The Crisis of History Painting in the 1850s – In Conversation with Gülru Çakmak

We caught up with author of Jean-Léon Gérôme and the Crisis of History Painting in the 1850s, Gülru Çakmak, to discuss the critical reception of the French painter’s work and his challenge of making history experiential.

Your new book addresses the crisis of history painting in the 1850s. Why did you choose to draw focus upon this period?

The earlier stages of my research focused on the critical reception of the French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme’s work in France in the course of his entire career, from his earliest Salon exhibitions in the late 1840s until his death in 1904. This meant a thorough immersion in the art critical literature published in France spanning over half a century. At the end of about a year and a half of continuous reading of primary sources, I came to the realization that a decisive shift happened not only in Gérôme’s work but overall in the work of those artists aspiring to paint historical scenes in France in the 1850s. And all the arrows pointed, as the turning point, to the artistic and art critical activity that brewed during and immediately after the 1855 Universal Exhibition in Paris.

The book notes how the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1855 reflected an indifference by the French public towards depictions of past heroes that had once held exceptional influence. What brought about this indifference?

As I explain in the book, this growing indifference—or let’s say a steadily diminishing conviction on the viewers’ side pertaining to the authenticity of a historical scene—did not happen overnight, but was the culmination of an epistemological shift relating to the definition of “history”: the combination of an increasing demand for empirical observation, coupled with a growing sense of an insurmountable distance separating the present from the past. As my book demonstrates through a close examination of the work of Paul Delaroche, Gérôme’s teacher and one of the key painters of the 1830s, a painter’s role in generating the viewer’s access to history would become progressively more problematic by the 1850s, and that artists had to invent increasingly intricate devices to guarantee that accessibility.

What was the role of Gérôme in changing attitudes towards history painting?

I present Gérôme’s work in the aftermath of the 1855 Universal Exhibition as tapping into growing anxieties about what was legitimately possible for an artist to paint, and my book narrates how, in the course of a couple of years, Gérôme’s experimentation with history painting would arrive at a point of explicit acknowledgement of the insuperable distance separating the modern viewer from the past. At the end of 1850s, Gérôme would invent a quintessentially modern history painting, one which had to come to terms with the fact that a modern viewer would always arrive at the scene of the historical incident already belatedly, and that she could never experience history the way an actual historical witness had done. Then what kind of an experience could the modern viewer have, how could a modern history painting convincingly and legitimately make history experiential? These were the critical questions Gérôme asked.

This study focuses on a small group of paintings. Why did you choose these and what was their impact?

My initial aim was to consider different moments from the artist’s career. However, once I immersed myself in research, I realized the programmatic and experimental nature of a handful of paintings he made in the immediate aftermath of the 1855 Universal Exhibition. The paintings themselves insist on a close, in-depth investigation. I’m glad it turned out this way: this is the first monograph on Gérôme that does not offer a sweeping and generalized account of his oeuvre, and instead hones in on a key period. The problems he had to acknowledge head on, and the strategies he would explore and mine in the coming decades of his career all trace their roots to this foundational period and to these handful of works.

How do you think Jean-Léon Gérôme and the Crisis of History Painting in the 1850s paves the way for further research into the history of art?

I hope my book will inspire others to look at Gérôme’s work, slowly and closely, for extended periods of time. Rather than reiterating received ideas and categories about what his work is supposed to do and be about, I would wish for my readers to be inspired to take the time to examine works by this artist with new eyes, and discover for themselves the different ways in which Gérôme’s most significant paintings and sculptures solicit the viewers to be highly active agents and not merely passive consumers. We’ll have a very different picture of nineteenth-century artistic modernity in European art once we begin to reconsider artists like Gérôme whose work has been insistently stereotyped and marginalized to play stock characters in our established art historical narratives.

Gülru Çakmak is Associate Professor in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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