Cover image for Critical Shift: Rereading Jarves, Cook, Stillman, and the Narratives of Nineteenth-Century American Art By Karen L. Georgi

Critical Shift

Rereading Jarves, Cook, Stillman, and the Narratives of Nineteenth-Century American Art

Karen L. Georgi


$77.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06066-8

$34.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06067-5

152 pages
6" × 9"
8 b&w illustrations

Critical Shift

Rereading Jarves, Cook, Stillman, and the Narratives of Nineteenth-Century American Art

Karen L. Georgi

“Karen Georgi’s Critical Shift argues that the Civil War was less a disruptive dividing line between radically different artistic eras than a blip on an aesthetic continuum from the antebellum decades to the Gilded Age. To make the case, Georgi closely examines the influential writings of prominent art critics James Jackson Jarves, Clarence Cook, and William James Stillman and finds that the war had little or no impact on their ideas about what art should be and what role it should play in society. With its bold new challenge to the model of periodization that has shaped the history, and historiography, of nineteenth-century American art in the modern era, Critical Shift is a provocative contribution to the history of American art theory and criticism in the nineteenth century.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
American Civil War–era art critics James Jackson Jarves, Clarence Cook, and William J. Stillman classified styles and defined art in terms that have become fundamental to our modern periodization of the art of the nineteenth century. In Critical Shift, Karen Georgi rereads many of their well-known texts, finding certain key discrepancies between their words and our historiography that point to unrecognized narrative desires. The book also studies ruptures and revolutionary breaks between “old” and “new” art, as well as the issue of the morality of “true” art. Georgi asserts that these concepts and their sometimes loaded expression were part of larger rhetorical structures that gainsay the uses to which the key terms have been put in modern historiography.

It has been more than fifty years since a book has been devoted to analyzing the careers of these three critics, and never before has their role in the historiography and periodization of American art been analyzed. The conclusions drawn from this close rereading of well-known texts challenge the fundamental nature of “historical context” in American art history.

“Karen Georgi’s Critical Shift argues that the Civil War was less a disruptive dividing line between radically different artistic eras than a blip on an aesthetic continuum from the antebellum decades to the Gilded Age. To make the case, Georgi closely examines the influential writings of prominent art critics James Jackson Jarves, Clarence Cook, and William James Stillman and finds that the war had little or no impact on their ideas about what art should be and what role it should play in society. With its bold new challenge to the model of periodization that has shaped the history, and historiography, of nineteenth-century American art in the modern era, Critical Shift is a provocative contribution to the history of American art theory and criticism in the nineteenth century.”
“This study by Georgi, which draws together the ideas of three 19th-century art critics and commentators, offers a fascinating perspective that unexpectedly relates earlier concerns with those of a postmodern generation.”
“One cannot embark upon an analysis of how historical periodization took shape without being keenly aware of one’s own historical desires and their enactment in writing; these thoughtful concerns inform Georgi’s philosophy of history and undergird her historiographic enterprise. . . . Given the need for thorough, subtle, and complex analyses of historical art criticism in America, this investigation offers the tantalizing glimpse of what such projects might look like, if done with great restraint and attention to the intertwining of rhetoric and belief. The care with which she sets forth the boundaries of her study demonstrates how sensitive Georgi is to the failures any such ‘comprehensive’ study might risk in creating its own mythologized history.”

Karen L. Georgi is Adjunct Associate Professor of Art History at John Cabot University in Rome.


List of Illustrations



1 Rereading James Jackson Jarves’s Art-Idea

2 Clarence Cook and Jarves: Fact, Feeling, and the Discourse of Truthfulness in Art

3 A Further Look at Clarence Cook and the “Revolution” in Art

4 William J. Stillman’s Ruskinian Criticism: Metaphor and Essential Meaning

5 Art Discourse After Ruskin: Time and History in Art





Everything in a picture, it must be added, depends on the composition; if it be the subject that makes the interest, it is the composition that makes, or that at any rate expresses, the subject. By that law, accordingly, our boxful of ghosts [the correspondence of W. W. Story] “compose,” hang together, consent to a mutual relation, confess, in fact, to a mutual dependence. If it is a question of living again, they can live but by each other’s help, so that they close in, join hands, press together for warmth and contact. The picture, before it can be denied, is therefore so made; the sitters are all in their places, and the group fills the frame. We see thereby what has operated, we both recognise, so to speak, the principle of composition and are enabled to name the subject. The subject is the period—it is the period that holds the elements together, rounds them off, makes them right. They partake of it, they preserve it, in return; they justify it, and it justifies the fond chronicler. Periods really need no excuses.

—Henry James, William Wetmore Story and His Friends (1903)

This book is an interpretation of the art writing of James Jackson Jarves (1818–1888), Clarence Chatham Cook (1828–1900), and William James Stillman (1828–1901). As significant critics from the mid-nineteenth-century art world, they have much to say about art’s definition and aesthetic requirements in a moment of supposed transition—the era of the Civil War, whose upheavals left no aspect of American society untouched. These three writers are the central figures of this study not because they are the only important critics from the era; they are not. Rather, they figure here because they are, each in his own way, closely associated with key nineteenth-century critical tenets, aesthetic schemata, and classificatory ideas that the book will argue to be central to modern histories of nineteenth-century American art. In comparing these critics’ positions with how we have historicized their words, the book hypothesizes that there exist deep structures in the field: ways of organizing time, style, and meaning in histories of nineteenth-century American art, which are not necessarily reducible to one methodological approach or another.

The goal might also be explained by recourse to Henry James’s fanciful “composition” from the epigraph. This composition is nothing less than the form that calls into being the picture of history—that which gives the outline, substance, and collectivity to disparate objects that might well remain invisible without this ordering principle. The “confession of mutual dependence” allows fragments from the past to exist again, not simply to be meaningful. Transparent and insubstantial, they are otherwise ghosts, James says, but they take on solidity and firm contours when they are juxtaposed in the “right” way. The reembodied ghosts then constitute a subject, the historical period. But James admits that the subject and the composition are actually one and the same.

The subject of this book is also a group of figures and the composition that has helped form their present outlines. The period that draws them into relief is the Civil War era, or roughly the 1860s and 1870s. It is a sociopolitical moment that, perhaps not surprisingly, has often been conflated with an art historical period. The war has been perceived as the bold line, the profound rupture, the trauma that drove America forward—to putative freedom, to international stature, to economic expansion, to aesthetic modernism, and so forth. It is the supposedly defining event that runs between and even creates distinct art historical periods. This book looks closely at the rhetorical structures and the critical language employed by the three critics to consider the ways in which their words have helped modern scholars constitute an era by means of classificatory, rhetorical, and linguistic mechanisms. It seeks to analyze how such mechanisms give structure and coherence to the individual components existing in the chronological moment, which we then take to form a meaningful picture that allows us to define as history the art of the nineteenth century.

With this condensed and stratified statement of the overall goals, we need to back up several paces and situate the study within the larger discussions to which it aims to contribute: How has nineteenth-century art criticism figured in the history of American art? The broadest of such discussions consists of studies devoted to nineteenth-century American art criticism and art histories. Until recently, nineteenth-century art critics and their writing did not get much attention from modern scholars. John Peter Simoni’s Ph.D. dissertation “Art Critics and Criticism in Nineteenth-Century America” is among the first of such studies. Roger Stein’s pioneering book John Ruskin and Aesthetic Thought in America, 1840–1900 analyzes the ways in which the ideas of Ruskin, an English critic, were incorporated and transformed in the American context. It is an indispensible study of nineteenth-century art criticism in the United States, particularly since versions of Ruskin’s thought were indeed pervasive in antebellum America. Additional work on American criticism includes a few articles from the 1980s written by influential Americanists William Gerdts and Elizabeth Johns, respectively, outlining early critical commentary and art histories. Two lesser-known scholars, Earl and Ellen Harbert, have contributed a dated but worthwhile essay constructing a nineteenth-century critical lineage for a “dissenting” tradition prior to the Armory Show of 1913, and covering the early part of the century is an article by Anne Farmer Meservey. Recently, however, David Dearinger’s Rave Reviews: American Art and Its Critics, 1826–1925 has done a great deal to fill the gap. It provides a very thorough guide to the major critics, their writing, the journals for which they wrote, and the exhibitions they reviewed. And Maura Lyons’s monograph dedicated to William Dunlap’s History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States offers the first full-length study of this first history of American art, examining how the style and narrative of the text express nationalist and other agendas of its author.

Nineteenth-century American art criticism has also played a relatively minor role as an interpretive tool in the study of any given artist or school, though that is beginning to change. It is safe to say that the odd quote here or there has always turned up. In such cases, language is taken as a transparent vehicle, stable and securely linked to its ostensible referent. But where criticism has been more integral to the interpretation, conceptions of language have also been more analytical. Examples of the latter include Elizabeth Johns’s seminal work on American genre painting, Angela Miller’s work on landscape painting, and Margaret Conrads’s study of Winslow Homer. Displaying theoretical interests uncommon in American art history, there are additional exemplary interpretations that read critical language within complex and overlapping linguistic, pictorial, and psychological practices, where history is questioned even as it is grasped and whose possible meanings emerge at times from silences as much as words. Bryan Wolf is a key pioneer in this regard, though with literature more than critical reception. Other examples include David Bjelajac’s work on Washington Allston; Eric Rosenberg’s work on Thomas Eakins, Albert Ryder, and the so-called colorists; and Rachel Ziady DeLue’s book on George Inness. The present study works with an understanding of critical language that is closest to this last group. By approaching critical writing in such a manner, my analysis of the three nineteenth-century critics makes extensive use of rhetorical patterns and metaphorical structures in the period art discourse. As the following chapters will show, the critics’ words taken alone are too easily subject to unrecognized narrative desires on the part of modern writers.

A further note on methodology might be useful here. My approach responds to a range of theoretical studies whose common point of departure is to question positivist models of history and language. I share with them a fundamental skepticism with regard to perceiving the past as having an objective meaning that can be recuperated and retold as such, and to the idea that language can represent a referent in a fixed manner. Narrative theories in particular strongly influence my understanding of historiography; linguistic analyses that might generically be labeled semiotic condition what I take to be or not to be possible in reading any text. Analyzing historical representation, for instance, Hayden White conceives of history in ways that are not dissimilar to what the epigraph from Henry James implied and that are central to this book. For White, history is a type of composition, without which the past can neither be told nor represent the historical. Ordering principles and language construct narratives that mold disparate events with rhetorical patterns, from which the meaning, coherence, and significance—which we call history—are derived.

Language, as noted above, is taken here as contingent; it is considered a form inextricably wedded both to history and to thought. Language bears, in other words, a relationship to its object that is deeply historical as well as deeply subjective; it is necessarily interpreted. Interpretation nevertheless does not imply arbitrary or self-involved relativism. By contrast, interpretation means that we must continually exert pressure on the language in question and respond to the pressure it exerts on us, sounding its repetitions and silences, its relationship to period discourses, and its role in tropic and rhetorical structures of the moment in order to represent as fully as possible the historicity that it asserts.

With this grounding in the methodology and with a broad overview of the general field, we can now get back to the book’s primary arguments. The three writers of the study will be introduced further on. At hand are the more complex overall propositions. They will be presented one at a time, though conceptually (and in the rest of this book) they collapse a bit more fully into one another. The first proposition is that the historiography of nineteenth-century American art relies to a great extent on the apparent existence of aesthetic and conceptual contrasts in art on either side of the Civil War. These contrasts also provide the periodizing framework that helps order the field overall; they are contrasts that aid us in plotting trends, grouping thematically, and giving coherent order to the art of the nineteenth century. This framework makes certain formal features, certain ideas, and certain personalities stand out more than others, regardless of whether the high relief accords with the original shadow they may or may not have cast.

What are these contrasts? They are quite familiar to students of American art. There is a good deal of consensus, regardless of other methodological or ideological interests, that American art can be understood as undergoing substantial change in the aftermath of the Civil War with regard to its interest in “reality” or putatively objective representations of the material world. Classic texts in the field recount a progressive development for American art in which there is an increasing distaste for anecdotal pictures, diminished emphasis on literal, detail-oriented finish, and greater interest in more freely painted and expressive styles after the war. We traditionally register, in other words, an apparent change in attitude toward painting in which the postbellum art world gave precedence to form over content and subjective feeling over objective fact. These contrasts shape an explanation in which American art advances formally and critically along the path later drawn by the paradigm of modernism: antebellum nativism gave way to postwar cosmopolitanism and the ostensibly more subjective and individualist concerns of an emergent modernism.

Newer methodological interventions have, of course, made us skeptical of any “master narrative” in American art. Indeed, we see more thematic studies and essay collections than surveys, almost automatically limiting the chronological arrangement of art. This newer tendency is employed to overtly eschew unified narrative and its repressive connotations, its predisposition toward hierarchy and canon formation. It consists frequently of socially attuned scholarship that desires to pluralize, aided by theories developed in areas such as gender studies, material culture, and identity politics. Thus, American identities, American cultures, competing discourses, competing regions, external influences, and so forth have become our new standard. Nonetheless, the idea of divergent pictorial practices on either side of the Civil War continues to give structure to the other questions we then bring to the art in question. Similarly, the perception that new critical voices spoke out after midcentury in defense of ideas such as beauty or individual creativity remains, and such ideas continue to suggest to us that objective vision and “reality” as representational goals were replaced by new idealist goals and individual vision. Thus, some underlying assumptions persist.

Running deeply through the field of American art history is a sense of social commitment, for which many art historians, myself included, have been drawn to the field. This commitment is manifested in the field’s strong tradition of social history, its interest in material culture, its resistance to the implicit hierarchical order of connoisseurship, and its Emersonian faith in the social utility of intellectual activity. It is a tendency to be proud of, yet it is one that leads us to conceive of the historical in certain ways and to perceive some narratives as being more historical than others. And, finally, it begs the question of what is really the subject of American art history.

The question at hand is thus not whether painting changed; there is no doubt that it did. There is no doubt that, say, a landscape painting by Asher B. Durand from the 1850s and one by George Inness from the 1880s are notably different, with pictorial strategies and formal concerns that are widely divergent. Likewise, it is the case that critics speaking out in favor of a “new” art denigrated what they called reproduction and slandered sentimentality. It remains to my mind, however, important to question whether these aesthetic and critical differences are accurately represented by plotting an opposition of reproduction versus individual vision, of real versus ideal definitions of art, and whether the former is rejected in favor of the latter in conjunction with the century’s most clamorous events. And while there are many indications of new priorities, they coexisted with strong indications of continuity that are equally valid. (For instance, the new art and the “younger men,” according to some critics, referred to artists rejecting academic conventions in favor of more attention to factual detail.) Thus, the book seeks to question why rupture has been privileged over continuity, how and why it has been read in a critical discourse that also expresses rather different ideas, and the ways in which fundamental art historical constructions are implicated in this process.

This brings us to the next proposition: the periodization of American art described here relies to a large extent, as hinted above, on the rhetorical pillars of the real and ideal and the objective and subjective. With deep roots in Western culture, these pairs were particularly prominent in definitions and judgments of nineteenth-century American painting—thanks in part to the art criticism of Jarves, Cook, and the Crayon (Stillman). They remain central to our modern narratives of transformation. How we approach these fundamental philosophic cornerstones is deeply ideological. The book argues that we use them in a manner somewhat different from that of Jarves, Cook, and Stillman, and that in these differences we can find traces of the “deep structures” that order our art histories.

The term “deep structure” is borrowed from Hayden White, and it plays a substantial role in my argument. White explains that deep structure refers to his conception of the “precritically accepted paradigm of what a distinctively ‘historical’ explanation should be.” He further explains the necessary differentiation between such structures and methodological approach:

Unlike other analysts of historical writing, I do not consider the “metahistorical” understructure of the historical work to consist of the theoretical concepts explicitly used by the historian to give to his narratives the aspect of an “explanation.” . . . [The metahistorical level instead] postulate[s] a deep level of consciousness on which a historical thinker chooses conceptual strategies by which to explain or represent his data. On this level, I believe, the historian performs an essentially poetic act, in which he prefigures the historical field and constitutes it as a domain upon which to bring to bear the specific theories he will use.

Thus, overt methodological differences may assert different explanations for the history of American art, but there remain additional precritical structures that operate at a deeper level regardless of the chosen theoretical approach. Following White’s overall conception (if not arriving at the same poetic modes he finds), I believe we can identify some prefiguring operations in the historiography of American art—structures that we employ to make American art historical. Though the focus of the argument throughout the book is on reading the critical rhetoric more than on elaborating an art historical unconscious, these deep structures nonetheless repeatedly leave traces closer to the surface of the criticism and historiography under consideration and thus call for a bit of speculation. Such speculation will appear primarily in the form of hypotheses proposed at the ends of the various in-depth readings of Jarves, Cook, and Stillman.

Some tentative description, however, of these so-called deep structures can, at this time, be attempted. The first precritical structure emerges from the differences between modern and nineteenth-century applications of the rhetorical poles discussed above. My interpretation of the three critics suggests that we have inserted time into their classifications. Linear movement, chronologically speaking, characterizes modern assumptions about these dyads—as if our nineteenth-century predecessors automatically used them in this manner. We assume, that is to say, that the real (as distinct from Realism) contrasts the ideal and the objective opposes the subjective in time. The latter replaces the former. Chapters 1 and 2 in particular will highlight this issue. There it will be argued that Jarves’s and Cook’s use of the schema was, in fact, different from ours. Modern divergence with regard to the insertion of chronological development thus leaves a trace of an unconscious desire for, or confidence in, time—a belief that it perhaps not only brings change but perforce unites historical events and artworks. The last chapters will also suggest that “past” and “present” are likewise taken by modern art histories to mark time consistently, as if they always signify in the same manner.

The other prefiguring assumption is closely related: art is a representation with a primarily textual/discursive referent that is the historical one. In other words, art’s historicity is not primarily pictorial or formal. Perhaps this might be characterized as an American version of the age-old tension between words and images, which the concluding section of chapter 3 will ultimately identify as a fundamental privileging of the former over the latter, a kind of mistrust of images or pictorial form to signify history or to have historical meaning on their own.

Let us now turn to the individual chapters to further refine the ideas at hand. Each contributes a piece to the overall argument, but each is also an essay, an attempt to rethink the writing of these three critics by rereading their words within the larger patterns and tropes in the critical rhetoric that emerge from their fully examined oeuvre. Unavoidably, there is a certain repetition of the key terms, but the ideas they are employed to illuminate differ or grow as the chapters unfold. It is not the same story being told and retold with the words of three different critics.

Chapter 1 proposes to reread the art theory of James Jackson Jarves, focusing on his often cited 1864 book The Art-Idea. The book and the author have a high profile in the historiography of American art, and Jarves is an important character in the narrative of a progressive development from objective or putatively factual imagery to the more subjective and expressive mode. Jarves’s art writing forms one of the two principal pillars of his present reputation and is the primary concern of the chapter. While not cited at length in recent American art histories, Jarves is invoked frequently as an authority whose words are used to represent our post–Civil War shifts toward international aesthetic trends, toward the ideal in art, toward the rejection of verisimilitude and anecdote. The fact of reference itself, the idea that a quotation bearing Jarves’s name will carry weight, suggests that authority is believed to reside therein. And, indeed, Jarves worked hard to cultivate such a persona, as his writing will demonstrate. Dogmatic insistence characterizes his style, meant in part to show that the principles he espoused could be found over and over again in the history of art. “True” art, he repeated tirelessly, expresses an ideal or spiritual conception, not a material one, and such a conception can be shown to bear a relationship to certain sociocultural characteristics. Jarves so thoroughly hammered at his pet concepts that a sense of conviction asserts itself. That conviction, or rather the assertion, speaks of his desire for authority. In fact, Jarves’s career as a writer has a close relationship to his aspirations to be a cultivated gentleman connoisseur, to figure in elite artistic (largely expatriate) circles.

Extensive biographical information and epistolary evidence from Jarves’s life are presented in Francis Steegmuller’s fine biography The Two Lives of James Jackson Jarves, John Simoni’s indispensable study of nineteenth-century art critics and criticism, and Theodore Sizer’s early recontructions of Jarves’s life. Raised in Boston and on Cape Cod, Jarves attended school until the age of fifteen. He lacked all further formal education, supposedly due to ill health and poor eyesight. It was a deficiency he felt strongly, having desired to attend Harvard College and to pursue a career as a historian or even as a doctor. Falling short of these intellectual aspirations, Jarves spent his life trying to cultivate a learned career and image for himself; significantly, he did so in those fields that he felt were, with less study, open to him. His immediate substitute was travel and travel writing, first in California and then in the Hawaiian Islands, where he also took up newspaper editing. By 1848, Jarves was settled more or less indefinitely in Florence and there began his career in art collecting and art writing.

Jarves was determined (or perhaps obsessed) to possess an art collection and desirous of satisfying (or perhaps demonstrating) a sensibility too refined for the mercantile character of the United States and of his father’s glassmaking business. He was the son of an affluent New England manufacturer, but he seems to have wanted to be a young aristocrat whose fortune and taste permitted him an art collection and who did not need to work for his living. While his motives for collecting art are not my concern, it is the case that his actual means were not those of a collector and his writing activity helped bridge the gap, not just in his finances but also in his lack of historical and philosophical study. We will get back to this idea; here a note on his collection is useful.

His collection of early Italian art, owned by Yale University since 1871, constitutes the other pillar of his present reputation. It is thought to represent the precocious taste of a collector who saw value in works that his compatriots were still too provincial to appreciate. Consisting largely of thirteenth- to fifteenth-century religious panel paintings purchased in Italy in the 1850s, many of the images do not employ linear perspective and are populated with stiff and hieratic figures. The coloring, at the time of Jarves’s purchase, was frequently incomprehensible for its darkness and/or the visible green underpainting. The collection thus comes to represent the sophisticated eye of a connoisseur, a collector able to see value in pre-Renaissance forms during a moment when the contemporary American art scene (however imbued it may have been with the writing of Ruskin) was steeped in the dramatic tableaux of Leutze and Bierstadt, the meticulous detail of Church (and the Pre-Raphaelites), and the stagey domesticity of the postbellum genre painters.

In short, Jarves’s reputation is derived from both his collection and his writing. The chapter will suggest that the art theory expounded in his texts was fundamentally related to Jarves’s financial and critical goals for his collection, yet the focus of the chapter is the definitions for art and the aesthetic positions that Jarves enunciated and for which he is frequently cited. In other words, I am concerned with interpreting Jarves’s meaning by way of his texts. So the characteristics of the man or the motivations that drove him, which may surface, will arise from his style and from the relationship between his stated priorities and the actual structure of his rhetorical forms.

Concentrating on Jarves’s best-selling and most frequently cited book, The Art-Idea, published in 1864, the chapter proposes to identify and analyze the methodological principles Jarves employed and the primary rhetorical structures that shape his theory. Important among the latter are our poles of the real and ideal. Yet Jarves’s method is also intentionally historicist; he sought to create an objective classificatory scheme based on the idea that art should be understood in its “historical relations.” Thus, while he repeatedly classified art under the categories of the real and ideal, he sought to bind his categories to ostensible historical conditions. He thereby constructed a rationale that validated his aesthetic preferences—as if they carried the status of factual knowledge, like a science of sorts. The real and ideal—or Jarves’s preferred equivalents, the material and spiritual—become terms of evaluation that are thereby represented as objective classifications. With this system, the relative worth of realist versus idealist art was identifiable or even quantifiable not only because it was bound to ostensibly factual cultural characteristics (as opposed to aesthetic opinion), but because it could also be affirmed by historical example.

Comparing key aspects of this text with his earlier Art-Hints, published in 1855, the chapter argues that Jarves’s most essential project was not, in fact, that of demonstrating “the historical relations” of art, as he claimed. His founding interest was instead to secure the classificatory schema that would prove the superiority of the art he championed and simultaneously demonstrate that certain facts of American society actively worked against this correct understanding of art. While Art-Hints receives less attention in the historiography (understandably since it gives very scant attention to American art), it appears here because the juxtaposition with his apparently more sophisticated Art-Idea highlights the author’s obsessive attachment to his pet ideas, regardless of the theme he claimed to be addressing. The significant difference between the two texts is their level of fluency. The earlier and clumsier manuscript exposes more overtly the actual priority behind the rhetoric that persists throughout all his writing. We are thereby enabled to read in both texts an underlying desire to build a system that would authorize his judgment and instill the aesthetic preferences he hoped to foster among Americans.

The chapter concludes with speculations about the gap that opens between the Jarves who emerges from his texts and the reputed Jarves of our historiography. The latter represents authority; the former will show relative inexperience and compulsion coming through vociferous and self-promotional rhetorical strategies. How does the reputed Jarves come to stand? I hypothesize that he helps fulfill unrecognized desires in the subdiscipline—desires to perceive signs of ostensible critical development in art that apparently fits the paradigm of emerging modernism and that corresponds in time to significant ruptures and transformations in American society. Jarves not only provides us with copious references to the superiority of the expression of feeling in art but also represents art’s history as a phenomenon of sociohistorical context. He helps plot the overall narrative of development in the American art world all the more because he appears to have done so precisely at the moment of the American Civil War. That is to say, he comes to represent the aesthetic/critical shift of the normative periodization not only because his words superficially lend themselves to such meanings but also because they coincide in time with the upheavals of history.

The hypothesis concerning our modern insertion of time into the real/ideal binary remains, at this point, largely in the background. It requires the analyses in chapter 2 to bring it more clearly into view. Chapter 2 concentrates on the criticism of Clarence Chatham Cook from the mid-1860s. Like Jarves, he is important to the periodization of American art, but from the other side of the spectrum. Cook represents the American equation of nature with art, brought to its most emphatic critical heights. One of the country’s first examples of the professional art critic, the young Cook, a Harvard graduate in architecture, served as art critic for the New-York Daily Tribune beginning in 1864. His debut might be considered to be his editorship from 1863 to 1865 of the New Path, voice of the so-called American Pre-Raphaelites, or perhaps even his years with the Independent from 1854 to 1856, but it was the Tribune reviews that brought him the widest audience in his early career. This work is characterized by a tone as strident as that of Jarves. But Cook insists that true art is mimetically faithful to the minutest of nature’s details, and he is overtly deferential to the dictates of Ruskin. As such, Cook stands as an antebellum contrast to Jarves. Then, in the latter part of the century, he seems to change his mind. His later work will be the subject of chapter 3. For now, suffice it to note that his postwar journalistic output appears to reject his earlier Pre-Raphaelite definition of art, overtly critiquing some of his own clamorous Ruskinianism. Thus, he figures conspicuously in the prevailing periodization both for his supposed change of heart and for the antebellum positions for which he is known.

Nonetheless, a close look at his early criticism, in particular the manner in which he too deployed the real/ideal dyad, will show that his definition of art had little to do with straightforward mimesis. By juxtaposing his use of the schema with that of Jarves, the chapter will argue that these rhetorical poles did not, in fact, represent opposing definitions of art. Rather, they formed a structure inside of which one central, shared definition was contained. The real and ideal, that is to say, formed the outer boundary, the brackets within which a single definition for art was reinforced. The poles represented contrasting formal strategies, the pictorial options for reaching the same end—the expression of what they believed to be moral truths. For those who thought like Cook, sensibility and reverence toward the seen was the only right way. On the other hand, for those who believed as Jarves did, the goal was served by deviating from the visible world in order to demonstrate a spiritual vision.

Thus, while new formal concerns and aesthetic preferences can definitely be identified, much of what art was understood to be—its role in culture and the rhetorical structures of its definition—did not undergo the transformation that we have tended to read in the real/ideal contrast. There are, paradoxically, significant elements of continuity in the critical terms that are generally thought to demonstrate transformation. Here, then, the temporal question becomes more apparent: Cook and Jarves were not spokesmen for the real versus the ideal in a chronological sequence. The concepts were not used in a manner that unfolded in time. The real and ideal constituted a synchronic rhetorical structure of competing forms, which actually reinforced the same goal for art and the same inflexible dogma of truth. Yet our periodization assumes that competing definitions were bound to time, resulting in an automatic apprehension of these terms in the critical discourse as temporal and sequential.

Chapter 3 is devoted to a more expanded view of Cook’s post–New Path career, since chapter 2 limits the examples of his writing to his first years at the New-York Daily Tribune and to his term as editor for the New Path. This larger sample of Cook’s writing is necessary in order to represent his ideas more fully. This will show the consistency that remained as well as the new elements that appeared in his critical writing in the postwar decades. The New Path had come to an end by 1865, but Cook continued to write for the Tribune, which sent him overseas as its Paris correspondent in 1869. He remained only until the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, at which time he repaired to Italy, spent time in Florence, where he met Jarves, and stayed in Rome until 1871. Back in New York, after a stint as art editor for the Atlantic Monthly from 1872 to 1875, Cook produced his most popular work, a series in Scribner’s Monthly called “Beds and Tables, Stools and Candlesticks.” These articles were collected and reprinted in 1878 as The House Beautiful. In short, after the demise of the New Path, Cook worked as a writer or editor for some of the country’s most important periodicals, which additionally included Putnam’s Monthly and the Art Amateur. Toward the end of his career in 1883, he acquired the Studio magazine, but, as the Pre-Raphaelite chronicler David Dickason notes, “his taste for fine illustrations left that journal insolvent” and it ceased to appear in 1892.

The opening section of chapter 3 focuses on Cook’s House Beautiful and the American section of his opus Art and Artists of Our Time, published in 1888. Both were widely read books reprinted from serialized journal articles. Comparing the style and rhetoric of these later works with that of his early output, the chapter argues that the aesthetic tenets in both Cook’s early and later texts were social critiques. Whereas the tone was openly controversial and antiacademic in his youthful Pre-Raphaelite phase, the later writing adopted the pose of the mature and more catholic authority figure. In both phases, however, he sought to counter what he considered the era’s prevailing conformism and, more specifically, its consumerist materialism.

Looking at this longer span of Cook’s career, the chapter finds that the art he championed enacted with its form a challenge to mainstream industrialized consumption and a call for individual reliance over and against conformity to the tastes of others. This was his goal throughout, whether as the invective of a young rebel on a tirade or in the more conciliatory guise of the established journalist. The later writing admits of a wider range of styles and formal modes; he even defended the painterly. But he maintained a consistent idea of art, which at bottom for him—and as we already saw in the comparison with Jarves—was a kind of truth, a collective social ideal that was objective and yet never without “individuality.”

With this reading of Cook, the final part of the chapter returns to the issue of modern historiography—in particular the treatment of stylistic change. It is the issue that comes to the fore in the readings thus far presented. To recap, the preceding chapters hypothesized that classifications for formal types have been read as competing and sequential notions of how art was understood and defined vis-à-vis its role in society (whether art was about collective truth or about individual representation, we might say, for short). I suggested that assumptions about time have been fundamental to reading the critical rhetoric in this manner. Then chapter 3 argues that Cook’s apparent rejection of his antebellum, moralizing, Pre-Raphaelite conception of art was, in fact, a refutation of the strictest construction of the pictorial strategy that he formerly believed to be the only one suited to “true” art, while true art nonetheless continued to be identified and valued in the same manner.

Thus, emerging from these arguments is the hypothesis of the second deep structure: there is an unconscious substitution of art’s definition in place of its formal appearance, a kind of privileging of the textual over the visual, or a desire to locate the historical in the discursive aspects of art. It is an issue of formal, stylistic debate being represented in modern historiography as something rather different; it is represented as competing discursive priorities for art with regard to its goals and its fundamental role in society. At stake is an unintentional repression of stylistic explanation, where in its place are inserted those elements of the critical discourse that are more fundamentally bound to historical discourses—particularly discourses of social and economic change or transformation.

The final section of the chapter is therefore devoted to considering the role that social change and the notion of transformation or “revolution” play in modern historiography of American art, and the consequent implications for style. Here the larger issue needs to be more fully contextualized. We can frame it by looking first at the level of overt considerations and methodological strategies in the field, working downward from there. At that overt level, the issue at hand was succinctly described by Wanda Corn a few decades ago: the “context is often dramatized at the expense of the work of art,” and American art histories therefore tend to use art primarily as illustration. This names the most general surface level only, which, in response to Corn’s warning, has received more nuanced attention since that enunciation. Yet across the spectrum of nineteenth-century American art history, however various the methodological approach may be, there is a common desire to situate the explanation of a given artwork in contextual factors of change and transforming events and how these relate to constructions of national identity and/or subjectivity (and, as before, their pluralities and representational politics). This is part of the widespread social commitment among historians of American art, noted at the outset.

Certainly “Americanness” was long ago rejected in its most programmatic and triumphalist senses—and in any form as a test for judging an artwork as worthy of attention. But the subject of art historical inquiry remains largely wedded to that which represents (various constructions of) American selfhood and its putative development within the singular conditions of American democracy and economic life. The subject more precisely is a representation of American history in which change is a key narrative motor: America as locus of identity formation, of changing subjectivity, of expansion. Expansion refers to territorial conquest, to expanding enfranchisement, and very frequently to economic growth—all of which are generally treated with healthy skepticism and critical insight. Thus, the issue is not that the field lacks perspectives or that it seeks to cover its ideological tracks. Formation, change, and expansion are instead the issue: we perceive history where we find such. Formation, change, and expansion are what make American art historical.

Does this also relate to a latent suspicion that style and form are not in themselves meaningful? Is there an elision of the verbal with the visual in American art discourse? In making this substitution that the chapter suggests to be the case, do we not also swap historical targets? That is, do we not unintentionally historicize social change instead of art or even stylistic change? Even if style represents the social, it (the style or the art) cannot automatically, ahead of time, be replaced by the social. Art is rendered historical, but its form is suppressed. These issues will come up again at the end of the book.

Chapter 4 turns to the writing of the book’s third protagonist, William James Stillman. Born in the same year as Cook, Stillman graduated from Union College in 1848, one year before Cook graduated from Harvard. Unlike Cook and Jarves, however, Stillman forged early, firsthand relationships with both art and Ruskin. He began his postgraduate life as a landscape painter, studying briefly with Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900) and producing a few well-received studies of nature. Like his contemporaries, he felt that nature was deeply meaningful in all the ways familiar to students of American art. However, Stillman was a bit more inspired than most of his peers who extolled the virtues of nature, pursuing his contact with nature by living for long stretches in the woods. He organized and guided the outings of the informal club (dubbed the “Adirondack Club”) that consisted of such Cambridge lights as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louis Agassiz, and James Russell Lowell. One of Stillman’s few extant paintings, The Philospher’s Camp (1858), depicts the group in their camp in the woods. With regard to artists and writers overseas, Stillman had, by 1850, also met Ruskin himself. The famous critic took up the young artist, bringing him along to Switzerland with an eye toward molding his work.

As a name in the American critical constellation, Stillman is less known than the other two critics. His early writing is nonetheless familiar and frequently discussed since he served as the editor and (often anonymous) main contributor to the Crayon. This was the country’s first serious journal dedicated to art, and it demonstrated a level of knowledge and dedication considered to be absent from previous American art writing. Founded in 1855 by Stillman and John Durand, son of the landscape painter Asher B. Durand, the Crayon ran until 1861. The first two years of publication set the tone and standard. They were also the years that Stillman was the editor. He rationed over as many issues as possible the contributions he secured from some of his distinguished Adirondack companions. He filled in the rest with his own unsigned matter and whatever else he could muster from among acquaintances and colleagues. In these years of Stillman’s editorship, the Crayon was clearly Ruskinian, revealing what Stillman later described as the stimulus that Ruskin’s first volume of Modern Painters (1843) had given to his own “nature worship, to which [he] was already too much inclined.”

After his brief but intense engagement with the Crayon and his consequent nervous collapse, Stillman continued to find himself amid his era’s most prominent people, places, and events. The chapter will expand on those most pertinent to his critical writing, but a brief outline here will point to the range of his commitments and interests. He held two consular posts in the 1860s: in the first half of the decade, he served in Rome during the tumultuous final years of the unification of Italy, when the pope lost temporal authority and the city became the capital of the new republic; then, from 1865 to 1869, he was stationed in Crete at the moment of uprising against Turkish rule. More activist than was seen to be fitting, Stillman found himself in trouble on a few occasions for his open sympathy with the struggle for liberty. Throughout much of his life—which he summarized as that of a journalist—he wrote not about art but about the revolutions of his day, in which he was a firsthand observer if not a direct participant. These writings include numerous letters from the various fronts and subsequent books such as The Cretan Insurrection of 1866–7–8 (1874), Herzegovina and the Late Uprising (1877), and The Union of Italy, 1815–1895 (1909).

Most of his life from 1860 onward was spent overseas, largely in England and Italy. After his work at the Crayon, his next regular journalistic appearance was in the pages of the Nation, though he was apparently an occasional correspondent, sending many articles from Crete from 1866 to 1869. He regularly submitted editorials and other signed reviews for decades afterward. He was an official reporter for the London Times beginning in 1886, though he had already been publishing with the paper and receiving payment for his contributions for many years. His writings on art and archeology (the latter had become a kind of specialty from his years in Crete) were also published in the Century magazine, among other periodicals.

Stillman’s writing perhaps comes closer to the shift in critical definitions of art than does that of the other two figures. Ironically, however, he remains largely understood as an antebellum follower of Ruskin. The last two chapters are consequently dedicated to Stillman’s writing with the goal of bringing his work into sharper focus. Chapter 4 concentrates on his earliest and best-known criticism—the essays and other contributions he wrote for the Crayon. It centers on certain conspicuous aspects of the language Stillman used at this moment. His style was densely figurative with a riot of metaphors, and the chapter proposes that this language was intimately related to the definition for art that he championed at the time. Stillman’s early art theory demanded a certain type of critical writing that relied heavily on forms of figurative language. His tropes helped establish the substance of the philosophy, not just the tone of evangelizing zeal.

The chapter then contemplates the less discussed but significant rejection of Ruskin that actually characterized Stillman’s art criticism for the majority of his long life. In the late 1860s, Stillman openly rejected his earlier Ruskinian understanding of art. From this time onward, he returned on various occasions to the subject of Ruskin and to his quarrel with the art theory of his former mentor. These instances are analyzed together, with the premise that the articles on Ruskin form a sequence in Stillman’s thinking that helps us plot the primary points of contention in play. These key points of Stillman’s refutation of Ruskin show us that it was not Ruskin’s morality per se that he rejected, but its insertion into art discourse. He refuted the assignment of ostensibly timeless non-art meaning to art; he refuted a metaphorical definition of art.

Chapter 5 then takes up Stillman’s later writing and, in particular, the linguistic changes that accompanied his rejection of Ruskin. His language became much less metaphorical, and new forms replaced the earlier tropes. The chapter argues that the substantive criteria for Stillman’s post-Crayon definition for, and assessment of, art required a new critical language. As his Ruskinian definition had relied on those tropes discussed in the previous chapter, the later art theory was embodied in a less overtly figurative style. The new language helped theorize art on the basis of apparently factual and not metaphysical comparison. New metonymic figures appeared, creating a discourse of art filled with self-referentiality, an art criticism more about art—and specifically by way of its own materials and supposed history. This later, ostensibly more art-centered art theory needed a form of critical language that built into itself a referential mode of explanation.

Apparently fitting our periodization, Stillman’s later texts set up a definition for art in which it is no longer about morality, but rather about communicating by way of art’s particular properties, about expressing an artistic insight into the subject, which is made meaningful precisely by art. The elevated value of the subject is that which is added by art. Beauty, art’s materials, and art’s traditions became Stillman’s new critical cornerstones. The history of art in particular became an important and often repeated factor in his critical discourse. Many references were made to past art, to older styles, to the characteristics associated with various schools of art, to sociohistorical factors associated with the production of art. The chapter argues that these more overtly material and art-related sources for art’s meaning were an intentional contrast to those earlier bases for critical evaluation—the metaphorical imposition of God and religious morality—which had come to seem external to art. Indeed, the invocation of history appears to have been one of Stillman’s primary means for giving art discourse a new, materialist grounding. It was a theme widely shared by his peers in the latter decades of the nineteenth century.

Looking closely at the role of past art and history in Stillman’s art discourse, however, the chapter finds that his various uses of history are not really historical. They might better be called a discourse of history inasmuch as history, the past, and ideas of historical change appear as rhetoric in the writing. They became integral to Stillman’s critical judgments as terms of value. Indeed, history offered him a comparative standard against which to judge the art of his own time. The term “history” reveals its rhetorical character even further by its frequent contraposition to the label “science.” So whereas history helped define the ideal in art, those contemporary paintings that did not live up to Stillman’s notion of art were, by contrast, often categorized as science. Science named what art was not. The chapter thus analyzes these new key terms, finding that science stood for the present, for what Stillman perceived as its misguided modes of apprehension, its insistence on change, its deference to “fact” at the expense of beauty. These were features of Stillman’s era that he lamented bitterly.

This was the modern world according to Stillman, the society on the other side of the many revolutions, social upheavals, and movements for self-determination for which he himself had fought. It had ushered in, above all, time and flux, growth and change—all of which seem to have destroyed for Stillman the coherence and beauty, the traditions and training, that had formerly (“historically”) belonged to art and life. What was good in contemporary art was that which did not represent the tendencies of the day, but which in some way demonstrated formal strengths rooted in art’s past. History was a way to refer to what was lost in the modern world; it was a metaphor.

Thus, while Stillman most closely resembles the critical picture drawn by our modern periodization, he nonetheless located his ideal of art in the not-present, in a timeless world of art’s traditions and best past masters and styles. “Good art”—which, it is important to note, possessed many of the same features that we too consider to be the salient and “good” characteristics of the art from the moment—was for Stillman precisely that which eschewed overt engagement with its time. Is it not remarkable, then, that we interpret those same features, even some of the same paintings, as representing modernity’s success, as coming from the change, “revolution,” and expansion of that era? For Stillman, change, expansion, and linear time were among art’s chief obstacles. They produced contemporary art that needed the label “science” or “archeology.” In our modern periodization, these same features of change and expansion constitute not only history but also art’s historical meaning. Is it not then possible that we too have failed to differentiate between history and metaphor—that formation, expansion, and change are themselves metaphors for American art’s particularly American meaning?