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2. Artistic and Literary Commitments (1880-1950)
III/ American Commitments

The Artistic Commitment of Kenyon Cox: An American Neoclassical Artist



À la fin du dix-neuvième siècle, les Etats-Unis viennent d’assister à des transformations profondes. La seconde révolution industrielle a créé beaucoup de nouvelles richesses et de nouveaux pouvoirs qui engendrent une altération du tissu social et urbain et un repositionnement du pays sur la scène internationale.
Depuis les années 1870, la Renaissance Américaine a véhiculé et diffusé de nouvelles valeurs et de nouveaux concepts. Ce mouvement néoclassique dans les arts au sens large s’attache à une réécriture du passé national du pays.
Kenyon Cox (1856-1919) se distingue comme l’un des principaux artistes du mouvement, mais aussi comme l’un des critiques et théoriciens les plus influents. Cox développe des théories sur ce que la peinture doit être et véhiculer, mais également sur ce que la peinture a hérité du passé et ce qu’elle doit devenir.
Cet article montre ainsi la manière dont les théories sur l’art, sur l’histoire et sur la société de Kenyon Cox peuvent être vues comme une forme d’engagement artistique grâce à une sélection de ses écrits allant des années 1890 aux années 1910. Ses idées révèlent à la fois une angoisse profonde liée aux transformations de la société engendrées par la révolution industrielle, ainsi qu’un enthousiasme martial qui entraînera le pays dans la guerre avec l’Espagne.

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1At the turn of the twentieth century, the United States’ continual economic and financial growth led to a repositioning of the country on the international scene. New imperial policies led to the annexation of Hawaii in 1897, the Spanish-American War of 1898, the Philippine-American War of 1899 and Roosevelt’s Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.

2This transformation revealed a shift in popular opinion. The War of Independence had played a central role in the building of the country’s national identity and the U.S. had strong anti-imperialist values which were linked to a traditional isolationist stance dating back to George Washington. Even if continental imperialism had been linked to economic growth since revolutionary times, the country nevertheless needed the injection and the diffusion of new views and rationales in order to provide a shift from international isolationism to overseas expansion.

3Such justifications appeared in many domains. In the human sciences, theories in sociology, physiognomy and anthropology helped disseminate new ideas of racial and cultural superiority. In the arts, Classicism reappeared on the front stage and certain artists used it as a venue for the expression and the diffusion of new values.

  • 1 The phrase American Renaissance comes from Richard Guy Wilson, The American Renaissance: 1876–1917, (...)

4This neoclassical impulse has also been called the American Renaissance and spanned from the 1870s to the 1910s.1 Leading it was a new generation of professional art critics and art historians, who debated and theorized on the role of art inside modern society. At the time, Kenyon Cox (1856-1919) distinguished himself as one of the major artists of the movement, but also as one of its most influential critics and theorists.

5Cox developed theories on what painting was supposed to be and what it should be a vehicle of, but also, on what painting had inherited from the past and what its goal for the future should be. Cox’s theories and his art revealed a form of political commitment at a time when the country was going through major changes on both the domestic and international scene. As an important art critic and art historian of his time, he played a role in the development of new ways of perceiving history and the position of art and men inside its flow.

6The goal of this paper will be to show in what way Kenyon Cox’s general theories on art, on history and on society can be seen as forms of artistic commitment. This will be done by using a selection of his writings from the 1890s to the 1910s. His ideas mirrored both the angst of deep social transformations brought on by the second Industrial Revolution, and the martial enthusiasm which led to the war with Spain (America’s Road 1-6).

7Cox’s artistic commitment will be revealed by first understanding how he perceived art and art history, and then by seeing how this impacted his approach to evolution, degeneration and the emergence of what was called at the time “modern” painting. Finally, this paper will analyze how his ideas, and this neoclassical wave at large, revealed a transformation of the way Americans perceived and conceptualized their position in the world, thus linking artistic production and theories to the ideological, political and social commitments of artists.

Kenyon Cox and the illusion of progress in the arts

8Kenyon Cox was born in 1856 in the state of Ohio. He began his art education at the Art Academy of Cincinnati in 1869, before leaving for the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1876. In 1877, he left the United States and went to Europe to complete his artistic education, like many other American painters of his time. He spent five years on the Old continent. In Paris, he studied under the guidance of Carolus-Duran, Alexandre Cabanel, Henri Lehman and finally Jean-Léon Gérôme who became his mentor. After France, he left for Italy. There, he discovered many artists from the Renaissance and the Antiquity. These five years abroad deeply influenced him and touched his aesthetic sensibility. He developed a life-long love and respect for the art of the past and this turned him irremediably towards Neoclassicism (Kenyon Cox 1-20).

9Upon his return to the United States in 1882, he decided to live in New York, the country’s art capital. At the time, the market was not favorable to American art. Buyers were mainly interested in European paintings. Like many other artists, Cox needed to find other ways of earning money. He received contracts as an illustrator and he worked for magazines like Scribner’s Monthly Magazine, McClure’s Magazine and Century Magazine. He was also commissioned to write art reviews and slowly became known as an incisive art critic (Kenyon Cox 4).

10These sources of revenue were sufficient enough to allow him to continue to paint and he was soon acknowledged on the New York scene for his Figurative Art. His growing fame allowed him to begin a career as a teacher. In 1884, he was given a position as professor at the Art Student League in New York and taught there for many years. In 1900, he was elected as associate professor to the prestigious National Academy of Design in New York and was given full status in 1903 as a teacher of art history and mural decoration. He was also a prominent member of the Society of American Artists, of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and taught in an irregular fashion at Columbia University from 1908 to 1914 (Kenyon Cox 205-206).

11He suffered from the lack of regular art commissions and the low teaching salary. This made it necessary for him to continue writing art reviews and articles for newspapers and drawing illustrations for magazines throughout his life. At the turn of the twentieth century, he began giving public lectures, which he afterwards published as articles. These articles were then assembled as collections and published as books. His fame in the art world and in academia gave weight to his opinions and his views were widely diffused in affluent newspapers such as the New York Evening Post and The Nation. By the 1910s, he was one of the most prominent art critics, art historians and artists in the United States.

12In his writings, Cox developed a very clear vision of History but also of art and the position an artist had to adopt regarding the past. He believed that in order to have a trained eye and hand, an artist needed primarily to have an understanding of the multiple traditions, cultures and arts, which spanned through time and linked civilizations together. The present was the culmination of the past and the only way for an artist to excel was to note the accomplishments of past geniuses and masters (Kenyon Cox 202). As he explained in 1889: “No one can be said to be thoroughly educated in art who has not seen and studied the best that the world has produced” (Kenyon Cox 202).

13The goal for contemporary artists was not to copy the past, but to insert themselves inside the flow of its history. According to Cox, knowledge and understanding of the past were crucial for the development of art in the present and for the future. According to him, painting began with “a race of wretched cave-dwellers” and art was linked to the very beginning of human beings and was “as long as the history of mankind” (The Illusion of Progress 202). Cox was very interested in the developments in archeology, anthropology and history which took place during his life time. He was very well read and incorporated these findings to his own theories on art.

14According to him, the emergence of the art of ancient Egypt, around four thousand years B.C., was one of representation and it “differed in many ways from the art of the cave men” and “it [was] vastly inferior to it in its representation of life and movement” (What is Painting 30). His conclusions were that the history of painting did not seem to be one of constant evolution and that, as in the example of the Egyptians, better technology did not to mean better art. As it was explained at the time, human beings were the subjects of evolution, but according to his findings, art was not.

15For him, the general history of painting was one that “flourished” and then “decayed” (The Illusion of Progress 206). If one took a step back and looked at the development of painting as a whole, one would conclude that “in all countries and all ages, the art has been essentially the same” (What is Painting 30). Painting as an art adapted itself to places, societies and cultures:

It has been practiced differently by different races and nations, it has varied enormously in the material employed and in the method of employing them […] but the object has always been the same (What is Painting 30).

16Art had intrinsic properties which were fundamentally different from those governing history or mankind.

17For Cox, the history of painting was one of various stages of representations of reality. Time, evolution and technology did not allow painters to get closer and closer to a form of universal truth. The history of painting was more a seesawing process than one of progression. What he observed in past cultures was that, at one point, there was a crucial step which was taken that brought art to what he called a point of “ripeness,” a point where art could no longer get better, but only different (The Illusion of Progress 206). This point of ripeness was the ultimate climax which was allowed to art. Once this point was reached, it was no longer a question of evolution or progression, but a question of artistic choices, where artists either favored line, solid form, color, light or shade in a constant balance of gain and loss (The Illusion of Progress 206). For Cox, this climax was reached in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance (The Illusion of Progress 206).

Classicism versus formalism

  • 2 On these particular artists see Wayne Morgan, Keepers of Culture: The Art Thought of Kenyon Cox, Ro (...)

18Classicism and Neoclassicism were according to Cox representations of this state of ripeness. As a consequence, any departure from these venues of expression was seen as backward. Since James McNeil Whistler’s Ten O’Clock public lecture in England, at the Prince’s Hall in 1885, painting in the US was witnessing the emergence of a new mode of artistic expression that was called at the time “modern”. Cox and other artists, such as Royal Cortissoz and Frank Jewett Mather Jr. took clear stands against the emergence of these new artistic trends and, in opposition, were most often referred to as traditionalists or classicists.2

19Another one of his conclusions was that Cox’s state of ripeness could be lost to Degeneration. In 1895, he wrote a review for Nordau’s theory of Degeneration. At the very beginning of his review he explained:

A painter with classical tendencies—one who admires Raphael and still respects even Gérome—is likely to open Nordau’s volume with some anticipation and enjoyment. A scientific demonstration of the mental unsoundness of the “Impressionists” and the “Rose Croix” appeals to him as perhaps plausible and not undesirable, and “degenerate,” “hysteric,” “mattoid” are beautiful names to hurl at the artists of the “Yellow Book” […]. If it can be proved that tendencies in painting which seem to him morbid and unhealthy are really the result of disease, his cause is gained (Nordau’s Theory 735).

20Cox believed that certain of his colleagues were afflicted by degeneration and he saw a streak of mental imbalance in many artists, such as James McNeil Whistler, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gaugin (Kenyon Cox 209). Any departure from the state of ripeness was attacked on medical grounds.

21To produce this most evolved form of art, the United States had to link the country’s national past to the Renaissance and the Greek and Roman Antiquity and had to accept its position as their direct inheritor. By rationalizing history in such a way, Cox re-conceptualized the position of the Unites States inside the flow of the history of Mediterranean civilizations giving to the country a new international dimension, countering isolationist sentiments. Cox revealed a form of commitment and perfectly integrated the conservative and evolutionary ideas of his time, inside an argument which tried to be as rational and scientific as possible.

Classicism and social order

22At the time, many thought that the battle between the “moderns” and the “classicists” would lay down the theoretical foundations for the art of the future. Cox attacked figurative and abstract painting as being backwards from a historical and historicized point of view. He believed that it was his duty as an artist and prominent critic to defend his vision against the increasing importance given to the art for art’s sake movement and representational art.

23What he disliked so much about the moderns was not their difference in technique and use of the medium, but their way of placing the individual before society, of putting individualism in front of collectivism. What appalled him was their will to paint for art’s sake instead of painting for truth’s or society’s sake. Truth and Collectivism had been put forward as true American values since colonial times and art, when accepted, had always been for society’s sake only (Keepers of Culture 4-6). The individualistic component of art production had always been despised for cultural and religious reasons.

24For neoclassical artists like Cox, art had a distinct mission, it was to be a universal language that unified different people and tastes, in a society that needed direction and easily identifiable standards to confront the deep transformations that were taking place.

25As society changed at the turn of the twentieth century, the new industrial order brought about a shift of authority from individuals and small social units to impersonal entities (Keepers of Culture 1). For the “moderns” these socio-economic transformations were exactly what fueled their desire to transform their subjects and technique, while for Cox art needed to remain like a safety-line. Art was a social stabilizer and since times immemorial, it had brought people together inside a cohesive entity which was society especially in times of great transformation. As such, the role of art was deeper than just truth. Art produced social order and social stability. In his own words, art brought “rhythm, harmony, proportion—some form of order in a word [art is] the great binder together and social organizer as well as the great educator” (Tolstoy on Art 226-227). Art created unity in the expression of human emotion if not also harmony.

26For Cox, art created a collective experience which enriched the individual and reminded each social actor that they were all interconnected, that they were all parts of a greater body which was the result of a historic development.

27As Cox explained:

Under proper conditions art would always be popular, for the artist would be one of the people, having the same ideals and thoughts and feelings as the public he served, and would, quite naturally, express the mind of his public as his public would have it expressed (The Classic Point 29-30).

28For Cox, the artist was a social ambassador and as such represented his collectivity. The painter brought unity and social order. Art was society and the artist was its metonymy; while the moderns were often seen by their opponents as too egotistical, too individualistic. They posed a threat as such to social order and harmony through their art which was seen as chaotic and disorderly. This was potentially dangerous at a time of great social mobility and social restructuring.

29Other neoclassical artists, such as Augustus Saint-Gaudens and John Lafarge, were greatly inspired by Catholic imagery. The values their pieces spread were linked to the need at the time to reassert the status quo and to find new ways of asserting social boundaries between newly emerged groups.

30In his use of historical, anthropological and evolutionary theories, Cox had a scientific approach to art history and tried to base his arguments on a rational methodology. He embraced the rapid technological transformations of his time, but saw in the yearly appearance of new artistic trends, such as Futurism, Expressionism and Primitivism, the symptoms of standardization and the transformation of art into a commercial good (The Illusion of Progress 206). As such his artistic commitment was deeply conservative, but not truly reactionary.

31Neoclassicism was not new in the United States. During the Revolution, many Americans saw in Athens the origins of their democracy, in Rome the birth of modern law and republicanism, and in the founding father’s humanism the influence of the Renaissance (Wilson 39-41). The art of the revolutionary era greatly favored Classicism. The trend then disappeared in the background until the 1870s.

32After the Civil War, there was the need to heal the wounds brought on by Secession and reconsolidate the country’s national identity. Very often, artists used national symbols such as the shield or the bald headed eagle to disseminate symbols of unity and identity. Classicism came to be the favored venue for the expression of patriotism and nationalism, as well as for science and its technological applications, as exemplified by the Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1889 and was both an expression of confidence in steel and technology, and a neo-gothic piece with its characteristic ogival curves.

33Beginning in the 1870s, the wealth of the second Industrial Revolution transformed the country’s architectural landscape. Architect firms such as McKim, Mead and White built castles and manors for the industrial and financial elite. These projects gathered U.S. architects, sculptures, painters, muralists and decorators who worked together like their Renaissance counterparts.

34Money from the second Industrial Revolution and the need to show one’s economic superiority visually transformed the United States and gave to the country visible symbols of power. Private individuals were massively importing art from Europe, and as the architect Stanford White explained:

In the past, dominant nations had always plundered works of art from their predecessors; […] America was taking a leading place among nations and had, therefore, the right to obtain art wherever she could (White 24-25).

35The mass importation of Antique and Renaissance masterpieces was both the representation and the expression of imperial power.

36By the end of the second Industrial Revolution, the United States was an economic and financial power to be reckoned with. Neoclassicism came to express this new status directly in 1893 during the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and then through the City Beautiful movement, which from the 1890s to the 1900s, influenced urban development in Chicago, Washington and Detroit (Stelter 98-99).

37Between the 1890s and the 1910s, the neoclassical movement entered several different public policies. For the first time in the country’s history, federal, state and local governments commissioned on a large scale art projects and monuments paying tribute to national glory (Stelter 29-21). Neoclassical statues and triumphal arches appeared in large cities, while court houses and state capitols were decorated with murals and frescoes (Wilson 13).

38At the turn of the century, Cox was a renowned fresco and mural artist. In 1896 and 1897, he was commissioned to paint several murals for the Library of Congress in Washington DC, which were very well received. After that, he was given many different important commissions. He painted murals for the capitols of Iowa in Des Moines, of Minnesota in St Paul and for the capitol of Wisconsin in Madison he also installed mosaics. He was also commissioned to paint murals in court-houses and universities (Kenyon Cox 23-26). The amount of commissions he received shows that his art was appreciated and recognized by the authorities of the time.

39In a time of imperial expansion, multiple levels of government became for the first time in the country’s history patrons of the arts. The will of state and federal governments to promote Neoclassicism reveal to what extent this movement was deeply grounded in its time. If it did not promote directly imperial expansion, it disseminated inside society martial, nationalist and patriotic imageries and values, which were in keeping with what people wanted. This fin de siècle neoclassical trend and artists such as Cox reveal part of the conceptual transformation which made the movement from traditional isolationism to overseas expansion possible in the eyes of the general population.

40In 1902, Senator James McMillan explained:

It is the general opinion that for monumental work, Greece and Rome furnish the styles of architecture best adapted to serve the manifold wants of today, not only as to beauty and dignity, but as to utility (McMillan 627).

41One wonders what utility the Senator is referring to, if not the display of economic power and the promotion of nationalism.


42Many neoclassical artists like Cox were influenced by antique, imperial and martial imagery, and spread the corresponding social and political values. Such imagery was double-edged. On the one hand, they disseminated notions of unity, masculinity and order in a time of social transformations. In his opinion, Neoclassicism could save society from the perils of modern art, degeneration and create harmony and order. This showed Cox’s commitment to social conservatism.

43On the other, they brought a form of legitimacy to expansionist policies and military action, because by placing the country in what he called a state of “ripeness”, Cox was explaining from a historic perspective that the United States was the legitimate inheritor of past empires. Through his theories, Cox brought the United States directly inside the flow of European history and helped open the country to the world. This showed his commitment to a form of cultural conservatism.

44Cox was indirectly binding his art and his theories to political policies which would transform the way the U.S. saw and interacted with the world. His writings and his art disseminated values which accompanied the population in its reconceptualization of the country’s international position and helped provide the shift from isolationism to expansionism. He perfectly represented the struggle the U.S. was facing at the time: the need to find stability amidst social restructuring and the need for a new international position with the tremendous growth of their financial and industrial power. Cox never could reconcile with the “moderns” and their view of art. He embodied a specific period and mentality, limited in time that very soon passed, which might explain why history has chosen not to give him the same importance his contemporaries did.

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Cox, Kenyon. “Nordau’s Theory of Degeneration.” “Part I., A Painter’s View.” The North American Review 160.463 (1895): 735-752. Print.

—. “Tolstoy on Art.” Nation 67 (1898): 226-227. Print.

—. “The Illusion of Progress in the Arts.” New England Review 25.4 (1914): 202-207. Print.

—. “What Is Painting?” “Part I, Painting as an Art of Imitation.” The Art World 1.1 (1916): 29-33, 79. Print.

—. The Classic Point of View. New York: Charles Scribner’s and Sons, 1911. Print.

Lears, T.J. Jackson. No Place of Grace: Anti-modernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920. New York: Pantheon, 1981. Print.

McMillan, James. “The American Academy in Rome.” The North American Review 174 (1902): 627. Print.

Morgan, Wayne. America’s Road to Empire: The War with Spain and Overseas Expansion. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965. Print.

—. Keepers of Culture: The Art Thought of Kenyon Cox, Royal Cortissoz, and Frank Jewett Mather, Jr. Kent: The Kent State University Press, 1989. Print.

—. Kenyon Cox, 1859-1919, A Life in American Art. Kent: The Kent State University Press, 1994. Print.

Stelter, Gilbert. “Rethinking the Significance of the City Beautiful Idea.” Urban Planning in a Changing World: The Twentieth-Century Experience. London: Taylor and Francis, 2000. Print.

Wilson, Richard Guy. The American Renaissance: 1876–1917. New York: The Brooklyn Museum, 1979. Print.

White, Lawrence G. Sketches and Designs by Stanford White. New York: The Architectural Book Publishing Co., 1920. Print.

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1 The phrase American Renaissance comes from Richard Guy Wilson, The American Renaissance: 1876–1917, New York: The Brooklyn Museum, 1979, but to avoid any confusion with the literary trend we will use the term Neoclassicism.

2 On these particular artists see Wayne Morgan, Keepers of Culture: The Art Thought of Kenyon Cox, Royal Cortissoz, and Frank Jewett Mather, Jr., Kent: The Kent State University Press, 1989.

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Marc S. SMITH, « The Artistic Commitment of Kenyon Cox: An American Neoclassical Artist », E-rea [En ligne], 13.2 | 2016, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2016, consulté le 26 novembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Université de Bourgogne Franche-Comté
Marc S. Smith, PhD., is a lecturer at the University de Burgundy. He studies the development of the US art market in the nineteenth century and the development of social identities and the national upper class. His monograph Génèse d’un Marché d’Art: Etats-Unis 1800-1920, has just been published by PUR.

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