Lauren Lessing, University of Iowa Museum of Art and Lisa Dorrill, Dickinson College | Newberry

Lauren Lessing, University of Iowa Museum of Art and Lisa Dorrill, Dickinson College

Friday, April 5, 2019

2 to 5pm

American Art and Visual Culture Seminar

Lauren Lessing: Dramatic Spectacle in Thomas Cole’s Early Landscapes

At the outset of his career, the American landscape artist Thomas Cole painted theatrical scenery for the Thespian Society in Steubenville, Ohio. His friends later recalled that he became “an adept at this art,” and that, “His skill displayed in painting scenery for theaters first brought [him] into notice in New York.” These reminiscences deviate from William Dunlap’s well-known story of Cole’s discovery by John Trumbull, Asher B. Durand, and Dunlap himself. His elision of the young artist’s background as a scene painter is not surprising. Although many antebellum artists received valuable experience creating scenery, few chose to publicize this aspect of their careers. Still, early nineteenth-century developments in stage design had a significant impact on artists’ styles, compositions, and subjects. This is evident in Cole’s early landscapes, including Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake, Kentucky (1826), and Landscape: Scene from”The Last of the Mohicans” (1827), among many others, and also in his later allegorical painting cycles such as The Voyage of Life (1842). Going beyond Lee Parry’s seminal discussion of the impact dioramas and moving panoramas exerted on Cole’s style, in this paper I will analyze the artist’s landscape paintings for evidence of a dialogue between easel painting and theatrical conventions. I will also explore how the sets, lighting, and blocking of Romantic melodramas served as a bridge between works of literature and the artist’s canvas, helped to create a market for sublime wilderness views in New York, and shaped perceptions of the artist’s work.

Lisa Dorrill: Albert Abramovitz’s Death Series: A Danse Macabre for the Great Depression

Though largely forgotten today, Albert Abramovitz was a leftist, Jewish immigrant who, as an employee of the WPA/FAP, produced compassionate images typical of social realism. However, in a group of wood engravings known as the Death Series, Abramovitz presented a unique and especially morbid view by explicitly illustrating the causes for suffering and death during this difficult decade, from the familiar (environmental calamity, war and fascism) to the unexpected (alcoholism, suicide, rickets, and even traffic accidents). To address such subjects from the present, Abramovitz looked to the past, emulating the iconic works of Hans Holbein, Jan van Eyck, and Albrecht Durer while reviving the medieval Dance of Death tradition.

Respondents: Annelise Madsen

Cost and Registration Information 

Newberry Scholarly Seminars papers are pre-circulated. For a copy of the paper, email Please do not request a paper unless you plan to attend.