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Haunted Visions: Spiritualism and American Art

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.

Charles Colbert teaches American art history at Portland State University. He is the author of A Measure of Perfection: Phrenology and the Fine Arts in America.

First Author: 
Charles Colbert
Reviewed for SPR by: 
Tom Ruffles
SPR Review: 

Charles Colbert, author of A Measure of Perfection: Phrenology and the Fine Arts in America, here turns his attention to Spiritualism and its relationship to American art in the nineteenth century.  Given that the artists he discusses did not depict Spiritualist themes overtly, it is easy to overlook the profound effect that the religion had on artistic practitioners of the period.  As he notes, such beliefs are likely to influence one’s entire outlook, artistic products as much as any other sphere of life.  Artists it seems were particularly susceptible to the messages of Spiritualism because of their sensitivity to the world around them and a desire to delve beneath a surface appearance to find its essence.  Colbert sees the intertwining of Spiritualism and art as a response to the stresses of a mechanistic worldview, the narrow perspectives of Protestantism, the aesthetic restrictions of Puritanism, and in general “the demons of modernity.”  He stresses that for these artists, their work was not a substitute for religious feeling, but rather “a place where religion happened.”

In what is itself a large canvas, he takes a chronological approach, split into pre- and post-Civil War sculptors, painters and critics, and brings the story into the early twentieth century, when the link between art and Spiritualism began to break down under eclectic modernist influences.  Some of the artists discussed had had profound spiritual or paranormal experiences which inclined them to Spiritualism, others simply found it a congenial belief system.  Either way, they saw both art and Spiritualism as possessing transformative aims.  Thus William Sidney Mount and George Innes in their landscapes attempted to capture a sense of the invisible ether in which all life is immersed and which forms a bridge to the afterlife.  The style known as Tonalism was particularly suited to this type of ethereal image, and we can catch oblique glimpses of an idealised world that shades imperceptibly into the Summerland.

In addition to Spiritualism, ideas such as phrenology, clairvoyance and psychometry informed artists’ practice.  For example, Hiram Powers was influenced by phrenology when producing sculptures designed to express aspects of character. Even where these were idealised depictions rather than real individuals, viewers often saw a resemblance to deceased family members, in the same way that spirits in the séance room were often taken to be persons known to a sitter, despite their generic appearance.

In a sense, it could be said, looking at art was itself like participating in a séance; it was considered a bridge between the here and the higher realms.  Works were consumed with an “awed reverence” – paintings and busts frequently arranged to form shrines within the house, objects of contemplation and veneration.  The spiritualising effect worked at a subliminal level, using clairvoyance and intense engagement to absorb the energies imbued in the piece by its maker.  Viewing was akin to psychometry in that a reciprocal relationship between the observer and object, in which things could become thoughts, but thoughts could become things.  For this process to work, having the original was crucial because it allowed the viewer to make a direct connection with its spiritual content that a copy did not allow.

The thrust of Spiritualism was a gradualist connection between matter and spirit, which made the contemplation of art an activity commensurate with other modes of spiritual development.  The idea of the ‘temple of art’ expanded the gallery as a place of conspicuous consumption and connoisseurship into one where the values imbedded in the work by the artist could be absorbed by the act of viewing it.  Far from being a passive or dilettantish activity, scrutinising at art was seen as an activity that would encourage people away from the pleasures of earthly life to a contemplation of more elevated standards.

Artistic production did not operate in a intellectual vacuum, and in addition to sketching in the standard history of Spiritualism from the Fox sisters on, Colbert traces some of the philosophical underpinnings of culture at the time, notably the Spiritualist ideas of Andrew Jackson Davis and the long-lasting ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg   This nexus of art and spirituality can also be seen in the philosophy of William James, who was aware of the wider importance of aesthetic experience, and whose emphasis on continuity resonated with the tenets of Spiritualism.

It is a pity that the publishers, in such a well-produced volume, could not have found the budget to include some colour plates.  The book has numerous reproductions, but they are all in black and white, which is unfortunate when much of the discussion hinges on the role of tone to evoke the paintings’ numinous character.  It would also have been useful to have had some comparison with European painters who hinted at the transcendental in their work, such as Henri Fuseli and Caspar David Friedrich (there were no Gothic trappings in these New World paintings), and perhaps an idea of how Spiritualist influences on art intersected with ideas of the sublime within Romanticism.

However, that would have made a long book even longer, and Colbert has given us a rich pudding which brings a raft of lesser-known (with the exception of James McNeill Whistler, who was based in England for most of his career) but clearly significant American artists to greater attention.  He has done a wonderful job in explicating influences that are not obvious at first glance, but which expand our understanding of the artworks and the milieu in which they were produced.  As he rightly says, “Sometimes a painting must become a little strange before it can become familiar.”

Reference Information: 
Haunted Visions. University of Pennsylvania Press, 10 May 2011. ISBN-13: 978-0812243253