The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875 / Man Made: Thomas Eakins and the Construction of Gilded-Age Manhood / Winslow Homer: The Nature of Observation / the Body of Raphaelle Peale: Still Life and Selfhood, 1812-1824

By Rosenberg, Eric | The Art Bulletin, September 2003 | Go to article overview

The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875 / Man Made: Thomas Eakins and the Construction of Gilded-Age Manhood / Winslow Homer: The Nature of Observation / the Body of Raphaelle Peale: Still Life and Selfhood, 1812-1824


Rosenberg, Eric, The Art Bulletin


REBECCA BEDELL The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875 Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. 192 pp.; 26 color ills., 55 b/w. $45.00; $35.00 paper

MARTIN A. BERGER Man Made: Thomas Eakins and the Construction of Gilded-Age Manhood Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. 181 pp.; 8 color ills., 43 b/w. $50.00; $19.95 paper

ELIZABETH JOHNS Winslow Homer: The Nature of Observation Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. 256 pp.; 40 color ills., 77 b/w. $44.95

ALEXANDER NEMEROV The Body of Raphaelle Peale: Still Life and Selfhood, 1812-1824 Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. 260 pp.; 19 color ills., 75 b/w. $45.00

Writing histories of 19th-century American painting demands the mobilization of Herculean energies to withstand the temptation to cast one's interpretative apparatus in the mold of the ideological imperatives of the moment of scrutiny. It is one thing to produce thick histories, it is another to allow history to separate, like oil from water, as critical distance affords the possibility of distinction between the moment of writing and the moment imagined as being written. History may be, as Alexander Nemerov claims for Raphaelle Peale's still lifes, what's hidden, only possible if we recognize something as always hidden. The concept of the hidden, however, doesn't bear up terribly well under the strain of contemporary historical explication. Or, if the hidden offers itself so readily to recognition and attendant interpretation, we might ask whether the hidden was ever really that. Is the hidden, in other words, ever more than what the other brings to the conversation, that space from which the generative derives its impetus?

To this end the texts in question here all provide fascinating accounts of an array of scholarly concerns central to our ongoing understanding of the motivations and practices of 19th-century American painting. Nemerov's book takes up very close readings of a semiotics of composition and subject found active in Raphaelle Peale's extraordinarily pregnant and at times just plain strange-seeming still lifes and their situation in early-19th-century Philadelphia society and culture. Rebecca Bedell embraces an entwining discourse of nature and geology, classic in its formation of nature as culture, in mid-19th-century American visual, literary, and scientific culture as the mobilizing cultural occasion for a dominant ideology of American landscape painting that situates the natural as dramatis personae in representation. Martin Berger's Thomas Eakins situates and questions the place of the natural in the body and its gendered signs of identity construction through a series of readings and tweakings of heightened masculinist moments in the painter's practice. Finally, Elizabeth Johns produces a monographic Winslow Homer faithful to particular modern theories of life-cycle developments and their attendant implications for what an artist might imply as to the meaning of his or her work at different moments of a career. Johns's "Homer" and Johns's Homers are as motivated by biographical frameworks as any models that might order interpretation around the putative intentions or contradictions of the work itself.

The authors share a virtually teleological predilection for stories that telegraph their endings, conclusions, assumptions, in truisms of the hermeneutic turn. To this end, it would seem that the necessity of such writing is to determine a philosophical vantage point from which to understand and make whole the project of history. For Nemerov this means revealing to the reader what is hidden in Peale's paintings; for Johns this means restoring a sense of wholeness, unity, and purpose to Winslow Homer's life cycle; for Berger the implication is that a description of gendered-or, more particularly, masculine-relations, always completed in their exposition as such, will secure Eakins's status as a male; and, finally, for Bedell this means a choreographed set of turns between nature and art that describe a tautology of representational concerns standing for landscape.

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The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875 / Man Made: Thomas Eakins and the Construction of Gilded-Age Manhood / Winslow Homer: The Nature of Observation / the Body of Raphaelle Peale: Still Life and Selfhood, 1812-1824
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