by Kimberly Orcutt. Penn State University Press, December 2017. 264p. ill. ISBN 9780271078366 (h/c), $89.95.
Reviewed May 2018
In Power & Posterity: American Art at Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition, Kimberly Orcutt posits that the fine art exhibition of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition was not only the most important exhibition but also the most important cultural event in the history of the United States. Orcutt astutely argues that this exhibition was the first time Americans proclaimed their aesthetic preferences to the world. This argument is organized through examinations of the civic and stylistic rivalries of the artist-planners, the response to the exhibition, international expectations, and a rival exhibition. Orcutt’s method of thoughtful research is evident in the variety of primary sources consulted, including periodicals, journals, illustrated cartoons, and imagery. The book includes a thorough index as well as a comprehensive bibliography. An appendix lists the Centennial Exhibition Committees and Awards.
There is an ample amount of scholarship concerning the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, though Orcutt’s monograph is perhaps the only one specifically devoted to examining the American art exhibition. Certainly the intended audience is an academic one, though Orcutt’s writing style has a narrative flow permitting a broader spectrum of readers. Thus, the book itself is a welcome addition to any collection, due in part to the accessibility of its contents and also its physical construction. The book’s square shape is easy for readers to handle and also permits ample room for lovely, full color images such as historic gallery layouts and Centennial Exhibition building exteriors. This handsome book is printed on quality paper and the durable binding is sewn in signatures.
Understanding the logistics of the Centennial Exhibition is essential to any scholar of American art and also those interested in the history of exhibition planning. Many know Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic, which was excluded from the arts exhibition and shown in a medical display at the Centennial Exhibition; however, many may not know of H. H. Moore's Almeh, considered to be one of the best figural depictions of the era. The most controversial work exhibited was Peter F. Rothermel’s The Battle of Gettysburg-Pickett’s Charge, despite an official ban on subjects pertaining to the Civil War. Orcutt does not ignore international contributions to the exhibition. As the author ruefully notes, many of the international contributors were dealers with low opinions of American taste. Orcutt successfully argues that the who, the how, and the why of an exhibition are just as important —perhaps more so— than the contents. Indeed, this is where an exhibition’s power and posterity lies.