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Special Issue: America
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The Great Divide

Why European Museums Need More American Art

BY Max Hollein
director and CEO, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco


Attributed to Frederic Edwin Church, Our Banner in the Sky (c.1861) © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Our world—and how we perceive and understand it—is both shaped and reflected by art. This is especially true for the history, culture and values of a specific country. The celebration of Independence Day in the United States commemorates not only the determination to forge a New World national political identity, but also a self-conscious separation from Old World European influence.

In the ensuing decades, American cultural leaders attempted to establish movements such as the Hudson River School of artists and the Knickerbocker Group of writers. However, even the most democratic Americans, who rejected European monarchies and aristocracies, found it difficult to resist the multifaceted allure of European culture—including art, architecture, decorative arts, literature, music, and fashion.

One-way exchange

Accordingly, early American tourists made their own “Grand Tour” of Europe, seeking out ancient and modern cultural role models that would promote social status, civic virtue and cultural refinement at home. In the ensuing two centuries, American collectors seeking high culture and artistic achievement initiated what became perhaps the greatest transfer of significant art objects from one continent to another in history.

This is why museums throughout the United States are filled with many of Europe’s—and the world’s greatest art treasures—and why many countries now have national patrimony laws preventing the further transfer of such treasures.

Yet, while great collections of European art are now publicly accessible in every major American museum, both in the permanent collections and temporary exhibition galleries, this has been a one-way cultural appropriation that has not been reciprocated. Major European museums house almost no American art that pre-dates the ascent of American Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art in the post-Second World War years.

For decades, the French government’s 1891 acquisition of James McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871) was an outlier. As late as 2014, it was international news when the National Gallery in London acquired its first major American painting—George Bellows’ Men of the Docks (1912).

How can Europeans understand American identity if they don’t experience its art? 

The problem is not merely one of adequate cultural representation, but also of potential misunderstanding. If a nation’s art offers one of the best reflections of its culture, how can Europeans reasonably evaluate and understand the core identities and values of Americans if they can’t readily experience their art first-hand?

For example, the ability to properly “read” and understand American art requires an appreciation that landscape painting in the United States is essentially a completely different genre to that in Europe. In the absence of established traditions of history and religious painting, landscape painting flourished as the principal platform for nationalist rhetoric in 19th-century America.

Thomas Cole, View Near the Village of Catskill (1827) © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

A case in point is the Hudson River School of landscape painting, which established a uniquely American conception of landscape as a metaphor for the new nation. In formative works like View Near the Village of Catskill (1827), Thomas Cole depicted the American landscape as a New World Garden of Eden that represented both God’s creation as well as the nation’s destiny to settle and cultivate the “wilderness” landscape previously occupied by Native Americans.

In Our Banner in the Sky (c.1861) a painting inspired by the outbreak of the Civil War (1861-65), Cole’s pupil Frederic E. Church explicitly stated that the nation’s destiny was prophesized in the heavens. Albert Bierstadt’s California Spring (1875), exhibited at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition in 1876, is tantamount to an advertisement for America’s “manifest destiny” to settle the entire continent—a mission fulfilled in Gold Rush era California.

American exceptionalism

In such works one can trace the roots of core elements of U.S. identity such as “American exceptionalism”, the still pervasive and potent belief that the US is a unique democratic nation with a God-given mission to transform the world in its own image.

In the 1950s, the U.S. government—aided by the C.I.A.—strategically and successfully positioned Abstract Expressionism as the quintessential American art movement, one embodying freedom of expression. In the 1960s, thanks to European collectors and curators, Pop Art assumed the mantle of being the most distinctively American art movement, reinforcing stereotypes of the United States as being consumed by consumerism. Yet, like Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 and Bellows’ Men of the Docks, these examples are outliers, and reveal the risks attending simplistic stereotypes.

Albert Bierstadt, California Spring (1875) © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

A more complex and nuanced understanding of the United States by Europeans would require a stronger presence of classical American art in Europe. The fact that the U.S. lacks an overarching cultural foreign policy to promote its heritage abroad (very different from France’s national cultural ambitions or Germany’s network of Goethe Institutes) highlights the importance of cultural exchanges between museums on both sides of the Atlantic—and the Pacific.

Similarly, art dealers at home and abroad—especially at the international art fairs—have the potential to serve as cultural ambassadors for a broader and deeper understanding of 18th-century, 19th-century and early Modern art in the United States. This type of dialogue seems to be more important now than ever.

Museums such as the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, with their exceptional 350-year survey of American art and 1,000-year survey of European art, can pay an instrumental role in achieving just such a discourse.



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