Author’s Note: The following was given as the James lecture at New York University on April 15. The nature of the occasion will perhaps explain the tone of provocative assurance used to deal with complicated and subtle issues which I hope to explore more fully elsewhere.
I want to discuss “the curious and mad public which demands of the painter the greatest possible originality and yet only accepts him when he calls to mind other painters.” Gauguin’s brilliant boutade is to be found in a letter he wrote to Emmanuel Bibesco in 1900 and it is, I believe, the most acute observation yet made on the theme of my speculations here: the break, always noted but never seriously analyzed except as a matter of polemics, between the public and a certain concept of modern art in the nineteenth century, as well as the consequences that this break, may have had for the nature of art itself. For Gauguin’s paradox seizes on the two conflicting (and often unconscious) attitudes toward contemporary art, the result of which are still with us: on the one hand, the search professed by virtually every writer of any significance for the new, the vital, the inspired, the unconventional; and, on the other, an almost uncontrollable distaste for just those qualities when (so it seems to us) they do in fact appear.
Let me begin with a startling and familiar example—indeed, I choose it just because it is so familiar. Just over a hundred years ago the journalist Albert Wolff began his article on the second Impressionist exhibition of 1876 with the following words:
The rue Le Peletier is out of luck. After the burning down of the Opéra, here is a new disaster which has struck the district. An exhibition said to be of painting has just opened at the gallery of Durand-Ruel. The harmless passer-by, attracted by the flags which decorate the façade, goes in and is confronted by a cruel spectacle. Five or six lunatics, one of them a woman, an unfortunate group struck by the mania of ambition, have met there to exhibit their works. Some people split their sides with laughter when they see these things, but I feel heartbroken. These so-called artists call themselves “intransigeants,” “Impressionists.” They take the canvas, paints and brushes, fling something on at random and hope for the best.
And so on….
Vulgar abuse, typical of the reactionary hostility met with by all great innovators? But Wolff, however mediocre, was in fact famous for his extreme liberal views in both politics and the arts. A homosexual and a Jew, he was pilloried by the right, associated with the opposition under the Second Empire, and claimed to be constantly on the lookout for young talent and to be eager to defend every kind of novelty. He was, according to Jacques-Emile Blanche (the special friend and admirer of Degas), a critic of the extreme left—in artistic, as well as in political terms (I will return to the confusion between the two). In other words, the most striking opposition to much that we today think of as modern art came from those who believed, and genuinely believed, that they were its most devoted supporters.
The problem I have raised has in fact never been more difficult to discuss than it is today. For we are all, to varying degrees, revisionists. Alma-Tadema and Gérôme are to be seen again in the sale rooms and feature in the theses of young art historians. We do not find it necessary to mock Couture when we praise his pupil Manet, or to assume that all art culminates in Impressionism, or in Cézanne, or in the Cubists. We do not any longer believe that popularity is an infallible indication of worthlessness (the growth of this notion is something that I hope to suggest in this lecture): indeed, in many fields (the cinema and architecture come to mind) the idea is again developing that popular approval is actually a sign of merit and virtue.
Nevertheless, all this admirable revisionism has led us to evade an important historical problem, which is that in the nineteenth century, for the very first time ever, in England, in France, and elsewhere in Europe, an extraordinary number of great artists, from Constable and Turner, Ingres and Delacroix, Millet and Courbet, Manet and the Impressionists, Gauguin, Seurat, and Van Gogh, and so on, did—usually in the early stages of their careers at least—meet with a degree of incomprehension and often savage hatred that is to us astonishing. Astonishing, because so rarely can these painters be ostensibly linked with religious, political, social, moral, or even sexual issues which do (very understandably) promote controversy. People roared with laughter over a landscape, lost their tempers over a guitar.
I know how many nuances are needed to turn this into the serious investigation that is actually required: how many of these artists had at least as many supporters as attackers; how different, even actually antagonistic, could be the attitudes of the critics, of rival artists, of the public, and of the authorities; how carefully we need to sift the evidence at our disposal, discuss personalities and gossip, corruption and twisted integrity. Still, it seems safe to say that, in the nineteenth century, many of the supreme artists worked in an atmosphere that was hostile or indifferent rather than welcoming.
In 1815 an English writer observed that there had been “a virulence of Criticism on the pictures painted by Turner, such as should be reserved for Crime, but wholly disproportioned to a subject of painting however much disapproved.” In the Chambre des Députés in Paris in 1912 a socialist deputy demanded that measures should be taken to prevent the Cubists exhibiting at the Salon d’automne (it was, of course, Gleizes and Metzinger rather than Braque or Picasso who were involved) because “it is absolutely inadmissible that our national palaces should be used for manifestations of such an obviously anti-artistic and anti-national kind.”
Violent tirades against modern art continued for many years after that, but they added little new to what had gone before, and I shall therefore largely confine myself to the century or so between these two comments. In the Western world (though not of course everywhere) the problem is now one of history rather than of actuality. I will concentrate on France, where the issues were raised with the greatest vehemence, and also with the greatest clarity; and it is French art that I personally have studied most closely from this point of view.
The nineteenth century itself was very well aware of the issues that concern us. Let us first read the words of the aging poet and art critic Theéophile Gautier, as he looks in bewilderment at the Salon of 1868:
Faced with all the paradoxes posed by this sort of painting it seems that one is afraid, if one does not accept it, to pass for a Philistine or a bourgeois…. One feels one’s pulse in something of a panic, one puts one’s hand on one’s belly and on one’s head to reassure oneself that one hasn’t become stout or bald, incapable of understanding the courage and daring of youth…. One says to oneself: “Am I a mummy, an antediluvian fossil?” And one is reminded of the horror which, some thirty years ago, was inspired by the first pictures of Delacroix, Decamps, Boulanger, Scheffer, Corot and Rousseau, who were kept out of the Salon for so long…. And the more conscientious, when faced with such striking instances, ask themselves whether it is in fact possible to understand any art other than that with which one is contemporary, that is to say the art with which one shared one’s twentieth birthday…. It is probable that the pictures of Courbet, Manet, Monet and tutti quanti do conceal beauties which are invisible to us old Romantics, whose hair is now laced with silver….
This is a poignant acknowledgement—the first that I know of—of something that many of us have felt at one time or another. The only trouble is that, persuasive though it seems, it flies in the face of all the evidence; for why do we almost never hear of such attitudes of incomprehension or hostility before the nineteenth century? Where before the nineteenth century can one think of a single artist of talent, however original, who was not acclaimed at once: Giotto and Giorgione, Parmigianino and Caravaggio, Watteau and David, all so strikingly new in their own day, were all eagerly welcomed.
Nineteenth-century writers (and others since) have naturally been puzzled, as well as worried, by this fundamental change in attitude toward the new and the modern; and the favorite explanation given has usually been that a restricted group of select, aristocratic amateurs was—through the operations of the industrial and political revolutions—suddenly replaced in England and France by a large and undiscriminating public, interested only in small pictures, either of genre or depicting an affecting story, and, above all, highly “finished.” In recent years (but even in the nineteenth century itself) this has been supported by rational arguments; the fini, or “finish,” it has been argued, provided evidence of work, and work was what appealed to the newly enriched middle classes (I use the word in no polemical sense) as opposed to the spendthrift aristocracy; moreover, “finish,” by reducing the role of the imagination and the part required of the spectator, was a safe, easily verifiable means of judging the value of a work of art (aesthetically as well as financially) for those without educated taste.
There is obviously something in this view. We have to try to account for the fact that a mid-eighteenth-century public found perfectly acceptable a landscape by Fragonard, say, whereas only eighty or so years later even the most carefully worked-over views of Corot could attract indignant denunciations as being lazy daubs. How tempting it is to attribute the admiration of the aristocratic patron, firmly ensconced in his hieratic society, to a sort of flirtatious complicity with the artist—from whom very likely he himself took drawing lessons, yet with whose lowly status he ran no greater risk of identification than did Marie Antoinette with a real milkmaid. Whereas, we could continue, the self-made businessman simply could not afford to identify himself with a painter whose own fortune might appear to come with such effortless aristocratic ease.
The attorney general’s famous question to Whistler—“The labor of two days then is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?”—must have struck a responsive chord in many a juryman. It might even be possible to pursue the point a little further and suggest that, in portraiture at least, the reaction against “finish,” when it came later in the nineteenth century, is found mainly in the representation of two classes of sitter who did not work—and were not expected to work: that is, the second generation of those who had made great fortunes and who had bought themselves into the aristocracy, and (above all) women. I am thinking, for instance, of those patrons who had themselves and their wives painted by Sargent, in many of whose portraits the carefully arranged “spontaneous” brushwork seems almost to be a deliberate and conscious metaphor for the spending rather than the saving of money.