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A new look at American art and French attitudes

Theodore Stebbins understandably looked like a happy man at the gala opening of ''A New World'' at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. He is the museum's curator of American paintings and chief organizer of this landmark show, which is going on to Washington and Paris. We asked him how the essence of American art - and French attitudes toward it - may now be freshly defined. Later he offered these observations, drawn from his catalogue introduction.m

American painting - like the American nation - is made up of many things. It cannot be defined reductively as ''linear'' or ''luminist,'' for our painters' styles are multifarious. It is possible, however, to single out certain attitudes which seem consistent from one generation to the next.

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From the beginning, American artists have been middle class, ambitious, idealizing, optimistic, uncritical, materialistic, courageous, literary minded, direct, self-conscious, highly serious, self-doubting, conscious of European models, proudly nationalistic, faithful to the picturesque, and deeply and essentially conservative. They are naive in several senses, most crucially in their belief in the importance of art and in the need for painting to be both beautiful and uplifting. And above all, the American painter is romantic: with a few notable exceptions, including Copley and Eakins, American artists have idealized and improved on what they saw, and they have diligently avoided the facts and problems and even the symbols of the real, the distasteful, or the ethical.

As American thinking about our art has changed, so have French attitudes. The French chronicler Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his book of 1835, Democracy in America:m ''It must be admitted that few of the civilized nations of our time have made less progress than the United States in the higher sciences or had so few great artists, distinguished poets, or celebrated writers.'' One and a half centuries later, Tocqueville's countrymen have asked to borrow the greatest American paintings for a showing in Paris.

Though the momentum for this special exhibition was built during the last decade, a positive French view of American art has long been forming. As early as 1867, the Exposition Universelle in Paris included 82 works by 41 American painters. Emphasis was on the Hudson River School, then at its height. Two paintings by Frederic Edwin Church were displayed, both of which are in our exhibition - Niagara Falls and Rainy Season in the Tropicsm - and he became the first American to win a French medal.

There is only an extremely limited number of American paintings that show the artist at the peak of his or her talents and that are both of extraordinary quality and in excellent condition. Many of our painters made only a handful of truly fine works, together with many lesser ones; Bingham, Heade, Lane, Harnett, and Chase all provide examples of this. In many cases the painter's major work is simply unique: one thinks of C.W. Peale's Staircase Groupm, Raphaelle Peale's After the Bathm, Copley's Paul Reverem, Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Missourim, Eakins's Gross Clinicm, and Sargent's Madame Xm.

Even our most prolific and consistent masters such as Copley or Homer produced only a dozen or two superb pictures. One explanation is that the structure of exhibitions and patronage was a fragile and often difficult one, and American taste tended toward the simplistic and undemanding. Some artists thus became discouraged, or they compromised, or on occasion they simply gave up their profession.

The appearance of West, Copley, and C. W. Peale in the eighteenth-century colonies was remarkable enough; but the unsophisticated love affair between Americans and visual images which de-veloped in the nineteenth century is astonishing, and it is worth recording.

As a nation we may have been as pragmatic and money-minded as we have always thought, but we also became artistic. We developed a tender, idealizing, high-minded side which enabled us to produce major works of literature and painting.

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Though always self-doubting, always conscious of the primacy of Europe, Americans developed a collective memory which found expression in the arts. While we stripped and plundered the forests, we showed our underlying reverence for the land in our paintings. While we divided the nation on the basis of slavery and in a bloody Civil War, we loved paintings of community warmth and family. And while we became corrupt and vulgar during the Gilded Age, we produced painters of truth in Homer and Eakins. We take pride in these paintings as American, but we take greater pride in them as works of art.

As Longfellow said:

''Nationality is a good thing to a certain extent, but universality is better. All that is best in the great poets of all countries is not what is national in them, but what is universal. Their roots are in their native soil; but their branches wave in the unpatriotic air, that speaks the same language unto all men.''

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