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Lost Works of Art: the problem and a case study

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This article, which is presented in two parts, aims to raise awareness of the position of lost works in art-historical practice. The first section seeks to question the status of the information which can exist regarding work of art that are no longer extant. Without claiming to be comprehensive, it details examples of the different sorts of material that may exist (photographs, engravings, explanatory texts, etc.) and considers these in relation to the original object. The secondary sources are considered individually, as being nearer to, or further from, the original, but they are also seen together as ‘traces’. It is explicitly stated that these traces cannot provide access to the meaning of the original but that they may help to elucidate its ‘message’ (its historical, political or social significance).

The second part focuses on two lost paintings by Leclerc which were shown, as pendants, at the 1756 exhibition of the Académie de Saint-Luc in Paris and which are now known only from a single critical text. One of them was a history painting, while the other was a genre scene. The latter, according to the textual source, depicted women in eighteenth-century dress disrobing on the banks of a stream. It is argued that such an immodest scene would not normally have been thought fit for public exhibition in eighteenth-century Paris and reasons are sought for its production and its exposure. The mid-eighteenth century saw doubts cast on frivolous erotic mythology (such as is seen in Leclerc’s other painting) as being suitable for artistic depiction. Later events show that the loves of the gods were eclipsed by moral tales from ancient history (the rise of neoclassicism, in a word). It is suggested here, however, that Leclerc perhaps sought to provide an alternative. As his history picture and his genre scene were presently explicitly as pendants, he perhaps aimed to suggest that the way forward might be an acceptance of contemporary sexuality as a suitable subject in art.

The paper is exploratory in every sense. It seeks to put the question of lost works on the agenda, to provide the first, rather than the last, word on the subject. In the final analysis, it is even suggested, not entirely frivolously, that Leclerc’s paintings may never have existed. But even if they did not, a text describing possible pictures does, and this is of itself an important intervention in the thinking about suitable themes for depiction in eighteenth-century France.
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Document Type: Original Article

Affiliations: University of Bristol

Publication date: 2000-09-01

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