Painters and Writers: When Something New Happens

Samuel F.B. Morse: Gallery of the Louvre, 1831–1833
Terra Foundation for American Art
Samuel F.B. Morse: Gallery of the Louvre, 1831–1833

I have often wondered why nineteenth-century French novelists were quite literally obsessed with painters and painting, while in the 1700s Diderot was the only writer of his generation to take an interest in art criticism. What a striking contrast: not one major novelist of the 1800s failed to include a painter character in his work. This is not surprising for Balzac and Zola, who had ambitions to bring every aspect of society to life in their fiction; but read Stendhal, Flaubert, the Goncourt brothers, Anatole France, Huysmans, Maupassant, Mirbeau, and of course Proust, and you enter a world in which painting is surprisingly important. What is more, all these novelists explored not only how a painter sees things but also how he represents them, and this produced a new way of writing.

“I would only have liked to see you take apart the mechanism of my eye. I enlarge, to be sure; but I don’t enlarge like Balzac, any more than Balzac enlarges like Hugo,” Zola told his protégé Henry Céard, highlighting the visual nature of novels at the time. This was essentially a French phenomenon; it has no real equivalent in England, Germany, or Russia. In the United States, it was not until the end of the century that painting became a literary subject in the work of Henry James. In England, Virginia Woolf would be the first to write about the influence painting had on literature. Why the sudden, widespread interest in France?

I believe that this new way of seeing and writing was facilitated by the creation of museums in France after the French Revolution. Frequent long visits to the Louvre gave an entire cohort of young writers a genuine knowledge of painting, a shared language with their painter friends, and a desire to enrich their own works with this newly acquired erudition. The visual novel dates from this period.

Having easy access to great works by visiting a museum feels so obvious to us now that we rarely think of the cultural revolution brought about by the advent of modern museums. And yet what a sea change in behavior this opportunity afforded. Before the Revolution only birthright or unusual personal success opened the door to masterpieces held in palaces and mansions, or to galleries of fine paintings acquired by wealthy Parisian collectors. As a result, people were reduced to spending a great deal of time in churches, the only place where anyone was free to admire works of art, at least before or after mass. Italy was especially well endowed in this respect.

But appreciating a painting in the gloom of a chapel posed problems that would continue for a long time: during a visit to Venice, Henry James complained he had to…

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Copyright © 2017 by Anka Muhlstein