Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 25, 2009
Kristin Schwain Signs of Grace: Religion and American Art in the Gilded Age Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008. 225 pp.; 7 color ills.; 41 b/w ills. Cloth $29.95 (9780801445774)

What are the terms of seeing and believing? Or more specifically, how do pictures shape and direct religious faith? Kristin Schwain takes up these questions in Signs of Grace: Religion and American Art in the Gilded Age, focusing on four different American artists—Thomas Eakins, Henry Ossawa Tanner, F. (Fred) Holland Day, and Abbott Handerson Thayer—and explaining how they “drew on religious beliefs and practices to explore new relationships between viewers and objects, and how beholders looked to art to experience transcendence and save their souls” (2). As Schwain persuasively argues, each not only repeatedly engaged with the prevalent religious and spiritual cultures of the day but developed and promoted modern aesthetic themes and ways of seeing that dominated throughout the twentieth century.

Visual cultures of religion, and Christianity in particular, were pervasive in Gilded Age America, present as much in public spaces as in private homes. Artists such as John Singer Sargent, Kenyon Cox, and Violet Oakley painted public murals depicting biblical scenes and figures; art collectors like Isabella Stewart Gardner and J. Pierpont Morgan looted Europe for medieval relics and Renaissance Madonnas; merchants of industry like John Wanamaker purchased religious paintings and displayed them in department stores; and scores of newly erected art museums were likened to “temples” and “cathedrals.” America’s domestic spheres were equally awash in religious artifacts and images, from chromolithographs of Christ and the saints displayed in dining rooms and parlors to home altars consisting of religious statuary, holy cards, and devotional medals arranged on fireplace mantles. The popular magazines that middle-class Americans read in their homes regularly featured articles on art and religion: Tanner was commissioned to paint four pictures for a “Women of the Bible” series published in Ladies’ Home Journal in 1902–1903; Homer Saint-Gaudens’s article “Ten American Paintings of Christ,” which discussed works by John La Farge, Cox, Frank Vincent Du Mond, and Will H. Low, among other artists, was published in a 1906 issue of Putnam’s Monthly. As Schwain explains in the opening pages of Signs of Grace, art, commerce, and religion were deeply intertwined in Gilded Age America, and all three were aligned with the modern era’s growing focus on individuality, interiority, and intimacy, or the authenticity of felt experience.

Conventional accounts of modern American art, and American modernism in general, tend to reject religion, or argue that modernism and religious faith are completely disparate. As Sally Promey explained in a 2003 issue of The Art Bulletin, academic suspicions about religion can be traced to a “secularization theory of modernity” that, like the discipline of art history itself, gained currency in the Gilded Age (Sally Promey, “The Return of Religion in the Scholarship of American Art,” The Art Bulletin 85, no. 3 [September 2003]: 581–603). Grounded in a developmental, or progressive, model of Western civilization, secularization theory cast religion as primitive, immature, and group oriented, or as the binary opposite of a modernism that was constructed as adult, innovative, and individualistic. To be sure, modern theories of evolution, philosophy, and psychology challenged Christianity’s claims to biblical authority and divine sanction, and modern movements of suffrage and civil rights defied patriarchal and racialized presumptions held by ecclesiastical institutions. Yet religion did not disappear in America: it was re-invented to fit the spiritual needs and desires of modern Americans.

Scores of new religious movements emerged during the Gilded Age (Christian Science, Seventh-day Adventism, Theosophy), challenging established denominations, traditional doctrines, and prevailing religious practices. Simultaneously, religion itself was redefined on particularly personal and subjective terms. In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), for example, William James defined religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men . . . to whatever they consider the divine” (quoted in Schwain, 5). And religious feelings, as David Morgan documents in Protestants and Pictures: Religion, Visual Culture, and the Age of American Mass Production (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), and Schwain considers in Signs of Grace, were especially cultivated with a vast visual culture of religious art including halftone prints, illustrated Bibles, millennial charts, and fine art paintings and photographs by Eakins, Tanner, Thayer, and Day. By the end of the nineteenth century, artists who produced popular religious images had generally adopted a devotional rather than didactic sensibility oriented toward the modern era’s new emphasis on nurturing personal religious feelings: on interpreting, rather than strictly instructing (or illustrating), the canonical terms of religious faith and belief, and encouraging viewers to contemplate religious pictures as a means to commune with the divine. Likewise, inspired by critics like Clive Bell, Roger Fry, and Bernard Berenson, the Gilded Age artists that Schwain examines turned to “forms of aesthetic experience that paralleled religious engagement” (8), producing religious paintings and photographs that emphasized personal feelings over organized church creed.

One of the central themes guiding early American modernism of all varieties was an anxious yearning to integrate art and life, and thereby recover an intensity of experience that civilization, systems of classification, and standards of social propriety had struggled to control, or erase. Schwain’s principal argument in Signs of Grace is that turn-of-the-century artists turned to increasingly affective cultures of religious belief and practice to reconfigure aesthetic experience, and that religion served as an underpinning of modernist attitudes toward art. Rather than separating into oppositional camps, modernist understandings of religion as felt experience segued with modernist ways of seeing and experiencing art.

Eakins, Tanner, Day, and Thayer were all, for example, deeply interested in active spectatorship, in the idea that the act of seeing was an essential determinant in the personal meaning of faith in modern life. None of them were “religious” artists per se; none of them depicted religious scenes and figures in order to proselytize on behalf of particular religious denominations and doctrines. Rather, each was drawn to the subjective, individual terms of looking and belief in the modern age. The paintings and photographs they produced were understood as material manifestations of the sacred, and contemplating them was embraced on sacramental terms, as an aesthetic experience that would bestow beholders with grace. Indeed, the title for Schwain’s book stems from art critic Clara Erskine Clement, who in an 1895 article on contemporary religious painting in America said the best of such art was that which represented the “‘outward and visible sign’ of the ‘inward and spiritual grace’ with which the artist has been endowed by a power higher than himself” (8). Of course, as Schwain goes on to say, “seeing and believing never enjoyed an unadulterated union,” and all of the artists considered in Signs of Grace wrestled with determining “the appropriate relationship between the material and spiritual realms and the authority of the translator who bridged them” (13).

Raised as a Protestant, Eakins was an agnostic who refused membership in any church and was contemptuous of more mystical aspects of popular religious piety. Yet he produced a number of religious paintings—The Crucifixion (1880), a fixedly unsentimental image of the dying Christ hung in the front hall of his Philadelphia home for many years—and Schwain argues that Roman Catholicism “played a critical role” in determining his theoretical conceptualization and style of art (14). Studying in Europe in his twenties, Eakins was drawn to the dark tonality of Spanish Baroque paintings like Diego Velázquez’s Christ on the Cross (1632), which later became a model for his own crucifixion scene. Eakins often read the New Testament in Latin, and beginning in the 1890s spent his Sundays attending vespers at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary outside Philadelphia. In subsequent years Eakins painted fourteen portraits of Catholic archbishops, Vatican delegates, and other clerics: figures of influence and intellect who shared his strong beliefs in brotherhood and masculine authority, and were particularly appealing role models following his dismissal from the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts in 1886. Schwain further argues that Eakins’s focus on these portrait subjects helped him crystallize his notion of art as Logos (or “Word made Flesh” as articulated in John’s Gospel), and painting in particular as the incarnation of the immanent and the transcendent.

Tanner, Day, and Thayer are similarly considered in the remaining chapters of Signs of Grace, especially in terms of how each pursued creative relationships between seeing and believing and emphasized felt experience as a means to access the divine. Of the four, Tanner was most obviously associated with institutional religion—raised in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church; the son of a high-ranking minister (later bishop)—and Schwain details how this upbringing influenced Tanner’s particularly prudent, or restrained, interpretation of the Bible. Highly hierarchical, the AME Church was driven by cautious aspirations of racial respectability, equality, and uplift, and Tanner’s quiet paintings of the divine in everyday life, including The Annunciation (1898) and Two Disciples at the Tomb (1905–06), aimed at cultivating appropriate forms of “disciplined piety” among viewers (43).

Day’s photographs, by contrast, were steeped in a much more spectacular visual vocabulary culled from mass-produced prints, tableaux vivants, lantern-slide lectures, and the dramatic techniques (close-ups, dissolves, key lighting) employed in early films. Day produced hundreds of photographs based on Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, including a series titled Seven Last Words of Christ that featured headshots of Day himself. Some critics questioned whether the sacred could really be visualized, let alone authenticated, following a cultural currency of skepticism about looking, images, truth, and deception that, as Michael Leja recounts in Looking Askance: Skepticism and American Art from Eakins to Duchamp (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), was deeply rooted in modern America. Yet Day’s photographs aimed to evoke the sacred by providing a visual field for spiritual contemplation, not by actually asserting the tenets of belief. “Art is worship,” Thayer asserted (104), and notions of an active, individual, and doctrine-free spectatorship similarly framed his religious projects, including a number of late nineteenth-century Protestant Madonnas. While obviously informed by Gilded Age notions of an idealized upper-class Anglo-American womanhood, and hence intended as socializing tools aimed at inculcating Americans about appropriate gender roles and standards of taste, paintings like Virgin Enthroned (1891) also cast such women as “conduits of transcendence” (118), or as sacred mediators whose contemplation might guide viewers in various spiritual directions. Again, particular directions were not prescribed: the primary religious interest of all four of these American artists, among others, was to create a visual culture that evoked a hazy and non-specific spiritual consciousness, and whose sacred meaning was found mostly in the individual act of looking. As Schwain concludes, their insistence on “fine art’s intimate relationship to religious belief and practice” (131) would persist into the twentieth-century.

Nicely informed by artistic biography, social history, religious studies, and astute visual attention to the images under consideration, Signs of Grace is a skillful model of an interdisciplinary art history that boldly pursues under-considered subjects—like the relationship between modern American art and religion. The felt experience of both is key to their modern alliance and merits an expanded theoretical discussion of emotion and affect, as well as further consideration of the specific contexts and terms of viewer response. Hopefully, Schwain’s insightful study will inspire other writers to similarly contemplate the scope and complexity of modern American art.

Erika Doss
Professor, Department of American Studies, University of Notre Dame

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