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Reviewed by:
  • Transporting Visions: The Movement of Images in Early America by Jennifer L. Roberts
  • Emily W. Gephart
TRANSPORTING VISIONS: The Movement of Images in Early America. By Jennifer L. Roberts. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2014.

In Transporting Visions, art historian Jennifer Roberts invites readers to consider how physical transit informed nineteenth-century art. Roberts unpacks the various dimensions images literally occupied and metaphorically conveyed across a range of pictorial practices: among them visual analogies for transatlantic travel, improbably large ornithological prints, labyrinthine engravings, and quietly unfolding representations of landscape space. Making effective use of spatial metaphors—from cartographic analogies to calibration [End Page 172] of perceptual distances—the author proposes a new conceptual model for apprehending art’s varied “delivery systems” (164). Amid the present era of instantaneous transmission of images, Roberts insists historians recognize alternate spatio-temporal modes: the physical separations and intervals that were fundamental to nineteenth-century art’s social connectivity. Placing equal emphasis on the “interfolding” (162) of fictions inherent to representational illusion and art’s fundamental materiality, Roberts explores the ways in which makers and viewers made sense of American visual and material culture.

The book itself—presented in three case studies spanning the late Colonial period through the 1850s—is like a road trip whose itinerary features significant landmarks, rest stops, intricate short cuts, and many scenic detours. Beginning with analysis of John Singleton Copley’s Boy with a Flying Squirrel (1765), the author argues awareness of remoteness and delay were built into his paintings. The artist’s transatlantic career mandated canny visual correlation of overseas circulation, international trade, and strategic performances of social exchange, all delivered across the shallow planes conveyed by his pictures’ surfaces. In an equally fascinating digression, her evaluation of his Watson and the Shark (1778) as an allegory of the Boston Tea Party could have stood as a chapter on its own.

Another concern for Roberts is portability, both in the physical sense and in the more diffuse terms of transmission or translation of visual ideas. Thus, her second and most focused chapter considers how problems of literal scale shaped John James Audubon’s compendium Birds of America, painstakingly executed, printed, bound, and delivered to subscribers in the 1820s and 1830s. Roberts proposes Audubon’s commitment to illustrating birds in their actual size courted scientific veracity, yet also made his prints unwieldy feats of creation and distribution. But mapping his project onto developing dynamics in the American market economy, Roberts sees his images as object-lessons in how Audubon overcame challenges to aesthetic, scientific, and geographical mobility.

Lastly, Roberts considers how duration inhabits art’s pictorial spaces. She delves into the complex relationship underlying landscape painter Asher Durand’s little-known background as a banknote designer, his engraved copy of fellow artist John Vanderlyn’s controversial 1809–14 painting Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos, and the woodland views for which Durand was later acclaimed. She asserts that the geological time and tranquil space conveyed by Durand’s “decelerated” (117) forest interiors resisted the concurrent development of telegraphic exchange, slowing the rapid transfer of words and ideas to which modern viewers were becoming inured.

If, at the end, a reader wishes Roberts had tested her conceptual model against a few more examples of artists or objects, she nonetheless leaves plenty of room for the next generation of scholars to play with its many avenues of possibility. Her richly detailed essays make for a satisfying excursion across the vivid topography of American visual culture.

Emily W. Gephart
School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


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pp. 172-173
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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