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Vault

Tim Barringer on John Everett Millais

THE HISTORY OF ART can no longer articulate a compelling narrative of the birth of modern painting, leaving a lacuna in our understanding of the nineteenth century. Even New York’s Museum of Modern Art has abandoned the heroic but hackneyed story in which Impressionism’s liberated brushstroke prefigures Pollock’s triumph of pure paint. The social history of art, on the other hand, has moved from the status of critique to that of orthodoxy, with every sophomore able to reduce the masterworks of Manet and Degas to glib one-liners about flaneurs and prostitutes.

New interpretations of the nineteenth century are desperately needed—a breakthrough possible only through the consideration of a broader cast of artistic characters. An enlarged canon can better reveal the vibrancy and sheer strangeness of the art produced in that turbulent era. Museums tend to forget that rich and resonant work was

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