Skip to main content

“American Art Really Exists”

July 2024
11min read

said a New York newspaper when the Metropolitan opened its American Wing in 1924. This spring, a new, grander American Wing once again displays the collection that Lewis Mumford found “not merely an exhibition of art,” but “a pageant of American history.”

The reopening of the Metropolitan Museum’s American Wing this spring deserves the great attention it is likely to get. During the several years that the Wing has been closed for rehabilitation and for new construction that will more than double the size of the old premises, most of the museum’s collections of American art have been in storage. But even in such confinement they continued to grow in size, scope, and importance. When the new construction is finally completed, it will house what is undoubtedly the most comprehensive and representative assemblage of American arts and crafts to be found anywhere under one roof. Here will be seen outstanding examples in every medium and from all periods of this country’s history —painting, sculpture, architecture, prints and drawings, and decorative arts of numerous kinds.


The latest and largest addition to this wealth of material, although it does not bear an accession number, is the lofty and spacious glass structure, designed by the architectural firm of Kevin Roche-John Dinkeloo and Associates, that envelops the newly fashioned garden court and other galleries. Beneath this example of strictly contemporary architecture, the courtyard is flanked on one side by the monumental neoclassic marble façade of the United States Branch Bank, built between 1822 and 1824 by Martin E. Thompson and which originally stood on Wall Street. At the opposite end of the court, in brilliant contrast to the massive dignity of that bank facade, there has been installed an arrangement of architectural elements by three of the most celebrated American architect-designers—Louis Comfort Tiffany, Louis H. Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright, all men who have won international renown for contributions to the modern movements of their time.

Between these two facing structures in the courtyard, several dozen sculptures have been selected from hundreds of others in the collection to provide a capsule history of the art as it has been practiced by Americans over the years. (This introductory survey is fleshed out with scores of additional examples interspersed among the paintings shown elsewhere in the Wing. ) The earliest of the figures shown here is an allegorical depiction of California in the form of a nubile but unquestionably chaste female nude modeled at Florence in 1850 by the Vermont-born Hiram Powers. It was the first American sculpture acquired by the museum, just two years after its founding.

In his heyday, Powers was compared by estimable European critics to Praxiteles and Michelangelo. That a virtually unheralded artist from the cultural wasteland of the New World could produce such “sublime” creations as this and his earlier and more famous Greek Slave caught Old World audiences by surprise. The curator of the Grand Ducal Gallery in Florence hailed Powers as “the first sculptor of the Age.” His ardent admirer and friend Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote an impassioned but very indifferent sonnet in praise of his work. Russian princes and British nobles coveted copies of his sculpture, as did his enormously wealthy compatriot William Backhouse Astor, who purchased California for conspicuous display in his Fifth Avenue mansion before giving it to the museum in 1872.

To have ranked Powers with the greatest artists of antiquity and the Renaissance seems to our generation more than extravagant, simply absurd. However that may be, it calls to mind that we all too often tend to use the present as an absolute standard for judging the past, a tendency that reduces much that was once deemed important by qualified contemporaries to the level of quaintness. This is also absurd for, properly understood, no achievement of the past remains merely quaint. As we are frequently reminded, to view the past perceptively and for its own sake may lead to better ways of evaluating the present. We can thus, at least, hope to escape from what the late Bertrand Russell referred to as “the parochialism of time.”

The American Wing is an ideal testing ground for this line of thinking. Aside from affording a panoramic view of the American arts, the exhibits in its rooms and galleries represent an outgrowth of interests and attitudes that played important roles in this country’s social and cultural development. This was manifest from the start. When the Wing first opened in the autumn of 1924, nothing in the history books or books on art had prepared either the press or the public for what was then and there disclosed. It was the first time a major museum had displayed a large and representative collection of early American decorative art appropriately arranged in what have come to be known as period rooms, domestic architectural interiors contemporary with the materials shown in them.

Today, there are thousands of historic houses in the United States and many museum installations dedicated to the same - general principles. But in 1924 the Metropolitan Museum was setting a precedent. To some degree all those later endeavors, such as Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, the restored New England village at Deerfield, Massachusetts, the vast complex of the Henry F. du Pont Winterthur Museum in Delaware, and so on, all owe something to the earlier model of the American Wing.

There were critics within the museum, including the then director, as well as in the art world at large, who felt that “those American things”—the furniture and other furnishings of period rooms—had no place in a museum of art. The Metropolitan’s director, a classicist and former director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, had consulted his ex-colleagues at that institution, who confirmed his very dubious view of the matter. Others, however, among them the museum’s president, who with his wife provided funds for the new building, and a number of influential trustees and staff members thought otherwise. It was decided to go ahead with the sizable project and to let the public determine whether or not American domestic craftsmanship shown in this manner deserved the place in the history of art that it was being accorded in the new wing, alongside the treasures from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome and all the historic cultures of the East and West.

The morning after the opening it became apparent that this new departure of the museum was going to be a remarkable popular success. For those whose image of the colonial world had been shaped by the somber tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne, with their frugal homespun simplicity, the colorful and handsome nature of the material on display came as a revelation. Why, exclaimed the New York World , neglecting the rules of grammar in its enthusiasm, “those ancestors of ours had taste equally if not surpassing ours!” Predictably more restrained, the New York Times rhetorically asked, for essential knowledge of the past “where can we look with more assurance of true guidance than to the homes of men?” Lewis Mumford, then at the beginning of his distinguished career as a critic, was quick to appreciate the museum’s new enterprise. “It is not merely an exhibition of art,” he wrote in The New Republic , “it is a pageant of American history … nothing so complete and so tactful has ever been accomplished by an American museum.”

That in the view of its sponsors the new exhibition was also considered something more than a vindication of American art was apparent in the addresses given at the opening ceremonies. Notes of sentiment and sentimentality were sounded—as clearly illustrated in the poster designed by Thomas Cleland to celebrate the occasion—along with appeals to patriotism, veneration for the Founding Fathers, and praise for the sterling characters and good taste of earlier generations of Colonists.

In some degree, this was an overreaction to the immigration problem on the part of the sponsors, for the most part persons of substance and with respectable pedigrees. Over the past decades millions on millions of immigrants had swarmed into the United States, people of widely different stock from those who had earlier come largely from northeastern Europe to settle the country. Now came central and eastern Europeans—Slavs of every stripe, Jews from everywhere, Italians, Greeks, peoples from the Danube, the Moldau, the Vistula, the Volga, the Arno—from the steppes of Russia and the shores of the Mediterranean, from mysterious lands whose very names stretched the imagination of the “old-fashioned American community,” as someone described the dignitaries who gave the Wing their blessing—people whom Henry James, himself an expatriate revisiting Boston early in the century, noticed with snobbish annoyance as “gross little foreigners.”

To many Americans of older stock this great tide of outlandish newcomers posed a serious threat to the nation. In one of the opening addresses at the Wing a prominent museum trustee pointed out that “traditions are one of the integral assets of a country.… Many of our people are not cognizant of our traditions and the principles for which our fathers struggled and died. The tremendous changes in the character of our nation and the influx of foreign ideas utterly at variance with those held by the men who gave us the Republic threaten, and unless checked may shake, the foundations of our Republic.” As sidelights on such fears, the Sacco-Vanzetti case was then awaiting a decision, and that same year Congress enacted the Immigration Act, which drastically reduced the torrent of immigration.

In still another opening address it was observed that with its period rooms and with the history that might be associated with them (in some cases by a considerable stretch of the imagination), the American Wing would provide “a setting for the traditions so dear to us and invaluable in the Americanization of many of our people to whom much of our history has been hidden in a fog of unenlightenment.” To this end schoolchildren would be given guided tours to help indoctrinate them with sound American notions; much as they were taught in school to sing of this “land where our fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,” although their fathers or grandfathers may have come to America as steerage passengers in cramped steamships centuries after the Mayflower and may have died in places far from Bunker Hill or Gettysburg. Here, as the late Dr. Margaret Mead once remarked, was an odd blending of the future and the past in which another man’s great-grandfather became the symbol of one’s grandson’s future.

However, the objects shown in the Wing were, beyond all these considerations, exemplars of early American decorative art, worthy of their new station in this country’s most prominent museum. This point was not overlooked by one of the New York dailies which saluted the occasion with large, boldface headlines announcing that “American Art Really Exists.” That naive statement did not include the fact that almost from the day it first opened its doors in 1870, the museum had been acquiring American art, and that by this time had a respectable collection of paintings and sculptures—gathered without a great deal of encouragement from its first two directors. Both were foreigners, Italian and English, and, it seems, considered American art in general as provincial and relatively unimportant derivatives of the high styles created abroad. They more or less studiously avoided buying American art in favor of the proven Old Masters of Europe, a policy in which many munificent donors concurred. Even as late as 1929 when, as noted, some daring critics were conceding that American art worthy of attention really did exist, the museum was diffident about such matters. That year Gertrude Whitney was prepared to give her collection to the museum—then probably the largest collection of American art anywhere—with an endowment to cover the costs of housing it; but the director at that time simply refused to consider the proposal.

Today, especially in view of the wide-ranging and brilliant spectacle the American Wing is now presenting, that rejection seems incomprehensible. However, it was based upon deep-rooted attitudes that played an important role in the cultural development of this country. From the earliest days of the Republic, many thoughtful Americans had been plagued by worries that the culture of their native land might never match the standards set by the older countries of Europe. At the start, Noah Webster admonished his countrymen to forget any such comparisons. It was, he wrote, “dishonorable to waste life in mimicking the follies of other nations, and basking in the sunshine of foreign glory.” He called for a brand new start toward a purely American way of life. America, he insisted, must be “as famous for arts as for arms .”

However, then and throughout long years afterward, there were others, artists among them, who lamented that in the harsh cultural climate of the New World, art could not flourish. In 1868, returning to the United States after a long sojourn in Europe, the fastidious Henry Adams was both repelled and fascinated by the crudeness of American life. Some years later, from his retreat in England, Henry James counseled his readers that in the “cruel air” of America, true art must wither. (Although he conceded elsewhere that to be an American was an excellent preparation for culture.) Even Winslow Homer’s paintings seemed to James “damnably ugly.”

Early in the present century, when he was considerably older and more disillusioned than ever, Adams wrote James that he thought their whole generation of Americans—including artists, poets, historians, philosophers, and all the rest of the brilliant minds of the day—were in the end nothing more than “Improvised Europeans.” To Adams it was all somewhat academic, for long ago he had concluded that with the advances of science he foresaw, sooner or later the human race would “commit suicide by blowing up the world.

America must be “as famous for arts as for arms’

In 1939, just before the explosion of World War II, when that prophecy almost came true, an exhibition of American art was staged at New York’s World Fair, and the old lament was reiterated. After visiting that display, a reviewer for Art News concluded that it would be “impossible for a foreign visitor to emerge (from the exhibition) without an impression of the general dreariness of American life as seen through the eyes of its artistic interpreters. There is nothing monumental… nothing impassioned, and nothing subjective. There is little that is original.…”

The United States, of course, survived the global tragedy that opened in the late summer of that year—intact and with a new role to play in the world at large. Just as New York became the permanent headquarters of the United Nations in the immediate postwar years, this country, and New York in particular, became an international art capital. According to some qualified critics, the art being produced in America had come to be considered the standard by which developments in other countries of the Western World were measured.

This unexpected and phenomenal reversal of America’s traditional role produced a fresh examination of American art. Questions were raised, not for the first time but with new insistence, as to what was especially American about it. The celebrated expatriate American artist James McNeill Whistler would probably have dismissed the whole matter with a quip, as he once did when he scoffed at the notion of “English art.” “You might as well talk of English Mathematics,” he once remarked. “Art is Art and Mathematics is Mathematics.” Nevertheless, it was reasonable to conclude that such a robust, variegated outgrowth of art as was evident in this mid-century development must have had firm roots and a past period of healthy development. To be sure, a sizable influx of artistic refugees from the wartime chaos of Europe contributed to this ferment in America. But over long years, since the planting of the first tiny imported seedling in the seventeenth century, American art had been constantly invigorated by grafts of alien strains, while its roots were sinking deeper into the native soil and putting forth fresh hybrids.

In spite of a rash of articles and exhibitions that broke out addressing the question of what is American about American art, no single or conclusive answer was forthcoming. It was about that time that the museum’s plans to reorganize and enlarge its facilities for showing this country’s art in all its forms were beeing seriously considered. Those collections were growing at an accelerating pace and the public was coming to the museum in ever greater numbers to view such of the material that could be shown. Some important new acquisitions could not be displayed at all, or at best in provisional and transient settings.

When the rehabilitation and new construction was undertaken, a time-consuming operation of considerable magnitude, virtually all the American art was perforce put into storage. Now, with the May reopening of the Wing, the long-deprived public will have its chance to take a good look at these enlarged and extraordinary holdings.

Not all of them just yet, for next year another suite of later period rooms that have not before been exhibited, including an interior from a house by Frank Lloyd Wright, will be opened. The passage of time has led to a more understanding appraisal of the accomplishments in the decorative arts of the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, years excluded from the scheme of the original American Wing, than was easily possible fifty-odd years ago. As becomes increasingly clear, that part of the past has quite as much to do with the present as the earlier periods. In its new emphasis on this point, the museum rebalances the scales of history In the end, every effort to interpret the arts of the past from the changing points of view of the present enlarges and deepens their significance.

Aside from those subsequent additions, which will also include examples of Shaker and folk art in general, the cream of the museum s extensive holdings will soon tie on view. No magazine has space between its covers for a detailed account of these holdings. Some suggestion of their breadth, depth, and quality is suggested by the accompanying illustrations. A number of the paintings and objects shown are recent accessions on permanent display for the first time; others are treasures acquired in earlier days, now released from their long confinement in storage rooms and presented perhaps for a fresh appraisal.

If there is any plausible answer to the question of what is singularly American about American art, it should be found in the rich variety of evidence that the American wing will provide as it reopens. But perhaps it is better not to put the question at all. To paraphrase Gustave Flaubert, the function of art is not to supply answers to questions, but rather to extend the imagination, to provide illuminating experiences, to give pleasure, and to prompt reflection. The arts are in the long run half of history, and the exhibits of the Wing are a more intimate record of the American past, remote and recent, than any history look can give us.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.