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2.4: Reading- Defining Art from the Academy to Avant-Garde

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    Academy to Avant-Garde

    We now consider the key developments in the definition of art between c.1600 and c.1850.

    From Function to Autonomy

    The most important idea for this purpose is the concept of art itself, which came to be defined in the way that we still broadly understand it today during the course of the centuries explored here.

    This concept rests on a distinction between art, on the one hand, and craft, on the other. It assumes that a work of art is to be appreciated and valued for its own sake, whereas other types of artifacts serve a functional purpose. A significant step in this direction was made by a group of painters and sculptors who in 1563 set up an Accademia del Disegno (Academy of Design) in Florence in order to distinguish themselves from craftsmen organized in guilds. Their central claim was that the arts they practiced were ‘liberal’ or intellectual rather than ‘mechanical’ or practical. After 1600, academies of art were founded in cities throughout Europe, including Paris (1648) and London (1768). Most offered training in architecture as well as in painting and sculpture. A decisive shift took place in the mid eighteenth century, when the three ‘arts of design’ began to be classified along with poetry and music in a new category of ‘fine arts’ (a translation of the French term, ‘beaux-arts’). Other arts, such as landscape gardening, were sometimes included in this category. Architecture was occasionally excluded on the grounds that it was useful as well as beautiful, but the fine arts were usually defined in terms broad enough to encompass it. One writer, for example, described them as ‘the offspring of genius; they have nature for model, taste for master, pleasure for aim’ (Jacques Lacombe, Dictionnaire Portatif des Beaux-Arts, 1753 (1st edn 1752), p. 40, as translated in Shiner, 2001, p. 88).

    From the Sacred to the Courtly

    To chart what these conceptual shifts meant in practice, we can borrow the categories elaborated by the cultural theorist Peter Bürger (1984, pp. 47–8), who outlines a long-term shift away from the functions that art traditionally served. Such functions continued to play an important role after 1600, especially in the seventeenth century, when academies were rare outside Italy and many artists still belonged to guilds. As in the medieval period, the primary function was religious (or, in Bürger’s terminology, ‘sacral’). The so-called Counter Reformation gave a great boost to Roman Catholic patronage of the arts, as the church sought to renew itself in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation. It was in this context that the word ‘propaganda’ originated; it can be traced back to 1622 when Pope Gregory XV (reigned 1621–23) founded the Congregazio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for the Propagation of Faith) in Rome. The commitment to spreading the faith that this organization embodied helped to shape art not just in Europe but in every part of the world reached by the Catholic Missions, notably Asia and the Americas, throughout the period explored here. The churches that rejected the authority of Rome also played a role in supporting ‘sacral art’, primarily architecture since their use of other art forms was limited by Protestant strictures against ‘Popish’ idolatry (see for example Levy, 2004; Bailey, 1999; Haynes, 2006). Even in Catholic countries, however, the religious uses of art slowly declined relative to secular ones. The seventeenth century is the last in western art history in which a major canonical figure like the Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610) might still be a primarily religious artist.

    Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Death of the Virgin, 1601–03, oil on canvas, 369 × 245 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo: Web Gallery of Art, CC BY-SA. Work is in the public domain

    Bürger’s Functions of Art: the Courtly

    By 1600, it was ‘courtly art’ (Bürger’s second category) that increasingly prevailed in much of Europe. ‘Courtly art’ can be defined as consisting primarily of art actually produced at a royal or princely court, but also extending beyond it to include works of art that more generally promote the leisured lifestyle of an aristocratic elite. As in the Renaissance, artists served the needs of rulers by surrounding them with an aura of splendor and glory. In this context, art was integrated into the courtly or aristocratic way of life, as part of a culture of spectacle, which functioned to distinguish the nobles who frequented the court from other social classes and to legitimate the ruler’s power in the eyes of the world (see for example, Elias, 1983; Adamson, 1999; Blanning, 2002). The consolidation of power in the hands of a fairly small number of European monarchs meant that their need for ideological justification was all the greater and so too were the resources they had at their disposal for the purpose. Exemplary in this respect is the French king Louis XIV (ruled 1643–1715), who harnessed the arts to the service of his own autocratic rule in the most conspicuous manner imaginable. From 1661 onwards, he employed the architects Louis Le Vau (1612/13–1670) and Jules Hardouin-Mansart (1648–1708), the painter Charles Le Brun (1619–90) and the landscape gardener André Le Nôtre (1613–1700), among many others, to create the vast and lavish palace of Versailles, not far from Paris. Every aspect of its design glorified the king, not least by celebrating the military exploits that made France the dominant power in Europe during his reign.

    The Salon de la Guerre (War room), Château de Versailles, designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, showing plaster relief by Antoine Coysevox of Louis XIV trampling over his enemies, 1678–86. Photo: Jebulon. CCO

    Bürger’s Functions of Art: Bourgeois Art

    By 1800, however, the predominant category was what Bürger calls ‘bourgeois art’. His use of this term reflects his reliance on a broadly Marxist conceptual framework, which views artistic developments as being driven ultimately by social and economic change (Bürger, 1984, p. 47; Hemingway and Vaughan, 1998). Such art is bourgeois in so far as it owed its existence to the growing importance of trade and industry in Europe since the late medieval period, which gave rise to an increasingly large and influential wealthy middle class. Exemplary in this respect is seventeenth-century Dutch painting, the distinctive features and sheer profusion of which were both made possible by a large population of relatively affluent city-dwellers. In other countries, the commercialization of society and the urban development that went with it tended to take place more slowly. Britain, however, rapidly caught up with the Netherlands; by 1680, London was being transformed into a modern city characterized by novel uses of space as well as by new building types. Here too, artists produced images that were affordable and appealing to a middle-class audience; notable in this respect was William Hogarth (1697–1764), who began his career working in the comparatively cheap medium of engraving. Even his famous set of paintings Marriage A-la-Mode, which satirizes the manners and morals of fashionable society, was primarily intended as a model for prints to be made after them. Hogarth’s work, like that of many other artists of the period, embodies a sense of didactic purpose, in accordance with the prevailing view that art should aim both to ‘instruct and delight’.

    William Hogarth, Marriage A-la-Mode: 2, The Tête à Tête, circa 1743. Work is in the public domain.

    What fundamentally distinguishes ‘bourgeois art’ from previous categories, however, is its lack of any actual function. Its defining feature, according to Bürger, is its autonomy, which he defines as ‘art’s independence from society’ (Bürger, 1984, p. 35). As we have seen, a conception of ‘fine art’ as a category apart from everyday needs was formalized in the mid eighteenth century. What this meant in practice is best demonstrated by the case of easel painting, which had become the dominant pictorial form by 1600. Unlike an altarpiece or a fresco, this kind of picture has no fixed place; instead, its frame serves to separate it from its surroundings, allowing it to be hung in almost any setting. Its value lies not in any use as such, but in the ease with which it can be bought and sold (or what Marxists call its ‘exchange value’). In taking the form of a commodity, easel-painting accords with the commercial priorities of bourgeois society, even though what appears within the frame may be far removed from these priorities. Art’s previous functions did not simply vanish, however, not least because the nobility and its values retained considerable power and prestige.

    Ultimately more important than such residual courtly functions, however, is the distinctly paradoxical way that art in bourgeois society at once preserves and transforms art’s sacral functions. Autonomous art does not promote Christian beliefs and practices, as religious art traditionally did, but rather is treated by art lovers as itself the source of a special kind of experience, a rarefied or even spiritual pleasure. This type of pleasure is now called ‘aesthetic’, a word that was coined in 1735, by Alexander Baumgarten, though it was only towards the end of the eighteenth century that writers began to talk about their experience of art in such high-flown quasi-religious terms (for examples, see Shiner, 2001, pp. 135–6). What this boils down to is that art increasingly functioned during this period as a cult in its own right, sometimes referred to as the artwork’s aura, one in which the artist of genius replaces God the creator as the source of meaning and value. This exalted conception of art consolidated the separation between the artist and the craftsman, which had motivated the foundation of the Florentine Academy some two centuries earlier.

    From Patronage to the Public Sphere

    Among the various approaches that have been applied to the study of art produced between c.1600 and c.1850, the dominant one in recent decades has been a concern to locate art in its historical context. Art historians who employ this kind of approach take account both of the institutional and commercial conditions in which works of art were produced and consumed and of the broader cultural, social, economic and political conditions of the period. Such an approach (known as the social history of art) represents a reaction against an older model of art history, which relied ultimately on a vague notion of the zeitgeist (or ‘spirit of the age’) as a means of explaining artistic developments. This older model of art history was closely associated with a focus on style, each style being assumed to reflect the spirit of a different age (Wölfflin, 1950, pp. 9–11, 233–4). It is now recognized that artistic practice within a period is invariably more diverse and complex than a style-based art history admits. Furthermore, rather than simply ‘reflecting’ or ‘expressing’ wider social forces, works of art are primarily shaped by the structures and values of the art world, but also connected to society at large in myriad subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways (Clark, 1982, pp. 9–20).


    In exploring artistic developments in the centuries with which we are concerned here, the first structure or institution to consider is that of patronage. As in the Renaissance, many artists worked for patrons, who commissioned them to execute works of art in accordance with their requirements. Patronage played an important role throughout the period, most obviously in the case of large-scale projects for a specific location that could not be undertaken without a commission. Exemplary in this respect is the work that the sculptor (and architect) Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) carried out at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome for a succession of popes from the 1620s onwards. Landscape gardening is another case in point. Artists also executed on commission for a patron works that, though not actually immoveable, involved too much risk to be executed ‘on spec’, in the hope that someone would come along and buy them after they were completed, either because they were large and expensive or because they did not make for easy viewing. Both considerations applied in the case of David’s The Oath of the Horatii, a huge picture of a tragic subject painted in an uncompromising style, which was commissioned by the French state. An artist greatly in demand such as the sculptor Antonio Canova (1757–1822) would also tend to work on commission; in his case, the grandest patrons from across Europe sometimes waited for years to receive a statue by the master, even though he maintained (as both Bernini and Rubens also did) a large workshop to assist him in his labors.

    Finally, portraiture was a genre that, with rare exceptions, such as the portrait of Omai by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–92), required a patron to commission an artist to take a likeness.

    From Patronage to the Open Market

    Nevertheless, the period after 1600 saw a shift away from patronage towards the open market. This shift accompanied the gradual decline of ‘sacral’ and ‘courtly’ art, both of which were normally executed on commission. Consider the case of Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin, an altarpiece commissioned for the church of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome in 1601. In the event, the resolutely human terms in which the painter depicted the subject and the unidealised treatment of the figures scandalized the monks responsible for the church. The painting was therefore put up for sale, exciting intense interest among artists, dealers and collectors; it was snapped up (at a high price) by the Duke of Mantua, on the advice of Rubens, who was then employed as the duke’s court painter (Langdon, 1998, pp. 246–51, 317–18). Thus a functional religious artifact was transformed into a secular artwork, acclaimed as a masterpiece by a famous artist and sold to a princely collector, for whom the possession of such a work was a matter of personal prestige. The comparable transformation of courtly art in response to the market can be illustrated by reference to another picture immediately displaced from the location for which it was painted. In 1721, the Flemish-born artist Antoine Watteau (1684–1721) painted a large canvas as a shop sign for his friend, the Parisian art dealer Edme Gersaint. It shows the kind of elegant figures that the artist typically painted, but here, rather than engaging in aristocratic leisure and dalliance in a park-like setting, they are scrutinizing items for sale in an art dealer’s shop; a portrait of Louis XIV is being packed away into a case, as if to mark the passing of the era of grand courtly art. Rapidly sold to a wealthy (though not aristocratic) collector, Gersaint’s Shop Sign exemplifies the way that Watteau repackaged courtly ideals for the market to reach a wider audience. The painting also shows how art collecting became a refined pastime for the social elite, in which art dealers played a crucial role (McClellan, 1996).

    Antoine Watteau, Gersaint’s Shop Sign, 1720–21, oil on canvas, 151 × 306 cm. Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin. Work is in the public domain.

    As these two examples demonstrate, more market-oriented structures and practices emerged in countries such as Italy and France from the end of the Renaissance onwards (see Haskell, 1980; Pomian, 1990; Posner, 1993; North and Ormrod, 1998). However, the tendency towards commercialization is even more striking elsewhere: for example, in the growth of large-scale speculative building in late seventeenth-century London. As already noted, the emergence of ‘bourgeois art’ (as distinct from architecture) is best exemplified by the Netherlands, where most artists produced small easel paintings for sale. This model of artistic practice went hand in hand with the rise of art dealers and other features of the modern art world, such as public auctions and sale catalogues (see Montias, 1982; North, 1997; Montias, 2002). In important respects, the Dutch case remains idiosyncratic, but nevertheless the genres of painting that dominated in this context – that is, portraiture, landscape, scenes of everyday life and still life – soon became the most popular and successful elsewhere in Europe too. It was not just subject matter that counted, however; increasing emphasis was also placed on the distinctive brushwork of the individual artist and on the skills of connoisseurship that both dealers and collectors needed in order to recognize and appreciate the ‘hand’ of each ‘master’ and, of course, to distinguish genuine works from misattributed ones and outright forgeries. Exemplary in this respect is the work of Rembrandt; it was thanks above all to his exceptionally broad and hence highly distinctive handling of paint that he came to be generally regarded as the greatest of all post-Renaissance artists by the mid nineteenth century. As a result of these developments, painting increasingly tended to overshadow other art forms, especially tapestry, which lost its previous high status with the decline of courtly art.

    Habermas and the Public Sphere

    The emergence of a recognizably modern art world between 1600 and 1850 formed part of the development of the ‘public sphere’, as it has been defined by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Habermas argues that the late seventeenth century onwards saw a shift away from ‘representational culture’, which embodied and displayed the power of the ruler and nobility, as courtly art traditionally did. It was replaced by a new urban culture, the ‘bourgeois public sphere’, which was brought into existence by private individuals, that is, middle-class people like merchants and lawyers, who came together to exchange news and ideas, giving rise to new cultural institutions, such as newspapers, clubs, lending libraries and public theatres (Habermas, 1989 [1962]; Blanning, 2002). A pioneering role in this respect was played by London as a consequence of the limited power of the monarch, which meant that the court dominated culture much less than it did in France at the same time. Public interest in art grew rapidly during the eighteenth century, aided by an expanding print culture, which allowed the circulation of high-art images to an ever larger audience (see Pears, 1988; Clayton, 1997). In both London and Paris, large audiences also attended the exhibitions that began to be held during the middle decades of the century. The first public museums were established around the same time. Most were royal and princely collections opened up to the public, whether as a benevolent gesture on the ruler’s part or, in the case of the Louvre, by the French Revolutionary government in 1793 (McClellan, 1994; Sheehan, 2000; Prior, 2002). However, it was a charitable bequest from an art dealer that led to the creation of the first public art museum in Britain; housed in a building designed for the purpose by the architect Sir John Soane (1753–1837), Dulwich College Picture Gallery opened to the public in 1817.

    The Art Museum and the Painting of Current Events

    With the establishment of the art museum, the autonomy of art gained its defining institution. In a museum, a work of art could be viewed purely for its own sake, without reference to its traditional functions. Nevertheless, as indicated above, art’s autonomy was far from complete. From around 1800 onwards, for example, the public sphere also opened up the possibility that artists might try to bridge the gap dividing art from society by independently producing works that engaged with current events, as the French painter Théodore Géricault (1791–1824) did in his vast picture, The Raft of the Medusa. This and comparable works by other French artists, notably Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), which was painted just after the July Revolution of 1830, are often seen as having inaugurated a new tradition of politically committed modern or ‘avant-garde’ art, which came to the fore towards the end of the nineteenth century. However, it was during this period that the French military term ‘avant garde’ (meaning a section of an army that goes ahead of the rest) came to be applied to works of art. It was first used in this sense in a text published in 1825 under the name of the Utopian Socialist Henri de Saint-Simon, who argued that artists could help to transform society by spreading ‘new ideas among men’ (Harrison et al., 1998, p. 40). Although he does not seem to have had any specific type of art in mind, his emphasis on its role as a means of communication makes it plausible to apply the term to works such as The Raft of the Medusa and Liberty Leading the People, which convey a political message on a large scale and to striking effect.

    Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830, oil on canvas, 260 × 325 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Work is in the public domain.

    For present purposes, however, what is important about these two paintings is the way that they depended on the institutions of the public sphere. Rather than being commissioned by a patron, each was intended first and foremost for display at the official art exhibition in Paris known as the Salon. Both, moreover, were bought by the state for the Luxembourg museum, which was founded in 1818 to house modern French art (though, in Géricault’s case, not until several years later). Indeed Delacroix may have painted his picture in the hope or even the expectation that this would happen, since two of the artist’s works had already entered the museum. It should also be noted that such ambitious and challenging works were very much the exception, even in France and much more so in other countries where the state did not support living artists in the same way. Most of them earned a living by catering to the demands of the market, typically by specializing in a particular genre, such as portraiture. In this respect, the first half of the nineteenth century is continuous with the previous two centuries, during which high-status works by celebrated artists also constituted only a small part of the broad field of visual culture. Rather than tracing a single narrative of art’s development from the establishment of the academies to the beginnings of the avant-garde, it is important to be aware of its diversity and complexity throughout western Europe during this period.

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