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Journal of the History of Ideas 63.3 (2002) 399-424

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Representation and the Body of Power in French Academic Painting

Amy M. Schmitter


Reputation of power, is Power . . .

Hobbes, Leviathan, Bk. I, ch. x


It seems natural, even obvious, to distinguish between representations and what they are representations of. A picture of a dog is no more a dog than the word "dog" is a furry, tail-wagging mammal. Nor are properties belonging to the object of a representation necessarily properties of the representation: a picture of a big dog need not be big, a picture of a dog that resembles Fido need not resemble Fido; even a picture of brown Fido need not be brown. And no number of pictures of Fido will sympathetically induce changes in Fido or any other dog. But however clear-cut this distinction may be when what is in question are pictorial references to ordinary, middle-sized material particulars such as dogs, it is much less clear in other cases. It is no violation of common-sense to consider "representations" of such things as gender norms or national identities or selves as non-neutral in the face of what they represent. The representations of gender norms, for example, can extend and enforce them, can change or undermine them, and may well lend a hand in constituting them in the first place.

My theme here is a form of pictorial representation, one found in the theory and practice of that strain of French Academic painting under Louis XIV associated with Charles LeBrun. LeBrun held the titles of First Painter to the King and Director of the French Royal Academy of Painting, and the works I will examine were devoted to the royal power. That one effect of royal power is the ability to command resources and to cause the proliferation of representations, especially flattering representations, is no surprise. But I intend to suggest something stronger: not only did these Academic representations present an expenditure [End Page 399] of royal power, they were meant to embody and therefore extend royal power—even to constitute royal power. The view under examination does not simply collapse the common-sense distinction between signifying properties and what is signified; indeed those relations play an important role in one concept of representation modeled on language and written texts. But to this the academicians added another, more robust concept, one that does not distinguish clearly between the representation and its object.

Implausible as this view may seem at first blush, I think it can prove genuinely explanatory: explanatory for thinking about pictorial representation, about how it can operate (on both its object and its viewer), and about its relation to power. But to see its explanatory value demands considering the nature and needs of state power. For unlike middle-sized material particulars, state power requires recognition to exist. Although that recognition need not be explicit, conscious, or voluntary, it must be widespread, and pictorial representations can be a powerful device for eliciting such recognition. Yet state power in general— or at least the particular form in question here—may demand that the constitutive role of recognition be disguised. Indeed many of the views and concepts of pictorial representation developed by the Academy reverse the dependence of power on recognition; they function in an ideology of representation. Nonetheless, I think that certain "formal," or structural, features of LeBrun's works can be explained in terms of how they elicit recognition and constitute this particular form of royal power. I make no claim that LeBrun's works must be explained so: for one, the royal power represented by LeBrun's works is long gone, and his representations do not now have any miraculous power to raise the dead. For any representations actually to operate as I suggest requires the support of a whole complex of institutions and activities committed to the care and feeding of state power. It is only because such a complex did exist that LeBrun's representations could have a recognizable object, i...


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