Thomas Crow is an American art historian. For a short time, his interests overlapped with mine, which is how I became aware of him.
Some readers might know that I am a fan of the French artist J.L David. Early in his career, Crow wrote a book focused on David and his circle, Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France. He followed that with a book about the rise of museums in France, Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris.
When I was young, I hero-worshipped a number of artists. I studied their lives and careers as closely as I did the careers of my favorite baseball players–I knew all their stats. David is one of the last for whom I became a fanboi and is one of the few from the youthful hero-worship that I still admire. (In this self-portrait by David, there is a hint of the lifelong facial tumor that impeded David’s speech.)
So when I saw Emulation, it was an automatic buy. I haven’t read Crow’s later works focused on modern art, but here there is a whiff of progressive triumphalism that mar the book. As for the art itself, he focuses on literary issues typical of historians and studio intrigue. In his defense, his fascination with intrigue can be forgiven because David and his fellow Neoclassicists get caught in the whirlwind of the time and play a part in the revolution. But if you expect a history of the revolution, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re as interested in the art of the period as I am, then you’ll enjoy this book.
Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris follows the rise of the Louvre from the middle of the 17th century through the 18th century. There were no art museums before this time and by the end of the 18th-century museums assumed the role that they still have today. I’ll be blunt: Crow isn’t an insightful writer. He closely follows the skimpy source materials and attempts to stitch everything together in a coherent narrative. In this effort, he fails. But, again, if you’re like me and are interested in the period then this book is immensely rewarding. Crow throws light on many less-known artists for which I am grateful.
Crow never analyzes an artwork aesthetically. He never betrays an engagement with a particular piece. His interest is historical and ideological. Like many progressives, he appears to believe that a personal engagement is fetishizing art; it’s kitschy.