The Revival of Official Art

Le Musée du Luxembourg en 1874: Peintures November 18, 1974, by Geneviève Lacambre, with Jacqueline de Rohan-Chabot

Catalogue of the exhibition at the Grand-Palais, Paris May 31 to
Paris: Editions des Musées Nationaux, 189, 233 ill. pp., 25F

Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the Second French Republic, 1848-1851

by T.J. Clark
New York Graphic Society, 190 pp., $17.50

Academy and French Painting in the Nineteenth Century

by Albert Boime
Phaidon Press, 344, 161 illus. pp., $30.00

William-Adolphe Bouguereau December 13, 1974 to February 2, 1975, by Robert Isaacson

Catalogue of the exhibition at The New York Cultural Center,
The New York Cultural Center, 51 pp., $4.00

French Painting 1774-1830: The Age of Revolution Delacroix" at the Grand-Palais, Paris, The Detroit Institute of Arts, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1975

Catalogue of the exhibition "French Painting from David to
Wayne State University Press, 712 pp., $14.95


In 1974, the centenary of the first Impressionist exhibition, the National Museums of France celebrated the occasion in Paris by a small, select show of Impressionists and their friends—a show which also came to New York—and a vast presentation of the official art of their time, the pictures that could be seen in 1874 in the Palais du Luxembourg, the official museum of modern art from 1818 until 1937.

“Official art” has a nasty ring to it. Yet much of the greatest art we know is official, paid for by the government, encouraged and commissioned by the ruling powers: the sculpture of Phidias for Pericles, the great art of the medieval cathedrals, the Vatican frescoes of Michelangelo and Raphael, the Hapsburg portraits by Velazquez. We may even suspect that the artists of the Lascaux caves were not exactly bohemian rebels.

Still, the dominant myth of the inferiority of official art begins early in the nineteenth century with the novel Romantic figure of the artist as alienated individual. Recently a large number of publications and exhibitions have attacked the soundness of this myth, which causes us to see all important nineteenth-century art as avant-garde. The most significant of the exhibitions was “The Museum of the Luxembourg Palace in 1874.” It was an excellent idea to re-create the atmosphere of the nineteenth-century contemporary art museum. The research of Geneviève Lacambre was nothing less than heroic. She managed to track down most of the paintings from the old Luxembourg, and she set forth her findings in a catalogue at once dispassionate and sympathetic that will remain indispensable to scholars of the period.

An artistic career in nineteenth-century France followed a set pattern: several years at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts; a scholarship in Rome at the Villa Medicis for the most promising students; the admission of one’s pictures for display at the annual (sometimes only biennial) Salon, which was a kind of public proving ground; and then the Luxembourg, which represented official acceptance. Last of all, there was election to the Academy, the national conscience of art and the guardian of tradition. Ten years after his death the artist was judged to see if his works should be hung in the Louvre or consigned to a less glorious fate in the provinces.

Almost everything seen at the Luxembourg in 1874 is unfamiliar today (except for what appears in the art pages of the old Larousse dictionaries) and is held in low esteem by most people interested in art. Not all the paintings were shown in the 1974 exhibition, but there were enough to give us a fair idea of the whole, and to reconstruct a historical moment, which has an important relation to the first exhibition of Impressionist art. But it still remains to investigate the meaning of this elaborate display. Should we admire at least some of these faded splendors, or should we simply send these paintings back to the cellars, provincial museums, and ministry halls where they were found?


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