Charles Deas and 1840s America
Reviewed by Jeffrey Smith, Professor of History, Lindenwood University, St. Charles, Missouri
This must have been a difficult book to write. Painter Charles Deas (1818–1867) lived a brief life, with a productive period cut short by mental illness that left him institutionalized for the two decades preceding his death—a fact that has not been documented or discussed by scholars in any extensive way.
This volume makes a real contribution to the scholarship on art of the 1840s. Author Carol Clark’s catalogue raisonné of known works by Deas is by far the most comprehensive ever compiled; she has also brought into the mainstream some relatively new attributions of paintings, including the four wonderful Winnebago portraits at the St. Louis Mercantile Library–UMSL. Additionally, Clark has performed groundbreaking work in her biographical discussion of Deas.
The premise of Clark’s book is that Deas’s works, notably the western-themed pieces but also the genre paintings, are a reflection of the way America saw herself during this decade of great change. Works such as Long Jakes and a number of Native American scenes and portraits reflect the intersection of a romantic fascination with the American West among easterners through the eye of an academically trained painter with Hudson River School inspirations who had actually seen the West and its native inhabitants. Clark suggests that genre paintings such as Walking the Chalk, a portrayal of a drunk trying to “walk the chalk” in a tavern with fellow drinkers who have placed bets on his ability to do so, reflect American attitudes as much as Americans themselves.
Clark and her co-authors are on the right track. Americans looking at Deas’s western paintings in New York City view paintings such as Sioux Playing Ball with the same fascination that we examine images from the Mars Rover. However, the book suffers from historical scholarship that swings from too general to oversimplified, missing some of the nuances of the period’s social and political history. Frederick Hoxie’s chapter, “A World of Fragments: America in the 1840s,” leaves readers with several false impressions, including that the trans-Appalachian west was little more than a collection of settlements, or that St. Louis in the 1840s (the eighth largest city in the United States by 1850) was still a small town. Recent scholarship on the Jacksonian era might take exception that there was broad consensus supporting Indian removal when Jackson took office (one might note the close vote in Congress barely passing the Indian Removal Act of 1830). Guy Jordan’s chapter on Walking the Chalk researches alcohol consumption in art, but it would be strengthened by considering the painting in the context of the subtleties of the temperance movement, especially in a place like St. Louis.
Still, this work offers a valuable addition to the scholarship on Deas. It’s an excellent start on a difficult topic. Subsequent scholars will find it an excellent springboard to expanding the interpretation of these compelling paintings.