Edited by T. Lawrence Larkin. Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, February 2019. 304 p. ill. ISBN 9781944466206 (h/c), $49.95.
Reviewed July 2019
Virginia Feher, Head Librarian & Associate Professor, University of North Georgia, Oconee Campus, Virginia.Feher@ung.edu
Dedicated to the Cultural Services of the Embassy of France in the United States “in recognition of the critical work it does to strengthen ties between the Republic of France and the United States of America,” Politics and Portraits in the United States & France during the Age of Revolution (with its companion conference, held September 25–26, 2014) marked the bicentennial of the burning of Washington, DC on August 24–25, 1814. Edited by T. Lawrence Larkin, associate professor of art history at Montana State University, Bozeman, the book is a collection of essays by sixteen contributors, who come from a variety of universities and museums located in the United States and Europe.
The book’s introduction by Larkin provides historical context and discusses the purpose and structure of the book, noting that the introductions to each part are authored by portrait scholars who give “thematic introductions dedicated to separate trends in the fashioning of Revolutionary and federal or imperial identity.” The subjects of the portraits in the essays range from kings and queens to generals, politicians, and presidents, in addition to equestrian, family, and group portraits. Portraits of Napoleon Bonaparte and George Washington dominate. Interestingly, parts four and five present architecture and urban planning as a form of portraiture, with Mount Vernon, Monticello, and La Grange as reflective of their owners’ politics, and with “political portraiture … as a powerful metaphor to describe urban space.”
Politics & Portraits is organized thematically, with five parts each of which includes a two-page introduction and three essays, with the exception of part five, which includes two essays. The documentation of the book is strong, with two to three pages of endnotes following each essay, a nineteen-page bibliography, brief one-paragraph contributor biographies, and a ten-page index. The paper is high quality gloss, and the plates are mainly color, varying in size from quarter-page to full-page. Some of the plates are repeated in later chapters, which is helpful in allowing the essays to stand on their own without the need to flip back or forth to look for relevant plates. The size of these plates varies according to the importance of the image to the essay.
Politics & Portraits compiles a variety of scholarly approaches and writing styles in a mostly cohesive volume, though part five presents an abrupt shift in approach given its vast departure from traditional portraiture. Overall it is an impressive work of scholarship and is a fine addition to the study of portraits and politics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the United States and France. Highly recommended for academic and museum libraries.