Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is an American classic, as famous as Huck Finn or The Great Gatsby. It has inspired the names of the world’s largest coffee shop chain (Starbuck was a Moby-Dick character), at least one psychadelic rock band, an electronica musician, and in all likelihood, countless whale-shaped adult toys. And while few people know who Ishmael is, everyone knows what he wants us to call him.
Initially, though, the book was a failure. It was long and meandering, and punctuated by technical passages describing the mundane details of whaling ships, whaling tools, whale diet, and the handling of whale carcasses. Reviewers found this structure weird. Melville, who believed Moby-Dick to be his greatest work, was crushed. It only sold 3200 copies during his life.
Some say he was ahead of his time, and it was only with the rise of modernist novels in the early twentieth century that Moby-Dick began to make sense. Others say that the senselessness and shattered reality of the First World War provided a new context for such a fragmented book.
Then there was also Rockwell Kent.
Kent is one of those marginally famous artists you’ve probably never heard of. Born in 1882, he was initially associated with the Ashcan School, a group of dirt-and-all urban realist painters clustered in New York City shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. He soon gave this up and moved to Monhegan Island in the wilds of Maine, where he built a log house with his own hands and painted the Adirondacks wreathed in the glow of the summer sunset. Kent was a Transcendentalist, a socialist, and a vegetarian before that was a thing. He married several times, and had affairs with local women. He created a nerdy-looking alter ego named “My Better Self.” Saying that he wanted to paint “the rhythm of eternity,” he went on artistic sojourns to the most remote corners of the Earth: Tierra del Fuego, Greenland, Alaska. He wrote six memoirs.Rockwell Kent, in short, was probably obnoxious.
But he was also one of the most gifted illustrators of the twentieth century, and his drawings for the 1930 printing of Moby-Dick are his best work. When publisher R.R. Donnelly asked Kent in 1926 to illustrate Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast (Have any of us heard of this book? Probably not, perhaps because Kent didn’t illustrate it.), he suggested Moby-Dick instead. It’s unsurprising that he loved the book, since it encapsulates many of the values he held dear: the awesome power of nature, Man as nature’s worthy adversary, ruggedness, the thrill of the unknown, and a general machismo.
All of these are plainly obvious in the drawings he produced. Kent’s style, wedged between the hard-edged Art Deco glamour of the 1920s and the flowing dynamism of 1930s American Scene art, glorifies both the Pequod’s sailors and the albino sperm whale they hunt. All are in sharp relief and are seen from a low, aggrandizing point of view.
It’s clear that Kent is rooting for the whale as much as he is for the sailors (and probably more). Moby-Dick himself is lovely, free, and immensely powerful. In the end, the Pequod’s crewmen are sitting ducks, and the whale, lurking below the surface and ready to strike, is not just Ahab’s nightmare but everyone’s.
The limited edition printing with Kent’s illustrations sold so quickly that Random House published a trade version. It’s a striking volume, one of the outstanding uses of imagery in a decade known for outstanding book design. As far as I can tell, Moby-Dick has never been out of print since.
Lately I’ve seen a fancy new hardcover version of the book with Kent’s whale embossed on the front cover. In the context of today, his carefree depiction of nature’s glory seems quaint. Sperm whales were hunted almost to extinction, and the oceans have become garbage dumps.
Kent’s images encapsulate a certain innocent optimism about humanity’s potential—and our relationship with nature—that is impossible to hold onto now. In 1937 Life magazine commissioned him to produce a series of illustrations depicting potential causes of the end of the world. This sounds terribly pessimistic, I know, but the series is also amazingly optimistic in that none of the four calamities (Solar Flare-Up, for instance) have anything to do with human fallibility. They’re all cosmic disasters beyond our control. The people are still noble, even if they’re dead.
Perhaps this explains the continued appeal of Moby-Dick: nostalgia for a world in which nature can defeat us, rather than the other way around.
Once I threw a fit in the largest art museum in the United States. I was wandering through its collection of nineteenth-century American ceramics and came across a large stoneware jug that was simply labeled as having been made by “Dave” sometime in the 1830s. Nothing more. I’m sure this label sounds bizarre to readers; I know a lot of Daves and you probably do too. But in the context of an art museum display of Southern stoneware, it can only refer to one person: Dave the Potter. And missing an opportunity to educate museum-goers about the wonder that is Dave the Potter is a terrible art-historical crime.
After half a minute of indignant babbling, I explained Dave to the two friends I was with. The short version is that he was an enslaved South Carolina potter who made lovely, elephantine storage jugs. They’re special less for their quality and size, though, than for the signed and dated couplets he wrote in the wet clay. For example:
Dave belongs to Mr. Miles Wher the oven bakes & the pot biles 31 July 1840
At this point, one of my friends—a scholar of African-American history—mildly freaked out too, and pointed out that it was illegal for enslaved people to read and write in South Carolina at the time. Indeed, there is a long period in the 1840s during which tensions between whites and enslaved people in the state were even higher than usual, and Dave appears to have written next to nothing during this time.
As an enslaved man in the deep South, how would Dave have learned to read at all? Apparently some enslavers broke the law and taught the men and women they owned to read, so that they could study the Bible. Harvey Drake, who owned Dave from birth until about the age of forty, may have taught him to read and write. Touching, until you remember that Drake still owned people. Nonetheless, Dave occasionally went by the name of David Drake after the end of the Civil War, a common choice by formerly enslaved people. He is also sometimes referred to as “Dave the Slave,” though I would be wary of following along with that trend. It’s hard to imagine that Dave himself would have approved.
Interestingly, examples of the kinds of primers people would have used at the time frequently feature little couplets that are not unlike the ones Dave wrote. This is important in that an enslaved person would have had few chances for exposure to poetry, ever. The one below reads:
Delightful task, to rear the tender thought, And teach the young idea how to shoot
They’re full of slant rhyme, metaphor, and questions, as are Dave’s poems such as this one:
Give me silver; either gold Though they are dangerous; to our soul 27 July 1840
Though utilitarian, the vessels he made are elegantly curved and painted with earth-colored glaze. They are also enormous, as large as forty gallons—a feat few potters could ever match, indicating that he must have been extremely strong. Dave continued making large vessels even after he was run over by a train and lost one of his legs around the age of 35. Whoa. After this dreadful accident, he began working with another man (presumably enslaved as well) who had limited use of his upper body but was able to run the pottery wheel’s foot treadle.
Dozens of Dave’s pots have been found that carry poetic embellishments; others exhibit only a signature and date. The words are prominent, near the lip of each jug or pot, and written in a surprisingly large script. The lettering’s location and size indicates that the writer didn’t intend his writing to stay a secret, and that white acquaintances accepted his education. Occasionally, he even references a vessel’s future owner:
When you fill this jar with pork or beef Scot will be there to get a piece
(on reverse) This jar is to Mr. Seglir Who keeps the bar in orangeburg For Mr Edwards a gentle man Who formerly kept Mr Thos bacons horses 21 April 1858
Even more remarkable is the fact that he mentions his own enslaved condition on a few of the pots, as in the verse about “Mr. Miles” and in a later, more emotionally explicit poem.
I wonder where is all my relations Friendship to all—and every nation 16 August 1857
In 1846—during his period of silence—Dave suffered the breakup of families and friends when he and seventeen others were sold away from each other after the death of their owner, Reverend John Landrum. When he finally began to write again in 1857, the event seems to have been one of the first things on his mind. But what would he have written had he truly been able to say whatever he wished? If he wrote anything after gaining his freedom, it has yet to be found.
For more on Dave the Potter, see Leonard Todd’s Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter, Dave (2008).
P.S. I apologize to my readers (and to those whose collections are represented here) for the lack of captions. While the denizens of the Internet appear to be enthusiastic about Dave’s works, they do not seem to have been particularly careful about captioning them.
Most of us have one of those friends—dramatic and a little odd, with questionable aesthetic taste. Maybe they dye their hair orange or dress like Bellatrix Lestrange, or wear sandals with argyle socks in December. But most of us also wouldn’t change that person the least bit because they are fabulous.
For expatriate American painter Romaine Brooks, Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge, was that person. In the midst of painting this portrait, Brooks wrote to her lover, the writer Natalie Barney: “Una is funny to paint. Her get-up is remarkable. She will live perhaps and cause future generations to smile.”
Brooks was independently wealthy and could paint whomever she chose, which usually meant women from Barney’s regular literary salons in Paris. Truman Capote described these gatherings as “the all-time ultimate gallery of all the famous dykes from 1880 to 1935 or thereabouts,” so Brooks had no shortage of people to paint. Usually her subjects are self-possessed, stylish, graceful, and androgynous. The titles accompanying them also suggest a flexible understanding of gender, as in her portrait of artist Gluck, titled Peter (A Young English Girl). BEST TITLE EVER.
Una was all these things, with a dash of ridiculous. Mostly this is due to the glaringly retro monocle and the pair of dachshunds atop the table in front of her. However, there are express reasons for their presence. Troubridge was not alone in her love of masculine clothing. Fashionable queer women in interwar Paris and London had begun donning suit jackets, pants, and cravats, each one challenging accepted notions of how women should look and be. Brooks herself had spurred the breakup of her own marriage by refusing her husband’s demand that she wear feminine clothing in public. It is hard to say how many of Brooks’ friends would today identify as trans, and not as women at all, but is worth considering, as is the intended message broadcast by an androgynous style. To the average person on the street, a woman in menswear would look eccentric, but might not be immediately assumed queer. To women who liked women, however, it would be obvious.
The same goes for the monocle. Le Monocle was the name of a popular Parisian lesbian bar, and sporting a monocle oneself was pretty much a dead giveaway. Other queer European women at the time, like German writer Sylvia von Harden, were depicted wearing them. However, it remains that most people—queer or not—still would have found it eccentric (I mean, it’s a monocle). The photographer Brassaï frequented the club, and not one of the subjects in his pictures is actually wearing a monocle.
Most of the suit-wearing patrons at Le Monocle seem to have embraced a modern style. The tailored suits, Windsor knots, and pocket squares they favored were popularized in the interwar period by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII, later the Duke of Windsor) and other European aristocrats. Some of Brooks’ milieu, though, took things in a more…artistic direction, hearkening back to early Victorian dandies like Beau Brummel. This is where Una’s high collar and neck scarf come from (Is anyone else thinking of Mr. Darcy?). It’s easy to imagine the dandy’s appeal to women like Troubridge and Brooks. He was stylish and independent, and his attention to fashion and beauty rendered him vaguely androgynous in the public eye. Brooks ran in a fashionable crowd that had no shortage of vaguely androgynous modern dandies, male as well as female, and for a few weeks was even engaged to one: Lord Alfred Douglas, a.k.a. Oscar Wilde’s boyfriend (OMG).
I feel like Brooks is judging me here a bit, don’t you? The shadow over her eyes is usually interpreted as a reference to her semi-masked sexuality, but I feel it also cements her position as an observer: the critic rather than the criticized. Brooks plays it cooler than Troubridge, with a top hat as her only nod to Victorian fashion. Top hats were thoroughly out of style in the 1930s, unless you were the Earl of Grantham, a posh banker, or a Hollywood showman. Or a lady on horseback. In this sense, Brooks’ style is athletic as well as dandyish. And despite her waxy sheen and deep black overcoat, it’s also a bit risqué. Her lips are a coral slash across a sea of gray, and not even Marlene Dietrich unbuttoned her shirt that far when she wore masculine clothing.
Troubridge, a sculptor and literary translator, was the most fabulous of all the women to meet Brooks’ critical eye. And I’ll add that she sure does meet it. The monocle perched beside her nose suggests careful study, and (literally and figuratively) it magnifies her arched brows and appraising stare. No, my sausage dogs are not silly, she seems to say. In fact, they were rather magnificent, as dachshunds go. These two were a prize-winning pair given to her by her longtime partner, the novelist Radclyffe Hall. Troubridge loved Hall dearly, and the dogs’ presence in the portrait (especially since they are a pair) provides a link to their relationship.
There are many stories I could tell about Troubridge, but I’ll end with the saddest one: Nineteen years later, Radclyffe Hall fell ill and died. Troubridge, in possession of all of Hall’s suits, had them recut to fit her, and wore them often.
She makes more sense with some context, doesn’t she?
Not your average nineteenth-century American landscape, is it?
Where are the soaring peaks, the thick foliage, the waterfalls? The ominous clouds representing the potential threat of American hubris? The tiny wagon trains and mountain men showing that few people were actually concerned about national hubris?
In truth, that’s all more or less there. But before I get to that, let’s just marvel at how weird this work of art is. There are many landscapes in the history of painting, and there are many marine paintings—lots of them also painted by Edward Moran, who was essentially the J.M.W. Turner of the United States. Stormy seas, wrecks, tall ships, you get the idea. But nowhere else in the nineteenth century does one find an underwater landscape painting. That is, unless you count Russian artist Ilya Repin’s Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom, which is more of a showcase for mermaid breasts than anything else (a friend of mine who is a scholar of Russian art calls it a “weird failure of a painting,” but I find the colors and patterns kind of charming).
This month I’m looking at The Valley in the Sea to celebrate my move back to Indianapolis. I realize these two things are incongruous (middle America = the bottom of the sea?), but Moran’s painting has always been one of my favorites in the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s collection. What is most intriguing about it is how it would have meant something vastly different to a viewer from the 1860s than it does to viewers today. When I was a kid, The Valley in the Sea certainly seemed fantastical, with its implication (to a seven-year-old, mind you) of the artist taking his paint box and easel down to the ocean floor and dabbing at his oversized canvas in a scuba suit. But the scene itself—the coral, rocks, snails, and anemone—was very, very familiar. I had seen it countless times in nature documentaries and, frankly, The Little Mermaid.
For the 1860s viewer, looking at this would be akin to us looking at a painting of the surface of Mars. In 1857, Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury wrote that for his predecessors in marine science, “the depths of the sea still remained as fathomless and as mysterious as the firmament above.” The depths of the deep, open ocean might as well have been outer space. No one knew how deep the ocean could get, or if there was a Kraken down there. For most people, it was a dark, mysterious place into which ships sank and out of which the fish they ate came. It was terrifying, and it was also the new frontier of exploration. In the next decade, Jules Verne sent his science-fiction heroes not just to the moon (From the Earth to the Moon, 1865), but beneath the surface of the world’s oceans (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, 1869).
Like Verne’s novels, Moran’s painting extrapolates on the latest science. Jacques Cousteau described it in 1971 as “a work of imagination, based on serious documentation.” The documentation was probably Maury’s The Physical Geography of the Sea (1857) and Dr. James M. Sommerville’s Ocean Life (1859), which featured illustrations like the one above. Sommerville, a pioneering marine biologist, was the painting’s first owner. At the time he bought the work, diving and submarine technologies were just inching into the modern era—to the benefit of marine science. No one had been to the deepest parts of the ocean, but newly-improved diving suits made glimpses of shallower areas much easier to manage. In this sense, The Valley in the Sea reminds me of many of Winslow Homer’s works, which (as curator Kathleen Foster has pointed out) feature cutting-edge rescue technologies that to viewers today may just look like a bunch of guys with boats.
But, back to the landscape paintings. It’s probably no accident that The Valley in the Sea is stylistically and compositionally similar to contemporary depictions of the Western United States. In the early part of the century, the West was the terrifying new frontier of exploration, full of stunning geography and unknown challenges. By the 1860s, though, Lewis and Clark were long gone. Surveyors were still mapping the West, and painters traveled out in droves, but the U.S. government pretty much knew what was there. The West had already been “won,” so to speak, and whatever we may think of this now, European-Americans felt an ongoing responsibility to “tame” it. Since the sea was one of the next segments of the world on the United States’ long list of things to catalog and conquer, the West was Moran’s ideal model.
Of course, nowadays we send not painters but robots to explore new frontiers, and like us, they take pictures of themselves:
It is said that during Leonid Brezhnev’s visit to the United States in 1973, the American officials in charge of ferrying him from New York to Washington, DC were so embarrassed by the polluted New Jersey Meadowlands that they desperately tried to find a route that would bypass them. They failed, and it turned out that Brezhnev thought that the marshes, with their weird, twisty paths and clusters of turtles sunning themselves on heaps of old tires, were great.
Painter Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904) thought so, too—137 years ago, anyway. The artist, who appears to have had parentheses of facial hair in place of ears, worked across genres and never achieved the overwhelming success that characterized the careers of Hudson River School landscape painters like Albert Bierstadt and Frederick Edwin Church. However, his paintings are so much in demand on today’s market that he’s now among the most counterfeited American artists. A good Heade forgery can fetch many thousands of dollars, even if the buyer knows it’s a fake. It’s easy to see why; I’d take a Heade over a monstrously large Bierstadt any day. His wildlife paintings are brilliant in their color and detail, with jewel-like hummingbirds flitting through dense tropical foliage. The light in his landscapes is hazy and diffused, almost tangible.
It says a lot about the Meadowlands that an artist so obsessed with natural beauty chose them as one of his major recurring subjects, and it says a lot about Heade that he rendered them in such a serene, isolated manner. His contemporary Mary Nimmo Moran chose instead to include the rising smokestacks of Newark, which for Gilded Age viewers could have inspired pride in New Jersey’s modernity, or nostalgia for its fading agricultural past—or both.
Heade’s painting probably contains some nostalgia, too. Though he was born in rural Pennsylvania, he spent most of his career amidst the sooty tall buildings of New York City. You would never know this looking at his landscape paintings—modern culture hardly ever makes an appearance in Heade’s nature, and he seems to have been utterly uninterested in depicting the built world. His haystacks and fisherman could easily have occupied the same meadow in the same way 200 years prior. It’s unsurprising that he studied with the delightfully quaint Edward Hicks, master of doe-eyed cows and stoned-looking lions:
Unbeknownst to Heade, however, and probably to local farmers as well, the Meadowlands are to a great extent a product of the built world. 500 years ago, most of the area was covered with cedar forest, which was cut down by seventeenth-century Dutch settlers for building material. The settlers used the remaining marshy land to cultivate large plots of salt hay, which they used for rope and cattle feed. Thus, the Meadowlands expanded. It’s possible, then, that the winding path cutting through Heade’s landscape marks the centuries-old route of a Dutch farmer’s flatboat.
I’m with Heade and Brezhnev when it comes to the Meadowlands, now a blatant contradiction of loveliness and industrial waste. As a child I read a magazine article about Secaucus, New Jersey, which was accompanied by a photograph of a woman sunbathing in the midst of the Meadowlands. Her inflatable raft floated down a narrow gap in the tall marsh grass. This landscape fascinated me, in that it was so unlike anything else I’d seen before. When I moved to New Jersey years later, I found myself plastered to the window of the commuter train to Manhattan, gaping at the vast fields of salt hay dotted by seabirds, sunken pilings, and lonely plastic bags. The area was used as a dump throughout much of the 20th century, and while a large swath of it has been reclaimed and protected, it’s still a work in progress. Now that I’m familiar with the area, the idea of anyone sunbathing upon its waters is a little alarming. I’ve seen snow-white herons take flight there, but a three-headed monster rising out of the mud wouldn’t be all that out of place either. Supposedly, when Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast terrified Americans out of their minds in 1938, many people in North Jersey just assumed that the aliens had landed in the Meadowlands. Obviously.
This post is less an interpretive essay than it is a farewell to New Jersey, where I happily spent the last six and a half years. I should note that “The Garden State” is not a misnomer, as many people believe. Also, those Jersey Shore kids are actually all from Staten Island.
Ammi Phillips’ Peter Guernsey, the Eye Doctor takes…well, some getting used to. Guernsey’s blue eyes hold our own gazes so steadily that it might be several seconds before we notice that there’s a disembodied face at the right edge of the picture, and several more before we realize that that in fact there are three people here: the doctor, his patient, (who, in case you’re wondering, is facing cataract removal without the aid of anesthesia), and a third person, pressing the patient’s eyelids wide open.
GAH! WHY WOULD ANYONE MAKE THIS?? That’s many people’s reaction, anyway. But at the time, a portrait like this would have been good for Guernsey’s reputation and status in Amenia, New York, the tiny rural town where he practiced. Unlike today, the social status of an early nineteenth-century doctor was flexible, to say the least. There were licensing standards in Europe, but any man in the United States could be a doctor simply by calling himself one. One nineteenth-century traveler wrote of visiting a town where residents had
stiled [the local shoemaker] doctor…happening two years agoe to cure an old woman of a pestilential mortal disease, he thereby acquired the character of a physitian, was applied to from all quarters, and [found] the practice of physick a more profitable business than cobling…
This was pretty terrifying to a lot of people then (not just to us now), so it’s unsurprising that medical men like Guernsey had something to prove with their public images. But what a country doctor needed to prove, and to whom, was very different from what we see in his urban counterparts.
Phillips bluntly depicts Guernsey’s professional practice in a way that just didn’t happen in the medical portraiture of the urban elite, as you can see from John Neagle’s portrait of Dr. William Potts Dewees, who was professor of obstetrics at the University of Pennsylvania. His hair tousled just so, the doctor is accompanied not by forceps or anatomical models, but a large classical column and his extensive art collection. In an urban setting where education and expensive taste were primary factors in determining status, Dewees aspired to be accepted by elite politicians, shipping magnates, and independently wealthy gentlemen.
Guernsey, on the other hand, is successful but practical, comfortable but not extravagant. This is a man who eats well but isn’t about to come down with a case of gout. Even the clear, linear style associated with itinerant painters is suited to someone striving for the “middling” rural ideal that many people in the Jacksonian era admired. Guernsey seems to have understood that his social status and his value to the community he served lay not in Old Master paintings or fine furniture, but in whether or not he could successfully remove his neighbors’ cataracts and set their broken bones. Even the most well-to-do residents of Amenia would have been farmers and craftsmen who, from time to time, desperately needed Guernsey’s services to be able to do their jobs.
Being a member of the rural elite or middle class wasn’t the same as being a fancy urban gentleman. Instead of picturing his subject lounging against a column in front of a plush velvet curtain—decadent by country standards—Phillips paints the doctor as a skilled craftsman, performing honest handiwork that could easily be understood and admired by other skilled workers. Phillips was a successful skilled artisan, too, and would have identified with the doctor and known what provoked the esteem of local clockmakers, jewelers, and smiths. Indeed, Guernsey’s direct gaze and delicate grasp of his cataract knife are awfully similar to the pose of an artist painting a self-portrait. But instead of brushing in the form of his own eyes onto a canvas, he’s about to press a sharp blade into someone’s eyeball.
It was common in pre-Civil War times for rural doctors to be depicted as men of action, in the midst of performing their craft. However, portraits like Jacob Maentel’s (above) that focused on a doctor’s use of medications seem to have gone out of fashion around the 1830s. Why? Probably due to the deepening distrust of doctors who relied on traditional practices like bleeding their patients with leeches and dosing them with “emetics” (solutions that either made patients vomit spectacularly, or caused everything to come out the other end). Also to blame is the scary proliferation of quack medicines—tonics claiming to cure anything and everything. P.T. Barnum, famous for his statement that “there’s a sucker born every minute,” began his career selling Proler’s Bear Grease, which purported to cure baldness but didn’t. Other tonics sold by peddlers made claims for the cure of ague, dropsy, bilious liver, cancer, mortality(!), dysentery, indigestion, and hysteria—sometimes all at once. Not a few patients began to realize that their recoveries might be due less to emetics or tonics than to the healing processes of time. One astute medical writer pointed out how “nature can not build a railway, but she can very often cure a disease.”
Tellingly, critics in the media seem to have directed their anger specifically at the treatment of illness, not at the practice of surgery. Apparently, everyone understood its necessity, in great part because they could see it: any observer could watch a surgery and deduce its truth value on his or her own. Surgery was usually done in the home (often on the kitchen table, where everyone had just eaten their breakfast), and commonly watched by anyone who happened to be present. That’s what we see here. The fingers holding open the eyes of Dr. Guernsey’s patient could as easily belong to Guernsey’s wife, son, or neighbor as they could to a medical apprentice.
Of course, this still doesn’t explain why both doctor and patient seem utterly calm—proud, even. Guernsey is about to cut into the surface of his patient’s eyeball, break up the lens into tiny pieces, and remove it. The patient will be able to feel all of this. Why isn’t everybody freaking out?
Well…this was 1828. There wasn’t any anesthesia beyond a swig of brandy, so surgery in any form was excruciating for a patient. Therefore, a surgeon empathetic to his patients’ pain would have been an ineffective, hysterical mess. Pain was an expected part of life, and steeling oneself to its effects—as a doctor or a patient—was admired as fortitude. One young doctor’s diary emotionally describes how his patients’ cries “would have rent the heart of steel, and shocked the insensibility of the most hardened assassin and the cruelest savage,” but ten years later, his entries describe wounds, symptoms, and parts in a manner so disembodied that they don’t seem to belong to actual people at all.
I began looking into Peter Guernsey, the Eye Doctor simply because it was so baffling and bizarre. What I see now is this: a patient with fortitude and the hope that he will see again; the hand of a neighbor, showing that surgery was a communal endeavor; and an honest man of skill and character who is successful and admired because the results of his practice are, literally, right before his patients’ eyes.
For more on Phillips, see Revisiting Ammi Phillips: Fifty Years of American Portraiture (Museum of American Folk Art, 1994) by Stacy C. Hollander. I’d also like to thank Paul D’Ambrosio, President and CEO of the Fenimore Art Museum, whose delightful blog tipped me off to the existence of this painting a while back.
“No one really knows what Jesus looked like either, but everyone thinks they know.”
I had no idea how appropriate this closing line from my most recent post would be in describing the wonky cable news conversations of this holiday season. Nor did I realize that the above painting could have anything to do with cable news or Santa Claus. I’ll get back to the painting. But first:
As you may know, Fox News host Megyn Kelly exasperatedly announced on air recently that “Santa just is white,” then added that of course Jesus was too. In response, everyone from comedians to archaeologists pointed out that this was genetically unlikely for either the historical Jesus (Middle Eastern Jew) or St. Nicholas (Turkish).
This isn’t a new conversation, and if that were all that had happened, I wouldn’t bring it up. But in a subsequent interview with The Washington Post, scholar Reza Aslan pointed out that it’s useful to differentiate between Jesus of Nazareth, the person who existed in history, and Jesus Christ, the divine religious figure whom Christians seek to emulate. Aslan avoids addressing Kelly’s unsettling implication that Jesus and Santa should be white for everyone, but readily agrees that “[Megyn Kelly’s] Christ is white…That’s the entire point of the Christ.” And then he goes on to elaborate on how people all over the world create images of Jesus and his family that look just like them.
The history of art supports Aslan’s point, because if we took paintings at face value, we would believe that Jesus was born in a miniature Roman villa, and the Annunciation took place in a fifteenth-century Dutch parlor. Also, Mary was blond and Bethlehem looks like an Italian seaport.
(By the way, if you feel like jumping farther down that rabbit hole, try Leo Steinberg’s weird but rigorous book The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion, in which the author notes—among many other things—how Renaissance depictions of the naked Jesus show him uncircumcised, an unlikely state of being for a Jewish man. In other words, the Christian artists were very invested in painting a Christ who looked EXACTLY like them.)
The sweeping liberties taken with depictions of Jesus, his mother, and his surroundings lead me back to the painting at the top of this page.
Henry Ossawa Tanner was an African-American artist who grew up in Philadelphia but spent most of his life as an expatriate in France. He was also a religious man, the son of an African Methodist Episcopal bishop. Yet the Virgin Mary he depicts in The Annunciation is neither a black Philadelphian girl nor a French peasant in a dilapidated barn. Nor is she a noblewoman in gilt robes, painted in the Western European tradition. She’s a barefoot, confused Middle Eastern teenager.
I love the look on her face. It’s perfectly appropriate to the actual text in Luke 1: 26-34:
26 And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, 27 To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. 29And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.30 And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. 31 And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. 32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: And the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: 33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. 34Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?35
(In other words: WHAT IS HAPPENING? WHAT IS THIS THING DOING IN MY HOUSE? HOW WILL I EVER EXPLAIN THIS TO MY PARENTS?)
While Tanner has probably taken some liberties with the décor, his Mary is much closer in mood and ethnicity to what Luke suggests than she is in other famous Annunciations. So why did Tanner paint her this way?
It’s been suggested that as a black man who suffered constant slurs in Philadelphia, he would have been more sensitive to assumptions about race and ethnicity than many of his white colleagues. This may be the case, but I tend more towards attributing Tanner’s concern for the “accuracy” of his religious scenes (he painted many) to his deep familiarity with scripture and his training as a realist painter. In Philadelphia, he studied with famed realist Thomas Eakins, who stressed the importance of depicting things as they are—anatomy, motion, blood and guts, ill-fitting clothing, awkward facial expressions, and so on. Eakins painted almost exclusively contemporary scenes, but when he decided to paint a crucifixion, he dragged some wood to a deserted site, built a cross with a foot ledge, and had a naked friend stand on it with his arms outstretched. The result is both literal and lacking any kind of religious mystery:
Tanner, on the other hand, managed to uniquely balance the physicality of late nineteenth-century American realism with an intense mysticism that was popular among some French painters at the time. In the late 1890s he traveled to Palestine, making many sketches of the landscape and of Jewish individuals in the areas where Jesus would have lived. These later became the basis for many of Tanner’s religious scenes, including this one. His Mary is believably Middle Eastern and Jewish; she’s also believably human, with knobby knees and a candidly bewildered expression. But there is still something amazingly supernatural going on. There is a huge column of light in the room and it’s the angel Gabriel.
Christian writings are not at all in agreement on the physical appearance of angels, though most people tend to accept the popular image of an androgynous humanoid with wings. Tanner’s particular solution is likely drawn from the many biblical comparisons between God’s presence, and God’s words, to light: burning bushes, “the light shines in the darkness,” etc. For the African Methodist Episcopal Church, many of whose congregants (like Tanner’s mother) had once been enslaved, the pillar of fire that led the Israelites across the Red Sea and out of slavery was particularly meaningful. The Quakers, prominent in Tanner’s native Pennsylvania, also saw light as a sign of divine presence.
So, again…no one really knows what Jesus, or his family, really would have looked like. But Henry Ossawa Tanner may have come close.
For more on Tanner, see Anna O. Marley’s 2012 catalog Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit.
It may be said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but don’t try to say that to someone who’s been plagiarized. Like this guy on the right:
You’ve never heard of Henry Pelham, but he created one of the most important propaganda images of the American Revolution, an engraving of the Boston Massacre. Unfortunately for him, Paul Revere stole it. Revere (or as I like to think of him, Colonial Jack Black), was of course the Bostonian silversmith and engraver who on his famous “Midnight Ride” shouted “The British are coming!”
(Digression: Revere never really said that, but perhaps “The Regulars are coming out!” wasn’t dramatic enough for poets. Also, Revere was accompanied for some of his ride by two other men, one of whom fell off his horse, and another who happened to be around because he was, as one historian put it, “returning from a lady friend’s house at the awkward hour of one a.m.”)
On March 5, 1770, a private stationed outside the Boston Custom House exchanged insults with a local wigmaker’s apprentice who had accused a British officer of not paying his bill. I’ll just say that things escalated over the next few hours, with one soldier turning into eight, and the lone apprentice morphing into an angry mob of colonists armed with clubs, snowballs, and rocks. Eventually, several soldiers fired shots into the crowd (though accounts vary as to why). When the smoke cleared, three colonists were dead, and two others died from their wounds. The first to die was Crispus Attucks, a sailor and runaway slave of African and Wampanoag descent who is often considered the first casualty of the American Revolution.
Recognize the second image? Undoubtedly it was the illustration in your junior-high history book’s section on the Boston Massacre, which along with events like the Boston Tea Party helped push the colonists toward revolt. Revere advertised the engraving in the local newspaper, and sold copies from his shop.
It’s the eighteenth-century version of a partisan cable news channel, including all the details of British guilt—indeed, their expressions are more appropriate for a pleasing Christmas dinner than for shooting Bostonians—but nothing that might put blame on the colonists. Clubs? Rocks? Nope. In contrast to the soldiers’ regimented offensive line, the colonists are in chaos, wailing and tending to the victims. Blood gushes onto the cobblestones. A woman clasps her hands together in horror, and a man stands with his back to the soldiers, illustrating the cowardice of those who might shoot a person from behind. And just to rub it in, a precious little dog, the traditional symbol of loyalty, stands with the colonists.
The engraving raises a few questions:
Do we know for sure that Revere copied Pelham’s engraving, and not the other way around?
Yes. Pelham (who I should note was the half brother of famed painter John Singleton Copley) penned a letter to Revere later in the month accusing him of stealing his design. Ever the genteel schoolboy, Pelham gives his adversary more of a scolding than an ultimatum of any kind:
…If you are insensible of the Dishonour you have brought on yourself by this Act, the World will not be so. However, I leave you to reflect upon and consider of one of the most dishonorable Actions you could well be guilty of.
Moral superiority seems to have satisfied Pelham, as there is no evidence he ever pursued the matter further. I like to think that he set his tiny attack squirrel on Revere as the silversmith unsuspectingly strolled across Boston Common.
Not that Pelham would want to admit it, but a certain kind of pictorial evidence would have supported his case: Revere’s version is better. Revere made several additions to the scene that make it a superior piece of propaganda: the soldiers look more gleeful, the colonists bloodier and more mournful, and above the Custom House sign on the British side is a new sign reading “Butcher’s Hall.” Subtle, huh? A famous name and a more dramatic scene likely led to this image being the one chosen to mislead American schoolchildren hundreds of years later.
The red coats. They’re just so red. Seriously, red coats for soldiers?
I recall sitting in my sixth-grade class’s mock Constitutional Convention, circa 1995, and making fun of the British Army’s supremely ignorant decision to put scarlet coats on people whose jobs relied on not getting shot. All 26 of us were wearing fake colonial wigs we had made out of coat hangers and yarn, so we didn’t really have the right to laugh.
And, as I’ve discovered, it’s not as simple as that. Some repeat the myth that red coats don’t show blood, but as anyone who’s ever peeled off a Band-Aid knows, dried blood isn’t red; it’s brown. The truth is that the coats were red because cannon and musket smoke is really, really thick. The depiction of it above is probably not far off from reality. Soldiers needed bright coats so that they could find their comrades as well as their enemies. In all-out battle, you needed to know—through the smoky haze—whether you were shooting at your enemy or your commanding officer. I don’t doubt that the similarity between blue and gray caused a number of accidental deaths later on during the Civil War.
Also, red dye was super cheap, and there were a lot of British soldiers.
All these people are really pale. Where is Crispus Attucks?
The man on the lower left, with his body extending out of the frame, has chest wounds matching Attucks’. His skin tone is a faint yellowish brown (apparently white Bostonians in late winter were all paper-colored). Revere didn’t color the engravings himself, and the colors in existing versions vary drastically. Sometimes Attucks’ skin appears reddish brown and sometimes it isn’t filled in at all. It’s completely possible that neither Revere nor Pelham ever met or saw him. Later nineteenth-century versions of the scene made to showcase Attucks’ heroism portray him as a dark-skinned black man. In reality, Attucks never had a portrait made of himself, and as a sailor he couldn’t have afforded one. So any that exist are imaginary—we don’t know what he looked like. Nor do we really even know if he was a saint or a terrible person.
Yet it seems vital in our culture to have official faces to go with official names. An admirable person must be given an image, so that words and deeds can be attached to it, and his or her legend can grow. History books are full of images that have no connection to reality, but still create intense emotional connections for the reader.
No one really knows what Jesus looked like either, but everyone thinks they know.
Looking at portrait paintings and photographs prior to the First World War, you might wonder where all the little boys are.
Girl babies and toddlers appear in abundance, held closely to their mothers or clutching favorite toys or pets. Each girl’s frilly dress and wispy curls define her as a feminine being, destined for marriage and motherhood. Or at least, so it seems until you turn over a photo of one of these beribboned darlings and find scrawled on the back:
“Portrait of George, aged 3 yrs.”
“Alfred, 21 months.”
“Wendell Davies and dog.”
Before you stand up and shout “WOW! Look at these amazing nineteenth-century genderqueer little kids!!” to whomever is in the room, I should mention that nearly everyone in the United States and Western Europe used to wear dresses throughout early childhood. Long hair was not unusual either, and hair length had little to do with gender. Though tiny giveaways occasionally appear, it is very difficult to tell girls from boys in portraits made before the twentieth century. This dainty Ammi Phillips portrait of Andrew Jackson Ten Broeck could just as easily depict one of his sisters.
(Note: If you are wondering whether or not his name was an accident, it wasn’t. Young Andrew had a brother named William Henry Ten Broeck and a cousin named Martin Van Buren Ten Broeck.)
Today, we are obsessed with children’s assigned sex and gender expression. “Is it a boy or a girl?” is the first question asked about a new baby, before we even learn his or her name. A mother puts a lacy pink headband on her bald little girl, lest we accidentally think we are looking at a boy. An expectant grandfather is miffed at his daughter for not revealing her child’s sex prior to birth—because how else will he know whether to buy his grandbaby a sparkly skirt or sailor pants? And if he buys both, what if that makes the baby grow up to be a drag performer? Et cetera.
But to parents in 1800, or even 1900, a baby wearing pants would have been akin to a fish riding a bicycle: there was just no practical reason for it. There were, however, reasons for children to wear dresses. Their practicality began with the ease of diaper changing. Without snaps or elastic, simply getting a pair of trousers on and off a fussy baby would have been next to impossible. More often than not, nineteenth-century fashion magazines and pattern books didn’t even differentiate between garments for boys and those for girls. A September 1868 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book featured a pattern for a “dress for a child of four years old, of pink cambric, braided with white” and a “sash of the same.” Even after children were potty-trained, they continued to wear dresses, which were easier to let out as needed. Pants couldn’t so easily accommodate the needs of thrifty parents with growing kids.
It may be incomprehensible to parents today, but white was continually a popular color for children’s dresses. Anyone familiar with the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries knows that city life in those times had the potential to be…messy (as did/do children, for that matter). The girl above lived in New York City in the early 1830s, where the muddy streets were covered in piles of horse dung and there was no such thing as garbage collection or proper sewers. It was perfectly acceptable to just dump the contents of your chamber pot out the window. But white cloth could be harshly scrubbed and bleached without fading, so that’s what her mother dressed her in, all the way down to her lacy pantalettes. Under their dresses, both she and little Andrew wear frilly pantalettes, a variation on long underwear that had an open crotch and visible hem, and were common children’s wear from the 1820s through the 1860s.
Pantalettes were the closest thing to trousers that a boy would have worn until his “breeching” sometime between the ages of three and seven. A highly significant rite of passage for boys prior to the early twentieth century, breeching marked the day that a boy made the transition from skirts to trousers or short pants. In periods in which short hair was popular for men, breeching also included the cutting of long hair into a more adult style (here I’m imagining a mother weeping as she takes scissors to her son’s curls). A girl would simply continue to grow her hair out forever and wear versions of her mother’s clothing into adulthood.
I find it mildly disturbing, and not at all surprising, that the continuation of childhood styles for girls and women would have reinforced then-common ideas of women as childlike and inherently dependent creatures. Boys became men, but women remained girls forever. In this way and others, clothing acted as a mirror for parents’—and the world’s—expectations and fears. We’ve never escaped this.
In her book Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, clothing historian Jo B. Paoletti suggests that one of the reasons boys wore dresses until they were school-age was that parents were uncomfortable at the thought of dressing young boys in “masculine” adult styles. For them, men’s clothes implied masculine adult sexuality, which children were supposed to be free of. However, a higher awareness of male homosexuality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (possibly due in part to Aestheticism and public figures like Oscar Wilde) resulted in widespread homophobia. For parents, the fear that their little boys would turn out gay trumped the fear that they would exhibit heterosexuality at a too-early age. The age of breeching had already been falling, and at this point it plummeted. Whereas in the eighteenth century breeching usually occurred around the age of seven, by the 1900s it had slipped to around three, and eventually gender-neutral children’s clothing almost entirely disappeared. Suppliers of mass-market clothing, like Sears, weren’t free of blame either, as the prevalence of gendered outfits meant parents had to buy twice as much clothing for their children.
So…that Pepto-Bismol pink girls’ outfit I saw in Target yesterday with “My Favorite Color is Sparkle!” emblazoned on it in glitter (Really. I saw this.)? It may exist in part because somebody’s great-great grandfather was frightened by Oscar Wilde’s manly love.
For more on the development of American children’s styles, see Jo B. Paoletti’s Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America (Indiana University Press, 2012) and the highly informative Clothing Through American History series published by Greenwood.
If I could have a single relic of nineteenth-century history, it would probably be one of the many cartes de visite of Sojourner Truth. Let me tell you why.
About the size of an iPhone, the carte de visite was the most popular portrait format in the 1860s. Usually celebrity cartes were sold by enterprising photographic studio owners, but this was not the case with the portraits of Truth, a formerly enslaved woman who became known as an abolitionist, itinerant preacher, and supporter of women’s rights. Truth chose her own poses, had the images printed en masse, and sold them to support her speaking tours—hence the fantastic, mystical caption printed on each:
“I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance. / SOJOURNER TRUTH.”
(Holy crap, right?)
Each of these pieces of paper represents an astonishing amount of agency. Black women in the nineteenth century had no control over how they were portrayed by white artists, and their opportunities for self-representation were almost nil. Often the only reason a black woman appeared in a photograph was to keep the white child on her lap from squirming.
The cartes de visite of Truth are unique, and show how she intentionally constructed her public image in a way that would encourage support for the causes she preached. In several of them she leans on a walking stick, peering into the distance and literally enacting the name she chose for herself: Truth was born Isabella Baumfree in 1797, but rechristened herself “Sojourner Truth” in 1843 upon feeling called to preach against slavery. The image above, from 1864, is especially striking for its low vantage point, which monumentalizes Truth and emphasizes her towering height. At six feet, she was nearly a foot taller than the average American woman of her day. The blank background—with no other figures or decorations—stresses her independence. She is powerful and decisive, a woman whose body language says “listen to me.”
But the woman in this photo was a bit of a rebel too, and could potentially be seen as a threat to “mainstream” (read: Anglo, Christian, hetero, male-dominated) society. Truth also needed an identity that fit with what was expected of women in the mid-nineteenth century. Balancing out the “sojourner” portraits, then, are what I call the “demure lady” pictures. A prime example is the one below, also from 1864. She sits instead of standing, with her attention on her knitting instead of the journey ahead. The background’s ambiguous void has been replaced by the suggestion of a gentle domestic interior. Atop the patterned tablecloth is a vase of flowers, a frequent inclusion in female portraits as a symbol of fertility. Truth had five children, so this would have seemed appropriate to viewers.
Convincingly demonstrating her own femininity was still an uphill battle. Truth is most famous for her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, given at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. In it, she rails against the idea that men and women are fundamentally different
I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear de lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ‘em mos’ all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
It’s a thrilling speech, but alas, Sojourner Truth probably never uttered any one of those sentences. She did give a speech at the convention that likely followed the same gist, but the version excerpted above is a fabrication, printed a full twelve years later by the journalist Frances Dana Gage. Among Gage’s many embellishments is the attempted use of a stereotypical black Southern dialect that would have been completely out of place for Truth, who was born in upstate New York and (due to her owner being Dutch) only spoke Dutch until the age of nine. Whatever her speech pattern was, it definitely wouldn’t have sounded like she had stepped out of the pages of Huck Finn.
But I digress. Being an independent black woman of large stature had the unfortunate effect of provoking constant rude questions about her femaleness. After an 1858 lecture she gave in Silver Lake Indiana, a man from the audience shouted that the sixty-one-year-old Truth should disprove the rumor that she was really a man by having one of the women present examine her breasts. According to historian Deborah Gray White in Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South,
[Truth] told the men that her breasts had suckled many a white babe, to the exclusion of her own offspring, and that many of these babies had grown to be better men than those in the audience. From her place in front of the congregation Sojourner Truth bared her breasts and told the men that it was not to her shame that she did so but to theirs.
Sojourner Truth did many things and saw many things in her long life. She was sold away from her parents at nine years old. As a teenager, she saw her lover Robert beaten nearly to death by his owner when their relationship was discovered. After gaining her freedom, she sued her former owner for illegally selling her son down South, and became the first black woman in the United States to win a lawsuit. She traveled the nation. She bought her own home. She suffered the death of her grandson, a Civil War soldier. She flashed a bunch of people in Indiana (By the way, thanks a bunch for your poor representation, people of my home state.). She changed the discourse of abolitionism and the Women’s Rights movement.
She also had a real knack for wearing contrasting patterns.
LOOK AT HOW SHE’S MIXING POLKA DOTS AND STRIPES. This picture fills my heart with joy every time I look at it. Oh, what I would give to know the colors of these garments! Though she was known to have chided other women for dressing extravagantly, she apparently had nothing against cultivating personal style. Neither did her friend Frederick Douglass, shown below in his brooding, handsome phase (note the plaid bow tie + botanical print waistcoat):
For more on Sojourner Truth, see her dictated memoir Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave (1850); Deborah Gray White’s excellent book Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (1999); or one of the many biographies in existence.