You are on Érudit's new platform. Enjoy! Switch to classic view


Christopher Rovee. Imagining the Gallery: The Social Body of British Romanticism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-8047-5124-2. US$58.

  • Stephen C. Behrendt

…more information

  • Stephen C. Behrendt
    University of Nebraska

Article body

Interdisciplinary scholarship always holds special potential; the best studies typically shed new and unexpected light on their subjects from both (or all) the disciplines that their authors bring to bear. And while the worst tend to be obvious in the contrived and often merely figurative nature of their arguments, these are also relatively few in number. But so are the best, paradoxically, for successful interdisciplinary scholarship is never a matter of merely pairing up perspectives and methodologies from one discipline and then another and hoping that something illuminating will emerge. Good readers can of course find something, but that is to the reader’s credit and only minimally to the author’s. Bridging the very different disciplines of the word-based and the visual arts is always a tricky business, however, in part because so few scholars are trained in both disciplines and because scholarship in each tends typically to involve much that is exclusive to one discipline or the other – right down to the terminology, which is itself often revealing. Scholarship on William Blake, for example, where an interdisciplinary approach should be natural, if not inevitable, most often still divides along disciplinary lines, privileging one at the expense of the other. Blake’s greatest editor, for example, David V. Erdman, regularly referred to illuminated poems like the Songs of Innocence and of Experience in terms of “the texts” and “the pictures,” a hierarchical privileging that reflected Erdman’s own grounding in literary scholarship.

Really effective interdisciplinary scholarship results from a genuinely inclusive mindset on the author’s part, an ability not so much to see subjects from one or another or a third standpoint but rather to see them from a single perspective in which the characteristics and methodologies of the several disciplines are in productive conversation with one another. Such a perspective views the subject matter through a lens that incorporates all these disciplinary perspectives at once and by design in a fashion that yields ways of seeing (and understanding) that may well be inconvenient, difficult, or even impossible from within the familiar intellectual and aesthetic territory of any single discipline. This is the sort of ground staked out by Christopher Rovee in Imagining the Gallery, a study that melds literary history and art history under a broad umbrella of social and cultural analysis to produce a suggestive analysis of how later eighteenth-century and early to mid nineteenth century visual art and literature reshaped the image of the British body politic in terms that had become familiar as part of the evolution of formal portraiture.

Rovee’s central premise, that changing attitudes toward portraiture among the British public during the seminal period of the Romantic era reflects a remarkable reimagining of the national social body, informs an investigation that ranges widely and lucidly across figures as seemingly diverse as Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds, John and Josiah Boydell, Charlotte Smith, Mary Shelley, and William Wordsworth, whose long life and cultural centrality makes him the inevitable touchstone in any such study. Rovee proposes that what happened in the arts – and especially in the gallery culture – during the Romantic era reflected an emerging division in aesthetics between a “populist, Hograthian, representational” paradigm and an alternative “elite, Shaftesburian, idealizing” one (p. 4), a division that can be traced in the growth and popularity of public exhibitions like those mounted by John and Josiah Boydell during the late 1780s and the 1790s celebrating Shakespeare and British history. These exhibitions made available to a “general” public a broad and increasingly accessible variety of subject matter and artistic styles that had historically been the province of the wealthy elite. In a very real sense, this shift marked the democratization of the visual arts that was occurring in the other arts as well, as new technologies, new literacies, and new economic prospects fueled the rise of British bourgeois consumption of art and culture.

One immediate consequence of this shift was that grand style history painting was by the 1790s being eclipsed by portraiture as the fashionable form of visual art. Because history painting was steeped in Continental art and aesthetics, the swerve toward the increasingly populist genre of representational portraiture also constituted an expression of nationalist politics, something that has too often been lost on cultural historians who have forgotten how central to the national cultural and political life the arts were during the Romantic era. The participation of middle-class consumers in the market for the arts injected both new capital and new standards of “taste” into that market, and they not surprisingly spilled over from the sphere of the visual arts to other areas of cultural production like literature and the theatre, where new audiences were likewise forming along new and different lines of taste. Most of Rovee’s discussion proceeds from his simple statement of the case early on: “Exhibition culture” in Britain was “replete with hierarchical values” so that “to conceive of oneself as a participant in it was, in essence, to imagine one’s own special place within the gallery.” In other words, “exhibition culture provided a prominent public place where the middle class could mimic high social status and even achieve it” (p. 7). It was not that “high” art was being supplanted by “low”; rather, the two (along with the many gradations between them) began to be in dialogue with one another, sometimes by design and sometimes not, so that the various audiences for artistic production were forced to grapple with the inherent dynamism and the built-in inconsistencies and contradictions that came with this multi-faceted artistic conversation.

Rovee reads Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses on Art beside Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, tracing in them how verbal and visual portraiture tended, paradoxically, at once to enhance and to diminish both the subjects of the portraits and the whole public enterprise of consumption and connoisseurship. Reynolds labored to raise the status of portraiture, which was widely viewed as too domestic and too effeminate to merit the honor traditionally accorded to history painting. While Reynolds worked to do this in his own portraits by staging his sitters against iconographically suggestive and dramatically effective backgrounds, for instance, Burke came at the matter from the other direction; most famously, his description of Marie Antoinette beset by her attackers strives to reduce her special circumstances as Queen of France to the level of basic human experience to which any sensible reader might be expected to be sympathetic. In the process, he perhaps unwittingly undermines much of what he has to say in that document about hereditary privilege and the elitist consumption of culture.

With John Boydell the new mixed genre of portraiture found its signal promoter. Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, which lasted some sixteen years (1789-1805), represented what Rovee calls “Everybody’s Shakespeare” (p. 75). Boydell seized upon the ultimate nationalist hero, Shakespeare, for the subject of what he projected to be a grand national exercise in economically profitable self-congratulation. That the Gallery’s opening nearly coincided with the fall of the Bastille and its run extended through Napoleon’s coronation suggests just how politically charged the whole enterprise was, and how its patently nationalistic message played to a middle-class audience that possessed increasing capital to invest in projects that reinforced both its own self-image and the collective image it was in the process of inscribing on the nation as a whole. The Shakespeare Gallery was a financial disaster, of course, as was inevitable from its wildly irreconcilable objectives (financial and otherwise). But as a public exercise in playing to a diverse public, it was at the very least a remarkable “stroke of marketing genius” (p. 75). Featuring original works of art that could be “owned” by middle-class patrons in the form of engraved copies, the Gallery managed to combine – albeit uncomfortably for the more elite connoisseurs – vision with reproduction, original with copy. Moreover, as the site at which artists of widely varying skill and vision could try to meld portraiture and history painting under the umbrella of Shakespeare’s distinctively literary art, the Shakespeare Gallery became “an aesthetic harbinger of the complex social transformations that would define nineteenth-century Britain” (p. 104).

Successive chapters focus upon Charlotte Smith and Mary Shelley, and upon the only partially fictive portraits they draw in their widely successful writings. In Smith’s case, the work in question is her immensely influential Elegiac Sonnets, first published in 1784. In Rovee’s view, Smith “writes and is written on: she authors herself even as she is authored by Time” (p. 111). More important, though, in writing herself both into and within the sonnets, and also in the multiple prefaces that she piles up in successive editions, she invites readers to “read” her verbal (self-) portrait much as they read a visual portrait, projecting information into the portrait and then seeming to discover it there. Rovee stresses the frontispiece portrait of Smith that appeared in the 1797 edition, suggesting that its presence (in company with the very personal pleading prefaces) invites readers (viewers) to read Smith’s presence also in the other engraved illustrations, none of which specifically identifies her. Again (though Rovee does not say so) the point is exactly apropos of the reader’s relationship with the apparent authorial presence in the verbal texts of the poems. Rovee extends his argument to sonnet collections (and anthologies) generally, suggesting that they are galleries too, galleries that at once define and overcome the limits of time and space that ordinarily govern the production and consumption of art in all its forms.

Rovee also offers a political reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, whose production coincided with Britain’s acquisition of the Elgin Marbles. While a renewed interest in the portrait miniature emerged during the early nineteenth century, so too did the public culture witness a parallel explosion of monumental art, both in large-scale paintings and in public monuments and sculptures. The portrait miniature (not unlike the sonnet) possesses an intimacy and concentration of form and sentiment whose inverse is represented in the broadly performative nature of public monuments, which invite a very different and (typically) civic-minded (if not downright nationalistic) reading by their audiences. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, like the verbal and visual Gothic to which it is heir, is a study in excess, in what Rovee calls “monstrosity” (p. 131). In the wake of some two decades of warfare, Frankenstein was (and still is) inevitably political in its assessment of idealism run aground on the rocks of ego, and of energy tragically and fatally misdirected. The novel is unquestionably political, and Rovee means for us to see how its aesthetics relates to what he sees as the perhaps surprising import of the Elgin Marbles. “Embodying an antiestablishment aesthetic of particularity even as they figured forth an ideal of liberty,” he writes, “the marbles appealed to commentators who saw in their internal effects an aesthetic revolution: the return of a material repressed from beneath a surface of culture and artifice” (p. 131). Put another way, Frankenstein and its almost hyper-realistic outsized Creature lie upon the same cultural and aesthetic spectrum with the marbles, both of them testifying to the ways in which nineteenth-century social reconfiguration in Britain attempts desperately to hang on to heroic ideals even while acknowledging the culture’s powerlessness to do so. The internalized struggles that give Frankenstein its peculiar force mirror the more public controversy that surrounded the debate over the marbles. Victor’s Creature is in effect a modern portrait executed with the aesthetic apparatus of history painting. In calling Victor the modern Prometheus Shelley placed him directly in this grand-style tradition of heroic portraiture and in the process revealed the incapacity of the early nineteenth-century world to sustain such heroism: all it can produce is monsters. Rovee wishes us to see something comparable in the debate over the marbles, and to see in that debate, too, a radically reformist aesthetic and political agenda that is tied directly to their carefully detailed physical particularity. The analogy with Frankenstein does not work particularly well, however, perhaps because visionary writers (like Keats, for instance) saw in the marbles the ideals for which they were the mere physical signs, while Mary Shelley was pursuing a very different social and political agenda.

When it comes to Wordsworth, Rovee has a much more congenial subject, and his discussion is proportionally more satisfying. Concerning himself now with the formation of an authorial identity – as constructed both by the author himself and by those who executed his portraits (in word as well as in image), Rovee examines how and why this publicly-constructed image is then marketed and culturally canonized. Not surprisingly, given that the subject is Wordsworth, Rovee finds in this cultural dynamic a strong element of conservatism. His Wordsworth is a visionary, to be sure, but in the final (and historically reasonable) analysis one whose convictions about original genius are both patently nationalistic and thoroughly domestic in nature. Little wonder that Wordsworth came finally to prefer Benjamin Robert Haydon’s Reynoldsian portrait of him in pensive contemplation atop Helvellyn, a portrait that hearkens back to the grandest of grand-style portraiture while – in the ultimate paradox – providing the basis for the small-scale, mass-produced engraved reproductions that graced numerous popular editions of Wordsworth’s poems in the years following his death.

Rovee’s analysis of Sir George Hayter’s 1833 painting of the House of Commons forms the subject of the final chapter, which returns us to the larger subject of the changing nature of public portraiture and, in this case especially, group portraiture. Hayter’s painting, as Rovee notes, was designed as an exercise in nationalism: it represents the members of Commons in such nearly similar fashion as to be nearly indistinguishable. Indeed, the message is, like the familiar American motto, one of e pluribus unum. This massive group portrait engineers a collective unity (indeed unison) through its visual and structural arrangements, a unity that stands (and stands in) for the collective British identity in the year following the passage of the Reform Bill. Confident, self-assured, overpoweringly masculine, and steeped in formal dignity, the image melds aristocratic traditions of portraiture and politics with the bald reality that it is the House of Commons, not of Lords, that the artist depicts. Like all portraits, in galleries or otherwise, Hayter’s painting offers an image that is fraught with paradoxes, with tensions, and with the irreconcilable poles of familiarity and otherness that enliven all the great works of art, regardless of their intended audiences. In the course of helping us to see and appreciate phenomena of this sort across the wide spectrum of Romantic-era visual and verbal art, Christopher Rovee provides a stimulating and rewarding read.