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Reframing "American" Art

What makes American art, American? Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts is offering a big new answer.

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First it was Dallas that took American art and dated it not from Pilgrims and European settlement but from the ancient civilizations of North, South and Central America. Then Los Angeles and museums across the country took up the new frame. 

Now, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has taken it to a new level. The city of Paul Revere and colonial Tea Party has shifted, in a breath-taking new display, from American Art to “Art of the Americas.” 

It’s the same shift American demographics are taking. It’s a shift in American identity. We look at the reframing of American art.

-Tom Ashbrook


Elliot Bostwick Davis, chair of the Art of America’s Department at the Museum of Fine Arts. Since 2001, she has led the museum’s planning for the installation of the new Art of the Americas wing. The Art of the Americas collection includes approximately 15,000 works. She is former assistant curator in the department of American paintings and sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Andrew McClellan, dean of Academic Affairs for Arts & Sciences and Professor of Art History at Tufts University and author of “Art Museum from Boullee to Bilbao” and “Art and its Publics: Museum Studies at the Millennium.”

See photos and video from the opening of the new “Art of the Americas” wing at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts:

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  • jeffe

    Winslow Homer defines American art for me. As does Andrew Wyeth who was influenced by Homer. Homer’s work does not look European at all. John Frederick Kensett, Sanford Robinson Gifford also define American art. Church and Albert Bierstadt not as much as their work has a very European feel to it. Thomas Eakins, George Bellows, and Robert Henri can be added to the list.

  • JP

    When I think of American art, I think of those artists who introduced the art world to a new, more uniquely American sensitivity:

    Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol are definitely two such examples.

  • Brett

    When I think of American art, I think of art made by Americans…

  • http://www.bookofzo.blogspot.com Joshua Hendrickson, Talent OR

    I think of quintessentially American art as mostly popular or mass media art, particularly comics or cartoons. Winsor McCay, Chuck Jones, Walt Kelly, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman–these are a few of the artists who achieved greatness, just not in the “fine arts,” most of which, in my opinion, have been largely uninteresting during the twentieth century. Pollock, Warhol, Haring–their works all bore me, however interesting they may have been as people. Abstraction and intellectual games have their place in the progression of fine arts, no doubt, but I find them empty. Popular arts don’t get much critical attention, but to me they are the only real source of artistic substance in the last hundred years.

  • cory

    I love art but don’t care for its analysis or criticism. Let it be what is is to each individual. Take the native American mask featured above. Who is even to say or know whether it was ever intended as art? People will always create art, whether a subculture exists to hang it on a wall or put it in a gallery or not,

    I don’t think there is a distinctly American form of art. Hundreds of millions of people will create all varieties of art.

    Leftfield, Wisconsin

  • Potter

    My report: We went for the opening of the new wing and started at the bottom with the earliest works ( pre-Columbian) which are exquisite. Two rooms, smallish, are filled with extraordinary works from a large geographical area and very long expanse of time.( The clay incense burners in the video are at the entrance and are a spectacular grouping).

    It was very good to concentrate on these relatively few exceptional works, as opposed to being bombarded by a blockbuster of rooms and rooms and rooms, but I found myself feeling that this was a very meager survey of the earliest art of the Americas. I wanted a little more. For instance right next to the pre-Columbian rooms are ship models on one side and colonial furniture/silver on the other- a big jump mentally.

    A huge amount of space ( height as well as breadth) is devoted to a modern cold-looking dining area, crowded, that did not seem very inviting. Grey grey grey- stone and glass–contrasted by a beautiful little outdoor courtyard “cameo” of late fall foliage that you can gaze at.

    We did not get to the upper levels yet and plan to do that on future trips. The next visit will however be to the old part of the museum to see the MIllet drawings.

    The late fall foliage in the Japanese Garden was alone worth the visit.

    But all in all this will be a crowd pleaser. Mr. Rogers has had showman’s genius drawing the crowds and I hope this helps to keep the museum afloat.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    American art is art made by Americans.

    MFA, University of Oregon, 1980
    Warren, Connecticut

  • http://bruceguindon.com bruce guindon

    oh boy another expert that will define Art in America and as usual it’s someone who does not participate in the creation process, rather has chosen to be an authority on of all things American Art, thank God that in the long run curators and critiques have influence on their peers and not the Art or the Artiest, perhaps someday there will be anarchy in the American Art world and never again share the work

  • Brett

    To me, true art conveys something about the human condition. As beautiful as these objects are (in viewing some of the exhibits displayed in the photos above; which, the display above has changed since last night) it seems the exhibit is blending American crafts with American art. I have revered crafts people and their work my whole life and feel as though some artisans elevate their craft to an art form. However, in seeing the beautiful credenza, or sideboard, or buffet, or whatever one would want to call it, with its marquetry and wonderful trim and proportion, or in seeing the beautiful quilt, or the Tiffany glass, etc., I have to say, to me, they are not art but artful. When I see the piece of furniture I think, “beautiful” or feel comforted. I never will look at it and say, “I know how that feels” or “I’ve felt like that before…”

    All art is a reflection of what surrounds the artist and his/her perception of what surrounds him/her. I don’t think art created by people from the Americas is uniquely/distinctly something of a different kind than art created by people from other parts of the world. We know it’s American art by virtue of knowing who the artists are and in knowing where they come from…

  • Nick – Spencer

    I was tickled pink with beginning American Art with the Maya. That’s the way to do it.

    I wonder by including that early period into the mainstream consciousness of American Art, will it have an effect on it?

  • Brett

    P.S.-The display hasn’t changed, I simply was looking at a different one last night than this morning…the top gallery has the quilt, cabinet, Tiffany glass, and carousel Greyhound

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Bruce: While I agree with the sentiment of your comment (those who can, make art, those who can’t talk about it), a well curated and hung show is an art form in itself and a well written essay on art history gives art context that it might be lacking otherwise.

    Of course, many critics and historians sound like fog machines at times but among them are some who really add something to the world and what they add is also an art.

    MFA, University of Oregon, 1980
    Warren, Connecticut

  • http://shulmandesign.net Alan Shulman

    I agree with your enthusiasm for cartoon art, Joshua. However, I’d also include Georgia O’Keefe, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Claus Oldenburg, Thomas Hart Benton in the mix of vital American artists as well, just to name the ones that immediately come to my mind.

  • harry

    There won’t be very much “american” fine art until Artists in this country get a little more financial help .

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    Richard, I avoided art history courses in high school and college because I was quite familiar with art, and was pretty sure courses would ruin it for me. I had been taken to the Yale Art Gallery to listen to slide lectures weekly for many years among other things, and had my reasons. I thought art had to “grow on me,” and forcing it would ruin it.
    As to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, I was scared out of my skin when I was taken there about age 10, and rounded a corner to see a Chinese devil, lifesize, right beside me. As I understand it, Boston was the center of shipping when the Far East was being opened up, and therefore is well stocked with Far Eastern treasures.
    My sense is that Mayan art, indeed quite a bit of ancient art such as is preserved, might be more of what Brett calls craft, and encapsulates a culture rather than an individual. A certain style of mask, or of pottery, might represent generations of people pooling and handing along their sense of style and meaning, and so it can be high culture but not art in the sense of fine art, an individual re-shaping the representation of the world.
    I think a person’s judgement and taste can be exquisite for one form of art/craft or another, and can feed into the development of that form of art, whether by buying it and sharing it, or by teaching others to emulate it, or by doing it oneself.
    In short, ancient art I look at with the same eye that I look at Tiffany glass or some Appalachian quilts, more for the culture that created them than for the individual. Does that make any sense?
    For an American individual artist, I look at Mary Cassatt. Her paintings of children are so sensitive. But she was in France, absorbing Impressionism, so is that French? And Boston’s museum has at least one painting by Degas of a scene in an American office building, as I recall. So is that American or French?

  • John

    We all bring our biases and passions to the subject of art, which is great for the dialoque. It is important, however, to ask questions before jumping to conclusions. At least one of the discussants today (Elliot) has spent more than her fair share of time in the studio (at the Art Students’ League in NYC). In addition, she grew up surrounded by artists (including mother and grandmother)and collectors. In this case, the “curator” came to her professional world from the creative side, and I think that creativity manifests itself clearly in the art of the new displays. She certainly leads first with the eye, which may be an anomoly amongst traditional art historians, who too often start with the mind. So Bruce–don’t shoot too quickly!

  • http://bruceguindon.com bruce guindon

    Richard:I agree whole heartedly that a well hung show is an Art unto itself and that a well written essay can make Art come alive and be understood by those who might not have a clue, however it is my experience that those events are far and few between and I am reminded of how the critics have treated a whole host of American Artist as fodder for there own growth and I’m reminded of O’keefe’s observation about the critics view that her flowers were about sex and her skulls about death and of course they are flowers and skulls and only that. what it says to me is the critics had the skewed vision and there own agenda

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Ellen: I had art history teachers who were great, some who were breathing too much of their own exhaust.

    I like the idea that this show is broadening (re-framing) the view of American art, craft, and all of the artifacts that we make. I look forward to the show….

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Bruce: I go to a lot of shows and while they’re not all great many are. People who curate great shows are more than picture hangers, they’re producers who are artists in their own right.

    Critics are in a different (lower) class.

  • Paul (NYC)

    One thing I think people overlook is the resounding impact of abstract impressionism, started in New York, on the 20th century. I think it is like Jazz; it was the birth of uniquely American art, wholly self-invented, when Americans detached from European art and surpassed it.

  • Potter

    Correcting my post above- what I called clay incense burners, are burial urns. Sorry.

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    American Indian culture needs to be reinvested, centered for us. It is, after all, rooted in the environment at its healthiest. I notice that near where I live, Old Deerfield Village used to be (decades ago) mostly about the settlers’ houses and the massacre whereby early one wintery morning the settlement was decimated. Nowadays, there is a building, I believe, devoted just to the Indian side of this event, and in doing a re-enactment (I believe) this weekend, it is no longer solely from the settlers’ perspective. There are Indian descendants aplenty in the region, and they help. I think it’s the Flynn Museum, the Indian part.

  • Ellen Dibble

    American Indians beginning to be acknowledged in Western Mass., circa 1704 massacre


    http://www.deerfield-ma.org/ Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (Historic Deerfield)

    http://www.historic-deerfield.org/events/new-algonkian-life – someone sharing her traditional Indian skills

  • Brooke Stoddard

    It is very ironic that you chose these two topics today because they are interrelated. Over the years, the MFA felt that in order to build its new wing it had to let go of hundreds of employees. Many of whom are still unemployed. If the MFA built the new wing so brilliantly couldn’t there have been a middle ground where people didn’t have to be sacrificed.


  • http://shulmandesign.net Alan Shulman

    The Mexican murals of Rivera, Orosco et al are as grand, political and forceful as any portrait of G.W. crossing or arriving on the other side of the Delaware. We can learn a lot from Mexican muralists on how to dramatically present history.

  • fredericc

    What scholarship goes into understanding public taste?

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    American Indian tradition/art beginning to be acknowledged in Western Mass., around the Deerfield massacre and that history. The Flynt Center is the name of the museum, near Historic Deerfield.


    http://www.deerfield-ma.org/ Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (Historic Deerfield)

  • http://cyberfumes.blogspot.com Dave Eger

    Really excited to check out this exhibit. I love how the MFA laid out the history of art in civilizations and look forward to what they do with American culture.

    On Radio Boston I think it was mentioned that Canada got a weak showing. To make up for that lack, and enhance the Native American presence, I would like to see some of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s work included (if it isn’t already).

  • fredericc

    Quantitative methods for understanding the museum going public e.g.: ]focus groups etc.?

  • ethan

    I’m not hearing much about graffiti which seems to me arts equivalent of jazz. People can say anything they want about it but the influence it has is huge and undeniable.

  • http://cyberfumes.blogspot.com Dave Eger

    This is the kind of thing that is worth spending money on. When you show art to people, it increases it’s value overall in society, and by sharing ideas of what our country is grounded on, it creates new avenues for people to come together and start to see the value in each other as well.

  • jeffe

    Elliot is wrong.
    Every major painter from the late 19th studied in Europe.
    Everyone except Homer and few others who went to Art Students League or the PAFA most went to European ateliers. Eakins, Church, Bierstadt, Sargent, and many other were all trained in France or Germany.

    She’s very wrong to think American painters somehow trained in a different way. They were doing the same kind of education that they had in France. The only difference was that they let women and men study together in the same life classes many years before they did in Europe.

  • Valerie

    As I listen to this discussion I can’t help but think of Elliot’s great grandmother, Electra Havemeyer Webb. Electra was one of the first collectors of American folk art and was visionary in her appreciation of it as art. We are fortunate here in Vermont to have Shelburne Museum, which she established to house her collection. Electra was expansive and inclusive in her appreciation of what makes something ” art” and I know she would have been thrilled to see whar Elliot is doing, and quite proud, as well. (Hello to Elliot from Valerie Biebuyck, author of Electra to the Rescue, a book about Elliot’s great grandmother.)

  • Mari McAvenia

    Thank you, Ms. Davis, for mentioning the mold and metalworking artists of New England’s manufacturing past.
    Fortunately, I had an apprenticeship in the costume jewelry industry- becoming a mold maker/designer/caster- so I know about the fine craftsmanship and sophisticated technical skills that these New England metal artisans mastered. Hope there’s a gallery at the new wing with some of this great stuff! – from Quincy, MA

  • fredericc

    thank for allowing the last questioner re. missing NE art in the exhibit. It was the most interesting question allowed on air. Does the exhibit allude to it?

  • Brett

    …I was thinking about culture in general vs. art (perhaps a clumsy way to frame it), and in my mind I guess I was breaking it down into either something that was created to be completely utilitarian in nature with a little ornamentation for flair or personalization, something that was created sort of with both intentions balanced (something utilized in a ritual celebration, religious ceremony, dance, etc.), something created simply for its beauty (something simply to delight one’s vision, senses…), and art, with recognition to the fact that those lines are blurred at times within certain work. Art does seem to have a purpose that, while incorporating some of those categories of craft, seems to set alone, not only its intention, but in its execution. It is to help us break with our sensibilities enough to behold the presence of the sublime…or ideas to that effect…

    Did anyone feel, in listening to the program, a faint presumption on the part of today’s guests that we needed to be enlightened about art in the Americas encompassing North and South America, Native Indian cultures, etc.? …I suppose many think of only the US when someone says “America,” so maybe it IS important to stress that aspect of the exhibit…

  • Brett

    In many of my artist friends’ evolution, many have studied in different countries. Styles did seem to be affected, but this may simply be looking at the whole thing too parochially. Techniques may be varied (and can vary from artist to artist within the same region) but the overall approaches in terms of concepts are on the same wavelength. I learned something from one of my painter friends who studied in Japan, France, Italy. and the US; his work changed in some respects for very practical reasons: paint pigments are different from different sources around the world, access to canvas and framing material is different country to country, etc.

    Also, artists, people in general, are influenced by what they experience around them. If you see a painting with a palm tree in it, you know it was not painted to illustrate a cold temperate zone, then other information about the artist and the artwork begins to permeate one’s view of the work…an artist’s work reflects something about the culture in which he/she dwells, or wishes to escape to/escape from.

  • JennaA

    I was recently traveling through Latin America and saw so much vibrant and beautiful contemporary art . It was very different from the image of “American Art” I had in my mind- this show just made me think of the vast cultural differences exhibited through art throughout the Americas.

    I was looking online and found some examples of theLatin American art I saw on:


  • Zinovy Vayman

    First you decimate the New World native population
    and then you put whatever left at museums.
    It is 80% unemployment on Indian reservations (ghettos) but the stream of art from there is not so high.

    [First you decimate Germanic Jews of the Old World and later erect plaques, monuments and museums, East Slavic and Baltic areas excluded. Russians, Ukrainians, Latvians and Belarusians do not harbor Germanic sensitivities.]

    Art of the Americas Wing, haibun.

    Shapiro family forked their G-d-sent money to enclose a huge space with a sky-high mirror ceiling. Tonight, low middle class people get not only free entrance but free music made by the Germanic cellist Anthony Rymer and Zenan Yu who had played piano at the Great Hall of the People.

    pinkish birch tree
    under court yard floodlights
    it casts no shadows

    During break, we peruse a menu featuring mostly non-kosher items. Poor waiters had to cross a formidable expanse to and fro the hidden kitchen bringing “fresh” rolls and “brown butter”. Most patrons were sitting with coffee.

    summer is over
    a cerulean warbler
    picks sweetened pieces

  • john


    I love when people argue about art. You may have misheard Elliot; she never said that artists like Homer didn’t go to Europe. She did say that the chronology of their training was different, given that they were trained here until relatively advanced ages. Additionaly, many of them started most pragmatically, as either illustrators or engravers or both. In many instances, basic training was provided by “drawing books,” which were ‘how to’ manuals. Chapman’s would be one of the more famous and widely disseminated. You might look up her dissertation, which was done at Columbia and which I read a while back. It focuses specifically on the training of American artists and tries to get at the issue of an indiginous style in the art of fine painters–from the so-called limners to the finer artists.

  • john

    To Valerie’s basic point: we have been in the process of redefining American Art for some time now. How many of us remember that the new American Wing refused Gertrude Vanderbilt’s collection of American Folk Art (which, helas, the Whitney ultimately sold) or the fact that the Metropolitan wasn’t so thrilled initially to accept the Rockefeller gift of “primitive” art. As we evelolve, our perceptions evolve and biases decrease. This is the time of Thanksgiving; the New MFA gives visual truth to the notion that all of us have a place at the table. Bravo Malcolm Rogers! Bravo Elliot Bostwick Davis! Bravo Boston. This is indeed the time for celebration. May the party continue.

  • http://ncpr.org stillin

    Sorry to post late to this but I only got time now. I am an artist and an art teacher and I loved reading everybody’s post on this. Art kicks ass. After viewing art, you should experience a change in consciousness somewhere, somehow…I just love teaching art and being an artist and to link it to the unemployment hour on today’s show, regardless of what happens to me, I will always create something. I have to, I am an artist. Artists have something inside them that has to get out, that I know. Is everybody an artist? I don’t think so. Artists are born. If everybody created art what we are looking at today would be times 100. I love today’s graffitti art and ancient work and just LOOKING at art can satisfy me for a long time…I really do love the visual world.

  • Gary

    we here in the UNITED STATES of!!!!!! America have take the name “America” as if it dose not apply to the American Continents. Should we not be surprised that might offend someone from Mexico, Canada, Brazil, and many other nations

  • jeffe

    John, your wrong. Homer started out as an illustrator.
    He was not trained in Europe as I stated. But all the other major talents of his day were. Church and Bierstadt were from Europe. Sargent studied in France under Carlos Durand. William Merrit Chase, and Frank Duveneck studied in Munich. Thomas Eakins studied at the L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The entire Boston school was based on the French academy. There is no argument here. This is what artist did at the end of the 19th century, they studied in Europe. It’s the second generation that studied here in the US, George Bellows and Hooper. Even Hooper studied in France as a young man. Your wrong as was Elliot who made a blanket statement as art historians do. She’s not a painter she does seem to give any credence to the influence of French Academic ateliers on American Artist.

    Look the artist up, almost every one of them studied in Paris or Munich.

    I’m a painter and I studied with Frank Mason who studied with Frank Vincent DuMond who’s students were: Charles Hawthorne, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin, Andrew Loomis, Norman Rockwell, Frank J. Reilly, Ted Seth Jacobs, Frank Mason and Herbert E. Abrams. DuMond was a member of the Lyme Art Colony in Old Lyme, Connecticut.

    DuMond was a student of Jules Joseph Lefebvre who also had Willard Leroy Metcalf, Edmund Charles Tarbell, Frank Weston Benson, and Childe Hassim as students. These artist were the movers and shakers of the Boston school, it’s all based on the French system.

  • jeffe

    Elliot’s dissertation has nothing to do with the facts about how the better trained painters and sculptors of the day were trained in Europe. Look up Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
    The books you mention are awful and second rate and it’s a wonder that artist like Homer developed as well as he did despite the bad instruction being put forth in those books.
    That’s why the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Art Students League and the National Academy of New York were started to train artist better.

    I’m not disputing her academic abilities, but she made a huge generality that made it sound like American artist were purely trained here.

    As far as illustrators look up Howard Pyle and his school.

  • Potter

    To Zinovy ( about the decimation of the American Indian) and Brooke( about the MFA unemployed) above– thank you for your important points. The juxtaposition of these two programs ( long term unemployed and the new MFA wing) makes it’s own statement- the world must go on and in it’s way and people get trampled, downtrodden and lose their lives in the process. We can stop and think about that as we admire exquisite works of art and have to pay high admissions or membership costs.

  • John


    I read with interest your posts. I also listened to the program again. It seems clear to me that Elliot was referencing artists formed primarily during the first half of the nineteenth century. I think most of us know that so many artists later on studied in France. Erica Hirschler curated a lovely show on that very topic in the not so distant past.

  • jeffe

    John that’s interesting and I also heard her say early 19th century but even then the vagueness of her statement is misleading. Too me it sounded like she meant the 19th century. Even so the Hudson river painters such as Cole and Durand while not trained in Europe were heavily influenced by the ideas on academic drawing. Cole spent time at the PAFA drawing from casts. John Frederick Kensett went to Europe to study as well. Interesting to note that some of these painters started out as engravers (Durand). It is also note worthy that both Gilbert Stuart and Benjamen West went to Europe to expand their studies. West even exhibited at the Royal Academy. I know these are 18the century artist, but they were active way into the early 19th century.

    My point is the influence of the European Academies on American painting which is pretty substantial.

    That’s not to say that American ideals did not prevail, they did and painters such as Cole and Durand are prime examples of looking towards nature and in the case of Cole he added spirituality into the mix.

  • Stan

    As a starting point, if you’re having an informed discussion about ‘American Art’ and want it to include ‘North, Central and South America’, you should refer to your country as the United States.
    Not once in this broadcast did you refer to the ‘USA’.
    Referring to the USA as ‘America’ defeats the purpose of this subject matter.

  • http://artweekly.blogspot.com Nicole Maynard-Sahar

    I called in to the show and wrote a short essay on the topic for my blog this week:

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