History of Art
University of Pennsylvania
2009 to 2010
Dissertation Research Fellow
Arresting Beauty: The Perfectionist Impulse in Peale's Butterflies, Heade's Hummingbirds, Blaschka's Flowers, and Sandow's Body
Abstract. This dissertation examines the 19th-century interest in perfection, focusing on works that betray a desire to stop time and to pause the cycle of growth, decay, and rebirth at a ‘perfect moment’: Titian Peale’s butterfly illustrations and specimen boxes, M. J. Heade’s hummingbird projects, the Blaschka Glass Flowers at Harvard, and photographs and life casts of bodybuilder Eugen Sandow. In both conception and reception, these works pursue notions of perfectibility and engage wide-ranging contemporary discourses—including evolution, theology and spirituality, neurasthenia, bodily decline, eugenics, and the allegorical trope of the Course of Empire. Examining the cultural contexts of these works illuminates related issues that tie these diverse projects together: an awareness of the fragility of life and nature, a concomitant desire to preserve them in a ‘perfect state,’ the impulse to transform nature into art, and an interest in didacticism, spirituality, and human design in the face of cultural turmoil.