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Paradise Closed: Energy, inspiration and making art in Rome in the works of Harriet Hosmer, William Wetmore Story, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, Elizabeth Gaskell and Henry James, 1847-1903

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

This thesis examines the ways in which the artistic practice of key members the expatriate community in mid- to late nineteenth-century Rome related to contemporary ideas of energy and inspiration. William Wetmore Story, a central figure in the expatriate community, arrived in Rome in 1847. Between 1847 and 1859, the number of American artists living in Rome grew from four to 400; these American arrivals joined the British community of artists already established in the city. Rome, for all these expatriate artists, acted as a creative force field: it was experienced as a source of artistic energy, the conception of which was informed by contemporary scientific theories of energy and entropy viewed through the filter of the Romantic notion of Rome as a site that enabled ‘spontaneous creation’. William Wetmore Story, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Elizabeth Gaskell and Harriet Hosmer explored ways in which Roman artistic energy could be accessed and repurposed in their own work. This recycling of Roman artistic energy was an attempt to navigate the paradox of a city that was considered both ‘eternal’ and ruined. These artists formulated an idea of Roman artistic energy that could be separated from the art object and transferred between artworks that therefore acted as storage for that energy. Artists thus participated in the recycling of Rome’s artistic energy from old to new art, a practice that worked to counteract prevailing fears inspired both by the entropy of the city of Rome, and the entropy of universal energy, of which Rome’s ruins were evocative. The publication of Henry James’ group biography of the community, William Wetmore Story and His Friends, in 1903 provides the end date for this study. In the biography, James identified Rome as a ‘Paradise Closed’: a city that simultaneously figured as a closed system in which energy could be endlessly recycled, and one that was out of reach, no longer accessible.
This thesis engages with critical debate in thing theory about the psychological and narrative elements of things, and relates this debate to the way developments in physics and ideas regarding the circulation and preservation of energy permeated nineteenth-century thinking about art and time. It also seeks to complicate a view of ‘transatlantic’ literature in the mid- to late nineteenth century by presenting Rome as a triangulating point of encounter between British and American artists and writers that produced its own distinctive art. Rome’s mobile, transferrable artistic energy bridged the divide between old and new things, between living and dead artists in Rome, between the members of its nineteenth-century expatriate community, and between the old and new worlds of Europe and America.
Original languageEnglish
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Award date2018

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