The Unhappy Medium

Thomas Couture and the Eclectic Vision

by Albert Boime
Yale University Press, 683 pp., $85.00


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…

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