American Studies Seminar - 2014

Portraits, Dolls, and Effigies: Humans as Objects in America

“Is a portrait fact or fiction?” Baudelaire asked. Students in this class will see that it is both when we look beneath the aesthetic surface of human representations to explore them as deeply embedded in and revealing of past cultural contexts. We will analyze portraits and other human representations as both visual and material culture.

What do we see in the painting or the doll? There is clothing and textiles, props and accoutrements, postures and furniture, but also social relations, gender roles, family hierarchies, imperiousness or coquettishness, sadness or happiness, direct eye contact or not. We will learn how scholars filter through this visual information—determine its fact-ness—and use it in conjunction with artifact collections and documentary studies.

Viewing human representations as material objects, we will explore who owned portraits and human figures; how they were bought, sold, and displayed; and the social and political capital they contained. Drawing on various disciplinary engagements with material culture, from art history to anthropology to history, we will theorize the limits of the human body and the life in objects.

This course is about the relationship between material objects and human beings found in artistic representations of people. We will take four approaches to portrait paintings: first they can be read as contextual historic evidence as well as a source of significant objects; secondly, portraits give insight into meta-narratives (above and beyond context) of identity—how early Americans defined themselves using objects; and finally the portrait is an object itself.

The weekly topics and readings define broad thematic areas of investigation, within which we will identify specific cases that illuminate the concrete cultural construction of personhood in early America and the role of visual and material culture in that construction.

Classes will be a combination of short lectures by professor, class discussion, and student presentations. Most days we will meet at the American Antiquarian Society, first in a classroom and then move to collections viewing and research. Three or four times, however, we will visit the Worcester Art Museum, which has a broad portrait collection, and perhaps a local house museum or other repository.

The seminar was led by Caroline Frank.

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