Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Call for papers: Mapping the Eighteenth-Century City (ASECS 2016 Pittsburgh)


I'm convening a session on mapping eighteenth-century cities at the next annual conference of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS). This will be held in Pittsburgh - 31 March - 3 April 2016.

If you're working on maps or mapping, or a relevant project on eighteenth-century cities (especially one engaging with digital methods), please consider submitting a proposal. Proposals for papers are due by 15 September 2015.

I've included the abstract below. For more information about the conference visit the ASECS website. For submission procedures and for all the other sessions being proposed here is a pdf of the full call for papers.

*** EDIT: My email address for submitting proposals was printed incorrectly in the ASECS call for papers. The correct address is: hannah.williams@sjc.ox.ac.uk. ***

Mapping the Eighteenth-Century City

This session seeks to explore eighteenth-century approaches to mapping cities and current approaches to mapping eighteenth-century cities. Academically these two pursuits are often distinct, with inquires into historical maps as visual images or textual documents, and inquiries using modern mapping techniques to communicate aspects of urban life in the past. This session draws connections between these practices inviting scholars from a range of fields, including art historians, historians, historical geographers, and digital humanists, among others, to bridge the discursive gaps. Papers might consider the functions of eighteenth-century city maps then and now; eighteenth-century cartographic aesthetics and technologies; the kinds of information eighteenth-century map- makers were trying to record or reveal; and the role these material objects can play in our own attempts, as historians, to explore eighteenth-century cities, to visualise historical data in flexible and discoverable ways, and to probe the social lives and urban experiences of eighteenth-century city inhabitants. In particular, proposals relating to recent or on-going research projects engaging with digital mapping techniques and methods are especially welcomed.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Detecting in the 18th-Century Art World: the Mysterious Suicide of François Lemoyne

Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, A marginal sketch in a sale catalogue (original now lost) showing an imagined scene of François Lemoyne throwing himself on his sword, c. 1779

I've been promising this article for ever and working on it for YEARS so I'm very happy to say that "The Mysterious Suicide of François Lemoyne" is now published! Online in Oxford Art Journal. Print version out later this month.

The official abstract is below but basically it's about the strange and violent suicide of one of the leading artists in Paris in the 1730s. A 'locked-door howdunit', as I call it, it investigates how (and why) this great painter managed to stab himself nine times with his own sword.

On one hand, this article is a serious experiment in life-writing. 'Biography' has become something of a dirty word in academic Art History, and in many cases rightly so. But at the same time even academic art historians remain fascinated by the lives of their artists. So here I'm looking for ways to salvage aspects of biography for the discipline, using object-driven and microhistorical approaches to find distinctly art-historical methods that productively deal with artists' lives.

On the other hand, it is also a really intriguing (I hope!) detective story. For someone with a longstanding devotion to crime fiction and Nordic noir, this was without doubt the most exciting and engrossing research experience I've ever undertaken. Working in the French national archives with original police records, witness statements, and autopsy reports, from the very beginning this was more like solving a case than writing an article. I even ended up in a storage room at the Wallace Collection using their handling collections of weapons to attempt a crime reconstruction - which is where I had a breakthrough moment of realising how it's actually possible to stab yourself nine times with a French small-sword (thanks to Mia Jackson and staff at the museum for that little adventure). I have tried to convey something of this crime-drama-inspired research experience in the article itself - so it is written in the spirit of a police procedural, in which, through proper investigative techniques (questioning witnesses, analyzing the crime scene, examining the body, hunting for motive, etc), there unfolds the story of a tragic and perplexing crime.

The research came out of a book I'm writing with Katie Scott exploring artists' possessions - the things that made up the material culture of their lives. There is an entry in the book on 'Lemoyne's Sword', but the story of the suicide in which the sword was used was so engrossing that it really needed to be told at length and in its own right. I first presented that story way back in 2011 in the AAH's wonderful Art History in the Pub series (inaugurated and convened by Matt Lodder).

I really hope you enjoy...

The Mysterious Suicide of François Lemoyne


On 4 June 1737, the celebrated artist François Lemoyne, first painter to king Louis XV, committed suicide by violently stabbing himself to death with his sword. This article offers a forensically inspired art-historical narrative about a crime that took place three centuries ago. Using police records, medical reports, property inventories, eyewitness accounts, and the archives of the Académie Royale, this study pieces together the intriguing tale of Lemoyne’s suicide, examining what drove him to such tragic extremes, and resolving the mystery of how he committed his bloody act. But even more fascinating than the story of Lemoyne’s death is what the evidence uncovers about the ordinary details of Lemoyne’s life, offering glimpses into private spaces, habitual routines, personal relationships, and professional ambitions. Showing how an investigation of Lemoyne’s death reveals more than we might expect about the wider art world of eighteenth-century Paris, this article re-evaluates our art-historical aversion to biography. Borrowing methods from historical writing as well as looking for a distinctly art-historical approach, this article makes a case for the potential of microbiographical and object-driven modes of life-writing in social histories of art.

Monday, 19 January 2015

The Man Who Made the Weirdest Painting in 18th-Century France


I had a wonderful time this weekend at the 10th Anniversary Conference of immediations, the postgraduate research journal of the Courtauld Institute of Art. The concept behind the event was to invite back people who had written articles for the journal over the last decade and to hear about how their research has developed since the time of writing (a description of the event is on the Courtauld website where you can also download the programme). It was fascinating to see what everyone has been working on, to think about how our own ideas have changed, and how the discipline has shifted in such a relatively short time. Along with these thought-provoking interventions, we also enjoyed some lively discussions about experiences of publishing: editing and being edited, peer-reviewing and being peer-reviewed. All in all it was a truly stimulating day, brilliantly conceived, and impeccably organised.

As it turns out, the title of my paper was even more interest-piquing than I had anticipated -- I had so many requests before and during the day to divulge the identity of "The Man Who Made the Weirdest Painting in 18th-Century France"! So, for anyone intrigued who didn't make it to the conference, here it is: the man is Charles-Antoine Coypel and the painting is his incredibly bizarre Children Playing at the Toilette from 1728. I challenge anyone to come up with a weirder offering than semi-naked children play-acting at the eroticizing aristocratic ritual of the daily toilette!

There's a little more information in the abstract to my paper below... but if you're really intrigued, you'll have to get yourself a backcopy of immediations.

Charles-Antoine Coypel, Self-Portrait, 1734 (Getty, Los Angeles)
Charles-Antoine Coypel, Children Playing at the Toilette, 1728 (Private Collection)

The Man Who Made the Weirdest Painting in 18th-Century France
Hannah Williams

In 1728, Charles-Antoine Coypel painted a truly bizarre and slightly disturbing image of Children Playing at the Toilette, where partially clothed (that is, semi-naked) children masquerade as adults engaged in this undeniably eroticizing practice of performative dressing and adornment. The article I wrote for immediations in 2007 looked for the meaning behind this perplexing painting in discourses of libertinage, tracing the work’s audiences and asking how, when viewed through different eyes, meanings could change or be re-interpreted. Turning now from reception to production, this current paper examines not viewer response to the painting, but rather the man behind it: Charles-Antoine Coypel. Drawing on research I have undertaken since on the history of the French Royal Academy and life in the artistic communities of eighteenth-century Paris, this is a study of an artist rather than an art work, but one in which art works (especially self-portraits) provide the primary sources for the inquiry. Delving into a backstory of family dramas, institutional machinations, and professional self-doubt, this paper offers an intimate encounter with the man who made the weirdest painting in 18th-century France.