American genre painting and the rise of 'average taste'

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, November/December 2011 |

Nearly a century and a half after its publication in 1867, Henry Theodore Tuckerman's Book of the Artists is valued today mainly for its wealth of biographical data. But Tuckerman's pronouncements summarizing the development of American art culture also deserve closer examination. Of particular interest is his reference to "average taste," a descriptive he used to discuss the work of the genre specialist Francis William Edmonds. Looking back on the previous decades, Tuckerman credited Edmonds with popularizing "humorous every-day-life-scenes" whose "homely" subjects and "naïve literalness" appealed to "average taste."1

Certainly today to have one's taste (or art) described as "average" would not be a compliment. However, Tuckerman was well aware that such respected nineteenth-century collectors as Robert L. Stuart, Jonathan Sturges, Charles M. Leupp, and John Taylor Johnston avidly acquired works by Edmonds (for example, Bargaining, Fig. 7, purchased by Stuart in 1858), and he would not have used the word to disparage the taste of these powerful and wealthy men who were helping to shape a rich cul­tural life for the nation. Moreover, Edmonds's art consistently garnered positive critical commentary throughout the 1840s and 1850s, the decades during which he frequently exhibited paintings at the Apollo Association (later the American Art-Union) and the National Academy of Design. What, then, did Tuckerman mean when he wrote about "average taste"? It is suggested here that it stemmed from several attitudes that converged in genre imagery that capitalized on the leavening effects of democracy as filtered through an evolving national his­tory, which, in this case, centered on the New York art community.

by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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