When artists depict the world around them, says David Lubin, their images necessarily respond to the underlying social conflicts of their time. Lubin here examines the work of six nineteenth-century American artists to show how their paintings at once embraced and, paradoxically, resisted dominant social values.
The artists considered—John Vanderlyn, George Caleb Bingham, Robert Duncanson, Lilly Martin Spencer, Seymour Guy, and William Harnett—came from a variety of backgrounds: several began in the working class, some were immigrants, three hailed from the West, one was an African-American, another was a woman. Drawing on letters, diaries, newspaper reviews, conduct manuals, poetry, fiction, and political speeches, as well as on modern critical theory, Picturing a Nation describes the America that created these artists and that these artists helped to create. Insisting on the complexity of nineteenth-century culture, Lubin provides multiple interpretations of individual paintings in a manner both subtle and revealing. His analyses take into account the nation's ambivalence toward domesticity, its conflicting ideas about child raising, its racial disharmony, territorial expansion, and many other issues central to the formation of modern America. He argues that the paintings speak to us today in contradictory voices because such was the nature of the societies that produced and received them.
Published with the assistance of the Getty Grant Program.
David M. Lubin, author of Act of Portrayal: Eakins, Sargent, and James, teaches art history and American studies at Colby College.
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