United States Art and Architecture

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON-DEMAND > Cultures and Civilizations       

The first American artists were native people who had lived in America for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans.

Beginning in the early 1600's, North America was settled by people from Europe. The English and Dutch colonized along the east coast, while the French settled in the Ohio Valley and along the Mississippi River. At about the same time, the Spanish settled in Florida and in the Southwest. All of these groups brought their own artistic traditions, which they adapted to life in the new land. For example, early missions in the Southwest combined elements of Spanish design with the building techniques of the Pueblo Indians. However, most permanent settlements in North America were English, and England became the main influence on early American painting, sculpture, and building styles.

Colonial Period

No art schools existed in America for about 200 years after the first settlements. Artists in the colonies were usually trained in Europe, and they worked in European styles. In England, the portrait had been popular for many years, and portrait painting became the most important type of painting in the colonies. But while English artists flattered their subjects, the Americans did not. They painted more realistic likenesses. Two outstanding American portrait painters were John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) and Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). Copley's Paul Revere (1765?) shows Revere, a silversmith, seated at his workbench in shirtsleeves. This was quite different from the formal poses favored in England. Peale, an inventor and craftsman as well as an artist, painted many portraits of George Washington.

Much colonial art was created by people who had no formal artistic training. These folk artists produced many decorative objects, including painted shop signs, wooden toys and figures, metal weathervanes, and carved tombstones. They also painted portraits that were unsophisticated but honest.

Most early buildings in the colonies were made of wood--first logs and later wooden frames with clapboard siding. Houses had massive chimneys and steeply pitched roofs. By the end of the colonial period, however, many buildings were made of brick or stone.

Federal Period

America won independence from England in 1783, and the colonies became the United States. The early years of independence, from 1783 to about 1825, are known as the Federal period. From the very beginning, enthusiasm for the new nation ran high. Strong patriotic feelings were expressed in all the arts. Many artists compared the ideals of the young American republic with those of ancient Rome. They often modeled their works on classical Roman art and architecture. One of the leading Federal architects was Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), who became the third president of the United States. His design for the state capitol in Richmond, Virginia, completed in 1796, is based on a famous Roman temple. Later, Jefferson designed the University of Virginia library after the Roman Pantheon.

Another important architect was Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844), who lived and worked mainly in Boston. One of his most famous buildings is the State House in Boston (1795-98), which has a high dome much like those the ancient Romans built. For a time, Bulfinch supervised construction of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Much of the design of the Capitol, however, was created by another architect, Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820). In 1805, Latrobe designed the Cathedral of the Assumption in Baltimore, Maryland, which has been called the most beautiful building in North America.

Sculptors of the Federal period also were influenced by the art of ancient Rome. For example, a gigantic marble statue of George Washington by Horatio Greenough (1805-52) portrays the president as a Roman leader dressed in a toga. It was placed in the Capitol rotunda (circular central room) in 1841.

Painters, too, were proud of the new nation. Some, such as John Trumbull (1756-1843), made historical paintings depicting important events of the Revolutionary War. Others continued the tradition of portrait painting. Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) painted hundreds of portraits of American statesmen, especially George Washington.


During the 1800's the United States grew into a vast nation. Its boundaries gradually stretched westward all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Beginning in the 1820's, landscape painters glorified the country's natural beauty, painting romantic views of the wilderness. One influential group of landscape artists was known as the Hudson River School because they painted scenes in and around the Hudson Valley in New York.

As the frontier moved west, artists portrayed subjects and scenes unique to the American wilderness. John James Audubon (1785-1851) painted the birds of America. His detailed watercolors are valuable scientific records as well as works of art. George Catlin (1796-1872) documented the customs of American Indians in portraits and scenes of tribal life. Other artists depicted life in the pioneer villages that sprang up along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

In architecture, interest continued in styles of the past. Just as Federal architects had used the buildings of ancient Rome as models, architects now turned to ancient Greece for inspiration. Banks, churches, and homes were given the simple, balanced design of Greek temples, with rows of tall columns. This style is called the Greek Revival. Another popular building style, known as the Gothic Revival, was patterned after Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages. Gothic Revival buildings featured steeply pitched roofs, pointed arched windows, and sometimes towers or turrets. Many other styles appeared--so many that architecture of the period is often described as a "battle of the styles."

Late 1800's

At the end of the 1800's, Americans began to place greater importance on the arts. More and more artists studied extensively in Europe. This led to higher standards for American painting, sculpture, and architecture.

Painting and Sculpture
Although many painters of the period studied in Europe, most did not try to imitate European styles. Instead, their art expressed their individual tastes. There was a strong interest in realism, that is, representing scenes and people with strict accuracy. Two outstanding American realists were Winslow Homer (1836-1910) and Thomas Eakins (1844-1916). Homer painted scenes of nature, first in oils and later in watercolors. Eakins studied anatomy in order to portray the human body accurately. The frank realism of his painting The Gross Clinic (1875), which showed a doctor performing surgery, was shocking to people of his day.

The western artists Frederic Remington (1861-1909) and Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926) specialized in action-packed scenes of cowboy and Indian life. One artist who rejected a realistic approach was Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917). His small paintings of boats sailing on dark seas have a mysterious, dreamlike quality.

Many American artists lived abroad, especially in England and France. John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), an American born in Italy, lived in England for most of his life. He became famous for his portraits of fashionable society. Later, Sargent was recognized for his brilliant watercolors. James A. M. Whistler (1834-1903) also lived in England. Whistler experimented with color tones, attempting to harmonize them the way sounds harmonize in music. He often titled his paintings "symphonies" or "nocturnes," as if they were musical compositions.

Both Sargent and Whistler were influenced by impressionism, a painting style developed in France in the late 1800's. Another American artist, Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), lived in Paris and was a member of the impressionist group. Like other impressionists, Cassatt used bright colors applied to the canvas in small daubs. She was known especially for her portraits showing the tender affection of mothers for their young children.

American sculptors of the late 1800's often imitated European sculpture, especially works from the Renaissance. One important American sculptor was Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907). His large bronze statue of the Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman (1903) stands near an entrance to Central Park in New York City. Another notable sculptor was Daniel Chester French (1850-1931). His famous sculpture Minute Man (1874), in Concord, Massachusetts, commemorates the start of the Revolutionary War. In 1922, French completed the seated figure of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Not long after the Civil War (1861-65), the architect Henry H. Richardson (1838-86) began to design large buildings in a style known as the Romanesque Revival. The buildings were constructed of massive stone blocks. They had many wide windows, which allowed ample light and air to reach the interiors. Richardson's work had a major influence on other architects. One was Louis Sullivan (1856-1924). Sullivan became the leader of a group of Chicago architects who developed a new kind of architecture.

Chicago had become a center of business and commerce, and this created a need for many large buildings. Because land was limited and very costly, buildings were made taller to save space and money. With the development of the elevator, it became practical to design structures of more than four or five stories.

At first the taller buildings were constructed using existing materials and techniques. But soon a method of construction was developed that used a metal framework, or skeleton, enclosed with glass or other lightweight material. This method, which is still used today, allowed buildings to be very high--so high that they seemed to touch the sky. People began calling the new buildings skyscrapers.

One of Chicago's first skyscrapers was the twelve-story Tacoma Building (1886-89). Other skyscrapers soon appeared in cities throughout the country. Many were designed by Louis Sullivan. His best-known skyscraper is the Wainwright Building (1890-91) in St. Louis, Missouri.

Not all architects of the period were as progressive as Louis Sullivan. Many continued to design buildings that imitated architectural styles of the past. Their style is called the Beaux-arts style. Beaux-arts means "fine arts" and comes from the name of the school in Paris where many artists studied. The most important group of Beaux-arts architects were the members of the Boston firm of McKim, Mead, and White. They designed elegant buildings such as the Boston Public Library (1887-98). Another Beaux-arts architect was Richard Morris Hunt (1827-95), who built luxurious mansions for wealthy clients.

Early 1900's

Many artistic trends of the late 1800's continued as America entered the 20th century. Gradually, however, signs of a new movement, called modernism, appeared.

Painting and Sculpture
Some early 20th-century painters carried further the realist tradition of Thomas Eakins. The earliest group of such painters, led by Robert Henri (1865-1929), was known as "The Eight." Attracted by the fast pace of big-city life, they painted the back alleys, bustling crowds, and rundown tenement buildings of America's industrial centers. Because of their choice of subject matter, some people called this group the "Ashcan School." Many other artists, such as George Bellows (1882-1925), were influenced by The Eight.

In 1913, The Eight and their followers held a great exhibition of modern art in a New York armory. The Armory Show featured hundreds of works by both American and European artists. It later traveled to Boston and Chicago and was widely attended. The show gave many Americans their first look at modern art. Some liked it, and others sneered at it.

In realistic art, the subject of a painting can be recognized immediately. But a new form of art was developing, called abstract art. In an abstract painting objects are usually distorted and sometimes cannot be recognized at all. Indeed, abstract paintings often consist only of lines, colors, and shapes that do not represent any real object. One of America's earliest abstract painters was Max Weber (1881-1961). Another was Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986). She often painted simplified versions of flowers, magnifying details until the whole was no longer recognizable. At first abstract art was not well liked. Yet the abstract art movement that developed during the 1920's has continued to the present day.

The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed caused dramatic changes in American life. Few jobs were available, and many people were homeless and hungry. A government works program created in 1935 provided jobs for unemployed people, including artists. Thousands of works of art were produced, mainly murals for public buildings. These works were typically done in a realistic style.

The realist tradition continued to grow alongside the abstract movement. Edward Hopper (1882-1967), like The Eight, painted city scenes. But his works expressed the loneliness and isolation of urban life. Other artists, called regionalists, portrayed life in the small towns and farms of the Midwest. Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), Grant Wood (1892-1942), and John Steuart Curry (1897-1946) were important American regionalists.

Although some sculptors of the period worked in the abstract style, most still dealt with recognizable subject matter. Many works were commissioned to decorate public buildings. For example, Gaston Lachaise (1882-1935) created many sculptures for the RCA Building in New York City.

In the early 1900's, skyscrapers continued to be built across America. The 56-story Woolworth Building (1913) in New York City was designed by the noted architect Cass Gilbert (1859-1934). It was the world's tallest building for 17 years until it was surpassed by the Chrysler Building (1930) and the Empire State Building (1931). Both these skyscrapers are in New York City.

Perhaps the most distinguished architect of the 1900's was Frank Lloyd Wright (1869-1959). Wright designed houses, churches, libraries, and many other types of buildings during his long career. He believed that a building should be carefully planned to serve its purposes well. This idea that the design of a building should be based on its function is called functionalism. It was first expressed by the architect Louis Sullivan, who was an important influence on Wright. Wright, in turn, taught many other architects to consider function when designing buildings.

Early in his career, Wright built a number of houses in the Chicago area. He called these homes "prairie houses." They are built low and close to the ground, blending in with the flat Midwestern landscape. Inside, the houses are open and spacious. Wright's best-known prairie house is the Robie House (1908). His later buildings include a house in Bear Run, Pennsylvania, known as Fallingwater (1937) and the spiral-shaped Guggenheim Museum in New York City, completed in 1959.

Later 1900's

Just before World War II (1939-45), large numbers of Europeans fled the turmoil of their native lands and settled in the United States. These refugees included many painters, sculptors, and architects who greatly influenced trends in American art. The horror and destruction of the war years caused profound changes in the way people looked at the world. These changes were reflected in the way artists made their art.

Painting and Sculpture
Post-war painters expressed their feelings in a style called abstract expressionism. Abstract expressionist paintings typically have no recognizable subject and no familiar sense of space. They are flat and appear disorderly, yet they are often very beautiful. Their meaning may be completely understood only by the artist.

One important abstract expressionist was Jackson Pollock (1912-56). Pollock developed an unusual way of painting. He would splash and drip paints onto a large canvas until it was covered with pigment. The finished work had a feeling of energy and movement. Another abstract expressionist was Willem de Kooning (1904-97), whose paintings often include distorted human forms.

In contrast to the dynamic works of Pollock and de Kooning, the paintings of Mark Rothko (1903-70) have a peaceful mood. His canvases usually contain several large rectangular masses of color. The masses have fuzzy edges and seem to float quietly and gently across one another.

Although abstract expressionism dominated painting during the post-war years, many artists continued to paint in the realistic manner popular before the war. By about 1960, a new kind of realism, called pop art, had emerged. Pop artists introduced fun and a sense of the absurd into art. They drew from American popular culture for their subjects, which included giant hamburgers, scouring pads, and images of movie stars and comic strip characters. One of the best-known pop artists was Andy Warhol (1928-87), who first became famous for painting a series of identical pictures of Campbell's soup cans. Claes Oldenburg (1929- ), a pop sculptor, created huge, soft sculptures of stuffed vinyl.

Several other art movements began in the 1960's and continued into later decades. One was op art, in which colors and forms are arranged to create flickering or quivering effects called optical illusions. The realistic tradition was carried to an extreme with photorealism, which imitates the effect of photography with painstakingly detailed and accurate images. In contrast, minimal art is a kind of abstract art that uses extremely simplified geometric forms.

Sculptors, too, have worked in the abstract style since the end of World War II. Alexander Calder (1898-1976) was best known for his mobiles, constructions of wire and flat metal cutouts. When assembled and suspended, mobiles float freely in space. They slowly change position but always remain perfectly balanced.

Louise Nevelson (1900-88) assembled odds and ends of wood--such as spindles, spools, and parts of old chairs--into large sculptures. Grouped together and painted the same color, they make a unified whole. Another modern sculptor, David Smith (1906-65), welded together massive blocks of polished steel to create tall and stately outdoor sculptures. Richard Hunt (1935- ), a master of abstract sculpture, worked mainly in welded and cast metal.

As noted earlier, leading architects from other countries settled in the United States during the 1930's and 1940's, bringing with them many new ideas. One important style originated in Europe and is called the international style. A leader of the international style was Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe (1886-1969), a German architect who moved to the United States in 1938. Mies designed many skyscrapers. When we look at a building by Mies or one of his followers, we clearly understand how a skyscraper is built. Unlike earlier skyscrapers, the main structural elements are not hidden by surface decoration. All we see are the supporting steel beams and many open rectangles filled with glass--a simple and elegant "glass box." A good example is the Seagram Building (1955-58) in New York City. It was designed by Mies and Philip Johnson (1906-2005). Another is Lever House (1950-52), also in New York. Designed by the firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, Lever House is considered one of the finest modern structures in the United States.

Another notable skyscraper by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill is the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in Chicago, finished in 1974. At 110 stories, it is the tallest building in the nation. Tall buildings in the international style were also designed by Edward Durell Stone (1902?-78) and Edward Larrabee Barnes (1915-2004).

Tall steel and glass buildings came to dominate the skylines of cities across the country. But certain architects moved away from the international style toward a less impersonal building style. Some used cast concrete to create expressive shapes. The Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen (1910-61) designed the handsome TWA Terminal (1956-62) at New York's Kennedy Airport using this technique. Its forms are curved and flowing, recalling the uplifted shape of airplane wings. I. M. Pei (1917- ) experimented with many interesting design concepts. He used the triangle as a basic element in his designs for the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (1978), and other buildings.

Still other architects broke completely with the simplicity of the international style, which they considered boring and repetitive. Some decorated their buildings with elements from architecture of the past. Robert Venturi (1925- ) was an early leader of this movement, which came to be known as postmodernism. Among later postmodernists were Richard Meier (1934- ) and Michael Graves (1934- ). As the 20th century neared an end, postmodernists were among the many painters, sculptors, and architects who contributed to the continuing vitality of the arts in the United States.

Howard E. Wooden
Director Emeritus, The Wichita Art Museum

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