A curator of paintings and sculpture at the Boston Athenaeum, David Dearinger, took Amtrak to the city last week to speak before the Metropolitan Chapter of the Victorian Society in America on the topic of American writers who contributed to art criticism in the decades prior to the Civil War.
Mr. Dearinger, who earned his Ph.D. at the CUNY Graduate Center and taught at the Fashion Institute of Technology, had his work cut out for him. He said many historians had dismissed this period of American art history "as a virtual wasteland" when it comes to art criticism. "They have assumed that writings about art from this period are superficial, that authors of such writings relied on simple description with no attempt at stylistic or historical analysis, expressed no opinions, had only a minimum of literary style, and, perhaps, worst of all, had no sense of humor."
On the contrary, he said, that period "saw the emergence of a number of important literary figures who can hardly be dismissed as insignificant" in terms of writing style and place in the history of American letters. These figures, he said, indispensably contributed to the formation of public taste.
Mr. Dearinger set the stage by arguing that one of the major problems prior to the 1820s was that there were few reliable places for the public to see fine art because museums and commercial galleries had not developed yet.The Pennsylvania Academy for the Fine Arts began in 1811 and others, such as the National Academy of Design, followed, and their exhibitions were covered by the major newspapers and journals.
The first writer Mr. Dearinger discussed was William Cullen Bryant, who became known for an 1817 poem titled "Thanatopsis." Mr. Dearinger said that Bryant's romantically inclined verse gave made him particularly suited to write about nature painting, and Bryant took to advocating the landscape paintings of Hudson River School. Mr. Dearinger said Bryant, who became editor of the New York Evening Post, was interested in how American artists would create a truly American art. "With his roots in romantic poetry, with its adoration of nature, Bryant was well-placed to answer that question," Mr. Dearinger said. Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole arrived onto the New York scene just as Bryant himself was settling into the city. The famous friendship between Cole and Bryant was was celebrated by Asher Durand in the 1849 painting, "Kindred Spirits," which shows the pair in conversation at Kaaterskill Clove. Mr. Dearinger said that Bryant believed Cole not only returned from Europe more American but "had found the proper vehicle for American art with the underlying understanding that nature equals God."
Mr. Dearinger then turned to George Pope Morris, who founded the New York Mirror magazine in 1823. Like Bryant, Morris was a poet whose most famous poem was "Woodman, spare that tree." Mr. Dearinger read a stanza from it:
Woodman, spare that tree!
Touch not a single bough!
In youth it sheltered me,
And I'll protect it now.
'Twas my forefather's hand
That placed it near his cot:
There, woodman, let it stand,
Thy axe shall harm it not!
Mr. Dearinger said Morris often complained that there were too many portraits in public exhibitions and blamed this on the egos of patrons.
Next he discussed Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune who - like Bryant and Morris - had a "decided preference for landscape painting." Mr. Dearinger said when Greeley's time for writing became curtailed, he hired George William Curtis, who joined the Tribune staff in 1851, to review art exhibits. Curtis wrote romantic novels and had spent time at the utopian community Brook Farm. Curtis, for example, wrote four entire articles about landscapes that he saw at a National Academy show in 1851. "He approached the works thematically; linking them to traditions of Romantic poetry, stylistically comparing American landscapes to British counterparts" such as J.M.W. Turner, Mr. Dearinger said.
When the prolific Curtis's commitment for Harper's made it less easy for him to continue writing about art for the Tribune, Greeley sought a replacement. Almost a decade later, in 1864, he found Clarence Cook and hired him as the Tribune's "first dedicated fulltime art critic," Mr. Dearinger said, adding that Cook was the "perfect transitional figure" between journalists of the antebellum period and the professional art critics of the following generations.
Like Curtis, Cook was prolific. Harvard-trained, Cook could produce extremely negative reviews about certain artists (he described John La Farge's work as a muddle of color). Over an impressive 40 year career, Cook became the most influential American art critic of his time, Mr. Dearinger said.
Upcoming Victorian Society events include a lecture on March 14 on the Civil War draft riots; a lecture on metalwork of the Aesthetic Movement on April 11, and a talk on the Upper West Side apartment building the Ansonia on May 9.