THE ART OF THOMAS HICKS AND CELEBRITY CULUTRE IN MID-NINETEENTH-CENTURY NEW YORK
Robertson, Letha Clair
University of Kansas
History of Art
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During the antebellum period, American audiences became fascinated, even obsessed, with celebrity. While celebrity was traditionally associated with fame and its classical ideals of virtue and honor, by the mid-nineteenth century these definitions began to shift as American audiences became enchanted by public personalities. The development of the mass media and the growth of the public relations industry fostered this new fascination. The invention of photography, and especially the inexpensive carte-de-visite, encouraged this interest as for the first time it allowed audiences to collect celebrity portraits cheaply. This posed a challenge for traditional portrait painters who wished to remain competitive in the new market of the celebrity image. This dissertation considers how mass media, photography, and celebrity culture affected traditional portraitists as exemplified through the career of Thomas Hicks (1816-90). Primarily active in New York City, Hicks integrated himself into artistic, political, and literary circles to acquire commissions. My exploration of Hicks's portraits provides insight into the ways in which Americans understood and fostered changing notions of fame and celebrity at mid-century. I argue that these portraits served as calculated constructions to promote and sell both the artist and his celebrated subjects. Chapter One introduces historical and theoretical concepts of fame and celebrity. Chapter Two examines Hicks's early training and how he used the popular press to establish his reputation. Chapter Three explores the dual functions of Hicks's political portraits at mid-century, specifically those of New York governor Hamilton Fish and presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln. Chapter Four investigates literary celebrity, nationalism, and gender constructs as represented by Hicks's Authors of the United States (1860). Chapter Five examines Hicks's multiple portraits of Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane within the context of America's new fascination with the Arctic regions; the creation of an American hero at a time of national distress; and the ways in which a celebrity image could be manufactured and manipulated in the popular press. Chapter Six discusses Hicks's multiple portraits of actor Edwin Booth in the role of Othello's Iago; the use of the paintings as advertisements; and the reciprocal nature of the actor-artist relationship. To conclude, I consider Hicks's critical reception and how he fell victim to the fickle nature of fame and was forgotten by the end of the century.
- Art History Dissertations and Theses 
- Dissertations 
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