John Ames Mitchell: Humor and American Identity

This fall, students in ART 3663: History of American Art had the opportunity to visit the OSU Museum of Art’s study room in order to get a close look at works from the permanent collection. In small groups, they selected a single object to study together for an hour, and then they wrote individual papers based on the ideas generated in the group. In this post, student Audrey Gleason writes about the 1881 etching, A Young Republican, by the artist and entrepreneur John Ames Mitchell.

The 1881 etching by John Ames Mitchell, titled A Young Republican, reflects a more humorous depiction of America than traditional idealistic images. It satirizes the Victorian values of contemporary America while incorporating popular medievalism of the nineteenth century.

John Ames Mitchell (American, 1845-1918), "A Young Republican," 1881. Etching, gift of Oklahoma City Art Museum/Fairgrounds, 98-0004.

John Ames Mitchell (American, 1845-1918), “A Young Republican,” 1881. Etching, gift of Oklahoma City Art Museum/Fairgrounds, 98-0004.

There are two characters in the etching who represent America and Europe respectively. The boy in the etching, who represents America, is positioned with body language such that he is read as lazy. His legs are casually crossed and he is seated on the armrest of the chair. The expression on his face is very neutral, even apathetic. The king figure, who represents Europe, is rather fat and dressed very fancily. He has a plate in front of him with meat, suggesting that he just ate a very rich meal. Of course, the largely monarchical Europe is symbolized by the king’s crown, not to mention the elaborate castle setting. But the symbolism goes deeper than this. The boy’s lazy and apathetic body language contradicts the American dream that hard work can make any person successful. Victorian values at the time “taught people to work hard, to postpone gratification, to repress themselves sexually, to ‘improve’ themselves, to be sober, conscientious, even compulsive” (Howe 521). Clearly, the boy in the etching is rejecting those teachings. Mitchell relies on this contradiction as the heart of his humor. According to his obituary, he was known to like other people and enjoy their company, so we know this image is supposed to be read as funny rather than bitter. He is not necessarily upset that Americans can be really lazy, but instead finds it humorous.

Further symbolism can be discussed in the purposeful selection of a child to represent America. For one thing, America was literally much younger than the rest of Europe, which is one explanation for why the former was depicted as a boy and the latter as a man. For another, this was an era when scientific knowledge was just starting to emphasize “children’s biological and psychological vulnerability” (Perera 1862). Children were therefore finally being treated differently than adults, both in real life and in artwork. More specifically to Mitchell, “life was like a child to him” (Miller 88). If America is represented by the child and the child is like life, that would suggest America also represents life. Similar to a child, America has often been portrayed as a land of opportunity, if not vulnerable then impressionable, or a place to start new. However, the boy in this etching is shown as lazy, without much vitality. Again, in this contradiction lies the humor of the piece.

Life magazine, which Mitchell founded in 1883, was a “sophisticated and humorous response to the Victorian values of the late nineteenth century” (“About John Ames Mitchell”). America was at that time very interested in the medieval, especially in romanticizing it. In fact medieval literature as we think of it today came from the nineteenth century, when “medieval writings were systematically collected, mapped, and edited” (Scanlon 716). This rediscovery of information about the medieval period is reflected in the subject of the etching and the location. The medieval aspects relate to American Victorianism in that “nineteenth-century America’s ideas about the Middle Ages…were so flexible that the period functioned as a mirror” (Fleming 1084). In other words, America found identity in medieval culture through combining it with contemporary Victorian culture. This mirror effect is also seen in the etching in the relationship between the boy and the king. In theory they are very different, but in fact the way they are depicted as just lounging about a decadent castle very lazily, causes them to end up being more similar than you would think.

Etchings themselves were considered important methods of communication. Nineteenth-century libraries became dedicated to collecting “every imaginable pictorial medium ranging from paintings to lithographs, engravings, etchings, photographs, and larger runs of photomechanical reproductions…in new professional periodicals” (Brodherson 3). This tells us that good etchings were successful in communicating messages to the public, and were in fact so successful that others felt it was necessary to document them for the long term. A humorous etching like Mitchell’s could be compared to a comic in The New Yorker magazine today. A Young Republican was published in American Art Review by editor Sylvester Rosa Koehler, who “encouraged an American etching revival in the 1880s” (“Sylvester Rosa Koehler papers”). Even this aspect ties in with contemporary Victorian values, as “literature and the other arts were expected to benefit society by elevating or instructing their audience” (Howe 527). Indeed, Mitchell’s etching satirized American culture in order humorously to point out its flaws.

Contradictions such as the American dream versus laziness, shown in both the subject matter and symbolism of A Young Republican, make the etching a humorous depiction of the country. Romanticized medievalism and Victorian values also contribute to the satirical nature of the piece. Altogether, the image represents a less idealistic America than traditional American artwork; instead, Mitchell’s etching adds to those existing traditional images to expand the way people think about America, and provide a more complete picture of the country.

 

Works Cited

About John Ames Mitchell.” SFPL. San Francisco Public Library, n.d.

Brodherson, David. “Public Library Picture Collecting In Late Nineteenth-Century America.” Library & Information History 28.1 (2012): 3-25.

Fleming, Robin. “Picturesque History and the Medieval in Nineteenth-Century America.” The American Historical Review 100.4 (1995): 1061-094.

Howe, Daniel Walker. “American Victorianism as a Culture.” American Quarterly 27.5 (1975): 507-32.

Miller, A. “John Ames Mitchell.” Life 72.1864 (1918): 88.

Perera, Frederica. “SCIENCE As An Early Driver Of Policy: Child Labor Reform In The Early Progressive Era, 1870–1900.” American Journal Of Public Health 104.10 (2014): 1862-1871.

Scanlon, Larry. “Introduction.” American Literary History 22.4 (2010): 715-723.

Sylvester Rosa Koehler Papers, 1833-1904, Bulk, 1870-1890.” Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

 

Student writing is edited for length and clarity, but the content is not changed.

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About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
This entry was posted in permanent collection, student research, student writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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