The first thing that will strike you about the list below is the sheer variety of styles found within this group of famous names. There may not be quite the same diversity of identity that we might expect to see in, say, a century's time, but there is at least one African American and a female, with hopefully many more to come in the future. Native American art is also a highly regarded section of this region's output, but there is not one specific name that we can include here, but that should never take away from what was achieved prior to the creation of the modern United States of America. We have also chosen to extend the list beyond the ten featured here because it simply became too difficult to shrink down several centuries of art into such a subjective summary, so names that you might have expected to find here but don't may well appear elsewhere.
Initially, most US artists would have deep roots within European culture and most would have been brought up there before moving across the Atlantic. There was influence from the English school of landscape art and so much of the earliest American art was in that genre. Over time this reliance on imported artists would start to fade, and true American home-grown art would start to appear for the first time. The standards would also increase before eventually the Europeans would themselves start to take note. The Hudson River School was perhaps the first major American art movement which achieved international acclaim and competed well against the Romanticists of Europe, followed by the Impressionists. It also allowed the American countryside to receive the attention that it deserved and this helped to build the national pride of Americans. There was then an important moment in which wealth began to build across the country and art collectors started to appear, many of whom acquired European art from some of the great names and eventually much of it would be displayed to the American public.
The start of the 20th century was approximately when the US really came out of the shadows and started to lead the world, with New York genuinely being regarded as the art capital of the world after WWII, replacing Paris which had held the title for many years previous. There would then be all manner of new art movements appearing across the US ever since, most of which can loosely be grouped under the banners of Modern and Postmodern art. Whilst the nation continues to strengthen its impact in this cultural art form, there are now nations with new money who are attempting to compete at high profile auctions, such as China, Russia and several Arab countries. With most of the historic art now secured, it is becoming increasingly rare for anything notable to come up for sale, thus further raising the valuations realised. It is also puts a greater focus on modern art, as there is more of this available. The future looks bright for American art, with untapped parts of society starting to get greater recognition and exposure for the first time, such as the ethnic minorities and also female artists.
List of the Most Famous American Artists
One of the earliest notable American artists was Winslow Homer who appeared in the mid to late 19th century and specialised in the genres of landscape and seascape art. He captured American life with precision and charm and many of his artworks have become particularly well known. He was able to display the potential found within the US for technically impressive and also imaginative art, when previously his nation had followed very much in the footsteps of the great European masters. He was loosely termed as a Realist artists and was also a skilled draughtsman which helped to provide a base for his portraiture. Although perhaps overshadowed by Hopper and Sargent in the views of some, Homer remains a highly respected an integral part of the early success of American art.
The Hudson River School would become the first home-grown US art movement to achieve international acclaim and Albert Bierstadt was one of its most prominent members. This artist captured some of the most iconic scenes of the American landscape and helped others to learn more about the beauty of this region. He was also a naturalist who would even sleep within the outdoors on occasion, which helped him to understand his surroundings as well as any other artist in history. He would also focus on the lives of native Americans from time to time, which is a topic that most artists have chosen to ignore. His success is underlined by the prominence of some of his better known paintings amongst some of the biggest art galleries and museums right across the country, and he is also highly respected in Europe as well.
John Singer Sargent
This artist produced some of the most iconic images in American art history, as was highly skilled in many different genres. His portraiture captured life in the late 19th century and he was also able to bridge the gap between American and European influence, having been born in Italy, but culturally being more intune with America. He travelled regularly and completed artworks both of indoor domestic scenes as well as bright cityscapes with a stunningly accurate recreation of architectural design. His work was classical in style, and although it lacked some imagination his technical ability was truly astounding. In the present day his approach has also proven particularly popular and his huge oeuvre runs into the thousands of artworks, across watercolour, oil and drawing.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
This was an important and unique artist who became a part of the Aesthetic movement which was present both in the US and Europe. His work was fairly realistic in detail and style, but he also inserted some unusually dark colour schemes in some of his more famous paintings. He seemed to be an antidote to some of the brighter palettes that appeared at that time, particularly with regards the members of the Impressionist movement. It was clear that this point that artists such as Whistler had achieved technical brilliance and helped the US in its transition into becoming a region that influenced global art, when previously it had simply followed.
This is an artist who has worked tirelessly over the years and also played an important role in a number of different contemporary art movements. His use of the American flag within a number of paintings is what he remains most famous for, as well as his arrangements of circles in a target motif. Despite his age, there may still be much more to come from Jasper Johns, but so far he has been a big player in the influential movement known as Pop Art and has worked across a variety of disciplines including painting, drawing, sculpture and print. He is one of the foremost American contemporary artists and his legacy will not really be understood properly until several more decades have passed.
This artist produced an extraordinary atmosphere within his paintings which makes much of his work instantly recognisable. Edward Hopper helped to paint the history of America by capturing the lives of ordinary people from a by-gone era. There is a charm within his work which belies the Realist approach that he used, and many consider him to have become more popular than his technical ability would normally have allowed. His scenes of city and rural life typically feature just a handful of figures, and we get an exclusive window into their lives as they contemplate the day's events. Hopper would also become the key member in a group of American painters who brought normal working class people into art galleries for perhaps the first time.
Very few Graffiti artists have achieved international fame, and fewer still have come from the Afro-Caribbean community, but that is precisely the route taken by Jean-Michel Basquiat who is one of the most recent members of this impressive list of famous American artists. He created a language of symbols which appeared in many of his paintings and was someone who challenged convention in almost everything that he did. Basquiat would provide social commentary on a number of issues and offered a very different perspective to most other artists in New York at the time. Although he passed away relatively young, he was able to produce a large body of work which has also achieved huge prices at auction in recent years, as more and more collectors start to become aware of his popularity within the general public.
The only female artist in this list is Georgia O'Keeffe, but her inclusion here is certainly nothing to do with adding diversity. She was, quite simply, a stunning artist who covered several different genres within her career and tackled each of them with her Modernist approach. Most remember her today for the oversized flower depictions that sometimes made comment on the female body, but there was also the use of other items gleaned from the natural world, including leaves and bones. Additionally, she brought a beauty to fairly mundane cityscapes thanks to her innovative use of colour and detail, which still today feels particularly contemporary and retains the support of a large portion of the public.
This was the artist who created the drip painting technique and he would use it to produce paintings that could never be recreated in quite the same way. Every artwork was essentially a moment in time, as Jackson Pollock swirled paint onto huge canvases within his studio. This really was modern art at its purest, where any connection to reality was gone. There was no semi-abstraction here, but patterns of random colour in a unique and exciting display of the contemporary approach. Pollock was contented to work in this manner for many years and never returned to traditional art once he had developed this new artistic approach. Pollock's paintings are amongst the most reproduced of any American artist in history and he helped the country to become a leader rather than follower within the art world.
And finally, the star of the Color Field movement, we have Mark Rothko as the most famous American artist in history. His work is as unique and instantly recognisable as anyone else in this list and he also helped to push things onwards towards a true level of abstraction, where traditional art was finally rejected in full. Fans of modern art now could see the US leading the way with these new ideas, having followed behind for so many centuries. There was also now a great democracy and openness within the art world, where it was now acceptable to work within a variety of styles, and no one-way was pushed ahead of any other. The New York School would arise from this and the city itself now hosts one of the finest collections of global art and antiquities in the world, competing favourably with the likes of Paris, London and Rome.