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March 07, 2007

We can learn much about the past by looking at changes in portraiture, argues Jeremy Black: Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760 - 1830 at the Royal Academy

Posted by Jeremy Black

Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760 - 1830
Royal Academy, London
3rd February - 20th April 2007
Daily 10am - 6pm (Fridays until 10pm)

This splendid exhibition works not only as a sumptuous feast for the eye, but also as an historical account of a major shift in portraiture. It would be wrong to say that personality was absent and convention everything before this period but, nevertheless, the latter was dominant, and, in particular, it was difficult to find portraits of the prominent that offered intimacy. A whole host of ideological, cultural and artistic factors can be offered. Attitudes to identity were possibly the most important. It has been argued that there was no "discovery" of the self until the late-eighteenth century, a process sometimes summarised in artistic terms as Romanticism.

Prior to this discovery or rather expression, individuality was not a virtue but, instead, in many circumstances, something that had to be repressed. The emphasis was not on the individual but rather on the groups to which he or she belonged and that provided meaning. The prime group was familial, and dynastic themes played a key role not only in identity, but also in depiction, not least with an emphasis on armorial crests.

In terms of those exercising sway, there was also a stress on office, on the majesty of power and on the symbols and manner that accompanied it. This was true not only of the depiction of monarchs, but also of all those who were part of the same pyramid of power, whether bishops or mayors. Social eminence and political power were two aspects of the same process and thus the depiction of those who enjoyed the former took on many of the attributes of those who held the latter. For both painter and patron, this brought predictability, a predictability that was mutually profitable in that each understood both conventions and positions. That of the painter was fairly junior, not least because the cult of the artist was as yet poorly-developed. Instead, it was the sitter who was hero, hero not because of personality but because of office. For example, George IV, as Prince of Wales, could be depicted in martial poses that bore no reference to his actions or attributes.

This system was blown apart in the period covered by this exhibition. Elements of course persisted and many were to enjoy a marked revival in the twentieth century. Look, for example, at Socialist Realism, Nazi culture, or the exultation of the revolutionary in so much of left-wing ideology.

The change, though, was clear in the West. It can be seen most obviously in the depiction of monarchs. The splendid first gallery of the exhibition shows a series of "ancien régime monarchs", including George III, Louis XVI and Catherine the Great. There is also, however, a moving Pius VII by Lawrence. Painted in 1819, it reflects change in two major respects. First Pius, who is possibly best known in art through his appearance in David's Coronation of Napoleon was painted by Lawrence for the Prince Regent. This represented a rapprochement between the British Crown and the Papacy that had begun when George's uncle, Edward, Duke of York, was received at Rome, and that also saw George pay toward the Canova tomb for the last Stuarts in St Peter's. Under the threat of the French Revolution, and, more generally, or radicalism, the old order had to hang together. Secondly, Pius is depicted with great individuality. Instead of being presented with the magnificence appropriate to he who held the keys of St Peter, here was an attempt to present a personality, one greatly affected by the traumas of his period as pontiff, which had included imprisonment and the French annexation of Rome. Suffering and artistic sensitivity are both depicted in Pius, and it is as if this is a case of subject as artist rather than as officeholder.

Moving on into the exhibition, there is another image of what was, to the time, modern monarchy, Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington as President. Like many of the political, and some of the non-political, subjects in this exhibition, this is a reminder of the need to present the new. How as a President of the Untied States or an Emperor of the French to be presented?; not least because each represented a conscious rejection of ancien régime monarchy. In each case, a distinctive style of authority was set, but the contrast was readily apparent. Napoleon I on the Imperial Throne painted by Ingres in 1806, the year of Napoleon's triumph over Prussia, is at best Caesaro-imperial, and, at worst a precursor of Fascist art, and a suggestion of its precursor in aspects of Neo-Classical style. Stuart's Washington is not without its grandeur, not least the columns and the Baroque sky, and Washington DC is of course a great example of Neo-Classical town-design, but the focus is on the man and not on the trappings of office, and on his integrity and not, as with Ingres, his power.

Alongside static power, there is action, Napoleon, for example, shown working in the early hours in his study, very much the diligent carer for his people, or David's acutely propagandist Death of Marat, with its attempt to suggest that self-sacrifice for the revolution is comparable to the sufferings of Christ. The opposite effect could have been produced by painting Charlotte Corday on her way to execution, but, at this stage, the conservatives lacked the artistic energy, ability, initiative and patronage of the Revolutionaries. It is therefore instructive to see the exhibition include a posthumous portrait of an aristocratic hero of the Vendée rising, painted at the behest of Louis XVIII under the Restoration.

David and Goya are to go into exile under the Restoration and there is a wistfulness about some of the paintings they then produce including David's General Gérard, Marshal of France, in practice now only a fellow-exile in Brussels and Goya's portrait of the publisher Joaquin Maria Ferrer. The ex-general, Gérard is a man without functions, washed-up on the tide of history.

In contrast, the energy and vitality of those yeas is, instead, seen with Ingres' portrait of the editor Louis-François Bertin, and with a series of charming portraits of Danish artists by each other, particularly that by Christian Købke, a wonderful depiction of both personality and a Biedermeier interior that is at once restrained and joyful, full of light not trapped by the heavy curtains or coldly held by marble as so many of the earlier portraits are.

It is appropriate that they push the painter forward, as does Claude-Marie Dubufe's The Artists Family, the collective portraits of the artists of London and Paris, or François Rude's posthumous marble bust of David. The latter, which shows the impact of a tumour on his cheek, is a powerful contrast to David's self-portrait; a powerful reminder of the extent to which the artist as hero could be as distorting as the ruler as hero. Claude-André Desein's bust of Mirabeau brings out his heavily-pockmarked face.

These busts also serve as a reminder of the extent to which this is an exhibition of sculptures as well as paintings, a theme that many of the reviewers neglected. Here again we can see a marked transition, not least with Pigalle's sculpture of the naked Voltaire. This caused a sensation because of the convention that sculptures of live individuals were restricted to members of royal families, and then usually only the monarch. Furthermore, Voltaire's nakedness did not clothe him in the accoutrements of scholarly garb but, instead, directed attention to the man.

This can also be seen in the powerful forehead of the bust of Paganini which referred to the belief that talent can be seen in a powerful forehead. A more introspective art, one less fascinated with textures and more engaged with light. The themes that can be probed are very varied. The changing depiction of women is one, with character very much pushed to the front in most of those chosen for display. The clothes also become less ornate, a theme captured in David's Marquise d'Orvilliers.

Definitely an exhibition worth going to. The catalogue, though heavy, is also very handsome as well as being scholarly.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author, amongst much else, of The Slave Trade (Social Affairs Unit, 2007).

To read Christie Davies' take on this exhibition, see: Christie Davies is overwhelmed by images of monarchs and revolutionaries - and is convinced of Gillray's critical role in preventing revolution in England.

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