The Mount: Edith Wharton and the American Renaissance


Kay Davis
University of Virginia
© 2001-2003


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American Renaissance

Architectural historians use the term "American Renaissance" to describe a movement in American art and architecture that emerged between the 1870s and the early 1900s.

Works created during this period displayed the following characteristics:

  • A strong spirit of nationalism

  • An interest in idealistic subjects

  • An appreciation for the artistic works of classical antiquity
Nationalistic Tendencies
The nationalism present in the late nineteenth century grew out of an ambivalence about America's early history.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, Americans valued local traditions but seldom observed national historical celebrations. American history was not a standard part of the school curriculum. (1)

But the effects of industrialization and urbanization elicited what historian Michael Kammen calls a period of "nostalgia and tradition orientation." (2) Faced with political expansion, social diversity, and economic unpredictability, Americans looked to their pre-industrial heritage for inspiration.

Celebrating America's Past
Kammen argues that a national American historical tradition began to emerge in the 1870s. From that decade through World War I, Americans became increasingly interested in their country's history.

  • Monuments to American war heroes and political figures dotted city streets.

  • Historical groups such as the American Historical Association and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities formed. (3)

  • Grand public buildings appeared, many with mural paintings depicting American progress.

  • Illustrated articles on American history appeared in magazines such as Scribner's and Harper's Weekly. (4)
Minute Man Statue
Monuments such as the Minute Man statue
reminded Americans of their pre-industrial heritage.

Emergence of the Art Profession
In 1876, Americans celebrated their country's one-hundred-year anniversary with the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, the first exposition held in the United States. The exposition celebrated technology and America's emergence as an industrial nation. It was also a celebration of America's past.

The exposition gave artists an opportunity to display works depicting historical subjects. (5) At the same time, artists recognized the need to develop outlets for professional training.

In 1877, the Society of American Artists and the Society of Decorative Arts formed. American art schools followed in the 1880s. (6) Specialized periodicals such as American Architect and Building News and the Art Review appeared, reporting developments in American art and architecture.

Toward a Classical Model
As Americans analyzed their history, many looked to their European heritage for inspiration. Gothic-style buildings of the mid- to late nineteenth century reflected the interest of some American architects in medieval Europe.

Others believed that America possessed the democratic ideals of the ancient Greeks, and that American art and architecture should reflect those ideals. Thus, in the late nineteenth century, many American artists and architects began to study the works of the Italian Renaissance (1420-1580), a period of renewed interest in the art, architecture, and literature of classical antiquity.

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