My research focuses on early-twentieth-century American art and literature and on the way that cultural forms respond to the changing conditions of modern life. I write about American genre painting, commercial illustration and the Ashcan School artists, as well as word and image relationships and realist and modernist writing. As well as academic publications, I communicate my research to wider audiences through curatorial work (including two recent exhibitions at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts) and catalogue essays and public lectures for a range of institutions.
Re-envisioning everyday life: American genre scenes, 1900-1940
In February 1913, Edward Lamson Henry, a septuagenarian purveyor of rustic genre paintings stepped from the bustle of Lexington Avenue into the 69th Regiment Armory building, to walk through galleries of European and American modernist art. The painter Jerome Myers recalled:
It was at the Armory Show that I was introduced by friends to E. L. Henry, who was then in his eighties (sic). I had known his work, for which I had a great respect. Together we went around the huge show. Henry had an impairment in one eye, to such an extent that he had to hold the eyelid up with his finger to see. Yet he carefully looked at all the pictures, and when he had finished, he said, ‘Mr. Myers, they told me there was a lot of crazy wild art here, but I really found it wonderfully interesting and I am very glad to have seen it.’ This was the unbiased tribute of an unpretentious American painter of a past generation.
Enfeebled, condescended to and positioned firmly in the past, Henry here embodies the American genre tradition at the start of the twentieth century; resolutely, despite his inquisitiveness, not part of the story of modernity and modernism in which the streets of Manhattan and the 1913 Armory Show play pivotal roles. Re-envisioning the Everyday considers that incongruous encounter: what happened to American genre painting when faced with modern life and modern art? What might a modern painting of everyday life look like and what might its politics be? And what happened to the anecdotes, motifs and types, to the cosy scenes and homey sentiments, of painters like Henry?
Re-envisioning the Everyday focuses not on Henry and his peers, but on subsequent generations of American artists, including Myers, Edmund C. Tarbell, John Sloan, Elizabeth Shippen Green, Norman Rockwell, Archibald Motley, Thomas Hart Benton, Molly Luce, Ben Shahn and Jacob Lawrence, who worked more and less directly with the traditions and practices of genre painting. It considers the ways in which during the first decades of the twentieth century -- in the age of skyscrapers and cubism -- these artists negotiated the seemingly arcane tradition of genre painting and found in it new ways to depict and interpret everyday life. It traces processes of revival, revision and remediation through which elements of genre painting were remade and reframed to fit new experiences of daily life, make meaning in new conditions of production and reception, and engage audiences new and old. For despite genre painting’s waning fortunes with critics and patrons, normative naturalism, visual storytelling and humorous and sentimental types remained central to a populist, mainstream aesthetic that many early twentieth century artists worked within, around and against.
In addition to the in-progress monograph Re-envisioning Everyday Life: American Genre Scenes, 1900-1940, this research has been developed in “Near Vermeer: Edmund Tarbell’s and John Sloan’s ‘Dutch Pictures’” (Modernist Cultures 11.1), “‘That Abused Word: Genre’: The 1930s Genre Painting Revival,” (The Space Between 7.1), and the forthcoming exhibition catalogue essay “Unit and Gross: Representations of Individual and Collective Labor” (The Sweat of Their Face).
I have a longstanding interest in the Ashcan School painters, with particular expertise in the work of George Bellows and John Sloan. My recent work on this group moves away from the terms of urban realist painting through which they are conventionally understood to explore their art as invested in and produced from felt, lived and embodied experience. In place of an art of detached observation and representations of working-class subjects mediated by newspaper caricatures and other forms of contemporaneous visual culture, I find paintings, prints and drawings that convey a sense of shared experience and reciprocity. This art emerges from what Philip Rahv termed the “cult of experience” inhabited by American writers in this period and from a profound engagement with the body, described by Havelock Ellis, an important intellectual influence on the group, as “the nearest thing in the world to us.”
When Bellows painted street gangs and seedy boxing matches, he did so with a degree of bourgeois distance, but also with knowledge, gained as a semi-pro sportsman and fraternity brother, of what it felt like to be hit and humiliated, but also to swagger and evince physical menace. When Sloan looked in on his tenement neighbours he saw women’s bodies that like his sweated and strained and accumulated dirt and that were moved and shaped by fallibility and desire. I explore these ideas on Bellows in “Hazing and other Violent Rituals” (George Bellows Revisited, 2017) and on Sloan in “Chamber Pots and Gibson Girls” (American Art 29.3) and “Marking Distinction” (Three Centuries of American Prints, 2016).
The Barber Institute of Fine Art acquired George Bellows’ 1906 painting Nude, Miss Bentham in 2014 and I curated the 2016-17 exhibition Bellows and the Body: The Real, the Ideal and the Nude, which introduced the painting to wider audiences and developed scholarly research on an underconsidered aspect of Bellows’ oeuvre. In exhibition objects, wall texts, short online essays, public lectures, an international symposium, and a journal article also titled “Bellows and the Body” (Journal of American Studies, forthcoming) this project explores the significance of study of and engagement with the naked body for the Ashcan School. The exhibition website features my lecture “Introducing George Bellows and the Ashcan School” and a range of focused material including short essays, films and symposium talks by contributors to the project.
Print culture and illustration
Several of the artists I work on produced and were involved in complex ways with commercial illustration in the first decades of the twentieth century. My work on John Sloan seeks to move between his painting and printmaking and his commercial illustration in a nuanced and non-hierarchical way. My essay “’The Bewhiskered Rustic Turned Orator” (American Art, 27.2) looks at the work of Robert Robinson, Leslie Thrasher and Norman Rockwell in the context of illustration practice and the political and popular discourse of mass-market magazines. My research in this field attends to close looking, genre and reception but seeks ways of understanding commercial illustration on its own terms and is the product of a decade-long conversation with Jennifer Greenhill about how best to do this.
Magazine illustrations are embedded within multi-media, multi-authored, serial, mass produced objects. In accord with wider developments in periodical scholarship I seek to understand and describe mass-market magazines and their various contents in this way. In the third chapter of Re-envisioning the Everyday, Brand Ordinary: Everyday Life and Mass-Market Illustration, I argue that “in their entanglement with verbal discourse, their creation of cumulative, collaborative meaning, and their claim on popular taste, early-twentieth-century mass-market magazine illustrations recreate many of the practices and circumstance in which genre painting traditions have flourished, whether in antebellum America or the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic.” I am also developing research on Norman Hapgood’s short-lived (1913-16) takeover of Harper’s Weekly and his attempt to use the magazine to mediate between Greenwich Village and Main Street, between avant-garde and mass culture; and on Heath Robinson’s lay, enchanted, befuddled vision of modern technologies.