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The English Invade Paris

Peinture Romantique Anglaise”

Petit Palais (Paris) Winter/Spring, 1972

Four years ago the museums of Detroit and Philadelphia sponsored an exhibition of “Romantic Art in Britain, 1760-1860.” I did not see it, but to judge from the catalogue,* itself an outstanding contribution to our knowledge of the subject, the exhibition was as impressive as it was imaginative and pioneering, for it brought to general attention a number of artists who, until then, had been little known except to specialists, but who could certainly stand alongside their more famous contemporaries. Moreover, the fact that the exhibition was organized outside Great Britain, by officials of museums that contain distinguished examples of European art, gave an entirely new perspective to the characterization of the works on display. Indeed, in one of the sparkling essays included in the catalogue, Robert Rosenblum attempted to lift the study of British art out of the ghetto to which it has so often been relegated and to give a brief general survey of its relationship to wider currents of European painting than the endlessly repeated, but little verified, parallels between Constable and the School of Barbizon, and Turner and the Impressionists.

When, in the euphoria following the decision of the French government to rescind its ban on Britain’s entry into the Common Market, it was announced that an exhibition of British art was to be held in Paris, this may have seemed exactly the right occasion on which to follow up some of the hints suggested in Rosenblum’s essay and in much other scholarly writing of recent years. Where better than in Paris to see, side by side, Thomas Jones and Valenciennes; Lawrence and Gérard; Flaxman and Ingres; Constable, Georges Michel, and Théodore Rousseau; Bonington, Etty, and Delacroix; Landseer and Courbet; Burne-Jones and Gustave Moreau; and—of course—Turner and Monet? The fascination, as well as the real value, of exhibitions of this kind was demonstrated at the Tate Gallery last year when, under the title “Shock of Recognition,” the works of many British landscape artists were indeed shown in the same rooms as the Dutch Old Masters which had inspired them. A well-organized Anglo-French exhibition on similar lines looked to be even more interesting because of the much wider range of subject matter involved.

In fact, however, we have recently been seeing in Paris a display of British art covering much the same ground (and with almost exactly the same title) as the Detroit-Philadelphia show of 1968, and American visitors to that exhibition need not feel that they have missed anything very new by not coming to the Petit Palais this spring.

It is true that the useful catalogue was constantly drawing attention to interesting parallels between English and French painting, and that the energetic visitor could, so to speak, arrange the ideal “exposition imaginaire” for himself by hurrying from the Petit Palais to the many museums which contain the pertinent French pictures. The new subterranean rooms in the Musée Marmottan, which now houses a marvelous group of Monets, were particularly inviting from this point of view, and a visit there could not fail to stir up old controversies. For though it is obvious that the main impact of Turner was not felt by Monet until comparatively late in his career, nevertheless one or two pictures painted in the 1870s strongly suggest that he was indeed impressed by the English artist when staying in London during the Franco-Prussian War, different though their conceptions of painting were in almost every respect.

Less exhausting was a visit to those other rooms in the Petit Palais in which could be seen the impressive, but very idiosyncratic, permanent collections of the museum. But the experience was not only somewhat disappointing but also actively misleading in the impression it conveyed, for—with only a very few exceptions such French nineteenth-century pictures there as bear any serious relationship to English art of the period are of generally low quality. It is regrettable that more advantage was not taken of the Parisian setting for one of the most spectacular exhibitions of English paintings, drawings, and water colors that have ever been assembled.

For if one opportunity was missed, another was certainly taken. In the soberly hung galleries themselves the splendor of what was actually on view silenced criticism: seldom, since the war, has any country sent abroad such a high proportion of the central masterpieces of its artistic heritage. Walking from room to room was like turning over the plates of a standard textbook and finding instead the famous originals in all their glory: Stubb’s Lion Attacking a Horse, Wright of Derby’s Iron Forge, Fuseli’s Nightmare, Lawrence’s Pope Pius VII, Constable’s Haywain, Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed, Millais’s Autumn Leaves; Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience—all these anthology pieces, surrounded by almost equally famous works by Samuel Palmer, Blake, the water colorists, and others, made it clear that the extremely gifted organizers of the exhibition must have been given an almost free hand in choosing what to display. Only the inclusion of the word “Romantic” in the title made it necessary to select pictures by Reynolds and Gainsborough which did not always show them at best advantage.

Because of the stress on sheer and sanctified quality there was little to surprise the visitor familiar with the principal English museums or exhibitions of the last few years, though the recent cleaning of Constable’s Leaping Horse hardly supports the accepted theory that he always tamed the verve of his original sketches in order to appease conventional taste. Indeed, even after a century of bright painting introduced by the Impressionists, the brilliance of this dazzling masterpiece and Lord Ashton of Hyde’s Salisbury Cathedral with a Rainbow (also cleaned in the last few years) can still startle us. Both powerfully convey the effect the now rather tame-looking Haywain made on Delacroix and his contemporaries.

The familiarity of most of the pictures on view drew special attention to one which even though it has been exhibited in London has hitherto attracted little notice. In 1785 the eighth Duke of Hamilton won a bet by riding the fifty miles from Loch Nore to his estate in a single sprint of two and a half hours and commissioned from the now almost forgotten George Garrard a picture to record the event. The idea of depicting such a feat of aristocratic horsemanship must recall Jacques Louis David’s great painting in Warsaw, only five years earlier, of the Polish Count Potocki’s mastery of an untamable horse. Can news of this picture have traveled across Europe from Naples to Hamilton Castle to inspire Garrard’s own small masterpiece?

Whatever its origins, in treatment it could hardly differ more from David’s work. Instead of the superb and self-satisfied young Pole who graciously acknowledges our applause at the triumphant conclusion of his performance, Garrard’s Duke, portrayed at the very outset of his journey, is as mysterious and anonymous as Rembrandt’s Polish Rider (in the Frick)—his determination shown only by his resolute profile. In a smoke-gray costume and light yellow breeches he urges his chestnut horse along the stormy loch under a threatening sky—challenging the elements with dignified and elegant restraint. Anyone who saw it at the exhibition is unlikely to forget it.

Nevertheless the enormous crowds who have been surging daily round the Petit Palais have probably been drawn there principally by the Turners and the pre-Raphaelites, in view of the supposed “relevance” of these painters to certain aspects of contemporary art. There has, however, long existed a powerful, if often dormant, tradition of admiration for British painting in Paris.

Until fairly late in the nineteenth century the leading English artists and critics tended to look upon most French painting with contempt: “David seems to have formed his mind from three sources, the scaffold, the hospital and a brothel,” wrote Constable in 1835, and this view was widely shared. But throughout the period covered by the exhibition, the French themselves were generous in the extreme about their contemporaries of the English school. As early as 1786 we find one French writer wondering “why a West, an Angelica Kauffman, a Cipriani etc. in painting; a Woolett, a Green, an Earlom, a Bartolozzi etc., in engraving—why are they superior to the artists of our own school?”—this in a year when David and Moreau le Jeune were both at the height of their creative powers. A generation later Géricault and Delacroix expressed admiration for English art and a generation after that Baudelaire and Gautier were writing with something like rapture of the pre-Raphaelites.

Yet there are few English pictures of high quality in France, and whenever any have been exhibited the response has been identical. The words of the French critic, Ernest Chesneau, writing in 1868 of the International Exhibition held in Paris thirteen years earlier, are as apt today as they were then, as can be confirmed by anyone eavesdropping at the Petit Palais during the last few weeks: “The appearance of the English painters…constituted for our public a sort of revelation—of an art, of a school, whose existence we did not even suspect….” No doubt, in another thirty years, when some future exhibition of the kind is organized, the same words will be heard again. Why?

Some sort of an attempt was made to ask this and similar questions at an Anglo-French art historical colloque held at Royaumont last month. The setting was perfect: the gaunt ruins of the old Cistercian abbey recalled exactly the sort of subject on which English and French artists had collaborated in great early nineteenth-century books such as the Voyages pittoresques et romantiques dans l’ancienne France, and if, in Paris, we had been unable to see Constable hanging near Delacroix, here at least we could listen to E. K. Waterhouse talking to Jean Starobinsky, Michael Kitson to Pierre Schneider.

Yet for all the enthusiasm, learning, and good will displayed, it remains uncertain how much illumination was brought to bear on the subjects under discussion—or, even, exactly what those subjects were. One can feel grateful that no one tried to waste time by attempting to define Romanticism, while still coming to the conclusion that the exhibition at the Petit Palais (which, with commendable unanimity, was agreed to be the real theme of the colloque) was not explored as fully as might have been hoped for.

To some extent this may have been due to the nature of the participants, for the differences between English and French art historians have, for the last fifty years or so, been at least as great as the differences between English and French art during the first half of the nineteenth century. For better or for worse—and the colloque left this writer undecided whether it was for better or for worse—there exist today few English poets, philosophers, or men-of-letters interested in making broad generalizations about the nature and function of art, of the kind which—for two centuries—have so enriched French culture. Equally, there are in France few art historians above the age of forty who practice art history in the sense in which it is understood by the Anglo-Saxons (one of the phrases, incidentally, which has virtually disappeared from French speech since the recent reconciliation with England).

It is perfectly true that there now exists a brilliant younger generation of French scholars which already controls the Louvre and which is more and more setting the tone of art historical studies in the country, largely under the influence of the English-speaking tradition (Delacroix and Constable once more), but this generation was, unfortunately, hardly represented at Royaumont; and if a highly cultivated and learned poet of great distinction, Yves Bonnefoy, was left to make some telling French points about English art, one may well regret that Geoffrey Grigson, an English poet of comparable qualities (and far greater contempt for art history as taught in the universities), had not been asked to reply for the English.

The issues, however, were complicated by more than mere differences of upbringing and qualifications. Until very recently everyone has acknowledged that the development of French painting constituted the “norm” for nineteenth-century art, just as during the seventeenth and most of the eighteenth centuries even the most chauvinistic French critics admitted—however reluctantly—that the Italians held the same central role in relation to the rest of Europe. Agreement was therefore possible on the merits of Constable, Turner, and other English painters who contributed to, or at least (like Etty) ran parallel with, French achievements, whereas it broke down—and even fruitful disagreement proved impossible—over the nature of the pre-Raphaelites, who, from a French view, necessarily seemed to be “provincial.”

However, factually, such objections are untenable. Unlike Constable, who never went to France and had no desire to do so, or Turner, who had a low opinion of the works of his French contemporaries, Rossetti was well aware of what was going on in Paris. He started his artistic career by imitating Gavarni, whom he much admired, and, though somewhat changeable in his opinions, he was at different times prepared to find Ingres “wonderful” and write a sonnet about one of his pictures, and to declare that Delacroix was “one of the mighty ones of the earth.” Some of his beautiful drawings at the exhibition make it clear why Whistler and Fantin-Latour thought highly of him. But if it is conceded that French painters were not only the greatest of the nineteenth century but were also—as seemed to be assumed by the French delegates at Royaumont—pursuing the only true path, then it must also be acknowledged that from the 1850s onward developments in England were irrelevant to “progress” and at best, like Ford Madox Brown’s Pretty Baa-Lambs, could claim to bear a certain freak resemblance to plein-air painting in France.

Yet this is to beg by far the most serious question raised by the whole exhibition at the Petit Palais and by all the most recent developments in nineteenth-century studies. What if one chooses to deny the existence of that highway, whose direction is traced in all the standard textbooks, along which Géricault passes the torch to Delacroix who hands it to Courbet and so on until Cézanne? Does it really diminish the supreme qualities of these very great artists if one suggests that the pattern that has been forced upon them by their admirers is a false one, just as one may feel that Vasari’s evolutionary theory has failed to do full justice to Botticelli or to Flemish art without on that account thinking any the less of Masaccio or Michel-angelo?

A whole series of recent or forth-coming exhibitions—German Nineteenth-Century Art (in the United States), Caspar David Friedrich, Neoclassicism and Symbolism (in London), Belgian Painting (in Paris)—and the constant revaluation (in England as well as in France) of hitherto despised “academic” artists are radically changing our views of the century. It no longer seems obligatory to think of all art as aspiring to the condition of Manet, or, indeed, even to think of Manet as a “pure” painter relatively indifferent to the subjects he was depicting. There no longer seems any compelling reason why the convention of the loose brush stroke should have replaced the earlier convention of “finish” as the sine qua non of good painting. We need no longer accept the dogma that the expression of thought or even of moral preaching is in necessary conflict with pictures of real quality.

The historian of nineteenth-century art has before him a task of exceptional complexity and fascination: to maintain some sort of high critical standards, while recognizing that the foundations on which these standards have been established are crumbling beneath his feet. The presence of so many splendid English paintings in Paris, the very citadel within which these standards were first consecrated, offered an extraordinary opportunity for debating some of these problems, and it is possible to regret that insufficient advantage was taken of them.

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    Romantic Art in Britain, 1760-1860, by Frederick Cummings, Allan Staley, and Robert Rosenblum, Praeger, 336 pp. $15.00.

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