Friday, June 11, 2010

BQH Conference

A few weeks ago, while I was in Florida, the executive committee in my graduate program met and, I'm pleased to say, approved my dissertation proposal: "Refashioning the Gods: John Gibson, the Roman School of Sculpture, and the Modern Classical Body." As you may remember from a previous post on this blog, Gibson was a British sculptor who moved to Rome in 1817 and established a studio there, becoming one of the most important sculptors of his day. My dissertation will address how Gibson was both a classicist and a modernist, how his appreciation of ancient Greco-Roman art merged with his understanding of modern taste, and thus made him the successful sculptor that he was in his day.

In addition to my upcoming residential fellowship at the Henry Moore Institute, and a travel award from my school, I was informed this week that I also have received another award: the Spero-Goldreich Dissertation Fellowship. The money from this award is going to pay my travel expenses to do research in London at the Royal Academy this fall. I am extremely grateful to the private sponsors of this award.

Before I leave for England, however, I'll be making a stop in Montreal first, where I will be delivering a paper at the British Queer History Conference at McGill University. I am on a panel session on 19th-century British art with my friends and colleagues Carolyn Conroy (on Simeon Solomon) and Jongwoo Jeremy Kim (on Henry Scott Tuke). Christopher Reed from Penn State is our moderator. It should be an interesting conference, with talks by Jeffrey Weeks, Matt Cook, and others. You can see the whole program here.

You may be wondering how all this relates to the picture above. That is a photograph I took in April 2006 of Chatsworth, truly one of the most magnificent estates in England, still owned by the Duke of Devonshire and his family. The 6th Duke was one of Gibson's first patrons, and my upcoming conference paper will be about how these two bachelors negotiated the aspects of queer art patronage in the early 19th century. Here is the abstract for my paper.

The Sculptor and the Duke: John Gibson, the Duke of Devonshire, and Queer Art Patronage

During the winter of 1819, the Duke of Devonshire visited the Roman studio of the British sculptor John Gibson. At the time, Gibson was working on a seven-foot model of a sculptural group of two nudes entitled Mars Restrained by Cupid. The Duke immediately commissioned the work in marble. In the sculpture, the idealized warrior god and the ephebic god of love gaze into one another’s eyes as Cupid gently restrains Mars from brandishing his sword. Alluding to the pederastic tradition of ancient Greece, as well as the sensual aesthetics of the Biblical David as sculpted by Donatello and Michelangelo, Mars Restrained by Cupid is an example of early nineteenth-century queer art from the perspective of subject, artist, and patron.

Born in Wales and raised in Liverpool, the artist John Gibson (1790-1866) eventually made his way to Rome where he studied sculpture under Antonio Canova. Thereafter, he established a lifelong career in Rome as a British expatriate sculptor. Gibson came to count among his patrons Queen Victoria herself, but his legacy to art was the reintroduction of polychromy into sculpture with works such as the Tinted Venus, which premiered at the International Exhibition of 1862. Espousing the teachings of J.J. Winckelmann and the art of ancient Greece, Gibson produced interpretations of ephebic gods in marble, such as The Sleeping Shepherd Boy (1818) and Narcissus (1829). His patron, William Spencer Cavendish, the sixth Duke of Devonshire (1790-1858), inherited his title upon the death of his father in 1811 and began renovations at Chatsworth, including the construction of a sculpture gallery. Once the Napoleonic Wars had ended, he went on his first Grand Tour to Rome, and it was during this trip that he commissioned the statue by Gibson. He subsequently commissioned or purchased work from other sculptors in Rome, almost all of which were of mythological nude males, including Endymion by Canova and Ganymede with the Eagle of Jove by Adamo Tadolini. His arrangement of these works at the entrance to his sculpture gallery inevitably created a queer space through which one had to pass in order to see other works in the collection.

In this paper, I will consider the juxtaposition of Gibson’s sculptural oeuvre with Devonshire’s choice of art objects for this gallery, a queer space in which Mars Restrained by Cupid played an important role. Certainly it is true that representations of the nude male epitomized idealized beauty in Neoclassical art, and not all such figures are inherently queer in nature. However, art historians such as Thomas Crow have noted that there were homosocial artistic circles, such as the atelier of Jacques-Louis David, and that he and some of his students did paint subjects that pointed to the ancient Greek pederastic tradition. This spirit of homosexualism, according to Whitney Davis, demonstrates that in the early nineteenth century representations of same sex passion existed before the conscious manifestation of a homosexual identity occurred later in the century. Citing published and archival biographical and commercial information, as well as theories on the collecting and display of art, I will consider the sculptor Gibson and his patron the Duke of Devonshire as a case study for the existence of queer art patronage in Britain and Rome in the early nineteenth-century.

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