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Signs of Grace: Religion and American Art in the Gilded Age

Kristin Schwain

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ISBN 10: 0801445779 / ISBN 13: 9780801445774
Published by Cornell University Press
New Condition: New Hardcover
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Bibliographic Details

Title: Signs of Grace: Religion and American Art in...

Publisher: Cornell University Press

Binding: Hardback

Book Condition: New

About this title


Religious imagery was ubiquitous in late-nineteenth-century American life: department stores, schoolbooks, postcards, and popular magazines all featured elements of Christian visual culture. Such imagery was not limited to commercial and religious artifacts, however, for it also found its way into contemporary fine art. In Signs of Grace, Kristin Schwain looks anew at the explicitly religious work of four prominent artists in this period-Thomas Eakins, F. Holland Day, Abbott Handerson Thayer, and Henry Ossawa Tanner-and argues that art and religion performed analogous functions within American culture. Fully expressing the concerns and values of turn-of-the-century Americans, this artwork depicted religious figures and encouraged the beholders' communion with them.Describing how these artists drew on their religious beliefs and practices, as well as how beholders looked to art to provide a transcendent experience, Schwain explores how a modern conception of faith as an individual relationship with the divine facilitated this sanctified relationship between art and viewer. This stress on the interior and subjective experience of religion accentuated the artist's efforts to engage beholders personally with works of art; how better to fix the viewer's attention than to hold out the promise of salvation? Schwain shows that while these new visual practices emphasized individual encounters with art objects, they also carried profound social implications. By negotiating changes in religious belief-by aestheticizing faith in a new, particularly American manner-these practices contributed to evolving debates about art, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender.


"Kristin Schwain considers the influences and interpretations of 'art' in the everyday lives of 'average' Americans. Concentrating her attention on four leading artists--painters Thomas Eakins, Abbott Handerson Thayer, and Henry Ossawa Tanner and photographer F. Holland Day--Schwain attends to their place outside the elitist frames of academic art and theological debates. . . . Recommended."--D. Apostolos-Cappadona, Choice

"Schwain's work forms part of a revival on scholarship on American religion that focuses on visual and material culture. She successfully challenges the concept that religion occupies a conservative, nostalgic, retrograde perspective within modernity. Schwain argues that it is precisely through their turn to religious themes that American artists (and art critics) forged a new, modern way of seeing, one in which art prompted personal contemplation and emotional transcendence. . . . This is a refreshing and thought-provoking study of a topic that has been marginalized for too long. Schwain's book deserves a broad readership for its keen core insight: that religious sensibility has a close affinity to the modernist way of seeing."--American Historical Review

"Signs of Grace offers a revealing window on the way in which the visual arts were given a distinct religious bearing in late Victorian America--one that accentuated momentary experiences of spiritual and aesthetic illumination. In this rich and sumptuous book, Kristin Schwain has done an excellent job of analyzing these forms of spiritualized visuality through the works of Thomas Eakins, Henry Ossawa Tanner, F. Holland Day, and Abbott Handerson Thayer."--Leigh Eric Schmidt, Princeton University

"In Signs of Grace, Kristin Schwain weaves together art history and the history of religion to delineate broad patterns and demonstrate the importance of the exchanges between art and religion at a time when both aesthetic and religious thought were fully engaged with the transformative processes of modernization."--Sarah Burns, Ruth N. Halls Professor of Fine Arts, Indiana University

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