Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 2, 1999
William H. Truettner and Roger Stein, eds. Picturing Old New England: Image and Memory Exh. cat. Yale University Press in association with National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1999. 272 pp.; 100 color ills.; 120 b/w ills. $45.00 (0300079389)
National Museum of American Art, April 2–August 22, 1999

Shortly before the Federal Security Administration photographer Jack Delano set out for New England in the early 1940s, the program director, Roy Stryker, provided him with a shooting script. Stryker encouraged Delano to “pour maple syrup” on his subjects and “mix [them] well with white clouds.” If this script corrupted Delano’s “photographic soul,” Stryker did not give “a damn . . . with Hitler at our doorstep” (quoted, 137). One of Delano’s photographs, Picknickers along Highway 12A Hanover, New Hampshire (1941), is included in the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition Picturing Old New England at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. In William Truettner’s chapter on “Small Town America,” Delano’s Picknickers illustrates the America that Stryker saw threatened by Hitler. A group of three has paused during a New England sightseeing trip to set up a picnic on the side of the road in the shade of a tree. A few feet away sits their black sedan, door wide open. A grassy hill stretches into the distance. Delano’s shot combines automotive comfort, New England scenery, and a common leisure activity to project an image of abundance and freedom—a world that, according to Truettner, “must be defended at all costs” (137). Delano’s image is followed by Charlotte J. Sternberg’s Connecticut (1946), which shows an idyllic small town of red barns, white churches, and a lush spring landscape emerging from a hazy white border. A red wheelbarrow in the middle ground firmly anchors the scene in the past. Truettner argues persuasively that modernity—subtly present in Delano’s Picknickers—is erased by Sternberg. Yet the image of “traditional New England” could nevertheless be effectively employed to prepare the nation for the Cold War. (138)

Many such comparisons make up a fascinating story, told in six chapters, of the invention of old New England between the end of the Civil War and World War II . As Truettner and co-editor Roger Stein note in the Preface, a New England of the imagination existed already, but not until after the Civil War was “New England’s regional identity” visually transformed “into a compelling national language” (xiii). The story that emerges is one of contradiction and dissonance: In order to function as a national site of cultural memory, New England had to be cast as local and timeless. This timelessness, or “pastness,” had to be constantly reinvented and adapted to historical flux. As a popular and marketable image, New England had to appear accessible and friendly for tourists; as a resort for world-weary elites it needed a genteel and exclusive façade. As Truettner states in Chapter Four, “The real story of old New England is that it does its cultural work—locally or nationally—for whomever claims it and whenever the need arises” (138).

One of the strengths of this volume is that its authors do not interpret the story of New England as a linear one, although the chapter sequence follows a chronological order. Rather, the making of old New England in visual and literary culture is linked to a larger historical process that often works in self- destructive ways. As Dona Brown and Stephen Nissenbaum explain in their introductory essay, it was the idea of decline that made New England an attractive tourist destination. Decline was both an artistic motif and a social experience, propelled by industrialization, political division, nativism, rural depression, and the waning of the fishing industry. One is reminded of Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques (1955), which describes an anthropological dilemma. The attempt to escape from the evils of civilization to a purer, untouched environment only leads to sadness. For wherever the civilization-weary traveler goes, the signs of decline have already arrived. New England, of course, is not a tropical get-away, but in its symbolic connections with a simple and rural past, it functions in a similar way.

After the Civil War and into the Gilded Age, Stein explains in the first two chapters, the past was not necessarily a foreign country (to paraphrase the title of David Lowenthal’s book). Through a specific vision of the past, artists and writers helped revitalize the region’s presumed position as a historical bedrock of moral rectitude. Stein finds this vision encapsulated in The Fugitive’s Story (1869), a sculpture by John Rogers that represents a fugitive slave woman reporting her story to three prominent New England abolitionists. Historical struggle is here translated into a “parlor sculpture” and thereby “domesticated.” (15) Stein traces this process through various domesticating images by Eastman Johnson and other figure painters as well as in landscape painting where the “scenic rural” becomes a code word for the placid tourist experience of seashore resorts.

During the Gilded Age the cultural need for historicizing images of New England led artists to rediscover themes from both the Puritan and Revolutionary past. This colonial revival finds expression in such pastoral works as George Boughton’s Pilgrims Going to Church (1867) no less than in Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ formidable bronze figure The Puritan (Deacon Samuel Chapin) (1887). Stein argues that the colonial revival was an “ideological achievement” (49) in which colonial images were both reinventions of the colonial past and critiques of the present. So pervasive was the ideological connection between colonial times and Anglo-Saxon hegemony, Stein contends, that in 1923 N. C. Wyeth was able to invoke racialized, anti-immigrant sentiments with his At Concord Bridge—a scene of American rebels guarding their “America” against intruders.

In Chapter Three, “The Discreet Charm of the Colonial,” Thomas Andrew Denenberg and Truettner explore the class underpinnings of the colonial image. What emerges from the visual record left by mostly urban painters who went “rural” in their works is a genteel, exclusive, and aristocratic New England palatable to middle-class tastes. In the gentrified New England that appears in paintings by Willard Leroy Metcalf, Frank W. Benson, Edmund C. Tarbell, Childe Hassam, and others, working-class and immigrant segments of society are largely invisible. The preservation of historic Deerfield and various arts and crafts movements suggest a larger program. The aestheticized colonial past could serve old New England families and other “guardians of culture” (88) as both a bulwark against the immigrant and working-class population and a training ground for educating it.

The New England that emerges from these chapters is caught between redemption and decline, both motifs fraught with race and class anxieties. As Truettner argues in Chapter Four, the tension is still held in check by the transformation of small-town America into a “national corporate image” (138). How the legitimacy of this corporate image is first questioned and then dismantled by modernist artists, is the subject of the last two chapters by Bruce Robertson. In Chapter Five, Robertson focuses on painters of the rugged northern coastal areas, including Winslow Homer, Rockwell Kent, and George Bellows. Here, “hardihood” triumphs over “softness” (150); granite, masculinity, and virility merge into a metaphor of frontier-psychology, “a world of ceaseless strife and motion” (145). The proletarian and non-Anglo-Saxon New England enters the picture only to be framed in terms of “otherness.”

How could any modernist artist be attracted to a place so directly connected to a past age? Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, John Marin, Marsden Hartley, and others were not simply modernists who entered an antimodern world. As Robertson points out in Chapter Six, the fact that Marin and Hartley were invested in the “moral culture and tradition” (173) of New England, suggests that the dichotomy between modernism and antimodernism might not be as stark as we’ve been led to believe. Robertson argues that while modernist artists participated in mythmaking, their works resisted commodification and mass marketing. In the modernists’ view, New England existed as a fragmented “iconic image” (174), which they associated with “the untidy, disorderly, marginalized present” (183). Artists began to embrace a New England that was not homogeneous but “grotesque.” Whether in Paul Strand’s photographs of unwelcoming houses, Hartley’s homoerotic lumberjacks, or Jacob Lawrence’s Frederick Douglass series, the moralizing discourse always threatened to betray itself as a false promise.

The exhibition at the National Museum of American Art does not quite live up to the scholarly standards set by the authors of the catalogue. Following the catalogue’s emphasis on the continuum of “cultural work,” the exhibition includes a spectrum of visual and material culture divided into six rooms, each presenting one of the book chapters. But the objects are not always well-integrated, and it is difficult for the viewer to make more than passing connections between some of the artifacts and a larger narrative. Images of labor, such as a shoe factory worker, black sailors, and Cape Verdean strawberry pickers, which the catalogue weaves into a complex narrative, get interspersed and become tokens of “otherness.” Another case of decontextualized display would be a pair of bookends modeled after Leonard Craske’s heroic sculpture of a fisherman standing in Gloucester harbor. For the viewer to visualize how an almost mythical figure got commodified, it would have been helpful to see a photograph of the sculpture in situ. The catalogue mentions an intriguing fictionalized documentary film about the whaling industry, Down to The Sea in Ships (1922) (incidentally, the bookends bear the same title), which was in the mode of a historical pageant. Unfortunately, the exhibition does not even include a few minutes of footage from this film and missed an opportunity to illustrate the process of visual translation into mass media.

The final section, devoted to the modernists, is remarkably traditional in its uncluttered installation and emphasis on “purely” modernist works. Conventional modes of exhibition practice that sanctify modern art seem to get reinscribed here. As with the National Museum’s West as America exhibition of 1991, to which the Old New England show is a sequel, some crucial curatorial questions regarding the presentation of such a complex scholarly project remain.

Jochen Wierich
Whitman College