In Focus: The Emancipated Spectator

Dramatic oil painting crowded with people, with a man in armour and a woman at centre being married by a priest.
Daniel Maclise (1806-1870), The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife, c.1854. Photo © National Gallery of IrelandCredit

In our ongoing adult learning series, In Focus, we link works from our collection with key art historical, theoretical or philosophical texts. Aimed especially at third-level students, but accessible to all, this series aims to support in-depth engagement with our collection and the selected texts.

In this post, we are looking at the painting The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife by Daniel Maclise. We will explore this work while considering viewers of art as active participants. This discussion is supported by Jacques Rancière’s essay The Emancipated Spectator. Here, we are invited to synthesise Rancière’s thinking with our potential experiences of this painting.

Key artwork

Key text


The Emancipated Spectator, published in 2009, is an influential essay from Jacques Rancière’s book of the same title. This text has contributed significantly to thinking around contemporary theatre and live art. For this week’s In Focus we are trying something a little different! We are going to consider the ideas presented in this text in relation to a work that dates to over 150 years earlier, Daniel Maclise’s The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife (1854). First of all, we must reimagine the painting as a piece of theatre: its scale and content will help us to do this. You, the reader, are a spectator in an expanded field of engagement, which demands creative thinking. For this discussion, let your imagination allow this painting to penetrate its surface into an illusion of a live event.

The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife depicts a significant and historic marriage. Aoife MacMurrough (c.1145 -1188) was an Irish noble woman and princess of Leinster. Her father Dermot MacMurrough, the exiled king of Leinster, lost his lands. In a desperate attempt to reclaim his power, he arranged a marriage between Aoife and Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, known as Strongbow, in return for military assistance from the Anglo-Normans. In August 1170, Strongbow landed in Ireland with the promised troops, and attacked Waterford. Soon after the city was seized, Aoife and Strongbow were married, and the presence of Normans in Ireland was consolidated.

There are three key aspects of the The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife that can support an approach to the painting as a form of theatre:

  1. A high sense of drama is conjured by the dispositions of the people in the painting, and the symbolism in the objects that Maclise includes.
  2. It is easy to interpret the onlookers at the wedding as the ‘audience’ (or a co-audience, along with us, the viewers), surrounding the ‘performers’, Strongbow and Aoife.
  3. The backdrop to the wedding is a largely fictionalised representation of medieval Waterford, further enhancing the theatrical effect.

Now, let us consider Rancière’s thinking in relation to this painting. In his 2009 essay, he states that “emancipation begins when we challenge the opposition between viewing and acting”. Rancière is expanding on a position he established in his 1987 book, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, which posited that the student and their own ways of learning should override traditional pedagogies where a teacher imparts knowledge to the student. This alternative form of teaching requires an ideology that recognises the fundamental equality of intelligence in all individuals.

He talks about the spectator as “separated from both the capacity to know and the power to act” (Rancière, 2009). To resolve this problem of passivity, theatre-makers Bertold Brecht (1898-1956) and Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) attempted to create versions of theatre with active participants as audiences. However, Rancière identifies a myth that the spectator is ever passive, and challenges art that makes a conscious attempt to activate the spectator by experimenting with ways of abolishing the gap between the audience and the performers. According to Rancière, this is simply replicating an authority over audiences by prescribing modes of connection between the spectator and art. Rancière points out that the audience can never be passive. He does not see a structural opposition between collective and individual, image and lived reality, or activity and passivity.

Let us take a moment to connect these ideas to The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife. The painting can be read as a depiction of a crowd surrounding two individuals, Aoife and Strongbow; however if we accept Rancière’s cohesion between the collective and the individual, we can instead understand all the people in the painting (including Aoife and Strongbow) as a collective or a mosaic of individuals, with an equality given to each of them. This, perhaps, does not correspond with either the artist’s intentions or the real political implications of this event. There is a hierarchy offered by the artist, which you can read about here in this post on the painting’s history, characters, and symbolism.

For this discussion, however, the painting’s authorship outlives the artist’s intentions and it is attributed to the object itself and the associations created by the viewer. (As a side note, this idea of authorship is mapped out in relation to literature in Roland Barthes’ essay The Death of the Author.) With this in mind, we as viewers have the opportunity to experience the painting anew. We can attribute new meanings, versions and conclusions to this work, to fit the contemporary moment or within a specific paradigm.

In The Emancipated Spectator, a key concern is the equality of intelligence. What Rancière offers is equality amongst onlookers. In this particular event, at this particular depicted moment, each and every person is observing the same thing equally; it is a democracy of looking, creating a unique number of specific versions of engagement.

If we take Rancière’s statement alluding to equality between image and lived reality, this is where we can further assume a theatrical iteration of this painting. We can shift the focus in the painting from us watching people watching a marriage ceremony, and we can dissolve the surface of the canvas and enter the scene. We can even continue this by imagining the scene expanding into the room in which it is is displayed.

Rancière abolishes the distinction between activity and passivity: watching, observing, and spectating are monumental acts, no different to that of coming together in marriage. Through the act of spectating, we are participating. It locates the art object as an autonomous thing, dislodged from the intentions of the artist and available to associations attributed by the viewer at any given moment. Contemplation may appear to be passive, but it is an action that is internal and not explicitly visible.

Once we create our own experiences of the painting, we can forge a connection with this event, and share the painted audiences’ experience of witnessing this wedding. By making an event out of our viewing of the painting on our own terms, we are adopting  Rancière’s thinking. We can also appropriate a response to the painting that is simply “the mobility of the gaze’ (Rancière, 2009) or just a glance - a yawn and then we move on, click, scroll, or walk over to something else. All the aforementioned modes of engagement, and everything in between, are active ones.

Rancière suggests that novel ways of seeing art offer a variety of new perspectives through each viewer’s own specificity of knowledge. New perspectives have the potential to create communities that challenge dominant political and social orders. Here, there is an opportunity to contemplate the political power of engagement with art.


  • Do you think the  Daniel Maclise’s interpretation of this event reflects sympathies with the Irish nationalist cause or a desire to exercise high drama and theatricality? 
  • How would you define an active and a passive participant in viewing art? 
  • Do you think that viewing a painting is an active or passive experience? 

Further reading: 

  • Jacques Rancière, (1999/2008) The Ignorant Schoolmaster: five lessons in intellectual emancipation, Chicago:  University of Chicago Press
  • Guy Debord, (1983) The Society of The Spectacle, Detroit: Black & Red.

Written by: Jennie Taylor, National Gallery of Ireland 

You might also like: