Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 23, 2000
Anne Bermingham Learning to Draw: Studies in the Cultural History of a Polite and Useful Art Yale University Press, 2000. 304 pp.; 130 color ills.; 140 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (0300080395)
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Ann Bermingham’s eagerly awaited new book, Learning to Draw, is about much more than the development of drawing practices. As the subtitle, Studies in the Cultural History of a Polite and Useful Art, suggests, this is a wider history of the formation of the individual as a subject in (visual) culture. It analyzes the way drawing “resulted in an aestheticization of the self and the things of everyday life,” a phenomenon that Bermingham sees as an important characteristic of the modern period (ix). This excellent book is difficult to fairly summarize and characterize for it is such an ambitious undertaking: It begins with a rereading of a sixteenth-century Italian classic, Castiglioni’s Il libro del Cortegiano, and ends with an analysis of photography and schools of design in Victorian Britain. In between, Bermingham considers such diverse topics as courtesy books, miniature painting, collecting, scientific illustration, maps and military surveys, drawing manuals, and various forms of flower painting by women. This book takes its place alongside such important accounts of the relationship between British art, commerce, and social identity as David Solkin’s Painting for Money: The Visual Arts and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993), John Barrell’s The Political Theory of Painting from Reynolds to Hazlitt: “The Body of the Public” (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), and Bermingham and John Brewer’s edited volume, Word, Image and Object: Culture and Consumption in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (London: Routledge, 1995). A recent addition to this literature is Marcia Pointon’s Strategies for Showing: Women, Possession, and Representation in English Visual Culture 1665-1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). This book encompasses a narrower time period than Bermingham’s, while it is broader conceptually, centering on the general notion that women as consumers and producers were both objects of (male) representation and agents of their own self-fashioning. Among these various studies, Bermingham’s is the first to trace over three centuries the operative links between social identity and amateur and professional artistic practices, with attention to the complex way in which these practices are differentially classed and gendered. This is also the first major publication to address the phenomenon of amateur production in Britain, with the exception of Kim Sloan’s just published catalogue for her exhibition, “‘A Noble Art’: Amateur Artists and Drawing Masters c. 1600-1800,” which was held at the British Museum this summer. This exhibition and its excellent, highly informative catalogue take a more focused view of the phenomenon of amateur drawing than Learning to Draw, providing in-depth information on amateurs and the type of training they obtained.

In the two chapters that form Part I of Learning to Draw, Bermingham provides a highly original and important conceptual framework for the diverse topics she considers by interrogating the notion of illusionism as it pertains to issues of visual representation and self-presentation. Focusing on the foundation of drawing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, these two chapters provide an extremely valuable and overdue assessment of cultural practices and discourses developed in Europe and disseminated throughout Britain in this early period, so long neglected by historians of British art. As Bermingham convincingly shows, these early cultural discourses and practices set the terms for the way artistic performance and visual representation were mobilized for social ends in the centuries to come. Castiglione’s The Courtier, Bermingham observes, calls attention to the sixteenth-century conflict over the definition of drawing and painting: were they to be considered mechanical arts, suitable (only) for craftsmen, or liberal arts, worthy of the courtier or gentleman? Following Alberti’s definition of disegno (design/drawing), Castiglione characterized the production of pictorial illusion through the mastery of shading, perspective, and the like not as manual skills, but as conceits requiring intellectual cunning to produce a convincing illusion of nature. Bermingham argues that “by privileging illusionism the count brings drawing and painting into alignment with the behavioral courtly ideal of sprezzatura, an appearance of ease or nonchalance, which demands that all one’s actions seem effortless” (5). Crucially, then, both disegno and sprezzatura link aesthetics to subjectivity: “Where disegno elevates craft to the status of liberal art and artisans to the status of artists, sprezzatura makes courtiership an aesthetic activity and the courtier a work of art” (5).

Bermingham tracks the various English publications of The Courtier that appeared both prior to and after Queen Elizabeth’s accession to address the moral ambiguity that arose over sprezzatura and, more generally, illusionism. Her careful and insightful reading of three English translations exposes two opposed interpretations of sprezzatura as a form of illusionism that will provide the conceptual underpinnings for the remainder of her book: a virtuoso display of gentlemanliness versus an immoral form of deception. The notion of self-display as deceit became increasingly femininized by the enemies of Elizabeth I, through its association with a gynocentric court that drew its power from self-consciously aesthetic performances of artifice and illusion (27). In her examination of the writings of miniaturist and court painter Nicholas Hilliard and courtesy book author Henry Peacham, Bermingham traces a third way of understanding the function of drawing as a means of illusionistic representation: as a mode of revealing the truths of nature. This way of rationalizing pictorial illusionism would become increasingly important in England, as Bermingham demonstrates in her extended analysis of the Royal Society and the scientific revolution. Part I concludes with an analysis of John Locke’s reliance on imagistic language as a means of describing the relationship between the human mind and the external world. Bermingham concludes, “only a particular notion of drawing, of a drawing as a neutral and transparent mirror of the natural world,” could have made such a formulation possible (72).

Part II inflects the conflicting ideas of transparency and virtuosity that were attached to drawing within the changing context of a society which became increasingly commercialized over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The initial chapters of this section draw profitably on many articles Bermingham has published over the last decade; these are reworked and augmented by much new material, such as her excellent analysis of mapping and the development of topographical drawing by artists such as Paul Sandby, who were involved in military surveying. Her discussion of eighteenth-century British landscape discourse and practice is framed around what she calls the landscapes of sense, sensibility, and sensation, three terms that roughly correspond to the landscape subgenres of the topographical, picturesque, and naturalist. Her rationale for adopting these new terms is to “shift the focus from style to the moral, political, and social values each type of landscape was intended to awaken,” as well as to provide a framework that could accommodate works that traditionally do not fit into the traditional categories, especially amateur production (78). While this is an effective means of insisting on the ideological nature of landscape, some readers might find the similarity in the three terms rather confusing. Her discussions of drawing manual texts and other writings are interwoven with close readings of landscape images and nuanced descriptions of drawing techniques, particularly those promoted by drawing masters William Gilpin and William Marshall Craig, who held very different ideas of the proper way to abstract and particularize nature. Through her discussion of these visual and written texts, Bermingham traces the shifts in popularity of topographical, picturesque and naturalist landscape in the context of changing notions of local and national identity. These forms of social identity, would, by century’s end, be profoundly affected by the French Revolution and the internal conflicts that it generated; the landscape, drawn and painted, provided an important cultural site for the articulation of those changes. The focus widens in the next chapter to an examination of commercialism as it affected amateur and professional artistic practice. In a section entitled “The Rise and Progress of the Arts” (129-45), Bermingham provides a succinct and extremely cogent summary of the state of the arts in Britain at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Her discussion of the rise and decline of the Royal Academy as a teaching institution and the impact of commercial establishments such as Wedgewood’s and Ackermann’s introduces a broader discussion of London’s rise as a cultural center and of the development of urban sensibility. The dandy and the “woman of fashion” were historically specific and controversial manifestations of this urbanity. As Bermingham notes, the latter was a fabrication that both moral reformers and feminists resisted. Nonetheless, entrepreneurs, eager to further the development of middle class women as cultural consumers, sought ways to forge a form of femininity combining urbanity and fashionability with the more established ideal of domesticity (140).

After exploring at length the attempts by entrepreneurs to appeal to and to shape this new market of female consumers and resistance by male professional artists and critics against what they saw as the commodification and feminization of high art, Bermingham turns in her penultimate chapter to women as producers of art. The initial section of this chapter examines the rise of the “accomplished woman”—one who was a conspicuous consumer and reproducer of culture, but not a creator of it (186), and who was prey to some sort of moral ambivalence about her involvement in potentially unseemly display as was the more outgoing “woman of fashion.” Bermingham concludes the chapter by discussing a number of women, such as Mary Gartside and Mary Moser, who attempted to avoid the difficulties posed by this dilemma through the practice of flower painting, deemed one of the most acceptable activities of the accomplished woman.

In a final, relatively brief chapter, Bermingham examines the rationalization of drawing practices in the last half the nineteenth century through new institutions (schools of design) and technology (photography). She explores the efforts by Henry Cole and others to bring British design up to the level set by the French, and the aesthetic and ideological conflicts that occurred between those promoting a French model for drawing, based upon the nude, and a German model rooted in geometric drawing and the copying of ornamental designs. Photography offered another avenue for the promotion of a form of pictorial illusionism appropriate for a modern, industrial society. Most accounts of the development of photography have emphasized its attempts to compete with or supersede painting. In her analysis of contemporary texts by Henry Fox Talbot, John Ruskin, T. H. Fielding, and others, Bermingham demonstrates that photography was widely perceived as a graphic art—a new form of drawing and seeing (238-9). As a modern form of graphic art that promised to deliver truth neutrally, without the subjective interference of an artist, photography eventually came to have a serious impact on amateur drawing—namely, its repositioning as a purely aesthetic practice with no social or utilitarian value, and ultimately with little impact on modernism. It is not especially surprising (or even dismaying) that a practice associated with women amateurs was excluded from the edifice of Modernism, which, after all, is expressly constructed as a heroic, masculine, and professional enterprise. The exclusion of amateur practice and women’s art production from the history of modernity and the history of visual culture, however, is a situation that demands reassessment. And it is precisely the evacuation of amateur drawing from the historical narratives of modernist Art History, that Learning to Draw so successfully redresses by demonstrating drawing’s important and often vexed role in the social production of the individual.

The above chapter summary really does not begin to do justice to the complexity and breadth of Learning to Draw. This is a long and lavishly illustrated book, which, I suspect, many readers will read piecemeal, a process that the author facilitates by providing an excellent introduction and useful summaries at the beginning of each chapter. Arguably, it could have been a shorter, more focused book, but had it been so, the force of Bermingham’s argument about the historical persistence of drawing’s impact on the formation of national and individual identity would have been weakened. As Bermingham notes, this study also could be extended to consider other important contexts in which drawing figured, such as the forging of colonial and imperial subjects (x). Examination of the colonial context would demand an analysis in which difference is not only gendered and classed, but racialized. Exclusions such as this one were inevitable, but a radically revisionist history of visual culture can no longer depend on notions of modernity, commerce, and culture that are bounded by the traditional borders of the sovereign nation-state. Bermingham has given us much to think about as we ponder the next step in this ongoing project.

Kay Dian Kriz
Brown University


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