Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 17, 2008
Magnus Olausson and Eva-Lena Karlsson, eds. Alexander Roslin Exh. cat. Stockholm: Nationalmuseum, 2007. 288 pp.; 112 color ills.; 136 b/w ills. Cloth $135.00 (9789171007728 )
Exhibition schedule: Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden, September 27, 2007–January 13, 2008; Château de Versailles, France, February 18–May 18, 2008
Alexander Roslin. The Veiled Lady (1768). Oil on canvas. 65 x 54 cm. Courtesy Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

Alexander Roslin (1718–1793) is an artist whose better-known paintings are familiar to modern Anglo-American audiences; many will recognize the oft-reproduced portrait he made of his wife, the painter Marie-Suzanne Giroust, known colloquially as The Veiled Lady (1768; Stockholm, Nationalmuseum). But overall, Roslin is a marginalized figure whose lack of critical prominence has led to the perception that he is a minor painter. The facts suggest otherwise. Roslin was massively prolific, academically successful, internationally in demand, and recognized by contemporaries as one of his era’s premier portraitists. He died one of the wealthiest artists in all of Europe, abundantly praised, and furthermore his art spurred considerable discussion about what constituted a good portrait. Critical reassessment for this painter is long overdue, and the opportunity has risen in the retrospective exhibition recently mounted in Stockholm and Versailles, the catalogue for which is the most detailed examination of Roslin’s art ever to appear in English. It offers a rich trove of images and ideas that should help us come to better terms with his artistic achievement.

The catalogue’s extremely high production quality sets a new benchmark for sumptuous presentation. Its hardcover binding in shimmering ice-blue silk and its numerous stunning full-page color illustrations convey the value that Swedish art historians place on Roslin as perhaps their nation’s most significant premodern painter. But the book is as informative as it is beautiful, albeit unusually. Rather than employing the standard format of extended essays followed by a list of works, this one instead contains a succession of shorter pieces, often just a page or two long, that examine Roslin from a variety of overlapping perspectives. Magnus Olausson and Xavier Salmon penned the bulk of these, although several additional art historians also contributed. The essays provide a variegated pathway into Roslin’s art and allow it to be considered from a variety of critical angles.

The book is divided into five sections organized around different historical and thematic aspects of the artist’s life. The first, entitled “Biographica,” provides an overview of the artist’s career and the settings in which he worked. Olausson’s essays “Roslin’s Europe” and “An Artist’s Career” set the stage with basic historical information, as does Sabrina Norlander Eliasson’s essay on the artist in Italy. Salmon rounds out this section with assessments of Roslin’s pastels and an overview of his critical reception at the Parisian salons. These essays break little new interpretative ground, but provide necessary building blocks for what follows.

The second section, “The Roles of Portraiture,” is considerably more adventurous as it explores social and interpretative issues. Eva-Lena Karlsson contributes an essay on Roslin’s travels, while Carolina Brown inquires into Roslin’s depiction of the body. This section’s three middle essays provide the most critically compelling writing in the book. Melissa Hyde’s analysis of gender and portraiture explores the contradictions of representing women in eighteenth-century art, and she comments insightfully on Roslin’s progressive ideas about female painters. Merit Laine offers a fascinating discussion of likeness in Roslin’s work, an important issue to which I will return. Dovetailing nicely with hers is Eva-Lena Bengtsson’s essay on Roslin’s portraits of fellow artists, of which he painted an unusually large number. The catalogue reproduces paintings of well-known figures such as Boucher, Cochin the Younger, Pajou, Vallayer-Coster, Vernet, and Vien, and there is also a portrait of the theorist Dandre-Bardon. Their willingness to work with Roslin suggests perhaps the high value they placed in his skills.

Next comes a long third section on specific themes, presented roughly chronologically. First are seven essays by Olausson devoted to Roslin’s early years, including assessments of “Roslin’s world,” his images of women, his Italian paintings, his associations with both French and Swedish artists, and a special chapter on his portrait of the Baron Fredrik Sparre, a commission spearheaded by the famous Swedish ambassador to Paris, Carl Gustaf Tessin. Thereafter follows a group of essays on Roslin’s travels and on specific sitters. These include chapters on royalty, on Swedish princes in Paris, on ministers and scientists, and on diplomatic portraits. Another brief chapter details his 1774–75 return to Stockholm, during which he produced a fine portrait of the renowned naturalist Carl Linnaeus. Then comes an additional section, again largely penned by Olausson, detailing still other kinds of sitters. Here we get discussions of Roslin’s struggle to win French royal patronage and an interesting chapter on Roslin’s portraits of his own family. Concluding this long middle section is a quartet of essays that include one by Karin Sidén entitled “Roslin and Tradition,” a surprising discussion of Roslin and contemporary Swedish art by Margareta Gynning, and a discussion of Roslin and costume by Lena Rangström. The end result of these many brief essays is perhaps a little less than the sum of its parts, since there is substantial overlap and the essays’ concise format does not permit much depth. The volume’s fourth section comprises the catalogue proper, written predominantly by Salmon, with detailed entries for each painting, after which follow the gorgeous plates.

Despite their diversity, two threads recur within these writings. The first is the question of Roslin’s Swedishness, or more broadly stated his relationship to any national tradition. Born in Malmö, he trained in his home country, but his career is essentially a Continental and largely French one. The question of whether he can therefore be called a “Swedish artist” or his paintings “Swedish art” has been a central critical concern, a situation that Olausson’s introductory essay exposes as complicated and touchy. He notes that Roslin never abandoned his connection to Sweden and in fact emphasized it by signing his paintings Roslin le Suédois. The French never forgot Roslin’s Swedishness either, especially when they criticized his paintings. Denis Diderot denounced them through recourse to ethnicity, claiming that Roslin’s art was “dull, clumsy, and boorish” because it had been created by an uncivilized “Goth or Vandal,” by which he probably meant Viking.

Eighteenth-century Swedes likewise saw in Roslin a homegrown talent that had somehow lost its essentially Nordic character: when Claës Julius Ekeblad visited Roslin’s Parisian studio in 1770, he lamented that expatriate artists like him “are no longer Swedes and speak of Sweden only with a certain contempt.” When Roslin was elected to the Swedish Academy of Art in 1772, he was rather incredibly admitted as a foreign member; on the same day the Grenoble-born Adrien Masreliez was admitted as a Swede. Nineteenth-century Swedish art historians struggled to incorporate Roslin’s “French manner” into their emergent nationalist art histories, but today he is viewed in Scandinavia as a Nordic success. Roslin’s situation points to the difficulty of positioning many eighteenth-century artists within clear national boundaries, a problem hardly unique to Roslin and probably best exemplified by Angelica Kauffman. Yet this catalogue successfully illuminates that our indecision grows out of an eighteenth-century confusion. Roslin likewise reminds us of how international eighteenth-century art could be and how much we lose by pigeonholing artists like him into simple ethnic categories.

A second recurrent theme is the issue of likeness, the focus of Laine’s fine essay but mentioned repeatedly in the book. Laine argues that likeness may have implied a more idealized notion of the self than we might today expect, but a perusal of the catalogue’s plates reveals that Roslin took the oft-voiced demand of resemblance in portraiture rather literally. One finds in these paintings a wider range of facial types than is typical of eighteenth-century art, and sometimes Roslin’s physiognomic accuracy even seems slightly merciless. His portrait of the Swedish Baron Thure Leonard Klinckowström (1758; Helsinki, Sinebrychoffin Taidemuseo) unapologetically and unflatteringly records the sitter’s strabismic left eye with little attempt to downplay it. Even paintings that seem idealized at first glance reveal greater literalness upon closer inspection. Roslin’s superb oval portrait of Gustaf Philip Creutz, Swedish ambassador to Paris, is one such work (1764; Gothenburg, Konstmuseum). Creutz’s eyes appear enlarged in the French manner, and his three-quarter pose is a standard format common to late eighteenth-century portraits. But the sitter’s bulbous nose, wide cheeks, and obviously receding hairline indicate that Roslin has tried to convey Creutz’s appearance faithfully, idealizing it only enough to conform generally to convention. Roslin’s depictions seem to a modern eye insightful, accurate, and individualized in a way that many eighteenth-century portraits do not.

Contemporary viewers of Roslin’s paintings commented on this quality, not always favorably, and they often contrasted his technique with that of his contemporary and rival Joseph-Siffred Duplessis. The anonymous author of the 1781 salon pamphlet La Vérité described Roslin as “more correct” in his depictions, while praising Duplessis for his “greater expression of the soul” and characterization. Occasionally Roslin’s penchant for accuracy got him into trouble, as with his 1776 state portrait of Catherine the Great (St. Petersburg, Hermitage). The empress was deeply disappointed with the painting and claimed in a letter to Baron Grimm that Roslin “has portrayed me as a Swedish maid, common and simple.” She implies further that he is not sufficiently worldly to understand his mistake, since he paints her like a peasant from his birthplace—a comment that again raises the issue of his Swedishness. Yet she liked Roslin’s painting enough to order from the Russian portraitist Fyodor Rokotov a copy that included a newly inserted, idealized face. Roslin’s drive for verisimilitude required lengthy sittings that occasionally lost him lucrative commissions. It is out of unwillingness to pose for hours that another empress, the Habsburg Maria Theresa, declined Roslin’s offer to paint her when he traveled to Vienna in 1778.

Other than a handful of articles by Colin Bailey analyzing specific paintings, the critical literature on Roslin in English is all but nonexistent. Our ability to understand his art therefore receives a huge boost from this book. Roslin emerges here as quite a bit more interesting and important than this Anglo-American neglect would suggest. Certainly the high standard he set was one against which later, better-known painters were judged. When the Journal général de France assessed the talents of the young Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun in 1785, it could praise her no better than by saying she had “vanquished Roslin” and elevated portraiture to new heights. Vanquished he may have been, but his achievement was significant enough to demand a closer look today.

Michael Yonan
Associate Professor, Department of Art History and Archaeology, University of Missouri