Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2004


Art and Art History



Publication Title

American Art


The subject of female purity constituted a dominant theme for American artists in the late nineteenth century. Artists such as Abbott Handerson Thayer, Edmund Tarbell, Thomas Dewing and others depicted women—whether in domestic interiors, outdoor settings or in more indeterminate spaces—as wholesome, refined, and chaste. But these pictures were created within a context that seems utterly at odds with the theme they represent. Late‐nineteenth‐century America was characterized by massive immigration, working‐class violence, overcrowded housing for the poor, garbage‐filled streets, industrial pollution, and the spread of epidemic disease. For the most part, scholars have assumed that this process of modernization unfolded independently of artists’ imagery of ideal white women. This essay argues, however, that the pictures may not have been as disengaged as their subjects or manner of painting suggest. In Thayer’s case, persistent references in his letters and other writings to disease, prostitution, garbage, and germs indicate that the chaste, angelic surfaces of his figures cloak profound concerns. In his depictions of female purity and raw nature, Thayer used paint to work through his fears, which only increased with the illness and subsequent death of his first wife, Kate. Thayer sought to protect himself and his family from bodily disintegration by adopting a therapeutic, outdoors‐oriented life in the shadow of New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock, which became a shrine to the pursuit of good health. His art was motivated by similar concerns: disease becomes an organizing topos through which his paintings take shape.


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© 2004 Smithsonian Institution

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