American Art History - United States Art History answers questions

American Art History

Utah rock art
Rock Art from Utah, about 1700 AD

Most of the art that was made in North America in the 1500s and 1600s AD was made by Native Americans. There was a lot of it, in many different styles depending on where you were. In the Pacific Northwest, wealthy families had huge totem poles carved to show how important they were. In the Southwest, people used pottery decoration to show what family they were from. In the West, people carved or painted complicated designs on the bare rock to record their history (compare this to the Khoisan rock paintings from Africa about the same time). Some of what they recorded was the new things they learned from the invading Spanish people - horses, and wheels.

A quilt made by enslaved African-Americans (1800s)

By the 1700s, European settlers began to make their own art in the style of the places they had come from. They painted oil portraits and made stone statues of their leaders. The Native Americans continued to make new art, learning new ideas and techniques from the Europeans and making them their own. In the Southwest, the Navajo learned to keep sheep and to weave their wool, and they began to weave patterns and colors into their blankets. Other Native Americans began to experiment with painting in oil, sometimes in European art styles and sometimes in their own tradition. Many African art ideas also came to North America about this time on the slave ships - quilting, for example, and batik, and musical instruments like the banjo. But many African art traditions were also lost, because people didn't have much time for art while they were being forced to work as slaves.

Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock painting influenced by Native American sand painting

In the 1800s, many Native American art traditions were also lost when European people took Native American children away from their parents and their villages to grow up surrounded by only European culture. On the other hand, many people were able to travel on steamships from Europe to America and back again, so that North American art was more and more like European art.

In the 1900s, this was even more true. European art ideas like Abstract Art were also popular in North America. Soon European artists like Picasso became interested in using African and Asian ideas in their own art. North American artists became interested in these ideas too. After a while, artists like Jackson Pollock began to also be interested in Native American art. Then people realized what a mistake it was to lose the Native American art traditions, and many Native Americans began to recreate their traditional art, and to create new art combining European and Native American ideas.

Learn by doing: rock art project
European painting.

Bibliography and further reading about North American architecture:

American History home

Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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