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.
Such theories are tempting, and I enjoy toying with them, and would welcome the results of further investigations along these lines. And yet the exceptions are all too obvious. And just because the equation between “finish” and the “bourgeoisie” is now so much of an idée reçue we must look at it at some length and with some care.
As I have already said, the nineteenth century itself certainly believed in the truth of this equation: “The bourgeoisie is sure to admire this picture because it contains everything needed to please it: it is clean, it is finished, it is transparent”—these words, written in 1802, constitute the first reference known to me to the notion that the bourgeoisie had a taste of its own in stylistic matters and not just in respect to subject. And the essence of this was to be repeated thousands and thousands of times thereafter. Does it correspond to the truth?
Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century English and French artists noted, with some apprehension, the increasing demands being made for a high “finish” in art. David Wilkie, for instance, who had recently broadened his brushstrokes under the impact of seventeenth-century Spanish painting, wrote anxiously in 1839 that “a smooth and finished style also gains, and is indeed exacted, bringing us nearer to Wynants, Gerard Dou, and Mieris, and aiming at that which our own great masters had not,” and if we look at the success enjoyed by Frith a few years later we can understand what he means. It may even be possible to correlate this change in style with a change in public and patronage. There is, for instance, a remarkable letter addressed to Frith in 1843 from one of the leading art patrons of the first half of the nineteenth century, John Gibbons, an iron-master, very typical of the art lovers of the manufacturing classes who were coming into prominence just then: “Just let me mention, while I think of it, that I love finish, even to the minutest details. I know the time it takes, and that it must be paid for; but this I do not object to…. Where there is beauty, finish, and taste, I care but little about ‘originality.”’
Finish—everyone knows that the concept becomes an obsession with the nineteenth-century art critics: all the innovating painters were attacked for their lack of finish, and all rebelled against its tyranny. Yet “finish” was not a purely philistine burden imposed on the artist by an insensitive public. Many painters, some of them talented, and, often, deeply sincere, themselves visualized “finish” in moral, almost religious, terms—even when there was no question of it being forced on them. There is no need for me to refer to the Pre-Raphaelites: a far more revealing, even moving (though perhaps to our eyes slightly absurd) expression of this attitude is to be found in the letters of the twenty-three-year-old English (but German-trained) artist Frederick Leighton.
After visiting Florence in 1853 and being overwhelmed by the Old Masters, he wrote that
every little flower of the field has become to me a new source of delight; the very blades of grass appeared to me in a new light. You will easily understand that, under the influence of such feelings, I felt the greatest possible reluctance to sketch in the hasty manner in which one does when travelling; I shunned the idea of approaching Nature in a manner which seemed to me disrespectful and the consequence was that until I got to Verona I did not touch a pencil. In Venice and Florence, however, I made several drawings, some of which are most highly finished and afforded me, whilst I was occupied on them, that most desirable kind of contentment, the consciousness of endeavour. Of course I was obliged to conquer to a certain extent my aversion to anything but finished works, and, accordingly I made a considerable number of sketches “proprement dits.”
I insist on this, because no one looking at Leighton’s very attractive studies of the Italian landscape would ever guess that they were the product of tortured willpower rather than spontaneous delight. And this evidence should, I think, encourage us to be very skeptical about the whole notion of an imposed bourgeois taste. In fact, both in England and in France, small finished pictures were, at the beginning of the century, patronized largely by the aristocracy. And the campaign against even the very restrained middle-aged Turner was organized by Sir George Beaumont, a leading aristocratic connoisseur, while large quantities of the artist’s later, more idiosyncratic pictures and water-colors were bought by the newly rich members of the middle classes.
All this you may think is exceptional, but let us turn to France and test the hypothesis by following for a few minutes the career of the single painter of the whole century who, in his own lifetime and ever since, has been charged with being the bourgeois painter par excellence—Paul Delaroche: a man, so it is said, who deliberately watered down the great Romantic innovations of Delacroix so as to make them acceptable to a “bourgeois” public that was capable of responding only to finicky anecdote and melodrama.
Delaroche knew what was said about him and went out of his way to deny it, and we are entitled to believe him when he protests in the language of the proverbial misunderstood artist starving in his garret: “Who can accuse me of having scratched at the door of the powerful to obtain [fame]…whose place have I taken by force of intrigue?… I can swear it, I have never asked for protection, plans or work…. I have never prostrated myself before the fashion of the day….” We should believe Delaroche if only because a moment’s thought will show that the charge that he went out of his way to flatter bourgeois patrons is ridiculous, for nowhere does he demonstrate that he had an imaginative talent capable of being prostituted; if anyone, it was Ingres and Delacroix and Constable who, occasionally, adjusted their art to an uncomprehending public. Of Delaroche we can say, word for word, what Zola was later to write, in very different circumstances, of Manet: “He did what he could, and he could not do anything else. There was no deliberation in it; he would have liked to please.”
Delaroche, unlike Manet, did of course please; but just whom did he please? His famous painting The Last Illness of Cardinal Mazarin was bought by the comte de Pourtalès-Gorgier—a banker, it is true, but the owner of one of the great European collections of Old Masters; and, later, this and other pictures by Delaroche passed to the third marquess of Hertford, that richest of aristocrats and undoubtedly the greatest art collector in mid-nineteenth-century Europe, founder of the Wallace Collection in London (where the largest surviving group of works by Delaroche is still to be seen). The duchesse de Berry, of royal blood, commissioned his Cromwell at the Coffin of Charles I. Another extravagantly rich collector, the expatriate owner of great estates around Florence and in France, a dominant figure in the social life of the period and husband for a time of Napoleon III’s cousin, the princesse Mathilde, Count Anatole Demidoff bought Delaroche’s Execution of Lady Jane Gray, while his Charles I Insulted by the Soldiers of Cromwell was owned by Lord Francis Egerton, inheritor of one of the greatest collections of pictures ever assembled, among which shine the wonderful Titians now on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland. And I could continue in this vein for some time.
Delaroche a painter for the upstart, uncultivated bourgeoisie? As I say the words I seem to hear behind me the pages of the Almanach de Gotha and of Burke’s Peerage rustle with indignation. The admirers, the patrons, and the purchasers of Delaroche constituted the richest, the most aristocratic, the most refined society in Europe, men who never reconciled themselves to the “bourgeois” Louis-Philippe or Queen Victoria or accepted their values: men—all of them—whose collecting was on a spectacular scale and of spectacular quality; men who could look up at their walls and see hanging next to their pictures by Delaroche others by Titian and Raphael, Rubens, Velazquez, and Watteau. Indeed, I can think of no other artist since the French Revolution, or well before, who owed so much to the old, cultivated nobility of England and France.
What does this prove? Not much perhaps, except that a desire for “finish” and a good, familiar story was not the monopoly of any one class, and that the standard social histories of art in the nineteenth century (not that there are many) need to be entirely rewritten. We can take nothing on trust, not even the words of contemporary critics: for in the light of hindsight, the real reproach that can be leveled against much nineteenth-century art criticism is not that it was too “bourgeois,” but that it was too aristocratic—by which I mean that it constantly chose to judge new art by the standards of a grand manner which had (so it was always assumed, and always wrongly assumed) been encouraged by the pre-Revolutionary nobility.
Nevertheless, these critics must interest us, because although their facts may often have been wrong and their judgments faulty (in our eyes), their influence on later developments proved to be powerful. What then was their attitude to the “modern art”—as we see it—of the nineteenth century? Not, usually, that it was new, but on the contrary that it was old, reactionary. To most critics of the first half of the nineteenth century Ingres was deplorable because he seemed to be carrying art back to the Middle Ages. As to some extent he truly was. Those drawings by him which are today most acclaimed for “anticipating” Matisse almost certainly struck his contemporaries as imitations of the more austere engravings published after fifteenth-century frescoes.
Similarly Delacroix was often strongly attacked because he seemed to be looking back to the eighteenth century. As late as 1855, when he received something of a triumph at the International Exhibition in Paris, a critic could confidently write that “posterity will let him drop back into oblivion, or at least into indifference, and will place him alongside the Solimenas, the Luca Giordanos and the Tiepolos”: in other words, he was criticized not for being too modern, but for being too old-fashioned. And, as is well known, Courbet and Manet were despised for imitating the daubs of children and the uneducated.
I am inclined to believe that such criticisms may go some way toward explaining a fact that puzzled so many observers in the nineteenth century: the distrust frequently shown by politically left-wing art lovers to what we think of as progressive tendencies in the arts. “It is odd,” said Manet of the young critic Théodore Duret, “how Republicans turn out to be reactionaries when they talk of art.” Certainly the critic Délécluze, the main scourge of Delacroix and the Romantics, seems to have linked in his own mind his “progressive” political views with what he thought of as the “reactionary” art of Delacroix, which for him was tainted by its stylistic associations with the ancien régime.
And to look at the same issue from a diametrically opposite view, it would seem that much later the great art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, whose sympathies with the young Impressionists are familiar to everyone, may well have been encouraged to support these painters partly because of his extreme right-wing, reactionary ideas. Writing of the early days of the family firm, he comments revealingly about the origins of a taste for modern art that was to lead him, in his own words,
to be treated as a lunatic and a man of bad faith…. My father established the firm at the time of the passionate battles between the neoantique school which came to birth with the development of Jacobin ideas, derived from the Revolution, and represented by David, and, on the other side, a whole group of young painters and writers, whose talents and tendencies came to the fore under the impact of Gros, Géricault, Prud’hon, Delacroix, Bonington, Constable and other French and English artists….
In other words, the Romantic revival of interest in rococo painting that disturbed the liberal Délécluze appealed to the reactionary Durand-Ruel, who was also able to appreciate the painting of Renoir and his friends just because it shared an ancestry with the rococo and Romanticism, and broke away from the classical-academic style whose origins could be traced back to David.
But there is, I think, no doubt that men such as Durand-Ruel were exceptional in their responses (exceptionally subtle and perceptive perhaps), and that as a general rule one of the most powerful reasons for the hostility encountered by so much modern art was the association made between it and political subversion. It is only in this way, I believe, that we can begin to explain the unbelievable rancor of the public—the hysterical laughter described to us by Zola in his account of the Salon des refusés, the virulence which is so apparent behind the caricatures and the mockery. Art and music cannot surely of themselves arouse such passions, except of course among rival (and hence threatened) artists. But politics and religion can.
Usually political motivation was partially concealed and can only be tracked down by those who have the patience to study the metaphoric language of art criticism. An early (but by no means the first) example of what I have in mind occurs in seventeenth-century Naples, where we are told that the classicizing painter Francesco di Maria, affronted by what he considered to be the coloristic excesses of Luca Giordano, would refer to him and his pupils as “that school of heretics which, with their damnable liberty of conscience, is leading people away from the straight and narrow path.” The language is of course metaphorical; nonetheless, anyone hearing those words in seventeenth-century Naples would have known that the punishment for heresy was burning at the stake.
The most bitter aesthetic controversy that raged in England during the eighteenth century was not concerned with paintings but with gardens; and political imagery was used from the first. The informality of English parks was favorably compared with the “despotism” of Versailles, and as the century developed even English taste seemed too tame. Thus the connoisseur and theorist Richard Payne Knight compared the fashionable parks of his day, and even classicism itself, to authoritarianism, whereas Horace Walpole wrote of Payne Knight (who was in fact hostile to the French Revolution) that “Jacobinistically he would level the purity of gardens.” This equation between the formal garden and political tyranny as opposed to unrestrained nature and Whiggish freedom was a popular one, and yet a few moments’ thought should have demonstrated how crude, but above all now wide of the mark, it was—after all, the gardens of Holland, the most “liberal” of states in seventeenth-century Europe and one particularly admired by the Whigs, were even more formal and tortured into stylized patterns than were those of France.
But such parallels then as now were essentially slogans rather than the products of thought, and the use of political and religious imagery spread rapidly: a change in style could—indeed inevitably did—imply a change in the whole system, it was argued. This concept, so familiar to us today, was an entirely new phenomenon, quite unknown to the ancien régime, and its importance can hardly be overrated. In 1846 we come across a French critic writing about David’s Oath of the Horatii (of 1784) that “if we only had vague information about the date of this picture…no one would hesitate to attribute to the first stages of the Revolution at least some influence on the choice of subject and the manner in which the artist has treated it….” This view has now become a cliché (though in the case of this particular picture a highly controversial one), although it is a cliché still as unsupported by any serious evidence as it was in 1846. But the importance of the cliché is obvious enough: it implies that a change in artistic style heralds, rather than merely reflects, social and political change—thus Cubism is sometimes seen as “anticipating” the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and so on.
It goes without saying that artists themselves have often enjoyed this projection of themselves as particularly sensitive barometers, alert well before the ordinary man to any hint of change in the political climate. But, for all that, the danger is also very evident and has never been wholly forgotten. As late as 1873, when Manet finally won popular approval with Le bon Bock, a comparatively harmless, indeed conventional, picture, there was still at least one visitor who could claim that the sitter was “wearing the official dress for the next Commune”—the equivalent at that stage in French history of the “heresy” charges brought against Luca Giordano and his followers in seventeenth-century Naples.
For the historian of modern art the Manet of the 1860s is, of course, a crucial figure. His Olympia gathered about herself what seems to have been a form of mass hysteria from public and critics alike. But although the hatred was certainly more extreme, it was not, I believe, essentially different from what had gone before. To the difficulties I have already touched on there were added the problems of a certain ambiguity in the treatment of the subject matter, the implications of indecency and social hypocrisy, and possibly a great increase in the number of visitors to the Salon, who would not have been soothed by the defense offered by Manet’s friends that the picture was to be viewed as a sort of abstract—a combination of colors and lines and forms, wholly devoid of any narrative content or significance. And it is well enough known that in 1863, two years before the Manet was shown, the public had reserved its greatest enthusiasm for Cabanel’s Birth of Venus.
This is the contrast beloved of every modern art historian, a juxtaposition that, at this very moment, must be flashing across thousands of paired screens all over Europe and America, giving the lecturer his opportunity to launch into a discussion of the meretricious, pastichelike composition of Cabanel compared to the “bold modernity” of Manet’s picture, and so on, and so on. Everyone here must know the very words by heart, and I need not bother to repeat them. What I would like to quote is something much less familiar and to my mind much more interesting and thought-provoking. At almost the very moment when Cabanel’s picture was proving such a success, one critic could write in defense of popular taste that “the public would rather have an original picture, inferior though its style may be, than a pastiche of M. Ingres; is the public wrong?” Although it cannot be proved that this writer was specifically referring to the Birth of Venus, it seems more than likely that Cabanel’s picture (which every art lecturer in the world can now demonstrate in two minutes to be a pastiche of Ingres) could, at the time that it was exhibited in 1863, be visualized as a work of originality breaking away from the conventions of Ingres. Nothing could possibly demonstrate more vividly the perception of Gauguin’s words (with which I began this lecture) about 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.”
In any case for the historian of the “idea of modern art” rather than of modern art itself, Manet is certainly much more significant for a far feebler picture than the Olympia, for it was with his slightly comical portrait M. Pertuiset, the Lion Hunter that in 1881 he won his second-class medal at the Salon; a few months later, through the intervention of his friend Antonin Proust at the Ministry of Arts he was awarded the Légion d’honneur—a religious and civil marriage, so to speak, for in this very same year there came about a total separation between the Academy and the state.
It is difficult to convey the importance of all this. Manet, the greatest enemy the Academy had ever known, Manet who had been mocked as no other artist ever before him: Manet was now honored by the Academy, decorated by the state, accepted (however grudgingly) as an artist of major significance. Everything will now be acceptable at the Salons: that is the implication that is drawn from all this. There have been mistakes, it is acknowledged, but they have been remedied. The future is assured.
There is something touching, almost poignant, about those first great reappraisals of the recent past, which are now so familiar to us from every cultural weekly, explaining with relish that we were wrong about the 1950s, still more wrong about the 1960s, misguided about the Americans, confused about Op art, obstructive about Pop art…. When these reappraisals began on a large scale in the 1870s and reached a climax in the 1880s they were still exhilaratingly new and masochistic in their intensity. Of course, it is explained, in a hundred articles, ministerial speeches, volumes of memoirs—of course, past attitudes had been deplorable. How could Delacroix have been refused admittance to the Academy for so long, how could Théodore Rousseau have been prevented from exhibiting, how could Corot have lacked appreciation for so many years? Romanticism—the generation of the 1830s—is one of the great glories of French art; and we failed to see it.
There is worse. Courbet, despite his regrettable political outlook, was a real master, and Millet, whom we (or our fathers) took to be a subversive, was in fact a painter of rural life in the great tradition of our national art. Realism too is one of the glories of French art; and we failed to see it at the time. But now everything is all right: the government has withdrawn from control of the Salon—artistic lack of conformity can no longer be thought of as political defiance. Manet has his medal, his Légion, two years later his posthumous exhibition at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
The Academy is saved. Why? Just because it is not academic. Manet wins his second-class medal; in the same year Baudry wins the medal of honor with his allegorical Glorification of the Law. Everything is acceptable, and the great battle between public opinion and modern art is finally over. An observer writes: “Full of good will towards everyone, modern art is afraid of only one thing—that it may be too exclusive or not sufficiently open; and modern art criticism claims only one virtue for itself—that it understands everything….” This is in 1882, just two years before the rejection from the Salon of Seurat’s Baignade.
Had nothing changed then? Were the critics back where they were fifty years earlier, claiming that they were interested in the new, but in fact always missing it? To some extent, yes—but there was a difference. Critical innocence had now been lost. Pronouncements about modern art are made with one eye turned back to the past, one eye somewhat apprehensive about the future. Much hatred survives and will continue to do so for fifty years and more, but it has lost intellectual energy or even moral justification. The acknowledgment that there had been a war, but that the critics had (so to speak) lost it and that it was in any case now over, is perhaps the single most important prelude to the development of what we now think of as modern art.
In these years, the crucial late 1870s and early 1880s, two men pondered what had happened from directly opposite angles, and came up with propositions that are still very much alive today. “How many people see in the young school [the Impressionists] the renewal and the future of French art? asked Henry Houssaye in 1882. “If we do not admire the Impressionists are we then as blind as the critic Kératry who wrote that [Géricault’s] Raft of ‘The Medusa’ was an insult to the Salon? Kératry was wrong, but he was sincere, just as we too are sincere. If criticism should aim to be so timid that it will never ever run the risk of having had its judgments faulted, then it would be necessary to praise everything to the skies on the grounds that everything may one day be consecrated by posterity. And, in any case, supposing posterity does one day put Impressionism on the same level as Romanticism, who can be sure that posterity is not mistaken?”
Zola, writing about Bastien-Lepage, is very much more sure of himself, but surely also very much less subtle: “All great creators have, at the beginning of their careers, met with strong resistance: that is an absolute rule, to which there are no exceptions. But he is applauded. It’s a bad sign.”
Now whatever we may think of Bastien-Lepage—and most of us would agree with Zola in ranking him pretty low—historically speaking this is nonsense. Let me repeat like a litany the names of Giotto and Giorgione, Parmigianino and Caravaggio, Watteau and David—all of them innovators and “great creators” who did not meet with “strong resistance at the beginning of their careers.” But half a century or more of misunderstandings, during which less brash adumbrations of Zola’s doctrine helped to comfort many an unhappy young painter, brought about the concept of an avant-garde and proclaimed its most potent myth. But, in so doing, it almost strangled the new creation at birth: for if the artist is told that initial hostility is a necessary precondition not just of his future success (that was already an old and tired cliché by the time that Zola was writing) but also of his actual merit, the critic also could pick up the message. By 1895 (but perhaps well before) it was being said that “what the snob desires more than anything else is to be noted on the side of the avant-garde.” The avant-garde was thus born under the auspices of quarreling godparents: critical neglect and hostility on one side, snobbish identification on the other.
The whole concept of the avant-garde has been extensively investigated in the last few years, and fascinating researches into its significance are continuing: so much so that anything I now say runs the risk of being half stale and half out of date. But a few words on the subject are necessary and will bring my talk conveniently to an end.
Conceived in the ambiance of Fourier and Saint-Simon in the 1830s and 1840s, the term seems at first to have implied that new art, any art—whether the art of Delacroix or Delaroche—was, by its very nature, in the forefront of society. Though derived from military terminology, “avant-garde” (like other “political” terms which we have already looked at) soon took on a life of its own, and in the 1870s and 1880s it acquired the specifically cultural overtones with which we associate it today: namely that there is some specific kind of art that is “ahead” of others; an art that, by definition, would not run the risk of being contaminated by too early a welcome, of the kind that Zola had seized upon when discussing the case of Bastien-Lepage.
Painters themselves appear to have been somewhat confused and unhappy about this notion when it first appeared. The writer Félix Fénéon caused trouble in Seurat’s circle by referring to Dubois-Pillet as belonging to the “avant-garde of Impressionism.” There is some discussion about what he actually means by the phrase. “Dubois-Pillet belongs no more to the avant-garde than do you and Signac,” Guillaumin tells Seurat, who temporarily solves the problem by commenting in his usual sardonic manner: “It seems that the whole thing is decided by age.” Gauguin also is scornful about the attempts made by some artists of always trying to be “ahead” of the latest style—attempts especially associated in his eyes with Pissarro’s conversion to the Divisionism of Seurat and his circle. For Gauguin isolation is more important than competition, but he nonetheless dedicates a beautiful drawing, Two Breton Girls, to his friend and rather banal follower Maufra with the inscription “A l’artiste d’avant garde” which must, I think, have been intended as a compliment, a badge of honor, rather than (as might now appear) ironically.
Soon afterward the concept becomes common currency. We can appreciate its force by looking at the frenzied attempts made by artists on the one hand not to be liked too soon (and thus appear to be, so to speak, a Bastien-Lepage) and on the other to have anticipated the future. Thus Signac specifically (but surely wrongly) claimed that the neo-Impressionists were revolutionaries not only in boldly adopting new techniques which rendered them totally unacceptable to the bourgeois public and critics, but also in choosing to portray can-can dancers, café-concerts, and circuses, in order to show the decadent pleasures of the bourgeoisie and the “vileness of our epoch of transition.” In this way Seurat and Signac could claim to be putting back into style those very political implications that had been repudiated by Corot when a journalist asked him in 1848, “How is it that you, M. Corot, who are such a revolutionary in art are not also with us in politics?”
Seurat himself wrote in a well-known letter: “The more we are, the less originality we will have, and the day when everyone makes use of our technique, it will have no value and people will start looking for something new. And this is already beginning to happen.” Cézanne accused Gauguin of exploiting his “petite sensation.” Emile Bernard’s whole life was poisoned by the belief that Gauguin had been given the credit for his, Bernard’s, discoveries. German and Russian painters falsified the dates on their pictures to suggest that they owed nothing to the French. Kandinsky claimed that the merit of all great art had always lain in its being out of reach of ordinary immediate comprehension. A group of Italian artists called themselves the Futurists.
All this is a grotesquely inadequate, almost caricatured, summary of a theme that has been studied in far greater depth and with far greater sensitivity by many historians in recent years. I am raising these points here only in order to present them in one particular light—that is, to suggest that in varying ways, consciously or unconsciously, they spring from attempts made by artists in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of this one to recreate—in less painful, more productive forms—those circumstances that had arisen more spontaneously at an earlier date: that is, an instinctive hostility toward contemporary art (for various reasons I have tried to indicate) which—so it came to be believed—was the necessary breeding ground for true art. The consequences of that hostility, its repudiation, and its re-creation are still with us. Under apparently peaceful fields unexploded weapons lurk dangerously.