Hydrographic Vision in Eighteenth-Century British America
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Paper short abstract:
In this paper, I place maps, paintings, and literary texts in conversation with each other, to consider how geographic and ideological constructions of the Atlantic Ocean and its American coast were produced across a broad aesthetic field.
Paper long abstract:
In the eighteenth-century, innovations in technologies for charting the sea and the land allowed European empires to visualize their colonial territories with greater breadth and precision than ever before. In British North America, the large-scale surveying of the coast was undertaken simultaneously with the political transformation of the landscape through the American War of Independence. While often used as visual evidence, little attention has been paid to how maps employ a language of aesthetics to articulate the nature of empire, or the challenges posed to it in this period. In this paper, I place maps and paintings in conversation with each other, to consider how hydrographic and ideological constructions of the Atlantic Ocean and its American coast were produced across a broad aesthetic field. When considered together, cartographic and artistic representations of the sea enrich our understanding of how Britons and Americans visualized the tensions and triumphs of the late-colonial British empire and the Revolutionary moment. This paper analyzes The Atlantic Neptune—a magisterial collection of maps of the North American coast produced in the 1770s and '80s by the surveyor and colonial agent J.F.W. Des Barres—within the cultural and artistic landscape of the British eighteenth century. Playing at the edge between land and sea, these maps ask, what constitutes America in the British eye? I compare Des Barres's Atlantic perspective on the American continent to the work of artist John Singleton Copley in order to show how artists and map-makers represented the American coast as a key site in the making and unmaking of empire.
The appraising eye: skilled vision, professionalization, and the sensory history of the coast