The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America by Jennifer Van Horn
Twenty-five years after Richard L. Bushman's landmark work The Refinement of America, Jennifer Van Horn offers a lodestone for a new generation of historians of material culture.1 In The Power of Objects, Van Horn examines how provincial British Americans shaped the material world to construct civil society. Colonists, she explains, believed that they faced the task of diminishing, controlling, or concealing the barbarism that threatened all those who lived in American environments and among their inhabitants. Residents of port cities adapted standards of polite metropolitan visual and material culture to meet these perceived challenges. By creating "shared aesthetic codes and common consumer choice," they developed "distinct communities of sensibility" (10 n. 8) along the Atlantic seaboard that defined themselves in opposition to the perceived savagery of indigenous Americans and enslaved African Americans. In the revolutionary era, Van Horn argues, Americans activated their material networks to refigure their places within, and then without, the British Empire. National identity, she asserts, "emerged out of colonists' earlier material associations, drawing members of a new political republic from preexisting colonial civil orders" (10). In a remarkably fresh and sophisticated study of eighteenth-century intermediality, Van Horn exemplifies the power of objects to inform histories of early America.
Van Horn's ability to build arguments with a seamless synthesis of visual, material, and textual analysis sets her work apart from earlier studies of the politics of self-fashioning in British North America. Van Horn enlivens the material world as historical evidence by reconstituting assemblages of objects in their eighteenth-century constellations. Though she takes a specific type of object as a starting point for each of her six chapters, she discerns the meaning of each one in networks of things made, used, and viewed by particular colonial communities. Her exercises in close looking illuminate the inextricable relationship between people and things, for as objects and bodies blended together, so too did physical and human networks. On the pages of Van Horn's study, civil identities emerge through these vital linkages, as corpses meet gravestones, wooden veneers reflect painted faces, and dildos resemble artificial legs. [End Page 183]
In the first half of the book, Van Horn analyzes how Euro-Americans in the years before the revolution modified elite British conventions of representation to shape bodies, landscapes, and communal identities. She reconstructs three "networks of objects" (409) to illuminate the ways that particular communities of sensibility tried—and sometimes failed—to convey civility beyond their immediate circles. Makers of city views, for example, exploited issues of scale to assert their place in the empire. When early image makers portrayed colonial cities from the elevated vantage of a prospect, they depicted the achievement and the potential of urban growth as a civilizing force on American nature. Yet as American view makers increasingly rendered detailed depictions of civic architecture in long views tightly focused on the built environment, English printmakers diminished these urban portraits with depictions of surrounding land, assuring metropolitan viewers that American development proceeded apace but did not eclipse England's.
Like colonial view makers, American portrait patrons also challenged the artistic genre standards of metropolitan Britain. Van Horn makes this argument in a close reading of two sets of midcentury portraits: Philadelphia canvases painted by British itinerant John Wollaston Jr. and Charleston gravestones chiseled by New England carvers. In Britain, good portraiture demanded representational accuracy. In Philadelphia, by contrast, Wollaston's sitters desired the depiction of idealized bodies and timeless garments. These commonalities across Wollaston's portraits, Van Horn argues, formed "the visual bonds through which his sitters constructed their aesthetic community" (140). Elite Charlestonians hoped to affect a similar cohesion when they ordered carved portraits on grave markers. By drawing together the clipeus tradition of printed portraits with monumental material culture, Van Horn argues, Charlestonians sought to counteract both the corporeal decay and the disorder of urban burial grounds that could mar a civilized body. In this way, they used a new type of portraiture to endow themselves and the landscape with permanent markers of a civil community.
The second half of the book examines the intimate ways in which elite Americans altered their personal appearances and political identities in revolutionary America. As men and women used costume, makeup, and prostheses to embody civility, Van Horn argues, the material culture of self-fashioning registered the uncertain relationships between bodily image and moral character, refinement and deception, and authenticity and falsehood. Portraits of American women in masquerade, for instance, explored the limits of self-governance. A decade after his stint in Philadelphia, Wollaston painted several of Charleston's most eligible women in Venetian masks and Vandyke dresses. The sitters donned this risqué garb of London masquerades, Van Horn suggests, to experience a sexual license otherwise unavailable to them. Depicted on the canvas, the attire formed a lasting signifier of the women's fleeting moment of heightened self-authority enabled by courtship and soon [End Page 184] closed by marriage. More broadly, Van Horn asserts, these portraits evoked the ways that colonists tested their identity as British subjects with the uncivil behavior of costumed protests against imperial policies.
After the Revolutionary War, cosmetics and prostheses broached new questions about the republican merits of self-fashioning as they blurred the line between bodies and objects. Women's dressing tables, in Van Horn's framing, indexed anxieties about concealment and fraud in the new body politic. The hidden drawers and tiny compartments of these deceptive furnishings held the components of women's elaborate makeup routines; only a knowing hand could access and apply their contents. As Americans debated women's place in the new nation, they wondered if the toilette enabled the virtuous self-refinement needed for republican civility or created an illusory mask that threatened it. For men, Van Horn argues, artificial limbs expressed a new American manhood both virile and civil enough to support the newly independent nation. By following Gouverneur Morris and his wooden leg from the federal capital in Philadelphia to diplomatic missions in London and the court of Louis XVI, Van Horn examines how Morris sought to assemble his body as an exemplary specimen of modern republicanism. With amputated limbs likened to the severed American provinces, Americans saw the restoration of broken bodies as a larger act of virtue that would knit together a new federal nation.
In her final case study, Van Horn poignantly reminds readers of the charade of civil posturing. By shining her spotlight on George Washington's false teeth, she reveals that the most iconic countenance in the new republic depended on an assemblage of animal bone and teeth extracted from enslaved African Americans. No object better demonstrates the ways that Anglo-American civility depended upon profoundly uncivil acts. It is imperative, Van Horn concludes, that historians recognize the barbarity that British Americans enacted when trying to conceal these actions.
The Power of Objects forms a powerful testament to the value of true interdisciplinarity in its ability to advance histories of portraiture, decorative arts, and print culture as well as civil society, political identity, and gender and sexuality. It joins a body of recent scholarship that rethinks Anglo-American identity by infusing histories of early American society and economy with a serious engagement in art historical scholarship.2 But it stands out for its new explanation of how elite Americans used objects to situate themselves in the British Empire. Van Horn challenges the notion that early Americans created political identities through emulation or rejection of British goods, Anglicized styles, and metropolitan comportment. [End Page 185] Instead, she sees a consistent and distinctively American search for civility that began well before the revolution and continued after independence. This reframing productively revises a model of material culture analysis popularized by Bushman, T. H. Breen, and Kariann Akemi Yokota.3 But it also invites more extensive testing. Even as necessary shorthand, "British America" overstates the book's geographic coverage. After an introductory analysis of Bermudan portraits, Van Horn heavily grounds her analysis in Charleston, Philadelphia, and, to a lesser extent, New York. Readers cannot help but wonder how Van Horn's argument about the power of objects to shape civil society might be transformed by looking at British Atlantic or Caribbean ports beyond the preordained urban core of the future United States.
Similarly, the book's focus on urban elites provokes questions about who exactly had the ability to leverage the power of objects in Anglo-American civil society. Van Horn demonstrates that metropolitan Britons sometimes challenged elite American attempts at civility; African Americans and indigenous Americans surely did as well, though they remain voiceless foils to conceptions of American civility. But what challenges to civil society came from other Euro-American colonists beyond the subjects of Van Horn's study? Future research might consider the ways that the urban poor, loyalists, back-country residents, or Continental emigrants contested elite material networks or harnessed them to their own ends.
Van Horn has written an exceptionally valuable book without taking on these questions for herself. The Power of Objects offers a new framework for thinking about the ways that early Americans engaged materiality to construct personal and communal identities. Moreover, it models methods for exploring the questions that it raises. The original research, novel argumentation, and entertaining prose of Van Horn's debut work is sure to inspire scholars in many disciplines to build on her study for years to come. [End Page 186]
1. Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York, 1992).
2. See for example Jennifer L. Roberts, Transporting Visions: The Movement of Images in Early America (Berkeley, Calif., 2014); Zara Anishanslin, Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World (New Haven, Conn., 2016); Catherine E. Kelly, Republic of Taste: Art, Politics, and Everyday Life in Early America (Philadelphia, 2016).
3. Bushman, Refinement of America; T. H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York, 2004); Kariann Akemi Yokota, Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became a Postcolonial Nation (New York, 2011).