Masterworks of American Art

Course No. 7158
Professor William Kloss, M.A.
Independent Art Historian
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Course No. 7158
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Course Overview

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.

Memorable Masterpieces

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.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Art in the New World
    From its earliest days, the United States has been home to talented, often self-trained artists. In this first lecture, you preview the signature themes, modes, and styles employed by these homegrown geniuses and begin your trip through American art with some of the earliest examples of art of the colonial period. x
  • 2
    18th-Century Colonial Art
    Continue our survey of art produced during the colonial period with a close examination of some of the great portraits by such talented painters as John Smibert, Robert Feke, and Joseph Blackburn. You see how portraiture reflected not only the character of its sitters, but also had much to say about this burgeoning society, its practices, and its values. x
  • 3
    The Genius of Copley and C. W. Peale
    This lecture examines the fascinating interplay between American and British schools of art during the second half of the 18th century, beginning with detailed, realistic portraits by John Singleton Copley and concluding with two highly symbolic portraits by Charles Willson Peale. x
  • 4
    A Revolution in Art
    Trace the development of history painting from its roots in classical subject matter to its role in military commemoration, starting with Benjamin West, whose unprecedented use of contemporary subjects created a sensation and revolutionized the genre. This consideration also includes the work of two artists—Charles Willson Peale and John Trumbull—Revolutionary War veterans who applied their talents to recording the birth of the nation. x
  • 5
    Portraiture in Federal America
    From Gilbert Stuart's famous "Lansdowne" portrait of George Washington to the witty, skillful Staircase Group by Charles Willson Peale, the art of portraiture flourished during the early days of the American Republic. Throughout, these masterworks showcase the ability of these great painters to capture the intelligence, dignity, and character of the founding generation. x
  • 6
    Early Historical and Landscape Painting
    Historical subjects continued to have a hold on American painters, but many painters turned their skills to the project of documenting the beauties of the new country through landscape painting. Examine both genres and see how painters who traveled abroad incorporated the influence of Romanticism and Neoclassicism. x
  • 7
    The 1820s—Art in the Era of Good Feelings
    Following the tumultuous Revolutionary era, the country experienced a period of relative peace, which was echoed in the flourishing of still-life painting. Here, you examine examples from the masterful still-life painter Raphaelle Peale, as well as the historical portraits that commemorated the nation's first citizens. x
  • 8
    Thomas Cole and the American Landscape
    At the age of 25, with only a year of formal training, painter Thomas Cole became a founding member of the National Academy of Design. In this lecture, you explore the early works of Cole, the first great American landscape painter, including his The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge and Distant View of Niagara Falls, and examine how his innovative series, The Course of Empire, reveals a surprisingly pessimistic perspective on the fate of civilization. x
  • 9
    Thomas Cole—The Late Years
    You look at some of Cole's later paintings, which ranged from depictions of distinctly American subjects to works that reflected his time in Europe. The lecture concludes with a consideration of his unfinished religious cycle, The Cross and the World. x
  • 10
    Other Views, Other Visions
    Cole's legacy continued in the works of his peer, Asher B. Durand, who added his own Transcendentalist sensibilities and commitment to nature to the landscape art pioneered by Cole. This lecture also considers the work of Cole's student, Frederic Edwin Church, who contributed a new and daring perspective on the natural wonder of Niagara, and the luminous landscapes of Fitz Henry Lane. x
  • 11
    American Genre Painting
    In genre painting, the artist acts as storyteller, capturing implied narratives in scenes from everyday life. Here, you sample some masterful examples of this mode, and see how literature, landscape, and history painting interact on the canvas. x
  • 12
    Native Americans and Westward Expansion
    Next, turn your attention to the frontier and the depiction of Native Americans produced by some of the period's greatest painters, including Charles Bird King, George Catlin, and William Ranney. You see how these images combined a sympathy for the native people with a faith in the idea of Manifest Destiny. x
  • 13
    The Civil War in Art
    As the Civil War approached, artists turned to landscape painting and symbolic representations to interpret the rising conflict. You survey a range of these images, from the quiet, reassuring paintings of George Henry Durrie and John Frederick Kensett to Winslow Homer's detailed and startling images from the front. x
  • 14
    The Glow of Peace
    At the end of the war, artists expressed a new hope, as seen in glowing images of peace and harvest captured by Winslow Homer and George Inness. The evocations of a "New Eden" are seen in the majestic western landscapes of Albert Bierstadt and George P. A. Healy's bittersweet evocation of the move from war to peace. x
  • 15
    Art—The Mirror of Social Change
    The paintings of Winslow Homer and others provide a remarkable perspective on the striking social changes after the Civil War, including shifts in gender roles, professions, national identity, and race relations. You also look at the cult of childhood that surfaced, as portrayed in Eastman Johnson's Barn Swallows. x
  • 16
    1876–1893—The Civic Revival of the Nation
    The period 1876–1893 witnessed an increasing devotion to artistic endeavors as American cultural life began to emulate European models. Paintings reflected this greater interest in the arts, including images inspired by opera and literature. x
  • 17
    1885–1900—Contrasts of Dark and Light
    You examine the striking dichotomy between light and dark through the dark, quiet tableaus of William Harnett and John F. Peto, with their beautiful trompe l'oeil illusions, and the vibrant paintings of plein air artists such as William Merritt Chase and Childe Hassam. x
  • 18
    Americans Abroad—Expatriate Painters
    In their search for the finest American artists, the organizers of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition considered painters living in American cities as well as those in Europe. This lecture examines three famous American artists who, despite their expatriate status, are among America's greatest talents: James McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt, and John Singer Sargent. x
  • 19
    Thomas Eakins—Innovation and Rejection
    This lecture initiates a three-part consideration of one of the greatest and most controversial of American artists, Thomas Eakins. In this first lecture, you examine his early works, including his series of paintings of rowers and his masterpiece, The Gross Clinic. x
  • 20
    Thomas Eakins—Success and Scandal
    Eakins' interest in verisimilitude can be seen in some of his virtuoso representations of the human form based on his careful observations of the body in motion. This interest ultimately led to his downfall, as his studies of and professional fixation on the nude human body elicited outrage and led to scandal. x
  • 21
    The Last Years—"And Who Is Eakins?"
    This final lecture on Thomas Eakins examines the artist's later works, including his remarkable images of boxing scenes and his haunting portraits of women that seem to reflect the artist's own increasing sense of isolation and disappointment. x
  • 22
    Winslow Homer in England and New England
    Here, you return to the works of Winslow Homer, You start by viewing some of his powerful paintings of seascapes and nature scenes that reflect his time spent in England and New England. You also begin to explore Homer's remarkable sympathy for animals, as seen in his remarkable hunting scenes. x
  • 23
    Winslow Homer—The Last Years
    By his mid-50s, Homer was not so much a recluse as a man deeply immersed in the natural world—in the wilderness, the tropics, and the sea. You explore how he rendered these settings in some of his greatest paintings, including Fox Hunt and The Gulf Stream. x
  • 24
    Ourselves and Our Posterity
    In this final lecture, you take a fresh look at the trajectory of American art and reconsider some of these great paintings within the broader context of our rich artistic legacy, a legacy that endures and continues to inspire American artists to interpret our world. x

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Video DVD
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  • Download 24 video lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 168-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 168-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
  • Timeline

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Your professor

William Kloss

About Your Professor

William Kloss, M.A.
Independent Art Historian
Professor William Kloss is an independent art historian and scholar who lectures and writes about a wide range of European and American art. He was educated at Oberlin College, where he earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in Art History. He continued his postgraduate work on a teaching fellowship at the University of Michigan and was then awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for two years of study in Rome. As Assistant Professor...
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Masterworks of American Art is rated 4.9 out of 5 by 63.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very comprehensive course! I am a museum tour guide and focus on this period of American art. I found this to be an excellent course to cover the artists and significant works of this early period of American art. This presentation paralleled the class I attended at the museum and covered artists, pieces and history that are not as well represented in our collection. It is great to have it recorded for future reviews.
Date published: 2011-02-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Masterworks of American Art I continue to be enthralled by the art courses taught by William Kloss. His deep understanding and passion for art and life are truly a joy to witness. I've watched this course three times -- and probably will do so again. I get more out of it each time. Would love to see a course by him in genre paintings of many lands.
Date published: 2011-02-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from AN IMPORTANT GAP FILLED As with all his lectures, Professor Kloss makes this survey interesting, educational, entertaining and enlighting. What makes him such a joy to watch on the DVD's is his enthusiasm for the subject. For some reason, American art has been something of a stepchild to art scholars. The Teaching Company is to be commended for presenting this sorely needed series of lectures. They would be useful to art teachers, art students, anyone interested in art as well as those who are just drawn to what is beautiful and gives immense pleasure.
Date published: 2010-09-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Much Needed Course Fills in the Missing Gap William Kloss has further cemented his reputation as one of the top art history professors, as well as any professor in general, within the Teaching Company's repertoire, with his latest course on Masterworks of American Art. One should not underestimate the subtleties being discussed in these lectures. Indeed, one may think that dwelling on the abstractions and details that William seems so fond of, may be missing some overall point. Yet every effort to follow him point out the nuances in these artworks, will be brought to a relevant conclusion in the end. So your effort in following his orchestration, so to speak, will be well worth it. This is especially true if you are able to go to the museums that display the paintings in these lectures. Living in Washington DC, I certainly have done so, and my visits are increasingly more rewarding. Of course, if this isn't possible, that shouldn't stop you from watching the course. William always includes enough historical information to make the artworks appealing, regardless if they can be seen in person, or whether you know much about the art of painting itself. This course was much-need, as it fills in a big gap from the lack of Fine Arts courses on devoted to American art. We can only hope for many more such courses from him in the future.
Date published: 2010-04-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent! Very interesting course. The professor was thorough, and obviously loved his subject. Highly recommended!.
Date published: 2010-04-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic! I so enjoyed Professor Kloss's course on American Art. Being able to relate the art to its historical context made it so much more enjoyable for me. He left me wanting more! I have an awareness of a subject which I knew nothing about...and will continue to appreciate as I visit museums here and abroad. Professor Kloss, is there a lecture in the making for Modern American Art?
Date published: 2010-02-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from High Marks, with Caveats I join with all the other reviewers in praising Professor Kloss and this course. But I cannot do so without criticism. The course is indeed splendid. Professor Kloss understands the art with great depth, and he does a magnificent job of discussing it in its historical context. Thus, a student of American history gets the bonus of learning about the art and the painters within their times and the arc of the development of the American story. Further, the professor does fabulous work in dissecting each painting to reveal fascinating insights into the structure, the content, the meaning, and other important features of the art. I found myself looking forward with anticipation to his take on the major paintings he discussed. Yet, the course is not without flaws. The focus on history and the painters themselves prevents the professor from giving enough attention to changes in the development of art itself. The transition from realism to the more abstract styles of impressionism and expressionism gets lost in the discussion. For me, it would have been interesting to hear Kloss more on this subject. I understand his decision to cut off the course with the end of the 19th century, but I think he should have paid more attention to where art was headed at the end of the period he covered. Further, I believe the course would have had more value for me if the professor had spent more time on the transition to the 20th century with artists such as Inness and less time surveying quite as many minor artists in earlier periods. This greater focus on aesthetic matters and the developments and transitions would, in my opinion, have made a very good course an excellent course. Still, I strongly recommend this course.
Date published: 2009-12-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Timely release Compared with European art and old masters, American art is relatively underappreciated, particularly outside of America. Hopefully, this course will help to change that. It is particularly timely, as many museums are expanding their American collections or building new wings for such art, such as the Metropolitan museum, Boston MFA, Smithsonian museum of American art, Cleveland Museum of art, Detroit institute of arts, Huntington Library, and the Nelson Atkins museum, just to name a few. American art is ripe for new research and discoveries, and a superb exhibition of American art at the Met and LACMA in 2009-2010 is just one example. Professor Kloss is at the top of his game, and explores the topic thoroughly and with appropriate pauses and emotion. He places particular emphasis on Thomas Eakins, which alone makes the course worthwhile. After listening to his lectures, you will be better prepared to visit the American art in NYC, Boston, D.C., Philadelphia, and many others.
Date published: 2009-11-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from American Masterpiece Having watched the professor's course "HIstory of European Art": I had high expectations for this course. The elegant and perspicacious Dr. Kloss, did not disappoint! HIs loving dissection, and summation of each painting was magnificent. Indeed this course is a "work of art', in and of itself. Highlights are many; but his treatment of Thomas Eakins was my favorite. This course is copyrighted in 2008. A must buy!
Date published: 2009-10-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from WOW!!!!! If you are interested in art, art history, and/or culture - you will love this course and enjoy listening to the art historian. This is an amazing course that immediately captivates the attention and gets one to think about a whole range of things. Very, Very good course. I highly recommend it. I have already watched most of the lectures for a second or third time. Very informative.
Date published: 2009-10-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from First Rate! Professor Kloss's course on Masterworks of American Art is on par with his outstanding course on the History of European Art. He takes a largely chronological approach to American painting, and his selections of artists and paintings is first rate. Professor Kloss is at his best in providing context for the paintings he selects and highlighting details in the paintings that would pass by the untrained eye. He also compares and contrasts various paintings as he goes along, helping tie the course together. His last lecture is a wonderful summary, and as one reviewer has noted, could fruitfully be viewed as the opening lecture. As for any negatives, I suppose some could be turned off by Professor Kloss's rather fastidious manner; not me, however. I think his precise commentary is a net positive for the course overall. In sum, another great TTC course!
Date published: 2009-09-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Learned about history and literature, too My husband and I are great fans of Professor Kloss, a superb lecturer and teacher. This course opened our eyes to the richness and depth of American art. We did wonder why Eakins was featured quite so much. My one suggestion would perhaps be to watch the last lecture before beginning the course and then watch it again at the end.
Date published: 2009-08-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Should have been longer! Why was this course only 24 lectures? Professor Kloss's other courses on European art have been 36 or 48 lectures. Surely the history of American art deserves as much! This is a wonderful course by a professor who obviously knows and loves his subject. His analyses of the pictures were insightful and thought-provoking. I was introduced to artists and works that I had not known about previously. But there should have been much more! A quarter of the course was devoted to Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins. They certainly deserve the coverage, but that left a lot to be covered in 17-18 lectures. I hope the Teaching Company will consider expanding this course. I don't mind the course ending at the beginning of the 20th century, although I did miss Edward Hopper. The title should more correctly be "Masterworks of American Painting" since the other mediums weren't included. But for what the course did cover, it is splendid!
Date published: 2009-08-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Highly recommended What a fantastic course! Not sure whether to praise Professor Kloss or the remarkable subject matter presented, so I will do both.This course offers a comprehensive overview of American classics not to be missed. I am an oil painter. Professor Kloss' lessons have me totally rethinking not only my approach to painting and my style, but the very reason I paint. This is not to say you must be an artist to appreciate this wonderful course. Professor Kloss' ability to place each work in the historical and social context from which it arose is unmatched. His brief biographies of the featured artists are excellent. Some of Professor Kloss' comments, especially when wrapping up a lesson, are as thought-provoking as the masterpieces themselves.
Date published: 2009-05-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from BEST EVER Even though I am aware of most of these people I had no idea of the great range and depth of the paintings I was shown. That , combined with Mr Kloss' insights to the artist's work and life make this THE MOST REWARDING art appreciation course I can imagine. Thank you.
Date published: 2009-03-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Much to commend, wish it was longer After a lecture or two adapting to the professor's style - he is a little dry and wooden, you forget that defect and marvel at the wonderful choices in paintings. As the reviewer above has noted: " They are stunning." Professor Kloss does an outstanding job providing historical and cultural context for the painting selections. He brings enough technical discussion to the paintings to provide a solid understanding, without indulging in pedantic overkill, which is the tendency in some art history courses. The biographical narratives of the individual painters are expertly handled and add depth to the understanding of the overall theme of 19th century American art and for the particulars of the specific art work under discussion. I strongly recommend this course for anyone seeking an solid overview of the time period described, and hope TeachCo. contracts with Prof. Kloss to do a sequel with 20th century American art. The mark of a great course is the desire to revisit it and watch it over again, this course achieves that as I look forward to watching a number of the lectures again, and wish there were more. i will be buying more of his courses.
Date published: 2009-01-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from What makes art "American"? A very interesting presentation of American art by someone who clearly loves his field of study. Professor Kloss demonstrates that an American style evolved out of the European tradition, and yet was stimulated by the many experiences of an expanding nation during the 18th and 19th centuries. The visuals (and there are many) are absolutely stunning, especially when viewed on a high quality screen. This course discusses the structure of each painting, what contemporary issues were being represented, as well as the circumstances of the artist -- all of which help to explain what makes for a classic work of art -- although it spends little time on painting technique (unlike the course on Impressionism). I looked forward to these lectures, which gave me a greater appreciation and understanding of our distinct American genre.
Date published: 2009-01-07
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