Call for Paper : International conference “History painting, painting stories? Narrative processes in 19th century European painting” – Paris, 13-14 June 2024

  • Region: International
  • Type: Conference
  • Cost: Free

The ambition of this conference is to question the evolution of narrative processes and storytelling in European painting throughout the 19th century (1789-1914). Significant changes occurred in the place given to narrative in the pictorial arts: the evocative power and rhetorical qualities traditionally associated with history painting were no longer limited to it, and practitioners of other genres, including those presumably less narrative. In parallel, these qualities, esteemed and valued in the academic doctrine, gradually became inadequate, even despised, with the emergence of modern movements that proclaimed the formal autonomy of painting. This twofold movement, between propagation and rejection of the narrative ambitions of painting, disrupted the ways of producing and appreciating painting and manifested itself in multiple ways throughout the period. This conference aims to examine this process by exploring several leads.

1. Discourses and practices of figurative narration

  • If the relationship between pen and brush has already been the subject of numerous studies, this section proposes to examine more specifically the parallel evolution of narrative processes in literature and in painting. In this respect, this conference aims to link more than it has been done before the studies of art history and those of narratology, whose major studies include those of Paul Ricoeur and Gérard Genette, or more recently those conducted by Raphaël Baroni, who examines the affective and aesthetic effects of the narrative on the author and his reader. Can we observe common developments of painting and literature? Were there convergences or divergences in the place given to narrative in these two artistic practices? In this regard, studies on the exchanges between writers and painters can be mobilized: in social circles, did artists exchange on their conception and their way of “telling stories”, beyond media differences? In addition to the textual sources of the episodes depicted, texts surrounding a pictorial work were numerous in the 19th century, either explaining it – for example, in the Salons catalogs – or commenting on it – in exhibition reviews. What role did narrative play in these discourses? To what extent did the narrative modalities of a pictorial work continue to condition and structure aesthetic and critical judgment? How did the narrative criterion coexist and articulate with more formal criteria of appreciation?
  • Throughout the 19th century, the question of narrative procedures also arose: some procedures became topos, fixed formulas. Nevertheless, some artists sought to break away from these established formulas, in order to attract success, attention, and patronage. This was the case of Paul Delaroche, and later of Jean-Léon Gérôme, Henri Regnault or Jean-Paul Laurens. All of them seeked to decenter the action in order to avoid a certain conception of what should be the “prominent moment” defined by Lessing, the dramatic apex of the narration (the assassination of the main character, for instance). They rather privilege the moment before or after the apex in order to sublimate it, by soliciting the imagination of the spectator to reconstruct the whole action.
  • The teaching studio, whether private or located at the School of Fine Arts, was the place where the principles of artistic creation were transmitted. How did aspiring painters learn to tell stories through drawing and painting? How much of the process was learned by observing reality, “nature”, and how much was acquired from other works of art, the principles passed down from generation to generation by the masters? Each artist had to master the meaning of body language, the body being often the main vector of narration. What were the repertoires of body postures to be mastered, the facial expressions, the sense of social interaction and the manifestation or containment of emotions? Could one learn to master what Aby Warburg called “pathosformel”, a language or visual tropes that express emotion, that would shape the architecture of the story? Could the sense of detail in storytelling also be learned? Lastly, the studio could also be the place where one understood that all works exist only through those who look at them. Therefore, the painter learned to play on the emotions of the spectator and to integrate the socio-political context into his staging, in order to reinforce its visual efficiency.
  • Beyond a vertical transmission from master or mistress to pupil within the atelier, the subject of the circulation of these narrative processes in Europe has to be examined. Highly mobile, training in several cities, present in numerous exhibitions, artists from all countries were able to observe and draw on the multiple solutions adopted by their peers to produce narrative in painting. What exactly were these circulations? Do we observe different modalities according to the pictorial traditions? Were there groups or centers that became known for the originality or effectiveness of their narrative techniques? How were they taken up or adapted in other contexts or in other places?

2. The pictorial narrative to the trial of genres

  • If the narrative was an essential component of history painting, it was not the only place where narratives were deployed, as a large number of pictorial genres were designed to tell stories. Nineteenth-century painters sought to integrate narrative processes into genres that were in principle less narrative. In genre painting, painters blurred the boundaries with history painting – and not only in terms of the periods or characters represented. How did narrative insert itself into seemingly non-narrative genres or styles? What narrative processes did the painters of these genres adopt from history painting? Were they used as such or transformed; and how? In this regard, we would also like to question the maintaining of narrative in so-called “modern” painting, beyond the principle opposition between formal autonomy and rhetorical subordination.
  • This section raises the question of the repertoire of stories told and the way they are told. What were the preferred repertoires, judged worthy of being told or, on the contrary, neglected, and why? How was the repertoire renewed? What were the effects generated by choosing a historical anecdote or by choosing an episode belonging to “great history”? How did artists manage to induce the idea of a plot that went beyond the single moment represented, and by which narrative processes?

3. History and historiette, a question of scale and medium

  • Did the format change the way stories are told? The skills needed to master the constraints of the monumental format of history painting as well as the miniature format of a dessert plate or an illustration engraving varied greatly. What were the effects of these scale variations on the narrative? The question of format also raised the question of medium: the subject of the story could be the same, yet the medium, by its specificity, created varying effects, even when the conditions of presentation of the work were similar. It was the same for the narrative transformations induced by the shift to the interpretive engraving, to the caricature, to the engravings produced for the Salon reviews or to illustrate printed books, to the diorama, and even to the photography, the postcard of artwork reproduction… What were the effects of these media transformations on the production and reception of narrative works? How did technical innovations bring about transformations in the narrative? In addition, the question may arise of the effects of artists’ styles on narrative, especially in historicist painting, when artists adopted the artworks’ style of the period they represented.

Proposals will be sent to the address before the 30 November 2023.

The conference will take place at the Institut National d’Histoire de l’art in Paris on June 13-14, 2024.

Organizing committee: Claire Dupin de Beyssat, Margot Renard, Catherine Méneux.

Scientific committee: France Nerlich, Alain Bonnet, Marjan Sterckx, Pierre Wat, Pierre Sérié, Jan Dirk Baetens, Rachel Esner, Marc Gottlieb, Adriana Sotropa, Liliane Louvel.

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