Picturing Prehistory in American Art and Visual Culture – TERRA Seminar

Publié le 16 septembre 2021

16 septembre 2021 - 17 h 30 min - 19 h 30 min

  • Terra Foundation for American Art Center,  
  • Conference Room, 121 rue de Lille, 75007 Paris
  • Thursday 5.30 – 7.30 pm


Atlantis, pre-Columbian “Mound Builders,” cave men locked in combat with T. Rex; visions of ancient, ruined, or “lost” worlds on a spectrum between fact and fantasy have long fascinated American artists and producers of visual culture. From the moment of contact between indigenous Americans and people from what became the “Old World,” the Americas posed a problem for established stories about the deep past. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, developments in both the sciences and popular culture accelerated a process in which various “old” and “lost” worlds were invented to make sense of and imagine the new. These worlds might be at the bottom of the ocean, buried underground, or lost in jungles, but they could be brought back via the image.

In this course, we will ask how U.S. artists and image-makers from the eighteenth century to the present have depicted prehistory, and to what ends. Probing the relationships between production, circulation, and reception, as well as between image, media, and form, we will consider artists such as Thomas Cole, Charles R. Knight, Walker Evans, Archibald Motley Jr., Louise Janin, Hilaire Hiler, Robert Smithson, and Stephen Spielberg, among others. By the seminar’s end, we will have a deeper understanding of how U.S. visualizations of prehistory have contributed to new concepts of culture, time, and space.

Abbreviated Bibliography:

  • Buck-Morss, Susan. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1989.
  • Miller, Angela. “‘The Soil of an Unknown America’: New World Lost Empires and the Debate over Cultural Origins.” American Art, Summer-Autumn, 1994, Vol. 8, No. ¾.
  • Mitchell, W.J.T. The Last Dinosaur Book: The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Mooney, Amy M. “Representing Race: Disjunctures in the Work of Archibald J. Motley, Jr.” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 24, No. 2, 1999.
  • Orvell, Miles. Empire of Ruins: American Culture, Photography, and the Spectacle of Destruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021.
  • Pillsbury, Joanne. Past Presented: Archaeological Illustration and the Ancient Americas. Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2012.
  • Truettner, William H. and Allan Wallach, eds. Thomas Cole: Landscape into History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Enseignant : Jonathan Dentler

contact : dentler[at]usc.edu