Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Critical Book Review: Painting the Dark Side: Art and the Gothic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America

In her 2004 book Painting the Dark Side: Art and the Gothic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America, Sarah Burns looks away from the optimistic painting of the time and instead focuses on the darker underside.  Burns states that most scholarship on nineteenth-century American painting depicts the more positive outlook of a progressing and modernizing nation. 

  Much focus has been given to the grand, sunlit landscapes of the Hudson River School.  However, contained within this popular movement was a shadowy underside.  Burns seems to suggest the intrinsic existence of a dark, gothic trend beneath the prominent light and airy paintings more attributable to this time period.  She plans to illuminate this previously overlooked gothic side and its underlying social and cultural connotations.  Her usage of the term gothic refers to “the art of haunting… [and] as a container for a constellation of themes and moods: horror, fear, mystery, strangeness, fantasy, perversion, monstrosity, insanity.”[1]  Borrowing from art historian Arnold Hauser and his idea that art helps society to deal with chaos, Burns aims to suggest how the gothic theme gave particular artists an avenue through which to cope with darker aspects of culture and psyche.[2]  In considering this theory, Burns forms correlations between eccentric artists who have rarely, if ever, been discussed in context with one another as one unified group.  She insists that these men are connected not by consistent gothic conventions but by the fear and anxiety permeating nineteenth-century American society. 
            Burns weaves intricate tales of eight “oddball” artists and their individual motivations for concentrating on the gothic theme in their paintings.  It is surprising how enthralling these tales are as they unfold and take shape.  Burns’ confident and flowing storytelling successfully draws the reader into the dark side of nineteenth-century painting.  One way in which Burns engrosses the reader is through convincing and carefully amassed evidence.  The self-assured way in which Burns uses historical information to base her analysis and relate each artist to his time in place compels the reader to set aside critical observances and go along with her story.  For example, she discusses the biography of William Rimmer and the ongoing drama of his family’s history: 
The meanings of Flight and Pursuit are tightly bound into the story of Rimmer’s life (1816-79), itself a gothic tale.  His father, Thomas (1785-1852), believed himself the Dauphin—only surviving son of Louis XVI and heir to the French throne… [After his parents’ executions] the discredited  ‘Dauphin,’ fear[ed] that supporters of Louis XVIII [brother of Louis XVI, who had been placed on the throne after Napoleon’s defeat] might seek him out and murder him to further secure his uncle’s right to the throne,… [He] immigrated to North America and eventually settled in the Boston area.[3] 
Burns then suggests that the intense feeling of being pursued evident in Flight and Pursuit relates to Rimmer’s childhood and his father’s incessant claims of being hunted.  Her commanding tone is neither overbearing nor confrontational but refreshing and enjoyable.
            Burns structures her book in eight chapters each, of which discusses an individual artist.  She does not focus on the artist’s entire body of work, a surely impossible feat within the context of her goal, but instead centers the chapter on one or two of the artist’s most important and relevant works.  Burns acknowledges that this narrative “does not weave itself into a seamless whole, nor does the book function as a systematic, all-inclusive survey of the gothic in nineteenth-century art.”[4]  She includes only a limited amount of works simply because her aim is to suggest that the gothic provided a language for dealing with the darker issues of life. 
On a larger spectrum, the chapters are arranged into three main sections based upon the different gothic themes inherent in the artists’ works.  Herself using the gothic premise, Burns gives each chapter a title which is reminiscent of the style of Edgar Allen Poe and which alludes to its respective artist’s darker issues.  Firstly, Burns explores the darkness pervading the pristine nature landscape and its opposite, the expanding urban landscape in “Gloom and Doom” on Thomas Cole and “The Underground Man” on David Gilmour Blythe.  The next section addresses racial issues, most notably slavery, with “The Shrouded Past” on Washington Allston, “The Deepest Dark” on John Quidor, and “The Shadow’s Curse” on William Rimmer.  Finally, Burns discusses more personal issues and psyches with “Mental Monsters” on Elihu Vedder, “Corrosive Sight” on Thomas Eakins, and “Dirty Pictures” on Albert Pinkham Ryder.  Burns connects these artists through their collective anxieties.  She notes how issues of slavery, industrialism, urbanism, and women’s suffrage created repressed but palpable fears for these modern men.  In a society full of social anxieties such as these, it was difficult to determine one’s place and function.  Her story illuminates how these artists struggled to identify themselves in a rapidly changing America
            In studying these artists and their gothic themes, Burns uses a combination of methods to complete her analysis.  Much of her text is dedicated to biographies of the artists.  For example, significant to her decoding of Allston’s Belshazzar’s Feast is the fact that Allston was never able to disconnect himself from his Southern slaveholding roots, which, she argues, permeate his work.  According to Burns, the gothic strain provides more than just an avenue for personal expression.  She believes that on the gothic picture plane, the personal and the political interweave in compound ways.  The social, political and economic fears felt by the artists, and consequently evident in their works, were also anxieties shared by much of middle class white society in nineteenth-century America.  Thus, Burns not only uses biography to show the artistic process of these particular men, but she also employs a social art historical method to uncover the connectedness of their gothic works to a broader, cultural spectrum.  Referring to the Allston example, Burns determines that his “fear and guilt were also the fear and guilt of a white society—North and South—stained, haunted, and torn by the curse of slavery.”[5]  This hybrid process of biographical and social methods allows Burns to uncover masquerading layers and gothic meanings in the paintings of her case studies. 
            To illustrate how concretely the gothic theme was ingrained into nineteenth-century American society, Burns highlights the correlation between the artists’ gothic paintings and the gothic pattern existing in literature.  She references the publications of Hawthorne, Melville, Charles Brockden Brown, and especially those of Edgar Allan Poe.  In addition to using these texts as evidence of the gothic trend in the whole of American society, Burns discusses how the literature of Poe and others may have influenced the paintings of her chosen artists.  Throughout her analysis of each artist, Burns inevitably returns to Poe for comparison.  She explains the importance of Poe to her theory’s goal: “Like all the painters in this book, Poe struggled in the unrestrained capitalist economy of urbanizing, industrializing America and, like most of them, fell victim to it.”[6]  Despite Poe’s belonging to a discipline other than painting, Burns finds his existence to be similar to her chosen artists and therefore, believes his works to be influenced by the same collective fears.  Like Allston, Quidor, and Rimmer, Poe explored themes of slavery and racial tension.  As a displaced Southern aristocrat Poe resembles Cole, an ex-patriot Briton who struggled with class identification.  Burns compares the lifestyle similarities of Poe and Blythe, both spiraling downward and out-of-control drunkards.  Finally, like Ryder Poe addressed the gothic existence in modern subjectivity such as the tortured mind and guilty conscience.[7]  Aside from literary comparisons, Burns also draws parallels between the paintings and other popular imagery of the time.  She often uses political cartoons to demonstrate the pervasiveness of gothic themes in nineteenth-century society.  Burns gathers works of other period artists to suggest the proliferation and influence of certain ideas and to utilize as tools of comparison and contrast to those paintings in her case studies.   Other forms of evidence Burns uses are letters, diaries, and poems of the artists themselves or of contemporaries.  These private sources reveal how the collective fears of the day were felt on a more personal level and thus, able to directly influence the artists’ paintings. 
            Using her hybrid methodological approach, Burns first analyzes the gothic spaces of nature and ruins in Thomas Cole’s paintings.  She notes how “Cole’s landscapes are doubly haunted, by history and by the shadows of his own doubt and despair…Often plummeting into his own bottomless abyss, he viewed the world as desolation, as the end rather than the beginning of time.”[8]  Lake with Dead Trees (Catskill) of 1825, like many of Cole’s landscapes, is full of iconographic metaphors of death, decay and doom.  Burns suggests that Cole felt inevitable doom arising out of the construction of the American nation. The idea of democracy and progress signified decline and disaster for Cole.  Despite its idealistic principles, democracy allowed for the occurrence of murders and crimes which Cole read about daily.  Cole’s focus on the vices and danger of society fed into his fear of the ruin of Western civilization.  Also perpetuating a feeling of ruin was the financial burden created by his family which lent to his anxiety of dissolution.  The idea of dissolution is visible in Cole’s later work Italian Coast Scene with Ruined Tower of 1838 which depicts a decrepit and deeply fissured tower.  Burns suggests that the tendency of Cole’s later works toward ruinous architecture echoes his struggle with self-identification.  Cole saw himself as a gentleman and related to the mentality of his upper class patrons.  However, his financial state forced him more into the role of lowly artisan. 
            In the next section Burns studies the artist Washington Allston and his unfinished painting Belshazzar’s Feast of 1817/1843 which he worked on for most of his life.  Burns describes Allston as a former slaveholder hailing from Southern plantation wealth.  Living most of his life in the North and distancing himself from his family did not sever his mental connection to his roots, Burns theorizes.  The subject matter of Belshazzar’s Feast centers on luxury and decadence, captives in bondage, fear and guilt, warnings of doom, slaughter and pillage; all of which are issues paralleled in the slavery driven Southern economy of the nineteenth-century.  Burns suggests that Allston carried guilt and shame because of his association with his Southern past.  These feelings manifested in a repressed fear that his abolition-supporting friends would uncover his embarrassing past.  She also believes that Allston felt guilty for his inability to complete Belshazzar’s Feast despite years of financial contributions from patrons.  Burns alludes to the self-defeating nature of Allston’s guilt when she proposes that its burden inhibited him from completing his masterpiece. 
            The third and final section of Burn’s book centers on the gothic tendencies in relation to personal pathologies of the remaining artists.  In Elihu Vedder’s The Lair of the Sea Serpent of 1864 Burns traces a sublimation of a fear of female power.  “Vedder’s pictorial discourse of female monstrosity collected strands of social unease and interlaces them with his own.”[9]  Not only were the destabilization of power and thus the marginalization of men societal anxieties of the day but also the cause of personal resentment and hostility for Vedder.  Burns also turns to Vedder’s The Death of Medusa of 1875 as the iconographic result of the terror this power struggle instigated.  Both paintings invoke the dangerous and transgressive power thought to be possessed by women who disrupted the male sphere and authority.  To Vedder the feminine evoked feelings of danger, chaos, doubt, and death both on a personal level and cultural.  Vedder’s mystical and gothic themes allowed him to escape naturalism and its association with the feminine; his veils of fantasy successfully hiding his anxiety. 
            Painting the Dark Side accomplishes its attempt to illustrate how the gothic allowed certain nineteenth-century artists to deal with darker social and private forces.  Nonetheless, in trying to decode each painting’s hidden messages, Burns contradicts herself by acknowledging the enigmatic properties of each painting.  The struggle to prove images’ meanings while at the same time recognizing the limitation of such an approach demonstrate the drawbacks of using an iconographic method of analysis. 
            However, Burns does not solely rely on the iconography of the paintings.  She combines this with the artists’ biographies and the overarching social history of the time period.  Burns recognizes that these approaches are not without flaws and lays out their limitations in her introduction.  She realizes that biography provides unreliable evidence as the various retellings of a story can distort the truth.  Therefore, often times she must speculate the veritable elements of an account.  Burns does not intend to forgo a biographical route altogether even though she understands the problems of the method.  She calls attention to the recent trend in the art history discipline of using social history to uncover art’s meaning.   Of the social historical approach Burns states that “taken to an extreme…it can reduce art to the function of a machine for meaning, predictably decodable (or predictably ambiguous).”[10]  So although Burns identifies the limitations of both a biographical and social historical approach to art analysis, she uses to her advantage elements of both in Painting the Dark Side. 
            It is interesting to note here that Burns also employs another method of analysis although she does not comment on her usage of it in her narrative.  As she examines some of the evidence in her case studies her prose occasionally tends toward psychoanalytic undertones.  For example, she discusses the significance of a feminine or mother figure in both Vedder and Eakins’ psyches and respective works.  However, Burns never fully utilizes psychoanalytic terminology or addresses Freud himself, for that matter, but she invokes the method’s properties, nonetheless.  The fact that the thoughts and behaviors possessed by the artists, as well as the nineteenth-century population at large, warranted the development of psychoanalysis lends to the efficiency of using this method in nineteenth-century art analysis and thus, the necessity of its presence in this book.  Perhaps the need to point out the usage of this method is unnecessary as its elements of analysis are so ingrained in the dialect of modern art historians.  Regardless of her acknowledgment or lack thereof of methods at work, this fusion of methodology allows Burns to accomplish that which she has set out to in a pleasurable and entertaining read. 
            For the larger art history discipline, Burns’ achievement of a successful hybrid approach serves as an exemplary model.  A field abundant with methods and discourses discrediting these methods, the ever-evolving art history discipline can be confusing and seemingly at a standstill.  Despite the recent trend of art historians to use only a social history approach, Burns claims that she was again and again drawn to the private lives of the artists of her case studies.  Rather than ascribing to a singular model, Burns proves that the best methods are those determined by the art works themselves.       


[1] Sarah Burns, Painting the Dark Side: Art and the Gothic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), xix.
[2] Arnold Hauser, “The Philosophy of Art History,” in Art History and Its Methods: A Critical Anthology, ed. Eric Fernie (New York: Phaidon Press Inc., 1995), 201.
[3] Burns, Painting the Dark Side, 129.
[4] Ibid., xx.
[5] Burns, Painting the Dark Side, xx.
[6] Ibid., xxii.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., 18.
[9] Ibid., 185.
[10] Ibid., xxiii.

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