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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., August 31, 2016—A new book by a Williams College art professor illuminates the life and career of Henri Regnault (1843-71), one of the celebrated French painters of his generation, and offers new insights into the decline of 19th century salon painting. Marc Gotlieb, Class of 1955 Professor of Art and director of the Williams Graduate Program in the History of Art, offered in collaboration with the Clark, provides an in-depth look at Regnault in The Deaths of Henri Regnault (University of Chicago Press).
“I’ve been drawn to Regnault since my graduate student days,” Gotlieb says. “I’ve always been interested in so-called ‘academic art’ of the 19th century, namely those painters who were famous in their day, but whose reputations collapsed with the Impressionist and Modernist revolutions. Regnault is particularly spectacular in this regard. His paintings offer an alluring and troubling union of exotic colorism and violent fantasy that makes them impossible to ignore.”
This is the first book written in English on Regnault, whose meteoric rise was cut short when he died at age 27 in the Franco-Prussian War. His prolific career and patriotic death influenced French culture for nearly 40 years.
Gotlieb says the book offers a portrait of the ambitions and conflicts experienced by major artists in the late 19th century. The first half of the book explores Regnault as he lived, and the second half explores his death and his historical memory through the lens of the artists, writers, and composer touched by his death.
“What I learned as I examined his career was that he was a young artist of super-sized ambition who was deeply afflicted with a fear of tradition’s authority,” Gotlieb says. “The extreme features of his art are traceable to an urgent search for originality, all the more remarkable given his traditional artistic formation.”
Gotlieb traces Regnault’s trajectory after he won the prestigious Grand Prix de Rome, a fellowship that provided four years of study in Italy. However, shortly after he arrived in Rome, Regnault fled the city for Spain and Morocco. His violent, seductive paintings were inspired by this journey, Gotlieb says.
Regnault is best known for four major paintings, but in recent decades his “Execution Without Judgment Under the Kings of Morocco” resonates most with audiences.
“This would have surprised Regnault’s admirers in his day as the painting left audiences pretty appalled for its union of brilliant décor and terrible gore,” Gotlieb says. “When I was recently in Paris, I marveled at how the painting can stop audiences in their tracks when they first walk by it in the Musée d’Orsay.”
More information on the book can be found on the University of Chicago Press website.
Founded in 1793, Williams College is the second-oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts. The college’s 2,000 students are taught by a faculty noted for the quality of their teaching and research, and the achievement of academic goals includes active participation of students with faculty in their research. Students’ educational experience is enriched by the residential campus environment in Williamstown, Mass., which provides a host of opportunities for interaction with one another and with faculty beyond the classroom. Admission decisions on U.S. applicants are made regardless of a student’s financial ability, and the college provides grants and other assistance to meet the demonstrated needs of all who are admitted.