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The Permanent Revolution

Romanticism

by Hugh Honour
Harper & Row, 415 pp., $25.00

I

In 1849 the young sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, who was later to execute the famous group La Danse for the façade of the Paris Opera, regretfully abandoned his studies with François Rude, the greatest of French romantic sculptors (and a major figure in Hugh Honour’s Romanticism). Carpeaux went to work with Francisque Duret, a less inspired teacher, but one much more representative of the doctrines of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He gave the reasons for his break with Rude in a letter to a friend:1

Mr. Rude, as I must have told you in my discussions about art, has a method which consists of a way of doing sculpture quite different from that of the Beaux-Arts. For example, he claims that sculpture—and I think he is right—can be done well only by mathematical aids: that is, using compasses, rulers, plumblines, etc…. Finally, he turns his students into practitioners, while at the School, everything is done only by eye.

The Institute prefers to say that the arts in general exist more in emotions than in measurements, which make us cold copyists with only the material spirit of what we are doing, while they…. I think what they say is very pretentious, but still I have to listen to them, and to talk and do as they do. And since there is a great difference between these two methods and one cannot serve two masters at once, I said to myself: let’s make a choice, the School is a question of my future and my existence….

At first sight, this may appear to stand romanticism on its head. For Carpeaux, it is the official academic doctrine which asserts that art is essentially a matter of emotion; by contrast, Rude, the romantic artist, creator of the violent, gesticulating figure of the Marseillaise on the Arc de Triomphe (which for many of Rude’s contemporaries far overstepped the bounds of the permissible in emotional expression), emphasizes the importance of measurement and exact proportion. The academic establishment teaches the young artist to work subjectively, “by eye,” while the revolutionary romantic artist teaches by means of objective mathematical tools. For the academy, the sculptor was an artist; for Rude, the contemporary of Géricault and Delacroix, the sculptor is first a skilled workman, a “practitioner.”

The oddity is not a matter of overcompensation on both sides, but of date. By 1850 many of the romantic attitudes, vitiated and trivialized, had become respectable: the superiority of inspiration, emotion, and subjective judgment over tradition, rules, and skill was now official. The primacy of emotion was, of course, passionately believed in by Rude, but he took it more seriously than the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and he did not think it could be taught. Rude’s insistence on objective classical training (never abandoned by his generation) became a new form of romantic rebellion.

The history of romanticism is—to a far greater extent than the history of any other artistic or philosophical movement—a history of redefinitions. Hugh Honour devotes his entire first chapter to the problem of defining what was meant by the word. He rapidly sketches the innumerable meanings it has taken on since Friedrich Schlegel first tried to define it in 1798. He remarks on the bewildering variety of original contemporary views of romanticism (of Schlegel, Stendhal, and others), many of them contradicting the other. What Honour fails to remark is that these definitions are intentionally self-contradictory as well, deliberately inconsistent and unstable, fluid and expansive. The rest of the chapter, which attempts to describe romanticism by its contradictions, would have gained in cogency if he emphasized that the oppositions among romantic artists are internal and methodical.

Like every other movement, romanticism started as an opposition to what had existed just before it. In most of its original manifestations around 1800—the Jena circle of the brothers Schlegel, Novalis, Schleiermacher, and others; the “Lake poets” in England; the young French painters who turned away from the neoclassical tradition of David—romanticism presented itself as a break with a previous “classical” style, however variously conceived (either Greco-Roman or French)—a classical style that was understood as normative. This, too, is not without precedent; there have been other anticlassical styles before—early Christian art and rococo decoration are two examples. What set off many of the early romantics from all previous innovators is that they proposed not a new set of norms, but an abolition of norms, an artistic freedom inspired by the political ideals of the recent French revolution.

The true originality of romanticism, however, lies in a still greater ambition: a claim not only to destroy the classical tradition and replace it with something better, but eventually—in the near, or far, or infinitely distant future—to arrive at a higher form of classicism. Previous artistic revolutions had naturally implied that bad art was now being replaced by good, or even (as the Renaissance architects felt) that a barbarous, false, or non-art would at last make way for a revival of true art.

No revolution before romanticism had promised a universal synthesis—even a critical synthesis—that would incorporate all the achievements of the past. The final romantic pretension was the appropriation not only of all art in general, but of everything else: the poeticizing, or “romanticizing,” of life itself. The tearing down of barriers between art and life began systematically with early romantic theory of the late 1790s, although there had been sporadic hints of it before, above all in Diderot.

Romantic poetry is a progressive universal poetry,” wrote Friedrich Schlegel in 1798 (and by poetry, he meant art in general). “Universal” because in the end it includes every other form (“In a certain sense,” Schlegel added, “all poetry is, or ought to be romantic”). “Progressive,” not only because it is not yet ended, but because it can never be finished (“It is its essence to be eternally becoming, and never to be achieved”). The main forms of romantic poetry for the Jena circle, the first and most influential of the avant-garde romantic groups, were the fragment and the novel. Both forms attacked the integrity of the classical work and the classical genres, the fragment because it escaped any ordering in a hierarchy of genres, and the novel because it blended all the genres together—the early German romantic novel combined autobiography, lyric poetry, drama, history, and fairy tale. (The best example is Franz Sternbald’s Travels by Ludwig Tieck, the story of a young pupil of Dürer.)

The revolutionary character of early romantic art was generally a matter of defiant pride. The young Astolphe de Custine, that shadowy figure on the margins of romanticism in France who was later capable of a penetrating book on Russia, wrote in 1814 in a letter from Vienna:2

These denominations of romantic and classic that the Germans created some years ago were used to designate two parties who will soon divide the human race like the Guelphs and the Ghibellines in the past. The romantic spirits understand each other at the first word: their opinions in literature, in politics, and I would almost say in religion, in spite of the different sects, are the same…. They form the new German school. The classics are equally consistent, but they do not understand the others, while the others understand them quite well…. This is what prepares us for a great revolution in literature, politics and religion…. I, for example, am essentially modern, and therefore romantic.

Sixteen years later, moved partly by personal dislike of Victor Hugo, Custine was to write that he hated the distinction of romantic and classic:

There is classic in Shakespeare and romantic in Racine…. I love romantic poetry, but I detest, for the present at least, the romantics. Their intrigues, their coterie spirit, their ill-founded pretensions to genius, their innovations which are nothing but impudent imitations, all this disgusts me with their circle, which does not prevent me at the same time from being bored with the classical party.

This increasing ambivalence—having a distaste for romanticism while holding tight to much of the early romantic heritage and doctrine, the new broader tolerance even for the once-hated French classical style and the way it is annexed to romanticism—is paralleled in many other examples. Delacroix, too, partly turned away from his earlier work and set out deliberately to reappropriate the grand tradition of mural painting: the label “romantic” made him nervous in later life. Wordsworth’s growing conservatism, Keats’s attempt at the end of his short life to recapture the high Miltonic style, Schumann’s abandonment of his early forms after the age of thirty and his concentration on the classical genres of symphony and quartet—all these are analogous developments.

They have a double aspect: they are partly betrayals of the early romantic faith and partly attempts to carry out its explicit program, present from the beginning, for a move to a new classicism, or, more precisely, to a synthesis of romantic and classical ideals. The early romantic style was hard to sustain: it needed either young nerves or a deliberate assumption of madness (that was Blake’s strategy). Many artists and writers of the first romantic decades either died young or wrote themselves out at an early age. The synthesis of romantic and classic, however, presented even greater problems: few examples of it escape a sense of inflated and unmotivated grandeur.

An account of romanticism always demands a sense of this irregular and constantly sustained movement, which can be traced both in the lives of the individual artists and in the general artistic and social development of Europe in the nineteenth century: it cannot be the history of the success or failure of a program, but of a series of programs and ideals continuously redefined. The consistency and integrity of romanticism lie not in the resemblance of these programs to each other but in the specific ways they were redefined and consistently expanded. In a brilliant epilogue to his book, Hugh Honour has a beautiful sentence that sums up both the constant change and the peculiar integrity of the romantic movement, and the way it extends into our own time:

The Romantic revolution which began in the 1790s was like the battle which “men fight and lose” in William Morris’s A Dream of John Ball; “and the thing they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”

An understanding of the instability and variability of meaning—of words, styles, actions—is central to the romantic movement, which both exploited this instability and suffered from it.

II

Hugh Honour has written the best book yet available (and perhaps ever written) on romanticism in the visual arts. In reality, his work is somewhat more restrictive than its general title: more precisely it should be called “Themes in the visual arts in the first half of the nineteenth century.” These themes embrace almost the full range of preoccupations, of art and life, which give the romantic period its extreme complexity and dynamism; and whether he is dealing with landscape or “the cause of liberty,” Honour writes of them with informed feeling and precision. Only Leon Rosenthal, at the beginning of this century, had the knowledge and the powers of synthesis to give a penetrating view of this art comparable to Hugh Honour’s; and Rosenthal limited himself to France while Honour deals with the whole of Europe.

  1. 1

    Letter of January 1850 to Louis Dutouquet. Quoted in preface to Custine’s Lettres inedites au marquis de la Grange, edited by de Luppé (Paris, 1925).

  2. 2

    In Custine’s Lettres inedites au marquis de la Grange.

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