Someone once said that it is not history that repeats itself but historians that repeat each other. When it comes to the history of nineteenth-century painting, however, it might be better if they repeated each other more often, or at least more judiciously: one of the difficulties about recent writing on the subject is that some of the most interesting books that came out early in the twentieth century are either forgotten or only superficially read today.
This neglect of previous critical work is particularly unfortunate in view of the recent revival of the pompiers—the fashionable nineteenth-century painters who won the most prestigious government commissions and who were favored by the Academy of Fine Arts and the juries of the official exhibitions. The origin of the appellation “pompier” (or “fireman”) is uncertain: it is supposed to come from Jacques-Louis David’s painting of classical nudes wearing only what look like firemen’s helmets, but the suggestion of pomp in “pompier” was certainly an influence. Whatever the origin, the pompiers were, in general, painters of brilliant reputation during their lifetimes who specialized in large historical and religious pictures—the socalled grandes machines; their prestige declined rapidly, and by the end of the First World War their work began to disappear from the walls of museums. Once glorious names like Jean-Paul Laurens, Paul Baudry, and Benjamin Constant (not the novelist) became unfamiliar even to students of art history.
The attempt to resuscitate the firemen dates largely from the 1970s, although it was quietly brewing before. The movement was brilliantly summarized by Professor Jacques Thuillier’s article “Pompiers” in the Encyclopedia Universalis (Supplément, 1980). Thuillier is elaborate, circumspect, and provocative. His most effective point is his prediction that, just as many stylistic terms for large periods—Gothic, Baroque, Mannerist—were once pejorative and then came to be neutral or even eulogistic, so one day the art of much of the nineteenth century will be called pompier, and the Impressionists, along with Seurat, Gauguin, and others, will be considered individual versions of the pompier style.
Given the unthinking contempt in which the pompiers were held for more than half a century, it is understandable that some recent scholars should wish to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. They wish to reexamine not only the later nineteenth century, with which Thuillier’s article is mostly concerned, but also many discredited artists of an earlier generation. Charles Gleyre and Horace Vernet have already had retrospective exhibitions and others will surely follow. Historians reasonably argue that we should at least understand why the works of these artists were once so highly prized. Much of the research inspired by the new interest is valuable, instructive, and stimulating.
Nevertheless, some important criticism of nineteenth-century painting has been injudiciously pushed aside. An especially regrettable example of this is Léon Rosenthal’s great book of 1914, Du romantisme au réalisme, which is still the finest work we know on nineteenth-century French painting. It has been unobtainable for years, and a reprint and a translation are badly needed. Rosenthal knew the whole field, from the most outrageous avant-garde to the most dyed-in-the-wool academic, and his treatment is thorough, witty, and penetrating.
In the recent attempts to revive the faded glories of the century, Rosenthal’s work is generally listed in bibliographies, but it cannot be said that many historians have faced his arguments. It is easy enough to see why, since Rosenthal’s treatment of most of the current candidates for resuscitation is crushing, and so closely argued as to seem definitive. The present challenge to the supremacy of avant-garde art cannot be pronounced a success until Rosenthal’s conceptions have been absorbed and not merely ignored.
Most of the painters from 1820 to 1860 who stood outside the great avantgarde tradition and who are now the intensive object of rehabilitation and study are grouped by Rosenthal under the rubric of “le juste milieu“—the middle-of-the-road. The term was first employed by a minor critic of 1831, who used it to recommend the painters who steered a careful path between the moribund classicism of the school of David and the wild-eyed Romanticism of the more audacious younger artists. As such, it did not represent a real compromise, as the school of David was in ruins by the 1830s—in such a disastrous state, indeed, that Ingres (who had studied with David, but who had been an even more controversial figure than Delacroix) was able to take over the classical school and pass himself off as the heir of David.
Juste milieu, however, has political overtones: Louis-Philippe himself had announced his intention “to stay in a juste-milieu equally distant from the excess of popular power, and from the abuse of royal power.” This expressed the acknowledged middle-class political position between 1830 and 1848, a dubious and fragile compromise between radical monarchism and left-wing republican doctrine.
Between 1831 and Rosenthal’s book of 1914, juste milieu does not often appear as a stylistic term, but the concept existed in an important way. The critic Gustave Planche defined three currents of contemporary art in his review of the Salon of 1833: “renovation” (Ingres and his school); “innovation” (Delacroix and the Romantics); and “conciliation,” another term for juste milieu. Planche mounted a relentless attack on what he considered to be the tepid character of this school. Following him, Baudelaire reserved his greatest virulence for what he called “les tièdes“—the lukewarm, the half-hearted.
Neither the term “conciliation” nor the term “middle-of-the-road” is well chosen, since these painters did not steer a middle path between the Romantics and David or even between the radical Delacroix and the traditional Ingres. As the early-twentieth-century French critic Louis Dimier argued, it was Delacroix who renewed the earlier traditions of the grand manner, and Ingres who remained much more consistently the radical. Nevertheless, juste milieu is a useful term, since the work of this group is a singularly apt representation of the ideals of the July Monarchy, which tried to achieve a middle-class democratic popularity, stability, and general affluence without conceding any radical reforms. After all, the explicit slogan of Louis-Philippe was “Get Rich” (“Enrichissez-vous“—that is, get rich enough to qualify for the vote, open only to men of considerable property).
By “middle-of-the-road” Rosenthal indicated those painters who were enormous favorites with the public in the 1830s and 1840s, but who had largely been discredited by 1900. The principal artists were Paul Delaroche, Horace Vernet, and Léon Cogniet, and there were many minor figures. The primary artistic goal for all these painters was instant accessibility. Rosenthal writes:
They did not constitute a coherent group; they had no leaders, nor any recognizable principles…. It is in an arbitrary and, admittedly, artificial fashion that we have grouped them. However, they do have in common the character of rejecting anything that was absolute or excessive, anything that might have been considered audacious or even decisive…. If we examine a picture signed by a painter of the juste milieu, whatever its dimensions and whatever its subject, we are struck at first by its immediate intelligibility.
This accessibility absolves the spectator from the need for a previous artistic culture or initiation such as that demanded by the work of Delacroix or Ingres (although the work of the juste milieu often required a certain elementary historical and literary background). As Rosenthal says:
Under the pencil of Léon Cogniet, Delaroche, or Vernet, the forms will be conventional, whether rounded or dryly angular (ronde ou sèche); they will be lame with a less experienced painter, but the contour will always be emphasized. Lines define all the masses, decisive modeling indicates all the volumes; lines and modeling guide the eye without demanding from it any collaboration…. Color finishes the definition of the figures and the objects by giving them those aspects under which they are generally known…. These principles banish anything fuzzy, all imprecision, they forbid the interpretation of forms, the study of exchange of colors, of reflections….
Even more important is Rosenthal’s second criterion, closely related to the first:
The images must present a subject. This necessity, this primacy of the subject, is the most certain sign of the juste milieu’s inferiority. Painting for them is only a medium; the interest of the picture does not depend on its aesthetic merit, but on the scene represented: the painter must be a clever dramatist, a good costume designer, an adroit stage director…. The success is assured if he knows how to find the anecdotal side of the grandest event; at least, he must not forget to lighten the weight of a serious drama by some clever by-play….
Rosenthal’s analysis of Edward’s Children, generally known in English as The Little Princes in the Tower, Delaroche’s most famous picture, deeply admired by Henry James, is a brilliant elucidation of the use of anecdote to ensure the supremacy of subject over the visual:
Here are two children sitting on a bed in a dark room. A ray of light appears under the door near which a little dog stands on the alert. This is either an insignificant spectacle or a real enigma. Everything changes when we are told that they are the children of Edward [the First of England]. With the help of history and of Casimir Delavigne (whose drama of 1833 is a little later than Delaroche’s picture), we lament the deplorable fates of the young princes, wax indignant at Gloucester and his hired assassins about to descend on an innocent prey. Thus our emotions must be aroused, our sympathies engaged, not only by the beauty and charm of the two characters we see on the canvas, but also by their tragic story, by the ignominy of their executioners, by a drama and by facts none of which are portrayed and which are only suggested to us….
The impressions that [Delaroche] attempted to produce are, for the most part, independent from the way the picture is painted. It is enough if the composition can trigger our imagination. It is even preferable that the eye not be detained too much in the contemplation of the canvas: this would weaken the emotional effect…. Nothing is more insipid, more vacuous than the handling of “Edward’s Children.” [Our italics.]
We might say, in summary, that the common denominator of the art of the juste milieu (especially that of Delaroche and Horace Vernet, both of whom were extremely powerful in the Academy) is the complete penetrability of the painting: the eye goes right through the painted canvas to the scene or object represented. Its appeal is comparable to that of the contemporary panoramas and dioramas that were so popular at the time; the effects and the audience were often the same for both. Delaroche’s pretension was much more sustained than Vernet’s, who was usually content with triviality; Vernet remains consequently more interesting. In his long new book on Thomas Couture, Albert Boime has splendidly compared Vernet to Norman Rockwell.
Does Thomas Couture (1815-1879) really belong in this company? Boime argues at length that he does. Rosenthal did not think so, and some, at least, of the contemporary enemies of the juste milieu were indulgent to Couture, who arrived late on the scene. The poet Théophile Gautier, perhaps the most influential art critic of the mid-century, despised the juste milieu; in his famous manifesto of art for art’s sake, the preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin, he complained facetiously that some critics were so ignorant that they “took Piraeus for a man and Paul Delaroche for a painter.” Gautier, however, encouraged Couture from the beginning and was unreservedly enthusiastic about his vast, and most famous, painting, The Romans of the Decadence. (See page 49.)
Thomas Couture never completely disappeared in spite of a serious eclipse. He was always remembered as Manet’s teacher, and The Romans of the Decadence, which had caused a sensation at the Salon of 1847, was never taken down, as far as we know, from the walls of the Louvre. Twenty years ago, however, he was just another “pompier,” a dimly perceived glory of the past. The last few years have seen a consistent effort to build at least a small pedestal for him. Albert Boime has led the campaign, and his book brings it to a close. Thomas Couture is an ambitious work; the author has set out more or less to redo the nineteenth century, to put it in a new perspective.
Unfortunately, it is not always clear what Boime has to say. Sometimes it seems as if he wants simply to tell us everything he knows about the century, and he knows a very great deal indeed. But there is also something fundamentally odd about the book. Boime credits Couture with an immense importance both as a representative of his time and as a crucial link in the development of modern art (we are even asked to accept him as Jackson Pollock’s artistic great-grandfather); on the other hand, Boime does not claim that Couture is a great painter—or, for that matter, a great, or even a very nice, man.
What does come out clearly—besides Couture’s paranoia, egocentrism, willingness to compromise, and vulgarity—is a sort of middlebrow flair in the handling of subject matter. The subjects of Couture’s pictures have echoes in all directions: up into high art and down into popular culture, to the right with the Academy, to the left with the avantgarde, back into the past and forward into the future, not to mention their references to contemporary events. Boime has explored this fascinating aspect of Couture extensively: the proliferating connections that he traces everywhere are woven by him into an almost impenetrable tissue.
He attempts to unify all these connections with two concepts, which he more or less equates: the juste milieu and eclecticism, the philosophy of Victor Cousin. The authority of Cousin in the 1830s and 1840s was indeed tremendous; today he appears, like Couture, only as a dimly perceptible light from the past.
Boime’s version of eclecticism accommodates everything. Almost anybody in nineteenth-century France can be shown to have some connection with Victor Cousin; either they read him (most people did) or they knew a friend of his (his mistress was Louise Colet, and her other lovers seem to have included, at least in passing, most of the important literary figures of the time). Furthermore, since Cousin cooked up a stew of all the ideas current in the early nineteenth century, any later statement can be traced to something he touched upon. Boime even manages to claim Baudelaire as an eclectic by taking Baudelaire’s ironic statements at face value, especially the famous comic dedication of his Salon of 1846 to the bourgeois. But Baudelaire unhesitatingly condemned eclecticism and detested anything that smacked of the middlebrow (even if he occasionally failed to recognize it); this fastidiousness should not be taken away from him.
Boime’s treatment of the critic Gustave Planche, who was indeed a friend and feryent admirer of Cousin, is also unconvincing. Boime finds Planche’s attack on the painters of the juste milieu curious. This inconveniently curious behavior does not faze Boime, however, and he assures us that “without realizing it, Planche himself became the spokesman for the juste milieu position even while downgrading its concrete appearance.” He offers the following summary of Planche’s position: “He required that art have clear principles, and he proposed this formula: ‘Invention within the circle of nature and tradition.”‘ This is a creed that any artist or critic of whatever persuasion would have adhered to—Ingres, Delacroix, or even Courbet. The trouble with Boime’s middle-of-the-road is that after he has finished expanding its importance, there is nothing left on either side of it. It would be more useful to stay within the narrower limits of Rosenthal’s version of the juste milieu.
In the 1840s the artistic situation seemed stagnant; the juste milieu (in Rosenthal’s sense)1 had merged with the few wretched holdovers from the school of David to constitute a stale academicism. Ingres was now triumphant, but, partly because of his own assertive attempts to impose himself as a classicist, he was felt to represent the past rather than the future. In spite of his prestige, he was always relatively isolated within the Academy. In 1840, the reaction of his most gifted pupil, Théodore Chassériau (who defected to Delacroix), was characteristic. He wrote from Rome to his brother that Ingres “will remain as a memory and a reproduction of certain stages of past art without having created anything for the future.” Ingres offers the unusual case of an artist who went in his mid-forties directly and immediately from being a detested avant-gardist into an old-fashioned reactionary. On the other hand, Romanticism was running out of steam, and Delacroix showed his strong classicizing tendencies in his grande machine of 1840, The Justice of Trajan. Decamps, a Romantic whom Couture greatly admired, was one of the few painters whose mastery was universally acclaimed, but this was partly because his ambitions were modest and he never attempted anything on a grand scale.
In this situation, Couture appeared as an impressive painter and innovator. He was decidedly an anti-academic independent. Although he had studied with Delaroche, he broke definitively with his master. As early as 1846 (that is, before The Romans of the Decadence brought Couture the greatest fame he was ever to enjoy), Baudelaire already spoke of the “school of Couture” in reference to Diaz and others, and even before that, around 1844, the young Courbet seems to have been struck with his technical procedures.
What was so attractive to artists was Couture’s distinctive and striking method of execution, which produces strong pictorial effects and attracts attention to the painted surface. In this sense, Couture decidedly differed from the juste milieu. The technique was fully developed by the mid-1840s when Couture embarked on his great work, and he soon systematized it into mannerism.
The methods he perfected were expeditious and easy to learn. His draftsmanship was summary, with nothing of the exacting observation of Ingres or the complexities of Delacroix’s “colorist” way of drawing “from within,” as Baudelaire put it. He adapted a number of well-rehearsed formulas with the minimum of distortion to produce an effective approximation of appearance. This is clear above all in Couture’s portraits, where the initial generalized form still remains obvious under the smaller details which produce the likeness. His procedure is exactly the opposite of Ingres’s arduous progress from a searching observation of the model to a new and appropriate abstracted form; but Couture’s method was as efficient as it was superficial. The thick, continuous black contour of the drawings was retained in the paintings and gave them an appearance of stylistic vigor.
His application of color was both superficial and adroit. Boime has given an excellent account of Couture’s system. He prepared his canvases with reddish-brown ground, which remains apparent in the finished painting. On top of this he applied unmodulated local hues, while a generous heightening in chalky white gave an impression of brilliance. The different hues are kept apart by the brownish base, which avoids clashes. It also produces a general impression of coloristic richness without forcing the artist to confront the interaction of colors, a problem that was so stimulating and rewarding for Delacroix.
While Boime assesses Couture’s pictorial accomplishment soberly, he makes immense claims for Couture’s historical importance. He wants us to believe that “the entire Impressionist circle was like a planet receiving its light from Couture’s sun.” According to Boime, in fact, Couture determined the direction of the entire modern movement through his pupils, especially Manet and Puvis de Chavannes.
Manet did indeed spend six years in Couture’s studio; if he had not respected his master, he would surely have left. From Couture, Manet learned a technique, a discipline, and a routine. Some of it stayed with him all his life, and some of it he had to get rid of. There are early works by Manet that are very close to Couture’s manner, but there are none after the 1850s, even if he continued periodically to use devices learned from Couture: a way of stressing a dark contour, perhaps some general compositional formulas, even certain themes that interested his master.
Is this enough to justify Boime’s claims that “Manet constituted only one link in a chain forged between Couture and the young artists trying to reconcile the realist premises of their art with the more vital forms of academic painting” (a provocative but unconvincing description of the young Monet’s or Pissarro’s ambitions)? Even if Manet continued to employ devices established by Couture, one cannot disregard the fact that he used them to such different purposes. Unlike Couture’s, Manet’s use of stressed outline was usually suggestive—it was only elliptically descriptive—and it confirmed the flatness of the surface in a way that Couture’s never did.
Manet’s power to abstract from reality has nothing in common with Couture’s idealized world. When he painted a boy blowing bubbles, he clearly turned his back on Couture’s sentimental version of the same theme and engaged in a dialogue with Chardin’s treatment of the subject. (See page 51.) Boime is perhaps right to say that the antagonism of Manet and Couture has been exaggerated, although the story of Couture’s indignation, when he returned to his class one day and found that Manet had made the nude model put his clothes back on and pose naturally, is a revealing one. Couture’s fundamental method of preparing the canvas with dark ground in order to make a transition between light and dark was mostly abandoned by Manet, and this meant an irreparable break with much of Couture’s method.
Although Puvis de Chavannes studied with Couture for only a few months, he had a real reverence for his master and was profoundly marked by Couture’s artistic ideas and ambitions. Boime reproduces many early works of Puvis that abundantly prove the point. The later works of Puvis, however, the works that are deeply original, are very different. Boime is right to remark that, far from being smooth, the surface texture of these later works is assertive, and their chalky quality may owe something to Couture; in Couture’s work, nevertheless, the graininess of paint and the assertive brushwork are only distributed here and there to give accent and brilliance, while Puvis uses them throughout to produce a general wall-like effect and a destruction of illusion. This is what painters like Gauguin admired so much.
About Gauguin’s important painting. Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? Boime writes:
A close examination of the surface of this picture shows a distinct resemblance to the work of Puvis. While the coarse burlap texture exaggerates Puvis’s effect, its interaction with the layers of opaque impasto and thick outlines bordering the forms relates it intimately to his style and handling. Thus the character of its execution descends in a straight line from Couture.
Boime assumes that if A influenced B, and B influenced C, then C has been influenced by A. The weakness of such reasoning is clear. Even if both used dark outlines and grainy paint, Gauguin has little to do with Couture. We cannot establish the importance of Couture on such a basis, and it seems unlikely that our way of appreciating the art of the nineteenth century will be altered radically enough to leave a major place for his work. Nevertheless, his opposition to the Academy gave moral support to avant-garde artists, and The Romans of the Decadence, in spite of its bombast, remains an extraordinary accomplishment.
Have you ever noticed how all power is stupid when it comes to art? These good old governments (kings or republics) imagine that all they have to do is order the stuff and it will be delivered.
—Flaubert to Louise Colet,
December 28, 1853
In all of his hundreds of thousands of words on Couture, Boime cannot bring himself to say that Couture was wonderful. His inability to work up any enthusiasm for his hero except as a historical influence is disarming, but this lukewarmness is typical of the present revival of the pompiers. Professor Francis Haskell has an amiable weakness for Paul Delaroche; Professor Jacques Thuillier seems to enjoy the work of Léon Bonnat. Yet neither has ever claimed in print that Delaroche and Bonnat were major figures, that their achievements were better than—or even merely equal to—those of Delacroix and Cézanne. Here are perhaps the most important scholars concerned in the renewal of interest in the pompiers, both brilliant, learned, widely and justly admired. All they can muster is an occasional hint that the work of such artists is not as bad as is sometimes thought. We miss the fervor with which they write about the great figures of the Baroque, the conviction that Thuillier, for example, brings to his work on the brothers Le Nain, on Georges de la Tour, on Rubens.
What has happened to the old revivalist enthusiasm? When Gothic architecture was taken up by Romantic critics, they declared boldly that the great cathedrals were sublime, inimitable, far surpassing the buildings of the classical Renaissance. When sixteenth-century Mannerism was revalued in the first decades of our century, Max Dvorak produced the most extravagant claims for El Greco, as if his spirituality put the whole of the High Renaissance to shame.
Professor Robert Rosenblum, it is true, has written that “in front of the paintings of Vernet the least curious of twentieth-century spectators finds again the pleasure he feels before the great Romantic contemporaries Géricault and Delacroix.”2 Rosenblum’s view of the nineteenth century, however, has always been characterized by a deep and infectious appreciation of kitsch, a taste that is directly related to his understanding of recent trends in New York painting. Nevertheless, Rosenblum’s enthusiasm makes him a maverick among neoconservative art historians, most of whom see their position as a modest plea for sanity, a return to the grand tradition, and a more impartial view of history.
No doubt it is unreasonable to expect any critic to take up the cudgels for Ary Sheffer and Bouguereau as Théophile Thoré fought for his rediscovery of Frans Hals and Vermeer, as Ruskin and Pugin battled for Gothic art. However, a recent issue of a French review, Le Débat,3 suggests that there may also be other explanations for the peculiar absence of passion in the present revival of the pompiers; for some critics, the movement is animated not so much by a love of academic art as by a dislike of the art of today.
Le Débat took up the neoconservative cause with three articles. Two are by young and aggressive French art historians: a plea by Bruno Foucart for a new look at nineteenth-century religious art in France, and a celebration by Pierre Vaisse of the revival of the pompiers. Preceding these two professional pieces is an astonishing essay entitled “The Lost Craft” by the famous anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who claims that, starting from Impressionism, modern artists have forgotten how to paint. The juxtaposition of these three articles is as instructive as their content.
Of the three, Foucart’s awakens sympathy most easily: whatever one’s opinion of the religious painting of the nineteenth century, it is a pity that the neglect should be not only scholarly but even physical, so that many of the finest works on the walls of churches are already wrecked beyond repair. Pierre Vaisse’s article is far more ambitious, although it is largely a restatement, more drably phrased, of the ideas in Jacques Thuillier’s elegant encyclopedia article referred to above. Vaisse claims that the opposition between pompiers and avant-garde is historically untenable, and glosses over the extent to which this opposition was affirmed by artists and critics during the nineteenth century; he attempts to show that the continuity and coherence of the avant-garde (or the succession of different avant-gardes) is an illusion. He has no difficulty in this, but only in so far as he asks the wrong questions. To write, for example, that “even for Manet the subject of a picture was not without importance” is to blur the special meaning that “subject” had for the art criticism of the century.4 What gives-coherence to avant-garde history is not that all its artists painted the same or similar subjects, or even that they painted the same way.
In his book on Couture, Boime, perhaps inadvertently, defines the coherence of the avant-garde tradition with a remarkable quotation from a critic of 1870, Camille Lemonnier. Writing about Couture’s most famous pupils, Manet and Puvis de Chavannes, Lemonnier declared that they were
the two men of art who are at this moment closest to each other by dint of their system and who despise each other the most: I am speaking from the standpoint of system. M. Manet does not engage in painting, no more than M. Puvis; but they both insist loudly that they engage in expression. M. Puvis is refining the ideal while M. Manet refines reality. No color, of course, just ideas.5
For Lemonnier, the work of Manet and Puvis was not painting; to us today that seems patently absurd. This is what defines the continuity of the avant-garde tradition: it was the succession of painters who changed not-painting into painting. This change and the way it was imposed are inevitably the center of the history of nineteenth-century painting. None of the so-called pompiers contributed in any important way to altering the conception of art of their time. The continuity of the avant-garde is, therefore, not a fact but a historical construction, a way of giving an account of change rather than an account of personal contacts and artistic influence—although there were plenty of these as well.
Each successive avant-garde was as much a reaction against the previous one as an inheritance of its ideals and methods; by contrast, however, the relation of the avant-garde to academic art was only in minor respects either positive or negative. The pompier and the avant-garde painter lived in the same world, and they often knew each other, but the borrowings by the avant-garde from the pompiers are, for the most part, either insignificant or ironic. Cézanne paid as little attention to the pompiers as Willem de Kooning did to Norman Rockwell.
We may, therefore, take Thuillier’s proposal that all the different stylistic currents of the late nineteenth century be named pompier and turn it on its head: when a pompier is genuinely rehabilitated, he will have been made an honorary member of the avant-garde—or, as in the case of Puvis, it will be recognized that he was one all along.
Central to the history of the French avant-garde is the refusal of the French government after 1851 to subsidize those painters who were changing the nature of art. Equally remarkable is the refusal of these same painters to unbend and paint a few pictures that would get them government commissions and gain them entry to the museums. Vaisse has made himself the apologist for this government policy, and attempts to minimize its importance:
The public authorities—it would be silly to reproach them—were a bit slow, often less than one claims, in recognizing the value of certain pictorial novelties whose promoters, in any case, got on quite well without their attention.
Vaisse’s language (“nouveautés picturales,” “promoteurs“) is revealing in its attempt to reduce the avant-garde artist to a promoter of pictorial novelties. It is not clear what Vaisse means by saying that these promoters got on quite well without the attention of the public authorities (“se passaient bien de leurs attentions“), but the implication that these artists neither needed nor desired their paintings to be bought and displayed by the official museums is not credible. Vaisse’s hostility to the modern tradition is betrayed by his barefaced solicitude for the public authorities.
Lévi-Strauss makes it clear that he thinks the public authorities were right. He believes that, with the Impressionists, in spite of some marvelous works, art took the wrong road, abandoning the objective realization of nature, and that it has been getting steadily worse ever since—that is, more subjective, more phenomenological. Artists have lost their métier, their craft: they have deliberately and systematically forgotten how to paint. Lévi-Strauss provides a grandiose finale in which it appears that things have been getting worse from much farther back than one would have thought:
Perhaps painting sloped off in the wrong direction, when one imagined, following Leonardo da Vinci, that in preferring Nature to antiquity, one was also obliged to choose chiaroscuro over contour…. As in the fifteenth century the Flemings and the painters of the Quattrocento understood, as well as the Japanese before the nineteenth century and Anita Albus today,6 only if one resists the dissolving witchcraft of chiaroscuro and bows before the intangible order of things will painting again lay claim to the dignity of a craft.
Lévi-Strauss’s essay is the perfect curtain raiser to the plea for nineteenth-century academic art by Vaisse and Foucart. The attempt to rehabilitate the pompiers is less a taste for these artists than a desire to destroy the myth of the avant-garde, the genealogy which validates the modern tradition. A common distaste for most of the significant painting since 1950 (or even since 1848) makes allies of some of the neoconservative historians today.7 There seems to be a hope that if we can reconceive the nineteenth century, then the twentieth will go away. It is an old strategy: re-writing the past to reform the present.
(This is the last of four articles on nineteenth-century painting.)
May 27, 1982
Boime briefly mentions Rosenthal’s chapter on the juste milieu; he never, deals directly with Rosenthal’s ideas, however, and he unjustly reproaches him with neglecting the political and social aspects of this art. ↩
Preface to the exhibition catalogue of Vernet (Paris and Rome, 1980). ↩
Number 10, March 1981. ↩
On this question, see our articles on the Realist tradition, NYR, February 18 and March 4, 1982. ↩
Boime’s book is full of discoveries of this sort, and even if one sometimes disagrees with his conclusions, one must be grateful for the extraordinary intelligence and depth of the research. ↩
Lévi-Strauss’s rhapsody was written as an introduction to a catalogue of paintings by Anita Albus, a minor neo-surrealist. We have translated from the original version, as the editors of Le Débat identify the source of Lévi-Strauss’s article but understandably print no reproductions of Ms. Albus’s work and eliminate all references to her from the essay. ↩
Thuillier, for example, ascribes the interest in the Abstract Expressionism of the 1940s and 1950s to a chauvinist American publicity campaign to replace Paris by New York as the center of the art world. ↩