This essay is an examination of the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson on the development of American art through his essays, specifically his writings on nature and self-reliance. Through emphasizing individual potential, Emerson also influenced the visual arts. Instead of following the required formula in Europe of attending certain ateliers and seeking prestigious patronage, American artists, namely the Luminists and the Ashcan School, sought to address the issues of their day and portray life as it existed around them. Each of these groups formed during periods of time when American society was shifting and the American identity was evolving. Through addressing the issues at hand, artists formed an American aesthetic separate from the traditional methodologies in Europe, in turn, contributing to a national identity. After the Civil War, the United States underwent considerable change as different areas of the nation redefined themselves in conjunction to new laws and shifts in social structure. For the Luminists, the writings of Emerson concerning nature were especially applicable during this time since most people in the United States lived in rural circumstances and still struggled to define a national art separate from European tradition. Emerson focused on nature's ability to uplift and inspire mankind, bringing them closer to the Divine and America's unique and untamed nature was one aspect that separated it from Europe. The Luminists focused on their surrounding natural environment, portraying the connection between man and nature. During the Progressive Age, Robert Henri followed Emerson's instruction to illustrate life as it existed for him in the early twentieth century. By this time, most people had moved to the cities in search of employment and everyone was crammed into small tenements. Henri taught his art students to value and illustrate life in all of its gritty reality. In this way, he followed Emerson to communicate beauty through an honest interpretation of life. Although diverse in their techniques, the Luminists and Robert Henri both utilized the ideas of Emerson to help define an American aesthetic.



College and Department

Humanities; Humanities, Classics, and Comparative Literature



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Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Henri, Luminists, American aesthetic