Kristin Schwain

Signs of Grace
Signs of Grace:
Religion and American Art
in the Gilded Age


Kristin Schwain

Associate Professor
American Art and Architecture
Ph.D., Stanford University

phone: 573-882-6711
fax: 573-884-5269

mailing address:
Department of Art History and Archaeology
365 McReynolds Hall
301 S. 6th Street
University of Missouri
Columbia, MO 65211-2015


The courses I teach examine American visual culture from the Spanish arrival in the New World to the present. I explore conflicts and issues generated by cultural encounters, mass consumption, the politics of representation, and the visual culture of American religions (among others) through close analysis of fine art, material artifacts, and popular culture.

  • AHA 2850: Introduction to Americal Visual Culture (Writing Intensive)
  • AHA 3830: American Art and Culture, 1500-1820
  • AHA 3840: American Art and Culture, 1820-1913
  • AHA 3850: American Art and Culture, 1913-present
  • AHA 4820/7820: American Material Culture
  • AHA 4005/7005: Topics: American Popular Culture
  • AHA 4005/7005: Topics: American Photography
  • AHA 8800: Seminar in American Art: The Material Culture of Religion
  • AHA 8800: Seminar in American Art: Visual Culture
  • AHA 8800: Seminar in American Art: African-American Art


My recent book, Signs of Grace: Religion and American Art in the Gilded Age (Cornell University Press, 2008), calls on art, visual culture, religious practices, and philosophical and theological texts to investigate the historical origins and early history of the assumption that art and religion serve analogous functions in American culture. More specifically, it explores how late-nineteenth-century American artists Thomas Eakins, Henry Ossawa Tanner, F. Holland Day, and Abbott Handerson Thayer drew on religious beliefs and practices to explore new relationships between viewers and objects, and how beholders looked to art in order to experience transcendence and save their souls.

My current research builds on my commitment to the study of American art through the lens of visual practice. I am continuing my study of African American art and religion that began with Henry Ossawa Tanner’s late-nineteenth century biblical paintings by examining the role of antebellum African American culture on the production of Harlem Renaissance art. I situate the works of Aaron Douglas, Allan Rohan Crite, William Johnson, and other black artists alongside those of other artists and culture brokers who sought to construct a usable past and discern an authentic American spirit through a variety of folk traditions in the interwar years. Just as Georgia O’Keeffe, for example, looked to Spanish Catholic santos (or holy images); Marsden Hartley drew on Native American material culture; John Steuart Curry called on Midwestern religious revivals; and the Museum of Modern Art in New York exhibited the sculptures of William Edmondson, African American artists turned to spirituals, sermons, and conjure tales to represent the country’s historical development and evoke its spiritual essence. The resulting works stress the cultural implications of locating the nation’s heritage and racial genealogy in particular communities and customs; the centrality of intercultural contact to the formation of national identity; the interdependence of fine and folk art in American modernism; and the shared goals of artists and art movements artificially divorced from one another in art historical scholarship.

Recent publications

  • Signs of Grace: Religion and American Art in the Gilded Age (Cornell University Press, 2008).
  • "Carl Gutherz’s Esoteric Art" in Carl Gutherz, ed. Marina Pancini (Memphis: Memphis Brooks Museum of Art; distributed by University Press of Mississippi), forthcoming 2008.
  • "F. Holland Day’s The Seven Last Words of Christ and the Religious Roots of American Modernism", American Art 19, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 32-59.

Recent Book and Exhibition Reviews

  • “Clare Farago and Donna Pierce, Transforming Images: New Mexican Santos In-between Worlds,” Material Religion, forthcoming.
  • “Clare Haynes, Pictures and Popery: Art and Religion in England, 1660–1760,” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 77, no. 2 (June 2008): 476-479.
  • “Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist, Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas,” (February 2, 2008), doi:10.3202/,

Recent Invited Lectures

  • “Modernity’s Usable Pasts: James Weldon Johnson, Charles B. Falls, and Aaron Douglas’s God’s Trombones,” Boston University, February 2007
  • “American Madonna: Marian Devotion and the Development of Modernism.” The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center, Santa Fe, New Mexico, January 2005
  • “’There was Race in it’: The Religious Art of African-American Artists Henry Ossawa Tanner and Aaron Douglas,” Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Missouri-Columbia, February 2002

Recent Conference Papers and Symposia

(*indicates peer reviewed)

  • “Seeing, Believing, and Acquiring: Henry Ossawa Tanner's Biblical Paintings and Modern Consumer Culture," New Critical Perspectives on African American Art History Conference, University of Maryland, College Park and David C. Driskell Center, March 2008
  • Session Co-Chair with Heather Hole, Assistant Curator, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Everywhere and Nowhere: Americanness in American Art, College Art Association Annual Meeting, New York, February 2007
  • Invited Panelist, “Talking about Modernist Aesthetics and Religion,” Modernist Studies Conference, Tulsa, Oklahoma, October 2006
  • “The Founding of the State of Liberty Spiritual? Violet Oakley’s Mural Series and Roman Catholic Protest,” American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, November 2005
  • “The Consumption of Belief: Religious Experience in Twentieth-Century American Art,” Knowledge and Belief: Stanford Humanities Center 25th Anniversary Conference & Reunion, October 2005

Recent Awards and Honors

  • Luce Visiting Professor in Scripture and Visual Arts, Henry R. Luce Program in Scripture and the Literary Arts, Boston University, Winter 2007
  • Young Scholars of American Religion Program, Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis, 2003-2004
  • Provost Outstanding Junior Faculty Teaching Award, University of Missouri-Columbia, 2004
  • Purple Chalk Teaching Award, College of Arts and Science, University of Missouri-Columbia, 2004