Crow talks art, Pope Pius VII

Former chairman of the History of Art Department Thomas Crow spoke at Yale Wednesday about Pope Pius VII in artwork.
Former chairman of the History of Art Department Thomas Crow spoke at Yale Wednesday about Pope Pius VII in artwork. Photo by Jennifer Cheung.

The Yale Center for British Art became a place of empire, papacy and painting Wednesday.

Thomas Crow, the former chairman of the History of Art Department at Yale and current associate provost for the arts at New York University, gave a lecture at the center, titled “Portraits of a Pope in Captivity and Restoration: J.L. David, J.A.D. Ingres and Thomas Lawrence.” The speech focused on the pictorial representation of Pope Pius VII in the paintings of David, Ingres and Lawrence through the first two decades of the 19th century.

A. Cassandra Albinson, the associate curator of paintings and sculpture at the Center for British Art, who introduced Crow, commented that when deciding who was to “undertake the task” of lecturing on the Thomas Lawrence exhibition at the Center for British Art, she wanted to have someone who had never studied Lawrence before. She said that she could think of no one better than Crow in this regard.

In his opening comments, Crow, who noted he is not a specialist in British art, said that when thinking of an artist as “visually dazzling” as Lawrence, “looking at him straight on might not be the best way of looking at him.”

Crow dedicated a large portion of his lecture to the physical appearance of the Pope, which Crow said was distinctive due to the man’s small stature. Crow added how the Pope’s “lack of imposing physical presence constituted a form of power,” which sometimes worked to his advantage as people tended to underestimate him.

The portrait by Lawrence was commissioned by the British King George IV, who was the Prince Regent at the time of the commission. After the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1814, George IV commissioned the creation of a series of portraits of the main actors in the Bonaparte’s defeat, known as the “Waterloo Chamber Series.” Following the commission, Lawrence traveled across Europe painting continental noblemen, dignitaries and diplomats.

Part of the talk also focused on the history behind Lawrence’s paintings. Crow also discussed how the events in Pope Pius’ life unfolded during the early 19th century. He mentioned the events during the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte, where the emperor summoned the Pope to Paris to assist in the coronation. Napoleon wanted the Pope to go to him, instead of him going to Rome, and so he reversed all the anti-clerical policies of the Republic. Crow said that the Pope agreed to this “humiliating request” and went to Paris. Crow also talked about the way that the Pope was restored to power after the fall of Napoleon.

“I thought it was great, I really enjoyed it,” Natalie Prizel GRD’ 15 said. Prizel also mentioned that she enjoyed some of the arguments Crow made, particularly on the subject of the Pope’s active repatriation of lost art, including the Laocoön and the Apollo Belvedere sculptures.

“Unexpected interpretation,” Tim Barringer, the Paul Mellon Professor of History of Art, said of Crow’s lecture. “The important point was that this major scholar of French art and contemporary art is turning his attention to British Art, which is usually spoken about on a different scope.”

The talk was attended by roughly 100 students and members of the History of Art faculty.

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