Thesis Info

Thesis Title
Arresting Beauty: The Perfectionist Impulse of Peale's Butterflies, Heade's Hummingbirds, Blaschka's Flowers, and Sandow's Body
Ellery Foutch
2nd Author
3rd Author
Number of Pages
University of Pennsylvania
Thesis Supervisor
Michael Leja
Supervisor e-mail
mleja AT
Other Supervisor(s)
Language(s) of Thesis
Department / Discipline
History of Art
Languages Familiar to Author
English, German, French
URL where full thesis can be found
perfection, temporality, botanical models, photography, specimen boxes, plaster casts. Titian Peale, Martin Johnson Heade, Rudolf Blaschka, Eugen Sandow
Abstract: 200-500 words
The pursuit of perfection pervades nineteenth-century art and culture. Whereas prevailing views of the period posit a binary opposition of competing desires--an embrace of progress and new technologies, versus anti-modernist nostalgia--my work identifies and analyzes a previously unstudied phenomenon: the desire to stop time at a "perfect moment," pausing the cycle of growth, degeneration, and rebirth by isolating and arresting a perfect state, forestalling decay or death. Yet ironically, this very perfection and its suspension are incompatible with vitality, suffocating or eliminating organic life. Four case studies in diverse visual media illuminate this concept of arrested perfection and its ultimate impossibility: Titian Ramsay Peale's Lepidoptera illustrations and specimen boxes; Martin Johnson Heade's "Gems of Brazil" hummingbird paintings and chromolithographs; films, photographs, and sculptures (including life casts) of bodybuilder Eugen Sandow; and Harvard's collection of Glass Flowers crafted by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. Each of these projects betrays the desire to isolate and preserve a perfect state: butterflies forever suspended in glass cases, hummingbirds artificially arrested on canvas and in jewelry of the period, a bodybuilder transformed into a sculpture that won't age, and flowers that will never wilt or decay yet are also incapable of growth. In both conception and reception, these projects pursued notions of perfectibility and engaged wide-ranging contemporary discourses--including evolution, theology and spirituality, bodily decline, eugenics, and theories of the cyclical nature of history and civilizations, from the allegorical trope of the Course of Empire to J.J. Winckelmann's articulation of cycles of artistic production. These works are cross-sections of a perfect moment captured in a culture that was made increasingly aware of temporality by the introduction of standardized time, train schedules, alarm clocks, the demands of factory schedules, and the rage for instantaneous photography and the emerging medium of film.