Editor’s letter, November 2009

Editorial Staff Opinion

Here is a point that had somehow eluded me until now: eighteenth-century American furniture—a John Townsend chest-on-chest, a Philadelphia tea table—was already bold, original, and world class while American painting was still struggling for stature and its own voice. This discrepancy dawned on me while reading Carrie Rebora Barratt and Barbara Weinberg’s article in this issue about the stories American painters put on canvas to pump up the importance of their calling. Such anxieties seem peculiarly American. The chief business of the American people, one of our presidents memorably lamented, is business; the practical value of a high chest had an obvious appeal to a pragmatic Yankee patron while an oil on canvas was bound to be a harder sell, at least in the beginning.

A new country required something new, but how was the artist to balance the inescapable influence of Europe with the originality a republic seemed to require? The blast of fresh air that blows through John Singleton Copley’s Paul Revere was the solution of one exceptionally talented painter. There were to be many others, and some of them can be seen in this special issue on American painting which runs up to the early modernists in Gail Stavitsky’s article. James E. Freeman, for instance, went to Italy where Mary K. and John F. McGuigan describe him working out the American problem of democratic sentiment in his painting Italian Beggars. While there he also created Costume Picture, a street scene in which American artists appear alongside several references to the old masters as if our creative countrymen could benefit from a little high-toned company.

It was the transformation of the American wilderness into the American landscape that conferred undeniable stature on our artists. Neither land nor territory nor property, landscape is itself a painterly idea, and American painters, whether they believed this land was touched by God or was simply special for being untouched by man, had in it a seemingly inexhaustible subject—at least until their audience was exhausted and fashions changed.

I’m glad to say that running against fashions, past and present, is part of what we do at Antiques. A rediscovery such as David Cleveland’s of the tonalist Charles Melville Dewey or Alfred Harrison’s article on the almost unknown work of William F. Jackson, a Sacramento artist with a beautifully undidactic approach to nature, gives us a special kind of pleasure as we hope it does you.

And, since we are located in Manhattan where much that is beautiful melts into air, we are particularly gratified by Katherine E. Manthorne’s discussion of Eliza Greatorex who preserved in pen and ink the disappearing landmarks of historic New York in the years just after the Civil War. I wish we had had many like her in all the decades since.