What is Art For?: 19th-Century French and Russian Painting

“Art is a means of union among men joining them together in the same feelings, and it is indispensable for the life and progress towards the well-being of individuals and of humanity.” Leo N. Tolstoy What is Art? (1896)

"Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable." Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, (1863)

Does art have any purpose at all, other than the liberation of humankind? Is it possible to force art to do anything, to declare what its purpose is? Does art become less than itself when it is forced to respond to or reflect any aspect of human existence, e.g. political, historical, social, economic, etc., other than culture itself? Does art serve different “needs” within different cultural contexts? Can the aesthetics of a particular culture differ from the aesthetics of another culture? How do we engage cultures other than our own and why would we?

Inside the Classroom

In light of the above questions, students will investigate the multilayered, formative dialogue between painting and other significant cultural and intellectual forces in Russia and France during the 19th century during which both cultures underwent significant cultural, social, and political change. The specific and distinctively different narratives of that development in the painting of both countries and the creation and expression of those narratives in the painterly aesthetic of both cultures will be the particular focus of study.

During the course of study, students will have the opportunity:

  • To focus on paintings as visual primary "texts" in themselves that can be "read" and interpreted.
  • To discover the power of paintings to capture the imagination and to reveal the process of the development of a nation’s character through its cultural and intellectual life.
  • To think in ways that integrate the humanities in challenging ways, drawing on the fields of art history, cultural and literary studies, and cultural and intellectual history
  • To assert their intellectual curiosity and articulate it boldly in an engagement with museums and with curators.
  • To immerse themselves in the integrative interdisciplinary nature of the liberal arts in order to gain direction and energy in making their choices for majors.

Outside the Classroom

Students will travel to New York City to see first-hand what they have studied throughout the fall semester.

Research and Capstone Projects

Students will create their own virtual exhibitions during the course, and as a final joint capstone project will co-curate a group exhibition at the University of Richmond of French and Russian paintings and drawings from the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The students will work closely with University Museums, training docents and developing the online collection book.