The Terra Lectures in American Art: Performing Innocence: Baby Nation

terra lecture

Professor Emily C. Burns, Terra Foundation Visiting Professor in American Art

Hosted by TORCH

Content Warning: This talk will include references to historic racist language and imagery. Viewer discretion is advised.



Performing Innocence: Baby Nation

The Terra Lectures in American Art: Performing Innocence: US Artists in Paris, 1865-1914


Moderator: Professor Alastair Wright, Associate Professor in the History of Art,  St John's College

Between the end of the US Civil War and the start of World War I, thousands of American artists studied and worked in Paris. While popular thought holds that they went to imbibe culture and attain artistic maturity, in this four-part lecture series, Professor Emily Burns explores the various ways that Americans in Paris performed instead a cultural immaturity that pandered to European expectations that the United States lacked history, tradition, and culture. The lectures chart knowing constructions of innocence that US artists and writers projected abroad in both art practice and social performance, linking them to ongoing conversations about race, gender, art making, modernity, physio-psychological experience, evolutionary theory, and national identity in France and in the United States. Interwoven myths in art and social practice that framed Puritanism; an ironically long-standing penchant for anything new and original; primitivism designed by white artists’ playing with ideas of Blackness and Indigeneity; childhood’s incisive perception; and originary sight operated in tandem to turn a liability of lacking culture into an asset. In analyzing the mechanisms of these constructions, the lectures return to the question about the cultural work these ideas enacted when performed abroad. What is obscured and repressed by mythical innocence and feigned forgetting?


Performing Innocence: Baby Nation


French artists often referred to US artists and art as their offspring. In the context of French declining birthrates, cultural fecundity absorbed the anxieties about a decline of French culture in the name of superiority. The final lecture analyzes how US artists in Paris took up the child as a motif and mantra that reinforced or rejected the narrative of French artistic parentage. While Edwin Blashfield and Henry Ossawa Tanner, both artists invested in the French academy system, framed dutiful tutelage, Mary Cassatt, Cecilia Beaux, and Ellen Emmet Rand instead probed burgeoning ideas in psychology about the child to frame independent and precocious children. These modern children modeled artistic independence echoed in these painters’ aesthetic experimentation, mirroring the conceit framed by Henry James’s depiction of his child character in What Maisie Knew as “flattening her nose upon the hard window-pane of the sweet-shop of knowledge.” Cartoons related to the War of 1898 suggest the fungible nature of this position; while playing youthful in the context of Europe, Americans adopted the aged Uncle Sam in rendering their colonized subjects as the children as they moved to outgrow their longstanding dependence on Parisian art practice.



image of professor emily c burns

Emily C. Burns is an Associate Professor of Art History at Auburn University where she teaches courses on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American, Native American, and European art history. Her publications include a book, Transnational Frontiers: the American West in France (University of Oklahoma Press, 2018), which analyzes appropriations of the American West in France in performance and visual and material culture in the tripartite international relationships between the United States, France, and the Lakota nation between 1867 and 1914, as well as journal articles, exhibition catalogue essays, and book chapters related to art and circulation, US artists in France, and American impressionism. She is currently completing a co-edited volume with Alice Price on global impressionisms entitled Mapping Impressionist Painting in Transnational Contexts (forthcoming from Routledge).

During her tenure as the Terra Foundation for American Art Visiting Professor in the Department of History of Art at the University of Oxford and a Visiting Fellow at Worcester College, Professor Burns will complete her second book, Performing Innocence: Cultural Belatedness and U.S. Art in fin-de-siècle Paris.


image of alastair wright

Alastair Wright teaches modern art and visual culture for both the first year course (Prelims) and courses taken in subsequent years. At graduate level, his teaching focuses on French modernism and the interaction between art and mass culture. In all his teaching he encourages students to engage as closely as possible with actual works of art, regularly leading visits to collections in Oxford and beyond.

Alastair Wrights's research focuses primarily on European modernisms. His first book, Matisse and the Subject of Modernism, was published by Princeton University Press in 2004, and more recently he curated an exhibition of Paul Gauguin’s prints at the Princeton University Art Museum. The accompanying catalogue, Gauguin’s Paradise Remembered: The Noa Noa Prints, examined the role played by reproduction in Gauguin’s understanding of French colonialism in Tahiti.  He has published essays in Art History, Oxford Art Journal, Art Bulletin, Burlington Magazine, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Artforum International, Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide and in various edited volumes.



Terra Lecture series:

Wednesday, 17th February 2021: Performing Innocence: Belated

Wednesday, 24th February 2021: Performing Innocence: Puritan

Wednesday, 3rd March 2021: Performing Innocence: Primitive / Incipient

Wednesday, 10th March 2021: Performing Innocence: Baby Nation




Photo Credit: Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Young Sabot Maker, 1895, oil on canvas, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO