Greg M. Thomas
In The Art of Art History Donald Preziosi interprets the discipline of art history as a system for establishing relationships among art objects from around the world and between art objects and historical actions or intentions. 1 He further sees this Western art historical project as a way of creating and legitimizing some of the ideological apparatus of the modern nation state. Yet in delineating the major intellectual trends of early art history - aesthetics, formalism, national history, iconography - he brushes over one of the most fundamental methodologies of the art historical system: biographical history. The biographical paradigm, I believe, is not widely recognized as such for two reasons: it is so ingrained in the process of relating art objects to history that it hardly seems like a methodology at all; and since Vasari, no outstanding individuals have emerged (ironically enough) to theorize it - no Wölfflin or Panofsky to serve as a modern progenitor.
As art history developed in Europe and the United States, however, the author function, to put it in Foucault's terms, remained pivotal in the linking of art objects to ideological intention and national identity. 2 Individual artists - their lives and experiences - continued to act as the interface between the physical sensations of paint and the intentional ideas they supposedly evoke, between unique material objects and unified national cultures. I will argue, furthermore, that in France biography was really the primary art historical methodology in the nineteenth century, one supported by early art historical institutions as it established key components of modern art history. Although French scholars were caught up in the same nation-building trends as in Germany, England, and the United States, the forging of a national character and a national school tended in France to be based on establishing a pantheon of individual geniuses rather than delineating national styles or iconographies.
The effect of what I would call the biographical discourse has extended far beyond the now antiquated texts of nineteenth-century French art history. As shown below, France began producing memoirs of recently deceased artists from the 1840s on, making biography the established vehicle for ordering and