Montana State University

Larkin heads Smithsonian conference examining portraits important to early American history

July 18, 2014 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

This portrait of Marie Antoinette by French portraitist Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Todd Larkin, professor of art history at MSU's School of Art, and an expert on the portraiture of Marie Antoinette, and Brandon Brame Fortune, chief curator of the National Portrait Gallery, are co-directing the "Political Portraiture in the United States and France during the Revolutionary and Federal Eras, ca. 1776-1814" conference. The conference will be held at the Smithsonian's Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture in Washington Sept. 25-26. Photo courtesy of Todd Larkin.

This portrait of Marie Antoinette by French portraitist Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, "Marie-Antoinette in State Dress," 1778, which hangs in Schloss Ambras, Innsbrûck, is believed to be similar to the portrait of the French queen that was destroyed when British general Robert Ross burned the American capital in August, 1814. In commemoration of the bicentennial of the event, and to study the importance of portraiture in early America, MSU art history professor Todd Larkin has helped organize a conference to be held in September at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Photo courtesy of Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York. Used with permission.   High-Res Available

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A Montana State University scholar’s interest in iconic portraits of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette that were destroyed when the British burned the nation’s capital exactly 200 years ago has launched an international research conference of art historians studying early French and U.S. political portraiture, which will be held in September at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

Todd Larkin, professor of art history at MSU’s School of Art, and an expert on the portraiture of Marie Antoinette, and Brandon Brame Fortune, chief curator of the National Portrait Gallery, are co-directing the “Political Portraiture in the United States and France during the Revolutionary and Federal Eras, ca. 1776-1814” conference. The conference will be held at the Smithsonian’s Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture in Washington Sept. 25-26.“The conference will bring together American and French scholars from universities and museums across Europe and the United States to discuss portraiture, diplomatic strategy and democratic representation – areas germane to an understanding of heads of state and the constituencies they serve,” said Larkin, who is the conference’s organizing scholar.

The conference has been a labor of love for Larkin, who is noted for his work in researching 17th- to 19th-century European art as a bridge to European political culture with an emphasis on royal and republican portraits as signs of factional political interests and identities.  

The conference grew out of a scholarly paper Larkin wrote about the state portraits of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, which the French government gave to the young republic after the French underwrote much of the Revolutionary War. As Larkin notes, the French were the first political ally of the young United States.

The portraits were both destroyed when Gen. Robert Ross burned the American capital in August 1814. Larkin said portraitists of the time often made several copies of their best portraits for dispatch to foreign courts and embassies. Because prototypes of the destroyed portraits and a detailed registry of diplomatic portrait gifts exist today in Europe, scholars know of the portraits’ quality and impact on history.

Larkin explains that in the period between the War of Independence and the War of 1812, the U.S. maintained a complicated alliance with France, which had an impact on patterns of cultural representation and consumption on both sides of the Atlantic.  The transition from monarchical to republican forms of government was accompanied by a shift from aristocrats to citizens as the primary patrons, subjects, and viewers of portraits.

Larkin’s paper on the topic was published in 2010 in the Winterthur Portfolio: A Journal of American Material Culture. He thought with the bicentennial anniversary of the destruction of Washington D.C. and the portraits approaching in August 2014, there might be some interest from museums or historical organizations for an exhibition of historic art from the American revolutionary and federal eras.

Larkin said while there was interest in an exhibition, the reality is that it is very expensive to ship and insure paintings. Curators suggested that Larkin organize an academic conference rather than an exhibition of paintings. That idea gained purchase. The National Portrait Gallery discounted the cost of its Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium as the site of a conference, and donated staff time. Working with his colleagues in the world of art history, Larkin built a scaffolding of topics for the conference that resulted in the submission of dozens of papers from museum professionals and academics on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

The logistics of an international academic conference are not inexpensive, and Larkin credits the Kress Foundation, the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Henry Luce Foundation for underwriting the expenses for the conference, working through the MSU Foundation. Larkin’s research for the conference has been supported by an MSU Scholarship and Creativity Grant. In addition, an MSU art history student will assist at the conference and an MSU film student will film and edit the proceedings and post them on the National Portrait Gallery’s preferred educational website.

The conference is free and open to the public. Beginning in late July, information may be found on the National Portrait Gallery’s website and tickets may be obtained on Eventbrite.

Nancy Cornwell, dean of MSU’s College of Arts and Architecture, said Larkin’s work on the conference has given MSU and the College of Arts and Architecture positive international exposure.

“We are proud of Professor Larkin’s passion and drive in making this conference a reality,” Cornwell said. “I think scholars and art collectors from around the world will think of MSU as an intellectual innovator thanks to his vision.”

Larkin said he could not recall an instance when there was a conference about the role of portraits in the post-Revolutionary periods of American and French history, nor could he recall an occasion when the MSU Foundation garnered Terra, Kress and Luce Foundation grants to fund a single scholarly program, and there is great enthusiasm for the discussion.

“The conference will hit interest at several levels, including university and museum scholars, graduate students, interns, connoisseurs and people who support the fine arts,” he said. “We’re very excited about it.”

 

Todd Larkin (406) 994-2720, tlarkin@montana.edu