French Romanticism and the Avant-Garde

THE ORIGINS OF THE AVANT-GARDE

Art and the Avant-Garde

The term “avant-garde” is a military one, borrowed from the French phrase, denoting the advance body of the army. This small group of soldiers goes out in advance of the main group to scout the territory beyond with the aim of reporting back as to the conditions awaiting the other soldiers. In American parlance, these soldiers are called “F.O’s” or forward observers, and they account for the highest casualty rate, for they are always on the line and out in front. The artists that are historically considered the avant-garde were also “out in front of” the main body of more conservative artists and the recalcitrant public, putting their careers and their lives on the line in order to find new ways of making art. As Renato Poggioli in The Theory of the Avant-Garde put it,

…the avant-garde…functions as an independent and isolated military unit, completely and sharply detached from the public, quick to act, not only to explore but also to battle, conquer, and adventure on its own…

The avant-garde as a conscious and deliberate artistic activity was mainly a mid to late Nineteenth Century phenomenon, probably pioneered by the Impressionists who intentionally refused to placate public taste and who deliberately exhibited work outside of the expected channels of the large and popular public Salon exhibitions. According to Pierre Bourdieu in The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (1996), the avant-garde was a sociological situation, born of rising middle class aspirations and the inability of the culture to satisfy talented people and their ambitions. The Academy controlled entrée to school art school training and had the power to grant access to the Salon. Although the intention of the academically minded juries may have been to maintain the high level of quality in art, the effect was to restrict economic opportunity, forcing artists outside of the system. As Bourdieu said,

…bohemia…grows numerically and as its prestige (or mirages) attracts destitute young people, often of provincial and working-class origin, who around 1848 dominate the ‘second bohemia.’ In contrast to the romantic dandy of the ‘golden bohemia’ of the rue de Doyené, the bohemia of Murger, Chapmpfleury or Duranty constitutes a veritable intellectual reserve army, directly subject to the laws of the market and often obliged to live off a second skill…in order to live an art that cannot make a living.

The avant-garde grew out of a group of creative people who gravitated to Paris and lived in low-income quarters, suffering from neglect and poverty. Outside the mainstream and lacking the outlets that would have perhaps earned them a living, these artists and writers could only gather together and form an ideology of failure. They had failed, they consoled themselves, because they were so “advanced” that the unenlightened public misunderstood them. Simply put, their art was too good, too “avant.” Success was inverted into an indictment of failure and failure was transformed into a badge of honor. It is doubtful that these defiant members of the avant-garde were particularly talented or gifted, for there were member of La Boheme who were quite successful, such as George Sand and Eugène Delacroix. But the formula was high-minded and allowed those who never made a breakthrough an honorable cover for their failure. The avant-garde artist, then, was a mythic creature who was not appreciated or understood by the masses, one who chose to live and work in obscurity and poverty, believing that one day his/her art would be recognized by an educated art audience either in the near present or in some unforeseeable future.

Savvy and strategic Bohemian artists fueled the myth of the avant-garde by shocking the a public that was very easy to shock. The rallying cry of the avant-garde was, “Épater le bourgeoisie!” but the idea was to gain attention, not to repel collectors. Avant-garde artists needed to make a living and used the unexpected as a strategy to shock and awe the crowd. By mid-century the term was an old one. In Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism (1987) the writer Matei Calinescu, traced the idea of the avant-garde in France back to radical revolutionary politics:

..it is safe to say that the actual career of the term avant-garde was started in the after man of the French Revoluion, when it acquired undisputed political over ones. I am referring to L’Avant-garde de l’armée des Pyrenées orientals, a journal that appeared in 1794 and whose watchword–engraved on the blade of an emblematic sword–was “La liberté ou la mort.” This journal was committed to the defense of Jacobin ideas and was intended to reach, beyond military circles, a broader audience of “patriots.” We can therefore take the 1700s as a starting point for the subsequent career of the concept of the avant-garde in radical political thought..it is, therefore, not by chance that the romantic use of avant-garde in a literary-artistic context was directly derived from the language of revolutionary politics.

Calinescu asserted that the modern us of an old military term was linked by 1825 to the arts by socialist philosopher, Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), in his book De l’organization sociale (1825) in which the writer designated the artist as the standard bearer for the future. His follower, Olinde Rodrigues stated, “It is we, the artists, that will serve as your avant-garde, the power of the arts is indeed he most immediate and the fastest.” Without the church and state and their once limitless funds, without the taste and sophistication of the aristocrats, the artists were faced with the middle class as their main audience. This was an audience that wanted to be entertained and were treated by the artists to large paintings that were precursors to modern day movies—-the grand machines or huge paintings that enthralled them with exciting stories.

The new audience was composed of the masses, high and low, average people, undereducated, unsophisticated, but not uninterested in art. The kind of art they wanted was that which was easily accessible, easy to understand, entertaining and attractive to look at; something like today’s television programs, that reflected themselves and their interests. For many artists, this new middle class audience was no problem. For other artists, the bourgeoisie was an opportunity. Although the art viewers were trained to admire the large history paintings, the serious minded displays of ancient virtues and obscure myths were not necessarily what the public actually wanted to see.

4

Eugène Delacroix. Death of Sardanapalus (Salon of 1827-8)

It was easy to please the public and it was easy to displease the public. However, beguiling the allure of the avant-garde, being a leader, the risks were many and the rewards were few. It can be assumed, based upon Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of the sociology of early nineteenth century Paris, that most of the most avant-garde artists, whether visual or literary or musical, lived and and died as unknown failures. Until the late nineteenth century, the vast majority of the avant-garde artists or the artists called “avant-garde” by art historians, played the game inside the system and were products of the academic system. Being avant-garde involved a delicate balance between “performing” shock and making one’s mark and then becoming ensconced within the system. Eugène Delacroix was the best known example of such an artist. His spectacular, spiraling out of control bloody and violent, Death of Sardanapalus, was shown in the Salon of 1827-8 in aesthetic comparison to classically structured rational classical Apotheosis of Homer by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres debuting in the same salon.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Apotheosis of Homer (1827)

The contrast instantly placed the artists in opposing camps where they remained, in the public’s eyes for the rest of their lives. Delacroix parlayed this and other radical paintings–radical in content, Massacre at Chios (Salon of 1824) or radical in style, The Sea at Dieppe (1852)–into a perfectly respectable official career doing murals for the Bourdon ruling family in the 1830s. Norman Bryson’s excellent analysis of these ceiling murals in the Library of the Chamber of the Deputies in the Palais Bourbon in “Desire in the Bourbon Library” a chapter in Tradition and Desire: From David to Delacroix (1984) revealed that the artist combined Romanticism and Classicism in style and content in a cycle of mythology worthy the best of history painting. Until the end of the Second Empire, artists found success only by positioning themselves within the establishment, if only to fight against it, like Irgres and Delacroix. But as the century progressed, social and political issues became increasingly pressing, forcing the artistic gaze away from the present and towards eroticism and exoticism and the problems of contemporary times. For the avant-garde artist, the historical past was past. “Il faut être de son temps,” (“It is necessary of be of one’s time.”) the artist Honoré Daumier exclaimed. A growing number of artists sought new ways to make art, which would reflect the new modern way of life.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you. [email protected]

French Romanticism: Subject Matter and the Artist

THE QUARREL OVER CONTENT

The End of Classicism

The Romantic era was Janus-faced, facing the present and commenting upon it while turning away for current events in order to yield to the lure of fantasy, legend, myth, and exoticism. On one hand, Jean-Antoine Gros (1771-1835) called attention to the human costs of Napoléon’s brutal wars in Napléon at Eylau in his blunt painting of 1818, and, on the other hand, Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) retreated into Nordic myth in his Dream of Ossian of 1813 and his charming small genre paintings of troubadour legends. And Anne-Louis Girodet Roussy-Trisson (1767-1824) produced a reverie of eroticism with his Sleep of Endymion in 1791 as the opening volley of Romanticism, while Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) explored the limits of Romanticism with his portraits of insane people and his renditions of severed limbs. One did not have to be an avant-garde artist to be “Romantic,” for the avant-garde was just beginning to form in the seedy neighborhoods of Bohemian Paris. One did not have to challenge Academic standards to be Romantic, for the Academy could very well accommodate exciting contemporary narratives, as long as they were correctly painted or sculpted. Although associated with bold color and visible brushstrokes, Romanticism was not a style, nor was it a particular content, nor was it a rebellion against authority. The successful and celebrated Romantic artists wanted to be accepted by the academic powers and vied for position and honors within the Salons. For many of these artists, their reputation as “romantic rebels” rests upon a few works of art. Most of the Romantic artists were part of the establishment and did not live the life of an outsider artist, unappreciated and scorned by the forces of the status quo.

The myth of the Romantic artist has been entangled anachronistically with that of the avant-garde, and it should be noted that the full-blown avant-garde movements of Realism and Impressionism were decades away. The so-called rebelliousness of the Romantic artists was less political than entrepreneurial, linked more directly to the loss of traditional patrons: church, state, and aristocrats. The Romantic artist acted as an opportunist or a performance artist who sought to both slide past the conservative jury of the Salon and also to shock the spectators with spectacular and entertaining art. The art audience had become more and more middle class and attended the Salons in large numbers. The bourgeoisie, the crowd, the mob had be addressed in some manner, preferably in a way that would bring success. Fueled by fashions, literature and restless aggressive politics, the public developed a taste for scenes of sex and violence provided by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1865) and unsanctioned by the Academy. The art audiences swooned over the newly discovered beauties of Nature in the paintings of the Barbizon artists. The spectator had little interest in the erudite academic subject matter favored by history painting and gravitated towards the familiar and the contemporary. The independent art market for genre painting and landscape painting began to develop, inspiring artists to concentrate their efforts in these areas that were not supported by the academic hierarchy and where there were opening new professional territories for ambitious artists out of favor with the Academy.

Constant Troyon. Landscape and Cattle

Landscape painting began to free itself from its traditional role as a backdrop for a narrative placed in the foreground, as seen in the works of Claude Lorrain (1600-1682), and “pure” landscapes of Constant Tryon (1810-1865), painted for the sheer pleasure of nature’s beauties and free of moralizing, became more and more popular with the art patrons. Like still lives, landscapes could fit into any home and were acceptable to any taste, and did not offend any political opinions. The so-called lower genres were directed not so much towards the academy but to a newly enriched public that was inclined to buy decorative art. The most important group of landscape painters was the Barbizon School, located in the village of Barbizon in the Forest of Fountainebleau. Artists such as Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867) and Narcisse (Virgile) Diaz (de la Peña) (1807-1876) sketched the tree filled vistas in situ but finished the paintings in their studios. They shared, along with many Romantic painters, a new concern for direct observation of Nature at its most natural and most accurate as seen in the ordinary sites favored by the English artist John Constable (1776-1837).

Theodore Rousseau. Twilight Landscape (1850)

The Barbizon artists followed the Claudian precepts of the “beautiful” but they were distinctly modern in their refusal to include narrative in the painting. At the other end of the spectrum from marketable landscapes, lay the public taste for the strange and the exotic, also linked to economics. Due to the colonial dreams of France which was expanding its fledgling empire into the Middle East, the “Orient,” the “East” from the Holy Land to north Africa, became open territory to be subdued and conquered by the Western Europeans who were beginning another phase of unchecked imperialism. The delight in the themes of sex and violence played out in the land of the Other, as imagined by the European male to be part and parcel of the Middle East, was fueled as much by masculine sexual desires and forbidden fantasies as by imperial pride. A large number of artists, called “Orientalists” imagined the mysterious East as a place of harems and beheadings, inhabited by an alien and violent people who could only benefit from benevolent French rule. Orientalism in French painting was popular with the crowds for decades. Horace Vernet entertained his French audience with the savagery of The Lion Hunt (1836) that fueled European feelings of superiority. Théodore Chassériau’s Reclining Odalisque (1853) flirted with sort core pornography and shamelessly unveiled the mental landscapes of the European males.

(c) The Wallace Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Although the aristocrats, old and new, were restored to power during Napoléon’s rule, after the Restoration of Louis XVIII, the new audience for art was largely middle class. The Romantic artist was sundered from traditional conservative artistic styles, separated from traditional patronage, and stripped of the historical social role as servant to higher powers. From the fall of Napoléon on, the artist was forced to re-invent him/herself as a social being and was forced to re-create a new cultural place and new purpose for unsanctioned art. By the end of the Romantic period, the imported German idea of “art-for-art’s-sake” had fulfilled multiple purposes, providing art and the artist with a new and exalted role in society. The artist had to be a free and independent creator who was an innovator and pushed art to change. As the new aesthetic theories gained a following, the art world began to splint between the avant-garde who rebelled against outmoded strictures and displeased the public and the academics who conformed and pleased the audience. By 1835, the writer and art critic, Théophile Gautier (1811-1872) attacked conventional critics for their adherence to ideas of decorum and good taste. In the preface to Madamoiselle de Maupin (1835), Gautier advocated for beauty and art for their own sakes and disparaged all that was useful:

What is the good of music ? of painting ? Who would be foolish enough to prefer Mozart to Monsieur Carrel, and Michael Angelo to the inventor of white mustard ? There is nothing truly beautiful but that which can never be of any use whatsoever ; everything useful is ugly, for it is the expression of some need, and man’s needs are ignoble and disgusting like his own poor and infirm nature. The most useful place in a house is the water-closet.

For the artist to be free to express original and personal feelings, art should have no useful purpose. Gautier was echoing Kant’s phrase that the purpose of art was its “purposive purposelessness.” Although these ideas give new impetus to art and a new place in society to the artist, the idea that art should exist without thought to the art audience also begin the separation between the artist and the public that will be accelerated by the Revolution of 1848 in France. As seen in the literary and the visual arts, Romanticism was an international movement and a cultural rejection of the Enlightenment and its stress on objective reason and rational thinking. Although each nation had its own version of Romanticism, in general, Romanticism was subjective and the ultimate truth was individual emotions, feelings, and expression. This shift from the objective to the subjective, from object to subject, or the individual, as the source of truth was a radical transformation in Western thought, perhaps the logical consequence of Protestant emphasis on individuality and European hopes for a political democracy. The artist became important to society in a new way: not as an explicator of moral ideals, but as a “genius,” a seer who brought, through art, new insights into life. As Emmanuel Kant wrote in the Critique of Judgment (1790)

..it may be seen that genius properly consists in the happy relation, which science cannot teach nor industry learn, enabling one to find out ideas for a given concept, and, besides, to hit upon the expression for them-the expression by means of which the subjective mental condition induced by the ideas as the concomitant of a concept may be communicated to others. This latter talent is properly that which is termed soul.

Although a new (Kantian) critical vocabulary was created as the new philosophical branch of aesthetics moved to the center as artistic concern, the Romantic artists offered no coherent programme nor did they have a common goal. Wrapped up in their sense of individuality, artists produced works of art that proclaimed individual personalities and the originality that was the prerogative of the genius. Drawing and low key color, disciplined stylistics, and a smooth “licked” surface in painting and sculpture, characteristic of Neoclassicism became politically tied to the state. Color, rough painting or impastoed facture became politically tied to the emotions that might lead to unrestrained social behavior or political unrest. Romanticism, as a challenge to academicism, was associated with forces of disorder and anarchy and revolution. In France, a nation that experienced periodic revolutions and uprisings, teetered from monarch to republic and back to monarchy, political dissent was a danger to order. Some Romantic artists such as Delacroix and Géricault produced deliberately provocative works. Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (Salon of 1819) recounted an embarrassing and tragic episode of government incompetency. Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830) was considered so dangerous that the inspiring painting was purchased by the government only to be put in storage for the next thirty years. Politics aside, most so-called Romantic artists, such as Delacroix, were actually politically quiet conservative, as are most artists because social and political stability are necessary for art making to be possible.

If you have found this material useful,

please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

Podcast Episode 11: The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part Two

FOUNDING ROMANTICISM

Part Two

Two of the founding members of French Romanticism, Gros and Girodet, were Napoléonic artists who specialized in military glory and romantic escapism, respectively. Although they were both followers of David, both artists moved away from Neo-Classicism to a form of early Romanticism. However, they were both overtaken by historical events and new Romantic artists, such as Ingres and Delacroix took their place as artistic leaders. This podcast examines their late works, which established the basic parameters of Romanticism in France.

Also listen to: “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part One” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part One” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part One” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part Two”

Also read: “French Romanticism: The Historical Context” and “The French Academy: Painting” and “French Romanticism: Subject Matter and the Artist” and “French Romanticism and the Avant-Garde”

 

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone

Remember to download the iBooks app to your iPad or iPhone

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

French Romanticism: The Historical Context

ROMANTICISM AS HISTORY IN FRANCE

Neoclassicism was a historicist revival of an ancient style that acquired political and social implications during a time of turbulent change. Calm and serene, Neoclassicism lent itself well to noble subject matter that depicted the ideals the French public should emulate. Despite the classical harmony of Neoclassicism, the style was developed during a decade of chaos. Ironically, Romanticism, which in contrast, was a dramatic and dynamic style matured during a decade of peace and calm. The Romantic artists looked back to the Napoléonic age of empire and glory with disappointment and depression that they had been born too late to participate in the great adventure. Although these artists challenged the Salon system that maintained the status quo and the academic style, they did so in a society that was busy turning back the clock of liberalism. Under Napoléon, traditional powers were reinstalled, an emperor took the place of a king, the Catholic Church was restored, and the Code Napoléon, while an efficient legal structure, set the cause of equality back for decades to come. Napoléon reinforced the backward look to his regime by adopting the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne as his model to reinforce the concept of “France,” which was a “modern” nation with a long tradition. On the other hand, Napoléon fought “wars of liberation” to spread the French Revolution over Europe and wound up presiding over an Empire. Once a force of the “liberation” of Europe, the Grande Armée became a force of conquest, control, and occupation, all in the name of “freedom.”

Romanticism in France, evolved out of Neoclassicism’s grand manner as Napoléon’s artists responded to commissions that demanded glorification of his military adventures and martial victories. But the building of an empire was often a dark and dirty business. Hiding beneath the mask of glory was a very real cost in human life and suffering that demanded a new and sometimes uncomfortable realism. Jean-Antoine Gros glorified Napoléon but could not ignore the reality of war. The growing public unease mixed with national pride toward Napoléonic wars can be traced through the works of Baron Gros. From Napoléon at Arcole (1796) to Napoléon at the Pesthouse of Jaffa (1804) and Napoléon at Eylau (1806). In the decade, the depiction of Napoléon had gone from heroic young leader to noble healer to solemn general leading his horse slowly among the dead.

Gros,_Napoleon_at_Eylau

Antoine-Jean Gros. Napoléon at Eylau (1807)

Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835) and the other Napoléonic artists could not resort to classical allegory and were forced, by their Emperor’s demands, to represent the contemporary era. Current events seemed far more relevant than ancient deeds from an antique past. Any lessons the classical era might have had seemed meaningless in the face of modern times of industrialization and total war. The break between Neoclassicism and Romanticism can be clearly seen in the time when France dominated the Continent and plunged Europe into ten years of war. While many artists continued to explore the possibilities of the Neoclassical, artists such as Gros were drawing a distinctive dividing line between Neoclassicism and Romanticism—the new interest in the contemporary and a new concern with one’s own time. For the artists who were accustomed to the Academic style and dictates, the age of Napoléon was a great age for art in France. The Emperor threw himself into a well-organized orgy of looting the cultural heritage of Europe which he transported to France. He stripped European nations of their patrimony and brought thousands of art treasures, large and small, significant and less well known to Paris and installed them in the Louvre, now a public museum. The challenge to Neoclassicism from new artists and unfamiliar art was part of the origin of Romanticism. To be able to see actual paintings by Rubens, his bold brushwork, his bright colors, his restless and dynamic forms was a revelation to French artists.

The French people accepted, as their due, this artistic tribute from other countries. They had few moral qualms about the wholesale stripping and transportation of European culture to Paris. To the new Romantic generation, the French academy ceased to the sole source of artistic ideals. In addition to the unprecedented availability of Continental art, the fall of the French aristocracy had brought a number of important private collections to the market. Most of this art found its way to England, where it was safe from Napoléonic looting. But the looted collections added to the Louvre were returned to their countries of origin, with the exception of a few prize Italian works, still in France. After the fall of Napoléon in the first abdication of 1814 and the final fall in the second abdication of 1815, France returned to a conservative political mode. Napoléon himself had certainly been reactionary when it came to women and the lower classes and he reinstated the Catholic Church, bringing back religious traditions, albeit under state control. His successor, the Bourbon monarch, Louis XVIII did little to change the France Napoléon left behind, continuing his policy of inviting the émigrés back and restoring the old order, while opening the doors to men of merit. Louis agreed to a constitutional monarchy, modeled after that of Britain, while his successor, Charles X, chafed under such restrictions.

François Joseph Heim. Charles X Bestowing Honours on the Artists at the Salon of 1824

Although the French people had nostalgic memories of Napoléon, they had little patience with the simple-minded kind and revived the old revolutionary fervor in the “July Days” of 1830. Charles X was summarily overthrown in a few short days, called “Days” as a reflection of the “Days,” also in July when the first Revolution began in another July in 1789. The next king who stepped into the vacant throne, Louis-Philippe, was careful to not repeat the mistakes of Charles X and called himself the “Citizen King.” During the span between Napoléon and Louis-Philippe, Romanticism in France and its counterpart, the avant-garde, was created. Near the conclusion to his classic history, The Age of Napoléon, J. Christopher Herold quoted Napoléon,

‘Greatness has its beauties, but only in retrospect and in the imagination’: thus wrote General Bonaparte to General Moreau in 1800. His observation helps to explain why the world, only a few years after sighing with relief at its delivery from the ogre, began to worship him as the greatest man of modern times. Napoléon had barely left the scene when the fifteen years that he had carved out of world history to create his glory seemed scarcely believable. Only the scars of the war veterans and the empty places in the widows’ beds seemed to attest the reality of those years, and time soon eliminated even these silent witnesses. What remained, in retrospect and in the imagination, was legend and symbol.

The generation of Romantic artists who matured under the reign of Louis XVIII and Charles X had to be content with a petit revolution and regretted not having experienced the true glory of life under Napoléon. Artists, such as Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) and Eugène Delacroix (1898-1863), spent their early careers dealing with contemporary political events. Géricault who, like Gros, measured the Napoléonic wars with two paintings of dashing French cavalry officers, both resplendently dressed, but each portrait of a warrior was very different. The Charging Chasseur (1812) and the Wounded Cuirassier (1814), separated by two short years, span the gap between the glory years just before the disastrous Russian campaign and the year of defeats at the hands of the Alliance of European armies. Part of a transition generation between David and Delacroix, Gros and Géricault swerved away from the Davidian tradition of heroic Neoclassicism, as seen in Napoléon at the Saint Bernard Pass (1801), and into a hybrid of Romanticism combined with realism, overlying classicism. Under the reign of Louis XVIII, artists were not bound to producing propaganda and were freed from Napoléonic censorship. Géricault pointedly criticized the new and incompetent government with his Raft of the Medusa, seen in the Salon of 1819. The theatricalized scene, which included a young Delacroix, posing on the raft, was dramatically Romantic, contemporary, and political. Arriving at the end of France’s time of glory and honor, Géricault’s Raft revealed how dangerous and how forceful art, freed of the dictates of the state, could be.

Théodore Géricault. Raft of the Medusa (Salon of 1819)

Also listen to: “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part One” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part One” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part Two”

Also read: “The French Academy: Painting” and “French Romanticism: Subject Matter and the Artist” and “French Romanticism and the Avant-Garde”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.
[email protected]

The French Academy: Painting

PAINTING IN THE ACADEMY

The Role of History Painting

The roots of academic art in France were long and deep and were integral to the tradition of painting in the École des Beaux-Arts, as well in as the provincial academies. In fact, within the art circles in France, classicism was considered almost a national characteristic, that in painting, was equated with the “grand manner” of Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665). For years the foremost authority on Poussin was the disgraced British spy and esteemed art historian, Anthony Blunt (1907-1983). In his authoritative book, Art and Architecture in France, 1500-1700 (1953), Blunt explained the significance of Poussin:

By a curious freak, French painting of the seventeenth century produced its most remarkable and its most typical works not in Paris but in Rome, since it was in Rome that Poussin and Claude spent almost the whole of their active lives. In once sense these artists belong not to the French school but to that of Rome or the Mediterranean. Seen from another point of view, however, Poussin at least i stye key to the whole later evolution of French art. In him are summed up all the qualities traditionally associated with French classicism; and his influence was to be predominate in French art from his own time up to our own, in the sense that many artists took him as their idea, and an almost equal number rejected him with a violence which was in itself a tribute to his importance.

In his study of Poussin, Poussin’s Paintings: A Study in Art Historical Methodology (1993), David Carrier noted that the importance of Poussin to the French tradition was a long-standing trope in French art. While Blunt attempted to study Poussin in his own context, an earlier English art writer, Clive Bell also placed Poussin as the fountainhead. Bell, as Carrier pointed out, had other goals in mind, that is to present an analysis of Poussin’s art from a formalist perspective, making the point that the “classicism” of Poussin–the formal elements–connect the Baroque artist to Paul Cézanne. Carrier wrote that “Poussin, Blunt says, links French art to the High Renaissance and to the art of antiquity, providing the starting point for the tradition of Ingres and Picasso.” The formalist link down the centuries rests upon the grid which provides a framework for perspective and for composition. Cézanne retained the grid and eliminated the deep infinite perspective favored by the Baroque period. The Madonna of the Steps (1648) could not be more “classical” in its gridded underpinning of the rectangular support and the central placement of the figural triangle of the Holy Family. Seventeenth century classicism was characterized by this kind of structured and logical composition, clearly defined forms, strong outlines and strong but restrained color of harmonizing blues and golds.

Nicholas Poussin. Madonna of the Steps (1648)

By the nineteenth century, responding to the experience with a more “authentic” classicism–actual murals for Pompeii and the Elgin Marbles–the space of Neoclassical painting was flattened and the figures were arranged in a more fontal and frieze like manner. Given the presence of authoritative sources, it should be no surprise that within the French art, classicism was always aligned with the academic system and was considered the artistic norm and the preferred style. As part of academic training, classicism was based upon a well worked out body of theory and system of instruction, which was based on the tenants of classical art. Classical art, antique art of ancient Greece and Rome, was a public art, made to communicate with the community and to express cultural values. Therefore it was important for the visual lessons to be clearly delineated and easily read, making classical art the ideal tool for a regime intent on disciplining its subjects. The values of classical art from antiquity was the basis of academic education and training, featuring perfected human forms, presented ideal states of being as conveyed by noble deeds and exemplary morality.

It is one of the ironies in history that in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, the most prestigious art form in France, history painting, rested upon antique classical art. The confluence between the ruling powers, the academy and classicism was summed up with alliance with le grand goût, or art in the grand manner, or le grand art acted out in history paintings. Usually large and imposing, demanding to be looked at, history paintings had the task of presenting didactic lessons, whether moral or patriotic, to the audiences. The exemplary scenes of high-minded behavior were preferably set in ancient times. Painters could translate the heroic nudity of antique statues, which were seen as universal and timeless, removed from specific time and place and from actual reality translated into pigment and presented as an entire narrative in a single dramatic image. The grandiosity of history paintings reflected the power of the state and the elevated beings in the government that ruled over the larger public. Compared to the local qualities of domestic topics, classicism did not concern itself with individual feeling or emotions but expressed states of emotions that were universal, signaled to the viewer through codified gestures, all of which were understood by the audience of the day.

Academic art was the product of an art school where training was based in drawing from plaster casts and, later, nude models. The carefully delineated forms were carefully modeled for a restrained three-dimensional effect that was rather like a bas relief on paper. This academic art revolved around the mastery over the human form, which was considered to be the basis for the drawing all objects. Academic art was so grounded in the study of the human figure that the term “académies” refers to drawings and paintings of the live model, who posed in stereotypical postures considered “classical” and noble. Later these drawings would be replaced by photographs of modern nude men and women in “classical” poses, looking more then faintly ridiculous. The principle of teaching was to proceed from the part–the various figures–to the whole–the sparsely scenic backdrop. The figures (parts) would then be grouped into an ensemble stretched across the canvas, gesticulating in frozen positions. This method of collecting model studies and their organization would lead to canvases crowded with actors striking a variety of glorious poses in a painted theater, rarely relating to one another.

Academies 1880

Towards the end of the dominance academic art in France, composition became an exercise in adding bodies striking standard studio poses to a grid foundation, as best seen in Thomas Couture’s Romans of the Decadence (1850). The highest form of art resulted from the study of the human forms displayed in large-scale history painting, depicting noble and uplifting morality plays from the past. However, the ambitious artist who mastered the requirements was rewarded for following the instructions of the Academy. The Prix de Rome could be won when a student (males only) showed his ability to conceive of a composition on a subject from the Bible or ancient mythology or classical literature or national history as dictated by members of the Academy. This proscribed topic, designed to reinforce the state, gave the student a chance to use academic poses and to render historical costumes, draperies and folds of cloth, and a variety of colorful accessories, showing the mastery of human anatomy and use of carefully drawn detail–all designed to display the virtuosity of the artist. The students learned of ideal forms that appealed to the mind and the intellect rather than to the emotions and the senses, an ideal that conveyed a universal truthfulness and a timeless authenticity.

Romans of the Decadence in the Musée d’Orsay

Color was applied in strong but somber tones and was used to reinforce the linear zones and the overall design. This conservative handling of color was accompanied by fini, the smoothly finished pictorial surface (facture) that required great skill. The careful drawing, smooth surface of classicism in the Academy stood for an intellectual structure, a system of order, imposed upon nature in order to rule and control it. Traditionally color was always secondary to form and composition and color was used in the service of the narrative rather than for its own’s sake. But as the nineteenth century progressed, color moved into a more primary role, not just in painting itself but also in the intellectual quarrel over subject matter and the place of emotions in art. At the hands of some artists, color was linked to the increasing importance of contemporary content, a new kind of history painting. Presenting current events, rather than safely distant events, was a political event, capable of challenging the perceived power of the status quo. For decades the Academy would be embroiled in a quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns.

Institut de France/Académie française et pont des Arts, Paris

Indeed, by the second decade of the nineteenth century, the Academy and its official style was challenged by a new generation of restless artists. The threat to classicism came from many directions. First, there was the breakdown of the standards of hierarchies of subjects due to the new audiences and patrons, who rather liked landscape painting and enjoyed genre scenes. Second, the works of artists who insisted on disregarding the rules of classical art-making by reveling in brilliant color and dynamic spectacular compositions. In an outbreak of the old Poussin vs. Rubens debate, the young Romantic artists, such as Eugène Delacroix, preferred color over line and were interested in natural and transient light and preferred exotic and decidedly un-classical subjects. It should be noted that while Neoclassicism was obviously an art of sculpture, Romanticism is essentially an art of painting, and, before 1863, painting was not taught at the Academy.

Uninterested in classical composition, painters such as Édouard Manet, also paid little attention to the carefully worked out method of half-tones, demi-teints and to the prized finish of academic art. Manet, in his own time, was accused of painting and drawing carelessly and the odd flatness of his figures aroused the ire of critics. Although Manet was academically trained, by mid-century, artists trained outside of the Academy, like Gustave Courbet, could become successful and prominent. In the clash between the Romantics and the Classicists, Courbet’s bourgeois realism and naturalism was a compromise between the polarities of line and color. Perhaps it is no coincidence that vanguard art developed in sub-genres neglected by the Academy. Here in pure landscapes, still lives and genre scenes, Realism and Impressionism could experiment in a territory that was virtually unoccupied by academic artists. While the Academy stubbornly upheld unyielding theoretical positions and meaningless antique art in modern times, the official painters, by incorporating watered-down innovations in painting, were able to bring about a quiet revolution in pictorial techniques and content, updating history painting long after the classical transition had faded into oblivion.

If you have found this material useful,

please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you. [email protected]

Podcast Episode 10: The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part One

THE EARLY ROMANTICS: GROS AND GIRODET

Part One

Although the French Revolution caused an upheaval in French art, there was an attempt to use Neo-Classicism to return to the pure and historical origins of art. However, compelling contemporary events and a new regime interested in using art as propaganda worked against the dominance of Neo-Classicism in the Academy. Even before the term was applied, “Romantic” art began to appear, the earliest of the French Romantic artists were the Napoléonic painters, Gros and Girodet. Both students of David, the young artists uneasily made the transition from the Neo-Classicism of their master to the demands of the new century.

The early Romantic artists in France were mostly court painters to the new emperor Napoléon and it is one of the ironies that these supposedly “romantic” artists were, in fact, servants to imperialism and empire. Individuality was a matter of style, rather than true freedom of expression. In their early works, Gros and Girodet represented the poles of Romanticism: contemporary subjects and escapist subjects. In their choice of content, these artists who inherited the mantel of Neoclassicism rebelled against their “father,” Jacques-Louis David. In the next podcast, “Part Two” will examine the artists’ later works and discuss the roots of “Realism” found in Romantic art.

Also listen to: “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part One” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part One” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part Two”

Also read: “French Romanticism: The Historical Context” and “The French Academy: Painting” and “French Romanticism: Subject Matter and the Artist” and “French Romanticism and the Avant-Garde”

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone

Remember to download the iBooks app to your iPad or iPhone

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

The French Academy: Sculpture

SCULPTURE FOR THE PUBLIC

Training and Execution of Sculptors

The most prestigious place to study, work, live and exhibit art was Paris, whether one was French or not. Nowhere was the system of education and training more rigorous. For the artists outside of Paris, there were numerous provincial art schools, écoles de dessin and académies des beaux-arts. By 1830, training for sculptors was similar to the training for painters in the rigorous control of style and content. The stress was on conformity and upon learning a certain set of technical skills that enabled the sculptor to produced the desired works in the official style. Drawing was the foundation of an artistic education learned at the Academy, and the artists would be trained later in painting or sculpture in ateliers or in studio courses taught by famous artists. Provincial sculptors could also study from drawing courses printed in Paris. Predating the later use of photography and textbooks, these unbound lithographed sheets of stipulated objects were copied by artists outside of the Academy. Called modèles estampes, these prints were for aspiring students, who could also work from plaster casts of existing sculptures, also available outside the Academy. The entire process of education was based upon the belief that copying a particular style, Classicism, was the appropriate way to learn one’s trade.

At the Petit école, a “school” that we today might be termed “trade” or “vocational,” students took courses in human anatomy, modeling and drawing. Reflecting the careful attention to the arts at all levels, courses in architectural history or in ornament trained students to supply the carved decorative motifs necessary for the building trade, which embellished architecture. In contrast, students, who wanted to focus on fine art sculpting went on to the École des Beaux-Arts where they were first granted the right of “inscription,” that is, the right to follow the courses to the right of “admission,” which gave the student the opportunity to participate actively in actual making. Once admitted, further proof of training was demanded in which students had to demonstrate their skills in competitions for admission in one of the two annual concours des places. These competitions for available slots in the Academy consisted of six three-hour sessions of drawing and modeling the figure from nature. These concours des places would be the equivalent of being admitted to an art school with a portfolio.

The schedule of the sculptor’s training followed that of the painter–from drawing outlines to drawing volumes before advancing to the drawing live models. Because these models were nude, women were excluded from the academies in order to protect their virtue. In France, women as sculptors were few and far between. During the first two years, students copied casts of antique marbles and began to work from life only by the third year. In the fourth year, the student was expected to complete a full-scale marble statue of a human figure. Once again, the sculptor would follow the same procedure as a painter, from drawing to sketch to study to finished product. First, the student would produce a drawing of the proposed work. Second, he would make a small model in clay or wax, a bozetto or maquette, which would be spontaneous and sketchy, rather like a rough draft. Next, a full-scale clay model would be made and then destroyed in the process of making a plaster cast of it. With the aid of the pointing machine, the original plaster would be copied in marble by professional carvers, or practiciens, or the plaster cast could be cast in bronze at the foundry. Thus there are no “originals” in sculpture, unless the clay model or the maquette is preserved. By 1851, this system of education and production was universal in sculpture.

A class at the Academy

Competitions among students never ended. The études libres or free studies, which presented two weeks of free study of specific problems set out by the professor prepared the students for the most prestigious competition of all, the Prix de Rome. The problems or topics were complex in nature, allowing the students to demonstrate mastery of technique. The screening process for the candidates included the première essai, a sketch of a pre-selected subject which eliminated all but sixteen students. These fortunate students returned for the deuxième essai, in which they sculpted, either in relief or in the round, a figure from a living model. Full-scale sculptures from the original sketches had to be produced in two months time, from themes that were usually taken from ancient history or mythology. The sculptural subject matter demanded by the Academy reflected history painting. Like history painting, sculptural works were destined for the larger community and the ultimate destination would be a large scale public work. The Prix de Rome was based upon the assumption that the only the aesthetic criteria was antique sculpture. These competitions, no matter how small or large, reinforced the academic doctrine of classicism on one hand and the enormous prestige of the École and its prizes. Although when he was a competing student Jacques-Louis David threatened to starve himself, when he lost in the Prix de Rome competition, the decision of the conservative judges was accepted and not debated.

The French Academy in Rome. View along the Via del Corso of the Palazzo dellAccademia, established by Louis XIV

The French Revolution and the Napoléonic wars that followed disrupted this careful schedule of education, training, and competition. One of those whose career was interrupted by the political unrest was François Rude (1784-1855) who, being from Dijon, would have grown up in the shadow of Claus Sluter’s Well of Moses (1400). Thanks to an admiring local patron, Rude was sent to complete his education in Paris where he won the Prix de Rome in 1812 to execute a sculpture he himself destroyed in 1843. Unfortunately, due to the expense of the ongoing conflicts, his academic education ended with what was a largely honorary prize and he never went to the Eternal City. Disappointed and derailed, Rude returned to Dijon in 1814 to escape the increasing political unrest associated with the downfall of Napoléon, but he made the mistake of joining the local Bonapartists. When Napoléon finally accepted defeat, Rude, like David, fled to Brussels. In leaving France, Rude missed the transition from Neoclassical sculpture, a tradition that had not produced many French sculptors of note, with the possible exception of David d’Angers. But when he returned to France in 1827, Rude returned as a sculptor inspired by the new Romantic tendencies, and new career opportunities would open for him.

From 1750 to 1800, sculptors had to create models of proposed monumental sculptors on their own initiative in hopes that critical acclaim would attract buyers. Unlike the painters whose materials, paint and canvas, were relatively cheap, sculptors were bound to the tradition of expensive marble and bronze. Commissions were, more often than not, public which immediately meant that the sculptor had to submit to a civic committee and lacked the same kind of freedom a painter, working alone, would have. Local patrons tended to be either restrictive or the themes could be limiting to artistic creativity. The result was that sculpture, as a discipline, lagged behind painting in innovation of means and content, simply because the sculpture had to suit the public’s brief. That said, the Industrial Revolution actually reduced the price of metal and sculptors could produce small bronze sculptures that were not only within the price range of the average art buyer but could also fit into a domestic decor.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, sculptors had learned to create on a smaller scale and thus unlike the sculptors of the early decades of the century, sculptors at mid-century were less dependent upon public patrons and the commissions they requested. Sculptor and actor Sarah Bernhardt was able to successfully execute in both marble and bronze, usually on a small scale. The aim of bronze casting was to capture the texture of the clay model and allowed the sculptor to take on a newly independent role, directly addressing a new rich bourgeois buyer. Initially Neoclassical sculpture enjoyed a prestige that was higher than that of painting, which was more “private,” that is, placed in museums. Public sculpture, which was out in the open and seen by everyone, needed to be in the Neoclassical style was intended to educate and inspire the public to strive for nobility in society. However, as times changed, sculptural monuments had to respond to the needs of this newly democratic and middle class society that wanted to see its own history commemorated.

depart_volontaires-5e02d

One of the more successful, if not the most successful public commissions of the first half of the nineteenth century, was The Departure of the Volunteers 1792 (1833-6) by François Rude. Affectionately known as La Marseillaise, the gigantic and dramatic high relief sculpture was mounted on the Arc de Triomphe (1803-36). At forty two feet in height, this tightly grouped segment of the common people who rose up during the Revolution is dynamic and exciting–full blown Romanticism. Oddly, if one assumes a reading of the reliefs on the flanks of the Arc, the left flank, The Triumph of Napoléon by Jean-Pierre Cortot, depicts an event more recent than that of Rude. But despite the quibble about chronology, La Marseillaise outshines the rather staid and unexciting example of waning Neoclassicism. In his book, Art in an Age of Counterrevolution, 1815-1848, the late Albert Boime noted that the commission came from a post-Napoléonic Restoration government. Rude and the other sculptor, who did the reliefs for the other side of the Arc, Antoine Étex, were from working class families and were deliberately selected by Adolphe Thiers, who wanted to break the power of the Academy by selecting outsiders to realize his program of French history.

Despite the presence of other artists, the panel by Rude dominated and became a public favorite. Only he managed to rise above the out-of date adherence to Neoclassicism static poses by activating the common people in a state of patriotic fervor. Sweeping action figures make the relief seem to come alive, bringing back memories that in 1836 would have been still alive for many who gazed up at the carvings. Clearly Rude understood that the artist had to communicate with a diverse audience that demanded contemporary content and historical accuracy and a degree of realism that was incompatible with Neoclassicism. As Boime explained, the sculpture depicted a very specific event, the occasion when the National Convention called for an Army of Volunteers to march against the advancing Prussians and Austrians. To our modern eyes, the sculpture seems energetic, even frenzied, but Rude felt that he had compromised his vision for his benefactor and that the work was too “beautiful” to convey the true spirit of the times. Once the sculptor stepped into contemporary history, s/he had entered into the precincts of Romanticism and into lived and experienced history itself. Unfortunately Rude’s mobile life had left him outside the precincts of the Academy and he had to wait for the year of his death 1855 before the Institute would honor his achievements.

Also read: “The French Academy” and “The Artistic Revolution in France” and “The French Academy: Painting”

Also listen to: “The Academy and the Avant-Garde

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.
[email protected]

Podcast Episode 9: Romanticism in France

FRENCH ROMANTICISM

Romanticism in France was an artistic movement that was born of the excitement of Napoleonic art and its depictions of the glory and horrors of total war. But after the Emperor was deposed, the new generation of artists could find “liberty” only in the refuge of art-for-art’s-sake and freedom existed only in bohemia. It was in the quarters of unknown artists that the avant-garde was born, but the most successful Romantic artists in France were, in fact members of the establishment. Although Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres were often considered as Romantic opponents, they both were chroniclers of their times, depicting an image of an age caught between past glories and the future of industrialism.

Also listen to: “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part One” and “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part One,” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part One” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part Two”

Also read: “French Romanticism: The Historical Context” and “The French Academy: Painting” and “French Romanticism: Subject Matter and the Artist” and “French Romanticism and the Avant-Garde”

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone

Remember to download the iBooks app to your iPad or iPhone

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

 

The Artistic Revolution in France

REVOLUTION IN ART

By the eighteenth century being part of the beaux-arts rather than being involved in “crafts” was often a matter of class. Artists tended to come from the middle class and shared the aspirations of upward social mobility typical of the bourgeoisie. Eager to please and desiring to succeed, these artists were disciplined by way of the long-standing academic training and system of rewards and punishments. For nearly a century and a half, artistic production, the education of the artists and the quality of the arts was under the auspices of the state. Each artist and every object was evaluated and all artists were trained to respond to patronage and prizes. The academic system, as restrictive as it was, was, if one played by the rules, a stable and predictable means of earning a living. But two social events would impact artists and art, especially in France, and upend the promise of guarantees. The first event was the French Revolution, which forced artists to choose between King or country, aristocracy or citizens, and, which, during the Terror, eliminated the traditional patrons, the Church and the aristocrats. The second event was a long, ongoing process: the rise of the middle class as a group that would dominate the state economically and politically and thus would constitute a new buying public for art. In the decades before the French Revolution, the middle class had made itself known to the artists through the Salon exhibitions, a major cultural event in their time. Although impressed by prestigious history painting, this new class was interested in domestic themed art that reflected their ordinary lives suitable for middle class interiors. If they responded to large works of art or the grandes machines, this public wanted the narratives to be comprehensible and were puzzled by erudite classical themes the artists were rewarded for. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, artists looked, not just to the State for support but also to the patronage of private citizens. Such patronage depended upon the artist obtaining a place in the Salon, gaining notice and finding new collector who would have their own demands. One could dream of making a splash in the Salon, like Jaques Louis David did with The Oath of the Horatii, but the artist was increasingly beholden to the opinions of art critics.

The artist had to master numerous obstacles to achieve success and make a living from a competitive profession. Most young men began the serious study of art as teenagers and spent years achieving mastery, and the Academy would have been the equivalent of a contemporary high school, dedicated to the arts. The elite training was then, as it is today, the key to success. Any artist who wished to be fêted in the Salon had to go through a set of educational and professional motions, including being trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and perhaps winning the Prix de Rome and then, capping off these student years, with the longed-for recognition in the Salon by the established powers–the State, the Church, and the wealthy patrons. The French Revolution upended the state-based system of educating and rewarding artists, but only for a time. During the Revolution, artists either participated in propagandizing the aims and ideals of the revolutionary cause or risked being denounced and imprisoned by zealots. One of the most important painters for the French Royal family, Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), proved to be an agile and adroit political opportunist and quickly turned his (royalist) coat and put himself in the service of the Revolution. He even went to far as to sign warrants which led to the imprisonment of his colleagues while he designed and built huge works of public art, rather like the Rose Bowl floats of today, that advertized the Revolution and awed the spectators. At the end of the worst part of the Terror, David joined his imprisoned colleagues in the Luxembourg Palace. He was lucky not to have been beheaded–the fates of his sponsors.

David emerged from prison somewhat chastened but quickly attached himself to the next rising star, Napoleón Bonaparte, already a patron to Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1825), who had befriended the young general in Italy. David’s pupils, Jean-Antoine Gros and Anne-Louis Girodet Roussey de Trison, were able to ride out the Revolution in Italy, safely away from the changing fortunes of artists unwise enough to play politics. But to survive in this inverted world of newly minted leaders, the artist had to be wily to survive. The fin-de-siècle was an age of hero worship and Napoleón rewarded those who worshiped him. Once (relative) sanity returned to the streets and government stability replaced civil war and chaos, the new régime, the Directory, quickly restored the system of art education. The École des Beaux-Arts, the Rome Prize, and all of the academic rules and regulations that, if followed, would lead to Salon success, were all resurrected. But the demands upon the artist had changed. The old aristocratic patrons were gone and new powers awaited the artists. Now governed by a militaristic “man of the people,” the state under Napoleón embarked upon nearly two decades of propagandistic art, celebrating the new Emperor and his court and the glories of war and conquest. Neoclassicism, already an important style before 1789, had been employed as the style of the Revolution by David, who was, under Napoleón, the most important artist of the Empire. Responding to the needs of the new military heroes, Neoclassicism retained its carefully classical style—-clear outlines and cool colors and balanced composition–but was drafted into the service of battle paintings, dramatized and exciting narratives of military exploits, suitable to Napoleónic narratives of victory.

It is here, in these military panoramas, that the germs of Romanticism can be discerned. Early Neoclassicism did not favor diagonals and action and motion, but under the Emperor, excitement and drama ruled and a certain Baroqueness slid back into history painting. That said, the official style of the Empire–bombastic and extravagant–was given over to the same traditional role as had always been expected of artists–supporting the established powers. Although during these Napoleónic years, ideas of Romantic aesthetics from Germany were imported to France, art-for-art’s-sake and artistic freedom were still in the future. The artists had to please new masters, the Emperor, the Salon jury, and the bourgeoisie. Most of all, the artists had to conform to the Salon system itself, now refined and, without the possibility of private commissions from aristocrats, was more important and more competitive than ever. By the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, the bourgeoisie, was firmly in social, economic, and political power, and despite the comings and goings of various emperors and kings, would remain in power. This middle class was an art-loving class. They knew little about art but knew that they like to be entertained. Thousands came to art exhibitions, the Salons, which were the only avenue of economic opportunity for the French artist who needed to make a living. Scheduled for every year or every other year, depending on which régime was in power, the Salons were huge exhibitions drawing from artists around the world attracted to the prestige of France. Jostling with the French artists, seeking recognition, Americans and British painters and sculptors, not to mention Italians and Germans, pushed into the prestigious contest. Expecting to be delighted and amused, rather like we are pleased (or not) by contemporary film, the French public crowded into the exhibition spaces by the thousands, freely expressing their more or less uninformed opinions.

salon_du_louvre_1787

Salon of 1785

For the French artist, the annual Salon was the one chance to show and to become known. To be refused—rejected from the Salon–was to be a failure, a refusée, until the following year. Merely being accepted was not a guarantee of success. Paintings were hung floor to ceiling and, of course, each painter wanted his/her work to be hung at eye level and not “skied,” that is, hung high, or hung low. Prominent artists could demand that their works be hung where the public could see them easily but those less well known were at the mercy of the installers. The most successful painters were those who pleased both the public and the Academy juries. Sculpture in the Salons adhered to the Neoclassical style but what the audience saw were small-scale works or casts or maquettes for future public projects. Often the smaller works would be placed upon a crowded table and the sculptors suffered from the same kind of limitations to ideal viewing as the painters.

The Salon was a site of hierarchies. History painting reigned supreme, prized because the difficult and didactic compositions, crowded with ancient notables, mostly partially nude, displayed the artist’s erudition and education and artistic skills. Only an artist educated in the École would be capable of drawing and composing a group of figures. Only an artist educated in the École would be educated enough to understand the minutia of ancient history, literary and historical topics favored by the juries. Other artists, especially women, would be confined, due to lack of academic education to lower ranking genres, such as genre scenes and portraiture and still lives, none of which required knowledge of the nude. In these years before modern art galleries and adventurous collecting, the Salon was the only game in town and artists had little choice but to accept the rigorous rule of a conservative elite, disinclined to be open-minded to new artistic ideas. But such new ideas were already present to those who were alert to new styles and new cultural trends. The clash of realism and romanticism was present in the propaganda art of Gros, the blatant eroticism of Girodet stunned the prudish, and the offbeat choice of content by Théodore Géricault, who loved horses and frequented carnal houses disturbed the politically correct. The French Revolution may have ended in yet another oppressive regime under a new Emperor, but it had introduced the idea of individual rights and freedom. Neoclassicism, as a ruling style, essentially ended with the reign of Napoleón, and an artistic revolution that would be called Romanticism began to emerge. Denied political rights and freedom, artists began to resist the demands for the status quo and the edicts issued by the Salon juries and took a more independent path, seeking to attract the attention of the public. Born of political disillusionment, a new attitude began to take shape. The artist demanded the right to freedom of expression as an art maker, which, in these early years of Romanticism, played itself out mostly along the lines of style and the way in which materials were handled.

Both inside and outside the Academy, there was the pressing and urgent quarrel between the Poussinistes (the proponents of line in art and discipline in society) and the Rubenistes (the proponents of color in art and individual freedom in society). This quarrel was a (political) challenge to the dominance of Neoclassicism and the Salon system, which controlled artists. But the quarrel was more than stylistic; it was generational and cultural and political. The dominant art form–controlled and contained Ne0classicism–was connected to the dominant social system, which controlled and contained the populace. These artistic conflicts, no matter how they are labeled, seem to break down into philosophical positions, which seem to extend far beyond any disagreements as to style or subject matter. Neoclassicism vs. Romanticism is really a conflict about emotion vs. reason, which is really a conflict about which should be supreme in art, color (emotion) or line (reason)? The question of line versus color is really a political conflict about who should rule, the people (feelings) or the state (order) were social conflicts concerning democracy vs. the ruling caste. The conflict over individual freedom opposed to the state’s traditional control over the art makers is really a conflict between the lone, romantic genius artist inventing new forms as opposed to the powers of the Academy. During this era, the beaux-arts had a far more important and prominent place in society than today; and the State government of France kept careful control over artistic production, understanding all too well that an artist could speak directly to the people.

Also read: “The French Academy” and “The French Academy: Sculpture” and “The French Academy: Painting”

Also listen to: “The Academy and the Avant-Garde

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.
[email protected]

The French Academy

THE ACADEMY IN FRANCE

The seventeenth century was the century in which the modern idea of “nation” or of a modern “state” came into being, based upon the idea of absolute rule. The territory under the absolute despot might be disparate and disjointed, but there was now a core from which tyrannical governing would be done with the intent of keeping the boundaries intact and under total control. Only in England did a constitutional monarchy exist, a king with clipped wings in an otherwise united British Isles or Great Britain. The British had no trouble putting down rebellions within its sphere of interest, smiting Scotland and Ireland on a recurring basis until the threats subsided into sullen passive resistance mixed with outbreaks of guerrilla warfare. While other nations were establishing the quintessential rule under one individual, the British contented themselves with consolidating an empire. Elsewhere in Europe, for the next two centuries, the modern nation was constructed under the dominance of one individual, a King–the many Louis, as in France, or a Empress, Catherine, as in Russia. Perhaps the most magnificent and the most cunning and canny of all of the so-called “benevolent despots” was Louis XIV of France, the Sun King. It was he who put paid, once and for all, any lingering power of the Medieval lords. It was he who understood that a “nation” was more than territory or borders and that a country was a state of mind, gathered together under the will of one person who would create and construct the “image” that reflected the personality of its leader. Louis XIV, on his better days, was a typical “benevolent despot,” on his bad days, and there were many of those, a frightening ruler who maintained totalitarian control over even his most insignificant subjects.

Louis XIV chivvied the hereditary nobility out of their ancient strongholds and corralled them into Versailles where the King co-oped them with artificial “honors” which included serving him in the most humiliatingly trivial and personal ways at his Levée and Couchée. From the moment the King was awakened, the Levée to the moment of his Couchée, his retirement for the night, each movement of his day was carefully choreographed and witnessed only by the privileged few. The more private the activity, the more honored the entourage. Once great lords and powerful nobles vied for the odd benefit of watching the King wash his face or hold a towel as Louis relieved himself on his throne-like toilet. Just as Louis XIV surrounded himself with an array of servile courtiers, just as he created himself as the Sun King, the rays of his control stretched widely, encompassing the arts, the main platform for advertising the King, and he controlled visual and verbal communication with a strict censorship. The practice of controlling what could and could not be published or publicly distributed was called “peer review.” Through this mechanism of control of what could be uttered, the French government became the main propaganda arm for a nation determined to dominate the rest of Europe militarily, politically and artistically.

The centerpiece of the lair of the Sun King was, of course, Versailles, the palace in the suburbs of Paris. The headquarters of the King, Versailles was the orb from which the tentacle like rays emanated. Everything in Versailles was a work of art–not just the palace itself–but also the rituals inside its elegant walls. By ten in the evening Grand Public Supper or Grand Couvert an affair of twenty to thirty dishes was attended by the royal family and certain nobles, accompanied by elaborate performances to entertain during the hour and a half daily event. These ceremonies were not trivial nor were they were for pleasure: they were an integral part of the shaping of a monarchy. A French pastry served beautifully on a French dish was as important as the King’s robes or as the grounds of the château–every detail contributed to the aura of control and to the command of spectacle. The artist became an important partner in the enterprise of Making the Monarch. As Peter Burke recounted in The Fabrication of Louis XIV (1994), the man in charge of artistic quality and artistic execution was Louis XIV’s minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert. Working with a report from Jean Chapelain, Colbert devised a plan in 1662 “for preserving the splendor of the king’s enterprises.” As Burke noted

..it is extremely interesting to have this documentary evidence of a grand design so early in the history of Louis’ personal rule and in the career of Colbert as a royal counsellor. The plan was put into practice in the next decade, when we can observe the ‘organization of culture’ in the sense of the construction of a system of official organizations with mobilized artists, writers and scholars in the service of the King.

Over the next few years, numerous “académies” of “Danse,” “Peinture et de Sculpture,” “Sciences,” “Architecture,” “Musique,” and so on were set up by the State in order to ensure high quality. Even tapestries and other forms of “crafts,” such as Gobelins, founded in 1663, were under Royal control. All of these academies were founded for he purpose of glorying the King and the State and the importance of the visual arts as propaganda is signified by the fact that Charles le Brun not only founded the Académie Royale de Peintue in 1648 but also directed Gobelins and was also was in charge of decorating the King’s palaces. The King of France was the main patron, not only for the French artists but also sough the services of artists from other nations, such as Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who did a famous bust of the Sun King in 1665. There was no concept of “artistic freedom” in this environment. All the artists and their productions were under government supervision and control. As Burke pointed out it was “the king’s image” not artists’ creativity that was the main concern of small committees who made sure, under “peer review” that all text and objects of any kind, large or small, fulfilled the stated purpose: the glorification of the Sun King.

As in all things, other nations were mindful of the ways in which Louis XIV seized control of the arts in France and noted that the centralized command stretched to all crevices of the territory. Modern academies and modern totalitarian sovereignty over cultural production spread across the continent. The original model for artistic education and supervision, the French Academy, was established in 1648 for the purpose not just of controlling art in terms of its content but also in terms of its quality. For those in the hinterlands, the Academy obligingly extended a network of provincial schools in Rouen, Marseilles, Dijon, and Tours. The careful encouragement of excellence in the arts was intended to establish a hegemony in the arts and crafts as part of a program to extend the power of France in the arts to equal its political dominance. By the time the French Revolution toppled this “Royal” Academy, replacing it in 1795 with the Institut, France had become the international center for the arts, a position the country would maintain well into the twentieth century. The “Royal” aspect of the Academy died on the scaffold of the guillotine along with many of its members. The revolutionaries declared elite arts and letters to be of no use to the new nation but by 1795, the value of arts was reiterated, and in August in the Third Year of the Brumarie, Year IV, “a National Institute, charged with the collection of discoveries, with the improvement of the arts and sciences” was established. An up and coming young military hero named Napoléon Bonaparte was made a member of the Institute where, no doubt, he learned of the importance of the arts in supporting a regime.

Meanwhile, other major cities followed the lead of the French. In London, the Royal Academy was established in 1768. By 1790, over one hundred academies of art or public schools of art were flourishing: Vienna (remodeled) 1770, Dresden 1762, Berlin 1786, Copenhagen 1754, Stockholm 1768, St. Petersburg 1757, Madrid 1752, Dusseldorf 1767, Frankfort 1779, Munich 1770, Genoa 1752, Naples 1756, Mexico 1785 and Philadelphia 1791/1805. The increased importance of academic training in the arts coincided with these cultural centers taking part in the development of each modern nation state, and the ambitious governments’ growing awareness of the usefulness of art in an international contest for prestige.

1698frontis

Sébastien Leclerc’s 1698 engraving L’Académie des sciences et des beaux-arts.

By the end of the Eighteenth century, the Neoclassical style was the official style of “Academic art,” regardless of country. This “official” style of the academy was based upon the foundations of classical art and art theory, as expressed by Johann Joachim Winckelmann in Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works of Painting and Sculpture (1755). According to Winckelmann, contemporary art should not copy Greek art but to should imitate the Greeks in their “noble grandeur and calm simplicity,” by attempting to think about art as they did. This new frame of mind or mental state was hostile to that of the Rococo and put Antiquity forward as the only model to be followed. “It is easier to discover the beauty of Greek statues than the beauty of nature,” Winckelmann stated, “imitating them will teach us how to become wise without loss of time.” The selection, if one could call it that, of classicism as an official style of so many nations was not just an accident or a coincidence. The association with ancient history gave classicism and by proxy the new French government a veneer of prestige and a sense of origin and an aura of power. So for the Americans, an evocation of order and harmony through architecture was well suited to a fledgling nation. Incidentally it was Thomas Jefferson who imported classical architecture, which he had studied in France, to America, providing gravitas for the new nation. For the French, a reiteration of origins and of roots in the antique lent the roughly born regime an air of legitimacy.

Winckelmann’s well-meaning volume of art history led to a formulaic copying by artists of classical models. The academic learned response to the designated “ideal” beauty became a dictum to be followed as much for political as well as artistic purposes. Requiring artists to reproduce ancient art was a way of keeping the aspirations under control and by rewarding them based on the accuracy of their imitations guaranteed that the needs of the State would be well served. Copying a pre-given object/objective led to the academic stress on drawing (disegno) because the pure outline was more faithful to the image. Unlike fleeting, conditional and changeable color, drawing sought the essential and distilled the form into purity, a purity, which would have a moral character. The moral character of art was definitively addressed by the German poet and philosopher, Friedrich Schiller, who stated that art, and only art, could lift the human being up from his/her natural state into a moral state. Art alone produces harmony between our sensual instincts and formality and between life and order. Still, there were problems with teaching art, for speaking prophetically, Schiller asked in 1783, “Do you expect enthusiasm where the spirit of the academies rule?” Schiller foresaw the coming struggle between what his compatriot Emmanuel Kant would posit as artistic freedom, a necessary component of the genius who “played” with forms to invent new art. But Kant’s ideas of freedom and play were an anathema to the Academy where the watchword was oversight and control over the artists and a unquestioning respect for tradition.

The struggle between the French artists and the French government would be occur much later and it was not until well after the French Revolution that the modern Academy was able to take its definitive shape. When he came into Imperial power, Napoléon reorganized the Institut in 1803 and increased its membership. The members were given exclusive rights and unprecedented power to admit and honor the works of art allowed to be shown in the Salons or public exhibitions of the visual arts. Napoléon’s gift of control to a handful of individuals was part of his plan to ensure total dominance of art now yoked to his propaganda machine. The Salon, now in its modern form, showed the works of all artists, deemed worth of admission, not just the members of the Academy. The Institut also awarded the Grand Prix de Rome to Beaux-Arts students (males only), a mode of guaranteeing good behavior, for only those who adhered to the rules were rewarded. When Napoléon fell from power in 1814, the Restoration government sought to reestablish the historical link between the old Royal Academy and the Institut, which also managed to control the École de Beaux-Arts, even though the two bodies were theoretically separate. For the rest of the century, the Academy sought to continue the basic foundational purpose of the Louis XIV–the state would be the main patron for the artists and could, therefore could keep art in check and guide artistic production for the purposes of the ruling class.

The strength of the connections between the Academy, the École, and the government varied with the ruler in power who could intervene or not in the affairs of the art world. Nevertheless, the Academy exercised a great deal of power over the world of French art, and by extension, over all other serious art worlds, for French art had established an hegemony in Europe in the seventeenth century and maintained its monopoly on the quality of the visual and literary arts. The forty members of the Academy held fourteen chairs in painting, eight in sculpture and in architecture, four in engraving and six in music and controlled the Beaux-Arts curriculum and the contents of the annual Salon exhibitions until the mid 1860s when the fortress that was the Academy began to crack.

Also read: “The Artistic Revolution in France” and “The French Academy: Sculpture” and “The French Academy: Painting”

Also listen to: “The Academy and the Avant-Garde

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.
[email protected]