What American Art Can Teach Us About American History

American stuff is the stuff of American history, as recorded in still life painting.

English speakers commonly translate the French nature morte as “still life,” but a more accurate translation would be the oxymoronic “dead life.” Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life, a new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, brings the American still life tradition back from the dead to say something about the American past, present, and future. From the very beginnings of American art in the early 19th century, still life’s taken the stuff of Americans to illustrate the stuff of American dreams and memory. These “object lessons” allow the “talking dead” of inanimate objects to animate debate about what we once were and hoped to become as well as what we are today as a nation and people.

As Bill Brown points out in the catalog to the exhibition, the European tradition of still life, specifically the Dutch tradition, “convey[s] a milieu of spectacular excess,” whereas “the particular and particularizing work of American still life extracts objects from the object cultures in which they participate.” American still life invites introspection and deep reading beyond sensual, surface delight by holding up our possessions to examine the hold they possess on us. “Just as trivial objects had focused the dispute that led to the politically independent state,” Brown continues, “so too they focused assessments of the cultural independence of the nation.” The taxing of things ignited the American Revolution, in other words, but all the smaller American revolutions grew out of our consumer culture as well, from owning slaves to owning guns to owning computers.

Still life’s traditionally found itself on the bottom of the genre totem pole. “From the beginning, American still-life painters labored under a burden of disrespect,” Carol Troyen explains in the catalog. How could flowers or a plate of delicacies compete with grand history paintings of big events? Audubon to Warhol argues that still life painting IS history painting, but the history of the ordinary rather than the extraordinary, the masses rather than the elite. “If we really want to know what is going on in this country, the artists, curators, critics, and scholars of still life have told us,” Katie A. Pfohl argues in her essay. “We had best set our sights low, since it is often — both then and now — through its stuff that America really speaks.” By setting its sights low, Audubon to Warhol sets its sights high on targeting essential truths about the American experience.

  • Image: Rubens Peale with a Geranium, 1801. Rembrandt Peale, American, 1778-1860. Oil on canvas, 28 1/8 x 24 inches (71.4 x 61 cm). Framed: 35 1/4 × 31 3/8 × 2 3/16 inches (89.5 × 79.7 × 5.6 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 1985.59.1.
  • Philadelphia’s the perfect venue for celebrating American still life as not only “The Birthplace of America,” but also the birthplace of the genre as practiced by Americans, first and foremost by the Peale family, led by patriarch Charles Willson Peale. Peale passed down his dual loves for art and natural history to his sons and daughters, especially the artistically named Raphaelle, Rubens, and Titian. In Rubens Peale with a Geranium (shown above), Rembrandt Peale captures his near-sighted, naturalist brother with a botanical specimen. Such works capture the precision and exactitude of the Peale family approach to still life as well as the human component. At that moment in early American history when the young country began discovering not just the untamed wilderness to the West, but also the untamed elements of within democracy, such still life spoke of more than just young men and flowers.


  • Image: Flower Still Life with Bird's Nest, 1853. Severin Roesen, American (born Germany), 1816 - c. 1872. Oil on canvas, 40 x 32 inches (101.6 x 81.3 cm). Framed: 51 × 43 1/2 inches (129.5 × 110.5 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with support from the Henry P. McIlhenny Fund in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny, Mr. and Mrs. Robert L. McNeil, Jr., the Edith H. Bell Fund, Mrs. J. Maxwell Moran, Marguerite and Gerry Lenfest, the Center for American Art Fund, Donna C. and Morris W. Stroud II, Dr. and Mrs. Robert E. Booth, Jr., Frederick LaValley and John Whitenight, Mr. and Mrs. John A. Nyheim, Charlene Sussel, Penelope P. Wilson, the American Art Committee, and with the gift (by exchange) of Theodore Wiedemann in memory of his wife, Letha M. Wiedemann, 2010.
  • As “Manifest Destiny” bloomed across the continent, artists captured this flowering of American life. Severin Roesen's Flower Still Life with Bird's Nest (shown above, from 1853) captures this exuberant feeling as Americans began to consume the landscape as part of the larger continental conquest. Yet, at the same time that it shows off, Roesen’s still life looks in. Each flower partakes of the “language of flowers” well known through the 19th century, but forgotten today. Together, the bouquet speaks symbolically in a complex, multifaceted way. Touchscreens in the gallery near this painting invite you to “say it with flowers” to compose a floral self-portrait based in which your personality is symbolized by certain floral connections. The paintings in this section deceive you with flash and color hiding a lingering undertone of introspection that runs throughout American still life’s history.


  • Image: After the Hunt, 1885. William Michael Harnett, American, 1848-1892. Oil on canvas, 71 1/2 x 48 1/2 inches (181.6 x 123.2 cm). Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, Gift of Henry K.S. Williams.
  • The Civil War changed America forever, with still life reflecting that change. Antebellum excess gave way to austerity and trompe l’oeil illusionism, as exemplified by William Michael Harnett's After the Hunt (shown above, from 1885). As much as it blurred the line between the real and illusory, After the Hunt likewise blurred the line between fine art and mainstream culture. Exhibited in a New York City saloon, After the Hunt served as a “game changer,” curator Mark D. Mitchell explained at the press preview, by making still life a spectator sport of sorts and making questions of seeing and believing public concerns. Mitchell recreates the saloon parlor experience with seating that invites modern viewers to ask the same questions today that late 19th century Americans asked as they tried to piece back together the fractured union.


  • Image: Reminiscences of 1865, 1904. John Frederick Peto, American, 1854-1907. Oil on canvas, 30 x 20 inches (76.2 x 50.8 cm). Framed: 41 7/8 × 31 7/8 × 2 1/4 inches (106.4 × 81 × 5.7 cm). Lent by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Julia B. Bigelow Fund by John Bigelow.
  • The illusionism of Harnett and the other great American illusionist, John Frederick Peto, tempts you to touch the paintings to confirm what is and isn’t real. American still life continually tries to come into contact with the present and how the past lingers on through objects flavored by memory. Reminiscences of 1865 (shown above) evokes memories of “Honest Abe” Lincoln, but from the year 1904 “in an informal shrine that includes his engraved portrait and his life dates carved in positive and negative on a green-painted door,” Mitchell observes. Looking back from the corruption of 1904, Peto may be nostalgic for the political good old days, yet still conscious at least in part of the dirty politics that led to Lincoln’s death. Such an arrangement of suggestive totems literally opens a door onto the past that speaks volumes about the present.

    Walking through this exhibition of the “talking dead,” I couldn’t help but be conscious of the languages we’ve lost. We can no longer “read” the flowers in Roesen’s still life. We can no longer even read the meticulously reproduced musical notes in Harnett’s The Old Violin. The exhibition does a wonderful job of reclaiming lost voices of women (including the Peale daughters Sarah and Margaretta) and African-Americans (most notably Robert Seldon Duncanson) to fill out the larger American narrative in still life, but even it cannot help us recover and rediscover these lost languages that make up the larger language of how we relate to things as Americans. Twenty-first century Americans no longer have “hands on” knowledge of nature and culture, to our tragic loss.


  • Image: Brillo Boxes, 1964. Andy Warhol, American, 1928-1987. Screenprint and ink on wood, Each: 17 x 17 x 14 inches (43.2 x 43.2 x 35.6 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, acquired with funds contributed by the Committee on Twentieth-Century Art and as a partial gift of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., 1994. © Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
  • Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life, as promised in the title, concludes with Andy Warhol and Pop Art, the modern art movement dedicated to raising questions about the consumer culture we’ve built by fetishizing even Brillo Boxes (shown above) and their garish advertising scheme. The introspection begun with Peale ends in the introspection of Pop. Yet even this endpoint in Warhol feels not so much as an ending as a new departure. What is the still life of today? More importantly, what does it say about us as Americans now? Paint gives way to pixels. Lost languages give way to virtual reality. What is the typical Facebook page — built from the fragments of everyday life in photos, links, and “likes” — but our own personal still life? Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life succeeds in waking us to the “talking dead” of the past, far and near, but may also succeed in waking us to how we’ve lost touch with the world around us and, consequently, what being an American is supposed to be.


    Bob Duggan has Master’s Degrees in English Literature and Education and is not afraid to use them. Born and raised in Philadelphia, PA, he has always been fascinated by art and brings an informed amateur’s eye to the conversation.

    [Image at top of post: Reminiscences of 1865 (detail), 1904. John Frederick Peto, American, 1854-1907. Oil on canvas, 30 x 20 inches (76.2 x 50.8 cm). Framed: 41 7/8 × 31 7/8 × 2 1/4 inches (106.4 × 81 × 5.7 cm). Lent by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Julia B. Bigelow Fund by John Bigelow.]

    [Many thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for providing me with the images above from, other press materials related to, a review copy of the catalog for, and an invitation to the press preview for the exhibition Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life, which runs through January 10, 2016.]

    [Please follow me on Twitter (@BobDPictureThis) and Facebook (Art Blog By Bob) for more art news and views.]

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    Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

    The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

    Mind & Brain
    • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
    • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
    • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

    Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

    Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

    "[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

    Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.


    Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

    The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

    That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

    Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

    Repressed memories

    Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

    First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

    Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

    More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

    This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

    "The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

    The Oedipal complex

    The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

    That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

    Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

    But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

    Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

    An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

    The Freudian slip

    Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

    "Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

    In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

    According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

    "This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

    Freud's case studies

    Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

    It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

    For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

    Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

    Sigmund Freud and his legacy

    Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

    Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

    If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

    When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

    Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

    But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

    With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

    Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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