Sunday, April 30, 2017

Jennifer Van Horn's "The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America"

Jennifer Van Horn is an assistant professor of Art History and History at the University of Delaware. She specializes in the fields of early American art and material culture.

Van Horn applied the “Page 99 Test” to her book, The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America, and reported the following:
My new book looks at a variety of types of artifacts produced for and used by elite consumers in early America, including portraits, dressing furniture, city views, gravestones, and even prosthetic devices. I argue that artifacts were key players in forming Anglo-American communities in early America and eventually of forming citizenship. The book explores how consumers in port cities assembled networks of similar objects not simply as markers of status or political identification, but as active agents to bind themselves together and to distance themselves from Native Americans and African Americans.

Each chapter tackles a different group of objects drawn from an early American port city. The first two chapters focus on Philadelphia and by page 99 we are just beginning the second chapter which concentrates upon a main player in the book: the artist John Wollaston.

From page 99:
In 1752, two years before George Heap and Nicholas Scull’s view of Philadelphia was published, British portrait painter John Wollaston made his first trip to the city. Wollaston was forty-two years old when he left England, where he had established himself as a successful, if not prominent, portraitist in the competitive metropolitan market. Over the next two decades (1749-1767), he journeyed extensively throughout the American colonies, traveling to the urban centers of New York, Philadelphia, Annapolis, Williamsburg, and Charleston, as well as the plantations of Maryland, Virginia, and the British Leeward Islands. The artist met with tremendous success on his North American sojourn, painting more than three hundred portraits of colonial elites before eventually returning to England.
Being a British artist, John Wollaston might seem a strange character to star in a book about the ways that early Americans used objects. But Wollaston’s portraits actually offer a great mechanism to recover elite colonists’ differing ideas about what paintings should look like and what they could do. Because he completed multiple depictions in different American locales we can draw out the differences between patrons’ desires. For example, if we look at only two of Wollaston’s paintings of early American women completed in New York City and Charleston, South Carolina, we see radically dissimilar portraits (different poses, different costumes, different sized canvases). Both sitters were elite women who wanted to signal their politeness through their portraits so what led them to do so in very different ways? I conclude that the similarities between objects made in specific port cities were visual bonds that allowed colonists to cohere into communities. By assembling networks of similar objects early Americans created civil spaces at the margins of empire. It was through their relationships with artifacts that Americans constructed a nation.

Thus Wollaston’s peripatetic career, the focus of page 99, proved critical for allowing me to trace local meanings for what at first seem to be similar objects.
Learn more about The Power of Objects at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue