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The Unhappy Medium

Thomas Couture and the Eclectic Vision

by Albert Boime
Yale University Press, 683 pp., $85.00


Someone once said that it is not history that repeats itself but historians that repeat each other. When it comes to the history of nineteenth-century painting, however, it might be better if they repeated each other more often, or at least more judiciously: one of the difficulties about recent writing on the subject is that some of the most interesting books that came out early in the twentieth century are either forgotten or only superficially read today.

This neglect of previous critical work is particularly unfortunate in view of the recent revival of the pompiers—the fashionable nineteenth-century painters who won the most prestigious government commissions and who were favored by the Academy of Fine Arts and the juries of the official exhibitions. The origin of the appellation “pompier” (or “fireman”) is uncertain: it is supposed to come from Jacques-Louis David’s painting of classical nudes wearing only what look like firemen’s helmets, but the suggestion of pomp in “pompier” was certainly an influence. Whatever the origin, the pompiers were, in general, painters of brilliant reputation during their lifetimes who specialized in large historical and religious pictures—the socalled grandes machines; their prestige declined rapidly, and by the end of the First World War their work began to disappear from the walls of museums. Once glorious names like Jean-Paul Laurens, Paul Baudry, and Benjamin Constant (not the novelist) became unfamiliar even to students of art history.

The attempt to resuscitate the firemen dates largely from the 1970s, although it was quietly brewing before. The movement was brilliantly summarized by Professor Jacques Thuillier’s article “Pompiers” in the Encyclopedia Universalis (Supplément, 1980). Thuillier is elaborate, circumspect, and provocative. His most effective point is his prediction that, just as many stylistic terms for large periods—Gothic, Baroque, Mannerist—were once pejorative and then came to be neutral or even eulogistic, so one day the art of much of the nineteenth century will be called pompier, and the Impressionists, along with Seurat, Gauguin, and others, will be considered individual versions of the pompier style.

Given the unthinking contempt in which the pompiers were held for more than half a century, it is understandable that some recent scholars should wish to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. They wish to reexamine not only the later nineteenth century, with which Thuillier’s article is mostly concerned, but also many discredited artists of an earlier generation. Charles Gleyre and Horace Vernet have already had retrospective exhibitions and others will surely follow. Historians reasonably argue that we should at least understand why the works of these artists were once so highly prized. Much of the research inspired by the new interest is valuable, instructive, and stimulating.

Nevertheless, some important criticism of nineteenth-century painting has been injudiciously pushed aside. An especially regrettable example of this is Léon Rosenthal’s great book of 1914, Du romantisme au réalisme, which is still the finest work we know on nineteenth-century French painting. It has been unobtainable for years, and a reprint and a translation are badly needed. Rosenthal knew the whole field, from the most outrageous avant-garde to the most dyed-in-the-wool academic, and his treatment is thorough, witty, and penetrating.

In the recent attempts to revive the faded glories of the century, Rosenthal’s work is generally listed in bibliographies, but it cannot be said that many historians have faced his arguments. It is easy enough to see why, since Rosenthal’s treatment of most of the current candidates for resuscitation is crushing, and so closely argued as to seem definitive. The present challenge to the supremacy of avant-garde art cannot be pronounced a success until Rosenthal’s conceptions have been absorbed and not merely ignored.

Most of the painters from 1820 to 1860 who stood outside the great avantgarde tradition and who are now the intensive object of rehabilitation and study are grouped by Rosenthal under the rubric of “le juste milieu“—the middle-of-the-road. The term was first employed by a minor critic of 1831, who used it to recommend the painters who steered a careful path between the moribund classicism of the school of David and the wild-eyed Romanticism of the more audacious younger artists. As such, it did not represent a real compromise, as the school of David was in ruins by the 1830s—in such a disastrous state, indeed, that Ingres (who had studied with David, but who had been an even more controversial figure than Delacroix) was able to take over the classical school and pass himself off as the heir of David.

Juste milieu, however, has political overtones: Louis-Philippe himself had announced his intention “to stay in a juste-milieu equally distant from the excess of popular power, and from the abuse of royal power.” This expressed the acknowledged middle-class political position between 1830 and 1848, a dubious and fragile compromise between radical monarchism and left-wing republican doctrine.

Between 1831 and Rosenthal’s book of 1914, juste milieu does not often appear as a stylistic term, but the concept existed in an important way. The critic Gustave Planche defined three currents of contemporary art in his review of the Salon of 1833: “renovation” (Ingres and his school); “innovation” (Delacroix and the Romantics); and “conciliation,” another term for juste milieu. Planche mounted a relentless attack on what he considered to be the tepid character of this school. Following him, Baudelaire reserved his greatest virulence for what he called “les tièdes“—the lukewarm, the half-hearted.

Neither the term “conciliation” nor the term “middle-of-the-road” is well chosen, since these painters did not steer a middle path between the Romantics and David or even between the radical Delacroix and the traditional Ingres. As the early-twentieth-century French critic Louis Dimier argued, it was Delacroix who renewed the earlier traditions of the grand manner, and Ingres who remained much more consistently the radical. Nevertheless, juste milieu is a useful term, since the work of this group is a singularly apt representation of the ideals of the July Monarchy, which tried to achieve a middle-class democratic popularity, stability, and general affluence without conceding any radical reforms. After all, the explicit slogan of Louis-Philippe was “Get Rich” (“Enrichissez-vous“—that is, get rich enough to qualify for the vote, open only to men of considerable property).

By “middle-of-the-road” Rosenthal indicated those painters who were enormous favorites with the public in the 1830s and 1840s, but who had largely been discredited by 1900. The principal artists were Paul Delaroche, Horace Vernet, and Léon Cogniet, and there were many minor figures. The primary artistic goal for all these painters was instant accessibility. Rosenthal writes:

They did not constitute a coherent group; they had no leaders, nor any recognizable principles…. It is in an arbitrary and, admittedly, artificial fashion that we have grouped them. However, they do have in common the character of rejecting anything that was absolute or excessive, anything that might have been considered audacious or even decisive…. If we examine a picture signed by a painter of the juste milieu, whatever its dimensions and whatever its subject, we are struck at first by its immediate intelligibility.

This accessibility absolves the spectator from the need for a previous artistic culture or initiation such as that demanded by the work of Delacroix or Ingres (although the work of the juste milieu often required a certain elementary historical and literary background). As Rosenthal says:

Under the pencil of Léon Cogniet, Delaroche, or Vernet, the forms will be conventional, whether rounded or dryly angular (ronde ou sèche); they will be lame with a less experienced painter, but the contour will always be emphasized. Lines define all the masses, decisive modeling indicates all the volumes; lines and modeling guide the eye without demanding from it any collaboration…. Color finishes the definition of the figures and the objects by giving them those aspects under which they are generally known…. These principles banish anything fuzzy, all imprecision, they forbid the interpretation of forms, the study of exchange of colors, of reflections….

Even more important is Rosenthal’s second criterion, closely related to the first:

The images must present a subject. This necessity, this primacy of the subject, is the most certain sign of the juste milieu’s inferiority. Painting for them is only a medium; the interest of the picture does not depend on its aesthetic merit, but on the scene represented: the painter must be a clever dramatist, a good costume designer, an adroit stage director…. The success is assured if he knows how to find the anecdotal side of the grandest event; at least, he must not forget to lighten the weight of a serious drama by some clever by-play….

Rosenthal’s analysis of Edward’s Children, generally known in English as The Little Princes in the Tower, Delaroche’s most famous picture, deeply admired by Henry James, is a brilliant elucidation of the use of anecdote to ensure the supremacy of subject over the visual:

Here are two children sitting on a bed in a dark room. A ray of light appears under the door near which a little dog stands on the alert. This is either an insignificant spectacle or a real enigma. Everything changes when we are told that they are the children of Edward [the First of England]. With the help of history and of Casimir Delavigne (whose drama of 1833 is a little later than Delaroche’s picture), we lament the deplorable fates of the young princes, wax indignant at Gloucester and his hired assassins about to descend on an innocent prey. Thus our emotions must be aroused, our sympathies engaged, not only by the beauty and charm of the two characters we see on the canvas, but also by their tragic story, by the ignominy of their executioners, by a drama and by facts none of which are portrayed and which are only suggested to us….

The impressions that [Delaroche] attempted to produce are, for the most part, independent from the way the picture is painted. It is enough if the composition can trigger our imagination. It is even preferable that the eye not be detained too much in the contemplation of the canvas: this would weaken the emotional effect…. Nothing is more insipid, more vacuous than the handling of “Edward’s Children.” [Our italics.]

We might say, in summary, that the common denominator of the art of the juste milieu (especially that of Delaroche and Horace Vernet, both of whom were extremely powerful in the Academy) is the complete penetrability of the painting: the eye goes right through the painted canvas to the scene or object represented. Its appeal is comparable to that of the contemporary panoramas and dioramas that were so popular at the time; the effects and the audience were often the same for both. Delaroche’s pretension was much more sustained than Vernet’s, who was usually content with triviality; Vernet remains consequently more interesting. In his long new book on Thomas Couture, Albert Boime has splendidly compared Vernet to Norman Rockwell.

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