Aaron Wile received his Ph.D. in History of Art and Architecture from Harvard University in 2017. He studies European art between 1600 and 1900, with a focus on France during the long eighteenth century. At the USC Society of Fellows, he will transform his dissertation into a book manuscript, tentatively titled Painting, Authority, and Experience at the Twilight of the Grand Siècle, 1688–1721. A new reading of a period in art history usually dismissed as a “transition” to the rococo, the project traces how the intellectual and political crises afflicting France at the end of Louis XIV’s reign destabilized the authority that undergirded painting’s meaning and mission. Focusing on major royal commissions, it argue that artists’ confrontation with the era’s shifting ground of sovereignty transformed the relationship between painting and spectator, making the encounter with art a moment for the formation of a subjectivity independent of royal power.
By identifying socio-aesthetic models that did not simply resist the official system of representation, Wile’s research seeks to elucidate a broader paradox of cultural autonomy: that culture achieves independence as it is put in the service of religious or political power. In doing so, it relocates the story of modern art and selfhood in the heart of absolutist culture. Publications stemming from this project include “Watteau, Reverie, and Selfhood,” which appeared in The Art Bulletin and was awarded the 2015–2016 James L. Clifford Prize for best article from the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. Wile’s research has been supported by fellowships from the Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte in Paris, The Frick Collection, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the Frick, Wile also curated Watteau’s Soldiers: Scenes of Military Life in Eighteenth-Century France, the first exhibition devoted to Jean-Antoine Watteau’s little-known military works. Watteau’s Soldiers was named one of the best exhibitions of 2016 by The Wall Street Journal, and his essay for the accompanying catalogue, “Watteau and the Inner Life of War,” received the 2017 Award for Outstanding Article, Essay, or Extended Catalogue Entry from the Association of Art Museum Curators.