- Republic of Taste: Art, Politics, and Everyday Life in Early America by Catherine E. Kelly
In this book, Kelly deftly brings together, in admirably lucid prose, a range of objects, institutions, artists, and contexts that are not often successfully combined. Her aim is to contribute a new understanding to the ways in which “the American republic of taste promised women and men a new and better way of being in the world,” even as it commodified and thus eroded the hierarchies that structured it (244). Kelly’s central thesis is posed in two questions: “Did an early national vocabulary of [End Page 275] taste, with its privileged visuality, register beyond the debates over the ratification of the Constitution? Did it truly extend beyond political and politicized discourse to inform the imaginative structures and material forms of everyday life?” (5).
Showing a keen eye for novelistic detail, Kelly is at her best when using texts to illuminate how taste figured in the lives of everyday individuals, including largely forgotten artists (particularly female ones), academy students, and museum-keepers. In a chapter dedicated to aestheticized performances of taste and sensibility in early national academies, for example, we learn that unfortunate slouchers in Elizabeth Way’s school for girls in Delaware, for instance, were punished with “necklaces of Jamestown-weed burrs” for neglecting the physical grace that gentility demanded (32).
Ironically, although connoisseurship is vitally important to Kelly’s argument, it is less important to her methodology. Thus, the personalities that she summons from original archival sources sparkle, but her analysis of paintings and other material objects is sometimes less compelling. For instance, two ivory portrait miniatures—one of a freed African-American woman named Elizabeth Freeman (or “Mumbet,” as she was called) by a daughter-in-law of the Sedgwick family who employed Freemen, and the other a self-portrait by an obscure female artist from Connecticut—strain under the weight of Kelly’s excessive biographical and technical details. Though fascinating, the information does not connect easily to the miniatures themselves, or to such intriguing insights as the notion that the Sedgwicks doubly appropriated Freeman’s likeness, first by painting it and then by overtly racializing it.
Indeed, Kelly’s true quarry are not the mute objects or abstract practices of looking but the garrulous people and the political institutions that they embodied. Hence, Kelly often couples her ambition to tell the story of taste in early national America in glittering and expansive detail with a synthesis of the earlier work of art and architectural historians. In a chapter about the studied apoliticism of William Hamilton’s Philadelphia estate, the Woodlands, which the author convincingly argues was designed to deflect attention from thornier problems of his loyalism, Kelly “leans heavily” on a history commissioned by the National Park Service, as well as various master’s theses and doctoral dissertations (267).1 The intersection of political economy with biography, rather than with art history, seems to be the true animating focus of Kelly’s book.
Although visuality is a key term for Kelly’s project, she does not engage the kind of critical theory, such as that of Jay and Crary, that informed de Bolla and Bellion’s inquiries into the place of perception [End Page 276] in Anglo-American culture during the long eighteenth century.2 Her work therefore extends, rather than revises, our understandings of the importance of seeing for the period as a whole. Nevertheless, the book deserves the close attention of scholars who study the literary, political, and visual cultures of early national America precisely because of its impressive breadth and liveliness.
1. Aaron V. Wunsch, “Woodlands Cemetery,” HALS No. PA-5, Historic American Landscapes Survey (hals), National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2003–4.
2. Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley, 1994); Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, Mass., 1990); Peter de Bolla...