American Stories: Narrative and American Art
This seminar examines the role of narrative in the development of American art, focusing in particular—but not exclusively—on the traditions of history and genre painting. Searching for national symbols in the first decades of the new republic, American artists adopted and adapted conventions from European art, especially 17th-century genre scenes and 18th-century Grand Manner history painting, to portray significant moments in American political and social life. In this course, we will explore not only the historical transformations in the production and reception of history and genre scenes in the American context, but also the various ways that scholars have studied and written about such works over the past three decades. Through a series of case studies, we will examine questions such as: Why did the Grand Manner tradition of history painting struggle to take root in the United States when it was so popular in Europe? Why did interest in Grand Manner history scenes climax, and then quickly decline, in the mid-19th century? How did artists mobilize narrative as a tool to make their works more accessible and acceptable to American audiences? To what extent did genre scenes fill the gap left by the decline of history painting in the second half of the 19th century? In what ways have late 20th-century and contemporary artists returned to these earlier traditions to critique American history and society? Class meetings will be focused on discussing and analyzing the assigned readings, and students will take turns giving in-class presentations to facilitate discussion. One meeting will take place at the Seattle Art Museum, where we will tour the upcoming special exhibition Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas.
For course requirements, policies, and a detailed reading schedule, please see the expanded syllabus.
All required readings are posted to Canvas. For additional background and suggested readings, you may wish to consult the freely-available, open-access textbook, American Encounters.