Antique cast of a statue head of Akhenaten (18th Dynasty, um 1340 v. Chr.) by Artist unknownNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
The disrupters. The change-makers. The rebels.
It can be easy to believe that change is incremental, that the transition from the past to the future is a gradual one. But from a perspective of millennia, the arc of history is anything but smooth. Sudden, sometimes traumatic changes are what really define progress in everything from global politics to art. Some of those changes are driven by forces of nature. But some of them are driven by people who looked around them, decided things weren’t good enough, and changed everything.
Antique cast of a statue head of Akhenaten at Neues Museum
When Amenhotep IV came to the throne of Ancient Egypt in c1350BC, he had more than a thousand years of royal tradition, a whole pantheon of gods, hundreds of temples and an entire priesthood to show him the ropes. So he threw them all out and started over: new capital city, new monotheistic God (Aten) and even a new name: Akhenaten. Inspired visionary or dangerous heretic?
Frederick the Great and his Marshals before the Battle of Leuthen (1859 - 1861) by Adolph MenzelAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Frederick the Great and his Marshals before the Battle of Leuthen at Alte Nationalgalerie
Kings have a real fondness for hierarchy (mostly because they’re at the top) and this is especially true of portraiture and the military. Rulers are often portrayed as heroes or warrior kings, leading their troops from the front. Adolph Menzel had more egalitarian ideas, showing the Emperor bargaining with his generals, pleading with them to fight one more battle. But Frederick’s descendant, King Wilhelm I, wasn’t having any of it and demanded changes. Menzel refused to back down, and this is what happened next.
Spring Landscape (1862) by Charles-François DaubignyAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Spring Landscape at Alte Nationalgalerie
You could have forgiven Charles-Francois Daubigny for giving up early in his career, such was the vitriol and contempt heaped on his work by critics and contemporaries. They decried his lack of detail and his imprecise brushwork. But for Daubigny, that was the point. He wasn’t interested in the detail, he was interested in something deeper. And the way he responded to his critics changed art as we know it.