Sunday, June 17, 2007

Empire of the Eye

Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts (The Oxbow), 1836.

Title: The Empire of the Eye: Landscape Representation and American Cultural Politics, 1825-1875 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1993)

Author: Angela Miller, professor of American Studies at Washington University. Lists research interests as "19th/20th century visual culture (histories of panoramas, animation, cartoons, photography and graphic design); gender and sexuality in the Gilded Age and fin-de-si├Ęcle; visual constructions of nationhood; the Atlantic world during the period of first European encounters; early American modernism, and the cultural histories of arts between the two world wars." So it looks like she's ranged a bit, chronologically, from this book's subject matter. Empire of the Eye won the John Hope Franklin Prize from the ASA when it came out.

Because America, during this time period, did not have much of a shared history to draw upon in creating a feeling of "imagined community", and because the land was so far-flung, visual media - in this case, painting - came to perform the function of nation-building, particularly through the invocation of the power of the Environment or Nature. Of landscape art, Miller writes "Its political intent was to root nationalism in the physical body of the republic" (7). Meanwhile, the contemplation of nature supposedly eliminated the possible moral corruption of "both the governed and the governors" (13), so these paintings came to perform a moral/pedagogical function while consolidating the body politic through a shared visual experience. Miller argues that within the grand project of landscape painting during this time period, various artists responded various-ly to questions of empire and to sectional tensions (esp. during the 1850s).


1. Thomas Cole: Self, Nature, and Nation
: Cole, as the forebear of many of the other landscape painters Miller will examine, might serve as a prototype for the concerns of his later artistic heirs; however, Miller sees Cole as a throwback to eighteenth-century republican ideals, "continuing to believe in the existence of universal truths and historical laws" at a time when American exceptionalism was the go-to explanation for the way things were unrolling in the new republic (21). A Whig, Cole was upset with the election of Andrew Jackson and deeply troubled by America's imperial actions. His cycle The Course of Empire (which I'm inserting below, because I really love it) explicitly warned Americans of what would come of these expansionist tendencies, but the reception of the painting showed that others did not read it in the way he intended. Miller also believes that Cole was ambivalent about the effects of American expansion on the landscape, as illustrated in his famous The Oxbow - a difference between him and his contemporaries, who believed that nature would be the source of America's strength.

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: The Savage State, 1833-1836.

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State, 1833-1836.

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire, 1833-1836.

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Destruction, 1833-1836.

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Desolation, 1833-1836.

2. The National Landscape and the First New York School
: Cole's legacy was not reflective of his ambivalence toward the direction of the nation. This chapter looks at his influence on the "New York School", pointing out that the style "fused topographical, German and English romantic, and seventeenth-century French and Italo-Dutch influences into an American idiom characterized by its linkage of naturalism, nationalism, and Protestant piety toward nature as the revelation of deity" (66). Here Miller discusses how the "center" of American painting, which claimed to speak for "the country", ended up cohering in New York, and centering around the National Academy of Design and painter Asher B. Durand. This school's paintings served different ideological purposes than Cole's, attempting to galvanize nationalistic feeling around some specific sites, especially New Hampshire's White Mountains (my home on the range!)

3. Millennium/Apocalypse: The Ambiguous Mode: Here Miller looks at paintings made between the Mexican-American War and the end of the Civil War, all of which "embody in compositional or narrative terms the uncertainty at the heart of America's 'enterprise sublime.'" These paintings explored "moments of national reckoning" and usually hoped to incorporate Biblical history into American contexts, to re-prove that Americans were "the chosen people" (109). Some painters examined include Asher B. Durand, Frederic Church, Jasper Francis Cropsey, and Thomas Cole.

4. The Imperial Republic: Rewriting The Course of Empire: Post-Cole painters had different - more positive - visions of how the American empire would unfold - visions which were in tune with the business interests of the developing nation. Asher B. Durand's 1853 Progress (The Advance of Civilization) "telescoped the discrete stages of America's movement from wildness to civilization into one image" (154), using the development of technologies as indicators of said progress. Miller also points out that railroad companies would pay artists to go on trains, seeking to mitigate possible negative reactions to railroad expansion by positive publicity showcasing the railroad's ability to bring people in touch with nature (159).

Nationalism as Place and Process: Frederic Church's New England Scenery: Miller writes that the educated classes in America, in the antebellum era, were schooled in Scottish "common sense" thinking, which held that a part could stand in for a whole - and thus, a single landscape could stand in for a nation.Church's 1851 painting, here, stands for Miller as an example of the efforts of New Englanders to get their region established as the foremost "cultural heart" of the country, during a time when sectional conflicts meant that the stakes were high. Unfortunately, at the same time there was a depression in New England farming, meaning that this supposedly great place was getting stripped of its people (Miller sees the Conestoga wagon in this painting as a possible nod to this phenomenon). Church also faced the problem that, due to his new interest in Humboldtian science, he had started wanting to be more particular about natural details in his painting - how was he to do this, while maintaining a sense of universal appeal?

Frederic Edwin Church, New England Scenery, 1851.

6. The Sectional Conflict in the 1850s: Fissures in the National Landscape
: During this very fraught decade, painters faced the problem of a newly politicized vision of "nature": what had previously seemed to unite the nation, now could be a source of divisiveness. Some of them, like Church, responded by painting places, like South America, which meant roughly the same to both North and South (there was, of course, however, that thing about how the South wanted to colonize the rainforest with slave plantations...) There's a lot of interesting stuff in this chapter about how Northerners viewed Southern landscapes...Miller also points out that because of poor transportation and other infrastructure, painters were not likely to go down South to paint.

7. Domesticating the Sublime: The Feminized Landscape of Light, Space, and Air
: Shifting gears a bit, Miller examines how painters in the 1850s shifted their presentations, compositionally and technically, to echo/adjust to sentimental culture (the association between the two is not very carefully drawn). What Miller terms "atmospheric luminist landscapes", which made use of fuzzy-looking paint to create mists and depth, "did not rely on associational psychology, with its dependence on historical and literary references...their power over the viewer could not be translated into any nonvisual, programmatic form" (247). I have to agree with Goetzmann (see below): I think this argument seems to reaffirm the very divisions between male and female that she seeks to criticize. I am interested, however, in the section of this chapter which talks about how new changes in science, emphasizing "uniform operations of natural forces", might have changed painting's style (255).

Sanford Robinson Gifford, Kauterskill Clove, 1862.

William Goetzmann wrote in Reviews in American History that this work, which he called a "masterful analysis", contributed to a new historiography of the antebellum era which focused on the instability of the body politic. Despite liking the book very much, he wished that Miller had gone into Cole's romanticism more, discussing the difference between Scottish Realism and Romanticism. "On a philosophic level, Miller is out of her depth," he charged, and he also really didn't like it when Miller characterized science as masculine; he then doubled back to praise the book for "interestingly to a political context without reaching for the absurd in interpretation." In the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Andrew Isenberg pointed out, quite rightly, that although Miller wanted to look at these paintings as examples of national culture (rather than simply high culture), the sources she used did not generally stray away from the rarified circle of elite critics who set the bar for painting during this era. He also didn't feel as though her historical chops were as strong in the section on the 1850s...he thought her analysis made it seem as though the "Civil War was inevitable." This reminds me that I need to know more about the 1850s, politically.

John Frederick Kensett, The White Mountains—Mount Washington, 1851.

Odds and ends:
People thought Daniel Webster turned out well because of being from New Hampshire. A man named EL Magoon wrote "the master statesman and orator of his age [that's DW]...was cradled in the rugged bosom of Alpine New Hampshire, where all is cool, colossal, sublime." Whatever - so was Bode Miller. I am the number one Granite State booster, but this reminds me of those progressive-era racists who thought Alaska would save the white race...I'm looking at your patrician nose, Madison Grant...(230) Emerson wrote that women were "poets who believe in their own poetry. They emit from their pores a colored atmosphere...wave upon wave of rosy light, in which they walk evermore, and see all objects through this warm-tinted mist that envelops them." (See the relationship to the painting described in the final chapter?) This is kind of hilarious, because if there was ever a "poet who believes in his own poetry", wasn't it Ralph Waldo? (264)

Vocab words:
"proleptic" ("of a date, calendar, etc.: calculated retrospectively using a dating system not in use at the specified point in time; projected backwards in time"); "soteriological" (-ology: "the doctrine of salvation"); "psychomachy" ("conflict of the soul"); "mephitic" ("esp. of a gas or vapour: offensive to the smell, foul-smelling; noxious, poisonous, pestilential" - used by a Northerner to describe the air of the South); "hegira" ("the flight of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622 A.D., from which the Muslim chronological era is reckoned; hence, this era" - transferably, any flight or exodus - used by some writer to refer to the seasonal mass exodus of painters out of NYC and Boston to paint far-flung expeditionary locations).

Books to follow up on: Secondary:
Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of Racial Anglo-Saxonism (1981); David Miller, Dark Eden: The Swamp in 19th C American Culture (1989) (this one has come up in a couple of books...wish I had known about it before making my enviro list...I had such a hard time finding 19th-c stuff); James Moorhead, American Apocalypse: Yankee Protestants and the Civil War, 1860-9 (1978).

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