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The Sixty-Sixth A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts: The Forest: America in the 1830s, Part 3: The Aesthetics of Superstition

Alexander Nemerov, department chair and Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities, Stanford University. In the six-part lecture series The Forest: America in the 1830s, Nemerov explores the Hudson River School painters and their contemporaries, focusing on what their art did and did not show of the teeming world around them. The forest serves as a metaphor for the unruly and wooded realms of lived experience to which art can only gesture. The lectures present a fundamentally new account of Thomas Cole (1801–1848), John Quidor (1801–1881), James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851), and other artists and writers of that time.  The third lecture, held on April 9, 2017, is entitled “The Aesthetics of Superstition.” According to legend in 1830s Michigan, if you were bitten by a rattlesnake, the skin around the bite would resemble the pattern of the snake’s skin.  How might the world then have been imagined as a poisonous pattern that entered into individual bodies? How might art, returning the favor, have bitten the world in such a way that the world eerily resembled it? And how might artists and writers, such as the youthful Francis Parkman, greatest of all historians of the American forest, have believed in this magical identity between world and image?