History and Theatricality: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Roger Aidan Adams

Amsterdam: City as a Work of Art

Professor Troutman

13 July, 2019

History and Theatricality: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Both historical and formal analysis are critical in deconstructing works of art. Although most students of art will emphasize one over the other, they are incomplete without each other and fail to paint the full picture of the meaning behind a work of art on their own. Despite this, Cheney’s argument this week that form is what matters to the artists themselves most convinced me to place a higher premium on this analytical device in determining the artist’s motivations and thus meaning in their artwork. I therefor intend to place a particular emphasis on the theatricality of art like Grootenboer while incorporating, to a much lesser degree, Berger’s style of historical analysis. Grootenboer says, “I want to make a theoretical argument as to how theatricality as an analytical tool can help us unpack subjectivity as performance in portrait paintings” (Grootenboer 323). This focus on theatricality, as well as a rudimentary understanding of historical context, is critical in unpacking, understanding, and appreciating good art.

Berger’s approach to understanding art through a historical lens is not without merit. One must understand the bigger historical picture surrounding a work of art to fully comprehend it, but I see many flaws in Berger’s approach that must be avoided in good analysis. His primary flaw is simply going above and beyond what is required. Instead of merely explaining the history of a painting or the significant events surrounding its creation, he tries to inflate the value of historical analysis to dissect minute details within each work. He argues that a figures hand resting on, as opposed to gripping, the butt of a musket symbolizes “a contradiction between an ideal of military conduct and its flawed execution” (Berger 190). He offers very little evidence to support this odd claim and dismisses the simplest explanation: Rembrandt was ignorant to the specifics of firing a musket. In cases like these, utilizing Occam’s razor to determine the simplest, and there for most logical, answer is a prudent exercise.

Westermann strikes a good balance in her level of historical analysis by occasionally offering subjective speculation that is not radical in nature. She contends that cows may represent the Dutch Republic itself in some artists’ renditions, but does not state it as fact and offers alternative theories. This is a very important approach because beauty, as well as symbolism and meaning, is in the eye of the beholder. Even if an artist did or did not intend to invoke symbolism what truly matters is if the viewer sees symbolism themselves. There are indeed objective symbols, such as purple clothing often representing royalty, but generally symbolic arguments are highly subjective. Historical analysis should thus establish and not connect the dots on behalf of the reader. Berger is far too argumentative, and perhaps arrogant, in his tone to be taken seriously on behalf of the casual reader.

Another significant problem with placing too much emphasis on historical analysis is that it can chip away at the artist’s credibility to such a degree that the art is difficult to appreciate. Consider the famous painting titled Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze (fig. 1). It is a remarkably theatrical and symbolic painting that elicits patriotism and pride amongst most Americans. It perfectly epitomizes the importance of incorporating both a mild form of historical analysis as well as a close examination of theatricality to fully appreciate the political, historical, and cultural meaning of art. Washington is depicted as standing at the front of a small boat while everyone else is seated. This boat is significantly smaller than those actually used in this event, no one would be sitting on the frozen base of the boat, and Washington would surely tip and fall while striking such a pose. The ice depicted is unrealistic as ice forms in sheets on the Delaware river and James Monroe is shown holding a flag that did not come into existence until 1777. Most glaringly wrong with this painting, however, is that Washington in fact crossed the Delaware in the middle of the night.

Washington crosses

(Figure 1)

Critiques like this ignore the fact that art is supposed to be dramatic and not merely realistic. The artist took great liberties to evoke passion on behalf of the viewer and more fully symbolize the meaning of the event. As author Tim O’Brien says in the Things They Carried, “Happeningness is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth” (O’Brien 182). Truthful hyperbole rests on the simple notion that all forms of human communication are inadequate at fully expressing the emotional significance of an event. Because the viewer cannot feel the cold air or freezing drops of water, the artist depicts the ice on the river as more intimidating to try to more fully explain the event. Theatricality is often more important than historical reality for this reason because it captures more true emotion and symbolism.

A realistic rendition of Washington crossing the Delaware, perhaps huddled in the back of a boat covered in blankets, would fail to capture his strategic bravery and prowess as a general. No artist can describe the entire Revolutionary War in one painting, but they can try to capture the essence of a man and his struggle by dramatizing his appearance. Washington theatrically looking ahead with a hand on his knee shows he is unafraid and unencumbered by the physical obstacles in his way (that likely symbolically represent obstacles of the war). He looks heroic and prepared for the ensuing battle despite the unsavory conditions surrounding him. One must recognize that while Washington never stood like this, it is a more truthful depiction of him because it encompasses much of what cannot be included in a single painting.

When viewing a piece of art like Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, one must be mindful of the level of historical analysis they subject the art to. Moderation, or at least a willingness to discard historical inaccuracy, is crucial. It is important for all viewers to understand basic history surrounding the event, such as why Washington crossed the river, at what point in the war the surprise attack took place, and of course some general knowledge about Washington. Too much historical information risks detracting from the formal and symbolic beauty of this work of art by pointing out every minute flaw. Just as formal analysis does not seek to literally analyze every single brush struck and find minor mistakes, historical analysis should not seek to destroy a work of art by providing too much unsolicited context.

My primary contention is that theatricality is more important than history because it is more truthful than objective truth itself in art. A painting is a scene taken completely out of context so it is the responsibility of the artist to try to complete the picture with dramatization and truthful hyperbole. Washington may not have bravely leaned over his boat while crossing the Delaware unafraid, but he did lead the Continental Army against the finest military in the world unafraid. The flag Monroe hoists was not yet created, but a flag is by its very nature is symbolic. Washington and his men were not fighting for a flag; they were fighting for the ideas that that flag symbolizes. This exemplifies why telling a white lie to tell a greater truth is an important tool in art.

Claire’s argument that artists are more interested in form than history convinced me that more than a mere historical analytical approach to art is necessary to discern its full meaning. Using both analytical devices in moderation is important because over exposure is often as dangerous as underexposure. Just as drinking ten instead of three alcoholic beverages is less pleasurable and eating an entire pizza will leave one feeling sick, followers of art should be careful to not overanalyze the art they are viewing. They must also be willing to accept the importance of both formal and historical analysis in deconstructing art despite preferring one over the other.



Grootenboer, Hanneke. “How to Become a Picture: Theatricality as Strategy in      Seventeenth-Century Dutch Portraits.” Art History33 (2010): Print.

Berger, Harry, Jr. “Supposing Rembrandt’s The Night Watch.” The Virginia Quarterly       Review 83.1 (2007): Print.

Westermann, Mariët. A Worldly Art : the Dutch Republic, 1585-1718 . Reprinted ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004. Print.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried: A Work Of Fiction. New York: Broadway Books, 1998. Print.

Emmanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, oil on canvas, 149 x 255 in. On view at the Met Fifth Avenue, New York, New York.







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