agents of healing (American Artists)

 Prisoners from the Front, by Winslow Homer, 1866

The reason behind so many Americans hanging out in Europe or California and having a grand time in the 1860's is easier to understand today. They were simply avoiding the terror, destruction and bloodshed of the American Civil War. Writers, artists, anybody with a paramount love for life and joy found somewhere else to be. This may seem unpatriotic or selfish, and it may have been, but it was also just plain intelligent. Most of the Bohemians were Anti-Slavery and pro-Union, loving Lincoln's ideals, but gradually growing to hate Lincoln and his war, as it ballooned into the greatest injustice of all; the horrible deaths of tens of thousands of the nation's most able and patriotic (and mostly innocent!) young men, from both sides. One by one, each finally did the math and decided along with many Americans, North and South, that the cost in blood and destruction was far worse than threats to States Rights or the evils of slavery.

Slavery was an endemic cultural ill that was doomed to fade with time. The American  South was the last stronghold of a dying paradigm. Slavery was an evil and had its horrors, but tens of thousands of Negroes were not being crippled or blown to bits and their whole communities burned to the ground, at least not with the approval and support of the federal government... 

Only a minority of Americans thought the war was worth the price paid to stop slavery when Northern politicians decided it was necessary. But both sides were stricken with severe financial losses and unbearable grief in what turned out not to be the swift skirmish both sides predicted. So many were dead that the Federal Government began to conscript immigrants as they came ashore. Thousands of Irish immigrants and Black freedmen had been forced to fight and die for rights and privileges they had never even enjoyed (Hence the New York Draft riots).

A war-ravaged Nation now tried to remember how it could ever have preferred this carnage over any other solution. The politicians on both sides had failed the people, in a battle of will verses pride. All of this fed into the Bohemian, semi-anarchic attitudes of a growing class of intellectuals, who had grown distrustful of any government.

 A Visit from the Old Mistress, by Winslow Homer

Deep in the American psyche, was the realization that the war had been unnecessary, that less bloody and devastating methods might have promoted change, and that regional hatreds and distrust as a result of the war would last for generations. And neither side would ever trust the politicians again. 

Until their children forgot the lessons of history...

Alas the horrible “War of Northern Aggression” was finally over, and really, nobody won. And little changed. Thankfully, both sides agreed to let bygones be bygones. The Southern soldiers, instead of being imprisoned or executed, were told to go home and rebuild their farms. Any other country would have handled it differently, and the forgiveness which resulted after the Civil War was unique in history and to the American people. It was possible only because of the Christian underpinnings of the American culture, primitive as it was. And as if God was showing his approval, the prosperity which followed was unprecedented in human history. No other civil war ever ended with such mercy or was followed by such dynamic growth in economy, geography and technology.

This was the America which Mark Twain inherited and inspired. Through the war he morphed his own attitudes, found his own medium for transition, and spun a catharsis for his country in the process. There was a significant change in "Mark Twain" after his marriage. 
 Livy Clemens

His beautiful, sweet wife had been raised in a religious, activist family who aided in the "Underground Railroad." Unlike Sam, Olivia Clemens was a Christian, and grew up in a home where it was considered appropriate to lay down your life for a friend, even risk one's skin for a stranger. She knew the feeling of risking it all, even breaking the laws of man to assist runaway slaves who were seeking freedom. Their unlikely meeting had been a "chance" visit which changed both of their lives. 

Sam Clemens (left-handed by the way...) met a new friend on a trip to the Holy Land, and afterwards visited his home. Charley Langdon introduced him to his stunningly beautiful, pristine sister. It took some convincing on Sam's part, who was full of himself as usual, but Sam Clemens and Olivia Langdon surely shaped one another like two mounds of clay, each sculpting the other. Their love grew deep and eternal, and he never loved another, even after her death. 

L@L  A mature "Livy" Clemens (1845-1904)

 Rainy Night Charing Cross Shops by Joseph Pennell

Money began to flow, the Industrial Revolution exploded and European-trained American artists began returning home from their studies. Americans began to travel abroad in growing numbers. The cultural exchange between the United States and Europe went from flirting into a passionate embrace.

But few Americans could have imagined how different European manners, sensibilities, and moralities were. In those days journalists, politicians and intellectuals minimized the differences, and most agreed to “vivre la difference.” French and British citizens routinely recognized the differences between each other, but Americans were considered throwbacks to the Dark Age. Of course some Americans were wise enough to appreciate European advances and sophistication, and to ingratiate themselves, but generally Americans were looked down upon. What made them welcome was tourist dollars. Lots of them. 

 Grand Prix Day, by Childe Hassam

And as Americans began to filter into Paris a new industry began to turn the wheels of France. Finally the French had something besides fashion to export. Americans began to buy French art, and sellers even came to the States with containers of French art to show and sell. This instantly gave credence to the young artists who had trained in Europe, and suddenly there was a burgeoning American art market as well.

L@L   Winslow Homer (1836-1910)

One of the most prominent European-trained artists was Winslow Homer, who had started out as an illustrator and drawn and painted many Civil War scenes for magazines. His work became to American art what Mark Twain was to American literature. The new buzz word was “realism,” and Americans wanted honest art which represented their lives the way Twain told their stories.  

Homer never let his work become the walk-in-the-park, evening-at-the-opera-styled escapism of the French Impressionists. He  painted the rugged American wilderness and the individuals who made their life in it. In many ways, the Americans were more "realist" than the Impressionists, who proudly represented the term. "Realist" to the French meant common as opposed to elitist. The French artists only dipped their toes into the tepid waters of realism when it suited their personal agendas.  Manet and Degas for instance, were far more in love with fashion and the bright lights of the entertainment world. The French had realist intentions, but were suppressed by a ruthless and paranoid government, who did not tolerate any suggestion of subversive activity. Later Courbet went too far in rebellion during the Franco-Prussian War and he and his communist leanings were exiled. Degas might paint a military execution (once!), or Courbet a female aperture, but not without scandal and censure. Most of the artists followed Monet's lead, and headed out to paint the non-controversial French countryside.

The Americans had no such government censure, and were free to paint and express themselves. Homer might paint a drowning scene, or a Union sniper, or a pretty young girl riding a donkey. His subjects were as open and fresh and real and diverse as the land he loved. Still, he always found the innate beauty of a given subject, without being artificial. 

 L@L  Thomas Eakins (1844-1916)

Thomas Eakins was cut from the same cloth, focusing more on the simple rural life and the lifestyles of people living "at one with nature." Skinny dipping in the pond, harvest time, hunters bringing home meat for the table. As wholesome as all that sounds, his wife may have been one of the very first American women to pose in the nude- in front of a camera.  But it was for ART!

The Swimming Hole by Thomas Eakins, 1885


L@L  Thomas Cole (1801-1848)                                L@L  Frederic Church  (1826-1900)                                                                  

 The Icebergs by Frederic Church, 1861

 There were outstanding American landscapists as well... Asher B. Durand, Thomas Cole, and others led by Frederic Church, who traveled all over the hemisphere, and painted serene mountain scenes, sunsets and mammoth icebergs. Church had been influential in the so-called Hudson School of artists, a northeastern group of academically-trained artists who were some of the first to establish a uniquely American standard for art. Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt made America proud of land she had never seen, portraying the American West so effectively that the National Parks system was created to save what they immortalized. Moran painted the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone, making perhaps the most significant contribution to America by a single artist.

 Grand Canyon by Thomas Moran

These were the artists who created images which matched Mark Twain's literary legacy. The grandeur of it all eclipses anything offered up by the masters across the sea. The main difference was the difference in world views. The Americans still saw order in the Universe. They had hope in a better world. They still believed in God. Together they inspired a new America, a proud and whole America, ready to heal itself and find the commonalities of a people who had pioneered a beautiful land of promise, ready to forget the mistakes and pains of the past and look into the future. This was all possible because America was first a land of FORGIVENESS. This is taken for granted by us today... but in just a few years, in apostate France, it would be proven what could happen without a dominant Protestant, Christian foundation. And it was bloody and ugly.

 Weaning the Calf, by Winslow Homer

There was a new concept in American religion as well... probably traceable back to the Deists of the American Revolution, and their concept of Natural Law... a noble sounding version of agnosticism. Bohemian philosophers like Walt Whitman had conjured up a free, self-styled concept of God as big as the American West, unrestrained by the rigid dogmas and denominations of the founders of our nation. Now there was Existentialism, Spiritualism, and new ways of understanding spiritual things, Mormonism, Christian Science, and on and on. Americans had made, and then fought over their own country, and their religion had not saved them from a horrible holocaust. They were in the process of rewriting their own destiny, why not their religion as well? Well... it sounded good at the time.

L@L  Childe Hassam (1859- 1935)

 La Ventana del Goldfish by Childe Hassam

Optimism was great, and America looked to her cultural kin, England and France, for clues for her direction. She always had. From Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to the newly inspired artists and philosophers who had come home after the war, there were always messengers if not agents of European-styled progress to lead the way. But this was a time when Europe was in the throes of a full-scale psychological overhaul. 

The French Revolution had been a bloody and disappointing nightmare. Just as much for what it did to the collective sub-conscious of the French as it was to the vanquished. More had died or been executed recently in the Franco-Prussian War. Catholicism was waning, and yet had always been the major church denomination in France, never really experiencing the Protestant Reformation. There was no competing value system or spiritual paradigm to pick up the pieces.

The French Revolution had at its center several assumptions contrary to Christianity; that all men were basically good, were born free, and were only corrupted by injustice, or unjust institutions. Therefore bureaucrats, laws and taxes were suspect. The Church, the supposed unjust institution, the sponsor of the injustice, was to blame for the whole system's ills, which had placed the Tiers Etat, or Third Estate, as slaves of the clergy and nobles. The Revolution was a class war, and all about the middle and lower classes getting even and gaining  power. You might call it their version of social justice. Gone were the concepts of the Divine Right of Kings, authority of the clergy, the noble class, and respect for education or to a large extent, private property. 

There is no doubt that the old paradigm was undemocratic and served to inhibit social mobility. And since the church supported the teachings of Jesus, to "Honor the King" and render unto Caesar... it was lumped together with the rest of France's expendable traditions. It is interesting however that many of the same objections which inspired the revolution in America, were BASED on God-given rights. This one point made all the difference between order and chaos. Between harmony and festering distrust. The difference between vision and progress and cynicism and escapism.

Like the American  Civil War, a great deal of blood was spilled in the French Revolution, but it was done community by community, as the Third Estate dragged out the priests, politicians, teachers and property owners and cut their heads off. The United States had a war over the rights of the very least in society. France had a war against the most privileged in society.

It was the government of the people, but a people without mercy or forgiveness or common sense, justified by human rationale, which can be very subjective, as the bloodbath immediately, permanently exterminated many of the natural leaders, educators and problem-solvers of the country. Hateful, vengeful firebrands and moral reprobates replaced them and instituted an age of fear and abuse and suspicion and ignorance.

More importantly, the inherent atheism of the French Revolution had begun to transform the conscience and morality of central Europe, which had lost its moral compass, and did not care. The French people were more demoralized than the Americans were. Church-going was out and partying was in. A thriving new French upper middle-class was about to produce the most prosperous, talented, yet pervasively unmotivated generation it had ever seen. 

Everybody was going to be a singer or a violinist or an artist or something fun. There was no money, and nobody cared. Drink some wine, sing a song... sit in the park... Americans loved the casual, permissive atmosphere of France. But was France a good pattern to follow?

 Girl and Horse by Edmund Tarbell

L@L  Edmund Tarbell (1862-1938) and wife Emeline.

Plenty of Americans went to go check it out. Young artists wanted to get the kind of art training they were hearing about from Whistler and Homer. There was a whole school of American Impressionists who could not wait to get on the boat. American writers like Mark Twain were in high demand. Paris streets were full of these types strolling around and "getting cultured." This is where the idea sprang that in order to have class, to have sophistication, you had to float across the Atlantic to attain it.

Whether it was true or not, Paris art dealers were anxious to make connections with wealthy Americans. It was probably the first and last time the French were really glad to see Americans, visiting abroad because they wanted to, with pockets full of money, and not as an occupying army, in a state of emergency. The very role that America has had to play since each country made its choices, speaks for itself. America grew into a power for good, a savior for countries like France, who chose mob-rule over God-given rights.

Symphony in White by James McNeill Whistler

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) 
with her instructor 
Jean Leon Gerome (1824- 1904)
       Mother with Child by Mary Cassatt

James McNeill Whistler, an American, had actually qualified to exhibit in the famed Salon shows back in the 1860's. It was a more "open" society. Women were sometimes allowed to study in Paris next to the men. Life was supposedly more fair in France. All one needed was transportation to Paris and he (or she!) could paint next to, and possibly study from the most famous artists in the world. Childe Hassam, a New York cityscape artist, Mary Cassatt, Willard Metcalf, Joseph Pennell, Frank Duveneck, John Singer Sargent, Julian Alden Weir, Joseph Rodefer DeCamp, Frank Benson, William Merritt Chase, Edmund Tarbell, and many more made the trek and took on the cloak of artistic achievement in the process. Adah had been right, "know Paris and die." And there was something to it, as their works turned American art on its ear.

   Frank Duveneck (1848-1919) with student
John White Alexander (1856-1915)                                  Professor Ludwig, by Frank Duveneck

 Joseph DeCamp (1858-1923) , Frederic Church (52?) 
& J. Alden Weir (1852- 1919) @1878

Some of them would eventually congregate back in the States and form “The Ten,” a solid group of academically trained American artists, every bit as good as any artists across the "Big Pond." Still, France, and especially Paris had a mystical, unshakable grip on the heart of the art market. Americans would rather purchase their art there, no matter who made it. There was a certain status and thrill to acquire from the beautiful romantic city with the reputation of being the source of everything fine. And Paris was ready to do business. Wealthy Americans like Mark Twain and his associates did not disappoint the Parisians. And besides, in his case, a long excursion in Europe would help him hide from pesky bill collectors. There would be multiple crossings, and it would be an extended trek that would last almost 13 years. 

Sam Clemens had made and squandered his fortune on bad investments. It got to be miserable being Mark Twain, as people hunting for him, especially debtors, could find him by just reading the newspaper. Sam was out of money and patience, and he had always wanted to really visit Europe, and so he booked some speaking engagements and fled to parts unknown in 1891. By now the French Impressionists were the thing. The French had made leisure and art a lifestyle, and seemed to be living better than ever. Sam took the whole family. The girls could take music and singing lessons. He could research his manuscript about Joan of Arc. Olivia could learn how the other half lives. Maybe start a scrapbook...

The ghost of Adah Menken covered her mouth. Sam Clemens might have needed an extended vacation, but Mark Twain would never be the same.

 The Blue Cup by Joseph Rodefer DeCamp

NEXT: Go to Paris on fire

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