The lure of money has long held powerful sway over American culture. The settlers who established the North American colonies were motivated as much by a desire for economic opportunity as by the promise of political and religious freedom, and the colonies’ economic subordination to England was one of the primary motivations for the American Revolution. As the United States developed into a global superpower, the ideal of free enterprise continued to shape the nation’s political, social, and cultural agendas.
Economic interests directly informed the earliest American art. Painting in the colonies was limited almost exclusively to portraiture, a genre that developed alongside and bolstered the burgeoning consumer society. As in Europe, prosperous merchants and landowners commissioned likenesses of themselves and their families in elegant poses and fine dress as a means of asserting their financial success and elevated social stature. Prominent colonial artists such as John Singleton Copley and Joseph Blackburn amassed their own small fortunes producing these distinguished likenesses of America’s elite.
In the later 19th century, America became the world’s leading economic power. Mark Twain famously described the era as “The Gilded Age,” in reference to both the great wealth created and the ostentatious lifestyle it engendered. Magnates of industry and commerce collected still life paintings and images of leisure-class women in interiors that conveyed the opulence and abundance of this culture and offered a visual respite from the more unseemly aspects of industrialization. A select group of artists, including John George Brown and Lewis Hine, focused their attention on the working-class population that resided on the other side of the nation’s widening economic divide.