Humanity’s inclination to decorate their belongings has always been one of the earliest signs of civilization. The beginnings of art may well have corresponded with the beginnings of humanity, demarcating our descent from the apes. Art likely began in the lines indented in clay, hollowed in the wood of family utensils or “graffiti” etched into the clay walls of a shelter. Sometime after that likely came crude coloring and drawing.
Among the first serious efforts to draw were the Egyptians whose pictures of animals and men are the earliest still in existence. The most that artists of that day succeeded in doing was to preserve the fashions of the time. Their drawings tell us that men wore their beards in bags. Their pictures also show us many peculiar head-dresses and strange agricultural implements. Artists of that day put down what they saw in detail, but because they saw with an untrained eye and made their record with an untrained hand; their productions were limited in aesthetic value. With that in mind, they did hold fast to the truth and did not put in false details for the sake of glorifying the subject. One can easily distinguish a man from a mountain in their work, unlike what would later be common, such as the arms and legs embroidered upon Mathilde’s tapestry, or the figures representing family history on the great Oriental rugs of Persia. This changed of course because as humans became more intelligent and spiritualized, they began to express themselves in increasingly idealized ways. They began to glorify the commonplace; and with this development, art passed from Egyptian geometric sketches to more gracious lines and beautiful coloring.
Native American pottery was the first development of art in America, and it led to the working of metals, followed by drawing and portraiture. Among the Americans, as soon as that term ceased to solely refer to Native Americans, art took a most distracting turn. Europe was old in pictures, great and beautiful when America was worshiping at the shrine of the chromo; but the chromo served a good turn, bad as it was. It was a link between the black and white of the admirable wood-cut and the true color picture.
Some of the Colonists brought over to the new world the portraits of their ancestors, but those paintings could not be considered “American” art as they lacked that defining American characteristic that can still be seen today, nor were those early settlers Americans in the strictest sense; but the generation they produced that followed gave to the world Benjamin West, one of the earlier and more famous painters originating in America. With that said, he left his Mother Country for England, where he found a knighthood and honors of every kind awaiting him.
The earliest artists of America had to go away to do their work because there was no place for anyone but those engaged in clearing land, planting corn, or fighting local skirmishes. Sir Benjamin West was President of the Royal Academy while America was still reveling in chromos. The artists who remained produced some of the first true works of American art whose subject matter included Davy Crockett in the trackless forest and pictures of the Continental Congress.
After the chromo in America came a new painting style known as the “buckeye,” which was painted using a ground-breaking method by relays of artists. Great canvases were stretched and blocked off into lengths. The desired scene was repeatedly drawn into each block by one man, who was then followed by “artists,” each, in turn, painting the same sky, water, foliage, or figures, according to his specialty. Whole yards of canvas could be painted in a day, with more artists to the square inch than are now employed to draw an entire animated film or cartoon.
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