- A Measure of Perfection: Phrenology and the Fine Arts in America
Cool facts abound in Charles Colbert’s new study of nineteenth-century American arts and culture. Reading this volume, I learned that sculptor Hiram Powers applied leeches behind his daughter Louisa’s ears in hopes of making her more feminine. I learned that Circassia, a territory near the Black Sea, is renowned not only for its chicken dishes but also for the beauty of its often-enslaved women. I learned that Sylvester Graham, inventor of the graham cracker, not only abjured greasy foods but also the razor. I learned that Modern Times, an Owenite utopian community on Long Island, prefigured Le Corbusier’s modular housing with its three-story octagonal structures. I learned that the painter Raphael married a big-chested woman named after an oven, and I learned that representing a president loose-lipped from lack of teeth could be contentious—at least if the year was 1834 and the president was Andrew Jackson.
The big idea linking these and so many other luminous details in the lushly illustrated A Measure of Perfection is the “symbiotic relationship” between phrenology and the fine arts in Jacksonian and Victorian America (41). Displacing Emersonian transcendentalism from the central place it has occupied in so many scholarly explications of nineteenth-century U.S. culture, Colbert reconstructs the major tenets and social world of the more popular and intrinsically interdisciplinary doctrine of phrenology. For his purposes, phrenology is a distinctive theoretical language attaching psychospiritual traits to categories such as Amativeness, Combativeness, and Philoprogenitiveness; a mode of representation that maps arrangements of these traits in drawings reminiscent of those found in butcher shops; and a technique for measuring particular subjects’ heads and comparing them to these maps of ideal characteristics. Although phrenology also inspired carnival entertainment and Victorian parlor games, Colbert focuses on its more representational aspects. This narrowing [End Page 123] of the topic allows the extension of phrenological themes to the arts. Fidelity to phrenological dogma does not interest Colbert, nor is he particularly concerned with its scientific validity. He seeks, instead, artistic works saturated by phrenological imagery, associations, or presumptions and reconstructs the context that made them meaningful.
The arts situated in this manner are mainly sculpture and highbrow painting, though Colbert’s final chapter does extend the discussion to octagonal architecture on the strength of the architects’ insistent comparisons between the cranium and the house. Writers such as Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and especially Walt Whitman make occasional and illuminating appearances, but the main purpose of the project is to help the reader step inside, as it were, the heads of visual artists ranging from Michelangelo to Winslow Homer.
Many of the resulting readings make nineteenth-century American art gratifyingly resonant. The chapter on the Hudson River Valley School is especially well done. Contextualizing familiar landscape paintings with information on scatology, the ideology of the beard, and fresh air as an alternative to church, Colbert enlivens their iconography and provides a means for doing the same with a range of contemporaneous works. Similarly, the discussions of Hiram Powers’s sculpture rescues these pieces from what might seem a superficial literalism, revealing in them a “confluence of materialism, progressivism, and millenialism that constituted an essential component of antebellum society” (209).
These and other chapters attend closely to particular artworks, while also describing the multivalent, ultimately contradictory, agendas that phrenology served. Although justifying scientific racism, manifest destiny, rigidification of gender roles, nostalgic Anglo-Saxon nationalism, and the criminalization of immigrants and the working classes, phrenology also opened some doors to progressive reform. It promised to reveal talents hidden by poor education, celebrate the dignity of specially selected Others, promote representational realism over stereotype, encourage the addition of recess to primary-school curricula, and release fashionable women’s internal organs from the corset.
In the flood of all this fascinating detail, however, I did long at times for a few more fixed posts...