Rebecca Bedell, Wellesley College and Tiffany Bidler, Saint Mary’s College

Friday, April 11, 2014


Center for American History and Culture Programs
American Art and Visual Culture Seminar

“Strategic Sentimentalism: John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt”
Rebecca Bedell, Wellesley College

In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, critics drawing upon the rhetorics of the art for art sake’s movement and literary naturalism launched searing attacks on sentimental art. Sargent and Cassatt aligned themselves with the avant-garde anti-sentimentalism of their time. Yet as “strategic sentimentalists,” aware of the commercial potential and popular appeal of the sentimental (and perhaps with a lingering personal attachment to it), they returned to the sentimental periodically, and with compelling effect, deploying it in their art when they sought to make connection with particular audiences in particular venues.

“Synthetic Color, Artifice, and Femininity in Thomas Eakins’s Portrait of Professor Benjamin Howard Rand and An Actress (Suzanne Santje)
Tiffany Bidler, Saint Mary’s College

The unusually vibrant pinkish purple hues in Thomas Eakins’s Portrait of Professor Benjamin Howard Rand (1874) and An Actress (Suzanne Santje) (1903) are associated with the feminine in most art historical interpretations. However, these vibrant hues are best understood in relation both to the feminine and to chemists’ contemporaneous development of the synthetic dyes mauve and magenta. In the nineteenth century, synthetic color was immersed in a gendered aesthetic discourse that theorized color as feminine, artificial, and fugitive. Eakins’s Realist portraits engage with this complex discourse of artificiality and are thus left open to the interpretive ambivalence color engenders.

Commentator: Sarah Burns, University of Indiana

Cost and Registration Information 

Scholl Center Seminar papers are pre-circulated electronically.  For a copy of the paper, email the Scholl Center at  Please do not request a paper unless you plan to attend.