David Wilkie: The People's Painter

David Wilkie: The People's Painter

David Wilkie: The People's Painter

David Wilkie: The People's Painter

Synopsis

This is the first modern book about the artist David Wilkie (1785-1841), the first British painter to become an international celebrity. Based on extensive original research, the book explores the ways in which Wilkie's images, so beloved by his contemporaries, engaged with a range of cultural predicaments close to their hearts. In a series of thematic chapters, whose concerns range far beyond the details of Wilkie's own career, Tromans shows how, through Wilkie's thrillingly original work, British society was able to reimagine its own everyday life, its history, and its multinational (Anglo-Scottish) nature. Other themes covered include Wilkie's roles in defining the border between painting and anatomy in the representation of the human body, and in transforming the pleasures of connoisseurship from an elite to a popular audience.For the first time, all of Wilkie's major subject pictures are brought together, reproduced and discussed. With a great range of new archival material and original interpretive arguments, this book replaces Wilkie at the centre of the visual culture of British Romanticism.

Excerpt

This book is about the painter David Wilkie, the most famous of all British artists during the first half of the nineteenth century. Wilkie’s spectacular success was based upon pictures of everyday life which often seem rather modest today, certainly when compared to contemporary works such as the glorious landscapes of Constable and Turner or the huge scenes of Romantic agony by the French painters Géricault and Delacroix. Yet all of these art-historical celebrities, whose own reputations have been so much more flattered by posterity, were admirers of Wilkie, as were several monarchs and many tens of thousands of more anonymous members of his audience. To recover something of the excitement they all felt is my main aim.

This is a biographical study; but, as its title suggests, it aspires to be a social history of Wilkie’s career. I want to understand how that career was made, not only through the artist’s own talents but also through what the late Hanoverian cultural economy allowed and required. Biography as a mode of art-historical investigation has been on the back foot ever since French critical theory announced the ‘death of the author’ in the late 1960s. the approach taken here is not narrative, however, and nor does it give very much emphasis to Wilkie as a personality. Instead, taking Wilkie’s first phase of celebrity in 1806–9 as an historical phenomenon from which to begin, I move through a series of thematic chapters to explore different aspects of his most famous early works, and to ask in which directions it was subsequently possible for his imagery to move. Looking at things from the point of view of modern scholarship, perhaps it might be said that Wilkie’s occlusion in modern Art History has been partly caused by rather too little biography. Perceived as someone who wanted to please his patrons, and not at all an expressionist Romantic along the lines of a Turner, Wilkie’s first celebrated paintings are often referenced as a . . .

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