Five Questions: Maureen McCue on British Romanticism and the Reception of Italian Old Master Art

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Maureen McCue - British Romanticism and the Reception of Italian Old Master Arts, 1793-1840

Maureen McCue is a Lecturer in the School of English at Bangor University and can be found on Twitter @maureen_mccue.  Before joining Bangor, she completed her BA at the University of Montana and an MPhil and a PhD at the University of Glasgow.  She has published articles and presented papers on subjects including Samuel Rogers, William Hazlitt, Lord Byron, Italian art and culture, literary tourism and the development of aestheticism.  Many of these figures and themes feature in her first book, British Romanticism and the Reception of Italian Old Master Art, 1793-1840, which was published by Ashgate last November, which is one of the four books on the shortlist for this year’s BARS First Book Prize, and which we discuss below.

1) How did you first become interested in Italian art and its reception in the Romantic period?

I’ve always been fascinated by Italian medieval and Renaissance art as well as classical statues, and as an undergraduate I had a sense that Dante and other Italian authors had deeply influenced Romantic and Modernist writers.  But it was during a seminar with Alison Chapman when I was doing my MPhil at the University of Glasgow and we were discussing the passage in Corinne where Corinne is crowned at the Capitol that I was struck not only with the idea that a writer could invoke or rework earlier literary traditions in a text (such as Petrarch being crowned at the Capitol), but also that an author would pinpoint a specific painting, in this case Domenichino’s Sibyl, as a sort of shorthand to her reader.  My fascination increased when I learned that Staël had commissioned a portrait of herself after the Sibyl, blurring the lines between her text, Domenichino’s work, her character and herself, and that this new portrait then took on its own significance in the public sphere.  I kept coming across references to paintings but it wasn’t until Dorothy McMillan mentioned Napoleon’s campaigns in passing that things clicked into place for me and I decided to pursue the PhD.  Those two aspects – the literary and the political – were two anchors that allowed me to have a rather catholic approach to the sorts of print culture that I included, which I hope reflects the spirit of the age.

2) In your introduction, you write that ‘Part of the reason that Romantic reactions to Italian Renaissance art have thus far not been studied in depth is that traditionally scholarship has emphasized the visionary qualities of Romantic poetry over the visual experience.’  What do you think an emphasis on visual experience adds to our understanding of what’s going on in the literature of the period?

It gives us a more holistic view of both the period and the literature itself.  While there is much pleasure and value to be found in reading a poem or a novel for its own sake, being aware of the visual aspects of a text or the value the period placed on the visual helps us remember that these writers were responding to a world outside of themselves.  It reminds us that on the one hand their writing and the publication of their writing was informed by long-established cultural values (i.e. Italian art is important) and on the other, contemporary market demands (i.e. illustrated books sell better).  Being aware of the period’s visual aspects makes it come alive for us in meaningful ways and can often provide new avenues for exploration.

3) What events led you to pick 1793 as your start date and 1840 as your end date?

While I try to register significant developments earlier in the 18th century, such as the foundation of the Royal Academy in 1768, I chose 1793 as the start date for the study because it was the year the Louvre opened as a public museum, as well as the year Great Britain became involved in the French Revolutionary Wars.  This is a major sea-change in European art culture as it signals the radical idea that art should be available to all, rather than squirreled away in a private chamber.  1840 as an end-point is slightly more arbitrary, but I do have the sense that by 1840 we’re beginning to enter a new phase of art criticism, production and consumption, and that the relationship between (contemporary) visual and verbal texts has shifted.  The Romantic discourse loosened the canon of what was valuable in art and why, and it began to celebrate the Italian primitives in their own right for the first time.  To go beyond the 1830s would thus have changed the nature of the book.  As the 1840s is the decade of John Ruskin’s Modern Painters (1843) and the Pre-Raphaelites (1848), it becomes clear that the Romantic reception of art has sparked a new generation’s imagination and innovation, both in the visual arts and in literature, but that discourse becomes quite different to the one proceeding it.

4) To what extent was the reception of Italian Old Masters in the early nineteenth century a modern print-cultural phenomenon, and to what extent did it build on earlier discourses?

These two aspects really go hand in hand.  In the book, I’ve traced the ways in which an already established discourse regarding the importance of Italian art was modified and distributed to a wider audience via new, contemporary print innovations and culture.  The earlier discourses on art had two main audiences, both of whom had somewhat different needs and purposes for art.  One was the ruling class, whose tradition of the Grand Tour and of connoisseurship was wrapped up in ideas about civic humanism and taste.  The second were artists, most particularly members of the Royal Academy, who used Italian Renaissance art as the gold standard to aspire to, which, if reached, would ensure their dominance over contemporary European art.  Both of these audiences were elite and closed, but the value they placed on understanding and being able to discuss art became available for the first time as a result of contemporary print culture.  Through periodicals, catalogues, engravings and literary texts, reader-viewers were exposed not only to the art works themselves but also the discourse surrounding them.  Furthermore, Italian culture more broadly was such a central topic in so many overlapping arenas – such as new galleries and exhibitions, European politics, dissenting education, and travel and literature – that the print culture which addressed these areas reshaped the dominant discourse on art and made it accessible to a wide audience beyond the confines of the Royal Academy and the aristocracy for the first time.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’m at the start of two new projects at the moment.  My first project is to write a book about William Hazlitt’s art criticism. Hazlitt figures prominently throughout British Romanticism and the Reception of Italian Old Master Art.  While this new project builds on that knowledge, I hope to articulate the ways in which his early philosophy informs his art criticism, or, more specifically, how his art criticism can be seen as an extension of his An Essay on the Principles of Human Action.  I’m especially looking forward to exploring his thoughts on a wide range of art, so that his enjoyment of prints or reproductions will be considered next to his criticism of contemporary British artists or of Titian, for example.  Being able to explore some of his less familiar works, such as his Conversations with Northcote or his Journey to France and Italy, will also help me gauge his influence on later art critics such as Anna Jameson, Edmund Gosse and John Ruskin.

My second project is about the ways in which the circulation of prints and illustrations create new or redefine cultural and social spaces.  This project is very much in its infancy and still feels a bit abstract, but I’m hoping to bring together factual information about prints and illustrations (i.e. how much they cost, what was popular, how people collected and displayed them) with a more nuanced understanding of their cultural and social capital.  I keep two examples at the back of my mind, which together are my North star as I embark on this journey.  One is the scene in Jane Austen’s Persuasion where Anne Elliot meets a thoroughly absorbed Admiral Croft on the street in front of a printshop window.  In addition to including a tirade by the Admiral against the anonymous artists for portraying unrealistic and impractical boats, this encounter both conveys critical information to Anne and allows her to ask some nearly direct questions to the Admiral which she may not have been able to do in a more confined social space.  The second example I keep in mind is the fact that people collected prints such as illustrations and cartoons and kept them in albums.  Often these would be circulated to dinner party guests after the meal.  What I find fascinating however is the fact that if you didn’t have an album you could rent one for the evening.  Clearly the social, cultural and entertainment value of prints are not to be underestimated.  The two examples help me to remember how fully this contemporary cultural phenomenon of the print shaped social dynamics.  It’s obviously still early days for both these projects, but luckily I’m on research leave for the next six months and should gain some traction.