Symposium | Revolutionary Ideas: The Building of an American Nation

Posted in conferences (to attend) by Editor on October 27, 2013

In connection with the exhibition America: Painting a Nation, the Art Gallery of New South Wales is hosting a symposium on the visual arts and American ideas of nationhood:

Revolutionary Ideas: Perspectives on the Building of an American Nation
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 16 November 2013

Presented in conjunction with the Sydney Intellectual History Network at the University of Sydney

This symposium considers the role of the visual arts and other forms of cultural expression in building an idea of nationhood in America from its foundation as a colony through the beginning of the 20th century. It addresses the aims of portraiture, the meanings of landscape, the rise of genre subjects and the significance of garden projects in the contexts of relationships with Britain, claims of independence, pivotal wars, and moments of dramatic social change.


10.30  Registration and morning tea, Domain Theatre foyer

11:00   Welcome, Michael Brand, director, Art Gallery of NSW and Jennifer Milam, Sydney Intellectual History Network, University of Sydney

11:15  Laura Auricchio, What Makes ‘American art’ American?

‘American art’ has always been created in a context of international exchange. In the 18th and 19th centuries, much of the art that we now consider American was made by artists who spent many years living and studying in Europe, and whose work was steeped in European traditions. Yet other US-born artists working in the same period set out to develop a distinctly national idiom, forging styles and focusing on subjects that, in their view, expressed the unique character of their native land. Is one of these groups more American than the other? Or do they represent two different but related understandings of what it means to be American? Looking closely at a selection of paintings by artists ranging from the European-inspired John Singleton Copley, Mary Cassatt and F Childe Hassam to the self-consciously American Edward Hicks and Frederic Remington, this presentation proposes a variety of answers to the central question: what makes ‘American art’ American.

12:00  Kate Fullagar, Native Americans before and after the Revolution: Resistance, Representation, Removal

This paper traces both the broad history and the European representation of Native Americans through the 18th and 19th centuries. Specifically it looks at the rise and fall of two key ‘revolutionary ideas’ in this period. The first is that, far from a tale of destruction or neglect, Europeans in 18th-century North America in fact accommodated indigenous people more often than not. This engagement, however, narrowed after the American War of Independence when several key circumstantial factors changed for indigenous people. The second is that European representations of Native Americans during the early 18th century can be seen to stand for a critique of European activity just as often as they could for a confirmation, whereas into the 19th century their ‘savage’ attributes began to signify less and less with a European viewing public. Even while Native Americans began to shake off some initial stereotypes, their graphic representation became increasingly elegiac.

12:45  Exhibition viewing and lunch

2:00  Jennifer Milam, American Landscapes: Painting and Planting Democratic Ideals

In a 4th of July letter written in 1805 to his granddaughter, Thomas Jefferson defined gardening as a fine art, ‘not horticulture, but the art of embellishing grounds by fancy…it is nearly allied to landscape painting’. This talk looks at the relationship between landscape painting and garden design in 19th-century America. It considers how nature was perceived as an expression of democratic ideals in the formation of American identity following the Revolution of 1789. Although drawing on pastoral conventions established in Europe, American artists and garden designers were nevertheless keenly aware that the landscape presented elements for the creation of a novel visual language, full of promise for the future. The American landscape – extending further westward and the object of exploration – became a source of inspiration for forging a new nation.

2:45  Shane White, African Americans and American Art

Nearly 70 years ago now the great novelist Ralph Ellison asked: ‘Can a people live and develop for over 300 years simply by reacting?’ He went on: ‘Are American Negroes simply the creation of white men, or have they at least helped to create themselves out of what they found around them?’ Bearing this admonition in mind, White will talk about slavery, and the way white painters have depicted the so-called ‘Peculiar Institution’. Slavery was central to American development in both the 18th and 19th centuries and its legacy still helps shape the United States to this day. Then the talk jumps to the 20th century to look at the Great Migration and examine those who, in search of what Richard Wright called ‘the warmth of other suns’, moved to Harlem. In the 1920s, Harlem became the Negro Mecca, the Black Metropolis, the black capital of the world. It was a place of wonder that inspired the Harlem Renaissance. As the then recently coined Negro adage put it: ‘I’d rather be a lamppost in Harlem than Governor of Georgia’.

3:30  Drinks


Laura Auricchio is Associate Professor of Art History and Dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies at The New School in New York. She has published widely on French and American visual culture in the Age of Revolution and on topics in 20th-century American art. Her next book, The Marquis, a visually informed biography of the Marquis de Lafayette, French hero of the American Revolution, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2014.

Kate Fullagar is a senior lecturer in modern history at Macquarie University. Her most recent books include The savage visit: New World Peoples and Popular Imperial Culture in Britain, 1710–1795 (2012) and, as editor, The Atlantic World in the Antipodes: Effects and Transformations since the 18th Century (2012). She has also published articles on New World travellers, Joshua Reynolds, and Pacific historiography. She was assistant editor of The Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age: British Culture, 1776–1832 (1999).

Jennifer Milam is Professor of Art History and 18th-century Studies at the University of Sydney. Her books include The Historical Dictionary of Rococo Art (2011), Fragonard’s Playful Paintings: Visual Games in Rococo Art (2006), and Women, Art and the Politics of Identity in 18th-Century Europe (2003). She has taught American art at Princeton University, published on the 19th-century still-life artist William Michael Harnett, and written articles on American and European drawings, painting, and gardens.

Shane White is the Challis Professor of History and an Australian Professorial Fellow in the History Department at the University of Sydney. He has written, or co-written, five books including Stylin’: African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit (1999), The Sounds of Slavery (which won the Queensland Premier’s History Prize in 2006) and, most recently, Playing the Numbers (which won the NSW Premier’s General History Prize in 2011). As well, he and his collaborators have created a prizewinning website called Digital Harlem. Currently, White is completing a book about Jeremiah G Hamilton, Wall Street’s first black millionaire.

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