Join us for the seminar ‘Art under Duress: Prison, Exile and Painting during the French Revolution’ with talks by Gerrit Walczak and Sophie Matthiesson.



The Business of Exile: French Migrant Painters in London during the Revolution

by Gerrit Walczak

As agents of transfer, migrant artists are the poster children of transnational, shared or entangled histories of art. Their intermediary function, however, came at a price: historically, host nations do not necessarily want to get entangled. In this talk Gerrit will explore the exile of painters from Paris in London during the French Revolution, focussing on their exhibition and business strategies. Though London was the largest and most promising marketplace among the European capitals, the ‘British school’ had always been defined by opposition to French painting. Now French migrants, whom the course of the Revolution turned into refugees, exhibited at the Royal Academy as if their otherness was an asset rather than a liability.

After the initial success enjoyed by Jean-Laurent Mosnier, facilitated by no less a figure than Joshua Reynolds but flatly denied in the historiography of British art ever since, animadversions against the ‘frigid productions’ of French art were further aggravated by nationalist hysteria once the country entered the war against France in 1793. As efforts at Anglicization barely registered with art critics, outcomes ranged from the royalism of opportunity embraced by Henri-Pierre Danloux, the most innovative of the French migrants, to the public trashing of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, previously feted from Naples to Saint Petersburg. Unwanted foreigners challenging the widely held belief in the superiority of British painting, they were ‘correctly faulty’, it was argued. Their draughtmanship and high finishing was impeccable, but deemed purely mechanical: theirs wasn’t even art, or was it?





Re-evaluating Hubert Robert’s prison plates

by Sophie Matthieson,

In this talk Sophie will reconstruct the historical significance of a well-known group of images in the Musée Carnavalet, Paris, painted by the renowned landscape and decorative artist Hubert Robert (1733 –1808) while imprisoned as a political suspect during the Terror. Blinded by Robert’s reputation for ancien régime frivolity and facile decoration, few have seen past the superficial charm of Robert’s remarkable prison scenes to recognize their serious underlying purpose as symbols of resistance. Painted in the midst of widespread confiscations of suspects’ personal belongings, enforced collectivised dining and deteriorating hygiene and nutrition, these celebrated plates constitute, Matthieson suggests, a sustained personal protest on the part of the artist against the harsh new security regimes imposed across the prison system from mid-June 1794.

Matthieson’s talk considers the role of Robert’s plates within the material environment of the political prison in the summer of 1794 and the hardships of collective lived experience. It makes use of emerging approaches to interpreting French eighteenth century culture, including recent studies on health and dining in the French Revolution, material culture (especially furniture), history of emotions and changing concepts of privacy and the self.



Gerrit Walczak is Associate Professor of Art History at the Technical University of Berlin, and has been Visiting Professor at the universities of Greifswald, Köln and Bochum. His latest English publications are contributions to Politics & Portraits in the United States & France during the Age of Revolution (ed. T. L. Larkin, 2019) and to The Burlington Magazine (February 2017). His talk draws on new research for his forthcoming book Artistische Wanderer: Die Künstler(e)migranten der Französischen Revolution (Artistic Wanderers: Migrant and Émigré Artists of the French Revolution), due for release in December 2019.

Sophie Matthiesson is Curator of International Art at the National Gallery of Victoria. She has taught aspects of eighteenth-century French art at the universities of Sussex, Manchester, Leeds and Melbourne, and has recently edited a strand for H-France (forthcoming) on Material culture and the French Revolution. She has a forthcoming chapter entitled ‘Facing the Unknown: The Private Lives of Miniatures in the French Revolutionary Prison’ in Living the French Revolution, Bloomsbury Publishing, London (release date June 2020) and in preparing a book proivisionally entitled The Fine Art of Surviving: Prison Art in Revolutionary France 1793-1795, for which she received the Prix Marianne Roland Michel in 2019.



2-5pm, Seminar Room 650

Social Sciences Building

University of Sydney

Camperdown NSW 2050


Images: Henri-Pierre Danloux, detail of The Last Moments of Gabriel-Pierre-Louis du Rocher, comte du Quengo, c. 1795–1797 (Talabardon & Gautier, Paris / Art Digital); Hubert Robert (Paris 1733-1808). Landscape. 1794. Earthenware plate, 22.0 x 24.0 cm. Musée Carnavalet, Paris P1032.