- Empire of Landscape: Space and Ideology in French Colonial Algeria
Historians of nineteenth-century French art have been slow to embrace post-colonial critiques of Western culture. Although Linda Nochlin took up Edward Said's project in 1983, it is only since the mid-to-late 1990s that post-colonial theory has had a notable impact on the scholarship. Beginning with work by John MacKenzie and Todd Porterfield, and gathering some momentum in the early years of the new millennium with studies by Darcy Grigsby and Ronald Benjamin, historians of nineteenth-century French art have gradually, but increasingly, developed an interest in the links between art and imperialism. At the same time, authors have tended to restrict their inquiries to the cultures of the elite. These two features of the discourse—the reluctance to undertake post-colonial critique and the emphasis on high art—structure Zarobell's intervention in Empire of Landscape: Space and Ideology in French Colonial Algeria. Zarobell addresses these concerns by employing Said's concept of orientalism to examine works that have traditionally been neglected within the discipline. In the process, he offers a sustained analysis of a genre that has received surprisingly little attention in post-colonial criticism. Instead of persons, peoples, or identities, the author considers representations of the land itself—a subject that, at the risk of stating the obvious, features prominently in the rhetorics and processes of imperialism. Zarobell argues that "since colonialism is about control of space—literally seizing territory—its complement is the imposition of the colonizer's understanding of space onto the colonized" (5). His goal, then, is to demonstrate how popular or otherwise nontraditional landscape reflects and propagates official colonial policy pertaining to Algeria.
Zarobell develops his inquiry over the course of six chapters and a brief epilogue, organizing the volume as a series of case studies (several of which have appeared in print before). The author opens with a discussion of a lost popular work, Jean-Charles Langlois' Panorama of Algiers (1833). He then treats the large-scale watercolor series of the Portes de Fer executed for the Museum of French History in Versailles in 1840-41 by the highly regarded and well-traveled illustrator Adrien Dauzats. Next, he considers the illustrated volume Journal de l'expédition des Portes de Fer (1844), a privately commissioned, and limited run, celebration of Prince Ferdinand Philippe's journey through Algeria. In Chapter 5, the author surveys photographic landscapes, discussing a variety of works, but returning regularly to Félix-Jacques-Antoine Moulin's ambitious [End Page 153] multivolume album, L'Algérie photographiée (1856-57), another project that failed to achieve wide circulation and that, indeed, may never have been completed. Along the way, Zarobell offers sustained discussions of oil paintings by Horace Vernet, Eugène Fromentin, Gustave Guillaumet, and in his epilogue, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri Matisse. Instead of concentrating exclusively on high culture, Zarobell, unlike his predecessors, attempts to sample the "amazing variety of forms" that colonial imagery assumed (1).
The book does have a few problems. More demanding readers will be irked by occasional passages of turgid prose (in contrast to what is generally a readable study). And there are a few moments in which arguments either fall short of their stated goals or simply fall flat. For instance, despite the author's introductory remarks in Chapter 4 (in which he asserts that "Fromentin's artistic practices manifested [a] broader historical development" ), he neither details a large-scale shift in colonial policy in the early 1850s nor clearly relates it to Fromentin's paintings of the period. And although he develops his discussion of late-Second Empire policy fully and effectively in Chapter 6, Zarobell fails to offer a compelling reading of Guillaumet's remarkable oil painting The Desert (1867), which he situates as his culminating analysis. On a structural note, the book's epilogue, which treats single works by Renoir and Matisse, undercuts the unity of what is otherwise a...