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Study from nature : women, mobility, and the politics of urban vision in Harper’s Weekly, January 1860 Steinmann, Catherine A.

Abstract

Nestled among the classified ads on the back page of the January 21, 1860, issue of Harper's Weekly is a cartoon that marks a moment of anxiety in the public life of the New York middle class on the eve of the Civil War. Set in the increasingly illegible streets of the rapidly changing city, this fragmented lithograph represents, in two frames, four women—two white, one black, one unidentifiable—walking on a pavement during and after the passing of an omnibus. Harper's published the image, titled Study from Nature, in a moment when issues of citizenship, civic capacity, and national belonging were rapidly coming to the forefront of public consciousness, especially in New York, which was a nexus for feminist, abolitionist, and black manhood suffrage movements. The pages Study from Nature sits among are spatially analogous to the physical environment of the street. Similarly, the image mimics the spatial experience of a viewer standing in that street, at once describing and formally manifesting the visual change that was at the core of riew challenges to urban legibility. In this respect, the image serves both as a guide for the viewer and as a visual puzzle that re-presented to that viewer many of the changes in vision that inhabitants of the city were experiencing—changes that occurred alongside the rise of industrial commercialism, increasing urban density, and developments in fashion, architecture, and systems of urban transport. I argue that Study from Nature participated in a set of regulatory discourses that produced and responded to concerns over the visual metamorphosis of free black and bourgeois white women, their increasing freedom to move about in metropolitan space, and their mounting resistance to ideologies that denied them subjective personhood. Emphasizing civility and sartorial self-discipline, Study from Nature attempted to order the intractable bodies circulating within it, creating a comic, admonitory fantasy of fear and subjugation. Through satire, the cartoon imposed punishment for acts that transgressed performative standards of race and gender, thereby depoliticizing social relations and deflecting the conflicts and inequities of New York society onto the individual inhabitants of the street.

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