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Sarah Burns, Painting the Dark Side, Art and the Gothic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004, $33.37, 326 pages, ISBN 0-520-23821-4)—Caroline Bélan, Université de Rouen


In Painting the Dark Side, Sarah Burns aims to connect four elements in each chapter: usually starting from the description of a specific painting and broadening her study to visual arts by and large as she includes cartoons and photographs, she then draws a parallel with American Gothic literature, turns to the painter’s personal crises, conflicts and fears—eight painters will be studied—and ultimately puts everything together within the social, racial, political, or even economic context. Almost all the works mentioned and studied are reproduced in the book, which is not only extremely practical but makes the book a beautiful object in itself.

To say the least, Sarah Burns’s undertaking is both laudable and risky. When, in her introduction, she anticipates the criticisms that could be leveled at her, she admits that “[her] turn to biography involves risk. It is something like walking a postmodern art-historical plank” [xxii]. In fact at first I didn’t think, from a French point of view, that the danger lay in this venture but rather in her mixing literature, visual arts, biography and “civilization.” How much worse could it get for conservative academics? How dare she?

But this is actually one of the reasons why her book is extremely enjoyable: some of us indeed have always believed that literature must not necessarily be studied and understood as an object completely deprived of any historical, social and environmental context. Of course another reason for liking the book is Burns’s choice of paintings; as she writes, “only if we consider the dark side […] can we better comprehend the light” [xxiii]. The Hudson River School, which is always put forward as it represents glorified American landscapes—so similar to some of Old Europe that one cannot tell them apart—as well as the great painters of the West and their grandiose allegories of American noble wilderness and ultimate progress offered in nineteenth-century images of America that merely let us know what American people dreamt of at the time but never what America really was or, even more interestingly, what America feared becoming.

Painting the Dark Side thus focuses on the themes that tormented the psyche of the painters but also of American society as a whole. Sarah Burns for instance explains how “Elihu Vedder […] could never have expressed outright in a painting his hidden fears of female power. But his images of colossal sea serpents, dead Medusas, and devouring Sphinxes allowed him to displace and distance those terrors, to push them to the dark side where veils of fantasy shroud a raw anxiety. […] Vedder’s serpents, Medusas and Sphinxes reference not only his own anxieties but also those of middle-class masculinity, socially adrift and threatened by the destabilizing forces of emerging feminism” [xx]. This is indeed a good example of how Burns makes use of biographical data to help the reader understand how a painting and its author fit perfectly in the wider context of nineteenth-century America.

Relationships between painters, society, and feminism are one of the most interesting themes tackled by Burns; in “Mental Monsters,” the chapter centering on Elihu Vedder, Burns explains how the lack of men after the Civil War offered women a central role in American society, and how as a result sexual liberation seemed a threat to many. Actually apart from the purely biographical information—Vedder’s and his friends’ use of drugs, Vedder’s sentimental and love life—which can quickly become tedious and which some would deny as valuable pieces of information when it comes to shedding light on a work of art,

Burns’s choice of paintings or cartoons and the way she (re)positions them in the context of the period is always brilliantly executed and is extremely interesting. In this respect, the passage on women’s fashion and how it was considered by men is delightful; “in Thomas Nast’s corrosive caricature of the feminist Victoria Woodhull, the free-love advocate appears as “Mrs. Satan” trying to lure a working-class woman down a rocky path to perdition” [182-3]. “Vedder’s pictorial discourse of female monstrosity” and of “social unease” [185] could also be applied to "Corrosive Sight," the seventh chapter, in which Burns analyzes the representation of medicine and more precisely of surgery in one of Thomas Eakins’s works, The Gross Clinic. She explores the context of anti-vivisection leagues, of the American Society for the Preservation of Cruelty to Animals (which she links to the phenomenon of bodysnatchers), and of the development of medical schools—including decapitations and other things, the chapter is as gothic as can be. But Burns’s contribution is, as always, the way in which she knits together an artist and the spirit of the time: “In visual culture, amputation and dismemberment rose to the level of metaphor, signifying the fragmentation of the country itself into warring sections” [195]. Burns shows how critics never really accepted Eakins’s painting, judging it too gory to be displayed in public but also too potentially corrupting—especially for innocent women or “second-class citizens, unable to achieve full autonomy in a patriarchal society”; who, Burns continues, “tended strongly to relate to and even identify with the sufferings of creatures under the vivisector’s knife or the surgeon’s scalpel” [205], insisting on the fact that surgery in the nineteenth century represented “this model of scientific detachment” in which “the surgeon or vivisector was invariably male, and the victims female, or at least feminized by their helplessness and pain” [201]. Burns’s use of Eakins’s photographs is also enriching: “For Eakins the body was a puzzle, to be taken apart and put back together, time and again. Both the beauty and the reassurance of art came in and through the process of reconstituting the body, making a whole of what had been in pieces” [214-5].

Burns’s systematic approach also mixes literary sources and visual arts; "Gloom and Doom," the first chapter, can offer us a good instance of her method: focusing mainly on Thomas Cole’s works, Burns cleverly combines Cole’s personal story and the literary and historical contexts of the time: “his scenes of savage wilderness and cataclysmic destruction guide the viewer into a mental landscape, projected onto and fused with distinctive features of the world outside. […] His early landscapes, ravaged and dark, depicted the young Republic as a land haunted by the same violent and bloody history that shadowed the American wilderness of the novelist Charles Brockden Brown” [3]. Brown, Poe, and Cooper are analyzed by Burns to understand Cole’s work—which means not exclusively his paintings, as Cole wrote prose sketches as well, describing his solitary journeys into a hell-like wilderness. Literary sources of inspiration for Thomas Cole were Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans or Brown’s descriptions of American landscapes and Burns reflects upon the sublime in Cole’s paintings, on the truly Bunyanesque allegories present in Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Landscape with Tree Trunks, the two paintings of The Voyage of Life or The Pilgrim of the World at the End of His Journey, and of course on the truly American Gothic character of Cole’s art: “he nationalized and localized the topography of the gothic, hitherto associated with castles on crags, ruined abbeys, eerie crypts and tortuous dungeon passageways” [8]. For Burns, true to the American Gothic motif, the wilderness is a central theme, with its uncivilized and awe-inspiring, grandiose landscapes and native inhabitants—the epitome of the Other and of the dark side of American history. But within the context of President Jackson’s policy of massive removal of Indians, the “Lower World” Cole likes picturing also represents his own “paradise lost” [18], with America being the stage for his own darkness and fear. Cole’s own despair and deep unhappiness were caused by a family situation where he was forced to care for his own parents and sisters, as well as by the development of a market economy which seemed to sound the knell for his career. Thus Burns includes the influence of the larger American context on Cole’s life and works; she explains how, about his Italian Coast Scene with Ruined Tower, he writes in his diary that it will “probably remain on [his] hands; it is not the kind of work to sell; it would appear empty ? vague to the multitude; those who purchase pictures alas! are like those who purchase merchandise [;] they want quantity, material; they want something to show, something palpable, things not thoughts” [33].

Thomas Cole, says Burns, like Edgar Allan Poe, was afraid of the people and of democracy. In The Underground Man Burns develops this same idea as she studies David Blythe’s work: “Transforming the stuff of everyday life into the language of visual metaphor, [the self-portrait Art versus Law] maps the obsessions that haunted this painter, who operated on a dark urban frontier populated by drunkards, loafers and dangerous guttersnipes. Unlike Thomas Cole, seeking his dark side in untamed nature or romantic ruins, Blythe explored his own lower depths in the modern urban wilderness” [45]. Burns indeed shows how Blythe’s own demons—namely alcoholism—were central to his art and at the same time echoed the fears of a changing nation which had been compelled to give up its ideals of an agrarian society to acknowledge the growing power of industrialization and urbanization and the ensuing fears: “Blythe’s urban phantasmagoria both reflected and embodied emergent middle-class perceptions of the city as the locus of hidden but ever present menace from below” [45]. Several of the painters chosen by Burns were poet-painters and were as a result obviously influenced by artists like Poe not only in their paintings but also in their poetry and like Cole’s prose, Blythe’s poems “exhibit[ed] a striking fascination with the imagery of abjection: decay, vomit, swill, ooze, putridity, bodily disorder, and dissolution” [48]. Burns in fact draws a parallel between his work and other literary pieces of the time, namely temperance novels which follow the same structure and adopt the same themes: “in the 1830s and 1840s, […] legions of middle-class reformers attacked drinking as deadly to domestic happiness and social order. These didactic tales typically feature[d] a clean-living innocent who by trickery gets hooked on liquor and descends inexorably into degradation” [50]. Ironically, Blythe, Burns admits, quoting David S. Reynolds, was “drawn to the very vices he denounced” [54] and the chapter is teeming with anecdotes about Blythe’s and others’ attraction-repulsion toward alcoholism: Burns relates, for instance, how Tom Flynn in New York in the 1840s found the energy and inspiration to ‘preach’ against alcoholism by drinking gin during performances.

The drunkard therefore became the central figure of paintings describing urban life at the time—what Burns calls “sensational city exposés” [60]—but various other characters in Blythe’s paintings also came to represent different types of city-dwellers, such as mobs waiting outside the post-office [Post Office, 65]; drinking and gambling children [Street Urchins, 69], a match seller [71], discouraged prospectors [Prospecting, 73], struggling artists [Art versus Law, plate 3] or underground gamblers [The Hideout, plate 4]. Commenting on Blythe’s work, Burns reveals that “the purpose of the city mystery narratives was to offer armchair tourists a view of the lower depths” [62]. As Blythe’s favorite city was smoke-filled Pittsburgh, his work offers “sardonic or frightening glimpses [of a city] ever on the verge of explosion or disintegration” [64]. Therefore, Burns contends that Blythe’s paintings parallel Poe’s descriptions of dark and labyrinthine cities but Blythe’s “inner landscape” also concurs with the landscape of urbanization, massive immigration and poverty as well as social evils. Interestingly, Burns remarks, “that such an identity could evolve just when artists of the Hudson River School were celebrating the uncorrupted pastoral countryside and virgin wilderness is significant. Blythe, nonconformist and maverick, fashioned a dark complement and alternative to that bright vision. Importing the romantic ruin and stormy wilderness to the shadowy streets of the metropolis, he parodied, perverted, and modernized them, fashioning gothic images of new urban, terrors” [72-4].

Finally one of the themes Burns maintains in several chapters of Painting the Dark Side is the impact that slavery and the Civil War had on literature and visual arts in nineteenth-century America. “The Deepest Dark” (Chapter four) revolves around blackness and antebellum tensions between the North and the South as well as the guilt that existed in the works of Washington Irving, Poe, John Quintor, and others. Burns shows how the grotesque mingled with the supernatural, thus giving a gothic undertone to representations of blacks in paintings and cartoons alike. She more specifically focuses on what she calls the “fear of the dark” [101] in cartoons that tell us much not only about blacks but also abut contemporary American society as Burns notes that the presence of racism was mainly felt in the lower classes of society whereas abolitionism seemed to develop mainly in the middle class. Using cartoons and paintings such as The Money Diggers or Tom Walker’s Flight which both illustrated Irving’s stories, or Frank Bellew’s incredible Modern Frankenstein representing a black giant, Burns demonstrates how the American equivalent of Frankenstein “unmistakably took on the character of the powerful, dreadful, and relentless black giant whose awakening portended disaster for all” [114] and how paintings like Quintor’s “embodied the fearful apprehensions and racial nightmares of the antebellum era” [127]. Those nightmares also take on the form of the shadow in Chapter 5, “The Shadow’s Curse,” where, focusing on William Rimmer’s Flight and Pursuit, Burns explains how the shadow has functioned as a central theme in cartoons, paintings, and literary works from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. Describing Rimmer’s painting as a “pictorial riddle” [129], she then tries to find the gothic tinge in the life of the painter himself who, according to sculptor Daniel Chester French “just missed being great” [130], but also in his sources of inspiration, in his use of Greek and Roman themes of “war, death, betrayal and assassination” [135]. Yet Burns also positions Rimmer in the American tradition of fugitive slave narratives thus showing “Rimmer’s support of the cause and sympathy with the downtrodden” which, for her, can justify the reason why “the gothic slave hunt emerges as a plausible prototype for the painter” [137]. Furthermore the situation of America at the time is also hinted at on another level, precisely in the shadow figure: “shadows acquired a specifically racial connotation, their grotesque distortion a symbol of the nation’s profound moral deformity. In Herman Melville’s gothic tale Benito Cereno (1855) the shadow plays a powerful symbolic role in amplifying the horrors of slavery” [141]. Beside Rimmer’s work Burns also points to the distorted shadow figure in cartoons published in Vanity Fair—cartoons with political undertones that denounced slavery to a Yankee audience while at the same time being understood in the South as showing the potential threat represented by blacks. This time, however, Burns has to admit the limitations of her study; though she uses Poe and Freud, she merely tries to offer a hint of an explanation to Flight and Pursuit: “[it] ultimately may not be an allegory of anything we can ever know. In it, dark traces of recent national history intertwine with the subjectivity of an artist perpetually on the edge, threatened both by external circumstance and by his own dark side, his inner demons ever ready to seize control” [157].

What Burns does in Painting the Dark Side is attempt to put together, for a specific painter, the literary, historical, psychological sources of inspiration that could help us understand not only some of the most puzzling works of art but also other works of the period that dwelt on the same themes and evoked the same concerns and fears. The high quality of the pictorial representations in the book and the depth of her research make Painting the Dark Side a valuable tool and a beautiful volume. However, as Burns knows, her use of lengthy biographical information is from time to time slightly heavy and may invite criticism, whereas her attempt to combine literature and civilization offers exciting opportunities. However, as representatives of a troubled American society, the lives of the artists she studies are sometimes worthy of notice. Burns should have opted for a title that clearly stated that her study focused as much on the representations of American culture as on those who gave those representations. In short, Painting the Dark Side could have been named Painters of the Dark Side.

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