In the Service of Indoctrination: Humor in Antebellum American Genre Painting

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Irén Annus


The construction of national culture and identity, particularly for a newly established nation, is a complex and multifaceted process, one that by definition requires a scrupulous, circumspect, and thoughtful disposition. The historical weight and scale of such an undertaking demand gravity and seriousness that signify a grand enterprise. This was the cultural context within which genre painting found its way to the US in the early nineteenth century. Genre painting (also referred to as morality painting) in Europe often employed humor to provide social criticism, but in the US it was seen as a quintessential style to portray the American nation as unified and democratic through renderings of the daily life of common people – once portrait and history painting had provided the metanarratives and the pantheon of national heroes upon which this new phase of cultural production evolved. The study investigates the key aspects of the ambivalence between genre painting in the old and the new worlds and the ways in which humor was employed in subtle ways in American genre paintings to illuminate the social norms and expectations associated with the up-and-coming middle-class values cemented at the heart of what emerged as the “proper” American nation.


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How to Cite
Annus, Irén. 2023. “In the Service of Indoctrination: Humor in Antebellum American Genre Painting”. AMERICANA E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary 19 (1).
Author Biography

Irén Annus, Department of American Studies, University of Szeged

Irén Annus is Associate Professor at the Department of American Studies at the University of Szeged, Hungary. She is a cultural studies scholar, whose main interest lies in visual culture, identity studies, and 19th-century American culture. She has widely lectured and published in these fields, including seven volumes she has authored or (co-)edited. She is a founding member of the Gender Studies and the Inter-American Studies research groups at her university and sits on the editorial board of two journals, Americana and TNTeF E-journal. She has also served as the Secretary of the Hungarian Association for American Studies for two terms. Email: