Art history reminds us that we have experienced deep, necessary shifts in nation and global consciousness before, often resulting in new ways of thinking and living. This installation re-frames the collection of 18th and 19th century European and American artwork in the Speed’s permanent collection through the lens of social, cultural, economic, and political upheaval and change.
It was a century marked by the horrors of colonial expansion and the devastation wrought by smallpox epidemics and the transatlantic slave trade. Unwieldy political structures in England and France collapsed, and the resulting turmoil, strife, and civil unrest found further expression through the French and American Revolutions, the Napoleonic Wars, and the War of 1812. Economically, modern laissez-faire capitalism and the focus on the individual also found root in American during the early Federal era (1788 – 1800), coinciding with the writing of the United States Constitution.
Many of the positive values that permeate Western society today—democracy, modern scientific methods, belief in the importance of education, and the centrality of the family—were championed during this time period, now known as the Age of Enlightenment. Enlightenment proponents believed that knowledge could overcome ignorance and blind adherence to outmoded ideas, thus leading to programs. However, 250 years later, it is important to acknowledge the paradox of Enlightenment thinking and its influence on the modern world. That these radical ideas of freedom and individual rights also found their roots in nations that built wealth through colonial domination, extermination of native populations, and human bondage is a terrible paradox that has shaped our modern society. Contextualizing our shared history through artwork can help us see where we’ve been, and where we need to go.