How Could a Mob Be Painted?
Picturing Political Violence in the Jacksonian Era
In an 1834 congressional debate over appropriations for a new round of paintings in the U.S. Capitol rotunda, Federalist representative Tristam Burges made a suggestive aside that illuminates the deeply politicized character of painting in the Jacksonian era. Discussing potential subjects for the proposed paintings, the politician queried his colleagues: "How could a mob be painted?" Pausing briefly for effect, Burges declared, "In no way, but to place one upon a stump, making a speech," an answer that conflated the democratic practice of electioneering with political violence and discouraged artistic engagements with both subjects.1 As an observation made offhandedly by an avowed amateur in aesthetic matters, Burges's comment points to a set of ideas about the character and objectives of painting that had attained commonsensical status for many period Americans. Indeed, Burges's brief aside drew on a ubiquitous aesthetic discourse, which I will call "republican aesthetics," that nearly foreclosed the possibility of representing the raucous popular politics and violent upheaval of the Jacksonian era in paint. As this chapter will demonstrate, republican aesthetic theory construed fine art as a medium through which an ideal mode of hierarchical republicanism might be articulated, realized, and sustained in the face of growing disorder and accelerating democratization.2 Proponents of republican aesthetics conceived academic painting as a vehicle for the transmission of correct civic behaviors, an engine for the reproduction of customary hierarchies, a disciplinary vehicle that could restrain popular disorder, and an ideological instrument that could establish hierarchical republicanism as a commonsensical framework for everyday political thought. Pressured by these arguments, politically-inclined artists focused on the figures and spaces of genteel political rule and largely ignored those tumultuous phenomena that threatened the ideals of hierarchical republicanism.
Two painters broke from this tendency, however, composing scenes of turbulent crowds that explored the disorderly energies of popular democracy and political violence. This chapter will examine these painterly projects-Thomas Cole's Destruction and John Quidor's Rip Van Winkle-as pioneering efforts to negotiate the pressures of republican aesthetics and tap the creative potential of disorder. As we will see, these paintings work in various ways to invoke and dramatize the intertwined phenomena of antebellum upheaval and popular street politics. In so doing, both Destruction and Rip Van Winkle also recode the apparition of Jacksonian disorder, employing a variety of cultural frameworks to mute the alarming implications of violence and democratic rowdiness. The resulting works expose contradictions of feeling that quietly unsettled arguments for orderly politics in the Jacksonian era and open on to alternative political cultures that emerged to contest the precepts of official republican discourse and aesthetic theory.
On its surface a depiction of a military battle set in an imagined ancient past, Cole's Destruction shapes a vision of upheaval that subtly invokes the rioting that surrounded the artist in New York in the early 1830s. To explore this alarming subject and answer critical calls for stabilizing imagery, Cole drew on a rhetorical tradition that was attuned to the republican precepts undergirding early aesthetic theory. More specifically, Cole engaged the themes of the political jeremiad, a prophetic rhetorical mode wielded by conservative thinkers throughout the early nineteenth century to underscore the virtue of political harmony and hierarchy. In composing his own painterly jeremiad, Cole likewise strove to reaffirm the ideals of hierarchical republicanism, even as he worked to conjure up the dramatic energy of period upheaval. Inscribed with arresting formal contrasts and countless gory details, Destruction ultimately visualizes the quiet fascinations that Jacksonian tumult could hold for the era's most ardent champions of lawful order.
If Cole's monumental scene amplifies the tropes of the conservative imaginary, John Quidor's Rip Van Winkle satirizes the arguments and anxieties of Federalist and Whig thinkers. In so doing, the picture focuses its humorous energies on a different manifestation of Jacksonian political tumult. Rip Van Winkle addresses the disorderly energies of mass democracy, focusing on a manifestation of Jacksonian street politics that period conservatives associated with anarchic chaos: the raucous electoral crowd. Appropriating Washington Irving's 1819 short story "Rip Van Winkle" as a symbolic frame, the 1829 picture organizes a mediated scene of the partisan crowd that spoofs conservative fears about democracy's violent potential. Quidor, I will argue, focused on a moment in the story in which these political implications are most strikingly manifest-the moment at which Rip confusedly confronts a democratic mob in his former hometown-and comically hyperbolized them, creating a ridiculous scene of electoral turbulence that mocks antidemocratic hysteria and quietly lampoons the politicized principles of republican aesthetics. Answering the sober tenets of official political and aesthetic belief with a vision of wild hyperbole, Quidor's rendering of Jacksonian rowdiness contributed to the new mode of raucous democratic humor that emerged in the 1820s to contest high-toned political commentary.
Art, Order, and the Early American Polity
Early nineteenth-century critics regularly stressed the power of fine painting to sustain the fledgling republican polity by communicating its central ideals, making its structures visible and "real" to period viewers, and establishing republicanism as the ultimate horizon of political possibility for the new nation. Articulated by a variety of cultural commentators, these arguments gradually cohered into a consistent theoretical discourse that would profoundly influence the production and consumption of political art in the Jacksonian period and deeply complicate the painterly representation of popular democracy and violent unrest.
The first few decades of the nineteenth century saw the establishment of a hierarchical republican polity and its gradual displacement by the modern liberal-democratic system that would shape American life for the rest of the century. Laboring to curtail the political agency of everyday citizens and contain the disorderly potential of the masses, the framers had designed a republican system of representation that delegated political authority, as James Madison argued in Federalist Number 10, to an elite "body of citizens whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country."3 Taking shape in the succeeding decades, this system featured a political sphere defined by order, communal harmony, and rigid hierarchy. Citizens within this arena were expected to relinquish disorderly crowd traditions and confine the expression of political opinion to peaceable practices (voting, debate, and petitioning), cede authority over public concerns to elected officials, and defer to the superior administrative capacities of these statesmen.4
This early hierarchical republic was challenged from its inception by a variety of populist practices and democratic movements. Many Americans still understood violent action as a legitimate vehicle for political expression and instrument of communal will. These lingering attitudes fueled a string of outbursts that culminated with the wave of rioting that swept the nation in the late 1820s and early 1830s. Workers, women, and northern freedmen simultaneously employed new forms of peaceable collective action (such as parades, demonstrations, and public meetings) in an effort to widen the sphere of political agency, spurring the expansion of the franchise and the emergence of mass party politics.5
Working to promote the arts in this fraught context, cultural spokesmen imagined fine painting and sculpture as key supports for the shifting and contested polity. These arguments rehearsed and renovated the central ideas of continental aesthetics, especially the politicized theories of Joshua Reynolds. As John Barrell has shown, Reynolds's enormously influential Discourses construed ideal art as a republican cultural vehicle capable of developing a virtuous citizenry by stimulating viewers' higher faculties and civic inclinations.6 Extending Reynolds's ideas, American thinkers emphasized painting's capacity to temper disorderly impulses and communicate the attitudes necessary for republican citizenship. Regularly affirming painting's power to "enhance the charms of virtue" or offer "incitement[s] to virtue," cultural spokespersons aligned the medium with a central civic trait associated with reasonable self-control and community-mindedness.7 Painting also worked, in these arguments, to control the psychic impulses that purportedly gave rise to factionalism, mob violence, and other forms of disorder. In 1813, for example, the lawyer John G. Bogert argued that fine painting and sculpture had the power to "soften the fiercer passions . . . create an admiration of whatever is great and glorious, and . . . bring into exercise all the finer feelings of our nature."8 In aligning painting with the development of virtuous self-discipline and the defusing of the "fiercer passions," Bogert and other thinkers positioned the medium as a critical bulwark against period turbulence.9
Voiced initially in academic halls and genteel cultural journals, republican aesthetic arguments eventually found expression in a wide range of venues. An apocryphal news story that appeared in the New York American in the wake of an 1834 antiabolitionist riot in that city provides a dramatic illustration of this currency: "The infuriated mob, during their attack upon Mr. Tappan's house on Wednesday night, were for a moment arrested in their work of destruction upon the furniture by the discovery, that they were about committing to the flames the 'likeness of Washington.' A general cry was sent forth-'it is Washington-in the name of God don't burn Washington.' The painting was thereupon born off in triumph by the populace, and safely deposited in a neighboring house."10 This brief anecdote expands suggestively on period arguments about the edificatory and disciplinary power of painting. Upon its discovery, a painting of George Washington, the ultimate embodiment of political virtue, instantly produces an orderly body politic, "arresting" the flow of violence and transforming the "infuriated mob" into a self-disciplined "populace." Widely republished in East Coast newspapers, this brief story dramatized the capacity of painting to channel the turbulent energies of street politics into peaceable expressions of patriotic loyalty and civic commitment, appropriating and dramatizing the themes of sophisticated aesthetic discourse for a popular readership.
Even as they sought to define the ordering and harmonizing effects of academic art, early arts advocates identified subjects most amenable to hierarchical republicanism. Almost invariably, they urged artists to concentrate on the political elite. An 1816 North American Review article, for example, argued that academic art devoted to "the actions of our great and good men" would "prompt . . . citizens to illustrious deeds of heroism or benevolence."11 In a contemporaneous speech DeWitt Clinton called for the establishment of a gallery of "illustrious men" in New York, which might inspire visitors "to rouse the soul of generous emulation, and to catch the spirit of heroic virtue."12 While identifying the noble few as subjects ideally suited to the communication of republican values, these accounts theorized a mode of art spectatorship that would reinforce established hierarchies. Looking at an image of "illustrious men," the viewer would be "prompted" to apprehend the "great and good" as a perfect embodiment of republican precepts and to strive to "emulate" that archetype-an adulatory and deferential experience that reaffirmed the authority of the elite leader and the viewer's subordinate status.
Early critics had more at stake in calling for painterly representations of traditional authority, however, than the preservation of customary hierarchies. Indeed, these arguments attempted to forge a mode of painting that would help to preserve hierarchical republicanism by establishing it as the only perceivable political "reality" for period audiences. In an 1824 address, for example, the politician Gulian Verplanck argued:
Painting becomes public and national, when it is employed in perpetuating the . . . features of the brave . . . the truly great-of . . . the heroes of our own country, of the patriots of our own history, of the sages and men of genius of all countries. . . . Then it becomes indeed a teacher of morality. . . . It gives form and life to . . . abstract perceptions of duty or excellence; and, in a free state and a moral community, where the arts are thus made the handmaids of virtue, when the imagination of the young patriot calls up the sacred image of his country, it comes surrounded with the venerable forms of the wisest and best of her sons.13
Echoing other period thinkers, Verplanck calls for a "public and national" mode of painting centered on the depiction of the "truly great." This painterly mode, he suggests, will deeply shape the political consciousness of its spectators. First, it will invest "abstract" republican precepts ("duty" or "excellence") with "form and life" and thereby help to situate hierarchical republicanism as a concrete perceivable reality. This painterly form will also help to draw the boundaries of the political imagination. By tying the citizen's conceptions of the nation ("the sacred image of his country") to the image of the virtuous elite ("the venerable forms of the wisest and best"), this ideal painterly mode would establish hierarchical republicanism as a template marking the limits of political conceivability. Synthesizing arguments woven throughout republican aesthetic discourse, Verplanck imagined painting as an instrument that could work to realize and preserve an ideal republic by acting as an intermediary between the individual citizen and the abstractions of political ideology-an intermediary that worked to establish hierarchical republicanism as a knowable reality, a "self-evident" framework for everyday political thought, and the ultimate horizon guiding political consciousness.
In their efforts to define the place of the arts in the new nation, early nineteenth-century cultural spokespersons theorized a mode of painting that would preserve the republican polity by fostering the values of virtue and orderliness, reaffirming traditional structures of authority, and establishing orderly republicanism as the only viable and thinkable approach to political organization. These arguments profoundly influenced the production and reception of political painting in the period. Republican aesthetic theory pressured artists to avoid those phenomena that most severely threatened the tenuous armatures of order, authority, and fellowship that held the hierarchical republic together: political violence and the emerging rituals of mass democracy.14 Most pre-Jacksonian treatments of political life concentrated instead on the themes of nonpartisan harmony and enlightened elite rule. Focusing on a quiet moment between congressional sessions, for example, Samuel Morse's The Old House of Representatives (fig. 2, 1819) explores the rituals of fellowship that connect politicians across party lines, reimagining the contentious Seventeenth Congress as a fundamentally unified and genteel body. Sprawling around the scene's collegial array of figures, the neoclassical House chamber invokes the decorous order and harmonious organization of the imagined ideal state that Morse associated with elite governance. Though it received a tepid response from popular audiences, The Old House of Representatives appeared to critics and artists as a paradigm for political painting.15
On those occasions when early nineteenth-century artists did engage political turmoil, the resulting works often inspired ambivalence, confusion, or calculated misinterpretation. John Lewis Krimmel's Election Day (color plate 2, 1815), for example, provoked curious readings from antebellum critics. Picturing an electoral crowd gathered around Independence Hall, Election Day offers a sanguine vision of democratic culture. In its agglomeration of tumultuous vignettes-including a parade of workers pulling a model ship, a bar fight spilling out of a tavern, and an inebriate sitting in a gutter-Krimmel's bustling scene echoes the raucous tableaux of William Hogarth's Election Series (1754-55, Sir John Soane's Museum). Unlike this satirical precedent, however, Krimmel's painting works in various ways to legitimize popular democracy. The picture's vaunted setting subtly sanctions nineteenth-century street politics by tying it to the patriotic ferment of the American Revolution. Several vignettes of debate and deliberation within the crowd, moreover, suggest that peaceable democratic practices continue to drive the ongoing election despite the rowdy acts that unfold around the scene.16 Looking past this progressive vision of popular democracy, William Dunlap described Election Day (in its most substantial antebellum review) as a "Philadelphia election scene . . . filled with miniature portraits of the well known electioneering politicians of the day," an interpretation that elided the political crowd at the picture's center.17 Reading Election Day as a collection of "miniature portraits" of "electioneering" politicians (seemingly against the visual evidence of the painting), Dunlap reframed Krimmel's scene of bottom-up democratic participation as an image of manipulative politicking by demagogic office seekers. Advanced by a practiced critic, this misreading speaks to the politicized foci and blind spots that republican aesthetics inscribed in the visual field of early American art.
Painting the Mingled Multitude: Thomas Cole and the Political Jeremiad
Of those few artists who tested the strictures of this politicized field, Thomas Cole and John Quidor made the most dramatic breaks from convention, shaping disorderly scenes that engaged the turbulence of the Jacksonian era. Alarmed by democratization, Cole composed an allegorical scene of upheaval that sensationally dramatized the turbulent energies of the expanding political sphere. This scene takes shape in Destruction (color plate 3, 1834-36), the penultimate canvas of Cole's series The Course of Empire (1833-36), which traces the rise and fall of an imagined ancient civilization over five large paintings. Focusing on Consummation (fig. 3), the third canvas of The Course of Empire, Angela Miller and Alan Wallach have read Cole's series as an allegorical critique of Jacksonian political and commercial ambition that unfolds within a fatalistic narrative framework. Wallach has addressed the series as an anachronistic chronicle of inexorable decline that reinvigorated the old cyclical theory of history; Miller has interpreted The Course of Empire as a spectacularly cynical account of national prospects that appropriates and magnifies the bleak rhetoric of ultraconservative Whigs.18 By analyzing Cole's virtually unstudied fourth canvas, I aim to build on (and draw together) the insights of Wallach and Miller while assembling a new account of the political and aesthetic implications of the broader series-an account that reconstructs the complexities that Cole negotiated in composing his cycle and reconsiders the contribution made by the series to conservative culture.
As he composed Destruction, Cole attempted to satisfy the demands of republican aesthetics and evoke the chaos of Jacksonian upheaval. To pursue this difficult objective, the artist undertook a series of symbolic maneuvers aimed at conjuring the specter of disorder, sensationalizing that violent vision, and finally recoding the ideological implications of his chaotic scene. These maneuvers unfold within (and across) the allegorical frame of The Course of Empire, which worked, by design, to project the dramatic narrative of the cycle into an imagined past. As various scholars have shown, however, the individual canvases of The Course of Empire also draw palpable connections between that past and the early American republic.19 Cole took similar steps to tie Destruction to Jacksonian tumult, inscribing his scene with tropes of turbulence appropriated from two cultural media-popular prints and the newspaper press-that closely monitored the unrest of the moment. To square his violent picture with the demands of period aesthetics, Cole drew on a discourse of disorder that had long been popular among American conservatives, a prophetic discourse that (paradoxically) employed the image of upheaval to affirm the precepts of harmony and hierarchy: the political jeremiad. Dramatically recoding the apparition of Jacksonian upheaval, the resulting scene offered attuned period viewers an alternative lens on the meanings of Cole's broader cycle. In so doing, however, Destruction uncovers, and dramatically amplifies, an unresolved mixture of feeling about political turmoil that quietly structured many conservative imaginings of unrest.
Thomas Cole was a stalwart conservative who identified most closely with the platform of the Whig Party.20 Cole clung to the older values of deference and order, bemoaned the egalitarian and laissez-faire currents of Jacksonian public life, and anguished over the effects of competition on social fellowship. In an 1835 journal entry, for example, the artist noted anxiously, "Every day I feel as though there were fewer ties to bind me to my fellow beings-they are broken one after another."21 The artist was also horrified by the disorderly partisanship of the newly enfranchised masses; in a well-known journal entry, Cole decried the joyous "shouts of a company of Jacksonians," who had startled him in the woods, before condemning partisanship as agitation divorced from "good principles or [the] cause of virtue + morality."22
Unsettled by political and economic modernization, Cole longed to preserve the harmonious and hierarchical polity of the early nineteenth century. The artist was thus attuned to the ideological premises of republican aesthetics and seems to have been sympathetic to the arguments of that politicized discourse. In his public writings Cole frequently aligned aesthetic experience with the tempering of material ambition and the regeneration of social bonds. In his 1836 "Essay on American Scenery" Cole famously argued, "The spirit of our society is to contrive but not to enjoy . . . accumulating in order to aggrandize. The pleasures of the imagination . . . will alone temper the harshness of such a state; and . . . cast a veil of tender beauty over the asperities of life."23 The artist expands on this claim in another passage, suggesting that the perceptual shifts instituted by aesthetic experience could reshape the adversarial relationships of the private sphere; when confronted with the "pure creations of the Almighty," Cole argued, the individual viewer "feels a calm religious tone steal through his mind, and when he has turned to mingle with his fellow men, the chords which have been struck in that sweet communion cease not to vibrate."24 In this account, then, the experience of natural beauty (glimpsed in the landscape or through the matrix of art) sounds a note that reverberates throughout the private realm, remaking and stabilizing its internal conflicts.25
Emphasizing the elevating and ordering capacities of the arts, Cole's public writings affirm the precepts of republican art discourse. In private, however, the artist nurtured a preoccupation with Jacksonian disorder and the broader themes of plebeian turmoil, revolutionary violence, and societal dissolution.26 Cole's fascination with disorder drew energy from a handful of direct encounters with violence. In 1823 Cole's studio in Steubenville, Ohio, was ransacked by a mob of working-class youths. The motivations of this attack remain obscure; in a letter to a patron Cole focused instead on the effects of the assault, noting that the boys "cut and tore the paintings so as not to be of the least value. . . . They also mix'd all my paints together and destroyed my brushes."27 Eleven years later, Cole was working in New York when the city was shaken by a violent election riot, which saw Democratic and Whig partisans clash in a series of battles that culminated with a tense confrontation at a municipal armory.28 Cole's rooms at 520 Broome Street were not far from the clashes that broke out on Broadway during the riot; the artist's decision to take the oath of citizenship at city hall on the second day of the outburst brought him even closer to the upheaval.29 Undertaken in the midst of the riot, Cole's application for citizenship signaled his commitment to an orderly civil sphere. His brush with disorder seems nevertheless to have fueled an abiding interest in the violence of the urban masses, a phenomenon he monitored in letters and journal entries.30 In a well-known 1835 journal entry, for example, Cole declared, "I have of late felt a presentiment that the Institutions of the U States will ere long undergo a change . . . that there will be a separation of the States-Riot + public murder are common occurrences-every newspaper brings accounts of the laws violated. . . . It is with sorrow that I anticipate the downfall of . . . republican government."31 Written in the midst of a riotous wave that swept the nation in the mid-1830s, this passage attests both to Cole's attentiveness to contemporary disorder and to his fascination with the broader themes of anarchic upheaval and violent declension.
As the process of democratization gathered momentum, Cole became increasingly preoccupied with the specter of revolution, filling his private writings with meditations on historical rebellions. Angela Miller has shown that the artist's travels in Italy (1829-32) inspired ruminations on the demotic violence of ancient Rome.32 Cole was equally fixated on the bloodshed of the French Revolution, an event that he and other period conservatives fetishized as an emblem of the dangers of mass politics.33 The artist's unpublished poem "The Spirits of the Wilderness" thus included a wildly hyperbolic description of the French revolutionary mob as a "red multitude" bearing "demon visage pale, & crimson hands," a bestial mass entity that in its fevered revelry "rais'd their homicidal hands, And . . . stoop'd down and lapp'd the smoking blood."34
Composed between 1835 and 1837, "The Spirits of the Wilderness" offers a vivid glimpse at the violent preoccupations that gripped Cole as he set to work on The Course of Empire. The artist seems, in turn, to have given modulated voice to these dark fascinations as he composed Destruction, developing a series of strategies to evoke the specter of contemporary upheaval within the painting's allegorical framework. On its surface Destruction depicts a battle between the denizens of the cycle's ancient city and an army of foreign invaders. A line of barbarian galleys-identifiable by their monstrous figureheads-streams in from the background to attack the waterfront, disgorging waves of tiny soldiers that overrun the classical edifices along the edges of the scene. Previously landed invaders have begun sacking the monumental structures that rise above the waterfront at right; vignettes of structural damage (toppling columns, mutilated sculptures, flaming arcades) and merciless interpersonal violence (dead and dying civilians) testify to the annihilative character of the invaders' assault. A final effort at resistance unfolds on the partly destroyed bridge at the center of the painting, where native and barbarian soldiers intermingle in a thick tangle of bodies and weapons.
Destruction offers a detailed vision of vicious warfare, then, that extends the archaizing language of the first three canvases of The Course of Empire. To open this antique scene to transhistorical readings, Cole first included a suggestive invocation of contemporary upheaval in the narrative description that the artist published in the American Monthly Magazine in advance of the series' exhibition. In a paragraph on Destruction the artist characterized the battle at the center of the painting as a "mingled multitude."35 Cole's description of the fifth canvas, Desolation, also uses the term multitude in its final sentence: "The gorgeous pageant has passed-the roar of battle has ceased-the multitude has sunk in the dust-the empire is extinct."36 Though subtle, this renaming offered viewers an alternative frame through which to engage the chaotic crowd scene of Destruction. Western political philosophers had long employed the term multitude to describe disorganized aggregates unbound by social contracts; antebellum reporters in turn employed multitude as a ubiquitous synonym for mob in accounts of Jacksonian riots. A New York Evening Post report on the 1834 Election Riot, for example, characterized the outburst's primary combatants as an "overly excited multitude."37 And, as noted above, Cole frequently employed multitude in his private writings to indicate riotous or revolutionary crowds.38
Even as he used textual cues to recode his picture, Cole also inscribed Destruction with visual signs of upheaval, borrowing and creatively reworking a variety of details from popular representations of riotous disorder. The artist's preparatory sketch for Destruction (fig. 4) rendered the battle as one relatively circumscribed element within a crumbling cityscape of neoclassical architecture and monumental sculpture. Though subtle indications of disorder appear within the scene, the battle appears as a basically legible contest fought within the rectilinear spaces of bridges and terraces. Much of that battle's middle-ground proceedings are obscured by a monumental sculpted lion (at right) that invokes the grand guardian sculptures of the ancient world. Cole's final painting reimagined the central conflict as a sprawling figural mass that sweeps out across the middle ground of the scene. At the same time, the artist replaced the looming lion with a sculpture he described as a "mutilated colossal figure"-a substitution that allowed for a fuller view of the ongoing tumult and enabled the artist to subtly invoke contemporary political violence while preserving the historical lexicon of the image.39 Missing its head and right hand, the battered sculpture of Destruction draws on a trope-the fragmentary or dismembered body-that American commentators had long used to envision the effects of internal conflict on political unity.40 This cultural tradition was reinvigorated in the 1830s, when a widely publicized act of iconoclasm returned the theme of the dismembered body to the forefront of political discourse. In July 1834 a Whig partisan decapitated a wooden sculpture of Andrew Jackson that had recently been installed as a figurehead on the USS Constitution.41 In exploring the implications of this affair, period commentators interpreted the decapitated sculpture of Jackson as a worrying totem of partisanship's violent potential. A Pittsfield (MA) Sun article accordingly understood the fragmentary sculpture as a sign of "desperate party malignity"; in similar fashion a Richmond Enquirer editorial interpreted the figure as a "warning emblem of the madness to which party hate may rise."42 Designed even as this discourse of decapitation took shape in newspapers and popular imagery, Cole's headless sculpture seems to quietly invoke the specter of contemporary partisan upheaval, framing the archaic battle of Destruction with a suggestive sign of democracy's violent energies.
The battle that unfolds underneath this sign similarly resonates with period representations of riotous discord. Departing from the distinct armies of the preliminary sketch, Cole's finished painting pictures the central struggle as a complicated and entangled mass that resists clear apprehension. This ambiguous vision echoes accounts of contemporary upheaval, which regularly imagined the disorderly crowd as an inscrutable entity and identified perceptual confusion as a fundamental condition of the riot experience. Commenting on the ineffectuality of the city's watchmen during New York's 1834 election riot, an Evening Post report noted that "when mingled with the immense crowd, their [the watchmen's] objects were mistaken by the contending parties, and many of them were severely wounded."43 A report in the Commercial Advertiser emphasized the confusions of the riot experience, lamenting, "Amidst such scenes of violence . . . it has been impossible to state facts in all instances with the degree of accuracy and precision which we could desire."44 Period printmakers similarly imagined the Jacksonian mob as a fundamentally inscrutable entity. Henry Robinson's 1837 satirical lithograph The Would-Be Mayor Preparing to Quell a Riot (fig. 5), for example, sets a battling mob against New York's frail Democratic mayoral candidate, John J. Morgan. Composed of thickly interwoven figures and suspended in an atmospheric haze, the mob appears as an ephemeral apparition of disconnected torsos, limbs, and weapons that frustrates efforts to establish its exact composition. Repeated elements and mirrored forms (arms angling left, torsos tilted right) instead create visual patterns across the crowd that stress its agglomerated quality, its status as an unruly mass entity.
Echoing the mob of The Would-Be Mayor, Cole's battling multitude appears both inscrutably tangled and dynamically patterned: the repeated torsos, shields, and helmets that define the army at the right edge of the central bridge (fig. 6) emphasize the horizontal sweep of the crowd. And, like Robinson's roiling crowd, the teeming mass at the center of Destruction bristles with upraised clubs, weapons that (unlike swords, spears, or other implements) deepen the scene's invocation of Jacksonian violence. Pictorial and textual descriptions of riots in the 1830s almost invariably identified the club as a primary weapon for the contemporary mob. A satirical poem published in the Commercial Advertiser, for example, used the club as a standard marker of (in this case Democratic) mobbery:
Oh [Cornelius] Lawrence off to the poll is gone
In every ward you'll find him,
The ruffian's club he has buckled on
And the mob is all behind him.45
Extending this trope, commentators frequently used the "ruffian's club" as a kind of metonym for riotous upheaval. In an effort to dramatize the implications of the Election Riot, a Morning Courier editorial asked its readers, "Shall we tamely submit to this Club Law? Our city is at the disposal of a mob-shall it be given up to the anarchy that prevails?"46
Studding his scene with details drawn from contemporary cultural discourses of political violence, Cole encouraged his viewers to draw connections between his ancient battle and the tumultuous present. In so doing, however, the artist set this potentially unsettling vision within a visual template that worked to realign Destruction with the precepts of period aesthetic theory. Picturing a roiling mob attacking a classicized civic landscape, Destruction creatively engages and dramatically amplifies an apocalypticscenario that had long been central to conservative discourse and imagery.47 Two lithographs produced in 1834-Ezra Bisbee's The Vision: Political Hydrophobia (fig. 7) and T. W. Whitley's The People Putting Responsibility to the Test (fig. 8)-exemplify this apocalyptic vision. In each, the unruly mob appears as an emblem of anarchic disorder purportedly triggered by the policies of the Democratic Party. And in each, the mob's assault on a civic landscape of classicized architecture and monumental sculpture establishes grand stakes for the depicted violence. The Vision imagines the consequences of Jackson's antibank initiatives as the violent dissolution of the state, picturing a wild mob of "kitchen scullions and pat-riots" that cheers for the fiddling president while the Capitol building burns in the background. Whitley's lithograph construes the democratic liberation of "the people" as a process undermining law and order: pushing beyond the expanded limits of civic "responsibility," a wild mob attacks a sculptural representation of justice, as Jackson and Martin Van Buren flee toward the right edge of the scene.
Even as these prints explore the dramatic details of riotous upheaval, however, they set the specter of violence within a prophetic framework that reshapes the meanings of the depicted turmoil. Indeed, both prints frame their scenes of violence as prophecies or revelations. Bisbee's print thus reimagines the central mob of "kitchen scullions and pat-riots" as a "vision" enjoyed by the portly John Bull figure in the foreground. Whitley's lithograph similarly recontextualizes its central scene; at the far left the figure of Henry Clay informs his companions, "Behold senators, the fulfillment of my predictions!"-a declaration that reworks the violence below as a prophesied event. In recasting the spectacle of political violence as a vision or revelation, these prints participated in a rhetorical tradition that flourished among early nineteenth-century conservatives, a jeremiadical discourse that paradoxically employed sensationally detailed representations of disorder to affirm the orderly precepts of hierarchical republicanism.
The jeremiad first emerged as a mode of historical reckoning and social critique in the seventeenth-century lamentations of the Puritan elect. As various scholars have shown, these sermons drew their structure from the lamentations of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, whose predictions of divine punishment were calculated to steer erring Israelites back toward a reconfirmation of their covenant with God.48 Following their biblical forebears, Puritan jeremiads alerted their audiences to the deviation of the sinful present from a past state of holiness; to motivate listeners, these jeremiads presented an optimistic vision of this past state recaptured in an ideal future and, simultaneously, a terrifying prophecy of the unreformed community's destruction by a wrathful God.49 Delivered by generations of New England ministers, the jeremiad became a central framework by which eighteenth-century Americans evaluated their place within the course of history.
The literary scholar Sacvan Bercovitch has shown that the jeremiad in turn became a vital framework for political argument after the Revolutionary War.50 Anxious to build a consensus around their vision of a hierarchical and harmonious republic, Federalist ministers, writers, and artists produced jeremiadical texts and images that advanced spectacular prophecies of democratic anarchy. In a 1798 sermon, for example, Timothy Dwight called for a hierarchical and consensual system of governance administered by "men of known and tried probity" who would forge the "hearty concurrence of the community."51 To underscore the appeal of traditional structures of authority and nonpartisan harmony, Dwight prophesied an alternative future of radical democracy leading to "the loss of national honor, the immense plunder of public and private property, the conflagration of churches and dwellings, the total ruin of families, the butchery of great multitudes of fathers and sons, and the most deplorable dishonor of wives and daughters."52 To avoid this hysterically dystopian future, Americans were charged with rebuilding "union among ourselves, and [an] unshaken adherence to the existing government."53 In his well-known essay "The Dangers of American Liberty," the Federalist congressman Fisher Ames conjured a similarly bleak vision of democracy run amuck, describing a dystopian future in which "we mark the barbarous dissonance of mingled rage and triumph in an infatuated mob; we see the dismal glare of their burnings and scent the loathsome steam of human victims offered in sacrifice."54 Not to be outdone, Federalist illustrators shaped their own jeremiadical prophecies. Elkanah Tisdale's 1807 engraving Infant Liberty Nursed by Mother Mob (fig. 9), for example, employs familial allegory to project a riotous future for democratic liberty. Suckling at the breast of its "mobbish" mother and flanked by two devilish imps and a keg of alcohol, the eponymous infant appears poised to realize the calamitous future pictured in the background, where a mob pulls down a church.
The prophetic visions of Dwight, Ames, and Tisdale contributed to a rich jeremiadical tradition that would extend into the Jacksonian era. Alarmed by the disorder of the moment and struggling to articulate their own party's position within the turbulent political sphere, Whig commentators employed the jeremiad toward a variety of ends. Some wielded violent prophecy in an effort to revitalize the traditional ideals of deference, hierarchy, and self-discipline. In an 1829 sermon lamenting democracy's dangerous potential, for example, the conservative minister Lyman Beecher predicted that the plebeian electorate could, if misled by "ambitious demagogues," bring about "the downfall of liberty, and the overturnings of revolution, and the pouring out of blood," reducing the American "paradise" to "utter desolation."55 Other Whig orators used jeremiadical prophecies to pursue concrete goals within the democratizing political system; these figures forecasted violent futures to discredit Democratic partisanship and policy, and they celebrated harmonious order to build support for their own crystallizing party machine. It is toward this kind of pragmatic objective that the printmakers Bisbee and Whitley shaped their images of partisan mobbery: both prints employ violent prophecy to critique Jackson's efforts to revoke the charter of the Bank of the United States.
Taken up and reworked by a wide array of conservative thinkers, the political jeremiad tradition yielded an expansive body of cultural representations of disorder readily available to Cole as he began The Course of Empire. In composing his spectacular picture of contemporary upheaval, Cole (wittingly or unwittingly) drew on and dramatically extended the tropes of this cultural tradition, shaping a scene of disorder that appropriated and reworked the central motif of Whig jeremiadical prints on a grand scale. In so doing, the artist followed an abiding interest in the language and themes of jeremiadical lamentation. Indeed, Cole's poems and prose are thoroughly steeped in the symbolic devices of prophecy. His 1841 poem "The Lament of the Forest," for example, juxtaposed a vision of the American wilderness's pristine past with a prophecy of its impending urbanized "doom."56 The artist's meditations on the early republic often took a similarly prophetic cast. Cole's unpublished story "Verdura, or A Tale after Time" (c. 1845) foretold a bloody national future in which "the vision of evil of two centuries past was fulfilled," and "the principles, as they called them, of those ages . . . were now developed and exhibited themselves in vice, profligacy, irreligion + anarchy."57 A later passage in the 1835 journal entry on rioting (cited above) forecasted a similarly bleak future for the republic, noting "the hope of the wise + the good will have perished-And the scenes of tyranny + wrong, blood + oppression such as have been acted since the world was created-will be again performed."58
Comfortably familiar with the tropes of prophetic lamentation, Cole shaped a dramatic vision of upheaval that drew on and magnified the themes of the conservative jeremiad. The prophetic resonances of Destruction encourage us in turn to reconsider the meanings of Cole's broader cycle. Although The Course of Empire could not (as a series of static paintings) literally deliver the sort of narrative advanced by jeremiadical texts or sermons, it does mobilize a set of internal visual relationships that evoke the temporal structure of the jeremiad and foreground the theme of foretelling. Taken together, these formal devices invited the attuned viewer to interpret The Course of Empire as a visual prophecy akin to the jeremiadical arguments that circulated through the political sphere.
The three "middle" canvases of Cole's cycle evoke the bidirectional temporal dynamics that were central to the political jeremiad. If Destruction is understood as a dramatic image of an escapable future of apocalyptic violence and ruination, the two canvases that flank it can be read as a celebratory vision of the harmonious past (The Pastoral State) and a lamentation of the ostentatious present (Consummation) respectively. While evoking the characteristic temporal maneuvers of the jeremiad, the broader series also includes a variety of repeated forms that encourage the viewer to address The Course of Empire through the framework of prophecy. The first two pictures thus incorporate subtle allusions to the violent agents and energies that appear later in the series. The left foreground of The Savage State (fig. 10) features a bow-clutching hunter whose striding pose-weight thrown forward, flexed right knee, straightened left leg, right arm cast backward-prefigures the dramatic posture of the colossal sculpture at the right edge of Destruction.59 Though employing a different viewpoint to render the depicted imagined civilization, The Savage State also seems to anticipate the spatial structure and dramatic setting of the cycle's fourth canvas: both pictures position the characteristic rock-bearing hill at right center in their respective compositions, and both figure that landmark as a static point in the midst of a swirling and sky-blackening thunderstorm. The anticipatory impulses of The Savage State are extended by the next canvas of the cycle. In the verdant foreground of The Arcadian or Pastoral State (fig. 11), a heavily armed warrior figure can just be made out on the shadowy dirt path that emerges from behind a dark ridge at the left center and runs toward the stone bridge at right center.60 Bearing a large, round shield, this soldier also seems to reference the massive sculpture in Destruction, which carries a comparable piece of armor. Unsettling the otherwise peaceful terrain of The Arcadian or Pastoral State with a reference to violent strife, this figure similarly forecasts the armed conflict that will unfold in Destruction and, in so doing, subtly facilitates jeremiadical interpretations of Cole's series.
While some period viewers overlooked the contemporary implications of The Course of Empire, others engaged the series in jeremiadical terms. In a short essay commissioned for Louis Noble's biography of Cole, James Fenimore Cooper interpreted The Course of Empire as a bleak statement on the nation's future that reinvigorated traditional cyclical narratives of history-an analysis that squared with the novelist's own deepening conservatism.61 In so doing, however, Cooper emphasized the prophetic character of the cycle; describing the imperial spectacle of Consummation, the author noted:
In all this sumptuous pageant . . . there is a silent revelation of "things which must shortly come to pass." . . . One feels, even among richest fancies, the presence of thoughts dark and ominous, like those which, at this stage of the work, began to hasten up in flights, as it were from the future, upon the painter's mind. Behind this glory, of such depth to the outward eye, of such veil-like thinness to the piercing, prophetic eye of the soul, rise in shadowy outline awful presages, breathing wrathful premonitions: "Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall."62
The Course of Empire, in this argument, remakes its viewer as a kind of seer, charged with detecting the signs of moral declension within the "sumptuous pageant" of the series' second and third canvases. Meditating on the "richest fancies" of imperial power catalogued in Consummation, the spectator experiences her own revelation, becoming aware of "awful presages" and "wrathful premonitions" of the republic's unavoidable "future" downfall.
Diverging from Cooper's cynical assessment of the series' prophetic work, other observers understood Cole's series as an admonitory revelation even more closely attuned to the jeremiad tradition. A review in the conservative New York Spectator accordingly asked, "Who can turn from the pastoral scene, where all is peace and loveliness-where earth, air, and sky all harmonize with the . . . occupations of man, to the scene of horror and devastation, where the heavens are rent with the storm, and man more savage than the raging elements, is hurling to earth the works of art-assaulting the helpless females, and dealing death to his fellow men, and not feel an ominous foreboding[?]"63 For this anonymous reviewer Cole's series takes shape around a central dichotomy pitting the "peace and loveliness" of The Pastoral State against "the scene of horror and devastation" in Destruction. If the former enchants with an ideal vision of "harmonized" existence, the latter unfolds an apparition of "horror and devastation" that triggers an unsettling sense of "ominous foreboding," a prophetic feeling of impending doom. The Spectator reviewer understood this juxtaposition as an instructive and admonitory device, noting that the series conveyed, "in a manner forcible and vivid, a lesson full of instruction" to "the moralist, the patriot, and the statesman."64 For the Spectator critic, and likely other period viewers, Cole's series functioned less as a declaration of cynical certainty than an instructive prophecy about the looming but avoidable dangers of political strife.
The sensational scene at the heart of this painterly prophecy, as I have argued, represents an unprecedented attempt to explore Jacksonian political violence in paint. By drawing on the prophetic discourses that circulated in conservative political culture, Cole found a way to carve out symbolic space for the representation of contemporary disorder in a visual field carefully bounded by politicized aesthetic demands. Rooted in the paradoxical thematics of the jeremiad, Destruction could be read as a wild fantasy of violent strife that affirmed the ideals of hierarchical republicanism. By drawing on the themes and structure of the jeremiad, moreover, Cole opened his series to readings that were attuned to the shifting political values of the moment. As we have seen, conservative jeremiahs of the 1830s employed prophetic rhetoric toward a variety of political objectives, from the retrenchment of traditional republican ideals to the winning of elections and contestation of specific policies. In taking up the iconography of the jeremiad, Cole thus squared his series with a discourse that was, despite its antidemocratic roots, increasingly oriented toward the priorities of mass politics. Framing Destruction as a visual prophecy, Cole opened space for interpretations beyond the mournful apprehension of inexorable decline, interpretations that extracted lessons from the series about the behaviors, values, and representatives that might best sustain the modernizing political system.
In taking up the tropes of the jeremiad, however, Cole also wittingly or unwittingly gave striking visual form to certain contradictions of feeling at the heart of popular conservative discourse. These contradictions emerge within the multivalent visual experience that Destruction organizes for the onlooker. On the one hand, Cole's scene incorporates sweeping forms and broad visual effects-vast colonnades, teeming crowds, roiling cloud formations-that infuse the spectacle of disorder with horrifying grandeur. On the other hand, the painting is inscribed with varied pigment textures, tonal shifts, and gory details (blood pools, severed limbs, writhing bodies) that invite the viewer to linger over and delight in the minutiae of disorder. The visual experience organized by Destruction, that is, involves a suggestive oscillation between spectatorial attitudes-terrified distance and fascinated immersion-that resonate with the shifting perspectives that structure the disorderly prophecies of Ames, Tisdale, Beecher, Bisbee, and other conservatives. Even as they fulminated against the roiling democratic mob, reactionary jeremiahs attended to the bloody details and grand effects of upheaval with an intensity that often seems to exceed the rhetorical function of these visions. Passages that conjure the mob's "pouring out of blood" or attempt to "see the dismal glare . . . and scent the loathsome steam" of the riotous crowd, for example, betray a fascination with the spectacular apparition of violence and the embodied experience of the riot scene that strains against the jeremiad's antidemocratic push for hierarchical order. Infusing the spectacle of violence with sublime dimensions and absorbing details, Cole's allegorical scene gave dramatic visual form to the unresolved mixtures of attraction and aversion that mark the jeremiadical texts and images of the period. Even as it affirmed the ideal of order, Destruction visualized the deep ambivalences that Jacksonian violence could provoke among even the staunchest advocates of political stability, uncovering a stubbornly unresolved mixture of feeling that quietly complicated conservative arguments for hierarchy and order.
John Quidor and the Spectacle of "Busy, Bustling, Disputatious" Democracy
Destruction stands as the Jacksonian era's only painterly attempt to contend with the specter of riotous upheaval. Nevertheless, period artists did address the problem of disorder from other perspectives. In 1829 John Quidor composed a humorous canvas that engaged another political phenomenon that period observers (and especially conservative observers) associated with violent conflict-the turbulent practices of popular electoral democracy-through the framework of contemporary fiction. Inspired by Washington Irving's short story, Quidor's Rip Van Winkle (color plate 4, 1829) pictures the moment in the narrative when the title character, having woken from his twenty-year nap, is confronted by the unfamiliar spectacle of popular democracy. Building on the work of Bryan Wolf and others, I will argue that Rip Van Winkle exacerbates and recodes the satirical impulses of Irving's text, organizing a parodic scene of democratic rowdiness that lampoons the hysterical imagery of conservative political culture and spoofs the precepts of republican aesthetics.65 Despite its ties to a deeply conservative text, Quidor's painting advances a comic critique that ultimately seems to resonate with the lively subculture of democratic humor that arose in the period to ridicule mainstream political life. Inscribed within a seemingly faithful pictorial translation of Irving's story, this satirical vision was both legible to the attuned viewer and carefully screened by the painting's manifest narrative.
Quidor's interest in exploring alternative subjects may have been a function of his marginal social position. As Sarah Burns has shown, Quidor worked on the borders of the genteel public realm throughout his life.66 The artist's apprenticeship with portraitist John Wesley Jarvis left Quidor ill-prepared to begin a respectable career: the young painter received infrequent training from Jarvis and eventually sued his mentor for negligence in 1823. Lacking the technical expertise and professional connections of better-trained peers, Quidor forged a career by taking on commissions from middling patrons while experimenting privately with historical and literary paintings. These commissions included a series of ornamental panels that Quidor completed for working-class fire companies (and which are discussed in chapter 3).67 These early projects tied the artist to the vibrant public culture of the city's workers, and Quidor seems to have embraced several of that culture's constituent features. As Burns has noted, the artist kept a studio in the Five Points neighborhood, the nerve center of plebeian culture in antebellum New York, and apparently maintained a fondness for social drinking and rowdy camaraderie.68
Quidor's painterly practice also tied him to the raucous political culture that took shape among the urban working class. The artist's Five Points studio was located within a Democratic stronghold and the primary hotbed of popular political activity in New York in the 1820s.69 Some of Quidor's commissions linked him directly to the public rituals of this vibrant political sector. In 1825 Fire Engine Company 3 commissioned the artist to produce a processional banner featuring an "allegorical painting of the . . . charitable institution of the Fire Department" for use during the grand "procession of citizens" held to mark the opening of the Erie Canal. Organized around an allegorical scene composed of patriotic emblems, the banner advanced the firefighters' claims for space in the political public sphere.70
This and other commissions for working-class politicos ensured that Quidor held a unique perspective on the transitions remaking the political realm in the Jacksonian era. This perspective likely played some role in Quidor's decision to compose a scene inspired by Washington Irving's popular 1819 short story "Rip Van Winkle," which unfolds its own complicated meditation on American politics.71 Quidor selected the most politically charged passage in Irving's narrative as the basis for his picture-the moment in which the newly awoken Rip confronts a roiling election: "There was, as usual, a crowd of folk about the door, but none whom Rip recollected. There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility. . . . In place of these, a lean, bilious-looking fellow, with his pockets full of handbills, was haranguing vehemently about rights of citizens-election-members of Congress-liberty-Bunker's Hill-heroes of '76-and other words, that were a perfect Babylonish jargon to the bewildered Van Winkle."72 Approaching the new "Union Hotel" at the center of his village, Rip finds himself in the middle of a political carnival, complete with "haranguing" partisans and a "bustling" crowd of voters. Even as it delineates the "busy" energies and "disputatious tone" of postrevolutionary democracy, Irving's narrative invokes and parodies the antidemocratic anxieties of period traditionalists. The election scene thus incorporates a fusty Federalist who confronts Rip as he approaches the ongoing election:
Another short but busy little fellow . . . inquired in his ear, "whether he was Federal or Democrat." Rip was equally at a loss to comprehend the question; when a knowing, self-important old gentleman, in a sharp cocked hat, made his way through the crowd, putting them to the right and left with his elbows as he passed, and planting himself before Van Winkle, with one arm akimbo, the other resting on his cane . . . demanded, in an austere tone, "what brought him to the election with a gun on his shoulder, and a mob at his heels, and whether he meant to breed a riot in the village?"73
In his mannered assertion of public authority, hostility toward the electoral crowd, and worried invocation of riot, the "self-important old gentleman" parodically encapsulates the alarmed responses of conservatives to the new phenomena of mass politics.
Irving's 1819 story thus rehearses and ironizes the central thematics of period conservatism, affirming and spoofing republican warnings about the violent potential and anarchic energies of popular democracy. In composing his painterly interpretation of Irving's text, Quidor registered the details of the original narrative while redirecting its ideological dynamics. Rip Van Winkle sets each of the election vignette's central players-Rip (gripping a flintlock at center), the "self-important" Federalist (left of center), the "bilious-looking" electioneer (in foreground, at right), the democratic "mob" (at right), and Rip's as-yet-unrecognized son (at far left)-in a street scene structured by opposing gestures, looks, and compositional lines. While old Rip peers and points left, his son looks back to the right; this rightward gaze is echoed by the right-pointing boughs of the tree above young Rip, which seem to echo and invert old Rip's pointing gesture. These visual exchanges led some period reviewers to link Quidor's scene to the textual passage in which old Rip confusedly mistakes his son for a projection of himself at a younger age, a misrecognition that conflates the colonial past (Rip's youth) and the republican "present" of Irving's narrative.74
Even as Rip Van Winkle addresses Rip's personal and historical bewilderment, the picture foregrounds another fraught interaction that develops in Irving's story-the mutual antagonism of the "self-important old gentleman" and the election "mob." Taking shape around the bewildered figure of Rip, this formal opposition spoofs the standard tropes of the antebellum conservative imagination. The stern figure to the left of old Rip thus appears as a stylized embodiment of an archetypal conservative protagonist: the morally virtuous revolutionary patriarch. Still wearing his Continental Army uniform, a powdered wig, and a cocked hat, the figure is insistently-indeed, too insistently-marked as a member of the founding generation. The old man's straining posture and taut scowl, moreover, convey an extreme consternation that spoofs the moral sanctimony of the old-guard elite. Framed as an antiquated holdover suspended in a pouty performance of indignation, the elderly figure can be read as a humorous caricature of the patriotic patrician so central to conservative discourses of hierarchical republicanism.
The democratic rabble that appears opposite this caricatured creature similarly lampoons conservative visions of popular politics. Indeed, the crowd displays many of the alarming characteristics that traditionalists associated with the expanding body politic. Peering at Rip with wide eyes and gaping mouths, the crowd appears as a mass of mindless gawkers entranced by the unfolding spectacle at center. The caricatured responses of several individual crowd members (fig. 12) reaffirm the vapidity, irrationality, and malleability of the electoral mob. While one man signals his incomprehension by exaggeratedly scratching his head, a nearby woman stares with an unfixed gaze and slack expression that suggests the total dissolution of cognitive capacity. A third figure wears a mask of foolish contentment that suggests intense intoxication. Other figures infuse the mindless electoral crowd with dangerous energies. Two men near the Union Hotel fling hat or arms in the air, giving expression to a wild exuberance that seems to have no discernible relationship to the events that unfold around them. More ominously, a child at the right of the scene carries a loaded crossbow on his shoulder. This curious detail, wholly invented by Quidor, introduces the possibility of a bloody end to the election and, as such, subtly refigures the democratic crowd as a dangerous body poised on the brink of violent strife.
In figuring the electoral crowd as a senseless, unpredictable, and potentially violent mass, Rip Van Winkle advances a hysterical vision of popular politics attuned to the sentiments of the era's most rabidly antidemocratic conservatives. In an 1834 diary entry, for example, the patrician Sidney George Fisher likened the democratic body politic to "a mob, a canaille population without property, without education, utterly degraded & anxious to promote disturbance & revolution . . . unable to form a high standard of excellence, and . . . easily blinded & deluded."75 In conjuring his own vision of the "easily deluded" mob, Quidor seems to both comically intensify and dislocate the arguments made by Fisher and other like-minded reactionaries. The above-mentioned crossbow is central to the scene's parodic project. As a particularly pointed icon of grisly medieval violence, the weapon invokes an argument regularly made by period conservatives: that the American mass electorate is only the latest iteration of the disorderly plebeian rabble of European feudalism.76 As an arcane implement rarely employed in the New World, however, the crossbow pushes Quidor's scene into the realm of the absurd, framing the mob as a ludicrous construct detached from historical reality.
Pitting a strutting embodiment of moral authority against an exaggeratedly vapid and potentially dangerous mob, Rip Van Winkle spoofs conservative republican conceptions of the struggle between the virtuous elite and the "degraded" masses. In articulating this antagonism, moreover, Rip Van Winkle also seems to subtly lampoon the politicized principles of republican aesthetics. This comic critique takes shape around a suggestive detail within the election vignette: a signboard portrait of George Washington hanging from a corner of the Union Hotel (fig. 12). Though in part a faithful reference to Irving's narrative (where the signboard works to register the dramatic transitions that unfold during Rip's nap), this detail attains additional meanings in Quidor's interpretation.77 Hovering above the center of the electoral crowd, the portrait appears as a gleaming patriotic hub around which the turbulent figural mass seems to coalesce. The similar orientation of the painted figure and crowd members-like many of the villagers below, the painted Washington faces and looks left-subtly reaffirms the connection between leader and constituency. This close attunement of portrait and crowd evokes republican aesthetic arguments about the galvanizing effects of elevated art, arguments that (as we have seen) sometimes made reference to the image of Washington. But the palpable relation between crowd and image also has the potential to unsettle these arguments, since the nearby icon could be read as sanctioning the roiling realm of popular politics below. Indeed, the vignette might be read as an invocation of the visual practices of the new working-class electorate, who displayed cheap images of national figures in the spaces of plebeian politics (taverns, dancehalls, and so on) to signal their own patriotic commitment and legitimate raucous democracy.78 Rip Van Winkle, that is, might invoke a form of political visual culture that republican aesthetics overlooked entirely, a plebeian culture that appropriated the image of the noble leader as a vehicle for populist ideals.
Quidor's painting also seems to humorously recast the character of art spectatorship. The only figure who looks in the direction of the portrait is the drunken fool (fig. 12) at the center of the crowd; reconsidered in this light, the man's masklike countenance suggests an intoxicated absorption in the portrait hovering above. Instead of edification and moral improvement, the image of the patrician leader appears to produce slavish passivity and idiotic stupefaction in its beholder. On the one hand, this scenario can be read as a comic exaggeration of the disciplinary effects attributed to painting by aesthetic thinkers. On the other hand, it might be understood as a humorous vision of an alternative form of nonrational spectatorship rooted in extreme intoxication. In either case the drunk appears in the midst of a ludicrous visual experience that departs dramatically from the edificatory encounters central to republican aesthetics.
Even as it faithfully renders the details of Irving's short story, Quidor's painting offers comically pointed glimpses at popular democracy and plebeian aesthetic experience. Building on the humorous structures of the original text, Quidor composed a scene that hyperbolically evoked the violent potential of Jacksonian popular democracy, spoofed the traditionalist pieties and antidemocratic paranoia of conservatives, and parodied the politicized aesthetic discourses that circulated through the early nineteenth-century art world. In devising this mirthfully alternative perspective on the political concerns of the day, Quidor veered away from mainstream painting and toward a new field of raffish political humor that emerged in the moment. Though satire and parody had long been important elements of American political culture, it was in the Jacksonian era that humor became a primary mode of political commentary for mass audiences.79 Satirical writers and graphic artists produced a wave of affordable texts and images that explored the partisan issues of the day in coarse "vernacular" terms. Authored by Democrats and Whigs alike, these new comic stories, satirical poems, and parodic prints lampooned the solemn language and grave pronouncements of mainstream political discourse. Antidemocratic fulminations proved to be a popular target of ridicule. A character in Democratic satirist James Kirke Paulding's John Bull in America (1825) thus facetiously lamented the "curse of democracy, the grinding oppressions of unrestrained liberty, together with the total insecurity of property under mob law; and the total insecurity of person in consequence of the universal practice of robbery and murder," before predicting that "ninety-nine in a hundred of these, my wretched countrymen, would soon die as not . . . only to escape the blessings of democracy."80 Even conservative writers found ways to lampoon the antidemocratic rhetoric of the moment. The Whig humorist Seba Smith's satirical The Life of Andrew Jackson (1834) included a passage in which the president reflected on the dangers of popular democracy, noting, "To be supported by the mob is a leetle ticklish to be sure. They are inconstant as the waves of the ocean; and woe! woe! tu that country whose ruler, instead of seekin his support from the intelligence of the people, evokes the pashions of such men."81 Bandying about jokey visions of "mob law" and democratic "pashions," humorists generated an irreverent political subculture pitched at the new partisan constituencies of the expanding democratic electorate-a subculture that strained against the formal language and sober tone of official political and aesthetic discourse.
A new body of cartoonists and printmakers also participated in this realm of humor, producing a steady stream of manic scenes that humorously hyperbolized the antidemocratic fulminations of the moment. Satirical printmakers David Claypoole Johnston and James Akin thus shaped wild visions of the teeming Jacksonian body politic that exaggerated its disunity, capriciousness, and disorderliness.82 Johnston's engraving A Foot-Race (1824), for example, imagines the electorate as a collection of drunks, swells, street urchins, and thugs who respond to the ongoing presidential "race" (depicted in the print's foreground) with amusement, revelry, and gambling. Lithographers (including Ezra Bisbee and T. W. Whitley) and penny-press illustrators elaborated on these interpretations in a new body of humorously overblown images of democratic turbulence. The New York Herald illustration "Humours of the Election" (fig. 13, 1839) thus reimagines the new democratic election as a chaotic and cacophonous event. Consisting of countless "indomitables & damnables" playing instruments, brandishing weapons, swilling liquor, attacking and trampling each other, screaming, and vomiting, the Jacksonian electorate appears here as an impossibly vast and unstable mass of rubes, rakes, and ruffians.
Casting the electoral crowd as a similar mass of fools and fanatics, John Quidor's painterly satire echoed the textual and visual send-ups of popular political chaos that proliferated in the 1820s and 1830s. Rip Van Winkle can be understood accordingly, at least in part, as an early contribution to the impious realm of Jacksonian democratic humor. Quidor seems to have sought out viewers who were inclined to this sort of reading. In 1830 the artist displayed Rip Van Winkle in the New York frame shop of Parker and Clover, a liminal cultural venue that attracted a broader range of viewers than the exhibition halls of the new art academies.83 While hanging at the store, Rip Van Winkle caught the "attention" of political humorist James Kirke Paulding; according to a later Appleton's article, the satirist saw Quidor's picture at the frame shop and subsequently "took a great deal of interest in . . . [the] artist."84 Other like-minded viewers seem to have been similarly drawn to Quidor's painting as a vernacular production of visual humor.85
If Quidor aimed Rip Van Winkle at viewers familiar with the jokes and malapropisms of democratic humor, he also seems to have targeted more genteel audiences. The painter exhibited his work at the National Academy in 1829, where it won guarded praise from the critics of the respectable press.86 Echoing these accounts, William Dunlap later commended Rip Van Winkle as a work of "no ordinary merit," an assessment that simultaneously emphasized the work's achievement and idiosyncrasy.87 As we have seen, Rip Van Winkle diverged from the painterly mainstream in myriad ways. By exploring this uniquely disruptive vision through the framework of Washington Irving's wildly popular story, carefully keying his painting to the details of that story, and extending the comic subversions of the original text, Quidor arrived at a scene that allowed the period viewer to engage or ignore its provocative implications. Legible as a faithful painterly translation of a favorite national tale or a pictorial articulation of coarse Jacksonian humor, Rip Van Winkle offered diverse audiences a safely fleeting glimpse at the alarming apparition of disorderly democracy.
Though driven by very different political outlooks and pursuing divergent symbolic goals, Thomas Cole and John Quidor shared an uncommon interest in exploring the creative possibilities of Jacksonian turmoil. Cole, an academic artist concerned with augmenting his professional standing, composed a dramatic scene that explored the artist's private fixations on bloody unrest and answered the politicized demands voiced by his sophisticated audiences. Quidor, an artist situated on the margins of the respectable art world, shaped an irreverent picture of rowdy street democracy that spoofed mainstream political and aesthetic beliefs. Working through the mediating frameworks of historical allegory, prophetic rhetoric, and popular fiction, these paintings gave unusual expression to the alternative circuits of political feeling-attraction to disorderly spectacle, pleasure in the absurdities of chaos-that flowed underneath the official pronouncements of the Jacksonian political sphere.