Napoleon and History Painting: Antoine-Jean Gross La Bataille d’Eylau

Author(s) : PRENDERGAST Christopher
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Professor Prendergast’s study begins with an itinerary of Napoleonic places, both modest and monumental in Paris and its environs. Thats very nice. It then launches into a sometimes deeply theoretical analysis of style. The jacket summary states as the main argument that under Napoleon, French history painting and especially battle painting, encountered a series of questions about its nature and functions, and these had to do with the confusions and contraductions of the state propaganda machine as well as changes in artistic taste and the civic responsibility of the artist. The summary could lead one to believe that Napoleon merely appears in the title. Be assured that Prendergast does not forget Napoleon, but neither is he lost beneath the weight of Napoleons biography(ies), while treating history painting in this period. “Napoleon was emphatically the man of the moment… in the sense of a scintillating tactical opportunism with the moment, his genius for the split-second decision and the improvised making of history.” This made it difficult for the artist to convey him as a subject in grandeur and serenity, the traditional ideals of history painting. With David and others as referents, Prendergast looks at the history painting of Gros (whose biographical mentions are about as spare and pointed as Napoleons) as “created in and as a moment of instability and uncertainty, in the cracks and fault-lines of the genre,” and of the Napoleonic age, a regime of confusion and crisis in the arena of political legitimation. Neither history nor art are lost with the theory here, although sometimes essential points to Prendergasts argument look to be erudite asides and may eventually require a second reading before proceeding. He has taken a traditional even institutional artistic subject and betrayed the ease with which we generally approach it as false or at least superficial. An important book to add to any syllabus on art, power, military history, and of course, Napoleon.

Year of publication :
Place and publisher :
Oxford: Clarendon Press
Number of pages :
207 pp.,
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