Return to Article Details In the Service of Indoctrination: Humor in Antebellum American Genre Painting

1. Introduction

In Western art, one popular genre well-known for the intersection of humor and painting is genre painting. Developed in the Lowlands during the sixteenth century, in parallel with the emergence of modernity and the capitalist mode of production along with the spread of the Reformation which took a notably ethnic character in an area then under Catholic Spanish-Habsburg rule (15561714), this genre had broad and long-lasting effects. Defined as a style that portrays the daily life of common people, it conveyed messages of morality intertwined with the growth of Protestantism and the wake of ethnic identity that shaped the cultural warfare carried out against foreign rule. Anecdotal genre images reflected the life of the everyman, with approval as well as disapproval; therefore, they also reflected the ideals of a modern society taking shape. This paper first discusses the power of culture in the construction of modern nationhood in general and the contribution of painting to the formation of the American nation in particular. Then, it touches upon the link between humor and painting in early genre painting to further contextualize the analysis of humor in American genre painting in the antebellum period. It points out the particular features of this cultural production, provides possible reasons to account for them, and elaborates on the ways in which this genre assisted in the process of furthering Victorian middle-class values and perspectives in American society which provided salient constitutive elements of American national identity.

2. The Cultural Construction of Nations

The emerging Western state formations that replaced medieval kingdoms in modernity were the nation-states. The new political and legal entities were characterized by having “a territory, with a permanent population, subject to the control of a government, and the capacity to conduct international relations (sovereignty)” (Williams 449). The population within the boundaries of the state is typically seen as comprising one nation, constructed as if having evolved out of a particular ethnic community at its core (Smith 1986) in Europe, as the names of France, Germany, and Italy, among other countries, indicate. The essentialist mode of portraying ethnic communities as sharing in certain phenotypical markers as well as innate characteristics was supported by the natural sciences placed on a pedestal by the Enlightenment, but a sense of unity imbued with powerful feelings of a shared past and destiny along with a sentimental loyalty that integrated all who belonged to a given nation had to be created. In this process, culture occupied a key position (Andersen, Gellner 1983, Hobsbawm and Ranger, Smith 1986, 2013, Sollors), as expressed in Smith’s definition of a nation being “a named and self-defined human community whose members cultivate shared myths, memories, symbols, values and traditions, reside in and identify with an historic homeland, create and disseminate a distinctive public culture, and observe shared customs and common laws” (2013, 7).

As for the evolution of the European nationalist project, Smith concludes that initially a small intellectual nationalist elite “engaged in the didactic, moralizing, and naturalizing tasks” (2013, 9) in cooperation with the political and commercial elite. As these achieved minimal appeal to the middle and lower classes, these social layers could be reached through the arts: visual culture, such as painting, sculpture, and architecture made people “see the nation,” and music, dance, literature, and folk art were employed to enable people to “hear its call” (Smith 2013, 9). Fine arts in the service of the construction of nationhood and national identity were characterized by three modes, notes Smith (2013): they were didactic, evocative, and commemorative. He explains: “The didactic and realistic mode sought historical ‘truth,’ … so as to convey a sense of the ‘reality’ of acts of national heroes and virtue … the evocative and spiritual mode suggested and implied a sense of national identity by portraying psychological character and enduring ethnoscapes … [and] the commemorative mode was mainly used to celebrate the national ideal of sacrifice” (2013, 2). Reflective of these aims, the specific themes and styles employed in the visual cultural construction of nationhood included portrait painting, history painting, landscape painting, and genre painting.

In the US, however, the historical context was quite different from that of Europe. It was a new country rooted in various European cultures and realities, but still striving to create a new model community from its onset rooted in religious and political ideals that framed the new era of modernity: Protestantism and the Enlightenment. Following the War of Independence (17761783) and the War of 1812 (18121815) which confirmed the independent status of the new country – it is thus also referred to as the second War of Independence – the US was in a seminal phase. As the state was defined primarily through territorial integrity and enlightened political values, the role of common culture and shared language became particularly formative in the creation of the nation (Sollors, Anderson). In the process, they engaged in cultural nationalism, which encompasses “the full gamut of cultural practices and texts” employed in “the construction of national identity” (Woods 1), in the course of which nation served as the inspiration for art that aimed at cultivating the nation by conferring a romanticized sense of shared identity, history, and destiny.

3. Painting in the Construction of the American Nation and National Identity

It was in this spirit that the cultural construction of the US as a state and the American people as a nation started to evolve after the Revolutionary War. Initially, painting contributed to this grand project both in didactic and commemorative terms: portrait painting created a pantheon of historical figures praised as heroes of the new nation, who were then also endorsed by history painting, which delivered visual narratives in the construction of a distinct American history that citizens could embrace – and the fact that at times the same historical event was interpreted to fit different narratives and national constructions went unnoticed (see Annus 2007b on how General Wolfe and his death on the Plains of Abraham have become part of not only the American historical narrative, but also the Canadian and British ones). Gilbert Stuart (17551825) completed close to a thousand portraits, amongst them the most well-known depictions of George Washington, the “father” of the new nation, who has over one hundred of his portraits exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery alone in the nation’s capital. Portraitists John Singleton Copley (17381815), Charles Wilson Peale (17441827), and Ralph Earl (17511801) also rose to prominence in the footsteps of John Smibert (16881751) and Robert Feke (17051752) (Barratt 2003). Perhaps the most striking illustration of governmental recognition of the power of symbolic cultural production was the fact that in 1817 Congress authorized President Madison to commission John Trumbull (17561843), the most renowned American history painter at the time, to complete four life-size history paintings for the Rotunda in the new Capitol to commemorate victorious moments of the War of Independence.

The years to come witnessed the growing popularity of genre and landscape paintings, both of which furthered the construction of a unique American nation and national identity, in Smith’s evocative manner. The first generation of American landscapists, typically referred to as the Hudson River School artists (at times also defined as the New York School, see Miller), were named after the American region from which they drew inspiration. The founder of the school, Thomas Cole (18011848), traveled around the Hudson Valley and the Catskill Mountains in 1825 and exhibited the first landscape he completed on his trip in the same year – which is regarded as the beginning of the American landscape tradition. Inspired by the Baroque traditions of the pastoral in the manner of the Frenchman Claude Lorrain (16001682) as well as by the Italian master of the terrible, Salvator Rosa (16151673), his often mythical and allegorical images, such as The Oxbow (1838) and series, such as The Course of Empire (18331836), portray the authentic American landscape as untouched, uncultivated scenery.

The cultural definition of the peculiar American landscape was one concern at the heart of landscapists. Cole, for example, in his “Essay on American Scenery” published in 1836, argues that the unique American character derives from the uncorrupted, untamed, sublime American landscape: the wilderness, where “associations are of God the creator [and]… his undefiled works, and the mind is cast into the contemplation of eternal things” (4). Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882) also viewed nature as the residing place of the Oversoul, where, he felt, “currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God” (4). A touch of environmental determinism embraced even by Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) himself allowed for endowing the newly emerging nation with a sacred nature because of the sacred environment in which their blessed experiment was taking shape.

Genre painting integrated into the cultural process of forming the nation through a different logic. It focused on depictions of common people engaged in everyday activities, such as peasants laboring in the fields, enjoying a dance or other merriments, or passing time in a tavern. Dutch and Flemish artists triumphed in this genre as early as the mid-sixteenth century, providing models for future generations of painters on how to translate “the abstract ideas of nationhood” with significant religious, political, and economic components “into a more tangible and widely accessible form” (Smith 2013, 3). Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 15251569), acknowledged as the founder of the genre, produced fresh and provocative rural, often interior, domestic settings and lively, action-packed exterior scenes which enjoyed immense popularity already during his lifetime. Bianco portrays him as an artist who was able to capture human follies or shortcomings through comic tools to warn, educate, and uplift society through his moralizing, sometimes satirical and allegorical images (1131), characterized by unsentimental and realistic representation. His paintings, similarly to works of other genre painters, such as Jan Sleen (16251679), Pieter de Hooch (16291684), and Johannes Vermeer (16321674), also carried coded messages with regard to religious belief and practice, commerce and other economic activities, and social and political concerns. Humor was employed in many of his works to convey these moralizing, correctional and satirical messages to the consumers of his works, who were leading merchants and financially affluent members of the local society.

These representations have often been associated with stereotypes, which helped to establish a widely accessible uniformity in terms of meaningful interpretation among the audience. Although Bianco warns us not to reduce, for example, Bruegel’s figures to stereotypes, a broader sense of applicability may lend itself to generalizations which then accompanied images by generations of genre artists to come. Perhaps approaching genre images not as faithful reflections of common life but as painterly constructions and interpretive exaggerations may explain the potential emergence of stereotypes. The uncrowned British king of the style, for example, William Hogarth (16971764), did employ stereotypical characters and situations to target “an elite taste equated with the cultural otherness and immorality of the past” (Erwin 409) that derived either from vanity or hypocrisy (Erwin 396). His cultural stereotypes, argues Erwin, “must have affirmed a sense of national community among English beholders” (409), as “Hogarth aimed at nothing less than a national revolution in taste” (383). It seems that genre painters aimed at a national reconfiguration of traditional iconography in other countries as well.

American genre painting appeared in the 1810s but grew to prominence in the 1830s as the country continued to define what it was as a nation – on the level of the average citizen. While some popular examples of genre painting, such as the works of Hogarth, were truly satirical and even harsh in their treatment of lower-class customs, most American genre paintings seem to reflect quite a different temperament: they convey the bliss and contentment, if not the happiness, of the American citizen. They “rendered an idealized version of the US as a nation without conflicts, class divisions, or industrial disruptions,” as Miller et al. also point out (193). This resonated with the optimism of the period following the election of Andrew Jackson as president in 1828. The Jacksonian period (18281854), characterized by a powerful belief in democracy, egalitarianism, and nation-building, also witnessed the strengthening of the middle class, members of which were hard-working, financially successful, self-made traders and entrepreneurs, such as Boston merchant Richard Codman (1762–1806), Baltimore merchant and shipowner Robert Gilmor, Jr. (1774–1848), New York dry goods merchant Luman Reed (1787–1836) and his business partner, Jonathan Sturges (1802–1874), and New York writer and critic Henry Theodore Tuckerman (1813–1871) (Ferber, Clark). They distinguished themselves not only by being art lovers but also art collectors: their collections included works by Dutch and Flemish genre painters (Clark 2628), but they were more eager to purchase images by home-grown artists. They “wanted images from recognizable and topical events, particularly American scenes… [Consequently,] tastes in America shifted, and many artists… answered their demands by focusing on genre painting” (Schneider 303). In these paintings, as Miller et al. also observe, various character types were “portrayed…with varying degrees of admiration, sympathy, respect, and, on occasion, disrespect and disdain, reflecting the attitude of the middle class for whom they were intended” (193).

Although most genre artists lived on the funds they generated from commissions by various patrons, many of them also exhibited with the popular Apollo Association (established in 1839) and the American Art-Union (1839–1852), which delivered the paintings submitted to a wide audience through traveling exhibitions. This institutional form of shaping common aesthetic taste reflective of the new middle class that would assist in creating a more homogeneous nation through images that resonated with many was also a way to democratize art as well as to create native, meaning authentically American, art. This practice was greatly supported by leading American genre painter William S. Mount (18071867), who encouraged his fellow artists to paint not for the few but for the many. One way to achieve this was to recognize that “no aspect of life was too insignificant” (Clark 25) to be portrayed in art. Mount himself spent all his life in his native New York State traveling around in his mobile studio, living up to his conviction which he noted in his diary: “A painter’s studio should be everywhere…Go and search for materials, not wait for them to come to you” (qtd. in Clark 25). His ideals outlined the model for the development of a unique native school in genre painting in terms of themes and style that could lend desirable national character with identifiable values to American peoplehood under construction.

American genre painters were also unique in their relation to the nation in other ways as well. While it is true that the artist who had introduced genre painting to the American audience was born in Europe, most of the popular genre artists were born on native soil, many of them in small towns or rural areas. They thus considered the topics of genre paintings as part of their inheritance and something they knew intimately and thus could portray realistically. Some of them also seemed to be prepared to cut the cultural umbilical cord with Europe. Before them, American painters felt obliged to journey to Europe to carefully study the works of old masters and learn the latest techniques and styles that prevailed there. The outcome was a “transatlantic esthetic” that evolved in the US, for example, in landscape painting, as discussed by Busciglio-Ritter (3–6). However, a number of the genre painters insisted on eschewing a European sojourn in favor of finding and developing their own American style and presence. Mount, for example, not only encouraged others not to train in Europe (Oedel and Gernes 111); he also refused to copy the works of European masters so popular among the artists of the day with which to generate further income (Hills 5). Lilly Martin Spencer (1822–1902) also declined the European grand tour despite funds being made available to her and remained in the US. Others, such as George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879) and Francis William Edmonds (1806–1863), however, followed the old path and did take advantage of the opportunity of a trip to Europe when it presented itself.

4. Humor in American Genre Painting

The historical ambivalence of humor in the social and cultural realms has left its mark on the world of painting. During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church was among the major patrons of visual art in Europe, thus defining both the themes and the nature of the paintings executed for it. Humor and faith tended not to be the “best of friends,” since art was expected to be sacred, elevated, and reverent, with humor being associated with unserious dispositions and thus seen as undignified and a potential source of veiled atttacks on religious tenets and practices (Annus 2016). This approach continued to characterize the art world: Walker quotes E. B. White writing in 1941 in A Subtreasury of American Humor that “if a thing is funny it can be presumed to be something less than great, because if it were truly great, it would be wholly serious” (6). An image, particularly if part of a sacred undertaking, such as religion – or nationhood, we may add – may not be sprinkled with comic elements as it then ceases to be proper art and to carry deep, meaningful, elevated messages befitting the subject.

In this sense, genre painting was a departure as it took it upon itself to ridicule human shortcomings as they appeared in the course of mundane life, be they connected to religion, class position, occupation, etc. Comic scenes of everyday life were often moralizing and employed satire, sarcasm, parody, and exaggeration to ridicule human weaknesses. Dadlez in his discussion of humor and morality distinguishes between superiority theories which “ally humor principally with ridicule and the enjoyment of one’s own superiority in pinpointing the foibles or weaknesses of another” and incongruity theories that “link humor to the defeat of expectations, to a clash or dissonance that is enjoyable rather than distressing or confusing“ (2), which may function as advice (10) – or warning, I would add, as was the case in some of the American genre paintings. It seems to me that American genre painters employed humor to capture incongruity and not so much superiority in American society. And while both approaches may employ satire as well as irony – both of which have been scrutinised in academic studies – the general consensus is that satire tends to be “ameliorative in intent” (Hutcheon 50) and aims to expose human shortcomings and social ills by employing wit, exaggeration, irony, etc., irony operates by capturing a discrepancy between two things, such as an expectation and a fulfillment. Although Pollard reminds us that “satire is always acutely conscious of the difference between what things are and what they ought to be” (3), usually irony is specifically associated with double, often contradictory meanings which then constitute the heart of humor.

Genre painting soon found its way from the Dutch and Flemish areas, where it was dominated by a unique form of humor associated with moral superiority, to other European cultures, including the British Isles. The master of the genre there was undoubtedly Hogarth, whose mocking satirical representations of the foulness of society exemplified new ways in which humor, often coarse, could be employed to set a mirror before society. The Scottish painter David Wilke (1785–1841) refined the style by marrying it with Romanticism in atmosphere and Realism in terms of execution, which earned him the reputation of the most influential genre painter in Great Britain in the nineteenth century. It was during the heyday of his career that the genre also took root in the United States, primarily through the transatlantic English cultural influence delivered by a few artists, such as the German-born John Lewis Kimmel (1789–1821) or the English-born James Goodwyn Clonney (1812–1867), both of whom chose the US as their new home. Kimmel, who immigrated to Philadelphia in 1809, is regarded as the artist who transplanted the style on American soil. His art was primarily shaped both by Hogarth and Wilke. His images of Independence Day street celebrations, weddings, dances, and tavern scenes presented a fresh addition to the American artistic scene and to the artistic milieu at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, of which he became a member. His art impacted a new generation of painters, who, along with landscape painters, dominated the American artistic and market scene during the Jacksonian period.

American genre painting, however, was not characterized by the biting humor of superiority portrayed in the British images, but rather by a light-hearted laughter of incongruity, if even that at all. Common everyday life was its source of inspiration, which it idealized, if not praised, through its unproblematized, romanticized treatment of the themes achieved through idealized scenes of life portrayed in warm colors and in balanced compositions. When the images referred to some specific social or political issue behind a veiled symbolism, they were typically presented without sides being taken, thus leaving it to the viewers to form their opinions. And irony or biting humor does not tend to allow for such flexibility of interpretation.

The lack of a true prior political regime which could have been discredited by the brushes of the artists, as was the case in Europe, also may account for why American genre painting took a somewhat different course when it comes to social criticism through satire. It was also unique that no specific social group was singled out: it was a young society with no extreme poverty or class differences to account for. Genre painting was also primarily a cultural phenomenon of the East Coast: most of the painters lived and worked there, some with roots in the Midwest, so their works portrayed their surroundings, where Afro-Americans, for example, if portrayed at all, were represented as marginalized but not excluded from American society. Some amateur painters in the South would capture plantation life in the antebellum period, yet their images focus on the residence of the planter and the surrounding garden. Thus, they were primarily what Vlach called “house portraits [which] eliminated almost any suggestion of the enslaved people who did the work” (17). The institution and the series of concerns associated with it therefore remained invisible in genre painting.

Genre painters themselves were usually from humble backgrounds, as were the businessmen who commissioned their works, such as Luman Reed and his business partner, Jonathan Sturges. As they were not ashamed of their origins (Ferber), they did not strive to poke fun at simple people in their pieces. Instead, they often turned to portrayals of the common man with kindness and empathy, indeed at times with a sense of nostalgia and idealism, and preferred representations of rural American people as peaceful and content with their lives and achievements. The power of the American land in this case took on yet another new context, which correlates with Jeffersonian agrarianism and meritocracy and reminds one of Letters from an American Farmer (1782) by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur: the American farmer or yeoman was depicted with respect, as the key constitutive member of the emerging nation on its way to achieving social equality, harmony, and democracy.

Humor in American genre images, when employed, tended to be rather gentle, reflecting and commenting on the changing social realities of the nation. Elizabeth Johns argues that fundamental social anxieties regarding the idealized, homogeneous American society impacted genre painting during the mid-century decades in particular: the potential for exponencial growth of individual economic power, with the potential to undermine the egalitarianism upon which the turly democratic American society was structured (8-9). It seemed that the end of economic democracy started to cast a major shadow over the social and political democracy of the country, captured in paintings such as the election series by Bingham. To me these images, however, seem to be rather thought-provoking, serious commentaries overall, encouraging the viewer to contemplate on the state of affairs first and foremost – and include only touches of humour through ironic depictions of certain stock characters, who were among the specifically American types of people Johns listed: “the Yankee, the Kentuckian, the black, the domestic woman, and the urban street child” (12). These were images not so much to capture the superiority of the urban wealthy in society, but rather to warn the average citizen about the potential discrepancies, challenges, and dangers of recent economic and social changes.

As for the domestic scenes, generational differences between the young and the elderly or regional differences between the rural and urban populations were treated with sensitivity and soft humor, which did not ridicule anyone intentionally. Instead, it merely generated light amusement through a particular scene exposed. Edmonds’s work, The New Bonnet (1858) (Fig. 1) is a slightly moralizing image about generational differences and also touches on consumer practices and their gendered nature. In fact, Witkowski argues that the painting is concerned with the “domestication of consumption” and the triumph of the “feminine taste” in this regard (645). The image centers on the fashionably dressed young woman standing in the middle and her most recent extravagant purchase: a new bonnet, which she is admiring as she is holding it up, displaying it as if a trophy for the viewer also to admire. Her satisfaction with her purchase contrasts with the disapproving face of the father, which is the source of humor: he is shocked and annoyed by the price on the bill he is holding, while the mother’s disbelief of the high price is written on her face, as she is also raising her hand. The parents’ facial reactions speak louder than words: the father seems to sink into his chair even more deeply, his long, bushy hair and gray-stubbled chin frame his angry eyes behind the glasses that stare at her accusingly. A bottle and a glass of red wine within reach on the mantlepiece above him clearly signal his luxurious spending habits which are curtailed by those of his daughter. However, it seems that he has found a real match in her, and his drinking days may be over sooner than he had expected. A colorful still life in the foreground marks the social status of the family and the open door on the left places the house in an urban setting. The young delivery girl on the left adds to the class dimension tackled by the painting.

Courting scenes also provided popular subjects for genre painting. In the US, stories of competing rural and urban suitors in particular captured the imaginations of both painters and patrons, and it was a popular theme in nineteenth-century American literature and theatrical productions as well, as surveyed by Burns. Edmonds’s image by the title The City and the Country Beaux (1840) (Fig. 2) exemplifies the general opinion of young men from both regions. A petite, presumably middle-class young woman in the middle of the staged composition in a modest interior is introducing a newly arrived city gentleman on her right to her country suitor on her left. She seems to be somewhat uncomfortable at the unexpected double visit, which provides the source of the humor: the juxtaposition of the two worlds through the two suitors elicits pity in the viewer for the young maiden. The two visitors are united only in their interest in her but otherwise demonstrate a series of oppositions. The city gentleman is very thin and fragile for a young man, as if an urban lifestyle has taken all muscular masculinity from him – a true concern for middle-class men at the time. He is wearing an overtly elegant black suit, holding his hat in one hand with his fashionable monocle in the other as he is bowing in a rather feminine manner to the other man. His rival is his opposite: he has no taste as he is overdressed in randomly selected, colorful clothes, including a pair of striped pants rounded out with a pair of white socks. His behavior also indicates that he has no manners either: he is wearing his hat indoors, is comfortably sprawled on his chair, casually smoking a cigarette. The overtly refined style of the city man challenges ideals of mainstream masculinity, while the styleless effort of the rural farmer to present himself as fashionable makes him look pretentious rather than sophisticated. The choice the young maiden is presented with is not enviable at all.

Edmonds’s rather ambiguous handling of the situation is matched by another painting which gives a more definitive response to a similar dilemma: Mount’s The Sportsman’s Last Visit (1835) (Fig. 3), which was submitted to the American Art-Union in 1840 for distribution. Here again, we are faced with a composition of three figures: a young, shy maiden wearing an elegant white dress, seated in the middle of a modest rural home, with an urban suitor in an elegant black outfit on one side, sitting in close proximity to her, probably whispering soothing words to her liking, and a country sportsman on her other side, whose figure is the source of humor. He arrives late, thus has no chair to sit on, and appears to be completely confused by the situation. Appearing as the embodiment of the rural young man with some leisure time, he carries with him his hunting equipment – as if symbols of his masculinity – including his horn and the gun he has placed against the wall. He has clearly dressed up in his Sunday best for the occasion, but his style does not compare to the elegance of the urban visitor. The depiction of the rural man – his puzzled face and confusion about the rules of etiquette demonstrated in his hesitation over whether to take his hat off or not – “provokes a chuckle” (Burns 17) but not hearty laughter. The choice of the maiden to engage with the city suitor and choose an urban lifestyle over the sportsman and his promise of rural happiness seem to be a rather surprising judgment coming from someone like Mount, a true lover of the countryside.

Public scenes seem to provide a broader range of situations treated with humor. Spencer, a widely popular genre painter of the era, completed her Young Husband: First Marketing (1854) (Fig. 4) in conjunction with Young Wife: First Stew (1854). In the latter, a fashionably dressed young wife is making an unpleasant face while peeling onions, with the house maid looking on with a concerned look behind her. Spencer often relied on her own experiences when painting images of family life, and it was no different in the case of First Marketing either: her husband served as the model for the young man hastily returning home from his first day at the market. Clearly a street view in an urban setting, the situational comic elements lie in his uncomfortable state: as he is hurrying home from the market, some of the items are overflowing from the basket full of fresh produce. Portraying the husband as the provider for the family in a concrete but rather unusual way reflected the model of the newly emerging gender-based division of labor in the Victorian fashion, which the painter addressed as resulting in common social anxieties regarding the ideals of married and family life and running one’s own household – to everyone’s satisfaction. The young man has no previous practice in marketing and thus feels uncomfortable in this clearly challenging new role, which is marked by his worrisome facial expression, his embarrassed attempt to avoid the view of others, and his tight grip of the basket while some of the produce he has procured continually falls to the ground. To make things worse, other pedestrians notice his clumsiness and laugh at his situation, as do the viewers of the painting. Thus, he is truly surrounded by amused onlookers on all sides. Hopefully, the laughter is not a form of public humiliation but rather a form of sympathetic remembrance of the past on the part of the gentleman behind him, as he may have been in the same shoes. This is a funny depiction of the new model of urban life, where food should be purchased at the market. However, it is also a symbolic rendering of the new middle-class American family model which assigns the social responsibility of being a provider to the husband to be determined by the abundance of produce he is able to secure.

Genre painters of rural life also portrayed inappropriate behavior which was a source of amusement. These images mainly focused on the mischief of older boys, such as Mount’s The Truant Gamblers (Undutiful Boys) (1835) (Fig. 5) or troubles they may face on the farm, such as his other painting by the title Caught Napping (1848). The New York Historical Society’s catalogue describes the painting as a “nostalgic exercise” that reminded Luman Reed, the well-known New York art collector, who had commissioned the painting, of his childhood in rural Long Island. This fit into Mount’s sentimental portrayal of rural life which was emphasized in the face of the nation losing its agrarian character along the East Coast. The humor originates from the farmer approaching the scene with the oblivious boys on the right, fully engaged in the joy of play, with a pitchfork on his shoulder and a whip in his hand – as if he had suspected that the boys were not working and needed to be reprimanded. Our sympathies, however, tend to be with the boys, and we hope that the sight of the farmer will offer enough of a push for them to return to work. Often their mischievous behavior is all forgiven, as boys will be boys and playing in middle-class circles was viewed as an activity that represented a necessary and formative set of experiences – such as a competitive spirit – to prepare boys for adulthood.

Boys in other playful activities were depicted by other artists, such as Clonney, in his image Waking Up (1851) (Fig. 6), a picture that follows a malevolent motif that had also appeared in Mount’s Farmers Nooning (1836): a mischievous white boy tickling the nose of a sleeping Afro-American man. It is rather funny that the adult man ends up falling asleep while fishing – although the content of the bottle in the basket next to his feet may have helped him to find relaxation. The other source of humor is the practical joke: the daring, but charmingly naughty boy who finds true enjoyment in tickling the man’s nose, who responds by moving his nose around. The body politic revealed here positions the racialized body being reduced “to an impotent plaything” (Hills 23) for boys – as long as they were white (Annus 2007a, 7–8).

A specific painting that takes the viewer from the East coast to the West is Bingham’s masterpiece, Shooting for the Beef (1850) (Fig. 7). Bingham, known as the famous “Missouri artist,” distinguished himself during the antebellum period as the painter of the frontier: he portrayed settler life and experiences, including water scenes with boatmen, and political commentaries, such as his election series. This painting allows the viewer a glimpse into the pasttime of the locals in Boone County in central Missouri, where a shooting event, a common pasttime, provides the specific context to capture the competitive spirit on the frontier. Nicely dressed frontiersmen engage in target shooting, calmly waiting for their turn and the final result. The title reveals that the prize is a steer, but where is it? Bingham’s sense of humor is brought to bear when the poor animal is noticed on the far left of the painting: as if a late addendum, it stands there barely noticable. With a glum expression on its face, it is looking straight at the viewers and perhaps also the shooters in between, stoically facing its inevitable fate.

The following painting is not only a charming depiction of an unexpected situation but is also an image related to a prominent social movement: temperance. Mount’s Loss and Gain (1848) (Fig. 8) is a comic portrayal set in the countryside, depicting an elderly man who drops a bottle of whisky as he is trying to climb over a fence on his way home. He is captured halfway over the fence, with his hat falling off as he is leaning over in a desperate attempt to catch the bottle he had been carrying, but it is too late. The facial expression of surprise, frustration, and some kind of childlike innocence makes him seem vulnerable. However, we all know that his loss of alcohol is his attainment of sobriety in the long run. This painting is among the more gentle reminders of the temptation alcohol presented to many as well as temperance and advocacy of a sober society that middle-class women were fighting for so vehemently. Edmond’s Facing the Enemy (1845) discussed by Hills tackles the same problem but is a more direct representation of the inner struggle of the individual and the “social disgrace” (23) one may experience if one cannot resist temptation – at least according to middle-class standards.

Clonney’s work entitled Militia Training (1841) (Fig. 9) reminds one of the busy street scenes of Dutch genre artists. The complex image offers a collection of stereotypical situations and representations of various social groups but also signals social concerns of the day, such as the position of the military and excessive alcohol consumption. This portrays an Independence Day celebration, which was marked by the training of the militia as well, demonstrating the military power of the nation. The scene it presents, however, is quite common, or even vulgar, and thus inappropriate for the spirit of the sacred historical moment it commemorates. No wonder a contemporary critic commented: “We hope to see a pencil so capable, employed upon details more interesting to a pure and refined mind” (Schneider 308). The image is inhabited with stock stereotypes of the lower class: the middle of the image in the foreground is dominated by two clownish Black dancers, reminding one of the minstrel shows so popular at the time, which combined elements of burlesque and slapstick comedy. It was a rather common form of entertainment associated with a negative stereotype of the Black population. The fiddler providing the music for the dance was also a recognized stereotype, associated with a cheap form of entertainment and a lower-class audience who would enjoy the performance. A drunken man crawling on the ground to fetch his hat that rolled away as he fell brings on a bitter smile, as does the composition of men entrusted with the barrel on the carriage, happily drinking themselves. The rest of the composition is executed with the “generally unsentimental, noncommittal directness” (Giese 31) that characterizes Clonney’s art in general.

5. Conclusion

Antebellum genre paintings were “synthetic constructions, reflecting the cultural ideals and social myths of the picture producers and picture consumers” (Hill 1). By the middle of the nineteenth century, “art patronage was firmly in the hands of the middle class, which was eager to ‘purchase’ culture and quick to assert their preference for scenes which they could identify with” (Clark 28): genre images thus reflected the sentiments, values, and imagined ideals of the emerging American middle class. This new, financially successful class marked its distinguished position with cultural markers which are often described as Victorian. This social model, along with a set of experiences and social practices, had a pivotal impact on the constitution of the American nation and national identity. By meeting these expectations, genre painting illuminated these models and became a major platform for the indoctrination of new middle-class constructions as normative and thus integral to American nationhood and national identity.

Humor was employed in antebellum genre painting to mark when middle-class norms and aspirations were misinterpreted, overemphasized, or challenged. Alcohol consumption was one of the greater challenges to middle-class values and to the success of the nation, since alcoholism was regarded as the cause of a number of social and political ills, including child labor, prostitution, domestic violence, and economic hardships, such as poverty. Typically, situational humor and practical jokes were used in gentle ways, at times only to add amusement or charm to the romanticized world of the American common people, who were typically portrayed as void of serious tensions and concerns. Stereotypes were often softened, but when used, they “were not portrayed with biting cynical humor, but rather as anomalies to be corrected” (Greenhill 15). With the exception of a few cases, genre scenes did not mean to ridicule people and rather remained on the level of eliciting innocent smiles and light-hearted amusement. Suffering and misfortune were not targeted with humor either.

Hill observes that women were rarely the butt of jokes, but that if they were, humor targeted elderly women, such as in Albertus D. O. Browere’s Mrs. McCormic’s General Store (1844), where the store owner grabs the shoulder of a mischief-maker because he had stolen some fruit from her store (16). Hill’s claim may be explained by women being less visible in the social realm and more obedient in meeting social expectations than men. It also must be noted that a few of Spencer’s domestic scenes do provide examples of younger women being portrayed with humor, such as Young Wife discussed above. The Civil War which closed the era, had an unprecedented impact on national cultural production, and post-war genre painting entered a new phase, quite different from the initial triumph of the style on American soil.




Figure 1. Francis William Edmonds. The New Bonnet (1858)

Figure 2. Francis William Edmonds. The City and the Country Beaux (1840)

Figure 3. William Sidney Mount. The Sportsman’s Last Visit (1835)

Figure 4. Lilly Martin Spencer. Young Husband: First Marketing (1854)

Figure 5. William Sidney Mount. The Truant Gamblers (Undutiful Boys) (1835),format&rect=0,0,1024,818&w=1024&h=818

Figure 6. James Goodwyn Clonney. Waking up (1851)

Figure 7. George Caleb Bingham. Shooting for the Beef (1850)

Figure 8. William Sidney Mount. Loss and Gain (1848)

Figure 9. James Goodwyn Clonney. Militia Training (1841)