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This page was last updated on 10/04/2007 11:22:46

 

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Citizens and kings
05 April 2007

Citizens and kings - Atelier de David Marat assassiné, 1794

Abigail Dunn looks at portraits of the powerful and at the interplay between artists’ intentions, viewers’ perceptions and sitters’ hopes for how they would like to be perceived.

We live in an image-saturated age, with famous (and not-so famous) faces staring back from every available surface – but even though we are bombarded, we still like to question what it is we’re seeing. Take the annual Christmas card analysis, in which the photographs of royals, politicians and celebrities are picked apart by writers who encourage us to consider the subconscious message – intentional or otherwise – that is being projected. Did the prime minister once seek to look like a statesman because his wife was expecting? Did he cast aside his children because his tenure required him to toughen up? Most recently, was he trying to get us to see him in the context of a chronology of great prime ministers? The answer may well be ‘who cares’, but this yearly attempt to interrogate images is a contemporary take on a process that has gone on throughout history: the interplay between the way the sitter hopes to be perceived, what the painter chooses to show, and the viewer’s own interpretation.

Did the prime minister once seek to look like a statesman because his wife was expecting? Did he cast aside his children because his tenure required him to toughen up?

Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760-1830 explores the ways in which a febrile political and cultural age is reflected through portraiture. As the exhibition title suggests, this was an age of change: in Russia, Catherine seized the throne from her husband; in America, the War of Independence took place; the Holy Roman Empire collapsed; and in France, the revolution was swiftly followed by Emperor Napoleon and then – after he overreached – his deposition. Visitors to the Royal Academy are invited to consider these years of upheaval through the representations of individuals. The exhibition is shaped by a central, if unsurprising, thesis: in an age of shifting political and cultural certainties, the way the public face of an individual was represented inevitably changed.

Citizens and Kings - Franciso de Goya y Lucientes - Ferdinand VII in Royal Robes, c.1815

Simple though it may be, the concept encourages viewers to reflect on the difficulty of creating an image impregnable against ‘wrong’ interpretation. With hindsight, we can read a pleasing irony in the portrait of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, whose loyalty to Napoleon – demonstrated pictorially by his closeness to a bust of the emperor – was clearly set aside when he played a key role in the emperor’s downfall. That he is hung alongside the fantastic Jacques-Louis David painting of the emperor in his study, which captures the Frenchman as an unstinting workman, ready to inspect his troops after working though the night (burnt down candles and clock face make it clear that he has sacrificed sleep for his country), is a pleasing curatorial joke. No matter how you chose to represent yourself, this hanging shows, you are not safe from the ravages of future events or inquisitive eyes.

No matter how you chose to represent yourself, you are not safe from the ravages of future events

The exhibition demonstrates the fallibility of those who would seek to dictate their own reputations, but at the same time these were portraits specifically intended to influence the opinion of contemporaries, and they constitute a lesson in image manipulation. In an entire room of portraits of artists, only a couple are depicted as such. These experts in transforming others are equally keen on being transformed themselves. Sir Joshua Reynolds is painted by himself, dressed in the robes of a doctor of law. Sculptor Jean-Jacques Caffieri is depicted as a gentleman with sword; one notices his most famous statue lurking in the background only after being dazzled by the glinting expanse of his gilt-covered paunch.

Elsewhere, French statesman Honore Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau – whose oratory and wrangling made him one of the key figures in France on the cusp of the revolution – is portrayed as a man of action and drama. He has no interest in desks and books, is the clear message; eyes swept up theatrically, barrel-body braced, there is something dangerously reptilian about him but the subtext clearly reads ‘power’. This man of action is also invoked in portraits of those who wish to show their intellectual gravitas. In the section devoted to ‘manifestations of the Enlightenment’, Michel Belot is depicted by his son-in-law Martin Drolling not as he was – a painter and art materials salesman – but as a gentleman reading a pamphlet of Mirabeau’s speeches. Man of action Mirabeau becomes a symbol of engagement with the contemporary debate, showing that Belot possesses that essential Enlightenment qualification: thoughtfulness. Equally importantly, it says that Belot is on the right team: this may have been a period which promoted rigorous thought, but that didn’t prevent it being marked by factionalism.

Citizens and Kings - Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres - Napoleon I on the Imperial Throne, 1806

The success of Citizens and Kings is in some ways also its failure: the concentration on forms of representation is an unusual take on power and history, but it also leaves you wanting to know more about the period. Placing a bust of Benjamin Franklin within eyesight of that discontented French nobleman, the Prince de Conti, creates an interesting aesthetic association, but this association is a slightly frustrating dead-end for those who want to grasp more firmly some sense of place and time. They are together because the curator deemed them to be of similar type, but concentrating on modes of representation means the exhibition lacks a historical framework. There are portraits of Mirabaeu and Marat (clearly the latter is seen as a draw, as his baleful death-head stares out from all the publicity), but what of Danton, Robespierre and the other Jacobins? In exploring representations of individuals in a volatile period, the exhibition gives little overview of events, and more frustratingly it fails to capture the tumult that Europe and America were experiencing. It does not promise to be more than simply portraits from the age, but you find yourself wishing that it was.

Abigail Dunn is a writer for the Commission for Racial Equality.

Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760 - 1830 is on at the Royal Academy of Arts, (Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD) until 20 April 2007.


Images:

Atelier de David Marat assassiné (detail),
c.1794 Oil on canvas
162.5 x 130 cm
Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, legs du Baron Jeanin, descendant de l'artiste, 1945
Photo: © RMN/Blot and Jean

Franciso de Goya y Lucientes
Ferdinand VII in Royal Robes, c.1815
Oil on canvas
208 x 142.5 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, 735
Photo: All rights reserved © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Napoleon I on the Imperial Throne, 1806
Oil on canvas
260 x 163 cm
Musee de l Armee, Paris, 5420
Photo: © Musee de l Armee, Dist. RMN/Segrette, Paris

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The Royal Academy: Citizens and Kings: details of the exhibition.


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Commission for Racial Equality

Publisher of Catalyst Magazine, the CRE works to create a just and integrated society, where diversity is valued.

openDemocracy

Independent political discussion and debate based on exchange and participation.

Prospect Magazine

A political magazine, Prospect also includes features on arts and culture, science, economics, history, social affairs and philosophy.

Runnymede Trust

The Runnymede Trust promotes a successful multi-ethnic Britain.

Institute of Race Relations

The Institute of Race Relations is a race relations thinktank.

EUMC

The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Social policy research and development.

For more links, see our new links page.

Search Catalyst

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Promote Catalyst

If you are able to promote Catalyst in your workplace, university etc, please download our poster, a pdf which can be printed at A4 or A3 size.

Small print

Contributor and illustrator information

Articles published in Catalyst do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Commission for Racial Equality.

For advertising or editorial enquiries, please .

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This page was last updated on 10/04/2007 11:22:46

 

© Commission for Racial Equality 2007

 

CRE 30 years logo