Painting the Dark Side: Art and the Gothic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century American Art

By Sperling, Joy | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), December 2004 | Go to article overview

Painting the Dark Side: Art and the Gothic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century American Art


Sperling, Joy, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Painting the Dark Side: Art and the Gothic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century American Art

Sarah Burns. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

In Painting the Dark Side, Sarah Burns argues that the canonical narrative of nineteenth-century American art describes a quest for a national visual identity, while at the same time, a number of artists unmasked a "darker side" of the narrative in which anxiety, fear, superstition, and madness ruled. This book presents a thoughtful, rigorous examination of the "dark side" in nineteenth-century American art. Burns claims that an exploration of the dark world lurking beneath the surface of nineteenth-century art actually allows us to understand the mainstream more fully. Thus, she explores the work of eight artists in biographical and historical, social, and cultural terms to reveal broader cultural anxieties about social, political, and economic instability in a rapidly changing, industrializing society. Burns traces the personal demons and artistic anxieties in the art of four artists working in antebellum America (Thomas Cole, David Gilmour Blythe, Washington Allston, and John Quidor), and of four artists active in postbellum America (William Rimmer, Elihu Vedder, Thomas Eakms, and Albert Pinkham Ryder). Each chapter is dedicated to a single artist and contains expansive but detailed explorations of how local anxieties prove symptomatic of larger societal insecurities.

The nineteenth-century society that Burns describes was one that prized enlightenment, industrialization, imperialism, hard work, self-help, science, order, and progress, and sought to establish a stable and balanced society in which everyone had a well-defined place and a clear set of proscribed and prescribed behaviors. Fissures caused by rapid industrialization, slavery, immigration, and urban poverty, however, generated fears of societal chaos and disorder. Painting the Dark Side explores how the particular fears of eight artists-plagued by self-doubt, torn between their public personae and private selves, caught between the rational and irrational world-are indicators of larger social and cultural anxieties. Burns explores how fears of Jacksonian democracy, downward social mobility, poverty and anarchy in the modern city, fear of violent slave uprisings, terrors of internecine struggle, brutal clashes among the immigrant under classes, a clamor for women's rights, and even suspect scientific practices were viewed as symptoms of a wider social malaise that, left unchecked, could lead to chaos.

In chapter one, the author analyzes Thomas Cole's rejection of his modest origins to gain entrée into the elite society of his patrons, and whose antipathy for and fear of mob rule grew as he rose in society. Burns expands this argument to show how the dominant classes increasingly portrayed the rising industrial city as physically and philosophically sullied, a diseased and depressed body politic. In chapter two, Burns argues that David Gilmour Blythe painted Pittsburgh from a "thug's eye view" to critique self-satisfied middle-class dabblers in social reform. He courted an elite market for his paintings, yet painted in a strange muddy style of "scrubby lines, sketchy faces, rubbery surfaces, [and] smeary paint" that antagonized potential patrons (68). Burns proposes that Blythe's belligerent and acerbic art, as well as his drunken cynicism, points to larger apprehensions about the volatility of immigrant populations and an antagonistic, bellicose, and often drunken underclass. Chapter three describes how Washington Allston lived a double life of a Southern slave-holder and a cosmopolitan artist embedded in a strongly abolitionist Boston society. Burns's study of Allston's individual guilt and fear as a slave owner is expanded to suggest that his fears were indicative of widespread uneasiness in white Southern antebellum society. In chapter four, John Quidor is portrayed as an artist who aspired to acceptance into the artistic mainstream by basing most of his art on the writings of Washington Irving, but who actually earned local fame and a good sum of money by painting New York city fire trucks, and who lived the rough, coarse, drunk, and disorderly life of the working classes. …

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