The impact of famous American artists is astounding, especially when you consider that this is an art not even three hundred years old. Compare that, for example, with how long Chinese artistic tradition has been around.
But the history of the United States began with the bang of a Revolution, and with the Founding Fathers signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776, a new nation came into being, with a need for artists to document its growth.
Grant Wood, 1930.
A first convenient way to break down famous American artists into manageable categories is by period: i.e., the eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Links in the left column will take you to more specific details on famous American artists by movement.
There was a market in the Colonial period for especially portraits, as the merchant class gained in wealth and social stature; this rising gentry wanted their standing staged and materialized, and wanted envied English portraiture styles to express it. For the artists of the new nation coming into being, however, there was no access to the training and resources there Old World colleagues could turn to. Rather, they had to make their own way, teaching themselves and using mezzotint prints for models instead of copies of Classical statues from Antiquity. There were also a few immigrants who had trained in England, and made it possible for American artists to reach a certain level of sophistication by following their example.
In the period following the Revolution, there was some development of history paintings, but otherwise it was the portrait painting that continued to hold pride of place, with the odd landscape added in the background to exhibit the extent of the subject's assets, or to add a bit of the picturesque.
Simultaneously, there was a more “unschooled” style in early American painting: folk art. These early untrained artists were itinerant workers, traveling the American Northeast looking for clients willing to commission portraits in their naïve style. As America moved into the 19th century, one of the most important folk artists, however, was a respected Quaker minister, Edward Hicks.
The 19th century brought with it the Hudson River School, the new nation's first home-grown school of painting. Under the aegis first of Thomas Cole, then others such as Frederick Edwin Church, American artists came to realize that their own country offered unique, beautiful subjects of its own; this became more and more apparent the further settlers pushed westward. The Hudson River School was important in its influence on later schools, such as the Luminists and artists such as Frederick Remington who painted American Western heritage, which constituted a school of its own.
The 19th century did not bring a significant development of history painting, although one of America's most iconic paintings, Washington Crossing the Delaware, dates from this period. Rather, portrait painting continued its primacy, with greater sophistication as in the sometimes cutting portraits by Thomas Eakins.
There was also greater input from the Old World; several major artists lived much of their lives in Europe, such as John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler and Mary Cassatt; and it was in France that Theodore Robinson first encountered Monet, and thus seeded the start of American Impressionism.
American art in the 20th century was an explosion of exploration, styles and discoveries. Artists turned first to what is called American Realism, founded by Robert Henri, which developed into the celebrated Ashcan School. Painters such as George Bellows and others unflinchingly portrayed the rougher side of city life, hence the name of their school.
As Alfred Stieglitz, through his 291 Gallery in New York, developed photography as an art form, he also promoted the burgeoning school of American Modernism. Abstract art and Cubism reached America's shores under the influence of what was happening in Europe (Pablo Picasso, George Braque), to be followed later by European Surrealism, and a multitude of artists, including Georgia O'Keeffe and Patrick Henry Bruce, came to the fore as the new generation of Modernists.
As Realism continued and took on various forms to depict American rural and city life, as in the work of Reginald Marsh and Edward Hopper, other important developments in American art occurred.
African-American artists sought to counter racial stereotypes as part of the New York based Harlem Renaissance, notably in the work of Aaron Douglas, although other proponents of the school were found throughout the country. Other American artists formed colonies and worked in the American Southwest, to not only paint the magnificent landscapes they found there, but also to take the American Indian for subject.
With the Great Depression, President Roosevelt's New Deal program established public arts projects to give work to unemployed American artists. Inspired mainly by painter Diego Rivera, and other Mexican mural painters, this public art was created by some of America's best-known artists of the time, while others developed in the direction of Social Realism.
After World War II emerged Abstract Expressionism, the first school of American Art to have worldwide impact; it could be said that it developed from Surrealism with its emphasis on the unconscious. The leading proponent was Jackson Pollock, who became celebrated for his “drip paintings”. In the words of William de Kooning, Pollock “broke the ice” for the rest of them, and names as well-known and influential as Louise Bourgeois, Mark Rothko and Alexander Calder, and many, many others all came to be grouped together under the broad, all-encompassing name of American Abstract Expressionism.
After the 1950s, American art developed in several directions. Realism continued in the work of Norman Rockwell, Andrew Wyeth and Hopper, while other artists broke completely to work in mixed-media, combining found objects, newspaper, paint and photographs (Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns) or evolving into Pop Art, the satirical reproduction of everyday objects of American popular culture and consumerism (Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein).
Many other movements came into being, such as Op Art, Minimal Art, Lyrical Abstraction, Post-minimalism, the Fluxus movement, hard-edge painting, Neo-Dada and others. Performance and Installation Art came into being, as well as Video Art, Photorealism and Color Field Painting.
Contemporary American art in the 21st century is characterized by what some call a state of “crisis”; in other words, while artists continue to work in the realms of Expressionism, Color Field Painting, Geometric Abstraction and other schools, and new schools such as Graffiti, Digital Painting and “old” schools such as traditional landscape and portrait painting still are produced, there seems no clear style or school to define our time.
A multiplicity of means are employed simultaneously to express who we are, and the question remains: have we reached the outer limits of where art can take us?