Art in an Age of Counterrevolution, 1815-1848
Boime describes this third volume in his series of the Social History of Art as "my meditation on the development of visual culture in the period following Napoleon, roughly 1815-1848" (4). Meditation, or perhaps thoughts on visual culture in Europe with a foray into America, recounted from an idiosyncratic perspective, is probably the best way to characterize this very lengthy book which is 750 pages long and consists of an introduction and ten chapters examining a series of episodes in the social history of the period in which art, politics and religion intersect. Boime takes as his starting point the Congress of Vienna in this study in which the chapters are loosely connected by the ideologies and events of counterrevolution in Europe after Napoleon's fall. The author emphasizes painting, drawing and prints. This is an odd choice in itself because one could easily argue that European sculpture of the period, particularly public sculpture, provides the most transparent examples of the intersection of art and politics. Apart from David d'Angers who is discussed briefly in the first chapter (it is inexplicable that Jacques de Caso would not be cited in a political reading of the artist), and François Rude, who appears at the conclusion of Chapter 6, sculpture is largely left out of Boime's account.
Because of the ambitious scope of this project one would expect a chronological survey of European Romantic art but that is not the case. Art that does not fit Boime's definition of the paradigm shift of counterrevolution is generally not mentioned in this book. Many of the major works of the period, however, are discussed, often at length, although frequently coerced into a framework that will appear to some as tendentious or even procrustean. These include Géricault's Raft of the Medusa, (1819), Delacroix's Scenes from the Massacres at Chios (1822) and Liberty Leading the People (1830), Ingres' Apotheosis of Homer (1827) and Vow of Louis XIII (1824), Goya's Black Paintings (1820-23), Friedrich's Sea of Ice (1823-4), Constable's The Hay Wain (1821), Turner's Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying–Typhoon Coming On (1840), etc. Many lesser known artists and works are also discussed. This book has the great virtue of being lavishly illustrated with 337 black and white reproductions, a remarkable achievement for any art history book published today.
Boime's frame of counterrevolution displaces the context of European romanticism and, in fact, much of the aesthetic developments of romanticism are given cursory treatment or completely eschewed. To take but one example among many, in his discussion of Géricault's Race of the Riderless Horses series painted in Italy circa 1818, [End Page 387] Boime states: "Géricault's depiction of the sadistic treatment of animals may be read metaphorically as his response to the indifference of the Roman government to the plight of its poor and ethnic minorities. He exploited the theme artistically as a strategy for displacing his opposition to the oppression of the popular classes" (129-30). No mention is made here of the context of the Romantic valuation of animals, especially the horse, with its emphasis on empathy, compassion and the animal as exemplar of the romantic individual struggling in nature. In order to fit this image into the exiguous frame of art and politics narrowly defined, Boime ignores the context of the rise of the anti-Cartesian view of animals that characterized the Romantic movement, the notion of value placed on the individual life, personality and soul of the animal, the capacity for interaction between humans and their counterparts in the world of nature that led to the inception of humane societies and the animal rights movement during this period of "counterrevolution".
Boime's book is most successful when he focuses on specific works and artistic movements that more readily exemplify the role of art in embodying political and cultural ideas and ideals. Thus, in his chapter on The Nazarenes (chapter 2), Boime examines the conflation of religion, art and politics in the oeuvre of Overbeck and Pforr. Throughout the book he makes strong points about the pan-European medieval revival in art, including the popularity of Walter Scott's novels as inspiration for subject matter, but seen almost exclusively through the lens of the religious/political ideologies of the Restoration. He uses certain types of religious paintings as paradigmatic examples of the intersection of religion, politics and art. This works well for certain types of commissions, such as Ingres' Vow of Louis XIII (1824). But it does not work well with most of Delacroix's fervent religious paintings of the 1820s and 30s, including the Agony in the Garden of 1827, which Boime leaves out of his account.
One of the most interesting chapters is "The Counterrevolutionary Origins of Photography and Modern Landscape Painting" which examines the careers of Niépce, Daguerre and Talbot alongside a discussion of the landscape theories of Valenciennes and Deperthes and the development of the Barbizon School, exemplified particularly in the works of Corot and Théodore Rousseau. This chapter examines the important role of the panorama and diorama in visual culture of the period and especially the influence of its objectives and effects on landscape painting. One wonders why Boime inserted a brief chapter on American art of the period towards the conclusion of the book to serve as a type of comparison with developments in British art which are treated in the final chapter. Turner, Pugin, Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites are all addressed in this chapter which covers many issues and areas as it presents the transition from Romanticism to Realism.
Boime's study has many merits. It offers numerous stimulating readings of individual works as well as a synthesis and compilation of the vast pyramid of scholarship on which it depends. It would have been very helpful to have ample rather than cursory endnotes and the book would have greatly benefited from a bibliography. The index has notable errors including the conflation of the sculptor, P.-J. David d'Angers, with Jacques-Louis David.