"The Imagery of the Ear:" Listening and Sound in American Art, 1847-1897

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America's soundscape underwent tremendous changes from the mid-nineteenth century on: not only in terms of the telegraph, telephone, and phonograph, but also with the noises heard in the city streets, factories, and countryside nearby. During this period, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, and Thomas Wilmer Dewing explored the intersection of auditory experience and artistic production, creating complex works that gave visual form to the changing nature of sound and listening. All three painters pursued the representation of aurality as career-long endeavors, and developed distinct approaches and pictorial syntaxes.

Homer, whose life and artistic outlook were marked by his experience as a traveling Civil War illustrator, painted the everyday sounds of laborers in the American countryside and out at sea in terms of issues related to distance and signaling over space. At a time when a growing number of people were communicating with one another with the aid of such machines as the telegraph and telephone, Homer's long-distance aural exchanges probe the human desire for connectivity, and its converse, separation. Eakins piques our aural imagination with the physiognomic and sartorial acuities of his musicians and singers, not to mention the mimeticism of their actions, and attempts to pack the parallel visual and aural experiences of realism tightly into his paintings, despite the limits of the medium. Transferring his photographic experiments of stopping the human body in mid-motion to the painterly stopping of musical sound in mid-song, Eakins's works evince his personal form of transcription. Whereas Eakins sought to unify the eye, ear, and hand in one split second of representation, Dewing sought to fragment aural moments to pictorialize the psychic effects of listening, and promote the vaults of the imagination. Most notably through attenuated sonic transmissions and the idea of pause, Dewing's representations of women in airless domestic interiors and atmospheric landscapes frequently evince a "pulling apart" of sight and sound that render his depictions of music and speech strangely quiet and unsettling. At the same time, these suspended aural scenarios help to cabin the women he so often portrayed.