Survival of the Fittest?

Rediscoveries in Art: Some Aspects of Taste, Fashion and Collecting in England and France

by Francis Haskell
Cornell University Press, 246, 255 illus pp., $19.50

So much the worse for Raffaelle. I have been a long time hesitating, but I have given him up today, before the St. Cecilia. I shall knock him down, and put up Perugino in his niche.

Such was the young Ruskin’s brashly subversive project, and Francis Haskell presents it with obvious and understandable delight. This is the subject of his book: how old canons of taste are knocked down and replaced by new ones.

In these Wrightsman Lectures, delivered in New York at the Metropolitan Museum in 1973, Haskell studies the revaluation of artists and styles of the past during the nineteenth century, from the French Revolution to about 1870. The most characteristic and important phenomena he investigates are the reassessment of the Italian “primitives” and the recovery of Vermeer, a painter all but forgotten. Haskell has not set out simply to describe such changes of taste but to explain them, to clarify the historical process of revaluation. As he writes,

Indeed, with hindsight, we can see that the real “discoveries” that occurred between about 1790 and 1870 were not so much of Orcagna or Rembrandt, Vermeer or El Greco, Botticelli, Piero della Francesca, or Louis Le Nain, as of a multitude of contrasting qualities each apparently divorced from those associations (of religion or of a certain concept of art itself) that were once thought to be indissolubly linked to them.

In order to make his immense subject manageable, Haskell has set himself some specific limits: he restricts himself to England and France, and is concerned only with painting, leaving out sculpture, drawing, prints, and the decorative arts. Haskell is quite aware, however, that these restrictions, rigorously enforced, would hamstring his investigation, and he fortunately admits exceptions at many points. For example, he happily cannot resist quoting at length the interrogation of Sir Richard Westmacott, professor of sculpture at the Royal Academy, by the Select Committee on the National Gallery, on the effect of introducing the sculptures from Nineveh into the British Museum:

Do you think [he was asked among other things] there is no fear that introducing freely into the institution objects of more occasional and peculiar interest, such for instance as the sculptures from Nineveh, may deteriorate the public taste, and less incline them than they otherwise would be to study works of great antiquity and great art?” To which Westmacott replied: “I think it impossible that any artist can look at the Nineveh marbles as works for study, for such they certainly are not; they are works of prescriptive art, like works of Egyptian art. No man would think of studying Egyptian art.”

Haskell’s purpose is not merely to provide one chapter among the many others in the history of taste, considered as a particular discipline in its own right. His aim is more ambitious. He is working toward a fresh view of the nineteenth century. He does not, of course, propose simply to replace the history of art by the history of taste; but …

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