CHF 2009: Laughter

Jennifer Greenhill: Humor in Postbellum American Art

Terra Foundation Lecture in American Art

Recorded on November 14, 2009.

The market for humor expanded rapidly in the United States in the years following the Civil War. By the 1890s, this taste for comedy had erupted into a “plague of jocularity,” as one writer put it, and prompted art critics to try to contain it in the realm of so-called high art. But why was humor so threatening? What kinds of humor were out of bounds and for whom? Jennifer Greenhill, who teaches the history of American art at the University of Illinois, College of Fine and Applied Arts, discusses the artists who walked the line between levity and gravity. Through techniques adopted from the platform comedians of the day—such as Mark Twain and Artemus Ward—these visual humorists struck the funny bone by playing it straight.

This annual lecture recognizes a generous multiyear grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art. The Terra Foundation is dedicated to fostering the exploration, understanding, and enjoyment of the visual arts in the United States for national and international audiences.

Pictured above, painting Enoch Wood Perry (Talking It Over) 1872.

Teachers' Guide

The Chicago Humanities Festival has prepared a teachers' guide for this program. Download the Jennifer Greenhill Study Guide now!

Speakers and Performers

Jennifer Greenhill

Jennifer Greenhill teaches art history at The School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She specializes in nineteenth-century American visual and material culture. Greenhill is currently at work on a study of American visual humor and the culture of art in the United States after the Civil War and a co-edited collection of dialogues between leading scholars of American art on the subject of interpretive practice.

CHF Suggests      Related links and resources for further study

Leaders And Thinkers

Jennifer Greenhill
Art Historian
Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain)
Essayist and novelist
Charles Farrar Browne (Artemus Ward)
Humorist

Good Reads

Only Pictures?
Artists Art Spiegelman and Joe Sacco on the controversial Dutch cartoons
Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury
More visual art treading the wavering line between laughter and (according to some) insensitivity
Works by Mark Twain
Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and others

Online Resources

Audio: Artemus Ward
Scripts from the California Legacy Project's Radio Anthology
Gallery: Winslow Homer
Subject of Greenhill's research
Gallery: The David Claypoole Johnston Collection
As written about by Greenhill