I’m presenting my research on François Lemoyne’s suicide for the Edgar Wind Society in Oxford this week. I think their event poster has definitely captured the spirit of the thing!
For more on the Edgar Wind Society, you can find information about previous and upcoming events on their website.
I’m doing the AAH’s Art History in the Pub this month, which means I get another chance to talk about François Lemoyne’s suicide. This has come out of the research I’ve been doing with Katie Scott (Courtauld Institute of Art) on Artists’ Things (website launching soon!) and the material culture of artists in eighteenth-century France. This time I’m focusing a little bit less on the sword itself, and a little bit more on the suicide… and maybe this time, in true CSI:18thC Paris style, the mystery will be solved!
Art History in the Pub is free and open to all. It’s at 7:30 on 26th September at The Monarch in Camden. The abstract is below and further details are available on the AAH website.
|18th-C French Sword – Photo: V&A|
Paris, 4 June 1737: the celebrated artist François Lemoyne commits suicide. It started as an ordinary day. Lemoyne had been to his studio to give a lesson to his students and taken a meal with his cousin. But then events took a macabre turn. Lemoyne retired to his bedroom, carefully locked the door, took up his sword, and proceeded to inflict upon his body multiple fatal stab wounds, before dropping to the floor and dying in a pool of blood.
Lemoyne’s death shocked and horrified his family and colleagues, and it has since presented something of a mystery for art historians. Why should this incredibly successful artist – first painter to Louis XV – have wanted to kill himself only months after completing what is now considered his magnum opus: the ceiling of the Apotheosis of Hercules at the Château de Versailles? Was it over money? Professional jealousy? A madness induced by lack of recognition? Could it have been murder? Or if it really was suicide, then how did Lemoyne complete his gruesome task?
With most of the clues now lost deep in the past, some art-historical sleuthing is necessary in order to retrieve the traces. In this paper, I attempt to solve these perplexing mysteries through a forensic and art-historical analysis of the object responsible: Lemoyne’s sword. Using police reports, autopsies, and witness statements, I piece together the final hours of Lemoyne’s life and offer a material reconstruction of the now lost fatal weapon, exploring what Lemoyne’s sword looked like, what he did with it, and what it meant to him. Drawn from a larger study investigating what artists’ personal possessions reveal about their everyday lives, this case explores the limits and possibilities of object-biography, and presents an exercise in recovering the material history of an object when that object no longer materially exists.
|The Monarch – Photo Source: Qype|
Proceedings kick off at 7:30 and the pub is The Monarch (40-42 Chalk Farm Road, Camden, London, NW1 8BG). Entry is free.
By contrast, one of the most successful and engaging online local history projects I’ve come across recently is about the streets of Philadelphia rather than the streets of Paris… the interactive website PhilaPlace, made by the Historical Society of Philadelphia.
Using images, text, video, audio and historical maps, the site connects history and place at a local level, or as they put it: “PhilaPlace weaves stories shared by ordinary people of all backgrounds with historical records to present an interpretive picture of the rich history, culture, and architecture of our neighborhoods, past and present.”
|Tour on PhilaPlace|
Navigating your way around town using historical maps, you feel like you’re exploring the city both geographically and through layers of time. You can move through the past by selecting different maps – from the contemporary Googlemap, to earlier ones from 1962, 1935, 1895 and 1875 – giving an impression of the changing size and structure of the urban environment. All of these maps are pinned with the same points of interest – including churches, historical buildings, well-known businesses and cemeteries – offering a sense of the history of these urban spaces, and the shifts and continuities in the communities that have lived there. Each place has a description and several images from different moments (black & white or colour depending on the period), showing either the building, street views, or images of Philadelphians using the place. You can filter the points of interest to show specific themes (e.g. ‘health’, ‘immigration’, or ‘religious life’), and if you can’t decide how to wander the streets yourself, you can take a guided tour! (only two at the moment, but presumably more are coming).
I’ve never actually been to Philadelphia, but I have a more intimate sense of its local history now than I do of many places I have visited. In a way, it’s like a 21st-century version of Richard Cobb’s wonderful essay, The Streets of Paris (1980)… using word and image to capture the history of place… but doing it interactively. Now if we could just do this for Paris…
I got talking with some non-art historians one lunchtime this week about Google Art Project and its applications for art historical research. Most of them were quite surprised that I didn’t just think it was a silly toy for amateurs. But really, what’s not to like about making art history feel like play!?
For most people, visiting a museum (especially when overseas) is a tourist experience; for me, it’s usually work, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it. Research trips are fun but they are still research. So if Google Art is for the most part about giving people the chance to be ‘virtual tourists’, then I don’t see why it doesn’t give me the same chance to be a ‘virtual researcher’.
Not only is it great to be able to visit museum collections that I’ve never had the opportunity of visiting in the flesh, like the Hermitage, but also the resolution of the images makes it a really useful art viewer. There’s just no way you can get that level of detail (particularly brushwork) in most images on the internet (with a few exceptions like the National Gallery’s zoomy viewer). For me, the detail really is the highlight. Art historians are often interested in less obvious details than those that are usually photographed – Google Art means you can zoom on all kinds of weird things, take a screenshot, and throw it into a Powerpoint presentation for your next class or conference paper.
Another thing I was particularly excited about was not just ‘visiting’ galleries I’d never been to, but seeing old favourites in new ways… that is, in ways not possible when you’re standing in the room. I’ve been doing some work on François Lemoyne recently, so when I first had a play with Google Art I went straight to Versailles to hunt out the Apotheosis of Hercules that he painted on the ceiling of the Hercules Salon. I’ve spent many hours standing in that room being jostled by hundreds of tourists, straining my neck and nearly falling over backwards to try and see Lemoyne’s painting. And forget photographing it, that’s always a complete blurry and piecemeal disaster.
But here it is on Google Art, in amazing high resolution that allows you to zoom in on the details in a way that would never be possible in real life… while also being situated in its original setting, so you don’t forget how it was supposed to be viewed and experienced. This way I’m able to consider not only its reception, but also its production: I get to experience how the courtiers saw it from the ground, but also to see it with the proximity that Lemoyne did from the scaffolding when he was painting it. (As an aside – the only problem with this at the moment is that only half the ceiling has been photographed… I’m hoping this will be amended in the fullness of time).
With the Versailles example, once again I can see how it’s going to become a really useful teaching and presentation tool. I can take a screen shot of the room and the floor plan, showing exactly where in the palace the painting is so I can show students and others who haven’t had the chance to see it in situ for themselves. How great will that be for teaching museum studies and curating courses, giving students a virtual experience of the space and the context of its location in the museum all at once? Of course, in this respect, one of the pros is also one of the cons… it may be an art historian’s relief to see the Mona Lisa without crowds of tourists, but it’s certainly not an authentic experience of the object from a museological perspective.
Google Art is not flawless and it’s not free of issues… but for the art historian, it’s fun, useful and exciting. And that’s enough for me.