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Painting Dissent: The American Pre-Raphaelite Experiment

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This is a live online event hosted by The Courtauld Research Forum on behalf of the Centre for American Art

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Painting Dissent: The American Pre-Raphaelite Experiment

The American Pre-Raphaelites launched the earliest reform movement in the history of American art. Founded in 1863, in the midst of the American Civil War, the movement comprised politically radical, abolitionist artists, joined by like-minded architects, critics, and scientists. In the decade that followed, the American Pre-Raphaelites executed paintings, designed buildings, and published criticism that married principles of social equity, civic engagement, and beauty. Such work, they believed, could foster lasting cultural and political reform.

This lecture explores how the American Pre-Raphaelites dismantled national traditions of painting, embracing models of landscape theory and artistic praxis drawn from across the Atlantic. In contrast to their more prominent colleagues, the artists now known as the “Hudson River School,” the American Pre-Raphaelites established themselves as eloquent critics of slavery and antebellum American society.

Dr. Sophie Lynford is the Rousseau Curatorial Fellow in European Art at the Harvard Art Museums. She specializes in American and British art of the nineteenth century, with a focus on transregional exchange within the Atlantic World. Her current book project, Egalitarian Optics: Art, Ethics, and the American Pre-Raphaelites, examines the Pre-Raphaelite movement in the United States, its interdisciplinary priorities, and its passionate commitment to abolition and radical reform. Prior to joining the Harvard Art Museums, she was the Douglass Foundation Fellow in American Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and worked in the curatorial departments of the New-York Historical Society and the Yale Center for British Art. She was co-curator of the 2018 exhibition, Picturesque and Sublime: Thomas Cole’s Trans-Atlantic Inheritance at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, and co-author of the accompanying publication. She received her doctorate in art history from Yale University.

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