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A Singular Cloud: Race, Natural Science, and the Origins of Art History in the United States, 1845-1875
1st place winner of the Friends of Fondren Library Graduate Research Awards, 2014.
The abolition of slavery in the United States incited a social rupture that spread even to the halls of Harvard University. In defense of liberal ethics of equality and freedom, the study of art, previously the domain of private tutors to the elite, was made an official course of study available to the public through lectures and publications. Despite rhetoric on democratization, the first art historian at Harvard, and in the US, Charles Eliot Norton, adopted the methods and findings of scientific racism. Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz’s claim that races constituted separate species was used by Norton to reify the subject position of his white students as authoritative agents of “civilization” and custodians of the only “human” culture— namely the arts of Western Europe. This microhistory of an aesthetics that simultaneously claimed scientific objectivity and reinforced racist epistemology has yet to be acknowledged in the historiography of art history, although the resulting formalist pedagogy has a lasting legacy at Harvard. In addition to taking a critical stance on art historical methodologies, my research uncovers the formative influence of Agassiz’s expedition to Brazil on pedagogy in the US. Agassiz went to Rio de Janeiro during the US Civil War and his observation of “miscegenation” there was crucial to his theory of polygenesis. Agassiz’s attempted negation of Brazilian hybridity produced a formalist way of looking that was then applied to biology, art, and society in the US. The broader implication of my project is that, contrary to a center-periphery model of modernization, this modern aesthetic was not simply formulated in Cambridge and exported to Brazil, but rather the aesthetic crystallized around a social changes on an international scale— namely abolitionism.