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  • Haunted Visions: Spiritualism and American Art by Charles Colbert
  • Cathy Gutierrez

Charles Colbert, Spiritualism, history of art, American art, Mesmerism, phrenology, seance

Charles Colbert. Haunted Visions: Spiritualism and American Art. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. Pp. 319.

In Haunted Visions: Spiritualism and American Art, Charles Colbert presents a sustained and convincing argument about the influence of spiritualism on several American artists. Using biographical material in juxtaposition with specific works of sculpture and painting, Colbert argues for the utter centrality of spiritualism’s tenets to a generation of American artists from the late nineteenth century. Spanning sculptors such as Hiram Powers, Harriet Hosmer, and Henry Dexter as well as painters as notable as James McNeill Whistler, George Inness, and George Fuller, Colbert demonstrates a clear pattern of each artist’s interaction with spiritualism and its related theories such as mesmerism and phrenology. Colbert’s understanding of spiritualism is comprehensive and clearly explicated: the movement has been documented in relationship to politics, gender, technology, and more. This work brings spiritualism into conversation with the creation of something other than language, where the enthusiasms of spiritualism as well as spirits of artists past make the ethereal material.

The chapters that deal with sculpture argue for an interplay of spiritualist materializations and the constant image of the dead in marble. The spiritualist conviction that the individual continued largely unchanged into the afterlife reflected and was reflected in the eternal presence of sculpture. A series of busts of well-known women by Hiram Powers, for example, demonstrates how making a sculpture of a living woman with classical allusions would imply both her spiritual prowess and that she would likely return to earth, just as, for example, Proserpine had. The bust itself both immortalizes and materializes its subject. In addition to innovations in commemoration, spiritualist ideas of eternal improvement also affected art and artists, with sculptor Harriet Hosman taking her rightful place by John Murray Spear with her creations of machines to aid progress. The reader learns that she attempted to develop a ‘‘permanent magnet’’ that would give the world power, and drafted a plan to sculpt the solar system and have people ride through it in order to contemplate other planets and earth from new perspectives. Unfortunately the latter ultimately lost a contest to the Ferris wheel, an innovation that, as Colbert argues, by contrast rendered travel through space a meaningless expenditure of time.

Scholarship has focused on the Concord School as a primary influence for many American painters from the era. Colbert attempts to wrestle away some of that attribution and argues instead for the importance of spiritualism. His discussion of Fitz Henry Lane and his alleged intellectual alliance with Ralph [End Page 94] Waldo Emerson is a bit speculative, yet his argument is provocative—as is his setting of the debate in the shipyard cemeteries of Gloucester. Noting that Emerson and company strenuously preferred the written word over images, Colbert makes the case that his real philosophical kinship was with Andrew Jackson Davis and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Issues of automatism and spirit drawing have much higher stakes with talented artists, an issue, the author notes wryly, that is not raised by the spirit works of the Banks sisters and their compatriots. Spiritualism recasts the long shadow of the great masters: William Sidney Mount’s relationship to the dead Rembrandt, or George Inness’s hand guided literally by the spirit of Titian, irrevocably alter the idea of influence.

Colbert makes an irrefutable case for the wholesale spiritualist worldview of James McNeill Whistler; the reader learns that Whistler had more than one model and paramour who were also spiritualist mediums. Discussions of Whistler’s friendship with Dante Gabriel Rosetti and of how his friends often had to spend the night because of Whistler’s overwhelming fear of ghosts give color and detail to this wonderful chapter. One of the highlights of the book is Colbert’s argument that Whistler’s ‘‘black’’ portraits should be read against séance apparitions and the mysterious presence of a person who is about to be dissolved back into ether. In the chapter on late Romanticism, Colbert writes of the influence of phrenology and psychometry on...


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pp. 94-96
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