Back from Oblivion

Past and Present in Art and Taste: Selected Essays

by Francis Haskell
Yale University Press, 255 pp., $35.00

There must be almost as many varieties of art history as there are art historians. Some are concerned with style, others with subject matter, with social conditions, or with intellectual history. Every one of these specialists will find something to read with profit and interest in Francis Haskell’s splendid new volume of essays. The iconologist will be grateful for the chapter on “The Apotheosis of Newton in Art,” for that on “The Manufacture of the Past in Nineteenth-Century Painting,” and for its sequel on “The Old Masters in Nineteenth-Century French Painting.” The historian of ideas will be especially grateful for the essay, “Gibbon and the History of Art,” with its convincing suggestion that the first history of medieval art, Seroux d’Agincourt’s Histoire de l’art par les monumens, depuis sa décadence au IVe siècle jusqu’à son renouvellement au XVe, was inspired or stimulated by Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. The connoisseur of style will find much food for thought in Chapter 11, “A Martyr of Attributionism: Morris Moore and the Louvre Apollo and Marsyas,” while the social historian will do well to ponder the evidence presented in the papers on “Art and the Language of Politics” and on “Enemies of Modern Art.”

Even so, Francis Haskell’s variety of art history is entirely his own. He was trained as a historian, and though he may not hold with the wording of the corny schoolboy joke that “geography is about maps and history about chaps,” he would certainly endorse its substance. “Any sociological theory of the arts and of taste can,” he writes, “only be based on the close study of very large numbers of individual case histories.” Four of the case histories he offers center on characters who seem almost too good to be true. There is the Baron d’Hancarville, described as an adventurer and art historian in eighteenth-century Europe; there are Giovanni Battista Sommariva, the Italian patron of French Neoclassic art, Morris Moore, the combative owner of Apollo and Marsyas, the much-attributed painting in the Louvre, and Khalil Bey, the hero of the essay, “A Turk and his Pictures in Nineteenth-Century Paris.”

Francis Haskell has brought each of them back from oblivion and made them live again in his eloquent pages. Only one of his subjects has refused to come to life: Benjamin Altman, whose name is familiar to grateful visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for the generous donation of his collection. The bachelor businessman who started collecting at the age of sixty-four succeeds in preserving his near-anonymity despite the fact that his correspondence with dealers was made available to Professor Haskell. Almost the same—dare one say it?—applies to the late editor of the Burlington Magazine, the unforgotten Benedict Nicolson, that most reticent of men whom even the warmth of his friend’s tribute does not quite bring back from the dead.

But perhaps it would be unjust to characterize Haskell as a historical portraitist …

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