Theses Doctoral

The Garb of Nature: Art, Nudity, and Ecology in the Nineteenth-Century United States

Fein, Katherine

This dissertation recasts the history of nudity in art as a history of ecology. Art historians have long emphasized that depictions of the nude body make visible social relationships structured by gender, race, and class. I contend that ecological relationships—among human beings, fellow living things, and their environments—lie latent in these same artworks. My argument unfolds in the context of the nineteenth-century United States, a place of profound and lasting change that transformed how the human body was understood and represented.

Taking seriously the historical euphemism “the garb of nature,” I look anew at nudity across artistic media. Three chronological chapters expand outward in scale and engage with different aspects of the natural world: I examine an ivory miniature of a white woman’s bare breasts, a wet-collodion negative of unclothed Civil War soldiers bathing outdoors, and an enormous sculptural weathervane on the New York City skyline.

In each case, I grapple with the contexts in which these artworks emerged, encompassing enslavement, war, colonialism, hunting, pollution, and industrialization—all practices premised upon social and ecological hierarchy. Yet my analysis reveals that these artworks attest not to hierarchy but to the vital interdependence of people and the natural world. Together, these case studies chart a new approach to nudity in art, attuned to both the social and ecological stakes of representation.

Geographic Areas


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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
June 5, 2024