A Measure of Perfection: Phrenology and the Fine Arts in America

Overview

Despite its widespread popularity in antebellum America, phrenology has rarely been taken seriously as a cultural phenomenon. Charles Colbert seeks to redress this neglect by demonstrating the important contributions the theory made to artistic developments in the period. He goes on to reveal the links between the tenets of phrenology and the cultural ideals of Jacksonian democracy. As Colbert demonstrates, virtually every important figure of the American Renaissance expressed some opinion of phrenology, whether ...
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Overview

Despite its widespread popularity in antebellum America, phrenology has rarely been taken seriously as a cultural phenomenon. Charles Colbert seeks to redress this neglect by demonstrating the important contributions the theory made to artistic developments in the period. He goes on to reveal the links between the tenets of phrenology and the cultural ideals of Jacksonian democracy. As Colbert demonstrates, virtually every important figure of the American Renaissance expressed some opinion of phrenology, whether or not they embraced it. Its proponents included many artists eager to support a cause that enhanced the status of their profession by endowing the human form with extraordinary significance. Colbert reviews the careers of Hiram Powers, William Sidney Mount, Harriet Hosmer, Asher B. Durand, and Thomas Cole, among others, in light of their responses to phrenology. Powers's Greek Slave, for example, can be seen as a model of the physical and moral perfection available to those who adopted the phrenological program, a series of dictates on everything from diet to mental and physical exercise. By creating portraits, genre scenes, ideal figures, and even landscapes that embodied the theory's teachings, Colbert shows, artists endeavored to enlist their audience in a crusade that would transform the nation.

Originally published in 1997.

A UNC Press Enduring Edition -- UNC Press Enduring Editions use the latest in digital technology to make available again books from our distinguished backlist that were previously out of print. These editions are published unaltered from the original, and are presented in affordable paperback formats, bringing readers both historical and cultural value.

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What People Are Saying

From the Publisher
Handsomely produced [and] fully illustrated . . . this book adds another ingredient to the intellectual stew of the American Renaissance.--New York History

A deeply researched, continuously engaging, and highly informative book on an important topic that has been largely hitherto neglected. Drawing on an impressive body of primary evidence, Colbert makes a clear and convincing case that phrenology is central to an understanding of the development of American art in the nineteenth century. Along the way, he casts light on other aspects of American culture, including literature and social reform.--David S. Reynolds, City University of New York

A rich and valuable volume addressing an important subject too long overlooked. . . . [This work] compels us to expand our understandings of Victorian religion and spirituality.--Winterthur Portfolio

Intensively details how artists adapted phrenological concepts to their works. . . . A much-needed guide to exploring and understanding phrenology in American culture.--Journal of American History

A useful addition to the early history of psychology. It represents a skillful blend of various histories: artistic, social, and scientific.--Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences

Offers readers an engaging and most revealing view of 'half-world' nineteenth-century American cultural politics, especially of the antebellum period. . . . [An] imaginative historical recuperation of a previously undervalued aspect of nineteenth-century American culture.--Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography

In this richly detailed interdisciplinary book, Charles Colbert makes a compelling case for the importance of phrenology in the development of American art, art criticism, and literature. . . . The author demonstrates how phrenological studies intersected with a host of cultural movements and practices.--American Historical Review

While Colbert's interpretations of particular objects . . . contribute significantly to the study of nineteenth-century American art, his book more broadly informs our understanding of nineteenth-century American culture and the extent to which the visual shared moral authority with textual forms of knowledge.--American Quarterly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807846735
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 2/11/1998
  • Series: Cultural Studies of the United States Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 464
  • Product dimensions: 6.78 (w) x 10.04 (h) x 1.34 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles Colbert teaches art history at Boston College.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction
Ch. 1 A Plausible Rascality 1
Ch. 2 Know Thyself 39
Ch. 3 Tired of Looking at Small-Headed Venuses 73
Ch. 4 The Acorn and the Oak 122
Ch. 5 Faces 151
Ch. 6 The Index of Natural National Character 212
Ch. 7 Clear from Our Very Organization 282
Ch. 8 Increase and Multiply 339
Notes 369
Bibliography 425
Index 433
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