For the ESNAblog we invite everyone who has something salient to write on artists, exhibitions, books (etc.) within the time frame of the long nineteenth century (c. 1750-1915). You can send a Word-document of 300-500 words to our email address One or two images are welcome.

ESNAblog | How do we remember the past?
Exhibition review Black Models: from Géricault to Matisse
By Lisa Lambrechts – Curator in Training at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Aimé Mpané, Olympia II, 2013,
painting made on pieces of contreplaqué, Collection Gérard Valérius.

The exhibition Black models: from Géricault to Matisse, held this spring in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, is the first exhibition in France devoted to black models in French art from the 19th to the 21st century. The aim of the exhibition is to give these models back their visibility, and show them as actors in the artistic world of their time, and to assess their role in the studios of artists such as Géricault or Manet. All the credit should go to the spiritual mother of the project: Dr. Denise Murrell (Ph.D., Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Research Scholar at Columbia University), writer and curator of the Posing Modernity exhibition at the Wallach Art Gallery at the Columbia University in New York (24 October 2018 – 10 February 2019). The Paris exhibition is based on Murrell’s 2013 dissertation for Columbia University’s department of art history and archaeology, as was the Posing Modernity catalogue, co-published by Yale University Press. In her book Murrell sheds a critical light on the art historical canon and opens up an important discussion concerning the standard art-historical narrative. She questions the validity of the historiography and methods of research in art history and its dominant norms and values: when we talk about art history, what do we talk about? What subjects are highlighted and which ones are overlooked in the selection and interpretation of objects? Who speaks when remembering the past?

Black models are one such field of representation that has long been downplayed in the art-historical narrative. Challenging that traditional narrative, the exhibition in Paris explores the changing modes of representation of black figures as central to the development of modern art. In American art critic Clement Greenberg’s theorization of the development of Western Modernism, Manet’s Olympia is posited as a starting point, which has led to its repeated citation as its foundational painting. It is truly mind-boggling that in the analysis of such a thoroughly scrutinized painting, very rarely is something said about the black woman who posed for the maid, standing right beside the reclining white nude. This black woman is depicted in full view, taking up almost as much pictorial space as the white prostitute after whom the painting is named, yet she is never really discussed, being merely mentioned as a secondary character. She is described in generalising terms as ‘the maid’, ‘the black servant’ or ‘la négresse’, categories that obliterate the specificity and identity of her as an individual. According to Murrell, one of the issues with this repeated generalised designation is that in fact we have known the name of the model who posed for the maid all along: her name is Laure. So, why has she come down to us through art history as a generic black ‘négresse’?

By looking closer at Laure and trying to uncover her long-overlooked narrative, Murrell soon discovered that her presence, and her representation in a role of servitude and subjugation, not only tells something about Europe’s colonial history and ideology, but is also an indication of a greater factual historic presence: namely, the emergent black population of Paris in the first fifteen years after the final abolition of French territorial slavery in 1848. This population was captured very extensively in photography and painting, indicating that there was an important interracial interaction. This tells us that Laure and her equals were not isolated individuals or mere fantasies, as they are usually purported to be, but rather important participants in modernity.

Installation: Glenn Ligon, Des parisiens noirs, 2019.

The aim of bringing these lost identities back to visibility, out of the shadows of generic categorizations, was made clear with a strong statement. The curators of the exhibition chose for an installation of the American conceptual artist Glenn Ligon (°1960), which instates ‘the names’ of ‘Parisiens noirs’ in the main hall of Musée d’Orsay. I put ‘the names’ in quotation marks, since I immediately noticed that some objectifying names, such as ‘Chocolat’ or ‘Miss Lala,’ ended up on the installation wall. Is this an accident or was it done on purpose? The labels in the exhibition, where these figures’ real names are revealed as Rafael and Olga Albertina Brown, suggest an oversight, or at least a miscommunication. In the labels, the curators carefully put brackets around the objectifying names, although surprisingly not in a consistent manner, sometimes using the objectifying name instead of the real name. This raises some questions regarding terminology in the museum space and exhibition making in general, and indicates how easy it is to fall back into certain patterns from which this exhibition ostensibly wants to break free. This may seem like nit-picking, but when you think about it for a moment you soon notice that there is more at stake than a simple error in accuracy. First, it shows that representations, words and narratives are strong and persistent. They crawl under our skin and stick to us in a stubborn fashion, and can’t be let go easily. If we aren’t careful they slip through the cracks and survive, remaining in the powerful position of colonizing our minds and spirits. Moreover, these representations are not only strong but also powerful. They are ideas and words that continue to exert power, particularly over people of colour. Every time such terms are reproduced uncritically the same objectifying violence is perpetrated, putting people of colour back in a lower position. In this way, disrespectful objectifying terminology without context reproduces itself time after time, and museums should remain vigilant and think actively when creating new narratives that aim to empower, transform, and to move on to a common future. But is that ever really possible? To move on through narrative? Saidiya Hartman puts it well: ‘How can narrative embody life in words and at the same time respect what we cannot know? How does one listen for the groans and cries, the undecipherable songs, the crackle of fire in the cane fields, the laments for the dead, and the shouts of victory, and then assign words to all of it? Is it possible to construct a story from “the locus of impossible speech” or resurrect lives from the ruins? Can beauty provide an antidote to dishonour, and love a way to “exhume buried cries” and reanimate the dead?’

An artwork that meditates on these questions is Olympia II by the Congolese artist Aimé Mpané, (°1968), which would perhaps have made a stronger and less dubious opening statement to the exhibition, but is unfortunately only put on show at the end. By swapping the bodies of the figures in Manet’s painting, Mpané captures the viewers’ attention and stimulates her to look differently. Laure takes the place of the white prostitute (Victorine Meurent) and is in this way brought back to life, reanimated from the dead. Because Mpané believed Laure to have been perceived dead, as a ‘nature morte’, in her previous position. This motif, symbolised by the skull in the flower bouquet carried by Victorine, who now takes on the role of the servant, also refers in a second layer of meaning in the Western world’s deadly gift to Africa.

So what is at stake? Why is this kind of art-historical research, which questions who is included and who is excluded from the art-historical canon, on the rise? Is this a mere trend or does it indicate something bigger, something more important that is going on in our world? What does it mean when until now communities of people have an unequal experience of citizenship (e.g. police security) because of racial stereotyping – the stubborn remains of colonial ideology? What about the minority populations and migrant populations very much present in our society, but often rendered invisible by being ignored? What happens if the sources of these still-extant mental frameworks are not laid bare and questions around the ideology with which (art) history has been written, are not asked? What is at stake if we don’t ask questions on how we remember the past and instead choose to close our eyes and try to forget?

Black models: from Géricault to Matisse, 26 march 2019 – 21 July 2019, Musée d’Orsay Paris.

A third stage of the exhibition will have place at the memorial ACTe (the Carribean Centre for Expression and Memory of the Slave Trade and Slavery) in Pointe-à-Pitre (Guadeloupe), 13 September – 29 December 2019.

Book: Posing Modernity

Exhibition catalogue: Le modèle noir de Géricault à Matisse – Catalogue d’exposition

Posing Modernity : The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today (24 October 2018 – 10 February 2019)

ESNAblog | An exhibition in desperate need of critical nuance.
Is a pure aesthetic approach to Orientalist painting still tenable?
Exhibition review: Oriental visions. From dreams into light
By Lisa Lambrechts – Curator in Training at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam


Édouard Debat-Ponsan, “Turkish bath scene.” Toulouse: Musée des Augustins.

This spring, Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris presents an exhibition dedicated to 19th-century orientalist painting entitled: Oriental visions. From dreams into light. The curator, Emmanuelle Amiot-Saulnier, has opted for a strongly aesthetic approach, setting out the evolution of figure and landscape in Orientalist painting, from 1800 to the birth of abstraction. In the exhibition, the visitor experiences how legible scenes steadily make way for an explosion of abstract colour planes. This message of how Orientalism was conductive to a complete immersion in light and colour, is embodied in the first exhibition space by confronting Ingres’ La Petite Baigneuse with Paul Klee’s Innenarchitektur.

This approach and message may have had their value in the past, but they feel outdated and superficial in this day and age, when discussions regarding decolonisation are prevalent and urgent in a globalised society. One could invoke a critique that Linda Nochlin (1931-2017) made 37 years ago in her article “The Imaginary Orient”. Nochlin was an avid believer that art history should be critical and should aim to expose underlying power structures in the artist’s visual language. In this case, her analysis was strongly influenced by Edward Said’s (1935-2003) theoretical framework, developed in his book Orientalism (1978), which is considered to be the parting shot for postcolonial studies in the academic sphere. According to Said, the Western discourse on ‘the Orient’ is characterized by an unequal power relationship, which establishes a mental or idealistic separation with ‘the East’: “everything that ‘they’ are, ‘we’ aren’t.” This conviction eventually leads to the justification of the dominance and subjugation of ‘the East’ to ‘the West’. With Said’s theoretical framework in mind, Nochlin critiqued the exhibition Orientalism: The Near East in French Painting 1800-1880, curated by Donald Rosenthal (1982). She was disappointed that Rosenthal approached the theme in the “usual art-historical manner”, which did not dare to ask questions regarding the implicit colonial power relations and ideology in the works shown: an ideology determined by political domination. As she wrote: “the key notion of Orientalism itself cannot be confronted without a critical analysis of the particular power structure in which these works came into being.”

The same lack of critical nuance can be detected in the Marmottan exhibition, where Orientalism is characterized as a mere ‘vision’ or ‘imagination’. This isn’t only problematic because the exhibition is situated in a private mansion that houses a collection mainly devoted to Napoleon and his family – representatives of the 19th-century mentality of conquest and imperialism – but also because a large share of the paintings included in the exhibition have been used over the decades to discuss the kind of critical issues addressed by Said and Nochlin. Examples are Jean-Léon Gérôme’s The slave market (1860); Eugène Delacroix’s The death of Sardanapalus (1827-1828), Édouard Debat-Ponsan’s Turkish bath scene (1883), and last but not least: Gérôme’s The snake charmer (late 1860), Said and Nochlin’s poster-child for their postcolonial critique.

The first part of the exhibition, called “Oriental(ized) woman”, is dedicated to the figure of the odalisque. This idealized, Venus-like female figure is discussed in the label texts in purely formal terms, e.g. how the sensuality and the curves of the depicted bodies complement the arabesques in the architectural decorative motifs, or the artist’s bold use of colour. Her representation is thus solely interpreted as part of a larger practice of experimentation with colour, form, and the search for an ideal classic beauty, inspired by an increasing confrontation with ‘the Orient’. By only addressing what is revealed to the eye at first glance, an important implicit ideological layer of this fantasy is bypassed. Overlooked (or ignored?) is the fact that the paintings are visual documents of 19th-century colonial and imperialist ideology, only to be fully understood by analysing them in their particular historical context. It is a western notion of ‘the Orient’ we encounter in these paintings, produced by white western men. These artists created an inaccessible, mysterious eroticized, and unchangeable world inhabited by the odalisques and other exotic creatures, depicted as ‘oriental desirable others’, forever available to the western, male voyeuristic eye. A fascination for the so-called primitive is evident from the choice to almost always depict the figures (partially) naked, unable to measure up to European social standards. By placing these paintings in their colonial and imperialist context, we understand that the white male gaze is mainly one of domination and power, fed by a feeling of European superiority. This unequal power relationship can especially be found in the confrontation between the black body and the white body, discussed only as a pure aesthetic consideration in the Marmottan exhibition. But the inclusion of black bodies actually became a recurrent theme for Orientalist paintings, as we can see in their omnipresence. The black body – depicted in a bent and subservient posture – is a visual scheme that has its origin in 16th-century Venetian painting, where Titian depicted such a juxtaposition for the first time in his Portrait of Laura Dianti (ca. 1520-1525). From this point onward, the black body is transformed into a trope, accompanying the white body throughout the following centuries solely to underline and elevate the latter’s status and assumed superior position in beauty, power and wealth.

The curator’s choice to discuss 19th-century Orientalist painting exclusively in terms of its aesthetic qualities leads to the loss of an important critical nuance, relevant to current discussions regarding decolonisation. Decolonisation is important as a movement for creating awareness of the historicity of the present. Discrimination has a complex history that goes back to these kinds of visual constructs. An imperialist mentality of white male superiority underlies the images. It would have been more interesting to take a closer look at the issue of ‘reality’ vs. ‘imagination’ and really try to deconstruct the works, showing what underlies the ‘imagination’ of painters and the visual tropes they employed. This deconstruction of the image would have been a good starting point for a conversation about imperialism and its real human implications. In order to understand the links between the past and the present it is important to emphasize that these depictions do not only tell an aesthetic story, but are also utterances of a certain mental construct that urgently needs to be taken apart.

Oriental visions. From dreams into light, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, until July 21 2019,

ESNAblog|Male Bonds in Nineteenth-Century Art: some thoughts on the 2018 ESNA conference 
By Lisa Lambrechts and Zoë Burnus – MA Art History, Ghent University BE


Which forms did homosociality or male bonds assume during the long nineteenth century? This academic question viewed from an art-historical perspective, was tackled from different viewpoints in the presented papers by an impressive group of scholars
with diverse expertise during this year’s ESNA congress at the Museum of Fine Arts in
Ghent (MSK). The conference was held in consideration of Thijs Dekeuleire’s PhD project (Ghent University), in which he examines the discursive power of the artistic male nude
in light of changing views of masculinity and male sociability in fin-de-siècle Belgium. It turned out to be a unique kind of topic for a congress which has never been brought up before in this way, and proved therefore to be all the more important.

The first day was mainly focused on different types of nineteenth-century fraternal bonds, imperial bonds and coercive bonds, and how they crystallized around the terminology of masculinity. The emphasis on the vast variety of these kinds of male bonds was particularly striking and refreshing. The list of types of ‘male bonds’ grew even more elaborate on the second day. Forged bonds, male bonding through painting en plain air and covert bonds (connected to queerness), were the subjects of discussion. Regarding the latter topic, effort has been put into building a bridge between traditional art-historical scholarship and the fields of gender and gay and lesbian studies: an interdisciplinary exchange of which the full potential for scholarship on the nineteenth century remains to be exploited.

The concluding remarks on the conference where delivered by Henk de Smaele – doctor in history with a particular focus on political ideas, gender and sexuality. Professor de Smaele focused on the theoretical and methodological implications of the study on masculinity and argued that the terminology or concept tends to be used sometimes too easily in (art-) historical interpretations, therefore scholars tend to fall into the trap to present it as something isolated and monolete, when in reality it’s a very complex, unstable and not so easy to define concept. The inherent complexity of the concept causes also that male bonds are established in particular different ways and forms. This leads to a diverse and wide range of possible perspectives and interpretations of this kind of relationships. The need for relativity regarding the conceptualisation of different kinds of male bonds was realised successfully in the presented congress papers. This diversity formed in some way the core of the congress.

We can conclude that ‘male bonds’ in the nineteenth-century consisted of different kinds of relationships or constellations. For example: fraternal bonds, friendship bonds, bonds
that arose through competition of one another, the bond between lovers, bonds in a military context, bonds between master and his slave(s) or servant(s), bonds determined by a race or ethnicity, bonds that arise through religion, bonds determined by sexual preferences or gender identity (homoeroticism), male artists that bond on an artistic motif or subject matter etc. Although we have to be cautious for a too isolated use of ‘masculinity’, the concept is necessary to make the object visible, which we need for an eventual political transformation. We therefore conclude that we cannot do without this terminology, nevertheless we need to keep nuance in consideration.

ESNAblog|Odilon Redon: La littérature et la musique in the Kröller-Müller Museum
By Renske Cohen Tervaert, Curator at the Kröller-Müller Museum

Odilon Redon, La liseuse, 1895-1900, private collection

On June 2 the exhibition Odilon Redon: La littérature et la musique will open at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo. The museum has an extensive collection of work by the French artist. Most of the 197 works – lithographs, pastels, paintings, drawings and even a folding screen – were brought together between 1912 and 1930 by Helene Kröller-Müller, the founder of the museum. Recently added to the collection is an early oil painting Tête de Persée (circa 1875). The last exhibition in the Kröller-Müller Museum, the collection presentation Hommes de valeur. Henri Fantin-Latour, Odilon Redon en tijdgenoten [trans: and contemporaries], took place in 2002. Therefore when the opportunity arose to organize an in-depth presentation about this extraordinary artist the museum didn’t hesitate. As I am writing this, a week before the opening, it is exciting to realise that these plans are taking shape

The exhibition, curated by ESNA member Cornelia Homburg (an independent curator living in France), focuses on the two other art forms besides the visual arts that Redon deeply loved: literature and music (hence the title). Both literature and music played a major role in his choice of subject matter and in his conceptual approach to his art. The majority of the loans for the exhibition come from an important private collection (some of the works have never been on display in the Netherlands before). Significant pieces have been added from other private collections and museums in the Netherlands, Germany and France. The selection of 167 works shows not only Redon’s collaborations with contemporary writers, his visual interpretations of texts by authors he admired, the fusion of his own writing (prose poems) with his visual work, but also his interest in figures from Wagner’s operas to Shakespeare’s plays, his knowledge and use of the theoretical aspects of musical compositions into his art, and so much more. It is the first time an exhibition and the accompanying publication are dedicated to these important sources of inspiration in the oeuvre of Redon.

Since I only recently started working as curator at the museum, it has been a privilege to be involved in a project that sheds new light on this fascinating artist. It also underlines the importance and the pleasure to collaborate with other ESNA members, and with colleagues – the authors of the publication – based not only in but also outside of Europe (in this case the United States and Australia).

I hope to welcome many of you to the museum this summer.

ESNAblog | Northern-European Romantic Landscape in Groninger Museum
By Jenny Reynaerts – Senior Curator of 18th- and 19th-century paintings at the Rijksmuseum

December 8 saw the opening of a new exhibition in the Groninger Museum: De Romantiek in het Noorden. Van Friedrich tot Turner. The catalogue is available in Dutch, English and German, as are the labels in the galleries. So although there will be no second venue, the exhibition is organized with the international visitor in mind.

And that brings me straight to the main theme: the romantic landscape seen from an international perspective. Director Andreas Blühm, curator Ruud Schenk and guest curator David Jackson have taken to heart the recent art historical discourse on histoire croisée, and have left the age-old (in fact, as old as the discipline art history itself) nationalist categories behind them. The museum is not afraid to mix an international group of artists according to mutual themes and visions. And the display works like a dream – there has hardly been any other era when landscape painters travelled and exchanged works and ideas as much as in the romantic period.

The selection is impressive, and the subtitle ‘From Friedrich to Turner’, so easily just a marketing slogan – has been fully realised. Combined with a wide selection of landscapes by Dutch, Scandinavian, Swiss, German and British painters, Friedrich and Turner are shown in a context that gives their work a new meaning. And the same is true for virtually every painting. As curator of paintings at the Rijksmuseum I was particularly pleased to be able to loan a large number of works. And I must say, our paintings are very happy in these new surroundings. At lectures I always show slides of Wouter van Troostwijk’s Guelderland landscape next to a rural landscape by Constable, and here this comparison for the first time comes to life. As it does in the case of Johannes Tavenraat’s deer fleeing from a thunderstorm next to Sami with reindeers during Midsummer night by Peder Balke. Such juxtapositions are not just a feast for the eyes, they also underscore the idea of one great romantic landscapist movement, which did not stop at a country’s borders. The essays in the catalogue stress this fact as well, focusing on mutual relations and common goals.

For the visitor who is not interested in art historical discourse, too, there is much to enjoy. Many of the paintings are huge and evoke the sublime, with mountainous landscapes with broad vistas, or valleys like deep chasms. But it was the occasional restrained and sober view that moved me. A rural road in the snow, near an icy lake under a full moon by Carl Blechen took my breath away with its apparent simplicity and sheer love of painting. The totally unknown Dankvart Dreyer is a revelation: there is a wooden footbridge on his native Danish island of Funen executed in a realistic style too restrained for romantic taste at the time. Lack of success made him quit painting, but in fact he was simply born too early and would have fit perfectly in the romantic aesthetics of Barbizon.

There are all kinds of finds like these, paintings which suddenly come to life next to kindred spirits. And yes, there are many Friedrichs, many unknown as they come from smaller German museums. So in Groningen, even the well known becomes a discovery.

ESNAblog|Reflections on ESNA Conference 2017
Food, Glorious Food: Food at the heart of nineteenth-century art
By Allison Deutsch – Teaching Fellow at University College London; coorganizer of the conference

Caillebotte, Fruit Displayed on a Stand, c. 1881-1882, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Fanny P. Mason Fund in memory of Alice Thevin

This year’s ESNA conference took place on the spectacular top floor of the Museum aan de Stroom [MAS], Antwerp, in conjunction with the MAS exhibition ANTWERP À LA CARTE. Bringing together more than twenty speakers, the conference developed a number of themes, including the connection between food and social identity, politics, and technology, across a wide range of artistic practices and media.

Food in nineteenth-century art is a topic of almost overwhelming magnitude. It was very useful, therefore, to begin Thursday with a keynote lecture from historian Peter Scholliers, which provided an overview of some of the changes to the food system throughout the nineteenth century. Scholliers was involved in curating and writing the catalogue for ANTWERP À LA CARTE, which we also toured on the afternoon of the first day. The exhibition presents the history of Antwerp through the history of its food, from supply, to consumption, to disposal and waste. Thursday’s panels considered food and social identity, as related to nationality, class, and gender. The foods depicted in the paintings discussed held potent symbolic dimensions, and were used to construct specific narratives and subjectivities.

The second day opened with a keynote lecture by Marni Kessler, which addressed Gustave Caillebotte’s still life of an upmarket fruit display, Fruit Displayed on a Stand (1882). Kessler rooted the painting in the topography of Haussmann’s reconstructed Paris, and questioned the utility of the term ‘still life’. Panelists appropriately went on to address still life as a genre, as well as the technological changes in food production and consumption. In addition to considering how paintings of food, quintessentially still lifes, evoke the multi-sensory, we were treated to a cooking demonstration and tasting. Tirion Keatinge, head chef of the Scandinavian Embassy, served us parcels of kohlrabi with a rich filling—they were as beautiful as they were delicious! It was a striking way to ground our discussions of embodiment and embodied spectatorship, and raised questions about the connection between vision and appetite.

In the end, the question of the visual was center stage. Is ‘visual culture’ an appropriate term for the artfully decorated Russian menus discussed by Alexandra Grigorieva? Is ‘visual art’ capacious enough to encapsulate the viewer’s phenomenological engagement with Raphaelle Peale’s visceral Still Life with Steak, as discussed by Jeff Richmond-Moll? Most broadly, does the term ‘viewer’ itself circumscribe the complex and embodied responses of audiences to artworks?

Questions best addressed over a plate of Belgian fries, we agreed.

Food for thought, prepared by Tirion Keatinge and Guus Thijssen

ESNAblog| Interdisciplinary exchange:
An art historian’s outing in the field of musicology
by Lisa Smit – researcher and assistant curator, Van Gogh Museum; ESNA secretary


Recently, I embarked on an interesting exchange when I was invited to participate in a conference organized by the Institute of Musicology of the University of Vienna. Ästhetik der Innerlichkeit: Max Reger und das Lied um 1900 marked the centenary of the death of composer Max Reger. Not only was I the only non-musicologist, I was also one of only three non-native German speakers. And I am quite sure I was the only one who was unfamiliar with the music of Reger. The conference focussed on the Lieder (German for songs) within Reger’s body of work, as well as on those by his contemporaries such as Richard Strauss and Arnold Schönberg. Special attention was payed to the turn-of-the-century preoccupation with Innerlichkeit (interiority; inwardness; subjectivity) within the genre.

It was my task to enrich this highly musical conference with an art historical perspective. I did so by way of an anthology of the topos of music in visual arts in the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, concentrating roughly on the cultural scenes of Vienna and Munich. Through a variety of examples ranging from Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead to Kandinsky’s Composition III (Concert), as well as lesser-known but then popular make-believe depictions of famous composers behind their pianos, I tried to explain why the analogy between music and painting flourished in the nineteenth century.

Afterwards, some of the musicologists asked me about my impression of their discipline, and in turn I asked them about their impression of art historians. One of them jokingly replied that in general, art historians usually: A. “dress very well” (Hurray!) and B. “when discussing a certain painting, tend to be preoccupied with pointing out other art works that can be recognized in the work at hand” (Touché). Amusing as it was, this conversation got me thinking about the similarities and differences between our disciplines.

What struck me, was that almost all of the musicologists’ talks focussed on the structural analysis of sheet music, often discussing the harmony and/or the discrepancies between music and poetry, two sister arts inevitably joined in the genre of the song. With the emergence of modern art, visual artists of a range of disciplines became fascinated by the intrinsic power of music to capture the intangible. And as visual artists endeavoured to develop the same transcendental qualities, music became a guiding star for the modernization of art. Perhaps it is exactly this quality of music of being so entirely of and for its own that explains the profound concentration on actual music in the field of musicology.

One of the ways in which the conference was an inspiring experience for me, was the (renewed) realization that when discussing art, “we” art historians often discuss everything but the actual art works. With the current fashion of art-historical subjects such as the art market or the infrastructure of transnational exchanges, we often employ art to discuss broader cultural tendencies and formulate a cultural history of ideas. I am not at all suggesting that this is a bad thing. On the contrary, I feel it is highly important to embed our discipline within a larger social-cultural context. But perhaps this blog can serve as a little reminder that we should encourage ourselves to actively engage in interdisciplinary exchange, as we can gain new insights from related disciplines.

In the end however, musicologists and art historians are very much alike: a bunch of nerds intensely devoted to their field of study.

ESNAblog| City of Sin: Some thoughts on the 2016 ESNA conference
by Malika M’rani Alaoui – MA Museum Curator, University of Amsterdam NL

Evenepoel absintdrinker

  Henri Evenepoel, La buveuse d’absinthe (1899)

Inspired by Baudelaire’s 1846 appeal to artists to open their eyes to the shadow side of the modern metropolis, this year’s ESNA conference, City of Sin: Representing the Urban Underbelly in the Nineteenth Century focused on the more subversive subjects of nineteenth-century city life. An inspiring group of art historians and students assembled at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to discuss the depiction of topics such as prostitution, criminality and addiction in nineteenth-century art. Although this may sound a bit peculiar, these topics actually present fundamental issues of nineteenth-century urban culture.

The two-day conference started with a lecture by Fleur Roos Rosa de Carvalho, curator of prints and drawings at the Van Gogh Museum. The main point of Fleur’s lecture, focussing specifically on prostitution in prints, was that for several reasons prostitution is often depicted in a veiled way. We need to read between the lines to recognize it. In the first session, speakers discussed ways to reveal the invisible and provided food for thought for different approaches.

From the invisible we made a leap to the ignored. The second session examined topics that a lot of art historians will probably regard as ‘not academic enough’. Issues such as gambling, drug (ab)use, alcoholism and venereal diseases were discussed, and the speakers made clear why these topics are of interest to art historical research. They were widespread phenomena, not restricted to the lower classes but part of nineteenth-century culture and everyday life. Therefore we should not ignore them – at least, not if we want to gain complete and genuine insight into the nineteenth century.

The second day of the conference started with a lecture about the relation between the artist George Hendrik Breitner and his model Geesje Kwak by Suzanne Veldink, curator of the exhibition Breitner: Girl in Kimono. Suzanne demonstrated how in the nineteenth century, double moral standards were the norm, not the exception. Her lecture was followed by a session about different representations of prostitution in art, and maybe more importantly, how to recognize its metaphoric depictions. The speakers came up with some new and interesting points, but as a critical note I want to add that we must be careful not to over-interpret the artworks and loose ourselves in complex theories.

As a curator in training I’m particularly interested in the question how to present this kind of subversive subject matter to a broader public. Or more specifically, how to tell people another story than they are used to hear. Therefore, I was glad that Professor Tamar Garb of University College London concluded the conference with a critical lecture on these issues. The modernist narrative, which is still dominant in both research and curatorial practice, gives little space for other approaches. Of course it’s difficult to rewrite the art historical canon, but I don’t believe it’s impossible. Let’s rethink the history of the nineteenth century and to a certain extent try to shed the white-male gaze of the so called “Baudelairian paradigm”. This would enable us to explore other narratives and broaden our knowledge of the most fascinating period in history. All in all, the conference was very inspiring, and ESNA made a step in the right direction. I’m looking forward to next year’s conference, and I hope that the organization will continue to address unconventional topics.

ESNAblog| Nature’s Picture: Photography meets painting in the 19th century
by Jorien Soepboer – MA Museum Curator, University of Amsterdam NL

Nature's Picture © Michael Floor

Last year, I worked as a curator in training at the Van Gogh Museum as part of the Museum Curator MA program at the University of Amsterdam. The goal of this internship was to master all aspects of curatorship, from the preservation of a museum collection to the production of exhibitions. Luckily for me, the big Van Gogh Museum has a little sister, The Mesdag Collection. At this small museum in The Hague, I had the chance to experience the process of setting up an exhibition as a curator. In June last year I started only with a subject (‘something with photography’). By March 2016, the exhibition titled Natuur in beeld Nature’s Picture, was born.

The Mesdag Collection houses the private collection of painter Hendrik Willem Mesdag, which includes a high-quality holding of Barbizon and paintings from The Hague School. Nature’s Picture presents a small part of this collection in a different light, bringing the works together with Dutch and French landscape photographs from the same period. In the second half of the 19th century, nature was one of the places in which a lively dialogue arose between photography and the art of painting. Photography was quite new – its invention was publicly announced in 1839 – and still fully in development. The early French landscape photographers, such as Gustave Le Gray and Eugène Cuvelier, were influenced by the paintings of their day in terms of composition and subject matter. Painters, for their part, collected photographic prints or, by the end of the century, took up the camera by themselves.

The French forest of Fontainebleau was one of the places where the paths of photography and painting came together. Nature’s Picture shows how the landscape, with its ancient trees and great rock formations, offered a wide variety subjects in both media. Artists like Théodore Rousseau, Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña and Jules Dupré began to visit Barbizon in the 1830s. From this village, they made frequent hiking trips to the nearby forest of Fontainebleau and worked en plein air in the unspoiled nature. Partly due to the growing popularity of Barbizon paintings, photographers found their way to the well-known woods in the late 1840s.

In the cliché verre, the photomechanical technique literally merged with those of fine art. When creating this glass print, the artist began with a drawing in a layer of ink on a glass plate. This image is then printed, using daylight, on light-sensitive paper. The final result looks like an engraving, but has a beautiful velvety tone. Painters like Camille Corot and Charles-François Daubigny used this technique to capture impressions of the countryside. Two prints by the latter are some of my favorite objects in the exhibition. In these, Daubigny experiments with the technique in a particularly masterly fashion.

As far as we know, Louis Apol was one of the few Dutch landscape painters using photography. In the late 19th century, cameras became increasingly portable and painters began to take their own photographs. The prints could be useful as an aide-mémoire in the studio, helping artists to fill in perspective or study moving subjects. Unfortunately for Apol, known for his winter paintings, the photographic technology in the nineteenth century wasn’t refined enough to capture high snow contrasts. For this reason, his use of the camera was only of short duration.

It scared me to bring ‘my baby’ into the world, where everybody could see and criticize it. But above all, I enjoyed creating this exhibition: to visualize research with objects, bring different artworks together and educate the public. What the future will bring for me? I really don’t know, but I sincerely hope there will be more chances like the one I had last year.

The exhibition Natuur in beeld – Nature’s Picture will be on view until the 5th of June in The Mesdag Collection in The Hague:

ESNAblog| Klimt : Reflections

Klimt_Beethoven Freeze_detail

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna are jointly preparing an exhibition with the preliminary title Reflections: Gustav Klimt in International Context (2018/2019). The exhibition and accompanying scholarly publication will focus on the influence of international avant-garde artists on Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). As a researcher for the Van Gogh Museum, ESNA secretary Lisa Smit spent the Autumn of 2015 at various research institutions and archives of Vienna. In this blog, she reflects on her experiences.


Spending time abroad to do research is an enriching experience for any art-historical researcher. It is a unique way to investigate a particular field of interest more in-depth with the benefit of doing so in a cross-cultural setting. It enables you to fully indulge in your research without the distractions inevitably faced at home. A big bonus is the empowering feeling of being on your own and managing just fine.

My first challenge was to familiarize myself with the do’s and don’ts of Austria’s curatorial scene. The right introductions and the support of the widely known name of the Van Gogh Museum on my business card opened many doors. I got in touch with some of the household names of „Vienna 1900“ scholarship, and had inspiring meetings and conversations with many museum curators, (independent) researchers, collectors and gallerists in the field. What a rewarding experience it has been, to lay the foundations of my research on the shoulders of these giants.

I conducted my research in various libraries, archives and research centers. Like any researcher, I experienced both frustrating days with zero result, and exciting moments when you discover hidden gems in unexpected places. I sifted through endless volumes of non-digitized newspaper feuilletons and contemporary periodicals. Fairly quickly, I got adjusted to the gothic print and I developed techniques to speed up the work. I compiled exhibition photographs as well as exhibition catalogues, and played ‘Guess the Picture’ to determine which art works Klimt might have actually seen. In doing so, I made headway in mapping the presence of avant-garde artists such as Vincent van Gogh, James Mc Neill Whistler, and Giovanni Segantini in Vienna around 1900.

My time in Vienna was a Totalerlebnis. Time and again, I visited Klimt’s Beethoven Freeze, his painted ceilings at the Burgtheater and the splendid selection of his paintings at the Belvedere. I spent my Sunday afternoons in Vienna’s coffee houses eating Sachertorte or Suppentopf, and went to see the theatre plays Professor Bernhardi by Arthur Schnitzler and Karl Kraus’ Die letzten Tage der Menschheit at the Burgtheater. I even paid visits to Klimt’s former studio and his grave in Hietzing. My evenings were spent reading the biographies of the women surrounding Klimt, e.g. Berta Zuckerkandl, Hermine Gallia, Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein, and Emilie Flöge. And in October, I came face to face with these ladies at the exhibition Klimt | Schiele | Kokoschka und die Frauen at the Belvedere. What’s more, I further explored the former Hapsburg Empire by visiting Budapest, Salzburg, Innsbruck and Bad Ischl. I even took a short break at the Attersee, where Klimt spent so many summer holidays with his beloved Emilie Flöge, and where he painted most of his landscapes.

After three months, I returned home feeling like a soaked sponge, having absorbed all the information I could lay my hands on. I now knew which direction the research should take, and was ready to share my newly gained insights with the colleagues at home for the benefit of our exhibition.

To conclude, some wise words from a fellow-researcher:

– Gemeinsames Wissen ist vermehrtes Wissen –

Lisa Smit – junior researcher Van Gogh Museum | secretary ESNA

ESNAblog| ESNA Winter Seminar 2015

On the 30th of January 2015 ESNA organized their second winter seminar at the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD) in The Hague. This meeting concerned Methodological developments within 19th-century art-historical scholarship. Or more specifically, as stated in the introduction by Jenny Reynaerts (Rijksmuseum), “not what, but how is our focus”. Several lectures, covering various methods for art-historical research, were presented by researchers and subsequently discussed within the group. Contributors were prof. dr. Saskia de Bodt (Universities of Utrecht and Amsterdam), prof. dr. Wessel Krul (University of Groningen), dr. Jan Dirk Baetens (Radboud University Nijmegen), dr. Rachel Esner (University of Amsterdam) and drs. Maite van Dijk (Van Gogh Museum).

In her lecture, Saskia de Bodt discussed the possibilities of interdisciplinary research and, above all, the problems of this methodological approach. She tried to demonstrate the difficulties that arise when one tries to examine parallels between different media that, in De Bodts eyes, are incompatible, for example text and image in book illustrations. As an alternative she suggested the approach of multidisciplinary research in which different disciplines enter into a dialogue, instead of researchers who explore other fields on their own like nomads.

The second lecture by Wessel Krul concerned a more theoretical approach, exemplified by the ideas of Hippolyte Taine on Dutch art. Based on his key concepts of ‘race’, ‘moment’ and ‘milieu’, Taine believed that paintings from the Golden Age reflected something of the ‘true Dutch character’. This idea proved to be very useful in the search for national identity in the nineteenth century. As a result, a canon of ‘purely Dutch art’ was put together. The seventeenth-century ‘realistic’ paintings hereby served as models for contemporary artists to acquire knowledge about the Dutch ‘national character’.

After the break, Jan Dirk Baetens gave a lecture about failure(s) in art history, or actually the absence of it. The art-historical canon is formed by ‘genius’ and scholars pay little heed to mediocrity. However, as Baetens rightly remarked, mediocrity is much more widespread than genius in the history of art. So why don’t we, as the objective scientist we should be, pay more attention to failures and mediocrity? Moreover, the study of failures in art-history can help us better understand the successful artists.

The fourth lecture by Rachel Esner focused on the emergence of the artist as a celebrity and the role of new media in that process. Illustrations and photographs of the artist and his studio became more and more popular during the nineteenth century. Since artists were very aware of the importance of image building, it is interesting to look at what’s behind those pictures. How did artists represent themselves and what can it tell us about their art? Moreover, these resources can give us a broader view of the social and economic situation of artists during the second half of the nineteenth century.

The last lecture by Maite van Dijk questioned the old-fashioned idea that French critics ignored foreign artists. Her current research focuses on the critical reception of Edvard Munch at the Salon des Indépendants. By counting the number of reviews about the participating artists, Van Dijk was able to show that French critics surely did pay attention to Munch and that he was mentioned in a relatively large number of reviews about the Salon. This makes clear how quantitative research can also be a useful method for art-historical research.

Altogether it was an interesting seminar, which gives food for thought about new approaches in art-historical research. We look forward to the next ESNA winter seminar, where the emerging and exciting field of digital humanities will be discussed.

Written by Matthijs ‘t Hart and Malika M’rani Alaoui, third year Art History students at respectively Radboud University Nijmegen and the University of Amsterdam.

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ESNAblog| To tag or not to tag: research into the Van Gogh Museum print collection

When I tell people about my job as a Print Collection Researcher in the Van Gogh Museum, a frown is the usual answer. ‘Did Van Gogh make so many prints?!’ – no, he did not. However, the museum houses an important and choice collection of approximately 1,750 prints from the fin de siècle (1890-1905): autonomous art works as well as posters, illustrated sheet music, books and theatre programmes by luminaries such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Steinlen and the Nabis. Due to the light sensitive nature of the paper the prints spend most of the time in the depot, so hardly anybody knows of this hidden treasure. In 2010 the museum has started a scholarly research project in order to make the print collection better known and to tell the audience the story of printmaking during the fascinating cultural period of the fin the siècle. This spring the museum hosted a peer review meeting discussing the project´s progress and future plans with scholars and connoisseurs from the field: Philip Dennis Cate, Richard Thomson, Christopher Drake, Britany Salsbury, and Chris Stolwijk. Of course, also the print specialists from the museum were present: Marije Vellekoop, Fleur Roos Rosa de Carvalho, Lisa Smit, Laura Prins, and myself.

The day was chaired by Curator of Prints and Drawings Fleur Roos Rosa de Carvalho, initiator, researcher and manager of the project. In the morning, Fleur took us on a journey through the collection database to show how extensively the collection has been catalogued, documented and photographed over the last four years. Of course, we registered the basics such as artist, title, creation date and technique. The core of the research, however, consists of the numerous tags we have applied to every print, regarding both the content and the context: from concepts such as japonisme, décoration and prostitution, to styles, function, and printers’ and publishers’ names. Instead of publishing a hard copy collection catalogue with entries on each individual print, we are working on a website, which will focus on the prints’ correlations (by means of the tags).

Therefore, an important question that aroused during the peer review meeting was: how far should we go with tagging? Should we narrow down to the bare essentials the amount of tags applied to a single print?  Or should we apply as many tags as possible, even when a print has only a touch of japonisme, for instance? Findability should be the keyword, the experts agreed. When one searches for japonisme, one wants to find all the prints associated to this cultural phenomenon in one way or another. The more we tag, the more illuminating and surprising connections will emerge. The website will be launched next year. We are now writing short explanatory texts on the 150 most complicated and frequently occurring tags – quite a job, but a sweet deal for the fin de siècle loving researcher.

Another milestone of the research project will be a large exhibition in 2017, focusing on the tension between high and low culture in late 19th century printmaking. Obviously, four years of research have yielded many more stories and findings than we can share through the website and the exhibition. The afternoon of the peer review meeting was therefore a brainstorming session about further ways to publish the results for both the scholar, the amateur and the general public. Is it possible to serve these various audiences with one publication? Or should we think of an exhibition catalogue in 2017 and a separate volume of scholarly essays, perhaps in conjunction with a conference? Food for thought. First we have to tackle the tags.

Marieke Jooren, Researcher Print Collection, Van Gogh Museum

[more in formation on this project:]

[for a selection of the collection: ]

Willem II

ESNAblog| A Royal Course of Events

At the nineteenth century section of the permanent exhibition in the Rijksmuseum the large Schipbreuk (Shipwreck) by Wijnand Nuyen, ca. 1837, is on show in the second room. For lovers of this period it is a well-known painting. The highly expressive, colourful and emotional scene makes it the pre-eminent example of Romantic art in the Netherlands.

From 1842 to 1850 the Schipbreuk was part of the famous collection of King Willem II of the Netherlands. He had bought it from an art dealer who had just before acquired it form Alexander de Ceva. I recently wrote my thesis on De Ceva and was intrigued why someone would buy the painting of Nuyen, a painting that was in my view very un-Dutch. Ultimately that resulted in a research on De Ceva who played an important role in the art world of The Hague in the 1830s and 1840s and who turned out to have sold his entire collection to Willem II. By researching this major deal between De Ceva and Wllem II I gained in-depth knowledge of the king’s collection. My ” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>thesis is published online on
After my graduation the question remained why there hadn’t been an exhibition in a major Dutch museum about the collection of Willem II, which was arguably the greatest private collection in the history of The Netherlands. With the upcoming 200 year jubilee of the kingdom of The Netherlands it seemed to me that this was the ideal moment to realize such an exhibition. But as a recent graduate I had no idea where to start with my plan. Coincidentally (?) I was contacted around that time by the Dordrechts Museum with an offer to join in the preparation of the upcoming Willem II exhibition, which was soon to be held. Of course I was delighted to help. Some of the artworks in the Dordrecht exhibition therefore are accompanied with a little text about De Ceva, such as a painting by Gustaf Wappers.
The jury at the ‘Tentoonstelling van Levende Meesters’ (Salon) in The Hague of 1839, of which De Ceva was a member, had awarded Nuyen’s painting the gold medal for best picture. Fortunately for De Ceva this painting was in his own collection. Two years later it was one of the most expensive paintings of the lot that he sold to Willem II.
It was a fortunate course of events that brought together my graduation research and the organization of the exhibition in Dordrecht. Therefore the museum was able to include some new research to its catalogue and walls and I had the opportunity to work on this great project and gain some experience in a museum. Hopefully more events of this caliber with a nineteenth century subject will follow  –  preferably with my assistance of course!

Hugo Rijpma

moskou 5

ESNAblog| The Romantic Soul. Paintings from Russia and the Netherlands

Early 2012 Teylers Museum in Haarlem received a phone call from the Dutch private collector and former TV producer Jef Rademakers. As an avid promoter and collector of Dutch romantic painting, Rademakers was also in touch with the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and proposed to make an exhibition in which paintings from the romantic period of his collection together with that of the Tretyakov Gallery and Teylers Museum would be shown side by side, mingling Dutch and Russian artworks. This promised to be a special opportunity to change the historic setting in which the Teylers’ paintings are usually presented into an unexpected international context. It presented a possibility for reviewing the similarities and disparities of Dutch and Russian painting from the first half of the nineteenth century, as well as a chance to re-evaluate the often debated position of Dutch romanticism. Although time for preparation would be short – the exhibition was scheduled to open in Moscow  in November 2013, which left us only one and a halve year – the three partners agreed to work together.

What followed was an exciting joint venture in which my Russian colleague Lyudmila Markina and I dived together into the three collections to select over fifty paintings that would form a loosely knitted but coherent whole, showing the diverse qualities of the period. Much to our surprise there were far more similarities than expected, considering the huge differences between Russia and the Netherlands regarding size, climate, history and society. While Russia at the turn of the nineteenth century had only recently developed its own approach to the fine arts – until then mostly producing religious icons – Dutch artists had to deal with the towering fame of their seventeenth century predecessors. From these two very different starting points, both Dutch and Russian artists actually turned to the same examples in old as well as contemporary art, to find answers for their artistic questions.

While therefore the qualities of Dutch and Russian painting from the first half of the nineteenth century might not differ so much, the reputation and  popularity of the period in both countries has been very different. For Russians the works of romantic painters like Shishkin, Bryullov or Venetsianov belong to their most treasured pieces of art, whereas paintings by Koekkoek, Schelfhout or Kruseman in the Netherlands are often considered as just the results of an interval period in between the highlights of the Dutch Golden Age and the impressionistic realism of the late nineteenth century Hague School. Unfamilar with Dutch painting of this period, Russian vistors to the Moscow exhibition were surprised to see the quality of these Dutch painters – and were even more surprised to hear that this period belongs to the most underexposed in Dutch art history. On the other hand for most Dutch viewers the Russian paintings are also a discovery – perhaps often along with the works of their nineteenth century compatriots. Judging by the reactions of the public and the number of visitors so far (similar to earlier successful exhibitions of Anton Mauve and Claude Lorrain), the Dutch seem finally ready to embrace their romantic side. Or are they? Let’s try to find out during the ESNA excursion on May 20th.

Terry van Druten, curator of Teylers Museum and of the exhibition

Blog LJ2
Blog LJ1


ESNAblog| A Study Day at the Phillips Collection, Washington DC
Phillips Collection, Washington DC

In recent years it has become a tradition for some museums in the US and Canada that stage ambitious exhibitions to organize gatherings of scholars (curators, researchers, conservators, academics) and discuss a wide range of topics in the galleries in the proximity of the actual artworks. It works best when one of the participants briefly introduces a selected (group of) artworks and ends with a provocative remark or a question to start the discussion.

Together with four colleagues from the Van Gogh Museum I was invited to participate in a study day at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. The exhibition Van Gogh Repetitions is a rare opportunity to see together and compare some of the works he did in more than one version. Most famous in the relatively small exhibition (c. 40 works) are The Bedroom, The Postman Roulin and La Berceuse, but there were also other works, such as a series of weavers from the Nuenen periode (both painted and drawn) and a series of eight different prints of Doctor Gachet.

Participants came out excited and exhausted. It was one of the best of such study days I’ve attended and I think the reason for its success was twofold. First, almost all people present were really well informed about Van Gogh and his art; on other occasions I’ve seen surely very kind and interested people but they were less informed about the subject and consequently contributing less or asking, well, less urgent questions. The other reason is that the starting points in every discussion were the very artworks we were standing before: the paint layers, colours, brushstrokes, contours, differences between versions. Looking at the same work or series of works with thirty pairs of eyes was great fun to begin with and it inspired many animated discussions that raised a lot of questions for further research.

On a critical note I should add that the fact that virtually all of these mini-debates centred around material and technical issues pushed the art historical quite into the background. Why portraiture was so important to Van Gogh; how some of the portraits fit into what we know about his artistic programme; what he tried to achieve with his weavers; if and how different reasons for repeating his own works led to different approaches, etc. – these types of questions were at best touched upon in passing. This can partly be explained by the fact that in preparing the exhibition the Phillips Collection and the Cleveland Museum of Art devoted much of their time and resources to technical examination. Also, the relatively modest number of works naturally limited the ground they cover. Admittedly, giving the art historical side its due would have required one more day.

As far as I know these study days are not organised in The Netherlands. It would be hard to realise it in museums that are open seven days a week. But it would be worthwhile to see if we could learn from our colleagues overseas; it’s also a very good opportunity for expanding one’s network. What are we waiting for?

Leo Jansen, curator of paintings, Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam

ESNAblog| Living on the Edge
National Gallery, Londen

Last week I was kindly invited for a preview by National Gallery curator Chris Riopelle of the exhibition Facing the Modern. The Portrait in Vienna 1900. The exhibition focuses on the turmoil years around 1900, when Vienna was the center of big cultural, political and social changes. Think Freud, Jung, Klimt, Kokoschka but also Makart and the fin-de-siècle architecture on the Ringstrasse, built to celebrate the city as an achievement of high bourgeois culture.

The overture is Beethoven’s – his death mask and hands in plaster immediately show how art and culture were worshipped, but they also introduce a darker note. In the second room the drama continues: the big chasm between the complacency of the wealthy bourgeois world and the pending downslide is shown by a portrait of a typical upper class Viennese family, well fed and richly attired. Even their smiles are heavenly, though one would expect these to stiffen as the curators have forced them to look on the naked bodies of Egon Schiele, his wife and child. Schiele’s huge and haunting portrait is a world apart from the ideal nucleus family. In this setting, the painting seems to be more of a comment on the claustrophobia of conformist social formulas.

The tone is set and room after room we are confronted with faces full of anxiety. There is a paradox here in form and content: the overall tone of the modernist paintings is blue, a predominant color in modern art from the Impressionist era. It contrasts all but in content with the rather morose ‘museumtone’ of the pre-1900 portraits. The self portrait of Arnold Schonberg is literally blue in the face, but instead of innovative expressionism it rather reminds one of strangulation.

Indeed, death seemed to be on everybody’s mind and can be read in these faces. It was of course paramount, culminating in the slaughter of WW I and the Spanish flue epidemic of 1918. Schiele’s family portrait is a reminder of that, both he and his wife died of the flue. The exhibition tells the story of many deaths and suicides. The flamboyant sitters of Hans Makart lose their bourgeois significance and as time went on seem to have become part of a Danse Macabre.
For once, I don’t feel envious or want to live in these exciting times. Instead I want to know more about these individuals, and the huge changes they faced. The exhibition is thus not just about modernist portraiture, it is about facing life.

Jenny Reynaerts, senior curator of 18th and 19th century paintings, Rijksmuseum