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Forschungsarbeit

Patterns of reception: nineteenth-century British genre painting in France and the German-speaking regions

By Sophie Kruijssen (04.11.2014)

In the early nineteenth-century, British art was regarded on the continent as the epitome of modernity and a reflection of a politically liberal and progressive society. Genre painting – the depiction of scenes from everyday life – played a prominent role in cementing this reputation. Although many genre painters were considered international celebrities at the time, they have now largely been pushed to the background of art-historical research in favour of painters who acquired their fame in other categories of painting. My research focuses on the reception of early nineteenth-century British genre painting in France and especially the German-speaking regions and aims to evaluate the influence of British genre painting on its contemporary continental counterpart. In doing so, it attempts to reconstruct the mechanisms behind the development of taste in a time in which national boundaries were crossed increasingly easily and frequently.

Already in the eighteenth century, British genre painting had acquired a respectable reputation on the continent, largely thanks to its main protagonist and famous painter William Hogarth (1679-1764). His caricatures and morally-charged paintings and prints were broadly known and attracted admirers from a wide variety of backgrounds. In the early nineteenth century, however, Hogarth’s role was taken over by David Wilkie (1785-1841), whose “gemüthliche” pictures of rural life and bourgeois interiors were regarded especially in the German-speaking regions as deeply rooted in nature, showing an exemplary affection for the human being and a love for the personal, direct environment. The commission of The Reading of the Will by the Bavarian King Max. I Joseph in 1816 is an early testimony of the high regard in which Wilkie was held on the continent. The many German interpretations of the picture appearing after its arrival in Munich in 1819 illustrate his remarkable popularity (fig. 1). The picture was kept in Munich and eventually placed in the Neue Pinakothek in 1853, where it can still be admired today.

[Bildunterschrift / Subline]: Fig. 1: David Wilkie (1785-1841), The reading of the will (1820), oil on mahagony panel, 78,0 x 116,5 cm, purchased in 1826 by King Ludwig I. from the legacy of King Max I. Joseph, Inv. Nr. WAF 1194, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen. Source

My research addresses both the social and artistic processes in which early nineteenth-century genre painting is rooted. These processes can hardly be considered separately. With the introduction of a middle class society and taste into the world of art, genre painting evolved into a category of painting in its own right. At the same time, artistic interests began to exceed national boundaries, moving towards the international art scene of the present day. The continental reception of British genre painting is symptomatic of these developments and in my research it is treated as a window through which the wider developments are studied.

Important questions that are addressed in my research are, for example, in which ways did British genre painting reach the continent and how was it received? Which artists were considered role models and why? How did continental artists use their examples? Which aspects did they adopt and emulate? And finally, what are the general mechanisms behind these processes? Answering these questions involves classical art-historical methods such as literary research and the analysis of specific pictures and reproductive prints. However, these methods do not allow us to systematically evaluate the impact of British genre painting on its continental counterpart.

Outside of art history, a variety of methods have been developed to answer questions like the above. If we adopt the perspective that art is a process of action and reaction, in which tradition and the evolution of novelties go hand in hand, we immediately discern parallels to the development and diversification of species in the context of evolutionary biology. That field may therefore provide suitable methods to address the questions raised in my research.

In my research, I employ phylogenetic systematics to systematically determine and map the scope of the British influence manifested in continental genre pictures. In evolutionary biology, phylogenetics is used to determine the evolutionary relationship between different species that share certain characteristics. It consists of a logical set of rules and algorithms by which similarities between subjects are evaluated. Computational methods can subsequently be used to derive the most probable hypotheses of kinship and visualize these as dendrograms or networks. Outside of the exact sciences, the method of phylogenetic systematics is already used in fields like linguistics and anthropology. Within the field of art history, it represents a new avenue that has the potential to provide a first quantitative indicator for specific patterns of reception in samples of art objects. The method is particularly helpful when – like fossils – the works of art themselves are the little evidence that is left of a certain art-historical development.

Within my research, phylogenetic dendrograms and networks do not only serve to visualize, test or identify smaller cases of reception of British pictures. They are also employed to trace the broader distribution of certain themes and visual motifs in genre painting. Ultimately, they enable me to evaluate the scope of the British role in the early nineteenth-century development of genre painting and to pinpoint how certain patterns of reception in a strongly internationalising and compositionally changing society have come to be.


Scientific Career
  • 2007-2010
  • Bachelor Art History, Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands
  • 2010-2012
  • Researchmaster Art of the Low Countries in its European context, Utrecht University, The Netherlands
  • since 2012
  • PhD student, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich, Germany

Scholarships and Awards
  • * Research stipend of the Bayerische Eliteförderungsgesetz (since May 2013)

Publications
  • * Sophie Kruijssen, "The middle classes and contemporaries as dramatic personae: David Wilkie and the emancipation of genre scenes in Europe", Simiolus Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art , 37 (2013-2014), pp. 249-266.
  • * Sophie Goldhagen, "Prints" and "Prints after Stubbs" in the exhibition catalogue: H. W. Rott ed. George Stubbs 1724-1806, Science into art, Munich (Neue Pinakothek) 2012, pp. 194-233