Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 10, 2008
Kenneth Haltman Looking Close and Seeing Far: Samuel Seymour, Titian Ramsay Peale, and the Art of the Long Expedition, 1818–1823 University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008. 306 pp.; 28 color ills.; 92 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780271029825)
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In Looking Close and Seeing Far, Kenneth Haltman turns our attention to neglected areas of American cultural production with rich results. The book focuses on the art of the Long Expedition (1819–20), the first U.S. exploratory expedition to include professional artists. When Major Stephen Long’s party set off from Pittsburgh for the Rocky Mountains in April 1819 aboard a specially designed steamboat, the scientific team included two artists: Titian Ramsay Peale and Samuel Seymour. Peale, though only nineteen years old, was already an accomplished draftsman and a veteran of an earlier scientific expedition. Seymour, still such an elusive figure that even the dates of his birth and death are unknown, was a (possibly) British-born engraver and landscape painter. Between them, the two men produced over four hundred works of art. These small-scale works on paper might easily be dismissed as unexceptional examples of picturesque landscape painting and scientific specimen illustration were it not for Haltman’s patient, sensitive readings of the images that draw out their strangenesses, their discontinuities, blockages, and distancings through which, he argues, they thematize “the process of scientific exploration itself” (xvii).

The late 1810s and early 1820s emerge in Haltman’s account as a fertile period of experimentation and innovation, generating new modes of representation that often fell outside of or between traditional genre categories. Peale and Seymour took part in this innovatory work creating new hybrid genres such as ethnographic portraiture, vernacular history painting, and natural history illustrations with specimens set into representative landscapes. Fostering their inventive pictorial strategies was the artists’ work at the intersection of art and science at a time when both disciplines were newly professionalizing, their aims and ambitions were expanding into new physical and conceptual territory, and their methods and means were in flux. Boundaries were fluid, expectations were openly defined, and conventional responses could seem inadequate to deal with new subjects, such as the unfamiliar world encountered on a scientific exploratory expedition. Most critically, in terms of the book’s central argument, “both artists and scientists were involved in . . . a decisive shift in ways of perceiving the world” (25) as the empiricist imperatives of Enlightenment science encountered the imaginative and speculative impulses of early Romanticism. Awareness of the conflict and competition between these modes of perception gave rise to a heightened self-consciousness about observation and representation that found expression in the work of the survey artists. Devoting three chapters each to Seymour and Peale, Haltman describes in nuanced, quietly poetic prose, well-matched to his subjects, the ways they negotiated the tensions between “the imperative to look close, appropriate to late-Enlightenment empiricism” and “the proto-Romantic predilection to see far” (27; emphasis in original).

Seymour worked closely with the expedition geologist Edwin James, and many of his landscapes describe the formations that were the focus of James’s geological inquiries. These delicate watercolors combine topographic realism with picturesque conventions in ways that, Haltman argues, analogized current geological debates over the appropriate relationship between observation and speculation, between fieldwork and theorizing, in the ongoing effort to interpret the earth’s layered crust. Seymour’s depictions of sandstone bluffs and basaltic columns are based on first-hand observation, yet these formations are generally pushed back into the middle distance and framed by picturesque motifs such as arching tree limbs, pointing figures, and reflective pools of water. The pictorial distancing of the rock formations, while frustrating a desire for close examination, offers an invitation to, in Haltman’s lovely phrase, “geologic reverie” (58). This invitation is reinforced by the obvious artifice of the picturesque motifs that become figures for the imagination, asserting its importance to both science and art. As Haltman explains, “In thus refiguring topography as picturesque expression, Seymour insists upon the role of vision and fancy even as he documents the hydrogeologic features of the landscape, opening a middle ground between transcription and invention” (52–53). Through the very artfulness of his compositions, Seymour also “resisted . . . the notion that his art was fundamentally subservient to science or constrained by observed reality” (52).

Mining the images’ compositional structures still further, Haltman proposes that the impenetrability of the pictorial space in so many of Seymour’s western landscapes—the way he consistently blocked access to the far distance and chose vantage points that obscured or mystified his subjects—expressed the expedition members’ frustrated ambitions to make sense of an unfamiliar land encountered all too fleetingly under difficult conditions. This impenetrability also conveys, more broadly, the limitations of the scientific enterprise itself. Seymour’s ethnographic images, Haltman argues, are animated by similar themes. The artist’s sympathetic treatment of his Native American subjects offers evidence of his desire for connection, while his compositional structures of distancing and fragmentation “suggest that ethnological certainty was somehow always and inevitably out of reach” (75). Poignantly and evocatively, Seymour’s works, when seen through Haltman’s eyes, convey both the yearning for and the elusiveness of geologic and ethnographic knowledge.

Haltman situates Seymour’s images within the compass of emergent American Romanticism. Many of Peale’s works, he suggests, are aligned more closely with Enlightenment practices and ideals. While Seymour’s paintings often express the limitations of scientific understanding and even skepticism about the scientific method, Peale’s works tend to offer a more confident assertion of the apprehensibility of the natural world. Hired as an assistant naturalist, Peale collaborated with the expedition scientists to collect, preserve, and record specimens. The illustrations that he created for exhibition and reproduction depict representative animals set into typical environments. The subjects are foregrounded, centered, and carefully labeled with genus and species. The precise detail of the images invites close looking and offers substantial information about each animal’s appearance and habitat. The images’ scientific content is not what preoccupies Haltman, however. It is rather the imaginative process by which Peale’s private sketches were transformed into these public images, and the extrascientific meanings with which they are invested.

Violence was central to Peale’s work. He hunted, trapped, shot, gutted, and skinned in the interests of scientific inquiry. In what is to me the most compelling chapter of his book, Haltman examines the field sketches in which Peale documented his prowess as a hunter and the pain and death that was its result. In one such sketch, a prairie wolf has been caught in a trap. Its paw clamped in the trap’s steel teeth, it lifts its head toward the sky, howling in pain. In another drawing, the same wolf lies dead on the ground. The hole where Peale’s bullet entered its side is centered in the image. Thus did Peale figure “scientific understanding as an assertion of raw power over what is to be understood” (142). Haltman follows the fictionalizing process by which such particular animals, killed on particular dates, are resurrected in idealized form as representatives of their species in Peale’s finished works.

Although Peale’s illustrations were clearly intended to advance the aims of science, they were also, Haltman argues in his final chapter, invested with personal meanings “involving issues of authority, autonomy, and territorial prerogative originating in and resonating with the family dynamic back at home“ (153). Peale was the youngest son of Charles Willson Peale, one of the most prominent artists in the new nation. In recent literature about the Peale family, the elder Peale has emerged as an imperious and controlling figure who had an often deleterious impact on the lives and work of his many artist-children. Haltman picks up on this theme, linking imagery of isolation and family dysfunction in Titian Peale’s art to his fraught relationship with his father. In American Antelope (1821–22), for example, the artist’s own family dynamics seem to be figured in this group of animals with “a central patriarch,” “diminutive mother,” and “docile and obedient children” joined with no “illusion of affective attachment” (169).

While I might have attributed the lack of connection between the animals to the youthful Peale’s still developing artistic talents, Haltman makes a convincing case for the self-referential aspects of Peale’s art, especially in his discussion of the artist’s more private images. These include an extraordinary portrait of his father. While in his natural history illustrations, Peale began with slaughtered creatures and revised them into images of living ideal types, in this image he took the likeness of his still-living father and imagined him dead—his severed head, blood pooling at the neck, propped against a wall. This watercolor drawing may be well known to Peale family scholars, but it was new to me. No image could drive home more forcefully the depth of Peale’s difficulties with his father. Its mere existence renders plausible the notion that the themes of violence, dismemberment, and separation that recur in Peale’s natural history images may relate back to his Philadelphia home.

Looking Close and Seeing Far deepens and complicates our understanding of the art of the western surveys and the relationship between art and science in the early national period. My major concern about this eloquent and beautifully produced book is that because it addresses lesser-known artists, working in less-valued media, in a little-studied period, it will not be as widely read as it deserves to be.

Rebecca Bedell
Associate Professor, Art Department, Wellesley College

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