From Plymouth Rock to the War of 1812, there was no real American aesthetic; no set of guiding principles in artistic creation that was uniquely American. The phrases American art and America literature were considered oxymorons, and there were no schools of architecture in the United States. Americans agreed with the rest of the world that great art was French; great literature was English, and great architecture was Italian.
By mid-19th century, the proud young country wanted a voice of its own, and over the next 50 years, it produced one. Schools of architecture were established at Harvard and MIT. The Hudson River painters created an America vision. Melville, Hawthorne, and others created an Am-erican voice. By 1893 at the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, America was prepared to strut its stuff: uniquely American stuff.
Instrumental to the country's success in defining an American aesthetic was the Century Association (CA). Founded in New York City in 1847, its purpose, according to founder, William Cullen Bryant, was "advancing American art and literature by establishing a library and gallery of art and by such other means as shall be expedient and proper."
The name was chosen to signify that the CA was founded by 100 men. The CA grew out of an earlier club called the Sketch Club. Sketch was founded "to turn attention from Old Masters and the Europeans to American artists." However, focus on painters was not enough, and the CA was broadened to include writers and architects.
The support of the CA and patronage of its members is credited with promoting and assuring the success of the Hudson River School (art), The Columbian Exhibition of 1893 (architecture), Nathaniel Hawthorne and David Thoreau (literature). For an organization that had such a profound effect nationwide, it is interesting how many of its members had strong ties to a tiny corner of our country called The Berkshires.
Some of the CA's earliest members were poet and New York Evening Post editor Bryant, artists Frederic Church and Asher Durant, attorney Joseph Hodges Choate, businessmen Ogden Haggerty and William Aspinwall, theologian Henry James Sr., artist George Inness, New York Stock Exchange President John Hamilton Gourlie Jr., and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead.
Founder William Cullen Bryant was Berkshire born and bred. In letters to Asher B. Durand he urged him to come and paint the hills. Durant did come and painted distant mountain views across Stockbridge Bowl as well as Monument Mountain.
Founder Frederick Church was a friend of Cyrus Field who issued a similar invitation in 1847. Church accepted and during his sojourn in the Berkshires painted, "View of Stockbridge."
Berkshire cottager and CA member Joseph Hodges Choate (Naumkeag) wrote of the CA, "A very early admission into the Century Association in 1858 brought me into relations with the most charming circle of men...we youngsters sat at their feet in devout admiration."
Businessmen William Aspinwall (Woodcliff and Aspinwall Hotel) and Ogden Haggerty (Ventfort) were Berkshire cottagers. Haggerty was the first and most important patron of artist George Inness. Haggerty met Inness in 1847 and supported him until his death in 1877. He purchased Inness' paintings at generous prices and they adorned the walls of Ventfort. Because Haggerty was a CA founder and knowledgeable collector, his patronage of Inness was seen as enlightened endorsement and Inness's reputation grew.
Haggerty's patronage also took the forms of giving Inness direct financial assistance, underwriting his travels abroad, and introducing him to his Berkshire friends. Haggerty introduced Inness to Catharine Sedgwick who used an Inness painting as the frontispiece for her novel "Clarence." Friends Samuel Gray Ward (Highwood and Oakswood), Henry Ward Beecher, (Blossom Farm), and relative, Charles Kneeland (Fairlawn) bought Inness paintings.
As a guest at Samuel Ward's Highwood, Inness painted Hills of Berkshire. The same view Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to in "The Wonder Book" and "Tanglewood Tales." Hawthorne, fired from the Salem Customs House, was invited to The Berkshires to live on the grounds of Highwood, and there he wrote "The House of Seven Gables" and "The Wonder Book."
New York Stock Exchange President and founding member of the CA, John Hamilton Groulie Jr., was "a permanent summer resident" of the Berkshire as were prominent Bostonians and art patrons William and Caroline Tappan (Tanglewood), the Appleton sisters (Homestead), and Edith Rotch (Gusty Gables). Rotch's brother, architect Arthur Rotch, designed five Berkshire Cottages, and Fredrick Law Olmstead beautified the grounds of Elm Court and other cottages.
The founders and members of the CA created an American aesthetic and the Berkshires was part of its development. CA members built Berkshire Cottages, and invited the artists and writers to come. They came, were inspired, and in turn, they beautified and immortalized our Berkshire Hills.
Carole Owens is a Berkshire writer and historian.