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Art Follows Empire: new scholarship in Early American art history

Wendy Bellion, Dana E. Byrd, Ethan W. Lasser, Louis P. Nelson et Amy Torbert
Traduction(s) :
« Art Follows Empire » : un état des lieux des connaissances sur l’histoire de l’art américain à ses débuts

Texte intégral

Wendy Bellion │ Introduction

  • 1 The imperial expansion of Great Britain into India and the Pacific during the long eighteenth centu (...)

1The following essays presented in this collaborative study of early American art developed from a session at the conference, “London and the Americas, 1492-1812,” organized by the Society of Early Americanists (SEA) at Kingston University, United Kingdom, in July 2014. For a roundtable entitled “Art Follows Empire,” I invited participants to discuss an object of their choice. The caveat: speakers had to identify a single object that epitomized or problematized the nature of cultural relations between London and its American colonies. The challenge, in short, was to explore how things informed experiences of place – and vice versa – within the Atlantic geographies of the emerging British empire.1

2The very fact that such expansive queries can now be posed to scholars trained in the discipline of art history is instructive. For one, these questions implicitly acknowledge the sheer volume and variety of material things that constituted the colonial world. Over the past several decades, scholars have detailed the ways in which objects produced across the globe shaped the lives of people around the Atlantic littoral. Copper, clothing, glass, and hides traded hands between Native Americans and European settlers. Ships transported sugar, timber, and tobacco to Britain and returned across the Atlantic with cargos of enslaved Africans. Tables carved from Caribbean mahogany displayed porcelain from Canton hongs, ceramics from Staffordshire factories, and silver extracted from South American mines. Prints and maps crowded the windows of urban booksellers. Portraits ornamented the walls of elite dwellings.

  • 2 Jules Prown, “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” in Winterthur (...)

3This material diversity illuminates another point about the state of colonial art scholarship. Art historians are ordinarily trained to analyze a fairly limited range of representational media: namely, paintings, sculpture, architecture, and works on paper, objects that are highly valued for their aesthetic, expressive, and rarified qualities. But studies in American art, especially art of the long eighteenth century, have grown well beyond the traditional boundaries of the fine arts to tackle the interpretive and historical challenges of things once dismissed as merely decorative, vernacular, or ephemeral; things, in other words, usually associated with material culture studies. Jules Prown encouraged the field to move in this direction over thirty years ago, and although some scholars have critiqued the discipline as slow to meet this challenge, historians of early American art have increasingly brought their skills of formal analysis and critical methodologies to bear upon a range of non-canonical objects.2

  • 3 W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago, 2005, p. 145 and (...)
  • 4 Julie Flavell, When London Was Capital of America, New Haven/London, 2013.

4This material turn, to invoke a phrase currently threading through humanities discourses, is evident in the objects that participants presented at the SEA roundtable. Ethan Lasser discussed an orrery crafted by the Boston inventor Joseph Pope in the decade immediately following independence from Britain. Amy Torbert presented a mezzotint that pictured a standoff between a barber and a British officer in New York. Dana E. Byrd focused upon a tobacco box owned by a Virginia planter and etched with images of smokers, black laborers, and allegorical figures. Louis P. Nelson analyzed a pair of “Blackamoor” figures in an English country house that, unusually, represented the figures as enslaved. In various ways, these objects manifested the circulation of things and ideas throughout the Atlantic world, evoking how art follows empire, as Sir Joshua Reynolds suggested near the close of the eighteenth century.3 Each one connected people, actually or imaginatively, in distant corners of the colonies to the metropole of London, the capital city of British America.4

5The material heterogeneity of these objects is also important to note, for even as they linked London and the Americas, they concurrently registered cultural differences between colonial places. In post-revolutionary Boston, as Lasser explains, Pope emulated British models in crafting his orrery – distinguishing his work from a scientist in Philadelphia who devised an altogether original design. Torbert observes that the mezzotint registers the particulars of revolutionary activity in New York through the careful inscription of personal names – thereby suggesting how publishers on London’s Fleet Street mapped the political conflict on New York’s Barclay Street. Byrd notes that the two sides of the tobacco box balance representations of the Old and the New Worlds: one side assembles laborers into a scene of tobacco production, while the other gathers Europeans in a scene of tobacco consumption. Nelson argues that the pair of Blackamoor figures signal the colonial reach of their collector, William Blathwayt – a government official who, from his London office and Gloucestershire estate, supervised British expansion into the West Indies and the slave labor upon which the plantation economy depended.

  • 5 See Jill H. Casid, Sowing Empire: Landscape and Colonization, Minneapolis/London, 2005; Susan Scott (...)
  • 6 For example, Elisa Tamarkin, Anglophilia: Deference, Devotion, and Antebellum America, Chicago, 200 (...)
  • 7 On this point, see Michael Gaudio, Engraving the Savage: The New World and Techniques of Inscriptio (...)
  • 8 Related studies include Martin Berger, Sight Unseen: Whiteness and American Visual Culture, Berkele (...)

6By exploring how objects mediate relations from place to place within the British empire, these authors engage pressing issues and new directions in cultural studies. In addressing matters of collecting, display, circulation, and epistemology, Lasser and Nelson engage scholarship on the formation of scientific knowledge in the colonial world, including recent work on natural history and cartography.5 Lasser and Torbert complicate assumptions about the emergence of an American national identity by drawing out the British character of objects made during and after the American Revolutionary period; in so doing, they join historians and literary scholars who have underscored the lingering Englishness of early American culture.6 Torbert and Byrd tease meanings out of the material surfaces of paper and silver, thereby locating mezzotints and tobacco boxes within critical discourses of materiality and the senses.7 Byrd and Nelson deploy critical race studies – an approach that is productively reshaping much of American art history – to understand how objects actively reified racial ideologies within the slave societies of the Greater Caribbean and Britain.8

7Collectively, these authors represent key directions in early American art history. In asking how objects organized scientific knowledge, registered political contestation, and signified racial hegemonies, they reveal material entanglements between colonial entrepôts and expand the study of American art history beyond the fine arts.

Ethan W. Lasser │ Boston, an orrery

  • 9 David P. Wheatland, The Apparatus of Science at Harvard, Cambridge (MA), 1968, p. 57-59.

8In 1788, the Boston clockmaker and inventor Joseph Pope finally completed the orrery that he had begun working on some twelve years before, in 1776. Pope’s model, which demonstrates the relative motion of five planets around the sun, is crafted of gilded and silvered brass, glass, and mahogany.9 Measuring more than six feet across and loaded with ornament, it is both larger and more elaborately decorated than most British and Continental examples of the form. Comprised of glass panels decorated with signs of the zodiac and cast bronze figures of Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin (with lightning bolt in hand), and James Bowdoin (the governor of Massachusetts and a staunch supporter of science), the lower skirt competes with the upper planetary section of the model for the viewer’s attention. In this way, the orrery juxtaposes the heavenly sphere against the earthly one. It also roots knowledge about the planets and their orbits in the transatlantic theorists (Newton and Franklin) and supporters of science (Bowdoin) who produced this knowledge.

  • 10 Harvard College Book 8 (1778-1803), p. 276; Wheatland, 1968, cited n. 9, p. 58.

9As the first orrery produced in Boston, and the third such model produced in North America, Pope’s instrument garnered considerable praise and attention during the late eighteenth century. Bostonians extolled the “noble and useful machine” and described the orrery as “a valuable piece of mechanism” that brought “honor to the artist and to the country to which he belongs.”10 Soon after it was finished, the orrery was acquired by Harvard College and immediately dispatched to the Philosophy Chamber, which served as an elegant meeting space, as a lecture hall for the teaching of astronomy and natural philosophy, and as a treasury room where the College presented its greatest trophies. The orrery was the only scientific instrument in Harvard’s 148-piece collection that was permanently displayed in this space. The college owned two other orreries, of British manufacture; yet while these instruments were locked away in the “Apparatus Closet,” Pope’s orrery was prominently installed amongst other impressive works, including full-length portraits by John Singleton Copley, engravings of important Revolutionary war battles, and a 500-piece mineral collection donated by a group of graduates on the Grand Tour. In 2017, an exhibition at the Harvard Art Museums will bring these collections together for the first time since they were dispersed in the 1820s.

  • 11 I. Bernard Cohen, Some Early Tools of American Science, Cambridge, 1950, p. 63-65.
  • 12 Cohen, 1950, cited n. 11, p. 64.

10From one perspective, it is not surprising that the orrery was so celebrated. Pope crafted the object during a period in which London dominated the scientific instrument trade. Indeed, of all the instruments stored in Harvard’s apparatus chamber, only four were American-made.11 Thus, the orrery indicated that there was sufficient skill and support to craft a particularly complex instrument in Boston. Indeed Pope emphasized the North American origins of the model in an inscription beneath the sun: “Joseph Pope, Fecit in Boston, State of Massachusetts.” Moreover, in the figure of Governor Bowdoin gracefully shouldering the heavens, the orrery also suggests that, in the new American republic, the state would support the production and transmission of scientific knowledge. The orrery is in fact a very real product of this support: Governor Bowdoin is said to have sent the Boston fire brigade to rescue the instrument from a fire in Pope’s workshop during the early 1780s, before it was finished. Later, once it was complete, Bowdoin authorized a public lottery to help Harvard raise money to acquire the instrument.12

11It is no coincidence, then, that history associates this object with 1776. Like Thomas Jefferson’s seminal declaration of the same year, the orrery would seem to declare a kind of independence. It points toward a new republic free from its former reliance on London instruments and British scientific knowledge.

  • 13 Quoted in Brooke Hindle, David Rittenhouse, Princeton, 1964, p. 28.
  • 14 William Huntting Howell, “A More Perfect Copy: David Rittenhouse and the Reproduction of Republican (...)

12And yet, one must be careful of pinning this object too quickly to a familiar political narrative. Compare Pope’s model to the orrery that Philadelphia scientist and inventor David Rittenhouse completed for the University of Pennsylvania in 1771. Rittenhouse, in the words of Thomas Barton, his brother-in-law and patron, set out to construct an orrery “without regard to the ignorant or prevailing taste.”13 He clearly realized this goal. Rittenhouse started from scratch: there is no prototype for his object. He oriented the instrument vertically like a clock, rather than horizontally in the British fashion, and he divided his model into three parts, each of which presented three different types of astronomical information. Not surprisingly, these changes also required an entirely reimagined gear train. If Pope’s orrery brought honor to his country, this was an object that, as Thomas Jefferson argued in his Notes on the State of Virginia, “exhibited as great a proof of mechanical genius as the world ever produced.”14

  • 15 Henry C. King, Geared to the Stars: the Evolution of Planetariums, Orreries and Astronomical Clocks(...)

13The Rittenhouse orrery thus throws the inherently London character of Pope’s instrument into relief. If Rittenhouse innovated, Pope emulated. For all the Americanness of those cast bronze figures and the uniqueness of Pope’s expanded scale, his was a very British instrument. Historians of science have shown that Pope worked from diagrams and plans in British publications and relied on British brass for his gears; and of course, he presented astronomical information drawn from British sources.15 What was acclaimed and celebrated in Boston, then – what was proudly “fecit in Boston” and singled out from Harvard’s other instruments – was, in the end, an object that was closely tied to, and in many ways dependent on, resources from London.

14This is not the first interpretation to conclude that the Revolution did not lead to a clean break between Boston and London. Many scholars have shown that artistic, familial, and commercial ties, among others, continued to endure. But what is notable about the orrery is its reception. The object invites us to grapple not only with the fact that objects modeled on British sources continued to be made in post-revolutionary Boston, but with the fact that these objects and the artisanal skill behind them – skill grounded, notably, in the ability to reproduce rather than to invent – attracted admiration and attention.

Amy Torbert │ New York City, a mezzotint

15In 1775, publishers Robert Sayer and John Bennett issued five mezzotints portraying American acts of resistance to the Boston Port Bill. In the midst of debates over the colonies’ possible separation from the British Empire, this series of prints offered plausible evidence in answer to a question facing viewers on the brink of civil war: namely, what did it mean to be an American? The prints reckoned with this evolving question, registering the opinions of parties on both sides of the Atlantic conflict. In so doing, they also epitomized a visual culture of dissolution. In their geographic and material histories, the prints offer a way to see afresh the peculiarity of the American conflict in the British imagination.

  • 16 “A Card,” Lloyd’s Evening Post, January 2-4, 1775, p. 15.

16In January 1775, London newspapers carried a report of a New York City barber who threw an English naval officer out of his shop upon discovering his client’s true identity.16 Sayer and Bennett quickly issued a print about the event to display in the window of their London shop, intending to sell it in English provincial towns as well as American cities. In The Patriotick Barber of New York, or the Captain in the Suds, the barber Jacob Vredenburgh refuses to finish shaving the face of Captain John Crozier after several men (at left) reveal the officer’s title. Typical accessories of the trade – wig stands, boxes, and an assistant hairdresser – clutter the interior, while broadsheets supporting the patriots’ cause hang beside portraits of equally supportive politicians.

  • 17 Don Herzog, Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders, Princeton, 1998, p. 489-504.

17Who, and what, provided the sources for the design and composition of this print? The newspaper article offered the particulars of the event, while the designer’s imagination filled in the setting, drawing upon the trope of the “political barber,” a stock character of satirical prints whose inflated self-importance and garrulous nature were at odds with his social position.17 But the source for the surfeit of text remains a mystery. Although the print’s designer and engraver have not been definitively identified, someone with firsthand knowledge of New York geography and politics must have been involved in the print’s creation. Names of leading members of New York’s Sons of Liberty appear emblazoned on the wig boxes together with names, notably, of those whose contributions were not recognized outside of New York until well after 1776. The address – Barclay Street – that appears above the shop entrance is just as significant. Barclay Street was located just off the New York Common, adjacent to the meeting places of the Sons of Liberty between 1770 and 1776, and within sight of their Liberty Pole. By including these details, the print provides a rare historical document of specific contact between London print makers and those with intimate knowledge of New York City.

18It is tempting to interpret The Patriotick Barber as portraying a highly informed but solidly anti-American perspective. But to do so would oversimplify the many contradictions raised by the Americans’ rebellious acts. The stanzas accompanying the print simultaneously celebrate the barber’s defiant action and satirize it in mock heroic verse. On the one hand, the corresponding newspaper source humorously imagines that all patriotic American barbers will follow Vredenburgh’s lead, so that all loyal British subjects in America will be forced to wear “beards as long as King Nebuchadnezzar’s.” On the other, real danger lurks here. The couplets state that British soldiers could be sent out into the world as half-shaved “objects of ridicule,” and Vredenburgh himself cuts an aggressive figure as he points his knife at Crozier while the shaving basin clatters to the ground, shattering into pieces.

19Such threats of violence, strength, and unity are mixed into all five prints of Sayer and Bennett’s series. At the same time, they feature cues that allow the viewer to respond with laughter or derision, thereby undermining their potency. While the project of American independence rapidly became no laughing matter, Sayer and Bennett purposefully employed the language of caricature to construct a series of prints with contradictory messages in order to attract consumers on both sides of the conflict.

20While viewers decoded the prints’ subject matter, the material realities of the mezzotints also conveyed the mounting dissolution of the connections between London and its American colonies. In the 1770s, the verb used to describe the breaking apart of two political entities was “to dissolve.” We can draw an analogy here to the fragile surfaces of the mezzotints’ printing plates, which – although not intended for longevity – remained in use for a decade due to the high demand in both England and America. Mezzotints use variations of texture to model forms, unlike the lines, dashes, and dots employed by engravings and etchings. However, their copper plates exist in a continual state of flux: as they are repeatedly pulled through the printing press, their textures gradually abrade and lose their ability to hold ink. While an engraver can attempt to salvage the design through retouching, ultimately all fine details will dissolve into a faint, irretrievable ghostliness.

21As pressure mounted during the early years of the 1780s, the human figures in this series of prints came to represent an ongoing threat of loss and displacement for both their publishers and their viewers. The Patriotick Barber of New York therefore offers both material evidence of the pressures experienced by print publishers in running a profitable business and a visual record of the tensions inherent in portraying imperial fragmentation and American unification through English eyes.

Dana E. Byrd │ London and Virginia, a tobacco box

22In twenty-first century America, medical, social, and legal reasons have made tobacco consumption distasteful to many. In contrast, tobacco in the eighteenth century was a source of profit, misery, and pleasure for the people of the Atlantic World. A small tobacco box, crafted in London and used in Virginia, opens up questions about the relationship of race and tobacco in the Atlantic World that are oceanic in significance.

  • 18 Marcy Norton, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic W (...)
  • 19 Daniëlle O. Kisluk-Grosheide, “Dutch Tobacco Boxes in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue,” (...)

23Introduced to Europe by sailors who had become familiar with tobacco through contact with American Indians, smoking began in earnest around 1560.18 Soldiers, sailors, and traveling merchants rapidly spread its use, and new objects such as pipes, cases, and boxes emerged to support the weed’s ritualized consumption.19 Form followed function: the earliest containers were small (reflecting the high cost of tobacco), and egg-shaped or oval. Most were produced in number, rather than being specifically ordered, and many bore illustrations that seem intended to appeal to smokers with particular interests, religious beliefs, or professions. Tobacco boxes are therefore an intriguing source of information about how the “demon weed” was perceived and used by the society that produced them.

24The ornamentation on the Winterthur box underscores this social use and gives it a nationalized cast. It depicts three men in conversation: a Frenchman, a Dutchman, and an Englishman. The Frenchman approaches the pair with one hand extended and asks, “Voule[z] vous de rappe?” The term rappe, meaning snuff, harkens back to the early seventeenth century; snuff-takers rasped (or grated) their own carotte (plug) of tobacco to produce a coarse powder for inhaling. The two men decline his offer. The Dutchman, pipe in hand, replies, “No dis [this] been better,” while the English speaker, either a colonist or Englishman, asks, “will you have a quid?” A quid is a plug of chewing tobacco, which this man appears to keep in a box. The scene is capped with the phrase: “Thes [these] three united in the Same Cause/This snuffs that Smoaks [smokes] the other chaws [chews].”

  • 20 Jordan Goodman, Tobacco in History: The Cultures of Dependence, London, 1994, p. 121.

25Remarkably, this dialogue not only illustrates tobacco’s consumption in the global market. It also captures national preferences for tobacco use: inhaling, smoking, or chewing.20 Tobacco, produced in the New World, has been packaged into different forms that the Old World delighted in consuming.

  • 21 E. McClung Fleming, “The American Image as Indian Princess 1765-1783,” in Winterthur Portfolio, 2, (...)

26An engraved scene on the verso similarly reveals the role of tobacco in the global market while referring to its production in the colonies. The name, Corn Willson, likely that of the owner, and the date – 1772, marking the purchase date – are engraved beneath the scene. The scene depicts a man seated on a chair, leisurely smoking a pipe, while two laborers in the background, their heads covered with bandanas, fill and seal hogsheads of tobacco. In the foreground, an oversized Native American, identifiable by a headdress, seems to emerge from a barrel with a bunch of tobacco leaves. She is tended to by smaller figures, one ornamented with a headdress, the other bare-headed.21 Together, these laboring figures signal the relationship between product (tobacco), origins (Native America), and means of production (slave labor).

27Despite the fact that the two sides are united structurally as glinting halves of the same box, the quality of the engraving varies on each side. On the recto, the vignette of male figures is created with fine, delicate lines, while the verso is etched in thicker, more expressive lines that rely on a great deal of cross-hatching to create the illusion of depth. This difference in graphic appearance suggests that a single hand created the engraving, using two different sources.

  • 22 Catherine Molineux, Faces of Perfect Ebony: Encountering Atlantic Slavery in Imperial Britain, Camb (...)

28The most likely source of the engraving is an English advertisement for tobacco. These lowbrow advertisements, which were found on tobacco papers and wrappers and featured at tobacconist shops, provided a means for imagining the role of Africans in the New World during the two hundred years in which the British shipped over three million of them to the New World. Popular images idealized black servitude and obscured the brutalities of slavery. They also symbolized empire to a general public that had little contact with the realities of slave life in the distant Americas and Caribbean.22 The popular interpretation of tobacco production and consumption has been transmuted into the box’s engraving, and enriches our understanding of how Britons imagined their burgeoning empire.

29On either side of the Atlantic, anyone that imbibed from the box was treated to a multi-sensory experience: the shininess would attract the eyes; the surface engaged touch; and the tobacco within aroused smell and taste. The deployment of the box also constituted a social engagement. In London, where one’s station was contingent on birth, and one’s aspirations to a higher station were built on participation in global markets and knowledge of cultural customs, the box – with its references to European metropoles – signified circum-Atlantic commerce. In Tidewater Virginia, where scholars have noted that one’s social status was subject to much more mobility, the box may have been read differently. The attendent “tobacco mentality” of planters such as Corn Willson suggests that the box would have been received as a signal that its bearer was not simply wealthy, but had the ability to cultivate high quality tobacco. This ability to produce or, more accurately, to supervise those that labored to produce, improved one’s public reputation and the feeling of self-worth. Following the contraction of tobacco markets between 1750 and 1770, the flaunting of the tobacco box would have signaled its owner’s improving status in society, while communicating his financial independence and social prestige.

30In sum, this box was a product of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. It was marked by representations of African laborers to suggest tobacco’s origins and Native American figures to signal quality, it was manufactured in London for use in the Americas, and it was celebrated as a carrier of culture. The study of material things forcibly illuminates tobacco’s role in engendering new forms of sociability and new spaces of consumption in England during the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries.

Louis P. Nelson │ England, a blackamoor figure

  • 23 Molineux, 2012, cited n. 22.

31In 1692, William Blathwayt undertook the construction of an elegant new wing across the garden front of his country house in Gloucestershire, not far from the resort town of Bath. The centrally positioned chamber of the upper floor served as a private sitting room and likely an office for the execution of official correspondence. Positioned along the rear wall of that chamber kneel two so-called “Blackamoor” figures, appearing just as they have since they were recorded in an inventory of this same chamber in 1703. Like similar figures from this period, these two examples wear red tunics, suggesting their identity as “moors,” a stereotype for an African Muslim that would have been familiar not just in early modern England but across Europe and the Mediterranean. Yet these examples are enslaved, their bondage made explicit by their shackles and neckbands, adding a layer of meaning to this stereotype in the context of seventeenth-century England. The Blackamoor as a type in England was associated not only with North African “moors,” but also with enslaved West Africans. In this way, these objects point to an alternative historically situated imagination. 23

  • 24 Gertrude Jacobsen, William Blathwayt: A Late 17th Century English Administrator, New Haven, 1932.

32Of undistinguished heritage, William Blathwayt made his career as a civil servant deeply involved in the administration of Britain’s plantations.24 After his education and a brief stint as an English emissary to The Hague, Blathwayt began a long career as an administrator over Britain’s colonies. By 1685 he was serving as Secretary of the Committee on Trade and Foreign Plantations, a powerful post that effectively positioned him as the leading English official involved in colonial administration. In this post, one of Blathwayt’s primary and more lucrative activities was the promotion of the then-fledgling African slave trade.

  • 25 The Age of the Marvelous, Joy Kenseth ed., (exh. cat., Hanover, Hood Museum of Art, 1991), Hanover, (...)
  • 26 Richard Dunn, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713(...)
  • 27 Mary Woods, Arete Swartz Warren, Glass Houses: A History of Greenhouses, Orangeries and Conservator (...)

33In his reconstruction of the house at Dyrham Park, Blathwayt signaled his participation in the global project of empire through his collecting practices.25 In the new wing, he installed two very grand staircases. The first was made of Virginia walnut, the second of American cedar. While grand staircases such as these had been incorporated into British country houses for decades, those in Dyrham Park are among the earliest to intentionally utilize exotic colonial American woods. Soon after the completion of these wings, Blathwayt began the construction of a private greenhouse. In winter, the building was replete with orange trees, lemon trees, and myrtles. Blathwayt’s appetite for exotic fruits had likely been piqued by his regular receipt of oranges, casks of preserved ginger, and even pickled peppers from West Indians hoping to curry his favor.26 In the summer, when many of the heartiest plants were moved into the gardens, the greenhouse retained “two or three rows of Oranges &, the Length of the House, which make the most beautiful and fragrant Walks within Doors; and the whole house is whitewash’d, and hung round with the most entertaining Maps, Sculptures, & And furnished with fine Chairs of Cane for the Summer.”27 The maps noted by this visitor were part of an extensive collection that included numerous maps of Africa and the Caribbean (now part of the Blathwayt Collection at the John Carter Brown Library). While imperial power is commonly read through military fortifications or other manifestations of royal authority, in the combination of a Virginia walnut staircase, enslaved Blackamoor figures, citrus trees, and maps of the expanding empire – a colonial Wunderkammer – we find an alternative, more privatized investment in the project of empire.

  • 28 Susan Dwyer Amussen, Caribbean Exchanges: Slavery and the Transformation of English Society, 1640-1 (...)
  • 29 Molineux, 2012, cited n. 22.

34The collection of Africans as objects appeared first among European, and then English, royalty. Charles II, one of the largest investors in the Royal African Company, played a critical role in establishing the fashion for black slaves as personal accessories. Not surprisingly, African slaves appeared as anonymous servants earliest in portraits of British royalty and military leaders, linking the representation of anonymous Africans to the Empire in the British visual imagination.28 Blathwayt’s half-scale Blackamoors stand – or, more precisely, kneel – at an extraordinary threshold: one where the press of imperial consumption passed through the ownership of real persons as exotic personal servants, to the anonymous representations of real persons as attributes in portraits, to the generic sculptural representation of anonymous persons as domestic ornaments. The imperial project commodified the black body, and as consuming patterns evolved, the black body shifted from real, to represented, to mass-produced. By the early eighteenth century, the hunger for such fashion triggered the production of a wide range of collectible black bodies, from ceramic figures of African servants for the chimney piece to Blackamoor heads on dinner plates and cutlery, revealing, as Catherine Molineux has argued, “the deepening association of black servants with trade goods and domestic prosperity.”29

  • 30 James Walvin, Making the Black Atlantic: Britain and the African Diaspora, London, 2000.

35Not surprisingly, the increasing presence of collectible Africans as objects in houses mirrored the swelling numbers of actual black persons in Britain. By 1770, the capital city of London had a black population of 5000.30 And newspapers in Bristol, Liverpool, and in other port cities regularly printed advertisements for the sale of slaves or requested the recovery of a runaway. Such notices closely linked the public spaces of Britain with those of the British Caribbean, at least until the Somerset Act of 1772, which hindered legal slavery in England and raised the specter of moral shame associated with the trade, even as the wealth of the empire depended on it. By the end of the century, the moral critique of slavery launched by abolitionists diminished the popularity of black bodies in British elite portraiture.

36Within this context, the visual similarities between the kneeling Blackamoor and Josiah Wedgwood’s famous image “Am I Not a Man and Brother?” do not seem accidental. Wedgwood, and others working to end the African slave trade, would surely have known kneeling figures like those in Dyrham Park. As with Blathwayt’s Blackamoors, the Wedgwood image objectifies the black body and capitalizes on the hunger for material consumption. Yet at the same time, it endows the African figure with a sense of human dignity that confronts Britain’s unfettered imperial manifesto. In one of the most sophisticated visual resurrections of British popular imagery, Wedgwood took the dead wood of the kneeling Blackamoor and made him man.

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Notes

1 The imperial expansion of Great Britain into India and the Pacific during the long eighteenth century invites a dialogue about the entanglements of global colonial material cultures that, while beyond the scope of this short essay, merits further study. For an example of related scholarship, see Martin Jay, Sumathi Ramaswamy eds., Empires of Vision: A Reader, Durham, 2014.

2 Jules Prown, “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” in Winterthur Portfolio, 17/1, Spring 1982, p. 1-19; Michael Yonan, “Toward a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies,” in West 86th, 18/2, Fall 2011.

3 W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago, 2005, p. 145 and 168.

4 Julie Flavell, When London Was Capital of America, New Haven/London, 2013.

5 See Jill H. Casid, Sowing Empire: Landscape and Colonization, Minneapolis/London, 2005; Susan Scott Parrish, American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World, Chapel Hill, 2006.

6 For example, Elisa Tamarkin, Anglophilia: Deference, Devotion, and Antebellum America, Chicago, 2008; Kariann Yokota, Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became a Postcolonial Nation, Oxford, 2011.

7 On this point, see Michael Gaudio, Engraving the Savage: The New World and Techniques of Inscription, Minneapolis/London, 2008; Michael Ann Holly, “Notes from the Field: Materiality,” in The Art Bulletin, 95/1, March 2013, p. 15-17.

8 Related studies include Martin Berger, Sight Unseen: Whiteness and American Visual Culture, Berkeley, 2005; Kay Dian Kriz, Slavery, Sugar, and the Culture of Refinement: Picturing the British West Indies, 1700-1840, New Haven, 2008; Maurie McInnis, Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade, Chicago, 2011.

9 David P. Wheatland, The Apparatus of Science at Harvard, Cambridge (MA), 1968, p. 57-59.

10 Harvard College Book 8 (1778-1803), p. 276; Wheatland, 1968, cited n. 9, p. 58.

11 I. Bernard Cohen, Some Early Tools of American Science, Cambridge, 1950, p. 63-65.

12 Cohen, 1950, cited n. 11, p. 64.

13 Quoted in Brooke Hindle, David Rittenhouse, Princeton, 1964, p. 28.

14 William Huntting Howell, “A More Perfect Copy: David Rittenhouse and the Reproduction of Republican Virtue,” in William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Series, 64/4, October 2007, p. 757.

15 Henry C. King, Geared to the Stars: the Evolution of Planetariums, Orreries and Astronomical Clocks, Toronto, 1978, p. 277.

16 “A Card,” Lloyd’s Evening Post, January 2-4, 1775, p. 15.

17 Don Herzog, Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders, Princeton, 1998, p. 489-504.

18 Marcy Norton, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World, Ithaca, 2008, p. 157.

19 Daniëlle O. Kisluk-Grosheide, “Dutch Tobacco Boxes in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue,” in Metropolitan Museum Journal, 23, 1988, p. 201-231, especially p. 201.

20 Jordan Goodman, Tobacco in History: The Cultures of Dependence, London, 1994, p. 121.

21 E. McClung Fleming, “The American Image as Indian Princess 1765-1783,” in Winterthur Portfolio, 2, 1965, p. 72.

22 Catherine Molineux, Faces of Perfect Ebony: Encountering Atlantic Slavery in Imperial Britain, Cambridge, 2012, p. 77.

23 Molineux, 2012, cited n. 22.

24 Gertrude Jacobsen, William Blathwayt: A Late 17th Century English Administrator, New Haven, 1932.

25 The Age of the Marvelous, Joy Kenseth ed., (exh. cat., Hanover, Hood Museum of Art, 1991), Hanover, 1991.

26 Richard Dunn, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713, Chapel Hill, 1972, reprinted 2000.

27 Mary Woods, Arete Swartz Warren, Glass Houses: A History of Greenhouses, Orangeries and Conservatories, London, 1990, p. 46.

28 Susan Dwyer Amussen, Caribbean Exchanges: Slavery and the Transformation of English Society, 1640-1700, Chapel Hill, 2007.

29 Molineux, 2012, cited n. 22.

30 James Walvin, Making the Black Atlantic: Britain and the African Diaspora, London, 2000.

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Référence électronique

Wendy Bellion, Dana E. Byrd, Ethan W. Lasser, Louis P. Nelson et Amy Torbert, « Art Follows Empire: new scholarship in Early American art history », Perspective [En ligne], 2 | 2015, mis en ligne le 07 décembre 2015, consulté le 24 avril 2017. URL : http://perspective.revues.org/6026 ; DOI : 10.4000/perspective.6026

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Auteurs

Wendy Bellion

Wendy Bellion is an Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Delaware and author of Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America (2011), which was awarded the 2014 Charles C. Eldredge Prize for outstanding scholarship by the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Dana E. Byrd

Dana E. Byrd is an Assistant Professor of Art History at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. She is currently working on a project entitled, “Reconstructions: The Material Culture of the Plantation, 1861-1877,” which examines the experience of the plantation during the Civil War through the end of Reconstruction.

Ethan W. Lasser

Ethan W. Lasser, the Margaret S. Winthrop Associate Curator of American Art at the Harvard Art Museums, is organizing a forthcoming exhibition, From the Philosophy Chamber: Harvard’s Lost Collection, 1766-1831, that explores the wide-ranging collection of portraits, prints, scientific instruments, and Native American artifacts that Harvard College amassed in the late eighteenth century.

Louis P. Nelson

Louis P. Nelson is an Associate Professor of Architectural History, the Associate Dean for Research and International Programs in the School of Architecture, and the Director of the Program in Historic Preservation at the University of Virginia. He is completing two book manuscripts based on his work in Jamaica, including a monograph entitled Architecture and Empire in Jamaica (New Haven, 2016).

Amy Torbert

Amy Torbert is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at the University of Delaware, where she specializes in British and American print culture. She is completing a dissertation entitled, “The Material and Imagined Geographies of Prints in the Atlantic World, 1770-1840.”

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