Date of Degree
American Art and Architecture | American Popular Culture | American Studies | History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology | Place and Environment | Sociology of Culture
Immigration, U.S. Art History, Nineteenth Century, Transnational, Transatlantic, Acculturation
Despite the fact that historians centralize immigration as a defining social phenomenon of the nineteenth century, art historians maintain nationalistic parameters that suppress artists’ immigration and assimilation experiences. While scholars have foregrounded the transatlantic migration of artists who entered during the postbellum Great Wave (1881-1920) and the twentieth century, immigration in the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century has been largely neglected, a striking omission given that roughly six million people arrived to the United States between 1820 and 1865. To reconcile this gap, this dissertation examines artists who were part of the major antebellum- and Civil War-era migration streams from the British Isles: Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Frances Palmer (1812-1876), and Thomas Hovenden (1840-1895). In a series of case studies, the dissertation discusses these artists’ careers in relationship to the larger patterns of immigrant behavior and reconsiders certain nationalistic images in the context of their maker's immigrant status. Whereas previous scholars have separated immigrant artists from the immigrant masses, I argue that artists were neither exempt from the socio-economic factors that fueled mass migration, nor were they immune to concerns of financial and personal security provoked by resettlement in the United States.
Employing a social-historical methodology, the dissertation utilizes formal, biographical, statistical, and archival evidence to argue that the artists in question lacked a fixed sense of nationhood; their imagery not only reflects a complex relationship to the United States but also a transnational cultural fluency. The merging of primary evidence with immigration data supports an interrogation of how these artists’ foreign birth influenced their creative output and how their careers were complicated by their acculturation to a new country and a need to cater to patrons seeking U.S. subject matter. While the individuals in question arrived as adults steeped in local artistic traditions, their oeuvres have been positioned within an Americentric framework. This dissertation offers a new perspective, using assimilation theories to examine works that have heretofore only been interrogated within a nationalistic discourse, such as Palmer’s Across the Continent: “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” (1868; Library of Congress) and Hovenden’s The Last Moments of John Brown (1882-84; Metropolitan Museum of Art). By asserting the importance of these individuals’ immigration and assimilation experiences, this dissertation foregrounds a critical aspect of artists’ biographies unacknowledged in present scholarship and thereby delivers a transformative reading of their life and work.
Thompson, Whitney, "Foreign-Born Artists Making “American” Pictures:
The Immigrant Experience and the Art of the United States, 1819–1893" (2017). CUNY Academic Works.