In 1849 the young sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, who was later to execute the famous group La Danse for the façade of the Paris Opera, regretfully abandoned his studies with François Rude, the greatest of French romantic sculptors (and a major figure in Hugh Honour’s Romanticism). Carpeaux went to work with Francisque Duret, a less inspired teacher, but one much more representative of the doctrines of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He gave the reasons for his break with Rude in a letter to a friend:1
Mr. Rude, as I must have told you in my discussions about art, has a method which consists of a way of doing sculpture quite different from that of the Beaux-Arts. For example, he claims that sculpture—and I think he is right—can be done well only by mathematical aids: that is, using compasses, rulers, plumblines, etc…. Finally, he turns his students into practitioners, while at the School, everything is done only by eye.
The Institute prefers to say that the arts in general exist more in emotions than in measurements, which make us cold copyists with only the material spirit of what we are doing, while they…. I think what they say is very pretentious, but still I have to listen to them, and to talk and do as they do. And since there is a great difference between these two methods and one cannot serve two masters at once, I said to myself: let’s make a choice, the School is a question of my future and my existence….
At first sight, this may appear to stand romanticism on its head. For Carpeaux, it is the official academic doctrine which asserts that art is essentially a matter of emotion; by contrast, Rude, the romantic artist, creator of the violent, gesticulating figure of the Marseillaise on the Arc de Triomphe (which for many of Rude’s contemporaries far overstepped the bounds of the permissible in emotional expression), emphasizes the importance of measurement and exact proportion. The academic establishment teaches the young artist to work subjectively, “by eye,” while the revolutionary romantic artist teaches by means of objective mathematical tools. For the academy, the sculptor was an artist; for Rude, the contemporary of Géricault and Delacroix, the sculptor is first a skilled workman, a “practitioner.”
The oddity is not a matter of overcompensation on both sides, but of date. By 1850 many of the romantic attitudes, vitiated and trivialized, had become respectable: the superiority of inspiration, emotion, and subjective judgment over tradition, rules, and skill was now official. The primacy of emotion was, of course, passionately believed in by Rude, but he took it more seriously than the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and he did not think it could be taught. Rude’s insistence on objective classical training (never abandoned by his generation) became a new form of romantic rebellion.
The history of romanticism is—to a far greater extent than the history of any other artistic or philosophical movement—a history of redefinitions. Hugh Honour devotes…
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