Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 11, 2008
Sébastien Allard, Robert Rosenblum, Guilhem Scherf, and MaryAnne Stevens Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760–1830 Exh. cat. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2007. 432 pp.; 260 ills. Cloth $85.00 (9781903973233)
Exhibition schedule: Royal Academy of Arts, London, February 3–April 20, 2007
Sébastien Allard, Robert Rosenblum, Guilhem Scherf, and MaryAnne Stevens Portraits publics, portraits privés 1770–1830 Exh. cat. Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux, 2006. 383 pp.; 220 color ills.; 19 b/w ills. Paper Euros 45.00 (2711850315)
Exhibition schedule: Grand Palais, Paris, October 2, 2006–January 9, 2007
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Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Louis-François Bertin (1832). Oil on canvas. 45 5/8 x 37 3/8 in. (116 x 95 cm). Musée du Louvre, Paris (R.F. 1071).

Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760–1830 is the companion publication to the best and most comprehensive exhibition of portraits, and indeed of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century European art, not to have come to the United States in a long time. The show, conceived by the late Robert Rosenblum and MaryAnne Stevens, was originally intended to travel to the Guggenheim Museum in New York in addition to the Grand Palais in Paris and the Royal Academy in London. But construction issues at the Guggenheim prompted the cancellation of the U.S. venue, and the exhibition stayed in Europe.

The failure of Citizens and Kings to cross the Atlantic was particularly disappointing because the exhibition provided an unprecedented international survey of portraiture at a crucial moment in the history of both the subject and modern art. Two very fine exhibitions, Portraiture in Paris Around 1800: “Cooper Penrose” by Jacques-Louis David (Timken Museum of Art, 2003) and The French Portrait: Revolution to Restoration (Smith College Museum of Art, 2005), recently brought to light a selection of beautiful and rarely seen French portraits of the period, but neither exhibition traveled and both were limited in their scope. Both catalogues represent important contributions to our understanding of French portraiture of the period; oddly, neither figure in the Citizens and Kings bibliography (see Philippe Bordes, Portraiture in Paris Around 1800: “Cooper Penrose” by Jacques-Louis David, San Diego: Timken Museum of Art, 2003; and Margaret A. Oppenheimer, The French Portrait: Revolution to Restoration, Northampton, MA: Smith College Museum of Art, 2005).

Not perhaps since the landmark exhibition David to Delacroix: French Painting, 1774–1803 (1974), to which Rosenblum also contributed, has such a wide range of work from this period been presented to the public. Citizens and Kings, although focused on one genre, has the signal virtues of giving equal weight to painting and to sculpture, and of being truly international in scope. This cosmopolitanism is particularly welcome at a moment when art-historical scholarship (not to mention current political discourse) is increasingly focused on the global traffic in objects and ideas. Rosenblum himself pioneered this internationalism in Transformations in Late Eighteenth-Century Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), and Citizens and Kings was conceived in part to remedy the lack of attention to portraiture in that groundbreaking study.

The emphasis on stylistic and intellectual connections across national borders, and the gathering together of a wide range of objects—some familiar, some undeservedly obscure—are the most important contributions of Citizens and Kings, both as a catalogue and as an exhibition. It was a real pleasure to see Joseph Wright of Derby’s Sir Brooke Boothby (1781; Tate, London) in the same room as Gottlieb Schick’s Wilhelmine von Cotta (1802; Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart) and François-Xavier Fabre’s Allen Smith Before a View of Florence (1797; Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). Their juxtaposition encourages us to think about how the landscape setting signified differently for sitters and artists operating in different cultural contexts. Even for viewers well-versed in the genre, there were surprises: Henry Walton’s Sir Robert and Lady Buxton with Their Daughter Anne (ca. 1786; Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery), a pale and restrained, yet movingly intimate, variation on the conversation piece; Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours’s portrait of the Genevan art collector François Tronchin in the midst of his treasures, painted when the sitter was ninety-two years old (1796; Société des Arts, Geneva); or Hugh Douglas Hamilton’s Lieutenant Richard Mansergh St. George, a full-length life-size portrait of a young military officer clutching his brow in grief at his wife’s tomb (ca. 1796; National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin).

The surprises were multiplied by the changes made in the exhibition checklist between Paris and London. Roughly fifty works included in the French catalogue, or about a third of the total, were replaced by different objects in the English catalogue. There are likewise substantial differences between the two catalogues. The change of title alone, from the French emphasis on the division between public and private to the English allusion to political and social revolution, indicates a shift in the categories of analysis. Both versions begin with several essays treating general issues, then move to thematic categories—such as the portrait of the artist, or portraits of political leaders—each introduced by a shorter essay. The English version of the catalogue retains the conceptual categories of its French predecessor, but many portraits have been reclassified, and an essay on prints has been added.

As a result of these changes, the English version of the catalogue was able to address some of the lacunae of the French version, such as the paucity of works by female portraitists, and to make a clearer and more cogent argument about the changing nature of portraiture at this turning point in European and American history. Readers may well want to consult both versions, however; the happy consequence of the variations between the two is to provide new information about nearly two hundred portraits, many of which have never received critical attention.

The longer catalogue essays that introduce the major themes of the exhibition provide a solid introduction to portrait production during the years under consideration. The opening essay by Rosenblum, “Portraiture: Facts versus Fiction,” argues that portraiture during this period eroded the distinctions between public and private personae by introducing the signs of everyday life into even the most conventional kinds of “public” portraits, such as royal imagery. Portraiture, he argues, became more like fact than fiction, paying increasing attention to the details of physiognomy and material goods. The next essay, “Sculpted Portraits 1770–1830: ‘Real Presences,’” by Guilhem Scherf, provides a wide-ranging and well-documented survey of the issues facing portrait sculpture during this time. Sébastian Allard’s contribution, “Between the Novel and History: French Portraiture towards 1835,” is a close examination of the conditions of portraiture in the 1830s, with particular attention given to the theoretical discourses surrounding the genre and its struggle to be recognized as the intellectual equal of history painting. The fourth essay, “The Role of Prints and Printmakers in the Diffusion of Portraiture,” by Tim Clayton, appears only in the English catalogue. This overview of the production, marketing, and collecting of portrait prints addresses the question posed by the juxtaposition of objects from so many different countries and cultures: how were portrait conventions, and innovations, transmitted across national borders?

These introductory essays are followed by a series of shorter essays that reflect the thematic divisions of the exhibition: “Portraits of Sovereigns and Heads of State” by Christopher Lloyd; “The Status Portrait” by Allard; “The History Portrait” by Scherf; “The Cultural Portrait,” also by Scherf; “The Place for Experimentation: Artists’ Portraits and Self-portraits” by Vivien Greene; “The Family Portrait” by Martin Postle; “The Portrait after the Antique” by Malcolm Baker; “The Allegorical Portrait,” co-authored by Scherf and Allard; and “Nature and Grace: The Landscape and the Figure” by Stevens.

Many of these thematic divisions, and the essays that introduce them, are relatively straightforward, based on type of sitter or mode of representation. Some, however, introduce new and thought-provoking categories of analysis. For instance, Allard’s concept of the “status portrait” raises important issues about the redefinition of personal identity during an era of radical political and social change. Allard defines the term, which he takes from Denis Diderot, as an image that defines the sitter’s professional or social status, and argues that the conventional markers of this kind of generic identity—such as the desk and papers in a ministerial portrait—gradually disappeared in favor of a growing interest in the individuality of the sitter. The conceptual boundaries of the status portrait, however, are somewhat muddy, and Allard’s argument is ill-served by the objects grouped under the rubric, which in the French catalogue include early portraits of statesmen with no markers of official status, such as Jean-Antoine Houdon’s portrait of Benjamin Franklin (1778), as well as allegorical portraits such as Joshua Reynolds’s Montgomery Sisters (1773). In the English version, the list was pruned to create a more coherent grouping, but the idea of the status portrait remains confused, as does the notion of linear change over time. Other thematic categories, such as the “cultural portrait,” the “history portrait,” and “nature and grace,” are also loosely defined, and many objects migrated from one group to another between the Paris and London venues.

The concluding section, “Portraiture from 1815 to 1830: Ideal Families and Tormented Geniuses,” surveys portraiture after the fall of Napoleon. It is introduced by a short essay by Rosenblum, which returns to his argument about the reworking of older “fictional” modes of portraits in a factual mode (267). Rosenblum stresses the conflict between new ideas about personal liberty and the reimposition of the monarchy (conditions that are most obviously relevant to France) and calls this post-Napoleonic era the apogee of both the individual and the happy family. In other words, the kings may be back on their thrones but the citizens have triumphed, at least in portraiture.

The instability of these categories of analysis contributes to a certain equivocation in the larger argument of the catalogue. In both versions, Allard’s and Rosenblum’s essays argue that older conventions of social rank gave way to more individualized, and more intimate, portraits, as bourgeois individualism became the dominant mode of subjectivity. But the catalogue as a whole makes few concrete references to either political change or to contemporary theories of selfhood. As a result, it is difficult to interpret the visual juxtapositions of Romantic (male) individualism with the family portraits and allegorical images that persist through the 1830s. The distinction between public and private identities, particularly emphasized in the title of the French version of the catalogue, does not offer any easy answers to this problem. Is Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s famous painting of Louis-François Bertin (1832; Louvre, Paris), widely considered an icon of the bourgeoisie and the concluding image of both catalogues, a public or a private portrait? These categories are notoriously fluid at the historical moment under consideration, and Bertin embodies power in much the same way that Napoleon Bonaparte does in Ingres’s 1806 portrait, which serves as the cover image for the English catalogue.

It is Rosenblum’s argument about poetry and prose that, in the end, provides the most evocative frame of interpretation for late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century portraiture. Rosenblum posits a conflict in portraiture between the persistence of older ideals and conventions and a growing realism: “This crystalline vision of material fact, recording with equal precision the sitter’s features, clothing and accessories, whether furniture or documents, kept welling in force as if it represented, in tandem with revolutionary challenges to social hierarchies, an ongoing assault on the traditions of idealisation that had elevated sitters to higher realms of grandeur and power” (23). This insight certainly helps us think about images such as the anonymous family portrait from Le Mans (ca. 1810, Musée de Tessé, Le Mans), in which a father and his children confront the viewer with a disarming candor, the immediacy of their presence reinforced by a handful of carefully delineated accessories—a teacup, a gueridon, a drawing portfolio. But the “as if” of Rosenblum’s assertion leaves plenty of room for counter-argument: does this realism really represent a sea change in the representation of the self? The close scrutiny of material goods is hardly inherently democratic, or even bourgeois, as the portraits of Louis XIV and his court by Hyacinthe Rigaud testify, and the grand and the powerful of pre-Revolutionary Europe embraced a breezy sense of intimacy and spontaneity without any serious thought of undermining traditional social structures, as we can see in the work of Maurice-Quentin de La Tour.

These larger questions of the relationship between visual representation and the rise of modern ideas of self and society could have been addressed more comprehensively by looking more closely at two crucial aspects of portraiture: the agency of female sitters and artists, and portrait production beyond painting and sculpture. Citizens and Kings certainly touches on the importance of gender in portraiture, but the initial installation in Paris included only three works by female artists, a shockingly low figure considering the prevalence of female portraitists during this time period. The London installation added to this number, but the catalogue essays have very little to say about women’s contributions to the genre.

Similarly, the definition of gender through portraiture is only glancingly addressed. Allard’s essays on the status portrait and on portraiture in the 1830s cite nineteenth-century tropes about “the instability of women’s character” and the essentially private nature of female identity, but none of the authors engage critically with how portraiture contributed to, or contested, those tropes (48). There is plenty of material in the exhibition for this kind of analysis: one need only think of the canny professional self-promotion represented by the portraits of performers such as Sarah Siddons or Sophie Arnould, the joint manipulation of the conventions of allegorical portraiture by Elizabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun and Germaine de Staël in Madame de Staël as Corinne (1809; Collection des Musées d’Art et d’Histoire de la Ville de Genève, Geneva), or the flaunting of cultural and economic capital apparent in Joseph Wright of Derby’s portrait of the businesswoman Sarah Clayton (ca. 1769; Fitchburg Art Museum, Fitchburg, MA). The same thing could be said for portraiture’s role in the definition of masculinity, particularly since the exhibition includes some spectacular examples of the capaciousness of that category in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, from the melancholy sensibility of Hamilton’s Lieutenant Richard Mansergh St. George to the saturnine nudity of Antonio Canova’s Domenico Cimarosa (1809; Musei Capitolini, Rome).

Citizens and Kings could also have done more to signal the breadth and depth of the culture of portraiture. The inclusion of Clayton’s essay on portrait prints draws attention to the absence of prints from the exhibition itself; the lack of prints—or indeed of drawings, miniatures, or even the many small-scale oil paintings produced for a less-moneyed clientele—is a missed opportunity to support Citizens and Kings’s larger arguments about the expansion of private life and the growth of realism. After all, the rise of consumer culture, of which portraiture was very much a part, went hand-in-hand with the triumph of the individual and the bourgeoisie for which Citizens and Kings argues. However, it is a testimony to the sumptuous selection of paintings and sculptures offered by the exhibition and catalogue that we are left asking for even more—particularly those of us on the wrong side of the Atlantic, who may not see such a survey of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century portraiture in person for a very long time.

Amy Freund
Assistant Professor of Art History, School of Art, Texas Christian University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.