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The Permanent Revolution

In the second chapter, on the transformation of landscape painting in the early nineteenth century, Honour describes sympathetically and with great brilliance the way Constable, Turner, Runge, Friedrich, and Théodore Rousseau made landscape the vehicle for the expression of the most profound sentiments and even of religious ideas. He gives the familiar comparison between Constable and Wordsworth a new force, observing of Constable’s “six foot canvases,” for example, that

Each of them includes some incident which seems to link it with a particular moment of vision, when Constable experienced the “sense of harmony.” Often it is something unexpected if not, at first sight, untoward—the haywain is not on dry land but splashing through water; the lumbering cart-horse prepares to leap over a barrier on the tow-path; the white horse is not drawing a barge but standing in one. It seems likely that these and many of Constable’s other paintings are pictorial equivalents to the “spots of time” of The Prelude—moments of childhood to which poet (and painter) returned with changing views in a world which was also changing.

Frozen Music,” the following chapter, starts with the treatment of music in romantic painting, and the way music became the ideal art for the period, a model of sensuous immediacy which all the other arts tried to imitate in various ways: the chapter continues with remarks on the development of romantic sculpture and architecture, perhaps because they are the most obviously frozen of the arts. This leads Honour into a long consideration of the Gothic revival and the treatment of medieval themes in romantic art, which is called “The Last Enchantments of the Middle Age,” and which deals not only with Pugin and the Pre-Raphaelites but with such obscure painters as Victor Orsel.

Other historical themes (classical antiquity, the Renaissance, the French Revolution) are considered in “The Sense of the Past,” and the political aspects of the arts in “The Cause of Liberty,” where the relation of political and artistic liberty is discussed skeptically (Honour’s most cogent remarks here are hidden in his notes in the back of the book). The romantic image of the alienated artist, the self-portraits and the symbolic treatments—the artist as lonely seer, as Don Quixote, as madman—are treated in “Artist’s Life.” Chapter 8, “The Mysterious Way,” is a mosaic, oddly mixing various related themes, death, sex, childhood, dreams, and religion.

In his epilogue, Honour convincingly demonstrates the way the realistic reaction to romantic art around 1850 was itself explicitly derived from romantic ideas and may even be said to have carried out much of the original romantic programs. Honour comprehends that romanticism must be conceived as continuously changing and continuously varied, as a movement through time rather than a settled body of doctrine.

Unfortunately the way he presents the subject and the format he has chosen prevent him from conveying his understanding fully. He tries to define romanticism almost as if it were an object, however fuzzy, and then throws up his hands in despair when it refuses to sit still for its portrait. We can see an example of this failure when he juxtaposes details from Géricault’s Wounded Cuirassier of 1814 with Friedrich Overbeck’s portrait of Franz Pforr of 1810. He contrasts the “sweeping brush-strokes and splashes of pigment dashed on with apparently exuberant spontaneity” by Géricault with Overbeck’s forms, “precisely, coolly articulated with firm outlines”—the dynamic, open structure of the one with the other “static and claustrally closed” (although Overbeck’s picture seems much more open than Honour maintains). Honour goes on to claim that in view of such contrasts “there is no Romantic ‘style’ in the visual arts, if by that is meant a common language of visual forms and means of expression, comparable with the Baroque or Rococo,” and he adds that it “is therefore impossible to write about Romanticism as about Neo-classicism or any earlier international style.”

This distinction between romanticism and earlier “styles” is not tenable except with a certain amount of juggling and no little confusion. It only works by a narrow definition of, say, the baroque and a wide one of romanticism: it would be difficult to claim that a picture by Vermeer and one by Pietro da Cortona provide less of a contrast than the one Honour finds in the work of Géricault and Overbeck. A “common language” for baroque art could only be arrived at by resolutely excluding anything that does not fit, and casting it out as non-baroque. The problem here is a naïve methodology, which defines a style by listing the characteristics that a given number of roughly contemporary works have in common.

Underlying this method is often an even more naïve belief that works that belong to the same style ought to look alike. Sir Anthony Blunt, for example, defined baroque architecture by the Roman style of Bernini and Borromini; he admitted as baroque anything that resembled their works or was obviously derived from them, and disqualified everything else. This kind of definition, which Honour seems to view as an unattainable ideal for romantic style, is distinguished by its consistency, rigidity, and poverty. It does not stimulate understanding but leads to pigeon-holing, to a dead end of classification, of no use as a tool of analysis. Works are disposed of as baroque or non-baroque, romantic or non-romantic, as if these were categories that had some genuine historical reality. But terms like “baroque” and “romantic” designate not well-defined entities or even systems. They are primitive shorthand signs for long-range historical developments which one feels nevertheless to have a certain integrity. These terms proclaim a confidence that all the various phenomena of the period, including the most eccentric and exceptional, are interrelated and interdependent in ways that can be indicated and represented by the historian.

Honour deeply appreciates the eccentric, but has difficulty fitting it into his scheme. He takes refuge in the easy formula that what the romantic artists had in common was that each was different, but that is not much help in achieving a coherent picture. This may partly explain why, in spite of many references in Romanticism, Ingres is not given his proper place. Hugh Honour closed his Neo-classicism with Ingres’s Oedipus—we are told there that Ingres’s art is no longer neoclassical, in spite of superficial similarities, but already the art of the nineteenth century.

In his new volume, however, Honour cannot quite rid himself of the traditional view of the “classic” Ingres opposed to the “romantic” Delacroix, even if he is aware of the ineptness of this myth, invented and enforced by Monsieur Ingres himself, in his later years. Although Honour refers to Ingres’s critical disaster at the Salon of 1819, where he fared much worse than Géricault, and to the defiant pose of his early self-portrait, the reader would never guess that Ingres was in life almost the prototype of the romantic artist, consistently rejected and misunderstood until he was well into his forties. The self-pity that pervades his letters during his long years of isolation in Rome is almost boundless.

Honour has no trouble accepting the linear primitivism of the German painters called the “Nazarenes” as a strictly romantic alternative to a painterly style, but is not able to take the same step with Ingres, perhaps because Ingres’s art does not seem so obviously neo-Gothic to us. But his contemporaries thought that it was and the Gothic label stuck to the painter of Jupiter and Thetis until the 1820s, when Ingres reintroduced a greater degree of modeling and three-dimensional depth to his painting.

Hugh Honour sensitively observes that Ingres’s work, in its rendering of space and surface quality, is radically opposed to the neoclassical principles advanced by David. But he misses the chance of pointing out that Ingres’s enamel-like finish is another way of attracting attention to the surface of the picture, a striking alternative to the bold brushwork of Delacroix and other romantic “colorists.” Furthermore, Ingres’s anti-Davidian attitude also affected his choice of subject matter and his manipulation of genres. For many years, the artist survived by drawing the pencil portraits we all love but which he himself considered as demeaning work. To one who sought him out and inquired whether this was the home of the portraitist, he proudly answered: “He who lives here is a history painter.” In spite of his declaration of principle, Ingres’s art undermined neoclassical standards. He painted very few canvases with subjects that would have been judged entirely appropriate by followers of David. The subject of the vast Jupiter and Thetis, one of the most idiosyncratic works ever painted, was criticized by the Academy as too trivial for such a large composition; it lacked the kind of moral message that would have justified such an expanse of paint. The Dream of Ossian (which Honour curiously leaves out of his list of dream paintings) would probably have fared no better if submitted to Davidian criticism.

Most of the time Ingres painted what is usually known as “historical genre,” smaller paintings of historical episodes treated as genre scenes—historical reveries rather than historical examples. Such costume pieces, whose subject was often taken from literary works, were popular with collectors, and were despised as a bastard kind of painting by critics who held to the grander neo-classical standards of history painting. Ingres’s (and for that matter Delacroix’s) efforts to elevate such costume pieces by increasing their expressiveness and investing them with a projection of the artist’s own situation and feelings (Ingres’s Aretino in Tintoretto’s Studio; Delacroix’s Michelangelo in his Studio) are characteristic of the tendency to blur categories. Ingres, of course, did paint a few real historical paintings, although not always with equal success, but even in later life his fierce classical position is largely a mystification and a romantic paradox or irony. His final masterpiece, The Turkish Bath, is a self-indulgent extravagance.

Honour clearly understands the long-range development inherent in romanticism, but his mode of presentation is static. He often approaches the artists of the time simply by inquiring what their treatment of the great romantic themes had in common, or how they differed. From a certain explicit shyness about reading future developments into the period, he evades asking what all that artistic activity was leading to. The result is that the single, telling detail which would make the subject historically more intelligible is often withheld.

In a sympathetic and moving discussion of the work of Auguste Préault, the most radical of all the romantic sculptors, Honour concisely and with extraordinarily persuasive language conveys both the qualities of Préault’s sculptures and the shocked reception of them by his fellow artists: he makes us see why contemporary poets such as Charles Baudelaire and Théodore de Banville admired Préault. Yet the most recent dictionary of proper names in France (the Petit Robert II) in its few lines about Préault still tells us something about him that we cannot find in Honour and that illuminates romantic sculpture in general. Préault’s great ambition—no one ever let him carry it out—was reportedly to sculpt a mountain, to turn one of the peaks near Le Puy into a work of art. Honour remarks elsewhere on the attempt of romantic sculptors to integrate their work into a landscape, but he never tells us how far they were prepared to go. Was he afraid that the apparent prefiguring of some twentieth-century earth works would seem too lurid? In any case, a chance was missed to point out that romantic style is often best characterized by what the artists and poets hoped to achieve: an absurd magnitude of ambition is an integral part of the time.3

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    John Finch pointed out that if Wordsworth’s Recluse had ever been completed on the scale partly carried out, it would have been more than three times as long as Paradise Lost. Beth Darlington, who quotes Finch (in her edition of Home at Grasmere, Cornell University Press, 1977), goes on to remark, “The grand design proposed to synthesize mankind’s philosophical, scientific, historical and political knowledge in poetry that would move man to realize on earth the Utopian vision confined for centuries to his hopes and dreams.”

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