The Genre or Everyday Life Painting in the US from 1800 to 1860
Table of Contents
The Life in the US of the19th Century
The 19th century saw the development of different artistic activities all over the United States. During this period, the genre painting, in particular, was one of the most important arts as it depicted the true life of the contemporary Americans. This type of art drew its inspiration from the triangular trade, through which a large number of slaves were brought to the American plantations to farm the crops. The economy of the southern states was based on the slave labor especially in the cultivation of cotton. The slavery was becoming an increasing turmoil (Pohl, 2002). The Blacks had no rights and were considered the second-class citizens.
On the other hand, the decorative art was an important part of life. As depicted in the genre painting, the elderly taught the teenage girls to make samples for demonstrating their skills; later on, these samples were used for decorating their homes when they got married. These pieces of art often contained some words in order to teach young women the basic reading and writing skills, as females rarely received any formal education beyond domestic training. During this period, some denominations such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Church of Christ were established. These churches were an important contributing factor to the abolition movement aimed at ending the slavery in the South where the Black slaves were subjected to hard labor.
The slave trade in the region shaped social hierarchy and subordination. Free Blacks did not travel because they could be caught by the southern entrepreneurs looking for the runaway slaves and taken to the plantations to provide the much-needed labor force (Pohl, 2002). On the other hand, there were a significant number of the Black artisans in the northern cities. These freedmen had learned the art of trade while being slaves. However, due to the prevalence of racial discrimination, they were systematically forced out of this business by the White immigrants who set their bags for these jobs. Home crafts, slavery, as well as liberation movements were the main sources of the genre painting in the US of the 19th century.
The Scenes of Everyday Life presented by the US Artists and Their Messages
During this period, the American genre painting attempted to create a proper visual image of a new country. For instance, Trumbull’s The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill shows the victory of the American rebels over the British regular army.
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In addition to the images of a new US, depiction of different crafts was also popular. Sewing, for example, was equated with the female virtue even for noble women who were living in affluence (Pohl, 2002). Similarly, the female domestic slaves were often taught how to sew and sometimes they were able to use their skills to attain freedom. The African- American women were the one to make the popular quilts.
Usually, the genre paintings were the visual representations of slavery and racial oppression (Pohl, 2002). The Blacks were generalized and depicted according to the racist stereotypes. In the paintings by William Sidney Mount, the Blacks are playing instruments or inhabiting the plantations scenes. In other words, the plantation became the predominant site, at which the slaves were shown singing or playing banjos.
How the Genre Paintings Present the Character of the Americans and Their Values, or, at Least, how the Americans Wanted to Be Seen
The European styles of fine art struggled to find its place in the United States. The only audience was a small elite in the east coast cities because they wanted to be treated with elegance and refinement. The common Americans, on the other hand, preferred practical stuff and realistic images (Pohl, 2002). For instance, Copley declared with resentment that the Boston painting was regarded as a way of preserving the heritage for the favored individuals. Educated men grew up reading classical Greek and Latin literature; they were taught to represent the achievements of the human civilization. The upper classes considered the classical literature to teach valuable lessons of direct application to their life and times. It is, thus, no surprise that the neoclassical imagery dominated the early art of the US.
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Most Americans, however, were not interested in ideal classical images, so the U.S. artists usually studied abroad to gain authoritative experience and longed to create the European style masterpieces. The Americans wanted to be treated as people who managed to grow from the lower classes to high society (Pohl, 2002). They were inspired to do great things in the best way possible such as building elaborate houses. The paintings celebrated the American life; they glorified the rites of passage, honored by the family. Young people travelled from small towns to big cities to develop their skills and become famous. The wealthy class would spend a fortune on portraits and painted walls. For instance, the Bears and Pears Artist introduced the popular at that time Scenic Wall – the wall- painting depicting palm trees and small soldiers brandishing their swords.
The Political and Social Messages in Genre Painting
Samuel F.B Morse was a successful U.S. painter of the period. His 7- by 11-foot canvas of 1822 reveals the hopes of establishing a great American country (Pohl, 2002). It is likely that he felt that depicting the House of Representatives working late demonstrated the values of the American Republic that differed from Europe. Similarly, the American art attempted to create a proper visual image of the new country. At the end of this period, America became the Greco- Roman warrior, and the goddess of wisdom, Athena became a symbol of the U.S. civilization and revolution.