- 'Writing the Lives of Painters': Biography and Artistic Identity in Britain 1760-1810
'Writing the Lives of Painters' charts the emergence, development, and popularity of painters' biographies during a period when British art was undergoing significant transformation. Karen Junod's stated aim is to "re-establish the centrality of artists' lives in British literature and art criticism" (11) during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and she succeeds admirably in fulfilling this goal. She makes the case for the important role biographies played in the creation of artistic reputations and the cult of celebrity, the changing status of artists, the growth of public exhibitions, new art institutions, an expanding art market, and rising English nationalism. The author's interdisciplinary approach and insightful textual analysis makes this excellent book a valuable resource for art historians and historians as well as literary scholars.
Junod examines the range of different types of artists' biographies that developed in England, including dictionaries, periodical essays, exhibition reviews, pamphlets, and monographs, and analyzes writers' devices such as the use of anecdotes and satire in fictional biographies along with those of living artists. She explains the various functions of biography, and focuses particular attention on relationships between authors and subjects, which often revealed as much, if not more, about the writers' motives than the achievements of the painters they portrayed in print.
The book is organized chronologically into seven chapters grouped into three sections plus an introduction and conclusion. The introduction presents an overview of the issues, sources, and historical background, and briefly reviews recent scholarship on artists' biographies, including influential works by Catherine Soussloff, Karin Hellwig, Gabriele Guercio, and Julie Codell. The first section, titled "Contexts," examines the genre of biography in comparison with other forms of literature, art criticism, and connoisseurship. Junod discusses the origins and development of artists' biographies going back to Pliny's Natural History, Giorgio Vasari's Vite, Benvenuto Cellini and other Italian Renaissance writers, and the contributions of seventeenth-century [End Page 380] biographers, including Giovanni Bellori, Roger de Piles, and André Felibien, who initiated a new kind of art history based on connoisseurship rather than life stories. Building on the pioneering work of Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz's Legend, Myth, and Magic in the Image of the Artist (1979), she stresses the critical importance of understanding the function and uses of commonly repeated artist anecdotes, such as the one about an older master's surprising discovery of exceptional talent in a youthful artist or the many tales of an artist's ability to depict nature so realistically that a picture fools another artist, patron, or even animals. Junod's analysis of distinctions between Continental writers, such as Johann Winckelmann, who focused on stylistic developments, and English biographers, who emphasized lives of individual artists, is an especially valuable contribution to the study of artists' biographies.
The book's second section, "Series of Lives," provides in-depth studies of two influential collections of artists' lives: Horace Walpole's biographical and antiquarian Anecdotes of Painting in England (1762-1780) and William Beckford's satirical Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters (1780), a work that parodied conventional artists' biographies on the model of Vasari's Vite. Beckford's ridiculous fictional artists, such as sweet-tempered Sucrewasser of Vienna and Blunderbussiana, the coarse son of a bandit, famous for painting vulgar scenes—no doubt a parody of the legendary Salvator Rosa—embodied stereotypes of artistic personalities and behavior found in traditional artist anecdotes and biographies. Junod makes the convincing case that Beckford's work was intended as a complex critical text and not simply an amusing trifle, as other scholars have proposed.
The final section of the book examines "Individual Lives" through biographies devoted to four artists: William Hogarth, Thomas Gainsborough, George Morland, and John Opie. Most individual biographies were written by authors who were close to their subjects, including Amelia Opie, the artist's wife, or claimed to be a friend or close acquaintance, such...