Artists provide unique look at culture

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American artisans traveling through the United States from the 1500s through the early 1900s painted pictures of American culture as they saw it – the people, manners, customs, costumes and surroundings.

Of great interest to these early artists was the life of Native Americans. These earliest of Americans were drawn and painted from life by such artists as Morgues, during a Florida expedition in 1564; and White in Sir Walter Raleigh’s Virginia trek in 1585 and 1586.

Characteristics of the Indians painted resembled white folks with English features, although their attire and customs were definitely American Indian.

Our American Aborigine fared better in natural features when illustrated in the 1700s by the mezzotint engravers. By 1830, an understanding portrayer – Bodmer – executed a quality likeness.

However, it is not so much through the portrait of American folks that we observe historical values as much as the life illustrated.

Baroness Neuville, wife of the French minister to the United States, sketched working people in America in characteristic situations.

Especially of interest to her were the cooks, chambermaids and scrubwomen in the time period of 1817 to 1822.

In 1811, Paul Syinin wrote and illustrated what he saw. In 1930, Yarmolinsky published a book Picturesque United States with 50 of Syinin’s watercolors in it.

Syinin was very observant in his travels, sketching everything he came across – chimney sweeps, shadfishers, military personnel, black oyster-catchers.

He noted objects of interest and situations that the average observer would consider of no importance.

The natural unspoiled American landscape formed a new interest to the artists who had almost always included old buildings in their rural scenes.

Artists from the old countries dealt with various areas of the country and all classes and levels of humanity. The western folks – traders, cow punchers, mountain men and Indians – were sketched by such artists as Rudolph Kurz, who was actually critical of the American manners on the frontier.

Overall, the work of visiting artists and their observations captured, in picture form, American social history, its weaknesses, habits, thoughts and ideals.

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