Theatre, Art, and Visual Culture in the 19th Century

Patricia Smyth, University of Warwick 
Jim Davis, University of Warwick
Kate Newey, University of Exeter
Kate Holmes, University of Exeter

Convened on behalf of the three-year Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded project, ‘Theatre and Visual Culture in the Long 19th Century’, this session seeks to create cross-disciplinary dialogue between scholars of art history, visual culture and theatre history. The 19th century is known as a period of blurred boundaries between previously distinct media, as evidenced by the growing importance of spectacle in stage productions, the circulation of images and motifs between media, and also by the frequent application of the term ‘theatrical’ to a certain type of narrative painting. This trans-medial visual culture operated through a range of new technologies, from printing methods such as lithography, to optical toys and spectacular entertainments such as the panorama and the diorama, the visual effects of which were also attempted on stage. In looking laterally across media (and disciplinary) boundaries, we hope to offer new insights into contemporary debates about spectatorship, cultural legitimacy, popular taste, the relationship between high art and entertainment.

Our call for papers invited contributions from researchers working on any aspect of the relationship between theatre and the visual arts in this period. Given that the 2020 conference takes place in Newcastle, we particularly welcomed considerations of the Northumberland-born artist John Martin. The theatricality of Martin’s work was foregrounded by the 2011–12 Tate Britain exhibition, which used special effects to convey its status as the 19th-century equivalent of the blockbuster movie. Citing this example, we invited papers that raise questions about how inventive curatorial practices might convey the experience of 19th-century spectators to 21st-century viewers in the midst of our own technological revolution.


The Tableau of the Féerie and Romantic Visual Aesthetics: From the drama of human intrigue to the pre-eminence of sensation and wonder

Marika Takanishi Knowles (University of St Andrews)

The féerie was one of the most popular theatrical genres in early 19th-century France. A ‘quest’, initiated by a fairy (fée), motivated the protagonist’s journey through a series of spectacular scenic environments, each one of which constituted a ‘tableau’. As a structural principle, the tableau of the féerie replaced the ‘act’ of the traditional drama or comedy. An animated stage picture composed of décor, dozens or even hundreds of costumed extras (figurants), and novel lighting effects, the tableau of the féerie differed profoundly from Diderot’s 18th-century concept of the tableau of the drame bourgeois. Instead of offering a pictorial dramatisation of an emotional denouement, the tableau of the féerie presented an entire world, the character of which was either utterly fantastical or geographically or temporally exotic. Nevertheless, critics recognised a debt to the 18th century in the genre’s evocation of Rococo ‘landscapes’, ornamental arabesques and Chinoiserie.

This paper will explore the relationship between the féerie and visual art by 1) enumerating the connections drawn by contemporary critics between the féerie and visual art and 2) positing a relationship between the visual aesthetics of the féerie and the ‘romantic landscape’ as practised by the painters Paul Huet, Narcisse Diaz de la Pena and Célestin Nanteuil. The féerie advanced a model of visual experience that challenged the long-standing pre-eminence of the ‘tragic scene’ and its associated pictorial modes, most notably the French tradition of history painting. Reflecting new priorities for visual experience, the féerie modelled the tableau – both staged and painted – as an enveloping and wondrous experience of luminous and tactile sensations.

Art, Spectacle and Control: Copyright and visual culture in the 19th century

Elena Cooper (CREATe, University of Glasgow)

Humanities scholars understand the 19th century to be a time of blurred boundaries between visual and theatrical arts. What insights can copyright history provide into how we understand this cultural development? Drawing on the first in-depth and longitudinal study of the history of copyright concerning the visual arts (E. Cooper, ‘Art and Modern Copyright: The Contested Image’, CUP, 2018, concerning art and copyright 1850–1911), this paper will consider three 19th-century court cases which involved attempts to control trans-medial culture: attempts to prevent the unauthorised reproduction/exhibition of paintings/engravings as popular works of spectacle. In Martin v Wright (1833), John Martin failed to prevent an unauthorised exhibition of Belshazzar’s Feast as a diorama in a bazaar on London’s Oxford Street. Later in the century, in Hanfstaengl v Baines (1895), the House of Lords held that the owners of copyright in a painting, could not prevent an exhibition of Living Pictures at the Empire Palace Theatre, where people were arranged and dressed so as to reproduce the design of the painting. By contrast, in Turner v Robinson (1861), the owners of the painting The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis were successful in preventing the reproduction and sale of unauthorised stereoscopic pictures taken from a posed scene in the defendant’s studio imitating the painting. In comparing and contrasting these cases, and setting them in a wider aesthetic context, this paper will explore the complex relations between law, culture and control at stake in the meeting of art and spectacle in the court-room.

Paul Delaroche’s Assassination of the Duc de Guise and the mise en scène of Romantic Drama

Patricia Smyth (University of Warwick)

This paper considers Paul Delaroche’s history painting the Assassination of the Duc de Guise (Salon, 1835) as a response to Alexandre Dumas’s ground-breaking drama Henri III et sa cour (Théâtre-Français, 1829). In recent years, a set of drawings by Delaroche relating to Dumas’ play (in which Guise is the anti-hero) have become associated with Delaroche’s painting, although, as Stephen Bann points out, they do not represent a straightforward account of stage performance. While several critics compared this unusual picture to the popular genre of melodrama, none of them noted a relationship to Dumas’ play and the question of their connection to one another remains open.

The issue of theatricality has been central to Delaroche’s critical fortunes. While at one time the artist’s apparent affinity with performance was seen as evidence of his disregard for the ‘proper’ concerns of visual art, more recently the same aspect of his work has placed him at the centre of discussions about the transmedial nature of nineteenth-century visual culture. This paper draws on contemporary theatre criticism and art criticism to consider the connection between Dumas’ play and Delaroche’s painting. While the Assassination of the Duc de Guise was compared to melodrama, critics referred to Henri III et sa cour as a series of tableaux. Playwright and artist were both seen as having strayed outside of their proper sphere, but my paper argues against thinking in terms of ‘theatrical’ painting or ‘pictorial’ drama and instead proposes ‘immediacy’, a concept adopted from literature on new media, as a useful framework for thinking about works that each in their own way sought to create a vivid sense of witnessing on the part of the spectator.

Before and After the Duel: Delaroche in the genealogy of Gérôme’s Duel after the Masquerade

Stephen Bann (University of Bristol)

Gérome's Duel after the Masquerade was shown for the first time at the Salon of 1857, and not only established his reputation, but soon became one of the most widely reproduced of nineteenth-century paintings. For some years, it has been customary to drawn attention to the connection between this work and the Assassination of the Duc de Guise (1835) by Gérôme's teacher Paul Delaroche. The debt owed by Delaroche to contemporary Romantic drama (particularly in respect of the latter painting) has also been signalled by the more recent study of drawings from around 1830 that represent the Duc de Guise as he appears in the final act of Alexandre Dumas's Cour de Henri III. Yet up to now there has been no opportunity to explore another very likely source for Gérôme's work which is Delaroche's painting, La Suite d'un duel, first shown at the Salon of 1827/28, and now lost, though it was recorded as still being extant in the catalogue of Delaroche's posthumous exhibition in 1857. This paper focuses the argument on an anonymous lithograph, published in London in 1829 under the title, Un Duel ...The Duel. I will show that this is in effect a reproduction of  Pierre-Roch Vigneron's Un Duel, exhibited at the 1822 Salon, which lies behind Delaroche's lost composition. Situating these works in relation to the diverse cross-currents of French visual culture in the 1820s may help to explain their eventual relevance to Gérôme.         

Time and Again: Staging Pompeii in 19th-century London

Sophie Thomas (Ryerson University)

Excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the discovery of extraordinary objects at those sites of antiquity frozen in time, inspired a wide variety of literary and visual genres, sensational popular spectacles and theatrical productions. The most striking works in paint include John Martin’s The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, a canvas first exhibited at William Bullock’s Egyptian Hall in 1822, and the Russian painter Karl Bryullov’s The Last Day of Pompeii of 1833. Martin made concerted efforts to accurately recreate the buildings from archaeological documentation available in works such as Gell and Gandy’s Pompeiana (1819). He was, moreover, directly influenced by the poem composed by his friend, Edwin Atherstone, on The Last Day of Herculaneum (1821), and both are roughly contemporaneous with the fireworks displays in Vauxhall Gardens in 1821 which included simulated eruptions of Vesuvius. Meanwhile, Bryullov’s painting is thought to have inspired Bulwer-Lytton’s novel by the same name. These clustered productions and lines of possible descent, only sketchily indicated here, demonstrate how Pompeii provided a set of malleable themes that could flow into a variety of cultural forms. In this paper, I would like to explore, in particular, the traffic between Martin’s painting, its museum display, and literary and stage productions that render catastrophe in affective human terms. I aim to show how the drama of the ‘last day’, played out between evocative subjects and objects, and before various audiences in early 19th-century London, provided a vehicle for the negotiation of the relationship between the temporal, the temporary and the contemporary.

Panoramic Spectacle of History in Contemporary Museum Practices: Yadegar Assisi’s Pergamon Panorama under the light of Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Jean-Léon Gérôme

Gülru Çakmak (University of Massachusetts)

This paper considers the legacy of 19th-century visual technologies of mass spectacle in history painting as it resurfaces in contemporary curatorial engagements with absorptive digital technologies. The case study will be the Pergamon Panorama by the contemporary artist Yadegar Assisi. Spanning three stories encircling a central viewing platform, the 360-degree monumental panorama is housed in a building constructed for the occasion under the auspices of the Berlin State Museums in a bid to make the past accessible and relevant to present-day museum visitors. Showing hundreds of life-size figures from a steep bird’s-eye perspective inhabiting a digitally-generated architectural and topographic reconstruction of ancient Pergamon, the panorama offers a phenomenological experience of absorption into a specific day in the year 129 CE. While Assisi’s project is enabled by contemporary digital technologies, my paper will argue that the pictorial and compositional devices that it uses in order to absorb the viewer into an embodied encounter with its historical fiction hark back to an earlier moment in 19th-century European visual culture, and in particular to a series of innovations in the genre of history painting by Gérôme and Alma-Tadema. The work of these painters, characterised as ‘theatrical’ in their lifetimes and ‘proto-cinematic’ in contemporary scholarship, in my reading emerge as responses to the strain experienced in the conventions of history painting under pressure from a growing sense of an insurmountable distance between the modern subject and the historical past, coupled with the pervasive transformation of conditions of spectatorship under the influence of emerging technologies of sequential vision epitomised in the panorama and the diorama.










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