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  • Revolution, Representation, Equality: Gender, Genre, and Emulation in the Académie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture, 1785–93
  • Nicholas Mirzoeff (bio)

Nowhere is the history of art so entwined with wider political history than during the French Revolution. In order to render these complex events comprehensible, art historical narratives have tended to stress the dominant role of Jacques-Louis David and his studio. 1 Consequently, the Revolution has come to be depicted as the moment of masculinity in French art, setting the tone for the unfolding of modern art in the nineteenth century. 2 As such, the liberty sought by radical artists has been connected primarily to the notion of fraternity. Historians, on the other hand, have recently moved away from such overarching narratives to pay far closer attention to the pattern of events, the complexities of revolutionary discourse and the attempts to put such discourse into practice. In this essay, I shall argue that the received canon cannot continue to direct our sense of the meaning of art and artistic practice in the French Revolution. Rather than the traditional unfolding narrative of heroic masculinity from David’s Brutus (1789) to the Death of Marat (1793), I offer an alternative reading of this key period in the formation of modernism centering on the intensely contested debates as to the role of art in the new era. During these first dramatic years of the Revolution, the watchword of artistic reformers was equality, not fraternity. Equality meant giving women artists equal status, modernizing art training, ending the powerful cliques like that of David’s studio, and declaring all artistic genres equal. Above all, it meant ending the hierarchical structures of emulation that gave the Royal [End Page 153] Academy of Painting and Sculpture (L’Académie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture) both a pedagogical method and a bureaucratic structure. Emulation was a conservative slogan during the early years of the revolution, despite its later adoption by the Jacobins. For several years after 1789, artists saw the institutional politics of art as a crucial part of artistic practice. In essence, the question was the same as that being debated in the French polity at large: what was representation, who had the right to represent, and who or what should be represented? 3 The institutional struggles of the nineteenth century over genre and gender had their origin in these unresolved debates. 4 None of the participants in the debate on the arts was prepared to entertain the full radicalism of equality.

The Academy In The Ancien Regime

As all recent studies of the revolution have stressed, the discontent in the Academy had deep roots in the structures of the ancien régime. From the moment of its establishment in 1648, the Academy had always been a political and contested institution. It was set up in order to escape the regulatory attentions of the guilds, or maistres, only to experience an enforced merger with the guilds during the Fronde (1648–53). The guilds created their own Academy of St Luke as a rival to the Royal Academy and claimed many leading seventeenth-century artists as members. However, Louis XIV’s first minister, Colbert, intervened in 1663 to revive and, in the phrase of contemporaries, “refound” the Academy. Its tasks were to be the decoration of the new royal palace at Versailles, the creation of designs for the Gobelins tapestries, and the organization of public conferences on the arts. Soon afterward, the Academy showed its new confidence by expelling its own professor of perspective, Abraham Bosse, a Frondeur and Huguenot who had sought to create a common language for what we now call craft and the fine arts. His expulsion at the hands of the first painter Charles Lebrun caused a revolt by the pupils in the Academy’s school, leading to their own expulsion. Such actions were not quickly forgotten. During the revolutionary period, anti-academic rhetoric referred time and again to Lebrun’s despotism as the origin of the Academy’s problems. 5 The Academy continued to struggle both against the guilds and for government approval until the appointment of Charles-Claude de Flahaut de la Billarderie, comte d’Angiviller as directeur des b...

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pp. 153-174
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