The number of great paintings produced by modern secular ideologies is surprisingly small. Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat and Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Guiding the People stand out in a sparsely populated field. In particular, nationalist works are approached more as historical documents than as aesthetic experiences. One of the most reproduced pictures of the 19th century must be Anton von Werner’s The Proclamation of the German Empire, but its triumphalism is so out of sympathy with subsequent German history that it is rarely, if ever, discussed as a work of art. Significantly, the great exhibition of von Werner’s work staged in Berlin in 1993 was titled ‘History in Pictures’.
Now Anthony Smith, the doyen of anglophone historians of nationalism (he has published at least twenty books with ‘nation’ or its cognates in the title), has brought his formidable learning to bear on the subject. For him, visual images did not just illustrate the progress of national identity – they