By Jan Clarke.  Full essay in print edition or online at Project MUSE

The study of iconography is now firmly established as a key strand within the discipline of theatre studies. This essay examines its development, focusing primarily on the theoreticians of the 1990s and 2000s, and its evolution from a sub-strand of art history to an academic endeavour in its own right. As Chris Balme has noted, by the late 1990s, theatre iconography had established a canon of problematic documents, which did not lend themselves to easy interpretation for a variety of reasons. However, as a natural consequence of the research interests of the scholars involved, the areas covered were necessarily circumscribed. The aims of the present essay, therefore, are to bring some seventeenth-century French problematic images and the questions they raise to the attention of a wider public, situate them in relation to previous and on-going conversations within the discipline, and discuss the particular challenges they present. It opens with a brief survey of the development of the study of theatre iconography, followed by a discussion of a single emblematic image. The remainder of the essay examines examples of theatre architecture, frontispieces and special effects – the first two because they are of particular relevance to French seventeenth-century theatre history and the last because it is an area that has previously been little explored. Finally, it concludes with some thoughts on the particular problems that surround the use of images by scholars and students today. 

French and Italian farce actors of the last 60 years or more painted in 1670. Oil on canvas), Verio (fl.1670) (attr. to). Comédie-Francaise, Paris, France. Courtesy of Bridgeman Images.
‘Presentation of the Ballet de la Prospérité et des Armes de la France’ (Musée des arts décoratifs), Paris in 1641 (oil on canvas), Saint-Igny, Jean de (1595-1649). Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, France. Archives Charmet. Courtesy of Bridgeman Images.
Engraving of Act V of Mirame (Bibliothèque nationale de France). 1641 (engraving). Private Collection. Courtesy of Bridgeman Images.
La Comédie de la devineresse: almanac pour l’an bessextil (The comedy of the soothsayer), engraving from a 1680 almanac. Private Collection. Courtesy of Bridgeman Images.