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Towards a La Tour catalogue

8 November 2018

La Tour Auto SQPerhaps one of the biggest questions facing art history is the choice between paper and virtual publishing. There is so much in favour of online approaches (whether structured databases or simply posting book-like documents online) that it is perhaps surprising that the debate hasn’t been decided. But the most serious obstacle has yet to be overcome: the feeling of the book in the hand. You can put three thousand pages of data online, but three hundred pages on paper will impress some people more. I don’t need to list the multitude of advantages of the online approach (ranging from cost to the ability to search and update), but perhaps from time to time it is sensible to lay out more clearly what can already be found online – and where.

On the other hand, when I last wrote about this on my blog, I said in answer to the impermanence concern that “my Dictionary for example is available on the UK Web Archive”. Try the link: it doesn’t work any more. (You can now find the periodic snapshots at a revised UK web archive site, starting here.)

Of course there remain a surprising number of serious art historians who haven’t mastered even the basics of working online, whether it’s Ctrl+F or Ctrl++ (must I explain that “small” images in my pdfs can simply be viewed at 400% enlargement and fill the screen?). I also don’t have a complete answer to the problem that online work isn’t taken seriously: it is freely pillaged without acknowledgement, and – what is worse – is frequently ignored by other scholars who seem not to mind overlooking facts that you’ve published online when they’d be mortified to discover that these facts had appeared in print.

One artist sits at the heart of my Dictionary of pastellists and its online reincarnation, Pastels & pastellists: Maurice-Quentin de La Tour, and as the material I’ve written about him is spread over so many files within the site, let me take the opportunity to set it out as one might the table of contents of a monograph. Remember that while there have been hundreds of books about La Tour, especially on the Saint-Quentin collection, and a major exhibition in 2004, the last catalogue raisonné was published in 1928 by Georges Wildenstein (with an introduction by Albert Besnard, generously given co-author status on the title page: we all know it as B&W). And the only book published in English, by Adrian Bury, is next to useless (how can one have confidence in a monograph which reproduces a work by a different artist on the cover?).

The preface would of course have to confront the fundamental question for any catalogue raisonné of a portraitist: do you arrange the works in chronological order, or in alphabetical order of sitter? In some contexts it is assumed that only the former is a “proper” catalogue, but that is a peculiarly unhelpful approach for certain artists. (No one criticises Mannings’s Reynolds or Smart’s Ramsay for adopting an order that allows users to find the work that interests them.) With many portraitists there are enough dated examples, and a continuous evolution of technique that allows one to place the undated items in chronological order with a reasonable consensus among other experts (although one ends up with a vast number of œuvres mentionnées): Perronneau and Liotard come to mind among La Tour’s rivals. With others – say Rosalba – the alphabetical approach is also of limited value as identifiable portraits form such a small proportion of the œuvre (Sani remains of manageable length only by omitting versions, copies and historical records of lost works – all of which I regard as necessary components of a catalogue raisonné).

Of course tech-savvy readers will immediately point out that the answer is a proper database that users can order at the touch of a button – alphabetically by sitter, chronologically by date of work, thematically by subject – but it’s never quite that simple. In fact when I first put the Dictionary online ten years ago I spent a great deal of time trying to do this before abandoning the project. Nor have I really been convinced by any of the catalogues put up in structured form since: each requires patience to learn how to interrogate, and the interfaces simply seem clunkier and more hostile than book pages (whether printed on paper or viewed on screen). Art history depends on nuanced lists and hierarchies that we are all familiar with on the page; successful IT projects require such relationships to be reduced to the smallest number of moving parts, and afterthoughts result in huge cost overruns. If the software isn’t available off the shelf, it’s a brave (or wealthy) person who commissions what is certain to be a white elephant.

But with La Tour only a hundred and fifty or so works can be objectively dated, and even an art historian with supreme gifts will be unable to arrange the whole catalogue chronologically in a manner compatible with the practical requirements of users. It’s worth remembering too that while John Russell died 23 years younger than La Tour, his work was spread evenly over about 40 years; of La Tour, nothing is known before about 1735, and very little after 1770. The many préparations don’t even include enough costume details to assist in dating. So the structure developed by B&W 90 years ago probably remains the better approach – supplemented by a chronological discussion of specific key works, and underpinned by the chronological table of documents which I’ve reissued at vastly increased length and with careful annotation throughout. (For the time being I’ve retained the use of two typefaces – Times for the original table in B&W, and Garamond for my additions – so you can see how I’ve doubled the quantity of information which is at the heart of La Tour research.)

Here then is a sketch of my work-in-progress on Maurice-Quentin de La Tour:

One of the issues I still grapple with is how best to present the information I have about sitters. Clearly major pastels merit the extended treatment I have given in the separate essays noted above, and those can be accessed through hyperlinks. Some famous sitters have well-known biographies which have almost nothing to do with La Tour or their portrait: is there any point in duplicating material easily accessible elsewhere?  With others where there is little to say, a simple description of dates and quality sits happily in the entry (although I’m not sure how many people realize that more biographical material and sources for many sitters can be found in my iconographical genealogies). But for a great many entries one wants something in between – say 500-1000 words – enough to break the flow of the Dictionary layout, and to strain the patience of readers if buried in hyperlinked documents. Perhaps readers have thoughts about this.

There is as you will see rather a lot of material here already – probably too much for any publisher to wish to print it on paper (do let me know if I’m wrong!). But by having it out there already, you can benefit from it – and I can benefit from any errors or omissions you see. I’m sure there are many – just as I’ve been surprised by how many have hitherto passed undetected.


From → Art history

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  1. La Tour’s abbé Deschamps | Neil Jeffares

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