American Art: A Brief Introduction
The rich history of American art stretches from the earliest Indigenous cultures to recent contemporary abstraction and avant-garde approaches.
Centuries before European settlement, Native American peoples created art in America. After the arrival of Europeans in the sixteenth century, American landscape painters and portraitists often emulated more classical styles.
From the mid-19th century onwards, several distinct American movements appeared. The Hudson River School, American Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism, and later Color Field Painting are just a few exciting developments in the art world at the time.
This brief introduction examines what makes American artwork unique and what some of the most famous American paintings are.
What is American art history?
American art history refers to a massive array of artists, artworks, and styles.
It applies to Native American paintings and art from the American Revolution and Civil War. It also includes African American art of the Harlem Renaissance and depictions of the American West.
American art history includes modern movements such as American Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism, Action Painting, and the Ashcan School (to name a few).
Consequently, “American Art History” isn’t one single entity but a progression of artistic developments and astounding creativity. From Albert Bierstadt and James McNeill Whistler to Mary Cassatt, Edward Hopper, Horace Pippin, Mark Rothko, Jacob Lawrence, and Jackson Pollock, it produced some of the most famous painters of all time.
For many art historians, “American Art” usually ends around the Second World War. After this point, movements such as Abstract Expressionism gained a worldwide following. With the increasing globalization of the art world, movements strictly based on nationality made less sense.
Nonetheless, American artists continued producing some of the most innovative contemporary art of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
What defines American art?
Given the extensive range of American artwork, there is no single defining characteristic. Therefore, instead of trying to explain American art as a whole, it’s worthwhile investigating the most famous American art movements and their defining characteristics:
- The Hudson River School. A Romantic art movement, producing some of the finest American landscape paintings.
- Luminism. A soft and sophisticated style adopted by American landscape painters of the 1850s to 1870s.
- Tonalism. Appearing during the 1880s, Tonalism uses overall tones of colored atmosphere and mists.
- American Impressionism – is a unique transnational movement inspired by French Impressionism.
- The Boston School. A regional group combining conservative figure painting with Impressionist styles.
- The Ashcan School. An early twentieth-century movement using realist techniques depicting the lives of the American working class.
- The Harlem Renaissance. A flourishing, brilliant African American painting art movement centered around Harlem, New York.
- Abstract Expressionism. American painters promoted new forms of vibrant abstract art in the 1940s and 50s.
- Action Painting. Prevalent from the 1940s to the 1960s, this style emphasized the physical act of painting.
- Color Field Painting. Abstract painters in the 1950s and 60s used flat “fields” of single colors.
What is modern American art?
The historical meaning of “modern art” includes any artistic works produced between the 1860s and 1970s. It is usually associated with artistic movements such as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism that launched a new age of creative thinking.
Primarily working in France (exemplified by artists such as Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh), these artists discarded tradition and celebrated experimentation.
In terms of America, however, “American Modernism” was a specific trend appearing at the turn of the 20th century. With a period of intense creativity between the two World Wars, it took inspiration from earlier European developments.
American artists working during this period looked to their newly industrialized world. As a result, they rejected earlier classical approaches and formed their avant-garde painting styles. Ashcan artists (including Robert Henri and George Luks) and the later Action Painting of Jackson Pollock. Color Field painters such as Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still continued this revolutionary approach, albeit more abstractly.
Who is America's most famous artist?
There are many famous American artists. This esteemed group includes James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, Childe Hassam, Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko.
Nonetheless, America’s most famous artist today is Andy Warhol. As the father of Pop Art, he transformed the world of fine art.
After Warhol’s meteoric rise to fame, the days of lofty academicism were gone. Instead, Warhol created art that interacted with celebrities, advertising, fashion, and consumer goods. As a result, his iconic prints (for instance, those of Campbell's Soup or Marilyn Monroe) celebrated and critiqued capitalism in equal measure.
As a fundamental shift away from Abstract Expressionism, his work forever transformed American art and perceptions of the USA.
What is America's greatest painting?
Art Historians still hotly contest America’s greatest painting. There are so many famous American artists and paintings that selecting one single “greatest” artwork is a near impossible task.
Nonetheless, some paintings have worked their way into the national consciousness to such an extent that they could all classify as the nation’s most significant artworks.
Here are three examples:
- James Abbot McNeill Whistler, The Artist’s Mother (1871)
Titled “Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1”, though better known as Whistler’s Mother or The Artist’s Mother, this painting is a true cultural icon. Described by some as the Victorian “Mona Lisa,” it shows Whistler’s experimentation with tonalist techniques.
With liquid paint scraped thinly over the canvas, Whistler’s somber grays, blacks, and whites form a compositional element of their own. Some critics even guess the dark color palette and stiff posture hint at more profound love, death, and parental aging themes.
- Grant Wood, American Gothic (1930)
In this iconic work of social realism, Wood painted a specific house in Eldon, Iowa. The style of architecture (Carpenter Gothic) gives the painting its enigmatic title.
Wood depicted the kind of people he “fancied should live in that house.” He felt this should be a farmer and his daughter. The figures were Wood’s dentist (Dr. Byron McKeeby) and his sister (Nan Wood Graham).
- Edward Hopper, Nighthawks (1942)
As one of the most recognizable paintings in the entirety of American art, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks is a genuinely great artwork. In Nighthawks (like most Edward Hopper art), he portrays modern city life's loneliness, ambiguity, and isolation.
While the painting has a universal quality (explaining its enduring appeal), Hopper claimed it was a specific restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue.
What are some examples of American art?
In addition to these famous American paintings, there are many more examples of stunning American art throughout the centuries.
Childe Hassam is one particularly celebrated artist renowned for his American flag wall art. Just before America entered World War One, Hassam saw a “preparedness parade.” These parades championed the country’s readiness to defend democracy and freedom against oppression.
Childe Hassam created a series of flag paintings to capture this spirit of optimism. They all depicted the famed “stars and stripes” fluttering above New York city streets. The most famous version is Avenue in the Rain (1917).
The painting adopts a strong impressionist style of fleeting brushstrokes and colorful yet muted tones. It hangs in the Presidential Oval Office, a quintessential emblem of American national pride.
In addition to American Impressionists such as Childe Hassam and Mary Cassatt, Native American paintings are another particularly noteworthy genre. Eanger Irving Couse produced some of the best-known depictions of Native American people, particularly of the Taos Tribe.
Artists such as Walter Ufer and Charles Russell also focused on scenes of Native American life. Both artists demonstrated deep sympathy and understanding of Native American culture, which is most notable in paintings such as When the Plains Were His (1906) and Water Crossing the Creek.
What kind of art is popular in America?
Today, contemporary art is incredibly popular in America. But, just as the public enthusiastically adopted innovative approaches from American Impressionist painters, today’s art lovers are no different.
Twentieth-century modern art also retains its popularity. Indeed, the likes of Georgia O’Keefe, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko still command eye-watering prices at auction.
Nonetheless, contemporary artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein remain incredibly popular. Tastes have also shifted towards street art and urban graffiti artists (notably Jean Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring).
Artists such as Jeff Koons (famed for his “balloon” dogs) are also still incredibly popular in the USA. One of his rabbit sculptures sold for a staggering $91 million in 2019 at Christie’s auction house. The sale achieved a record price for artwork sold by a living artist.
Famous American Paintings: Fine Art Reproductions
If you love the variety and beauty of famous American paintings, explore our extensive collection of fine art reproductions from leading American artists.
Whether it’s Native American paintings, African American artwork, or the serene beauty of the Hudson River School, you’ll find replica paintings to make great conversation pieces for your home or office.