American Art Histories: Framing Race in Exhibitions, 1842-1876
Doctor of Philosophy
In the mid to late nineteenth century, exhibitions in the United States presented histories of art by laying out sequences of objects. Paintings, sculptures, and prints were aligned or juxtaposed with so-called artifacts and specimens as well as plaster casts of classical sculpture in order to convey a sense of progress or development across epochs and cultures. Each chapter of this dissertation focuses on a sculpture or painting on display in Washington, D.C., New York, Ann Arbor, New Haven, Boston, and Philadelphia and outlines the terms by which the artwork was interpreted in situ. Drawing on installation photographs and previously unpublished lectures, this project reveals the formative role that ideas about race played in art exhibitions open to the public at the National Institute for the Promotion of Science, the Metropolitan Fair, academic art museums, and the 1876 Centennial Exposition during the political upheaval and radical social change surrounding slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. Who should be a part of art history? How would their stories be told? i These questions were central to the organization of nineteenth-century art exhibitions and the answers formulated at that time have powerful ramifications even to this day. The notion that race could be defined by location, time, and physicality suggested that what was then known as the “fine arts” had something to contribute to a scientific study of race. Curators, artists, and scholars in the United States responded by arranging collections to make them speak to ideas of racial progress and categorization. Objects from Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe were gathered as points of comparison for modern American art and culture in displays that resulted in a contested racial politics of objects. This dissertation is the first to acknowledge public exhibitions as constitutive of early art historical discourse in the United States and racial categorization as fundamental to the institutionalization of the discipline.
EMBARGO NOTE: Submission was originally published under a 1 year embargo. The embargo has been extended until 2025-05-01.