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The Emergence of Prehistoric Time in Nineteenth-Century France: “Mute” Artefacts and Living History

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Sylvie Boisjoli


This thesis investigates the emergence of prehistoric time within wider nineteenth-century scientific and philosophical debates around Darwinian evolutionary theories on the progress and mutability of the human species. By examining the social, political, and intellectual conditions in which the idea of prehistory developed, I analyze how representations of prehistoric people and places normalized the belief that time was a dynamic force that could drive forward or limit France’s progress as a nation. My thesis thus explores the increased public interest in representations and conceptions of prehistoric time in relation to the wider nineteenth-century impulse for reading the past and the passage of time in/on ‘the body’- (here understood as a socially and historically constructed category).

My dissertation also considers the notion of prehistory as an indicator of, and participant in, a significant shift in how French society understood its national history. The fascination with prehistory was certainly not restricted to a few specialists in the human sciences. Instead, my research investigates ways in which artists, writers, and scientists disseminated their visions of the past across the French public sphere. In Salon paintings or on display in national exhibitions, depictions of prehistory entertained, yet also troubled, French audiences. As I argue, such images warned viewers that a significant portion of human history could be irrevocably forgotten ―thus limiting how effectively modern society could know itself. Indeed, although prehistory was articulated through inert displays of material culture, it was understood by many thinkers and artists as having a persistent effect on the present.

I – France’s earliest Art History: Picturing the “First” Artists and Sculptors

This chapter examines representations of prehistoric art-making in nineteenth-century print, painting, and sculpture and investigates how conceptions of the origin of art factored into scientific theories on the development of humans’ intellectual and moral development. This chapter establishes some of the theoretical framework necessary to understand my visual analyses in later chapters; I do so, namely, by examining some of how the idea of an ‘origin’ of art-making was conceived of in the social and historical sciences, as well as how prehistoric artefacts and (re)constructions of prehistoric life were illustration in scientific texts. Most social scientists and prehistorians agreed with anthropologist Charles Jean Marie Letourneau’s notion that decorative designs engraved in Paleolithic tools, weapons, stones, seashells and human skulls were evidence of the emergence of human intelligence from a so-called primitive state.

In the social scientific discourse of Letourneau and others such as archeologist Joseph de Baye, biologist Léon Gérardin, and archeologist Henri Raison du Cleuziou, artistic production was considered superfluous to the necessity of survival, yet an important marker of humanness. This chapter thus questions what was at stake in anchoring the idea of humanness –or the progression from an animal state to the coming of humanity and the development of human consciousness― to the production of art and ornament. This section will also situate debates around prehistoric art within wider late nineteenth-century concerns, especially amongst republican social reformers such as Antonin Proust, for how art could regulate the morals and behaviour of French society. Although statesmen such as Proust were heavily involved in the commission of new artworks, the legacy of French art –including its prehistory― was also a significant measure of French civilisation and evolutionary progress. 

II - The Body at the Mercy of Contingency: Depictions of Prehistoric Women

Paintings of prehistoric life often depicted scenes of women being abducted by men, of men or women protecting their children against approaching danger, and of men hunting or battling for survival. The underlying theme represented in these types of images is violence, or the imminent possibility of a violent encounter. Through an analysis of large Salon paintings such as Paul Jamin’s Un rapt à l’âge de pierre (1888), I consider representations of prehistory as sources of tension in French society ―a tension between the fascination with the new period of French history and anxiety about the unpredictability of evolutionary development. Images such as Jamin’s evoked the idea that France’s early history was composed of heroic scenes of physically fit white men battling for survival. In the painting, a prehistoric man from one tribe is abducting, and will likely rape, a beautiful nude woman from a different tribe. The contingency of time, I argue in this chapter, was evoked through the dramatization of violence in France’s prehistory. Because the notion of prehistoric French society was still considered “primitive” and far back in history, French artists could imagine and exploit the violent possibilities of the distant past.

III - Display and Encounter: (Re)Constructing Prehistory at the Exposition universelle of 1889

At the Exposition universelle of 1889, architect Charles Garnier designed 44 life-sized models of ancient houses along the Quai d’Orsay. Garnier’s aim was for visitors to observe and experience the technological, moral and social development of a range of cultures from across the world dating from prehistory to the Renaissance. Each of the structures was, Garnier claimed, designed to typify a middle-class dwelling. In the exhibition’s guidebook, historian Auguste Ammann assured the viewing public that by visiting the exhibition —a “résurrection du passé”— it would gain intimate knowledge of outlying lands and histories. A walk-through the exhibition was, he asserted, a unique opportunity for visitors to traverse time and space. This chapter investigates how the display of Garnier’s houses fulfilled a fantasy of living the past within a modern and well-regulated public spectacle. By analyzing the prehistoric (re)constructions of cave dwellings and huts, I question how representations of prehistory functioned as reminders that the body was subject to time’s contingency, and how history was used to reinforce and question notions of the so-called primitive and modern. Ultimately, I treat this exhibition as a politically-charged site which, as it made distant histories accessible for domestic consumption, produced and was inculcated in racist colonial debates around the notion that non-white peoples experienced time differently than white Europeans and were thus not able to instate France’s project of civilisation.