Beliaeva Solomon on Hannoosh (2019)

Hannoosh, Michèle. Jules Michelet: Writing Art and History in Nineteenth-Century France. The Pennsylvania State UP, 2019, pp. 248 + 31 b&w illustrations, ISBN: 978-0-271083-57-5

Michèle Hannoosh, whose previous work has illuminated the overlooked literary ambitions of Eugène Delacroix and established the centrality of comedy and laughter to Charles Baudelaire’s aesthetic imagination, has brought her impressive powers of perception to the reevaluation of another major nineteenth-century thinker. With Jules Michelet, Hannoosh offers English-language readers a point of entry into the historian’s major works and personal journals in support of the ambitious argument that “Michelet’s understanding of the course of history was rooted in works of art, and his most fundamental historical concepts lie in the artworks that he associates with them” (13). In this compact and image-rich work, Hanoosh traces Michelet’s intellectual development across L’Histoire de France, Le Peuple, and L’Histoire de la Révolution Française, among several other works, to formative encounters with, and meditations on, painting, sculpture, and architecture. Insightful, focused readings of the published works are supported throughout by references to Michelet’s journals and archived lecture notes from the Collège de France. Written in clear and evocative prose, this study offers scholars of the nineteenth century and intellectual historians new avenues into the corpus of a figure whose influence is still being measured. 

In the first chapter, Hannoosh highlights Michelet’s career-spanning interest in the parallels between the work of the historian, the artist, and the critic, and reevaluates Michelet’s work according to his methodological proximity to two major twentieth-century theorists: Michel Foucault and Michel de Certeau. Both these theorists, Hannoosh notes, follow Michelet in their evocation of visual art to “figure the processes of history and the writing of those processes” (21). The subsequent chapters are organized by historical periods: the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Wars of Religion, and the Revolution and nineteenth century. Each chapter evaluates Michelet’s writing on the period in question as mediated through his reflections on representative artists and works, from Gothic architecture to nineteenth-century painting. In a brief conclusion, Hannoosh proposes Rembrandt as a model for Michelet’s conception of history writing as a fundamentally artistic endeavor. Because the work of art, unlike history itself, remains physically present and open to dialogue, it offers, Hannoosh argues, a mode of engagement that confers responsibility upon the historian of the present. Through the record of visual art, the dead speak, and the task of the historian is both preserving the intelligibility of this record and “rendering justice, establishing the truth” (168). 

Among Hannoosh’s notable interventions is her consistent challenging of narratives that assign a linear relation between apparent changes in Michelet’s positions and significant contemporary social or political developments. She turns instead to the compellingly implicit evidence of his personal encounters with art. In Hannoosh’s telling, for instance, Michelet’s evolving opinion of the Middle Agesfrom an origin point for a conception of liberty that would ultimately manifest in the Revolution to a period of cruel religious authoritarianismis brought about not by polemical reactions to his lectures, but by “an extraordinary encounter” with the sculptures of the Strasbourg Cathedral in 1842. These sculptures according to Hannosh,“drove home to him the fanaticism, cruelty, and dogmatism of the medieval church” (42). In the case of the Renaissance, Hannoosh cites personal tragedy and the disappointments (and professional setbacks) of the Second Republic and Second Empire as potential influences on Michelet’s conception of necessary rebirth, but primarily traces the complexity of his thinking through records of his travels to Belgium, Holland, and Germany, and his encounters with Van Eyck, Rubens, and Durer. In each of these cases, Michelet finds purpose in the possibility of colluding across time with an artist in order to recover that which can only be suggested in an image, figuring himself as part of a transhistorical “family” rather than a distant observer. On this point, Hannoosh challenges the assessment of Roland Barthes, whose own reading of the Histoire de France is the foundation for so much subsequent interest. Whereas Barthes sees Michelet’s engagement with history in the mode of “tableau,” observable from a removed, god-like position and in tension with that of “récit,” where the historian moves alongside history as it escapes his grasp, Hannoosh instead describes a “dynamic mutual relationship between the historian and the past” (6).

Each chapter contributes to a richer and more human understanding of Michelet as a historian, featuring readings as convincing as they are affecting. Hannoosh adeptly balances the work’s unique focus with the necessity of covering a great volume of writing and a considerable span of time. In providing such a distinct lens for the evaluation of Michelet’s career, the work also suggests the possibility that other such lenses may exist, perhaps to be taken up in other essays. For instance, more direct comparison between Michelet’s reflections on canonical works of art and those of other nineteenth-century writershistorians or otherwisemight establish the significance of Michelet’s associations beyond questions of influence on his own corpus. The work’s impressive interdisciplinary ambition and compelling essayistic structure, however, understandably limits the capacity for such breadth. For scholars of history, art history, and literature, Jules Michelet offers an essential perspective on a complex figure, expanding the possibilities of future inquiry.