This month is American Artist Appreciation Month, making August the perfect time to celebrate the richness of the American artistic tradition. Below is a selection of projects that explore the creativity of American dancers, painters, musicians, and poets. To learn more about contemporary art initiatives in America, be sure to also check out the work of NEH’s sister agency, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Picturing America on Screen
This series of short films introduces viewers to America’s artistic heritage through close examination of specific paintings, sculptures, and items of decorative art and their connection to American history. The educational series highlights influential works such as Albert Bierstadt’s Valley of the Yosemite, the architectural design of the Chrysler Building, and Jacob Lawrence’s series on the Great Migration. The PBS film series is based on a previous NEH initiative Picturing America, an art history project for K–12 classrooms presenting the story of America through masterworks of art ranging from 1100 to 1996. Although the project concluded in 2009, its educational materials––such as teachers’ resources, books, and lesson plans––are still available for public use on the Picturing America website.
Hudson River School Art Trail
During the mid-19th century, a group of artists centered in New York’s Hudson River Valley pioneered a new form of American landscape painting. Known as the Hudson River School, the painters, led by Thomas Cole, sought to capture the ruggedness and sublimity of the natural world. The NEH-funded Hudson River School Art Trail website and mobile app lets users “step into” the landscapes of Cole and his contemporaries through self-guided tours of the Hudson River region that incorporate information about the works of art it inspired. Among the many beautiful locations featured is the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, the artist’s home in Catskill, NY, which houses an NEH grant-supported permanent exhibition on Cole’s life and art.
The Life of Leonard Bernstein
The NEH has funded numerous projects on the multitalented composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. In 2017, the National Museum of Jewish History received a public programming grant to create the exhibition Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music. In 2005, an NEH fellowship helped Carol J. Oja complete her award-winning book Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War, examining Bernstein’s early career and rapid rise to fame during WWII. The NEH-funded 11-part radio series Leonard Bernstein: An American Life offers a comprehensive picture of Bernstein’s life, drawing on interviews with friends and family and insights from Bernstein’s extensive personal correspondence.
Follow Walt Whitman’s life and career in this NEH-funded PBS documentary examining Whitman’s working-class childhood on Long Island, his years as a newspaper reporter in Brooklyn, and his reckless, lifelong pursuit of the attention he craved for his writing.
American Icons: Jimi Hendrix's Star-Spangled Banner
Jimi Hendrix’s performance of the national anthem at Woodstock in 1969 hit like a shock wave. Listen to the sound of a nation breaking at the seams with this NEH-supported Studio 360 American Icons podcast episode exploring the impact of Hendrix’s provocative rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner on a nation already deeply divided over the Vietnam War and the social justice movements of the 1960s.
Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist
This traveling exhibition, funded by a 2013 NEH grant, was the first large-scale survey focused on the African-American painter Archibald Motley, famed for his colorful depictions of the Black experience in Chicago in the 1920s and 30s. Created by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist brought together 42 of Motley’s canvases from across his career, from 1919 to 1960, demonstrating his talent as a “master colorist and radical interpreter of urban culture.” The exhibition, which was viewed by over half a million people, traveled to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, the Los Angeles Museum of American Art, the Chicago Cultural Center and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. View the archived exhibition companion guide online.
Horace Pippin (1888-1946): Art, Race, and the Construction of American Modernism
After returning from World War I, Horace Pippin taught himself to paint and carved out his place in contemporary American art, gaining international acclaim for his depictions of WWI, and portrayals of Black families and American heroes Abraham Lincoln, abolitionist John Brown, and singer Marian Anderson. Learn more about Pippin’s life and career in Anne Monahan’s book, Horace Pippin, American Modern, completed with an NEH fellowship.
American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood
The Peabody Essex Museum’s American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood took a fresh approach to American artist Thomas Hart Benton by connecting his work to popular movies, exploring how Benton melded art historical traditions with techniques drawn from modern film production to create a unique cinematic style in his art. After opening at the Peabody Essex, the NEH-supported exhibition traveled to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Amon Carter Museum of Art, and the Milwaukee Art Museum. This piece from NEH’s Humanities magazine takes a closer look at the artist and his final mural, The Sources of Country Music.
The American School: Artists and Status in the Late Colonial and Early National Era
Susan Rather’s The American School, written with support from an NEH fellowship, is the first comprehensive study of American artistic identity in the early 18th- and 19th-century transatlantic world. Rather weaves together analysis of well-known artists—John Singleton Copley, Benjamin West, and Gilbert Stuart, among others—with accounts of non-elite painters and ephemeral texts and images such as painted signs and advertisements to explore what it meant to be an “American” artist in this period.
John Rhoden Digital Archives
With a 2019 NEH grant, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) processed, cataloged, rehoused, and digitized the papers of John W. Rhoden, an important 20th-century African-American sculptor. The John Rhoden Digital Archives now provides public access to Rhoden’s photographs, business and personal records, correspondence, sketchbooks, and travel slides alongside information on sculptures, drawings and print artwork by Rhoden in the PAFA collection. This video from project director Hoang Tran and curator Dr. Brittany Webb, "Artist Papers: Building Legacy Through Archives," part of the museum’s “PAFA Pours” series, provides additional information on PAFA’s John Rhoden archive project and how it supports curatorial work at the museum.
Dance! American Art 1830–1960
The 2016 multimedia exhibition Dance! American Art 1830-1960 at the Detroit Institute of Arts celebrated the role of dance in American visual art, underscoring our collective “need to move to the music.” View the exhibition catalog, which contains works from the exhibition as well as essays about the influence of dance on America’s most popular artists.
Here, Now and Always
The Museum of Indian Arts & Culture’s (MIAC) in Santa Fe launched its permanent exhibition Here, Now and Always, which tells the rich and diverse stories of Native Americans in the Southwest, with support from an NEH grant in 1997. Two decades later, a 2018 grant has allowed the museum to update and renew the popular exhibition to conserve long-term display objects, incorporate new humanities scholarship, and improve the visitor experience. Here, Now and Always incorporates the voices of 75 Native Americans and some 1,300 objects drawn from the museum’s collections. The NEH grant also supported a new staff position in public humanities to develop a community conversation series for the museum on significant issues impacting indigenous communities today.
World War I and American Art
To coincide with the centenary of WWI in 2017, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts developed World War I and American Art, the first major exhibition devoted to exploring the ways in which American artists responded to the First World War. This NEH-funded traveling exhibition featured 160 works by 80 artists, including, John Singer Sargent, Marsden Hartley, George Bellows, Man Ray, Childe Hassam, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Norman Rockwell, and examined how artists chronicled their experiences of the unfolding war as it crept closer to home and then involved them directly as soldiers, relief workers, political dissenters, and official war artists. This EDSITEment closer readings series discusses some of the works of art featured in the exhibition.
Winterthur Museum and Gardens NEH Fellowship
NEH grants support a postdoctoral fellowship program at the Winterthur Museum and Gardens in Delaware to allow junior or senior scholars to conduct research on the Winterthur’s exceptional decorative arts collection of nearly 90,000 objects made or used in America between 1640 and 1860. Visit the museum’s website for more information on the NEH fellowship and how to apply.
State Humanities Councils:
You can find local art initiatives across the United States through NEH’s state and jurisdictional humanities council partners. In 2018 and 2019, California Humanities hosted Art, Power and Radical Imagination and The Sweet Breathing of Plants, presenting the indigenous art of Neshkinukat artists. Learn about art and war in Alabama Humanities Alliance’s presentation The Art of War: Posters, Photographs and Postcards of World War I. Read articles from Florida Humanities focused on art history, photography, and poetry to gain a better understanding of the state’s history and culture.
NEH’s education portal EDSITEment offers students, teachers, and families access to lesson plans, curricula, and other educational materials that encourage learning and engagement with the humanities. Introduce students to modernist American poetry; discover Hopi traditional dance and song; teach students about the importance of color in the visual arts; and learn about using art as a teaching resource.
Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story
50 States of Preservation: The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, OH
Two Americans in Paradise: Henry Adams and John La Farge on the Island of Tahiti
Thomas Cole Site
Humanities Magazine articles:
The Artist as Showman
Portrait of the Artist Before and After
Georgia O’Keeffe Paints Hawaii
The Comical and the Coffinly
Art and the American Story
The Art of Martin Scorsese
Armory Arts Village in Michigan Used to Be a State Prison. Now It’s an Artists’ Community.
What Zora Went Looking For
Portrait of the Picture-Taker Dorothea Lange
The Highwaymen, a School of African-American Artists Who Hawked their Work on the Side of the Road
A New Visual Language
Dancing for One Hundred Years at the Peabody Institute
National Humanities Medalists:
The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year. Among those who have been have been awarded the National Humanities Medal are: