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Painting American
Painting American
The Rise of American Artists, Paris 1867 - New York 1948


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Annie Cohen-Solal was born in Algeria and received a Ph.D. in French literature from the Sorbonne. She has taught at New York University and the Universities of Berlin, Jerusalem, and Paris XIII, and she writes frequently about French intellectuals and cultural policy for a variety of publications. Having served as the Cultural Counselor at the French embassy in the United States from 1989 to 1993, she is currently a Professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, where she teaches a seminar in American art, and recently produced the radio series "Painters for the New World" for FranceCulture. The French edition of Painting American was awarded the Prix Bernier by the Académie des Beaux Arts. Cohen-Solal's acclaimed Sartre: A Life was an international best-seller translated into sixteen languages. She lives in Paris and New York.

Photo (c) Irmeli Jung

Shortly after the Civil War, a resurgent America strode brashly onto the hallowed ground of the Paris salon to present its most distinguished painters in the Exposition Universelle of 1867. Their offereings included majestic Western waterfalls, magnificent portraits, sprawling landscapes--the cream of a nation ready to assert itself culturally as it had begun to do so economically. The Americans sat back to bask in anticipated applause.

But their confidence would be shattered when the luminaries of the French Academy condemned the spectacle as being unworthy of the great nation that had produced it. The rebuke provoked widespread soulsearching in America: Why was the land of Melville and Poe unable to produce paintings of comparable power? How was it to claim a place among nations producing art of real consequence?

In this magnificent historical panorama, Annie Cohen-Solal shows how American pragmatism furnished the solution: Learn from the best. The French were then the undisputed masters of painting, and so to France the Americans went in hordes, apprenticing themselves in the studios of reknowned masters--Gérôme, Cabanel, and others--or founding colonies such as the legendary one at Pont-Aven. From the seeds of their individual efforts would grow an extraordinary crop, one that included not only the great--Whistler, Cassatt, Sargent--but a legion of artists of all ranks who collectively pushed forward a bold new American enterprise. In two generations, Paris would be eclipsed, and the greatest French artists would begin coming to New York to be at the new center of everything.

Meticulously researched and presented as a captivating story, this book tells the saga of the rise of American artists as we have never had it before: a surging transatlatic ebb and flow of cultural energies, driven by innumberable fascinating individuals--painters, collectors, critics, titans of industry--some of them now famous, others forgotten. Informed throughout by the author's unique perspective as a scholar, a writer, and a cultural diplomat, Painting American offers an utterly new understanding of one of the greatest changes in cultural history.

"Annie Cohen-Solal writes with the confident authority and mesmerizing observations of a modern-day de Tocqueville. With one brilliantly argued point after another, she has connected the two worlds of American and French (European) painting, exposed the obvious differences and demonstrated their utter independence. Though it reads like a page-turning detective novel, it is destined to remain the seminal work on this subject for a very long time. Bravo." --Ken Burns

"'The imagination is not dead,' Alexis de Tocqueville observed of America more than a century ago, but it can only 'conceive what may be useful and portray what is actual.' His worry that a country without an aristocracy would be incapable of producing great art has finally been dispelled in Annie Cohen Solal's masterful study of the foundations and flowering of American painting. Her book demonstrates brilliantly that in a democracy of desire artistic beauty blossoms forth in all modes of expression." --John Patrick Diggins, Distinguished Professor of History, Graduate Center, City University of New York

"A thoughtfully conceived, well-executed study of France's influence on American art--and vice versa.... Literate, accessible, and a pleasure to read: worthy to stand on a shelf next to Roger Shattuck's The Banquet Years and Robert Hughes's The Shock of the New."--Kirkus Reviews "This book, which relates the story of American art since the middle of the nineteenth century, is without equal both in France and in the United States." --Bernard Pivot, "Bouillon de Culture", Antenne 2, Paris, November 24, 2000