'Signature Drawings:' Social Networks and Collecting Practices in Antebellum Albums

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2008-06-05

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Abstract

Characterized in their own time as "miniature and easily-attainable works of art," drawings by American artists of the antebellum period were prized by fellow artists as mementi of friendship and by collectors as marks of the artist's hand. This dissertation presents a broad examination of the social meanings and contemporary contexts of these quietly communicative works of art. Using archival and documentary evidence, it investigates rich spheres of activity in the "social lives" of drawings. Special qualities of the medium and particularities of drawings exchange informed their reception.

In the public sphere of business and social transaction between artists and patrons, drawings functioned as "social currency," building a community connected through gift-giving and competitive collecting. Albums of drawings reflected social networks and communicated the owner's privileged access to artists who practiced that particularly intimate form of expression. Drawings were also displayed in the antebellum parlor, a private setting encoded with aspiration to personal refinement and social position. In that sphere, drawings served a didactic, regulatory function, presenting sentimental and moral themes that provided a visual buffer to the turbulent public history of the time. My study reveals that many of the drawings collected in antebellum albums were originals for images subsequently reproduced as giftbook illustrations or prints. This dissertation demonstrates that antebellum viewers perceived drawing and writing as aligned, complimentary modes of expression; similar motivations thus informed the collecting of drawings and autographs. As the pantheon of eminent Americans shifted to include artists, their drawings were prized as signature works reflecting "temperament and quality of mind."

American art history has directed little attention to antebellum-period drawings. When it has done so, it has situated them primarily as studio tools or as preparatory works for paintings. I argue that album drawings occupied a different register of value altogether, connected to literature, illustration, parlor entertainment, and the collecting of celebrity autographs during a period of explosive growth in the production of visual imagery and in media coverage of American artists. I propose a social and cultural history of the period centered on drawing collecting as a reflection of individual aspirations and social values.

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