A nation's identity is expressed through its art. Great painters capture the essence of a culture's brightest hopes, deepest anxieties, and most profound aspirations. They provide an aesthetic road map to a nation's history, recording the lives of its citizens and reflecting the personality of an entire people.
But all too often, Americans themselves are unfamiliar with the great artistic legacy of their own country. Many of us study the great artists of Europe—Leonardo and Rubens, Degas and Monet—but neglect the remarkable painters of our own national tradition.
And yet the tradition of American art is filled with spectacular masterpieces that raise intriguing questions:
- How did the founding of this new nation find expression in art?
- Have our democratic ideals influenced the growth and development of American art?
- Did artists in this nascent culture follow time-honored aesthetic models, or did they pioneer new styles to communicate their burgeoning sense of national pride?
- Is there something uniquely "American" about American art?
These are the kinds of questions you explore in Masterworks of American Art. In this sweeping survey, you encounter the brilliant paintings of the homegrown masters who documented the birth of our nation from its colonial roots up to the brink of World War I and the birth of Modernism. As you examine this vital artistic tradition in its historical, cultural, and political contexts, you discover how appreciating the legacy of American art is crucial to fully understanding the story of our great nation.
A New Art for a New Nation
Your guide is Professor William Kloss. A noted scholar and art historian, Professor Kloss has taught more than 100 courses as an independent lecturer for the Smithsonian Institution's seminar and travel program. Through 24 engaging and informative lectures, he shares his deep passion for the art of this nation while offering remarkable insights into the relationship between America's history and its art.
What you discover is a revolution in art. Sometimes borrowing from European models, just as often departing from them, American artists pioneered new attitudes and styles to express the aspirations of a new nation.
Professor Kloss highlights this uniquely American approach to art, examining some of the greatest paintings of the tradition within the larger context of our country's history and culture. The result is a grand survey of the American experience, in which some of the most critical eras of this nation's history are viewed through the lens of great art:
- The American Revolution: Great artists captured a new spirit of liberty through scenes of war and government. You examine key examples of their revolutionary approach to art, including The Death of General Wolfe, in which Benjamin West pioneered a new vision of democratic leadership by rendering the British general in contemporary dress.
- The Civil War: You see how this tumultuous period of American history found expression on memorable canvases, such as James Hamilton's symbolic representation of the battered ship of state in Old Ironsides and Winslow Homer's vivid reenactment of skirmishes on the front, Inviting a Shot before Petersburg.
- The Reconstruction: After the war, painters sought to create an image of the nation reunited, as in George P. A. Healy's portrait of The Peacemakers, while others reflected the readjustments of postwar life, as in Homer's A Visit from the Old Mistress.
- The Westward Expansion: Great masters such as Albert Bierstadt, in his monumental canvas Valley of the Yosemite, recorded the natural splendors of a nation pushing westward, while Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's allegorical mural Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way embodied the idea of Manifest Destiny.
At the same time, you witness the rise of the great artistic institutions that fostered the development of the nation's arts, such as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Along the way, you sample some of the finest works in the American tradition—memorable masterpieces that rival the great paintings of Europe. These masterworks represent a wide rich array of styles and subjects—from sweeping landscapes to intimate portraits to scenes of everyday life.
With Professor Kloss as your guide, you will appreciate the hallmark innovations and breathtaking artistry of American painting:
- An emphasis on linearity and weightlessness in the earliest works of the American tradition—qualities that sprang from generations of self-trained artists who cultivated a unique, homegrown aesthetic
- The remarkably lifelike trompe l'oeil paintings of William Hartnett and Charles Willson Peale, who created painstaking, dazzling reproductions of objects in real life
- James McNeill Whistler's simple but striking use of shape, line, and a muted color palette, as seen in his famous portrait of his mother
- The vivid portrayal of physical movement in art, as exemplified in remarkable compositions such as Thomas Eakins's The Biglin Brothers Racing.
With each example, you not only gain a sense of the larger trajectory of the American tradition in painting, but you also develop your appreciation of the artistry represented in each work. With his insightful comments on style, composition, and color, Professor Kloss offers an enlightening guide to appreciating virtually any great work of art.
The American Experience—on the Canvas
With Masterworks of American Art, you view these great works as part of an ever-developing story, in which master artists capture the portrait of a nation as it grows and changes. As you savor Professor Kloss's enlightening commentary, you also enjoy a feast for the eyes, as each painting is shown in rich, full-color reproductions worthy of these great masterpieces.
If you've already studied the great art of Europe, Masterworks of American Art is an essential complement to your studies, and if you're new to the world of painting, this course offers an enlivening introduction to this remarkable body of work.
Join Professor Kloss as he reveals the vital and vibrant tradition of American art, and witness the birth, growth, and development of our great nation as it was painted by some of the greatest artists the world has known.