Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 25, 2023
Sophie Lynford Painting Dissent: Art, Ethics, and the American Pre-Raphaelites Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2022. 264 pp.; 112 color ills. Cloth $65.00 ( 9780691231914)

Sophie Lynford’s Painting Dissent: Art, Ethics, and the American Pre-Raphaelites is a landmark contribution to scholarship on nineteenth-century American art. Using the work of seven key figures to trace the rise, development, and afterlife of the American Pre-Raphaelite movement, Painting Dissent offers a newly comprehensive account of a significant but understudied group that shook up American landscape practice, aesthetic thought, and many other cultural endeavors in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Indeed, one of the great contributions of Lynford’s book is its account of the multidisciplinary dynamics of the American Pre-Raphaelite project. Painting Dissent examines architects and scientists who contributed to the movement alongside its better-known artistic members, demonstrating that Pre-Raphaelite ideas found expression in building designs, geological writing, landscape photography, and many other creative media besides painting. Lynford’s book revises our understanding of the American Pre-Raphaelites in at least two other significant ways. Painting Dissent offers the most thorough assessment yet of the group’s shifting relationship with John Ruskin, using close readings of the Pre-Raphaelites’ correspondence and public writings to track American thinkers’ early embrace and eventual disavowal of the British critic. And the book presents a definitive account of the cultural politics of American Pre-Raphaelite art: studying the beliefs and biographies of group members with a new intensity, Painting Dissent demonstrates that the Pre-Raphaelites were collectively committed to the critique of prevailing cultural traditions, to abolition and institutional reform, and to the idea that art and architecture could affect real sociopolitical change. At once an authoritative study of a tight-knit cultural movement and a provocative reassessment of nineteenth-century artistic practice and aesthetic theory, Lynford’s book will be an essential resource for scholars of American art and cultural history.

Organized chronologically, the four chapters and epilogue of Painting Dissent follow the development of the American Pre-Raphaelite movement from its genesis in the early 1850s to its eventual decline in the early 1870s. The book begins by reexamining the critic and erstwhile painter William James Stillman’s engagements with British Pre-Raphaelite ideas. The first chapter analyzes Stillman’s Adirondacks paintings, photographs, and writings as creative syntheses of Ruskinian verism and transcendentalist idealism that helped create “the conditions out of which a robust American Pre-Raphaelite movement could emerge during the following decade” (28). The second chapter uses the art of Thomas Charles Farrer to explore the stridently political forms of landscape representation that Ruskin’s American followers developed during the Civil War. Examining two pictures—A Buckwheat Field on Thomas Cole’s Farm (1863) and View of Northampton from the Dome of the Hospital (1865)—in light of Farrer’s early training in London and brief service in the Union Army, the chapter traces the artist’s efforts to formulate an “ethical style of landscape painting” (73) devoid of “pictorial devices associated with geographic and human domination” (116) and shaped instead by a new compositional ideal of “optical democracy” (114). The third chapter turns to architecture and considers Peter Wight and Russell Sturgis’s efforts to develop a “politicized American Gothic” (122) style that would appeal to influential patrons, incorporate the “major architectural principles promulgated by Ruskin” (120), and “voice dissent against the authoritarian structures that had condoned slavery and war” (124). The chapter reads two buildings that Wight designed during and after the Civil War—the National Academy of Design (1861–65) and Yale School of Fine Arts (1866)—as architectural tributes to the ideals of independent labor, social equality, and postwar national renewal. The fourth chapter revises previous accounts of American Pre-Raphaelitism’s historical trajectory by exploring the movement’s influence on Clarence King’s Fortieth Parallel Survey of 1867–72. After reviewing King’s interest in Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites’ commitment to geological study, the chapter examines the ways that John Henry Hill’s Western sketches and paintings—and especially his depictions of Shoshone Falls in Idaho—visualized King’s scientific theories of catastrophism and formulated a new mode of “dispassionate empiricism” (160) entirely unlike the “magniloquent visual rhetoric” (173) that characterized contemporaneous Western pictures by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. Having tracked the reach of Pre-Raphaelite ideas into all corners of mid nineteenth-century cultural life, Painting Dissent concludes with an epilogue that briefly recounts the mix of forces—most importantly Clarence Cook’s disavowal of Pre-Raphaelite mimeticism and the decline of Ruskin’s reputation—that brought the movement to an end in the early 1870s.

In its efforts to recapture the remarkable multivalence of the Pre-Raphaelite project in the United States, Painting Dissent marks out a new and fruitful path toward understanding the movement’s cultural impact. The book’s strongest line of analysis is directed, however, at the novel pictorial forms devised by the Pre-Raphaelite group. Taken together, the first, second, and fourth chapters demonstrate that Ruskin’s criticism inspired two generations of American painters to develop and sustain an alternative mode of landscape representation defined by an “allover mimesis” (4) and a self-conscious rejection of “pictorial formulas that endorsed concepts of hierarchy, ownership, cognitive possession” (120). In tracing the life of this oppositional tradition, Painting Dissent greatly expands our understanding of the aesthetic range, intellectual richness, and political stakes of mid nineteenth-century American landscape painting.

 Lynford’s book brilliantly demonstrates that the American Pre-Raphaelites were forward-minded critics of slavery and Western expansionism who believed that art and architecture could contribute to the work of sociopolitical transformation. In its zeal to recapture the singular radicality of the group’s beliefs, Painting Dissent sometimes neglects the complexities and limitations of the Pre-Raphaelites’ brand of cultural politics. At times the book seems to take an overly credulous perspective on the ideological ramifications of the group’s endeavors. In characterizing Clarence King and James Gardiner’s draft dodging as a principled expression of “conscientious evasion” (164), for example, the fourth chapter generously assigns high-minded philosophical motivations to an act that might be better understood as an effort at self-preservation animated by fear, privilege, or hypocrisy. Certain readings seem to miss the ways that the Pre-Raphaelites’ cultural expressions of dissent could outpace the real sociopolitical effects of their creative undertakings. Even as it details Peter Wight’s efforts to encode the new National Academy of Design building with signs of free labor (hand-carved capitals and columns) and public accommodation (a drinking fountain), for example, the third chapter leaves the relationship between the edifice’s symbolic assertions of radical egalitarianism and the actual class and racial exclusivity of the institution it housed unexamined. Painting Dissent might have balanced out its accounting of the Pre-Raphaelites’ progressivism, finally, by attending more closely to those bits of evidence that illuminate the regressive undersides of the group’s political project. One such artifact appears in the first chapter. To illustrate the effect that Ruskin’s proslavery writings had on his American followers, the chapter reprints a passage from a letter in which William James Stillman decries the British critic’s support for the Confederacy—but does not address the fact that Stillman uses a racist slur and a strange fantasy of enslavement to bolster his argument against Ruskin. Attending more fully to the contradictions within this passage would allow Lynford to tease out the mix of investments that evidently shaped Stillman’s antislavery activism (and likely inflected the abolitionist beliefs of his contemporaries). Some consideration of the ideas and movements to which the Pre-Raphaelites later gravitated might also have enriched the book’s account of the movement’s politics. One would imagine, for example, that Charles Eliot Norton and Daniel Coit Gilman’s enthusiastic affiliation with the postwar liberal reform community—a collective of thinkers linked, as Nancy Cohen and others have shown, by class elitism, laissez faire economic leanings, and a hostility to mass democracy—sprang from deeper inclinations that had some effect on the arguments they made about art, aesthetics, and politics during the Civil War.

None of these minor shortcomings should distract us, however, from the groundbreaking work that Painting Dissent does to reevaluate its subject and unpack the liberatory potentialities of historical American art. As a rigorous effort to understand a historical movement that interrogated the structures of its moment and formulated inspiringly prescient forms of critique, Painting Dissent is both a welcome departure from belletristic studies that have sought to seal off the American artistic past from present day concerns and an exciting complement to the growing body of contemporary research focused on the hegemonic cultural politics of nineteenth-century art.

Ross Barrett
Associate Professor, Department of History of Art & Architecture, Boston University