Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 22, 2001
Susan Sidlauskas Body, Place, and Self in Nineteenth-Century Painting Cambridge University Press, 2000. 230 pp.; 8 color ills.; 56 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (0521770246)

In the introduction to Body, Place, and Self in Nineteenth-Century Painting, Susan Sidlauskas asks the following question about the four paintings she examines in her book: “What material and theoretical conditions—of making and spectatorship—made these works possible?” (2). This is an important query, and not just because it acknowledges both the artist’s and the beholder’s share in the production of meaning. What Sidlauskas suggests is that the work of art history ought to begin with an exploration of what it was possible for painters and viewers to think and say about a work of art at a given historical moment. This search, she says, may be assisted by more recent theoretical insight, as indeed hers is, but it must involve a “reimagining” of the various contexts and conversations—artistic, intellectual, cultural, social, and political—that provided a space for and even necessitated the creation and conceptualization of a painting. Because Sidlauskas lets the nineteenth century have its say, this reimagining—in combination with what she calls “obsessive looking” (her eye is keen, and her descriptions of paintings are often revelatory)—allows for informed speculation and, in the end, amounts to a social art history that attempts to body together formal and contextual analysis without making the relationship between the two a matter of equation or analogy, and without reducing images to illustrations of ideas or events. That is to say, nineteenth-century art pedagogy, drawing manuals, psychology, theater, literature, architectural journals, popular illustration, bourgeoisie etiquette, and decorative arts, all of which (and more) Sidlauskas brings to bear on her reading of these four works—one each by Edgar Degas, John Singer Sargent, Edouard Vuillard, and Walter Sickert—do not make these pictures mean, but, rather, give us an idea as to what their makers and viewers could (and did, consciously or not) think they meant.

That said, it must be emphasized that the book offers much more than an account of meaning. It consists of an exploration of what Sidlauskas understands to be a cultural phenomenon: the prominence of the painted domestic interior in nineteenth-century visual culture and its use as a vehicle or metaphor for the construction, expression, and problematization of interiority and identity during that period in England, France, and the United States. The first chapter of the book establishes the “historical and conceptual foundations” for Sidlauskas’s consideration of the idea that subjectivity could be represented by way of the strategic juxtaposition of figure and space (xii). The teacher and theorist Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran and the architecture critic and theorist César Daly are the key players here—Lecoq because he developed a theory that stipulated the figure as “formally and conceptually inseparable from the objects and spaces around it,” and insisted that any representation had to communicate the subjectivity of its maker, and Daly because he understood the experience of architectural forms to entail an animistic identification of body and space (6). According to Sidlauskas, Lecoq’s and Daly’s formulations both provided a context for and were emblematic of a more widespread rearticulation or recrafting of identity—identity constructed through the body as imagined as coextensive with the world around it rather than by way of an autonomous, isolated self. This chapter brings together and attempts a systematic study of a set of issues—animism, interiority, identification, and empathy, to name a few—and a series of texts by Lecoq and Daly as well as Edgar Allan Poe and Louis Emile Edmond Duranty that have not been considered in relation to one another as part of a fully articulated “rhetoric of embodiment,” (10). For this reason, it may represent the book’s most significant contribution to the field of nineteenth-century art history.

After laying this groundwork, Sidlauskas tracks by way of four case studies what she characterizes as the emergence, permutations, and eventual bankruptcy of the idea that bodies interacting with space could be made to express not just interiority but intersubjectivity. She asks us to consider each painting as part of an evolving conversation about the capacity of images to materially render inner life; she also asks us to find reflections of contemporaneous social and sexual mores in the subject, style, and structure of these works. Degas’s Interior (ca. 1868-69), Sidlauskas writes, dramatizes the nineteenth century’s “anxiety about how the lived, sexual body was both exposed and constrained within its intimate world” (20). Restraint of gesture, suppression of overt volatility, and a dynamism that results from the fusion of figures and setting help construct a narrative of sexual tension wherein the categories of masculine and feminine and the boundaries of a gender-identified self are continually called into question. John Singer Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882) maps out the developmental stages—cognitive, physical, and psychological—of four young women learning to negotiate between the private and public spheres and lays bare the difficulty of penetrating and representing in paint the interiority of a child. Edouard Vuillard’s Mother and Sister of the Artist (ca. 1893) presents a similar “drama of the self,” wherein selfhood is defined by its mutability, its unstable character, and its performative nature. Vuillard, says Sidlauskas, pushes the coextension of figure and space to the limit so that interiority becomes a matter of surface (“identity is itself a representation”) even as difference—between figure and ground, mother and sister—provides the basis for a psycho-social reading (122). Walter Sickert’s Ennui (ca. 1914) represents “the end of the idea that interiority could be represented through the phenomenal world, through a body’s charged juxtaposition to a domestic interior” (124). Sidlauskas argues that the painting offers a wartime corrective, pointing up the misguidedness of the very notion of an authentic identity; the interdependence of figure and space amounts only to an equivalence of body and matter and not to an articulation of mind.

Sidlauskas is to be commended for gathering together material of such clear relevance to any argument about the enterprise of art making and identity-formation in nineteenth-century England, France, and United States. Her study deserves praise for its bold, contextual readings of images that, as her argument about them implies, collect and condense the beliefs, anxieties, and desires of an era obsessed with decoration, domesticity, interiority, sexuality, and self. Sidlauskas should also be given credit for examining as a group works of art from different cultural, geographic, and political milieus, although she might have been more cautious about arguing, at least implicitly, for a broad-based and cross-cultural trend in thought, for her tracking of such a trend can sound a tad like structural anthropology. The book’s most noticeable shortcoming is its failure to fully explain and elaborate the notions of embodiment and identification upon which a large part of the argument depends. Neither Sidlauskas nor the nineteenth-century texts she cites paint an adequate picture of what she characterizes as a pictorially—generated compulsion to identify and participate—empathetically, corporeally, and, of course, fictively—in the drama of each scene discussed. What Sidlauskas takes from Lecoq, Daly, and others does not at all suffice to explain why it is that these pictures must be understood as productive of a special, historically specific, and, above all, visceral relationship between painting and viewer, and it is not made clear what it is that distinguishes the nineteenth-century painted domestic interior from any other kind of representation that, on some level, evokes a bodily identification or projection. This results in part from a general and pervasive confusion of intention and reception, but is mainly the product of a rather imprecise use of ill-defined terms—embodiment, empathy, participation, visceral, palpable, enact, project, corporeal, and physicality—when describing the nature of the engagement of the viewer , nineteenth-century and otherwise, with each of the four interiors.

Although Sidlauskas focuses, for the most part, on problems of representation and reading (and this is what makes sections of the book so rich), she indicates that the paintings under discussion may be understood in terms of biography, such as Degas’s sexuality or Sargent’s family history. Unfortunately, she leaves the issue almost entirely unexplored. In her prologue, Sidlauskas makes a point of emphasizing the interdisciplinarity of her study, and she does make perceptive use of the insights of other disciplines. Yet the voices of contemporary theorists and scholars from art history and other fields (Michel Foucault, Anthony Vidler, Henri Lefebvre, Susan Stewart, Jonathan Crary, T. J. Clark, Elaine Scarry, Laura Mulvey, Marcia Pointon, and Wolfgang Kemp, to name a few) stand in for historical documentation, and for actual argument, far more frequently than should be the case in a study that purports to let the nineteenth century speak first. Finally, Sidlauskas’s prose can be somewhat opaque—e.g. “meanings that are shored up by historical change” or “the unforeseeable demands of emotion and incident”—and the section headings within each chapter can seem arbitrary or artificial, compartmentalizing as they do a series of impressions that may or may not be related to any one stated topic or theme (xvi, 92).

None of these complaints should serve to diminish the importance of her study, which stands as an insightful foray into the interiority of nineteenth-century life and art. One hopes that Sidlauskas’s book will encourage other scholars of nineteenth-century visual culture to undertake equally expansive and innovative studies of related issues and themes.

Rachael Z. DeLue
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University