Michael Prodger

Turning Over a New Canvas

Restoration: The Fall of Napoleon in the Course of European Art, 1812–1820

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The challenge faced by artists following the fall of Napoleon was how to make art for the new world order. In France, the return of the unlovely Bourbons – that spiteful and ill-favoured clan famously summed up in a maxim attributed to Talleyrand, ‘they have learned nothing, and forgotten nothing’ – made things especially difficult. The artists too had forgotten nothing but they learned afresh. This state of mind was explored by Alfred de Vigny in the three novellas collected as Servitude and Grandeur of Arms (1835), in which he describes the mood of a generation: ‘I have lived so long a time between the echo and the dream of battles.’ It also lay behind the painter Théodore Géricault’s frustrated urge to ‘paint with buckets of blood on walls 100 feet long’.

What both men were asking in their own ways was how to live a heroic life in a profoundly unheroic age. Who and what should artists paint now that Napoleon, that great magnet and subjects for artists, was in exile on St Helena, thousands of miles away in the South Atlantic? How the artists of the Restoration years responded was the subject of the American art historian Thomas Crow’s A W Mellon Lectures, which have now been published in this handsomely illustrated and profoundly revealing and stimulating book.

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