Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 13, 2007
Wendy Jean Katz Regionalism and Reform: Art and Class Formation in Antebellum Cincinnati Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002. 280 pp.; 50 b/w ills. Cloth $47.95 (0814209068)
Thumbnail

Published in 1832, Fanny Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans was a sensation in England and a scandal in the United States. Basing her remarks on observations she made during the two years she spent in Cincinnati, Trollope claimed that “in America that polish which removes the coarser and rougher parts of our nature is unknown and undreamed of.” The greatest difference between England and America, according to Trollope, was “the want of refinement.”

By all appearances, Cincinnati’s aspiring middle class took Trollope’s criticism to heart. Wendy Jean Katz argues that during the antebellum period Cincinnati artists participated “in a project of public elevation” (xvi). Art, middle-class patrons thought, would be an agent of refinement, a way of achieving the “polish” Trollope believed Americans conspicuously lacked. For Cincinnati’s rising middle class, however, refinement meant more than simply improved surface manners. It also implied a new cognitive style, a new sensibility based upon sympathy, deference, and an awareness of the needs of others. In an age of utopian socialist experiments and egalitarian political aspirations, refinement, not wealth or position, would be the key to an improved American civilization. Thus, if a reform-minded middle class pressed for conformity to its system of values, it did so in the service of high ideals. When all classes shared a humanitarian sensibility, social harmony would result—a goal thought desirable in a burgeoning and often turbulent western city with a highly competitive business culture and a predominantly transient working-class population.

As the title of Katz’s book implies, reform in the period 1820 to 1860 went hand-in-hand with Cincinnati’s rise as a regional cultural center. The largest city west of the Alleghenies and the United States’s third largest industrial metropolis, Cincinnati competed with Pittsburgh and Louisville for labor and capital. This struggle for commercial and industrial dominance was inextricably linked to its claims to cultural supremacy. As Katz observes, “patrons of the arts committed to fostering a sometimes idiosyncratic combination of reform and western boosterism tried to persuade audiences to adopt their view of a cultured city and a polite populace” (xv). Consequently, Cincinnati’s version of bourgeois identity evolved in response to its middle class’s material and ideological needs with a distinctly regional flavor. Katz’s project is, in brief, to locate the city’s leading artists “within the [new] language of morals, taste, and feeling that developed around art, exhibitions, and behavior in Cincinnati” (xiv). Katz contends that “artists who believed in a moral purpose for art found themselves and their work aligned with the project of moral suasion and public elevation” (xiv).

To demonstrate this alignment, Katz examines Lily Martin Spencer’s genre paintings in relation to middle-class reform. While she concedes that work Spencer executed after her move to New York in 1849 appealed to eastern patrons and audiences as well as westerners, Katz nonetheless shows that the artist’s years in Cincinnati shaped her style and choice of subject. Katz argues that Spencer’s “conversational” imagery, which assumes a refined viewer capable of sympathizing with the plight of others, parallels the “direct address” method of instruction popularized by William McGuffey in his enormously popular Readers (another product of Cincinnati’s culture of middle-class reform). This analysis results in incisive interpretations of three well-known works: Shake Hands? (1854), Young Husband: First Marketing (1854), and Kiss Me and You’ll Kiss the Lasses (1856). Shake Hands? depicts a kitchen servant in a middle-class household who laughingly extends a flour-coated hand to the viewer. Katz notes that Spencer took her theme if not her inspiration from Mrs. Trollope’s “visceral repulsion toward democratic manners” (37). (In Domestic Manners of the Americans, Trollope cautioned that “the theory of equality . . . will be found less palatable when it presents itself in the shape of a hard, greasy paw.”) Republican etiquette, which Trollope and other European visitors condemned as dangerous “leveling,” required that middle-class Americans acknowledge all members of society as formal equals. For the polite middle-class American viewer, Shake Hands? posed a question to which there could only be one answer.

Katz also considers the work of African American landscapist Robert Duncanson. Here she develops an analysis of the relationship between a developing middle-class ethos of refinement and works such as Duncanson’s View of Cincinnati from Covington, Kentucky (1851), Uncle Tom and Little Eva (1853), and Land of the Lotus Eaters (1861), a literary landscape inspired by Tennyson’s popular poem of the same name. Katz remarks that Cincinnati’s middle class saw nature as “a realm in which social relations were formed from motives other than profit” (86). Landscape painting thus appealed to a communal identity and could be readily enlisted in the cause of refinement. Katz argues that Duncanson’s panoramic View of Cincinnati harmonizes a booster’s vision of a prosperous frontier city with its ties, via the Ohio River, to markets in the South, and a city ensconced in a nature that is itself a part of the civilizing process. In a similar vein, in Duncanson’s Uncle Tom and Little Eva, the protagonists “do not escape into a realm of pure freedom, but rather see in nature a vision of heavenly order” (126). Finally, even if Land of the Lotus Eaters might be interpreted in terms of imaginative escape, it could also be seen as an evocation of a softening, “feminine” nature, and thus be associated with women’s putative moral and civilizing influence.

In her treatment of Hiram Powers, another Cincinnati artist, Katz draws upon the work of the historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown and other commentators on the southern code of honor. She argues that Powers’s Greek Slave (1845–47) played upon the tension between northern and southern concepts of the self. In the South, a man’s honor required “external demonstrations of fearlessness and mutual equality” (142). In this framework, to be a slave was, by definition, dishonorable because a slave was someone who “‘chose’ to submit to another rather than die” (154). By contrast, as Katz notes, the codes of civility and refinement that developed in Cincinnati and other cities of the North and Northwest “came from the increasing interdependence and competition of the urban market, with its requirement that individuals recognize distant consequences of their actions” (139). Placed within the context of what Katz calls “dueling systems of honor,” Powers’s Greek Slave could be a shameful sight for a lady or gentleman—the slave’s shackles and nudity underscore her lack of independence and equality. Or the sculpture could suggest that honor was an interior quality independent of circumstance and the acts of others, in which case a naked slave could be clothed with chastity. Subject to diametrically opposed interpretations, The Greek Slave can be seen, in Katz’s words, as “a product of the social and political conflict between [northern and southern] systems of value” (142).

A wealth of insights crowds the pages of Regionalism and Reform. Still, the book is not without its problems. Although a precise and often eloquent writer, Katz does little to help her readers. Her chapters tend to be long and amorphous. The chapter on Lily Martin Spencer runs fifty-eight pages without breaks or subheads, with the author providing few clues to where her argument is going. Moreover, although Katz’s knowledge of antebellum Cincinnati culture works to her advantage when it comes to critical analysis, it also results in a tendency to overload the text and notes with extraneous facts and digressions.

If the study at times lacks structure, it also falters in the discussion of class. Katz portrays a society divided into essentially three classes—working class, middle class, and elite—but the reader learns little about how class composition, class relations, and divisions within classes evolved during the period under consideration. Similarly, Katz says too little about the structure of patronage, the class forces behind art institutions, and middle-class and elite political allegiances. Indeed, such crucial analytical terms as “class” and “ideology” are never fully defined. Perhaps as a consequence, Katz on occasion confuses behavior based upon implicit assumptions with behavior motivated by explicit belief. Moreover, while the book claims “class formation” as one of its topics, Katz presents no theory of class formation, and thus the reader is obliged to take on faith the idea that an ideology of refinement was crucial to the making of the Cincinnati middle class.

Katz’s treatment of regionalism also proves problematic. She provides little comparative material, and the reader is often left wondering to what extent the culture of refinement she describes was unique to Cincinnati or the West and to what extent it pervaded northern culture as a whole. When, in her chapter on Spencer, Katz remarks that “the eastern alliance between patricians and mercantilists often rejected the sentimental in favor of a more punishing ironic address” (62), her observation casts a piercing light on what is, in the context of the book, a neglected topic.

Despite these problems, Regionalism and Reform makes a powerful case for a contextualizing history of nineteenth-century American art. As such, it will be required reading for anyone concerned with class and culture in the antebellum period.

Alan Wallach
Ralph H. Wark Professor of Art and Art History, Art and Art History Department, The College of William and Mary

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.