution was memorialized.

The South began to remember its version of the conflict. In 1890 an eques- trian statue of Robert E. Lee (Fig. 28) by the French sculptor Jean A. Mercie (a fellow student and a friend of Saint-Gaudens's from the atelier Jouffroy) was unveiled in Richmond, Virginia, on a square that became the head of Monument Avenue, a grand boulevard punctuated with statues to other members of the Lost Cause.10

FIG. 28 Robert E. Lee Monument, Richmond, VA 1890. Jean A. Mercie (1845-1916).

Seeking symbols for American civilization, artists and architects natu- rally fastened on the Renaissance and the classic past; a historical symbiosis existed. The origins of American Georgian and Early Republican architec ture lay not just in England but in Rome and the Renaissance. Senator James McMillan noted that the Capitol and the Treasury Department's headquarters were "in the classical style of architecture" and should serve as a precedent for the twentieth century. "All great art borrows from the Past," McMillan claimed, and he explained: "In architecture, the work of the individual is confined mainly to adapting to the conditions of his particular problem forms that have already been perfected."11Joy Wheeler Dow, an architect and writer, advanced a similar argument in his appropriately titled book,American Renaissance(1904): "We want to belong somewhere and to something, not to be entirely cut off by ourselves as stray atoms." To Dow, Renaissance architecture meant all styles, including local variations such as American Georgian, Greek Revival, and Federal, that could be traced back to the Old World. All countries had drawn on the same source. Dow said of Richard Morris Hunt's Biltmore: "We call Biltmore French Renaissance now; it will be American Renaissance later on."12

Many artists attempted to use the iconography of the classic past in their American works, since ideal art required a universal language. Will Low, the muralist, indicated the frustrations when he said: "I am almost as tired of the 'early settlers' as I am of 'Justice', 'Science', and 'Art': but there is a rich field in the myths and history which we have inherited in common with all the modern world."13To Kenyon Cox, American history was too short and "unfitted" and "modern costume [too] formless and ugly" to be a part of ideal art.14A similar resentment was expressed by Augustus Saint- Gaudens, working on the Farragut in Rome: "It gives me a curious mixture (to see all these glories of the 'Renaissance') of a wish to do something good and of the hopelessness of it-what artists they were-'They weren't any- thing else.' I've been pegging away at my Farragut, but it's a hard 'tug' with our infernal modern dress -I only have the cap, sword, belt and buttons- and the resource of trying to strike away from the stuff we have in America."15

Edwin Blashfield reconciled American subject matter with the ideal by proclaiming that the conflict was bogus, that all art "is at one and the same time realistic and idealistic." Symbolic figures, drawn realistically, "like nature," could be idealistic if "informed with a sense of beauty." They received their identity by emblems, and if thepickelhaube, or the spiked helmet, meant Germany and the Phrygian liberty cap represented France, then one could "Americanize a figure with the Union Shield." Blashfield went on to claim: "The Attributes and the Graces have not settled by the Seine or the Rhine; the Muse is just as willing to take up the Lyre at Concord or Cambridge as at Florence or by the Fountain of Valcluse."16

FIG. 29 Washington Laying Down His Command at the Feet of Columbia, 1902, a mural in the Baltimore Courthouse. Edwin H. Blashfield (1848-1936).
FIG. 30 The Days, 1887. Thomas Dewing (1851-1938). Oil on canvass; 109.6 x 180.8 cm. (43 3/16 x 72 in.). COLLECTION: Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut.

Washington Laying Down His Command at the Feet of Columbia(1902; Fig. 29), a mural in the Baltimore Courthouse by Blashfield, is such an Americanization. Instead of painting a narrative picture of the event, Blashfield attempted to immortalize the meaning by placing Columbia as a central figure and surrounding her with personifications of the Virtues dressed in medieval and classic costumes carrying emblems of War, Peace, Abundance, and Glory. Washington dressed in a historical costume of buff and blue is equally removed from the present, and as Kenyon Cox claimed: "The larger implications of the story to be told are much more clearly expressed than they could be by a realistic representation of the scene that occurred at Annapolis in 1783."17

Flawed and filled with cliches, the American Renaissance search for symbolism came close to achieving an identifiable form with the American Virgin motif. The woman as a repository for higher virtues had a long history: in nineteenth-century American culture, and earlier she had taken the form of Columbia, Liberty, and/or America. 18 But in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the female form in art was revitalized and the image presented was one of a beautiful, glowing-with-health young woman. She was elegant and noble, a woman from whose mind and lips there would never issue a crude thought or word. Unaware of her own sexuality and never overtly sold in carnal terms, she undeniably possessed a sexual presence. The American Virgin can be found at all levels of American culture, from the Swift Packing Company's "Premium Calendar" to the languishing, drifting girls of Thomas Dewing's paintings (Fig. 30). In litera- ture, the American girl was a major presence. Henry James created a great controversy withDaisy Miller(1879), in which a misunderstanding by the American Virgin abroad leads to her death. Numerous critics and authors felt it necessary to defend the honor of the American girl.19Many of James's later stories concern the naive American Virgin confronting Old World evil.20Explorations of the nature of the American Beauty can be seen in the novels of Edith Wharton, in which the innocent Lily Bart ofThe House of Mirth(1905) is contrasted with the scheming materialist Undine Sprague ofThe Custom of the Country(1913). For Henry Adams, infatuated with the Virgin of the twelfth century, the female symbol could never exercise such power in the nineteenth. He noted ironically, "An American Virgin would never dare command; an American Venus would never dare exist."21

Yet command she did. Foreign critics noted the uniqueness of the woman theme in American art as different renditions were made by Frederick MacMonnies (Fig. 31), Abbott Thayer (Fig. 37), and George de Forest Brush.22For the World's Columbian Exposition, MacMonnies created the sixty-foot-long Columbian Fountain that contained in the prow a Feminine Fame, aft, an old man as Father Time, and amidships on a high throne, a seminude Columbia (Fig. 32). Power was supplied by eight scantily clad females representing the Arts and Sciences and assisted by outriders on seahorses, mermaids, putti, and dolphins. Will Low, in commenting on this representation of "our as yet experimental civilization," caught the central theme: "It is the young girl who fills such a large part of our experiment who is really to the fore. It is Smith and Wellesley who row with the young girl enthroned."23

FIG. 31 Right Bacchante, 1894. Frederick MacMonnies (1863-1937). Marble; height 219.7 cm (86 1/2 in.).
FIG. 32 Columbian Fountain, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893. Frederick MacMonnies (1863-1937). Charles Dudley B. Arnold (b. 1844), photographer.
FIG. 33 A Daughter of the South, a drawing for Collier's Weekly (July 31, 1909). Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944).

The quintessence of the American Virgin can be found in the magazine illustrations of Charles Dana Gibson (Fig. 33), Alonzo Kimball, and Howard Chandler Christy. Aloof, statuesque, and yet sensuous, they were "the perfecting of the highest type of womanhood," as Christy wrote in his paean,The American Girl(1906).24However, the sad reality of the American Virgin became painfully evident in the case of Evelyn Nesbit, a celebrated beauty, a model for the Gibson Girl. Posing in Japanese kimonos, Grecian gowns, and on bearskin rugs, she was a subject for the cameras of Gertrude Kasebier and Rudolf Eickemeyer (Fig. 34). And, of course, she was ulti- mately the nemesis of Stanford White.25

FIG. 34 In My Studio (Evelyn Nesbit), 1901. Rudolf Eickemeyer, Jr. (1831-1895). FIG. 35 Accepted design for the new Rhode Island Capitoal, Providence, circa 1892. McKim, Mead and White, architects. Rendering by Hughson Hawley (1850-1936).
FIG. 36 Study for Minnesota, Granary of the World, a mural in the Minnesota State Capitol, Saint Paul, 1904. Edwin H. Blashfield (1848-1936). FIG. 37 Caritas, 1894-1895. Abbott Thayer (1849-1921).



1 The term "American Renaissance," as will be explained below, came into usage in 1880. Historians have continued to use the term but not exclusively. See Ralph Henry Gabriel, ed.,The Pageant of America, vol. 13, "The American Spirit in Architecture," Talbot F. Hamlin (New Haven, 1926), p. 165; Oliver W. Larkin, Art and Life in America, rev. ed. (New York, 1960), p. 293; and Howard Mumford Jones, "The Renaissance and American Origins,"Ideas in America(Cam bridge, Mass., 1945), pp. 140-151. This last is an especially important study to which this essay owes a great debt. An alternative usage of the term appears in F.O. Matthiessen,American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman(New York, 1941), which obviously covers a very different period.

2 Harry W. Desmond and Herbert Croly,Stately Homes in America(New York, 1903), p. 251; and Harold D. Cater,Henry Adams and His Friends(Boston, 1947), p. 404.

3 John La Farge was referred to as "'old master"' in a letter, Charles L. Freer to Jaccaci, quoted in Susan Hobbs, "John La Farge and the Genteel Tradition in American Art: 1875 to 1910," (Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, 1974), p.74. Charles McKim was known as Bramante and his partner Stanford White as Benvenuto Cellini;see Charles Moore,The Life and Times of Charles FollenMcKim (Boston, 1929), p. 57. Another expression of identification, "Burnham was a Roman of the Augustinian age," is found in Charles Moore,Daniel H. Burnham, Architect, Planner of Cities, vol. 1 (Boston, 1921), p. 67. Moore was a participant in a number of the significant planning schemes of the period such as the Washington Plan of 1901-1902, the Chicago Plan of 1906-1909, and finally as member, 19101915, and then chairman, 1915-1937, of the Commission of Fine Arts.

4 Quoted in Moore, Daniel H. Burnham 1, p. 47.

5 Quoted in Will H. Low,A Chronicle of Friendships(New York, 1908), p. 285.

6 Bernard Berenson,The Venetian Painters(1894), reprinted inThe Italian Painters of the Renaissance (Cleveland, 1957), p. iii.

7 Senator James McMillan, "The American Academy in Rome,"The North American Review174 (May 1902), p. 627.

8 Moore,McKim, p. 260.

9 "Mr. La Farge on Useless Art,"Architectural RecordXVII (April 1905), p. 347.

10 Quoted in Robert Kerr, "Supplement" to James Fergusson,History of the Modern Styles of Architecture, 3rd ed. (London, 1891), p. 373.

11 Edwin Blashfield, "A Word for Municipal Art,"Municipal AffairsIII (December 1899), p. 587; and George Kriehn, "The City Beautiful,"Municipal AffairsIII (December 1899), p. 599.

12 Quoted in Lawrence G. White,Sketches and Designsby Stanford White (New York, 1920), pp. 24-25. The recognition of this aspect can be found in a number of places. One is a page from a European magazine of the period that is pasted in a McKim, Mead and White Office Album (vol. VII) devoted to the Charles H. Barney House (now in the Avery Library, Columbia University, New York City). Shown is a photo of a French Renaissance fireplace with the caption: "La cheminee d'Avignon dans la Salle d'Assemblee" and below this in large letters: "Depouilles de la Vieille Europe Dans la Neuve Amerique." On the opposite page is a photograph of the same mantel in the Barney House. Also written in ink is the note, "W.R. Hearst-California," probably indicating that Hearst bought it from the Barney estate when the house was broken up. Edith Wharton was especially sensitive to this issue, and inThe Custom of the Country(New York, 1913), she uses the forced sale of Boucher's famous Saint-Desert tapestries as a symbol of the transfer of power from the decaying old European aristocracy to the new American plutocrats.

13 In 1878 an article inAtlantic Monthly(quoted in Neil Harris,The Land of Contrasts1880-1901 [New York, 1970], p. 19) complained that workers had begun to regard "works of art and instruments of high culture, with all the possessions and surroundings of people of wealth and refinement, as causes and symbols of the laborer's poverty and degradation, and therefore as things to be hated."

14 Daniel H. Burnham and Edward H. Bennett,The Plan of Chicago, ed. Charles H. Moore (Chicago, 1909), pp. 1, 2.

15 Blashfield, "A Word for Municipal Art," p. 583.

16 Will H. Low,A Painter's Progress(New York, 1910), pp. 193, 251. A similar gloss on Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was used by Louis Sullivan in "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered" (1896) inKindergarten Chats and Other Writings(1947), p. 213.

17 Edwin H. Blashfield,Mural Painting in America(New York, 1913), p.18.

18 The special significance of the public library can be found articulated in A.D.F. Hamlin, "The Ten Most Beautiful Buildings in the United States,"The Brochure Series of Architectural Illustrations I(January 1900), p.8; and Helen L. Horowitz,Culture and the City: Cultural Philanthropy in Chicago from the 1880s to 1917(Lexington, 1976), p.113.

19 Ernest F. Fenollosa,Mural Painting in the Boston Public Library(Boston, 1896), p. 25.


1 Jones, "The Renaissance and American Origins," p.147; see alsoThe Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "Renaissance".

2 Pater's book appeared under a New York imprint in 1877; Symonds's vol. 3 appeared under a New York imprint in 1879. Burckhardt'sCivilizationappeared with a New York imprint in 1879; hisCiceronedid not appear in the United States until 1908 but had several London editions.

3The Art Interchange2 (May 14, 1879), p. 81.

4New York Herald, October 18, 1880.

5 Linda Villari, "The Plain Story of Savonarola's Life,"Scribner's Monthly20 (August 1880), pp. 503-522; Wendell Lamorous, "Pictures of the French Renaissance,"Scribner's Monthly11 (January 1879), pp. 337-362.

6 James M. Hoppin,The Early Renaissance and other Essays on Art Subjects(Boston, 1892), pp. iii, 8.

7. Aspects of this discovery of the American past are treated in Richard Guy Wilson, "Charles F. McKim and the Renaissance in America," (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1972), chap. 4; and Vincent Scully, Jr.,The Shingle Style(New Haven, 1955), chap. 2.

8 New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art,Daniel Chester French: An American Sculptor, by Michael Richman, 1976, pp. 43-44.

9 Quoted in Richard Guy Wilson, "American Architecture and the Search for a National Style in the 1870s,"Nineteenth Century3 (Autumn 1977), p. 74-80.

10 Saint-Gaudens served on the Lee monument jury and certainly gave the commission to Mercie; see Homer Saint-Gaudens, ed.,The Reminiscences of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, vol. 2 (New York, 1913), p.47; and "Equestrian Monuments" XLIV,American Architect and Building News34 (November 1891), pp. 104-105. Research on this problem was carried out by Garden McGehee, Jr.

11 Senator James McMillan, "The American Academy in Rome,"The North American Review174 (May 1902), p. 627.

12 Joy Wheeler Dow,American Renaissance: A Review of Domestic Architecture(New York, 1904), pp. 19, 167.

13 Quoted in William Walton, "Mural Painting in this Country Since 1898," The Field of Art,Scribner's Magazine40 (November 1906), p. 637

14 Kenyon Cox,The Classic Point of View(New York, 1911), p. 70.

15 Saint-Gaudens to Stanford White, March 1878, Saint-Gaudens Collection, Dartmouth College, Hanover, N. H. Reprinted with changed punctuation and emphasis in Reminiscences ofAugustus Saint-Gaudens, vol. 1, p. 256.

16 Edwin Blashfield, "A Word for Municipal Art,"Municipal AffairsIII (December 1899), p. 588.

17 Cox,Classic Point of View, p. 76.

18 Joshua C. Taylor, "America as Symbol,"America as Art(Washington, D.C., 1976).

19 One example is William Dean Howells,The Rise of Silas Lapham(1885; reprint ed., New York, 1951), p. 19, where a character mentions the need "to honor the name of American Woman, and to redeem it from the national reproach of Daisy Millerism."

20 Henry James,The Portrait of a Lady(New York, 1881); and Henry James,The Golden Bowl(New York, 1904).

21 Henry Adams,The Education o f Henry Adams(1918; reprint ed., New York, 1931), p. 385.

22 New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art,American Impressionist and Realist Paintings and Drawings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz, by Dianne H. Pilgrim, 1973, p. 77.

23 Will H. Low, "The Art of the White City,"Scribner's Magazine14 (October 1893), p. 511.

24 Howard Chandler Christy,The American Girl(New York, 1906), pp. 11-12.

25 The death of Stanford White has received a variety of treatments, from the 1958 movie, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing; to factual accounts, Gerald Langford,The Murder of Stanford White(Indianapolis, 1962); and Michael Mooney,Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White: Their Love and Death in the Gilded Age(New York, 1976); to novels, E.L. Doctorow,Ragtime(New York, 1975); and several others.