ESNA Conference 2021: Thinking in the Box

On 26, 27 and 28 May 2021, the ESNA Conference Thinking in the Box will took place, organised by the European Society for Nineteenth-Century Art (ESNA) in collaboration with the RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History.

Thinking in the Box: The Benefits of Artistic Tradition in the Nineteenth Century

Tradition is art history's eternal Other: it is that which must be overcome, resisted, thrown off or, if a compromise must be made, creatively appropriated. The history of the art of the nineteenth century, that 'great' age of innovation, progress and revolution, is more than any other rooted in anti-traditionalist sentiment, steeped in a rhetoric that privileges innovation and bound to narrative structures geared against artistic tradition. Modernist and other teleological histories of nineteenth-century art have always emphasised change and novelty. But even revisionist accounts of the art of the nineteenth century leave scarcely any room to consider tradition in its own right. These have generally either sung the aesthetic praises of traditional art without much further reflection, or have discussed academic art as innovative in another way, either within a traditional framework or in the sense that the art under consideration points forward to developments other than those associated with formal modernism.

This rejection of artistic tradition may be due to its use in fascist and totalitarian ideologies, but is also the result of a structuralist approach within the discipline of art history that continuously opposes new and old (with 'old' always being the marked term). Ironically, this structural divide is in part a product of the nineteenth century itself: it stems from the rising historical (and art-historical) consciousness of the time and its clash with a strong belief in change and progress. This all-too-simple opposition between what was and what will be still shapes our understanding of the artistic act. True art, it seems, must be the creation of something out of nothing—a belief stemming from the early-nineteenth-century romantic philosophy of art and, later, a major tenet of modernist criticism. The result has been that art historians are rarely able to think around the categories of tradition and innovation and nearly always address tradition solely as a problem. Seldom is the richness of artistic tradition itself explored.

The question remains whether this rejection of artistic tradition does justice to what art really is, or, better, what it was understood to be in the nineteenth century. For Charles Baudelaire, the answer would have been in the negative. In his Salon of 1859, he observed that 'poetry and progress are like two ambitious men who hate one another with an instinctive hatred'. This conference considers artistic tradition not as the nemesis of creation but in its own right. It aims to examine the potential artistic, commercial and even political benefits of thinking in the box  – of continuing artistic tradition(s), working within them or reverting to them during the (long) nineteenth century. What could tradition yield for artists and the way they understood their art that innovation could not? What could it do for audiences and what they might have sought in artworks? What could it achieve for patrons, with their various social, political and aesthetic agendas?


  • Organising committee: Jan Dirk Baetens (Radboud University Nijmegen), Mayken Jonkman (RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History, The Hague) and Myrthe Krom (Teylers Museum, Haarlem).
  • Scientific committee: Maite van Dijk (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), Rachel Esner (University of Amsterdam), Liz Prettejohn (University of York), Jenny Reynaerts (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), Marjan Sterckx (Ghent University), Chris Stolwijk (RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History, The Hague, and University of Utrecht).