Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 17, 2015
Ross Barrett Rendering Violence: Riots, Strikes, and Upheaval in Nineteenth-Century American Art Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014. 244 pp.; 12 color ills.; 51 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780520282896)

What is the place of politicized violence within democratic society, and what role do fine artists play in this debate? Ross Barrett takes up these questions in Rendering Violence: Riots, Strikes, and Upheaval in Nineteenth-Century American Art, a thematic study that probes how American painters working between 1820 and 1890 navigated “the ideological difficulties and symbolic possibilities” (3) of the subject of insurrection. Barrett’s case-study approach focuses five trim chapters on seven easel paintings inspired by specific incidents of contemporary political unrest. Employing a diverse range of evidence including artist biography, historical context, popular visual culture, formal analysis, and critical reception, the author characterizes these pictures as “rich cultural expressions of, and creative engagements with, Americans’ enduring conflictedness about turmoil” (15).

Barrett’s introduction establishes the tense political climate that accompanied the rise of liberal democracy after 1820, when the development of national political parties, expansion of state bureaucracies, and establishment of a vast private sphere fostered “dangerous new forms of alienation and discontent” (5). These antagonisms manifested publicly in unprecedented numbers of riots, strikes, and other forms of violent protest. One response, the author demonstrates, was the emergence of an influential aesthetic discourse that posited fine art as a “cultural vehicle of democratic order” (3). Samuel F. B. Morse’s The Old House of Representatives (1820–21), a calm, composed (and as numerous scholars have noted, entirely uncharacteristic) image of congresspersons assembled in the House chamber, epitomizes the “orderly aesthetics” that characterized mainstream expectations of American painters. By contrast, the canvases under consideration in Barrett’s study were outliers: rare images that dared to acknowledge and engage the destabilizing forces of civil unrest. The author submits these works as “significant artifacts of American political history” that speak to “aspects of nineteenth-century democratic experience that find only infrequent expression in the public documents that historians typically consult” (14).

Each of the five chapters in Rendering Violence follows the same basic line of argument, positing that the selected artists tempered their controversial subjects in order to render them palatable for a wide viewing audience while retaining “a fundamental ideological flexibility” (72) that supported more subversive meanings. Chapter 1 focuses on two antebellum paintings that challenged the dominant period discourse of hierarchical republicanism by embracing the iconography and ideology of Jacksonian street politics. The first is Thomas Cole’s Destruction (1834–36), from the artist’s much-studied series The Course of Empire. Barrett convincingly ties several details from Cole’s dramatic image of warfare set in an unspecified classical past to contemporary representations of violent upheaval. The monumental headless figure that dominates one side of the canvas, for example, calls to mind the decapitation of a sculpture of Andrew Jackson by a Whig partisan in 1834. The author compellingly argues that Cole accommodated mainstream viewers by drawing on the influential trope of the “political jeremiad,” which offered the spectacle of violence not as material reality but rather as “instructive prophesy about the looming but avoidable dangers of political strife” (36). The second half of this chapter analyses John Quidor’s Rip Van Winkle (1829), which depicts a charged encounter between the title character in Washington Irving’s popular short story—described by Barrett as “a humorous caricature of the patriotic politician” (40)—and an unruly electorate. Barrett argues that, under the cover of contemporary fiction, Quidor satirized mainstream political beliefs and even the politicized discourse of republican aesthetics. He draws out striking details from the artist’s idiosyncratic composition, including a signboard portrait of George Washington that could evoke republican arguments about painting’s “edificatory and disciplinary power” (19) yet goes unnoticed by all but a drunkard in the center of the roiling crowd.

Chapter 2 considers Nathaniel Jocelyn’s Cinqué (1839), a portrait of Sengbe Pieh, the West African slave who is believed to have led the Amistad rebellion. Like Cole’s Course of Empire, a number of noted scholars have analyzed Cinqué, including Richard Powell, Michael D. Harris and, more recently, Celeste-Marie Bernier. The initial pages of Barrett’s discussion cover well-trod ground regarding the portrait’s challenges to race-based conventions of representation; he notes the classical resonances of Sengbe’s dress and demeanor, the noble associations of the sitter’s physiognomy, and the exotic background that symbolically distances Joceyln’s subject from the vexing issue of U.S. racial politics. But Barrett proceeds to distinguish his examination from previous studies through a rigorous focus on the painting as a rare fine art representation of violent black power. The author identifies how Jocelyn mitigated the potential threat to mainstream white audiences of an image of an African who forcefully took control of his own fate (see, for example, Sengbe’s poised yet static position, which suggests not unbridled aggression but disciplined resistance). Yet he also provocatively links the artist’s painting (and, even more so, John Sartain’s mezzotint reproduction, which circulated widely in African American communities) to a vision of divinely sanctioned pan-African revolutionary agency, arguing that Jocelyn cast the white-robed mutineer as a messianic figurehead.

George Henry Hall’s 1858 painting A Dead Rabbit (Study of the Nude or Study of an Irishman) anchors chapter 3. Hall’s title refers to the central character in popular news reports of the Dead Rabbit Riot in 1857, a deadly skirmish between the immigrant Irish residents of Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood and the Metropolitan police. This large-scale depiction of a muscular, semi-nude male wielding a brick draws on a stereotype of the Irish working-class rowdy that circulated widely in the mass media but was all but absent from fine art representation of the period. The first in-depth scholarly discussion of this distinctive work, Barrett’s multilayered approach opens the painting to numerous productive avenues of interpretation. For one, he posits that Hall’s choice of this unusual subject was motivated as much by professional aspirations as by political concerns. Known primarily for his modest still lifes and nature studies, the artist, according to Barrett, perceived this topical subject as an opportunity to “pursue his interests in the academic figure and the dramatic forces of history . . . and perhaps to realign his professional identity” (76). Barrett also asserts that Hall, in figuring the rioter as an ideal nude, linked the image to two seemingly antithetical discourses: the “Dead Rabbit” can be viewed as a modern-day Saint Sebastian enlisted in a narrative of moral reform, or as the eroticized embodiment of a heroic physicality that appealed to contemporary Americans’ “complicated and furtive attraction to violence” (102).

In chapter 4, Barrett sets his sights on The Attack on the Home Guard (1864), a perplexing domestic tableau by Thomas Nast, which the author interprets as an allegorized response to the Draft Riots of the previous year. More specifically, he argues that Nast’s scene of “playful conflict” (113) among a group of middle-class white children was a subtle means of positing repressive force as “a legitimate instrument for the preservation of order within liberal-democratic society” (105). The domestic framework of Nast’s imaginary scene of violent struggle played on middle-class Americans’ feelings of vulnerability in the face of an increasingly politicized working class. Barrett asserts that by aligning the child soldiers with the popular community-based civilian militia known as the “home guard,” rather than with the state police, Nast aimed to win support for the use of force in quelling unrest from even the most moderate viewers. (The author duly notes that Nast was an honorary member of the Seventh Regiment, an elite militia group focused on riot suppression.) All the while, Barrett highlights the erasure of any reference to race in Nast’s allegory of the Draft Riots, postulating that in so doing, the artist fulfilled “the social fantasies” (125) of rioters whose discontent stemmed from the perceived threat to their livelihoods by New York’s African American population.

Chapter 5 focuses on two paintings inspired by the 1877 railroad strike: Martin Leisser’s Union Depot Riot (1877) and Robert Koehler’s The Strike (1886). Leisser’s painting is all but unknown; Barrett’s resurrection of this work is a contribution to the field in and of itself. Koehler’s picture has been invoked uncritically for decades in history textbooks and surveys of labor imagery, only recently receiving its first extended consideration in James M. Dennis’s 2011 monograph, The Strike: The Improbable Story of an Iconic 1886 Painting of Labor Protest (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press) (click here for review). In the later nineteenth century, fine art images of political unrest were still incredibly rare. Koehler devoting a massive (110 × 72 in.) canvas to the subject of industrial workers protesting before the home of their employer, along with the wide exhibition of this work in the U.S. and abroad in the 1880s and 1890s, suggests—as Barrett argues—a shift in critics’ and audiences’ understanding of the sociopolitical possibilities of painting. Leisser composed the picture just days after witnessing the climax of the nationwide protest in his home city of Pittsburgh, where striking railroad workers, enraged by the shooting deaths of twenty-one protesters and bystanders, looted and burned the train yards, machine shops, and train station. Barrett addresses both the powerful, fiery spectacle of the Pittsburgh burning—a subject also enthusiastically taken up by illustrators for the popular press, but all the more palpable when rendered in oil—as well as what he identifies as pictorial gestures intended to frame the strikers’ protest as a measured response to social inequity. Turning to The Strike, the author asserts that Koehler drew on his personal biography, political investments, and academic training to produce a restrained depiction of dissent that “validate[d] the contemporary labor movement” and won “broader support for the besieged workers who participated in it” (147). According to Barrett, the rational, respectful interaction between the strike leader and the capitalist, and the artist’s depiction of the mass of protesters engaged in “ongoing debate and collective deliberation” (152), would have appealed to the reform-minded middle class. The critical response to The Strike seems to confirm that period viewers embraced the “open-endedness” of Koehler’s image, which managed to take a political stand without alienating the artist’s “carefully cultivated elite audience” (154).

A few quibbles. The artists and historical events under consideration in Barrett’s study are limited in scope to the northeastern United States (indeed, three of the five chapters focus on New York–based artists). Nowhere does the author explicitly acknowledge the geographical constraints of his study or, alternately, make a case for why (if?) these artists and events speak to larger national concerns. Barrett takes pains to define his project as one particularly concerned with the problems and potentialities of painting, but by his own admission, at least two of the focus works (Cinqué and The Attack of the Home Guard) were considerably better known to period audiences in the form of mass-produced reproductions. Each chapter includes at least some discussion of American art audiences’ undeniable “attraction to disorderly spectacle, pleasure in the absurdities of chaos,” but this crucial aspect of Barrett’s argument would benefit from more extended consideration. And at the end of chapter 5, the author asserts that the artworks under consideration set the stage for “the wide array of painterly engagements with upheaval that would take shape in the early twentieth century and beyond” (154). But beyond a brief concluding discussion of Ed Ruscha’s The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (1965–68), precisely what work he has in mind is left unsaid.

Even within these limitations, Barrett makes great strides in parsing the still largely untapped complexities of nineteenth-century American genre painting. His focused investigation prompts me to ask: how might the framework of republican aesthetics illuminate our understanding of a broader category of contemporary working-class imagery to include examples such as Horace Bonham’s Nearing the Issue at the Cockpit (1879) or Thomas Anshutz’s Ironworkers’ Noontime (1880)? And how might the author’s insightful interpretations of the case-study works influence how we read other, less anomalous productions by these makers? Moreover, Barrett’s book makes an important contribution to an evolving scholarly conversation about visual art vis-à-vis issues of violence, dissent, destruction, and iconoclasm. At the heart of his rigorously researched, aesthetically sensitive social art history is an impassioned and compelling case for the important role that the rarefied world of fine art can play in public discourse.

Emily D. Shapiro
executive editor, American Art, and academic programs advisor, Smithsonian American Art Museum