A Personal Canon: Patricia Mainardi on Five Influential Texts

In thinking about writing that has been important to me, I chose publications that did not simply tell me something previously unknown but rather shaped my conceptual framework by opening new ways of thinking about issues. These stand out:

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind”, translated by Carleton Dallery, in The Primacy of Perception (1964)

This essay remains germinal for all my work, especially a passage that I can practically recite from memory: “In a sense everything that could have been said and that will be said about the French Revolution has always been and is henceforth within it, in that wave which arched itself out of a roil of discrete facts, with its froth of the past and its crest of the future. And it is always by looking more deeply into how it came about that we give and will go on giving new representations of it.”

Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984)

Two of the essays in this collection have been exceptionally relevant to me because of Darnton’s layered interpretations of popular culture, a subject relatively new to art historians. “Peasants Tell Tales: The Meaning of Mother Goose” interprets historically cultural memes of pre-literate societies by looking at common threads such as violence, hunger, and never-ending labor. “Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Séverin” explores the multidimensional meanings that invest rituals—and by extension visual images—by surveying popular imagery and folklore as well as history. I have utilized both approaches to illuminate my analysis of repetition and its variations in graphic imagery.

Robert Justin Goldstein, Censorship of Political Caricature in Nineteenth-Century France (1989)

Goldstein was the first to systematically examine all the ways in which artists attempted to evade censorship while at the same time conveying clear meaning to their contemporaries. Their use of metaphor (e.g. evading the strictures on depicting King Louis-Philippe by representing him as a pear) epitomizes an imaginaire that is largely lost to Western countries today but is still very much alive wherever heavy-handed censorship exists. His analysis of how the language of graphic imagery can communicate on many different levels from the literal to the metaphysical became important both in my Husbands, Wives, and Lovers: Marriage and Its Discontents in Nineteenth-Century France (Yale, 2003) and in Another World: Nineteenth-Century Illustrated Print Culture (Yale, 2017).

Herman Lebovics, True France: The Wars over Cultural Identity, 1900-1945 (1992)

Lebovics shows how the same works of art can be claimed, interpreted, and reinterpreted by diametrically opposed factions. His point is not that art is meaningless, but, rather (like Merleau-Ponty) that different facets can be claimed as predominant at different times. He emphasizes how the genealogy of popular imagery ricocheted from left to right, each side claiming the mantle of “True France.” The issues he discusses clarified for me earlier periods, where the same images were claimed and reinterpreted by every political extreme.

Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, translated by Richard Nice (1984)

Bourdieu’s guiding principle, that no taste is innocent, challenges the basic assumptions of art historians who look for enduring values. His analysis of sociological factors and generational shifts has greatly aided my navigation of periods of great change in the visual arts, a major issue in nineteenth-century studies. His work has been exceptionally valuable in my understanding of the troubled history of lithography in France: the medium, invented c.1800, was quickly adopted by the younger generation but became identified as transgressive and “modern,” opposed to everything classical and traditional.

Patricia Mainardi is professor emerita of art history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and Chevalier in France’s Order of Academic Palms. She has received the College Art Association’s Charles Rufus Morey Award and numerous fellowships, including from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Advanced Study. Her most recent book is Another World: Nineteenth-Century Illustrated Print Culture.


Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Darnton, Robert. The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. New York: Basic Books, 1984.

Goldstein, Robert Justin. Censorship of Political Caricature in Nineteenth-Century France. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1989.

Lebovics, Herman. True France: The Wars over Cultural Identity, 1900-1945. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Merleau-Ponty Maurice. The Primacy of Perception. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

Recent Posts

All Blogs