Cloth $50.00 ISBN: 9780226390253 Published March 2020
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Painting with Fire

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Photography, and the Temporally Evolving Chemical Object

Matthew C. Hunter

Painting with Fire

Matthew C. Hunter

304 pages | 20 color plates, 68 halftones, | 7 x 10 | © 2019
Cloth $50.00 ISBN: 9780226390253 Published March 2020
E-book $10.00 to $50.00 About E-books ISBN: 9780226390390 Published March 2020

Painting with Fire shows how experiments with chemicals known to change visibly over the course of time transformed British pictorial arts of the long eighteenth century—and how they can alter our conceptions of photography today. As early as the 1670s, experimental philosophers at the Royal Society of London had studied the visual effects of dynamic combustibles. By the 1770s, chemical volatility became central to the ambitious paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds, premier portraitist and first president of Britain’s Royal Academy of Arts. Valued by some critics for changing in time (and thus, for prompting intellectual reflection on the nature of time), Reynolds’s unstable chemistry also prompted new techniques of chemical replication among Matthew Boulton, James Watt, and other leading industrialists. In turn, those replicas of chemically decaying academic paintings were rediscovered in the mid-nineteenth century and claimed as origin points in the history of photography.

Tracing the long arc of chemically produced and reproduced art from the 1670s through the 1860s, the book reconsiders early photography by situating it in relationship to Reynolds’s replicated paintings and the literal engines of British industry. By following the chemicals, Painting with Fire remaps familiar stories about academic painting and pictorial experiment amid the industrialization of chemical knowledge.

Introduction: Slow-Motion Mobiles

1                      “Pictures . . . in time petrify’d”
2                      Joshua Reynolds’s “Nice Chymistry” in the 1770s
3                      “Rend’rd Imortal”: The Work of Art in an Age of Chemical Reproduction
4                      Space, Time, and Chemistry: Making Enlightenment “Photography” in the 1860s

Conclusion: Art History in/as an Age of Combustion

Review Quotes
James Delbourgo, author of Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum
Painting with Fire is scholarship of signal vision, intellectual force and literary panache. Transforming our understanding of even the most canonical of geniuses such as Joshua Reynolds, it urges with passion and penetration an original interpretation of painting as a chemical and ecological enterprise, where understandings of time itself unfold through the natural materials of artistic practice. It is bravura, breathtaking, and sometimes breathless work, powerfully confirming Hunter's voice as one of the most vibrant and virtuosic on early modern art and science today."
Jennifer Roberts, Harvard University
 “Painting with Fire offers an original and transformative interpretation of the ‘British Enlightenment’ and challenges some of the fundamental assumptions underlying the historiographies of modern painting, print, and photography. The book is deeply, indeed voraciously, researched, both in the archives and in the secondary literature. It brings British art into a central position within Western modernism, overturns the standard interpretation of the work of Joshua Reynolds, and offers a radically new interpretation of the history of photography, presenting this thing we call a ‘photograph’ as one among many other kinds of experimental visual chemical operations.”
Tim Barringer, Yale University
Painting with Fire is a strikingly original account of the relationship between art and science—or, more particularly, between chemistry, painting, and photography—in the British Enlightenment. It reveals a series of uneasy entanglements that our own disciplinary restrictions have hitherto rendered invisible. Deeply rooted in primary source research, the book is peopled with an extraordinary array of figures familiar and unfamiliar. It is well illustrated with much previously unpublished visual material. Hunter’s lively prose leads the reader from Joshua Reynolds’s studios to Matthew Boulton’s Birmingham manufactory, from early modern experiments with light and pigment to photography’s Victorian heyday. By drawing attention to the chemical instability of the artwork and documenting the profound experimentation with pigment and light that fundamentally expanded the possibilities of both art and industry in this period, Hunter reveals the intellectual unsustainability of established accounts of eighteenth-century painting and of the emergence of photography. This is an incendiary contribution to art history.”
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