Looking Past the Mirror: Genre Painting Taken Seriously
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Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.1 (2002) 99-108



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Book Review

Looking Past the Mirror:
Genre Painting Taken Seriously


Colin B. Bailey. Jean-Baptiste Greuze: The Laundress (Los Angeles: Getty Museum Studies on Art, 2000). 92 pages. $17.50 paperback.
Paula Rea Radisich. Hubert Robert: Painted Spaces of the Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). 207 + xii pages. $80.00 cloth.
Julie Anne Plax. Watteau and the Cultural Politics of Eighteenth-Century France(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). 260 + xii pages. $90.00 cloth.

Three new publications on French eighteenth-century art are distinguished by their productive strategies for reconsidering and interpreting genre painting (Here I am consciously using the term "genre" in its more inclusive and etymological sense as comprising all categories of subject matter, with the exception of history painting, such as portraiture, animal painting, landscape, and still life.) Although each of the volumes discussed here focuses on a single painter, none is a monograph in the traditional sense. Colin Bailey studies one painting by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, an image of a maidservant, proposing artistic and social contexts through which the work could be interpreted in eighteenth-century terms. Paula Radisich selects four sets of varied works by Hubert Robert, and not his most familiar landscapes, considering the subjects of individual images with reference to the series, setting, patronage, and artistic values and ideologies shared by the artist and his viewers. Julie Plax uses a rich combination of approaches for the study of several of Antoine Watteau's paintings of contemporary society, offering new historical information and ideological contexts related to cultural politics at the end of the reign of Louis XIV.

In order for the reader to better measure the contributions of these authors, I need to briefly set out what has been and what still is at stake in discussions [End Page 99] of genre in the field of art history. Indeed, one of the most appealing aspects of eighteenth-century French painting for modern scholars has been the age's newly flourishing production of genre painting, still understood up to the end of the eighteenth-century, as I indicated above, as including all non-historical, non-textually based subject matter. What we today call genre, that is, images of contemporary social life, instead was identified in the eighteenth century by a variety of more narrow descriptions of the represented scene such as a ball, a masquerade, a conversation, a country festivity, a pastoral, a peasant dance, and so forth.

For the artist and the art historian, genre painting was and still is conceived of in relationship to genres (in the plural) or categories of subject matter. This system differs from the elements primarily used to define literary genres such as format, structure, style or language (compare: the novel, the comedy, the sonnet . . . ). In eighteenth-century France it was also assumed, in theory but rarely in practice, that genre images represented things illusionistically as opposed to imaginatively or conceptually. Genre painting was thus located within a comparative scale of values, as has been the case in Western culture whenever any genre in any medium has been identified. The system most modern scholars cite for France is a hierarchy of subjects described in a short passage of André Félibien's preface to the conferences of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture (1667-68). There the paradigm of the ambitious painter is linked to the challenging practice of history painting, that is, to the difficult representation of the human figure in action, in scenes involving several figures, and as a demonstration of the painter's learnedness and inventiveness.

For better or worse, Félibien's hierarchy has largely shaped the way that modern art historians have written about the practice and evolution of genres in early modern France (although surprisingly his original text is rarely consulted and is often misrepresented as including categories, such as social life painting, that were not as yet named or ranked). On the one hand, satisfaction with the authority of this Academic theory has perhaps tended to curb more probing studies of genre...