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Modern Art and the Remaking of Human Disposition

How artists at the turn of the twentieth century broke with traditional ways of posing the bodies of human figures to reflect modern understandings of human consciousness.
With this book, Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen brings a new formal and conceptual rubric to the study of turn-of-the-century modernism, transforming our understanding of the era’s canonical works. Butterfield-Rosen analyzes a hitherto unexamined formal phenomenon in European art: how artists departed from conventions for posing the human figure that had long been standard. In the decades around 1900, artists working in different countries and across different media began to present human figures in strictly frontal, lateral, and dorsal postures. The effect, both archaic and modern, broke with the centuries-old tradition of rendering bodies in torsion, with poses designed to simulate the human being’s physical volume and capacity for autonomous thought and movement. This formal departure destabilized prevailing visual codes for signifying the existence of the inner life of the human subject.

Exploring major works by Georges Seurat, Gustav Klimt, and the dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky— replete with new archival discoveries—Modern Art and the Remaking of Human Disposition combines intensive formal analysis with inquiries into the history of psychology and evolutionary biology. In doing so, it shows how modern understandings of human consciousness and the relation of mind to body were materialized in art through a new vocabulary of postures and poses. 

352 pages | 30 color plates, 94 halftones | 7 x 10 | © 2021

Art: European Art


"Butterfield-Rosen's Seurat chapter should be mandatory reading for students of nineteenth-century art. . . .  a breakthrough."

Alex Weintraub | Art in America

"[A] masterful examination of turn-of-the-century works of art . . . The bold study treats three pairings of works of art in a sweep of as many decades across Europe—in French easel painting, in an Austrian room-size installation, and in a Russian ballet that each shows human figures standing, sitting, and reclining. . . As a whole, the reading constitutes a brilliant cultural history beyond the dialectics of these three pairings. . . . Every page offers argument and evidence in serious yet readable and witty style and fine illustrations . . . Rarely does one see claims and ambitions so well presented and then fulfilled, critically, carefully, and playfully."

Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS NA)

"Butterfield-Rosen's book lays out the evolution of the compositions from conception to presentation and explores the intellectual zeitgeists, especially biological and psychological inquiry. A wealth of contemporaneous criticism, both written and illustrated, is also included. Whether derogatory or insightful, the revelatory reviews confirm a public’s alertness to visual imagery that expresses psychic inner life. Researchers of modernism will surely rely on the book’s rigorous exposition of disposition for future investigations. . . . Recommended."


"Butterfield-Rosen is an academic, and her prose is the densely rich stuff of academic art history. It is also insightful, illuminating, and philosophically robust... Butterfield-Rosen's impressive mastery over disparate bodies of knowledge and fastidious attention to the privileged place of art in reconceptualizing modern understandings of humanness will appeal to intellectually inclined readers."


"But here . . . my aim is to praise Butterfield-Rosen for opening up discussion in a marvelously thorough analysis, which is surely to be developed by her successors. In the very best art history writing—but this is all too rare—there is what I dub the ‘ah-ha’ moment, when suddenly familiar works change before your eyes. That happened for me when, long ago, I read Michael Fried’s book on eighteenth-century French painting (1980). And when I studied Butterfield-Rosen’s link of Poseuses to Grande Jatte, I had that experience again. Reinterpreted, a painting that I thought I knew fell into place in a novel, deeply satisfying and revelatory way. She is erudite, she can write, and she has a sense of humour, too. And she has been supported by the publisher in a well-edited, beautifully illustrated book."

British Journal of Aesthetics

"This book is to be commended for its brilliant hermeneutic exploration of the human body in a selected group of art works and texts."

H-France Review

"Butterfield-Rosen offers a new vantage from which to consider the impact of evolutionary theories on art-making. . . Modern Art is nothing other than a tour de force." 

Journal of Art Historiography

"A brilliant feat of scholarly innovation that seems just as obvious and simple as it is surprising and remarkable. . . . The book is distinctly elegantly written, beautifully and cogently illustrated and typeset, and thus a pleasure to read. . . . With its exceptionally broad scope, the book testifies to the author’s boldness in combining speculative theses with intellectual rigor, and in so doing, demonstrates how it is still possible today to cast landmarks of the Western art canon in an innovative and exciting light. I am convinced that this book will become an influential reference for present and future generations of scholars of modernism."

David Misteli | Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide

"Within intelligently laid out theoretical frameworks, [Butterfield-Rosen] illuminatingly brings social and discourse history, reception aesthetics, and visual studies together. The theses are convincingly elaborated through an intensive examination of the material. . . The study leaves nothing to be desired in its intellectual reach, in the precision of its observations and argumentations, and in its lucid, descriptive presentation."

Texte zur Kunst

“Right at the helm of new writing about the twentieth-century body stands Butterfield-Rosen’s brilliant, precise, meticulous study of gestures and stances, dispositions, movements, and postures. In Seurat, Klimt, and Nijinsky, she identifies a veritable feedback between viewer and work, between modernism and the science and beliefs it drew on and reshaped. This book is a dazzling achievement whose scope and importance reach far beyond art history.”

Stefanos Geroulanos, coauthor of The Human Body in the Age of Catastrophe

“Butterfield-Rosen’s strategy of examining the disposition of poses in order to contribute to histories of the self is nothing short of a brilliant, and her discussion of the trafficking between abstract concepts and concrete practices is rigorous, original, and convincing. This is an area in which the discipline of art history is in a privileged position to contribute to a broader history of ideas, and she makes skillful use of the weapons in an art historian’s arsenal, including formal and iconographic analysis.” 

Zeynep Çelik Alexander, author of Kinaesthetic Knowing: Aesthetics, Epistemology, Modern Design

“Butterfield-Rosen provides an unprecedented and compelling exploration of how the representation of the human body was reimagined and reconceptualized in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European art. A lucid and exhilarating book.”

Jonathan Crary, author of Suspensions of Perception

“What is most distinctive about Butterfield-Rosen’s important study is the scope of its ambition, joining fascinating close readings with a genealogy of the very foundations of art historical analysis. It turns to the basic claim of European art history that it is of deep cultural significance how the human body is represented. While demonstrating the artistic and epistemic productivity of this assumption, Butterfield-Rosen offers a critical account of its emergence and crisis around 1900.” 

Ralph Ubl, author of Prehistoric Future

Modern Art and the Remaking of Human Disposition is original, creative, erudite, soundly argued, and convincingly substantiated. It constitutes an important intervention in the history of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century European art, offering a subtle linkage between aesthetic theory and socio-psychological conceptions of selfhood.”

Juliet Bellow, author of Modernism on Stage: The Ballets Russes and the Parisian Avant-Garde

Table of Contents

One     Figures of Thought: Poseuses and the Controversy of the Grande Jatte
Two     Beethoven’s Farewell: The Creative Genius “in the Claws of the Secession”
Three   The Mise-en-scène of Dreams: L’Après-midi d’un faune


Modernist Studies Association: Modernist Studies Association--First Book Prize

Dedalus Foundation: Robert Motherwell Book Award, Honorable Mention with Distinction for a Single-Author Work
Honorable Mention

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