Newly installed in the White House in Washington DC is a group portrait depicting several of the Republican presidents of the USA in conversation with each other. According to the Guardian, a copy of the painting ‘The Republican Club’ by Andy Thomas is now hanging outside the Oval Office. (The Washington Post has the story of how the painting came to President Trump’s attention).
The use of portraiture to assert connections between individuals across time and space, and to say something about the relationships between them, has a long history in both fine art and more popular image-making. While the USA has its Mount Rushmore, a memorial on a huge scale to four past presidents, art history offers many further examples. Anachronism is often a feature of such pictures, given that their role is often to assert the continuity of the present with the past, and the flow of power from past to present.
Previously on our blog we’ve documented anachronistic group images, including the mediaeval favourites the Nine Heroes, and Raphael’s School of Athens. Of particular note is the fashion for anachronistic portrait groups in Tudor England; Lucas de Heere’s group of Tudor royals depicts Henry VIII with his children Edward VI, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I as each was at the peak of their own power as a reigning monarch. It was probably painted in 1572 when of the three only Elizabeth survived: as reigning queen, she is accompanied in the portrait by mythological figures of Peace and Plenty, but in depicting the two siblings who preceded her to their father’s throne she reminds her subjects of her legitimate connection and claim to the throne. It was sent as a gift to her trusted minister Francis Walsingham.
A later monarch, William III of Orange, decorated a staircase at Hampton Court with images of himself defeating twelve Caesars, representing his Catholic opponents in mainland Europe; the anachronistic parallel adds to the grandeur of the scene, magnificently painted by Antonio Verrio (1636-1707), a specialist in such images.
Another form of group portrait is the conversation piece, popular in the eighteenth century as a way of depicting friends, especially those connected by shared political and intellectual interests and pursuits. William Hogarth’s Hervey Conversation Piece, painted 1738-40, shows a group of friends surrounding John Hervey, Lord Ickworth; the painting still hangs in his ancestral home in Suffolk. Such portraits united groups of friends who might in life rarely meet, connecting them in time and space.
Anachronistic assemblies also feature in more popular artistic contexts. Pop artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth produced the cover art for the Beatles’ album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967); their work presents a montage of historical and contemporary personalities, including images of the band members in earlier years.
Anachronistic groups were also created in the ancient world. Group depictions of philosophers might assemble figures who were not contemporaries, or suggest that contemporary thinkers were linked to the Seven Sages of the past. Polybius reports that Roman families kept masks as portraits of family members, which were brought out for funeral processions, providing both a link to the past and a reminder of the power and influence wielded by leading families:
After the burial and all the usual ceremonies have been performed, they place the likeness of the deceased in the most conspicuous spot in his house, surmounted by a wooden canopy or shrine. This likeness consists of a mask made to represent the deceased with extraordinary fidelity both in shape and colour. These likenesses they display at public sacrifices adorned with much care. And when any illustrious member of the family dies, they carry these masks to the funeral, putting them on men whom they thought as like the originals as possible in height and other personal peculiarities. And these substitutes assume clothes according to the rank of the person represented: if he was a consul or praetor, a toga with purple stripes; if a censor, whole purple if he had also celebrated a triumph or performed any exploit of that kind, a toga embroidered with gold. These representatives also ride themselves in chariots, while the fasces and axes, and all the other customary insignia of the particular offices, lead the way, according to the dignity of the rank in the state enjoyed by the deceased in his lifetime; and on arriving at the Rostra they all take their seats on ivory chairs in their order. There could not easily be a more inspiring spectacle than this for a young man of noble ambitions and virtuous aspirations. (Polybius 6.53, translation Shuckburgh).
Other works by Andy Thomas show similar anachronistic groups of US presidents engaged in social activities such as playing poker and pool, perhaps paying tribute to the less serious side of the conversation piece tradition. In contrast, when the living former presidents of the USA are photographed together, it is often to send a serious message to their fellow citizens or to solicit their help for disaster relief or similar serious causes.
If only humans followed the simple life-styles and particularly the diet of their primitive ancestors, they would lead healthier lives. This is the claim of contemporary proponents of the ‘Paleo Diet’, whose adherents restrict themselves to the foods they believe were available to early human hunter-gatherers living in the distant past. They argue that humans who eat fruit and nuts gathered from plants as well as hunted meat are living more natural human lives than those who are over-nourished by modern foodstuffs produced using intensive agriculture. Yet their claims echo both ideas about eating in the distant primitive past held by the philosophers and poets of classical antiquity, and their practices echo the use by some groups of philosophers of exclusion and special diets as a means of fostering cohesion among their followers and establishing the identities of their sects.
The ‘mythologies’ of the modern ‘paleo diet’ have been criticised by evolutionary scientists, such as biologist Marlene Zuk in her Paleofantasy: what evolution really tells us. Zuk, borrowing the term ‘paleofantasy’ from anthropologist Leslie Aiello, points out that privileging one point in the evolution of both humans and the things they eat makes little sense, and rests her argument, as with much criticism of this diet, on the science of evolution. Both humans and food-stuffs have evolved so significantly since the Stone Age that recreating the paleo-diet, outside the context of the subsistence life-style of indigenous peoples, is impossible, and research on the diet of indigenous peoples in the present day shows both a variety of food choices based on the local ecosystem, and also elements of agriculture and trading that add further choices.
However, the idea that the life-style of a primitive past ‘golden age’ resulted in a quality of human flourishing rendered unavailable by the decadence of the present itself has a long history within ancient thought, appearing from the earliest epics onward. Ancient accounts of the origins and early history of humans, such as Hesiod’s stories of early ‘golden’ humans living in harmony with the gods (Works and Days 109-20), and of the advent of animal sacrifice (Theogony 535-557), explore the food eaten in the distant past, often contrasting it with the present and drawing stern conclusions about the decadent life of the present. Visions of a simple life in which humans subsisted on gathered food are presented in many texts: Hesiod’s account presents an intermediate version in which the golden people enjoy both the spontaneous produce of the earth and of their flocks:
They had all good things; the grain-giving field bore crops of its own accord, much and unstinting, and they themselves, willing, mild-mannered, shared out the fruits of their labours together with many good things, wealthy in sheep, dear to the blessed gods. (Hesiod Works and Days 116-120, translation Glenn Most)
Where the ancient and modern imaginings of the paleo diet differ is in the proportion of meat that features; given that red meat was an infrequent element of the ancient Greek diet, there is no cultural pressure to imagine it being present in greater quantity in the imagined diet of the golden age. In some versions, the golden age diet is a vegetarian one, with the emphasis on gathering plentiful produce that has been produced without cultivation:
The teeming Earth, yet guiltless of the plough,
And unprovok’d, did fruitful stores allow:
Content with food, which Nature freely bred,
On wildings and on strawberries they fed;
Cornels and bramble-berries gave the rest,
And falling acorns furnish’d out a feast.
(Ovid Metamorphoses 1.106-111, in John Dryden’s translation)
The idea of a diet that predates agriculture and is based on nuts and fruits gathered without effort is central to ancient primitivism. Accounts of the Golden Age (sometimes identified as the ‘Age of Cronus/Kronos’ often linger on the food that it provided in abundance, as well as the simplicity and gentleness of life then, a tradition that Arthur Lovejoy and George Boas described, in their Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, as ‘soft primitivism’:
A god tended them, taking charge of them himself, just as now human beings, themselves a kind of living creature, but different and more divine, pasture other kinds of living creatures more lowly than themselves; and given that he was their shepherd, they had no political constitutions, nor acquired wives or children, for all of them came back to life from the earth, remembering nothing of the past; but while they lacked things of this sort, they had an abundance of fruits from trees and many other plants, not growing through cultivation but because the earth sent them up of its own accord. For the most part they would feed outdoors, naked and without bedding; for the blend of the seasons was without painful extremes, and they had soft beds from the abundant grass that sprung from the earth. What I describe then, Socrates, is the life of those who lived in the time of Kronos; as for this one, which they say is the time of Zeus, the present one, you are familiar with it from personal experience. (Plato Statesman 271e-272b, translation adapted from Rowe)
Indeed, for some philosophers the absence of meat from the diet was evidence of the harmonious life of the golden age. Such views were associated with the Pythagoreans, and (reported by sources including Ovid in Metamorphoses 15.75-98) and also with the Sicilian philosopher Empedocles:
And the altar did not reek of the unmixed blood of bulls, but this was the greatest abomination among men, to snatch out the life and eat the goodly limbs (Empedocles Fragment 128)
Health-based claims about the golden-age diet were made by some ancient writers. In some of these texts we can see the transition that Lovejoy and Boas discerned between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ primitivism, in which the golden age is rationalised as a time of peacefulness but nonetheless one in which life was simple and austere. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates’ vision of an early diet offers a healthy life based on simple grains as well as gathered fruits and nuts, but no luxury, even after his interlocutor Glaucon queries its plainness:
I was forgetting that they’ll obviously need salt, olives, cheese, boiled roots and vegetables of the sort they cook in the country… they’ll roast myrtle and acorns before the fire, drinking moderately. And so they’ll live in peace and good health… (Plato Republic 2.372b-d, translated Grube)
Glaucon, identified by Lovejoy and Boas as an ‘anti-primitivist’, swiftly complains that this diet is that of a ‘city for pigs’, in which human life is reduced to the animalistic satisfaction of appetites, and insists that Socrates revises his model to reflect ‘the cooked food and delicacies that people have now’. Socrates concedes some luxury and complexity, but suggests that it will be at the cost of the city’s health, ultimately leading it to war. The idea that luxury and its pursuit caused war between cities and unrest within them would go on to be a staple of Roman thought.
Other philosophers in a range of subsequent Socratic traditions thought that simplicity or austerity was desirable in itself. We learn about one, through a report by Porphyry, a third-century CE neo-Platonist philosopher, written by Dicaearchus, a fourth-century BCE philosopher associated with Aristotle’s Peripatetics. Porphyry, originally from Tyre but working in Italy, used these ideas in his vegetarian tract On Abstinence from Eating Animals:
Dicaearchus tells us of what sort the life of the Age of Cronus was: if it is to be taken as having really existed and not as an idle tale, when the too mythical parts of the story are eliminated it may by the use of reason be reduced to a natural sense. For all things then presumably grew spontaneously, since the men of that time themselves produced nothing, having invented neither agriculture nor any art. If was for this reason that they lived a life of leisure, without care or toil, and also – if the doctrine of the most eminent medical men is to be accepted – without disease… For they did not eat food too strong for their constitutions, but such food as their constitutions could absorb, nor did they exceed the limits of moderation, in consequence of having so much available; on the contrary, by reason of scarcity they often ate less than they needed. (Porphyry De Abstinentia 4.1.2, translated Lovejoy/Boas)
Visions of the ancient diet that identified its persistence among peoples the Greeks labelled barbarian sometimes emphasised hunting and the eating of meat. The Scythians, in Virgil’s account, hunt and eat deer (Georgics 3.367-75), although other authors present them as shepherds dependent on dairy produce.
Just like some versions of the modern paleo diet, some ancient attempts to return to an ancient diet emphasised the eating of meat. One early paleo diet text, Walter Voegtlin’s 1975 The Stone-Age Diet, exhorts readers:
Think for a moment of the Old Stone Age people, who, when hungry, slew a cave bear or a woolly rhinoceros, gorged on a half-dozen pounds of meat and fat and, only when hungry, returned to the hunt. Then 10,000 years ago, the New Stone Age folk added to the menu – when meat and fat was in short supply – a handful of wild wheat or barley which had been well-pounded between stones and baked on a hot rock. (The Stone-Age Diet, Walter L. Voegtlin, 1975)
This meat-based feasting can be seen in another episode in Odysseus’ self-reported story, in which Odysseus tells how he demonstrated his hunting skills and killed a deer which his companions then cooked and ate, escaping the threat of starvation (Od. 10.156-184). The Roman writer on agriculture Columella identifies hunted meat as a key part of the early Roman diet, supplemented by abundant produce (Columella On Agriculture l0.pr. 1; see Purcell 2003). Throughout antiquity, hunting remained a key site for the performance of elite masculinity.
The advent of meat in the human diet is explained in various ways in ancient accounts of human development, but is often explained as a move away from cannibalism. From Homer and Hesiod onward, rituals of sacrifice and cooking give the eating of meat a special status but also establish a range of practices to manage it. Another way in which philosophers could offer a simpler model of life was to reject these usual social practices associated with eating, as Diogenes the Cynic, the somewhat mythicised founder of Cynicism, was said to have done; Diogenes Laertius (writing several hundred years after the dates his namesake Cynic philosopher is thought to have lived) reports that as well as abandoning the use of plates and cups, Diogenes the Cynic tried to subsist on raw meat as a minimal simple diet that suited dogs, only to find that it made him ill (Diogenes Laertius 6.34). ‘Returning’ to a simple diet became a form of social critique.
The Cynic rejection of prepared food was explored and satirised by adherents to other philosophical sects. Those attempting such alternative practices were liable to face criticism either for the practices themselves or for half-hearted adherence to them. The Roman emperor Julian (writing much later, in the fourth century CE) criticises the Cynics of his day for lack of commitment to Diogenes’ ascetism: unlike Diogenes who tried eating raw meat, they add salt and other flavouring to their meat:
It is not really the eating of raw food that disgusts you, either in the case of bloodless animals or those that have blood. But perhaps there is this difference between you and Diogenes, that he thought that he ought to eat such food raw and in its natural state, whereas you think you must first prepare it with salt and many other things for the sake of pleasure, whereby you do violence to nature… (Julian Oration 6.191-193, translated Lovejoy/Boas)
Just as modern adherents to the paleo diet eat foods that are far removed from their natural state, the Cynics criticised by Julian aimed to emulate a simple life but were unable to eliminate all the trappings of the modern complex life, and luxuries such as seasoning.
The ancient simple diet was a theme to which philosophers and poets often returned, but more as a critique of the luxury of present-day diets than as the presentation of an achievable lifestyle goal. Perhaps it is only the conditions of modernity that enable the nostalgic desire for the human past to become a lifestyle choice for a limited few.
Bitar, A.R. (2018) Diet and the Disease of Civilization (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press)
Lovejoy, A.O. and Boas, G. (1997) , Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press).
Purcell, N. (2003) ‘The Way We Used to Eat: Diet, Community, and History at Rome’, American Journal of Philology, Vol. 124, No. 3, pp. 329-358.
Voegtlin, W. (1975) The Stone Age Diet (New York: Vantage)
Zuk, M. (2013) Paleofantasy: what evolution really tells us about sex, diet, and how we live (New York: Norton).
Artistic depictions of historical events involve a certain amount of temporal flattening. In some cases, visual artists can select a critical moment in the unfolding of an event, in which a specific snapshot of that moment can stand in for the whole, just as a playwright or poet might select the most critical and decisive period to stage or describe. Important moments could also be selected for their exemplary value, with battle itself becoming a metaphor for broader patterns of change. A recent visit to Munich for a workshop on ancient and modern political thought, hosted by gave me the opportunity to visit the city’s Alte Pinakothek, where the impressive collection of early modern art includes a painting that has become emblematic of anachronism, Altdorfer’s Alexanderschlacht. But this turned out not to be the only work of art on display in Munich’s museum quarter to tackle the display of battle at epic scale, or to have been given a significant role in the construction of the history of art.
Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538) painted the Alexanderschlacht in 1529, one of a series of paintings of battles commissioned by William IV of Bavaria. His depiction of the encounter between Darius and Alexander at the Battle of Issus, the decisive victory of the Macedonians over the Persians in 333 BC, has become the archetype of the anachronistic depiction of past events, partly for its compression of time in the depiction of battle. Several of its temporal devices have been identified as anachronisms in themselves, with the historiographer Reinhart Koselleck arguing that the depiction of the ancient forces in modern dress exemplifies a lack of understanding of the difference between past and present. The banners held by each side to note their casualty numbers suggest the complex temporality of the work; at the moment depicted there are already many warriors lying dead on the ground, but the battle continues and the dead have not yet been counted. The banners anticipate the end of the battle which is still taking place. The dramatic sky marks the battle as a cosmically significant encounter.
In our research into anachronism and antiquity, we’ve come to see Altdorfer’s work as a more complex and sophisticated engagement with the past than Koselleck’s interpretation suggests. Along with the other paintings of the Bavarian Historienzyklus, it shows a decisive moment in the history of an empire, with lessons for its viewers in the present facing the cultural and political challenges of their own times.
But Altdorfer is not the only example of complex temporality in the artistic depiction of battle. While his masterpiece represents one way in which single pictures could tell stories that contribute to a larger narrative, other depictions of historic or mythical battles, ancient and modern, can be seen nearby in Munich. The Munich Glyptothek contains sculptures from the pediments of the temple of Athena from Aegina, discovered in 1811 and acquired in 1812. The display of these sculptures was central to the design and construction of the Glypothek building, intended to showcase a developmental story of classical art. The philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) wrote that the arrival of the Aeginetan sculptures expanded the knowledge of Greek art (as the even more controversially removed Parthenon sculptures had done in Britain); the expansion of knowledge, to him, justified the removal of these works from their context.
The west pediment shows a battle between Greek and Trojan heroes with the goddess Athena at the centre; fragmentary imagery on his shield suggests that the Greek hero is Ajax, associated with Aegina and an appropriate figure for this temple; on the east pediment, Heracles battles the Trojans. The original reconstruction of the west pediment had the opposing groups aiming at each other within the pediment, across the figure of Athena who appeared between them, as if the sculptural group represented a single episode in a battle. In a revised version, on display since the museum’s reopening after it was itself severely damaged in World War II, some of the figures aim outwards, confounding attempts to read the pediment as a single scene, and involving the onlooker in its action. The surviving parts of the sculpture appear in their fragmentary form, rather than as a complete work. (A painted cast of one of the more complete figures, Paris as an archer, suggests what the impact of the original polychrome presentation might have been, and some attachments such as Athena’s staff have been added.)
The sculptures themselves mark a significant moment in the development of classical Greek art, with the two pediments standing each side of a major stylistic shift. Those of the west pediment, dated to 500-490 BCE, mark the end of the severe archaic style, while those of the east pediment, from a few years later, have the distinctive features of the new classical style. Looking at these figures with their static expressions might evoke an anachronistic response in modern onlookers, unused to the conventions of representation in archaic art. The figure of the wounded soldier from the west pediment is particularly ‘strange’, as the museum’s catalogue notes, with his carefully posed body and apparent smile, typical of archaic sculpture. The warrior is pulling an arrow from his chest, an injury likely to be fatal, but his expression does not hint at the trauma of his immediate situation, while his hair remains unruffled. Hegel appears to have had a similar response to the Aiginetans. His lectures on aesthetics pronounced that ‘in the Aeginetan sculptures facial expressions and the posture are precisely what is relatively spiritless’ (Hegel 1975: 786), and that the faces are not a ‘true representation of nature’.
Nearby, the Museum Brandhorst houses another depiction of an epochal conflict, in the Lepanto cycle by Cy Twombly (1928-2011). Like the Aiginetan pediments, the desire to display this large work as a comprehensible whole influenced the design of a new museum building; the Lepanto canvases are displayed in a large oval gallery built for them. The cycle was commissioned for the 2001 Venice Biennale, which marked the chronological turning point between the millennia with a curated exhibition ‘The Plateau of Humankind’; the depiction of a Venetian naval encounter nods to the exhibition’s location. But the following year they made a first visit to Munich, where they were exhibited at the Alte Pinakothek.
Like Altdorfer’s paintings and the Aegina pediment, Twombly’s Lepanto paintings depict a conflict that has gained in cultural significance over time, in this case the 7 October 1571 battle between the Holy League forces of the Venetian and Spanish empires, and the Ottoman empire, fought near Nafpaktos (Lepanto was its Venetian name) in the Gulf of Corinth. Twombly created a series of canvases that suggest the opposition of conflicting forces and the progression of their encounter, rather than a single image. But as the texts for the current display note, Twombly depicts a ‘supratemporal conflict’ in which he does not take sides.
Twombly’s twelve canvases feature two distinctive colour schemes and orientations. Paintings I, IV, VIII and XII show a bird’s eye view of the battle, while the others offer a more conventional view, with intensifying colour suggesting a narrative of intensifying action, the turquoises of the sea contrasting with the reds and oranges of the burning boats.
Thematically, the battle of Lepanto was a significant turning point in the history of naval warfare, one of the last major conflicts to be fought between galleys powered by oar rather than sailing ships. Twombly emphasises the role of oars in the minimalist outlines of his boats; boats and barges with oars are a recurrent symbol in his later work, sometimes recalling Greek myth in suggesting the transition between life and death. Just as the casualty figures for the Battle of Issus were not known while it was being fought, neither the historical significance of this battle as a technological turning point nor its significance in the conflict between the Holy League and the Ottoman Empire were apparent while it was being fought. Unlike the two earlier more explicitly figurative depictions of war, Twombly’s cycle need not be read historically, but purely aesthetically, as the contrast of colour and the variation of intensity.
Whatever the historical forces that led to these three depictions of battle all being displayed in the Museumsviertel of Munich, they offer the contemporary visitor the opportunity to survey the use of the past across different genres of art and from different societies, and to contemplate the stories that historians have used them to tell.
Hegel, G.W.F. (1975)  Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
Koselleck, R. (1985) , Futures Past: on the semantics of historical time, trans. K. Tribe (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
Prettejohn, E. (2012) The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture: Greek sculpture and modern art from Winckelmann to Picasso (London: I. B. Tauris).
Wünsche, R. (2007) , Glyptothek, Munich: masterpieces of Greek and Roman sculpture, trans. R. Batstone (Munich: C.H. Beck).
The fall of old empires and the rise of new ones became a topic of pressing cultural interest as the impact of political revolutions in late eighteenth-century Europe and the Americas became clear. The topic was of central importance to European historians exploring not only the economic and social development of their own countries, but using the encounters of European colonialists in the Americas with indigenous peoples and cultures to establish developmental or ‘stadial’ theories of history. These ideas take visual and material form in Thomas Cole’s ‘Course of Empire’, a cycle of paintings produced in New York between 1833-36, and the centerpiece of an exhibition, ‘Thomas Cole: Atlantic Crossings’, currently on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and transferring to London’s National Gallery in June.
Cole (1801-48) emerges from this show as an important figure in the transmission of European artistic developments to an emerging American artistic tradition, finding full form in the works of the Hudson Valley School. Cole, who was born in Lancashire but emigrated to the USA with his family in 1818, returned to Europe for training and to visit the classical sites of Italy, and transmitted his European contemporaries’ awareness of their classical heritage to landscape artists working in the USA.
However, Cole’s work also materialises the response of European thinkers to the temporal possibilities of the new world of the Americas, and the apparent encounter with the past that its landscapes and indigenous peoples offered. A 1728 poem by Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753), ‘Verses On the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America’, captured both the hopes of economic migrants to America, like Cole’s family, as well as a view of historical progress. The title of Cole’s series may refer to the poem’s final stanza, in which Berkeley envisions the rise of a new empire based in America, or perhaps to one of many citations of its compelling phrases:
Westward the course of empire takes its way; The first four acts already past, A fifth shall close the drama with the day; Time’s noblest offspring is the last.
Cole’s empire, however, takes a very different course from that of Berkeley, ending in ‘Desolation’ rather than nobility; the most optimistic reading of the sequence would be to read them as a cyclical rather than linear account of human society, at odds with new developments in historiography but reflecting artistic and cultural interest in stories of decline and destruction, from versions such as Gibbon’s account of the fall of Rome to John Martin’s scenes of biblical destruction and Turner’s scenes of classical decline; both of these artists clearly influenced Cole’s compositions and choice of subjects. Where the economic historians were interested in progress up to the present, and the growing role of international trade and commerce, the classical heritage of fallen empires was still of interest to artists combining new romantic sensibilities with increased awareness of ancient art through its ruined remains as, for example, the Parthenon marbles were displayed in London.
Cole proposed his planned series of pictures to New York businessman Luman Reed, describing his plan to illustrate the cycle of historical change through its impact on a particular landscape:
A series of pictures might be painted that should illustrate the History of a natural scene, as well as be an Epitome of Man—showing the natural changes of Landscape & those effected by man in his progress from Barbarism to Civilization, to Luxury, the Vicious state or state of destruction and to the state of Ruin & Desolation.
Cole’s notion of historical change draws in part on theories of social development proposed by eighteenth-century writers and historians, attempting on the one hand to construct models of human development, and on the other acknowledging the likelihood of decline. These conjectural models drew on empirical evidence, treating North America and its landscape and indigenous people as one source for understanding the early stages of human social development. Historians aimed to create an empirical form of historiography that showed the impact of material factors and of landscape on historical change. David Hume’s ‘On Commerce’ outlined a developmental model of human society, while Adam Smith in his Lectures on Jurisprudence saw hunting, shepherding and then agriculture as the three stages of historical development that preceded commerce, the final stage. The London version of the exhibition is subtitled ‘From Eden to Empire’, making Cole’s debt to stadial theory more clear, but as the full cycle of the ‘Course of Empire’ shows, Cole’s view of human development was more pessimistic than that of the stadial theorists.
The first two paintings in the Course of Empire series follow the developmental pattern of Scottish stadial theory. ‘The Savage State’ hints at both the development of society, with its grouping of tiny huts or tents in the background, and at the potential for war, with the hunting scene in the foreground; Tim Rood sees an allusion to ‘the tepee-shaped huts of American Indians’ in this setting (Rood 2010: 142). In New York the pictures are displayed as Cole intended, with these first two scenes to the left of the central image of empire at its height.
‘The Arcadian State’ shows a pastoral scene, with evidence of a developing society that is both classical and, with its central monument resembling Stonehenge, a nod to ancient Britain. In this stage of development, humans engage in a range of peaceful activities, including art, farming and herding. The temple and the boats hint at communal activity, with smoke rising from the temple as rites are celebrated.
Cole’s depiction of the height of empire, ‘The Consummation of Empire’, the central picture of the series and the largest of the five canvases, illustrates a clearly classical world. This enables him to evoke both grandeur, in the classical structures that now obscure the landscape, and the potential for decadence, in the figure of the returning victor crossing the bridge mounted on an elephant, and perhaps in the painting’s opulent palette, with its gold and pink tones. While Turner’s imagined Carthage is an inspiration, the British neo-classical architecture of Soane and Nash, which Cole would have seen on his return visits to Europe, may provide another example of the neo-classical rising empire, as the exhibition’s curators suggest.
But while the historians saw a linear progress from hunting through pastoral society and agriculture to commerce, the artistic tradition saw the potential for decline and destruction, drawing on imagery from the classical past and its traditions of empires rising and falling. There is a journey beyond these stages between Eden and Empire. Cole departs from the stadial, developmental model for his final two pictures, in which the idea of the state recedes.
The final two pictures, ‘Destruction’ and ‘Desolation’ show first destruction, with war destroying the buildings of the consummate city; the turbulent sky nods to that of Turner’s ‘Hannibal Crossing the Alps’, with its implied critique of Napoleonic expansionism. ‘Desolation’ marks the absence of human life from the cycle; herons nest on the top of a collapsed column, as the ruined city reveals the landscape that underlay it. Is ‘Desolation’ a return to Eden, or does the absence of human life mark a final stage in a linear sequence?
While the Course of Empire shows a sequence of change across its five images, Cole’s most famous work, ‘View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm – the Oxbow’, painted in 1836, demonstrates a multiple temporality within a single canvas. Again, this reflects responses to the situation of European colonisation of the Americas, in which settlers’ farms abutted wilderness. In this painting, the wild hill of the foreground provides a vantage point from which the farmed lowland of the river valley is viewed. Wilderness and domestication exemplify the ‘contemporaneity of the non-contemporaneous’. America represented both the past, in the perspective of the European settlers on the indigenous societies that they found, and the future, as home of the next empire; it is in these landscape paintings, rather than the ‘Course of Empire’ itself, that Cole confirms Berkeley’s vision of the future possibilities of America.
M. Kornhauser and T. Barringer (2018) Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings. Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, New York.
Foshay, E. M. (1990) Luman Reed’s Picture Gallery: A Pioneer Collection of American Art. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. in association with the New-York Historical Society, New York.
Rood, T. (2010) American Anabasis : Xenophon and the idea of America from the Mexican War to Iraq, Duckworth, London.
A group of women look down to the sea from a stone parapet. The vivid blue of the sea and the clear bright light suggest a warm location – perhaps the Amalfi Coast, rather than the promenade in an English or Dutch sea-side resort. Their costume, and perhaps the ship glimpsed arriving below, suggest the world of ancient Rome, as does the marble parapet on which they lean; but beyond the antiquity suggested by the statuary and their costumes, this elegant group could be anywhere in time or space. This scene, Coign of Vantage (1895) is one version of a recurring image in the work of Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), seen in several other pictures also displayed in the current exhibition at London’s Leighton House Museum, ‘Alma-Tadema: at home in antiquity’; elegantly dressed figures arranged on stone seating, with the sea in the distance. This recurrent image might be linked to a significant turning point in Alma-Tadema’s life, his 1863 honeymoon, which took him and his first wife Pauline through Naples, Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast, and appears to have changed the course of his career.
In 1863 Alma-Tadema was emerging as a talented history painter with a taste in scenes from the early mediaeval period, often depicting the encounters of powerful royal women with writers or churchmen (for example in Queen Fredegonda at the Death-Bed of Bishop Praetextatus, 1864). But his experience of Pompeii and the ruins and landscapes of the Italian coast redirected him towards classical antiquity, and it was his incorporation of classical scenes and domestic life into the genre of history painting that became the hallmark of his work. Monuments from Pompeii can clearly be seen in his work: An Exedra (1871) incorporates seating and a tholos from Pompeii’s Via dei Sepolcri, repositioned to permit a distant glimpse of the sea. This exedra, or a version of it, recurs in many paintings in the show, often with an inscription carved into it. Other scenes use adaptations of it, such as the seats marked with names as if they were cathedral choir stalls in 1881’s Sappho and Alcaeus, sadly not in this show, or 1903’s Silver Favourites, in which the exedra is part of a sea-side parapet, and surrounds a pond containing the fish of the title, being fed by one of the exquisitely dressed women as her companions look on languidly (baths and fountains are another Alma-Tadema visual trope).
History painting had become a significant genre in nineteenth-century art. Perhaps in step with developments in historiography and the rise of ‘scientific history’, artists sought to represent scenes from history and literature through accurate depiction of the appropriate material culture. This involved both reproduction and recreation. Alma-Tadema’s constructed cityscapes and interiors evoke the earlier genre of the capriccio, in which disparate buildings and works of art are included in the same scene, enabling the knowing viewer to recognise the artists’ distortion. Some of his work comments on the process of gathering evidence – he paints collectors and art lovers amid their treasures, as in his A Roman Lover of Art (1868). The technical proficiency in handling materials, detail and perspective which Alma-Tadema deploys on architectural detail, sculpture, and mosaic is reminiscent of the earlier Dutch tradition of depicting house and church interiors. Indeed, many of his classical scenes are domestic interiors evoking mood rather than a historical event, showing women making offerings, playing with pets, or admiring flowers, rather than illustrative history paintings such as Hadrian Visiting a Romano-British Pottery (1884). A Hearty Welcome (1878), for example, shows a woman greeting a girl in a garden; the models are Alma-Tadema’s second wife Laura Theresa, and his daughter Anna. Alma-Tadema’s focus on domesticity means that his commitment to historical accuracy may be better realised in the individual material objects, than it is in the family groups he so often depicts. In moving the emphasis of the genre painting from the historical recreation of famous scenes and episodes to the more timeless world of the everyday interior, he anticipates the interests of social historians.
There may be a tension between Alma-Tadema’s depictions of domesticity and what the exhibition labels describe as the ‘contemporary fascination with decadence in the ancient world’ seen in some of his work, and that of his contemporaries. Some of Alma-Tadema’s works in the exhibition, especially his larger-scale later works, suggest the complication of the gaze, and the complicity of the paintings’ subjects in staging the scenes depicted and their awareness of events within them – the emperor watching from the dais as his guests are covered in falling petals, and the woman staring out to the viewer in The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888). The domestic Alma-Tadema on display here avoids the explicit eroticism of near contemporaries such as Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). Gérôme’s eroticised views of antiquity share the tenor of his orientalist paintings in depicting women as the object of the male gaze, most clearly in Phryne before the Areopagus (1861), in which the famous courtesan displays her exquisite body to the ancient court and to the modern viewer. Decorative panels from Alma-Tadema’s Roman-themed London home and studio, contributed by many artists, are more suggestive of Gérôme’s approach. Both Andromeda (Frank Dicksee, 1891) and A Christian Martyr (Herbert Gustave Schmalz, 1888) depict women naked and constrained, while Lord Leighton’s Bath of Psyche (1887) offers a more typical opportunity for artistic voyeurism. Alma-Tadema himself painted several bath-house scenes, such as In the Tepidarium (1881) and the late A Favourite Custom (1909), but while the languid women of Alma-Tadema’s later works offer further evidence that he participated in the eroticisation of antiquity, his domesticised version of the ancient material world offers a contrasting vision.
As one of the final displays of this exhibition demonstrates, Alma-Tadema’s vision of the Roman world has influenced many cinematic depictions of the past, and what we may recognise as a Roman setting is actually an Alma-Tadema creation. Setting his pictures alongside clips from films from The Last Days of Pompeii (1913) – itself a version of a Victorian historical novel, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton – to Gladiator (2000), the show demonstrates that Alma-Tadema’s interiors have influenced set-designers’ three-dimensional attempts to recreate Roman interiors, notably in the emphasis on domestic bathing. In his focus on the family and the household, Alma-Tadema created a distinctive vision of the ancient world, perhaps anticipating later interest from both story-tellers and historians in personal lives, and in social and cultural rather than political history.
Cy Twombly’s allusive use of the classical past in his art is a familiar theme of his work, seen in projects such as his Fifty Days at Iliam sequence, recently exhibited at the Pompidou Centre in Paris as part of a major retrospective. But how might placing his work alongside objects and images from classical antiquity illuminate this practice? One might expect such an exhibition to demonstrate the gulf between ancient and contemporary art, but as the show’s title suggests, a dialogue may be possible.
Divine Dialogues: Cy Twombly and Greek Antiquity, currently on display at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, aims to explore Twombly’s work, and to introduce it to a wider Greek audience. The small exhibition takes a careful selection of paintings and sculptures and sets them alongside ancient representations of the divine figures named in the works: Pan, Aphrodite, Apollo, Dionysus, Orpheus and Aristaeus, and Nike. The curator’s aim is to introduce Twombly’s art with its ‘minimalist multi-level symbolism’ (as the curator, Prof. Nicholaos Stampolidis, describes it) by setting it in conversation with ancient representations of the same figures and their mythology.
Some of the pairings are quite obvious matchings of subject between ancient and modern; a Hellenistic torso of Aphrodite, and a vase painting of her birth, face Twombly’s 1979 series Aphrodite Anadyomene. Twombly’s resin cast of pan pipes, scarcely distinguishable from an ancient dedication, clearly belongs to the god whose statue is displayed nearby. One can see the force of ceramicist Edmund de Waal’s description of Twombly’s sculpture as ‘more archaic than archaizing’.
Other ancient statues of gods stand near Twombly’s paintings that catalogue the divine epithets and cult names applied to them, giving the contemporary painting a religious force. In some of his works, Twombly includes representative symbols from which ancient divinities can be recognised; Nike is represented by a delta-shaped wing, in works from 1980 and 1984, while a Dionysiac phallus in Dionysus, from 1975, echoes the form of an ancient grotesque statuette displayed alongside it.
In some cases, the allusion is indirect. The 1975 work, from a show itself titled Allusions, drew on contemporary sources such as Venetian graffiti, as well as classical antecedents. Aristaeus mourning the loss of his bees references a neo-classical sculpture of the name rather than Virgil’s text, and Twombly appears to delight in the phrase as much as he illustrates its sadness. It’s hard to connect these sombre works to the black-figure vase painting of a winged figure holding tools in each hand.
The centre of the exhibition is not, however, a work by Twombly, but one by Kleitias, a Greek vase painter from the sixth century BCE. The François Vase, visiting Greece from the Museo Archeologico in Florence, is set slightly apart from Twombly’s work, and without an explicit counterpart from him.
But looking closely at the vase, with its rows of tiny, detailed mythological scenes, one sees that each figure is carefully named. From this perspective, Twombly’s practice of writing names and epithets on his canvases, to identify the figures whose myths he evokes, may become an echo of the ancient painter’s practice, a ‘semiotics’ shared across the centuries that separate them. The ancient vase, it seems, is responding to the contemporary display as a whole, and perhaps raising some questions about it. Can one appreciate or understand Twombly’s paintings, or the François vase’s mythological scenes, without reading their textual components? Or does Twombly’s ‘strange language of scribbles’, as the curators describe it, circumscribe the interpretation of his art?