A world of their own


American Beauty offers a crash course in art history, as well as an insight into how the American landscape artists played a part in creatinga distinct new tradition, different from those of the colonial powers, writes Aidan Dunne.

We have grown so used to the idea of the cultural dominance of the US that the underlying theme of American Beauty may come as something of a surprise. The National Gallery exhibition is an extremely enjoyable whistle-stop tour of 150 years of American painting and sculpture, from the colonial 1770s to about 1920, courtesy of the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. But the show's persistent subtext relates to the efforts of American artists to negotiate a separate cultural identity.

More often than not, these efforts took the form of an intense, on-off romance with the artistic styles and conventions of Europe. This is not to say that something distinctively American doesn't emerge from the melting pot, not least a conspicuous, down-home folksiness, and also a sense of scale and space that fed into the some of the great achievements of 20th century American painting. But, as with those later achievements, much of the vigour and inventiveness is surely generated by the fact that American society was a melting pot.

As a title, American Beauty may lack the talismanic quality inherent in the mere word Impressionism, but it is a rich, diverse and rewarding show. Apart from providing a good crash course in an area of art history to which pretty much everyone, historians and connoisseurs included, came rather late, there are more than enough highlights along the way to justify a visit.

The most familiar names, including Mary Cassatt, James Whistler and John Singer Sargent, worked their way into the mainstream of European art in various ways. Sargent became a premier portrait painter, and there is a fine example of his stylish brilliance in his portrait of Madame Paul Poirson, together with an untypical landscape and a curiosity painted with great élan.

We get to see the painting that sparked one of the most notorious art litigations, when Ruskin described Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold (actually an audaciously impressionistic account of a firework display in Chelsea) as a pot of paint flung in the face of the public. Whistler won the action he took, but was all but ruined by having to pay his own legal costs.

Among the more home-grown highlights is a version of John Singleton Copley's Watson and the Shark, a cracking narrative painting recounting a young midshipman's real-life close encounter with a Jaws-like predator. John Habarle's quirky trompe l'oeil fireplace introduces the folksy with a vengeance. George Caleb Bingham's Trapper's Return, originally titled French trader and Half-Breed Son, brings home the fact that we are really in another world entirely.

It was the American landscape that provided artists with their greatest challenge, and their greatest opportunity. Thomas Cole, dubbed the father of American landscape, put his finger on the nub of the issue when he observed that he and his peers in America (he had arrived from England at the age of 17) were particularly privileged because "nature here is new to art". The vastness and grandeur of the continent left observers grasping for superlatives and left painters trying to cut the coat of the wilderness to suit the shape of European landscape conventions. Hardly surprising that it was usually an uncomfortable fit.

Nature in America was new to art, and as such it was strangely ungraspable except within the frame of existing perceptual models. For Cole and his predecessors, those models included pictorial conventions clustered under such headings as the Picturesque, the Beautiful and, particularly, the Sublime - the evocation of a natural spectacle that overwhelms reason. He went so far as to paint a homage to Salvator Rosa, the prototypical painter of Sublime landscape.

The strength and persistence of these models is evident in the way American painters not only travelled to Europe and assimilated stylistic approaches they encountered there, but also in their adoption of a European landscape iconography - hence the dozens of Italianate landscapes turned out by Washington Allstone when he was back home in the United States. Why wasn't he attending to the brave new world on his own doorstep? By saying nature was new to art in America, Cole was noting the lack of human role in the fabric of the landscape. But Allstone and even Cole himself set about importing that past fabric, in a recognisable variant of an enduring theme in American cultural history.

The question of American landscape painting is particularly interesting, not least because, as many observers including the art historian Barbara Novak have noted, the huge unknown of the western landscape came to occupy a central role in the development of national identity, in the creation of a sense of an American tradition distinct and different from that of the colonial powers. In a similar way we could cite the self-conscious mythologising of the west of Ireland in the Celtic Revival and in Free State painting.

The issue of taste comes up several times throughout the show. Martin Johnson Heade certainly liked a lurid sunset, and there are a couple on view here. But he probably wasn't exaggerating. Head of Exhibitions Fionnuala Croke remarks that Heade would attach leaves to pictures he dispatched for sale to England, because they simply didn't believe the intensity of the autumnal reds across the Atlantic. European idioms translated into the American brashness could be startling.

Elihu Vedder's Samson and Delilah from 1886 are more popcorn than salon. Julius Stewart's Wood Nymphs are less Symbolist sprites and more flesh-and-blood models earning their living while chatting about the price of onions. To say that Robert Henri's green-hued nude is more Tretchikoff than Manet may be a little unfair, but is not entirely untrue.

Similarly, Louis Remy Mignot's Morning in the Andes tips the scales from dazzling spectacle to kitsch, prefiguring an endless avalanche of dreadful chocolate-box landscapes.

American artists could certainly do Impressionism effectively. Childe Hassam consciously applied the methods of Pissarro to Manhattan, rightly arguing that the boulevards of Paris were "not one whit more interesting that the streets of New York". Here, though, we see his sun-drenched view of Havana. Willard Leroy Metcalf's The White Veil is a sweet painting, a snow scene, but also beautifully composed and perfectly pitched so that it never becomes sentimental.

But it is appropriate, perhaps, to end with a mention of something more downbeat altogether. John Sloan's brilliant, rain-sodden Wake of the Ferry from 1907 is thought to depict his alcoholic wife heading away from Manhattan back home to Philadelphia: American bleakness, perhaps, but also authentic and beautiful.

American Beauty is at the National Gallery until September 1st. Tickets: €10 (concessions €6, groups €9, children under 12 €3, families €23). From Ticketmaster, 1890-9025120 or www.ticketmaster.ie