Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 23, 2000
David Morgan Protestants and Pictures: Religion, Visual Culture, and the Age of American Mass Production Oxford University Press, 1999. 418 pp. Cloth $35.00 (0195130294)

This book arrived for review one day after an issue of American Quarterly that reviews six books under the caption “Visualizing Nineteenth-Century American Culture,” even though none of the books’ titles include the word “visual” (51 [December 1999]: 895-909). Then an article in CAA’s own Art Journal asked, “Who’s Afraid of Visual Culture?” (58 [Winter 1999]: 36-47). Several days later the Association of Historians of Nineteenth-Century Art queried members about launching a new periodical called Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture. Visual culture is in, and it is red-hot. The question this raises for me is whether Visual Culture will be made a fashionable methodological paradigm, in the traditions of formalism or deconstruction, that will straightjacket art-historical inquiry; or will it instead stimulate and perhaps even glorify the traditionally underappreciated grunt work of digging deeply into daily lives and experiences of the past? Such down-and-dirty research has seldom been glamorous or admired, but it is the basis of all good history and is imperative as we move from the hero worship of a generation ago, that plucked favorite artists from their cultural milieu, to careful reconstructions of the roles that images (i. e., art) played in the numerous communities that made up American society during the nineteenth century. Morgan’s book calls itself Visual Culture, but I consider it art history of the best kind, a careful inspection of neglected groups, developments, and types of images that are part of the fuller picture we are developing of the kinds of art—and their function—in America during the nineteenth century.

The main theme of this book is the change in the attitude of evangelical Protestants toward religious imagery during the nineteenth century. Morgan explores episodes in successive periods that demonstrate a change from iconoclasm to acceptance: first, of text-elucidating images that strengthen the Word, and of images aimed at children; and, somewhat later, independent religious images whose aesthetic quality elevated viewers morally. Morgan examines each of these episodes independently, leaving it to the reader to trace this “progression.” He divides his study into four main parts labelled: “The Millennial Mission of the American Republic,” “Adventism and Images of the End,” “Visual Pedagogy,” and “The Rise of the Devotional Image in American Protestantism.” Each of these parts bears out a conclusion set forth in Chapter One, namely that many Protestant denominations eagerly seized upon the new mass medium of printing to spread their visions of the word of God. Moreover, underlying his entire inquiry is the intriguing suggestion that “Seeing was believing, and mass culture only meant more ways of believing, or doing so on a grander scale” (39).

Chapter one precedes the four parts that explore the episodes, and it offers general observations and hypotheses that guide readers through the eight chapters that follow. Morgan suggests that the general goal underlying the activities of each episode was to proselytize all who were not church-attending Protestants, be they “heathens” (e.g., African and Native Americans), Roman Catholic immigrants, or their own young children not yet imbued with Protestant faith. This was essential to achieving the Protestant states of mind and existence which were crucial, first, for making the American Republic the great last age for humanity, and second, for preparing for Christ’s imminent return. These very different goals distinguished postmillennialists who belonged to mainstream Protestant denominations from premillennialists like the Adventists. Morgan suggests that both groups concluded that the most efficient way to achieve their goals was through publishing tracts and charts aimed at mass audiences, and that they felt their publications became ever more potent as they incorporated increasing amounts of visual imagery.

Part one examines the activities of the American Tract Society and similar organizations. Morgan suggests that the Society’s heavy use of illustrations to sell tracts fueled the development of wood engraving in America and led to the first elaborate illustrated books, such as Harper’s Illuminated and New Pictorial Bible (1846), which incorporated 1600 engravings. (One might add that it was a natural step from such volumes to Harper’s Monthly and Harper’s Weekly, both begun in the 1850s.) New technologies did not secularize evangelical activities; they merely broadened their reach. Evangelicals created an “us versus them” situation, depicting white, Protestant, middle-class domesticity as the only proper way of life and designating all people living otherwise as outsiders, be they Catholics, Native Americans, the poor, or the rich. Morgan suggests that tracts seldom illustrated “others” because evangelicals did not want to create visual types for them, hoping rather to quickly assimilate them. This “benevolent” movement helped create a middle class, one based on attitudes and behavior.

In Part two Morgan introduces the charts used by Millerite and other Adventist evangelicals to prepare believers for Christ’s Second Coming. Adventists were particularly iconoclastic, and charts trying to spell out prophesies were the only religious imagery the movements sanctioned before the Civil War. (Morgan’s illustrations are in black and white, but the key 1842 “Chronological Chart of the Vision of Daniel and John” appears in color in the current American Art Review [12 {February 2000}: 146]; contemporaneous high-art apocalyptic imagery is collected in Gail Husch’s Something Coming, just released by the University Press of New England). Competition with printmakers like Currier & Ives finally led Adventist leaders to issue religious pictures, such as Minister James White’s The Way of Life (1876), which was later reworked by Thomas Moran and reissued in 1883. Adventist images remained much more didactic than mainstream evangelical imagery. During the 1890s, the Adventists’ official Review Press began to publish its fair share of the flood of illustrated books that jousted for Americans’ attention and dollars.

Part three reveals the heavy use of images in religious education for children. The number of illustrated children’s books offered by the American Tract Society multiplied from twelve in 1824 to more than 190 in 1863. In 1852, the Society launched a weekly periodical, The Child’s Paper, and it achieved a circulation of 305,000 by 1856, the largest enjoyed by any American publication. Reaching children became the evangelicals’ chief goal. Morgan’s discussion of Sunday schools is particularly illuminating. Evangelicals focused so much effort on fostering Sunday school attendance because they deduced that the children they reached would, in turn, bring their parents into the fold through social pressures and by forcing their parents to read to them the books given them at school. Moreover, Sunday school books were made to resemble secular textbooks so that public schools might also adopt them, thereby helping them reach the widest possible audiences. Sunday school classes used some unusual kinds of imagery. For example, blackboard drawings became important didactic tools. Teachers were aided by a proliferating supply of books offering imagery easy to draw on blackboards and lesson plans built around these instructive displays. (Could the apparent spontaneity of this art have contributed to the growing preference in the twentieth century for studies and sketchy styles like Impressionism?) Morgan also touches briefly on how church leaders of the early twentieth century began to adopt some of the ideas and approaches spawned by the developing fields of advertising and psychology to sell the Word.

Part four examines how devotional images of Christ came to supplement, or even replace, the didactic imagery that had dominated Protestant instruction and life. Liberal Protestant leaders sought to replace the traditional literary/textual use of imagery with aesthetic contemplation that generated “a devotional mood of reverence and pure ideals.” (269) The goal of this imagery was not conversion but character formation, reflecting the influence of Horace Bushnell’s ideas about the importance of beauty in developing character in children. Perfected personifications of Christ emerged as artists synthesized beliefs connected to phrenology, history, race, and photography so as to create paintings and prints that seemed most truthful and had the widest possible appeal. For a time these images became key components of standardized, national Sunday school programs suitable for mobile Americans, but new ideas about teaching and childhood development led to the decentralized, age-based instruction still standard today. Morgan devotes extensive attention to the Religious Education Association, formed in Chicago in 1903 to professionalize religious education. Its goal was to nurture each student’s individual personality, which was accomplished, in part, through the contemplation of good art that refined one’s self and soul. The REA and other leaders promoted a “manly,” naturalistic Christ, using the new halftone technology to spread exact, proper images of devotion, primarily the biblical paintings of Bernhard Plockhorst (1825-1907) and Heinrich Hofmann (1824-1911).

Morgan concludes by challenging Walter Benjamin’s thesis that aura “vanished with the rise of mechanically reproduced images.” (339) He insists that mass-produced images reinstated aura through the shift around 1900 from a didactic to a devotional visual culture. Reproductions of fine art—including biblical scenes—became “the privileged means of inspiring the growth of a child’s personality because such pictures expressed artistic feeling and genius.” (341) In other words, reproductions of art became central to childhood development, with effects that demand close study by art historians. This book regularly made me see whole new dimensions of art, and unexpected roles played by art. It demonstrates both the desirability of looking beyond current borders of art history and the kinds and amounts of information awaiting scholars ready to reaffirm the art of disfavored groups.

Saul Zalesch
Louisiana Tech University

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