The Insurgency of Independent Publishing


presented by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

to the

College Art Association, New York, New York

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A hundred and forty years ago, the art world in Paris faced a self-imposed crisis—or to be more precise—refused to face the crisis. Like most crises, this one had been brewing for years—symptoms had been noted—but had been misdiagnosed as problems to be solved. [1] At issue was the centuries-old system [2] of training artists—-judging and evaluating their efforts—exhibiting their art. [3] It was impossible to imagine that such a venerated process could possibly go wrong. After all, the quality of the French education was superb; the quality of the art from the Academy was unsurpassed. The French Academy was envied and emulated throughout the Western world. The academic system had produced eminent artists and the art was justly celebrated. [4]

Given all this quality work, it was hard to imagine how anyone could be dissatisfied with continuing excellence. [5] Even the most vocal critics demanded to be included. Even the most unlikely candidates were given a fair hearing. [6] The jury system gave all comers and opportunity to be accepted and to shine, achieve fame, acquire wealth. [7] What could possibly be wrong? [8]

To those outside the system of quality, [9] the Academy, its elaborate apparatus of rules built level by level over hundreds of years, for the sole purpose of preserving the classical ideal and the methodologies of the Renaissance, in order to maintain the power of those in charge—-to the outsiders—to those not in the in crowd, [10] the Academy was training students to uphold an outdated status quo, all in the service of a repressive government, intent on controlling the visual culture of France. These outsiders—-mostly a motley crew of indifferently trained painters—-confronted—not a jury of their peers—but a group of old men, who were hostile to interlopers. From the standpoint of the outsiders, [11] the judgment of the aging academicians, long past their prime, seemed implausible, inexplicable, implacable, improbable, unrelentingly ruthless and capricious.

The Academy and the exhibitions it controlled, the Salons, was, in fact, a bastion of unassailable power that ran a rigged game, [12] designed to generate losers, [13] not winners, created to guarantee, not quality, [14] as was claimed, but a great prize, [15] available only to a very small number of aspirants, who obediently [16] responded appropriately to all the prerequisites—-genuflection to authority, [17] acceptance of submission to tradition, [18] willingness to forego rebellion against the paternal figures.

By making the prizes so difficult to achieve, the number of winners so small, the Academy made the ultimate rewards—such as they were—-seem intensely desirable worthy of being won. [19] Many were called but only a few succeeded. Perversely, the young artists, instead of recognizing that the roulette wheel was tilted, that the system was structured for failure, [20] only increased their desire and intensified their efforts to succeed against the odds—not understanding that the ruthless winnowing indicated, not that their art was less worthy, but that the system [21] simply could not handle the growing number of supplicants.

For hundreds of years, the Salon system had built a mindset of acceptance of the rules of this game—a victim mentality that was as unassailable as the castle of the Academy itself. Some artists, it seems, did recognize that the Academy was in crisis—was ossified and inflexible—that the Salon was eating its young—and that the selection system was unfair. [22] These artists refused to play the game, refused to resign themselves to rejection by the Salon juries.

Instead they formed their own alternative [23] to the massive salon exhibitions and the willful and antiquated whims of the jurors. [24] These painters—acting as independent entrepreneurs—as enterprising business people—started their own self-generated alternative art exhibitions. Rather than challenging the paradigm of the Salon, they simply created another paradigm—exhibit your own art, in your own way, on your own terms.

We are speaking, of course, of the Impressionists. [25]

True, there had been earlier attempts by previous artists to free themselves of the constraints of the Salon—David, Courbet, Manet, [26] Whistler [27]—but the psychological grip of the Academic system was so powerful that, rather than being impressed by the efforts of those artists, the art audience was mostly bemused and puzzled. These independent exhibitions were significant cracks in the fortress wall, but the most famous alarm bell had to be what became the historically significant Salon des Refusés (1863), [28] ten years before the Impressionists’ first exhibition in 1874. [29]

The anger of rejected artists [30] against an unusually punitive jury signaled a genuine crisis: there were too many artists for too few places [31] to satisfy the demand for inclusion. [32] Indeed, one mollifying exhibition would not suffice to ease the growing tension between the guardians of the watchtower and the armies of talented young people [33] assembling at the portcullis—battering at the gates. [34]

It is important to pause and consider the courage of the Impressionists. They would be laughed at—they knew that—the establishment would feel threatened, if it noticed the artists at all, the critics who accepted the system would be unkind, and call them names, established artists invested in academia would reject them—the Impressionists knew all that—-and all of these indignities came to pass. [35] True, the Impressionists yearned [36] for validation and acceptance in the Salon but the painters headed for open territory, [37] the unguarded terrain of the independent exhibition, building upon the nascent artist-dealer system. [38] The Impressionists initiated today’s art world.

Although the myth of the Impressionists posits them as the shock troops of the avant-garde of the Third Republic, the painters were reacting to real financial needs. [39] The Salon system acted as a barrier to economic success. [40] The gatekeepers prevented an entire class of creative thinkers from earning an honest living at the trade [41] of their choice and the casualties were not just the renegade rebels. Academic artists suffered as well. [42] The system of enforced failure [43] guaranteed that they too must be sacrificed. They too must fail. Undoubtedly, the defenders of the Salon system had their explanations, their reasons for ensuring failure—-those who were rejected by the juries were simply bad artists who deserved to fail. Really? Paul Cézanne—a bad artist?

The upholders of the status quo [44] would argue that their system was responsible for artistic leaders, such as, Jean-Léon Gérôme. [45] But, in reality, the system had no room for new ideas, could not accommodate artistic innovation, and could not tolerate artistic freedom or new innovations. [46] If the Impressionists had not found their way around the artificial barriers and created new opportunities [47] for themselves, then it would not have been possible for artists in the twentieth century to exist—-even thrive—and find success—entirely outside [48] the Salon system. [49] Pablo Picasso could have been the failed son of an obscure Spanish artist.

Impossible you say? Everyone knows that talent will always be discovered; true art will shine through. Really? The eventual success of long dead avant-garde artists rested upon fragile foundations of arbitrary chance. Vincent van Gogh had a brother, Théo, was an art dealer who financed his difficult younger brother, and Théo’s widow was inclined to preserve the paintings of her unstable brother-in-law who had sold one painting in his lifetime. [50] Other people simply threw his art in the dustbin. [51]

To say that the Impressionists challenge [52] to the bulwark that was the Salon system made it possible for the art of some of the most valued artists of the modern avant-garde to be recognized [53] is to state the obvious but sometimes emphasizing the already known is necessary. Even in the year of our Lord 2011, or especially in our own time, it is necessary to recall the revolution of the Impressionists, for we are facing a similar crisis in art history. Like the crisis of the nineteenth century avant-garde, [54] our crisis is demographic also, an expansion of an aspiring educated middle class exemplified by an increasing number of freshly minted PhDs who are pumped out of graduate programs—but for what future? Reeling from yet another economic downturn, our own academia is downsizing, and to add to this perfect storm of too few jobs and too many job hunters, the entire publishing industry is shrinking. [55]

Are those who are outside the magic circle of the privileged and the published any less intelligent, any less gifted, any less capable, do they have less to offer the profession of art history? Surely the academic system of producing art historians works, doesn’t it? The academic stars are not lucky stars, well situated in the northeast corridor, enjoying unrecognized advantages in publication. [56] These (privileged) people are truly deserving of their success, no argument. Just as it would be wrong to insist that Bouguereau was technically deficient, or that Gérome lacked imagination, [57] there can be no argument that the academic stars have not earned their rewards, their books, their articles, and their reputation for excellence. Therefore, I am not concerned with them. I am concerned about everyone else—those art historians who are intelligent and capable, who have a lot to offer, but have no outlets for publication, that all-important stepping stone to a job, to tenure. [58]

The chances of getting published today are less that of wining on a slot machine in Vegas. [59] There are those who would argue that the current system of publication works perfectly well. [60] But we cannot argue today in good faith that our process of publishing is allowing talent to be developed for the same reason as those who in the nineteenth century could not—in good faith—maintain that the Salon system of exhibiting art was efficient. [61] Likewise, we cannot state that our system allows the cream to come to the top, that only the worthy are rewarded and that those who never rise deserved to fail. [62]

Just as it was illegitimate to make those claims in the nineteenth century, we cannot make them today, because we simply don’t know if we are correct. There is no way of knowing. There is no way of measuring the loss, the lack, the silence of new voices never heard, new words never written, new insights never illuminated, years of training never coming to fruition, scholarship wasted, careers never realized…all because there are not enough outlets for publication. Surely the loss of art historical talent must outweigh any gains. [63] Such a limited field for publication is not efficient. Any system that wastes its best and brightest, allows them to disappear, and fail to thrive, consigned to invisibility, is a system that values status quo over change, supports vested interests over innovation. [64]

Let us imagine—if the Impressionists had never tried—and remember that many of these artists died long before Impressionism was accepted. Imagine—if their courage had faltered—there would be no Claude Monet, no Pierre Renoir, no Mary Cassatt, no Vincent van Gogh, no Paul Gauguin, no Georges Seurat. These artists would have lived, painted futilely, and died in obscurity. [65] Instead the impressionists changed the avant-garde, from the presence of a few outliers to a genuine movement, inspiring large venues for Independent art shows, the Salon des Indépendants–jury-less, the Salon d’Automne–radical–jumpstarting a new way for artists to sell their art outside the Salon system. [66]

Challenge and change are equally difficult but out of crisis comes—-not opportunity—but the willed creation of opportunity. [67] Today the will exists, the technology is available, allowing art professionals, art historians, art critics, theorists to take their careers in their own hands—like the Impressionists—to make themselves heard and read and seen. [68] It is possible to open a new field [69] of cultural production, [70] to run a new game, played by new rules, to establish a new paradigm, to build an alternative system that allows the players to win. [71] And all that is necessary is to forego voluntary psychological handicaps, to give up a constricting mindset [72] and take advantage of the first real game change [73] in the art world since the establishment of the artist-dealer-gallery system for artists.

Revised and updated ending:

Today it is possible to open a closed field [74], the contained field of art historical publication, with independent petit revues or hybrid e-journals, that are open and inclusive, democratic, professional, and dedicated [75] to the intellectual growth and development of art historical colleagues [76] who have a great deal to say and no place to publish it. My website, Art History Unstuffed, and my recent book New Artwriting (2014), are examples of a professional taking charge of a career, publishing on her own terms and on her own timetable and in her own style. While others follow the rules of the Academy and frequent the Salons, it is possible to establish outposts on the frontiers beyond the borders and become part of the small group of forward observers.

You deserve to be heard.




[1] Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, p. 179

[2] Ross King, The Judgment of Paris. The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism, p.31.

[3] King, ibid, p. 32.

[4] Bourdieu, RA, p. 119.

[5] Bourdieu, ibid. p. 260-1.

[6] King, op. cit, p.82.

[7] Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, p. 241.

[8] Bourdieu, ibid. p. 251.

[9] Bourdieu, ibid, p. 83.

[10] Bourdieu, ibid. p. 83.

[11] Bourdieu, The Rules of Art, p. 225.

[12] Ibid., p.167.

[13] Ibid., p. 243.

[14] Ibid. p. 169.

[15] Ibid. p. 230.

[16] Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, p. 133.

[17] King, p. 67.

[18] Bourdieu, RA, p. 148

[19] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 164.

[20] Ibid. p. 164.

[21] Ibid, p. 251-2.

[22] King, p. 34

[23] King, p. 57.

[24] Ibid. p. 57.

[25] Ibid., p. 354

[26] Moscovici, Romanticism and Post-Romanticism, p. 65

[27] King, p. 72

[28] Philip G. Nord, Impressionists and Politics: Art and Democracy in the Nineteenth Century, p. 6 and 7.

[29] King, p. 357.

[30] Ibid., p. 171.

[31] King, p. 52 and 59

[32] Ibid., p. 337.

[33] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 60.

[34] Ibid., p. 231.

[35] Wynford Dewhurst, Impressionist Painting: Its Genesis and Development, p. 35-36.

[36] King, p. 197.

[37] Robert Herbert, “Impressionism, Originality, and Laissez-faire,” p. 25.

[38] King, p. 48

[39] Ibid. p. 26.

[40] Ibid, p. 27.

[41] Dewhurst, p. 33.

[42] Jon Whitely, in Transformations in Personhood After Theory. The Languages of History, Aesthetics, and Ethics, p. 37.

[43] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 79 and 83.

[44] Ibid., p. 252

[45] Bourdieu, RA, p. 157

[46] Ibid., p. 105.

[47] Nancy Austin, “Naming the Landscape,” in Transformations in Personhood After Theory. The Languages of History, Aesthetics, and Ethics, p. 51-55.

[48] Bourdieu, RA, p. 236

[49] ibid., p. 125

[50] See Kendell, Van Gogh’s Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

[51] Paul Barlow in Denis, Rafael Carsoso, Art and the Academy in the Nineteenth Century, 20-26

[52] Swinth, Painting Professionals: Women Artists and the Development of Modern America, p. 39.

[53] King, p. 371

[54] Bourdieu, RA, p. 122

[55] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 84

[56] Cown, In Praise of Commercial Culture, p. 112

[57] ibid., p. 127

[58] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 84

[59] King, p. 75

[60] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 41

[61] Bourdieu, RA, p. 132-133

[62] King, p. 201

[63] Schneider, Creating the Musée d’Orsay: The Politics of Culture in France, p. 45, 53, 63

[64] ibid., p. 75

[65] Ibid., p. 197

[66] Cowen, p. 112

[67] Bourdieu, RA, p. 215

[68] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 183

[69] Ibid., p. 95

[70] Cowen, p. 163

[71] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 58

[72] King, p. 372

[73] Bourdieu, RA, p. 249

[74] Ibid., p. 253

[75] Ibid., p. 267

[76] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 106



Bourdieu, Pierre, The Field of Cultural Production (New York: Columbia University Press) 1993

The Rules of Art. Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (Stanford: University of California Press) 1995

Chadwick, Whitney, Women, Art and Society (London: Thames and Hudson) 1990

Cown, Tyler, In Praise of Commercial Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) 2000

Denis, Rafael Carsoso, Art and the Academy in the Nineteenth Century (Manchester University Press) 2000

Dewhurst, Wynford, Impressionist Painting: Its Genesis and Development (G. Newnes, Limited) 1904

Herbert, Robert, “Impressionism, Originality, and Laissez-faire,” from Critical Readings in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: An Anthology by Mark Tompkins Lewis (University of California Press) 2007

Kendell, Richard, et al. Van Gogh’s Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) 1998

King, Ross, The Judgment of Paris. The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism (New York: Walker and Company) 2006

McDonald, Christie and Gary Wihl, editors, Transformations in Personhood After Theory. The Languages of History, Aesthetics, and Ethics (Pennsylvania State University Press) 1994

Moscovici, Claudia, Romanticism and Post-Romanticism (Lexington Books) 2007

Nord, Philip G., Impressionists and Politics: Art and Democracy in the Nineteenth Century (Routledge) 2000

Schneider, Andrea Kupfer, Creating the Musée d’Orsay: The Politics of Culture in France (Pennsylvania State University Press) 1998

Swinth, Kristen, Painting Professionals: Women Artists and the Development of Modern America (University of North Carolina Press) 2007


Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, Part Three


Musée d’Orsay, Paris, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Art Institute of Chicago

September 2012-September 2013

Part Three: Fashion and Psychology

Fashion is the masquerade that tells the truth–for the first time it was possible for an entire urban population to express itself trough clothing. It was Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) who, in his seminal work The Painter of Modern Life (1863), chose to undertake the task of defining “modern life” and he chose to do so through the filter of fashion. In his stunning 2008 book, La Folie Baudelaire, Roberto Calasso took up the question of why the poet selected an obscure illustrator, a journalist, Constantin Guys (1802-1892), rather than Édouard Manet (1832-1883) as his “painter of modern life.” Calasso makes the important point that this choice was deliberate and, to my mind, deliberately perverse and typical of Baudelaire’s natural contrariness and his uncanny ability to be ahead of his time. In selecting Guys, Calasso argues, Baudelaire deliberately eschewed the art world’s established figures (such as Édouard Manet) for an unknown artist, impervious to academic dictates or possible avant-garde trends, one could argue that Guys was not only an outsider, indicative of other such artists—Monet, Renoir—waiting in the wings, but that he was also a popular artist or a (non) artist of popular culture. Only someone in touch with the modern quotidian, a practicing journalist, could be truly a “painter of modern life.”


Constantin Guys. Box Seats

Modernité, a new word of mysterious origin and meaning, seemed to imply the new urban space of Paris, a space of visibility and spectacle where the “crowd” gathered and unfurled itself as in Manet’s Music in the Tuileries (1862). This early work of modernité provided a leitmotif for this public life, a necessary gathering and display of accomplishments and culture and acquisition.


Manet’s Music in the Tuileries (1862)

The women (Mme Jacques Offenbach) in their flower-like expanding dresses on the left create a V at the bottom of the canvas, dipping in the center at the little girls—women to be—and rising with the open upturned umbrellas pointing to the cluster of women on the right. The visible faces are portraits of Manet himself, on the left hand side, Baudelaire, slightly blurred, painters Albert de Balleroy (1828-1872) and Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), the writers Zacharie Astruc (1833-1907) and Theophile Gautier (1811-1872), the composer Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880), and the artist’s brother Eugène, The men, topped with top hats, stand tall and besuited in bespoke suits in the next row, all in isocephaly. Clearly the artist’s attention was on the blossoming dresses and the delicate design of the park chairs, both of which were “modern” and “new” and “novel.” Therefore, for the up and coming artists of the Second Empire, modernité was an odd combination of fashion, as worn by women, and public spaces. Odd, because respectable women were not allowed in public spaces, expect under exceptional circumstances: they had to either be escorted or in the act of shopping. Realism was life in the streets and the passage of a speeded up time could be measured à la Guys by the changing details (accessories) of female frocks. According to Manet’s friend, Antonin Proust (1832-1905), the painter and his friend Baudelaire would often go to the Tuileries to observe the fashionable crowds that would gather there. Because Baudelaire was submitting The Painter of Modern Life to various publications, it can be assumed that the top hatted pair of self-proclaimed dandies discussed what “modern life” might mean.


Edgar Degas. At the Races

The Gaze and Blindness

While the male artists and writers were preoccupied with the task of rendering fashionable realism, women were kept apart from this endeavor of “sincerity” and “authenticity” associated with painting the actualité of modernity. The laws of fashion compelled them to become fictions or fantasies. Upper class women were compelled to be, not themselves, but virtual signboards for their husband’s wealth and for their own class and its responsibilities. While lower class women were suppressed by their livery, the haute bourgeois woman had to walk into public, swathed in “conspicuous consumption,” wearing moral barometers, which proclaimed their virtue or lack of righteousness. While men were busy actualizing themselves, women were trapped and wrapped in their finery. Perhaps this is why, when Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) and Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) painted women, they were often in domestic settings, at home to their friends and family and thus freed of the trappings of fashion. But these settings are often marked by confinement and enclosure and neither artist shows women out of their domestic places except in a few paintings. Indeed, after Morisot’s marriage, it is rare to see her women in a landscape setting.


Cassatt’s Cup of Tea (1879)

These paintings, which are part of named Impressionism and the era when the artists were exhibiting together, were made in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. The plain dress of these well-to-do protected women proclaimed a momentary freedom from the obligation to display, but these intimate works of art, works by women, such as Mary Cassatt’s Cup of Tea (1879) define “reality” in a very different way. The listless women are confined between the watching silver tea service and the prison strips of the wallpaper. The pair does not speak, their mouths are pointedly covered. Not on display, captured in a private moment of non-existence, they seem to wilt into their afternoon attire. The contrast between how men painted women and how women painted women shows the very different “realities” for men and women, who live in essentially different worlds. For the Impressionists, “reality” was measured by the fiction of fashion, which effaced the women who succumbed to the fabrics, which, like armor, concealed them from view while exhibiting them for the male gaze.


Pierre Renoir. The Loge (1874)

The male artists, from Monet to Renoir, “dressed up” their models, and whether by accident or design, these lower middle class artists piled on odd assemblages of outfits, producing hybrid and somewhat louche impressions of the women in their paintings. One has only to compare Pierre Renoir’s (1841-1919) The Loge (1874) with Cassatt’s portrait of her sister Lydia, Woman in a Pearl Necklace in a Loge (1879) to sense the authenticity of Cassatt’s tastefully and discretely dressed woman and the inherent falsity of the over costumed “Nini,” Renoir’s model. As the writer Gloria Groom pointed out “The ostentatiously dressed Nini wears pink flowers in her hair and on her bodice, a strand of pearls, a gold bracelet, earrings, and noticeable makeup.” And Groom did mention the assertively strips which draw the eye to the suggestively pink rose nestled between the breasts. Cassatt’s model is a member of the haute bourgeoisie and is genuinely happy and at ease, sure of her place in society. Pretty in pink, Lydia is actually far more bared to the viewer—her shoulders are bare, her upper arms are bare—and yet the dainty pearl necklace, the corsage set on the left shoulder make her look young and innocent and decidedly respectable and virtuous. “Nini,” as Groom remarks, has an undisclosed relationship with her male companion (the artist’s brother Edmund), but one suspects, if nothing else, misplaced ostentation in this piled on display of gold and pearls.


Mary Cassatt. Woman in a Pearl Necklace in a Loge (1879)

And here is the heart of the contradiction that is the sub-text of this version of modernité as fashion: the “realism” of Realism as presented by the male artists is the “reality” of the female, as dressed up, posed and placed, and interpreted by the male. However, if one is looking for “realism” through the bodies of women, even clothes bodies, it is the female artists who truly capture this “realism.” One could make a distinction between Realism and Modernité, suggesting that Realism, such as that of Courbet is “sincere” and Realism, such as that of Manet is artificial and socially constructed. However, the male artists seem unaware that they themselves are also artificial and ignorant of their own projections of the model of panopticon surveillance as social control upon women.


Staircase of the Opèra

Aside from scattered complaints from artists and critics about the difficulties the neutral colors worn by the males (and note that only the lower class males wear color of any kind), the extent to which males have been forced to give up individuality seems to be unrealized. In addition, fashion for women, admittedly extreme and often absurd, was not seen by the males as an attempt on the part of the woman at self-actualization in an age that considered her a legal child. Writer René Delorme noted the fact that architect Charles Garnier (1825-1898) designed the new staircase of the Opéra, not for the male, but for the female:

A black suit is ugly, two black suites are even more so. But nothing compares to the ugliness of the reunion of several thousand black suits. I have sometimes wondered which inexplicable oddity has made our generation wear this funerary costume in the gorgeous décor of the palace of Charles Garnier. The staircase of the Opéra, with its gold, its marble, its onyx appeals for a grand costume that our mundane uniform will never grant.

If grand costumes are left to women, the female artists had little interest in grandeur. For an expression of women as people, real individuals, we must turn to the women of Impressionism, especially Berthe Morisot (her counterpart is Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894), who show the reality of the modern life of modern women (of a certain class). Morisot is the primary artist who shows the interior life of women, often through her own life, as sad as it was. In The Sisters (1869), Morisot and her sister Edma, wearing white dressed dappled with sprigs of flowers sit on a pink and white flowered sofa with a framed Japanese frame between them. As if they were posing for a daguerreotype, the sisters are still and pensive, waiting with little anticipation for the domestic life that lies ahead.


Morisot’s The Sisters (1869)

In yet another self-portrait that uses the photographer’s studio as a model, Mary Cassatt paints herself in a simple white dress leaning, in a twisted and ungraceful position, on the arm of an unseen chair. Again the expressionless face, common to long poses in front of the lens. What is striking about the paintings by women of women is the limitations of this world. Women artists of this period rarely venture outdoors and when they do, they stay close to home. They are excluded from the scenes of the Bohème and the demi-mondaine, they rarely executed landscapes en plein air, and they did not obsessively observe men as a kind of spectacle. Instead, as in Morisot’s Interior (1872), there is often an air of melancholy and sadness, an atmosphere of womanly waiting and female passivity that is very different from male alienation acted out in Caillebotte.

3 Berthe Morisot (French artist, 1841-1895). Interior, 1872.

Morisot’s Interior (1872)

Fashion as Male Desire

And yet when one looks at the beautiful costumes—for these elaborate dresses cannot be called “clothes”—these decades are aesthetically stunning. Although women were being constructed as shoppers, they are portrayed by male novelists—Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) and Émile Zola (1840-1902)—as maniacal consumers who cannot control their cravings for these costumes. But it is not the women Impressionists who celebrate these gorgeous gowns; it is the male artists who seem to revel in the ribbons, laces, embroideries, trimmings, gloves, dainty shoes, and boned corsets. One has only to set Morisot’s Woman at her Toilette (1875/80) next to Manet’s Woman Fastening her Garter (1878-9), as they are in the catalogue, to notice the different and gendered points of view.

Lady at her Toilette

Morisot’s Woman at her Toilette (1875/80)

Both women are dressed in their underwear: corset, chemise, petticoats, in the moments before the dress, the final layer, is slipped over the head. But Morisot’s model is allowed her privacy and her back is tuned to the viewer; Manet’s subject faces the spectator and her bared breasts, barely contained in her corset, are a spectacle for the male’s gaze. With Morisot, the point of view is companionable–one could be a friend, an equal, while Manet’s perspective is elevated, encouraging a male gaze from above, staring down and into the breasts. Writing about Manet’s Nana (1877), expert on all things corset writer Valerie Steele observed that the model is “neither fully dressed nor completely undressed.”


Manet’s Woman Fastening her Garter (1878-9)

Her corset contains the fullness of her flesh, like the cuirasse ésthetique of a classical male nude, while its satin mimics the softness of her skin. Within only a few decades, the corset would become internalized through diet and exercise, resulting in a new cultural ideal of femininity…Ultimately Nana does not demonstrate that the satin corset was more sexually potent than the naked body, but rather than the corset drew its erotic charm from the naked body it covered and accentuated. It was the movement between dress and undress—and, of course, the idea of a woman who takes her clothes off for a man—-that aroused and scandalized viewers.


Manet’s Nana (1877)

Just as male sexual activities are controlled by social dictates, male desire is guided and directed towards certain areas of the women’s bodies. These male sexual desires, as these paintings make clear, are not reserved for one’s wife but are expressed with prostitutes. For the male, the corset is a fetish object; for the female, the corset is an instrument of torture, existing to reshape the human body into a mold dictated by a changing parade of fashion designers. The female breast is moved up one decade, pressed down upon in the next; her rear end vanishes under a balloon skirt one year, only to be thrust outward and backward in the next year. One hundred and fifty years later, it is hard to imagine how these women managed to drag pounds of excessive fabric behind them or how they breathed or how they managed to use the toilet. The beauty of the costumes designed by the first artist of the haute couture Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895) and his colleagues depended totally upon a ruthless repatriation of the female form forcing it into an object designed to wear fashions, designed by males, on a drawing board.


In contrast to the erect and still posture of men, the characteristic fashionable “fluttering” of female hands is explained by the rigors of fashion: when women began removing their tight clothes, such as a pair of gloves, they had to move their fingers to start circulation in their limbs. The sight of women so brutally corseted, bound in by artificial boning, must have been comforting to the men given how the women had demanded their “rights” during each and every revolution. After the fearsome display of female rage in the French Revolution, it was reassuring to see women emoting over the latest hats rather than over the price of bread. And certainly after the socially conscious works of Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), a clear rebuke to those who stifled revolutionary hopes, the fascination with haute couture of the later Realists was a relief to a war weary public. In fact, the entire Second Empire and the art of the Realists of the 1850s and 1860s was a refusal to come to terms with political modernity. Manet and the Impressionist substituted scandal (Manet) and provocations (Impressionists) for social critique and these male Realists celebrated the political status quo as defined by women’s fashions.

The final post on this series will conclude the discussion on the avant-garde and fashion.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Avant-Garde Series for Heathwood Press

The Historic Avant-Garde

Heathwood Press

The summer of 2014 is marked by the fact that precisely one hundred Europe wandered into what came to be called the Great War. To this day, no one has quite understood why this war began, but it seems as though the conflict was set off by sheer international bungling–a lapse of attention on the part of the major powers. This tragic war not only ended an entire way of life in Europe it also ended the avant-garde in the world of art and literature. Art stopped, artists scattered, artists died, artists were left behind, dislocated, and after the Great War, the avant-garde was “history.” The history of the avant-garde was written long after it was over, sometimes from the vantage point of a theory of the avant-garde, sometimes in terms is a procession of isolated “isms.”

But ever since the 1840s from the Romantic period, an authentic avant-garde existed in Paris and its ideas, beliefs and practices spread to different cities in Europe. Born of Bohemia, the avant-garde has been explained as a series of art styles and art movements but this important cultural phenomenon needs to be understood within its own historic context. As the series points out, the avant-garde was formed as much by market pressures as by the desire to make something “new.” Using a sociological and anthropological context, this series takes into account the economic and political situation of each generation of the avant-garde. Each site of the avant-garde was unique unto itself: Vienna was very different from Paris which was dissimilar to Munich and each locale needs to have its separate treatment, not from an over-arching theoretical perspective but with an empirical and material approach.

Heathwood Press will release an essay a month, moving the readers through the origins and development of the avant-garde to its end in August of 1914. Avoiding the already written and the already read, this series will move within the gaps between disciplines, seeking to explain the avant-garde in its field of cultural production.


Egon Schiele. Male Nude with Red Cloth (1914)

Thus, the avant-garde of Paris just before the Great War was very different from the avant-garde of Vienna or that of London or that of New York or that of Munich. This series re-examines the avant-garde on the hundredth anniversary of its demise and does so, not in terms of art history or art theory but will take an in-between path that has been less well explored: an empirical and material method indebted to the sociological approach of the philosopher Pierre Bourdieu. Heathwood Press was very kind to inaugurate the series on June 28, the one hundredth anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The rest of the series, which will take at least two years to complete will be released monthly.

Death of the Avant-Garde


When the theorists of the avant-garde wrote of the avant-garde movements and works of art, whether Renato Poggioli in 1968 or Renato Poggioliin 1984, it was from a historical perspective, in the past tense. The question is what killed the avant-garde? When did it die or did it just fade away? Today the avant-garde exists as a nostalgic concept coupled with assertions that a “true” avant-garde is impossible today. Such a statement, like Postmodernism itself, is inherently conservative in that by stating that it is impossible to be ahead of the mainstream art world, thereby discouraging any attempts to challenge the status quo…which is, in and of itself, the condition of being dead.

Several historical paradigm shifts contributed to the death of the avant-garde and all occurred about the same time, in the 1960s. The historical avant-garde depended upon the outsider status of the artist and his or her support group: followers, art writers, dealers and so on. The outsider position in turn depended upon the existence of an establishment that was entrenched and buttressed with vested interests. For the avant-garde artist of the nineteenth century in France, the looming presence of the Academy provided something to rebel against. By the end of the century, the Academy had lost its potency and it was the public which had to be shocked.

The avant-garde probably would have ended sooner if it had not been for the intervention of two world wars. Early in the century, the profitability of contemporary art was clear and after the Great War there was a booming business in “modern art.” That which passed for avant-garde rested, not so much with any inherent “shocking” qualities of the art itself (Amedeo Modigliani was quite classical and tame) but in its ability to distress a conservative art audience. But the nascent art market in London and Paris was cut short by another World War and the art scene moved to New York.

It was here in the post-war financial capital, New York, that the avant-garde really entered its death throes. The concept of the avant-garde was closely linked to the notion of secession and succession. Without any establishment institution to secede from, avant-garde art in New York survived on the impetus of the forward movement of Modernist art. Abstract Expressionism was the logical extension of the developments of European Modernism.

For the avant-garde, the only direction of movement was forward, away from the past and on to the future. But then the impetus to go ahead, to be avant, as it were, simply stopped. The desire to shock through unfamiliarity slipped away. Although it could be augured that the Readymades of Marcel Duchamp were avant-garde, by the time consciousness of their import sunk into the mind of the art world, they had already become history. Therefore, the Dadaesque gestures of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were “shocking” only in the sense that the critics and art dealers were made uneasy by this turn away from the tradition of painting. The imagery itself was quite conventional.

Concurrent with Neo-Dada and Pop Art and its familiar and popular quotations from “low” art was the rise of the art market on a wave of affluence in the 1960s. Although the market would rise and fall over the years, it was clear to art collectors that art would hold its value. The scandal of yesterday would become today’s blue chip old master and by the 1980s everyone, as critic René Richard famously remarked, was afraid of missing out on “the next van Gogh.” The art market was the final coup-de-gras for the avant-garde with even the outsider artists, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, positioning themselves “outside” the galleries of SoHo. The “new” became only what had not been discovered yet. Anything and everyone could be elevated and absorbed and be made profitable.

With the death of the avant-garde, art lost its ability to shock, to critique, to stay ahead of public mentality. Despairing of the possibility of being “original,” and scoffing at the preventions of “uniqueness” and “authenticity,” so important to the precepts of Modernism, despairing of any hope of original creativity, architects and artists began to rifle through history, freely borrowing and appropriating styles and motifs without regard to source or original purpose. Style became a “look” that was quoted out of historical context and this new eclecticism was less an homage to history than a freewheeling seizure of relics in a self-conscious manner.

Pre-Postmodern artists began to borrow and appropriate to re-do that which had been done before, but from the perspective of distance and detachment. Pop Art was characterized by its supposed Cool, its apparent lack of passion and its reluctance to criticize the society that gave the artists visual inspiration. When Abstract Expressionism became too heavy a moral burden, when galleries began to see how profitable art could be, when artists became dazzled by the star system, Modernism was over.

Rather than the innocence of “pure art” produced by the eccentric starving artist who would probably die from poverty—the van Gogh myth—the artist became a public figure, a new rock star. A collector did not buy a particular painting but a “Warhol” to round out a cache of Pop Art. The commercialization of art and artists and the commodification of the avant-garde could be foretold by a careful reading of Baudelaire, who could have predicted the transition of art as fad and consumer good. The art market co-opted and transformed even the most defiant and deviant gestures into a financial transaction.

The mock stardom of art superstar Jeff Koons combined everything that was anti-avant-garde—deliberate kitsch, commercial success, and a cynical celebration of art as commodity. The “new” became the “latest” art sensation and in his turn Jeff Koons became yesterday’s art star and became a blue chip old master. In its nostalgic posture towards the past and in its self-conscious historicism, Postmodernism certainly played its part in the demise of the avant-garde, but by the 1980s any art form, however, unexpected or unconventional became absorbed into the open maw of the ever-hungry art market. “Art” became a signifier” of its owner’s cultural status hanging above the Barcelona sofa in a loft in Chelsea.


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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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“Modernist Painting” by Clement Greenberg


Clement Greenberg’s “Modernist Painting,” originally given as a radio broadcast in 1961 for the Voice of America’s “Forum Lectures,” was printed in 1961 in the Arts Yearbook 4 of the same year, reprinted in 1965, ’66, ‘74, ’78, and 1982. The article achieved a canonical status and served as one of the definitive statements of formalism as a mode of visual analysis and of formalism as a critical stance, and possibly, of formalism as a mode of making art. In his 1961 essay on “Modernist Painting,” Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) defined “Modernism” as the period (in art) roughly from the mid-1850s to his present that displayed a self-critical tendency in the arts.

Greenberg considered Immanuel Kant the first Modernist. The essence of Kant’s thesis was the employment of the characteristic “methods” of the discipline to “criticize the discipline itself.” According to Greenberg, Kant used logic to establish “the limits of logic.” The Modernist goal of self-criticism grows out of the critical spirit of the Enlightenment philosophical system which was based upon the belief in the power of rational thought and human reason. “Critique,” as a method, analyzes from the inside, from within the object being examined and does not judge from the outside, according to external criteria.

Painting must analyze itself to discover its inherent properties. Painting, according to Enlightenment methodology, must be interrogated according to its inherent purposes. The key term here would be “inherent,” for analyzing an object according to its essential definition must preclude bringing forward any non-essential or external criteria. In other words, a painting telling a “good story” is not necessarily a good painting. In this article, Greenberg carries on his attempt to “save” and to define “high art,” and “Modernist Painting” of 1960 can be compared to “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” of 1939. Two decades had passed and Greenberg had progressed from being an up-and-coming art writer to being the arbiter of fine arts in New York, enjoying a truly hegemonic position. His crusade was all the more urgent in 1961, as territory of the avant-garde was being invaded by popular culture and the forces of disrule, exemplified by Neo-Dada and Pop Art and Fluxus. Greenberg had also shifted his political position, from being an intellectual Marxist, to being a Kantian formalist, a far safer situation which removes the critic and art from current cultural considerations.

Greenberg stated that art can “save” itself from being entertainment by demonstrating that the experience it provides is “unobtainable from any other source.” It is the task of art to demonstrate that which is “unique” and “irreducible”, particular or peculiar to art and that which determines the operation peculiar and exclusive to itself. All effects borrowed from any other medium must be eliminated, rendering the art form pure. “Purity” becomes a guarantee of “quality” and “independence” of avant-garde art. All extrinsic effects should be eliminated from painting.

One could say that it is not the essential to the definition of a painting that it re-create the world realistically. Today, that role can be fulfilled by photography or film. Film and theater are defined by storytelling and narrative, enhanced by illusions of everyday reality. Following Greenberg’s line of reasoning, realism and story telling and illusionism should be eliminated from painting. For Greenberg, art was used to call attention to art. Clement Greenberg logically worked out the limitations and peculiarities of painting, which are a flat surface, the shape of the support and the properties of the pigment. These physical and material limiting conditions became positive factors.

Once suppressed by artists through under-painting and glazing, these material aspects of painting were now acknowledged by Modernist painters. Because he appeared to have considered and taken into account the limitations of painting as the application of paint upon a flat surface, or a stretched canvas, Édouard Manet is designated by Greenberg as the first Modernist artist. Manet “declared the surface;” his follower, Paul Cézanne, fit the drawing and design into the rectangle of the painting. In Modernist painting, the spectator is made aware of the flatness and sees the picture first, before noting the content.

Modernist painting abandoned the principle of representation of Renaissance illusionistic space inhabited by three-dimensional objects, giving the effect of looking through the canvas into a world beyond. Modernist painting resists the sculptural, which is suppressed or expelled. The question is that of a purely optical experience. With Greenberg, flatness alone is unique to painting. For this critic, “art” carries within itself its own teleology. As art seeks self-definition and determines its own uniqueness, it becomes more pure, more reductive in its means. More is eliminated—subject matter, content, figuration, illusionism, narrative—and art becomes independent, detached, and non-objective, that is, abstract. Content becomes completely dissolved into form. Greenberg, in looking back selectively at the history of art, presented a map of progress and evolution of painting, away from representation and toward purity, abstraction, reductiveness; to flatness, to pure color, to simple forms that reflected the shape of the surface.

The essay noted that Modernism “resists sculpture” or three-dimensionality and reminded the reader that this “resistance” was by no mean recent. The critic pointed to Jacques-Louis David as an example of an artist whose work was flat and surface based. Greenberg insisted that the scientific method justified the demand that painting (and art) limit itself to “what is given in visual experience.” Greenberg equated the artist to the scientists, both of whom “test” and experiment. The equation of art with science, replaces his earlier equation of the avant-garde with politics: “…a superior culture is inherently a more critical culture.” One can “only look” at a work of visual art, which is discernible only to the “eye.” Poetry is “literary,” art is not and should not attempt to be, for as Greenberg reminded us, any translation of the literary into the visual “loses” the literary qualities.

Like Avant-garde and Kitsch, Modernist Painting, had a subtext, Enlightenment philosophy, especially that of Kant’s Critique of Judgment. The 1939 article concerned itself with aesthetics but more with the “experience” of the aesthetic. In Avant-garde and Kitsch, it is possible to believe that Greenberg was writing of the experience of the aesthetic in terms of the placement of art in the culture, in other words, it is not so much the “how” of the experience but of the “where” of the aesthetic. In Modernist Painting, the experience of the aesthetic is located in the realm of the how one looks at a work of art.

The proper attitude of the spectator was important to Kant who recommended a posture of detachment from personal desire and indifference to artistic content in search of a universal means of judging the efficacy of art. The Enlightenment philosophy cherished the idea of the universal or the absolute, for some kind of standard had to be erected to replace the all-knowing presence of the now-banished God. Kant was not interested in defining what “art” was but in establishing the ground for the judgment of art. Working in the new philosophical field, aesthetics, Kant attempted to establish the epistemology of art, based, not in individual works but in a method of knowledge.

Greenberg’s understanding of Kant led him to use the methodology of critique but the critic took “critique” in a rather different direction. Writing two centuries after the German philosopher, Greenberg looked backwards in time and implied another favorite Enlightenment idea, that of progress. Modernist art, if one understands the essay correctly, seems to “progress” and move forward in time, away from manifestations of extrinsic properties and towards a purity of means. “Modernist art develops out of the past without gap or break, and wherever it ends up, it will never stop being intelligible in terms of the continuity of art.”

The ground has shifted away from a means of judgment (Kant) to a theory of the evolution of art along telelogical lines with a goal in mind: purity. Even though as Greenberg pointed out, “The first mark made on the canvas destroys its virtual flatness,” purity seems to imply a historical rejection of representation and a validation of abstraction. The point of noting Greenberg’s development of Kantian theory and its application toward Modernist Painting is that, without the notion of progress, the critic’s theory of artistic development would have to include some of the masters of flatness, such as William Bourguereau and some of the masters of the surface such as Thomas Kincaide, both of whom Greenberg would have excluded from the family tree of modernism.

While Kant would at least judge these two artists (and perhaps find them wanting), Greenberg seems to imply a connection between Modernism and the avant-garde and establish ground for exclusion of the unworthy. The oppositions of the dialectic are implied: those who did not follow the path of Modernist reductionism were, like dinosaurs, left behind. If one reads in a connection between Modernism and the avant-garde, even if only through the names of the canonical artists Greenberg mentioned and thought his previous articles, then the conflation between the continuity of art and the avant-garde, which supposedly breaks with the past, becomes rather awkward. Indeed, Greenberg does not mention the avant-garde, he uses the term “authentic art,” instead.

“Nothing could be further from the authentic art of our time than the idea of a rupture of continuity. Art is, among many other things, continuity. Without the past of art, and without the need and compulsion to maintain past standards of excellence, such a thing as modernist art would be impossible,” Greenberg stated.

However, as pointed out in his earlier work, Greenberg refused to connect the avant-garde with a rejection of the past: “…the true and most important function of the avant-garde was not to ‘experiment’ but to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving…” (Greenberg’s italics). The underlying continuity of the two articles can be seen in the precursor remark in the 1939 writing on the role of the avant-garde artist: “’Art for art’s sake’ and ‘pure poetry’ appear, and subject matter or content becomes something to be avoided like the plague.” Given the openness of the construction of this essay and the plurality of texts mobilized by Greenberg, it is no wonder that “Modernist Painting” lent itself to so many causes, whether as a rallying point or as a bête noir.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Podcast Episode 15: French Romanticism: Delacroix, Part Two


Part Two

The art of Eugène Delacroix was uniquely suited to his time. In an era of imperialism and colonialism through conquest, his exciting art captured the violence of a turbulent age. Like all artists of the Romantic era, Delacroix was fascinated by the mystery of the Middle East. Although much of the art of his later career was government sponsored, Delacroix also acted as a reporter and visited the French possession of Algeria and captured, first hand, the allure of the Other. After an early career being cast (0r mis-cast) as a Romantic rebel, Delacroix spent the rest of his life doing official commissions—such as murals for the French government.

Also listen to: “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part One” and “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part One,” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part One”

Also read: “French Romanticism: The Historical Context” and “The French Academy: Painting” and “French Romanticism: Subject Matter and the Artist” and “French Romanticism and the Avant-Garde”

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

Important Announcement

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by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone

Remember to download the iBooks app to your iPad or iPhone

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

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Art History Timeline Videos

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are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

The Definition of the Avant-Garde


Theory of the Avant-Garde

In his book, The Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984), Peter Bürger stressed the historical basis of the avant-garde. The rise of the avant-garde was directly linked to the rise of the middle class and its allegiance to capitalism and commodification. The main role of the avant-garde is the critique of the middle class by detaching it self from it. Bourgeois totalizing institutions, such as the institutions that are the “art world” must also be critiqued and defied. The kind of critique Bürger discussed was a Marxist style critique, which, because it was delivered from a detached perspective, was far more radical than conventional criticism. The Marxist approach was, of course Kantian in origin in its stance of disinterest, but Marxist in its focus on bourgeois practices. The founding generation of the avant-garde in France are undoubtedly unknown and only the successful artists, such as Gustave Flaubert, left a mark on history. Even those who were successful lived within their own times, more of less aware of their avant-garde endeavors but unable to speak to future generations. In the absence of direct testimony, writers of the avant-garde one hundred years later were theorists.

There seemed to be two levels of avant-garde reactions in the artistic communities in the nineteenth century, that of rebellion against the prevailing order, whether the establishment or the the public, or reaction against the sudden surge of modern capitalism which turned making art into merely another way of making a living. According to these theories, such as those of Bürger, the avant-garde artist took a separatist stance, neither part of the bourgeoisie from whence he came nor part of the establishment he so desperately longs to recognize him. Most theories do not stress the fact that we would not even have a concept of the avant-garde if certain artists had not “crossed over” into the realm of the establishment where they were finally “seen.” Most avant-garde artists were avant-garde because they were unknown, not because they wanted to be ignored and scorned. But according to the theories of the avant-garde, the radicality of the avant-garde position rests upon its freedom from having to “take sides” or obligation to maintain a position. For Bürger, the freedom to detach from an ideology is also the freedom to find an entirely unexpected stance, meaning that the artist is engaged in a critical analysis of society. The avant-garde critique of the capitalist mode of production and its impact upon cultural producers, artists, has many consequences.

First, the avant-garde artist is always alienated from the audience, outside the mainstream of traditional art and scornful of the middle class and its utilitarian preferences. The bourgeoisie saw little use for pure art in the service of the intellect or beauty or aesthetics, and understood only that art could be useful to reinforce their own social and political power, a lesson learned from the once powerful church and state. The middle class audience was unsympathetic with art, except as entertainment, and uninterested in avant-garde which lay outside what was familiar, traditional and recognizable. Thus, the artist, who felt constrained by bourgeois restrictions and by the low level of middle class taste, took on a defiant, rebellious stance, upholding the right of the artist to express him/herself artistically. Delighting in shocking the art public, the avant-garde artist was, according to romantic legend, confrontational, refusing to meet the expectations of the middle class audience. Instead of striving for acceptance, the avant-garde artist remains outside and alienated in order to critique middle class values, which placed money above love, status above mercy, work above play, and matter over mind.

Avant-garde art, in challenging middle class pragmatism also challenged middle class power. Often this art directly or indirectly exposed middle class hypocrisy. Gustave Courbet routinely catered to the bourgeois male’s desire for soft-core pornography and Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas depicted the thriving sex trade of mid nineteenth century Paris fueled by the insatiable urban male with some disposable income. Sunny and beautiful on the surface, many Impressionist paintings actually depicted well-known meeting places of scandalous encounters between prostitutes and their clients. Although today the meaning of these paintings may be lost on today’s viewers, the audience of the day was fully aware that the subjects of these artists were less than respectable. Starting with the proto-Romanticism of Jean-Antoine Gros and Théodore Géricault, the reality of current events were used to confront the public with the unpalatable truth, as shown by Gustave Courbet, or simply with ordinary every day life, as displayed by the Impressionists.

The activity of critique–critique of the system–places the avant-garde artist outside of conventional ways of thinking. But this artist is also in front of the crowd in finding new modes of expressing the unexpressed and the unrealized and thus is making the future of art. Or so we are told. The first separation between the art and that public within the art world can be seen during the Romantic period when certain artists began to represent current events. This shift to reality, as seen in the frozen corpses at the bottom of Napoléon on the Battlefield of Eylau (1807), was an important one. Previously, the Neoclassical approach was an allegorical one, making statements about the present by using past events or using ancient examples to teach lessons for the present. The split between the ancients and the moderns is not simply a stylistic one, from the linear to the painterly, but most significantly, from the past to the present. The avant-garde artists refused to look back to a past that was increasingly irrelevant and insisted upon recording the present. Eugène Delacroix’s painting Liberty Leading the People (1830) was perceived, not so much as a heroic rendering of a major event in recent French history, but as a political statement valorizing rebellious uprisings. Delacroix himself, like his avant-garde friends, George Sand and Frédéric François Chopin, was inherently conservative and terrified of the revolution he captured. Compared to Neoclassicism, which displaced politics to the past, Romanticism and Realism, were political in that these movements simply in presenting the present. By the middle of the Nineteenth Century, the avant-garde had become political and dangerous to the established powers.

In the twentieth century, avant-garde artists were totally separated from the mainstream art world. The art world in France and England had become splintered into factions: the very conservative, the conservative or official art, the conservative avant-garde, and the radical avant-garde. For example, the Salon des Indépendants was conservative compared to the Salon d’automne. Avant-garde artists were completely isolated from mainstream art audiences and these artists followed the lead of the Impressionists and relied more and more upon sympathetic art dealers and understanding collectors for survival. The audience for the avant-garde artists was very small, often consisting of art critics, who were crucial in writing the first accounts of indecipherable art, and each other, an audience of producers. Well into the twentieth century it was the mainstream conservative academic artists were the famous and the well-known and the successful among most of the public in France. Only in the twentieth century, after the Great War did the pre-war avant-garde become accepted and their art become admired.

Jules Alexandre Grun. Friday at the French Artists’ Salon (1911)

The so-called “difficult” art, from Impressionism to Cubism, was made by an artist, who was outside of official art and beyond public approval. Avant-garde art tended to engender yet another generation of art, even more difficult and even more isolated, in reaction to the previous movement. For example, Manet was part of the academic system and strove all his life to be celebrated in the Salons, but his follower Claude Monet opted to take an independent path and exhibit in private capitalist exhibitions outside of the Salon, while was his colleague, Paul Cézanne, lived the second part of his artistic life exiled in Aix but was studied by the Cubists, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Picasso and Braque were not typical of the avant-garde artists of the twentieth century. Working alone and unrecognized, they were supported by their dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and they did not exhibit in public salons. Living in dire poverty, these two artists, like other avant-garde artists, were totally dedicated to their vision and to their belief in their art, a condition made possible by the support of their dealer. Art historians depicted these artists as “heroes,” struggling to maintain personal and artistic integrity in the face of a life without honor and success, understood only by those educated few. That said, it is difficult to maintain the anti-capitalist stance of the theorists of the avant-garde, given the clearly capitalist underpinnings of the avant-garde and its aspirations–to get a dealer and to find patrons and to sell their art. As shall be seen, at the time, the heroes of Cubism were not Picasso and Braque but the Salon Cubists who bravely exposed their innovative work in public salons. The judgment that Braque and Picasso were “leaders” was historical and anachronistic, not in keeping with the actual conditions of the time.

The emergence of the avant-garde artists and the theory of “art-for-art’s sake” coincided with the early decades of the nineteenth century. If the avant-garde was a French notion then the idea of making “art-for-art’s sake” was German. Due to historical and economic forces, the avant-garde and philosophical theories of aesthetics were dependent upon one another: through the idea of “art-for-art’s sake,” artists, now estranged from the art audience, had a philosophical reason for separation. The avant-garde artist, usually of a young generation that had not yet made its mark, did not want to or could not continue to make already established art. The public did not approve of either the style or the content of avant-garde art, and in order to defend and explain this new art, the art critics who supported the avant-garde artists often put forward an appeal for a formalist reading. When Emile Zola demanded that Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) be understood in terms of its stylistic innovation, the writer was also insisting that the viewer look away from the often scandalous and socially critical subject matter of a high class prostitute and take note of the way in which the artist handled the formal elements. Looking at art from a formal and/or disinterested perspective required a new kind of “eye.” The purpose of avant-garde art was, by necessity an aesthetic one. But as Pierre Bourdieu explained in The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (1996),

Although it appears to itself like a gift of nature, the eye of the nineteenth-century art-lover is the product of history…the pure gaze capable of apprehending the work of art as it demands to be apprehended (in itself and for itself, as form and not as function) is inseparable from the appearance of producers motivated by a pure artistic intention, itself indissociable from the emergence of an autonomous artistic field capable of posing and imposing its own goals in the face of external demands and it is also inseparable from the corresponding appearance of a population of ‘amateurs’ or ‘connoisseurs’ capable of applying to the works thus produced the ‘pure’ gaze which they call for.

Although, as Bourdieu contends, the avant-garde was created as much by material forces as by aesthetic ideals, the avant-garde would have been impossible without the theory of “art-for-art’s sake.”

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French Romanticism and the Avant-Garde


Art and the Avant-Garde

The term “avant-garde” is a military one, borrowed from the French phrase, denoting the advance body of the army. This small group of soldiers goes out in advance of the main group to scout the territory beyond with the aim of reporting back as to the conditions awaiting the other soldiers. In American parlance, these soldiers are called “F.O’s” or forward observers, and they account for the highest casualty rate, for they are always on the line and out in front. The artists that are historically considered the avant-garde were also “out in front of” the main body of more conservative artists and the recalcitrant public, putting their careers and their lives on the line in order to find new ways of making art. As Renato Poggioli in The Theory of the Avant-Garde put it,

…the avant-garde…functions as an independent and isolated military unit, completely and sharply detached from the public, quick to act, not only to explore but also to battle, conquer, and adventure on its own…

The avant-garde as a conscious and deliberate artistic activity was mainly a mid to late Nineteenth Century phenomenon, probably pioneered by the Impressionists who intentionally refused to placate public taste and who deliberately exhibited work outside of the expected channels of the large and popular public Salon exhibitions. According to Pierre Bourdieu in The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (1996), the avant-garde was a sociological situation, born of rising middle class aspirations and the inability of the culture to satisfy talented people and their ambitions. The Academy controlled entrée to school art school training and had the power to grant access to the Salon. Although the intention of the academically minded juries may have been to maintain the high level of quality in art, the effect was to restrict economic opportunity, forcing artists outside of the system. As Bourdieu said,

…bohemia…grows numerically and as its prestige (or mirages) attracts destitute young people, often of provincial and working-class origin, who around 1848 dominate the ‘second bohemia.’ In contrast to the romantic dandy of the ‘golden bohemia’ of the rue de Doyené, the bohemia of Murger, Chapmpfleury or Duranty constitutes a veritable intellectual reserve army, directly subject to the laws of the market and often obliged to live off a second skill…in order to live an art that cannot make a living.

The avant-garde grew out of a group of creative people who gravitated to Paris and lived in low-income quarters, suffering from neglect and poverty. Outside the mainstream and lacking the outlets that would have perhaps earned them a living, these artists and writers could only gather together and form an ideology of failure. They had failed, they consoled themselves, because they were so “advanced” that the unenlightened public misunderstood them. Simply put, their art was too good, too “avant.” Success was inverted into an indictment of failure and failure was transformed into a badge of honor. It is doubtful that these defiant members of the avant-garde were particularly talented or gifted, for there were member of La Boheme who were quite successful, such as George Sand and Eugène Delacroix. But the formula was high-minded and allowed those who never made a breakthrough an honorable cover for their failure. The avant-garde artist, then, was a mythic creature who was not appreciated or understood by the masses, one who chose to live and work in obscurity and poverty, believing that one day his/her art would be recognized by an educated art audience either in the near present or in some unforeseeable future.

Savvy and strategic Bohemian artists fueled the myth of the avant-garde by shocking the a public that was very easy to shock. The rallying cry of the avant-garde was, “Épater le bourgeoisie!” but the idea was to gain attention, not to repel collectors. Avant-garde artists needed to make a living and used the unexpected as a strategy to shock and awe the crowd. By mid-century the term was an old one. In Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism (1987) the writer Matei Calinescu, traced the idea of the avant-garde in France back to radical revolutionary politics: is safe to say that the actual career of the term avant-garde was started in the after man of the French Revoluion, when it acquired undisputed political over ones. I am referring to L’Avant-garde de l’armée des Pyrenées orientals, a journal that appeared in 1794 and whose watchword–engraved on the blade of an emblematic sword–was “La liberté ou la mort.” This journal was committed to the defense of Jacobin ideas and was intended to reach, beyond military circles, a broader audience of “patriots.” We can therefore take the 1700s as a starting point for the subsequent career of the concept of the avant-garde in radical political is, therefore, not by chance that the romantic use of avant-garde in a literary-artistic context was directly derived from the language of revolutionary politics.

Calinescu asserted that the modern us of an old military term was linked by 1825 to the arts by socialist philosopher, Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), in his book De l’organization sociale (1825) in which the writer designated the artist as the standard bearer for the future. His follower, Olinde Rodrigues stated, “It is we, the artists, that will serve as your avant-garde, the power of the arts is indeed he most immediate and the fastest.” Without the church and state and their once limitless funds, without the taste and sophistication of the aristocrats, the artists were faced with the middle class as their main audience. This was an audience that wanted to be entertained and were treated by the artists to large paintings that were precursors to modern day movies—-the grand machines or huge paintings that enthralled them with exciting stories.

The new audience was composed of the masses, high and low, average people, undereducated, unsophisticated, but not uninterested in art. The kind of art they wanted was that which was easily accessible, easy to understand, entertaining and attractive to look at; something like today’s television programs, that reflected themselves and their interests. For many artists, this new middle class audience was no problem. For other artists, the bourgeoisie was an opportunity. Although the art viewers were trained to admire the large history paintings, the serious minded displays of ancient virtues and obscure myths were not necessarily what the public actually wanted to see.


Eugène Delacroix. Death of Sardanapalus (Salon of 1827-8)

It was easy to please the public and it was easy to displease the public. However, beguiling the allure of the avant-garde, being a leader, the risks were many and the rewards were few. It can be assumed, based upon Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of the sociology of early nineteenth century Paris, that most of the most avant-garde artists, whether visual or literary or musical, lived and and died as unknown failures. Until the late nineteenth century, the vast majority of the avant-garde artists or the artists called “avant-garde” by art historians, played the game inside the system and were products of the academic system. Being avant-garde involved a delicate balance between “performing” shock and making one’s mark and then becoming ensconced within the system. Eugène Delacroix was the best known example of such an artist. His spectacular, spiraling out of control bloody and violent, Death of Sardanapalus, was shown in the Salon of 1827-8 in aesthetic comparison to classically structured rational classical Apotheosis of Homer by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres debuting in the same salon.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Apotheosis of Homer (1827)

The contrast instantly placed the artists in opposing camps where they remained, in the public’s eyes for the rest of their lives. Delacroix parlayed this and other radical paintings–radical in content, Massacre at Chios (Salon of 1824) or radical in style, The Sea at Dieppe (1852)–into a perfectly respectable official career doing murals for the Bourdon ruling family in the 1830s. Norman Bryson’s excellent analysis of these ceiling murals in the Library of the Chamber of the Deputies in the Palais Bourbon in “Desire in the Bourbon Library” a chapter in Tradition and Desire: From David to Delacroix (1984) revealed that the artist combined Romanticism and Classicism in style and content in a cycle of mythology worthy the best of history painting. Until the end of the Second Empire, artists found success only by positioning themselves within the establishment, if only to fight against it, like Irgres and Delacroix. But as the century progressed, social and political issues became increasingly pressing, forcing the artistic gaze away from the present and towards eroticism and exoticism and the problems of contemporary times. For the avant-garde artist, the historical past was past. “Il faut être de son temps,” (“It is necessary of be of one’s time.”) the artist Honoré Daumier exclaimed. A growing number of artists sought new ways to make art, which would reflect the new modern way of life.

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French Romanticism: Subject Matter and the Artist


The End of Classicism

The Romantic era was Janus-faced, facing the present and commenting upon it while turning away for current events in order to yield to the lure of fantasy, legend, myth, and exoticism. On one hand, Jean-Antoine Gros (1771-1835) called attention to the human costs of Napoléon’s brutal wars in Napléon at Eylau in his blunt painting of 1818, and, on the other hand, Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) retreated into Nordic myth in his Dream of Ossian of 1813 and his charming small genre paintings of troubadour legends. And Anne-Louis Girodet Roussy-Trisson (1767-1824) produced a reverie of eroticism with his Sleep of Endymion in 1791 as the opening volley of Romanticism, while Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) explored the limits of Romanticism with his portraits of insane people and his renditions of severed limbs. One did not have to be an avant-garde artist to be “Romantic,” for the avant-garde was just beginning to form in the seedy neighborhoods of Bohemian Paris. One did not have to challenge Academic standards to be Romantic, for the Academy could very well accommodate exciting contemporary narratives, as long as they were correctly painted or sculpted. Although associated with bold color and visible brushstrokes, Romanticism was not a style, nor was it a particular content, nor was it a rebellion against authority. The successful and celebrated Romantic artists wanted to be accepted by the academic powers and vied for position and honors within the Salons. For many of these artists, their reputation as “romantic rebels” rests upon a few works of art. Most of the Romantic artists were part of the establishment and did not live the life of an outsider artist, unappreciated and scorned by the forces of the status quo.

The myth of the Romantic artist has been entangled anachronistically with that of the avant-garde, and it should be noted that the full-blown avant-garde movements of Realism and Impressionism were decades away. The so-called rebelliousness of the Romantic artists was less political than entrepreneurial, linked more directly to the loss of traditional patrons: church, state, and aristocrats. The Romantic artist acted as an opportunist or a performance artist who sought to both slide past the conservative jury of the Salon and also to shock the spectators with spectacular and entertaining art. The art audience had become more and more middle class and attended the Salons in large numbers. The bourgeoisie, the crowd, the mob had be addressed in some manner, preferably in a way that would bring success. Fueled by fashions, literature and restless aggressive politics, the public developed a taste for scenes of sex and violence provided by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1865) and unsanctioned by the Academy. The art audiences swooned over the newly discovered beauties of Nature in the paintings of the Barbizon artists. The spectator had little interest in the erudite academic subject matter favored by history painting and gravitated towards the familiar and the contemporary. The independent art market for genre painting and landscape painting began to develop, inspiring artists to concentrate their efforts in these areas that were not supported by the academic hierarchy and where there were opening new professional territories for ambitious artists out of favor with the Academy.

Constant Troyon. Landscape and Cattle

Landscape painting began to free itself from its traditional role as a backdrop for a narrative placed in the foreground, as seen in the works of Claude Lorrain (1600-1682), and “pure” landscapes of Constant Tryon (1810-1865), painted for the sheer pleasure of nature’s beauties and free of moralizing, became more and more popular with the art patrons. Like still lives, landscapes could fit into any home and were acceptable to any taste, and did not offend any political opinions. The so-called lower genres were directed not so much towards the academy but to a newly enriched public that was inclined to buy decorative art. The most important group of landscape painters was the Barbizon School, located in the village of Barbizon in the Forest of Fountainebleau. Artists such as Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867) and Narcisse (Virgile) Diaz (de la Peña) (1807-1876) sketched the tree filled vistas in situ but finished the paintings in their studios. They shared, along with many Romantic painters, a new concern for direct observation of Nature at its most natural and most accurate as seen in the ordinary sites favored by the English artist John Constable (1776-1837).

Theodore Rousseau. Twilight Landscape (1850)

The Barbizon artists followed the Claudian precepts of the “beautiful” but they were distinctly modern in their refusal to include narrative in the painting. At the other end of the spectrum from marketable landscapes, lay the public taste for the strange and the exotic, also linked to economics. Due to the colonial dreams of France which was expanding its fledgling empire into the Middle East, the “Orient,” the “East” from the Holy Land to north Africa, became open territory to be subdued and conquered by the Western Europeans who were beginning another phase of unchecked imperialism. The delight in the themes of sex and violence played out in the land of the Other, as imagined by the European male to be part and parcel of the Middle East, was fueled as much by masculine sexual desires and forbidden fantasies as by imperial pride. A large number of artists, called “Orientalists” imagined the mysterious East as a place of harems and beheadings, inhabited by an alien and violent people who could only benefit from benevolent French rule. Orientalism in French painting was popular with the crowds for decades. Horace Vernet entertained his French audience with the savagery of The Lion Hunt (1836) that fueled European feelings of superiority. Théodore Chassériau’s Reclining Odalisque (1853) flirted with sort core pornography and shamelessly unveiled the mental landscapes of the European males.

(c) The Wallace Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Although the aristocrats, old and new, were restored to power during Napoléon’s rule, after the Restoration of Louis XVIII, the new audience for art was largely middle class. The Romantic artist was sundered from traditional conservative artistic styles, separated from traditional patronage, and stripped of the historical social role as servant to higher powers. From the fall of Napoléon on, the artist was forced to re-invent him/herself as a social being and was forced to re-create a new cultural place and new purpose for unsanctioned art. By the end of the Romantic period, the imported German idea of “art-for-art’s-sake” had fulfilled multiple purposes, providing art and the artist with a new and exalted role in society. The artist had to be a free and independent creator who was an innovator and pushed art to change. As the new aesthetic theories gained a following, the art world began to splint between the avant-garde who rebelled against outmoded strictures and displeased the public and the academics who conformed and pleased the audience. By 1835, the writer and art critic, Théophile Gautier (1811-1872) attacked conventional critics for their adherence to ideas of decorum and good taste. In the preface to Madamoiselle de Maupin (1835), Gautier advocated for beauty and art for their own sakes and disparaged all that was useful:

What is the good of music ? of painting ? Who would be foolish enough to prefer Mozart to Monsieur Carrel, and Michael Angelo to the inventor of white mustard ? There is nothing truly beautiful but that which can never be of any use whatsoever ; everything useful is ugly, for it is the expression of some need, and man’s needs are ignoble and disgusting like his own poor and infirm nature. The most useful place in a house is the water-closet.

For the artist to be free to express original and personal feelings, art should have no useful purpose. Gautier was echoing Kant’s phrase that the purpose of art was its “purposive purposelessness.” Although these ideas give new impetus to art and a new place in society to the artist, the idea that art should exist without thought to the art audience also begin the separation between the artist and the public that will be accelerated by the Revolution of 1848 in France. As seen in the literary and the visual arts, Romanticism was an international movement and a cultural rejection of the Enlightenment and its stress on objective reason and rational thinking. Although each nation had its own version of Romanticism, in general, Romanticism was subjective and the ultimate truth was individual emotions, feelings, and expression. This shift from the objective to the subjective, from object to subject, or the individual, as the source of truth was a radical transformation in Western thought, perhaps the logical consequence of Protestant emphasis on individuality and European hopes for a political democracy. The artist became important to society in a new way: not as an explicator of moral ideals, but as a “genius,” a seer who brought, through art, new insights into life. As Emmanuel Kant wrote in the Critique of Judgment (1790) may be seen that genius properly consists in the happy relation, which science cannot teach nor industry learn, enabling one to find out ideas for a given concept, and, besides, to hit upon the expression for them-the expression by means of which the subjective mental condition induced by the ideas as the concomitant of a concept may be communicated to others. This latter talent is properly that which is termed soul.

Although a new (Kantian) critical vocabulary was created as the new philosophical branch of aesthetics moved to the center as artistic concern, the Romantic artists offered no coherent programme nor did they have a common goal. Wrapped up in their sense of individuality, artists produced works of art that proclaimed individual personalities and the originality that was the prerogative of the genius. Drawing and low key color, disciplined stylistics, and a smooth “licked” surface in painting and sculpture, characteristic of Neoclassicism became politically tied to the state. Color, rough painting or impastoed facture became politically tied to the emotions that might lead to unrestrained social behavior or political unrest. Romanticism, as a challenge to academicism, was associated with forces of disorder and anarchy and revolution. In France, a nation that experienced periodic revolutions and uprisings, teetered from monarch to republic and back to monarchy, political dissent was a danger to order. Some Romantic artists such as Delacroix and Géricault produced deliberately provocative works. Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (Salon of 1819) recounted an embarrassing and tragic episode of government incompetency. Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830) was considered so dangerous that the inspiring painting was purchased by the government only to be put in storage for the next thirty years. Politics aside, most so-called Romantic artists, such as Delacroix, were actually politically quiet conservative, as are most artists because social and political stability are necessary for art making to be possible.

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please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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Podcast Episode 8: Formalism and Romanticism



What is the impact of methodologies of art history upon the recounting of the history of art? A methodology is a way of telling or constructing the past. This act of re-construction is, in fact, as Hayden White expressed, “a tropic of discourse.” However, a trope can be so completely absorbed into the accepted discourse of received wisdom that it become invisible. When the actual documented history of art is filtered through the invisible trope, this lived history is reshaped according—not to events or to objects—but to the trope itself. In the 1980s, the familiar methodology of formalism, which had presented a very particular account of Romanticism, was challenged by a new method, one which stressed the social and historical context for artistic production.

This podcast delineates the connections between the art historical methodology of Formalism, as developed by Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1947), and the concept of Romanticism. Romanticism was the movement in which the concepts of painting changed from “academic” to “modern.” Until New Art History reintroduced the importance of context, the approach of “art history without names” reigned supreme. How did the uneasy mix of history and methodology change the history of art? What recent corrections were made to retell the history of art history?

Also listen to: “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part One” and “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part One,” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part One” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part Two”

Also read: “French Romanticism: The Historical Context” and “The French Academy: Painting” and “French Romanticism: Subject Matter and the Artist” and “French Romanticism and the Avant-Garde”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

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This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

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