Making History in Eighteenth-Century Europe
This is the first exhibition to focus on view paintings as depictions of contemporary events. These reportorial works visually record occasions ranging from royal celebrations to state visits, religious ceremonies, sporting contests, and natural disasters. Their dates correspond to the golden age of European view painting from the beginning of the eighteenth century to the eve of the French Revolution. Through immersive compositions and a wealth of acutely observed detail, artists skillfully created the illusion that the viewer is present on the scene as history is made.
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Memory & Manipulation
Members of the highest echelons of European society, from kings and popes to doges and ambassadors, commissioned view painters to commemorate the spectacular events staged at their command or for their benefit. In many cases, these noble patrons are themselves portrayed in the resulting canvases. While artists cultivated the impression that they were faithful chroniclers capturing an event on canvas just as they had witnessed it, they were in fact not above manipulating or “improving” upon reality in order to meet the expectations of their status-conscious clientele.
Civic & Religious Ritual
In Europe’s major cities, the populace gathered throughout the year to commemorate local historic events, celebrate religious feast days, or participate in public rituals. Whether sacred or secular in character, these occasions were always imbued with civic pride. They were also among the few times when the different social classes interacted with each other and shared a common experience. Religious processions typically involved a revered object—such as the Blessed Sacrament, a relic, or a statue—that was carried through the streets with pomp and fanfare. A city’s deliverance from devastating epidemics of bubonic plague was commemorated with recurring festivals of thanksgiving and supplication, since the threat of a resurgence remained very real in the eighteenth century.
Festival & Spectacle
In eighteenth-century Europe, Venice was the undisputed capital of pageantry and entertainment. Undaunted by its political and economic decline, the Serene Republic and its aristocracy invested vast sums in maintaining its traditional ceremonies and dazzling its visitors—for example, by commissioning a new version of the Bucintoro, the lavishly gilded state barge used only on Ascension Day. Financial considerations were also brushed aside to provide extravagant entertainments for kings or princes staying in the city. The grandest of these special events was a ceremonial regatta. In Rome, a comparable level of opulence was seen in the French embassy’s celebrations of royal births and marriages.
Disaster & Destruction
Images of tragic events satisfied a desire for paintings that stimulated the imagination. Whether they showed devastation caused by warfare, fire, natural disaster, or political turmoil, these works offered viewers the thrill of witnessing a catastrophe. They stand apart from most other reportorial paintings in that they downplay the presence of rulers and nobility in favor of depicting the lower classes. Such figures were rarely intended to be recognizable likenesses of actual people. Instead, they serve as proxies through which viewers are able to funnel their own reactions to unfolding calamity.