The only serious rival to the “glorious Greek” was the “noble savage,” preferably North American. And the genius of that Prince of Arrivistes, Benjamin West, was able to combine the two. When in 1760 he was shown the Apollo Belvedere he started back and exclaimed, “My God, how like it is to a young Mohawk warrior!” - Winckelmann and the Second Renascence, 1755-1955, by Gilbert Bagnani American Journal of Archaeology, 1955(115)
Darcy G. Grigsby’s Nudity a la grecque in 1799 focuses on David’s rehabilitation in that year (in a new society in which revolutionary associations in one’s past were considered damning) that took the form of his exhibition of his Sabines paintings. David wrote a brochure to hand out to visitors (of which there were perhaps fifty thousand in all) in defense of his work, and in particular in defense of the male nude. It was also a defense of the artist as entrepreneur: “Isn’t it an idea that is as fair as it is wise that those who procure for the arts the means of existing themselves sustain themselves by their proper resources, and enjoy the noble independence that is natural to genius (qui convient au genie) and without which the fire that he animates is soon extinguished? On the other side, what more dignified means to extract an honorable part of the fruit of his labor than to submit it to the judgment of the public, and to only expect recompense from the welcome that they wish to give it?” (Necklines, 325) Grigsby’s essay disputes those historians who view the painting, which he calls The Intervention of the Sabines (also known as the Sabine women, or the Combat of the Sabines and the Romans) as a success, at least in terms of the “welcome” the public wished to give it. Grigsby’s argument is this:
“David's text arguably attempted to control debate as well as to instantiate it. In fact, contemporaries seized his terms and continued to dispute both choices for years. I would argue that the controversies were interrelated and that the scandal of David's tableau resided in the ways it made nudity a la grecque the centerpiece of a public spectacle. Indeed, it was the commercial presentation of antiquity as a site of nakedness and the mingling of genders and classes that made David's epic painting such a provocation to the critics of Directory France.”
Nudity – the shock of the mingling of genders – the shock of the mingling of classes – haven’t we seen this before? As Benjamin West might have remarked, it all has a Mohawk sound. If we are to make universal history, blindly, one of our first steps is to unmingled the things that aren’t to be mingled. Lahontan’s fictional factional Huron, Adario, saw perfectly plainly that the Jesuits in New France were ardent stratifiers. The rediscovery of Greek art put into doubt this stratification – that was its force. Rediscovery in the strong sense – as Bagnani shows by enumerating the editions of Greek classics after the Renaissance, the period between the middle of the 17th century and Winckelmann had been one in which the study of Greek culture was almost arrested as a scholarly affair. The Greeks lost their prestige, while Latin, which any schoolboy could read, became, again, the grid through which the past was read.
To be continued…