From the Countryside to the City

38f. Artistic and Literary Trends

Snap the Whip, 1872
Butler Institute of American Art
Winslow Homer drew several versions of "Snap the Whip," capturing school children at play in 1872 rural America.

Like the American economy, American art and literature flourished during the Gilded Age. The new millionaires desired greatly to furnish their mansions with beautiful things. Consequently, patronage for the American arts was at a higher level than any previous era. Painters depicted a realistic look at the glories and hardships of this new age. Writers used their pens to illustrate life at its best and its worst. The net result was an American Renaissance of arts and letters.

Painting the Gilded Age

Many wealthy Americans yearned to have their image captured for posterity by having their portraits painted. James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent were the most sought after portrait artists of the time. Lured by the idea of working among European masters, both moved to England. Their works endure as among the finest in the genre. Another expatriate American was the impressionist Mary Cassatt, who moved to Paris to work with the masters Monet and Renoir. Beyond any artist of the age, she captured women and children at their tender best.

Perhaps the most famous of the postwar American painters was Winslow Homer. Homer gained fame during the Civil War for his realistic illustrations of Union soldiers, which often graced the covers of Harper's Weekly magazine. After the war he became a serious painter. Life in the American countryside was made real to those who flocked to the cities. His later years were marked with a fascination of the New England coast. Probably no American painter captured the majesty and power of the sea like Homer.

At the same time, Philadelphian Thomas Eakins illustrated local behaviors, including a series depicting crew races on the Schuylkill River. His most controversial work, The Gross Clinic, depicted a live medical operation.


In literature, the dominant figure of the age was Mark Twain. Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Twain spurned the stodgy New England writing style of the time and brought an added touch of realism by writing in the local color and style of the American Mississippi. Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer became genuine American folk heroes to his many readers.

Kate Chopin was largely unknown at the time, but her novel The Awakening became a manifesto for future feminists. Stephen Crane portrayed the horrors of the Civil War with his poignant The Red Badge of Courage in 1895. Henry James struggled with the values of the Victorian Age by focusing his attention on women. His works Daisy Miller and Portrait of a Lady hinted at the tension lying beneath Victorian morality. The horrors of city life were grimly depicted in Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, whose representation of a poor working girl offended many a reader.

Postwar poets were prolific. Most notable were Walt Whitman for his Leaves of Grass collection and Emily Dickinson, whose many poems were published after her death.

In the Home

The visual arts flowered as well. The market for interior design was booming. Louis Comfort Tiffany specialized in stained glass. He combined glorious colors of glass with shells and stones to create beautiful works for fine homes. He was even commissioned to improve the interior of the White House. Candace Wheeler pioneered work in tapestry weaving. Wealthy Americans bought these items with a fever, and lavished their homes with marble floors and decorative chandeliers. The American Renaissance was in full swing.

On the Web
American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870 — 1920
A look at vaudeville, burlesque, minstrel shows, and other forms of popular entertainment, through artifacts in the collections of the Library of Congress. You'll find lots of digital images on the several pages of this website.
Dickinson, Whitman and American Culture
This new site from the University of Virginia features dozens of essays on Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and their place in American culture. Many are illustrated.
James McNeill Whistler
James McNeill Whistler is just one of many artists featured at Wikiart, which makes public domain artwork available to the public with high-resolution images.
Mark Twain in His Times
This website created by a University of Virginia professor includes the complete texts and background info of five of Mark Twain's major works, and three excellent illustrated essays on the creation of the "Mark Twain" identity, the marketing of the man and the stories, and Mark Twain on Stage — which includes a voice recording.
Mary Cassatt
The National Gallery of Art has over 100 works by Mary Cassatt, most of which are also available online. This page is linked to a listing of all Cassatt's works in the Gallery's permanent collection. Click on each title to bring up high-quality images and pages of information about the art.
Biography of Mary Cassatt
Mary Cassat was one of the few American artists active in the 19th-century French avant-garde. Check out this page for a quick summary of her life and work.
Winslow Homer Watercolors — A Survey of Themes and Styles
The National Gallery of Art showcases 15 of Winslow Homer's watercolors in this multi-page website. Oustanding image quality on the thumbnails, even better on the large images which are just a click away.
Here is a chance to listen to original skits and songs from the variety stage, including the Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1913) and the Arkansas Traveler, complete with sound effects, as recorded in 1922.
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