by Jennifer L. Roberts. University of California Press, January 2014. 208 p. ill. ISBN 9780520251847 (cl.), $60.00.

Reviewed September 2014
Heather Kline, Outreach & Collections Specialist, Bunting Visual Resources Library, University of New Mexico,


Harvard Professor Jennifer L. Roberts has taken on an ambitious task in this book, addressing the works of three seemingly disparate artists of early America (John Singleton Copley, John Audubon, and Asher Brown Durand) within a complex theoretical framework that integrates concepts of materiality, agency, and semiotics. The book is structured around the premise that these artists made choices based upon the delayed transmission of their work, whether the lag was due to mechanical issues or the time required for a ship to carry a painting across the ocean.

The first chapter discusses the paintings of Copley and the complications of their trans-Atlantic journey. Such an ordeal is compared to the challenges faced by the early American colonists themselves, replete with temporal displacement and delayed communication. Roberts writes that Copley’s paintings are themselves like ships, created to carry artistic cargo. She develops the argument that Copley worked most effectively within the genre of domestic tabletop paintings, in which allegorical devices represented the wistful disconnect between Europe and America.

Addressing Audubon’s huge body of work (huge in quantity as well as the size of the canvases) in the second chapter, Roberts equates the artist’s unique style of foregoing pictorial illusion in favor of accuracy of form to transporting physical specimens and those attendant complications. Audubon insisted upon life-size images, and the author explains how his canvases acted as containers to safely conduct them on their journey. Birds were essentially images of commerce, symbolizing the transport of things, ideas, and currency between the two continents.

Such complications of transmission are further explored in chapter 3, in which Durand’s intricate engravings are compared to the mechanics and logistics of transportation. Comparing it to the invention of the telegraph, the delay of transmission implicated in engraving’s mechanisms and lack of immediacy are explained to create a temporal distance between the work and the viewer. The way engraving creates a breach between the idea of the image and its eventual reception is discussed in some detail and is one of the most compelling theoretical aspects of the book.

This book fills an important gap in art historical literature, addressing issues of semantics and reception in ways that are rarely applied to this period of American art and also tying into a broader discussion of contemporary art. It would be a valuable addition to scholarly collections, especially university research collections. Museums specializing in early American art should also consider adding it to their collections. This hardbound edition is quite visually appealing, with glossy pages and abundant high quality images. Nearly half the pages contain either a black and white or color illustration.