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Two Kinds of Historicism: Resurrection and Restoration in French Historical Painting

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image of Journal of the Philosophy of History

The historicist approach is rarely challenged by art historians, who draw a clear distinction between art history and the present-centred pursuit of art criticism. The notion of the ‘period eye’ offers a relevant methodology. Bearing this in mind, I examine the nineteenth-century phase in the development of history painting, when artists started to take trouble over the accuracy of historical detail, instead of repeating conventions for portraying classical and biblical subjects. This created an unprecedented situation at the Paris Salon, where such representations of history could be experienced as a collective ‘dream-work’, in Freud’s sense. In France, this new pictorial language dates back to the aftermath of the Revolution, and the activities of the ‘Lyon School’. Two artists, Richard and Révoil, were its leading proponents. However their initial closeness has obscured the differences in their approach to the past. Substituting for Freud’s ‘condensation’ and ‘displacement’ the concepts of ‘Resurrection’ and ‘Restoration’, I analyse the pictorial language of the two painters, taking two works as examples. The conclusion is that Révoil, also a collector, was a precursor of the historical museum, which convinces through accumulating objects. Richard, however, employs technical and rhetorical devices to evoke empathetic reactions, and anticipates the illusionism of cinema.

Affiliations: 1: University of Bristol, Email:


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