The monumental Portage Falls on the Genesee (ca. 1839) by the 19th-century English American landscape painter Thomas Cole (1801–1848) is at once beautiful and sublime, depicting the overwhelming scale and power of nature in a spectacular region of upstate New York. The painting, on view in the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art, is by the artist who inspired the Hudson River School of painters and is widely considered a foundational figure in the history of American landscape painting.
Yet, like so many works of art in The Huntington’s galleries, there is more to Portage Falls than meets the eye. To explore the valences of race, politics, colonization, and American landscapes as they relate to the stories told by this painting, we are convening a conference at The Huntington titled “Race and Place in 19th-Century New York State” on Dec. 8 and 9, 2022, in Rothenberg Hall.
The conference presenters will juxtapose new thinking about Cole and the statesman William Henry Seward (1801–1872), a leading 19th-century political figure who served as a U.S. senator from New York (1849–1861) and U.S. secretary of state (1861–1869) under presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. Portage Falls was originally presented to Seward earlier in his career when he was the governor of New York (1839–1842); it hung in the executive mansion in Albany and later in his personal residence, now known as the Seward House Museum, in Auburn, New York—where it remained for most of its existence before being acquired by the Ahmanson Foundation for The Huntington.
To think anew about Cole and Seward is to confront great issues of the past that still resonate powerfully today: environmental destruction and humankind’s impact on the natural world, African American life and the legacies of slavery in New York state, and the experience of Indigenous peoples and cultures under a settler-colonial regime. Considering Cole and Seward together demands a new appraisal of the relationship between artistic creation and political action. To engage these questions, the conference brings together a group of leading scholars in art history, history, American studies, and environmental studies.
Papers on Seward will offer fresh appraisals of the statesman’s radicalizing commitment to abolitionism. Van E. Gosse (Franklin & Marshall College) notes that Seward, as a “Whig Radical,” consistently defended Black citizenship, a position that Gosse traces back to traditions of dissenting Protestantism. Tom Balcerski (Eastern Connecticut State University) will assess Seward’s role in the national emergence of antislavery politics. Christopher Bonner (University of Maryland) will share new work on 19th-century African American politics, parsing the crucial terms “citizenship,” “race,” and “empire.” Leigh K. Fought (Le Moyne College) and Sophie Lynford (Harvard Art Museums) will explore abolitionism more broadly. Fought will focus on women who played a key role in New York abolitionist campaigns. Meanwhile, Lynford’s highly original thesis portrays abolitionism as a cultural ideology with a profound impact on the visual arts among the American Pre-Raphaelites.
Born in Bolton-le-Moors, in Lancashire, England, in 1801, Cole became a staunch opponent of President Andrew Jackson’s populist politics and his wholehearted embrace of the profit motive and unrestrained industrial development. Bemoaning the environmental effects near his Catskill, New York, home in the 1840s, Cole denounced “copper-hearted barbarians.” David Stradling (University of Cincinnati) will look closely at the local landscape of Portage Falls—already a tourist attraction before Cole painted it—as a significant site for Cole’s artistic imagination. In contrast to Cole’s works that largely sidestepped issues of slavery and abolition, Anna Arabindan-Kesson (Princeton University) will discuss Black painter Robert Scott Duncanson (1821–1872), who was influenced by Cole and employed Cole’s medium of landscape painting to visualize Black history. (Read about Duncanson’s painting Landscape with Ruin in Huntington Frontiers.)
Central to the conference’s approach to questions of land, politics, and representation in New York state are Indigenous perspectives. Jami Powell (Dartmouth College) will lay out the urgent case for “Indigenizing the Canon” of American art history, while Kelvin Parnell (University of Virginia), Andrew Lipman (Barnard College), and Shannon Vittoria (Metropolitan Museum of Art) will offer new perspectives on the representation of Indigenous peoples in the culture, literature, and art of antebellum New York.
By using the juxtaposition of two celebrated figures of the 19th-century American establishment as a starting point, the conference opens up contested issues of politics, race, and the environment that continue to fissure and energize politics, culture, and art to this day.
Funding for this conference has been provided by The William French Smith Endowment. Additional support has been provided by Christie’s.
Tim Barringer is the Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art at Yale University.
Graham Hodges is the George Dorland Langdon Jr. Professor of History at Colgate University.