Shaping the Body Politic: Art and Political Formation in Early America (review)
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Material culture, Visual studies, American fine arts

Shaping the Body Politic: Art and Political Formation in Early America. Edited by Maurie D. McInnis and Louis P. Nelson. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. 2011. Pp. 336. Cloth, $45.00.)

Drawn from a 2006 symposium at the University of Virginia entitled “Envisioning America: Arts in the Jeffersonian Republic,” Shaping the Body Politic brings together a diverse set of essays representing new directions in the field of early American visual and material culture studies. As a whole, the volume asks important questions about the relationship between the arts and the emergence of a collective political entity “as artists and presidents, patrons and the public, used imagery as part of the rhetorical struggle to define, ultimately, what it meant to be an American” (12). Shaping the Body Politic positions itself as part of a new wave of interdisciplinary early American scholarship that draws methodological inspiration from the groundbreaking work of scholars like Laura Rigal, Jay Fliegelman, and Robert Blair St. George. Organized chronologically from the late colonial period to the early nineteenth century, the volume uncovers new objects of study and positions Americans’ representations of the nation and national identity in wider contexts.

Four of the volume’s eight essays consider the history of American fine arts and offer a number of innovate readings of several familiar cultural [End Page 512] productions and their makers. Not only did early fine artists define national identity by building academies for the arts and by adapting European aesthetic principles to an American context, these essays argue, but artists also used their works to negotiate some of the early republic’s most heated political disputes. Maurie D. McInnis’s and Paul Staiti’s essays look to famous representations of George Washington. McInnis reads Jean-Antoine Houdon’s statue George Washington (1788–92) as a navigation of the uncertain position of the new nation’s leader through its staging of the president as both “modern” and “ancient Cincinnatus” (130); Houdon’s artistic decisions, according to McInnis, “helped shape America’s emerging national iconography” (130). Staiti argues that Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne Portrait (1796) “and its replicas and derivatives . . . restored the president’s lost luster at a time when his reputation and legacy were in greatest jeopardy” and “legitimated the Jay Treaty . . . as a product of Federalist wisdom” (181). Two other essays on the fine arts treat somewhat lesser known works, but no less famous artists. In his essay on Charles Willson Peale’s Miss Hallam as Imogen in “Cymbeline” (1771), David Steinberg reads the portrait alongside two poems by Jonathan Boucher, a loyalist Anglican rector in Annapolis, where the painting was first exhibited; Peale and Boucher used word and image in order to “support competing notions of Britishness and relations to Britain” (51). While Steinberg puts an artwork into a local context, John E. Crowley reads the trans-Atlantic history of early American landscape painting, arguing that most images of nature were produced by trained British artists who “did not see anything exclusively American about American scenery” and who therefore represented “American landscapes as implicitly part of the global British empire” (110). As a group, these essays reveal more of the considerable, but often overlooked, political motivations behind early American visual aesthetics.

The book’s other essays trace less familiar territory, looking to material objects, print culture, and architecture as components of the nation’s artistic development. Vernacular and material artworks, these essays suggest, were as fundamental to the conceptualization of an emerging political culture as were fine arts. Two essays consider built environments in order to rethink ideas of space and place. In his analysis of Monticello, Roger B. Stein refutes the persistent notion that Jefferson intended his collection as an exercise in gentlemanly connoisseurship modeled on the early modern Wunderkammer. Stein instead insists that the displays at [End Page 513] Jefferson’s home conveyed a sense of national identity by teaching visitors to “relate object to object, art to nature, the past to the present, through the spatial dynamic and temporal juxtapositions of Jeffersonian design” (219). Focusing on more modest homes, Bernard Herman describes how the vernacular architecture of three cities...