American Scenes of Everyday Life, 1840–1910

Talking It Over, by Enoch Wood Perry (1872). Perry’s canvases conjured happy memories for urban viewers by celebrating a vanishing way of life. The Yankee farmers portrayed here, however, resemble George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and thus summoned up more than simple nostalgic reverie. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

Examining how representations of American life changed in art over the course of 70 years.

By H. Barbara Weinberg
The American Wing
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Between the eve of the American Revolution and World War I, a group of modest British colonies became states; the frontier pushed westward to span the continent; a rural and agricultural society became urban and industrial; and the United States—reunified after the Civil War under an increasingly powerful federal government—emerged as a leading participant in world affairs. Throughout this complicated, transformative century and a half, American painters recorded everyday life as it changed around them, capturing the temperament of their respective eras, defining the character of people as individuals, citizens, and members of ever-widening communities.

Interior with a Young Couple, by Pieter de Hooch (c.1662-1665). De Hooch was particularly skilled at interior scenes that capture the fall of light into rooms constructed from elaborately interlocking rectangular forms. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

At first, most painters embedded references to everyday life in portraits, which were the only works for which a market existed. Beginning about 1830, however, and largely in response to the development of public exhibition spaces in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, some painters were able to free themselves from dependence on portrait commissions and to adopt new subjects that would appeal to wider audiences. They worked primarily in the form of genre, a French term that means types or sorts and that in paintings refers to scenes of lower- and middle-class characters.

Elijah Boardman, by Ralph Earl (1789). Itinerant portrait painter Ralph Earl depicted the elegantly dressed dry-goods merchant Elijah Boardman (1760–1823) in his shop in New Milford, Connecticut. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

William Sidney Mount, who led the way, and his contemporaries favored depictions of courtship, families, and community life in rural settings that were associated positively with fundamental national values. They reinforced in their works popular notions of American identity and competed with contemporaneous Hudson River School landscapists for attention and patronage. American genre painters produced works that were clearly delineated, humorous, and didactic or moralizing, like the old master Dutch or more recent French and English paintings and prints that inspired them.

The Pink Dress (Albertie-Marguerite Carré, later Madame Ferdinand-Henri Himmes, 1854–1935), by Berthe Morisot (c.1870). The fashionable portraitist Jacques-Emile Blanche witnessed this painting being made at the Villa Fodor, the family home of Marguerite Carré, the sitter. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

By the 1850s, American painters of everyday life expanded their subject interests beyond the individual and the family to encompass a wider horizon, especially the nation’s politics and growing territory. The stage-set compositions they had enlisted in the previous decade, derived from European prototypes, gave way to more outdoor images that captured, literally, a wider view of American life. As population and wealth increased, there emerged a newly energetic and diversified art market that included auction houses, art lotteries, and fly-by-night dealers who set up sales shops in the cities. Artistic competition escalated exponentially and the profession opened to more artists, including women like Lilly Martin Spencer, who cast a critical eye on the domestic sphere from an insider’s perspective. Responding to pressure to come up with novel subjects that would distinguish their works at exhibition and attract purchasers, many American painters took on current, complex, and often difficult topics, including the relationships between blacks and whites, men and women, and immigrants and native workers. But they always enlisted euphemism or subtle ambiguity to portray these issues. A few artists explored themes from the rugged wilderness, which appealed to urban viewers seeking vicarious frontier or backwoods adventures.

Grace Hill for Edwin C. Litchfield, Brooklyn, New York (front elevation). Davis’ greatest Italianate villa, Grace Hill, is now the headquarters of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

The unique and overwhelming circumstances of the Civil War and the years of Reconstruction severely challenged American artists. The confluence of charged political and economic events, and profound social change, created such turmoil that many artists chose to examine only small, reassuring slices of the human experience, and to do so in subtle and open-ended accounts. Seeking to assuage the sorrow brought on by the war and to heal the nation’s fractured spirit in its wake, painters turned away from martial and political content. Responding to the assertion of women’s responsibilities after the loss of so many men in combat, artists depicted them in new roles and grappled with issues surrounding their new options. Expressing a longing for prewar innocence and the commemorative atmosphere associated with the nation’s Centennial, many painters portrayed children. And, as the agrarian basis of American life gave way to urbanization and industrialization, artists who lived, studied, worked, and exhibited their paintings in thriving cities looked to the countryside for their subjects. Painters of this era were, however, likely to show rural locales as temporary or nostalgic retreats from urban existence rather than sustainable habitats.

Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery, by Edgar Degas (1879-1880). Among the most technically complex of Degas’ prints, this view of Mary Cassatt and her sister in the galleries of the Musée du Louvre was intended, like Pissarro’s Wooded Landscape at L’Hermitage, Pontoise, to appear in the first issue of the prospective journal Le Jour et la Nuit, on which the two artists collaborated with Cassatt and Félix Bracquemond. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

By the mid-1870s, the taste of American viewers and patrons changed in response to their expanded opportunities for travel; ready access to prints, photographs, illustrations in magazines and journals, and other reproductions; and exposure to art in newly founded museums. As these viewers and patrons, principally in the prosperous industrial Northeast, came to value contemporary Continental—especially French—art, American painters embraced an unprecedented internationalism.

Daphne, by Harriet Goodhue Hosmer (1854). In Greek mythology, Apollo’s first love was Daphne, a nymph who shunned marriage and vowed perpetual virginity. Fleeing the god, Daphne prayed for help and was transformed into a laurel tree just as he was about to overtake her. Rather than depicting the dramatic moment of escape, Hosmer modeled a serene image and symbolized Daphne’s metamorphosis by terminating the bust in laurel branches. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

Easier transatlantic transportation and communication meant that more artists were able to study abroad, live in European cities and art colonies, and investigate a broad range of subjects and styles, from academic to Impressionist. They were as likely to paint people enjoying commonplace events in Paris or the French countryside as they were their subjects’ counterparts in New York or New England. Their works reveal an appreciation of the journalistic, fragmented, oblique narrative that characterized modern European examples and an evasion of the harsh realities of modern existence.

Haystacks: Autumn, by Jean-François Millet (c.1874). This picture is from a series depicting the four seasons commissioned in 1868 by the industrialist Frédéric Hartmann. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

By comparison with earlier genre scenes, these views of everyday life are ambiguous and, at times, completely elusive in their content. American painters also operated in an increasingly complex and professionalized art world, which enhanced their opportunities to display and market their works on both sides of the Atlantic. Often in competition with foreign rivals, they attended to the judgments of a newly serious and credible American art press.

On the Southern Plains, by Frederic Remington (1907). One of Remington’s favorite themes was the American soldier in the West, of whom he wrote, “His heroism is called duty, and it probably is.” / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

Many late nineteenth-century American artists recorded the lives of women as devoted mothers, dedicated household managers, participants in genteel feminine rituals, and resolute keepers of culture. A few recounted the experiences of men at work and leisure and celebrated new American heroes. It is in this period that the cowboy emerges as an icon of American masculinity and of the receding frontier.

The New Bonnet (Ashcan School), by Eastman Johnson (1876). During the 1870s, Johnson found inspiration on Nantucket, a Massachusetts island that preserved reassuring American traditions in an era of change. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

As tension escalated between fading rural traditions and growing urbanization and industrialization, artists more often investigated city environs, including new sites for leisure, consumption, and entertainment. Beginning about 1900, the Ashcan painters advocated forthright portrayals of life in New York, but typically took a cheerful approach to increasing urban hardships. The Ashcan painters’ sometimes droll images, which they recorded as if “on the run” or from memory with broad, calligraphic forms, reflect the skills that most of them had cultivated as newspaper illustrators.

Further Reading

Originally published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, September 2009, under the terms of a Creative Commons 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication license.