Theses Doctoral

Authoring Art in Nineteenth-Century France, 1793-1902

Weintraub, Alex Gregory

In 1793, the nascent French republic established its first intellectual property law called droit d’auteur. This statute affected the visual arts and literature in equal measure, such that from a legal perspective, a painting and a manuscript were now treated as equivalent entities. Whereas literary critics have traced the impacts of this legislation on the production of novels and poetry, and legal historians have detailed its ramifications in nineteenth-century case law, art historians have yet to examine how this consolidation of the sister arts under the rubric of the auteur affected the development of the visual arts and aesthetic practices in the same period. Thus, despite ongoing interest in authorship across the humanities, scholars have operated with an only partial understanding of the subject. My thesis documents how French institutions of authorship, which included courtrooms, print shops, publishing houses, post offices, and libraries, coordinated an increasingly transnational field of textual and pictorial activities. More importantly, it analyses how these same institutions led to the creation of historically significant visual forms. Through a series of case studies of five canonical painters and writers, I offer a revised account of the emergence of modern art in France on the basis of the intimacies and antagonisms felt to exist between these differing artistic spheres.
Chapter 1 follows the transition from the ancien régime’s system of artistic privilege to the modern administration of artist’s rights in the work of the royal portraitist Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. By analyzing her 1835 memoirs alongside some of her key post-Revolutionary paintings, I establish the artist as a leading theoretician-practitioner of a new, legitimist aesthetics. Chapter 2 focuses on the classical aesthetic conflict between picture making and writing as it was expressed in the posthumously published diaries of Eugène Delacroix. I interpret his diary’s Romantic notion of pictorial specificity as an early variant of pictorial modernism. Chapter 3 explores the intertwined politics of exile and authorship in Victor Hugo’s enigmatic ink drawings. Tracking their creation in Guernsey to their eventual bequest alongside the writer’s literary manuscripts to the Bibliothèque nationale de France, this chapter also offers the first art history of the French national library, which, months prior to the opening of the Louvre, became the country’s first true public domain of images. Chapter 4 chronicles the emergence of the first global infrastructure for authors of art through an analysis of what I have called Vincent van Gogh’s “postal paradigm.” It demonstrates how the émigré artist substituted traditional academic protocols of education, critical evaluation, and reception with newly internationalized postal instruments and, additionally, how the formation of the Universal Postal Union facilitated the expansion of the international art market in the 1880s. Chapter 5 analyzes writer Émile Zola’s photographs taken in the 1890s in relation to a key aspect of his magnum opus, the Rougon-Macquart series: its conclusion. This chapter charts the consequential overlapping of two significant aesthetic debates in the 1880s and 1890s, both of which have until now been treated as unrelated— (1) the critiques and debates surrounding Zola’s experimental aesthetics; and (2) the contestations over the court’s role in determining photography’s status as authored. The project concludes with an epilogue that utilizes the project’s author concept to re-interpret early art historical theory.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Crary, Jonathan K.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 30, 2019