European Painters Spurred Evolution Among the Americans

Nowadays, when auction prices for paintings by the modern masters, both American and European, are zooming into the stratosphere and even the work of some quite mediocre modernists enjoys a lively market and fetches amazingly flattering reviews in the mainstream press, the old controversies over the influence of the European avant-garde on American art seem almost quaint, if indeed somewhat paranoid. Yet some of those old polemics were characterized by a ferocity that is worth recalling, if only as a measure of how radically some things have changed for the better in this country, at least in the realm of high art.

Consider, as an egregious example, an essay called “Ellis Island Art,” written in the 1920’s by the then influential art critic of The New York Herald-Tribune , Royal Cortissoz. The Herald-Tribune was, until its demise in 1966, one of the most respected papers in the country, and it was in most instances anything but reactionary in its arts coverage. Virgil Thomson, himself a modernist composer who collaborated with Gertrude Stein on several operas, was the paper’s music critic. Cortissoz, however, was something else entirely. This is the key passage in “Ellis Island Art”:

“The United States is invaded by aliens, thousands of whom constitute so many acute perils to the health of the body politic. Modernism is of precisely the same heterogeneous alien origin and is imperiling the republic of art in the same way …. Such movements!-crude, crotchety, tasteless, abounding in arrogant assertion, making a fetich [ sic ] of ugliness and, above all else, rife in ignorance of the technical amenities. These movements have been promoted by types not yet fitted for their first papers in aesthetic naturalization-the makers of true Ellis Island art.”

Well, art criticism seldom gets more reactionary (or vicious) than that. No respectable newspaper would publish such a piece today. And the intensity of this polemic is all the more appalling when we come to realize that it was directed against the “alien” influence of such modern masters as Matisse, Picasso, Léger, Braque, Klee and their modernist colleagues in France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands. And Cortissoz wasn’t alone in his view of modernism. In the 1930’s, the American regionalist painter, Thomas Hart Benton, then at the height of his popularity, led an intensely chauvinistic campaign to discredit the influence of European modernism on American art. “In spite of all the cultivated whoopings to the contrary,” he declared, “art cannot be imported.”

I have lately been reminded of all this reactionary rejection of modernism by a splendid exhibition called Monet to Matisse, Homer to Hartley: American Masters and Their European Muses , at the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art, which brilliantly traces the influence of European modernism on American art in purely artistic terms. Indeed, I doubt if this sometimes touchy and divisive subject has ever before been as scrupulously explored as it is now in this exhibition. From both the European and American perspectives, this show and its catalog are exemplary in every respect.

The selection of paintings could hardly be improved, either in aesthetic quality or historical scope; and the written commentaries are similarly marked by a high level of connoisseurship that is mercifully devoid of the kind of clotted prose so often encountered in art writing today. Indeed, from the very first room in the show, where we see the bold juxtaposition of Frédéric Bazille’s painting of male swimmers in Summer Scene (1869) and Thomas Eakins’ even more provocative Swimming (1885), the visitor to this exhibition is put on notice that this show will not be limited to a mere roundup of familiar pictures. And the boldness of this unexpected comparison of two masterpieces on similarly suggestive subjects is underscored by the sheer volume of new information in Richard R. Brettell’s first-rate essay on “Eakins and the Male Nude in French Art, 1850-1890,” in the catalog.

The curator of this remarkable exhibition, Carrie Haslett Bodzioney, has brought an unfailing eye, too, to the many other pairings that are the distinctive feature of American Masters and Their European Muses -among them ocean-surf paintings by Gustave Courbet and Winslow Homer, Cubist landscapes by Georges Braque and Max Weber, portraits by Renoir and George Bellows, and the surrealist- cum -abstract-expressionist paintings of André Masson (featured in the catalog) and Jackson Pollock. In fact, the modernist section of the show, with its comparisons of Francis Picabia and Joseph Stella, Joan Miró and Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger and Stuart Davis, and Marsden Hartley almost everywhere, closes the exhibition on the same high note that thrills us in that first encounter with Bazille and Eakins.

The pictorial narrative that unfolds for us in Monet to Matisse, Homer to Hartley: American Masters and Their European Muses -a narrative of American modernism and its European roots-is one of the greatest stories of the modern era in the Western world, and it is a story beautifully told in this show, which remains on view at the Portland Museum of Art through Oct. 17, 2004.