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Re-inventing the Eighteenth Century

La Peinture d’histoire en France de 1747 à 1785

by Jean Locquin
Arthena (Paris, facsimile reprint of 1912 edition), 358 pp., 400 F

1700 tal: Tanke och form i rokokon

an exhibition at the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm October 5, 1979-January 6, 1980

L’Arte del Settecento Emiliano: La Pittura

an exhibition at Palazzo di Re Enzo, Bologna, September-November, 1979

L’Arte del Settecento Emiliano: L’Arte a Parma dai Farnese ai Borbone

an exhibition at Palazzo della Pilotta, Parma, 1979

Chardin, 1699-1779

by Pierre Rosenberg. catalogue of the exhibition at Le Grand Palais, Paris, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, 1979
distributed by Indiana University Press, 428, 307 illus pp., $32.50 (paper)

Chardin and the Still-Life Tradition in France

by Gabriel P. Weisberg, with William S. Talbot. catalogue of the exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art, 1979
distributed by Indiana University Press, 128, 102 illus pp., $7.95 (paper)

Civiltà del ‘700 a Napoli, 1734-1799

an exhibition at the Palazzo di Capodimonte, Naples, December 1979-October, 1980

The Architecture of the French Enlightenment

by Allan Braham
University of California Press, 288, 424 illus pp., $60.00 thereafter

Alessandro Magnasco

by Fausta Franchini Guelfi
Cassa di Risparmio (Genoa), 420, 278 illus pp., 75,000 lire

Goya: The Origins of the Modern Temper in Art

by Fred Licht
Universe Books, 288, 135 illus pp., $16.50

John Flaxman

edited by David Bindman. catalogue of the exhibition at the Hamburg Kunsthalle and the Royal Academy of Arts, London, Winter 1979
Thames and Hudson, 188, 430 illus pp., $24.95

The Fuseli Circle at Rome: Early Romantic Art of the 1770s

by Nancy L. Pressly. catalogue of the exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art 1979
145, 146 illus pp., $11.50 (paper)

L’Art européen à la cour d’Espagne au XVIIIe siècle

exhibition at La Galerie des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux, Le Grand Palais, Paris, and Prado, Madrid, May 1979-April 1980

To most lovers of art, and writers of textbooks, the main achievements of eighteenth-century painting can be summed up in a few names and a few countries—for example, Watteau, Boucher, Chardin, Fragonard, and Greuze in France; Tiepolo, Longhi, Canaletto, and Guardi in Venice; Hogarth, Gainsborough, and Reynolds in England. Works of all of these have been admired and much sought after for over a hundred years, and the fame of all of them has been sustained to a significant extent by their having painted easel pictures for private collectors. This has meant that until fairly recently the market was always assured of a regular supply. Even Tiepolo, whose contemporary reputation depended on his frescoes and altarpieces, produced very numerous oil sketches and drawings. In the 1920s one further figure achieved special status in fashionable circles—the name of Magnasco was given to a society in London designed to promote a renewed appreciation of baroque art which thus became associated in England with the bizarre, picturesque, and often cruel fantasies of a painter who worked principally in Genoa and Milan.

For a long time now art historians, and also a new generation of collectors and dealers, have been showing more and more dissatisfaction with this view of eighteenth-century painting. Major claims have been made for artists who never went to Paris, Venice, or London, and, above all, it has been argued that great masterpieces were painted in styles that bore little or no relationship to the international rococo which seemed to dominate much of the century. In part this reappraisal has been stimulated by a growing appreciation of neoclassicism and, hence, by the inevitable search for the “sources” of this once-derided style, and in part it has been fueled by ideological considerations.

An exceedingly crude—but not wholly misleading—summary of recent developments might suggest that the French have been seeking among their eighteenth-century painters for a tradition that is more generally associated with Italy, while the Italians have, on the contrary, been looking for one that we think of as French, or even English. By this I mean that many French art historians have wished to reject an interpretation of what was, after all, “their” century, which seemed to confine French painting to small pictures (however beautifully painted) of the kind that fired the acquisitive lusts of the Goncourts. They have wished to resurrect those masters whose place was so assured in the eighteenth century itself—Restout, Carle van Loo, Doyen—masters who were capable of scaling the commanding heights of history painting and attracting the attention of sovereigns from Madrid to Saint Petersburg, just as were Italian painters such as Solimena and Pompeo Batoni. The recent republication by the non-profit-making French firm Arthena of a new (fully illustrated) edition of Jean Locquin’s superb monograph on French eighteenth-century history painting is symptomatic of this trend.

Conversely the Italians have been searching for an art, supposedly of the Enlightenment, fit to stand alongside the achievements of Chardin, Hogarth, and Greuze—an art able to counter, as it were, huge paintings whose raison d’être was to adulate increasingly impotent princes of the Church and State. In 1945 when Italy was still in ruins, the distinguished art historian Roberto Longhi wrote a sparkling and controversial survey of five centuries of Venetian art in which he tried to make new sense of a civilization which appeared to have culminated in disaster, and he concluded with the notion that the “haughty cynicism of Tiepolo has cost Italian painting too much.” Tiepolo, he claimed, was an artist who, had he lived longer, would have adapted all too easily to changing regimes—the Revolution, Bonapartism, the Restoration; an artist who, “it has often irritated me,” painted his grandest fresco (in Wurzburg) to the greater glory of an insignificant South German bishop. Against this anachronistic, rhetorical time-server (so reminiscent, it could be inferred, of many who had worked for the Fascist regime), Longhi set up an “alternative tradition” of Rosalba Carriera, Pietro Longhi, Canaletto—artists usually considered of much less significance, however attractive, but who, he insisted, had seen through the artificiality of their civilization with piercing sincerity.

I called this survey of Longhi’s “controversial.” Would that it had been more so! Instead of acknowledging the brilliance of his lively aperçu and then trying to estimate its true value when set against the achievements of the artists concerned, many Italian historians have (so it seems to me) been mesmerized by it, and have been trying to find all over Italy sincere, and hence “progressive,” eighteenth-century artists, just as their predecessors long ago tried to refute Vasari by finding in Bologna, Siena, Rome, Naples (anywhere but in Florence) the origins of modern painting.

All these developments have been made accessible to an international public over the last generation or so. An exhibition of Italian eighteenth-century painting held in Paris in 1960-1961 laid great stress on those artists such as Crespi, Ceruti, and Traversi who have been recruited into the ranks of the “dissidents.” Another exhibition, devoted to the same period, which moved between Chicago, Minneapolis, and Toledo in 1970-1971 went even further in emphasizing the role of schools other than that of Venice. Much relatively unfamiliar French “history painting” of the eighteenth century was shown in the very influential “David to Delacroix” exhibition held in Paris and (in truncated form) in New York in 1974-1975, and there have been extensive displays of the work of Restout and Carle van Loo in the French provinces. Yet by accident more than by design the last year or so has given the interested art lover a better opportunity than ever before to try to evaluate a new panorama of eighteenth-century painting, and it is worth speculating on what has emerged so far.

To judge only from the catalogue (in Swedish, alas, but with a short English summary), the exhibition of European eighteenth-century are held in Stockholm last year would, of all those to be referred to here, have appeared the most familiar to connoisseurs brought up on traditional views of the painting of the period (it should, however, be said that the exhibition was not confined to painting and that the thematic arrangement seems to have been extremely imaginative). It would thus have provided a valuable, but also dangerously inhibiting, starting point for anyone fortunate enough to have seen it before proceeding to other, less well charted territories ahead.

In his introduction to the Carle van Loo catalogue of 1977,1 Pierre Rosenberg confesses to the pangs of doubt which sometimes used to assail him when he stood up for the reputation that that artist had enjoyed in his lifetime; but then he sustained himself with the expectation that, once van Loo’s works had again been made accessible, the admiration of eighteenth-century critics would indeed prove to have been justified. Anyone thinking of venturing outside the confines of accepted taste must recognize this feeling of anxiety that the interest aroused by historical significance may displace a sense of true quality. Even to flick through the plates of the Stockholm catalogue and to come across familiar, but nonetheless beautiful, paintings by Chardin and Tiepolo, Hogarth and Boucher makes one hesitate. Is not this eighteenth century enough for anyone?

Yet Donato Creti—morbid, melancholy, introspective, neurotic—surely deserves a place in any anthology, however exclusive. In Bologna last year, where a series of exhibitions (each provided with a substantial and well-illustrated catalogue) was devoted to every aspect of the arts, crafts, and sciences of the eighteenth century in Emilia, a few paintings by this painter came as the revelation they always do, however familiar. His elegiac idylls, and above all his set of small canvases (from the Vatican) of astronomers observing the various planets, convey the true enchantment of Giorgione, and of Watteau, whose work he can never have seen. “An escape into the world of the imagination, rather than a precursor of the Enlightenment,” we are told in the catalogue, and—as always—he is contrasted with the other star of the Bolognese exhibitions, Giuseppe Maria. Crespi.

Perhaps he did not travel enough,” wrote Roberto Longhi in a famous summing up of Crespi’s career. “How one would wish him to have gone to Paris in 1720 together with Rosalba and Pellegrini; how one would wish him to have talked to Watteau…. But, in Bologna, Crespi went to bed at the same time as the chickens, and his furthest journeys were to Venice and Florence where he probably met only Ricci and Magnasco. Not enough….” Nonetheless, concluded Longhi, he had the talent and the aspiration to join forces with a culture in progress—a progress of which, alas, no trace was to be found in Italian painting destined to be overturned almost immediately afterward.

Crespi is undoubtedly the most gifted Italian artist to have worked in that “alternative tradition” that Roberto Longhi and so many of his followers have been eagerly trying to locate. His talent was inspired by a feeling for the real, the human, and the intimate, and he was able to make use of his gifts in this direction even when painting altarpieces and allegorical frescoes. But how far his talent for observation and delicate humor, his avoidance of rhetoric and conventional symbolism, all combined with subtle and rather somber colors, should be looked upon as a sign of spiritual, and even political, progress is not so clear. The catalogue links his paintings of the Seven Sacraments with the great Ludovico Antonio Muratori (a thinker who, as we will see, has also been associated with the very different, expressionist, art of Magnasco), and his diminishing interest in later years in those secular and earthbound phenomena “which constitutes the most modern aspect of his painting” is attributed in part to the intellectual and economic decline of Italy during the last decades of his life.

It is true that the Sacraments reveal an almost detached observation of some of the central rituals of the Christian religion, of a kind which can be found in some genre paintings of the nineteenth century, but although he was certainly derided as very eccentric by some leading representatives of the Bolognese artistic establishment of his day there is no hint in the criticism or patronage he received to suggest that he was seen (in such pictures) as being fundamentally different from an agreeable, humorous entertainer: nor can we be sure that he did not see himself in the same light.

The point needs to be made because the tendency to find in the visual arts of eighteenth-century Italy some reflection of the literary and philosophical controversies of the period is so pressing that it has—to my mind—led to some grotesquely misleading evaluations. The most blatant of these occurs in the excellent exhibition of the art of eighteenth-century Naples, now to be seen in the Palazzo di Capodimonte in that city, and to be shown (in slightly different form) in Chicago and Detroit next year. The standard of pictures is for the most part very high and recent research has led to new attributions and to the discovery of hitherto barely known artists who prove to be of real distinction. Yet it is not an exhibition that will startle anyone who is familiar with the outlines of Italian eighteenth-century painting generally. We are shown highly accomplished portraits, allegories, mythologies, and altarpieces,2 and—as was also the case in Bologna—it is impossible to emerge without being awestruck by a civilization in which even the least important painters can achieve such a remarkably high standard.

  1. 1

    Carle van Loo,” Nice (Musée Chéret), Clermont-Ferrand (Musée Bargoin), Nancy (Musée des Beaux-Arts).

  2. 2

    Most of these are in the form of sketches. The exhibition of large paintings in the Palazzo Reale had not yet opened when I was in Naples in May.

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