Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 17, 2001
David B. Dearinger, ed. Rave Reviews: American Art and Its Critics, 1826–1925 University Press of New England, 1999. 305 pp.; 80 color ills.; 70 b/w ills. Paper $39.95 (1887149058)
National Academy of Design, New York, Sept. 20-Dec. 31, 2000; Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK Jan. 31-April 1, 2001; Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianaoplis, IN, April 29-July 1, 2001.

In cities and towns across the United States, museums and galleries stage countless art exhibitions in the course of a season. Direct mailings and advertisements may lure us in, but it is often a critic who persuades us to go or stay home. Revered or reviled, art critics have an effect on our actions and opinions. And to whatever extent we agree or dispute with these critics, we read their reviews. Or do we? That question haunts Rave Reviews: American Art and Its Critics, 1826-1925, for difficult as it might be to determine who read reviews and how much influence critics wielded in the time frame addressed by this book, the general acceptance of such questions suggests the complexity of the critic’s role in constructing a cultural milieu for the production and consumption of art, both then or now.

David Dearinger, editor of this book and organizer of the exhibition it accompanied, introduces these problems in his first essay, an overview of American art criticism to 1925. Art critics must have not only journals in which to publish their views but also places to see the works of art they write about, and Dearinger ties his survey to both of these opportunities by linking the proliferation of publications that included art (or later were devoted exclusively to art) to the rise and increasing cultural prominence of art exhibitions, commercial galleries, and museums. Dearinger points out that criticism appeared in a wide range of publications, from the newspapers and periodicals we might expect, to treatises, histories of art, and travel books. His mention of poetry as “an interesting, if eccentric, form of criticism” subtly reminds us that criticism can be both opinionated and creative. And behind all these words is the “public,” an art audience that changed during the years covered by this book; it was at first specialized, then became increasingly inclusive, and finally turned into a “mass” audience (for the Armory Show and its aftermath).

Of the seven essays included in this book, William Gerdts’s most directly addresses creativity by presenting ekphrastic poetry written in response to early nineteenth-century portraits, both “full-sized” and the popular miniature form. Just as exhibitions gave rise to increasing opportunity for critical analysis, so too did they afford poets occasion to respond to pictures. The language of these poems, Gerdts notes, signifies the difficulty we have grasping the passion of nineteenth-century responses to art, responses where a viewer could write about falling in love—literally at first sight—with a portrait. Gerdts’s treatment of poetic and prose representations of art prompts us to remember that visual experience of all kinds was (and still is) mediated by words.

Dearinger’s second essay introduces the writers by linking the burgeoning of criticism in America to the emergence of annual art exhibitions and the growth of journalism from the 1820s through the 1860s. His focus is the critical response to the annual exhibitions instituted in 1826 by the National Academy of Design, which from their inception were unusual among annual shows in other cities because the Academy limited their exhibitions to contemporary American art. The structure of their shows clinched their popularity and all but guaranteed the attention of critics in New York and increasingly writers for papers across the nation. Dearinger argues, then, for the importance of these exhibitions in understanding the development of American art as national expression: “Many journalists of the day used the Academy’s annuals as a barometer to measure the success or failure of American art.” Dearinger, in turn, uses this coverage to “chart the advent and development of the professional writers who covered the exhibitions—that is, the earliest art critics in America”(58).

Surveying criticism of the Academy’s annual shows journal-by-journal, Dearinger brings alive the editors and art writers who responded to American art and shaped public opinion. These were men—and only later women—whose writings presumably were impelled by their journal’s particular literary bent or political affiliation, their editor’s expectations, and their friendships with the artists whose work they reviewed. In short, they were people with different experiences and attitudes who responded variously to new art on the Academy’s walls. Some wrote anonymously: Samuel F. B. Morse, founding member and president of the Academy, shamelessly commended his own history painting of a contemporary American theme in an 1827 review he published under a pseudonym, a review (otherwise) influential in its articulation and promulgation of a structure to evaluate art according to traditional hierarchies of subject. Self-promotion aside, little reason is given for us to expect a consensus of views, and Dearinger notes the wide variety of responses by examining ten individual journals and newspapers and their art critics in order to underscore the importance of such variety of response.

In her essay, Margaret Conrads takes another approach and chronologically surveys responses to the annuals of the 1870s in order to chart the decade that critic Clarence Cook defined as one of “revolution,” an era in which the evolving concept of a national art and its relationship to Europe was hotly debated, particularly in the new genre of magazines exclusively devoted to art. Conrads succinctly lays out these issues in the course of responses to the Academy’s annual exhibitions, “the event[s] that commanded the greatest percentage of critical attention during this period.” The increasingly powerful role of the press is clarified in the debates between Cook and James Jackson Jarves; each claimed knowledge for the highest form of truth in art, claims that, as Conrads points out, were framed around style rather than subject.

Essays by Trudie Grace and Sarah Moore cover the Academy from 1878 until 1915, with Grace treating the twenty-nine year rivalry between the Academy and the Society of American Artists and Moore using John White Alexander’s presidency of the Academy (1909-1915) to explore yet another quest to define nationalism in American art. Grace and Moore use criticism as a lens through which to see their topics, but these essays are more about the rivalry and Alexander’s quest than about criticism per se. Kenneth Myers gives a useful overview of the various opportunities afforded critics to see art in its public display in New York from 1664 to 1914, with treatment of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries much more comprehensive than his summary approach to the late nineteenth and early twentieth.

In the final essay, Avis Berman looks at the challenge to the Academy by the rise of various independent exhibitions in New York, most notably the Armory Show. Her focus, appropriately for this book, is the critical debate waged over the rivalries. Berman has a wonderful ear for the distinctive voices of prominent critics (Mary Fanton Roberts, Charles H. Caffin, Royal Cortissoz, Henry McBride, and Forbes Watson) who battled it out for the minds of their readers. She closes with a kind of requiem for the Academy in the first decades of the twentieth century that culminated in the founding of the Museum of Modern Art: “No longer was the avant-garde the province of a handful of cognoscenti and the Academy and its activities comfortably familiar to the general public. Vanguard art increasingly became the creed of the majority, and the Academy’s sphere of influence dissolved” (142).

Berman points out that no critic of the 1914 Academy annual noted the presence of Thomas Eakins’s Between Rounds, perhaps because, painted some fifteen years before, it did not qualify as “contemporary.” Yet a detail of this picture appears as the frontispiece of Berman’s essay. While it wittily suggests a fight and includes the prominent display of the sign that locates “The Press” in the audience, in my view it reminds us that Eakins is our choice, not that of 1914 critics.

Readers of the catalogue of seventy-one paintings that comprises the final forty percent of the book should keep in mind the discussion in the preceding essays of paintings that were much debated in their time but are now lost. The exhibition is interesting for the range of works it presents, from those deeply discussed today (Eastman Johnson, Winslow Homer, and John Singer Sargent) to those to which we give little attention (Guy Rose, Horatio Walker, and Louis Paul Dessar). These substantive entries, written primarily by Dearinger but also by five other scholars, review each artist’s association with the Academy and discuss the critical response they garnered. While recent critical interpretive scholarship is occasionally cited in footnotes, it is sometimes incomplete and usually pertains to a nineteenth-century understanding of the picture; anyone seeking to know more about the late twentieth-century’s response to these works, made up of paintings, a handful of sculptures, and a print or two, should look elsewhere.

Each work is illustrated in color, but these reproductions are often too dark to be legible and are not of the same quality of the black-and-white illustrations that accompany the essays. And while this reader would have welcomed a bibliography and an index, the two appendices—one biographical sketches of the critics and the other a compilation of Academy reviews from 1826 to 1925—are splendid inclusions.

Nineteenth-century critics did not agree on the relative merit of works of art they reviewed, and some today might wish for more interpretive consideration in these pages. This reviewer found that the essays in which new information and ideas brought alive the distinctive role of particular critics, as well as the deep knowledge of the Academy with which Dearinger sustained the book, make Rave Reviews a vital and lasting source in our own critical time, a time when we often construct a cultural past with the very words first used to describe and evaluate its works of art.

Carol Clark
Amherst College