Talk of the Apocalypse was heard throughout Europe in the decades around 1900,1 but it did not always betoken vengeful doom. “Today,” wrote Franz Marc in January 1912 in his subscription prospectus for the almanac of the Blaue Reiter,

art is moving in a direction of which our fathers would never even have dreamed. We stand before the new pictures as in a dream, and we hear the apocalyptic horsemen in the air. There is an artistic tension all over Europe. Everywhere new artists are greeting each other, a look, a handshake is enough for them to understand each other!

We know that the basic ideas of what we feel and create today have existed before us, and we are emphasizing that in essence they are not new. But we must proclaim the fact that everywhere in Europe new forces are sprouting like a beautiful unexpected seed, and we must point out all the places where new things are originating.2

For some years before the outbreak of the First World War a number of painters in different European countries thought of themselves as creating forms of art that could be described as prophetic: art that aimed to influence human attitudes to the present and thus to foresee a world that could be very different in the future. The futures that they envisaged varied widely. So, too, did the artistic styles that they brought into being in order to express their visions. But both to themselves and to the public that first saw them, and even to art historians writing about them generations later, all these styles seemed to mark a very important break with representational traditions that stretched back to the Renaissance. Pictures by these painters still tend to hang in galleries specially designed for modern and contemporary art rather than in the great national museums built in the nineteenth century to house masterpieces of all periods; and their reputations are still often gauged more by their perceived contribution to the birth of modernism than by any reasoned attempt to analyze their intrinsic painterly achievements (just as, in a much despised past, an artist’s standing might be measured by the importance of the subjects that he painted rather than by a consideration of his artistic gifts).

So fundamental is this aspect of their work that it is not surprising to discover that from an early date they were credited by their admirers and detractors (but rarely by themselves) with having in some way “anticipated” not only subsequent developments in the arts, but also the new world that came into being between the end of 1914 and the end of 1917. To some extent, however, the formation and later interpretation of all these artists can be associated with concepts that had first been formulated in Paris many years earlier.

It was there that artists ever since the time of David, followed by Courbet and Daumier and then Manet and the Impressionists, had been most forceful (though not always very precise) in claiming that new developments in the progress of humanity could only be recorded through new forms of creative expression. Toward the end of the nineteenth century Gauguin, Van Gogh, and their contemporaries had, however, modified this line of thought by taking it a stage further, while at the same time narrowing its scope. These men, whose own talents were ignored rather than derided by the wider public, argued not so much that they would win recognition after their deaths as that it was their mission to determine the direction in which art was going to move so that they could themselves be on the side of the future.

Never had speculation about the art of the future been so intense as it was in these years. For Van Gogh it became something of an obsession, and his conclusions gave him the courage to continue working under appalling strain: “the painter of the future,” he wrote in May 1888, “will be a colourist such as has never yet existed3—words that well describe his own achievements at the time. Thus the notion of art as prophecy was already deeply enshrined in French thought well before Guillaume Apollinaire systematically set out to use this criterion as his gauge of quality and then summed up this phase of his life in the beautiful lines published less than nine months before his death:

Pitié pour nous qui combattons toujours aux frontières
De l’illimité et de l’avenir
Pitié pour nos erreurs pour nos péchés.4

It must surely have been Picasso and his other friends among the Cubists whom he had chiefly in mind, for during the previous decade they appeared to have introduced into art, especially in Cubism, novelties more daring than any that had been made for centuries.

Restrained, somber colors—predominantly grays and ochres—evenly lit across the surface of the canvas and divided by strong verticals, horizontals, and a few diagonals and curves; geometric shapes hinting at squares and rectangles, but quite uneven in size and juxtaposed to no discernible end; a confused but static jigsaw puzzle in which none of the pieces fitted naturally so that they had to be arbitrarily broken up in order to keep them in place: that is what was at first to be seen in Cubist pictures, and it resembled nothing that could be seen outside them. But a closer look—and recourse to a catalog or the label attached to the frame—gradually revealed that these shapes were not, in fact, arbitrary and did not, as some critics claimed, amount to no more than abstract forms. Hard, solid objects emerged from the faceted background—and then seemed to merge back into it and disappear: a table, a guitar, a clarinet, a violin, a pipe, a newspaper, sometimes a portrait, occasionally a fragmented word. By clinging to such clues the spectator could begin to make out more; and what had at first seemed quite meaningless turned out to consist of fragmented objects visualized from different angles in a comprehensible framework.


Picasso and Braque, the joint creators of Cubism, did not at the time make any public statements about the motives that inspired the transformation of natural appearances to be seen in their works; but the clear impression we get from their contemporaries, and even from later statements made by the artists themselves, is that (whether or not they were, as is sometimes claimed, influenced by new developments in philosophy and the sciences) they were primarily concerned with problems of representation and form and with efforts to create a far more “real reality” than the one that was accessible only to the eye. The criticism and regeneration of society were of no interest to them as artists. Nor, despite the fact that they were (according to their supporters) responding with enthusiasm to the new world that was coming into being around them, did they appear to revel in the fundamental break that their own art made with that of the past. On the contrary, the continuity between their paintings and those of Cézanne, Courbet, and even David was frequently stressed by their advocates.5

In Holland and Italy, Germany and Russia, there was no surviving tradition of this kind to support the more imaginative artists of the day. When, to very varying extents and in very different ways, they tried to adapt the new language being worked out in Paris they gloried in the novelty of their aims and achievements. The intense and still-living controversies that quickly developed about the extent—or even existence—of a debt owed by all these artists to French forerunners indicate how essential it had by now become to belong to the “vanguard.” And, outside France, artistic change was often accompanied by much declamatory literature to explain and publicize the importance for art, and even mankind as a whole, of what was being designed.

Thus in the pictures that in 1913 Giacomo Balla dedicated to the theme of “Speed,” intersecting curves of clashing colors, which seem to deepen and recede in intensity as we look at them, sweep across the surface in both horizontal and vertical directions. Landscape is hinted at, but certainly not represented, and these paintings seem to carry to their most extreme a number of the ambitions of the Futurists as they had been set out by Balla and his friends three years earlier: “ALL FORMS OF IMITATION MUST BE DESPISED, ALL FORMS OF ORIGINALITY GLORIFIED.… ALL SUBJECTS PREVIOUSLY USED MUST BE SWEPT AWAY IN ORDER TO EXPRESS OUR WHIRLING LIFE OF STEEL, OF PRIDE, OF FEVER AND OF SPEED.… UNIVERSAL DYNAMISM MUST BE RENDERED IN PAINTING AS A DYNAMIC SENSATION…”6

In the canvases that Piet Mondrian began to compose shortly afterward all the movement and stridency so characteristic of Balla and the Futurists is utterly rejected. “Futurism,” he explained,

although a great step beyond naturalism, is excessively concerned with human sensations. Cubism, which still relies for its subject-matter on earlier forms of beauty (and is therefore less of our time than Futurism), took the great step towards abstraction; it thus belongs both to our time and to the future: modern not in its content but in its effect. I think of myself as belonging to neither tendency, while recognizing in myself the contemporary spirit of both.7

In his Composition, No. 7 of 1914 no recognizable allusion to the outside world survives, whatever may have been the inspiration of the actual patterns we see. Straight black lines run vertically and horizontally up and along the canvas, becoming thinner and lighter as they approach the edges which they never quite reach. They are constantly being slightly dislocated from their course, and we are thus presented with a kaleidoscope of rectangles and squares of different sizes which, in a few cases, terminate in semicircles so as to resemble the plan of an apsed basilica. These lozenges are colored in the most delicate dovegray and ochre and pale blue with touches of pink and mauve, sometimes thickened to produce an effect of creamy impasto, at others quite smooth. It was through pictures such as this that Mondrian strove for “the spiritual, therefore, the divine, the universal.” This, he felt certain, was “an art for the future.”


The aims that Kandinsky had set out a little earlier were not dissimilar and were just as mystical. They were also very ambitious, for he believed that painting was “one of the most powerful agents of the spiritual life” and that its purpose was to “serve the development and refinement of the human soul.” In his canvases dating from the last years of peace, figures and landscapes can barely be detected (or even imagined) in the patches and scrawls, the thrusts and explosions of vivid color that burst upon us. For him the gradual eradication of recognizable subject matter was a necessary step in his battle against the tainted materialism of the times, and it would eventually lead to the realm of pure spirituality.8

At much the same time Malevich took the most drastic step of all. In his Colour Masses in the Fourth Dimension, which was first exhibited in 1915, two squares of differing dimensions, one red and the other black, are spatially juxtaposed to each other and to the rectangular borders of the gray canvas on which they lie in such a way that the eye can discern no clear or logical relationship between them. Like Mondrian, and like many other Russian artists, Malevich respected the Futurists as pioneers who had “opened up the ‘new’ in modern life: the beauty of speed”; nonetheless, he rejected Futurism and “spat on the altar of its art.” For Futurism was still too tied to natural appearances, while the Suprematism that he advocated aimed to move one stage further in pursuit of the new, and thus convey the modern exclusively through geometrical shapes of pure color.9

German painters also aimed to extend and then to defy the frontiers of modern art, but their attitude to it tended to be very different. Their pictures reflected the visible world clearly enough, but it was a reflection distorted by fear, violence, and hatred. In Kirchner’s Berlin street scenes of 1913 and 1914 tapering giantesses stride past us, arrogant and ostentatious in their harsh greens and blues and reds; their faces no more than masks into which painted eyes and lips have been brutally slashed, the garish feathers on their hats all but concealing the buildings just visible behind them. And what seem to us (in the light of subsequent events) to be the most remarkable German pictures of this time were painted by another artist working in Berlin, the Jewish Ludwig Meidner, who combined the Expressionism of Kirchner and his friends with distant echoes of Cubism and Futurism in order to produce his “Apocalyptic Landscapes” of 1912 and 1913.

The collapse and destruction of great cities had been exultantly described in literature ever since the Bible and had been represented in luridly sensational pictures by many artists, including some who had made a specialty of the genre, such as “Monsù Desiderio” in the seventeenth century and John Martin in the nineteenth century. But the house fronts that lurch and topple to the ground in Meidner’s stridently colored canvases; the panic-stricken, bowler-hatted figures who attempt to flee over streets that seem to have melted into jagged tracks through some decayed and disintegrating jungle; the naked and twisted corpses, their arms and legs outstretched, that sprawl amidst the rubbish of a town struck by a devastating earthquake; the very explosions that seem to burst in the sky and tear it to shreds—all these were too painfully ferocious and jarring to appeal to that craving for the picturesque and the exotic that had marked earlier ventures into scenes of ruin and terror.10

Modernity, not horror, was what Meidner claimed to be striving for, and when in 1914 he discussed his aims he gave no hint that he was gloating over some terrible destructive force which would one day be visited on Berlin, no indication that he shared Kirchner’s revulsion for the anguished crowds that thronged the city’s streets. On the contrary. He wished to do no more than “paint our home, the great town for which we have infinite love.”11 Nevertheless, the violence and intensity of the language with which he described how this was to be done reveal much about the nature of the pictures that he had just completed. We must, he explained, abandon those touches of rural sweetness that had characterized the urban views of the Impressionists such as Monet and Pissarro in the 1870s and 1880s:

A street does not consist of tonal values; it is rather a bombardment of hissing rows of windows, of blustering cones of light between vehicles of all kinds and thousands of leaping globes, human rags, advertising signboards and masses of threatening, formless colours.

Three factors were of special importance for the painter of urban scenes; light, viewpoint, and use of the straight line. Light must not be spread over the whole picture. On the contrary, its flow is uneven. It breaks things up. “We become dazzled by a chaos of light and dark between rows of tall houses.” Light makes everything move so that towers and houses and lanterns appear to be hanging or swaying. Light can be white or silver or violet or blue.

Even more important is the artist’s viewpoint:

If, for instance, we stand in the middle of the street, in front of us at the far end all the houses are seen as vertical and their rows of windows seem to confirm conventional perspective because they run along to the horizon. But the houses near us—which we can see with only half an eye—appear to wobble and to collapse. Here the lines, which in reality are parallel, shoot steeply upwards and meet each other. Gables, chimneys, windows are dark, chaotic masses, fantastically cut short and many-sided.

As for the straight line, whose use had been banned from painting, it alone could render faithfully the forms of the modern town, and its beauty was becoming apparent to the contemporaries of modern engineers: “Let it be said in passing that the modern Cubist movement also feels great sympathy for geometrical forms, and that their significance is even greater for us,” for “how many triangles, squares, polygons and circles assault us in the streets!” As regards color, there was not much that needed to be said. To paint Berlin, black and white should be used, only a little ultramarine and ochre, but much umber.

Meidner concluded with words that appear to echo those to be found in the Futurist manifestoes to which he explicitly refers:

Let us paint what is near to us, the town which is our universe, the streets full of tumult, the elegance of its iron bridges, its gasometers hanging in mountains of white clouds, the shrieking colors of its autobuses and the locomotives of its express trains, the swaying telegraph wires (are they not like a song?), the harlequinades of its advertisement columns, and then Night, the Night of the great town… Would not the dramatic character of a well-painted factory chimney move us more deeply than the “Fires in the Borgo” and “Battles of Constantine” by Raphael?

I have mentioned only a few pictures (and a few concepts) chosen almost at random from very many more just as striking—pictures painted in Amsterdam and St. Petersburg, Milan and Berlin; pictures that celebrate a new world changing with a speed (the speed of the automobile and the aeroplane) that appeared to grow more remorseless every year, and pictures that reject the growth of that world with horror; pictures that are sometimes related to each other in style and sometimes totally unconnected. Yet these pictures all have two features in common. They were created by artists who were not only fully aware of the gulf that separated them from earlier art, but who rejoiced in the existence of that gulf. And they were painted only a few years before the world in which they had been created was violently blown away and irrevocably destroyed by war and revolution. Chance—or Prescience?

It was the painters of the avantgarde themselves who first began to discuss the issue of whether the momentous events of these years had in some strange way been foretold in their works and in those of their fellow artists. And their answers differed widely. What may be the earliest example of the matter being raised occurred within a few months of the out-break of the war. When asked whether a large painting that he had completed shortly before Christmas 1913—“a non-representational picture, a free pattern of coloured arabesque, explosive and ballistic in its design”12—demonstrated that he had already then foreboded war, Kandinsky replied, “Not this war. I had no premonition of that. But I knew that a terrible struggle was going on in the spiritual sphere, and that made me paint the picture.”13 Meidner, on the other hand, was very much more specific when, in 1919, he declared that his prewar pictures had been painted at a time when “the great world storm was already baring its teeth and casting its harsh shadow over the whimpering hand which was carrying my brush.”14 In the same year Malevich wrote that “Cubism and Futurism were revolutionary movements in art, anticipating the revolution in the economic and political life of 1917.”15

It may, however, be significant that Malevich should have indicated the two styles—Futurism and Cubism—that he himself had self-consciously, even publicly, rejected when adopting Suprematism as the one that he looked upon as the most appropriate to the times. Certainly, some other members of the prewar avant-garde were keen to disengage their own particular art form from any direct association with the future which actually had come into being, as opposed to the future for which they had so ardently been struggling before 1914. Thus Vlaminck—whose pioneering role as an admirer of African artifacts and as a painter of vigorous Fauve landscapes had been much praised by Guillaume Apollinaire—went so far as to imply that it was the futility of the Cubists, and above all of their admirers, that had foreshadowed the inevitable devastation that was to follow their triumph. Writing in 1929 he described how.

towards the middle of June 1914 I went into a modern art gallery in the rue La Boétie. A few aesthetes were gazing fascinated at one of the latest Cubist lucubrations which hung above M. Paul Guillaume’s desk, and they were talking about it in the tones of initiates or converts. The ground trembled beneath me. To see these members of the so-called élite—young intellectuals and grave figures with gold-rimmed spectacles—looking with respect at these geometrical and colored shapes; to hear them ask for explanations from those who financed such mystifications, convinced that for a modest sum they would win their share of the Spanish treasure—all this gave me a premonition of a precipice. I saw no limits to human stupidity and realised that it was capable of the wildest lunacies. Suddenly, in a flash, I foresaw the war.16

Distinctions of this kind soon disappeared once the notion that the artists of the avant-garde had in some ways had a premonition of the coming new world was taken over by historians of culture: Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Suprematism, Neo-Plasticism, Expressionism—all, indiscriminately, were called upon to supply the necessary evidence. 17

Kandinsky’s denial that his “explosive” picture of 1913 had been based on an intuition of the imminence of war was made in a letter to Michael Sadler to whom he had sent it as a gift. The denial produced a strong effect on Sadler, for nearly twenty years later he returned to the issue and proceeded to discuss it within a much wider context. Sadler, who had been born in 1861, was a well-known figure in the English educational world. He served on one government committee after another and produced innumerable reports. But he was also a discriminating and adventerous collector of the paintings and, in 1912, he was brought into contact with Kandinsky by his son, who, two years afterward, was to translate Über das Geistige in der Kunst into English.

Father and son visited the Kandinskys in Bavaria and were much impressed by the simplicity of their way of life and gentleness of character and by the small pictures on glass that hung on the walls of their country cottage, “very brightly colored, of religious subjects mostly—some eighteenth-century Bavarian peasant work, some painted by a man in Murnau, the last who practices the old traditional art, and a few (mystic and primitive looking) by Kandinsky himself.”18 Sadler bought some works on the spot, but the large picture, Fragment 2 for Composition VII, the most important of his prewar paintings, which Kandinsky unexpectedly sent to him in England, may have come as something of a surprise. In any case, Sadler nicknamed it “War in the Air” and it was “a year later, by which time we had got only too familiar with bombs and fighting planes” that he asked the artist about its significance.19

In 1932, Sadler, who had by then been knighted and was Master of University College, Oxford, gave a lecture to the Liberal Summer School in that city, and he accompanied it with an exhibition, lasting two days and installed in the hall and library of his college, of “nearly two hundred examples of modern art (pictures, drawings, lithographs, color prints, sculpture, pottery and textiles).” The title of his lecture was “Modern Art and Revolution,” and it was devoted to the question of “whether the temper of mind and trend of feeling disclosed by the work of many modern artists portend economic and social revolution.”20 It was immediately published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf for the Hogarth Press as one of their “Day to Day” pamphlets.

Sadler’s explorations of a theme that tends to attract the brash, the self-confident, and the mystic is diffident and cautious with a predisposition to the rational. But he pays for these qualities by a reluctance to follow any argument very far or to come to any conclusion about specific cases. He circles round the main issue, draws quite near to it at times, and then quickly moves on to other matters, such as the principal characteristics of modern art and, more rewardingly, the nature of “repugnance, anger and alarm” aroused by it. The pertinent comments he makes about this, often based on his own experiences, lead him to imply that it is in fact the prophetic powers of the innovating artist that make us feel uneasy with him.

And yet he is not at all precise about the actual existence of such powers. Referring to the great changes in taste that have punctuated European art at irregular intervals he admits that “it is hazardous to attempt an answer to the question whether, in these early transmutations of taste, the artist was adjusting himself to new conditions already in being or was a harbinger of startling changes still to come.” He is, at first, rather more confident in suggesting that

in the aggressive modernism of much of the art of our own day there is something minatory, something that frightens those who are timid about the future. Do these new developments in art actually portend a drastic change in the way we now live and in the faiths which have power over our wills?

But then, characteristically, he retreats—for current movements in modern art “are so various and disparate that they may point only to a future of confusion.”

There is, however, one short but amazing passage in Sadler’s lecture in which he throws caution recklessly to the winds. He was unwilling to accept the full implications of Kandinsky’s disclaimer of premonitory intuition and went so far as to suggest that not only he but Charles Meryon also—in his etching of the Ministry of the Marine in Paris, dating from 1866—had been able to prophesy the aerial onslaughts of the Great War: “It was almost the last plate he etched before he died. In silhouette against storm-clouds which are bright with dawn or sunset, enemy aircraft fly to the attack. Some of the planes are shaped like fish or birds or horses, but others might pass for what we see today.”

Such a flight of fancy is quite uncharacteristic of a speaker who proclaimed that “I do not want to say a shade more than I feel,” and what appears to be his most considered reflections on the matter are far more muted:

A few men of genius practising the art of painting have had premonitions. These premonitions were vague, whether gloomy or sanguine. But some men of unusual sensibility do seem to have had an inkling of what was in the air, and of what was about to spring from causes which were still hidden from common observation. Nevertheless, we must allow for the fact that these causes, having long been in unnoticed operation, may be understood by a few men who have had special reason or facilities for studying them. And it was always possible that from such a source as this the painter may have caught hints of what was coming.

A conclusion as careful and rational as this may well appear to deflate the significance of the issue as a whole, and indeed, by the end of his lecture, Sadler himself appears to have felt that the portents to which he had earlier drawn attention were very much less weighty than he had once thought. Tensions in modern art seem to adumbrate only “deep changes in the existing economic order and in our form of government and, therefore, in our ways of education.” The new world “may involve for some people, as Vigeland’s simplified sculpture at Oslo suggests,21 a return to a life more primitive than we are at present wont to lead.” Thus “to meet the needs of this age it seems inevitable that there should be a change in the formula of a liberal education. Something that will integrate body, mind and emotions is called for.”

A little more than a decade later it was all too apparent that such prophecies were pathetically tame (though it is true that the “more primitive” life apparently foreshadowed by Vigeland’s “simplified sculpture” would presumably have involved total nudity). Looking back in 1946 on more than thirty years of unparalleled horror, which had nonetheless also witnessed much painting of the highest quality, the French art historian Germain Bazin was far more uncompromising than Sadler in trying to link these two phenomena. In a short book which he called Le Crépuscule des images he insisted that the artist

is like a kind of magus gifted with second sight who from the palimpsest of an epoch can unravel its destiny and express it in the language of forms. For the artist is often a prophet whose vision is not so much the product of its own time as the augur of time to come. A work of art—at least when it is a work of genius—is an anticipation or a correspondence rather than a consequence.

The example he chose to illustrate this point is somewhat strange and was understandably described by him as very remarkable. Tintoretto’s mural painting of Paradise in the Palazzo Ducale in Venice (which dates from about 1588), he claimed, provides a visual equivalent for the notion of universal gravity at the moment when Copernicus had discovered the principle of heliocentrism (in the first decade of the sixteenth century), of which Tintoretto certainly knew nothing.22

The intuitions of artists, claims Bazin, are often keener than those of thinkers, and the creative force of artists, which is not restrained by the logical mechanism of words, always anticipates and reaches further than written thought. Thus it was artists who preceded writers in apprehending the collapse of the world in the twentieth century. Just when “douceur de vivre” was at its height and the world was becoming intoxicated by the whirl of Viennese waltzes, omens began to appear of what lay ahead: the bloody puppets of Rouault, the nightmare masks of Ensor; the gesticulations of the Fauves and the Cubists, “those torturers of the human body, which for a thousand years had been worshipped as sacred”; the turbulent landscapes of Vlaminck, the joyless streets of Utrillo; above all, the despairing clowns of Picasso’s blue period.

Indeed, Picasso, “the prophetic genius of our century,” presaged all its disasters “at the very moment when all humanity was dancing on a volcano and allowing itself to be mesmerized by promises of a golden age with which the ideologues, the sociologists and the democrats were dazzling the world.” And, well before the first crimes committed against civilization by Germany, the torment that oppressed that country was revealed by the revival of Expressionism, while the portraits of civilized industrialists, architects, scholars, and art lovers painted by the Austrian Kokoschka show that he had been able to discern “the beast of prey that is to be found in every German.”23

No one will deny that an artist may, just as much as a writer or a politician, speculate about the future and may then try to express his vision of that future through making use of a particular style or a particular choice of imagery. And speculation about the possibilities of a war in Europe and a revolution in Russia was widespread during the early years of the twentieth century. But the prophetic power attributed to artists in cases of the kind considered here is related to their exceptional sensitivities rather than to their abilities at making clever guesses or to their faculties of reasoning; indeed, it is, as we have seen, very often believed to be a sort of mystical talent, of which the artist himself is unaware and which can, by definition, be detected only with hindsight.

That hindsight inevitably has an effect on the way in which a painter is judged. Hubert Robert’s views of the Louvre in ruins, inspired by the fragmentary palaces and temples of ancient Rome, were probably enjoyed as pleasing, somewhat titillating, capricci by the collectors of the ancien régime. By 1791, however, the German philosophe Grimm, the editor of Diderot’s Salons, could write bitterly to Catherine the Great, that “one can only assume that Robert, whose principal talent is to paint ruins, must find himself in his element just now. Wherever he turns, he can find his speciality thoroughly in vogue, and can see the most beautiful, freshest ruins in the world.”24 And Robert himself may well have thought back somewhat ruefully to his earliest fantasies, when, many years later, he found himself—surely to his utter astonishment—painting the demolition of some of the finest churches in Paris.

However, not all pictures of catastrophe and not all decisive stylistic changes have been quickly followed by dramatic events in the world outside art, as happened to the ruin fantasies of Hubert Robert or the apocalyptic townscapes of Ludwig Meidner. The case of Delacroix is revealing. His stylistic innovations startled his contemporaries, and his imagery still impresses us with its violence: we can understand why Baudelaire seized on the element of “molochism” to be found in his work, and even why he credited Delacroix with a special intuition into the most genuine and most profound undercurrents of nineteenth-century “modernity.”25 But it is hardly surprising that Michael Sadler apparently went out of his way to select Delacroix as an example of a painter who adjusted himself “to new conditions already in being” as distinct from others who foretold “startling changes still to come.”26 No one seems to have claimed that La Mort de Sardanapale “anticipated” the Revolution of 1830, or Attila et les Barbares foulant aux pieds l’Italie et les Arts the catastrophes of the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune. The gift of divination has evidently been distributed in a somewhat arbitrary manner, and the historian would be unwise to rely with too much confidence on the evidence suggested by it.

This Issue

July 15, 1993