Washington — John Updike delivered the 37th Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities last night to a full house here at the Warner Theatre, using the occasion to take up the question “What is American about American art?” Sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Jefferson Lecture is the highest award presented by the federal government for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.
Mr. Updike’s theme played off one of the agency’s most highly touted projects, Picturing America, which aims to bring high-quality reproductions of 40 American masterworks into schools and libraries. The eminent novelist, short-story writer, and essayist has a long-standing fascination with the visual arts, and his talk was more art-history lecture than writerly performance. He led the audience through a parade of some 60 slides that began with the work of John Singleton Copley — “the George Washington of American art, and, rather disconcertingly, he knew it,” Mr. Updike said, raising a chuckle.
At times, the lecture veered close to becoming an apologia for what Mr. Updike called “that least hip of demographic groups, white Protestant males of northern European descent.” That subspecies populates Mr. Updike’s fiction and is heavily represented among the artists featured in Picturing America. (The same demographic has also provided a majority of Jefferson lecturers.)
“These thin-lipped patriarchal persons figure, as founding Puritans or founding fathers, as Western pioneers or industrial magnates, at every juncture of traditional history books, and our diverse, eclectic, skeptical present population may have heard quite enough about them,” Mr. Updike said.
Apparently his audience at the Warner hadn’t heard enough about them, however, because he went on to explore the work of such artistic founding fathers as Copley, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, and Norman Rockwell.
Much of the story Mr. Updike told was a familiar one, of a young country drawing its inspiration from nature and from commerce and always looking over its shoulder at Europe. Not until the abstract expressionism of the mid-20th century, he said, did we declare our artistic independence. One of the most distinctly American characteristics of American art, he suggested, has been its insecurity.
He identified an opposition between “liney” and “painterly” approaches taken by American artists — the former term referring to a criticism that Joshua Reynolds made of a Copley portrait, saying it was too neat in its lines. Mr. Updike came down on the side of “painterly.” “It is not an aesthetic misstep to make the viewer aware of the paint and the painter’s hand,” he said. “Such an empathetic awareness lies at the heart of aesthetic appreciation.”
There were hints, but only hints, of subversion in some of Mr. Updike’s phrasings. He described a portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart as one that “would befit a king.” And he speculated that Childe Hassam’s canvases featuring American flags sell so well “perhaps for the elementary reason that Americans respond to their flag like few other nationalities.” That line did not raise a chuckle from the crowd. —Jennifer Howard