• Email
  • Print

The Breakup

Canvases and Careers: Institutional Change in the French Painting World

by Harrison White, by 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.

Professor and Mrs. White propose to explore the process by which the Academy in France was replaced as the center of the country’s artistic life by the present system, which depends essentially on small exhibitions arranged by dealers and publicized by critics. As the layman so often finds, a vast amount of dense statistics appears to lead to a very simple answer which he had in any case always thought probable: in this case the whole system broke down under the sheer weight of numbers. But it is always useful to have one’s hunches confirmed by the results of someone else’s tough and boring research, especially when during the course of this research many useful points are made. The authors show, for instance, how the very success of the academic system was responsible for its collapse, for it was just because it was able to make art “respectable” that it attracted so many artists. We also see French art (as opposed to Italian or Northern) becoming increasingly popular with French collectors between 1750 and 1850, while at the same time the academic goal of serious history painting lost more and more support. For it appears that academic painters received far more than financial backing from the government after the fall of Napoleon, and were thus forced to adapt themselves and their art to the exigencies of private clients: this, in effect, influenced the production of genre painting.

All this—and much more—is useful and interesting, but if we read the book carefully we soon become aware of many limitations. While it may be true that art history is too serious a matter to be left to art historians, still, some feeling for aesthetic standards is essential. And it is just this that is lacking. It is not so much a matter of breezy judgments (Couture’s Romains de la Décadence cannot simply be dismissed as a “popular horror”) or of the odd mistake (Bazille did not die in 1872, but was killed in 1870) as a paralyzing caution whenever aesthetic commitment is necessary to sustain an argument. Thus, four reasons are given for the “emergence of France as the world cultural center,” but the actual quality of the art produced is not one of them. The fact that the standard of French art (whether “academic” or “modern”) was higher than that of other countries during the period discussed must surely have played just as important a part in establishing its popularity with collectors as the triumph of the academic system. The deficiencies of nineteenth-century critics from our point of view are notorious, but we must allow them some taste. Even if they failed to praise Manet, they were surely right to prefer Couture to his contemporaries in England, Holland, or Italy. Similarly, to say of the vogue for Spanish painting during the early nineteenth century that “given even the most ingenious efforts of dealers and critics in discovery and definition, the supply of old Italian masters is limited, and as the total market expands new collectors are stimulated in their ability to recognize the merits of hitherto obscure Spanish painters” is an absurd over-simplification.

The failure to make or recognize the importance of aesthetic judgments, leads to weaknesses in the use of statistics. The non-specialist can of course only approach this field with great hesitation, and the authors themselves are aware of pitfalls. For example, they show that the popularity of Dutch history painting appears to rival that of the French during much of the nineteenth century and they are duly surprised. But what was this Dutch history painting? Though names are not given, one strongly suspects that it must mean works by Rembrandt and his school, and the authors are not sufficiently alive to the fact that a great artist usually transcends the category to which his pictures belong. Since the eighteenth century at least, people have nearly always said: “I will buy a Rembrandt” rather than “I will buy a history or a landscape or a portrait by Rembrandt.”

This leads to a further point of great importance which is nearly always ignored by social historians of art, who derive statistics from old sale catalogues. How much can we rely on the attributions that they contain? It is true that this problem need not always worry the authors of this book, since they are concerned with the subject matter of pictures rather than with their authors—a landscape remains a landscape whether by Rembrandt or by an indifferent pupil. When it comes to gauging prices, however, the problem is related but it raises very different questions. It will not do to say that as the landscape was thought to be by Rembrandt, this can give us an estimate of the value in which it was held. For a sale catalogue can tell us only what the seller and auctioneer thought of a picture or, at any rate, wanted the public to think of it. Innumerable cases in our own day show that the potential purchaser may well have other ideas. Can it be assumed, for instance, that the taste for Florentine Quattrocento paintings is on the decline because at a recent auction in London a picture attributed to Fra Angelico fetched far less than had been anticipated? It may be that questionable attributions are so evenly distributed in time that the problem can be ignored. But this is not necessarily the case, and I suspect that there are certain periods of history in which connoisseurs will be more likely to be correct in their appraisal of certain types of artists. The matter should at least be raised.

Moreover, the problems raised by stylistic issues were crucial for the fortunes of the Academy. The warning cry of “L’école est en danger!” had some significance during the early years of the century when David’s pupils worked in a recognizable style and felt themselves challenged by the Romantics. It had almost no meaning at all towards the end when two artists as different as Bouguereau and Meissonier could sit together on the Salon jury. In fact, after the deaths of Ingres and Delacroix many people, including serious critics, felt that the Academy was no longer an exclusive body but was now one that could really find place for the best painters of all styles. Thus paradoxically the decline of its original ideal of Academic Art gave the Academy itself a new lease on life. Degas’s charge that “ils nous fusillent, mais ils nous fouillent les poches” was true enough, but this policy only served to enhance the Academy’s reputation for liberalism. For there were many other artists besides Cézanne who wanted, in their own ways, to make of Impressionism “something durable, something for the museums”—men such as Bastien-Lepage, Carolus-Duran, Gervex and Roll, all of whom showed regularly at the Salon and won enthusiastic approval. From some points of view the prestige of the Academy was higher towards the end of the century than it had been for a very long time.

Much more surprising, in a book of this kind, is the fact that the authors pay so little attention to the changes of organization and attitude adopted by different political regimes, which culminated in the final break between the Academy and the government in 1881. Some of these occasions are briefly referred to, but their implications are never fully explored. It is certain, for instance, that many of the attacks made on the Academy and academic art, during the Second Empire especially, were inspired by opposition to the regime which sponsored them. Or again, we find that at some periods the government was fully prepared to give important commissions to painters who were boycotted by the Academy (Delacroix, for instance), while at others (when the new Hôtel de Ville was being decorated after the Commune) it confined itself almost exclusively to the leading academic painters. All these, and many other points, ought surely to have been discussed in a book dealing with “institutional changes in the French painting world.”

Despite these limitations, and despite a certain insensitivity of approach, the publishers are none the less right to claim that this little book of only a hundred and fifty pages really does “suggest novel approaches to dealing with art historical information.” The range is wide—where else, for example, are we likely to find a discussion of Flandrin and Bonvin as well as of Manet and Pissarro?—and the problem raised is central to our understanding of nineteenth-century art history, but has hither-to been almost totally ignored. There are not many books about the sociology of art of which one can say as much.

  • Email
  • Print