Christine Stansell

Christine Stansell’s latest book is American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century. She is a professor of history at Princeton.

Feast of Darks: Whistler

Christine Stansell, 23 October 2003

The most notorious American painter of the late 19th century, a dandy who used his gift for showmanship and his Paris education to make himself the prototype Victorian aesthete, James McNeill Whistler had started out as a dutiful son, following his father to West Point before turning his back on the Army to pursue the artist’s life in Paris. He arrived there in 1855, at the height of...

As the ‘woman question’ surged through Europe and America in the 19th century and pressed on politics, education and the law, it also washed through cultural sensibilities. Controversies over woman’s proper place and men’s entitlements precipitated new forms of longing and passion, discomfort and fear. While the most sustained literary register of this change came from Britain, and the most forthright social and political manifestations were seen in Britain, Germany and the United States, the great painterly response occurred in France. In Paris, from the 1850s on, artistic radicals made female figures – and especially the female nude – emblems of their revolt against tradition. In the painting of modern life, women were everywhere, loaded with meaning, fascination, beauty, seduction and repulsion; signifiers at once of modernity and of the world that modernity sought to undo.’‘

The Strangely Inspired Hermit of Andover

Christine Stansell, 5 June 1997

Like many people who came to New York City in the high-flying years of the early 20th century, Kenneth Burke approached the city as a work of art. ‘I cannot express it, it is too sweeping,’ he rhapsodised to a friend, exiled at Harvard, shortly after his arrival from Pittsburgh in 1917. He marvelled at the skies: ‘Oh, oh! if I ever can express those things with words.’ Such pleasure had only recently become available. Twenty, even ten years earlier, the city still appeared both to residents and tourists a grubby, dingy place, the towering verticals and endless horizontals of the grid plan emblems of a new age cross-hatched with ugliness and foreboding.

What are you looking at?

Christine Stansell, 3 October 1996

New York in the late 19th-century never registered on anyone’s mind as a rival to London or Paris. But in the first two decades of the new century, it established itself as a pre-eminent metropolis for Europeans as well as Americans, an emblem of onrushing modernity which, for some, surpassed even Paris. ‘More than any other city in the world it is the fullest expression of our modern age,’ contended the cosmopolitan exile Leon Trotsky, who bided his time there for a few months in 1917. New York City had become a subject in its own right – newsworthy, sensational, visually entrancing.’

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