• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

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

I

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?

In a preface to the catalogue full of nuances and reservations, Michel Laclotte, chief curator of painting at the Louvre, enumerates the most recent revisions of taste and historical perspective—the rediscovery of Puvis de Chavannes, of Gustave Moreau and the Symbolists, the revival of Art Nouveau. But, as he points out, these artists and movements have as much right as Impressionists to be called avant-garde. What has been neglected until now is the art most honored by the salons, most strongly supported by the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and most richly subsidized by the government. Without exaggerated claims, Laclotte would like to find a marginal place for it in the new museum of nineteenth-century art planned for the Gare d’Orsay.

This art is beginning to find its admirers: an exhibition of Gérôme has already tried to bring his iced, off-color scenes into fashion again. The champions of Salon art protest the excessive and exclusive interest taken in the Impressionists and the kind of historical terrorism that has been exercised in their name. They put forward the official art as a counterpart which deserves the attention of historians and art lovers too absorbed by the success of an avant-garde tradition which has falsified our perspective on nineteenth-century art.

The movement to revive official art is not limited to the visual arts. Parallel efforts can be found in music to rescue salon pieces, virtuoso works, and grand opera from oblivion. There are demands for a re-evaluation of Meyerbeer, Kalkbrenner, Hummel, and Tausig, and a dubious place has successfully been made for Alkan. In literature these rehabilitations are less frequent, but the stock of certain official writers, like Dumas père or Alfred Tennyson, has clearly risen. Still, the movement is really at home in the field of painting. Monumental sculpture is too cumbersome for exhibitions, nor is it possible to cast a quick glance at the enormous musical compositions of the nineteenth century: performance unfortunately takes time.

The different reasons behind this revisionist movement may appear strangely incompatible. First of all, there is often a hatred, sometimes open, and sometimes repressed or even unconscious, of modern art. Curiously enough, however, the new interest in academic art is at the same time supported by the so-called avant-garde of contemporary art; this is more promising, since revisions of taste are rarely if at all significant except as they bear on living art. The smooth and finicky Salon painting of the 1870s has something in common with the work of a Pop artist like Rosenquist and with “new realism.” The movement of rehabilitation has been accused of being nothing more than a giant promotion scheme to exploit still another important source of merchandise; but the triumph of Impressionism was also once explained as only a dealers’ conspiracy. It has of course become difficult to discover valuable and interesting works of art in the usual places. But art historians themselves are also in search of new subjects. To dedicate oneself to the study of paintings acknowledged to be less than mediocre is a depressing prospect, and the desire to re-establish the prestige of Salon art is understandable enough.

A genuine feeling for history also comes into play, a sense that it is indefensible to scorn Salon painting without understanding what contributed to its success at the time. Critics have justifiably demanded a perspective that does not discount what was most admired in order to concentrate on only the most controversial, even if the art of opposition has nearly succeeded in making us forget the other.

Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that the attempt to rehabilitate official painting is a provocation, a challenge to the aesthetic now dominant, the theory that the torch of art passed from the hands of Ingres and Delacroix to Degas and the Impressionists, and—by way of Cézanne, Gauguin, and Seurat—to the Fauves and the Cubists. What is paradoxical is that this re-evaluation is sometimes presented as a conservative movement in the name of an old and lost tradition. But its claims can only be granted by displacing another tradition, a living tradition which has been going on now for more than half a century.

Courbet and the Impressionists did not work in the margins of the so-called official art, but against this art; their painting denies the system of values which fed the celebrities of the Salon. Realistic painting (which in its broadest sense should include Manet, Degas, and the Impressionists, who considered themselves realists) did not present itself merely as an alternative to the Salon, but went so far as to set itself up as the true inheritor of the tradition of Ingres, of Delacroix, as well as of Poussin, and even of the Renaissance. If we were to give Gérôme and Bouguereau a significant place, even if not a central one, we would put our whole aesthetic into question, and all of the painting which we see as making up the great tradition. This would no doubt be a healthy project. But the aesthetic standards for rehabilitating official art still remain shadowy.

In this respect, the exhibition “The Museum of the Luxembourg Palace in 1874” was extremely useful. At the very least it gives us the opportunity to appreciate the values which put official painting in the forefront and which, when these same values were later condemned, made it disappear from the galleries and museums.

If it had been the Luxembourg of 1873 that had been shown, the impression would have been very different. We would still have seen the works of painters who had been dead for some time—ten paintings by Ingres, five by Delacroix, and two by Théodore Rousseau. Thus 1874, the date when these works were sent to the Louvre, is both a revealing and an unlucky choice: unlucky, to the extent that the museum’s selection, in our eyes, became particularly catastrophic; revealing, not only because we therefore have a striking historical contrast with the first Impressionist exhibition, but also because it is the moment at which the museum seems to have been most homogeneous, when the system of exclusion which determined entrance into the Luxembourg seemed most rigid.

The Luxembourg had not always been cut off from the art that was destined to survive. Its doors had been opened in 1818, and by 1822 eight paintings by David were exhibited in spite of his political exile in Brussels; there were representative works by Girodet, Guérin, Prud’hon, and even the very recent and violently contested Dante et Virgile by the young Delacroix. Ingres, still a very controversial figure, entered the following year. Notwithstanding certain important omissions, the modern French school was well represented.

In 1874 nothing of the sort could be said. Manet, who had been exhibiting masterpieces at the Salons for ten years but who remained then as controversial as Ingres in 1823, was not represented, nor was Degas, who had long since disdainfully refused even to send his pictures to the Salons, but who was an important force in the artistic scene. More astonishing, you could not find at the Luxembourg either Courbet, whose importance was recognized, or Millet, whose fame was then enormous. Millet entered only in 1875, the year of his death.

Over the course of the century, the taste of the Luxembourg had become purified—its aesthetic had hardened—and a gap had opened like a trench between the museum and the new art. In 1850, a painting like Courbet’s L’après-dîner à Ornans could still be bought for the Luxembourg; but, significantly, after much hesitation it was then sent to the museum at Lille, where it still remains. During the Second Republic (1848-1852), there was both an effort toward renewal and finally an obvious and growing rift. After this time, there was a total exclusion of the work that future generations were to admit as the finest, except for acquisitions from elderly painters who had already made their reputations before 1848.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print