A.W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellows

Ellery Foutch

Department of Art History

In keeping with the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship’s 2011-2012 theme of “Life,” Foutch’s research focuses on nineteenth-century interests in perfection and its preservation. A “perfectionist impulse” rippled throughout American culture in this period, encouraged by the possibilities of progress yet keenly aware of the dangers of degeneration and decay. Whereas prevailing views of the nineteenth century posit a binary opposition of competing desires—an embrace of progress and new technologies, versus anti-modernist nostalgia—Foutch’s work identifies and analyzes a previously unstudied phenomenon: the desire to stop time at a “perfect moment,” pausing the cycle of growth, degeneration, and rebirth by isolating and arresting this perfect state, forestalling decay or death. Yet ironically, this very perfection and its suspension are incompatible with vitality, suffocating or eliminating organic life.

Four case studies in diverse visual media illuminate this concept of arrested perfection and its ultimate impossibility: Titian Peale’s butterfly works, Martin Johnson Heade’s paintings of hummingbirds, representations of bodybuilder Eugen Sandow, and the Blaschka Glass Flowers at Harvard. In both conception and reception, these works pursued notions of perfectibility and engaged wide-ranging contemporary discourses, including evolution, theology, bodily decline, eugenics, and the allegorical trope of the Course of Empire. These projects reveal an awareness of the fragility of life and nature and a concomitant desire to preserve a “perfect state,” resulting in a transformation of nature into art. Foutch is also looking forward to embarking upon a new research project investigating bodybuilder Eugen Sandow’s 1896 invention of a portable entertainment device for individual use (by means of a magic lantern ‘backpack’ to be worn on the spectator’s shoulders), a device that troubles our concepts of image consumption and the embodied spectator at the turn-of-the-century and engages with issues of modernity, mobility, and consumption.

Ellery Foutch comes to Madison from the University of Pennsylvania, where she recently completed her PhD in the History of Art, specializing in American art. At Penn, her research was supported by fellowships from the ACLS/Mellon Foundation, the Wyeth Foundation and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Terra Foundation for American Art, and the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science (PACHS). Foutch earned her MA from the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art and her BA from Wellesley College. She has also contributed to exhibitions and educational programs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Williams College Museum of Art, Reynolda House Museum of American Art, and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.


Fall 2011: The Art of Natural History

Spring 2012: Gimme Shelter: Domestic Art and Entertainment in the American Middle-Class Home, 1850-1950

Fall 2012: Dimensions of Material Culture