Review Of "Art As Evidence: Writings On Art And Material Culture" By J. D. Prown

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In the decades during which art history made a swing from connoisseurship and stylistics to social contextualism, Prown always practiced both. He was a pioneer in the latter (he used computers in 1963-64 to analyze the social backgrounds of John Singleton Copley's portrait sitters); and yet he continues bravely to uphold the former in the new guise of object study. With a dual profession as museum curator and professor of art history at Yale, he is equally committed to examining objects archaeologically and reading them anthropologically as an index to culture. This volume brings together his 18 essays, mostly from the 1980s and 1990s. Six address the title theme, of which the first, "Style as Evidence," is the most articulate if elementary, while the rest tend to repeat the thesis. Twelve remaining essays analyze specific works by American painters, most of all Benjamin West, Copley, Charles Wilson Peale, and John Trumbull in the context of their English sojourn. Intended as case studies to support the author's methodological thesis, they are more informative as straight historical accounts. By and large the essays betray their origins in classroom teaching; they illuminate but do not inspire. One wishes that the theoretical construct the title promised were delivered; nevertheless, a useful undergraduate reading.


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