Is there an “American school” of art? Throughout the 19th century, French critics tended to regard its independent existence with suspicion. Paris had long been acclaimed as the world center of art and culture; perhaps as a result, the French tendency was to view foreign painting as intrinsically inferior. This situation began to change in the later 19th century. The new prosperity of the United States and the increased mobility of its artists meant that the American presence in the French art community began to seem like less of an anomaly. The exhibition of American art at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889 indicated a new willingness to ascribe individual value to other national schools. But it was not until 1922 that a new annex of the Musée du Luxembourg was opened specifically to exhibit painting from “foreign schools.”
The American art of the 19th century was characterized by stylistic eclecticism. The production of American artists of this period is so varied that it is impossible to single out a single nationally representative approach. By the early years of the 20th century, artists began to search for a national style. But the exact qualities of that style would be up for debate. Many contemporary artists and critics opined that an American style would have characterized by descriptive, realistic qualities. Artists of the Regionalist movement and the Ashcan School found inspiration in the realist works of 19th century predecessors like Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins. But this conception of the American artistic heritage is highly selective. Realism was only one among many coexisting tendencies in late 19th century American art.
American artists’ project of self-definition progressed throughout the first decades of the twentieth century. It reached its zenith in the postwar era, when artists associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement achieved international prominence. Promoted overseas by the U.S. government as part of the Marshall Plan, Abstract Expressionism rapidly became a tremendous popular success in Europe as well as in the United States. It quickly came to dominate markets, museums and collections over much of the world.
The story of the postwar triumph is well known. In contrast, this database, by surveying works of American art in French collections made up until 1940, is able to focus attention on a less familiar aspect of the history of American art. The period addressed by this database is more complicated, less amenable to the demands of totalizing narratives. It functions as a sort of prequel to the later part. As a good prequel should, it contains startling revelations that shed light on subsequent events. Viewed as a group, the works in this database assimilate a European artistic vocabularies while still retaining an individual force. The artists who made them sounded a divide as big as the Atlantic, yet were able to illuminate both coasts.