Chardin; drawing by David Levine

To most lovers of art, and writers of textbooks, the main achievements of eighteenth-century painting can be summed up in a few names and a few countries—for example, Watteau, Boucher, Chardin, Fragonard, and Greuze in France; Tiepolo, Longhi, Canaletto, and Guardi in Venice; Hogarth, Gainsborough, and Reynolds in England. Works of all of these have been admired and much sought after for over a hundred years, and the fame of all of them has been sustained to a significant extent by their having painted easel pictures for private collectors. This has meant that until fairly recently the market was always assured of a regular supply. Even Tiepolo, whose contemporary reputation depended on his frescoes and altarpieces, produced very numerous oil sketches and drawings. In the 1920s one further figure achieved special status in fashionable circles—the name of Magnasco was given to a society in London designed to promote a renewed appreciation of baroque art which thus became associated in England with the bizarre, picturesque, and often cruel fantasies of a painter who worked principally in Genoa and Milan.

For a long time now art historians, and also a new generation of collectors and dealers, have been showing more and more dissatisfaction with this view of eighteenth-century painting. Major claims have been made for artists who never went to Paris, Venice, or London, and, above all, it has been argued that great masterpieces were painted in styles that bore little or no relationship to the international rococo which seemed to dominate much of the century. In part this reappraisal has been stimulated by a growing appreciation of neoclassicism and, hence, by the inevitable search for the “sources” of this once-derided style, and in part it has been fueled by ideological considerations.

An exceedingly crude—but not wholly misleading—summary of recent developments might suggest that the French have been seeking among their eighteenth-century painters for a tradition that is more generally associated with Italy, while the Italians have, on the contrary, been looking for one that we think of as French, or even English. By this I mean that many French art historians have wished to reject an interpretation of what was, after all, “their” century, which seemed to confine French painting to small pictures (however beautifully painted) of the kind that fired the acquisitive lusts of the Goncourts. They have wished to resurrect those masters whose place was so assured in the eighteenth century itself—Restout, Carle van Loo, Doyen—masters who were capable of scaling the commanding heights of history painting and attracting the attention of sovereigns from Madrid to Saint Petersburg, just as were Italian painters such as Solimena and Pompeo Batoni. The recent republication by the non-profit-making French firm Arthena of a new (fully illustrated) edition of Jean Locquin’s superb monograph on French eighteenth-century history painting is symptomatic of this trend.

Conversely the Italians have been searching for an art, supposedly of the Enlightenment, fit to stand alongside the achievements of Chardin, Hogarth, and Greuze—an art able to counter, as it were, huge paintings whose raison d’être was to adulate increasingly impotent princes of the Church and State. In 1945 when Italy was still in ruins, the distinguished art historian Roberto Longhi wrote a sparkling and controversial survey of five centuries of Venetian art in which he tried to make new sense of a civilization which appeared to have culminated in disaster, and he concluded with the notion that the “haughty cynicism of Tiepolo has cost Italian painting too much.” Tiepolo, he claimed, was an artist who, had he lived longer, would have adapted all too easily to changing regimes—the Revolution, Bonapartism, the Restoration; an artist who, “it has often irritated me,” painted his grandest fresco (in Wurzburg) to the greater glory of an insignificant South German bishop. Against this anachronistic, rhetorical time-server (so reminiscent, it could be inferred, of many who had worked for the Fascist regime), Longhi set up an “alternative tradition” of Rosalba Carriera, Pietro Longhi, Canaletto—artists usually considered of much less significance, however attractive, but who, he insisted, had seen through the artificiality of their civilization with piercing sincerity.

I called this survey of Longhi’s “controversial.” Would that it had been more so! Instead of acknowledging the brilliance of his lively aperçu and then trying to estimate its true value when set against the achievements of the artists concerned, many Italian historians have (so it seems to me) been mesmerized by it, and have been trying to find all over Italy sincere, and hence “progressive,” eighteenth-century artists, just as their predecessors long ago tried to refute Vasari by finding in Bologna, Siena, Rome, Naples (anywhere but in Florence) the origins of modern painting.

All these developments have been made accessible to an international public over the last generation or so. An exhibition of Italian eighteenth-century painting held in Paris in 1960-1961 laid great stress on those artists such as Crespi, Ceruti, and Traversi who have been recruited into the ranks of the “dissidents.” Another exhibition, devoted to the same period, which moved between Chicago, Minneapolis, and Toledo in 1970-1971 went even further in emphasizing the role of schools other than that of Venice. Much relatively unfamiliar French “history painting” of the eighteenth century was shown in the very influential “David to Delacroix” exhibition held in Paris and (in truncated form) in New York in 1974-1975, and there have been extensive displays of the work of Restout and Carle van Loo in the French provinces. Yet by accident more than by design the last year or so has given the interested art lover a better opportunity than ever before to try to evaluate a new panorama of eighteenth-century painting, and it is worth speculating on what has emerged so far.


To judge only from the catalogue (in Swedish, alas, but with a short English summary), the exhibition of European eighteenth-century are held in Stockholm last year would, of all those to be referred to here, have appeared the most familiar to connoisseurs brought up on traditional views of the painting of the period (it should, however, be said that the exhibition was not confined to painting and that the thematic arrangement seems to have been extremely imaginative). It would thus have provided a valuable, but also dangerously inhibiting, starting point for anyone fortunate enough to have seen it before proceeding to other, less well charted territories ahead.

In his introduction to the Carle van Loo catalogue of 1977,1 Pierre Rosenberg confesses to the pangs of doubt which sometimes used to assail him when he stood up for the reputation that that artist had enjoyed in his lifetime; but then he sustained himself with the expectation that, once van Loo’s works had again been made accessible, the admiration of eighteenth-century critics would indeed prove to have been justified. Anyone thinking of venturing outside the confines of accepted taste must recognize this feeling of anxiety that the interest aroused by historical significance may displace a sense of true quality. Even to flick through the plates of the Stockholm catalogue and to come across familiar, but nonetheless beautiful, paintings by Chardin and Tiepolo, Hogarth and Boucher makes one hesitate. Is not this eighteenth century enough for anyone?

Yet Donato Creti—morbid, melancholy, introspective, neurotic—surely deserves a place in any anthology, however exclusive. In Bologna last year, where a series of exhibitions (each provided with a substantial and well-illustrated catalogue) was devoted to every aspect of the arts, crafts, and sciences of the eighteenth century in Emilia, a few paintings by this painter came as the revelation they always do, however familiar. His elegiac idylls, and above all his set of small canvases (from the Vatican) of astronomers observing the various planets, convey the true enchantment of Giorgione, and of Watteau, whose work he can never have seen. “An escape into the world of the imagination, rather than a precursor of the Enlightenment,” we are told in the catalogue, and—as always—he is contrasted with the other star of the Bolognese exhibitions, Giuseppe Maria. Crespi.

“Perhaps he did not travel enough,” wrote Roberto Longhi in a famous summing up of Crespi’s career. “How one would wish him to have gone to Paris in 1720 together with Rosalba and Pellegrini; how one would wish him to have talked to Watteau…. But, in Bologna, Crespi went to bed at the same time as the chickens, and his furthest journeys were to Venice and Florence where he probably met only Ricci and Magnasco. Not enough….” Nonetheless, concluded Longhi, he had the talent and the aspiration to join forces with a culture in progress—a progress of which, alas, no trace was to be found in Italian painting destined to be overturned almost immediately afterward.

Crespi is undoubtedly the most gifted Italian artist to have worked in that “alternative tradition” that Roberto Longhi and so many of his followers have been eagerly trying to locate. His talent was inspired by a feeling for the real, the human, and the intimate, and he was able to make use of his gifts in this direction even when painting altarpieces and allegorical frescoes. But how far his talent for observation and delicate humor, his avoidance of rhetoric and conventional symbolism, all combined with subtle and rather somber colors, should be looked upon as a sign of spiritual, and even political, progress is not so clear. The catalogue links his paintings of the Seven Sacraments with the great Ludovico Antonio Muratori (a thinker who, as we will see, has also been associated with the very different, expressionist, art of Magnasco), and his diminishing interest in later years in those secular and earthbound phenomena “which constitutes the most modern aspect of his painting” is attributed in part to the intellectual and economic decline of Italy during the last decades of his life.


It is true that the Sacraments reveal an almost detached observation of some of the central rituals of the Christian religion, of a kind which can be found in some genre paintings of the nineteenth century, but although he was certainly derided as very eccentric by some leading representatives of the Bolognese artistic establishment of his day there is no hint in the criticism or patronage he received to suggest that he was seen (in such pictures) as being fundamentally different from an agreeable, humorous entertainer: nor can we be sure that he did not see himself in the same light.

The point needs to be made because the tendency to find in the visual arts of eighteenth-century Italy some reflection of the literary and philosophical controversies of the period is so pressing that it has—to my mind—led to some grotesquely misleading evaluations. The most blatant of these occurs in the excellent exhibition of the art of eighteenth-century Naples, now to be seen in the Palazzo di Capodimonte in that city, and to be shown (in slightly different form) in Chicago and Detroit next year. The standard of pictures is for the most part very high and recent research has led to new attributions and to the discovery of hitherto barely known artists who prove to be of real distinction. Yet it is not an exhibition that will startle anyone who is familiar with the outlines of Italian eighteenth-century painting generally. We are shown highly accomplished portraits, allegories, mythologies, and altarpieces,2 and—as was also the case in Bologna—it is impossible to emerge without being awestruck by a civilization in which even the least important painters can achieve such a remarkably high standard.

To all this there is, however, one exception. Gaspare Traversi is by no means a newly rediscovered painter. As long ago as 1927 he too was launched on a dazzlingly successful career by Roberto Longhi, but although works by him have often been exhibited in recent years and bought in increasing numbers by American museums, it is only now that he has been elevated to a position of major importance in the Italian firmament, and references to him in the catalogue leave us in no doubt that the organizers of the Naples exhibition regard him more highly than any of the other painters on view. We are told that his was “a severe, and in a certain sense, ‘political’ satire of contemporary reality,” and that even in his portraits of a more conventional type and in his religious pictures3 he revealed “a modern, enlightened and dangerously irreverent and anticonformist attitude.” This, it is said, is the reason for his total rejection by “official” patronage.

Were this to be true it would be curious (though not, of course, impossible), for one of the most striking facts about most of those artists who have been admired in our day (and sometimes in theirs) for their enlightenment and irreverence is the eagerness with which they were collected by an unenlightened society. But do we have to assume that it is true? Could it not be that Traversi was ignored by the more important patrons because he was considered to be a bad, provincial painter? And would not this have been a thoroughly reasonable, even an “enlightened” attitude? Crude groups of grinning puppets—cabined, cribbed, confin’d—making music, telling fortunes, drinking, fighting, playing cards; ill-digested derivations of seventeenth-century Caravaggism combined with contemporary caricature. Can any society have seen such work as dangerously satirical or irreverent? As a sociological, even as an artistic curiosity (for there are a few passages of real beauty), Traversi would certainly repay some (though surely not all?) of the critical attention he has been receiving, but to relate him to the genuinely enlightened thinkers of contemporary Naples, let alone Paris, seems to me a distortion of what we mean by the term.

As could be seen at the wonderful Chardin exhibition held last year in Paris, Cleveland, and Boston (suitably commemorated in the invaluable catalogue by Pierre Rosenberg), it was one of the achievements of that great painter to produce an art that really was enlightened—though not necessarily in the sense that historians of ideas give to the word. Despite the championship of Diderot, and despite moralizing verses later added to prints of his works, there is no evidence that Chardin painted for, or specially appealed to, a public that can in any way be defined by its social origins or by its political and intellectual aspirations.

What Chardin achieved was what, in a wholly different setting, Botticelli and certain other masters of the Italian fifteenth century had achieved: he gave to subjects which had hitherto been confined mostly to the domain of “low” or eccentric art the moral seriousness and painterly distinction which had been reserved in the one case for religious and in the other for “historical” painting. The consequences of this were deep,4 and it is, I believe, right to treat this most moving of painters with intellectual respect as well as with the sensuous admiration we must necessarily feel for his pictures.

But we are surely not justified in seeing in these pictures any criticism, overt or implied, of the aristocratic, licentious, and “reactionary” society which he excluded from them. It is, indeed, doubtful whether any of the visual arts (with the exception of caricature) can have been explicitly conceived of as protest or social progress before the nineteenth century; and although Allan Braham’s important and pioneering account of French architecture of the second half of the eighteenth century includes figures such as Boullée and Ledoux whose projects and writings (rather than their buildings) demand to be considered in connection with the ideas of the “philosophes,” the title he has chosen for his excellent book, The Architecture of the French Enlightenment, is surely not persuasive—nor does he try to persuade us that it is.

Painting cannot, and should not, be treated as literature in another medium, and yet it would require an unduly narrow aesthetic appreciation not to be puzzled by the works of a few artists, of undeniable quality, who seem to be tackling some of the most sensitive issues of human life—religious, sexual, political, social—without giving us quite the straightforward “answers” that we, who have been brought up on the generally less equivocal and distant arts of the nineteenth century, have come to expect. Of these artists Magnasco (as underrated now because of fashionable interest in the past as Traversi is over-rated) and the gigantic figure of Goya are outstanding examples, and good books have been written on both.

The sources of Magnasco’s synagogues and Quaker meeting houses can sometimes be traced back to “documentary” prints; there are occasional precedents for his Quixote-like gypsies and soldiers in the much earlier work of Callot; but even after the art historians have done their utmost, the fact remains that this Genoese painter, who was born in the 1660s and died in 1749, introduced into the world of art a visionary, frenzied universe of his own that was quite new and that remains uniquely baffling. His elongated twitching monks sit waiting to be served in a cathedral-like refectory; shave each other in squalid basements; ominously sharpen their knives; engage in what appear to be lunatic researches in arcaded libraries open to the sky. Robbers breaking into a monastery are attacked by skeletons with flaming torches; repulsive scenes of torture take place in great Renaissance courtyards; and in one of the most astonishing pictures of the whole eighteenth century we are shown an open air reception in the gardens of a villa outside Genoa with card-playing abbés, ladies and gentlemen, affected to the point of distortion, their dogs, monkeys, and other accessories, which intrude—like exotic tinselly toys—on to the sweeping countryside behind them….

No film by Fellini has ever approached the nightmarish prettiness of some of these paintings and no one has ever been able to grasp what they can have meant to their patrons—satire, fantasy, reality, the “Enlightenment,” a resigned complicity with a farcical and agonizing world similar to the political cabaret frequently tolerated in despotic regimes—or even who these patrons were. Dr. Guelfi’s excellent book provides all the scant evidence available, relates the pictures to sources and contemporary literature wherever possible, speculates on their relationship to Muratori’s views on the reform of monasteries—but is forced to leave us wondering.

At various points Dr. Guelfi comments on the affinities between Magnasco and Goya, though she does not claim that there was any direct influence of the one on the other. Indeed the art of Goya has again and again been seen as the supreme culmination of the various “alternative traditions”—French and Italian—to which I have been referring, and it has become a commonplace for Italian critics especially to describe any artist who wins their special approval as “almost a Goya.” It was, after all, this Spaniard who—in his tapestry cartoons—was able to make out of the conventions of French rococo decoration a moving commentary on human life and who, at different times, provided just that satirical or enlightened or grotesque or ennobling treatment of the ostensibly trivial which historians had sought, by no means always convincingly, in the art of Crespi, Traversi, Magnasco, and many more.

In his extremely perceptive, indeed extremely powerful, book on Goya, Professor Licht also refers to Magnasco and even suggests that Goya may have seen and been interested in his pictures when he visited Italy; but on the whole he is little interested in sources—he is concerned with differences.5 His is not an “art historical” book in the usual sense of the word (there are virtually no foot-notes!) and he is at his weakest when writing on historical questions. Thus to claim that “we can count on the fact that it was in Naples that Goya became acquainted with the work of such painters as Corrado Giaquinto, whose work he might also have seen in lesser variety at Madrid” is just what we cannot do. There are virtually no significant paintings by Giaquinto in Naples, whereas those to be found in Madrid are of superlative quality.6

Other criticisms can be made on these lines, but to do so would be to miss the point. Licht is arguing essentially that the paintings of Goya make a fundamental break with the art of all earlier and contemporary painters, and this causes him to be especially stimulating when discussing artists such as Fuseli and his weirder colleagues who—as can be seen from the catalogue of an extremely interesting exhibition held recently at the Yale Center for British Art—themselves appeared to be making a similar break, but yet lacked the spiritual energy (as well as the genius and probably the will) to do so. Thus they remained artists who, so to speak, merely teased the old conventions and beliefs rather than looked at them from outside.

Licht approaches Goya from the other direction. He works backward, singling out “those aspects of Goya’s art that make him specially pertinent to modern art in general and to our times in particular.” This one-sided view can be frustrating, as well as refreshing, and even at times misleading, for it involves omitting (or belittling) those aspects of Goya’s art which are not specially pertinent to our sensibilities (themselves rather arbitrarily chosen) but which are important if we want to understand him rather than ourselves. There are certainly many great artists whose stature would be seriously diminished by such an approach, but Licht is surely right to assume that Goya is not one of them and that his art can—without undue falsification—be made to speak to us with quite exceptional force and poignancy.

For Licht, Goya is the first painter to depict a world which fails to take for granted a God-given hierarchy of value and which, by the standards of earlier times, has become meaningless. In itself this is not a wholly new observation and it is one that can easily lend itself to abstruse metaphysical speculation of the most fatuous kind. What gives it force here is the extraordinarily consistent (though not dogmatic) manner with which Licht applies it—it is for this reason that influences from earlier artists are made to count for so little—and, above all, the lucidity and piercing directness of his comments on the individual works he chooses to discuss. Licht’s powers of analysis cannot be demonstrated by picking out single phrases, for so much depends on the wider context in which they are set. Thus it is only after we have been given a careful discussion of Goya’s spatial experiments in his etchings that we can be made to see how, in one of the plates of The Disasters of War, “it is as if there is nothing in the world, nothing to either side of us, but mechanically executed murder.”

The willing suspension of disbelief is, however, sometimes necessary: I am not convinced that the astonishing Portrait of Charles IV and his Family depicts them gazing into a mirror (“Goya has not presented his sitters as he saw them. He has presented them as they saw themselves”), and just as Licht feels that Goya’s spiritual outlook is so different from that of his predecessors that consideration of them is only marginal to his true achievement, so I am not always prepared to enlarge Goya’s perception to make it embrace the whole of our modern world and art; thus, I find some of Licht’s comparisons of Goya with Courbet and Manet unpersuasive.

I do not, for instance, believe that Courbet’s now-destroyed Stone Breakers is the “natural heir” to Goya’s Forge (in the Frick Collection, New York), nor am I persuaded that Goya’s Knife-grinder (in Budapest) “is an extraordinary prophecy of Manet’s art,” or—still less—that “the comparison between Rothko and Tiepolo may shock at first but it remains valid.” In the first two of these cases it seems to me that Licht is discarding a subtle imaginative approach which he has used with extraordinary effect when discussing Goya’s own break with earlier conventions so as to make a more superficial “art historical” point, and in the third he has surely coarsened that approach in a way that he would never have done in an appraisal of Goya himself. But, above all, in each case the fault (if fault it is) springs from what is surely an unnecessary attempt to project Goya (and even, in one instance, Tiepolo) into a tradition of modern art in which neither painter would have felt very happy.

Nonetheless I can think of few, if any, books that have so daringly, so concretely, so successfully managed to cope with a problem that critics, just as much as historians, have for very many years tended to shy away from: what is it that makes a great artist great for us? It is one of the most important problems that can be asked and Licht’s imaginative answers deserve great acclaim.

This Issue

October 9, 1980