Investigating Overlooked Art Forms

Throughout the year, Winterthur hosts a number of talented and engaged academics from museums and research institutions around the world. They apply for our research fellowships and come here to work with our extensive collections.

In 2011 we experienced a surprising moment of synchronicity. Two research fellows explored very different topics, but they came together in their mission: to reconsider 19th-century commercial art forms from the perspective of art history and social history. They worked with diverse materials but covered intersecting themes, making for an exciting time in the Research Building!

Research Fellow Anna Dempsey hard at work in the Winterthur Library.

Anna M. Dempsey is an associate professor of art history at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. She was with us from the autumn of 2010 through the winter of 2011 as a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow. The NEH has consistently supported the Research Fellowship Program by funding research stays for advanced scholars, who become great sources of inspiration and information to our master’s and Ph.D. candidates. We are very grateful for NEH support.

Anna’s project was “Working Women Artists: Images of Domesticity and the Construction of American Modernism, 1880–1930.” Anna, who has continued to work on this project since her return to Massachusetts, feels that while it is important to acknowledge women’s contributions to fine art, we should also be investigating their successful involvement in other kinds of visual production, including commercial illustration, photography, and wood engraving.

Anna examined artists such as Edna Cooke Shoemaker. Shoemaker did illustrations like this one for children's books, textbooks, and magazines. Edna Cooke Shoemaker drawings and papers, Downs Collection, Col. 827, 827.27.5.

Anna is interested in the shared visual language of fine and commercial art. By looking at a number of images, including those that feature women, children, and scenes of domesticity, she is exploring ideas conveyed by the images that relate to or even contradict the written words connected to the images. Ultimately, she wants to understand how women artists thought about, used, and shared these images to articulate and disseminate their ideas of gender. Their work and their communities, Anna argues, shaped modern visuals, which in turn shaped modern perceptions.

In the Winterthur Library, Anna accessed collections of photographs, printed ephemera, and book illustrations, excited to study the papers of women who produced or taught art. She was also happily surprised by the strength of our secondary source and rare book collections, using them to give her research a strong grounding in theory.

On February 9, Anna led a lunchtime symposium for Winterthur graduate students and other scholars. Using period representations of women, many of which were produced by women themselves, she asked us all to consider what the figures in the pictures were portraying about their identities. What were we, the viewers, led to think about them? It was a mind-opening and provocative discussion. Anna has continued to work on this project, and we look forward to hearing more from her as it develops even further.

Chris Oliver with David Roselle, the director of Winterthur.

Chris Oliver, another research fellow, brought contributions to the lunchtime discussion that illuminated his own explorations into another 19th-century art form. Agreeing with Anna, Chris argues in his work that art historical studies might have missed an important and successful art form: the panorama.

Chris is working on his Ph.D. dissertation for the McIntire Department of Art at the University of Virginia. Titled “Civic Visions: The Panorama and Popular Amusement in American Art and Society, 1845–1870,” his dissertation studies moving panoramas. Panoramas were large and extensive art works that were displayed for audiences in theatre-like settings, passing before viewers on a system of rollers. As the picture moved and the narrative developed, a speaker commented on the passing scenes, often inserting a moral or ideological point. Music sometimes completed this spectacle, and through panorama presentations, art became a part of mass culture.

This advertisement for the Hudson River Panorama was a library object that caught Chris' attention. While advertisements for panoramas were common in the 19th century, this one includes a description and even an illustration of the panorama!

Panoramas were very popular for about a quarter of a century before falling quickly out of fashion and disappearing from public and private collections. Chris’s research is reviving our knowledge of panoramas and their importance in forming public perceptions of a geographically extensive and politically contested nation. Chris found some crucial sources in the Winterthur Library, including the pamphlets that panorama viewers purchased as souvenir and guidebooks. He wrote, “Some highly useful primary sources were a host of printed pamphlets in the rare book collection. From John Banvard’s Description of Banvard’s Holy Land to E. P. Belden’s New York: Past, Present, Future (and with many sources in between) the content of these cheap publications that were distributed to arouse interest in specific amusements demonstrated an intrinsic link between tourism and contemporary entertainment.”

For the viewers, panoramas challenged and expanded some typical perceptions of their country’s landscape. For example, Chris studies the impact of anti-slavery panoramas, shown in both the U.S. and England in the 1850s. These presentations surprised viewers with their brutal honesty and cut through the stereotypical vision, accepted at the time, of slaves as contented workers stewarding fertile acreage for the sake of commercially successful agriculture. Like the panoramas themselves, Chris’s research will continue to surprise scholars and open their eyes to the potential of studying commercial art.

The Winterthur Research Fellowship is only one step of many in the fellows’ academic or museum careers, but we hope it is productive, enjoyable, and memorable. We at Winterthur are always honored and pleased to see what these scholars uncover in our collections.

Rosemary Krill works with students in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture, researchers in the Research Fellowship Program, and the staff of Winterthur’s scholarly journal Winterthur Portfolio.
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