by Ross Barrett. University of California Press, August 2014. 244 p. ill. ISBN 9780520282896 (cl.), $60.00.
Reviewed March 2015
Maria E. Gonzalez, Content Manager, CH C&P Consultants, email@example.com
In this monograph, Ross Barrett reveals stratagems that seven nineteenth-century American painters used to depict politicized violence exploding around them in northeast urban centers between 1820 and 1890. Riots, strikes, and lethal rampages–such as the 1834 race riots in Philadelphia, the 1863 draft riots in New York City, and the 1877 destruction of the railroad complex in Pittsburgh–convulsed urban order periodically, eroding domestic tranquility and debunking republican mythologies about community-mindedness and institutionally fostered public life. Despite the chaotic spectacle created by violent actions of fractious groups, its depiction by artists was constrained by aesthetic taboos and the sensitivities of patrons.
Barrett argues that to extend the range of presentable social upheaval, artists reinterpreted period aesthetic discourses and manipulated painterly conventions that governed the depiction of violence. Early in the century, conventions sought to reinforce a sense of orderly behavior, correct social hierarchies, and civic virtue. During the seventy years under consideration, artists opened up visual space as they and their publics explored the bounds of political expression, personal agency within representative government, and resistance to social structures.
To make his case, Barrett examines the work of John Quidor (Rip Van Winkle, 1829); Thomas Cole (Destruction, 1834-1836); Nathaniel Jocelyn (Cinque, 1840); George Henry Hall (A Dead Rabbit, 1858); Thomas Nast (Attack on the "Home Guard," 1864); Martin Leisser (Union Depot Riot, 1877); and Robert Koehler (The Strike, 1886). These works, little known outside specialized circles, may well be outliers. Barrett's analysis, however, is thorough and reliably substantiated by contemporaneous sources. His arguments not only convince, but also lay out an analytical framework applicable to the rendering of political violence today.
This book represents a superb piece of scholarship. Barrett has reworked the examples, arguments, and supporting documentation over a decade, presenting his ideas at conferences, in his dissertation, and in several articles. Currently assistant professor of art history at the University of South Carolina, Barrett draws on work from scholars investigating what he calls "artistic imaginings of mainstream democracy and political subcultures." Besides drawing on secondary literature, Barrett has plumbed unpublished dissertations as well as contemporaneous diaries and correspondence, newspapers, popular magazines, prints and engravings, sermons, sculptures, sketches, speeches, utilitarian objects and other period paintings. The methods used will instruct scholars, advanced undergraduate and graduate students in art history, cultural history, and American studies.
The sturdily bound book includes twelve color plates and fifty-one black and white illustrations. The images support the text, also enhanced by judicious editing, notes, and an index.