- Rebels and Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century
Rebels and Martyrsis the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition of the same name at the National Gallery in London in the summer of 2006. Not the massive scholarly tome that many exhibition catalogues have recently become, this volume is relatively trim with two short introductory essays by Michael Wilson and Rupert Christiansen and beautiful color illustrations of seventy-two paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures. The selection of works is admirably and informatively wide ranging, including images of artists by themselves and by fellow artists as well as genre paintings of the lives of the Old Masters and representations of artists' studios.
Wilson's title essay traces the myth of the artist as a unique genius, alienated from society both by his own commitment to the demands of his art and a philistine public's inability to value or understand it. Wilson rightly notes that the idea of the artist as a melancholic genius dates back to the Renaissance, but he locates the full flowering of the myth in the Romantic era. The essay begins by identifying this new conception of the artist as a self-consciously constructed persona and traces it through the work of Eugène Delacroix, Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet, Paul Gauguin, and Edvard Munch. Along the way, however, the constructed and self-conscious nature of the myth drops out, and the essay starts to read like the canonical account of nineteenth-century art, filled with rebellious heroes and unappreciated martyrs.
In one sense, this slippage is a testament to the power and pervasiveness of the myth of the artist as rebel-martyr. Six thematic groupings of images—Hero of the Establishment; Romantic Hero; Romantic Myths; Bohemia; The Dandy and Flâneur; Priest, Seer, Martyr, Christ; and Creativity and Sexuality—together demonstrate the persistence of the theme of artistic exceptionalism over the long nineteenth century. The sheer range of these themes, however, also demonstrates the myth's fundamental inconsistency and variability, encompassing the intensely inward-looking seer and the sociable Bohemian, the fashionably detached flâneur and the tortured madman, and the fiery political radical and the decadent disciple of artifice. Such variation—even contradiction—ought to raise the question of this myth's cultural significance, a question this catalogue touches on only obliquely.
The status of women artists in the exhibition makes clear the limits of this approach. Feminist scholars such as Linda Nochlin, Roszika Parker, and Griselda Pollock long ago noted the gendered identification of the Great Artist and called attention to its social, institutional, and psychological ramifications. This history is invoked in the exhibition, [End Page 318]which is bracketed by two works by women artists. Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun's Self Portrait in a Straw Hat(after 1782) is the second work in the catalogue, standing for the professional woman who achieves success by conforming to conventional standards of both artistry and femininity, while Paula Modersohn-Becker's Self Portrait on Her Sixth Wedding Anniversary(1906) ends the exhibition as "a brave challenge to notions of male genius" (165). But these are the only two images by women artists in the show. The final thematic section on Creativity and Sexuality argues that women did not have access to the rebel role because of the social demands of respectable femininity. True enough, but surely the very fact of women artists' success in creating careers in the face of practical and conceptual barriers makes them worthy of consideration as rebels? Rosa Bonheur's cross-dressing and celebrity status, Emily Mary Osborne's depiction of the vulnerable woman artist in Nameless and Friendless(1857), and Gwen Johns's scenes of a Parisian garret all would have sharpened the questions about the functions and meaning of the myth, including its connection to the social practices of training and exhibition, its appeal to viewers, and its role in an individual's imaginative identification...