An American Experiment provides a brief but worthy view of Art in America before “American Art” hit the big time. This single-gallery exhibition marks the first in a series of displays of American art never-before-seen in Britain, thanks to a collaboration between the National Gallery and the Terra Foundation for American Art. Focusing on the work of the Ashcan Painters, a group of artists in New York and Philadelphia from the start of the twentieth century, the exhibition reveals the first stirrings of a move towards a distinctly American style of painting.
At this time America was still seen as a cultural backwater in comparison to Europe and understandably the artists appear heavily indebted to European artistic traditions. The exhibition’s focus upon portraiture and landscapes accentuates the similarities between the Ashcan artists and their European contemporaries. Many of the works appear to combine the subdued palette of late nineteenth century French realism with a painterly technique borrowed from the Impressionists.
On first sight the paintings in the exhibition appear tame in comparison to the expressionist works that were increasingly dominant in Europe at this time, and the selection fails to give a clear indication of the modernist credentials of George Bellows and his peers. The exhibition could have benefited from more scenes of urban poverty for which the painters are widely recognised.
Nevertheless, the subtle development of broader strokes and bolder colour, present in many of the paintings, suggests that this was the start of something new. The exhibition successfully tracks the move towards social realism that would bring American art to the attention of the international art market from the 1930s.