Date of Degree
Mónica Domínguez Torres
American Art and Architecture
Brazil, United States, coffee, plantation, landscape, ecocriticism
The nineteenth century witnessed the meteoric rise of coffee production and consumption in the Americas and a concurrent proliferation of artworks representing plantations and consumers. Brazilian images captured the harvested land of coffee fazendas (farms), and an enslaved population of laborers. U.S. artworks depicting coffee drinking in social spaces from coffee houses to war camps, to World’s Fairs marked the growing popularity of the stimulating brew. This imagery reveals the flourishing nineteenth-century U.S. coffee culture that fueled Brazil’s export of the crop, and signaled the increasing prominence of both countries within global trade networks. Yet as this drink became increasingly popular, Brazil’s Atlantic forest faced depletion and its import of enslaved people from Africa soared. This dissertation examines the visual culture of coffee harvesting in Brazil alongside consumption in the U.S. to explore representations of environmental degradation, enslaved labor, inter-American trade, and the transformation of nature into consumable product. Analysis centers around plantation landscapes; cityscapes of North American coffee houses; genre scenes of U.S.-coffee drinking; and celebratory images of Brazil’s coffee displays at World’s Fairs.
This dissertation traces representations of the coffee cycle over four chapters to explore an inter-American connection between Brazil and the U.S.—the nineteenth century’s largest producer and largest consumer of the commodity, respectively. I argue that the transnational dialogue between these images reveals the flourishing cross-cultural commercial exchanges as well as the social and environmental injustices that resulted from the coffee industry in the Americas. Representations of coffee fazendas, while idealized, also carried evidence of environmental degradation, and my analysis of artworks contributes to expanding discussions within environmental art history. Such depictions of forced labor on coffee fazendas situated enslaved people within the landscape in order to enhance the sense of the fazendeiro’s ownership and control. However, moving beyond dismissive readings of enslaved figures as picturesque staffage in estate imagery, I recover names, ages, familial connections, specific labors, disabilities, and other details of individuals who labored on the represented plantations, and connect such archival finds with tasks and other activities depicted in the artworks.
Often on the receiving end of the coffee crop, early U.S. coffee houses were prominently placed within commercial districts. I argue that cityscapes representing such establishments aestheticized exchanges that occurred in the coffee houses and reflected nostalgically upon these businesses as the birthplace of American political and economic systems. Later genre scenes, I demonstrate, present coffee as a staple of the American diet, indicating an established U.S. coffee culture. By tracing the visual culture of coffee from harvest to consumption through the lens of transnational cultural and commodity exchange, I position U.S. art in dialogue with art from Brazil. Ultimately, this dissertation explores how visual culture may at once reveal elements of the exploitative environmental and labor practices of the historic coffee industry, and yet also uphold such injustices through celebratory images for consumers.
Gillaspie, Caroline L., "“Delicious Libation”: The Art of the Coffee Trade from Brazil to the United States, 1797-1888" (2023). CUNY Academic Works.
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