Five books that have shaped my thinking: In conversation with author Patricia Smyth

Author of Paul Delaroche: Painting and Popular Spectacle, Patricia Smyth, takes us through the five books that have helped to mould her thinking.

Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man, London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1986

What struck me about this book when I first read it in the early 1990s is the way it moves between big historical questions and individual experience, as well as between the past and our own moment. Sennett is concerned with the fall of the public sphere in the nineteenth century, but the book is also about what it feels like to be a person now and the sense of incurable loneliness that he identifies as characteristic of modernity. At one time, the public and private realms were balanced, the intimacy of family relationships existing in harmony with the impersonal interactions of civic life. The problem, as Sennett sees it, with contemporary society is that the values of the private domain have expanded to encompass all areas of life. Engaged in a doomed quest for authentic emotional experience, we remain isolated, narcissists lost in what he memorably terms the ‘lonely inexpressive end of individualism’.

Sennett wants a return to the kind of detached engagement that he identifies with the eighteenth-century public realm, but his vivid evocation of the ‘problem’ renders it darkly appealing. Unmoored in a secular world, each of us isolated in our own subjectivity, our perceptions seem charged with hidden meaning, resulting in what he refers to as ‘psychomorphism’, the attribution of feelings and intentions to inanimate objects.

Norman Bryson, Word and Image: French Painting of the Ancien Régime, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981

Bryson looks beyond the (at that time) usual understanding of French eighteenth-century painting as a succession of styles and argues instead that it should be seen as an ongoing struggle between competing tendencies: the discursive – in other words, the message-making aspect of a picture, that which can be translated into words — and the figural, the ‘excess’ in any image that cannot be contained within or reduced to language.

This book really helped me think about the nature of mimesis, which Bryson establishes as not a transcription of any external reality, but, rather, a technique by which an artist creates the sensation of immediacy by offering a surfeit of visual information beyond what we need to apprehend its narrative content. I was struck by his discussion of how certain artists ‘hide’ discursive meaning in the supposedly neutral domain of description because this is certainly the strategy of the artist I work on, Paul Delaroche. Bryson compares this tactic to modern advertising techniques and, although it’s not overtly stated, one has the sense that he sees it as a form of trickery carried out on the spectator, who is made to feel that whatever message they perceive in the work is just ‘there’, inhering in the material world, rather than knowingly created for the purpose of persuading us to a certain point of view. In a way, Bryson is dismantling the mechanics of what Sennett refers to as ‘psychomorphism’, the sense that every tiny detail is somehow significant.

            Bryson does come around to talking about style at the end of the book. He writes of a new self-consciousness in the early nineteenth century as artists found themselves more aware than at any time before of the history of styles available to them, but rendered anxious and indecisive by the sheer range of idioms from which they can now choose. There’s an absence of conviction in the sense that, despite the variety of modes at their fingertips, artists lack a ‘living tradition’ in which to express themselves. At the same time, there are those obsessed with finding the one ‘true’ style. The book ends with the stage set for Ingres and Delacroix. There is no mention anywhere of Delaroche (and neither does he appears in the follow-up, Tradition and Desire: From David to Delacroix), but surely his work exemplifies the ‘alienation from all style’ that Bryson is concerned with.

Martin Meisel, Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983

Anyone working on the connections between art and theatre in the nineteenth century, whatever their ‘home’ discipline, will be on intimate terms with this book. It deals with the nineteenth-century practice of circulating images between media, for instance, between painting and stage spectacle. My own path to Realizations was through Gautier’s dismissal of Delaroche as a ‘melodramatist’. Like Delaroche, melodrama had occupied a problematic place in the canon. Realizations revealed that what this art and theatre had in common, aside from a tendency to stray outside of the ‘proper’ boundaries of their own medium, was an appeal to the popular audience. Why were we ignoring or denigrating so much of what ordinary people loved?

It’s interesting, having just revisited Bryson’s Word and Image, to note that Meisel, too, was concerned with the way in which the foregrounding of style had determined the paintings and plays allowed a place in standard scholarly accounts. Even now, the absence of a specific term to describe this strand of nineteenth-century visual culture can get in the way of attempts to discuss it. Meisel’s approach was to propose that these things should, in fact, be seen as a kind of transmedial style. I’m not sure how convincing that is, but I’ve been inspired over the years by Meisel’s determination to take popular visual culture seriously.

Gerard Curtis, Visual Words: Arts and the Material Book in Victorian England, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002

John Parry, A London Street Scene, 1835, Alfred Dunhill Collection (featured in Visual Words by Gerard Curtis)

I’ve returned again and again over the years to Curtis’s study of the nineteenth-century word/image relationship. The book is concerned with the primacy of images as a means of communicating all manner of knowledge and it deals with the illustrated press, novels, and other forms where text and image are integrated. Most fascinating for me is what Curtis has to say about the way in which text itself acquired a material presence in frontispieces, pictorial capitals, and illustrated alphabets where the meaning of a given word or idea was made to inhere in the very form of the letters. Curtis establishes this tendency as part of a wider reassessment of the relative values of word and image, with the sensory address of pictorial communication now seen as a more immediate, and certainly more universal, means of communication.

As is the case with Meisel’s Realizations, there is a story arc of blossoming transmediality, followed by a reassertion of the boundaries separating one medium from another as the nineteenth century draws to a close. Re-visiting this book now, I’m struck by Curtis’s view that photography actually impoverished popular visual culture. Through engraving, the illustrated press could give form to imagined scenes, close-ups, or views that no human eye could ever have witnessed. The acceptance of photography as the index of the ‘real’ meant that representations of the mind’s eye image more or less disappeared as a popular means of conveying information.

James Smith Allen, Popular French Romanticism: Authors, Readers, and Books in the 19th Century, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1981

This book was a breath of fresh air when I first came across it in the mid-90s. It’s about literature rather than art, but it gave me much needed courage as I endeavoured to write about popular audiences at the annual Salon exhibitions. Historical audience research is a notoriously difficult area, particularly so when it concerns the responses of ‘ordinary’ people, who have generally left no direct testimony of their thoughts or feelings. I sought out histories of popular imagery, but the accounts I found seemed to end around 1830 with the advent of a new kind of technologically innovative visual culture, which the authors seemed to regard as somehow inauthentic and not truly popular. Using quantitative data on literacy levels and wages, and documentation from cabinets de lecture, Smith Allen disregarded such prejudices and focused on the authors that ordinary people actually read, writers such as Eugène Sue and Paul de Kock, as well as genres such as melodrama. He confirmed my suspicion that we can’t think of elite and popular markets as separate and distinct from one another in this period. Romanticism emerges as a brief moment during which the same cultural products appealed across class boundaries in what Smith Allen identifies as the ‘first stages in the development of a “mass” culture’.

You can now purchase Paul Delaroche: Painting and Popular Spectacle by Patricia Smyth via the Liverpool University Press website.


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