Anthony Smith is a crisp explainer. The nature and purpose of his project is crystal clear. "This book sets out to explore some of the contributions of visual artists to the rise of nations and nationalism in Western Europe, and more especially in Britain and France, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries." The public had to be converted to the national idea; they had to be induced to "see the nation" and hear its call. "This is where the arts came to play a critical role," he writes, setting out his stall. "Through music and dance, poetry and folk ballads, the call of the nation could be heard; through the visual arts, painting, sculpture and architecture, but also latterly film, television and advertising, the nation, its character, history and destiny, could be paraded before people's eyes, and made to seem vivid, palpable, and tangible."
Can we then speak of "national art" in a didactic or propagandistic sense? Should we see artists as incubators of the national idea - pioneers of the modern nation? Are painters also persuaders? They surely traffic in imagination and invention. Perhaps they trade in the imagined communities that we have learned to call nations and the invented traditions that sustain them?
As Anthony Smith is the first to acknowledge, these are not easy questions to answer, touching as they do on tricky issues of intention and reception over time. He proves a level-headed chaperone for the miniature grand tour that is The Nation Made Real, equally at home in history and destiny, community and territory, landscape and ethnoscape, as he likes to call it, with a judicious eye for what it is possible and sensible to say. "In fact, it can be argued that, except in rare cases, it was not the immediate reception that mattered," he notes, in typically measured terms. "What was vital for the gestation of the visual creation of the nation was the accumulation of a series of tableaux of images of 'its' past and present over the longer term, for it was often later generations that came to feel their influence and imagine the nation in their terms. We can see something of this in the case of Constable's vision of southern England as a quintessentially serene 'English' ethnoscape, in which land and people had become fused over the longue durée, and humanity and nature lived in harmony."
Constable is perhaps his favourite. This makes for a convincing case study in "evoking the homeland". Smith succeeds in extracting a lot from the artist's work, well known and not so well known. He discerns two visions of England, "on the one hand, a picture of rural harmony, of man and nature in tune, passing perhaps but neither lost nor forgotten; on the other hand, a darker, grander, and more elemental vision, one that focuses less on the many changes that nature undergoes than on what remains of nature beneath and survives those many changes". In this endeavour colour plates of Flatford Mill and The Hay Wain are a considerable benefit.
Elsewhere, however, the presentation seems less satisfactory. Smith surveys many others along the way, Caspar David Friedrich, Benjamin West and Paul Delaroche prominent among them. Occasionally a name or a work may be familiar - David's Death of Marat in his bath makes an appearance under "commemorating the fallen" - but for the most part readers will struggle to place the painters or to visualise the paintings.
The illustrations are too few to support the thesis. The treatment is too brief to make the case. Artists come and go in quick succession, and disappear in a trice. "One might also cite the paintings of Baron Gros of Napoleon's exploits (The Plague House of Jaffa, 1804, and Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau, 1808), which revealed a nationalist dimension skilfully harnessed by Napoleon." Where does this leave us? "I'm very fond of Baron Gros," said Cezanne at the end of that century, "but how can I be expected to take those jokes seriously?"
Smith concludes gingerly. "As far as the relationship between novel kinds of visual art and the emergence of modern nations is concerned, the evidence presented here suggests some degree of correlation."
That may be proper caution. Yet he rightly insists that artists, too, can be "educators of the nation". To bring it home requires a bigger canvass of a bigger canvas. More, please, sir.
The Nation Made Real: Art and National Identity in Western Europe, 1600-1850
By Anthony D. Smith
Oxford University Press
232pp, £30.00. ISBN 9780199662975.
Published 24 January 2013