American Art History Timeline

Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

When you think of American art, what comes to mind? Hand-stitched quilts from colonial days? Pop art of the 1960s? This lesson covers highlights of North American art history from the 1700s to today.

Art of the Early Colonists

1700-1800

The art of the early settlers of America primarily revolved around handicrafts. Any paintings done were realistic portraits and historical paintings similar in style to their European counterparts, such as Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington in 1796 and John Singleton Copley's 'Watson and the Shark' in 1778.

Handicrafts were some of the other pieces of art to emerge during this period. Handicrafts are items such as embroidery samplers, ivory carvings, silver pieces, and quilts. Before his midnight ride, Paul Revere made a name for himself by creating silver pitchers, plates and other place settings.

The colonists imitated Europe in their architectural styles. Thomas Jefferson began construction on his house, called Monticello, in 1768 and finished it in 1809. He modeled it after buildings he had seen in Paris, which were in the neoclassical style, which means they were modeled after early Roman architecture. Philadelphia's Independence Hall was finished in the 1750s and designed in the Georgian style. Many of the early buildings in New England were built in this style, which favored having two stories and a sense of symmetry.

Watson and the Shark
copley

Monticello
monticello

Heading West with Manifest Destiny

1800-1900

During this time, American artists began to excel in their own right apart from European artists. Some had trained in Europe, but by this time, America had established some of its own art schools. The National Academy of Design opened its first location in New York in 1825. Washington, D.C., was officially established as the nation's capital in 1790, and plans were made for the construction of the capitol building and an early version of the White House.

With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the country began to expand west. The expansion was reflected in the art of this time. The Hudson River School painters wanted to show off the beauty of these newly-acquired areas of land. One prominent artist was Albert Bierstadt, whose landscapes displayed the grandeur of the land. Other artists created pieces celebrating the new country. John James Audubon's Birds of America illustrations showed the birds of the new frontier, while Frederic Remington's paintings and bronze sculptures immortalized the western cowboy.

As the West started to settle and become less of a wild frontier, the building styles changed as well. Wooden structures were replaced by brick buildings, and America began to rely on its growing industrial inventions and factories.

Impressionism also made its way to America during the latter part of the 1800s. Like the French artists, the group of painters known as The Ten sought to change the conservatism of the American art scene by creating more experimental paintings. They focused less on 'capturing light' in their paintings than the French did, however. Their pieces were full of brighter, bolder colors. One member of the group was Childe Hassam, whose flag series was inspired by World War I preparedness parades.

Scene in the Sierra Nevada
Albert Bierstadt

The Avenue in the Rain
hassam

Rise of the Machines

1900-1950

From the American Impressionists, art continued to evolve. The Ash Can School, or 'The Eight,' created works that showed life as it was, with crowded streets and people going about their day. World War I changed life for everyone. Machines no one had ever seen before scarred their young men for the rest of their lives. Art was transforming from recognizable to bright bold shapes. The Armory Show in 1913 introduced America to European artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

Another artist to emerge from the Armory show was Edward Hopper. He had been a student of Robert Henri's, one of the founders of the Ash Can School. He also showed life as it was, but reflected more of the isolation people felt after World War I, such as in his 1942 Nighthawks painting.

Nighthawks
edward hopper

An opposite movement emerged around this time as well. Regionalism rejected the crowded streets in favor of scenes of farming and of the rural Midwest, such as Grant Wood's American Gothic. The stern-faced farmers, modeled after his sister and his dentist, reflected the farmers he had grown up with.

American Gothic
american gothic

Dada and Cubism also came about during this time. Dada was, descriptively, nonsense art. It was a response against World War I. The shapes defied logical forms of painting. Art Deco began to emerge during the 1920s. An example of this new style is the Chrysler Building in New York.

Chrysler Building
chrysler building

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