Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 29, 2000
Diane Fischer, ed. Paris 1900: The “American School” at the Universal Exposition Exh. cat. Montclair: Montclair Art Museum in association with Rutgers University Press, 1999. 232 pp.; 101 b/w ills. $50.00 (0813526418)
The Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, NJ, September 19, 1999-Jan.16, 2000; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts,Philadelphia, PA, February 12-April 16, 2000; Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, OH, May 18-August 13, 2000; Elvehjem Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, September 16-December 3, 2000; Musée Carnavalet, Paris, France, February 2-May 15, 2001.

Diane P. Fischer opens the principal essay of the Paris 1900 catalogue with a reference to the self-conscious declaration of the American Department of Fine Arts at the Paris Exposition of 1900 to present the United States as a nation free of “foreign trammels.” The examination of this desire to assert a unique American identity, both political and artistic, binds Fischer’s text with the other essays of the catalogue, detailing the complex interrelationships of national and artistic identity in 1890s America. Fischer constructs an opposition between the 1900 art display and that of the Universal Exposition of 1889, where American art had seemed to observers to be derivative of French styles. Despite the success of the emulation of French styles in 1889, she explains, an impulse grew in the 1890s to establish an independent American “school,” with a unique national identity. The formulation of the American art exhibition for the exposition revealed this urge to distinguish American art as something more than a simple derivation of European academic style, yet the definition of what should constitute an American style was problematic. Fischer points out that by the 1890s many American artists assimilated European academic styles while pursuing formal art study in France, and some never returned to the United States. She outlines how the Department of Art set quotas to insure that expatriate artists did not dominate the display at the Paris exposition. Nonetheless, major Americans living abroad were included, and, unlike the 1889 show, their works were integrated with those of native artists. In fact, the administrators went to great lengths to claim as American long-time expatriates like James Abbott McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent.

The American “school” that emerges from the work selected for the exhibition is a diverse amalgam of American and international styles adapted to native goals, which, in the eyes of contemporary critics, reflected a sensitive, yet rational and sincere vigor, evidence of the promise of a nation emerging onto the world scene. In a strategy that works more effectively in the catalogue than in the orientation gallery of the Montclair version of the “Paris 1900” exhibition, Fischer systematically categorizes subjects of paintings included in the Paris exposition and the sorts of critical response the works elicited. She underscores an emphasis on American subject matter, where writers could find a “civilizing agent” of the genteel American empire in the puritanical innocence of an American female figure, an assertion of the “new naval power of the west” in a non-specific American seascape, and evidence of the country’s metamorphosis from an agrarian into an industrial nation in an American cityscape.

This formulation of American artistic identity as a facet of a larger international political and cultural context is one of the strengths of this collection of essays, although tantalizing references to defining events like the Dreyfus Affair are sometimes left frustratingly undeveloped. Still, Fischer’s introduction reflects American nationalism and imperialism at the end of the nineteenth century and offers the opportunity for the essayists to follow several avenues of inquiry. Linda J. Docherty discusses the national enthusiasm that developed between the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the Paris Exposition of 1900. She underscores the desire for American cultural legitimization at the end of the nineteenth century, which she traces through regional world’s fairs in the last decade of the century, like the Tennessee Centennial of 1897 and the Trans-Mississippi Exposition of 1898, as well as through permanent public monuments such as the Library of Congress. Docherty describes the 1890s as a period when a shifting sense of national character was exemplified by vibrant nationalists like Theodore Roosevelt who helped foster an appreciation of originality, and a belief in the possibility of national unity in diversity. Thus a spectrum of strategies could coexist in an American “school,” from the allegorical classicism of the American Renaissance to the representation of the American scene through a native twist on more recent artistic styles like impressionism.

The essays by Robert W. Rydell and Gabriel P. Weisberg further broaden the context in which we are led to understand the American art exhibited in Paris, for the scope of the exposition reached far beyond the realm of fine art displayed in the Grand Palace. Rydell examines the vast political, racial, economic, and labor tensions in America following the Civil War, tensions which inspired a nationalizing agenda. As he explores why this exposition was so important to the United States government, which spent more than any other foreign participant on its displays, Rydell describes the difficulties of appropriating funds and organizing the United States’s exhibits. Considering the whole of the United States’s involvement in the exposition, Rydell addresses engaging elements of the exposition only cursorily touched upon in the “Paris 1900” exhibition, like the decorative arts (which were relegated to the Palace of Diverse Industries) and the rambling, monumental layout of the fair’s grounds. He also analyzes the challenges faced by women and minorities as they attempted to gain autonomous recognition at the exposition and control of their own representation, pointing out how the American Indian and African American displays ended up being understood by many as testimony to the civilizing processes of colonialism.

Weisberg frames his discussion of the exposition within the national relations between France and the United States in the 1890s. As increased trade reciprocity between the countries was encouraged, each nation promoted its overseas economic interests while also attempting to define a new national image. France wanted to encourage international business and foster a vision of a “republic of the arts,” two objectives which benefited from a recognition of American commercial goods and art. To the Americans, the display of their products could be a statement of the United States’s supremacy in the production of the industrial arts. Weisberg goes on to explore the French reception of American art. While the Americans were attempting to loosen the fetters of French influence, the French were becoming less insular and revealed a genuine interest in American art. Although some French critics condemned the American art display, others offered generous praise, and French museums, state officials, and private patrons purchased works for their collections. To the French, American art, Weisberg argues, represented something “new and timely” during a period in which France was keenly interested in concepts of progress and modernity.

Fischer and her fellow essayists propose that American cultural nationalism and anti-academicism serve as a bridge into twentieth-century urban realism, modernism, and an increased sense of native artistic tradition. Docherty explains that in the 1890s factions of American artists were gaining recognition, yet the market still favored European paintings, a reflection of an American taste for European art that emerged after the Centennial Exhibition. By the 1890s, a few groups of entrepreneurial artists and dealers, as well as sympathetic collectors and museums, helped to create an appreciation for national art. Building on this recognition being achieved at home, Gail Stavitsky argues, the Paris exposition solidified claims for the existence of an American “school.” The diversity of styles accommodated by this “school,” claims Stavitsky, echoed a freedom of thought proselytized by emerging artists like Robert Henri and anticipated the variety of modes of American modernism in the early twentieth century. Exhibitions over the course of the first decades of the century and the critical reception they inspired testify to an increasingly assured perception of a national artistic individuality. Stavitsky further describes a desire to create and foster an American identity, shunning direct foreign influence and resonating into the 1920s in the aims of artists such as Henri and Marsden Hartley and collectors like Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and Duncan Philips. By the 1930s American art would be the subject of comprehensive surveys organized by the Museum of Modern Art and a major focus of the Century of Progress exhibition.

Paul Sternberger
Rutgers University, Newark