Wilson Center Fellow Sally M. Promey is granted American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in the Historical Study of Religion

Nov 30, 2000

The American Academy of Religion (AAR) selects each year for special recognition scholarly books of distinctive originality that decisively affect how religion is examined, understood, and interpreted. According to AAR, Promey's Painting Religion in Public "succeeds admirably in showing how a single artistic production reflects and illuminates social and cultural changes at a moment of major transition in American culture."

The study of a society's art or religions can illuminate its values and beliefs. Examining the intersection of the two can reveal interesting and important cultural and social insights. Sally M. Promey learned this early on in her academic career when she chose an undergraduate double-major in art history and religious studies.

Later, when working toward her Ph.D., Promey found the perfect intellectual environment at the University of Chicago where the interdisciplinary Committee on History of Culture provided a program for the study of the histories of American art, culture, and religion.

While conducting research into public works of art representing religious subjects, Promey made two interesting discoveries. First, that the preeminent late nineteenth-century American painter John Singer Sargent had produced a widely acclaimed mural cycle titled Triumph of Religion for the Boston Public Library; second, and perhaps the more intriguing curiosity, is that the mural decoration, while widely acclaimed at the time of its installation, was practically ignored in the secondary literature.

Upon further research, Promey uncovered a possible explanation—one of the panels of the mural cycle had provoked a public controversy concerning the plural character of American religions. The opposition was so intense that Sargent quietly abandoned the mural cycle, leaving the work one critical painting short of completion. Promey decided to explore further and, in the end, to fill this void in the literature.

She has done so with a fascinating tale that not only brings to light Sargent's original artistic intent but also vividly describes the American struggle with class, race, art, and religion of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thus, Promey has recaptured a piece of American history that seemed to be nearly lost.

According to Promey, this book and her other works are intended to enhance understanding of religion's part in the production, reception, and theorization of visual culture in the United States as well as the role of the visual in the practice and conceptualization of American religions.

To read a more detailed review of Painting Religion, visit the Princeton University Press website.

About the Author

Sally M. Promey is Professor of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Maryland. She is the author of Spiritual Spectacles: Vision and Image in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Shakerism (recipient of the 1994 Charles C. Eldredge Prize for Outstanding Scholarship in American Art History); and contributing author and coeditor of The Visual Culture of American Religions, scheduled for publication in February 2001 by the University of California Press.

In 2000-2001, she is a Fellow at the Wilson Center where she is working on a history of the public display of religion in the United States from the eighteenth century to the present.