November 28: L’histoire

Date #28November 28: Is photojournalism the equivalent of the academic ‘history painting’?

In 1867 a fire attributed to anti-Catholic arsonists ravaged the the Cappella del Rosario in Venice. Inside was the nearly 350 year old painting Death of Saint Peter the Martyr. In 1525 the Dominican brothers had commissioned “the best painter” in Venice to redecorate their altar in the neighbouring Church of SS. Giovanni; Titian, who received the commission in 1526. His panel, delivered in 1530, represents the martyrdom of Saint Peter Martyr of Verona, a 13th century Dominican inquisitor whose zealous pursuit of heretics led to his assassination, a subject chosen by the Dominicans to challenge the heresy of Lutheranism.

Saint-Peter-MartyrTitian’s picture makes a bold statement on behalf of the Catholic Church; instead of a simple icon of the martyred saint with his usual attribute of sword or hatchet buried in his head, Titian dramatises the murder of the saint, showing his companion in flight and his executioner bestriding Peter Martyr’s prostrate body as he commends his soul to God with his extended right index finger. In legend, before he expired Peter wrote the “Credo” on the ground in his blood, but in Titian’s version his upraised left hand, reaching toward heaven accepts the palm of martyrdom proferred by descending angels.

Titian recruits the very landscape and sky into his drama and accommodates the initially oblique viewing angle as approached along the length of the nave, with the first encounter being the fleeing monk, who looks back to witness the awarding of the palm of martyrdom. Though its composition matches my most loved of this painter, his Bacchus and Ariadne, Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) in his Lives of the Artists (1568) hails Peter Martyr Altarpiece as the “most perfectly realised and the greatest and most celebrated” of Titian’s pictures.

It was the most copied of the great painter’s works; first when taken to Paris in 1797 as part of Napoleon’s booty and when returned to Venice in 1816 where a copy, regarded as the best, was made in 1842 by a French student of Ingres, Eugène Appert. Other copies continued to be made through the nineteenth century, until 1867 when, during repairs to the altar, the painting was removed and was lost in a fire. A replacement, a copy by Johann Carl Loth (1632–1698) was sent to Venice from Florence, a gift of Carlo Emanuele II which is probably the present canvas, a miserable substitute for the original, that now graces the altar, though it may be by Lodovico Cardi (1559–1613).

Had he thought of it, for art historian Charles Blanc, this fact might have helped him promote his pet cause; a European Museum of Copies that was inaugurated in April 1873. 

Blanc imagined this museum almost thirty years before, and the origin of his project goes back even further to Adolphe Thiers who was Minister of the Interior in 1832. In fact almost every museum in the world holds copies of masterworks, and much of the sculpture of Greece, and nearly all its painting (apart from that on pottery), has come to us via replicas and reproductions. To understand Blanc’s visionary project, one can read the report he sent to Jules Simon on October 26, 1871:

I mean the project of founding in France a Universal Museum, containing excellent copies, perfect casts […] of all that is beautiful in the whole world. […] Prints, photographs, the collection of the chalcography of the Louvre […]

A universal museum of copies, amongst them photographic copies, is significant at this point in the history of our medium. When it opened in April 1873 this concern with preserving traces of threatened masterpieces was validated by events of the day; the Paris Commune in which, I believe the student of Ingres had a major role via photography. Here is his photograph of the shooting of Generals Clément Thomas et Claude Lecomte, a scene, like Titian’s altarpiece, of execution

Ernest Eugène Appert (1871) Assassinat des généraux Clément Thomas et Claude Lecomte

Well…believed…such is the nature of research that just when a lead looks exciting, it goes cold!

There are three Apperts in question and our student of Ingres, Eugène Appert, died in 1867, 5 years before the bitter battles of the Paris Commune. One of the brothers Appert, Ernest and/or Eugène, made the photograph above. Appert was one of few photographers who remained in Paris during the Commune uprising, Disderi and Nadar having fled and others took photographs mainly of the aftermath. A minor figure, his biography is vague, and is possibly confused with his brother’s. However the pictures are well known and much discussed.

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Captioned print of the above image.

Titian is not irrelevant, because Assassinat des généraux Clément Thomas et Claude Lecomte is a hybrid of narrative painting and news photograph, and therefore constitutes propaganda. Titles were printed below each as they were distributed; Les Crimes de la Commune. 

They are partisan, conservative political propaganda according to Claude Nori, brainwashing “of the bloody bourgeoisie trying to find some frivolous justification for the veritable genocide that it had begot” according to Jean-Claude Gautrand.

Appert was well placed to make these images. A Parisian portrait photographer, he specialised in images of government officials and royalty, and during the French war with Prussia, he had recycled his portraits of Louis-Napoleon and his generals by cutting and pasting their heads onto a staged scene made at the military encampment at Chalon, and then rephotographing and printing the result.

The series Crimes de la Commune were approximately twelve composite images that Appert fabricated over a period of several months, and released serially into an eager market in Commune memorabilia from September 1871. They appeared in a variety of formats including cartes-de-visite, postcards and deluxe prints. He advertised himself as a painter-photographer and he used his skills in both media tomontage heads from his studio portraits onto the bodies of other individuals, often hired actors, and pasted into location photographs.

Les Crimes de la Commune was his greatest commercial success and a complex project. As a painter he no doubt harboured ambitions for them amongst the academic history paintings of the era. As a photographer his aim was to rival the engravings illustrating the Commune that were simultaneously appearing in such newspapers as L’Illustration. He would be heartened to know that it took some years before the market acquired the sophistication to know that his pictures were confections that he put together from written and verbal accounts, not actual eye-witness documents.

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L’Illustration, 25 March 1871, Mort des généraux Clément-Thomas et Lecomte. Engraving,

Appert sometimes relied on engraved representations for his reconstructions, and the degree of copying can be seen by comparing his visual account of the deaths of the generals with the above example that appeared in L’Illustration. Generals Clement-Thomas and Lecomte were shot not side by side but one after another, and not with a volley but forty sequentially fired shots for the first and nine for Lecomte.

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Ernest Eugène Appert (1871) détail of Assassinat des généraux Clément Thomas et Claude Lecomte

Appen, in contrast to the artist of the engraving, presents us with a wider, comprehensive scene, more authentic in conveying the urban space of the city. Its detail shows the event being witnessed by a large crowd, largely of men, but also of women (the significance of their presence is the subject of Jeannene Pryzyblyski’s Between Seeing and Believing). These Appert came to photograph in prison after after the French Army suppressed the Commune during “La semaine sanglante” (“The Bloody Week”) beginning on 21 May 1871.

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Ernest Eugène Appert (1871) détail of Assassinat des généraux Clément Thomas et Claude Lecomte

The image is full of incidents. In the background he shows members of the crowd entering the three-storey house in large numbers perhaps to loot it. His inclusion of the women is very deliberate as in at least one instance, below centre he paints them in. Two soldiers are holding up a black cloth (the cape of one of the generals), others beside seem to ignore the killing to indulge in animated conversation and the rest are rubber-necking. It is only amongst that group that some discrepancies of scale between the figures gives away his montaging. The crowded scene presents the Commune as a spectacle.

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Ernest Eugène Appert (1871) détail of Assassinat des généraux Clément Thomas et Claude Lecomte

Only a very detailed examination of the two generals can detect the cut and paste of heads onto bodies, and the shadows of their faces only agree with the ambient light because Clément-Thomas’ face has been flipped. The photograph of Lecomte  probably used survives only in this later 1874 engraving.

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Ernest Eugène Appert (1871) détail of Assassinat des généraux Clément Thomas et Claude Lecomte

Though also clearly derived from photographs, other parts of the scene are smoothed over, and some of the bare trees seem to be additions painted in to augment the bleakness of the scene. Like the vines on the wall behind the two victims they follow the earlier L’Illustration engraving most closely.

Ernest Eugène Appert, Exécution des otages, prison de la Roquette, le 24 mai 1871
Ernest Eugène Appert (1871) Exécution des otages, prison de la Roquette, le 24 mai 1871.

Other scenes from Les Crimes de la Commune are more obviously contrived such as one depicting the 25th May execution by the Communards of the Archbishop of Paris (the only recognisable portrait head, as Donald E. English points out), the President of the Court of Cassation, the curé of the Church of the Madeleine, and three other priests.

A modernist tendency emerges from this, necessarily arbitrary collection (because of its dependence on montage using existing portraits), evident in the placement of the viewer, looking down the barrel at those about to be executed (Maartje van den Heuvel writes about history painting remediated into history photography in ‘Erwin Olaf: The Siege and Relief of Leiden‘ in Depth of Field, volume 1, no. 1, October 2011).

Otherwise, just like Titian’s altarpiece, Les Crimes de la Commune is dramatised, polemical and partisan, but presented as actuality, a history. It presents the Commune as a salutary moral spectacle in which the ruling class is justly returned and order restored. In the aftermath, it is certainly not Appert’s imagery that sympathises with the Communard cause, though there are ample, and well-known, photographs of the deadly retribution that followed.

History to the defeated may say alas

but cannot help nor pardon.

W.H. Auden Spain (1937)



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