Hannah Williams, Art History in the Pub

Posted in lectures (to attend) by Editor on September 19, 2011

The Association of Art Historians (the British equivalent of CAA), has launched a series of free events intended for a general audience and held in a pub. The next talk, at The Monarch, is to be given by Hannah Williams on September 26th. -CH.

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Hannah Williams, The Violent Suicide of François Lemoyne: An 18th-Century Art History Mystery
The Monarch Pub, London, 26 September 2011

18th-Century French Sword (Photo Source: V&A Collections)

As part of the AAH’s commitment to bringing the best in cutting-edge art-historical research to a wider community, we are pleased to be able to announce a hopefully-regular Art History in the Pub series of talks, lectures and events. Our talks present a selection of the wide variety of topics, periods, methods and approaches common in art historical study, and are aimed at a generalist audience.

Paris, 4 June 1737: the celebrated artist François Lemoyne commits suicide. It started as an ordinary day. Lemoyne had been to his studio to give a lesson to his students and taken a meal with his cousin. But then events took a macabre turn. Lemoyne retired to his bedroom, carefully locked the door, took up his sword, and proceeded to inflict upon his body multiple fatal stab wounds, before dropping to the floor and dying in a pool of blood.

Lemoyne’s death shocked and horrified his family and colleagues, and it has since presented something of a mystery for art historians. Why should this incredibly successful artist – first painter to Louis XV – have wanted to kill himself only months after completing what is now considered his magnum opus: the ceiling of the Apotheosis of Hercules at the Château de Versailles? Was it over money? Professional jealousy? A madness induced by lack of recognition? Could it have been murder? Or if it really was suicide, then how did Lemoyne complete his gruesome task?

With most of the clues now lost deep in the past, some art-historical sleuthing is necessary in order to retrieve the traces. In this paper, I attempt to solve these perplexing mysteries through a forensic and art-historical analysis of the object responsible: Lemoyne’s sword. Using police reports, autopsies, and witness statements, I piece together the final hours of Lemoyne’s life and offer a material reconstruction of the now lost fatal weapon, exploring what Lemoyne’s sword looked like, what he did with it, and what it meant to him. Drawn from a larger study investigating what artists’ personal possessions reveal about their everyday lives, this case explores the limits and possibilities of object-biography, and presents an exercise in recovering the material history of an object when that object no longer materially exists.

Can art history solve the crime? Come along and find out!

Hannah Williams is a Junior Research Fellow in Art History at St John’s College, Oxford. A specialist in 17th- and 18th-century French art, Hannah completed her PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art in 2010 and previously held a doctoral fellowship at the Centre Allemand d’Histoire de l’Art in Paris. She is currently writing a book on artists’ portraits and self-portraits entitled Face-to-Face with the Académie Royale: An Ethnography in Portraiture, which combines art-historical and anthropological approaches to investigate the culture of an early modern community of artists. Hannah is also researching a post-doctoral project – Painters and Parish Life – which traces the local social networks of artists in 18th-century Paris through a study of parish churches and religious art. With Katie Scott, she is writing a book on Artists’ Things, which offers an alternative guide to the material culture of 18th-century French artists through close studies of their personal possessions.

More information about the Art History in the Pub series is available here»

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