Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 29, 2004
Randall C. Griffin Homer, Eakins, & Anshutz: The Search for American Identity in the Gilded Age University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004. 192 pp.; 8 color ills.; 66 b/w ills. Cloth $61.95 (0271023295)
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Randall Griffin’s well-written and accessible study analyzes a selection of largely canonical paintings by Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, and Thomas Anshutz in light of period art criticism and artistic, social, and economic transformations of the late nineteenth century. The book aims to illuminate how artists, critics, and patrons made use of art to navigate the conflicted and amorphous nature of American national identity during the Gilded Age. After an introduction that provides an overview of significant currents in Gilded Age art and culture, individual chapters analyze the following subjects: Homer’s Veteran in a New Field (1865) and the ways in which long-standing artistic themes of soldiers and reapers were altered by seismic social changes that ensued after the Civil War; Anshutz’s industrial paintings and the late-century transformation of the American landscape tradition from agrarian and rural to industrial and urban; the respective efforts by Eakins with Swimming (1885) and Homer with his late seascapes to forge a satisfactory amalgam of Old and New World subjects and styles; and finally, Homer’s Adirondack pictures and their capacity to problematize for his corporate, urban patrons older models of national identity tied to rugged individualism and the frontier. The book closes with a postscript outlining how the three artists helped to initiate an early-twentieth-century shift in subject matter from European to indigenous American themes.

Homer, Eakins, and Anshutz: The Search for American Identity in the Gilded Age does several things well. Rather than downplaying stylistic change as an apparent distraction from the deeper social and political meanings that New Art Historians value, Griffin adeptly employs style as evidence for illuminating changing approaches to nationalism. Within his study, stylistic choices are never interpreted as a simple expression of consumer taste or artistic disposition alone, but instead as a partial reflection of the need of Victorian Americans to define and redefine their sense of nation. But, just as the author deftly avoids reading style as a mere byproduct of either patronage or training, he similarly refuses to reduce it to a straightforward reflection of national identity. Griffin links style and identity without interpreting the former as an incidental result of changing attitudes toward the nation.

Refreshingly, the book is attuned to ways in which ideologies tend to cut across stylistic boundaries. The author sees style as one of a series of contributory factors that lent cultural significance to the canvases of the Gilded Age, rather than interpreting the stylistic distinctiveness of realist and impressionist canvases as conveying necessarily disparate messages on national identity. With careful and detailed attention to the critical reception of his selected artworks, economic and social milieus, and European artistic precedents, Griffin crafts a study foregrounding how meanings in the visual arts are produced by a confluence of contextual factors. The book also wisely focuses on the century’s ongoing search for American identity, rather than miring itself in ultimately reductive efforts to articulate this essence. Appreciating the malleability and site-specificity of identity constructs, Griffin makes Americaness concrete in relation to particular, contextually grounded case studies. In Homer, Eakins, and Anshutz, American identity emerges as an evolving struggle, rather than as a coherent set of attributes, or even beliefs.

Undergirding Griffin’s exploration of national identity is a desire to, in his words, recast the Gilded Age in terms of a crisis of identity, a crisis that informs much of the art and criticism from the end of the Civil War through the early twentieth century (2). Notwithstanding the author’s claim for the revisionist nature of such a project, it is difficult to find recent studies of the period that do not point to the centrality of crisis in defining the era. When Griffin cites Reconstruction, labor unrest, Eastern-European immigration, accelerating urbanization and industrialization, class inequities, financial panics, the closing of the Western frontier, and Americans’ insecurity over their cultural worth as catalysts of a singular instability, he joins a long list of historians who have interpreted the period in just such terms. His decision to read the era through this lens is understandable, for not only does this approach accurately mirror the impression held by many Gilded Age Americans, but it also allows the author to stake out his particular period of study as singular and coherent.

What made the Gilded Age distinct was not, of course, the depth of its crises, or the fervor with which Victorians struggled to reformulate national identity. Given the consistency with which both period observers and modern-day scholars have found crisis at work in virtually every decade of U.S. history, we are better served by interpreting crisis as the glue that binds accounts of American history together, rather than as the wedge that drives various periods apart. Regardless of its utility in structuring our understanding of the past, a “crisis model” of history has long been the dominant one through which our national stories are narrated. The ubiquity of this model should encourage us to refocus our attention away from a simple enumeration of period instabilities, or even the analysis of contemporary responses to them, and onto a consideration of why Americans link crisis so closely to national (but also gendered, racial, and class) identities. Such a shift in approach seems particularly apt when we consider that “crisis” is but one of many models used by historians around the world to give coherence to their nations’ pasts. Along these lines, it seems important to account for the cultural work performed by historians through their efforts to narrate American history as a string of singular crises. Given Griffin’s work in illuminating the intersection of masculinity and nationalism, I would have welcomed attention to how our crisis model of history serves, at least in part, as another venue through which we have masculinized both American identity and the practice of historical recovery itself.

Martin A. Berger
Professor, History of Art and Visual Culture Department, University of California at Santa Cruz

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