Men Shoveling Chairs by Circle of Rogier van der Weyden

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Shadows and Light

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Lauren Palmor. “Shadows and Light: Seeing Senescence in British and American Genre Painting, ca. 1850-1910.” PhD Dissertation, University of Washington, 2016.

This study suggests the potential benefits of enhanced sensitivity towards aging in the history of art. Cultural representations of senescence in nineteenth-century genre painting, whether drawn from scenes of the hearthside, chaperonage, age-disparate coupling, or cross-generational play, provide the visual material from which a general perception of the life course can be drawn. The argument at the center of this study is that something is to be gained for Anglo-American art history from age studies and its related phenomena. Age articulates difference, and abandoning mono-generational research perspectives might sharpen our awareness of the role this difference plays in visual culture. There are unique challenges that one must responsibly address when prying into the omissions and oversights within a discipline, and the thematic image groupings which comprise the chapters of this study were selected to present a survey of the signifiers of old age without adhering to a simple story line. Both American and British visual culture demonstrate instances of lack and plenty in relation to the complex notions of Victorian aging, and ageism in the historiography of art can be made much clearer by reading this evidence with intention and respect. By electing to use the life cycle to appraise and navigate Victorian genre painting, historians of British and American painting would acknowledge the basic notion that ageism is perhaps the most neglected and socially permitted discriminatory system. An assessment of nineteenth-century visual culture designed by this supposition is bound to reveal significant and instructive truths.

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