Republic of Taste: Art, Politics, and Everyday Life in Early America by Catherine E. Kelly

Elizabeth Pochoda

Elizabeth Pochoda Books

William Hamilton, 1745–1813, and His Neice Mrs. Lyle by Benjamin West. Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Republic of Taste: Art, Politics, and Everyday Life in Early America by Catherine E. Kelly (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) 296 pp., color and b/w illus.

I am not qualified to review this book. That privilege belongs to professional historians versed in the field of early American cultural studies.

What I am qualified to do is to say something about the light Catherine Kelly’s study sheds on the project of this magazine, which began in the 1920s, I now realize, as a kind of rescue mission for what she calls the “republic of taste.” How much light? Quite a lot as it turns out.

But before I get to that, let me enter the remarks of two scholars who can put Kelly’s book in its proper context. First, David Shields, a wide-ranging historian of early and contemporary American material culture, summarizes Republic of Taste as an exploration of “the cultivation of taste in the United States from 1776 to 1825…a cultural history of the institutions of taste (academies, museums, instruction books, and exhibitions), a material history of visual production and reproduction, a political history of taste as a transatlantic marker of civility and humanity.”

In addition to supplying an account of various tastemakers, Kelly’s book, Shield reports, “explores how tastemakers enabled the republic to fulfill certain of its promises concerning the pursuit of happiness and the creation of a national community whose sensus communis was more than shared commercial interest.”

Mary Kelley, another eminent historian whose work on women’s history has lit up heretofore unexplored aspects of our cultural past, describes the book as “an expansive perspective on American history,” pointing to the way in which objects, images, and texts from the period are illuminated as part of the project of  “teaching the embodiment of taste.” We have forgotten that once upon a time people took in words, images, and things in one uninterrupted gaze. This Kelley is alive to the other Kelly’s keen sense of the roles that commerce, status, and gentility played in “binding the elites of the republic by taste.”

Hang on to that last phrase as you consider the book. Artists and writers in eighteenth-century America, eager to craft a democratic culture distinct from that of Europe, but nonetheless notable for its refinement, elevated the idea of “taste” as an index of character and national virtue. This was not a populist project, but it reached into everyday life through the efforts of the people Catherine Kelly calls “aesthetic entrepreneurs,” who painted portraits, disseminated prints, opened museums, and produced banners and memorabilia to draw the multitudes into a patriotic festival of right-minded taste.

Portrait of Yarrow Mamout (Muhammad Yaro) by Charles Willson Peale, 1819. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

There was a kind of patriotism of commerce alive in the land that was meant to civilize all—provided that all could be made to observe the appropriate signifiers of taste. There are chapters here on figures familiar to readers of this magazine, especially the portrait miniaturists Mary Way, her sister Betsey Way Champlain, and Betsey Way’s daughter Eliza Way Champlain—and of course the master of the genre, Edward Greene Malbone. What Kelly has added to our understanding is a keen analysis of how and why the portrait miniature was so well suited to fusing “gentility, sensibility, and whiteness.” By way of necessary contrast there are also discussions of the representations of race in the work of Charles Willson Peale and Anthony Meucci.

One surprising chapter describes the ascendance of taste in the Loyalist William Hamilton’s opulent Philadelphia estate. Museums and their popular waxworks figure into the discussion, as does Lafayette’s return to the United States in 1824, occasioning a thirteen-month orgy of portraits, ribbons, gloves, hatbands, medallions, ceramics, and sheet music uniting commerce and patriotic pride in a long festival of republican virtue tied to the main chance. Ah, America!

Mrs. Richard Sullivan (Sarah Russell) by Edward Greene Malbone, 1804. Yale University Art Gallery.

But what is it about Kelly’s book that intrigues me so with respect to this magazine? By the 1920s, when Antiques was founded, the republic of taste had lost ground. Immigration and what Greil Marcus has called the “invisible republic” of culture that bubbled up from the folk had eroded the consensus of a visible sense of American virtue owned by an elite that could enforce its taste right down the social ladder. Then, too, there was in that busy decade the arrival of mass culture in radio, film, and music.

And yet, as it happens, there was another fortuitous arrival: one set of immigrants, most of them Jews, had identified the decorative arts of the early republic, especial ly our Hadley chests, highboys, and tea tables, as unsung emblems of aesthetic greatness. They were right, of course…but they were Jews.

It was the project of this magazine, along with the market created by those Jewish dealers in great things produced in the infancy of early America, to push back against the cultural tide, propping up the hallowed republic of taste.

Kelly does not discuss furniture or the other decorative arts, but the connections are obvious. We are, it seems, always looking back at that idealized sense of our virtuous founding—the perfect, tasteful past notwithstanding its uncomfortable truths. Certainly the election of 1800 rivals our present one for vitriol, and yet the art produced in the republic of taste was designed to help us overlook that. It was and is spirited and consoling. But it is also confusing.

Mrs. Pierre Toussaint (Juliette Toussaint) by Anthony Meucci, c. 1825. New-York Historical Society.

Pierre Toussaint by Anthony Meucci, c. 1825. New-York Historical Society.

I have long wanted cultural historians like Kelly to come together with curators and scholars in the field of early American decorative arts and painting. Just now, one of the most important exhibitions of the year, Alexandra Kirtley’s Classical Splendor: Painted Furniture for a Grand Philadelphia House at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (featured in our March/April issue), raises many questions and suggests some surprises about the republic of taste that should engage a cultural historian like Kelly. Patricia Kane’s exhaustive research into the furniture of early Rhode Island, culminating in the splendid exhibition currently at the Yale University Art Gallery, cries out for a dialogue with people in Kelly’s field who would in turn learn much from Kane and her colleagues.

If this magazine began as a kind of rescue mission, as I have suggested, its future may lie in joining curatorial studies, exhibitions, and so forth to the work of cultural historians.