The Definition of the Avant-Garde

FINDING THE AVANT-GARDE

Theory of the Avant-Garde

In his book, The Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984), Peter Bürger stressed the historical basis of the avant-garde. The rise of the avant-garde was directly linked to the rise of the middle class and its allegiance to capitalism and commodification. The main role of the avant-garde is the critique of the middle class by detaching it self from it. Bourgeois totalizing institutions, such as the institutions that are the “art world” must also be critiqued and defied. The kind of critique Bürger discussed was a Marxist style critique, which, because it was delivered from a detached perspective, was far more radical than conventional criticism. The Marxist approach was, of course Kantian in origin in its stance of disinterest, but Marxist in its focus on bourgeois practices. The founding generation of the avant-garde in France are undoubtedly unknown and only the successful artists, such as Gustave Flaubert, left a mark on history. Even those who were successful lived within their own times, more of less aware of their avant-garde endeavors but unable to speak to future generations. In the absence of direct testimony, writers of the avant-garde one hundred years later were theorists.

There seemed to be two levels of avant-garde reactions in the artistic communities in the nineteenth century, that of rebellion against the prevailing order, whether the establishment or the the public, or reaction against the sudden surge of modern capitalism which turned making art into merely another way of making a living. According to these theories, such as those of Bürger, the avant-garde artist took a separatist stance, neither part of the bourgeoisie from whence he came nor part of the establishment he so desperately longs to recognize him. Most theories do not stress the fact that we would not even have a concept of the avant-garde if certain artists had not “crossed over” into the realm of the establishment where they were finally “seen.” Most avant-garde artists were avant-garde because they were unknown, not because they wanted to be ignored and scorned. But according to the theories of the avant-garde, the radicality of the avant-garde position rests upon its freedom from having to “take sides” or obligation to maintain a position. For Bürger, the freedom to detach from an ideology is also the freedom to find an entirely unexpected stance, meaning that the artist is engaged in a critical analysis of society. The avant-garde critique of the capitalist mode of production and its impact upon cultural producers, artists, has many consequences.

First, the avant-garde artist is always alienated from the audience, outside the mainstream of traditional art and scornful of the middle class and its utilitarian preferences. The bourgeoisie saw little use for pure art in the service of the intellect or beauty or aesthetics, and understood only that art could be useful to reinforce their own social and political power, a lesson learned from the once powerful church and state. The middle class audience was unsympathetic with art, except as entertainment, and uninterested in avant-garde which lay outside what was familiar, traditional and recognizable. Thus, the artist, who felt constrained by bourgeois restrictions and by the low level of middle class taste, took on a defiant, rebellious stance, upholding the right of the artist to express him/herself artistically. Delighting in shocking the art public, the avant-garde artist was, according to romantic legend, confrontational, refusing to meet the expectations of the middle class audience. Instead of striving for acceptance, the avant-garde artist remains outside and alienated in order to critique middle class values, which placed money above love, status above mercy, work above play, and matter over mind.

Avant-garde art, in challenging middle class pragmatism also challenged middle class power. Often this art directly or indirectly exposed middle class hypocrisy. Gustave Courbet routinely catered to the bourgeois male’s desire for soft-core pornography and Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas depicted the thriving sex trade of mid nineteenth century Paris fueled by the insatiable urban male with some disposable income. Sunny and beautiful on the surface, many Impressionist paintings actually depicted well-known meeting places of scandalous encounters between prostitutes and their clients. Although today the meaning of these paintings may be lost on today’s viewers, the audience of the day was fully aware that the subjects of these artists were less than respectable. Starting with the proto-Romanticism of Jean-Antoine Gros and Théodore Géricault, the reality of current events were used to confront the public with the unpalatable truth, as shown by Gustave Courbet, or simply with ordinary every day life, as displayed by the Impressionists.

The activity of critique–critique of the system–places the avant-garde artist outside of conventional ways of thinking. But this artist is also in front of the crowd in finding new modes of expressing the unexpressed and the unrealized and thus is making the future of art. Or so we are told. The first separation between the art and that public within the art world can be seen during the Romantic period when certain artists began to represent current events. This shift to reality, as seen in the frozen corpses at the bottom of Napoléon on the Battlefield of Eylau (1807), was an important one. Previously, the Neoclassical approach was an allegorical one, making statements about the present by using past events or using ancient examples to teach lessons for the present. The split between the ancients and the moderns is not simply a stylistic one, from the linear to the painterly, but most significantly, from the past to the present. The avant-garde artists refused to look back to a past that was increasingly irrelevant and insisted upon recording the present. Eugène Delacroix’s painting Liberty Leading the People (1830) was perceived, not so much as a heroic rendering of a major event in recent French history, but as a political statement valorizing rebellious uprisings. Delacroix himself, like his avant-garde friends, George Sand and Frédéric François Chopin, was inherently conservative and terrified of the revolution he captured. Compared to Neoclassicism, which displaced politics to the past, Romanticism and Realism, were political in that these movements simply in presenting the present. By the middle of the Nineteenth Century, the avant-garde had become political and dangerous to the established powers.

In the twentieth century, avant-garde artists were totally separated from the mainstream art world. The art world in France and England had become splintered into factions: the very conservative, the conservative or official art, the conservative avant-garde, and the radical avant-garde. For example, the Salon des Indépendants was conservative compared to the Salon d’automne. Avant-garde artists were completely isolated from mainstream art audiences and these artists followed the lead of the Impressionists and relied more and more upon sympathetic art dealers and understanding collectors for survival. The audience for the avant-garde artists was very small, often consisting of art critics, who were crucial in writing the first accounts of indecipherable art, and each other, an audience of producers. Well into the twentieth century it was the mainstream conservative academic artists were the famous and the well-known and the successful among most of the public in France. Only in the twentieth century, after the Great War did the pre-war avant-garde become accepted and their art become admired.

Jules Alexandre Grun. Friday at the French Artists’ Salon (1911)

The so-called “difficult” art, from Impressionism to Cubism, was made by an artist, who was outside of official art and beyond public approval. Avant-garde art tended to engender yet another generation of art, even more difficult and even more isolated, in reaction to the previous movement. For example, Manet was part of the academic system and strove all his life to be celebrated in the Salons, but his follower Claude Monet opted to take an independent path and exhibit in private capitalist exhibitions outside of the Salon, while was his colleague, Paul Cézanne, lived the second part of his artistic life exiled in Aix but was studied by the Cubists, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Picasso and Braque were not typical of the avant-garde artists of the twentieth century. Working alone and unrecognized, they were supported by their dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and they did not exhibit in public salons. Living in dire poverty, these two artists, like other avant-garde artists, were totally dedicated to their vision and to their belief in their art, a condition made possible by the support of their dealer. Art historians depicted these artists as “heroes,” struggling to maintain personal and artistic integrity in the face of a life without honor and success, understood only by those educated few. That said, it is difficult to maintain the anti-capitalist stance of the theorists of the avant-garde, given the clearly capitalist underpinnings of the avant-garde and its aspirations–to get a dealer and to find patrons and to sell their art. As shall be seen, at the time, the heroes of Cubism were not Picasso and Braque but the Salon Cubists who bravely exposed their innovative work in public salons. The judgment that Braque and Picasso were “leaders” was historical and anachronistic, not in keeping with the actual conditions of the time.

The emergence of the avant-garde artists and the theory of “art-for-art’s sake” coincided with the early decades of the nineteenth century. If the avant-garde was a French notion then the idea of making “art-for-art’s sake” was German. Due to historical and economic forces, the avant-garde and philosophical theories of aesthetics were dependent upon one another: through the idea of “art-for-art’s sake,” artists, now estranged from the art audience, had a philosophical reason for separation. The avant-garde artist, usually of a young generation that had not yet made its mark, did not want to or could not continue to make already established art. The public did not approve of either the style or the content of avant-garde art, and in order to defend and explain this new art, the art critics who supported the avant-garde artists often put forward an appeal for a formalist reading. When Emile Zola demanded that Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) be understood in terms of its stylistic innovation, the writer was also insisting that the viewer look away from the often scandalous and socially critical subject matter of a high class prostitute and take note of the way in which the artist handled the formal elements. Looking at art from a formal and/or disinterested perspective required a new kind of “eye.” The purpose of avant-garde art was, by necessity an aesthetic one. But as Pierre Bourdieu explained in The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (1996),

Although it appears to itself like a gift of nature, the eye of the nineteenth-century art-lover is the product of history…the pure gaze capable of apprehending the work of art as it demands to be apprehended (in itself and for itself, as form and not as function) is inseparable from the appearance of producers motivated by a pure artistic intention, itself indissociable from the emergence of an autonomous artistic field capable of posing and imposing its own goals in the face of external demands and it is also inseparable from the corresponding appearance of a population of ‘amateurs’ or ‘connoisseurs’ capable of applying to the works thus produced the ‘pure’ gaze which they call for.

Although, as Bourdieu contends, the avant-garde was created as much by material forces as by aesthetic ideals, the avant-garde would have been impossible without the theory of “art-for-art’s sake.”

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Podcast Episode12: French Romanticism: Ingres, Part One

THE MODERNISM OF INGRES

Part One

Often assumed to be the bastion of conservatism in French art, Ingres was actually an astute observer of his own time and was, therefore, thoroughly modern. Like Gros and Girodet, Ingres had to find his own way past both his teacher, Jacques-Louis David and Neo-Classicism and into the new movement, Romanticism. Like many artists of his generation, Ingres had to navigate the transition from one style to another. Although he was trained stylistically as a Neoclassical artist, Ingres was part of the early Romanticism of late Neoclassicism. This first part of a two part podcast deals with the early career of an artist so original and so reviled he spend nearly two decades in Rome, only to return triumphantly to Paris as the champion of all things Academic.

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 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
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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.

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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”

 

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

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