Spiritualism emerged in western New York in 1848 and soon
achieved a wide following due to its claim that the living could
commune with the dead. In Haunted Visions: Spiritualism and
American Art, Charles Colbert focuses on the ways Spiritualism
imbued the making and viewing of art with religious meaning and, in
doing so, draws fascinating connections between art and faith in
the Victorian age.
Examining the work of such well-known American artists as James
Abbott McNeill Whistler, William Sydney Mount, and Robert Henri,
Colbert demonstrates that Spiritualism played a critical role in
the evolution of modern attitudes toward creativity. He argues that
Spiritualism made a singular contribution to the sanctification of
art that occurred in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The
faith maintained that spiritual energies could reside in objects,
and thus works of art could be appreciated not only for what they
illustrated but also as vessels of the psychic vibrations their
creators impressed into them. Such beliefs sanctified both the
making and collecting of art in an era when Darwinism and
Positivism were increasingly disenchanting the world and the
efforts to represent it. In this context, Spiritualism endowed the
artist's profession with the prestige of a religious calling; in
doing so, it sought not to replace religion with art, but to make
art a site where religion happened.
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