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American Art 1776-1876

The success of the American Revolution meant that the former colonists had to take on the difficult job of building a new kind of nation, with a new style of government, based on ideas about freedoms and rights that had never been tried before. The young country wanted to draw on what was best from its European heritage, but also to distinguish itself from Britain's culture which had been the principal cultural model. In the first century, therefore, the United States formally and informally used painting, architecture, and sculpture to carry important messages about the nature of American society and to develop styles that were distinctively American. Examples of two works from each of these branches of the arts will demonstrate the variety of ways in which the country's art presented American ideals, promoted American self-confidence, and developed an American character.

Almost as soon as the Revolution ended painters and engravers began to meet an overwhelming demand for portraits of George Washington and other leaders. In addition to being a major symbol of independence, Washington was also painted as the embodiment of "American virtue, restraint, courage, and strength--in short, of American republicanism" (Baigell 27). Gilbert Stuart, an American who trained in England, produced some of the finest and most popular versions in such paintings as George Washington or the Vaughan Portrait (1795). Stuart showed a rather "patrician and remote" Washington, partly because he trained in the aristocratic portrait tradition in England (Baigell 36). But, as Baigell notes, Stuart was a Federalist who did not approve of the growing popularity of Thomas Jefferson and his more democratic ideals. The Vaughan Portrait also reflects, therefore, "the mood of the Federalist hierarchy, fearful of runaway populism . . . and anxious to fix a national image in the minds of Americans to counter endemic localism" (Baigell 36-37).

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