The paintings in “Eyewitness Views” were the Instagram of the 1700s. Here’s why that matters.


Hubert Robert’s painting of the fire that consumed the opera house at the Palais-Royal in Paris in 1781. From the collection of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston.

The paintings in “Eyewitness Views,” a major exhibition opening September 10 at Mia, were made more than 250 years ago in cities thousands of miles from Minneapolis. They are so-called “view paintings”—views of events that were important at the time they were painted but are generally no longer remembered: balloon flights, volcanic eruptions, royal visits. They are views, from our perspective, onto a world that no longer exists.

And yet we can relate to them. In fact it’s my job to make sure of that. Because if you can relate to something, you’re more likely to understand it.

So here goes. I bet a lot of you are on Facebook and Instagram and have posted photos of some beautiful spot you’ve visited, because you want a record of that moment but also because you hope it will impress your friends.

Well, that’s also why wealthy and powerful people commissioned these view paintings in the 1700s—to document and impress.

You’ve also likely seen a news photograph documenting a natural disaster or some other catastrophe. Again, that’s what some of the artworks in this exhibition are about (see Hubert Robert’s painting of an opera house on fire at right). And to make this connection explicit, Mia has added examples of photojournalism to the exhibition, images of events from the last 50 years that are presumably more familiar than the events in the paintings.

Now, this is where it gets interesting. View paintings are not exactly like photojournalism. The artists who created the paintings in this exhibition needed to make a living. And to do that, they needed to get commissions. And to do that, they needed to paint things that patrons liked. This sometimes called for creative license.

Each artist made choices about point of view, how many people to include, what details to leave in or out. Sometimes buildings were changed—made bigger in the painting than in real life to appear more impressive and grand. Sometimes entire canals in Venice were edited to make a better composition.

Britain's Prince William and Kate Middleton, leaving Westminster Abbey after their wedding on April 29, 2011. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Britain’s Prince William and Kate Middleton, leaving Westminster Abbey after their wedding on April 29, 2011. REUTERS/Toby Melville

We, too, can manipulate reality—we have Photoshop, we have filters, we have editing tools right on our phone—and we don’t need artists to do it for us. As we recognize the connections between Instagram pics and paintings that are hundreds of years old, it’s a good reminder that nearly every image we see was created by a person with an intent, a point of view, and an audience that we want to impress one way or another. Every view presents a point of view.

Top image: Michele Marieschi’s painting of Doge Pietro Grimani carried into the Piazza San Marco in Venice after his election, made around 1741. From the Galerie G. Sarti, Paris.