Before discussion of the important artistic institutions in the US in the 19th century, I think it is important to note America’s initial awareness and fascination with the European art world. 1867 was a key year in terms of Americans paying attention to European art. By 1867, there were no museums in America and Americans mainly had the Hudson River School paintings to look to; Americans, therefore, looked to participate in the international realm of the arts. Consequently, the best American collectors and dealers got together and assembled a large group of art to send to the Paris exposition of 1867, which in turn, caused immense embarrassment as they could not compete with the French artists, who wowed all spectators. At the time, these American works looked relatively backwards compared to the high technique and finish of the French art. As a result, French critics ignored American art, causing the Americans to dump their collections of American art and to begin buying European art instead. Moreover, post Civil War, Americans looked to Europe to form some kind of identity. The aristocratic Americans turned to Cabanel for portraiture, as this would raise their status through painting. Impressionism did not gain ground in the US until the 1890s.
Post Civil War years and decades led to great advances in the American art world. In 1868, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art opened its life classes to women. Opening life classes to women was an extremely progressive notion. Thomas Eakins, an important American realist painter, led the movement. Women as artists and as patrons were more prevalent in the US than in Europe. However, the art world in America was still a mans world in its formation of business and marketing success, in which women were marginalized in business ventures. For example, nonprofit corporations, which were legitimating institutions of cultural authority: such as great research universities, foundations, and orchestras, were founded by wealthy male philanthropists after the 1860s. “Male aristocracy also created the ‘American Establishment,’ part and parcel of a network of ‘institutional hierarchies’ over which political, professional, and corporate leaders presided.” Andrew Carnegie furthered this notion with his “Gospel of Wealth” and search for order, as fin-de-siècle America was considered a society without a core. The country at that time lacked national centers of information and authority, the universities and foundations built would fill this void. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was an important US institution that helped the vitalization of America as a significant cultural realm. According to “Women’s Culture,” the MET traces its inception to a fourth of July speech given in Paris by the Union League Club’s president, John Jay, in 1866. The Art Institute of Chicago was also an important US institution in the 19th century. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston was also a significant institution in America, erected in the late 19th century. The introduction of these museums to America helped form the country’s Gilded Age.
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