Interdisciplinary research opens new pathways between science and art
by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson
January 26, 2011
In this 2008 photo, Elizabeth Lee, associate professor of art & art history (second from right), helps students design a program. Lee hopes to bring what she’s learning on sabbatical into the classroom next year.
America’s obsession with health and fitness trends often is described as a late-20th-century, mass-media induced phenomenon. And as many of us struggle to keep health-related resolutions this month, Assistant Professor of Art & Art History Elizabeth Lee can offer some insights into this movement’s origins in American history. Bridging the sciences and arts, Lee examines the ways in which health, fitness, therapeutic culture and illness permeated the lives and works of artists in the late-19th century.
A dizzying array
Lee recently unearthed a great deal of source material when she took advantage of a coveted research opportunity for scholars in her field.
As one of only 16 Smithsonian American Art Museum fellows last fall, Lee enjoyed direct access to an 180,000-volume library that specializes in American art, history and biography; the Archives of American Art; graphics collections representing the works of 7,000 American artists; and works in the Library of Congress. Lee also attended the Smithsonian’s many internal educational programs. At the end of her stay, she shared her work with the Smithsonian scholarly community.
“It’s a dizzying array of resources,” says Lee, who received the fellowship on her third application to the institution. “There weren’t enough hours in the day to do all I wanted to do.”
As Lee explains, the turn-of-the-century health frenzy was understandable. Newly emerging subway systems and Industrial Revolution-era tenements—often housing several generations in one room—were ideal disease-outbreak hatcheries. Ignorance of preventive measures such as handwashing increased the risk of infection.
“People understood that they couldn’t use their senses to detect [germs]. But they didn’t know yet how to avoid spreading them, so there was a lot of concern and paranoia,” says Lee. “People concluded that germs and disease were everywhere.”
Gradually, new scientific discoveries emerged, but it would be years before modern policies and practices were put into place. Fears of disease outbreaks were intense, as emblematized in the 26-year-long quarantine of household cook and typhoid carrier Mary Mallon, who came to be known widely as Typhoid Mary.
Set against this backdrop of anxiety, Americans sought out strategies for healthy living. Fresh air was a popular cure-all, and people flocked to the great outdoors to escape the “miasma” of noxious city air. Many artists summered in bucolic artist colonies while the public grew fixated on diet, digestion and daily exercise regimes.
Living in an era saturated with health consciousness, artists and writers began to depict new subjects in new ways, says Lee. Familiar themes emerged: sanitarium and artist-colony life; illness in various stages; deathbeds that often featured angelic, otherworldly children; and idealized, outdoorsy scenes.
Bringing it back
Lee’s research concentrates on a handful of artists whose work touches on these cultural and health-science-infused themes. She says she looks forward to bringing the connections she’s making between science and the arts into the Dickinson classroom when she returns from her sabbatical.
“Because this is a topic that is new to my field, I’m laying out a framework and thinking about different areas of the art world that were informed by disease and illness during this era,” she explains. “It was an interesting time.”