For the scholar, it is unsurprising to learn of two 18th century portraits, originally conceived as a pair, which nevertheless became separated, ending up over the generations in different collections. Such is the fate of many paintings, especially those on canvas, which is a two-dimensional pictorial support whose very persistence through the centuries is tied to its mobility. Combined with the durability of oil paint itself, the portability of canvas is part of what makes oil paintings desirable, valuable, even, one might speculate, so entrenched in Western culture.
Author: Oliver O'Donnell
‘The biggest little place in America,’ was, for the novelist Henry James, Concord, Massachusetts. Sounding like a slogan for the town’s tourism board today, not to mention like a quaint expression of American pastoral kitsch, James’s phrase is meant to reference the difference between Concord’s modest size and its prominent place in history. In contrast to a current population of about 17,000, Concord was the physical site of one of first skirmishes of the American Revolutionary War in 1775 as well as the metaphorical cradle of American Transcendentalism some 60 years later.
Last month, a workshop that I organized on the American art historian and New York intellectual Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996) finally came to fruition. Hosted by the Centre for American Art at the Courtauld Institute here in London, the workshop was conceived as an afternoon of engagement with texts by Schapiro and was punctuated by three presentations: the first by myself, the second by Jérémie Koering of the University of Fribourg, and the third by Hagi Kenaan of University of Tel Aviv. Other scholars, including members of the Bilderfahrzeuge Project, joined as discussants and in the intervening days I’ve continued to think about the workshop and the ideas that it helped generate. In what follows I offer up some further reflections.
In the preface to the 50th anniversary edition of his Pulitzer prize winning study, ‘The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution’, the Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn reflects back on his book’s original argument of 1967, one based on an unprecedented attention to the language and rhetoric of the manifold political pamphlets that circulated in the American colonies between 1760 and 1776. Towards the end of his retrospection, Bailyn underlines the importance of the reception of ancient Roman republicanism among the American revolutionaries and cites one of the most well-known expressions of whiggish sentiment of the time—Trenchard and Gordon’s essays from the 1720s known as ‘Cato’s Letters’. Quoting the letters’ assertion that “words are too weak” to express the magnitude of the impact of the history of ancient Rome on the 18th century republican mind, Bailyn wonders if pictures might come closer to the mark.
“[…] I the last weeke put into the hands of Mr Smith a book seller liveing at the Princes Armes in Pauls Churchyard 26 Draughts of the inhabitants of severall remote parts of the world espetially the East Indies […] For the excellency of the drawing I will not answer they being don by my boy who hath faithfully enough represented the originals they were copyed from.” So wrote the famed philosopher John Locke to his friend William Courten, aka William Charleton, from Amsterdam in August 1687. If these passing remarks concerning the copying work of Locke’s servant, Sylvester Brounower, might at first appear to be of little interest, they take on much more significance when matched with the drawings that they describe. Thanks to the fact that Courten kept a prominent cabinet of curiosities in London that would later be acquired by Hans Sloane, whose collection in turn helped form the basis of the British Museum, we can do just that.
To read an individual’s inner character from their outward appearance is to indulge a deep-seated temptation that has perennially plagued the history of art. Often manifesting itself in drawings of typical expressions or personalities—to say nothing of its troubled connections to theories of race—the very act of visualizing an inner mind by way of outer forms quite easily gives way to another prevalent practice: caricature, the intentional distortion of a given person’s distinctive features for expressive effect.
It is surprisingly easy, cliché though it sounds, to get lost in Hampstead Heath, that large, hilly, and famously wild park in north London. And if you get just lost enough at just the right spot, you might not only forget where you are but also when you are. That is what Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh, seems to have wanted when he left Kenwood, a large estate at the northern edge of the Heath, including a neoclassical mansion filled with a careful selection of 63 master paintings, to the nation upon his death in 1927. The Iveagh Bequest mandates that the collection be “preserved as a fine example of the artistic home of a gentleman of the eighteenth century” and so it has.
Often understood as a mode of Geistesgeschichte, Wind’s lecture was a pioneering effort to think about canonical works of 18th century British art through the larger philosophical discourse of their time, most notably through the debates aroused by the skeptical arguments of David Hume concerning human nature. How might paintings, Wind asked, have been involved in the period’s questioning and championing of human reason as a trustworthy cognitive capacity that purportedly elevates man above other animals?
John Trumbull’s The Declaration of Independence is an iconic image of American history and a rich example of a Bilderfahrzeug functioning in the context of nationhood. On the one hand, the image’s multiple instantiations are key to its wide transmission, existing as it does as three paintings by Trumbull and a number of especially mobile 19th century engravings after those paintings, to say nothing of its more recent dissemination by more modern means.