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Reviewed by:
  • Napoleon and History Painting: Antoine-Jean Gros’s “La Bataille d’Eylau”, and: Painting and History during the French Restoration: Abandoned by the Past
  • Dorothy Johnson
Christopher Prendergast. Napoleon and History Painting: Antoine-Jean Gros’s “La Bataille d’Eylau” (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997). Pp. 223. $85 cloth.
Beth S. Wright. Painting and History during the French Restoration: Abandoned by the Past (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). Pp. 269. $70 cloth.

The two books under review here could not be more different in perspective. While Christopher Prendergast’s book offers an extended meditation on one painting, Beth Wright’s work is a study of the interrelationship between historical writings and historical paintings during the Restoration. Prendergast is a literary critic bringing the insights of literary theory (in a Brysonian manner) to bear upon an analysis of Gros’s painting, and, by extension, history painting during the Napoleonic period. Wright’s book is deeply historical and reflects her profound familiarity with French painting of the period.

Gros’s vast, complex, and often written-about Battle of Eylau of 1808 certainly warrants a book-length study, for the painting is central to the development of French Romanticism and is one of the most important works commissioned by Napoleon during his campaign to utilize the visual arts for cultural and political propaganda. As in his Napoleon in the Pest-House of Jaffa of 1804, Gros’s subtle and profoundly psychological painting contains mixed [End Page 155] messages about the heroism of Napoleon and the validity and success of his military campaigns. In this work, in fact, Gros transforms the academic genre of battle painting as it had been codified during the late seventeenth century. But this is not the subject of Prendergast’s book. In a series of seven chapters Prendergast explores certain aspects and issues related to history painting, especially battle painting, during the Napoleonic period. Two chapters (chaps. 1 and 6) engage the Battle of Eylau in some detail. In chapter one, Prendergast chooses to focus on a detail of the right foreground, more specifically the gaze of the fallen Prussian soldier that expresses terror and horror, and informs us that he will use this detail to stand for the central arguments of his book: “For to start with a detail, especially with this detail, is both to make a move (routinely unremarkable) and yet to raise a question, a fundamental question, about the character of Gros’s painting. The move is a standard one, the adoption of a kind of synecdochic shorthand, using the detail as an anticipatory marker for a more general claim or argument about the picture: indeed there is an important sense in which the whole argument of this book can be made to converge on the implications of this one detail” (4). Indeed, Prendergast follows the method he has described and does not disappoint. In several chapters, he singles out details for discussion or meditation whether from paintings, historical narratives, or aesthetic treatises of the period. In some instances, this method leads to the presentation of new perspectives which give food for thought, and many pertinent questions are raised throughout the book. A few critical historical circumstances are described in detail, such as that of the commission of the Battle of Eylau and certain aspects of the Napoleonic propaganda campaign in painting. Several key issues in history painting are discussed at length in theoretical terms such as the choice of a significant moment and the debates concerning the “beau idéal” (chap. 3). For the latter discussion, Prendergast aptly focuses on the leading protagonists in the debate, the early-nineteenth-century aesthetic theorists Quatremère de Quincy and Emeric-David. His narrow focus on a few isolated passages in the published texts of these authors, however, leads him not to take into consideration the broader context, so that he states “Even in the writings of Quatremère and Emeric-David it [the “beau idéal”] is already well on its way to the intellectual graveyard” (58). This is mistaken, for the debate on the “beau idéal” in art would be central to the heated polemics of the Romantics versus the Classicists in the...

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pp. 155-157
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