- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2002

By Annie Cohen-Solal
Knopf, $30, 468 pages

Thanks to, among other things, the heroizing title of art historian Irving Sandler's 1970 book, "The Triumph of American Painting," which chronicled the rise of Abstract Expressionism, almost everybody knows that after World War II a seismic cultural shift took place: New York replaced Paris as the capital of avant-garde art. Studios in Greenwich Village and SoHo, rather than Montmartre, were the place to see the newest of the new art.
In the process, a profound cultural insecurity was overcome. From the very beginning of their history, Americans had looked to Europe for guidance, validation and respectability in matters aesthetic. Colonial painters broke out of the folk tradition by studying prints of old master paintings imported from Britain. As recently as the early-20th century, American art collectors were eager to demonstrate that American modernists were the equal of their European counterparts. But it would be two or three more decades before this claim was recognized as a universal truth.
It would take the "drip" paintings of Jackson Pollock, which fused aspects of European Surrealism with a characteristically American scale and individuality, that would, in the view of art historians, collectors and others, decisively establish American art as independently viable, the equal at the very least, of anything being produced in Europe.
This is the story Annie Cohen-Solal tells in her cultural history "Painting American: The Rise of American Artists, Paris 1897-New York 1948." It is a remarkable story, that of a new nation formed in opposition to European political norms, measuring itself as a cultural force against Old World standards, seeking both emancipation and parity, independence and validation.
The author, an Algerian-born French scholar (and biographer of Jean-Paul Sartre) who served as cultural attache at the French Embassy in Washington from 1989-1993, begins her story in the middle of the 19th century, with the 1867 Paris Exposition. Having emerged from the crucible of the Civil War a newly prosperous, united country ready to take on all comers, America sent its greatest painters as its representatives, artists we consider among the leading lights of the day: George Inness, Albert Bierstadt, John Kensett, Frederic Edwin Church and others.
Fully confident that at least one of them would win a medal, they came away empty-handed. The French awarded themselves all the medals but one, which went to Church's magnificent "Niagara" (1857) now in the Corcoran Gallery of Art. One critic dismissed the American effort by writing, "Immature and crude, their presence is not commensurate with their present importance and certainly not with their brilliant future."
It was the American nightmare, a Henry James scenario avant la lettre: Americans arrive on the Continent flush full of confidence only to find themselves laughed out of town, dismissed as lowly rubes by the European sophisticates.
But, guess what? They didn't give up. Americans continued to be drawn by the siren-song of the Old World. They went to school on Europe, studying its museums and collections. They went to school in it, too, traveling across the Atlantic to enroll in its art schools as Thomas Eakins did at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in 1867 and modernist Patrick Henry Bruce did in the short-lived Academie Matisse, four decades later. They recognized that only there could they find the raw material of cultural legitimacy. The aim was not to imitate European modes but to absorb them and then adapt them to native experience. That this was not a simple or an easy task, is the subject of this narrative.
French audiences may have seen the Americans as crude bumpkins, but that doesn't mean life was plain sailing at home. The European experience could complicate life stateside. American artists returning from Europe had to overcome national prejudices against "fine art." Or, returning from Europe newly enriched by what cultural riches it had to offer, they found the artistic outlook stiflingly provincial, and faced the task of trying to sophisticate their countrymen. (This was the fate of the likes of Samuel Morse and Worthington Whitridge.)
There were other obstacles, as well. Until the 19th century, art students in America learned to draw by copying plaster casts of the great works of sculpture in Europe. Life drawing drawing the nude female model was a fixture of European art schools. When Eakins tried to introduce the idea in Philadelphia, there was a storm of protest.
Gradually, a cross-pollination occurred, greatly facilitated by proselytizers like Alfred Stieglitz, exhibitions like the 1913 Armory show and collectors like the Havemeyers and Duncan Phillips. This is an encyclopedic, broadly researched study.
The tale told here is an oft-told one, particularly the second half of the book, devoted to modern art. Where the book is most valuable, however, is in its broad context. The early parts of the book, on the 19th century, are particularly valuable for the light they shed on the deep roots of America's cultural insecurity and the roots of our determination to overcome it.
One of the book's most fascinating and less well known episodes, however, concerns the acquisition of Picasso's 1907 "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" by the Museum of Modern Art in 1936. This landmark painting, considered the beginnings of Cubism, belonged to Jacques Doucet, a French private collector who lived just outside Paris. He had planned to leave it to the Luxembourg Museum upon his death.
French cultural chauvinism being what it was at the time, the government dithered. As it had with the famous Caillebotte bequest a generation earlier, they looked this particular gift horse in the mouth. That allowed the fledgling MoMA, looking for a landmark acquisition to both anchor its collection and confer the imprimatur of legitimacy upon it, to strike. A group of trustees put up the money and, with the addition of some judicious deaccessioning (selling other works in the collection to raise money) they managed to purchase it for the museum.
This really was a landmark event, and not just because it did for the museum just what its director, Alfred Barr, and the trustees had hoped it would. Within the context of the author's subject, its significance was much broader.
First, it showed that Americans had become sophisticated enough to recognize an important masterwork of art and modern art to boot, the most difficult kind. Second, the country showed that it had the resources in the form of collectors with the wherewithal to buy it. Finally, it showed that the it had progressed sufficiently that it had cultural institutions of sufficient stature to put a painting like that in.
Perhaps it is with this event, rather than Jackson Pollock's drip painting breakthrough, that American art really came into its own.

Eric Gibson is the deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal's Leisure & Arts page.

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