Maurice Samuels

Andrew W. Mellon Penn Faculty Fellow in the Humanities

20052006 Forum on Word and Image

Maurice Samuels

Assistant Professor, Romance Languages (French)

History as Spectacle: The Crimean War in Word and Image

Expanding his research from his recent book, The Spectacular Past: Popular History and the Novel in Nineteenth-Century France, Prof. Samuels examines a crucial moment in the genealogy of modernity's spectacular historical imagination: the Crimean War of 1854-56. While Baudelaire and others celebrated the battle sketches of Constantin Guys as harbingers of modernity, less is known about the much larger scale panoramas of the Crimea, which appeared in both London and Paris, and were visited by upwards of 75,000 people. 

Although these panoramas were destroyed shortly after their exhibition, many written records of this visual experience have survived in reviews from the time. Prof. Samuels investigates these reviews for clues to understanding how the visual shapes the historical imagination of modernity. In these descriptions, the panorama figures as a locus of ideological manipulation, and perhaps more surprisingly, as a space of resistance in which the official view of war coexists alongside a more subjective, subversive version. The written accounts emphasize the visual?s tendency to coerce, delude, and lie, but also point to the power of the image to make us think and feel—a power which many recent critics of the spectacle have tended to overlook.