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Forces that Shaped American Culture, Imported Traditions

Henry Clay Frick, Isabella Stewart Gardner, European artists, Edith Wharton, Sir Walter Scott

Today American culture often sets the pace in modern style. For much of its early history, however, the United States was considered culturally provincial and its arts second-rate, especially in painting and literature, where European artists defined quality and form. American artists often took their cues from European literary salons and art schools, and cultured Americans traveled to Europe to become educated. In the late 18th century, some American artists produced high-quality art, such as the paintings of John Singleton Copley and Gilbert Charles Stuart and the silver work of Paul Revere. However, wealthy Americans who collected art in the 19th century still bought works by European masters and acquired European decorative arts—porcelain, silver, and antique furniture—. They then ventured further afield seeking more exotic decor, especially items from China and Japan. By acquiring foreign works, wealthy Americans were able to obtain the status inherent in a long historical tradition, which the United States lacked. Americans such as Isabella Stewart Gardner and Henry Clay Frick amassed extensive personal collections, which overwhelmingly emphasized non-American arts.

In literature, some 19th-century American writers believed that only the refined manners and perceptions associated with the European upper classes could produce truly great literary themes. These writers, notably Henry James and Edith Wharton, often set their novels in the crosswinds of European and American cultural contact. Britain especially served as the touchstone for culture and quality because of its role in America's history and the links of language and political institutions. Throughout the 19th century, Americans read and imitated British poetry and novels, such as those written by Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens.

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