Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 13, 2004
Sarah Burns Painting the Dark Side: Art and the Gothic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 326 pp.; 15 color ills.; 104 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0520238214)

Sarah Burns opens her beguiling book by briefly reflecting on the story of American art that was in vogue when she was a student. This story, which celebrated the “landscape as type and emblem” of republican America, was bright; the glow that flooded these “sunny-side up” landscapes (think Luminism) emanated from the positivist Enlightenment (xv). In Painting the Dark Side: Art and the Gothic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America, Burns subverts this tidy narrative by turning down the lights that shine on a handful of American paintings in order to get a sense of their dystopian auras. Her motive and her methodology (she draws heavily on literary scholarship) are familiar. Most work on American painting in recent years has rooted around in the cellar in search of dirty secrets—the brute forces of the market economy, racial prejudice, and nativism, to name a few—that swayed and/or disturbed artists. What is novel and exhilarating about Burns’s book, however, is its emphasis. Rather than describe more social, political, or economic injustices that underlie the nation’s mythical sense of itself, she focuses on nothing less than a habit of mind—the “imagination” of the title—that coexists symbiotically with the American tendency to be positive. This she calls the “shadow side of the Enlightenment, a countercurrent of darkness flowing underground and never running dry” (248).

The “gothic” that Burns treats here, she explains in the introduction, is scarcely related to the English gothic tradition in literature that journeyed to these enlightened shores. Her gothic, rather, owes more to what Leslie Fiedler called in Love and Death in the American Novel (1960; repr., Norman, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1997) “a literature of darkness and the grotesque in a land of light and affirmation” (quoted in Burns, xvii). More specifically, Burns’s gothic is a close permutation of a convention identified by the literary historian Teresa Goddu. In Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), Goddu considers a kind of textual representation concerned with “the horrors of history” that “disrupts the dream world of national myth” (quoted in Burns, xviii).

In Burns’s hands, this gothic has widespread roots and myriad manifestations. In fact, her rubric is almost too immense: it includes, among other things, fears about racial difference, the monstrosity of slavery, anxieties about (and the seductive pleasures of) an alienating marketplace and urbanism, physical and psychological pathologies, drug use, and the perversions of the dream world. In sum, Burns writes, “Gothic pictures are meditations on haunting and being haunted…. They explore the irrational realms of vision, dream, and nightmare, and they grapple with the terror of annihilation by uncontrollable forces of social conflict and change….” These paintings also exist “between high and low, elite and popular, painting and caricature” (xix).

But ultimately the scope of Burns’s gothic doesn’t dilute her argument, for while it takes a little while to recognize it, the actual key term of the book’s title is the noun—“imagination.” Her subject here is all that prowls the flipside of reason. A Toni Morrison quote in the introduction nails it: “Black slavery enriched the country’s creative possibilities,” Morrison writes in “Romancing the Shadow,” an essay in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992). “The result was a playground for the imagination” (quoted in Burns, xviii).

The point is that the gothic is everywhere, an analogue for “doubt.” Burns has developed a holistic way to account for most of the qualms so many of us have about the once-conventional story of American painting. What might have appeared previously to be private matters or “exceptions to the rule”—confessions or dream journals, if you will—are in fact, as Burns sees it, symptoms of social diseases (xv).

The book has three parts, and in each Edgar Allan Poe figures prominently, either as Burns’s muse or a doppelgänger to the painters she writes about. The first two chapters analyze Thomas Cole and David Gilmour Blythe and the dark sides, respectively, of nature and the metropolis. Cole’s early landscapes—those from 1825 to just before his first return trip to Europe in 1829—strike me as a particularly apt place to begin this study. These foreboding paintings, with their dead, gnarled trees and impenetrable spaces, have long haunted me. I have developed the habit of ascribing their ruggedness to a kind of confidential anxiety Cole felt about the physical demands of navigating the Catskill Mountains—to something, in other words, besides the conventions of the sublime and Cole’s peculiar religiosity. Burns, too, has little use for the sublime and religion in her analysis of the painter’s disquieting landscapes.

She makes several arguments here. Some sound familiar, such as that Cole embedded in his paintings angst about the increasingly rambunctious and diverse citizenry of the Jacksonian era, or that the landscapes barely conceal beneath their ostensible Romantic or literary content the bloody history of the woods. Most original and germane to her thesis is the contention that Cole’s paintings contain vestiges of a dark, brooding self he felt obliged to suppress for the sake of appearing as a virtuous member of the new republic. This is biography, and it is fascinating. Burns traces in Cole’s writings and paintings a process of failed repression, whereby he let seep into his work doubts about his talent, family life, and finances. This all comes together in a moving consideration of the Manhood panel from The Voyage of Life series (1840) that revives for the viewer the painting’s “agonizing” metaphors about “nonbeing” (40).

The second chapter, on Blythe, is the most luridly entertaining portion of Painting the Dark Side. Raised with a “vivid sense of sin,” Blythe was a true oddball who dressed in ragged clothes and was likely an alcoholic (45). Moving back and forth between analyses of the painter’s tortured psyche and sooty Pittsburgh, a city of “sepulchral dives,” the chapter considers Blythe’s ambivalent genre paintings in the context of sensational literature—George Foster’s New York by Gas-Light (1850), for instance—on the temptations of the modern metropolis. Burns concludes that “Blythe, Poe’s Pittsburgh double, acted out the role of eccentric outsider, gadfly, tippler, widower, urban animal and ragged genius whose inner torments imprinted themselves on his art….” (72). According to Burns, Blythe’s paintings, many of which show men struggling with temperance, are both “grimly comic” and “repulsive” (50).

Considering how little is known about Blythe (he left a scant trail), the chapter is valuable simply for the amount of information it presents on him. But I do have one quibble. One remarkable “gothic” feature of Blythe’s paintings is the distorted, sometimes utterly frightening faces of their figures, but Burns mentions these grotesque masks only very briefly and gives us few clues as to their sources or symbolic purpose.

Slavery, Burns explains, is the “keystone” of her “gothic arch” (xix). The middle chapters, therefore, look at racial fears and fantasies in paintings by Washington Allston, John Quidor, and William Rimmer. The chapter on Allston, a native southerner who suffered from an “aesthetic and personal delicacy,” reasons that the legendary difficulties surrounding his execution of Belshazzar’s Feast (1817/1843) function as a metaphor for his haunting by a slaveholding past—and present (91). Quidor, meanwhile, a bit of a drunken rogue who socialized with fire-engine company ruffians and academicians alike, made paintings that turned Washington Irving’s gothic tales into metaphors for a “fear of the dark” prevalent in white antebellum culture (101). This dread, Burns shows, was most evident in popular prints that monstrously racialized blacks.

The last section considers the pathologies of mind and body in paintings by Elihu Vedder, Thomas Eakins, and Albert Pinkham Ryder. Laced heavily with interrogative constructions, “Mental Monsters,” the chapter on Vedder, is the most speculative in the book. Burns positions his best-known painting, The Lair of the Sea Serpent (1864), at the center of several bold hypotheses. She guesses that Vedder—an artist she presents, through a rich treatment of his biography, as straddling ambiguously “the narrow bounds of rational thought and the limitless horizons of visionary space” (172)—experimented with hashish and was fascinated with “horrific and sometimes serpentine visions of feminine evil” (159). Whether the contexts developed in this chapter lead to any definitive readings of Vedder’s paintings appears to be beside the point. What matters here is the possibility that the painter drew from a hallucinatory well that contained more than just Orientalist tropes.

In the introduction, Burns explains that Eakins’s disturbing masterpiece The Gross Clinic (1875) led her to the “boneyard of American art history” (xvi). The tendency among art historians, she claims, has been to “heroize what [Eakins’s] contemporaries—with good reason—saw as a genuinely horrifying picture” (189). Burns sympathizes, refreshingly, with these nauseated viewers. As she acknowledges, her reading of The Gross Clinic epitomizes the theses of the book. She interprets the painting as an emblem of the doubts of this realist painter (and the concomitant doubts of doctors, scientists, other artists, and viewers both past and present) about the human mastery of “the violence and chaos of nature” (220). Burns concludes that there are three self-portraits in The Gross Clinic: Eakins identifies at once with the subjugated patient, who is at the mercy of nature; the hysterical mother, who cannot trust science; and the “magisterial [Dr.] Samuel Gross,” who coldly swears by his rational system. What this all amounts to is a view of American painting as both a legacy and inquisitor of reason.

I have just a few criticisms to make. First, considering how much Burns lumps under the term “gothic,” it is conspicuous that she ignores crime, the most literal manifestation of the dark side that haunted republican America. In Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998), Karen Halttunen demonstrates how rudely murder subverted Enlightenment principles in this country during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, while also showing how richly this crime fed the American imagination. Though Burns briefly alludes to Halttunen’s book, she never tells us why she draws more from, for instance, Goddu’s book.

Also, in the introduction Burns issues a slightly awkward defense of her use of biography throughout Painting the Dark Side. I understand why, in these academic times, she might feel obliged to do so, but the most original and enthralling moments in the book are those when she delves into the private passions and personal circumstances of the artists. And how else could she draw our attention to what these artists repressed? She need not defend her turn to biography: her book demonstrates the necessity and the rewards of the method.

Finally—and far less a cavil than an expression of empathy—one almost regrets holding in their hands such an efficient exegesis of the mysteries of these profound paintings. We so much enjoy discovering on our own the dark side of American painting that it almost seems a shame to have it so well explained. Burns surely felt at times that she was divulging someone else’s secrets, and likely equivocated over doing so. But ultimately she’s no spoiler. Painting the Dark Side is a tour de force, especially for the way that it turns a vast curiosity into a critical study—another reason why we ought to read it less as a treatise on the gothic and more as a demonstration of the capacity and hazards of imagination.

Justin Wolff
Associate Professor of Art History, Department of Art, University of Maine

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