The Old New World: Unearthing Mesoamerican Antiquity in the Art of the United States, 1839-1893
Promey, Sally M.
MetadataShow full item record
Through a series of case studies, this dissertation examines how and why artists in the United States imagined Mesoamerican antiquity between 1839 and 1893. The artists whose work I consider most closely include Frederick Catherwood, Peter F. Rothermel, Emanuel Leutze, George Martin Ottinger, and George de Forest Brush; works by other artists play supporting roles or amplify the observations made in this project. The decades in which I situate my study were key in the development of the United States' geographic borders and national identity as well as in the foundation of archaeological investigation in Mesoamerica. During the period under question, ancient Mesoamerica provided a "usable past" for many in the United States. Since little was known of the pre-Hispanic cultures of the region, Mesoamerican antiquity served as a palimpsest upon which a number of narratives could be written. As this dissertation reveals, ancient Mesoamerica resonated differently with various individuals and groups in the United States. The Mesoamerica that existed in the U.S. imagination was at once savage, exotic, advanced, and primitive, inhabited by a population assigned a similarly disparate and ultimately contradictory range of traits. Representations of Mesoamerica were not fixed but eminently variable, shaped to serve the exigencies of many historical moments. As such, these images reveal as much about the nineteenth-century United States as they do about the people and places depicted. Ultimately, I demonstrate that these images conveyed multivalent and often ambivalent attitudes about Mesoamerica, views that emphasized the importance of the Mesoamerican past as well as the presumed preeminence of the United States' future.