UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Genius as an alibi ; the production of the artistic subject and english landscape painting, 1795-1820 Kriz, Kay Dian


Nineteenth-century writers and modern scholars have agreed that there was a major shift in the practice of landscape painting in England around the turn of the nineteenth century. Paintings by up-and-coming artists such as J. M. W. Turner, Thomas Girtin, and A. W. Callcott were seen to exhibit a concern for atmospheric effects and an "expressivity" lacking in earlier works. This shift has often been explained by invoking artistic genius: the keen intellect and sensibility of the artistic producer has served as a self-evident explanation of the rise to prominence of this form of landscape painting. This study endorses the centrality of the artistic subject to the enterprise of landscape painting, but disputes the notion that genius is a natural and self-evident phenomenon. It is argued here that the native landscape genius was a category of the creative individual which was socially produced at this historical moment in conjunction with or in opposition to other contemporaneous formulations of the artist. This examination of artistic subjectivity as determined by gender, social status, education, wealth, and so forth, is organized around three interrelated subject positions: the "man of letters" derived from the notion of the academic history painter, the "market slave," a negative construction of the artist who was seen to pander to the demands of the market and the "imaginative man of genius." The inscription of these positionalities in landscape imagery i s contingent upon a range of historically specific social phenomena. The discussion focuses particularly upon the discourse of nationalism during and immediately after the Napoleonic wars, epistemoiogical debates concerning the type of knowledge appropriate for a commercial society, and the discourse on the market as it relates to the circulation of paintings as cultural commodities. Determining the relationship of the artistic subject to these various social phenomena involves an examination of the physical spaces in which paintings were displayed and exhibited, the discursive spaces in which they were discussed and evaluated—including art criticism, aesthetic treatises, illustrated county histories and social and political commentary—and the institutional practices which shaped their production and reception. The power and appeal of the landscape genius, I argue, lay in its ability to a serve broad range of social interests in negotiating successfully the seemingly contradictory demands of the market in luxury commodities and of a social ideal of Englishness marked by independence, intellectual power and sensibility. The genius's imaginative encounter with external nature provided it with an alibi which served to obscure it s activities as an economic producer in a highly competitive market society.

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