Recent American art historical scholarship has positioned artists within complex social contexts from which they absorbed new ideas and to which they contributed new types of themes and meanings. Wendy Jean Katz's study of artistic and civic culture in antebellum Cincinnati stresses interactions between artists, patrons, and public; connections among art, commerce, and moral reform; and intersecting ideals of education, civic promotion, and economic expansion. Her goal is to complicate models of cultural and class expansion and show how artistic works created in the early nineteenth century in this thriving western city contributed both to local and national ideals of American identity.
New cultural opportunities and ideals emerged as varied civic associations supported both artistic production and moral reform. Katz reads the diversity of participants' class backgrounds as evidence for cultural goals that combined the interests of elites, the middle class, and workers into a harmonious and economically successful metropolis. Contemporary behavior manuals and etiquette books contributed to beliefs in the importance of [End Page 147] binding society together through mutual engagement in both domestic and public social reform. These ideals were reflected in patronage for the visual arts, as well-known figures such as Nicholas Longworth and other individuals commissioned paintings and also supported libraries, children's schools, mechanics' education, the Humane Society, and arts organizations such as the Western Art Union and the Cosmopolitan Art Association. This social climate, Katz argues, supported hopes for a diverse citizenry engaged in mutually agreeable social improvement, yet she is careful to observe that these were predominantly middle-class values; such affirmations obscured economic barriers to class membership while pressuring both elites and workers to conform to their codes (9).
Katz sees the works of three well-known artists with links to the city—Lilly Martin Spencer, Robert Duncanson, and Hiram Powers—as illustrating these complex civic goals although none was born or stayed there; Spencer moved to New York, Duncanson traveled in Europe, and Powers eventually set up a sculpture studio in Italy. Yet Katz ties each artist's themes to the city's cultural affirmation of harmonizing and egalitarian cultural ideals. She suggests that Spencer's genre paintings of lively women and children explore the tensions within contemporary discourses of democratic egalitarianism, educational improvement, and gender propriety. She positions Duncanson's landscape paintings in relation to beliefs in nature as a source of both spiritual and moral improvement, and addresses Hiram Power's Neoclassical figures of nude yet morally idealized women as exemplifying contemporary codes of civility and honor in relation to slavery and freedom
With detailed references to wide-ranging cultural and civic developments, Regionalism and Reform offers a rich trove of fascinating details and thoughtful interpretations. Katz's thoroughly researched book is an important study and a model for further scholarly efforts to locate individual artists and works within the complex scope of American social and political values played out among varied classes in specific geographical settings.