Theses Doctoral

Sculpture, Slavery, and Commerce in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World

Beach, Caitlin

This dissertation investigates the intersection of nineteenth-century figurative sculpture with an American slave economy whose impact reverberated across time and transnational geographies. Scholars have long acknowledged how sculptural depictions of the enslaved body by Hiram Powers, John Bell, and Francesco Pezzicar played vital roles in dialogues about abolition and Emancipation on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet renewed examination of individual works of art, the terms of their circulation and display, and the markets and regimes of racialized value they occupied suggests that the production and consumption of these statues also unfolded in physical and conceptual proximity with systems of commerce and commodification formed under slavery.
Working at the intersection of material culture studies, critical race theory, and legal and literary studies, this study conceives of sculpture as a transactional object that inhabited an interconnected world of art and commerce spanning merchants’ exchanges and cotton factorage houses in the American South, industrial manufacturing firms in Britain, sculptors’ studios and art academies in Italy, World’s Fairs, and private homes. Following an introductory discussion of the entanglement of art and the economy of slavery in nineteenth-century Atlantic spaces writ large, chapters examine the traveling exhibition of Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave in antebellum New Orleans, the manufacture and display of John Bell’s statues depicting enslaved black and mixed- race women in the abolitionist British Atlantic, and the circulation of Francesco Pezzicar’s sculptural commemoration of American slavery between post-Civil War Philadelphia and Risorgimento Italy. From these case studies it is argued that sculpture stood as a highly visible but deeply unstable site from which to interrogate the politics of slavery, on one hand because of the medium’s entanglement with trade and commerce, and on the other because of its relationship to considerations of the corporeal. Nineteenth-century concerns with the animacy of sculpture – long understood as measures of artistic virtuosity in making a statue appear as if it were living – were inextricable from the hierarchies of race and subjectivity that shaped the institution of slavery and its structures of bodily commodification. In raising questions about the motivation and management of subjects and objects in slavery’s wake, this study complicates discussions about the status of the object in art history and criticism while contributing to broader interdisciplinary dialogues concerning race, representation, and the body.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Hutchinson, Elizabeth West
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 6, 2018