The Breakup

Canvases and Careers: Institutional Change in the French Painting World

by Harrison White and Cynthia White
John Wiley, 167 pp., $5.50

If one could find a representative art critic of today and then transport him back by time machine to any period before 1800 (the first would probably be more difficult than the second), the chances are that he would generally agree with any well-informed amateur whom he happened to meet about the relative merits of all the leading artists of the period into which he found himself projected. There would be shifts of emphasis, but astonishingly little fundamental disagreement. Put him on the advisory boards which helped to establish any of the great European art academies between 1550 and 1800, and he would vote with the majority. But some time during the nineteenth century this dialogue between the past and the present broke down. It is possible to read books written by highly sensitive and intelligent critics during that century which lavish the most enthusiastic praise on artists whose works (and often whose names) are totally unfamiliar to us. The early neglect of the Impressionists, Van Gogh, and others is now the stuff of popular film biographies.

Why did all this happen? Extraordinarily little serious attention has been paid to the question, and we are usually fobbed off with untested generalities about the ever rising middle classes. There are two reasons for this failure to tackle a problem which (however familiar) remains of absorbing interest and importance. First, modern histories of nineteenth-century art are entirely theological in tone, with genius finally prevailing against unspecified forces of devilry. Second, the task of explaining nineteenth-century attitudes toward art is not one for the art historian alone. It would of course require exploring a great deal of painting which unquestionably is worse than mediocre—though much also that is of real beauty. But the obstruction encountered by “progressive” art in the nineteenth century was not due primarily to the nature of that art. Between 1815 and 1907 (at least) there is no change in artistic style which cannot be matched in scope by many others in previous centuries. If, as some bewildered critics of the time supposed, opposition to new styles becomes inevitable as we grow older, why do we not observe this psychological necessity in earlier periods? Countless biographies before the nineteenth century demonstrate that a new style was usually a certain way of attracting support.

To get to the bottom of the problem we need to know a great deal more not only about psychology but also about politics, society, and the structure of artistic organizations. Therefore when two writers who are not art historians themselves, but are obviously well informed, decide to produce a book on “institutional change in the French painting world” of the nineteenth century, we ought to welcome them with open arms. Page after page of tables which classify much-loved painters by their “career characteristics” or “productivity,” and occasional algebraic equations, should not necessarily alarm us. Clumsy writing, so often encountered in the work of “real” art historians, need not daunt us either, for there are many compensations.

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