Portraits of Noteworthy Character: Negotiating a Collective American Identity


ACLS Fellowship Program


Art and Art History


This project examines the role portraiture plays in fostering social change in the United States from the 1890s through the 1950s, an era of class, ethnic, and racial tension. Considering visual campaigns that portrayed African Americans and immigrants with the hope of achieving social equality, the study addresses how the portrait elicited empathy, expecting subjects and viewers alike to form progressive relationships through the contemplation of noteworthy likenesses. Incorporated into conduct manuals and exhibitions, the portrait visualized cultural capital, promising citizenship, equality, and even happiness to those who adopted the specified codes. Further, for many progressive agencies and individuals, the portrait fostered a sense of mutual obligation, bridging the gap between self and society. However, neither artists and authors nor audiences wholly adopted proscriptive literature or a singular mode of presentation. Instead, their negotiations result in a compelling narrative on modern subjectivity and the formation of collective identities.