Art, Artists and Society
Bohemian versus Bourgeois
The divorce between “Art” and “Society,” a couple, so it seems, blissfully (if sometimes stormily) married for as far back as anyone can remember was first discussed in the second half of the eighteenth century and finally promulgated a hundred years later: recent attempts at reconciliation are not wholly convincing despite the fervor they engender. Quite soon after the first signs of estrangement the analysis of its causes and the charting of its development became a familiar occupation. Here are two more examples of this type of study.
Miss Geraldine Pelles looks rather cursorily at the more familiar painting produced in England and France between 1750 and 1850 from a variety of different viewpoints in the hope of demonstrating “the origins of a modern dilemma.” She has unearthed a few interesting quotations and has an occasional illuminating insight, but on the whole her book is marred by a superficial approach and the most serious errors of fact and judgment. These errors are not the trivial ones to which every work of scholarship is liable, for they often strike at the very heart of her argument. Thus it is true neither that “Fragonard and Greuze never became members of the Academy” (both of them did, though Greuze was only admitted as a genre painter) nor that Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa was bought by the State during his lifetime. Then one must have serious doubts about the historical judgment of an author who can claim that Delacroix’s portrait of George Sand in 1838 illustrates the Romantic artist’s tendency to paint “solitary figures isolated from easy human contacts” in view of the fact that the original canvas showed that lady with her lover Chopin, from whom she was forcibly separated only some years later by a picture collector “soucieux peut-être des bonnes moeurs” (to quote a recent scholar). Nor did David “conceive and design” The Rape of the Sabine Women in “about 1790”; and had he ever painted such a picture (as distinguished from their intervention in an effort to stop the fighting) no one could possibly have interpreted it as “symbolic of the need for reconciliation after the Terror.” And why was the aristocracy “crumbling” when Watteau painted his fêtes-galantes at the beginning of the eighteenth century?
Miss Pelles is also prone to making statements that she totally fails to substantiate. It is very likely, for instance, that in the 1830s and 1840s “there was a widespread desire for grand subjects as the numbers of middle-class persons who aspired to an upper-class style of life increased,” but we are given no evidence to support this opinion, and such a vague generalization is characteristic of the very sort of writing that she justifiably deplores in other authors.
A serious study of the whole phenomenon which she discusses would be one of the most valuable contributions that could possibly be made to the history of modern art. But it would have to embrace a far more extensive knowledge of the …
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Art & Society September 10, 1964