American Symbolist Art: Nineteenth-Century “Poets in Paint” Washington Allston, John La Farge, William Rimmer, George Inness, and Albert Pinkham Ryder

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This work describes the concepts of Symbolist art used for this study and presents a sequence of the works and writings of five artists – Washington Allston at the beginning of the century, John La Farge and William Rimmer at mid-century, and George Inness and Albert Pinkham Ryder at the end. These five were selected after a lengthy survey of 19th and early 20th century American art. Although a broader selection might have been made, these particular artists successfully developed, at one point or another in their careers and with more or less clearly defined objectives, highly articulate visual art in the Symbolist mode, as well as writings about their Symbolist intentions (without using the term itself). In many instances, their words, as well as their art, recall those of artists like Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh, although predating the Europeans by several decades. The Symbolist works of these five Americans are analyzed along side their writings about art, as well as writings by the few major critics who understood their aesthetic intentions at the time, such as James Jackson Jarves, Charles de Kay, and Roger Fry. Not a survey, but rather a highly selective and suggestive study, this book was written with the intent of refining the historical concept of Symbolist Art in general, by extending the view further into American art.


"In a series of sensitive readings that blend biography with the classic tools of art historical analysis, Diane Johnson in American Symbolist Art offers new information and fresh insights into the work of Washington Allston, John La Farge, William Rimmer, George Inness, and Albert Pinkham Ryder. These artists, who were more often than not at odds with themselves and their environments, were in Johnson’s view true symbolists for whom painting had nothing to do with recording facts and everything to do with transcribing and making visible the world of their imaginations. Departing from the social-contextual matrix that has fueled much recent art historical study, Johnson offers an absorbing account of the creative process and its results. Both her thesis and method call for a return to the work of art itself as bearer of meaning, embedded in form, surface, facture, and the very physicality of the object. In language often as wonderfully poetic as the paintings she examines, Johnson guides the reader through a sequence of mysterious, haunting, and surprisingly modern images that reveal, in fresh and vivid detail, the inner workings of their creators’ minds. This original and engaging study vividly demonstrates how much may be discovered, and seen, through close, sustained, and thoughtful attention." - Professor Sarah Burns, Indiana University

"Dr. Diane Chalmers Johnson's work identifies and articulates a persistent symbolist current in American painting from Washington Allston (1779-1842) to Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917). Defining symbolism as a desire among artists to imbue the physical appearance of their works with spiritual signification (hence the book's subtitle, "poets in paint"), Dr.Chalmers finds the roots of this tendency in early Romanticism and demonstrates its continuity throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in the works of John La Farge, William Rimmer, George Inness, and Ryder. Dr. Johnson's book presents both a broad sweep of American Symbolism and a close reading of individual works, aided by the careful analysis of artists' writings and a judicious consideration of the impact on their work of their psychological make-up, experiences, and contacts. It offers a new perspective on the history of American nineteenth-century art as well as fresh insights into many well-known but often ill- understood paintings and sculptures. Written in a beautiful, clear prose, this book is a true gem that deserves to be read not merely by scholars of American nineteenth-century art but by all who are interested in exemplary art history scholarship and writing." - Dr. Petra T. Chu, Academic Director, MA Program of Museum Professions, Department of Art and Music, Seton Hall University

"... original and engaging study." - Prof. Sarah Burns, Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts

Table of Contents

Table of Contents:
List of Illustrations
Introduction: Symbolist Art in America – Defining the Undefined
1. Aspiring to the Poetical
2. Echoes of the Laws of the Universe
3. The Transmuting Power of Thought and Emotion
4. The Sensuous Apprehension of That Which is Unseen
5. “Painting Like Self Creation”

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