How Silent Films Inspired Early Modern Art

When the short films made by the Lumière brothers and Thomas Edison developed into a significant form of entertainment, it affected broad swaths of American life, including art. “New York City and Chicago were major sites of moviemaking,” writes Professor Katherine Manthorne (The Graduate Center, CUNY). “Given that these cities were also meccas for visual artists, it is not surprising that cross-media professional and personal relationships blossomed.” 

In her new book, Film and Modern American ArtManthorne opens a dialogue between early modern art and the burgeoning medium of cinema, investigating how they influenced one other. “The careers of early American modernists … paralleled the invention and silent era of cinema; they went to the movies, and created art that in diverse ways responded to the pictures they saw flickering on the screen,” she writes. 

With that parallel in mind, the book’s first section concentrates on two specific artists, John Sloan and Everett Shinn. A regular movie attendee, Sloan often watched and drew New York City crowds as if through a camera lens. Movies, according to Manthorne, “constituted an enormous visual data bank and changed the way artist and public alike interpreted images.”  

The book’s second section examines fine art and film through sociopolitical lenses. Manthorne looks at the ways in which women were given opportunities in the silent film era that they didn’t find as readily in art, as well as the ways that art later challenged depictions of African Americans in film.

Manthorne hopes Film and Modern American Art helps highlight the fact that cinema and art were very much in conversation with one another. She says, “The more you start looking, the more you find it — a dialogue that enriched both sides.” 

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Film and Modern American Art
Routledge, 2019

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