In 1974, the centenary of the first Impressionist exhibition, the National Museums of France celebrated the occasion in Paris by a small, select show of Impressionists and their friends—a show which also came to New York—and a vast presentation of the official art of their time, the pictures that could be seen in 1874 in the Palais du Luxembourg, the official museum of modern art from 1818 until 1937.
“Official art” has a nasty ring to it. Yet much of the greatest art we know is official, paid for by the government, encouraged and commissioned by the ruling powers: the sculpture of Phidias for Pericles, the great art of the medieval cathedrals, the Vatican frescoes of Michelangelo and Raphael, the Hapsburg portraits by Velazquez. We may even suspect that the artists of the Lascaux caves were not exactly bohemian rebels.
Still, the dominant myth of the inferiority of official art begins early in the nineteenth century with the novel Romantic figure of the artist as alienated individual. Recently a large number of publications and exhibitions have attacked the soundness of this myth, which causes us to see all important nineteenth-century art as avant-garde. The most significant of the exhibitions was “The Museum of the Luxembourg Palace in 1874.” It was an excellent idea to re-create the atmosphere of the nineteenth-century contemporary art museum. The research of Geneviève Lacambre was nothing less than heroic. She managed to track down most of the paintings from the old Luxembourg, and she set forth her findings in a catalogue at once dispassionate and sympathetic that will remain indispensable to scholars of the period.
An artistic career in nineteenth-century France followed a set pattern: several years at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts; a scholarship in Rome at the Villa Medicis for the most promising students; the admission of one’s pictures for display at the annual (sometimes only biennial) Salon, which was a kind of public proving ground; and then the Luxembourg, which represented official acceptance. Last of all, there was election to the Academy, the national conscience of art and the guardian of tradition. Ten years after his death the artist was judged to see if his works should be hung in the Louvre or consigned to a less glorious fate in the provinces.
Almost everything seen at the Luxembourg in 1874 is unfamiliar today (except for what appears in the art pages of the old Larousse dictionaries) and is held in low esteem by most people interested in art. Not all the paintings were shown in the 1974 exhibition, but there were enough to give us a fair idea of the whole, and to reconstruct a historical moment, which has an important relation to the first exhibition of Impressionist art. But it still remains to investigate the meaning of this elaborate display. Should we admire at least some of these faded splendors, or should we simply send these paintings back to the cellars, provincial museums, and ministry halls where they were found?
In a preface to the catalogue full of nuances and reservations, Michel Laclotte, chief curator of painting at the Louvre, enumerates the most recent revisions of taste and historical perspective—the rediscovery of Puvis de Chavannes, of Gustave Moreau and the Symbolists, the revival of Art Nouveau. But, as he points out, these artists and movements have as much right as Impressionists to be called avant-garde. What has been neglected until now is the art most honored by the salons, most strongly supported by the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and most richly subsidized by the government. Without exaggerated claims, Laclotte would like to find a marginal place for it in the new museum of nineteenth-century art planned for the Gare d’Orsay.
This art is beginning to find its admirers: an exhibition of Gérôme has already tried to bring his iced, off-color scenes into fashion again. The champions of Salon art protest the excessive and exclusive interest taken in the Impressionists and the kind of historical terrorism that has been exercised in their name. They put forward the official art as a counterpart which deserves the attention of historians and art lovers too absorbed by the success of an avant-garde tradition which has falsified our perspective on nineteenth-century art.
The movement to revive official art is not limited to the visual arts. Parallel efforts can be found in music to rescue salon pieces, virtuoso works, and grand opera from oblivion. There are demands for a re-evaluation of Meyerbeer, Kalkbrenner, Hummel, and Tausig, and a dubious place has successfully been made for Alkan. In literature these rehabilitations are less frequent, but the stock of certain official writers, like Dumas père or Alfred Tennyson, has clearly risen. Still, the movement is really at home in the field of painting. Monumental sculpture is too cumbersome for exhibitions, nor is it possible to cast a quick glance at the enormous musical compositions of the nineteenth century: performance unfortunately takes time.
The different reasons behind this revisionist movement may appear strangely incompatible. First of all, there is often a hatred, sometimes open, and sometimes repressed or even unconscious, of modern art. Curiously enough, however, the new interest in academic art is at the same time supported by the so-called avant-garde of contemporary art; this is more promising, since revisions of taste are rarely if at all significant except as they bear on living art. The smooth and finicky Salon painting of the 1870s has something in common with the work of a Pop artist like Rosenquist and with “new realism.” The movement of rehabilitation has been accused of being nothing more than a giant promotion scheme to exploit still another important source of merchandise; but the triumph of Impressionism was also once explained as only a dealers’ conspiracy. It has of course become difficult to discover valuable and interesting works of art in the usual places. But art historians themselves are also in search of new subjects. To dedicate oneself to the study of paintings acknowledged to be less than mediocre is a depressing prospect, and the desire to re-establish the prestige of Salon art is understandable enough.
A genuine feeling for history also comes into play, a sense that it is indefensible to scorn Salon painting without understanding what contributed to its success at the time. Critics have justifiably demanded a perspective that does not discount what was most admired in order to concentrate on only the most controversial, even if the art of opposition has nearly succeeded in making us forget the other.
Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that the attempt to rehabilitate official painting is a provocation, a challenge to the aesthetic now dominant, the theory that the torch of art passed from the hands of Ingres and Delacroix to Degas and the Impressionists, and—by way of Cézanne, Gauguin, and Seurat—to the Fauves and the Cubists. What is paradoxical is that this re-evaluation is sometimes presented as a conservative movement in the name of an old and lost tradition. But its claims can only be granted by displacing another tradition, a living tradition which has been going on now for more than half a century.
Courbet and the Impressionists did not work in the margins of the so-called official art, but against this art; their painting denies the system of values which fed the celebrities of the Salon. Realistic painting (which in its broadest sense should include Manet, Degas, and the Impressionists, who considered themselves realists) did not present itself merely as an alternative to the Salon, but went so far as to set itself up as the true inheritor of the tradition of Ingres, of Delacroix, as well as of Poussin, and even of the Renaissance. If we were to give Gérôme and Bouguereau a significant place, even if not a central one, we would put our whole aesthetic into question, and all of the painting which we see as making up the great tradition. This would no doubt be a healthy project. But the aesthetic standards for rehabilitating official art still remain shadowy.
In this respect, the exhibition “The Museum of the Luxembourg Palace in 1874” was extremely useful. At the very least it gives us the opportunity to appreciate the values which put official painting in the forefront and which, when these same values were later condemned, made it disappear from the galleries and museums.
If it had been the Luxembourg of 1873 that had been shown, the impression would have been very different. We would still have seen the works of painters who had been dead for some time—ten paintings by Ingres, five by Delacroix, and two by Théodore Rousseau. Thus 1874, the date when these works were sent to the Louvre, is both a revealing and an unlucky choice: unlucky, to the extent that the museum’s selection, in our eyes, became particularly catastrophic; revealing, not only because we therefore have a striking historical contrast with the first Impressionist exhibition, but also because it is the moment at which the museum seems to have been most homogeneous, when the system of exclusion which determined entrance into the Luxembourg seemed most rigid.
The Luxembourg had not always been cut off from the art that was destined to survive. Its doors had been opened in 1818, and by 1822 eight paintings by David were exhibited in spite of his political exile in Brussels; there were representative works by Girodet, Guérin, Prud’hon, and even the very recent and violently contested Dante et Virgile by the young Delacroix. Ingres, still a very controversial figure, entered the following year. Notwithstanding certain important omissions, the modern French school was well represented.
In 1874 nothing of the sort could be said. Manet, who had been exhibiting masterpieces at the Salons for ten years but who remained then as controversial as Ingres in 1823, was not represented, nor was Degas, who had long since disdainfully refused even to send his pictures to the Salons, but who was an important force in the artistic scene. More astonishing, you could not find at the Luxembourg either Courbet, whose importance was recognized, or Millet, whose fame was then enormous. Millet entered only in 1875, the year of his death.
Over the course of the century, the taste of the Luxembourg had become purified—its aesthetic had hardened—and a gap had opened like a trench between the museum and the new art. In 1850, a painting like Courbet’s L’après-dîner à Ornans could still be bought for the Luxembourg; but, significantly, after much hesitation it was then sent to the museum at Lille, where it still remains. During the Second Republic (1848-1852), there was both an effort toward renewal and finally an obvious and growing rift. After this time, there was a total exclusion of the work that future generations were to admit as the finest, except for acquisitions from elderly painters who had already made their reputations before 1848.
Before we agree hastily to a revision of cultural history and to a renunciation of the myths that have sustained art for the past century, two related questions present themselves too obviously to be pushed aside. Why did the French government, from 1850 on, refuse to commission or buy works by all the artists who were going to be accepted by their immediate posterity and for several generations afterward as the sole inheritors of the great classical tradition, the only ones of their time worthy to be placed beside Poussin and David in the Louvre? And, even more oddly, why did artists as skillful as Courbet, Degas, and Monet consistently refuse to paint the kind of picture that the government would pay for? This incompatibility between official taste and a radically important group of artists, however small their number, remains still to be elucidated.
What is it, then, that made up official taste, and governed its choice of paintings? For, in spite of the variety of styles, the Luxembourg exhibition gave a definite impression of unity. In general, there are two elements that we can distinguish: the subject matter and the fini, i.e., the polished or “licked” surface of the painting.
As for subject, the official administration in Paris was particularly worried by the decline of large-scale painting and tried its best to save the traditional hierarchy of genres. The portrait was more or less excluded. There were only a few still lifes, mostly large and artificially arranged pieces. The preference went to historical painting, to subjects drawn from sacred and profane history and from ancient mythology. These are the famous “grandes machines.” They represent an entire branch of art which, though official; was not popular either with the general public or with the connoisseurs of art. The very curious note on Glaize in the catalogue shows him struggling to survive, trying for many years to have one of his works bought by the state. He went so far as to dispatch his wife to the director of the Beaux-Arts, the famous Nieuwerkerke. “My type of painting,” he confessed, “and the nature of my experiments do not even allow me to sell my pictures to the general public, and I can live only through the encouragement of the State.”
This is an extreme case, but characteristic: it shows how precarious the position of large-scale painting was, how much at the mercy of the government. In the Luxembourg we can also see a curious slide from historical paintings to the genre paintings—standard scenes from everyday life—which were most appreciated by art lovers of the period. Even certain “grandes machines” are no more than genre scenes treated on a large scale and in a historical setting. Les Romains de la décadence by Thomas Couture, commissioned in 1846, was still sustained by an elevated moral idea; Un marchand d’esclaves by Giraud, acquired in 1867, is nothing but the inflation of a titillating anecdote. We see historical subjects treated as genre scenes (Molière et Louis XIV by Vetter is typical) and genre scenes dressed up in historical costumes. Gérôme was expert at these compromises.
What all these diverse subjects have in common is that they stand at a great distance from ordinary experience. Even landscape, the only honorable concession to the modern spirit at the Luxembourg, undergoes the same metamorphosis. Artificial, exotic landscapes, Oriental scenes, all betray a desire to move away from daily reality. The subtlest manner of marking that distance was perfected by Meissonier, who achieved the effect of irreality by an extreme minuteness of detail in a very reduced format.
Meissonier’s contemporaries did not misunderstand this effect. In 1849 Lagenevais said of the figures in L’après-dîner a Ornans by Courbet that they ought to have been represented, in the Flemish manner, as if through the small end “of a lorgnette, which poeticizes them as it removes them to a distance.” Lagenevais wrote: “It is difficult to explain why M. Courbet has done a genre painting on such a large canvas. The interior of a kitchen, which would be pleasing in a narrow frame, loses its charm when given its natural proportions.” 1 We can see that in the second half of the century the traditional hierarchy threatened by Courbet (who gives a “genre” painting the dimensions of a historical painting) explicitly served to reinforce the tendency to keep the real world at a distance.
The meaning of subjects changed in the course of the nineteenth century. The theme of the Orient, for example, which at the beginning of the century, particularly in Géricault’s work, evoked an idea of essential freedom, of an innocent humanity and a virgin space, was in 1874 no longer anything but picturesque; in other words, like the miniature, it was a way of holding reality at a distance, of providing a “poetic” image of the world, of sequestering art in dream. Historical reconstruction, with the German Romantic painters and again with someone like Leys, was associated with the awakening of national conscience; with Tissot (whose painting in the Luxembourg, by the way, is quite attractive) it was nothing more than an escape into time. The work of the artist, which consists of putting reality to the side, is so thorough that it allows even the most indelicate subjects to be represented without being shocking, as for example a brothel scene by Gérôme modestly entitled Intérieur grec.
The fini of the Academy paintings is also an estrangement, an alienation, not only from the reality that is represented, but from the reality of art. The fini is not only the finicky detail, but even more a smooth and glossy painting, with shadings, transitional gradations between colors, and unbroken modeling of forms. This fini is associated with the qualities of probity, assiduity, professional conscience—and also discretion.
We can better understand the function and meaning of the fini by looking for contrast at Courbet’s painting, especially the works which were considered to be the most shocking, like L’enterrement à Ornans. If the reality of the subject strikes us forcefully and directly, the material substance of the painting and the work of the painter are almost indecently flaunted. Delacroix’s touch, which is inseparable from what is “modern” in him, was nevertheless fluid, flowing with color and light, and gives an impression of virtuosity and ease. Courbet on the other hand—although his extraordinary technical ability was obvious to a critic with any sensitivity—lays on the paint heavily and thickly, and allows the pigmented substance to show through like mortar, like a common material.
The artist in nineteenth-century mythology is a suspicious and dangerous character, a bohemian who demands a lot of money for a few slap-dash brushstrokes. (To a large extent this was still the issue in question at the unfortunate Ruskin-Whistler trial.) The Romantics, even Delacroix, often cultivated this myth, which for them was tied to the need for spontaneity and originality, to the role of the inspired artist. After 1850 this myth weakened and the character of the artist became disturbing primarily because it seemed to contradict the work ethic. The fini became the guarantee for the bourgeois, and especially for the great bourgeois known as the state, against being swindled. “You know,” writes Madame Glaize to the Superintendent of Fine Arts, “that the Ecueils is one of the best and most conscientious works by Monsieur Glaize….” The fini, which has the advantage of being easy to appreciate—unlike real technical virtuosity—symbolizes careful work and is a pledge of social responsibility.
But if the Academic fini is work, it is shameful work. It cleans up, rubs out the traces of the real work, erases the evidence of the brush strokes, glosses over the rough edges of the forms, fills in the broken lines, hides the fact that the picture is a real object made out of paint. Art, now become the slave of the rendering of texture and surfaces, turns itself into a transparent medium for an imaginary world. The function of the fini is ambiguous: it guarantees both the amount of work done and the quality of execution that ought not to show itself: it gives value to an object whose physical properties it camouflages. When Baudelaire defended Corot against criticisms of his execution, he wrote, “There is a great difference between a painting done [fait] and a painting finished [fini]…. The public’s eye has become so accustomed to these shiny, clean and industriously polished pieces that he [Corot] is always reproached with not knowing how to paint.” The domestic metaphor shows that Baudelaire clearly sensed the symbolic meaning of the fini.
The fini painters sometimes emphasized and called attention to the surface of the painting, but once again by means of a transposition: the surface is not affirmed as a painted surface, but suggests to the imagination a precious substance, an enamel. In the still lifes by Desgoffes, in which we can see sixteenth-century gems and enamels, the metaphor of painted surface/precious object is married to what is represented in order to reinforce the “illusion.”
In Courbet’s realistic painting, and later in the work of the Impressionists, the use of artifice is proclaimed, the physical presence of paint is celebrated, and the picture openly sets itself up between the spectator and what is represented. The act of painting remains a kind of work, a work like other work (it was often said of Courbet that he painted with a trowel), but its value has been increased and made into something that gives pride.
The painting as an object that mediates between the object represented and the spectator was of the greatest importance for realism (especially for Courbet, who was always more radical in this respect than Millet or Bonvin), and it increased the tension between the painted surface and the three-dimensional pictorial world that is projected upon it. In this way, realism explored an aspect of the traditional way of formulating the problems and the goals of painting that was evaded by the heroes of the Luxembourg.
The principle of the transparency of art, of the painting as window, had no doubt been expressed in theoretical writings since the Renaissance; but from the sixteenth century on it had been consistently contradicted in practice. In this sense, nineteenth-century realism was the legitimate heir of the post-Renaissance pictorial tradition. But it gave a new twist to it. The emphasis on the act of painting itself, on the painting as artifice, and, in the end, on the intervention of the artist through his labor does not diminish but increases the impression of reality given by what is represented. By emphasizing the painting as representation, the artist confirms the existence of what is behind the representation. In fini painting, on the other hand, the transparency of the painting—its lack of resistance—emphasizes the fictive character of what is represented. Thus, treatment and subject, the fini and the exclusion of everyday life, serve the same purpose in the strategy of official art.
In Image of the People, T.J. Clark quotes a contemporary of Millet who praised him for “the way he set the scene so as to push back his characters and to keep them at a proper distance.”2 Clark interprets this to mean only that Millet’s methods were more traditional than those of Courbet, and that “the connoisseur is still in a world that is familiar to him.” But Courbet’s innovations were not only effective because they broke with tradition; they were also inherently disturbing in themselves. For example, Clark observes finely and cogently that when, in his Salon pictures, Courbet used forms derived from popular prints and from naïve engravings made for peasants and workmen (as in L’enterrement à Ornans), he did not intend to “revive the puffed-up forms of high art,” an accepted and traditional process, but that, on the contrary, he exploited high art in order to revive popular art.
This was surely Courbet’s intention, and, up to a certain point, the secret of his power.3 But Clark avoids a discussion of how the imagery functions, of the way in which the motifs and schemata were eventually put into the work. Like the treatment, these awkward patterns, which are both simple and striking, draw one’s attention to the artificiality of the means of representation, which makes the objects represented seem even more vividly present.4 This is why the critics were shocked by the reference to popular imagery, and they expressed their bitterness when they declared that Courbet was neither as naive nor as simple as he seemed.
This relationship between realistic art and the artificiality of the means of representation was sometimes well understood in the nineteenth century. The great realist critic Thoré, champion of Courbet and even of Manet, Monet, and Renoir, expressed it in his attacks against the fini:
But this curious quality of the infinitely small is perhaps in opposition to the true essence of painting, which is an artifice quite separate from reality. Really, can and should one emphasize on the plane surface of a canvas these thousand little reliefs of bodies placed at all distances?
We can see here that for Thoré the evidence of artifice, the tension between the painted surface and depth, are directly tied to the realist cause.5
Nothing reveals more clearly the ideological force the fini gradually developed during the nineteenth century than its use by the Pre-Raphaelites, who had an ambiguous relation to realism: in their works, an occasional choice of everyday subjects and of realistic detail is combined—in contrast to the French realist practice—with a high degree of finish. Paradoxically an analogous significance is being conveyed, and the ideological bias is even more obvious when the differences between Pre-Raphaelite style and the French academic fini are noted. With the Pre-Raphaelites, the meticulous execution is an open reference to fifteenth-century painting, to the Italian primitives, to manuscript illumination, and even sometimes to stained glass. These references and the linear realism of late-medieval painting conjure up a mythical past when art was—supposedly—a craft and careful, decent craftsmanship was a warrant of sincerity. (Only Ford Madox Brown at his greatest transcended this retrospective sentimentality, and he was not a member of the Brotherhood.)
The fini of the Pre-Raphaelites was an essential part of their program to restore to the artist the imagined dignity of the medieval craftsman, to re-create a lost precapitalist world. The French realist painters, less nostalgic, were at one and the same time more ambitious and more down-to-earth. Courbet in Bonjour Monsieur Courbet and the Atelier isolated the artist and placed him by his genius above common humanity: he bravely and sometimes comically carried on the Romantic tradition of the artist as hero. He did not, however, seek to idealize the material nature of his work, which is as physical as that of his stonebreakers.6
It must be emphasized that the meaning of the finished, licked surface (as well as its aspect) changed continuously throughout history. Our analysis is intended to apply only to the period from 1848 to 1880. On the other hand, the smooth, hard surface realism cultivated by David in the late eighteenth century was one move in his break with an earlier academic tradition; it was part and parcel of his radical ideal of “purity,” and it brought conviction to his new vision. It is largely based on a particular kind of seventeenth-century Dutch painting, of which Van der Werf is characteristic: although the source of inspiration was surely conscious, there is no attempt at nostalgic reference.
Historically, there was nothing new about the taste for the “unfinished” texture. It had become more and more common over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But it was confined to studies and sketches—in other words, to private works. Because the work was not specifically intended for the public (in principle at least, but not always in practice), the artist did not feel obliged to eradicate the traces of his effort by making the extra effort which could be appreciated, but was not apparent. This is the myth of the artist caught at work.
Constable upset this arrangement by producing a great many sketches that were not intended for a specific work and, above all, by attaching the greatest artistic value to the next-to-last stage of the elaboration, to a canvas that had the same large dimensions of the picture to be exhibited but lacked its meticulous texture. It is important to remember not only the impression made by Constable on painters like Delacroix but also the virulent attacks on his work by French academic critics. Constable was delighted by the form of these attacks: the critics had complained of the vague sketchy character of his paintings and compared them to music or conversations.
Constable, Turner, and others were able to alternate between two visions, the fini and the rough. In an extremely interesting book, 7 Albert Boime has shown what the most advanced painters owed to academic instruction (or to the similar instruction of semi-academic artists like Couture) from a technical point of view. But Boime associates freedom of execution with the values of originality and spontaneity. This meaning, which reflects the ideas of the Romantics at the beginning of the century, was never lost; but when artists reject the fini, when the broad, rough, and visible facture holds the stage alone, its significance changes.
The opposition between “finished picture” and “sketch” is somewhat misleading8 : there were many kinds of sketches, including what was called a “finished sketch” (“esquisse terminée“). Boime gives a valuable account of the various types. The best classification, even if an oversimplified one, is a triple one of sketch, “unfinished” picture (often of large dimensions), and final work. It is the central member of this triad which, by the end of the nineteenth century, was to take over the functions of the others; but for the artists around 1800, each stage (although part of an interdependent process) had an intrinsic value of its own. By the 1830s, however, friends of Théodore Rousseau were to prefer his sketches to the finished works. Turner divided all his works into the above three categories, and at the end of his life planned three separate public exhibitions. But by this time each of these categories had changed in meaning, appearance, and relationship to the other two.
Boime believes that sketching techniques are eternal, and lie outside history. Even if this were true (which is doubtful), their values and the associated meanings are subject to considerable alteration—so considerable, indeed, that however the free technique of Courbet, Manet, and others may derive ultimately from the academic sketch, the works produced by this technique can no longer by 1850 be considered sketches in any sense. To identify the “unfinished” countries. As the recession deepened, the banks could find fewer customers in industrialized countries.
execution with the academic sketch is to perpetuate the worst misunderstandings of the usual nineteenth-century Salon criticism. The most unconvincing aspect of Boime’s book is his contention that the sketches of the fini painters like Gleyre and Bouguereau resemble the public works of the avant-garde artist. To our eyes they do not.
The fini and the “unfinished” texture are both actually forms of realism—rival forms which implied by 1850 a different view of reality. The realism of the Academic fini consisted in an illusionistic and faithful representation of the material object in all of its details along with an idealization—a spiritualization, even—of the means of representation.9 The “unfinished” texture implied a phenomenological realism, a faithful representation of the process of vision and an emphatic sense of the material presence of the work of art. The Academic painters conveyed the tangible solidity of the exterior world, generally an imaginery world of the past—one may easily understand how this would appeal to the state. By contrast, the so-called realists were increasingly concerned with the painting of light, the experience of seeing, and, at the same time, with asserting the independence of the work of art itself.
Just as the fini is not the same with David and Gérôme, the rough texture is not the same with Degas and Couture or with Manet and Flandrin. It becomes charged with an ideological sense that we have tried to elucidate. The refusal of the fini in nineteenth-century modernist painting necessarily had a political meaning, which was independent of the individual opinions of the artists, who could be right-wing, like Degas, or left-wing, like Pissarro. Rejection of the licked surface proclaimed an opposition to the Academy and to the government as represented by the Ministry of Fine Arts (an opposition that could at times come from the right as well as the left), and indicated a refusal to hold everyday reality at a distance by a process of idealization. The rehabilitation of official art today consequently takes on a political coloring independent of the very diverse tendencies of the people behind it.
These are the general principles that govern the Luxembourg selection. However, there were a good ten paintings or so at the exhibition which need no rehabilitation, and which more or less escaped this limiting aesthetic. But when we look a little more closely, we see that these paintings, e.g., the ones by Gigoux, Paul Flandrin, Rosa Bonheur, and Hébert, are quite a bit older than the others, and most were acquired more than twenty years before 1874. One has to go back to 1857 for Le Printemps by Daubigny, and the only Corot was bought almost accidentally by the state in 1851. Corot had been treated rudely at the Salon and the purchase was a kind of apology.
What was the result of this official policy of aesthetic coercion, and how did it influence the development of art? Much work remains to be done on these questions, but the answers are not likely to reveal any great effectiveness in the administration of patronage. T.J. Clark, in The Absolute Bourgeois, has made a truly remarkable study of state patronage during the Second Republic, which shows that despite sincere efforts, the habits of the July Monarchy (1830-1848) had not been changed. The painters who refused to conform to the preferences of the administration, and who were less and less attracted by the type of commissions it offered, looked for a new clientele.
Courbet envisioned, at least for a short while, a clientele that would not be made up of connoisseurs, but of a wider, even a popular, audience that could keep him alive by paying to see his works, not by buying them. David was supposed to have collected more than 60,000 francs from showing The Sabine Women and Géricault had allowed such paying exhibitions of The Raft of the Medusa to be organized in England, where the practice was usual although considered debasing for the artist. Courbet showed a group of works which included L’enterrement à Ornans at Ornans itself (where the exhibition was free), at Besançon (where he made a profit), and at Dijon and Paris. This effort by Courbet to transform the economics of art requires a deeper study, but represents little more than a fleeting dream.
The official painters did not worry about such utopias. Thoré stated things a bit crudely perhaps, but he left no doubt about what should be understood by the term “official art”:
A single comment: this detestable art, which provides pictures for the court, the state, the museums, monuments, palaces, and châteaux, carries a high price tag for the French: since the dignitaries, the functionaries, and most figures of high rank, who live high and spend high, draw their salaries from the national budget. Who pays for these official portraits? Who pays for the Siamese Ambassadors by M. Gérôme? Who paid for the Sphinx by M. Moreau last year? Who will pay for the Five Senses by M. Henri Schlesinger this year? Who pays for all the acquisitions of the Maison de l’Empereur and the Ministry of Fine Arts, the crown, the princes, the different ministers, the prefecture of the Seine, etc., etc.? And who pays the salaries of the administration of the so-called fine arts—from the minister and the director down to the lowest clerks? The financial question is directly connected in this way to the question raised by Louis Viardot’s pamphlet: How Should We Encourage the Arts? The answer should be: Let them alone.10
“Detestable” goes perhaps a bit too far. Certain painters from the Luxembourg have great merits. It would be pleasant to hang a Gérôme on one’s wall if the price were not too high; Henner and Ribot are both agreeable, and the little genre scenes by Meissonier often attain an exquisite perfection.11 In any case, everyone will have his own favorites; it is even possible to be touched by the dignity and worthy intentions of Chenavard, if not by his talent. But in the end, we understand why Thoré found that it all really did cost the taxpayers too much.
The official painters of the Second Empire were no worse than certain artists of other periods who have had success with the public. Neri di Bicci and the painters who came after him are worth no more nor less than the Bouguereaus and the Gérômes; but, inspite of their prosperity and their countless commissions, no one dreams of elevating them to the heights of Masaccio or Fra Angelico. What is exceptional after 1850 is the poverty, the exclusiveness of official taste.
The Luxembourg show gave a particularly clear, even purified version of this taste. We cannot help but notice, for example, the absence of Puvis de Chavannes, a painter of great power, who had received many commissions for decorative work. A friend of Degas and admired by Gauguin, he was a controversial painter, but nevertheless one who had arrived, an official painter if there ever was one, and prominent since 1863. Puvis is a reminder that we cannot confine ourselves to the Luxembourg to have an idea of official art; but his activities outside the museum only serve to emphasize the crisis of this art. The second half of the nineteenth century had some talented and very active decorators. The study of their work is well worth the effort, and it would be a pity if the decorations they have given us were abandoned to the bulldozers of urban renewal. But Puvis clearly shows us the distance that separates the facile practitioners, like Baudry or Jean-Paul Laurens, from an original and profound decorator who rethought all aspects of the problem. Although the Musée du Luxembourg defined a direction of taste, there was still no official “style.”
Furthermore, the critical confusion of the Beaux-Arts administration was flagrant: in 1874 the museum of contemporary art contained 240 paintings by 184 painters. Only one artist had four works exhibited, the others had no more than three. At any given moment in history there are hardly more than a dozen painters of first rank. Such a vast sampling would automatically seem to guarantee failure—even if not the spectacular failure of the Luxembourg.
Historians can only rejoice at the Luxembourg exhibition, but we may remain skeptical over the idea of rehabilitation. It is important to study the official art of the nineteenth century, the administrative groups, the mechanics of artistic life, if only to understand the system that so deeply affected Manet. Even though the history of painting does not seem to be greatly changed by this art, it still has had an influence in other areas: on the great film spectacles of directors like Cecil B. De Mille, for example. Much remains to be done. We should be grateful to those who have taken on this thankless task with so much scholarship and intelligence.
Postscript: Since this was written the rehabilitation of the official glories of the nineteenth century has continued to roll onward. There has been an exhibition of Gleyre in Philadelphia, and of Bouguereau in New York, and the National Gallery in London is celebrating its acquisition of a Delaroche. The Museum of Modern Art in New York cast its beautiful show of architectural drawings of the Beaux-Arts school as a flashy and provocative attack on modern architecture. It is heartening to observe the proponents of academic art revealing their motives without blushing at last.12 The revisionist movement, finally, had a palpable influence on the brilliant exhibition of “French Painting from David to Delacroix” shown at the Louvre in 1975, and (retitled “The Age of Revolution”) brought mutilated to Detroit and New York.
Perhaps the silliest of these manifestations was that of Bouguereau. The New York Cultural Center gave us a chance to form an opinion of this artist based on first-hand experience. The exhibition was surprising in a minor way: one or two early pictures were not as bad as the later and better-known works had led one to expect. Nobody who saw Zenobia found by the Shepherds on the shores of the Araxes, the competition piece of 1850, could feel that Bouguereau was without talent: the composition is truly inventive, the arbitrary use of light most effective, the color and general feeling not unworthy of Chassériau. Canéphore of 1851, though not so successful, is more original: for a moment it seems as if Bouguereau is developing a style comparable to that of Feuerbach. The abstractness of the color, in particular, is impressive.
After this Bouguereau settled on his special blend of classic forms, high finish, and surface realism, all glued together by oozing sentiment. Early Morning of 1865 is typical: a Raphael Madonna is recast into a picturesque full-featured modern Italian girl. Bouguereau does his best to retain the spiritual content of his model: in case the message of the radiant light on the baby’s face is missed, Bouguereau nails it down with another angelic child, its wee hands joined in prayer.
One observation in the catalogue by Robert Isaacson demands to be quoted:
Bouguereau’s studio was often filled with wriggling, obstreperous infants, with whom he loved to frolic, though admitting that he could use them for very little other than color, having to go to the Louvre to make drawings after the antique for the poses. [Page 26]
There is a picture by Bouguereau, Alma Parens, which is indeed full of wriggling, obstreperous infants, but the poses do not come just from the Louvre: Bouguereau must have ransacked the museums of Europe (or at least his collection of engravings) for them. One chubby rascal is climbing onto the lady’s lap in a convincing imitation of the best-known figure from Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina, while other children strike attitudes copied from Raphael.
French Painting from David to Delacroix” was the most important exhibition of 1975, finely and seriously considered, and, for the most part, brilliantly documented. Here the revisionist movement revealed itself in the decision (luckily not very consistently carried out) to show mainly finished works, above all those publicly displayed in the Salons, and largely to omit sketches. Pierre Rosenberg, curator at the Louvre, justified this decision in his preface to the catalogue:
We have expressly decided upon this policy. Our era loves the first sketch [le premier jet], disdains the fini. This attitude would certainly have shocked the contemporaries of David, but also those of Greuze and of Delacroix, for whom only the finished work allowed a judgment of the real merits of the artist.13 An exhibition which wanted above all to respect a certain historical truth, without distorting it in the name of doctrines which so often annex the most disparate works, must also bow before the will of the artists that it tries to serve. Between two attitudes—that of our contemporaries, who have in the present case very little taste for this period and whose views rest so often on a fragmentary knowledge of the time, and that of the era—it is the second that we have adopted.14
One should note here the hidden shift from the judgment of contemporaries to the will of the artists themselves, which begs the fundamental question—to what extent were they identical? It also begs the more touchy question of how far the will of the artist is in conscious control of his work. It is, indeed, ironic for an exhibition that wishes to represent the attitudes of the period 1770-1830 to prejudge this question. The problem was hotly debated then, and many of the contemporaries of Géricault and Delacroix would have claimed that what is best in the work of art is independent of the artist’s consciousness.
It is, in any case, not strictly true that the period held that only the “finished work allowed a judgment of the real merits of the artist” (not that if it were true we would therefore be obliged to judge David by the standards of his time—that is only one of the more common ways of perpetuating or reviving misunderstandings). Drawings and oil sketches were exhibited at the Salon throughout the period, and the taste for them, which started in the sixteenth century or earlier, only increased at this time.
Jean-François Pierre Peyron, in the Salon of 1799, even exhibited a completed picture of Time and Minerva and alongside it a sketch of a different composition of the same subject. Clearly inventiveness and inspiration were held to be real merits by the artists themselves. In the “David to Delacroix” show itself, there were, in fact, a number of sketches that had been publicly shown, including Baron Gros’s Battle of Nazareth. (Another one of Gros’s sketches, The Battle of Wagram, was exhibited at the Salon of 1810: it measured eight and a half feet by five feet eight inches, and it is evident that the “unfinished” texture could be put on exhibition in works of very considerable size.)
The practice of the committee in charge of the exhibition “David to Delacroix” was, indeed, much more liberal than the doctrine outlined by Rosenberg, and it must be admitted that the doctrine even had the beneficial effect of increasing our knowledge of the period by showing many of the large public works that are not often seen today, for example by Girodet, Peyron, and Gérard. We must be grateful for the choice and the policy that guided it, even if dubious about the implications of its philosophy. In only one case, perhaps, did the committee make a serious error, but it was a significant one: the decision to represent Valenciennes only by a finished, “composed” landscape shown at the Salon and not to include a single one of his sketches.
Valenciennes himself never showed the sketches publicly and after his death his name gradually became the hated symbol of the academic, artificial landscape that was to be destroyed by the Barbizon School. Only with the neoclassicism of the 1920s did his work experience a slight revival of sympathy. It was, however, not until the gift of 130 of his oil sketches to the Louvre in the 1930s that he came into his own. These sketches (called “pochades“) were small landscapes mostly of Rome and the Roman campagna, done very quickly on the spot. They have a freedom, a directness, and an immediacy very much to modern taste—which is not to say that they were not to the artist’s own taste, even if he accepted the standards of decorum of the academic establishment which frowned upon their exhibition. It is not merely by modern standards that they are significant: they embody many of the central virtues of spontaneity and submission to nature preached at the time by the contemporary Romantic group to which Valenciennes, ironically, did not really belong. A private art is as much a part of history as a public art: it is essential to make the distinction, but there is nothing to be gained from pretending that the aesthetics which separated the two did not already show cracks before 1800.
It may be said that there were already a great many pictures in the show—so many, indeed, that Thomas Hoving ruthlessly and tastelessly gutted it without consulting the organizers. With so little space, a choice had to be made for Valenciennes. Yet five pictures by Regnault, ranging from the mediocre to the absurd, were exhibited, and surely one of these could have been sacrificed with profit for a Valenciennes pochade. An important development of the period would then have been given its due: something very like the kind of landscape to be exhibited by Corot in the 1830s was already being produced privately as early as the 1790s. (It is good to know that in February the Louvre will finally hang all of its Valenciennes pictures—sketches and “composed” landscapes, almost 150 of them.)
The bias of choice was too evident here. The sketches of Valenciennes form a new link in that grand old myth of the avant-garde that leads art uninterruptedly from the nineteenth-century realists to the Impressionists and then to the Fauves and the Cubists. Regnault and the Salon landscapes of Valenciennes, on the other hand, are solid representatives of the dead academic tradition into which historians and dealers are industriously trying to pump a semblance of life. Bad as it is, the old avant-garde myth has more to be said for it than the revisionist movement with its new worship of official reputations. The myth, indeed, falsifies history less because it so largely helped to make history as it developed.
The “David to Delacroix” show rightly ignored contemporary standards when it suited the organizers’ taste. The wonderful display of the late works of David was an example. It was not twentieth-century critics like Walter Friedländer who found these pictures lamentable, weak, and slack: they were universally decried, with few exceptions, by David’s own contemporaries. The exhibition went a long way toward rehabilitating these works merely by bringing them together.
The work of David foreshadows the deadly struggle that was to take place later between the proponents of the fini and those of the rough, unfinished surface. It is from the style of David and his school that the academic fini is ultimately derived, although it was to be given such a different meaning and appearance later. Yet he himself was to paint and exhibit a number of unfinished pictures—with large areas of the canvas left bare, or with only a scumbled rough ground painting. The show exhibited one such work, Portrait of a Young Man, and it is signed and dated.
The catalogue notice to this work, by A. Schnapper, makes heavy weather of what he calls the “problem” of David’s unfinished portraits. He suggests all kinds of reasons for the artist’s leaving the works incomplete: the models were guillotined before the sittings were over, events were moving too fast, the artist had no time—every reason except the obvious one that, in at least some cases, David liked the pictures that way. To put a signature and a date to a work is a sign both of satisfaction and termination. Some of these unfinished works were displayed in his atelier for many years; indeed, some of them were sold by David, as Turner was to sell “unfinished” works later. We can see that even for an artist as doctrinaire as David the rough surface and the licked could coexist as they did for other artists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and not only as a simple opposition of sketch and finished picture. It was only much later on that the fini and the free texture became incompatible as an ideology imposed a choice on the artist.
The alternative that Rosenberg offered us—of imposing our own modern standards on the work of 1770 to 1830 or of bowing to those standards in sway at the time—is a false one. Both attitudes are uncritical, and neither allows us to grasp the development of modern ideals of art from earlier ones, or to understand what was latent within the era, as important to its history as that which lies explicitly on the surface. It is only fair to add, however, that the breadth of knowledge displayed by Rosenberg and his colleagues provided a basis for a critical assessment of the period from within the exhibition itself.
Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in French in Critique in 1974. It has been translated by Paul Auster and considerably altered, revised, and enlarged by the authors, who wish to thank Mr. Daniel Robbins, Professor Theodore Reff of Columbia University, and Professor Jacques de Caso of the University of California at Berkeley for their criticisms. They are naturally not to be blamed for the errors that remain or for the opinions expressed.
March 18, 1976
Revue des deux mondes, August 15, 1849, p. 578. Quoted by T.J. Clark in Image of the People, p. 69. ↩
An earlier version of this article in French called the attention of the French public to T.J. Clark’s two books Image of the People and The Absolute Bourgeois. These brilliant, provocative volumes are, in places, inconsistently researched and carelessly written, but they are the most stimulating publications on nineteenth-century art to come out in many years. They contain a study of the art of the Second Republic and the “realist” years of Courbet. Clark deals with state patronage, the material conditions of artistic production, and the relations of art and ideology. He avoids the usual traps of Marxist criticism by insisting that art is not a direct expression of ideology but acts (and reacts) upon it as well. For an English-speaking public, his books deserve a searching examination, which would require more space than we can afford and more knowledge and energy than we have. ↩
See Meyer Schapiro’s important article, “Courbet and Popular Imagery,” Journal of the Courtauld Institute, 4, 1940-1941. ↩
This is also true of Courbet’s assimilation of certain earlier painters, like the Le Nains. Clark notes that Courbet accepted, and even exaggerated, the qualities of the Le Nains that Champfleury considered naïve and flawed. ↩
Salons de W. Bürger, 1861-1868, Vol. I. p. 414, Paris, 1870 (“Salon de 1863“). ↩
Some critics had classified the portrait of Baudelaire as “materialist,” but Clark objects that Courbet did not try to “evoke the material substance of the model or of the objects” (Image of the People, p. 75). However, the “materialism” of the portrait does not consist in its transmitting the material presence of the objects, but in the coercive material presence of the painting itself. This is why the fini is so important for academic taste. ↩
The Academy and French Painting in the Nineteenth Century (Phaidon Press, 1971). ↩
Ruskin shows how unwieldy the opposition of “sketch” to “finished picture” had become. In the controversy, which he said in 1855 divided all of the artists of Europe, he took his stand on the side of the completed picture; in spite of the ability of the sketch to stimulate the imagination, he wished for the realism of the greatest possible amount of detail. Nevertheless, he opposed both illusionism and polish: Ruskin’s “finished picture,” therefore, cannot be identified either with the “unfinished” texture or the Academic fini. Like Thoré, Ruskin explicitly recognizes the tie between realism and the assertion of the artificiality of the work of art. ↩
The illusionism of the fini was explicitly tied by Ingres to the idealization and spiritualization of the medium when he wrote: “The brushstroke, as accomplished as it may be, should not be visible: otherwise it prevents the illusion, immobilizes everything. Instead of the object represented, it calls attention to the process: instead of the thought, it betrays the hand.” ↩
Salons de W. Bürger, 1861-1868, Vol. II, p. 168 (“Salon de 1865“). ↩
The Luxembourg is not the best place to judge all of these painters. Baudry, who proved to be an excellent decorator of the Opera, discredits himself here with an absurd pastiche of Titian. ↩
The statement issued by Arthur Drexler, Director of the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, was an open challenge to Modernism, but the catalogue of the exhibition prepared by several historians has not yet been published. ↩
What are the “real” merits of the artist? Who, in that period, would have held that finish and revision were more real than inspiration? Not Girodet, for one, who, however, believed in the necessity of the elaborately finished product. Rosenberg’s principle of judging the artist by the standards expressly set by the artist would have unwelcome results with Ingres, who once claimed that a picture should be judged by the engraving made of it. This would invalidate almost all Ingres research. ↩
Since the English translation of the catalogue is inaccurate in many places, we have retranslated all quotations from the original French. ↩