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'The Vagabond as an Aesthetic Wanderer' - Professor Emily Burns

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This is an online event hosted by The Courtauld Research Forum for the Centre for American Art

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The Vagabond as an Aesthetic Wanderer: Thomas Meteyard’s Aesthetic Peregrinations, c. 1890

The US painter Thomas Meteyard’s peripatetic art practice in France, England, the United States, and Switzerland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries rendered him little known today. That he preferred small sketchbooks he could stow away in his pocket made many of his contemporaries question whether he made art on his wanderings at all. His preference for small scale and watercolour on paper limited the marketability of his work compared with other artists painting in oil and on a larger scale, but it was central to his practice.

This talk argues that Meteyard co-opted the concept of the vagabond—a wandering traveller constantly out on the open road or open riverway on a canoe flowing with the current—as a metaphor for his oscillation between stylistic approaches. In 1894, when a critic described him as an impressionist, the artist retorted, “What is impressionism in art.” The reviewer complained that it was “as if the term conveyed no significance to his intelligence.” Meteyard preferred the concept of vagabondage as a signifier of his individual stylistic experimentation, flexibly exploring both grounded impressionist plein-air painting as well as more mood-driven symbolist experience. Using writings by the cultural geographer Tim Cresswell, who has analysed the vagabond and migrant in circulation studies, the talk contextualizes Meteyard’s self-conscious vagabondage as an example of how mobility studies might be brought to bear on re-framing fin-de-siècle transnational and aesthetic circulation.

Emily Burns is an art historian focusing on the circulation of artists and objects in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her research asks how circulation is framed within the materiality of objects, and how meanings change through transit and exhibition practices. An Associate Professor of Art History at Auburn University, she is this year’s Terra Foundation for American Art Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford, where she is completing a book manuscript, Performing Innocence: Cultural Belatedness and US Art in fin-de-siècle Paris. She is author of Transnational Frontiers: the American West in France, co-editor of the forthcoming Mapping Impressionist Painting in Transnational Contexts, and articles on transnational exchange in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, focused on Franco-US art exchange, American impressionism, and Lakota arts.  

Image: Thomas Buford Meteyard, Frontispiece for More Songs from Vagabondia, 1896, woodcut, poem by Richard Hovey, printed by Copeland and Day.

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