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School of Languages, Linguistics and Film

Positional Games: Representing Billiards from Chardin to Braque

31 January 2019

Time: 5:30 - 6:30pm
Speaker: Victor Claass (Louvre - Sorbonne University)
Venue: Graduate Centre 6 04

Although a great number of artists have painted billiard scenes throughout the centuries, art historians seem to have neglected this somewhat unusual corpus. As a leisure activity (whose precise origins remain unclear), billiard had a considerable success in royal courts across Europe, prior to becoming extremely popular over the course of the 19th century. No longer the sole privilege of the nobility, this game first conquered bourgeois interiors (as represented by many artists, from Louis-Léopold Boilly to Edgar Degas or Gustave Caillebotte), before gradually entering the popular daily life of the Paris Grand Boulevards and Batignolles, frequented by the protagonists of the modern art scene.

This paper freely revisits a classic art historical method, i.e. the exploration of a specific iconography and its development in the longue durée. Moving away from a linear approach, the depiction of billiards will serve as a pretext for a transverse approach to the discipline and its tools. The billiard room will be assessed as a space of sociability (addressing class, gender and their representations), but also in terms of the numerous analogies between the practice of cue sports and artistic activity. As a leisure involving both manual skills and intellect, observation and patience, physics and geometry, the game of billiards reveals the extent to which art and its study, as the social art historian Michael Baxandall put it, could be summarised as a permanent, unpredictable “positional game.”


Victor Claass holds à PhD in art history from the Sorbonne University (Paris), for which he was recently awarded the Musée d’Orsay Prize. His research focuses on art historiography, artistic migrations, as well as on the history of museums and exhibition practices. He was a research associate in the international project Bilderfahrzeuge: Aby Warburg’s Legacy and the Future of Iconology, and currently works as a postdoctoral fellow at the Louvre Museum.

Victor Claass’ forthcoming book, Meier-Graefe face à l’impressionnisme, will be published in 2019 by the German Center for Art History in Paris.



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