Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 25, 2001
Gail E. Husch Something Coming: Apocalyptic Expression and Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Painting Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2000. 384 pp.; 12 color ills.; 65 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (1584650060)

In 1972, David Huntington published an engaging and thought-provoking work, his Art and the Excited Spirit: America in the Romantic Period, a study of antebellum culture that has as its thesis the idea that “the American of the Romantic age was wakeful and on the qui vive.” “His world was fraught with religion,” Huntington told us, “his was an excited spirit.” Having had the benefit of the late professor’s teaching on this subject, I believe that Huntington felt a kind of electricity emanating from this country’s artistic productions of the 1830s and ’40s. He saw in a vast array of early nineteenth-century visual culture the spirit of the phrenologist “primed to measure a portion of the soul in a head-bump”; of the table rapper, “ready to interpret mysterious tappings”; of the Millenialist, “prepared to recognize the fulfillment of prophecy”; or of the Transcendentalist, “disposed to discover the cosmic mystery in the smallest particular.”

I have always thought there was something to Huntington’s theory, and I have never understood why Art and the Excited Spirit has remained so little known and considered among American art historians. Even Gail Husch seems not to have known about this fascinating work (it is not listed in her extensive bibliography). Yet, in her book Something Coming: Apocalyptic Expectation and Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Painting, she puts flesh on the bones of Huntington’s notions and offers her own electrifying reading of the subtext of some of the most unnerving and little-known works in America’s art history. Others have advanced our understanding of the religious, political, nationalist, economic, and intellectual underpinnings of American landscape and genre painting—notably Elizabeth Johns, Angela Miller, and Sarah Burns. But Husch’s focus on a very few works created and exhibited in a five-year period between 1849 and 1854 helps us to understand specifically those tumultuous years and the overwhelming sense of expectancy they inspired.

She has here homed in on the Millenialist obsession with America’s destiny. Huntington sensed that that obsession was a force in antebellum culture; Husch, having immersed herself in the American cultural, social, political, and intellectual history of this narrow period reveals that these particular years of extraordinary upheaval were defined in significant measure by apocalyptic visions held by Americans at every level of society—visions made manifest in the fine and popular arts, in the penny press and in literary works, and in art and social theory in myriad ways. She provides the specifics of what Huntington understood generally.

Her book’s title, Something Coming, is taken from a curious detail within Frederick R. Spencer’s richly layered but little celebrated genre painting, The Newsboy. This one painting clearly inspired Husch’s study, taking her, by its complex iconography, deeper and deeper into the urban scene and the social and intellectual climate of the peculiarly dark years, 1849 to 1852. Ominous events such as the populace had never seen before hung over the nation like storm clouds during these years. They were, first, the U.S.-Mexican War, which opened the way to westward expansion, the spread of slavery, and conflict between America’s North and South. They were, too, the country’s devastating cholera epidemic of 1849, the Irish potato famine, the revolutions in Europe, and the influx of thousands of immigrants to America. Any one of these events was enough to cause social and political chaos; their combination was understandably seen as nothing less than a momentous act of God. Depending upon one’s outlook and theology, these years were either a test to prove America’s moral strength or a nation’s punishment for sin. These were years when those on the qui vive sensed that what was coming was either God’s grace or providential retribution, and both camps did their part to alert the confused masses. The visual arts were at times their instruments of persuasion.

Husch tells the story of apocalyptic expectation in the middle of the nineteenth century through ten key works of art, focusing on Spencer’s The Newsboy and on other obscure productions by Thomas Rossiter, James Beard, Peter Rothermel, Jasper Cropsey, and Asher Durand. But along the way she brings into the discussion a wide array of paintings by other artists, including John Gadsby Chapman, Rembrandt Lockwood, Tompkins Matteson, Frederic Church, Christopher Pearce Cranch, John Sartain, Junius Stearns, and Henry Peters Gray, suggesting how deeply apocalyptic visions affected American artists, both landscape and history painters. Few of the works Husch discusses will be familiar to even specialists in nineteenth-century American art history, which is one reason that this book is so much fun to read. Most of the works are no longer extant, and Husch’s iconographical analysis builds from an arduous archeology, her earnest attempt to envision and recreate for readers with words the complex and amazing images she has read about, so full of purpose, so resonant in their day, but of such fleeting consequence that most are long gone. She is as careful as any historian could be, I believe, in trying to give form to these lost compositions.

Although it seems that Husch might believe that a sense of “something coming” held all America in thrall by 1849 (and she moved this reader to feel that possibility), in fact by the evidence she offers here one is left to conclude that the notable expressions of apocalyptic vision were found in New York and Philadelphia (with the one exception being James Beard in Cincinnati), urban centers home to especially influential social reformers. Usually these were not the artists themselves, but their patrons: Jonathan Sturges in New York, close friend and patron of Thomas Cole and Durand; or Hector Tyndale and Joseph Harrison of Philadelphia, both of whom commissioned work from Rothermel. Indeed, her portraits of these figures are full and intriguing—we learn about Odd-fellows, the Mercantile Beneficial Association, the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, and about the complexities of Whig, Republican, and anti-slavery politics. The religious and political affiliations of these tastemakers in the 1840s suggests possible affinities with their favorite painters, whose own views on these topics are often less clear. I wonder, how might Sturges’s liberal, reformist nature help us to know his friend Cole? Also, I have to ask, why does there appear to be no apocalyptic artistic vision emanating from Boston at this time, considering the legacy of Washington Allston and his grand sermons on canvas and the surpassing and powerful eloquence of abolitionists and reformers such as William Lloyd Garrison, James Russell Lowell, and Henry David Thoreau? Husch makes us want to look further into the story in New England, and elsewhere, too.

Within her area of focus—the arts in New York and Philadelphia at mid-century—Husch has left no stone unturned, and she presents rich historical detail and complex, interconnected ideas in a concise and lively style. The book, with its chapters centered on single works of art, each introducing distinct issues that inspired Millenialist thinking, is a pleasure to read. We are treated to a series of fascinating vignettes that reinforce a larger story line. The quality of the writing here makes it all the more disappointing that the book has been so casually edited and proofread. This is a product of a major scholarly press, and yet it displays instances of annoying sloppiness. For example, chapter three opens with a confusing paragraph, difficult to read until one realizes that the formatting of the titles of works of art and footnote numerals was somehow lost in the typesetting of this section. Page 146 begins with a sentence fragment, and it is clear that text has been lopped off here. I stumbled upon a footnote directing readers to a source containing a discussion of Cole’s 1847 Prometheus Bound—a discussion that does not, in fact, exist in the source cited.

Husch’s study does more than document the impulses of a particular moment in time when American painters and social reformers shared an unprecedented though short-lived sense of community and purpose. Her history stands as a provocative prelude, I think, to the story of America’s public art in the 1930s, another time of apocalyptic expectation when painting once again was enlisted to give form to an unimaginably fearsome aspect of society and politics and to stand as a bulwark against moral disillusion. I am moved to think about how affecting these mid-nineteenth-century painters of history and allegory might have been had they enjoyed a system of public and government patronage like the New Deal. And I am reminded of how difficult it is to translate a specific political and social agenda into art that is transcendent, timeless, and universally appreciated on some fundamental level. In the 1950s as in the 1850s, history painting became discredited rather than re-established as a vital pursuit for America’s artists. In these parallels and others does Husch’s rich story resonate well beyond its own narrow historical time frame and serve all students of American art.

Patricia Junker
Amon Carter Museum