Imaging the French Revolution Discussion
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H. Here participants considered how analysis of images might alter, were more information available on individual works.

I think that understanding the intent of the creators of these images is easier to surmise (as compared to their reception), as Barbara's essay (in particular) alludes to, but I still wonder about how much of a modern analysis is imposed by historians (again, some of the ideas discussed, not only in Barbara's essay, but in Joan's as well). There is also the question of was the intent of the image consciously (or even unconsciously) understood by the various audiences of the images.

In my analysis of the “Vivre Libre ou Mourir” medal [Image 17], for example, specific classical symbols were included in the image, but did the audience of the jeton realize that the sixteen reeds of the fasces represented the sections of Paris? From Parker's work on cult of antiquity and Dowd's work on David's designs for the various fêtes we know that the revolutionary leaders sought to educate the audience about the meanings of various images, but can the intent to educate equate with popular understanding of the imagery?

It seems to me that answers to these types of questions, in the absence of additional evidence, can only be answered obliquely or by inference. Would the frequency of advertising for specific (or types of) images and a study of the listed prices of those images, for example, reveal greater insights into the relative success of a given image (or genre)? Which newspapers advertised which images? Who read those newspapers? Did the advertised price of those images change over time? When did the advertisements appear (i.e., what contemporary events might have added to the audience's understanding of the image)?

In my own analysis of the early propaganda efforts of General Bonaparte, for example, it appears that continued reports of his victories led to an increased advertising for geography books that corresponded with his areas of operation and that advertisements for engravings of Bonaparte/or his victories generally ebbed and flowed with the news of his successes. Knowing these types of tangential details would greatly enhance our understanding of how the various audiences of these images received them.

Subject: the need for more knowledge
Posted By: Lynn Hunt
Date Posted: June 23, 2003, 11:16 PM

The questions—and Wayne's thoughtful response—both demonstrate that we are just beginning to dig up the kinds of supporting evidence that could help us make sense of the thousands of prints of the revolutionary and Napoleonic decades. Art historians have spent literally centuries digging up this kind of information about famous and not so famous painters and sculptors. I suspect that much more can be found out about print designers, printmakers, and print sellers. The men who catalogued the De Vinck collection, for example, gathered much precious information when they put together the catalogue at the turn of the 20th century. Bits and pieces of further information have appeared since then, but few have been willing to risk their careers in an area where the pay-off is still uncertain. What is probably needed is some kind of vast collaborative undertaking, multi-scholar but also multi-national. There is information in newspaper advertisements, as Wayne suggests, and also in notarial records about particular printmakers, and probably in bankruptcy proceedings. One person could find information about one or perhaps a handful of printmakers but would have difficulty surveying the whole field. We need something like the Kennedy and Netter study of plays, though advertisements for prints were probably less consistent than notices of performances. Without this kind of information, we always fall back on iconographic study and rely on our sense of the corpus (of some 30,000 or so images). The difficulties should not be underestimated. Anyone who has worked on the Histoire de France collection on microfilm in the Estampes Department knows that images are categorized by the date of the event they represent, not by the likely date of their production. So it's not even possible right now to say with certainty that more images were produced in say, 1789-1791, than in 1792-1794 (which I believe to be true), much less to explain why this might be so.

Subject: reading the image
Posted By: Vivian Cameron
Date Posted: July 26, 2003, 2:15 PM

Knowing more about the date, the artist, the distribution of a print, and the like, as Claudette Hould has demonstrated, helps us to stabilize the meaning of a work, as it were. However, as we all know, images are multivalent with various readings, and “the reception of any cultural product is subject always to friction, resistance, and possible remaking,” as Joan Landes has shown.1 Regardless of the artist's intent, the image acquires its own meanings, depending on the sites of its display, who interpretes/d it [here class, race, and gender can be pertinent], when it is interpreted (reception theory), and the like.

1 Joan Landes, Visualizing the Nation, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001, p. 37

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