The Art History Newsletter

The Past Has A Future in 19th Century Studies

by | 2 March 2012 | CAA2012, Conferences, Modern

The CAA panel “Future Directions in Nineteenth-Century Art History,” chaired by Getty curator Scott Allan, raised very interesting and thought-provoking questions about the relation of the nineteenth-century to the art of the past. Typically, nineteenth-century artistic production – especially in the second half of the century – is discussed in terms of the “future” and the ways in which it foreshadows twentieth-century developments. Thus, Delacroix is seen to have taken the first steps to “pure painting,” Manet is the forefather of Modernism, Gauguin’s Primitivist canvases foreshadow those of Kandinsky, while Cézanne is considered to be a Proto-Cubist. By casting an eye to the past, this session not only showcased some of the exciting new directions pursued by emerging nineteenth-century scholars, but also offered a breath of fresh air to the stock Franco-centric “avant-garde” narrative.

The first paper, presented by Allan Doyle, explored the tensions inherent in Xavier Sigalon’s copy of Michaelangelo’s “Last Judgment” and examined some of the post-Enlightenment controversies over the role of creativity versus academic instruction. Demonstrating that originality and copying were not always mutually exclusive, Doyle shed light on a widespread, too often-ignored nineteenth-century phenomenon that formed an integral part of that century’s artistic practice and vision. This paper was followed by Jeremy Melius’s eloquent analysis of John Ruskin’s “Ariadne Florentina” lectures delivered in 1873-76 during his Slade Professorship at Oxford. Melius convincingly argued that even on the level of language, Ruskin’s analysis of a set of Florentine prints (erroneously attributed to Botticelli at the time) betrayed his deep investment in historicity and his conception of art as a living embodiment of the past that self-consciously allegorizes its own relationship to history. Lastly, Sarah Schaefer’s fascinating discussion of Gustave Doré’s Biblical illustrations touched on the often-neglected topic of the fate of religious imagery in Modernity. Arguing that Doré’s illustrations aspired to create a “transnational” and “pandenominational” Modern Judeo-Christian visual vocabulary through the incorporation of new media and new modes of representation, Schaefer claimed that Doré attempted to forge a new sense of piety and spirituality in the face of Modernity’s constant flux and fragmentation.

Taken together, these three papers persuasively staged Modernity’s “other” side by raising questions of past artistic heritage, restoration, revivalism, historicity, spirituality and the fate of religious imagery – subjects that are typically left out of nineteenth-century art historical narratives. As with last year’s session, the 2012 “Future Directions in Nineteenth-Century Art History” panel demonstrated the continuing and very welcome thematic and geographic expansion of the field beyond the standard Franco-centric accounts of the ascension of the avant-garde.


  1. Roberto C. Ferrari said on 4 Mar 2012 at 7:33 am:

    Maria, the panel session I was on–”Future Directions in the History of British Art”–also sought to address the ideology you express: a thematic and geographic expansion of the field beyond French art. Three of our papers were 19th-century (mine own included), one 18th-century, one 20th-century. Unfortunately, our panel was among those that conflicted with the honoring of Rosalind Krauss, a conflict which I cannot help but see as (yet again) another example of Franco-modernist art history asserting dominance. That isn’t necessarily a judgment on Krauss’s importance, just an observation about an interesting coincidence.

  2. Maria Taroutina said on 4 Mar 2012 at 11:23 pm:

    The same thing happened with the second nineteenth-century session “Civilization and Its Others.”