American artists. 7 masters who astonished the world

American artists are extremely motley. Some of them were sheer cosmopolitans, like Sargent. Being an American by birth, he spent almost all his life in London and Paris.

Among them, there are also authentic Americans, who depicted only the life of their countrymen, like Rockwell.

And there are even otherworldly artists, like Pollock. Or those whose art became a product of the consumer society. Of course, this is about Warhol.

Nevertheless, they are all Americans. Freedom-loving, audacious, brilliant. Read about seven of them below.

1. James Whistler (1834-1903)

James Whistler Self portraitJames Whistler. Self portrait. 1872. Detroit Institute of Arts, USA.

Whistler can hardly be called a true American. Growing up, he moved to Europe. And his childhood he spent… in Russia. His father built a railway in Saint Petersburg.

It was there that young James fell in love with art, when visiting the Hermitage and Peterhof thanks to his father’s connections (at that time, these palaces were still closed to the public).

What is Whistler famous for? Whatever style he applied in his paintings, from realism to tonalism*, you can almost immediately recognize him by two signs. Unusual colours and musical titles.

A part of his portraits imitates the old masters. For example, his famous portrait of “The Artist’s Mother”.

James Whistler The artist’s mother
James Whistler. The Artist’s Mother. Arrangement in Grey and Black. 1871. Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

The artist created an amazing painting using grey colours from light to dark ones. And a little of yellow.

But it doesn’t mean that Whistler loved such colours. He was an extraordinary man. He could easily make a public appearance wearing yellow socks and carrying a bright umbrella. Despite the fact that in those times men dressed only in black and grey.

He has much brighter works than “The Mother”. For example, “Symphony in White”. The painting was called so by one of journalists at an exhibition. Whistler liked the idea. Since then, he gave musical titles to almost all of his works.

James Whistler Symphony in white no. 1
James Whistler. Symphony in White No. 1. 1862. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, USA

But at that time, in 1862, the public didn’t like the “Symphony”. And again, it was due to an unusual colour composition preferred by Whistler. People considered it strange to paint a woman in white on the white background.

The painting depicts Whistler’s red-haired lover. It’s the sort of thing the Pre-Raphaelites could do. After all, at the time, the artist was on friendly terms with one of the main founders of Pre-Raphaelism Gabriel Rossetti. A beauty, lilies, unusual elements (a wolf skin). Everything as is right and proper.

But Whistler quickly gave up Pre-Raphaelism. Since it was not external beauty that was important to him, but mood and emotions. And he created a new direction – tonalism.

His landscapes-nocturnes in the style of tonalism really resembled music. Monochrome, plaintive.

Whistler said that such musical titles helped him to focus on painting itself, its lines and colour. Without thinking about the place and people being depicted.

James Whistler Nocturnes in Blue and silver: Chelsea
James Whistler. Nocturne in Blue and Silver: Chelsea. 1871. The Tate Gallery, London

3. Mary Cassatt  (1844-1926)

Mary Stevenson Cassatt. Self portrait
Mary Stevenson Cassatt. Self portrait. 1878. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Mary Cassatt was born in a rich family. She could have lived a careless life. Could have got married and had children. But she chose a different road. She vowed celibacy for the sake of painting.

She was on friendly terms with Edgar Degas. Once in the impressionist environment, she became addicted to this style once and for all. And her “Little Girl in a Blue Armchair” is the first impressionist painting saw by the public.

Cassatt little girl in a blue armchair
Mary Cassatt. Little Girl in a Blue Armchair. 1878. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, USA

But nobody really liked the painting. In the 19th century, children were portrayed as obediently sitting angels with curled locks and pink cheeks. And here we see a child, who is obviously bored and is sitting in an over-unstudied pose.

But it was childless Mary Cassatt, who was almost the first one to start showing them as natural as they were.

For the time, Cassatt had a serious “drawback”. She was a woman. She couldn’t afford to go to a park alone to paint from life. All the more, she couldn’t visit a cafe where other artists gathered. They were all men! What did she have to do?

Mary Cassatt. The Tea. 1880.
Mary Cassatt. The Tea. 1880. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA

To paint monotonous women’s tea parties in living rooms with marble fireplaces and expensive tea sets. A slow paced and extremely boring life.

Mary Cassatt didn’t live to see her paintings appreciated. At first, she was rejected for her impressionism and the alleged incomplete paintings.

Then, as recently as in the 20th century, it unexpectedly became “outdated”, since art nouveau (Klimt) and fauvism (Matisse) became en vogue.

Mary Cassatt. Sleepy Baby. 1910.
Mary Cassatt. Sleepy Baby. Pastel, paper. 1910. Dallas Museum of Art, USA

But she stuck to her style to the end. Impressionism. Subdued pastel. Mothers with children.

Cassatt gave up on motherhood for the sake of painting. But her female principle increasingly manifested itself in such tender works as “Sleepy Baby”. It’s a pity that the conservative society once presented her with such a challenge.

3. John Sargent (1856-1925)

John Sargent. Self portrait. 1892
John Sargent. Self portrait. 1892. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

John Sargent was sure that he would be a portrait painter the whole life. The career shaped well. Aristocrats lined up to order a portrait from him.

However, once the society thought that the artist crossed the line. Now, it’s hard for us to understand why the painting “Madame X” was so unacceptable.

Truly speaking, in the original version the heroine had one of her shoulder straps down. Sargent “raised” it later but it didn’t save the situation. There were no more orders.

John Sargent. Madame X. 1878
John Sargent. Madame X. 1878. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

What was the indecency seen by the public? The fact was that Sargent portrayed the model standing in a too confident posture. Moreover, translucent skin and pink ear are very eloquent.

The picture seems to say that this woman, being extremely sexual, has no objections to accepting the courtship of other men. Despite being married.

Unfortunately, contemporaries missed the masterpiece behind this scandal. A dark dress, light skin, a dynamic posture – a simple combination, which could be found by the most talented masters only.

But every cloud has a silver lining. In return, Sargent received freedom. He began to experiment more with impressionism. To paint children in spontaneous situations. That’s how the work “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” appeared.

Sargent wanted to catch a certain moment of twilight. Therefore, it worked only 2 minutes a day when the lighting was appropriate. He worked in summer and in autumn. And when the flowers withered, he replaced them with artificial ones.

John Sargent. Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. 1885-1886
John Sargent. Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. 1885-1886. The Tate Gallery, London

In his last decades, Sargent acquired the taste of freedom so much that he began to refuse making portraits. Although his reputation had already been restored. He even fluffed off a client rudely, saying that he would paint her wicket-gate. with greater pleasure than her face.

John Sargent. White Ships. 1908.
John Sargent. White Ships. 1908. The Brooklyn Museum, USA

Contemporaries treated Sargent with irony. Considering him outdated in the age of modernism. But time has set things straight.

Nowadays, his works cost no less than the paintings of the most famous modernists. And the public affection goes without saying. The exhibitions with his works are always sold out.

4. Norman Rockwell (1894-1978)

Norman Rockwell. Self portrait. Illustration for “The Saturday Evening Post”, February 13, 1960.
Norman Rockwell. Self portrait. Illustration for “The Saturday Evening Post”, February 13, 1960.

It’s hard to imagine an artist who could be more popular while alive than Norman Rockwell. Several generations of Americans were raised on his illustrations. And loved them with all their hearts.

After all, Rockwell depicted ordinary Americans. But at the same time, he showed their lives from the most positive point of view. Rockwell didn’t want to show either evil fathers or indifferent mothers. And you won’t find miserable children on his paintings.

Norman Rockwell. Going and Coming. Illustration in “The Saturday Evening Post” magazine, August 30, 1947.
Norman Rockwell. Going and Coming. Illustration in “The Saturday Evening Post” magazine, August 30, 1947. The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, USA

His works are full of humour, vivid colours, and very skilfully captured expressions on his models’ faces.

But it’s an illusion that the works came natural to Rockwell. Before creating a single painting, he could first take up to hundreds of photos with his models to catch the right gestures.

Rockwell’s works had a tremendous influence on the minds of millions of Americans. Since he often spoke with his paintings.

During the Second World War, he decided to show what the soldiers of his country were fighting for. By creating the painting “Freedom from want” among other things. It depicts the Thanksgiving Day, on which all the family members are enjoying this family holiday, full-bellied and contented.

Norman Rockwell. Freedom From Want. 1943.
Norman Rockwell. Freedom From Want. 1943. The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, USA

After 50 years of work for “The Saturday Evening Post”, Rockwell moved to a more democratic “Look” magazine, where he was able to express his position on social issues.

The most outstanding work of those years is “The problem we all live with”.

Norman Rockwell. The Problem We All Live With. 1964.
Norman Rockwell. The Problem We All Live With. 1964. The Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, USA.

It was a real story of a black girl who attended school for white. Since the law had been adopted that people (and therefore, educational institutions) should be no longer racially divided.

But inhabitants’ anger knew no limits. On the way to school, the girl was guarded by the police. Such a “routine” moment was shown by Rockwell.

If you want to see a little airbrushed life of the Americans (the way they wanted to see it), don’t miss Rockwell’s paintings.

Perhaps, Rockwell is the most American painter out of all the artists represented in this article.

5. Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009)

Andrew Wyeth. Self portrait. 1945.
Andrew Wyeth. Self portrait. 1945. The National Academy of Design, New York

Unlike Rockwell, Wyeth wasn’t so positive. Being an anchoret by nature, he didn’t seek to airbrush anything. On the contrary, he depicted the most ordinary landscapes and completely unremarkable objects. A simple wheat field, a simple wooden house. However, he managed to find something magical even in them.

Art Quiz

The most famous of his works is the “Christina’s World”. Wyeth showed the fate of a woman who was his neighbour. Being paralyzed since childhood, she crawled around her farm.

Thus, the painting contains no romance, as it may seem at first. If you look closely, you may see that the woman is unhealthy thin. And knowing that the heroine’s legs are paralyzed, you sadly realize how far she is from home.

Andrew Wyeth. Christina’s World. 1948.
Andrew Wyeth. Christina’s World. 1948. The Museum of Modern Art, New York (MOMA)

At first sight, Wyeth painted the most ordinary things. Here we see an old window of an old house. A shabby curtain, which is already turning into shreds. A forest darkens behind the window.

But there is some kind of mystery in these objects. Some kind of a different view.

Andrew Wyeth. Wind From the Sea. 1947.
Andrew Wyeth. Wind From the Sea. 1947. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA

Just like children can see the world with unbiased eyes. This is the way Wyeth does. And the way we do together with him.

Wyeth’s wife was responsible for all his business affairs. She was a good organizer. She was the one who contacted museums and collectors.

There was little romance in their relations. A muse was obliged to appear. And a simple, but extraordinary looking Helga became the one. She is the person we meet in his numerous works.

Andrew Wyeth. Braids (from “Helga” series). 1979.
Andrew Wyeth. Braids (from “Helga” series). 1979. Private collection

It seems that all we see is just a photographic image of a woman. But for some reason, it’s difficult to withdraw eyes from her. Her look is too complicated, her shoulders tense. We feel like we are internally strained together with her. Trying to find an explanation of this tension.

Showing reality in every detail, Wyeth somehow endowed it with emotions that cannot leave us unmoved.

For a long time, the artist’s works weren’t appreciated. Albeit magical, his realism didn’t fit into modernist trends of the 20th century.

When museum representatives bought his works, they tried to do it quietly without attracting attention. His exhibitions were rare. But all the modernists to spite, they always were stunningly successful. People came in flocks. And still come.

6. Jackson Pollock (1912-1956)

Jackson Pollock. 1950. Photo by Hans Namut
Jackson Pollock. 1950. Photo by Hans Namut

It’s impossible to leave out Jackson Pollock. He crossed a certain line in the art, and painting could be the same no more. He showed that in the art, it is possible to do without borders at all. When he put canvas on the floor and spattered it with paint.

The first step of this American artist was abstractionism, where there are still figurative traces. On his painting from 1940s “Stenographic figure”, we can see contour of both face and hands. And even crosses and zeros – the symbols we can understand.

Jackson Pollock. Stenographic Figure. 1942.
Jackson Pollock. Stenographic Figure. 1942. The Museum of Modern Art, New York (MOMA)

His works were appreciated but rarely bought. He was as poor as a church mouse. And drank like a fish. Despite a happy marriage. His wife thought the world of his talent and did everything possible for her husband’s success.

But Pollock was initially a broken person. Since a young age, his behaviour made it clear that early death was his destiny.

And this personality breakdown resulted in his death at the age of 44. But he would manage to make a revolution in the art and become famous.

Jackson Pollock. Autumn Rhythm (Number 30). 1950.
Jackson Pollock. Autumn Rhythm (Number 30). 1950. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA

And he did it during the two-year long period of sobriety. He was able to work productively in 1950-1952. He had been experimenting for a long time, until he discovered a drip painting technique.

He laid a huge canvas on the floor of his shed, walked around it as if being inside the painting. And spattered or just poured paint.

People began to buy these unusual paintings for their incredible originality and novelty.

Jackson Pollock. Blue Poles. 1952.
Jackson Pollock. Blue Poles. 1952. The National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Pollock was stunned by his fame and sank himself into depression, not knowing where to move next. The deadly mixture of alcohol and depression left him no chances to survive. Once, he took to the wheel being extremely drunk. For the last time.

7. Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

Andy Warhol. 1979. Photo by Arthur Tress
Andy Warhol. 1979. Photo by Arthur Tress

Pop art could be born only in such a country as America, where a cult of consumption is so strong. And undoubtedly, its main pioneer was Andy Warhol.

He is famous for taking the most common objects and turning them into works of art. This is what happened to the Campbell’s soup can.

The choice was not a fluke. Warhol’s mother fed her son with this soup every day for over 20 years. Even when he moved to New York and took his mother with him.

Andy Warhol. Campbell’s Soup Cans.
Andy Warhol. Campbell’s Soup Cans. Polymeric material, hand print. 32 paintings 50×40 each. 1962. The Museum of Modern Art, New York (MOMA)

After this experiment, Warhol became interested in silkscreen printing. Since then, he took pop stars’ images and painted them in various colours.

That was how his famous painted Marilyn Monroe appeared.

He produced numerous Marilyns in acid colours. Art Warhol took the art to the assembly line. Just as it should be in the consumer society.

Andy Warhol. Marilyn Monroe. Silkscreen, paper. 1967.
Andy Warhol. Marilyn Monroe. Silkscreen, paper. 1967. The Museum of Modern Art, New York (MOMA)

It was not from scratch that Warhol invented his painted faces. And again, it was due to his mother’s influence. In his childhood, when her son was ill for a long time, she brought him bulks of colouring books.

This childhood hobby evolved and became his signature line and made him incredibly rich.

He painted not only pop stars but masterpieces of his predecessors as well. “Venus” by Botticelli didn’t evade her fate as well.

Just like Marilyns, there were lots of “Venuses” produced. Warhol completely destroyed the concept of the art exclusiveness. Why did the artist do it?

To popularize old masterpieces? Or vice versa, he tried to depreciate them? To immortalize pop stars? Or to season death with irony?

Andy Warhol. Venus Botticelli. 1982
Andy Warhol. Venus Botticelli. Silkscreen printing, acryl, canvas. 122×183 cm. 1982. The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, United States

Sometimes, his painted works of Madonna, Elvis Presley or Lenin are sometimes more recognizable than the original photos.

However, he could hardly outmatch the masterpieces. Come what may, the initial “Venus” remains priceless.

Warhol was an avid party-goer, attracting lots of fringe elements. Drug addicts, failed actors or simply volatile people. One of them once shot him.

Warhol survived. But 20 years later, the consequences of this wound resulted in his lonely death in his apartment.

The American melting pot

Despite the fact that the history of American art is rather short, its range is extremely wide.

The American artists include impressionists (Sargent), magic realists (Wyeth), abstract expressionists (Pollock), and founders of pop art (Warhol).

Well, Americans love freedom of choice in everything. Hundreds of confessions. Hundreds of nations. Hundreds of art branches. That’s why it is called the American melting pot.

* Tonalism – monochrome landscapes in grey, blue or brown shades with the image as if being in a fog. Tonalism is considered to be a branch of impressionism, since it conveys an artist’s impression of what he saw.

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