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Academic & writer

Pittsburg Post-Gazette

‘Painting American: The Rise Of American Artists, Paris 1867- New York 1948′ by Annie Cohen-Solal

Expert traces how New York eclipsed Paris as cultural center

Sunday, December 23, 2001

By John Freeman

Twelve years ago, when she accepted a position as France’s cultural counselor in New York, Annie Cohen-Solal experienced a disease uncharacteristic of Gallic people spending time in Gotham.

“I felt let down,” the writer and professor says. “I was in charge of promoting French culture in fashion, books, movies, academics. And I immediately felt there was one field that we had lost a lot of ground in, which was art.”

Rather than overlooking what seemed an obvious weak spot in their arts, Cohen-Solal began asking questions. Whenever she could, she talked with American art patrons, museum directors, and critics, from legendary art dealer Leo Castelli to Jacqueline Kennedy, who was a big supporter of French arts.

Through the tutelage of such cultural luminaries, Cohen-Solal pieced together the story of how, over 100 years, from the mid-1800s until just after World War II, New York eclipsed Paris as the center of the art world.

In her lavish new book, Cohen-Solal chronicles how American artists went from being the mockery of the 1867 Universal Exposition to being a dominant force in 1948, when Jackson Pollock’s Abstract Expressionism became the most potent form of representation.

While she experienced this sea change first hand, Cohen-Solal found her way into the story by accident. “I was in the Musee D’Orsay, and I discovered this incredible catalog from the Universal Exhibition [of 1867], and I read this incredible text that showed how the Americans were not even a credible force. They were laughed at.”

This should not be much of a surprise, says Cohen-Solal, for at the time, art garnered even less support in America than it has today. “For one, you had this pioneer culture in America — things have to be useful.

“Secondly, because of its Puritan roots, Americans thought art should be for the princes and the rich people, not for everyone.

“Finally, because of the rise in America’s business culture, art seemed irrelevant. Artists were not making money.”

Sensing a lack of support at home, and knowing their foreign compatriots had better skills, Americans began sailing for Paris in droves after the Civil War. Among them were some of the biggest names in 19th-century art, from William Morris Hunt to J. Alden Weir.

Many stayed for over a decade, but when they returned, they came back looking for schools, galleries, and colonies like the ones they’d been exposed to in France.

Because Philadelphia boasted the oldest academy of fine arts in the country, it was a natural stop for many artists.

“I think Philadelphia was very important,” Cohen-Solal says, “it was the place people used to leave to become something. The Bostonians were bookish. The Philadelphia artists were portraitists, and there is a big tradition of that in Philadelphia with Thomas Eakins alone. So what happened is that the shortest way from Philadelphia to New York went through Paris.”

One of the most short-lived but important successes in the evolution of American painting was achieved at the Charcoal Club, a private academy set up by Robert Henri and John Sloan in Philadelphia.

“Two evenings a week were devoted to sketching nude models,” Cohen-Solal writes, “and on Monday evenings Henri critiqued everyone’s drawings.” Within six months, the number of members ballooned to 38, nearly twice that of the local Academy.

Not surprisingly, when the club disbanded, several of its members wound up in New York, where they would sow the seeds for the important Armory show of 1913, which introduced Americans to modernism.

While many art history books come freighted with hundreds of pictures, Cohen-Solal’s history offers but 20. Rather, she uses the diary entries and letters of the players in this progression to bring this period to life. As a result, her book is more a book about figures in art, rather than art itself.

“The world of visual art is like a network where you have many, many actors,” says Cohen-Solal. “There are manifest actors — who are the painters. And then there are the other actors, dynamic actors is what I call them — critics, the dealers, the professors and so on. All these branches of professions come together to create the conditions in which painters can produce.”

This book was translated from the French with Laurie Hurwitz-Attias.

John Freeman is a free-lance writer in New York.