The 'return' of religion in the scholarship of American art.

Author:Promey, Sally M.

Emanuel Leutze's best-known work is that standard of American history painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, completed in 1851. (1) The image is one of a loosely related cluster of paintings in which Leutze (1816-1868) explored the origins of American freedoms: political, intellectual, religious, and artistic. I invite the reader to consider an earlier painting in this informal series, an infrequently reproduced image called The Iconoclasts (1846, Fig. 1). (2) A significant number of works by the artist depict similar religious historical subjects. These are not images that have interested many scholars. In The Iconoclasts, through the lens of an episode borrowed from the mid-seventeenth-century English Civil War, the Protestant Leutze painted a group of well-armed Puritan men desecrating an English Catholic church (Fig. 2). Intruding upon the sanctity of this ecclesiastical interior, one soldier takes a hatchet to a painting of a haloed Virgin and Child, another holds aloft a statue of the heavenly Mother of God, ready to hurl it to the floor, a third is caught in the act of destroying a crucifix. On the stairway, two militant Puritans struggle against the weight of a stone figure of Saint Peter, anchor of papal authority and recipient of the keys to the divine kingdom. In addition to the painting's specific historical referents, The Iconoclasts broadly narrates the rhetorical--and actual--attack on works of art as "graven images" carried out by various European Protestant Reformation groups as part of their rejection of Roman Catholic authority and ritual practice.


While Leutze dressed his painting in the garb of seventeenth-century English history, he intended its message for the nineteenth-century American cultural descendants of Anglo-Puritans. Asserting oppressive and enduring consequences for both art and devotion, Leutze depicted a sort of prejudice he feared was, in his own time, peculiarly American. Painted for James Robb, an Episcopalian collector from New Orleans, The Iconoclasts represents Lentze's convictions regarding the threat to liberty presented by fanaticism and intolerance. Violence against images, the painting suggests, is also violence against liberal democracy. Perhaps even more than violent actions, however, this is a picture about hostile attitudes. Like many mid-nineteenth-century American artists, Leutze chafed against what seemed to him a national disregard for artistic tradition. In this painting, he maintained that the literal and figurative dismissal of pictures was an offense against God and against human compassion, tolerance, and devotion. The Iconoclasts, organized around numerous episodic vignettes of pictorial mutilation and sacrilege, urged the American viewer to identify with the faithful defenders of art, that is, with the Catholic victims o1 iconoclasm, rather than its Protestant agents. For Robb, the painting's Episcopalian patron, this likely required something of a leap. For others among Leutze's largely Protestant audiences (individuals who would have been genealogically even more inclined to see themselves, at least initially, standing in the boots of the Puritan aggressor), a part of the painting's contemporary power accrued from the mental gymnastics its iconic sympathies set in motion. "All the poetry of the picture," a Boston critic proclaimed, "is, of course, with the Catholics." (3) Positing the incompatibility of American liberty and American iconoclasm, Leutze charged a kind of Puritan aesthetic imperialism with responsibility for American inhospitality to artistic genius---and The Iconoclasts bid those who saw it over the next decade or so at the American Art-Union, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Boston Athenaeum to reach this conclusion with him. (4)

In 1846, Leutze's painting offered a fanciful but still more or less accurate representation of a historical "event" two centuries removed in time and an ocean's distance away in space: the clash between Protestants and Catholics over the use of specific kinds of religious images during the English Civil War. Americans, New England Puritans included (with no pope near at hand, no cult of relics, no great cathedrals), had never found themselves in any closely analogous situation. Only in a broadly metaphoric sense did The Iconoclasts fit the state of affairs in Lentze's United States. The artist selected a religious contest from English history to critique American sentiments, convictions, and pictorial prejudices. In this essay, I, too, ask the image to work not so much historically as metaphorically. I appropriate Leutze's picture as a point of entry into a conversation about academic suspicions of religion--and here I mean everyday religious commitments, experiences, and subjectivities as well as the extremities of religious fanaticism that Leutze delineated. I approach this subject as a scholar of American art history, writing about scholarship produced in the United States that concerns American artistic production and its historical relations to religion from the seventeenth century to the present. From this perspective, I chart a kind of figurative academic iconoclasm in art history's hesitation to authorize certain sorts of images and image content. Pursuing this line of thought to its logical conclusion, art history itself, especially in the process of canon formation, can be seen as an inherently "iconoclastic" discipline, granting standing, and thus visibility, to some visual practices and denying it to others. (5) How useful or how extreme the hyperbole operating in this comparison, I leave to the reader to decide. In any case, the association is a provocative one--and it serves to draw attention to what this authorizing practice gains and loses for art and its history. (6)

In 1999, at the Stanford University, symposium on art of the United States, one of the specialization's foremost practitioners declared religion a "hot topic" in American art history. (7) The element of surprise, for me, in Wanda Corn's remark was not that increasing numbers of scholars were researching historical relations between visual culture and American religions; I had been observing and participating in this activity for some time. The surprise lay rather in the manner and degree of recognition granted in this professional convocation of specialists. One compelling question generated by Corn's assertion is whether this "hot topic" will turn out to be, for most a passing fancy--or whether the evidence will be deemed illuminating and persuasive enough to make a case for enduring significance.

A dozen years ago the study of religion in American art seemed to be virtually dormant. How do we account for the efflorescence of interest that gave rise to Corn's comment? (8) What has hindered serious scholarly engagement in the past? And why is the discipline apparently more open to this set of questions now? In other words, where have we come from and what accounts for the trajectory? My aim is more interpretative historiography than critical review. I do not imagine anything like an inclusive accounting of scholars or publications past and present. A note about word usage: while the current social sciences literature tends to distinguish religion from spirituality, to see religion as public, institutional, and doctrinal and spirituality as mote individual, personal, and diffuse, for the specific purposes of this essay I frame religion as the broader of the two terms, incorporating spirituality as one of its many dimensions. Religion, in this sense, intersects life and art at multiple and various points and allows for the possibility of complex, even competing and contradictory, sorts of commitments and engagements within a single artist, artifact, or beholder.

The visual and the religious coexist in many aspects of American life. The academic study of these relations has had a less consistent history. In the United States of the nineteenth century, the early critics, historians, and observers of" the nation's visual arts (James Jackson Jarves and William Dunlap, for example) described the presence of religious content and concerns. (9) As academic institutions assumed their late-nineteenth- and twentieth-centre), forms, however, and became, along with museums, the principal home for the practice of art history, the study of religion within the art history of the United States lost considerable ground. Periodically, individual scholars have asserted religion's art historical significance. In 1973, Alan Wallach recommended scrutiny of the subject and demonstrated, in his dissertation on Thomas Cole, the fruitfulness of including religion among the contexts of American visual practice. (10) Still, even for art historians committed to cultural and contextual investigations of images and objects, religion has been rather late to actively join conversations about the social dimensions of American art. This gap, this art historical omission, has been all the more striking in light of the persistence and power of religious ideas, significance, and subjects in the nation's visual production and reception. While American art history can document the abandonment and reengagement of the subject of religion, religion never left American art.

Despite their apparent hesitations concerning religion, Americanist art historians in the twentieth century did not simply and purposely neglect or ignore it. A number of the specialization's most prominent early scholars (including Joshua Taylor, Neil Harris, Barbara Novak, Roger Stein, David C. Huntington, Wayne Craven, and Charles Eldredge) noted religion in American art history and some treated it fairly comprehensively, given the prevailing intellectual assumptions and tools. (11) But the reigning models, theories, and habits of twentieth-century Western intellectual and social history tended to ensure that religious significance was...

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