- Temperance, Abolition, Oh My!: James Goodwyn Clonney’s Problems with Painting the Fourth of July
In 1839, James Goodwyn Clonney (1812–1867) began work on a large-scale, multi-figure composition, Militia Training (originally titled Fourth of July ), destined to be the most ambitious piece of his career [ Figure 1 ]. British-born and recently naturalized as an American citizen, Clonney wanted the American art world to consider him a major artist, and he chose a subject replete with American tradition and patriotism. Examining the numerous preparatory sketches for the painting reveals that Clonney changed key figures from Caucasian to African American—both to make the work more typically American and to exploit the popular humor of the stereotypes. However, critics found fault with the subject’s overall lack of decorum, tellingly with the drunken behavior and not with the African American stereotypes. The Fourth of July had increasingly become a problematic holiday for many influential political forces such as temperance and abolitionist groups. Perhaps reflecting some of these pressures, when the image was engraved in 1843, the title changed to Militia Training, the title it is known by today. This essay will [End Page 303] demonstrate how Clonney reflected his time period, attempted to pander to the public, yet failed to achieve critical success.
In the early years of his career, Clonney had an assortment of specialties and was not very successful at any of them. First of all, after immigrating to America from England, he worked as a lithographer for firms in New York and Philadelphia in the early 1830s. His first major commissions of lithographic illustrations were published in The Cabinet of Natural History and American Rural Sports by Childs and Inman in Philadelphia in 1830 and 1832. After that, one of the first biographers of American art, William Dunlap, lists him as a miniature painter in 1834.1 Although today Clonney is known as a genre painter, his work before 1841 indicates an interest in a variety of subjects, including landscapes and portraits. Demonstrating a classical academic training which encouraged drawing from Greek and Roman sculpture casts, he won a prize from the National Academy of Design in 1833 for the second best drawing from the antique.2 By 1834, he set his sights on an academic career and became an associate member of the National Academy of Design in New York where he exhibited from 1834–52.3 He also exhibited at the Apollo Association and the American Art-Union in New York and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Militia Training represents Clooney’s turning point from a wide variety of subject matter to a career in genre painting.
Genre or scenes of everyday life became a popular subject matter in the 1830s in America. Often linked to the 1828 election of populist president Andrew Jackson, the rise of genre painting signaled an emerging middle class patronage. Characterized by robust feelings of nationalism and egalitarianism, the Jacksonian era, which lasted into the 1840s, determined the direction of the arts. The new patron wanted images from recognizable and topical events, particularly American scenes. Although earlier artists had addressed these topics, artists did not focus on genre painting because wealthy upper class patrons considered the subject matter too unsophisticated. With the rise of a new type of patron, tastes in America shifted, and many artists, such as Clonney, answered their demands by focusing on genre painting.
Genre painting, as opposed to the more refined subject matter of history painting, tends to be on a smaller scale with fewer figures. Canvases usually range from 20 to 30 inches as opposed to history paintings which could reach 5 to 10 feet. Even portraiture from the early nineteenth century was [End Page 304] typically larger than the early genre works.4 In many ways, the small scale fit the modest subject matter as well as reflected the intended location for the works. Genre works were not intended for expansive libraries and ballrooms in grand mansions but for intimate parlors and foyers in smaller dwellings. This scale also perpetuated academic hierarchies which placed genre painting below history, portraiture, and landscape subjects in importance.