Two opposite forces have coexisted in American art since the establishment of the first colonies. On the one hand, American artists have been aware of their European cultural heritage and of continuing innovation in Europe; on the other hand, they have had to adapt European forms to the exigencies of their native situation. This interaction between rival forces is hardly unique to American art--all art grows within a tradition--but what distinguishes the American experience is the ambivalent attitudes brought to that tradition. To many of the early settlers, the ambivalence was clear, since so many of them were religious and political exiles. Yet despite the pressures of conscience and conviction, the European traditions persisted in memory, so that the first American art and architecture were adaptations of European styles and modes, modified to suit the colonists' urgent needs in a new and often hostile world. The conflict, aroused by traditions at once alienating and indispensable, has served as the underlying dynamic for the rise and progress of art and architecture in the United States.
In a virgin land the art form that developed most rapidly was the one for which the need was most pressing--ARCHITECTURE. The earliest extant buildings are the dwellings, meeting houses, and churches that made up the nuclei of the first colonial settlements in Virginia and Massachusetts. The dwellings, simple in plan and elevation, like the Adam Thoroughgood House, Princess Anne County, Va. (1936-40), resembled English houses of the late medieval or TUDOR STYLE. The most innovative in design were New England meeting houses, because the separatists sought to avoid any associations with the established church in England. These handsome buildings, such as the Old Ship Meeting House, Hingham, Mass. (1681), were either square or rectangular in plan and served as the focal center for northern towns.
As the colonies flourished, more and more elaborate structures were required. By the end of the 17th century, most American public buildings were derived from Sir Christopher WREN's designs for the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire in 1666. The best were the so-called Wren Building (1695-1702) of the College of William and Mary and the Governor's Palace (1706-20), both at WILLIAMSBURG, Va. To stay the random growth of cities, the concept of URBAN PLANNING was introduced, beginning with Thomas Holme's grid plan of 1682 for Philadelphia, then second in population to London within the English-speaking world. By the middle of the 18th century, architects were designing churches, mansions, and public buildings in the current English GEORGIAN STYLE, named for King George I.
After the Revolutionary War, the first attempt to create a style expressive of the new republic was made by Thomas JEFFERSON. He based the design of the new capitol building at Richmond, Va., on that of a Roman temple, the MAISON CARREE at Nimes, France. In so doing he laid down an American precedent of modifying an ancient building style for modern use. The Virginia State Capitol (1785-96), both building and symbol, was meant to house the kind of government envisioned by Jefferson, and the Maison Carree became a paradigm for American public structures.
Jefferson was influential in setting forth the style of monumental NEOCLASSICISM that supplanted Georgian architecture with its taint of monarchy and colonialism. Monumental neoclassicism came to represent the new political and social entity that was the United States of America. Architects committed to neoclassicism designed not only the new CAPITOL OF THE UNITED STATES in Washington, first designed (1792) by William Thornton and Stephen Hallet, and other government buildings, but also factories, schools, banks, railroad stations, and hospitals, modernized by the frequent use of...