Official Artists of the Great War, John Singer Sargent, Part Two

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)

The Unlikely War Artist, Part Two

Made towards the end of his career as an elite portrait painter to the elite families of America and Europe, the famous painting of a scene the artist actually witnessed, Gassed (1919) became one of John Singer Sargent’s most famous and often reproduced paintings. Sargent had a final and unexpected interlude as an artist during the Great War. Sargent made numerous studies for the painting which, in the end, was huge, measuring 7 and a half by 20 feet. Gassed was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1919 and was declared “The Painting of the Year,” and, despite its controversial reception has become one of the iconic works of the Great War. At the time its execution, the painting was intended to show the importance the sacrifice of a generation, cut down in its flower, as it were.

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John Singer Sargent. Gassed (1919)

All the young men in Sargent’s painting were ideal icons of the English soldier, all bearing their wounds and pains with the forbearance of true aristocrats. It would be inevitable that Sargent, a portraitist of the famous and wealthy, would find a lingering classical beauty and order in a scene that, in real life, would have surely been one of fear and terror and uncertainty. The procession of beautiful young men proceeds melodiously across the vast canvas, attesting to the stoicism taught to them, probably, given the artist’s milieu, to their training in public school. Year later, one of the heroes of Operation Market Garden, Sir Brian Urquhart, described his schooling and its tradition of service:

“..almost across the whole British public school system, because the system, as such, was designed to staff a very large empire run by a small, off-shore island. I mean the idea was that unless you were some sort of kind of a genius, like a musician or a painter or a poet or something, you should concentrate on the idea of serving. And it wasn’t a priggish idea – it seems to be not a bad idea really – and I think we were very much brought up to think that unless we displayed some fantastic genius for something, we would be lucky to be in public service, or indeed earlier on, to go into the church – the Church after all is a state religion in England, unbelievably – or to go into the army, to come to that. These were the main sources of public service. I wanted to be a civilian. And, you know, I think it wasn’t a bad idea – although bad luck on all those people we were going to rule over in the colonies – so you trained a whole group of people who would do that, and, incidentally, who would go to some distant part of the world and stay there their whole working life.”

Sargent, who was familiar with the nineteenth century tradition of heroic military painting, found this modern war dishearteningly free of glory and it is notable that the artist painted a composition consisting of one color–the dun, mud color of the contemporary uniforms, designed to blend in with the bleak surrounding of the Western Front. For a public anxious to find nobility in a war of attrition and the long siege of the trenches, Gassed would have been deeply satisfying: beautiful and brave, classical without critique, a gesture towards the nobility of service and sacrifice. Winston Churchill whose dubious accomplishments up to that point included the slaughter at Gallipoli, noted the Sargent’s “brilliant genius and painful significance,” but he was throughly in favor of continuing the use of gas in future wars. As Marion Girard pointed out in her 2008 book, A Strange and Formidable Weapon: British Responses to World War I Poison Gas, “Churchill captured the sentiments of many of those who were enthusiastic about, not just tolerant, gas. He saw it as a useful weapon as well as a unique one whose reputation was unnecessary negative..he said it was ‘too silly’ not to use the weapon and that a any objections were ‘unreasonable.'” And yet the painting shows the full impact of one of the inescapable attacks of a remorseless vapor. The line of walking men pick they way between two rows of soldiers lying twisting in agony on the ground and, to the right, another line of marchers grope towards the same goal, the hospital tent. Although the effects of a gas attack could take twelve hours to materialize, the chances of survival were slim and, if one could recover, the effects of the gas were permanent.

Chemical-Weapons

The intent of the painting, when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy, was clear to the contemporary viewers: its obvious references to classical art and its bid to be a modern history painting. The blinded soldiers, guiding and supporting one another, were also symbolic of the comradeship of the War, eliding the true and grotesque effects of the gas. In contrast to the true debilitating effect of gas, the young men retain their brave nobility. According the 1917 account of Arthur Hurst in Medical Diseases of the War:

The first effect of inhalation of chlorine is a burning pain in the throat and eyes, accompanied by a sensation of suffocation; pain, which may be severe, is felt in the chest, especially behind the sternum. Respiration becomes painful, rapid, and difficult ; coughing occurs, and the irritation of the eyes results in profuse lachrymation. Retching is common and may be followed by vomiting, which gives temporary relief. The lips and mouth are parched and the tongue is covered with a thick dry fur. Severe headache rapidly follows with a feeling of great weakness in the legs; if the patient gives way to this and lies down, he is likely to inhale still more chlorine, as the heavy gas is most concentrated near the ground. In severe poisoning unconsciousness follows; nothing more is known about the cases which prove fatal on the field within the first few hours of the “gassing,” except that the face assumes a pale greenish yellow colour. When a man lives long enough to be admitted into a clearing station, he is conscious, but restless; his face is violet red, and his ears and finger nails blue ; his expression strained and anxious as he gasps for breath; he tries to get relief by sitting up with his head thrown back, or he lies in an exhausted condition, sometimes on his side with his head over the edge of the stretcher in order to help the escape of fluid from the lungs. His skin is cold and his temperature subnormal; the pulse is full and rarely over 100. Respiration is jerky, shallow and rapid, the rate being often over 40 and sometimes even 80 a minute ; all the auxiliary muscles come into play, the chest being over-distended at the height of inspiration and, as in asthma, only slightly less distended in extreme expiration. Frequent and painful coughing occurs and some frothy sputum is brought up. The lungs are less resonant than normal, but not actually dull, and fine riles with occasional rhonchi and harsh but not bronchial breathing are heard, especially over the back and sides.

In the 2012 book, Painted Men in Britain, 1868-1918: Royal Academicians and Masculinities, Jongwoo Jeremy Kim described the way in which the sixty-two year old artist prepared himself to approach the Great War. “During the Great War, Sargent ‘refused to read’ any war poems except for Julian Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle.’ Sargent explained, “The verses are very fine and moving–there is something unusual in the sensation conveyed of all his perceptions and all his sympathies being keyed up to a high pitch by something enormous that is behind the scenes.'” This poem, published on the occasion of Grenfell’s death in 1915 at Ypres was far from heroic; it was a poem written by a soldier who obviously felt that he was doomed:

And when the burning moment breaks,
And all things else are out of mind,
And only joy of battle takes
Him by the throat and makes him blind,
Through joy and blindness he shall know,
Not caring much to know, that still
Nor lead nor steel shall reach him, so
That it be not the Destined Will.

According to Kim,

“..categorically contradicting the gruesome medical facts of the chemical destruction Sargent’s painted youths would have experienced, the warm light in gold and the delicate air in the subtle pastels in Gassed invoke calm euphoria as thought to mock the jingoist slogan Dulce et decorum eat pro patria more (It is sweet and decorous to die for one’s country) and to reveal its utter absurdity. The perfumed atmosphere of easy contentment in Gassed is almost more jarring that the panic Wilfred Owen’s ironically titled poem indicates. The chromatic aberration in Gassed constructs an anguished irony,coloring the juxtaposition of the ideal of heroic death and its reality..”

Kim continued in his critique of Gassed by comparing it to Sargent’s murals in the Boston Public Library, a project which had absorbed the artist for thirty years. He finished the murals in 1919, but the painting of the gassed victims was unsettlingly akin to the tangle of male bodies in his 1916 lunette panel Hell in the Library.

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The author noted, “..Gassed adorns gruesome mass death, achieving the romantic chromatic allure in roes, lilac, and daffodil..in Gassed, the bodies of the young men wrapped in the romance of floral pastel shades betray fascination and desire. Every man in the panel is young, fit, and handsome in his uniform. Transformed into a grand spectacle, Tommies, like so many dandies, make endless layers of a sweet mille-feuille for the eye, lying down together feeling their fellows’ bodies against their own.” Kim notes the apparent class of the victims imagined by Sargent, remarking on their resemblance to earlier society painting which portrayed

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Sargent painted a number of studies of British “Tommies” at rest

“..supine affluent young people..the same gestures and postures, representing languorous pleasure in repose and luxury, are applied to groups of choking and vomiting men who are blinded, burned, blistered, and castrated by a chemical weapon. They lie on the ground no two enjoy the sun or the breeze. These men are recumbent because they are poisoned and because their death is intoxicating and nonbonding Neatly dressed, combed, and freshly youthful, the sensuality of Sargent’s Tommies is thus deeply discordant. Their collective horizontal incapacitation becomes a repose following an unimaginable orgy of destruction.”

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These studies may have served as partial inspiration for Gassed

While the general public and the mainstream art audience were pleased by the restraint shown by Sargent, who congenitally could not, would not reveal the truth of chemical warfare to his audience, the avant-garde art world viewed the painting with scorn. Indeed the very popularity and immediate acceptance of the painting almost guaranteed the reaction of those who felt that representing the Great War should go beyond a social commentary on the beautiful deaths of the upper class men who expired so gracefully.

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The Bloomsbury Group was merciless in its attacks on Gassed. E. M. Forster, the great English observer of upper class behavior and sexual repression, immediately decoded the message: “You were of godlike beauty–for the upper classes only allow the lower classes to appear in art on condition that they wash themselves and have classical features. These conditions you fulfilled. A line of golden-haired Apollos moved along a duckboard from left to right with bandages over their eyes..” Allen McLaurin in his book Virginia Woolf: The Echoes Enslaved added that Forster thought Gassed to be “unreal picture of war and is therefore immoral.” In his 2007 book on Forster, Achievement of E. M. Forster, John Beer noted that the author “pours bitter scorn on an Academy picture of the trenches which he finds hanging amid conventional paintings of ‘important people.'”

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In other words, the painting was out of context, shown with society portraits, and was not in the destination for which it was intended, the never-built Hall of Remembrance. Today Gassed is in the Imperial War Museum, where it lives comfortably with other official painting of the War, including Paul Nash’s The Menin Road and Stanley Spencer’s Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916. But its initial showing at the Royal Academy in 1919 betrayed Sargent, revealing the origins of the painting. Forster immediately pounced, writing, “It was all a great war picture should be, and it was modern because it managed to tell a new short of lie. Many ladies and gentlemen fear that Romance is passing out of war with its sabres and the chargers. Sargent’s masterpiece reassures them. He shows that it is possible to suffer with a quiet grace under new conditions..” Foster imagines the adjacent paintings of social queens saying, “‘How touching,’ instead of ‘How obscene.'”

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Virginia Woolf joined Forster in her condemnation of the painting. As usual, Woolf is indirect and elliptical in her complaint: “A large picture by Mr Sargent called Gassed at last pricked some nerve of protest, of perhaps of humanity. In order to emphasize his point that the soldiers wearing bandages around their eyes cannot see, and therefore claim our compassion, he makes one of them raise his leg to the level of his elbow in order to mount a step an inch or two above the ground. This little piece of over emphasis of the surgeon’s knife which is said to hurt more than the whole operation.” But, as McLaurin pointed out in 1973, the art critics did not always have the final word. If the question is not art but realism, then a letter from a field ambulance driver in The Athenaeum answered Woolf’s criticism by saying, “I saw Mr Sargent collecting his details. I have seen the picture in question, also, and it is the man at the end of the file that Mr Sargent has portrayed in this action. It is ‘over-emphasis,’ but on the part of the man–not that of the artist. Whether it be good art to depict this peculiarity I am not competent to say, but it is a depiction of the truth.”

Six_Studies_for_Gassed

For one hundred years, this painting has been argued about, a fate that probably would have astonished the artist who was fulfilling a commission, which was his life long career. Gassed irks and irritates as it draws admiration because it sums up the myths and legends of the Great War. Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth mourns the loss of innocence and the scything down of her generation of beautiful young men. The poets and the poetry, the art and the artists, all come from the upper classes, an eloquent generation that rages against its fruitless gift of its greatest possessions, their lives. If Gassed carried any truth of message is the often told tale of how the finest flowers of the public schools dedicated themselves to service and selflessly gave their fates and futures over to a greedy and grateful nation. On one hand it romanticized a very unromantic War, but on the other hand, it remained England that an entire generation had been irrevocably lost, a lost that led a nation into years of “appeasement” to a mad man, a stance preferable to revisiting Gassed.

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Visual Vocabulary of War: Nineteenth Century Military Paintings, Part One

War and Glory

Lady Elizabeth Butler

Since the dawn of time, war has been one of the favorite topics for artists. From the Egyptians to the Assyrians, war has been depicted as glorious and victorious, with the rulers smiting enemies and slaying any army foolish enough to resist. Although from time to time, certain artists, such as Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835), allowed a glimpse of realism to intrude around the edges, but, by the nineteenth century, the overall picture of war was one of glorious entertainment. The audiences for military paintings had grown to the point that there was a separate genre for paintings of battles and campaigns, all brightly painted with shiny weapons and colorful uniforms, full of dramatic action. The growing taste for paintings of war corresponded with the rise of empires in the nineteenth century and fed the identity of nations, so necessary to international politics of the period. Specific countries, such as Germany and Italy that had never existed as untied entities until the end of the nineteenth century, emerged to challenge the older orders of England and France and Russia and Belgium. Supposedly unique characteristics of a people became politically significant and militarily important and these traits, supposedly “Germanic” or “English” were thought of in terms of “race,” or allegedly intrinsic or inherited cultural elements handed down for centuries. Military paintings portrayed these racial characteristics and celebrated victories and battles that expressed nationalism and pride in one’s country. As such paintings of war reiterated the diplomatic struggles for empire and dominance playing out internationally during the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps because military paintings were linked so closely to a nation’s heritage and history, they tended to be conservative and traditional, untouched by the avant-garde controversies of the fin-de-siécle.

In art history military painting in the late nineteenth century has been passed over in favor of studying vanguard art, but in its quaint backwardness, these works of art presented a very real challenge to the artists of the early twentieth century. And even more importantly, the paintings with all their fictional heroism reflected a mindset that was very real and this idée fixe was likely to play out on the field, during actual combat. The visual idea of war, established with such striking drama during the Napoléonic period, became part of a belief system that the best way to fight a war, indeed the only way to fight a war, was with the tactics used by Napoléon and Wellington on the fields of Waterloo, where the (well-dressed) winners and losers confronted one another across an empty field, brightly colored line marching towards vividly hued line. The tangled nineteenth century ideal of victorious warfare and its visual celebrations met up with the twentieth century in August of 1914. Suddenly old ideas of what war should be collided with the reality of what war had actually become and artists faced the problem of how to express a war bereft of glory and defined by death. In order to understand the problem of creating a new visual language for a new war, it is necessary to examine the old language–the existing vocabulary as practiced by the leading artists of their time–in order to recognize the formidable challenges modern warfare presented to modern artists.

However, late nineteenth century military artists had their own problems: since the Napoléonic wars early in the century, there were very few glorious battles to illustrate. For the French, the defeat of Napoléon at Waterloo in 1815 was the end of gloire and the beginning of years of inglorious ambiguous campaigns. For the English, the end of Napoléon was indeed glorious but, like the French, the subsequent wars were unpopular and unsuccessful. In both England and France, the artists looked back nostalgically to the age of clear cut winners and losers and a field where honor supposedly reigned and upon which death could be a meaningful sacrifice. However, the wars of their own time, presented very real problems. Thanks to modern modes of communication and reportage from the actual battlefields, the public was no longer dependent upon official military and governmental dispatches and was aware of the true cost of war. This information, readily available in any newspaper, had to acknowledged and taken into account, even in defeat, but the honor of the nation an its fighting men had to also be honored. Serving in the military was an excellent job for the lower class male, being fed and clothed by the government, employed and then pensioned after serving for twenty one years. For the upper and middle classes, the army or navy was an excellent place for younger sons who would inherit little or nothing from the family estate or for young men disinclined towards other middle class vocations. In the British class system, men of these ranks were automatically trained as officers, regardless of their competence, a practice that would prove disastrous during the Great War. The splendid uniforms worn by these officers were recruiting tools in an of themselves, and was brilliantly illustrated by the wonderful portrait of a very elegant British officer, Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby (1842-1885), painted with loving care by the Anglo-French James Tissot (1836-1902) in his “at ease” uniform. A private painting owned by Burnaby’s privileged family, this portrait, which was not publicly exhibited until the 1930s, exudes the confident imperialism of its time and the sense of British superiority that fueled the Empire.

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Portrait of Burnaby in his Uniform as a Captain in the Royal Horse Guards (1870)

Interestingly, the portrait, painted just before the most disastrous war France ever fought, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, is of a legendary adventurer and imperialist whose military career was unfortunately situated after wars worthy of his uniform. He spent a great deal of his career, traveling on adventures of his own, as he chased wars and glory all over the globe, authoring books on his journeys, The Ride to Khiva (1876) and On Horseback through Asia Minor (1877). He alleviated the boredom of his retirement by initiating the first crossing of the English Channel in a hot air balloon. Burnaby followed up his daring ride by attaching himself as a private citizen with experience to British imperialist venues in Africa, where he died in Khartoum from a spear thrust. Burnaby’s career was indicative of kinds of military actions in the British Empire, skirmishes in distant parts of the world, where the “natives” did not fight European style and where glory in the service to what was essentially a financial enterprise was hard to find. The very real difficulties of finding suitable military topics make the successful career of one of the most celebrated military artist, Lady Elizabeth Butler (1846-1933), is an interesting case in point.

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Elizabeth Thompson, later Lady Butler. Roll Call (Calling the Roll) (1874)

Butler first achieved fame and recognition under her “maiden name,” Elizabeth Thompson for her thoughtful painting of the Crimean War, Roll Call (Calling the Roll). Twenty years after this unpopular war exposed massive incompetence within the British Army, thanks to the tireless reporting of William Howard Russell (1820-1907), the first war correspondent for the Times of London. Starting in 1853, the war ended anti-climactically, with the British, French, Turks, and Sardinians winning against Russia, while the bone of contention, the Crimean Peninsula, remained under the power of the Czar. In popular memory, the war was best remembered for its causalities and high death toll, though disease and the failures of upper class leadership, thanks to Russell who stated, “Lord Raglan is utterly incompetent to lead an army.” Indeed, this war, during which the fighting lasted one year, 1854-1855, was distinguished for having the highest casualty rate of any war between 1815 and 1914, a century. Before the Thompson’s painting, the tragedy of this war had been best expressed in the poet by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1854), marking a totally futile attack by a mounted calvary unit in the face of Russian cannons. The second stanza summed up the bravery of the troops and the stupidity of the commanders, reported upon eloquently by Russell, and, although the Poet Laureate could not have known this, predicted the slaughters of the Great War.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

This is the context for Roll Call (1874), painted twenty years after the Crimean War itself, but the memories, even in a time of imperial glory, of this ill-begotten war, were strong. She said, “I never painted for the glory of war, but to portray its pathos and heroism,” and it was her empathetic approach to the ordinary soldier that won her attention. The young woman wrote, in an amazed tone, to her father, You know that the elite have been presented to me this day, all with the same hearty words of congratulation on their lips and the same warm shake of the hand ready to follow with a the introductory bow. Roll Call so impressed Queen Victoria that she pushed away all the would be buyers and purchased it herself. The novel approach of the work of art was rested on its homage to the bravery of the troops who bore the burden of the Empire shown regrouping after a futile battle. The pathos, as Butler expressed it, was a startling contrast to the tradition of glorifying conflict. Perhaps only a woman, the daughter of wealth and leisure, gifted with talent and opportunity, had the power and position to provide a portrait of soldiering and a veiled criticism, softened by the name and presence of a woman. Like the hero, nurse Florence Nightingale, who liked her paintings, Butler, who was called “The Florence Nightingale of the Brush,” “cared for” the anonymous soldier who served so bravely. During the annual exhibition for the Royal Academy, crowds stood transfixed, gazing at the moving painting and, perhaps, remembering those who did not come home.

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Elizabeth Thompson. The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras (1875)

More honors were to come. After her success at the Royal Academy in 1874, Thompson followed with a rousing and stirring scene of heroism, The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras (1875). Although most of her paintings followed the humanizing theme of Roll Call, Butler, who later married a military man and traveled with him, she was quite capable to creating moments of glory. In Quatre Bras, she excelled herself and attracted the attention of the foremost critic of Victorian England, John Ruskin (1819-1900), who had always maintained that women could not paint. According to the Victorian Web, Thompson recreated a historical event that took place just prior to the decisive battle at Waterloo, taken from Captain William Siborne’s History of the War in France and Belgium in 1815..Thompson chose the moment at about 5 o’clock in the afternoon when the gallant 28th braced itself for one massive, final charge of terrifying Polish Lancers and cuirassier veterans led by Marshal Ney.” Like her French counterpart, Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891), Thompson prized accuracy, finding a rye field, like the one where the battle was fought, having the correct uniform remade for the models. Her efforts rewarded, not just by the attentions of the admiring crowd, but by a favorable review by Ruskin,

I never approached a picture with more iniquitous prejudice against it, than I did Miss Thompson’s; partly because I have always said that no woman could paint; and secondly because 1 thought what the public made such a fuss about, must be good for nothing. But it is Amazon’s work, this; no doubt of it, and the first fine Pre-Raphaelite picture of battle we have had; — profoundly interesting; and showing all manner of illustrative and realistic faculty. Of course, all that need be said of it, on this side, must have been said twenty times over in the journals; and it remains only for me to make my tardy genuflection, on the trampled corn, before this Pallas of Pall Mall.

When Thompson showed Balaclava in 1876, featuring the return of stunned and wounded British soldiers, staggering to safety. It is this painting that inspired Tennyson to invite the artist for a visit. Thompson brought her sister, the poet Alice who would become famous as Alice Maynell to the meeting. Her fame continued with The Return from Inkermann (1876-7), but marriage and six children and a life of constant travel as the wife of Irish Major William Butler interrupted her career as an artist. Meanwhile the art world in London had moved past her brand of late “Pre-Raphaelitism” Butler was credited with, and in 1881, the artist found herself in the prominently avant-garde Grosvenor Gallery, staunch supporter of James Whistler, strolling through an exhibition of “the ‘Aesthetes’ of the period, whose sometimes unwholesome productions,” as she up it, annoyed her. In “exasperation was I impelled that I fairly fled and, breathing the honest air of Bond Street, took a hansom to my studio. There I pinned a 7-foot sheet of brown paper on an old canvas and, with a piece of charcoal and a piece of white chalk, flung the charge of ‘The Greys’ upon it,” she reported. The result was her last famous and celebrated military painting, Scotland Forever! (1881).

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Lady Elizabeth Butler. Scotland Forever! (1881)

The mood of this painting was quite different from the earlier and more thoughtful version of war. Based on the calvary charge of the Royal Scots Greys at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Arguably, this charge and the others during the Battle were among the last of their kind. When the British Calvary charged the Russian cannons in 1855, military technology had changed and running heedlessly towards artillery meant one thing–not glory but instant death. In fact, the fate of the Royal Scots Greys was ambivalent–heroic but tragic. The Greys had been held back in reserve during the Battle until the regiment’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel James Inglis Hamilton, decided to move forward, without orders, in support of the faltering 92nd Highlanders. The dramatic forward charge depicted by Butler did not take place. The field was too churned up and too full of bodies and for the safety of the horses, it was necessary to pick a careful path to the French lines at a cautious walk. According to Military History, Sergeant Charles Ewart caught sight of the French imperial eagle of the 45e Rgiment de Ligne, the battle standard and most prized possession of any French regiment” and he rode forward and captured the flag. After that moment of glory, the British troops and their horses were disorganized and exhausted and they were attacked by Baron Jaquinot’s 1st Cavalry Division. In the end the charge had won a French eagle but the retreat had cost 104 men dead, 97 wounded as well and 228 horses perished. All this dying for a banner.

Elizabeth Thompson Butler was among the best military artists of her time and her work exemplified how paintings of war could be done in a period when conflicts were becoming modernized and mechanized. Despite her upper class upbringing, which, incidentally had no military connections, all Butler wanted to paint was war. Scotland Forever! was an oddly triumphal work in her oeuvre which was mostly human interest stories and genre scenes. What is significant for the future of military painting in the twentieth century is Butler’s adherence to nineteenth century realism as her mode of depiction. Her style was, in a sense, timeless, always readable. Butler, as she stated, had no patience with modern avant-garde art. For her the academic style was best suited for military paintings, because if for no other reason, the Academy supported the goals of the state and the Empire. Her paintings always tell a story, not necessarily of glory, but at least of British history. Butler’s works, displayed at the Royal Academy during the rise of imperialism, were shown to admiring audiences at a time when the British Empire, backed by military might, was reaching its peak. Support of the military was patriotic and Butler’s sotto voce criticism of needless sacrifice of brave soldiers was accepted, just as the deaths of nearly two hundred men were considered a fair price for a French eagle, a symbolic flag.

In writing of Lady Butler and her role in depicting the ideals of the British Empire, Krzysztof Z. Cieszkowski, stated that long after her days of fame, “..her images of Imperial glory remained popular long afterwards, in the form of coloured prints on classroom walls and illustrations in school history-books. Her paintings, once regarded as true and valid images of the events they portrayed, are now eloquent of how the age saw itself – the imagery that fed an insatiable popular appetite for national glory, and which helped provide the popular support for the imperial adventures of the military heroes of the Victorian age.”

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

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Podcast Episode 32: Whistler, Part One

Whistler, Manet and The White Girl

One of the most overlooked avant-garde pioneers was the American in Paris (and London), the expatriate, James Whistler. Whistler was one of the first international artists, who showed in London and Parisian Salons. Although overshadowed in art history by his good friend, Édouard Manet, Whistler was the other scandal in the Salon des Refusés of 1863 with the controversial painting known as The White Girl. and instituted installation techniques later adopted by the Impressionists. Always controversial, Whistler’s art, like that of Manet, established Modernist tenets with his groundbreaking paintings.

Also listen to “Whistler, Part Two”

and “Whistler, Part Three”

 

Important Announcement

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Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

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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


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Podcast Episode 24: Realism in Europe, Part One

EUROPEAN REALISM

Part One

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Revolution of 1848 broke out like a series of brushfires across the continent of Europe. Although the uprising of the lower classes and the peasants was the last significant attempt to achieve political equality, the Revolution brought the plight of the lower classes to the cultural forefront. Realism challenged and replaced the rubrics of Romanticism. Although Realism is usually associated with the artistic movement in France, Realism was an international movement that was both visual and literary and philosophical. Idealism in philosophy was replaced by Materialism and empirical thinking, giving rise to an artistic need to be “of one’s own times.” Realism in the nineteenth century was not just a political or social impulse, it was also a set of concepts that stressed the contemporary in the visual arts.

Also listen to “Realism in Europe, Part Two”

Read “Avant-Garde Realism inFrance” and “Realism and the Role of the Realist Artist”

and “Realism and Naturalism in Art” and Avant-Garde Realism in England”

and “The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood”

 

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

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

Podcast Episode 19: Romanticism and Constable

CONSTABLE, THE PICTURESQUE, AND ENGLISH ROMANTICISM

Less famous and dramatic than his British rival, Joseph Turner, John Constable preferred the humble English countryside of his native Stour Valley. In his humble rural paintings, Constable captured his “careless boyhood” on the eve of the Industrial Revolution and froze these scenes in a nostalgic time, creating a much-loved “Constable Country.” Compared to Turner who faced change, Constable turned away and retreated into the past of his boyhood. Even though his carefully delineated and detailed depictions of the Stour Valley, Constable often painted from memory as much as from observation. “Constable Country” is a elegy to a golden past that may have never been.

Also listen to “Romanticism in England, Part One” and “Romanticism in England, Part Two,” and “Romanticism and Turner”

 

 

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

Podcast Episode 18: English Romanticism and Turner

TURNER, THE BEAUTIFUL, THE SUBLIME, AND ENLISH ROMANTICISM

Joseph William Mallord Turner was the most famous exponent of English Romanticism. A product of an era of war with Napoléon, the artist celebrated the rise of the British empire. Although many of his landscapes featured classical and ancient subject matter in the foreground, Turner was fascinated with the dramatic modern events. His manner of painting was innovative and unprecedented but his patriotic and often moralizing content won Turner the support of England’s most powerful art critic, John Ruskin. Turner was the painter of the beautiful but he is mostly remembered as being one of the most prominent artists of the new and unprecedented Industrial Sublime.

Also listen to “Romanticism in England, Part One” and “Romanticism in England, Part Two,” and “Romanticism and Constable”

 

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

Podcast Episode 7: The Academy and the Avant-Garde

THE ACADEMY AND THE AVANT-GARDE IN FRANCE

The artists of the French Academy and the artists of the French avant-garde are often presented as being protagonists, but, in fact, each group defined itself in terms of the other. The French Academy was the bastion of the establishment, of rules and regulations and of order. The avant-garde bohemians were the original outsider artists, misfits without credentials, who were able to break the rules of art and change the course of art. But the Academy absorbed and co-opted and softened the concepts and techniques of the avant-garde artists, making the “radical” changes acceptable to the general public.

The model for the Academy as the purveyor for “official” art, approved by the State, which supported the system of art schools, was followed by other nations. England had its own Royal Academy, Germany had its academies, even Spain and America had an Academy. The struggles between the forces of the Academy or the status quo and the Avant-Garde or change were fought mostly in Paris and London. There were several reasons for the quarrels between the older and young generations. First, there were questions of style, centered mostly in painting—how to paint, second, there were issues of content—what subject matter was appropriate for public consumption, and third, by the second half of the nineteenth century, there were economic conditions.

Arbitrary academic restrictions on art, censorship by the state on artists became an economic restraint of trade. As Pierre Bourdieu pointed out, there were simply too many aspirants for too few positions in the Academic system and the so-called avant-garde artists were those artists who, for reasons of style or content or both, could not find success within the existing establishments. It would be these artists, pushed into the position of being Refusées, who would seek out new means of exhibiting, displaying and selling their “outsider art.”

 

 

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 Origins of Neoclassicism

NEOCLASSICISM AND THE ANTIQUE

The Rediscovery of the Past

Classicism, since the Renaissance, had been the foundation of an expression of all that was superior and exhaled in the fine arts. Capable of morphing, the classicism of the Renaissance, of Raphael and Michelangelo, became the Mannerist distortions of Pontormo and the drama of the Baroque and even the eroticism of the Rococo. By the eighteenth century, “classicism” had become so overridden by the new styles and the new demands of the new patrons that its distinguishing characteristics were nearly invisible. The idiosyncrasies of Mannerism and the drama of the Baroque were alien to the internal calm and self-sufficiency of the classism of ancient Greece and Rome. During the Renaissance, classical sculptures were unearthed and provided the basis for a fifteenth century reinterpretation of the antique. But no authentic example of painting, beyond vases, was available, allowing the classicism of the Renaissance and the Baroque to flourish iwht invention but without discipline. What made Classicism “new” again in the late eighteenth century was a discovery of a new authentic source of Classical painting at Pompeii and Herculaneum, two resort towns near Naples and far too near to the looming volcano, Vesuvius. Buried since 79, these towns were the ancient equivalents of the Hamptons on Long Island, and the wealthy inhabitants had commissioned wall paintings to provide decorations for the unbroken expanses of walls, illustrating ancient and fanciful myths and events of everyday life in antiquity. The significance of the uncovering of the ancient murals is that, after centuries of basing “classical” on sculptures, now there were, amazingly, actual paintings (almost certainly provincial) for contemporary artists to study. These ruins inspired the beginnings of archaeology, however primitive, that fit in well with the practice of scientific analysis and the new respect for empirical knowledge. Throughout the eighteenth century Pompeii (discovered in sixteenth century and excavated in 1748) and Herculaneum (discovered in 1701 and excavated in 1738) were being excavated, a process that continues to this day.

Early archaeologists and artists and architects explored and discovered the remains of classical civilizations and these recoveries were made available to the public and to artists through carefully engraved reproductions. In addition to the significant public displays of the remarkable specimens of classical art from the long buried cities was the circulation of drawings of ancient architecture, also in Italy, through portfolios of drawings, such as Bernard de Montfaucon’s 15-volume work, L’Antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures (1719-1724)and Le Antichità di Ercolano (The Antiquities of Herculaneum) (1744 and 1792). The former was translated by Davy Humphreys (one of the early experimenters in photography) as Antiquity Explained. Even more remarkable was the work done by the English architects, James Stuart and Nicholas Revett who, thanks to the easing of travel restrictions to Greece, were able to make careful measurements and beautiful drawings of the ruins of ancient Athens. The years after their field work, they were able to publish The Antiquities of Athens in 1762. Books such as these, combined with an increase in tourism, the English Grand Tour to Italy, and the support of the French government of artists who lived and worked in Rome, suggested the very real possibility of a “return” to a more authentic, historically rooted form of “classicism.”

The Roman ruins were especially compelling as crumbling lessons of morality. Roman virtue was more than a dream, for Rome–ancient Rome–had become the climax point of every Grand Tour. Politically, the example of antique virtue, as seen through eighteenth century eyes, provided an example to the French Revolution, which could serve as a call to return to the “roots” of the proper moral and ethical government that existed prior to the imperialism of the Roman Empire. Artistically, the new interest in ancient cultures fired the imagination of artists, who, in the beginnings of Neo-classicism, used ancient Rome as a kind of fashion statement. Joseph-Marie Vien reimagined pretty people, usually women, dressed (or undressed) in diaphanous draped gowns, posing for genre scenes of life in antiquity. Indeed the long named catalogue of the 1972 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert, The Age of neo-classicism: a handlist to the fourteenth exhibition of the Council of Europe [held at] the Royal Academy and the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 9 September-19 November, 1972, pointed to Vien as the tastemaker of his time and the father of Neo-Classicism. As Alice Mackrell pointed out in her book, Art and Fashion. The Impact of Art on Fashion and Fashion on Art (2005),

The 1770s in France were notable for the re-emergence of costume books hat conveyed a specialist antiquarian knowledge of dress. Michel-François Dandré-Bandon spent the years 1726-31 studying in Rome..A vivid draughtsman and theoretician, he wrote and illustrated a number of books, including his magnum opus, Costumes des ancient peuples. Published in six volumes in 1772-74, he dedicated it to the marquis de Marigny in recognition of his encouragement of le goût grec. André Lens’s book, Le Costume des peoples de l’antiquité appeared in 1776.

These simple new fashions for the aristocrats, especially the women, who obligingly clad themselves à la grec were well suited to be both a statement of that which was “natural” and politically wise, given the rising political criticism of insensitive displays of wealth. Scholars and tourists inspected the ruins, and artists, such as Hubert Robert (1733-1808) and Canaletto, responded to the demand for Italian vistas with view paintings. For his part Canaletto (1697-1768) provided veduta paintings of Venice to tours who had reached their Italian destination, but Robert satisfied the desire to contemplate the past. The crumbling and romantic ruins of Robert (“Robert des Ruines”) were a painted mix of modern fantasies of the meaning of the ancient world and past grandeur and accurate descriptions of actual remaining buildings. Antiquity, from the reading of Homer to the use of the ancient as a suitable subject for artists, became the order of the day from the mid-eighteenth century on.

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Joseph-Marie Vien. La Toilette d’une jeune mariée dans le costume antique (1777)

Preference for classical art was articulated by Johann Winckelmann (1717-1768), the first modern art historian, who recommended copying the ancients in order to study nature more thoroughly. In 1755, Winckelmann, the secretary and librarian to Cardinal Albani in Rome, published Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture, which was an attack on Rococo and an assertion of the superiority of the art of the Greeks. Winckelmann established the idea that art was created within a particular cultural and social context. The writer concluded that the temperate climate of Greece and the Athenian emphasis on outdoor sports as performed by the young males (in the nude) fostered ideals of “noble calm and simplicity.” Using Cardinal Albani’s collection of antique art, Winckelmann wrote his History of Ancient Art in 1764 in which he conceived of the development of Greek art in successive phases within a political, social, and religious context. Winckelmann put forward the idea that art evolved within a society in a teleological fashion, reaching a peak of perfection. For the art historian, the peak was the antique art of Classical Greece, and the modern artist could do no better or no more than to emulate the Greeks. In 1755 Winckelmann wrote,

The only way for us to become great, and, if indeed it is possible, inimitable, is through the imitation of the ancients, and what someone said of Homer, that the man who has learned to understand him well learns to admire him, is also true of the works of art by the ancients, especially of the Greeks.

Two years later, an Englishman, Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), envoy extraordinary to the court of Naples, published a four-folio volume of antiquities as a result of his participation in excavations (and unabashed looting). Hamilton’s post as ambassador did not pay well and he created a side line as an art dealer, excavating Greek vases from ancient sites of colonial settlements in Italy, inflating their value, and selling them to the British Museum. One group of vases arrived safely to England but the another batch of antiquities sank with the HMS Colossus in 1787. Hamilton’s discoveries, including the famous Roman cameo vase, the Barberini Vase, sold to the Duchess of Portland, provided additional information about the drawing style of ancient potters. The luxury folio which presented exquisite illustrations of the vases was titled Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities (1766-1776). Although the text was in English, the line drawings, strict and plain, created a series of illustrations that were influential internationally and studied by potter Josiah Wedgwood, artists John Flaxmann, Henry Fuseli, Jacques-Louis David, and Jean-August Dominique Ingres for inspiration and information. Continuing his efforts to revive interest in ancient art, Hamilton published another set of folios, Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities from the Cabinet of The Honble. W. Hamilton, illustrated by Johann Heinrich Tischbein, director of the Naples art academy, in 1791-95. The folio drawing were flat outlines that deftly handled details without becoming orange or cluttered, giving the illustrations a restrained and severe appearance.

This burgeoning historicism allowed identification with an ancient past that could be understood in relation to contemporary political goals. To Europeans, Rome was far more accessible as the source of ancient art than Greece. Greece, dominated by the Ottoman Empire, was cordoned off, making it difficult to travel to the territory of Plato and and the Parthenon. Actual (ancient) modern Greece was virtually unknown to most Europeans. But in a remarkable act of cultural imperialism, an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, a native of Scotland, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Lord Elgin, convinced the Sultan in charge of the Parthenon, an ancient temple of incomparable beauty and perfection, to allow him to take all the sculptures, external and internal to England. On the surface this stripping was nothing less than an act of vandalism, but there was a counter argument. The Athenians were using the stones of the Parthenon to build their own houses and the building was being slowly dismantled. But Elgin was not interested in saving the building; he wanted the sculptures, because the French wanted the sculptures. Due to the shifting alliances during the Napoléonic wars, the French were shut out of Greece long enough for Lord Elgin to spring into action and was granted permission through a series of firmans or letters of instruction to acquire the art of the Parthenon.

The Muslims in charge did not care about Western relics and watched while the priceless works of art were removed from the building and shipped to England. Even at the time of these actions, cries of “vandalism” could be heard, but Elgin claimed he was protecting the sculptures for their own good. The cost of removing the sculptures and transporting them to England was astronomical and bankrupted the Bruce family. The British government, which eventually acquired the sculptures, never paid Elgin back for his troubles, giving him only half of what he had demanded. As was pointed out, the “acquisition” of the marbles played out during the war against France, led by the tyrant Napoléon. As Ian Dennis Jenkins wrote in his 2007 book The Parthenon Sculptures, “Against a background of British post-war patriotism and a new-found sense of self a liberator of Europe, a Parliamentary select committee sat in 1816 to investigate the prospect of acquiring Lord Elgin’s Athenian marbles for the nation..They went on show at the British Museum in a temporary makeshift gallery that opened to the public in 1817. From the time of their arrival in London until the present day, these sculptures of the Parthenon have been objects of exceptional fascination. Even those, moreover, who revile his actions must admit that Lord Elgin’s acquisition of them is now and irreversible part of their history and, indeed, has to a large extent made them what they are.” The English public was stunned at the realism of these actual works by the workshop of Phidias himself. It would take years before the artists could reconcile the abstraction of the Greek vases, as illustrated by Tischbein, and the physicality of the “Elgin Marbles” still on view in the British Museum today. In her 2012 book, The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture. Greek Sculpture and Modern Art from Winckelmann to Picasso, Elizabeth Prettejohn wrote of the divided reception of the Elgin Marbles, pointing out that their condition was (predictably, given their exposed condition and lack of maintenance) fragmentary and rough, disconcerting to those used to the line drawings of Greek art. “Interestingly, the draped figures of the female figures were much more difficult than the nude males for most witnesses to accept: the broken folds of the drapery appeared incompatible with the notions of the wholeness and serenity of the classical ideal.”

But as Pettijohn noted, the surprising sculptures had an eloquent and very early defender in Georg Hegel in his series of lectures on Aesthetics, beginning in 1818. By the 1820s, he had taken up the issue of the Elgin marbles and their place in antiquity, breaking away from Winckelmann who had seen only Roman copies of Greek sculptures. “The whole body, except the head, witnesses to the truest treatment and imitation of nature. Even the accidental feature of the skin are imitated and carried out excellently with a marvelous handling o f the marble; the muscles are strongly emphasized, the bone structure of the body is indicted, the shapes are constrained, by the severity of the design, yet reproduced by such knowledge of the human organism that the figures almost deceive is into thinking that they are alive, why! even that we are almost scared by them and shrink from touching them..” Hegel wrote, “..even the minutest detail has its purpose..and yet it remains in continual flux, counts and lives only in the whole. The result is that the whole can be recognized in fragments, and such a separatated part affords the contemplation and enjoyment of an unbroken whole.” As Pettijohn explained, “Ingeniously, Hegel has managed to produce a theoretical justification for appreciating the Elgin Marbles in their fragmentary and fractured condition, perhaps the greatest sticking-point to their reception.” In retrospect, it is interesting that Neo-Classicism, as a style, would be identified as “French,” not English, despite the absence of authentic examples in Paris, largely due to the work of Jacques Louis David, a painter.

Also read: “French Neoclassicism: Sculpture and Architecture” and “French Neoclassicism”

Also listen to “Neoclassicism” and “Jacques-Louis David”

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 Enlightenment and the Art Public

ART AND THE MODERN PUBLIC

The Birth of Modern Patronage

Spanning the seventeenth and eighteenth Centuries, the Enlightenment produced greater philosophical thinking than it did great works in the fine arts. In other words, new ideas and “progress” did not prevail in an art world dominated by aristocratic patronage and clientele. That said, the Enlightenment was crucial for a new way of thinking about art and art making. For Europe and the fledgling nation of America, “art” was a practice established in France. All other nations follow suit and followed French styles. In the beginning of this period of change and development of new kinds of individuals, newly free and newly equal, the production of visual art was under the protection and sponsorship of the State, under the censorious auspices of the Royal Academy, established in 1648 by the French King Louis XIV. This Academy of arts and letters was a model of central control followed by other major nations, all of which were aware of the need to monopolize the arts and to harness them to the needs of the government. Because the people of France paid for the education of artists, the French government, the major sponsor of art, held Salons, or public exhibitions of state-sponsored art from the eighteenth century. Set up outside on the grounds of the Palais Royale the new home of the Duc d’Orleans, who had an appetite for beauty and pleasure and the visual arts, the Academy showed off the achievements of the leading artists. But after the first show in 1704, this site of balls and fêtes proved unsuitable for large public exhibitions and the later salons were held at the Palace of the Louvre.

Here in the Palace the works of art could be protected from the weather and were displayed to their best advantage, albeit hung from floor to ceiling and packed chock a block on tables crowded in limited floor space. The Salons were held every year or every other year after 1737 on August 25th in the Salon carré of the Louvre. These highly popular events ran ten days to four weeks, attracting the art public and the art critic, both new social entities, which according to Thomas Crow’s Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth Century Paris (1987), where feared and hated by the artists. The Salons were Parisian events that were considered public entertainment on one hand and a display of the will of the state on the other, demonstrating, through works of art, lessons that every good subject should be taught. These exhibitions, which preceded the establishment of museums, were forms of disciplining the people and shaped their behavior in public places, establishing modes of “civilized” behavior. What was less anticipated by the government or the artists, much less by the Academy itself, was the enthusiasm with which the public embraced these events. Suddenly otherwise uneducated people developed opinions and some were bold enough to state their reactions to the art in what rapidly became a two-way conversation between the servants of the State and the public.

salon-1

The concept of a “public” for art was new as was the idea of publicaly exhibiting art, and inevitably, someone from the undifferentiated “public” would emerge with a desire to preserve and publish his or her opinion about art. This opinionated member of the public who dared to speak and write an to publish views about selected works, much to the dismay of the artists, was the “art critic.” By exposing the artists to the public, these annual Salons opened the artists to public scrutiny and public criticism and made the artists vulnerable to this new species, the art critic, who, astonishingly, demanded that the artist be accountable to the public. Artists, previously answerable only to elite groups of collectors and fellow artists, now needed public approval to succeed. The public, then as now, encompassed all levels of social and economic classes and all levels of education and constituted a community of interest, breaking social hierarchies down into the new notion of a “public,” as explored by Crow, who remarked that “the ‘public’ is both everywhere and nowhere in particular.” The creation and existence of this public brought with it new problems for the artist: what to represent in terms of subject matter; how to represent in terms of style; and who should be allowed to represent and who was allowed to speak to and for the public?

Also new was the expanding group of private art collectors who became the chief patrons of modern artists. Patronage was split between the aristocrats, such as Madame de Pompadour, and the newly rich middle class which preferred genre painting, that is, scenes of everyday middle class life, over the more prestigious and aristocratic history painting, depicting noble heroes of the distant past. As Rochelle Ziskin pointed out in Sheltering Art: Collecting and Social Identity in Early Eighteenth-century Paris (2012), art collecting became a sign of wealth and taste, a site of political and social rivalries and a means of constructing a public image. During this period of art collecting, several important large collections came on the market, such as the works owned by Queen Christina of Sweden, acquired by the French banker and art connoisseur, Pierre Crozet. Through these expanding collections, contemporary French artists were exposed to a historical spectrum of Western art and had a wide range of artistic possibilities to choose from when considering their mode of expression.

Despite the presence in France of the classical Baroque styles, the Baroque was systematically toned down in its dark dramas and was softened into pastel colors for the civilized and essentially domestic style of “Rococo” for an elegant French audience. Although much of Rococo art was produced for the aristocrats and rulers of Europe, the style was paradoxically involved with the concept of the “natural,” a reaction against the formality of aristocratic society and its artificial and unnatural mores and manners. Designed for the interior decoration of the new Parisian hôtels, the pale colors and gentle brushwork of the Rococo artists and the romantic themes made the paintings ideal for the domestic interiors of those who could afford them. But during the same period, the public taste for middle class scenes made genre artists, such as Jean-Baptiste-Simone Chardin (1669-1779) and Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1806), famous for their depictions of everyday life within the newly aspirational middle class in France. By the middle of the Eighteenth Century, a privilege visitor could peruse private art collections and enter the nascent art shops, selling supplies and pictures, and see, with perfect foresight a painted battleground of class and class aspirations.

Fragonard. The Progress of Love (1771–72)

Now in the Frick Collection, the panels of “Love’s Progress” or “The Progress of Love” executed by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) on behalf of Madame du Barry for her chateau at Louveciennes delightfully demonstrated the non-productive pastimes of the privileged. The privilege of leisure time allowed the upper classes to pursue their erotic desires in elaborate ways. It goes without saying that, for the lower classes, such spare time did not exist, linking the idea of romantic love to the upper classes, and thus attaching love to wealth. Sadly, Madame du Berry chose another artist, Joseph-Marie Vien, to do the same theme in the new Neo-Classical style, and the “Progress” was never installed. Thus we do not know its order but the four paintings are lined up as The Pursuit, The Meeting, The Lover Crowned, and The Love Letters.

Greuze. Broken Eggs (1756)

The middle class, growing in numbers and in social prominence, did not stress love and courtship, and indeed, there were didactic scenes aimed towards sober industrious people preaching the perils of indiscriminate delights. One of the most theatrical of lecturers was Jean-Baptiste Greuze whose small paintings of domestic tableaux demonstrated the dangers of bad behavior. Less theatrical and more absorbed, to borrow the lagrange of Michael Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (1976) the small quiet interior studies of bourgeoisie life by Chardin were beloved by the Salon crowd and acquired by sophisticated collectors. Eschewing Greuze’s heavy handed didacticism, Chardin scarcely intended to convey a morality tale but the contrast between The Prayer Before the Meal (1740) and Fragonard’s provocative The Swing (1767) could hardly have been clearer. The two paintings, one public and one private, foretold the class conflicts to come and the revolution that would unfold in the next decades. One class was frivolous and irresponsible, the other class was moral and rational. Who deserved to be in power?

Fragonard. The Swing (1767) Chardin. Prayer Before the Meal (1740)

Also read: “What is Modern?” and “The Enlightenment: Introduction” and “The Enlightenment and Reason” and “The Enlightenment and Society” and “The Political Revolution in America” and “The Enlightenment and Artistic Styles”

Also listen to: “What is Modern?”

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