Gleanings in the Field of Art

Author Ednah Dow Cheney
Author Name Variants Ednah D. Cheney; Ednah Dow Littlehale Cheney
Publication Boston: Lee and Shepard; 1881.
Link to Text
Genres Scholarly Work
Keywords Fine Arts, Education, Philosophy & Religion
Contributing State Massachusetts
Research Notes  
Digital Source Notes  

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Margaret Hardage
Tulane University, December 2015

Gleanings in the Fields of Art comprises a collection of lectures given by Ednah D. Cheney at the Concord School of Philosophy (Hart 127). The book covers artwork from the beginning of human history (“Human life is the greatest of all forms of art” [Gleanings 10]), up to Cheney’s contemporary moment, with chapters focusing on periods, national traditions, and individual artists. Instead of approaching her subject as an art historian, Cheney takes a philosophical approach and focuses on determining the role of environment in artistic creation. Omitting illustrations and physical description, she evaluates art works with regard to their surrounding cultural context, considering a variety of factors including social development, political freedom, material prosperity, religious faith, and moral character.

Cheney’s exact definition of art is “all that which seeks to express thought in a material form, without reference to its use for any material function” (Gleanings 9). However she makes it clear that, while art may include things other than paintings, sculptures, and other media, it does not encompass all things pleasing to the eye, as one would assume. For example, decorative objects should not be considered art, as they appeal to vanity (14). Some time periods, she observes, were better at achieving artistic expression than others. For example, the Romans had difficulty producing original works because of the religion of the time, which did not inspire spiritual growth (62). The most ideal art, Cheney explains in her introductory chapter, is “truly original, noble, and beautiful, by cherishing and developing a national character of which it is the fitting expression” (32).

In The American Art Review in 1881, the year of its publication, Gleanings in the Fields of Art was pronounced “well worthy of attention” (Hart 127). The work appeared as part of the Women’s Literary Department at the 1884 New Orleans World’s Fair not necessarily because of its content, as this appeals to a fairly universal audience, but because of the prominence and influence of the author, Ednah D. Cheney. Born in Boston in 1824 and raised by a progressive father who supported abolition and women’s rights, Cheney was a significant social reformer during her lifetime (McFadden 834). As a young person, she attended Margaret Fuller’s “Conversations” in 1841. Not only did Cheney lecture and write for the New England Woman Suffrage Association, for which she was Vice President, but she also served as Vice President for the New England Women’s Club and was Secretary and then President for the New England Hospital of Women and Children. In addition to Gleanings, Cheney published a memoir, several children’s books, and biographies (McFadden 834). Although her feminist views are not in evidence in Gleanings in the Fields of Art, Cheney’s role as a strong women’s rights advocate undoubtedly made all of her work interesting to visitors at the Women’s Department in New Orleans.

Works Cited

Cheney, Ednah Dow. Gleanings in the Fields of Art. Boston: Lee and Shepard Publishers, 1881.
—. Reminiscences of Ednah Dow Cheney (born Littlehale). Boston: Lee &
Shepard, 1902. HathiTrust,
Hart, Charles Henry. “History: Gleanings in the Fields of Art.” The American Art Review, vol. 2. no.9,
1881, pp. 127-128. JSTOR,
McFadden, Margaret. “Boston Teenagers Debate the Woman Question, 1837-1838.” Signs, vol. 15, no.
4, 1990, pp. 832–847. JSTOR,