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European Painting: Chardin to Matisse

30 Credits

This course provides a wide-ranging introduction to European painting between c.1700 and 1930.

Key themes in western art will be examined within a broadly chronological framework and during a period when Paris established itself as the nerve centre of the ‘avant-garde’, becoming the pre-eminent location for modernist experimentations in the visual arts.

As industrialization and colonial expansion brought new wealth to Europe and changed the nature of its society, artists responded in different ways to the changes taking place around them: while some were happy to engage with the social and commercial realities of their age, others sought escape in romantic visions of the past or remote rural colonies.

The European artists to be studied were a cosmopolitan mix of American, British, Dutch, French, German, Italian and Spanish painters. We will relate visual subjects to broader patterns of consumption, such as the increasing affluence of the middle classes and the development of mass media. Overall, the course will demonstrate how the period witnessed significant transformations in the ways in which painting was being used and understood.

This course will focus on the traditional categories of painting: history, portraiture, landscape and genre. In tracing the development of ‘modernism’ in painting, we will be pausing in particular on the major ‘isms’ of the period such as Realism, Impressionism, Symbolism, Cubism, Fauvism and Expressionism. Some of the main texts of art historical analysis pertaining to the art of this period will be explored and examined critically.

In addition, we will read the texts of contemporary critics, poets and journalists, consistently thinking about art historical categories – those ‘isms’ of the period – and the concepts that have been used to describe them.

Throughout, a particular emphasis will be placed on political contexts and on the social conditions within which specific paintings were produced. We will be thinking about how paintings could be mobilised in the service of a state, how they could function as propaganda for a class or for a nation, how they could be tasked with formulating gendered and racialized identities or, on the contrary, how paintings could offer spectators a means of escape and artists a private space for personal reflection and spiritual meditation.

Throughout the course, the discussions will focus primarily on paintings.