So much the worse for Raffaelle. I have been a long time hesitating, but I have given him up today, before the St. Cecilia. I shall knock him down, and put up Perugino in his niche.
Such was the young Ruskin’s brashly subversive project, and Francis Haskell presents it with obvious and understandable delight. This is the subject of his book: how old canons of taste are knocked down and replaced by new ones.
In these Wrightsman Lectures, delivered in New York at the Metropolitan Museum in 1973, Haskell studies the revaluation of artists and styles of the past during the nineteenth century, from the French Revolution to about 1870. The most characteristic and important phenomena he investigates are the reassessment of the Italian “primitives” and the recovery of Vermeer, a painter all but forgotten. Haskell has not set out simply to describe such changes of taste but to explain them, to clarify the historical process of revaluation. As he writes,
Indeed, with hindsight, we can see that the real “discoveries” that occurred between about 1790 and 1870 were not so much of Orcagna or Rembrandt, Vermeer or El Greco, Botticelli, Piero della Francesca, or Louis Le Nain, as of a multitude of contrasting qualities each apparently divorced from those associations (of religion or of a certain concept of art itself) that were once thought to be indissolubly linked to them.
In order to make his immense subject manageable, Haskell has set himself some specific limits: he restricts himself to England and France, and is concerned only with painting, leaving out sculpture, drawing, prints, and the decorative arts. Haskell is quite aware, however, that these restrictions, rigorously enforced, would hamstring his investigation, and he fortunately admits exceptions at many points. For example, he happily cannot resist quoting at length the interrogation of Sir Richard Westmacott, professor of sculpture at the Royal Academy, by the Select Committee on the National Gallery, on the effect of introducing the sculptures from Nineveh into the British Museum:
“Do you think [he was asked among other things] there is no fear that introducing freely into the institution objects of more occasional and peculiar interest, such for instance as the sculptures from Nineveh, may deteriorate the public taste, and less incline them than they otherwise would be to study works of great antiquity and great art?” To which Westmacott replied: “I think it impossible that any artist can look at the Nineveh marbles as works for study, for such they certainly are not; they are works of prescriptive art, like works of Egyptian art. No man would think of studying Egyptian art.”
Haskell’s purpose is not merely to provide one chapter among the many others in the history of taste, considered as a particular discipline in its own right. His aim is more ambitious. He is working toward a fresh view of the nineteenth century. He does not, of course, propose simply to replace the history of art by the history of taste; but he quite rightly assumes that the history of taste is an important and revealing index of the artistic life of a time, and has been insufficiently explored.
The phenomena that he describes, all the deliberate “knocking down” and “putting up” of artists and styles, is, to a significant extent, an innovation of the nineteenth century. And it is closely related to a new sense of the symbolic meaning of styles. This new sense is clearest in architecture; the nineteenth-century architect had a repertoire of styles at his disposal, with which he could juggle: gothic for piety, classical for imperial grandeur, rococo and chinoiserie for luxurious pleasure, or native Renaissance (Tudor in England, Loire Châteaux style in France) for local color.
The styles of painting, either admired in old works or emulated in new ones, carry similar connotations, whether it is the joie de vivre of Diaz’s neo-eighteenth-century pastorals, or Hippolyte Flandrin’s pious primitivism; but, as Haskell warns us again and again, things are rarely simple, and many surprises remain. Haskell, therefore, does not simply investigate the mechanisms of artistic life and examine nineteenth-century attitudes toward the past; he also reveals how works of art, both old and modern, were meaningful in their own time. Haskell would not want to restore nineteenth-century values in art, but he reasonably assumes that it is a good idea to be aware of and understand these values in order to reassess them.
The history of taste is not easy to describe because the concept of taste itself is diffuse, and the different ways of measuring it are difficult to relate to one another. Many diverse factors must be taken into account. One must consider what was written not only by historians and critics but also by writers. There is the ephemeral newspaper article, the essays of prominent critics, large historical tomes, and, finally, the scattered remarks which can be gleaned from novelists, poets, and letter writers.
One cannot stop with what is written; there is the evidence of collecting. One wants to know who the collector was, and whether he was rich and powerful, or modest and fervent; one needs to know how much was paid and whether prices were going up or down. In order to assess these prices one must take account of approximately how many works of an artist or school were available, and with what else on the market they competed. The nineteenth century also witnessed the creation of museums and the development of public exhibitions, which are a significant guide to the movements of taste. In the case of museums, it is useful to trace what works went on exhibition and, perhaps even more, what was taken down and stored in the museum’s reserve, away from the public’s gaze.
An index to taste that cannot be neglected is the influence that older works have on contemporary artists. This raises the important, indeed crucial, question of the relation of rediscoveries of old art to the changes in contemporary art and the development of new styles.
Haskell is extraordinary in that he is able to take all this into account. A child of British empiricism, he wishes to bring all the evidence he can to bear on the question, and attempts, as far as possible, to avoid preconceived ideas. He is suspicious of the simple answers provided by dogmatic theories—and he is also, quite rightly, suspicious of the evidence itself. He pays attention to prices in his attempt to assess artistic reputation; these provide obviously the most easily measurable index. But he warns:
I do not believe that very much of interest is to be learned about taste from those tables of fluctuating prices which are so popular today. So many unknown factors—about availability, authenticity, and condition, about the general economic background and attitudes to it—are involved that the evidence to be gleaned from auction prices is only rarely of much use: nor, it is often forgotten, do the activities of a few rich collectors provide the most valuable information about changing tastes.
A brief summary will give some idea of the scope, if not the depth, of Haskell’s volume. He opens his first lecture, “Hierarchies and Subversion,” with an analysis of Paul Delaroche’s decoration of the lecture hall at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. This vast mural, completed in 1841, represents an ideal gathering of all the greatest names in Delaroche’s view of the history of painting, from Correggio on the far left of the mural to Fra Angelico on the far right. Strongly reminiscent of Raphael’s Parnassus and, more immediately, of Ingres’s Apotheosis of Homer, this grand assembly of lifesize portraits was intended to set young students on the right track. All these works were painted to consecrate a canon, and Delaroche must have spent a great deal of thought deciding on the elect. But interestingly enough, the commentators of the time—and there were many because the work was a major official commission—did not seriously discuss the particular choice of artists.
Haskell, who has a soft spot for this mural, wonders why the choice was not debated more extensively, and proposes several possibilities. One might hazard a guess that general indifference is a likelier answer than general satisfaction. This work, highly admired in the nineteenth century, largely neglected or despised in our own, provides Haskell with a striking way of introducing his subject.
The second half of this lecture centers on the eighteenth-century art dealer Le Brun, an enterprising and picturesque figure, the husband of the painter Mme Vigée-Le Brun. He was an innovative connoisseur and tried to expand the number of painters that would be admired and, above all, collected by his clients. At a time when Dutch genre painting was at the peak of its popularity, he rediscovered Vermeer, then totally forgotten, and tried, without much success, to place his name alongside those of Teniers, De Hoogh, and Metsu. In spite of his failure with Vermeer, he was a pioneer in that new and fruitful activity of deliberate rediscovery.
The French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars dispersed a large number of important collections—principally those of French aristocratic immigrants and of Italian patricians squeezed by Napoleonic taxes. One of the first and most spectacular of the sales of these collections was that of the Duke of Orleans, perhaps the greatest private collection in Europe, with important works by Titian, Raphael, and most of the other great masters. It was bought by a group of English noblemen. The result was a veritable rage for collecting, especially in England, but along conservative lines. “The budding interest in earlier—or remoter—art which had developed slowly but fairly steadily in the 1780s and early 90s was submerged by the sudden and unexpected availability of so many great and established masterpieces.”
Haskell goes on to show, however, that there were innovations in taste during that time. The French, who had invaded Italy, were not able to take full advantage of the new opportunities for collecting; the Napoleonic administration had reserved masterpieces for the French National Museum, and Napoleon’s agents were reasonably efficient and disciplined. This forced French collectors to turn to drawings or to the less desirable pictures like the previously underrated work of fifteenth-century Italy.
It is usually thought that the recovery of earlier styles is made possible by new and general tendencies in art: forgotten artists and previously despised styles are revived, in this view, because of their affinity with the latest modern art. For instance, the new and aggressively modern art of the Pre-Raphaelites would, according to this theory, be responsible for the acceptance of the Italian primitives. What Haskell shows, in the lecture called “The Two Temptations,” is that the effect was sometimes precisely the reverse, that—at least for an important part of the public—the distaste for modern art held back the rehabilitation of early Italian painting.
Even more curious is the case of the eighteenth-century revival (and survival) in France of the taste for Watteau and Fragonard—the second of Haskell’s “Two Temptations.” Early in the nineteenth century, the rococo was associated with an aristocratic style of life, and with the prerevolutionary douceur de vivre. The romantics of 1830 were royalists for the most part, and they accordingly championed this kind of art against what appeared as the cold republican neoclassicism of David and his school: the rococo and anything influenced by it were consequently attacked by the left for being reactionary. By 1850, however, the romantic battle was over, and, curiously, Watteau was now recruited for the largely left-wing realist and nationalist cause. Along with Chardin and Greuze, he became a painter whose art was true to life; even Boucher was redeemed for nationalistic reasons, for his uniquely French qualities.1
Haskell’s discussion of “Taste and History” is about the large-scale collectors of the 1840s and 1850s, who displayed a remarkable openness of taste, and about the scholars who helped to build their collections. A man like Dr. La Caze, an amateur painter and a collector of great discrimination whose pictures have enriched the Louvre, evidently felt that masterpieces of all schools could hang side by side on his walls without hurting each other. There were also collectors who, like the Pereire brothers, were very rich, but had no taste of their own, or enough time to develop it, and who had to depend on critic-historians for advice. The best known, the most gifted of these predecessors of Berenson, is Théophile Thoré, a brilliant writer and, with Baudelaire, the greatest critic of the century. Exiled for his left-wing politics in 1849, after the triumph of the right and the arrival of Louis Napoleon, he became a specialist of the old Dutch school. Haskell describes how he almost singlehandedly reconstructed the work of Vermeer and restored his reputation. Where Le Brun had been tentative and failed, Thoré was triumphant. He also performed much the same service for Frans Hals.
The last lecture, or chapter, “Spreading the News,” explains how innovations in taste become fashionable, how new trends reach the general public and become canonic in their turn. In fact, rediscovery and adventurousness themselves became the rule in the later nineteenth century.
This brief summary does little justice to Haskell’s book, whose main virtues are in the details, in the lively evocation of the characters involved, and in a thousand suggestive remarks and observations. It is a book that could only have been written by an extraordinarily intelligent man who has done an extraordinary amount of work. Simply from the point of view of the quantity of information critically sifted, the book is invaluable. Moreover, it is, I think, impossible to come up with an idea on the subject that has not already occurred to Haskell. He has considered the aesthetic, technical, political, social, economic, psychological, and religious variables that influence the history of taste.
Yet this very multitude of ideas is disconcerting because Haskell is not always prepared to order and articulate them. He is shy of drawing general conclusions. Empiricism breeds skepticism. Haskell is immediately suspicious of anything that sounds like a cliché or an accepted idea, and loves nothing better than to turn it on its head. This is generally refreshing and useful, but it occasionally carries him into difficulties. His unwillingness to place much emphasis on any one aspect in particular is most evident in his treatment of nationalism and national consciousness, which had never before taken such definite forms or assumed such vital importance as they did during the nineteenth century.
We have already seen how Haskell highlights the nationalist turn taken by the revival of rococo style in France. He is well aware that nationalist thought developed earlier and remained more important in Germany than elsewhere in Europe, but in this study he mentions German events only in passing. The influence of nationalism could, however, have been brought out more fully for France, and even for England, where a strong movement attempted to equate modern art with national art, and the old masters with foreigners. Haskell describes the systematic campaign against old masters in England, but without bringing out the nationalistic implications of the debate. The fact was, of course, that England had no old masters of its own to speak of, while it had its own brilliant and abundant modern school, from Reynolds to the Pre-Raphaelites.
In France, naturally, things were seen quite differently. Since Haskell does not go into the taste for and collection of sculpture, he leaves out an important domain where France was especially rich. Obviously this would have taken him too far out of his way. But he might usefully have mentioned the intense search for a French Renaissance, an effort, nationalistically motivated, to assert independence from Italy. That search manifested itself in an extensive use of the Loire Châateau architectural style and ornament, and an imitation of so-called Henri II furniture, the avid collection of the painted enamels produced at Limoges, and the restoration of the painted decorations at Fontainebleau.
In the middle of the century, Léon de Laborde, nobleman, art historian, rightwing politician, explorer, amateur photographer, curator at the Louvre—a great original, in short—introduced a new trend by making an intense study of the beginnings of French painting. He wrote: “There was, in my opinion, and I want to rediscover it, a national art which I believe I can trace from the Greek colonies and the Roman domination until our own day” (italics added). He could not have stated more eloquently the ideological basis for the rediscovery of an art that was not even around any more and whose very existence was questionable.
Laborde was largely an archivist, and he found more written evidence than actual works of art. The immediate result of his research was the publication of the mass of documents that are the basis for our knowledge of the School of Fontainebleau, that is, of the Italian mannerists—above all, Rosso and Primaticcio—who worked for Francis I and his successors.
Ironically, however, Laborde showed no particular preference for this kind of art. He liked Clouet, and even more Jean Fouquet and fifteenth-century painting. As he says:
To try to attribute the Renaissance in France to the impulse given by five or six artists that Francis I had installed at Fontainebleau—that amounts to confusing the false Renaissance with the real one, our Italian Renaissance of 1550 with the French Renaissance of 1450; or rather, as has been generally done since the sixteenth century, and too readily accepted today, it is to disregard the value of French art, its originality, its continuity.
In other words, he was looking for French “Primitives.” He did not call them that, and he did not find many of them, but he started a movement which, after a slow and patient effort, eventually found its fulfillment with Henri Bouchot’s famous exhibition of 1904, Les Primitifs français, where works by Fouquet and indeed most of the other fifteenth-century French paintings known to us were exhibited.
What is striking in this movement is not only its willful reconstruction of a national fifteenth-century style of French painting, but, as a corollary, the condemnation of the later Renaissance, of what we now call mannerism. Haskell has quite justly noted that the collecting of the 1840s and 1850s was remarkably inclusive. It was also strictly aesthetic, very little biased by political or religious prejudices. Laborde belonged to that generation: a complex and highly colorful figure, he was himself a distinguished collector—not everyone owned a head from the Parthenon. His nationalist views of a “French” Renaissance implied censure of sixteenth-century Italian art, but it was never explicit. He did not—at least not consciously or openly—dislike the later Renaissance.
Not so with his followers. Like Ruskin, whose ethical-artistic creed, as Haskell tells us, made him forbid his workers to look at the art of the Carracci brothers, the supporters of the French primitives had to condemn Primaticcio and Rosso; Bouchot was vehement on the subject. During the reign of Louis-Philippe, Primaticcio’s decorations at Fontainebleau were fervently restored, but by 1900 it had become something of a provocation for Louis Dimier to publish a large scholarly monograph on this artist.
Of course, the change of taste in France did not occur in isolation, and it is connected with all the other national and religious vindications of “primitives,” first those of the Germans and then of the Belgians—we should not forget that the Belgian “nation” was in itself in question, and demanded ideological buttressing all the more. The late Renaissance was also violently condemned on moral and religious grounds by Ruskin and other “gothic” enthusiasts.
Yet the enterprise of Laborde and his followers is impressive, both for its success in recovering a whole field of collecting almost entirely on the basis of sheer national faith, and for the efficacy of the anathema it cast on the art considered as the enemy, the School of Fontainebleau. Without this drastic ban on what we have come to call mannerism, its “rediscovery” in our century would not have been possible.
As we have seen, Haskell qualifies the idea that modern art is responsible for the major rediscoveries, the revivals of older styles, by showing how the Pre-Raphaelite movement in some ways hampered rather than promoted the appreciation of the Italian primitives. A whole section of the public and many of the critics were repelled by the modern movement of Millais, Hunt, and D.G. Rossetti in England and extended their antipathy to the earlier art such advanced artists admired. While this may indeed have delayed the general acceptance of early Italian painting, it nevertheless only binds the new art more closely together with the recovery of the old, making one more dependent on the other.
In his treatment of Théophile Thoré, Haskell returns indirectly to the same theme in a manner more dangerous for the traditional thesis. If, indeed, as Haskell writes, “Thoré’s Vermeer, and even his Hals, were created in opposition to the most ‘advanced’ trends in the art of his own time,” then the relation of modern art and the appreciation of older styles is not what we have thought. This challenging statement thus deserves careful scrutiny, all the more because, according to Haskell himself, Thoré “is the archetypal hero of this book.”
Thoré was principally a critic of modern art; he was engaged in the romantic movement and admired painters like Delacroix and Théodore Rousseau, the leader of the Barbizon School. A socialist in politics, he believed in modernity for its own sake, and as years went by, he extended his support to Courbet and realism. He even kept up with the modern movement; at the end of his career in the late 1860s, he gave favorable notices to Monet and Renoir. On principle, he hated what seemed to look back and prevent change, and he aggressively attacked the imitation of antiquity or the Renaissance; allegory, which he barely tolerated in old painting, he detested in modern. He was consequently unfair to Ingres and totally blind to the merit of Gustave Moreau.
According to Haskell, Thoré’s support of realism—of Courbet, Millet, and Manet—was considerably less than enthusiastic and wholehearted. Even his great friend Théodore Rousseau disappointed him with his later work. In Haskell’s account, Thoré turned to early painting—the Dutch seventeenth century in particular—as a reaction against the modern school. What he missed in the moderns was a deep humanity, which he found, as Haskell suggests, in the psychological interest of the figures, faces, and scenes of Dutch painting.
Haskell here brings out an aspect of Thoré’s thought that has been neglected. Certainly Thoré’s idea of Vermeer is by no means that of the pure painter that Proust has bequeathed to the twentieth century—an artist, so to speak, entirely free from the contingency of his time. For Thoré, Vermeer was a follower of Rembrandt; he was convinced that Vermeer must actually have worked in Rembrandt’s studio; and he was keenly aware of a humanistic side to Vermeer, the types he represented, their physiognomic qualities, and the human interest of the scenes. He was even aware of the allegorical implications of Vermeer’s pictures, an aspect of the artist that is being “rediscovered” today. But of course with his distaste for allegory, he did not exaggerate its importance as some do now in their pride of having something new to say. “Fortunately,” Thoré wrote, “in Vermeer, one discovers these little allegorical subtleties only after one has understood everything through the expression of the characters….”
If Thoré’s Vermeer was not the disembodied, highly abstract painter he has often become for the twentieth century, it does not mean, however, that the critic was unaware of something peculiar to Vermeer, those qualities that make him accessible to a “modern” sensibility. I cannot agree with Haskell when he writes:
Thoré did once come very near to seeing a different, non-humanist Vermeer, more akin to the painter who has appealed to later art lovers. But ironically he did this when commenting on a picture that we now know to have been painted not by Vermeer, but by a late eighteenth-century imitator of the Dutch golden age.
Thoré did see this “different” Vermeer more than once, and from the very beginning. The first time Thoré mentions Vermeer’s works, in his first volume on Dutch museums (1858), he introduces him as a great but strange painter, and the now famous cityscape, the View of Delft in The Hague, is the only picture he describes. Here is his account of the picture in full:
In the picture at The Hague, View of the City of Delft from the side of the canal, he has pushed the impasto to an exaggerated degree such as we occasionally find today with Monsieur Decamps. It seems as if he wanted to build his city with a trowel; and his walls are made of real mortar. Too much is too much. Rembrandt never fell into such excess; if he uses impasto in the light areas, when a strong ray sets a form into relief, he is sober in the middle values, and he obtains the deepness of shadows by simple and light scumbling.
In spite of this masonry, however, the View of Delft is a masterly painting and a very surprising one for art lovers who are not familiar with Van der Meer.
It is clear from this that Thoré thinks of Vermeer in modern—almost in avant-garde—terms. Decamps, of course, was hardly avant-garde in the 1850s, but Courbet, too, was accused precisely of painting with a trowel. Admittedly, it is hard for us today to see this roughness in a picture that Proust, among others, admired for the supreme refinement of its painted surface.
Later, in Thoré’s monograph on the Dutch master, a whole chapter starts with this paragraph:
Vermeer’s most prodigious quality, taking precedence even over his physiognomic instinct, is the quality of light.
He elaborates upon this for many pages, and at one point comes reasonably close to Proust’s “petit pan de mur jaune.”
As a painter of little familiar scenes, Vermeer has his equals. As a painter of cityscapes, he is unique….
The most extraordinary work in this vein is the Façade of a House (Six Gallery) [the painting now at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam]: a worker’s house in Delft, seen full front, the roof cut off by the frame; just barely a glimpse of the sky, above a courtyard; in the fore-ground, the paving of a kind of sidewalk in front of the door, where we see a woman sitting. Nothing but a wall, and a few casements without any ornament. But what color!
The reasons why Thoré turned to the study of Dutch painting were, indeed, intimately connected with the advanced contemporary art, from the romantics to the early impressionists, which he championed and for which he made such effective propaganda for so many years. Some of these reasons were political—a bourgeois art, represented both by the seventeenth-century Dutch and the nineteenth-century realists, was opposed to the aristocratic art of the Italian Renaissance and the official “classical” art of the nineteenth century. Other reasons were ethical—Thoré preferred the art that pictured everyday life to religious art or to the historical glorification of battles and coronations. Inseparable from these reasons were others that may be called artistic. We can see how firmly bound up was his interest in the Dutch, and in Vermeer in particular, with his appreciation of the most avant-garde art even at the end of his life by comparing how he talks about both. In 1862, he wrote,
The Dutch painters of the great age possessed a quality lost today, a way of expressing something which is nothing, which at least escapes our eyes—they caught the air; and this invisible agent puts all visible things in their place. This was the secret of Pieter de Hooch and of Van der Meer of Delft, of Van Ostade and of Jan Steen, as of the whole school of Rembrandt, who is largely responsible for its invention.”2
In 1868, we find in his review of Manet
The principal merit of the portrait of M. Zola, as of the other works of Edouard Manet, is the light that circulates in this interior and which distributes the modeling and the relief everywhere.3
One could say, in fact, that his campaign in favor of the Dutch school as against Italian painting is to be understood, at least in part, as a campaign for the modern as such. That, in fact, was his own claim:
Raphael looks backwards; Rembrandt looks forwards.
Dutch art is the first that gave up all imitation of the past, and turned to the new.
In the introduction to his ‘book on Dutch museums, he makes the modern relevance of his study explicit:
Why, indeed, should critics observe, at every exhibition, that so-called religious painting is becoming impossible, that mythological and heroic painting is becoming ludicrous, but that genre painting and landscape invade everything? And who are the most universally sought after contemporary painters? Those similar to the Dutch masters, both in subject matter and in execution.
All visual signs, and all intellectual signs concur to foresee a transformation of European art. And the new principle, in this irresistible metamorphosis, is precisely the principle of Dutch art: To paint what one sees and what one feels.
This passage betrays its contemporary engagement, even in its gross bias. For, indeed, by 1860, Ingres, hardly an emulator of the Dutch, was as universally sought after as any painter. Thoré’s argument is also tricky because it is a little ambiguous: anxious here to enroll the modern in favor of the old, Thoré appeals partly to the popular taste for landscape as well as for the genre scenes of an artist like Emile Meissonier who painted very much in a Dutch manner. But then he turns to prophecy, to the principle of an artistic revolution, holding up Dutch art as an early manifesto of the realist creed.
It is true, nevertheless, as Haskell says, that Thoré was not altogether comfortable with the masters of the realist movement, and occasionally he seems to support them programmatically for social and ethical reasons rather than anything else. We must remember, however, that from 1849 to 1859 he was exiled, living in Belgium after brief stays in Switzerland and England. Unable to go to Paris, he could hardly function as a critic of modern art, and this accounts for his increased concentration on the old Northern schools. His having more or less missed those critical years of realist art helps to explain his uneasy feeling when he saw the latest work on his return to Paris. Indeed, no longer young, he was to a certain extent still attached to the art of his youth. It is even probably fair to say, as Haskell does, that “he writes with greater spontaneity of the neo-Romantic melodramatics of Gustave Doré” than of Courbet or Millet. (It is, by the way, remarkable how Doré took people in, and does again today.)
It is clear, however, that Thoré realized that Courbet and Millet were more important artists than Doré. When he praises Doré, there is something ironic in his tone, almost like an apology for what he considers a weakness of his own taste. On the other hand, he writes of the realist masters, even of Manet, at much greater length, with real admiration and respect, and occasionally with enthusiasm—not as often, no doubt, as they would have liked.
In general, Thoré is a complex and very sophisticated writer. His tendency to have a split critical personality was sufficiently pronounced and sufficiently conscious for him to write under two different names, which corresponded in his own mind to two distinct critical temperaments: Théophile Thoré, the old romantic; and William Bürger, the defender of realism. And even this is a crude simplification. Haskell has put his finger on something profound: growing old, Thoré found it naturally hard to adjust to the latest developments of modern art. But it is significant that he tried and succeeded. (Indeed it would be surprising if the old Thoré had been entirely comfortable with the provocative art of Manet.) He sincerely admired the realists, Manet included. But he missed in them, and of course especially in Manet, certain human qualities that were important to him. He disliked the fact that Manet paid the same attention to a hat as to a face. In Vermeer or in Hals he could find both the pictorial qualities that made the moderns outstanding and others as well. Thus, he admired Manet, but he loved the old Dutch masters. Above all, however, it must be added that he also looked for, and found, in Vermeer and Hals some of those qualities for which he had been fighting on behalf of his realist friends, and that he was thus able to view the seventeenth century in a new way, and appreciate what few had understood before him.
The tension between Thoré’s habits of taste and his conscious fight for realism brings us to another generally accepted idea that Haskell wants to overthrow: the belief that Thoré was a remarkably “objective scholar.” He claims that Thoré’s work on Vermeer
was anything but objective. Thoré was determined to turn his beloved Vermeer into a painter of the human condition, and it was because Rembrandt was the most humane of Dutch painters, rather than because he was persuaded by any purely “visual” evidence, that Thoré claimed that Vermeer was a follower of Rembrandt.
But Thoré’s perception of the artist must have been very different from ours, and he must have seen affinities that escape us, perhaps partly because of our own biases. Odd as it may seem today, Thoré’s belief that Vermeer belonged to the School of Rembrandt was, indeed, based on visual characteristics. Thoré detected a relation between Vermeer and Rembrandt in Vermeer’s cityscapes as much as in the genre scenes, and it was much more the striking use of light than the “humanity” of the two artists that bound them together in his mind.
Thoré, surely aware of the recent developments of the history of art, made a deliberate effort to be as systematic and objective as he could. This not only affected his work on old masters but also his writing as a critic of modern art. Indeed, he may well have felt that a more systematic and learned criticism would help him over-come his mixed feelings in front of the new art.4
When Haskell explains why Le Brun, early in the nineteenth century, had failed to restore Vermeer’s reputation, he gives a brilliant and satisfactory answer: the collector of 1800 would have asked himself “why buy an obscure Vermeer when a prestigious Metsu is available?” Unfortunately Haskell does not go on to ask why Thoré was able to succeed so triumphantly. We might say that Thoré was capable, through a more developed method of art history, call it objective or not, to give a much fuller account of Vermeer than had been possible for Le Brun. But this alone will not do.
An explanation of Thoré’s success is necessarily bound up with a different question: why, in fact, was Vermeer ever forgotten? A successful painter in his own day, he disappeared for more than a century. (It is doubtful if one can ever write the history of taste without discussing the character of the works forgotten and then rediscovered.) We cannot understand what happened as long as we think of Vermeer simply as an ordinary seventeenth-century Dutch genre painter, distinguished from others like Metsu only by his greater mastery and perfection. When first introducing Vermeer in 1858, Thoré himself had called him “bizarre,” and had not been altogether comfortable with his figure paintings, which he did not, in fact, seem to find particularly humane. On the contrary, he wrote that Vermeer “handles his characters with a certain violence which is very idiosyncratic and very fantastic.”
There is in Vermeer not only an extraordinary rendering of light and a special concentration on optical effects that make him attractive to modern sensibility, but also in the genre scenes a certain alienation or remoteness—at once dispassionate and intense—a departure from the kind of straightforwardly anecdotal painting that was cherished by the eighteenth-century collectors of seventeenth-century cabinet pictures, and against which Thoré’s realist friends rebelled.
It may be old hat, but I am still convinced that the accepted view is basically correct, and that the peculiar qualities Thoré discovered in Vermeer were present in the advanced art of his own time. Thoré’s contemporary Eugène Fromentin, painter, novelist, and critic of seventeenth-century Dutch art, already claimed that the recent vogue of Vermeer arose principally because of his work’s affinities with the advanced realist painting of the nineteenth century.
Thoré’s position, however, is complex and somewhat paradoxical, and Haskell’s observations help us greatly to understand it. For there is no doubt that in his final view of Vermeer, Thoré pushed him “unobjectively” in the direction of a very humane painter, a painter who possessed a quality the critic found painfully lacking in the moderns he defended. All the same, his greatest insistence is on the virtues that he feels Vermeer shares with the realists—light, color, atmosphere.
We have seen that initially Thoré had to overcome a certain reluctance in front of Vermeer, not so different from his problem in front of Manet, but he was able to overcome it, and in fact perhaps hide the fact from himself by distorting Vermeer, by adding to him the humaneness he believed was necessary to make a truly great painter. Nevertheless, Thoré was able to give Vermeer a new eminence precisely because Vermeer’s work seemed to possess many of the important characteristics of avant-garde art—including some of those Thoré disliked in the moderns. This is what set Vermeer outside the run of seventeenth-century Dutch painters.
Finally, why was Thoré able to convince others, and eventually to sell Vermeer’s paintings to collectors who, in some cases at least, probably despised Manet and the likes of him? The collectors belonged to the same world as the modern artists, and I think we have to assume that to a certain extent they shared in the new sensibility. Although proudly impermeable to modern art, they quietly enjoyed certain aspects of it in old works.
In general, Haskell presents the vagaries of taste as subject to causes or forces that are fragmentary and independent, and do not form a coherent system. The political, social, national, commercial, or personal factors that have an impact on taste are conceived as disparate, unconnected, and often contradictory; they appear as chance occurrences essentially unrelated to the nature of the work of art, a nature that they either tend to reveal or to keep in obscurity. Haskell’s empirical attitude, that of an observer who refuses to impose too much of an order on what he apprehends, is at the heart of this presentation, but I think it also involves at least one serious decision about the nature of our artistic experience.
We are given the impression that the reasons for Thoré’s rediscovery of Vermeer, and for his success in making the Dutch master popular, have rather little to do with the art itself. For this to make sense, however, we must assume that Vermeer has an intrinsic, permanent, and, so to speak, absolute aesthetic value that makes it possible to appreciate him, given the favorable external circumstances. If we did not make this assumption, taste would be totally gratuitous, and clearly Haskell does not believe that. For him, Thoré’s rediscovery has lasting value, in spite of the apparent haphazardness of his reasons for that rediscovery. Buried under Haskell’s skeptical empiricism, there lies a fundamental aestheticism—a belief that the aesthetic value exists independently of all others, and that one should attempt to isolate, appreciate, and cultivate it, unaffected by anything external. While Haskell may not explicitly adhere to this creed, it is implied by what he writes.
This is all the more important since Haskell is concerned with the present as well as the past. He has described mechanisms that came into being during the period he studies and which are still at work today. In particular they apply to our own reception of nineteenth-century art. What is at stake, perhaps the most current issue for Haskell, is the “rediscovery” of nineteenth-century academic art. At the end of the book, Haskell returns to Delaroche’s once famous hemicycle:
It would not, in any case, surprise me if the illustration with which I began this book in order to demonstrate a moment in the History of Taste were, before very long, to be considered, in the words of a critic writing about it in 1841, as an example of “a masterly work which is by no means inferior to the prototypes left to us by Italy.”
Note that Haskell is not prepared to commit himself too far. Indeed he leaves the reader in doubt. Is the really prepared to believe that Delaroche’s work might turn out to have a strictly aesthetic value not inferior to that of Raphael’s Parnassus, for instance, and to which only circumstances makes us blind? If Delaroche has such value in him, however, and if we could only see it again as Thoré saw it in Vermeer, we could then quietly enjoy his work alongside that of Courbet and Manet without altering the other values that affect our lives.
I do not believe this is possible, and I am convinced there is a greater coherence and direction to the movements of taste than Haskell indicates. This does not prevent his book from being among the best—the most original and informative—works of art history published in recent years.
September 29, 1977
One can now add to Haskell’s bibliography a recent study by Carol Duncan of the nineteenth-century taste for the rococo: The Pursuit of Pleasure: The Rococo Revival in French Romantic Art (Garland Press, 1977). ↩
Salons de W. Bürger, Vol. I, p. 225. ↩
Salons de W. Bürger, Vol. II, p. 532. ↩
It is unfortunate that he did not complete the preface to his late Salon reviews, where the old Thoré discusses the writings of the young Bürger, as in 1868 the latter had prefaced the Salons of Thoré. One phrase is tantalizingly incomplete: “Autrefois nous avions peut-êetre de l’esprit. Vous, vous avez remplacé l’esprit par .” The 1870 editor, Chaumelin, conjectured “par la science“—a fair guess. But of course the blank left in the paper reflects Thoré’s difficulty in articulating his new position. ↩