Surface Experiments in Early America


Luce/ACLS Dissertation Fellowships in American Art


History of Art and Architecture


Art in the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century British transatlantic world was characterized by a fascination with surfaces in both spatial and temporal terms. While the spatial conception of surfaces has been richly developed by art historians, the significance of surfaces as sites of physical transformation has received little scholarly attention. Yet in this period Joshua Reynolds consigned his immortal fame to the evanescent mezzotint; Benjamin Franklin paradoxically proposed using paper marbling’s inconstant patterns to establish a steadfast, unassailable currency; Federalist cabinetmakers used veneers to animate their furniture by giving the impression of movement in time; and Washington Allston posited a correspondence between the duration of a painting’s making and the depth of its reception. These practices and discourses identify surfaces as visible sites, but they also explore their dynamism in time. In the American colonial context, the productive instability of surfaces provided a material, rather than historicist, basis for art’s progress.