Painting the Dark Side: Art and the Gothic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America / Edition 1

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Berkeley 2004 First edition, New in dj, New It's depressing art. Depressing art and the depressed and repressed people that created it. Not a great number of illustrations, but ... more than enough to make the point. Burns is an art professor at the University of Indiana. A rather interesting and entertaining book-even if it does focus on the dark, droopy, cloudy, morbid and horrifying side of American art in the 1800s. Read more Show Less

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Overview


Voices from the dark, or "gothic," side of American life are well known through the work of writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. But who were the Poes of American art? Until now, art historians have for the most part seen the gothic as the province of misfits and oddballs who rejected the bright landscapes and cheerful scenes of everyday life depicted by Hudson River School and other mainstream painters. In Painting the Dark Side, Sarah Burns counters this view, arguing that far from being marginal, the gothic was a pervasive and potent visual language used by recognized masters and eccentric outsiders alike to express the darker facets of history and the psyche. A deep gothic strain in the visual arts becomes evident in these beautifully written, richly illustrated pages, illuminating the entire spectrum of American art.

Weaving a complex tapestry of biography, psychology, and history, Sarah Burns exposes dark dimensions in the work of both romantic artists such as Albert Pinkham Ryder and Thomas Cole and realists like Thomas Eakins. She argues persuasively that works by artists who were generally considered outsiders, such as John Quidor, David Gilmour Blythe, and William Rimmer, belong to the mainstream of American art. She explores the borderlands where popular visual culture mingled with the elite medium of oil and delves into such topics as slave revolt, drugs, grave-robbing, vivisection, drunkenness, female monstrosity, and family secrets. Cutting deep across the grain of standard nationalistic accounts of nineteenth-century art, Painting the Dark Side provides a thrilling, radically alternative vision of American art and visual culture.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520238213
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 3/25/2004
  • Series: Ahmanson Murphy Fine Arts Imprint Series
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 326
  • Product dimensions: 8.00 (w) x 10.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author


Sarah Burns is Ruth N. Halls Professor of Fine Arts at Indiana University. She is the author of Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America (1996) and Pastoral Inventions: Rural Life in Nineteenth-Century American Art and Culture (1989).
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations
Acknowledgments

Introduction: The Art of Haunting
1. Gloom and Doom
2. The Underground Man
3. The Shrouded Past
4. The Deepest Dark
5. The Shadow's Curse
6. Mental Monsters
7. Corrosive Sight
8. Dirty Pictures
Epilogue

Notes
Index

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First Chapter

Painting the Dark Side

Art and the Gothic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America
By Sarah Burns

The University of California Press

Copyright © 2004 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-23821-4


Introduction

The Art of Haunting

My training as a historian of American art was based on a canonical narrative that still commands authority. In this narrative, the most representative, most "American," painting was the celebration of landscape as type and emblem of national identity. Significantly, the most American of all landscape genres was so-called Luminism, in which all-pervading light took on the status of transcendental signifier, standing in for the divine, and for the divinity in nature. Light flooded the grandiose paintings of the Hudson River school; light blazed in the sunset skies of Frederic E. Church and sparkled in the canvases of the American Impressionists. The genre painters we studied likewise produced radiant, mythic images of daily life: farmers harvesting, children romping in sunny fields. When race entered into the picture, it seldom had a threatening edge. Black men and women appeared on the margins as harmless, often laughable figures. If violence occurred, it was far off on the western frontier, where Indians slaughtered buffalo and threatened pioneers. We now know all too well how selectively (and for what political andcultural ends) such images represented the American scene. Notwithstanding, they still constitute the mainstream of our historical inquiry, although the emphasis has shifted from celebration to interrogation.

Scholars tended to explain the many exceptions to the rule of sunny side up as just that, ranking those artists with oddballs and misfits who, for whatever contrary reason, broke out of the mold. Indeed, the title of Abraham Davidson's 1978 study, The Eccentrics and Other American Visionary Painters, says it all. The "eccentrics," whose art bears little resemblance to that of "mainstream" painters, lingered at the margins of American art history, unincorporated into the larger, canonical picture. By and large, I accepted that model, though I always nursed a secret preference for the oddballs. It was not until I began to think about Thomas Eakins's Gross Clinic that I stumbled into the boneyard of American art history.

Admired and praised in the twentieth century as a powerful and uncompromising masterpiece of American realism, this portrait of a distinguished surgeon in action excited controversy in its earliest years; ambivalence toward the painting persisted long after the hullabaloo had subsided. A full quarter century after its first appearance in public the art critic Sadakichi Hartmann found it both morbid and macabre. As late as 1931 the critic Frank Jewett Mather was describing The Gross Clinic as a "witches' kitchen," where a "beneficent magus" presided over "eager young men" clutching at the patient's "gashed thigh" in a mysterious ambience of "general black fustiness." Looking back at the virulent critical reaction in 1879, when the painting was on display at the Society of American Artists in New York, I discovered the same pattern. I wondered, what could account for such disgust before a work many now consider a monumental and unparalleled representation of modern surgical achievement? Was there another side, a darker side, to The Gross Clinic and the artist who made it?

My research strongly suggested that there was. If Eakins-a mainstream artist if ever there was one-had a dark side, I wondered, did this hold out possibilities for reconsidering those oddballs and eccentrics so far from the center?4 That is, if Eakins's dark side was as much a part of him as the systematic, scientific, fact-finding sensibility that structured his work and constituted his image as an authentically American genius, then why not revisit the eccentrics and reconsider them in relation to the mainstream? Why not regard their visual production as equally "American," with equally compelling things to say about America in the nineteenth century? Was there a way to connect artists otherwise widely separated, socially, geographically, and chronologically? And were there other mainstream painters besides Eakins who ventured into the dark side?

I knew that there was a substantial and rapidly expanding body of history and criticism on the gothic tradition in American literature, stretching from the novelist Charles Brockden Brown in the eighteenth century, through Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville in the nineteenth, to William Faulkner and beyond in the twentieth. Why was there no similar corpus of work on a gothic tradition in American art? How could the gothic in American culture be limited to one medium? Was it possible to trace a gothic strain in the history of American art, tying together misfits and mainstream painters? And how might the answers to those questions alter the contours of the American art-historical canon? I determined to find out. In this book, I explore and interpret the dark side: the gothic imagination in nineteenth-century American painting.

My "gothic" is at some remove from the "Gothic" architectural and decorative style that enjoyed a romantic and ecclesiastical revival in the nineteenth century. It is also at some remove from the English literary gothic tradition initiated by Horace Walpole, Anne Radcliff, and "Monk" Lewis. The gothic novel in England was the product of an age in upheaval. Centering on themes of terror, mystery, and the supernatural, gothic tales mapped out the struggles and desires of the self, haunted by the dark forces of the ancestral past or oppressive feudal institutions. Fictions of a revolutionary era, these narratives featured wicked monks and corrupt aristocrats as villains bent on persecuting innocent maidens and brave youths. Their landscapes were brooding and their settings ruinous or sublime: rotting castles, labyrinthine dungeons, medieval fortresses on crags. In the pictorial arts, the Swiss-born painter Henry Fuseli achieved perhaps the epitome of gothic expression in works such as the memorable Nightmare (1781; Detroit Institute of Arts), with its swooning woman, scowling incubus, and ghostly nag's head peering through theatrical curtains. Early in the nineteenth century, English and Continental artists explored other gothic themes: ruined churches, apocalyptic disasters.

What had all this to do with America? Born out of revolution, the young country had no ruins and (in comparison with the Old World) only a shallow past-and what seemed an infinitely bright future. As a product of the Enlightenment, it meant to be a republic of reason, dominated by neither church nor king. Tradition and culture still bound independent America to England, but there was little to foster the transplantation of the English gothic to American soil. Yet it did take root here, shifting shape in response to different and varying sets of historical and social circumstances.

In this project I follow directions traveled by the literary and cultural historians who in recent decades have historicized the American gothic. Leslie Fiedler's landmark study Love and Death in the American Novel remains important, even though scholars have, with good reason, criticized his figuration of American gothic as an exclusively masculine genre centering on a "flight from society to nature, from the world of women to the haunts of womanless men." For Fiedler, American gothic was "a literature of darkness and the grotesque in a land of light and affirmation." But as Teresa Goddu notes, Fiedler translated the "dark spectacles" of the gothic into the "more meaningful symbolism of psychological and moral blackness." That is, he sought mythic, universalizing transcendence for the gothic in America and, although he discussed racial conflict and oppression, gave comparatively little weight to the racial, political, and economic meanings that have more recently engaged scholarly energy. Nonetheless, his vision of the haunted American literary landscape moved criticism into new territory, both troubling and shadowy.

These shadows have lengthened over the panoramic expanse of our history as scholars continue to dismantle the myths of America as enlightened and progressive republic. In Nightmare on Main Street, Mark Edmundson examines the resurgence of the gothic in the millennial 1990s, tracking it everywhere, from the insatiable public appetite for violence and horror to repressed-memory syndrome and Goth subcultures. Focusing on the antebellum decades, David S. Reynolds, in Beneath the American Renaissance, explores the cultural "basement" of the period and argues that canonical writers, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman, tapped into a teeming, murky world of popular fascination with sex, crime, vice, and perversion. Although Reynolds is concerned with literary form more than social critique, his research shows how vast a chamber of horrors underlay the polished surfaces of American literary culture. In Murder Most Foul, Karen Halttunen focuses more specifically on a pervasive, enduring public fascination with horrific, savage criminality, from the earliest years of settlement.

I also draw heavily on the important work of Toni Morrison and Teresa Goddu on the subject of race. Although I focus on the social, the sexual, and the psychological, the racial is an overwhelming and compelling presence in the territory I explore. The institution of slavery and, more generally, racial oppression and violence have haunted and disfigured history and society alike. In "Romancing the Shadow," Morrison insists urgently that we must recognize the connotations of the "darkness" that pervaded American romantic expression. "Black slavery enriched the country's creative possibilities," Morrison writes. "For in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free but also, with the dramatic polarity created by skin color, the projection of the not-me. The result was a playground for the imagination." Even the Enlightenment can be understood only in relation to the institution of slavery: "the rights of man and his enslavement." Whiteness, the fundamental term of American identity, means nothing without its foil of blackness. The "Africanist" presence in our literature, therefore, is a "dark and abiding" one that shaped the "imaginative and historical terrain upon which early American writers journeyed." Yet more often than not this presence, unmentionable for many reasons, appeared in a vocabulary "designed to disguise the subject."

In Gothic America, Goddu examines "a number of sites of historical horror-revolution, Indian massacre, the transformation of the marketplace-[but] is especially concerned with how slavery haunts the American gothic." Gothic stories, she argues, intimately connected to the culture producing them, "articulate the horrors of history." The nation's narratives "are created through a process of displacement: their coherence depends on exclusion. By resurrecting what these narratives repress, the gothic disrupts the dream world of national myth with the nightmares of history." Oozing into other genres and appearing in unlikely places, the gothic brings "the popular, the disturbing, and the hauntings of history into American literature."

In the course of my research, I came to realize that similar gothic patterns infused American visual culture. Above all, the Africanist presence identified by Morrison could be glimpsed in a variety of disguises, some obvious, others oblique. Where graphic caricature spoke bluntly of racial tension and unease, the language of painting was characteristically indirect and required careful unraveling to reach the racial dimension. Slavery was not the only divisive and explosive American social ill. Pernicious inequities of gender, class, and ethnicity also found utterance in gothic visual speech. But slavery and its legacy, looming large in our history, stand for all. In these pages, therefore, slavery is the keystone of my gothic arch.

The scholarly works that have informed my own thinking point clearly to a radically alternative vision of America, haunted by specters of otherness: psychological, familial, social, and especially racial. Yet they focus almost exclusively on the printed word. Even when they include illustrations from the period-pictures from trial pamphlets, grotesque political cartoons, and the like-those pictures amplify or reinforce the argument of the text rather than define a gothic visuality. Painting the Dark Side, by contrast, imports the gothic into the realm of the visual.

I seek to broaden and complicate our ideas of the gothic and its meaning in nineteenth-century American visual culture-especially in painting. I define this "gothic" as the art of haunting, using the term as container for a constellation of themes and moods: horror, fear, mystery, strangeness, fantasy, perversion, monstrosity, insanity. The art of haunting was an art of darkness, often literally: several of the artists I study shared a dark style, characterized by gloomy tonalities, deep shadows and glaring highlights, grotesque figures, and claustrophobic or chaotic spaces. The gothic is hardly limited to such visual traits, however; we see it in Elihu Vedder's sunstruck beaches and the highly descriptive and strictly controlled drafting of William Rimmer or Thomas Eakins. If there is no consistent set of gothic conventions, what connects these disparate works across the nineteenth century?

Beyond the question of style, the gothic is a mode of pictorial expression that critiques the Enlightenment vision of the rational American Republic as a place of liberty, balance, harmony, and progress. Gothic pictures are meditations on haunting and being haunted: by personal demons, social displacement (or misplacement), or the omnipresent specter of slavery and race. They explore the irrational realms of vision, dream, and nightmare, and they grapple with the terror of annihilation by uncontrollable forces of social conflict and change. Gothic pictures trade on terror, ambiguity, and excess while inverting or subverting the status quo. They conjure up disturbing spectacles of grotesque bodies in which the monstrous, the animal, and the anomalous threaten the social construction of the normal. They push and occasionally dissolve boundaries designed to segregate social and cultural space, crisscrossing between high and low, elite and popular, painting and caricature.

The dark side remains for the most part unknown, although several studies in addition to Davidson's Eccentrics have done significant work in mapping out the territory. Bryan Jay Wolf uses deconstruction and psychoanalysis to probe gothic dimensions in the art of Washington Allston, Thomas Cole, and John Quidor, who also figure largely in Painting the Dark Side. David Miller explores the image and connotations of the swamp, which he construes as the dark side of the nineteenth-century American landscape both in painting and in literature.

Continues...


Excerpted from Painting the Dark Side by Sarah Burns Copyright © 2004 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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