I am standing in front of the Florence cathedral
, the grand canal of Venice, the Vatican. I gawk for maybe five seconds before submitting to the all-too-common photographic impulse, snapping several pictures from multiple angles. I've been living in Italy for a couple months but I still can't shake my touristy-ness, despite picking up a fair amount of Italian and trading in my bright American outfits for all-black ensembles
. I'm not alone in feeling this shame- my MICA classmates from my Florence-based American art program are just as trigger-happy as I am. Some have the excuse of using the photos as source material for their artwork; but if we're being honest, most of these photos are going to Facebook and Instagram, completely separate from our work. The few images that do inspire artworks are usually deconstructed or abstracted to the point of being unrecognizable. Some students work representationally, but rather than painting the churches or olive groves, they often paint subjects that are not specific to Italy, or to Europe, for that matter. Italy's influence hides itself under coded narratives or abstractions, through the intention or instinct of the artist.
The luxury - or hindrance, depending on your point of view - of quick and accessible documentation allows my peers and me to focus on the intangible experiences of being abroad. We do not feel compelled to capture our surroundings through painterly representation, when we could just as easily whip out our phones and snap a photo. While this opens up endless possibilities of innovative expression, we also miss the opportunity to fully soak in the sublimity of being in a new space.
Artists have always been looking for an elsewhere. Many 19th century European artists jumped on the colonialist train (or boat) to study and capture foreign locations and cultures. Eugene Delacroix helped spark the Orientalist fire when he traveled to Algeria and Morocco in 1832, a fire further fueled by Jean-Léon Gérôme's visit to Egypt in 1856. Paul Gauguin found himself in Tahiti in the 1890s. American artists, on the other hand, were less interested in escaping Western culture than diving into its nucleus.
These American artists had no foundation of a purely American artistic tradition. Europeans had been regurgitating the Greco-Roman influence since the Renaissance. Individual countries, like Italy, France, Spain, and the Netherlands, offered their own rich art histories to their resident artists. Paris was the hub of the contemporary art market and creative dialogue. It wasn't until the Abstract-Expressionist movement of the 1950s that American artists would seek to create their own uniquely American narrative, and begin to establish New York as a new art Mecca. Until then, American artists looked to their European predecessors and contemporaries for the standards of beauty and art. This meant traveling across the Atlantic to train with European artists and immerse themselves in the Western art tradition directly.
The Walters Art Museum exhibits 21 paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures created by 19th-century American artists, either while abroad or ensuring a transcontinental journey. Unlike my peers and me, the artists whose work is exhibited in
American Artists Abroad
chose to document their new surroundings through immersive observation. They were likely compelled to represent their environments not simply because Western art history had yet to experience the complete destruction of representation, but also due to the need to absorb the feeling of being elsewhere, when cameras were not so readily available to serve as a kind of surrogate memory. Their work transcends the snapshot; it carries the weight of myth, the attempt to capture the sublime, the hope to become part of a profound tradition.
The room displays mostly small, intimate works representing scenes, people, or objects from the artist's travels. Several are created with easily transportable materials - watercolor, ink, pencil, or charcoal on paper - to capture the artist's surroundings in the moment. Two small paintings by James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent meet at the center of one wall. Whistler's typically tonalist oil painting, "Portrait of George A. Lucas," is a simple, full-body portrait of a French art collector (who has nothing to do with
) painted with muted earth tones, more like a quick study than a finished piece. Sargent's exquisite watercolor, "The Alhambra Vase," does justice to the fine detail of its subject while embracing the lightweight, expressive quality of the medium.
Two larger Mary Cassatt pastel portraits of French children hang by the gallery entrance. "Margot in Blue" is a charming picture of a recognizable Cassatt model engulfed by her voluminous white bonnet and blue dress. The other, "Charles Dikran Kelekian," depicts a boy in a suit and hat, energized by hard, graphic lines contouring the figure, with the face rendered soft and glowing. Cassatt was no stranger to France, as she resided in Paris the majority of her career. Her extensive stay and innovative work allowed her to be much more than a tourist of the Parisian art scene.
Reflection on being in a foreign space manifests itself in Albert Bierstadt's "The Blue Grotto, Capri," which the artist painted from memory after returning to the United States after four years in Europe. The scene seems almost surreal, with a submerged green light illuminating the movement in the water and the jagged texture of the cave walls. Perhaps painting the scene away from the actual site allowed Bierstadt to exaggerate the strangeness, and in doing so reveal the authentic feeling of being in the grotto.
The largest painting, a landscape of the Cornish coast by William Trost Richards, ties the show together at the back wall, along with two marble portrait busts by Erastus Dow Palmer and Maryland native William Henry Rinehart on either side of the painting. The trio represent a recurring theme in the exhibition: myth. In Richards' "Tintagel on the Cornish Coast," the supposed birthplace of King Arthur, Tintagel Castle, looms over the bustling ocean water from atop a rocky cliff. Both portrait busts are made in the popular Neoclassical style, evoking the idealized beauty of Greco-Roman mythological statues. Palmer's sculpture of a child - although more naturalistic than Rinehart's - directly addresses Roman mythology in its title, "Bust of Flora." And while Rinehart's "Bust of Mrs. J. Edward Farnum" does not represent a mythological subject, the bust's goddess-like idealism clearly reflects the artist's studies in Rome. On the adjacent wall, William Stanley Haseltine's gorgeous ink drawing "Temple of Ceres at Paestum" depicts Classical subject matter through a more Romantic lens. A sun sets behind Greek ruins in a sparkling, marshy landscape, provoking a sense of awe despite the piece's small size. Perhaps for these American artists, fascination with myth is parallel to an appreciation for the legends of European art. To the foreigner, Europe in itself was mythical.
The work covered in the exhibition is not limited to the European experience, although Europe dominates most of the imagery. Only three pieces depict non-European scenes: "Avenue to the Temple Iyeyasa, Nikko. Mid-day Sun.," a watercolor by John La Farge; "Ruined Church in the Tropics," a drawing by Frederick Edwin Church; and "Morning in the Tropics," an engraving shown both in color and in black and white by Samuel Valentine Hunt. These pieces maintain European aesthetics while representing exotic environments. Despite the growing interest in non-Western imagery in the 19th century, this exhibition is primarily Euro-centric.