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April 14, 2004

The Structure of Aesthetic Revolutions, Part I
W. S. Haseltine, The Rocks at Nahant, 1864


A few weeks ago I was leafing through one of my art books, “Expressions of Place: The Art of William Stanley Haseltine,” when I noticed the odd chronology of Mr. Haseltine’s American career as an 19th century landscape painter. To wit, this seems to have lasted only from 1859 to 1867, when he decamped for Europe at the ripe young age of 32. Even more oddly, his period of domestic success was shorter still—from 1862 to roughly 1865. During this time he was favorably reviewed in the press and his paintings were included in many distinguished collections. However, virtually upon the cessation of the war, the jig was up with his American career, as Andrea Henderson notes in her essay, “Haseltine in Rome”:

Haseltine and his [better known Hudson River school] contemporaries—Albert Bierstadt, Worthington Whittredge, and Frederic Church among them—were increasingly savaged in the press for what critics saw as the repetitive and retrogressive nature of the work…

Given that Hazeltine was a pretty competent landscape painter, a terrific landscape draftsman, and that his subsequent Rome-based career was financially successful right up to the doorstep of the 20th century, he struck me as an unlikely candidate to have been nothing more than a ‘flash in the pan.’

W. S. Haseltine, Near Otter Cliffs, Mount Desert, 1859

Moreover, it seemed doubly unlikely that the other Hudson River painters listed above would also, as a group, suddenly suffer a lack of artistic quality and go from ‘inspired’ to ‘repetitive and regressive.’ It seemed rather as if Mr. Haseltine’s artistic ship, the Hudson River school, had, hit an iceberg and sunk; that some kind of cultural cataclysm had altered the whole geography of American art.

The dates, of course, suggested that the cataclysm might well be the Civil War. Generally, however, I was under the impression that the nation—well, the North at any rate—had pretty quickly shrugged off its battlefield losses and gotten on with making money and enjoying itself during the subsequent Gilded Age (as Mark Twain so memorably named the postwar era.) Hence the exact reasons for this shift in taste seemed rather mysterious; at least until I picked up Louis Menand’s excellent intellectual history of the post-Civil War era, “The Metaphysical Club.”

Reading Mr. Menand’s book, I realized that this era constituted a fascinating case study of a revolutionary shift in both intellectual world-view and national taste, and I thought I’d try to share a brief outline of the cultural cataclysm, and maybe even draw some tentative conclusions about how such shifts ‘work.’

What Were Things Like Before the War?

Before we can identify the nature of this change, we need to know what things were like before it happened. What, in short, were the characteristics of the antebellum (i.e., pre-Civil War) cultural consensus that was so abruptly altered at the end of the war?

In a phrase, the central tenet of the antebellum cultural consensus was American exceptionalism. This concept, which had many applications but essentially religious roots, grew out of the unique situation facing the new nation. Americans had a big empty continent to exploit (once the Native Americans were disposed of); better still, all the land wasn’t already owned by an entrenched aristocracy; and the new nation was blessed with a relative lack of divisive religious tensions, as most of its citizens were Protestant Christians of one stripe or another. To top it off, America lacked militarily powerful neighbors. So how did Americans interpret their good fortune? Being highly religious in their own fashion, they concluded that America was divinely favored by the Creator and had a distinct, indeed a leading, role to play in God’s unfolding religious narrative.

As a description of the antebellum cultural consensus, that’s a tad general. So let’s look at some details. Starting with religion, we see that the pre-Civil War cultural consensus reflected the doctrines of the Second Great Awakening (1790-1850). Theologically, the Awakening rejected Calvinist notions of innate human depravity and divine predestination. The movement preached that a combination of faith and righteous behavior could and would win salvation from a benevolent God, and that human activity had a crucial role to play in perfecting the world in preparation for the fairly imminent Second Coming of Christ. It gave Americans a welcome sense that they had been given a ‘fair chance’ of salvation by a loving God. The Awakening also allowed Americans to feel a sense of confidence that they were capable of molding their own destiny, righting wrongs and fixing problems. Indeed, Americans eagerly took up the task of reform; the very important ‘secular’ outcomes of the Second Great Awakening included the birth of feminism, abolitionism, the temperance movement and the establishment of countless institutions of higher learning.

In philosophy, the pre-Civil war consensus centered on a form of Idealism deriving from the works of Kant and Hegel (and given a few hints of Eastern religion in the works of the Transcendentalists.). Idealism was a form of metaphysics that asserted a religiously inspired view of the world in which ‘Truth’ descended from a higher, Divine realm into the confused and confusing world of our limited minds and senses. Despite the shortcomings of man’s limited intellectual horsepower, however, a benevolent Creator had fortunately made both the world and the mind of man so that they both functioned in obedience to the same divine laws. Hence, it was possible for humans to at least partially understand the world because the world had been divinely ordered so as to be understandable. And according to the American school of Transcendentalism, the ‘book of Nature’ could—and should—be read both scientifically and emotionally with the goal of uncovering the mind and will of the Creator.

T. Cole, Schroon Mountain, Adirondacks, 1838

In the visual arts the antebellum consensus was embodied in the Hudson River School. That this school focused on landscape painting was quite logical. America didn’t have that much history, and it had no tradition of history painting; clearly the new country wasn’t going to embrace a classically-oriented or historically-oriented visual art. What America did have was landscape, which was the record of the activity not of man but of the Almighty Himself.

The Hudson River school was an explicitly nationalistic phenomenon. Prior to the Civil War, it must be emphasized, Americans did NOT take it for granted that they would worship at the feet of the great European art tradition. Quite the contrary, it was assumed that American artists would create an American school of art based on native inspiration and native subject matter. The role of the European art establishment was merely to provide some useful technical advice and training (and not always even that). There was a distinct lack of interest, at least among American collectors, in attempts to drag in the historical baggage (such as Neoclassicism) that played such a large role in European art.

To sum up the antebellum cultural consensus in a single key attribute, it was just darned optimistic. Americans felt they were under the benevolent eye of the Creator, that they had a divinely appointed mission (in part, to perfect the world in anticipation of the Second Coming), they were prospering, they had the dignity conferred by their (at the time) unique political tradition. If there were problems, Americans were confident that with good will they could prevail over them.

Of course, no culture—or at least no interesting culture—has a completely homogenous consensus. In fact, a whole series of what might be termed ‘disruptive' antebellum trends also existed. Some of these included:

The politics of slavery: North-South tensions over slavery and its extension into the territories were of course intense and growing . Moreover, attempts to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act (which forced Northern police forces and courts to return runaway slaves to Southern bondage) radicalized a large number of Northerners who had previously been willing to accommodate the South and its “peculiar institution.”

The American industrial revolution: The 1850s saw the gathering acceleration of twin trends, urbanization and industrialization, that together would radically remake America. They would also lead to a more intensely stratified class structure than was altogether compatible with the democratic beliefs of the antebellum cultural consensus.

Tensions between science and religion, part 1--Geology: The antebellum era saw a series of scientific discoveries that appeared to undermine revealed religion. In a decade or two geologists upped the age of the Earth from the 6,000 years of the Biblical account to millions or even hundreds of millions of years. This tension between religion and science generated a huge interest in the mid-19th century in geology and paleontology. (Under this impetus, Hudson River school landscape painting became much more geologically precise.) These discoveries were ‘reconciled’ with revealed religion by ingenious scientific theories like the Catastrophism of Louis Agassiz, the best-known American natural scientist of the antebellum era.

C. Watkins, Louis Agassiz Teaching (Detail), c. 1861

Catastrophism posited that there had been repeated Creations—the traces of which constituted the fossil and geologic records that were now being unearthed. According to Mr. Agassiz, each episode of creation was eventually ‘terminated’ by a series of divinely ordered disasters—along the lines of an Ice Age or the Bible’s Great Flood—to clear the earth out for the higher and better forms of life to come. (Agassiz was, not coincidentally, the first person to realize the significant role glaciation has played in the geological shaping of the earth and coined the term, “Ice Age.”) While this explanation went over well enough at Harvard, where Agassiz taught, the whole topic was titillating because Agassiz's theory was clearly pretty fancy dancing and his 'reconciliation' of science and theology might prove short-lived indeed.

Tensions between science and religion, part 2—Statistics and Probability: The 19th century saw a profound development of statistics and probability theory, including the crucial notions of the ‘standard distribution’ and its counterpart, the ominously-named ‘law of errors.’ This branch of mathematics constituted a profoundly alternative intellectual paradigm to the notion of a God-centric, things will always make sense because He designed the universe to make sense point-of-view. Napoleon is said to have asked the French mathematician and physicist Laplace—who popularized and helped to develop this area of mathematics—why the word “God” didn’t appear in his books. Laplace is supposed to have replied: “I don’t need that hypothesis.” Statistical methods allowed mathematicians to take what appeared to be random variations and demonstrate that they could reveal intelligible patterns, at least in the aggregate. In 1859 the British physicist James Clerk Maxwell utilized these concepts to propose the kinetic theory of gases, thus founding the study of statistical mechanics. It was a ‘bottom-up’, order-out-of-randomness way of looking at the world that proved profoundly subversive to the ‘top-down’ order-descends-from-God-above antebellum cultural consensus.

Tensions between science and religion, part 3--Biology: The new discoveries in geology and paleontology regarding extinct forms of life (e.g., mammoths, dinosaurs, ‘missing link’ species like the bird-reptile Archaeopteryx) led naturally to evolutionary theories. One such theorist was Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who as early as 1800 wrote that species evolved because children inherited not only genetic traits but also the behavioral (or adaptive) traits of their ancestors. (Animals that were constantly stretching their necks to reach higher leaves would gradually develop longer necks.) A second was Herbert Spencer, who in 1851 postulated that ruthless survival-of-the-fittest competition was the mechanism underlying all forms of progress. Of course, the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, with its carefully marshalled evidence, made evolution scientifically irresistible. (It is important to note, however, that Lamarck and Spenser were, in popular if not scientific terms, actually more influential than Darwin.) Darwin’s notion of new species arising from random variation in living things not only paralleled the new ‘bottom-up’ paradigm of statistical and probabilistic mathematics but was of course even more disruptive to the religious and philosophical assumptions underlying the antebellum cultural consensus.

In my next post, I’ll show how the Civil War itself transformed these disruptive antebellum trends from ‘subversive’ to ‘dominant’ and how they manifested themselves in post-War art.



posted by Friedrich at April 14, 2004


Wow. I would just like to genuinely thank FvB for posts like this. It organizes American history in such a fashion that one recognizes the organic nature of our world---how science impacts art which impacts politics which impacts religion which impacts science...---I don't remember most of my history professors being so "organized" or interesting in their presentation. Plus, I love the Hudson River landscape paintings.

What's interesting to me, though, is that when people assume their "good fortune" is connected to "and I am fortunate because God chose me" (America's destiny) it seems that the human condition tends to make them stop there too quickly. I'm not sure I see people sweating it enough to understand "and WHY did God choose me? Am I doing the right thing with this good fortune, or am I squandering it?" Someone mentioned measuring life in "gratitude units" and that part always seems to get lost.

It's like people get arrogant right away and say "So any little thought that comes into my head is divine, coz, well, y'know, God chose me." It's just the road to ruin every time, whether it's "Prostestant" or "Muslim" or "Catholic". The temperence movement and slavery and running the Indians into oblivion. There is a streak of human nature which is very generous, but there is also a streak which is obnoxious as hell.

Posted by: annette on April 15, 2004 9:31 AM

Off the top of my head (what else is new?) I would say that the experience of the Civil War, the terrible bloodletting, made it impossible for those who came to maturity in it to ever again countenance the - God is good and I am blessed spirit - of the ante-bellum period. Something like the post WW I lost generation.
America's greatest artist in the latter 19th century, Winslow Homer (who had done superb illustration work during the war, by the way), exhibits in his post Civil War work a totally unsentimental stance. Even in his paintings (usually watercolors) of hunting and fishing in the Adirondacks, his light is never the warm glowing light of Church. And when he tackles the hard life of New England fisherfolk he is positively grim. Maybe his greatest painting of all, The Gulf Stream, is fatalistic.

Posted by: ricpic on April 15, 2004 11:01 AM

Fab, thanks, looking forward to more.

Coupla questions?

* How widespread was Transcendentalism? A handful of New England artist/intellectuals? Or something much greater than that? Was it very influential? An English-major-type background leaves you with the impression that it was phenomenally important. But even if it was (I rather like the Transendentalists), important in what way?

* I could be all off on this. But I was under the impression that a wanting-to-be-Euro and on-Europe's-terms tendency was part of the American arts panorama right from the outset. Maybe not the part we're fondest of, but still part of the scene. The Peale family painters, for instance -- neoclassicism of a sort, no? Gilbert Stuart. And the love Americans had of building neo-Grecian and neo-Roman public spaces and buildings dates back to the 1700s. So I've assumed that there was always some kind of tugging-back-and-forth dynamic between "let's create our own, uniquely American art" and "lordy, that European art is really great, let's do something like it," and that both sides (and the tugging and the dynamic) all qualify as American. Does Menand have a different thesis about this?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 15, 2004 11:29 AM


Thanks for your kind words, it's great to know anybody reads this stuff.


Hey, man, cool it, you're anticipating part II!


Transcendentalism, as far as I know, was far more culturally pervasive (as it enunciated many thoughts that were quite common to Americans generally) than it ever was as a religious movement. Of course, it's greatest impact happened to be on Boston, clearly America's cultural capital in the antebellum era.

As for the lure of European art...that is clearly a vexed question. Obviously, America was founded without a flourishing art tradition all its own; and as the country was the creation of a bunch of European immigrants, a tendency to look back over the water was inevitable. Are the Peale's practicing a sort of New World Neoclassicism, or are they just sturdy American realists? (Uh, maybe both?) As for the use of Classical architectural motifs in Colonial and Revolutionary days, that can cut both ways, too: the use of such motifs in many respects were intended to differentiate the virtue of 'democratic' and 'republican' America from the aristocratic decadence of Baroque Europe. In painting, as the first half of the 19th century progressed, Americans certainly became increasingly enamored of the idea of 'going it alone'--whether that was ever an accurate description of their everyday artistic practices or not (given their very heavy reliance on centuries of European art practices.)

I guess maybe I'm indulging in a bit of hyperbole in the post, but I'm trying to counteract the notion that the attitudes of the very Euro-centric art of the post Civil War era were identical to those of the antebellum era...'cause I think there's a significant shift there and you'll miss it if you think Americans always and only knelt reverently to their European masters. For example, note that Thomas Cole and Morse both spent time as adults in Europe after they had established themselves as professional artists, and Church (probably the most famous American artist at mid-century) was entirely a New World phenomena. The very lengthy European education and apprenticeship of Saint Gaudens was more representative of later trends--he belonged to the next generation.

So, to sum up: American artistic nationalism vs. Euro-yearnings can't be definitively resolved; it's very much a sort of glass half-full, half-empty discussion. But at the very least, I think such sentiments waxed and waned over time, and it is important to pay attention to why those shifts occurred.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 15, 2004 12:26 PM

Many thanks for this article (and others of this sort). They provide a context that is often sadly missing.

On a tangent, it is interesting to find out something about the man for whom Lake Agassiz is named.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on April 15, 2004 6:08 PM

Nice hat tip to Kuhn, too.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on April 16, 2004 12:36 PM

Friedrich, great post, keep 'em coming!

Posted by: jose on April 16, 2004 3:44 PM

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