Meet the 2021 Hansen PhD Scholar, Georgia Comte

Since 2016, an annual Hansen PhD scholarship in History has been awarded to support an outstanding researcher with a commitment to promoting History to the wider community. This year’s Hansen PhD scholar is Georgia Comte, who will be investigating gender and sexuality in late eighteenth- to early nineteenth-century French art.

Georgia embarks on this project after a stellar performance in her Honours year, when she received both the 2019 Margaret Kiddle Prize for the best final Honours thesis in History and the 2019 Dwight Final Examination Prize (Combined Honours) for her thesis on the work of French neo-classical painter Jacques-Louis David.

What led you to postgraduate studies in History?

I have always intended to study history. I knew that history would become my life’s work as soon as I began to think seriously about tertiary education in high school. On that merit, the University of Melbourne’s Arts program seemed the natural beginning to my career in historical study. I undertook a Bachelor of Arts with dual specialisation in history and archaeology. I had planned from the beginning that, if all went according to plan, I could complete my Honours and then hopefully go on to postgraduate studies. I am very pleased to have been granted the opportunity to continue my studies at the University of Melbourne. The research I began with my Honours thesis raised far too many questions for me to abandon the field!

I have been studying French history for five years, after my VCE Revolutions class first introduced me to the French Revolution in 2015. Naturally, this led me to Professor Peter McPhee’s famous undergraduate class, which essentially sealed my fate. I fell in love with the complexity and richness of the period and never looked back.

Tell us about your PhD project. What’s the research puzzle that you are aiming to solve, and why is this something worth doing?

The project I’m undertaking will focus on the integral role played by gender and sexuality in French art from the period 1780–1815. I want to find a new way to explore the relationships between art and artist, and art and politics. Analysing the reactions of different artists to the many changes in artistic trends will form the foundation of my exploration into this issue, as well as reading widely about the many reactions of the public to these artists’ work.

I’m very much interested in the artists’ individual responses to the challenges brought about by political changes, which had an impact on the kinds of images that were being produced and what kinds of images were acceptable to paint. The French Revolution coincided with and in some ways helped to bring about a radical change in the art world. One of these changes related to the place of female artists.

I would especially like to emphasise the role of female painters and better understand their reactions to these changes, both within the artistic world and the wider cultural and political movement. I am particularly interested in the portraiture of female painters, and I’ve included two powerful examples here, one completed by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, the other by Marie Victoire Lemoine. Both portraits are especially remarkable because both artists have chosen to depict their students as well. This is not a common practice among male artists, who rarely make reference to their students in their own portraiture.

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, 1785. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 53.225.5
Marie-Victoire Lemoine, The Interior of an Atelier of a Woman Painter, 1789. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 57.103

Many artists of both genders demonstrated unusual responses to the rapid changes in acceptability when it came to rendering both male and female bodies. For some artists, the monumental male nude became hugely important beyond its centrality in the neoclassical movement. Anne-Louis Girodet’s Endymion is a fabulous example of the kinds of beautiful, sublime images artists were painting using the male nude as a central figure. Naturally, the male nude has been important throughout the history of art, but it was especially significant during the Revolution.

Anne-Louis Girodet, Endymion, 1791. Louvre, INV. 4935

One artist who particularly held onto this neoclassical canon was Jacques-Louis David. When neoclassicism began to change after the Revolution, it was no longer considered acceptable to paint male nude art in the same way, yet David continued to paint in this style for some time despite harsh criticism.

Other artists heartily embraced these changes! One of David’s canny students, François Gérard, very quickly began painting images that would become antecedents of the Romantic movement. In these paintings, the male nude was always contextualised within a heterosexual ancient myth where the female nude was also used. The female nude had been largely put aside after the neo-classical movement ended the Rococo period [c1730s to 1760s] in France but soon began to reappear during the Directory period [1795–1799].

I hope to achieve through this research a nuanced understanding of the ways in which individual conceptions of gender and sexuality subvert, adopt, reject and interact with the hegemonic discourses of the time.

I believe my research is worthwhile because it will not only further our understanding of the impact that the French Revolution had on the ways in which gender was codified and conceived, but it will also underscore the historicity of ‘queerness’. I believe that this is important because it raises marginalised voices. The ability to point to examples of gender complexity and diverse sexuality in the past can be extremely validating for individuals in the present. It also gives us a more complete picture of the past, which can help us understand its diversity and nuances.

What kind of sources will you be using in your research? What are the challenges and rewards associated with using sources in another language?

I will of course be using a bank of paintings, sketches, and other images from the period, but I will also be referring to many painting student memoirs and salon critiques! These are usually in untranslated French, and certainly never in modern French, so they pose a challenge. I encountered this conundrum in my Honours research and, though I would say I’m far from a fluent French-speaker (or more importantly, reader), the more you work with the target language the more you begin to understand the particularities of it.

I have always known that working in French history would require that I handle these kinds of sources. I wasn’t given the opportunity during my schooling to learn another language, and my undergraduate degree was also taken up by my double major [History and Ancient World Studies], so everything I know has been largely self-taught.

There are dictionaries and websites out there that can really help when it comes to translation. You don’t have to be an expert to approach these kinds of sources; start small, and give yourself plenty of time. It opens an entirely new world when you’re able to look at a new bank of historical material that would otherwise be closed to you.

What is it that drew you to History as a field of study?

My journey with History teaching began when I was a child. The first history I learned was passed down orally by my grandfather. His stories became my first instruction in making the past legible. These were simple lessons, usually about which part of a steam engine did what, or who the people in the faded photographs in my grandmother’s crystal cabinet were. Nevertheless, these stories and explanations captured my imagination more than fiction.

I was always very aware of how history lived so very much in the present through storytelling. It was this function of history as ‘story’ that first drew me to it as a child, and to an extent, still speaks to me now. The aspects of these stories which now interest me have certainly changed, and my perception of these ‘stories’, their merits, their reliability, has allowed me a far richer understanding not only of myself and others, but the world around me.

The study of history provides an essential critical lens through which to view the world. We often understand culture and form relationships based on common history, whether we are entirely aware of it or not. History has such an incredible capacity to bind, to entertain, to move and to inform. It is a remarkably prescient field, despite its inherent concern with the past. The unconscious power of history is never more relevant now, where the work of the historian is more vital than ever in combatting the dissemination of harmful, non-factual information.

Who are the historians who have most shaped your own scholarly practice and inspired you in your work?

One of my greatest influences has been the University’s own illustrious Emeritus Professor Peter McPhee. Peter supervised me throughout my Honours thesis, but acted as a mentor to me before that, encouraging my love – and at times obsession – with French history. His own approach to French history, which has always been accessible at a student level, progressive and fresh, has hugely impacted my own work. I read Peter’s books for the first time as a high-school student and I still use them today! Peter has always approached his historical subjects with a radical nuance. His ability to tap into the psyche of historical individuals large and small has always been an astounding merit of his work, and one which I try to emulate.

I have also been enormously influenced by the work of the American art historian Thomas Crow. Crow’s analysis has always been helpful because it contextualises the artists’ personal history as well as the larger history of the period. This has been extremely influential in the way I view the connections between art, artist and artistic movement. Crow’s research was truly the springboard for much of my own interest in my research area, and guided me toward many of the painters and paintings that now occupy some of my own analysis.

I have also been enormously impacted by the work of many great feminist historians and historian of LGBT studies. Lynn Hunt’s theoretical approach to gender in the French Revolution has been a cornerstone of my own work. Her seminal work, The Family Romance of The French Revolution [1992], has been in my academic arsenal since my late undergraduate career and I still refer to it all the time!

My primary supervisor also deserves a mention here! Hansen Senior Lecturer, Dr Una McIlvenna has been empowering me in my work since I was paired up with her for a mentoring program. Una is a deeply compassionate teacher, and in many ways her generosity with students has inspired my own philosophies of teaching, which I hope to further develop throughout my PhD. She has also proven in her own research how truly valuable an interdisciplinary approach in history can be, and this continues to fuel my own interdisciplinary work.

What advice would you give to first-year undergraduates considering doing a History major at the University of Melbourne?

First and foremost, don’t be daunted by the intense atmosphere of tertiary history. It may seem enormous and overwhelming compared to the kind of history you studied in high school, but you will soon find that if you are a true lover of history, this new focus and intensity will draw you in. Your peers are your best support network in this regard, try to make friends with the people at your tute tables or in your zoom classes. Fostering a sense of camaraderie with other passionate students can help make things seem less daunting! I promise that everyone else is as eager to be there are you are, and will be delighted to chat.

I also recommend finding an area of history you love and trying to follow that throughout your degree, whether it be a period, a country, or a discursive lens. This can help you figure out what you love and maintain momentum when the work might feel overwhelming.

Perhaps contrary to that previous piece of advice: take a class or two that seems wildly outside of your area, but interesting! I ended up taking several historical breadth classes offered by other faculties, and now entertain an avid interest in the history of ecology! It allowed me to indulge my curiosity in other faculties while also playing to my academic strengths.

Finally, what does receiving the Hansen PhD Scholarship mean to you?

I am hugely honoured to join the ranks of the Hansen scholars, and to become acquainted with all the brilliant historians already at work under the Hansen banner. The Hansen scholarship is not only an acknowledgement of my potential, or an opportunity to have my PhD supported financially, it is also an invaluable opportunity to lift the public profile of history.

I look forward to working with other members of the History discipline at the University of Melbourne and continuing the great work behind Jane Hansen’s generous establishment of this scholarship. Her bequest to the History program has enabled a huge amount of important study to continue, and I am so grateful to be one of the recipients.

It has also offered me a fantastic opportunity for career development, particularly in the sphere of teaching. Both Peter and Una have inspired me with their own passionate and engaging teaching style. The teaching of history itself has become an integral part of my own perception of the role of history and I so look forward to the opportunity to teach other budding historians!

The Hansen PhD scholarship is one strand of the Hansen Trust, established in 2015 to advance the study of History at the University of Melbourne. The Hansen Trust PhD Scholarship in History provides $35,000 per year for the length of a full-time PhD candidature. A key feature of the scholarship is a mentoring program that provides valuable experience in tertiary teaching and the promotion of History to the community. 

Feature image: Jean-Germain Drouais, Gaius Marius at Minturnae, 1786. Louvre, INV. 4143