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Smithsonian Associates - Entertaining, Informative, Eclectic, Insightful

Introduction to American Art

2-Session Course

Friday, June 18, 2021 - 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. ET
Saturday, June 19 to Sunday, October 24, 2021 - 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. ET
Code: 1M2131
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American Gothic, 1930, by Grant Wood (Art Institute of Chicago)

From the glorious vistas of American landscape painting to the bold splashes and strokes of abstract expressionism, American artists have captured the nation’s enormous energy and tumultuous growth. Art historian Bonita Billman introduces major artists and movements in American painting from the late 18th century to the present, revealing the connections between historical changes and artistic choices.


Early American Art

Early American art was frequently practical and included works such as samplers and trade figures. American painters in the colonial period produced mostly portraits, whereas painters in the Federal era were known for an expanded choice of genres, such as history painting. The great portraitists of the colonies included Benjamin West, John Singleton Copley, and Gilbert Stuart. Among those who painted scenes of everyday life, John Lewis Krimmel was a trailblazer.


9:30 to 10:45 a.m.  Landscape Painting

Few genres of American painting are as universally liked as landscape. Explore the beginnings of landscape painting in the United States at the turn of the 19th century and its fruition in the Hudson River School (1830—1860) with iconic works by Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, and Frederic Edwin Church. Westward expansion inspired the creation of majestic images by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran.

11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.  Realism and Impressionism

As new entrants into the international art world, American painters of the later 19th century looked to Europe for training and inspiration.  Nevertheless, America’s distinctive national outlook shaped the evolution of the styles that its artists embraced, including impressionism. Examine the paintings by artists Thomas Eakins, James McNeill Whistler, Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, and John Singer Sargent, as well as the activities of American art collectors who patronized European avant-garde artists.

12:15 to 1:15 p.m.  Break

1:15 to 2:30 p.m.  Early Modernism

American industry and commerce expanded in the beginning of the 20th century, and so did the embrace of new subjects and techniques by the nation’s artists. Explore the rapid changes in American art as painters such as those of the Ashcan School, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, and Georgia O’Keeffe began to experiment with new approaches, including abstraction, as they sought to harness the excitement of expanding cities and urban leisure activities. In counterpoint, Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton celebrated rural America.

2:45 to 4 p.m.  Modern and Contemporary Art

By the 1950s New York City had emerged as the world’s new artistic capital, and for the first time, American artists began to set trends. Explore American art’s meteoric rise in the second half of the 20th century, from the exciting innovations of abstract expressionists Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, and Robert Motherwell, to the vibrant pop art of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, and Larry Rivers. The day concludes with a brief look at the rich painting being produced in the United States today.

Billman is retired from the department of art and art history at Georgetown University.

2 sessions

World Art History Certificate core course: Earn 1 credit*

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*Enrolled participants in the World Art History Certificate Program receive 1 core course credit. Not yet enrolled? Learn about the program, its benefits, and how to register here.

This program is part of our
Smithsonian Associates Streaming series.