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History and Genre: The Eighteenth Century
The Académie’s authority and the dominance of history painting remained uncontested throughout the first decade of the eighteenth century. However, the close relationship between court, state and art that was strengthened through the role of history painting became increasingly tested.
The gradual weakening of the authority of the crown, as the reign of King Louis XIV gave way to the regency of Philippe d’Orléans in 1715, and the increased economic and political power of different social groups led to significant shifts in the ways that art was commissioned and displayed in Paris. The early 1700s saw a boom in the construction of townhouses for an emerging class of wealthy Parisians. The rooms of these fashionable hôtels were decorated by the city’s leading painters like Charles-Joseph Natoire. Increasingly, townhouses were decorated not with the timeless, weighty history paintings of the Académie, but with pastorals and light mythologies that depicted scenes of pleasure and intimacy.
Paintings became collectable as investments. Collectors also understood that social significance could be gained through displays of knowledge and taste. This helps to account for the rise of portraiture, a genre that reflected ideally the taste and social aspirations of the sitter. In such a highly competitive market, artists needed to find ways of distinguishing their work from that of their peers.
However, the mid-1700s saw a return to public virtue over private taste. In 1737 the Académie reintroduced the official Salon, an exhibition of its best work, held every second year at the Louvre in Paris. Further, increases in public spending on the arts saw a return to commissions for large-scale, didactic history painting.
Criticism following the Salons – Denis Diderot’s was the most famous – argued that art needed again to engage moral content and that it should serve a moral and social purpose. We can see in Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Noël Hallé and Jacques-Louis David the artist as a moral authority: an independent observer of social and political life whose work engaged notions of moral correctness and social responsibility. In the second half of the century, history painting again became the vehicle for this program. As the events around the Revolution of 1789 took hold, the ability of art to affect public opinion was keenly harnessed by forces both opposed to and supporting Republican efforts to destroy the ancien régime monarchy of Louis XVI in favour of the democratic tenets of liberty, fraternity and equality.
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