Archive for the '2.3 Depicting history' Category

UA1-WA:P2-p3 Reflections

The course notes ask me to reflect on whether, given modern education, mythological themes in painting have become irrelevant. That could be answered from the perspective of the artist or the viewer.

For the artist, it would depend on why they paint. Is it to communicate, to express her/his inner self, to create an emotional bond, to make a political comment, to create beauty, because they must, to explore a theoretical concept, to make money…? If they know of a myth, through classical education or general reading or because they saw it in an earlier work or what-ever, and their purpose is personal or internal or not intended for ease of consumption, then surely they can select any starting point that works for them. When researching for Arachne (8-July-2013) I came across Yasumasa Morimura’s A requiem: spinning a thread between the light and the earth/1946, India (2010) (see the photograph at I commented then “Morimura’s photograph references earlier artworks, including Velázquez’s The Fable of Arachne. The text information on the gallery website suggests that Morimura, like Arachne, is challenging the gods.” For this artist both the myth and its place in art history were relevant in his contemporary context.

From my side as a viewer it seems one aspect of a more general question. If I don’t share the same background, culture, time period etc of the artist, does their work become irrelevant or impossible for me to appreciate? Is it pointless to watch Shakespeare if I don’t understand precisely what is meant about a character who was “groping for trout in a peculiar river”?

Nicolas Régnier Hero and Leander (c. 1625-1626) Image provided by NGV

Nicolas Régnier
Hero and Leander
(c. 1625-1626)
Image provided by NGV

Thinking of myths in particular, I didn’t know the story of Hero and Leander before I started researching Régnier’s work at NGV (see post 23-Jul-2013).

Looking at the image again, I would say that the drama shown is timeless. A woman mourns her dead lover. She looks to the sky and asks “Why?”. Myths are stories told that help people to understand their world and themselves, based in the nature of humanity. You don’t need to know the particular details to recognise the emotion shown. Even myths like Arachne where a capricious god punishes anyone who dares challenge them could have modern parallels in the arrogant use and abuse of power.

That isn’t to say that putting some time and effort into entering the world of the artwork is irrelevant. I feel I see and understand more having learnt about the myth, just as my appreciation has been enhanced by learning about the background of the battle at Rorke’s Drift (see 24-Oct-2013).

Ghost net crocodile

Ghost net crocodile
GhostNets Australia (2011)

Art has helped me learn more about my own time and country, for example this work seen at last year’s Sculpture by the Sea (see post 2-Nov-2012). Seeing the work led me to read up on the problem of ghost nets. NT_saltwatercrocMy more recent experience in the Northern Territory (29-Aug-2013) has added another layer of appreciation of the work.

One relevant side question for me is the place of Art History. In my limited experience so far Art History can turn an artwork into a puzzle to be solved, with a risk of by-passing emotion and honest reaction. I think it adds so much more, and I particularly enjoy making links between different works (my brief visit to the Art Gallery of South Australia was particularly thrilling in that way – see 5-May-2013). Still, I am conscious of the need for a balance.

This provides a nice segue into a brief reflection on the course so far. With this post I complete the work for Project 3 of Part 2. I am enjoying the course enormously and feel that both my knowledge and my appreciation of art are expanding at a phenomenal rate. The biggest issue remains time management. I have tried to be more strict about getting things done, drawing a line under a topic because the deadline (personally set) is up. This continues to be difficult, but after all I’m not going to stop looking at and learning about art when the course is finished, so I think I can afford a few loose ends!

UA1-WA:P2-p3 Reflections
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project three: Depicting history – neo-classicism, Romanicism and realism
Reflection: Mythological themes and progress to date

UA1-WA:P2-p3-Ex Annotate a realist image

Landscape with stagGustave Courbet1873   oil on canvas   65.5 x 81.6 cmArt Gallery NSW

Landscape with stag
Gustave Courbet
1873 oil on canvas 65.5 x 81.6 cm
Art Gallery NSW

For this annotation I have chosen Landscape with stag by Gustave Courbet, in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Once again my desire to work from the actual painting drove my selection. The photos in this post were taken on my mobile phone and are particularly poor, so I strongly recommend the Gallery website version: or for even more detail on the google art project,

courbet_galleryviewI don’t entirely blame the equipment (phone) or the operator (me) for the bad photo. The gallery shot shows the Courbet in situ, one of a number of works squeezed in around the flamboyant Vive l’Empereur by Edouard Detaille (1891). My subject painting is the one to the left, above the heads of the people reading the signage for Vive l’Empereur. The Gallery is very short of space (plans for an expansion have been floated but money is yet to appear), and unfortunately in this instance the Courbet is left languishing, hung too high and too poorly lit to see properly (Vive l’Empereur literally taking the spotlight).

I’ve had great difficulty seeing this picture – not just the physical aspects mentioned above, but being able to focus on it and make sense of what I was looking at. It took me quite a while to even find the stag, the triangle of blue sky in the top right distracted me, and what was the source of that light behind the trees? It was closed in as if the side of a mountain, but filled with almost glaring light. I’ve viewed the painting multiple times over the past few weeks, sometimes a detour on trips with other purposes (Renaissance to Goya, the sarcophagus of Yu Hong, The defence of Rorke’s Drift), later as the primary focus. I’m enjoying it more and more as I go, but it still escapes me somehow. I’ve made up my own story…

courbet_01We are beside, almost standing in, a stream running through a forest. The waters froth as they pass over and around rocks that have tumbled in. Ahead and to the right a mountain rises. There was a rockslide not too long in the past – the source of the clearing on the steep slope behind the fringe of trees. The bared rock of the mountainside reflects light into the glade where the stream reflects the light again – it is a bright sunny day outside. The landslide was also the source of the rocks that have disrupted the flow of the stream. In the front left stands a stag that has come to drink the waters in a quiet side pool. Further back the forest closes in and the stream disappears into a shadow made even darker by the contrast of the reflecting light.

courbet_04My standard drawing of lines doesn’t yield much information. I was surprised that the very centre of the picture was actually one of the brightest areas. Adding a square and the rectangles left by squares put the stag (circled in purple) into its own nice area, but no other insights.

courbet_05Looking for lines was more interesting. The most obvious is related to the bright light bouncing around the scene. There’s also that (to me bothersome) triangle of blue sky. The scene is otherwise so enclosed, with so little depth and with a restricted palette that the distant blue seems very out of place. It took me longer to see and appreciate the fresh yellow-green of leaves catching sunlight directly rather than reflected from the mountainside. It’s quite mottled – I think it may have been sponged on – and makes a lovely irregular diagonal above and not quite parallel to the relatively harsher light. The colour is not so much reflected as repeated in other small areas around the picture. With all these brighter diagonals it’s rather nice to find the darker vertical rhythm of tree trunks proceeding in their subdued diagonal down across the painting. All this light and movement makes the source of the stream on the left even darker and more mysterious.

courbet_02This is a closeup of the stream at the bottom right of the picture. The colour is very broken up. There are patches with little lines running through which I think may be the result of using a palette knife. On the rock there it looks like the end of a brush may have been dragged through paint, creating line and texture. In areas the shadows of earlier colour show through – from what I’ve read this suggests the use of transparent glazes (not being a painter I’m not sure of my ground here). There are still solid shapes in the large rocks. There is a wide range of values and quite a mix of colour in the water. I think it is very effective in suggesting a fast-running mountain steam forming rapids over the rocks, with light reflected from the hillside and also filtering directly through the trees.

courbet_03Another closeup, this time up the bank of the stream near the centre of the picture, just above the large rock. Once again there is a jumble of broken-up colour and shape. I think I can see signs of the brush being used in different ways, scrubbing and stroking, perhaps sponge near the top. Some shapes are blurred and indistinct, but there is a certain angularity, a repetition of triangular forms, that can also be seen in other parts of the painting. In my interpretation of the picture there a little space behind the trees, closed off by the remains of the rockslide. I suppose it could be snow, but there is no sign of that elsewhere in the scene. I also think the colour is too warm for snow.

Landscape - solitude Richard Westall 1811 oil on canvas 102.6 x 127.9 cm

Landscape – solitude
Richard Westall
1811 oil on canvas 102.6 x 127.9 cm

The course notes ask whether the chosen painting has reference to other artistic traditions. Pondering this, I went wandering through the Gallery and came across this painting by Richard Westall (the Gallery’s image is at Note the triangle of blue top left and the stream running over rapids and around rocks, its source disappearing into darkness. On the left instead of a stag we have a bird (heron perhaps?), on the right trees going up a hillside.

Information from the Gallery signage: “The artist was brother to the William Westall who (on the recommendation of Benjamin West) was chosen to accompany Flinders on his voyage to Australia in 1801. Though Richard remained in England he brought a certain savagery to romantic visions of landscape such as this.”

westall_03This detail shows Westall’s handling of the cascading water. I rather like the patterning that is formed, but the whole approach is an extraordinary contrast to Courbet’s later work, although the colour range of the stream has a lot of similarities. The painting was hung high, so once again I had difficulties in seeing clearly, but I’m fairly sure the surface of the picture was very smooth and uniform. Texture and volume are created by areas of colour, not by physical layers and lumps of paint.

westall_02This closeup of the bottom left corner shows the detail provided by Westall (the fuzziness is in the photograph, not the painting). Separate leaves, flowers, and fronds of fern or bracken can be seen – quite possibly botanically correct, although the gothic branches and clutching roots of the trees look like an illustration to a ghost story.

I think this gives a wonderful indication of how far Courbet had moved from a Romantic style. The paintings are superficially similar in subject and composition, but seem much further apart than 62 years.

Going further back, it was interesting to return to my notes on the two Rembrandt’s I saw at NGV (see post 13-Sept-2013). In the earlier work, Two old men disputing (1628) (, individual brushstrokes could be seen as many small flecks creating light and texture and shape.

rembrandt_2372_handThe second work by Rembrandt was Portrait of a white-haired man (1667), see and my detail shot at the right. My notes back then included “so varied and fluid and uneven, none of that sense of painstaking precision”. In my eyes Courbet’s work has echoes of this textured, free painting. It was gratifying to find some support for this in a paper by David Bomford. He wrote of the ‘rough manner’ which developed in Spanish and Dutch painting, and mentions in particular the late works of Rembrandt. Rather than deliberately copying Rembrandt, Bomford suggests Courbet showed an “almost unconscious exercise of visual memory”, “absorbing a sort of mnemonic code of representation, to be rediscovered and reinvented in the extraordinary low-relief formations that were his landscape paintings” (Bomford, 2007, p.11). This went beyond the surface to the dark prepared surface lying under the painting.

Courbet himself both acknowledged his study and debt to earlier artists and claimed his own independence. “I have studied … the art of the ancients and the moderns. I have no more wished to imitate the one than to copy the other… I simply wanted to draw forth from a complete knowledge of tradition the reasoned and independent understanding of my own individuality” (Courbet, 1855).

Rather pleased with my earlier success finding the Westall picture, I went searching for a link forward, to works created after Courbet’s. I’d read of Courbet’s influence on Cézanne, but the only work in the Gallery’s collection is very solid and horizontal and open, much flatter in its brushwork, wider and brighter in its palette and in my eyes not a strong connection.

On the other hand, this painting by Georges Braque seems to me to have some relationship. Apologies this time for the speck of dust on the lens. The Gallery link is

Landscape with houses Georges Braque Winter 1908-1909 oil on canvas 65.5 x 54.0 cm

Landscape with houses
Georges Braque
Winter 1908-1909 oil on canvas 65.5 x 54.0 cm

In one – many – senses the paintings are nothing alike. What caught my eye: the tree on a steep slope, an angularity and repetition of triangular forms, a sense of being closed in, the colour palette, the dark area coming into light.

The brushwork is quite different, more ordered, moving together to distinguish forms and create movement around the picture. One similarity would be that the individual marks are visible, and important in the overall effect of the painting.

The course notes ask to what extent the image combines “an imaginative grasp of [the age’s] paradoxical spasms of ‘heroism’ and its moral and spiritual desolation” (quoting Honour and Fleming p. 670 in reference to Baudelaire). How can I know of that age’s spirit and valour? My research for Rorke’s Drift is just one example of the malleable nature of history, and it can all get a bit circular – I know of the age what I learn from the artifacts left from that age, and of course the histories and stories written since.

Schwartz suggests that at this late period in his life Courbet’s work was more reflective of his personal experiences than society as a whole – “his subject matter ultimately became the act of painting itself, an expressive emotionalism dictated by his own exacerbated psychology which had been brought about by circumstances of exile and political outrage” (Schwartz, 1998, p7). Far from an expression of society, “He revealed things as they were without cultural makeup” (Schwartz, 1998, p. 8).

In contrast, Fernier has written that Courbet was driven “back to nature in search of serenity. … From this point on, Courbet would depict deer and stag – innocent victims of man’s violence – in place of the peasant class and social outcasts” (Fernier, 1998, p. 16)

Perhaps these concepts of the individual or of society are not contradictory or opposing, but rather different aspects of a whole. In Rubin’s analysis “Realism, the translation of one’s own times, depends on freedom because it depends on bringing one’s own vision to the representation of experience” (Rubin, 1997, p.159). These ideas seem very modern to me. This relates as well to the question of Courbet’s place with regard to academic tradition. “Courbet had forever changed the role of art in society by insisting that its vision be rooted in reality and that its purpose be related to society” (Rubin, 1997, p. 164).


Bomford (2007) Rough Manners: Reflections on Courbet and Seventeenth-Century Painting. In papers from the Symposium Looking at the Landscapes: Courbet and Modernism Held at the J. Paul Getty Museum on March 18, 2006. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust [Online] Available from (Accessed 15-Oct-2013)

Courbet, G (1855) The Realist Manifesto Cited in Rubin, J (1997) Courbet. London: Phaidon pp. 157-158

Fernier, J (1998) “The Natures of Courbet”, in Courbet: Later Paintings, New York: Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, LLC.

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

Rubin, J (1997) Courbet. London: Phaidon

Schwartz, C. (1998) “Courbet: The Late Years”, in Courbet: Later Paintings, New York: Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, LLC.

UA1-WA:P2-p3-Ex Annotate a realist image
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project three: Depicting history – neo-classicism, Romanicism and realism
Exercise: Annotate a realist image

UA1-WA:P2-p3-Ex Analyse a painting of a historical event

This exercise asks for an analysis of a painting of an event in nineteenth-century history. I’ve chosen The defence of Rorke’s Drift 1879 by Alphonse de Neuville (1880), now in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW.

The Painting

The defence of Rorke's Drift 1879 Alphonse de Neuville 1880  oil on canvas   181.4 x 301.5 cm

The defence of Rorke’s Drift 1879
Alphonse de Neuville
1880 oil on canvas 181.4 x 301.5 cm

There’s a much better photo and lots of detail shots on the gallery’s website: The selection started with my standard “meets requirements, can see in person”, but I also found it of particular interest because it’s a different example of British imperialism and the impact on indigenous people (see also 10-Oct-2013).

The painting depicts an incident in the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. The numbers vary depending on the source, but around 140 British troops withstood a 12 hour attack by 3 or 4 thousand Zulu warriors. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded based on the action.

rorke_04The painting is large, dynamic and full of action. Huge depth has been created, from the foreground at the bottom left to the distant hills through the pass (both marked with a green x). There are lots of diagonals, with a major zig-zag leading the eye through multiple vignettes. The primary focus is on the British soliders, with the Zulu warriors occupying only a small area.

rorke_02In the left foreground, marked “1” in the diagram version above, we see the cost of the battle, and the care and concern of the soldiers for each other, ignoring their own injuries. Even in dreadful circumstances a blanket, a makeshift support and the rough protection of a box have been found for the most injured. At “2” and “4” can be seen more examples of the effort the men are making to assist and protect their wounded comrades even at the height of the battle, at the risk of their own lives carrying them from the burning building which had been used as a make-shift hospital.

rorke_03At “3” we get the most detail of the battle in progress. The defenders stand shoulder to shoulder, resolute in the face of the horde, ignoring the slain Zulu fallen over the hastily built barricade. In the centre stand men co-ordinating the defence. The soldiers are working as a well disciplined and well trained unit, some men passing forward ammunition to those fighting, shooting and using bayonets, never taking their eyes off their enemies, never faltering in their determination. Some of the defenders can be seen motionless on the ground, some arch their bodies, hit moments earlier by the thrust of a spear (although the only spears I could see were fallen on the ground or in the hands of the attacking force). Few of the British stand alone. They are in small groups across the middle ground of the picture, forming a protective barrier between the viewer and the Zulu warriors.

The attackers can hardly be seen in the smoke and dust of battle. There are two bodies of those who almost breached the defenses, and in the middle distance to the right one can be seen standing out, shaking his spear and shield, urging the tribesmen on. They are important as a mass in the picture, but the detailed rendering is reserved for the heroic British. And we know how this story ends – in the triumph of Her Majesty’s troops, fighting gallantly against incredible odds and ultimately prevailing.

The History
The battle at Rorke’s Drift was one part of the wider conflict of the Anglo-Zulu war. There are some variations in the accounts I’ve read about the origins of the war.

A bare-bones version: Sir Bartle Frere was appointed British High Commissioner to southern Africa in 1877. He was charged with creating a confederation, a new dominion for Britain. To achieve this Frere needed to gain control over the Zulu warrior kingdom. King Cetshwayo refused to disband his army or meet other demands of the British. Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford led a force into Zululand to take it by force. On 22 January 1879 a portion of the British force, around 1,700 men, was overwhelmed by the Zulu at Isandlwana and virtually all were killed. Later that same day a large group of Zulu attacked a tiny British garrison at Rorke’s Drift. The British managed to defend their position for 12 hours. Finally the Zulu left off the attack, apparently seeing British reinforcements approaching.

The details and responsibilities are less clear.

O’Connor (2006) suggests that the primary motive for the British presence was to protect the ports and thereby the Cape shipping route to India. Control of the interior was required to ensure food supplies. This was a defensive move, in case of war with Russia. O’Connor rejects any suggestion that there was an economic motive, dispossession of original inhabitants to provide raw materials and markets for British goods, on the grounds that the country was just too poor. Instead in a complex situation O’Connor believes Frere was reacting to avoid the multiple evils of “a Zulu invasion coinciding with a Boer rising and a Russian naval attack which would result in burning ports, razed farms, the route to India severed, and the destruction of British prestige” (O’Connor, 2006, p. 304).

In another version, rather than seeing the conflict as a response to the Russian threat, that threat is seen as the reason that the government in London particularly wanted to avoid a war in Zululand. Sir Michael Hicks Beach, the colonial secretary, wrote to Frere in November 1878 ‘We cannot now have a Zulu war, in addition to other greater and too possible troubles’ (quoted in David, 2011). In this interpretation Frere took unilateral action, encouraged by the ambitious British commander, Lord Chelmsford.

Even the nature of the opposing forces is unclear. Who were/are “the Zulu” and what was the nature of their kingdom? Hamilton and Wright (1993) write that it came into existence in the 1820s and rather than a cohesive entity was an amalgamation of chiefdoms conquered by the Zulu. There were periods of civil war in the 1840s and 50s, and it was in response to external threats that some unity was achieved. In this analysis, following the defeat of the Zulu army the British were able to impose a form of indirect rule, dividing any opposition by division of the land into separate chiefdoms and presenting this as liberation of the people. It was later, in the 1920s and in response to the political landscape of the time, that more Africans began to identify themselves as Zulu.

The importance of Rorke’s Drift
In terms of the war as a whole the action at Rorke’s Drift was a minor sideshow. The location had no particular strategic significance. However in terms of British public morale and imperial pride it was vital. The defense of Rorke’s Drift came the same day and immediately after the stunning, humiliating defeat of the British by the Zulu at Isandlwana which has been described as Britian’s “worst colonial defeat of the nineteenth century” (O’Connor, 2006, p. 285). The action at Rorke’s Drift wasn’t universally admired, as seen in a comment by Sir Garnet Wolseley who succeeded Chelmsford: “…it is monstrous making heroes … of those who shut up in the buildings at Rorke’s Drift could not bolt and fought like rats for their lives which they could not otherwise save” (Wolseley, 1880). Clearly this was not the majority view, or at least the public view. The triumph of Rorke’s Drift was celebrated, the defeat of Isandlwana was sidelined, the war against the Zulu was won, and British prestige, reputation and interests were preserved.

My mother, who was in high school in England during World War II, was quite excited when I took her through the Art Gallery to see this painting. She knew all about the brave defense and the British triumph at Rorke’s Drift. She hadn’t heard about Isandlwana. I’m not really railing against the dishonesty and the self-interest of the British here. After all I’m a winner in this colonial conquest thing, and I try to keep my hypocrisy to a muted roar. This is simply what happens – no one person can ever encompass “the whole story”, the victors write the history, and we’re all being manipulated by the media and the powers-that-be. It’s just interesting when you happen to see the machinery at work.

Other images from Rorke’s Drift and the Anglo-Zulu war
Part of the mythology of Rorke’s Drift is based in the intense and personal interest of Queen Victoria. The Defence of Rorke’s Drift by Lady Elizabeth Butler (1880, oil on canvas, 120.2 x 214.0 cm) was commissioned by Queen Victoria and is held in the Royal Collection (see It has many of the same features as de Neuville’s work – the focus on the the gallant defenders, standing shoulder to shoulder, shooting or in hand to hand fighting. There is the care for their wounded companions, the discipline of the soldiers and the figures of officers in the centre directing the defence, one man close to the centre, back arched as he is hit (again it is unclear what struck him – there are no spears in bodies, although some can be seen flying through the air). Buildings are on fire, and the attacking horde has been relegated to one side, their numbers indicated by the small figures disappearing into the distance. There does appear to be more detail and space given to a few of the attackers, their faces and expressions visible, one reaching up to grasp a defender’s rifle. Great emphasis was placed on accuracy and detail in the painting. Lady Butler visited the regiment in Portsmouth and they put on uniforms and gave a representation of the battle. The final work ‘managed to show, in that scuffle, all the V.C.’s and other conspicuous actors in the drama’.

After the Zulu War- Windsor Castle, Dec. 9, 1879 from 'The Graphic', 20 December 1879 © Trustees of the British Museum

After the Zulu War- Windsor Castle, Dec. 9, 1879
from ‘The Graphic’, 20 December 1879
© Trustees of the British Museum
Museum number 1902,1011.9279

The (political) importance of the action and the personal approval of Queen Victoria would have been visible to her subjects through publication of images such as this wood engraving showing her pinning the Victoria Cross on Corporal W. Allan, one of a row of men who ‘distinguished themselves during the campaign’. This is a clear statement of the might and success of the British armies, who even against enormous numbers of attackers will prevail, protecting the interests of the Queen and all her subjects.

Silver and gold brooch in the form of a Zulu shield. John Brogden 1875-1880 © Trustees of the British Museum

Silver and gold brooch in the form of a Zulu shield.
John Brogden
Gold and silver on an oxidised and textured ground. 72 x 35 mm
© Trustees of the British Museum

This brooch is a military trophy, shaped as a shield, showing the clubs and spears of the Zulu warriors.

I imagine such a piece would have been quite expensive, worn by a woman to show her pride in and support of the British troops. There’s been enough in recent years of troops returning home having fought for their country only to find themselves criticized for the policies of the government. I have no quarrel with support and pride. However the symbology of treating the weapons of the conquered peoples as a decorative item is very uncomfortable to modern eyes.

A more personal view of the war can be found in the watercolours of William Whitelock Lloyd, some of which can be seen at These give a wonderful sense of the wide landscape, an image of a charging Zulu warrior as well as one of a young woman carrying a basket on her head. All of these have a sense of the honesty and immediacy of a moment in time (perhaps not so much the charging warrior!), a welcome contrast to the politically charged images found elsewhere.

I tried to find images of works created in the period from the perspective of those on the other side of the conflict – the Zulu – without success. This is hardly a surprise, given the different art-making practices and history. The course textbook includes an image of doors carved by Olowe of Ise in around 1916 for the palace at Ikere in Nigeria, and comments the doors “are unusual – possibly unique – in sub-Saharan African art in that they represent an historical narrative” (Honour and Fleming, 2009, p. 755). How ironic that these doors are now also in the British Museum (see,01.4546.a&page=1 and

I found a contemporary response to the conflict and its memorialisation by Themba Mthethwa, We, “The Children of Isandlwana”: Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift Revisited. I think it is a sign of the change in attitudes over time that this is published on a website with a primary focus on the men who were awarded Victoria Crosses, albeit with a disclaimer – see Mthethwa questions the “history” and myths surrounding the battles at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, and also gives a personal account of visiting the sites.

In 1999 a memorial by sculptor Gert Swart was erected at Isandlwana – see The large bronze sculpture takes the form of an “isiqu”, a necklace carved by Zulu warriors as a symbol of valour. The sculpture was created in response to “the indefensible bias of the history of the country” – “The Isandlwana battlefield was a telling example: the fact that memorials to British soldiers had been erected on the site, but nothing existed there to commemorate the Zulu warriors who won a decisive victory over the British in 1879 was embarrassing.” (Swart, n.d.). With more time it would have been interesting to learn more about Gert Swart and the idea of giving a voice to those forgotten and challenging a history that no longer met the needs of a modern country. His site led me to an article that discusses “a few new battlefield memorials commemorating the previously unrepresented Zulu victims of the respective battles … pointing out how the designing artists attempt to fuse a Western, Eurocentric concept with local imagery and Afrocentric references”, finding “on the whole, the commemorative objects discussed in this article represent a shift towards modernity and commodification and reflect the values of a hybrid, transforming society” (Marschall, 2008). Unfortunately I could only access the Abstract.

Another modern work is The Battle of Isandlwana by Michelle Basso – see The artist states this “depicts the moment in the famous Battle of Isandlwana, when Chief Mkhosana stood up and encouraged his men to stand up and fight. They won the war, but he lost his life, making him a hero amongst the Zulu people.” (Basso, n.d.). This is a complete turnaround from the original Victorian focus, moving to the battle the British lost and showing as hero one of the Zulu.


Basso, M. [n.d.] About “The Battle of Isandlwana (print)” [online] Available from (Accessed 17-Oct-2013)

David, S. (2011) Zulu: The True Story [online] Available from (Accessed 17-Oct-2013)

Hamilton, C. and Wright, J. (1993) The Beginnings of Zulu identity, in Indicator South Africa, (10, 3) pp 43 – 64. [online] Available from (Accessed 17-Oct-2013)

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

Marschall, S (2008) Zulu Heritage between Institutionalized Commemoration and Tourist Attraction (Abstract) In Visual Anthropology (21, 3), 2008 (Abstract only online) Available from (Accessed 20-Oct-2013)

Mthethwa, T. [n.d.] We, “The Children of Isandlwana”: Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift Revisited [online] Available from (Accessed 15-Oct-2013)

O’Connor, DP (2006), ‘Imperial Strategy and the Anglo–Zulu War of 1879’, Historian, 68, 2, pp. 285-304, Academic Search Alumni Edition, EBSCOhost, viewed 17 October 2013.

Swart, G. [n.d.] Isandlwana Monument [online] Available from (Accessed 15-Oct-2013)

Wolseley, G. (1880) entry for 19 March 1880 in Prof. Adrian Preston (ed.) Sir Garnet Wolseley’s South African Journal 1880, Cape Town 1973, as quoted in Knight, I. [n.d.] ‘Wood Tells Me’;
The Quiet Assassination of John Chard’s Character
[online] Available from (Accessed 24-Oct-2013)

Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project three: Depicting history – neo-classicism, Romanicism and realism
Exercise: Analyse a painting of a historical event

UA1-WA:P2-p3-Ex Decorate a town house

In this exercise I am a museum curator selecting artwork for a room in a terraced house. Additional requirements include: provincial town; modest residence; built early nineteenth-century; occupied by merchant and professional families. After some struggles I’ve decided to interpret “early nineteenth-century” very loosely and “provincial town” as the suburbs of Melbourne (not taking a swipe in any traditional Sydney/Melbourne rivalry, it just sits with the rest of my scenario).

terrace_planOn the right is the floorplan of the ground floor of the house. This is actually based on a 1894 plan drawn up by Contractor McDonald and Chalmers for a house in North Melbourne. The original plan is seen in a video on the Culture Victoria website. This version has my own adjustments to make it more modest.

Working from the bottom of the plan, there is a small garden at the front of the building then a step up to the open verandah. A door leads into the hallway, with the parlour and then the dining room on the right. Stairs go up to the bedroom level. The hall turns right, leading to the kitchen and beyond it a scullery. I think this is different to many English buildings of the period which would have the kitchen and other utilities in a basement level. Under the stair landing and just before the door to the kitchen there is a door leading outside. The back part of the building is narrower to allow light to enter the centre areas of the house.

My current task is to select works for the parlour. Blurring my pretend curator and real-life beings, I’ve decided to guide my selections by an imaginary period in the life of a great-great… uncle, John Chester Jervis, making him and his sister the first residents of the house.
The real John Chester Jervis was born in 1823 in London. He arrived in Hobart in the early 1840s, and abbreviating all the detail of a long and adventurous life, he married, became manager and then owner of various sheep stations in Victoria, had a son, lost his wife, brought his sister out from England to look after him, introduced wheat and built a mill, and in 1870 was bought out by other squatters concerned the wheat would attract selectors. In real family history John Chester, having made his fortune, returned to England and lived out his life between London and Nice, pursuing his interest in amateur photography. For the purpose of this exercise I have decided that John Chester hadn’t done quite so well financially and also that he and his sister stayed in Melbourne for several years in the 1870s before returning “home”.

As curator, I have included in my research contact with a descendant of John Chester who herself emigrated from Britain in the 1950s. She has provided me with a number of photographs taken in his homes in Nice and London slightly later than my period. She has also given me a recent photograph of some items either passed down from John Chester or of a similar age.
john_chester_room1john_chester_deskAlthough my major focus is the artwork, the rosewood desk in the modern photograph is of particular interest to the museum project. It was brought to Australia by John Chester’s sister, travelled around Victoria and then returned to England in the later 1870s. It has come once more to Australia and has been here since the 1980s, passed down through members of the English family. It would be wonderful to find a similar piece to put in our parlour.

weymouthThe first artwork I am considering is a coloured etching of Weymouth.

Members of the extended Jervis family lived in Weymouth and the area was probably known to John Chester. The print would remind immigrants to Australia of the home and connections they have left. The print is modest in size, suitable for a modest residence, while the hand colouring increase its attractions.

jcj_skinner_proutMy second selection is another engraving, this time of an Australian subject. It is from a work by John Skinner Prout, a popular early Australian artist. I believe I have located evidence of the original painting in a Lawson Menzies auction earlier this year (see Of course the original painting would have been beyond the budget of a resident of the terrace house, just as it is now beyond the budget of the museum.

John Chester Jervis spent over 30 years of his adult life in Australia, often in the bush. I think he would have liked a reminder of those years on his walls.

jcj_mapAlong the same lines, a map showing the area of some of his exploits could well hang in John Chester’s residence. Possibly it would be more appropriate for the dining room – I can image him standing before it, cigar in one hand and port in the other, telling tall tales of youthful adventures.

This work is an example of what I am hoping to find among current museum holdings. The area shown here is actually in New South Wales, not appropriate for final selection for the house.

jcj_oval_girlA number of oval portraits can be seen on the walls in my photographic documents. Photographs of loved ones in the home country would have been much appreciated by new settlers.

I suspect the example shown here is early 20th century, a bit later in period than I really need. The young girl in the photograph has an indirect relationship to the Jervis family, but for the museum I would try to locate a better option from Jervis family sources.

jcj_samplerThis sampler was actually stitched by John Chester Jervis’s wife, Janet Young. It is quite a large work and very nicely stitched (the scale can be seen in the modern photograph above, where the sampler is hanging above the rosewood desk). I think this memento of his late wife would have been suitable for hanging in the parlour – a room often decorated in a more feminine style.

It would be wonderful to have the original work, so closely connected to the original residents, hanging in the museum. We are currently discussing possibilities of at least a medium-term loan from the family.

jcj_studiophotoThis studio photo was taken by John Chester Jervis himself. As a very keen photographer he would be sure to have examples of his own works on the walls and on the screen that can be seen behind him in the first photograph above. In fact all the old photographs of interiors shown above were the work of John Chester – presumably an assistant would have been involved.

I have gone just over the four or five works that were requested. Based on the photographic evidence I think it is important to have enough to get coverage of the walls and be able to hang works in groups. The parlour of this house is not large, but I still need to achieve a slightly cluttered look (to modern eyes at least). In fact if the project went ahead it would be good to look for some medium sized prints to include, to get additional variety of scale.

UA1-WA:P2-p3-Ex Decorate a town house
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project three: Depicting history – neo-classicism, Romanicism and realism
Exercise: Decorate a town house

UA1-WA:P2-p3-Ex Annotate an image of contemporary events

For this annotation I have chosen Turner’s The Wrecked Female Convict Ship, the Amphitrite: Women and Children Abandoned in a Gale, also known as A Disaster at Sea, also known as Fire at Sea, ?c 1835, oil on canvas. I saw this painting in Adelaide earlier this year, part of the Turner from the Tate: The Making of a Master. You can post of that visit at 4-May-2013 and a photograph I took then (with permission of course) is below. The much better image on the Tate website is at

The picture was never exhibited in Turner’s lifetime, is generally regarded as incomplete, and clearly there have been issues in establishing the precise subject and the date of the work. However it is now believed to show the shipwreck of the Amphitrite in 1833. The ship was carrying a load of women convicts, bound for Australia. It ran aground off Boulogne. Assistance to carry the convicts and crew to safety was offered by French sailors, but apparently rejected by the captain on the grounds he did not have the authority to land the convicts anywhere other than Australia. The ship broke up in the gales and high seas with the lost of almost all lives (including the captain’s).

I chose this picture because it meets the assignment requirements, I’ve seen it in person, and of course it has the preferred link to Australia.

turner_linesThe painting is quite large, 1714 x 2203 mm, and had quite an emotional impact seen in person – my comments at the time included “the waves crashing over the sinking vessel, the sprays of foam and swirling water, the tumult of the sea adding to the horror of the women convicts”. There is a pyramid of bodies clinging to the breaking ship, surrounded by great swirling vortices in the sea and sky pulling the group apart – including the vortex formed by the bodies of women and a child in the foreground to the right.

turner_07The water is seething, rushing up at the people in wild spatters and flecks of foam then sucking them away to their deaths. The water both pushes up the pyramid of humanity but is also undermining and collapsing it.

turner_paintThis next photograph is pretty awful as photos go, but it does show the uneven surface of the picture, the lumps of paint adding to the sense of confusion and energy and tumult and drama, perhaps even the lack of control, the danger of the situation.

turner_facesIn my memory the faces and bodies of the people contrasted with the rough seas, being smooth and with more defined detail. Again the poor photo from my mobile phone doesn’t really show this, but I can convince myself that any flecks of texture are water and foam. I’m not sure if this is intention, or related to those areas being the most unfinished in the painting. I’ve also noticed in some paintings that faces (especially) and figures appear much smoother and more detailed than other areas and have wondered if it’s a choice or because the artist put in extra effort on a focus point or it’s the “money-shot” of a commission or …(annoyingly I can’t find a note of a specific example, so will have to look out next time I’m at the Gallery).

The painting is mainly middle to light in value, with no real darks. Colour is also restricted – greys, dull blue and whites in the sea and sky, yellow, red and white on the figures, and browns on the right side. One of the previous titles has mentioned “Fire” but I found that hard to see. Perhaps on the far right of the painting is the hull of the ship and the red-brown in the sea and sky on that side could be reflections of flames. The focus remains on the light, central pyramid of struggling and drowning bodies.

In the exhibition catalogue there is the statement that “Turner’s pyramidal composition is clearly derived from the celebrated Raft of the Medusa (1819; Louvre, Paris) by Théodore Géricault” (Warrell, 2013). See for an image. There is a pyramid of people / bodies on a raft in the sea as a result of incompetent bungling by those in charge, however to me the two works are quite different. One is in a violent storm, the victims in immediate danger of violent death. In the other, the victims have endured and are seen in a moment of hope for rescue for the few survivors. In Turner’s work the swirling sea and sky occupy most of the canvas, although the wreckage and people are the focus. In Géricault’s work almost the entire canvas is filled by the raft and its occupants.


Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg
A shipwreck off a rocky coast

I think the painting by Loutherbourg that I showed in my last post (10-Oct-2013) is much more similar in both look and composition. This work is in the Art Gallery of NSW –

loutherbourg_2linesturner_linesOn the left is the Loutherbourg with my lines picked out. Above a thumbnail of the Turner with lines is repeated so they can be seen together. Both pictures show a shipwreck in the moments when the boat is breaking up. Both works have a vortex of clouds and swooping, crashing lines of waves. Both have a pyramid as a focus, although in the Loutherbourg it is mainly the jagged rocks on which the ship has foundered. To my eyes both have a secondary echoing diagonal to the right of the pyramid. Both have a minor focus of drowning bodies in the foreground at the base of the pyramid – a swirl on the right in the Turner and a more indistinct body to the left on the Loutherbourg.

There are so many ways to extend this annotation, if only time allowed, such as:
* The influence of Loutherbourg on Turner. I found a reference suggesting that at one stage Turner lived next-door to the family and harassed Loutherbourg’s wife to get information (Chandler and Gilmartin, 2011, p.195).
* Ideas on why the work was never finished. I think the detail of that mass of bodies, for example if similar to Géricault’s work, would be very difficult to combine with the sublime, atmospheric, color and form, wild painting of the rest of the canvas. On the other hand it has been suggested that a finished work had the potential to be the “Guernica of nineteenth-century British Art” (Schama, 2006. pp. 236-95).
* The (any) Australian and convict transportation links.
* Meaning and symbology within this particular painting. Is it a statement about bureaucratic incompetence? I think there can be no suggestion of redemption in such needless waste of life, although there may be a suggestion of light behind the clouds on the left. Alternatively could it have a personal aspect? Venning (1985) claimed “It is beyond dispute that shipwreck imagery bulked large in Turner’s mental life, and he used it constantly as a metaphor for his state of mind and his professional cares” (p.304).
* It would be interesting to compare and contrast other works on the theme of shipwreck in Turner’s work – for example:
The shipwreck (1805)
Wreck of a transport ship (1810)
The Loss of an East Indiaman [formerly ‘Loss of a Man of War’] (c.1818)
Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) (1840)
I also find the capture and development of ideas in Turner’s sketchbooks fascinating, including:
The shipwreck sketchbook (1803-04)
The fire at sea sketchbook (1834)


Chandler, J., Gilmartin, K. (ed) (2011) Romantic Metropolis: The Urban Scene of British Culture, 1780-1840, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [extract only online] Available from (Accessed 10-Oct-2013)

Schama, S. (2006) Simon Schama’s power of art Cited in Warrell, I (2013) “A Disaster at Sea, also known as The Wrecked Female Convict Ship, the Amphitrite: Women and Children Abandoned in a Gale” in Turner from the Tate: The making of a master, London: Tate Publishing, p.197.

Venning, B (1985), ‘A MACABRE CONNOISSEURSHIP: TURNER, BYRON AND THE APPREHENSION OF SHIPWRECK SUBJECTS IN EARLY NINETEENTH-CENTURY ENGLAND’, Art History, 8, 3, pp. 303-319, Academic Search Alumni Edition, EBSCOhost, viewed 10 October 2013.

Warrell, I (2013) “A Disaster at Sea, also known as The Wrecked Female Convict Ship, the Amphitrite: Women and Children Abandoned in a Gale” in Turner from the Tate: The making of a master, London: Tate Publishing.

UA1-WA:P2-p3-Ex Annotate an image of contemporary events
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project three: Depicting history – neo-classicism, Romanicism and realism
Exercise: Annotate an image of contemporary events

UA1-WA:P2-p3 Research point: the Enlightenment

This Research Point asks for study of the Enlightenment and its impact on art and architecture.

“The Enlightenment” refers to a range of ideas and attitudes in the last three quarters or so of the eighteenth century. It is generally seen as European, but for me it’s exciting because my own country finally has a chance of at least a footnote in some of the books. That excitement is tempered by the knowledge that “my country” started with the colonization of Australia by the English. The area in which I live was originally inhabited by the Cam-mer-ray-gal Group of the Ku-ring-gai Aboriginal Tribe. The “Enlightenment” had its limitations, one being that it pretty much ignored or denied the existence of other cultures including the people already living here – with devastating results. So before I begin I would like to acknowledge and pay respect to the Traditional Owners of the land where I am, and direct any readers interested to for more information.

There are dangers in looking back and writing about “movements” and “revolutions” because at the time things probably weren’t so neat and linked, steps in a progression. Labels are added later, as we try to make sense and order – information – out of a whole heap of data. So labels it is.

The seventeenth century “intellectual revolution” included Galileo’s observations with his telescope, discovering new astronomical phenomena that were impossible to reconcile with classical explanations and also his arguments for a new approach to science, using one’s senses and reason to explore the mysteries of nature; Kepler used Tycho Brache’s earlier observations to develop new “laws” of planetary motion; Newton developed mathematically a theory of universal gravitation, a quantitative system for understanding the world and the cosmos; Descartes applied reason to his fundamental statement “I think therefore I am” to develop a system of knowledge; Locke wrote about natural rights and government, religious tolerance and property.

These ideas and more began to circulate more widely, be developed and be applied in the eighteenth century. One impact I was surprised to find was the “agrarian revolution”. In a vague way I had assumed the enclosure of common land in England was a classic land-grab by the wealthy and never mind the cost to the poor. While this would have been part of it, it seems that enclosures were a vital part of improving agricultural practice, allowing trial of new methods and investment in equipment and land improvements. The results included wealth for some and dislocation for others, but also a break from the ongoing cycle of famine for the population in general.

To quote an earlier post (4-Apr-2013) “in the period of The Enlightenment there was focus on the application of reason and interest in combining voyaging with science. Knowledge was liberating, challenging ancient certainties, but “knowledge is power” was quite literal, with men such as Francis Bacon alert to the political possibilities of science. The voyages of exploration had a very pragmatic quality – they were looking for things to bring back, to improve and use for the benefit of the empire.”

This interest in voyaging and colonization is what finally earns my home a passing mention – “Never was an empire won at smaller cost than was ours in Canada and India. As to Australia, Captain Cook had merely to pick it up out of the sea” (Trevelyan, 1964 edition, p. 189). Any mention is better than nothing?? That really is just awful. In fairness, the book was first published in 1942 and was focused on English social history.

Adam Smith worked with ideas around wealth, property and trade. Malthus wrote about populations and also the testing of theories by experimentation. Montesquieu developed theories of politics and the separation of powers. He also wrote about the influence of climate on man and society. It would be interesting to investigate that – was there anything there that, if more widely known and accepted, might have influenced those explorers and their judgments about so-called savages?

Carl Linnaeus developed a biological taxonomy, carefully classifying relationships based on carefully observed similarities. DNA and cladistic methods have shaken this up a bit, but I think the point is that as part of the Enlightenment people believed they could understand, classify, explore, theorise, challenge, progress. The rational, critical, active mind of the individual could engage with the world around them, to develop and use theories about it.

André Le Breton hired men including Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert to produce a new Encyclopaedia and from my brief reading this seems to be both an example of and a collection of all these new rational ways of thinking about and understanding the world.

Mention of Diderot brings me back to the major focus, which is Art. Like all the others mentioned above Diderot did much more than a simple one-liner can encompass, and in addition to being an encyclopedist Diderot was an art critic. Indeed “the middle of the eighteenth century in France saw the invention of art criticism as we know it” (Fried, 1980, p. 2) – and it seems reasonable that at a time when men (mainly) were developing theories about everything, art would be included.

This Research Point has grown out of proportion and I’m still skipping from topic to topic and leaving out most. In the interests of time I will just note down some points showing some interaction of thought between the Enlightenment generally and art in particular.

In France the “philosophes” or intellectuals regarded the decorative, intimate and elegant art leading up to the 1750s as frivolous, hedonistic style over substance. Diderot believed art should have express serious political, social and or moral principles. Rousseau “called for … plain manners, not the insincere politeness of artificially refined people; what he admired was not the liberal spirit of ancient Athens but the severity, rigour, and discipline of Sparta” (Roberts, 1989, p. 26). Neoclassicism “is related to man’s desire for perfection and is summed up in Rousseau’s piercing phrase ‘I want to be what I should be’ ” (Brookner, 1980, p. 27).

Chénier, a student of Montesquieu and Rousseau believed “only in the open and free climate of democracy would the artist be free to develop his talent fully and only within such a society would the arts remain healthy” (Roberts, 1989, pp. 31-32).

Goethe “even formulated a law, the Law of Required Change, to explain the inner necessity of abandoning old ideas and embracing the new” (Brookner, 1980, p.25)

David, the subject of my previous post (5-Oct-2013), displays the impact of some of the new ideas swirling around in both his paintings and his active participation in both the political and revolutionary process. “His art is more than a personal statement; again it expresses the deeper, spiritual changes within his world” (Roberts, 1989, p. 6). Although he had achieved success with the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture David became a vocal critic of the institution, which was abolished (although later re-established) – another instance of the rejection of old ideas combined with a belief in progress.

Francois Boucher A young lady holding a pug dog mid 1740s

Francois Bouçher
A young lady holding a pug dog
mid 1740s

One of the pleasures of reaching more recent history is that I have been able to view some works locally which illustrate the changes. As mentioned above, in the period prior to the Enlightenment there was a preference for light, frivolous and decorative paintings. The work on the right is in the Art Gallery of NSW (catalogue entry here). This delightful young lady looks fresh and pretty, carefully made up with powdered hair, rouged cheeks and a beauty spot (mouch) beneath her eye. She ties a ribbon on her little dog, which seems almost as dainty. In this rococo work there is a lightness of touch, an exuberance and sense of joy in the rich glowing surfaces of skin, fabrics and jewels. This would certainly seem to fit in the category of works dismissed by Diderot as frivolous, an indulgence in extravagances.

It would not sit well in a world of serious men asking and answering serious questions, propelling civilisation forward in triumphant progress.


Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg
A shipwreck off a rocky coast

On the right is another work from the Art Gallery of NSW (catalogue entry here – my photograph is particularly poor, so I recommend clicking through to see a very much better one). This dramatic scene shows the end of a storm, a wrecked ship, a few survivors and, in the left foreground, a struggling figure being swept away in the crashing waves. The information label at the gallery notes that the painting “dates from the period of [Loutherbourg’s] hugely successful early Parisian career when his Solon exhibits were fêted by the critic Denis Diderot”.

I can see that Diderot could have noted of this painting “the nobility of certain masses of rock, the persuasiveness of the rendering of space”, as he did of another of Lutherbourg’s paintings (Diderot, [n.d.] cited in (Fried, 1980, p.119)). This painting could well have “persuaded him beyond all doubt of the work’s dramatic and expressive unity” (Fried, 1980, p. 85).

A side exploration: On the Art Gallery of NSW website I found another work, a 1794 print after Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, after John Webber, The apotheosis of Captain Cook (see Searching on the title led to a scholarly debate, duelling books at dawn, between Gananath Obeyesekere and Marshall Sahlins around imperialism, conquests, and how explorers such as Cook were viewed by natives. Who writes the history, what is the rational mind and who can speak for the original inhabitants?

Contact wall, Mount Borradaile

Contact wall, Mount Borradaile

There seems to be a few strands, maybe a gradual coalescence: reading for this research point and the impact of the Enlightenment in art and in the foundation of my country; some work I’ve started for a later course task, looking at Rorke’s Drift and the Anglo-Zulu war; the “contact wall” rock art at Mount Borradaile (seen on my holiday, posted 29-Aug-2013); a low level disquiet studying Western Art as an Australian with an english/irish heritage… I’m not sure where this is going, if anywhere.


Brookner, A (1980) Jacques-Louis David. London: Chatto & Windus

Diderot, D. ([n.d.]) Salons, I, 225-26 cited in Fried, M. (1980) Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot Berkeley: University of California Press [online] Available from (Accessed 6 October 2013)

Fried, M. (1980) Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot Berkeley: University of California Press [online] Available from (Accessed 6 October 2013)

Roberts, W. (1989) Jacques-Louis David, Revolutionary Artist: Art, Politics, and the French Revolution. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Trevelyan, GM (1964) Illustrated English Social History: 3. The Eighteenth Century Harmondsworth: Penguin.

UA1-WA:P2-p3 Research point: the Enlightenment
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project three: Depicting history – neo-classicism, Romanicism and realism
Topic: Research point: the Enlightenment

UA1-WA:P2-p3-Ex David and neo-classicism

The focus of this exercise is Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Tennis Court Oath 20th June 1789, and in particular how David invests the event with political and moral significance.

My strong preference is to study original works rather than photographs in books or on the internet – not feasible in this instance since one particular work is specified. I set out searching on the internet to find the best, largest, highest quality image of the painting available. I have found multiple versions, sketches and preparatory work, but no single definitive painting.

The actual historical event occurred on 20th June 1789, just weeks before the storming of the Bastille on the morning of 14th July 1789. At the time in France the First Estate was the clergy, the Second Estate the nobility, the Third Estate the rest. All had been called together to Versailles by King Louis XVI to discuss the nation’s financial problems and taxes. Discussions stalled on initial questions of power and decision making of the various parties. The 577 delegates of the Third Estate declared themselves a National Assembly, representing all the people of France. A few days later, finding themselves locked out of their usual meeting hall, they met in a nearby indoor tennis court. There all bar one of them took an Oath not to separate until they had drafted a new Constitution of France. David’s image shows the moment when the Assembly President, Bailly, reads out the Oath and (almost) all in the room surge to pledge their oath, declaring the independence of the Assembly.

Jacques Louis David was not at that meeting, but was actively involved in later events of the French Revolution. Just over a year later, on 28th October 1790 he was invited by the Club des Jacobins (one of the most radical groups) to execute a painting of the Oath and a subscription was established to pay for it (de Nanteuill, 1990, p. 23). David made numerous sketches and studies, including a full, detailed pen and ink sketch, 66 x 101.2 cm. This was completed in May 1791 and exhibited in September at the Salon. A huge canvas was prepared, some sketching done and the heads of a number of deputies painted. A cut-down section 358 x 648 cm remains, and I have found suggestions the planned original was 701 x 1006 cm (Wendt, 2008, p. 2) or 792 x 1097 (University of South Carolina, n.d). I have found reference to the project being abandoned in September 1792 (Roberts, 1989. p.58) and 1801 ((de Nanteuill, 1990. p. 23), also (Brookner, 1980, p.97)). With the wisdom of hindsight it makes sense that it would be near impossible to complete such a massive undertaking. With the wildly swinging politics and allegiances the time, many of the delegates were discredited or dead by the time the project was given up.

The best image I have found of the full drawing is at This site is edited by Réunion des musées nationaux, a national public institution under the French Ministry of Culture and Communication. An image of the remaining fragment of the incomplete oil on canvas work is at the same link.

There is a completed oil painting held at the Musée Carnavalet in Paris – It’s 65 x 88.7 cm and is dated by the museum “after 1791”.

A study for the work is held at the Fogg Museum at Harvard – It also has a number of other sketches on the subject, previously attributed to Jacques-Louis David but now given to Jean-Pierre Norblin de la Gourdaine. There is also a location sketch by David of the actual tennis court – a photograph is at, but I haven’t found where it is held.

From the small image in the course notes I think the analysis is meant to be based on the oil painting at the Musée Carnavalet. It seems to be latest in date, the complete intended scene, and has colour – certainly a tool for expressing political and moral significance. However the image I’ve found on the internet is small and to my eyes low quality.
david_tennis_court_oath_comparisonAbove is a comparison of the heads of the same figure, showing the difference. On the left is the full drawing from In the centre is the oil painting from I’m sure this is later than the sketch – it would make a reasonable progression in developing the work, plus I think I can see in the snippet below a leg “sans culottes” (that is, wearing trousers rather than breeches, a significant political element later in the revolution), a detail not in the drawing. The incomplete painting on the right would be closest to the artist’s final intention and is a good size, but there isn’t really enough to analyse.

I have decided to base my work on the larger and clearer reproduction of the pen and ink sketch at

Above is a rough tracing of the sketch. I believe the major elements of political and moral significance that David wanted to capture are the oath itself, the unity of those there, the representation and inclusion of all people of France, the intensity of emotion and purity of purpose, the energy and commitment of those taking the oath and the righteousness of the moment with even nature supporting their actions.

* The absolute centre of the painting is the Assembly’s President Bailly standing on his chair and reading out the Oath (marked “2” above). The sills of the windows above form lines pointing to him and the centre. On the coloured version of the image it’s clearer that Bailly is back-lit by a beam of light.

* The initial impression is that all the crowd of delegates are looking at Bailly and raising an arm toward him as they participate in the oath. This reinforces the action of the moment – the Oath – and the participation and unity of the delegates. However there are many variations among the individuals, bringing energy, spontaneity, movement and a sense of realism and literal history to the work as well as emphasizing the individual commitment and choice.

tennis_court_surgeI see it as a surge of energy with Bailly and the Oath the primary focus, and have tried to mix a few photos to give that sense of the surge of waves (energy) crashing and converging on a rock in a tumultuous sea and that spray of enthusiasm and emotion. Looking at my result leads to thoughts of under-currents and dangerous tides, uncontrollable forces.

* On the right (marked “8”) is the one delegate, Martin Dauch, who objected and would not vote against the wishes of his king. Dauch is huddled in his chair, drawn back, motionless, determined, arms defensively crossed, body in stark opposition to the overwhelming majority. However even this dissension is put to use to emphasize the unity and free choice of the gathering. While one delegate looks back and has taken hold of Dauch’s arm a second delegate leans forward protectively over Dauch, holding back the first delegate and raising a finger to silence him – each must make their own decision. The Assembly is not a mob, they respect the individual’s choice, but the overwhelming choice is to take the Oath.

* In the centre of the image, just below Bailly and marked “1” three members of the clergy embrace. Roberts (1989, p. 52) identifies them as representing secular, regular and Protestant clergy “whose fraternal embrace (and compositional symmetry) symbolize the creation of a new society, free of former divisions”. The three men are Dom Gerle, Grégoire and Rabaut Sanit-Etienne (Roberts, notes to figure 16). This illustrates that David was willing to change history even while illustrating it, in order to enhance the unity shown. Dom Gerle was not actually there at the Oath (Roberts, 1989, p. 52).

* Further pairs or groups are seen embracing across the picture (marked in blue on the graphic above), underlining the fraternal joy of the moment.

* In addition to the delegates the proceedings are watched by a wide representation of the general populace, including women, children and soldiers of the National Guard. All of France is shown supporting the Oath.

* The scene is presented as if on a stage, increasing the sense of drama and helping to make the viewer feel a part of the action and emotion. As previously noted the delegates are ranged around the central figure and the high windows reinforce that central focus. This is probably another example of David’s artistic license, based on differences to an engraving produced by Flouest who was drawing while at the occasion (Roberts, 1989, p. 52). This shows the action turned through 90 degrees, with the high window behind the delegates who are more spaciously ranged in rows of chairs. The change allows David to crowd the action, increasing intensity while the blank wall behind and the high windows direct the attention.

* Right of centre (marked “3”) is Robespierre, leaning back, hands to his chest, bursting with emotion. De Nanteuill see this as symbolising “revolutionary purity and passion’ (de Nanteuill, 1990, p. 74). David intended “1,000 to 1,100 figures in the most energetic attitudes” (quote from (de Nanteuill, 1990, p.23). This huge array, many recognisable to the contemporary viewer, would further emphasize the massive support for the Oath.

* Some further quotes from David, ideas jotted in notebooks, show his deliberate intention to capture the range and depth of emotion and commitment of the participants: “remember to show the deputies moved to tears and holding their hands to their eyes”; “remember the dust that the movement of the action must have raised”; “some [delegates are] serious and frowning, some laughing as if filled with delight, some respectful, some looking fiercely patriotic”; “Mirabeau, great energy, strength, vehemence, [Emmanuel] Sieyès, depth, [Antoine] Barnave, calm” (Schnapper, 1982, pp 112-113).

* The clothing of the figures was as current at the time, not harking back to Classical dress. However many of the poses of individual figures have Classical roots, a subtle link to borrow authority from the past and giving some grandeur and monumentality to the occasion. The delegates, and David as painter, knew that they were creating history. “If Roman events were taking place in modern France, there was no longer any need for classical disguise: the day of the republic had dawned” (Brookner, 1980, p. 96).

* At top left, strong winds blow the curtains, suggesting nature itself supports the Oath with winds of change. Through the window can be seen a bolt of lightening striking Versailles (the royal chapel, itself “a symbol of monarchical power and the divine right of kings (Roberts, 1989, p. 53) – apparently based on the historical event, and acting here as both symbol and prophecy.

I haven’t yet written up my notes about the Enlightenment and its impact on art and architecture. I think this painting exemplifies Diderot’s attribution of “political, social and moral ends to painting” (de Nanteuill, 1990, p. 10). However I found it interesting to turn back to Rembrandt’s The Night Watch of 1642, 150 years earlier (see an image at This shows another group of militaristic men, set on a stage, made up of individual portraits. It’s not a specific event, but is presented as “a grand historical spectacle” (Honour and Fielding, 2009,p. 593). The composition is I think more complex, taking the eye on a zigzag rather than David’s intense central focus. The individuals are in modern dress, and the painting moves beyond a simple depiction of a group of people to a celebration of the Dutch republic. Both works have propaganda value, when they were painted and today. I have two quotes which for me capture the major difference in responding to the pictures. Of David’s work “… for the last forty years of the eighteenth century it was the duty of painters to hold the mirror up not to nature but to the ideal and to show physically perfect specimens performing morally perfect actions with little subjective comment from the artist” (Brookner, 1980, p. 27). Of Rembrandt’s: “It portrays not only what the Dutch, but all democracies ought to hold dear – the courage of flawed human beings to come together while acknowledging one another’s individuality and difference. It is an icon of tolerance, diversity and the magic golden light that makes a society work” (Jones, 2013).


Brookner, A (1980) Jacques-Louis David. London: Chatto & Windus

de Nanteuill, L. (1990) Jacques-Louis David. London: Thames and Hudson

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King

Jones, J. (2013) Time to revisit Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, a glowing symbol of democracy The Guardian [online] 6 May 2013. Available from: (Accessed 2 October 2013)

Roberts, W. (1989) Jacques-Louis David, Revolutionary Artist: Art, Politics, and the French Revolution. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Schnapper, A. (1982) David. Cited in Roberts, W. (1989) Jacques-Louis David, Revolutionary Artist: Art, Politics, and the French Revolution. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, p. 51.

University of South Carolina [n.d.] [online] Available from (Accessed 29-Sept-2013)

Wendt, MK (2008) Jacques-Louis David: Artistic Interpretation in Tumultuous Times Anistoriton Journal [online] 11(2) Available from (Accessed 27-Sept-2013)

UA1-WA:P2-p3-Ex David and neo-classicism
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project three: Depicting history – neo-classicism, Romanicism and realism
Exercise: David and neo-classicism


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