In American painting, the 19th Century was dominated by an appetite for landscape, reflecting the uniquely American attitude towards nature. The painting of the period exhibited the ambitions of the expanding nation, seeing in its pristine terrain both divine providence and worldly bounty. This period of American landscape painting, encompassing the seminal works by Thomas Cole to the final panoramas by Albert Bierstadt in the 1890s was dubbed, probably pejoratively by a late 19th century critic, The Hudson River School. The Hudson River Valley and the surrounding Catskills and White Mountains were the undisputed seat of the painters of the period, though a second generation of painters were expand their repertoire to include Western landmarks like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite as well as New England maritime scenes. Themes range from allegorical allusions to the march of the American empire to the strict observation of nature. 20th Century art historians have labeled some of the artists working from the 1850s to 1870s as Luminists because of their brilliantly lit views and emphasis on atmospheric effects, a trend ascribed to various causes as diverse as the arrival of new European pigments to the atmospheric effects of the eruption of the volcano Cotopaxi in 1877. The period of the dominance of American landscape painting closed not long before the closing of the American frontier in 1890.
American Impressionism centered around Boston and New York, a relatively small group of practitioners in the last decade of the 19th century. Many of these, including Frank Benson, Edmund Tarbell, and Mary Cassatt, adopted the bright Impressionist palette after exposure to the work of its masters in France. Indeed, a handful of American exponents of Impressionism, including Cassatt and William Merritt Chase, are more closely associated with European collectors, while another group of painters returned to the United States after a rapidly absorbing the French ideas of light and composition. Among the latter were Benson, as well as John Henry Twachtman and Robert Reid, who studied at the Académie Julian, and returned to continue in the mode in the Philadelphia, New York and Boston areas. Dissatisfied at the conservative exclusions of the National Academy, a group of painters, mostly impressionists, broke ranks to form a group soon to be known as simply The Ten. The Ten formed a core of American Impressionism, and exerted a profound influence on the national taste for several decades. In the early years of the 20th century, another group of young upstarts rebelled against the conservative Academy and the high polish of the cult of John Singer Sargent. Centered around New York and Philadelphia, The Eight, along with a handful of others, focused on urban scenes and bolder executions than the tastes of Academic refinement or even the Impressionists. Their enthusiasm for daily-life subjects and a variety of “low” media, including illustrational and cartoon draftsmanship earned them the epithet “the Ashcan School,” suggesting the disposability of their work, but today the finer works of Robert Henri, Thomas Anschutz and others in their circle are highly sought after for their immediacy and urban sophistication.
Under the guidance of the dealer and photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, a number of American painters took up the banner of Modernism as its influence filtered in from Europe around 1910. With the sensation of the 1913 Armory Show, Cubism, Post-Impressionsim, Synchromism, and a parade of other modernist subspecies hit the American consciousness and began an intense period of experimentation with flattened planes, abstract subjects, new media and fresh concepts. Though the term “Modernism” describes a loose grouping of new values and practices rather than a particular group of artists or a clearly-defined movement, the early period in America is generally described as ranging from the explosive Armory Show to World War II. This encompasses the Precisionist movement championed by Charles Sheeler, the symbolically-charged Southwestern paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, and even those that remained committed to a sort of realism, like Thomas Hart Benton and Edward Hopper. Just as the tidal wave of Modernism brought the Ashcan School to an early end, the years following World War II brought a sharp and clear end to this eclectic and important period of American Art.