The Insurgency of Independent Publishing


presented by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

to the

College Art Association, New York, New York

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A hundred and forty years ago, the art world in Paris faced a self-imposed crisis—or to be more precise—refused to face the crisis. Like most crises, this one had been brewing for years—symptoms had been noted—but had been misdiagnosed as problems to be solved. [1] At issue was the centuries-old system [2] of training artists—-judging and evaluating their efforts—exhibiting their art. [3] It was impossible to imagine that such a venerated process could possibly go wrong. After all, the quality of the French education was superb; the quality of the art from the Academy was unsurpassed. The French Academy was envied and emulated throughout the Western world. The academic system had produced eminent artists and the art was justly celebrated. [4]

Given all this quality work, it was hard to imagine how anyone could be dissatisfied with continuing excellence. [5] Even the most vocal critics demanded to be included. Even the most unlikely candidates were given a fair hearing. [6] The jury system gave all comers and opportunity to be accepted and to shine, achieve fame, acquire wealth. [7] What could possibly be wrong? [8]

To those outside the system of quality, [9] the Academy, its elaborate apparatus of rules built level by level over hundreds of years, for the sole purpose of preserving the classical ideal and the methodologies of the Renaissance, in order to maintain the power of those in charge—-to the outsiders—to those not in the in crowd, [10] the Academy was training students to uphold an outdated status quo, all in the service of a repressive government, intent on controlling the visual culture of France. These outsiders—-mostly a motley crew of indifferently trained painters—-confronted—not a jury of their peers—but a group of old men, who were hostile to interlopers. From the standpoint of the outsiders, [11] the judgment of the aging academicians, long past their prime, seemed implausible, inexplicable, implacable, improbable, unrelentingly ruthless and capricious.

The Academy and the exhibitions it controlled, the Salons, was, in fact, a bastion of unassailable power that ran a rigged game, [12] designed to generate losers, [13] not winners, created to guarantee, not quality, [14] as was claimed, but a great prize, [15] available only to a very small number of aspirants, who obediently [16] responded appropriately to all the prerequisites—-genuflection to authority, [17] acceptance of submission to tradition, [18] willingness to forego rebellion against the paternal figures.

By making the prizes so difficult to achieve, the number of winners so small, the Academy made the ultimate rewards—such as they were—-seem intensely desirable worthy of being won. [19] Many were called but only a few succeeded. Perversely, the young artists, instead of recognizing that the roulette wheel was tilted, that the system was structured for failure, [20] only increased their desire and intensified their efforts to succeed against the odds—not understanding that the ruthless winnowing indicated, not that their art was less worthy, but that the system [21] simply could not handle the growing number of supplicants.

For hundreds of years, the Salon system had built a mindset of acceptance of the rules of this game—a victim mentality that was as unassailable as the castle of the Academy itself. Some artists, it seems, did recognize that the Academy was in crisis—was ossified and inflexible—that the Salon was eating its young—and that the selection system was unfair. [22] These artists refused to play the game, refused to resign themselves to rejection by the Salon juries.

Instead they formed their own alternative [23] to the massive salon exhibitions and the willful and antiquated whims of the jurors. [24] These painters—acting as independent entrepreneurs—as enterprising business people—started their own self-generated alternative art exhibitions. Rather than challenging the paradigm of the Salon, they simply created another paradigm—exhibit your own art, in your own way, on your own terms.

We are speaking, of course, of the Impressionists. [25]

True, there had been earlier attempts by previous artists to free themselves of the constraints of the Salon—David, Courbet, Manet, [26] Whistler [27]—but the psychological grip of the Academic system was so powerful that, rather than being impressed by the efforts of those artists, the art audience was mostly bemused and puzzled. These independent exhibitions were significant cracks in the fortress wall, but the most famous alarm bell had to be what became the historically significant Salon des Refusés (1863), [28] ten years before the Impressionists’ first exhibition in 1874. [29]

The anger of rejected artists [30] against an unusually punitive jury signaled a genuine crisis: there were too many artists for too few places [31] to satisfy the demand for inclusion. [32] Indeed, one mollifying exhibition would not suffice to ease the growing tension between the guardians of the watchtower and the armies of talented young people [33] assembling at the portcullis—battering at the gates. [34]

It is important to pause and consider the courage of the Impressionists. They would be laughed at—they knew that—the establishment would feel threatened, if it noticed the artists at all, the critics who accepted the system would be unkind, and call them names, established artists invested in academia would reject them—the Impressionists knew all that—-and all of these indignities came to pass. [35] True, the Impressionists yearned [36] for validation and acceptance in the Salon but the painters headed for open territory, [37] the unguarded terrain of the independent exhibition, building upon the nascent artist-dealer system. [38] The Impressionists initiated today’s art world.

Although the myth of the Impressionists posits them as the shock troops of the avant-garde of the Third Republic, the painters were reacting to real financial needs. [39] The Salon system acted as a barrier to economic success. [40] The gatekeepers prevented an entire class of creative thinkers from earning an honest living at the trade [41] of their choice and the casualties were not just the renegade rebels. Academic artists suffered as well. [42] The system of enforced failure [43] guaranteed that they too must be sacrificed. They too must fail. Undoubtedly, the defenders of the Salon system had their explanations, their reasons for ensuring failure—-those who were rejected by the juries were simply bad artists who deserved to fail. Really? Paul Cézanne—a bad artist?

The upholders of the status quo [44] would argue that their system was responsible for artistic leaders, such as, Jean-Léon Gérôme. [45] But, in reality, the system had no room for new ideas, could not accommodate artistic innovation, and could not tolerate artistic freedom or new innovations. [46] If the Impressionists had not found their way around the artificial barriers and created new opportunities [47] for themselves, then it would not have been possible for artists in the twentieth century to exist—-even thrive—and find success—entirely outside [48] the Salon system. [49] Pablo Picasso could have been the failed son of an obscure Spanish artist.

Impossible you say? Everyone knows that talent will always be discovered; true art will shine through. Really? The eventual success of long dead avant-garde artists rested upon fragile foundations of arbitrary chance. Vincent van Gogh had a brother, Théo, was an art dealer who financed his difficult younger brother, and Théo’s widow was inclined to preserve the paintings of her unstable brother-in-law who had sold one painting in his lifetime. [50] Other people simply threw his art in the dustbin. [51]

To say that the Impressionists challenge [52] to the bulwark that was the Salon system made it possible for the art of some of the most valued artists of the modern avant-garde to be recognized [53] is to state the obvious but sometimes emphasizing the already known is necessary. Even in the year of our Lord 2011, or especially in our own time, it is necessary to recall the revolution of the Impressionists, for we are facing a similar crisis in art history. Like the crisis of the nineteenth century avant-garde, [54] our crisis is demographic also, an expansion of an aspiring educated middle class exemplified by an increasing number of freshly minted PhDs who are pumped out of graduate programs—but for what future? Reeling from yet another economic downturn, our own academia is downsizing, and to add to this perfect storm of too few jobs and too many job hunters, the entire publishing industry is shrinking. [55]

Are those who are outside the magic circle of the privileged and the published any less intelligent, any less gifted, any less capable, do they have less to offer the profession of art history? Surely the academic system of producing art historians works, doesn’t it? The academic stars are not lucky stars, well situated in the northeast corridor, enjoying unrecognized advantages in publication. [56] These (privileged) people are truly deserving of their success, no argument. Just as it would be wrong to insist that Bouguereau was technically deficient, or that Gérome lacked imagination, [57] there can be no argument that the academic stars have not earned their rewards, their books, their articles, and their reputation for excellence. Therefore, I am not concerned with them. I am concerned about everyone else—those art historians who are intelligent and capable, who have a lot to offer, but have no outlets for publication, that all-important stepping stone to a job, to tenure. [58]

The chances of getting published today are less that of wining on a slot machine in Vegas. [59] There are those who would argue that the current system of publication works perfectly well. [60] But we cannot argue today in good faith that our process of publishing is allowing talent to be developed for the same reason as those who in the nineteenth century could not—in good faith—maintain that the Salon system of exhibiting art was efficient. [61] Likewise, we cannot state that our system allows the cream to come to the top, that only the worthy are rewarded and that those who never rise deserved to fail. [62]

Just as it was illegitimate to make those claims in the nineteenth century, we cannot make them today, because we simply don’t know if we are correct. There is no way of knowing. There is no way of measuring the loss, the lack, the silence of new voices never heard, new words never written, new insights never illuminated, years of training never coming to fruition, scholarship wasted, careers never realized…all because there are not enough outlets for publication. Surely the loss of art historical talent must outweigh any gains. [63] Such a limited field for publication is not efficient. Any system that wastes its best and brightest, allows them to disappear, and fail to thrive, consigned to invisibility, is a system that values status quo over change, supports vested interests over innovation. [64]

Let us imagine—if the Impressionists had never tried—and remember that many of these artists died long before Impressionism was accepted. Imagine—if their courage had faltered—there would be no Claude Monet, no Pierre Renoir, no Mary Cassatt, no Vincent van Gogh, no Paul Gauguin, no Georges Seurat. These artists would have lived, painted futilely, and died in obscurity. [65] Instead the impressionists changed the avant-garde, from the presence of a few outliers to a genuine movement, inspiring large venues for Independent art shows, the Salon des Indépendants–jury-less, the Salon d’Automne–radical–jumpstarting a new way for artists to sell their art outside the Salon system. [66]

Challenge and change are equally difficult but out of crisis comes—-not opportunity—but the willed creation of opportunity. [67] Today the will exists, the technology is available, allowing art professionals, art historians, art critics, theorists to take their careers in their own hands—like the Impressionists—to make themselves heard and read and seen. [68] It is possible to open a new field [69] of cultural production, [70] to run a new game, played by new rules, to establish a new paradigm, to build an alternative system that allows the players to win. [71] And all that is necessary is to forego voluntary psychological handicaps, to give up a constricting mindset [72] and take advantage of the first real game change [73] in the art world since the establishment of the artist-dealer-gallery system for artists.

Revised and updated ending:

Today it is possible to open a closed field [74], the contained field of art historical publication, with independent petit revues or hybrid e-journals, that are open and inclusive, democratic, professional, and dedicated [75] to the intellectual growth and development of art historical colleagues [76] who have a great deal to say and no place to publish it. My website, Art History Unstuffed, and my recent book New Artwriting (2014), are examples of a professional taking charge of a career, publishing on her own terms and on her own timetable and in her own style. While others follow the rules of the Academy and frequent the Salons, it is possible to establish outposts on the frontiers beyond the borders and become part of the small group of forward observers.

You deserve to be heard.




[1] Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, p. 179

[2] Ross King, The Judgment of Paris. The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism, p.31.

[3] King, ibid, p. 32.

[4] Bourdieu, RA, p. 119.

[5] Bourdieu, ibid. p. 260-1.

[6] King, op. cit, p.82.

[7] Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, p. 241.

[8] Bourdieu, ibid. p. 251.

[9] Bourdieu, ibid, p. 83.

[10] Bourdieu, ibid. p. 83.

[11] Bourdieu, The Rules of Art, p. 225.

[12] Ibid., p.167.

[13] Ibid., p. 243.

[14] Ibid. p. 169.

[15] Ibid. p. 230.

[16] Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, p. 133.

[17] King, p. 67.

[18] Bourdieu, RA, p. 148

[19] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 164.

[20] Ibid. p. 164.

[21] Ibid, p. 251-2.

[22] King, p. 34

[23] King, p. 57.

[24] Ibid. p. 57.

[25] Ibid., p. 354

[26] Moscovici, Romanticism and Post-Romanticism, p. 65

[27] King, p. 72

[28] Philip G. Nord, Impressionists and Politics: Art and Democracy in the Nineteenth Century, p. 6 and 7.

[29] King, p. 357.

[30] Ibid., p. 171.

[31] King, p. 52 and 59

[32] Ibid., p. 337.

[33] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 60.

[34] Ibid., p. 231.

[35] Wynford Dewhurst, Impressionist Painting: Its Genesis and Development, p. 35-36.

[36] King, p. 197.

[37] Robert Herbert, “Impressionism, Originality, and Laissez-faire,” p. 25.

[38] King, p. 48

[39] Ibid. p. 26.

[40] Ibid, p. 27.

[41] Dewhurst, p. 33.

[42] Jon Whitely, in Transformations in Personhood After Theory. The Languages of History, Aesthetics, and Ethics, p. 37.

[43] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 79 and 83.

[44] Ibid., p. 252

[45] Bourdieu, RA, p. 157

[46] Ibid., p. 105.

[47] Nancy Austin, “Naming the Landscape,” in Transformations in Personhood After Theory. The Languages of History, Aesthetics, and Ethics, p. 51-55.

[48] Bourdieu, RA, p. 236

[49] ibid., p. 125

[50] See Kendell, Van Gogh’s Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

[51] Paul Barlow in Denis, Rafael Carsoso, Art and the Academy in the Nineteenth Century, 20-26

[52] Swinth, Painting Professionals: Women Artists and the Development of Modern America, p. 39.

[53] King, p. 371

[54] Bourdieu, RA, p. 122

[55] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 84

[56] Cown, In Praise of Commercial Culture, p. 112

[57] ibid., p. 127

[58] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 84

[59] King, p. 75

[60] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 41

[61] Bourdieu, RA, p. 132-133

[62] King, p. 201

[63] Schneider, Creating the Musée d’Orsay: The Politics of Culture in France, p. 45, 53, 63

[64] ibid., p. 75

[65] Ibid., p. 197

[66] Cowen, p. 112

[67] Bourdieu, RA, p. 215

[68] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 183

[69] Ibid., p. 95

[70] Cowen, p. 163

[71] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 58

[72] King, p. 372

[73] Bourdieu, RA, p. 249

[74] Ibid., p. 253

[75] Ibid., p. 267

[76] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 106



Bourdieu, Pierre, The Field of Cultural Production (New York: Columbia University Press) 1993

The Rules of Art. Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (Stanford: University of California Press) 1995

Chadwick, Whitney, Women, Art and Society (London: Thames and Hudson) 1990

Cown, Tyler, In Praise of Commercial Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) 2000

Denis, Rafael Carsoso, Art and the Academy in the Nineteenth Century (Manchester University Press) 2000

Dewhurst, Wynford, Impressionist Painting: Its Genesis and Development (G. Newnes, Limited) 1904

Herbert, Robert, “Impressionism, Originality, and Laissez-faire,” from Critical Readings in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: An Anthology by Mark Tompkins Lewis (University of California Press) 2007

Kendell, Richard, et al. Van Gogh’s Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) 1998

King, Ross, The Judgment of Paris. The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism (New York: Walker and Company) 2006

McDonald, Christie and Gary Wihl, editors, Transformations in Personhood After Theory. The Languages of History, Aesthetics, and Ethics (Pennsylvania State University Press) 1994

Moscovici, Claudia, Romanticism and Post-Romanticism (Lexington Books) 2007

Nord, Philip G., Impressionists and Politics: Art and Democracy in the Nineteenth Century (Routledge) 2000

Schneider, Andrea Kupfer, Creating the Musée d’Orsay: The Politics of Culture in France (Pennsylvania State University Press) 1998

Swinth, Kristen, Painting Professionals: Women Artists and the Development of Modern America (University of North Carolina Press) 2007


Jean-Léon Gérôme, Part One

JEAN-LÉON GÉRÔME: History Painter

Part One

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 – 1904) was on the wrong side of history. Many people have been on the wrong side of history, and, like the segregationist Senator, Strom Thurmond, they deserve to stay there. However, art history is more subjective than history-history, which is supposedly based upon verifiable facts. Art falls into the perilous zone of subjectivity and art and artists are subjected to the rise and fall of critical preferences and of aesthetic judgments. Gérôme was art history’s most vile villain, most reliable enemy to all things Modernist. He was the perfect foil to Édouard Manet (1832-1883), Claude Monet (1840-1926), and Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), not because he was a popular and successful Salon artist but because he railed against his Impressionist counterparts, often and in public, on the record. But since the 1980s, a “younger” generation of art historians, in search of new material for dissertations, began to revive the dead dinosaurs of “official” French art. And Gérôme was among the Salon artists most in need of revision. Without championing Gérôme, it can be said that it is necessary for him to be re-placed in the history of Nineteenth-century art, if only to better understand the Modernist artists and their accomplishments and their courage. It is important to understand the vast differences between Gérôme and the Impressionists in terms of painting techniques and the subject matter in order to comprehend the reception of the art audience and Salon goers.

When the real art history of the Second Empire and the Third Republic in France was restored by the new art historians, it was revealed that Gérôme was genuinely popular with the art audiences and collectors of his time because his art was immensely innovative, decidedly novel, technically proficient (not outstanding but good enough), and, above all, featured sex and violence. A can’t miss combination. The reason why he fell off the art history pantheon was, as all art historians know, because of the Theory of Modernism. Beginning somewhere around the art critic, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), migrating to the British critic, Roger Fry (1866-1934) and culminating in the American critic, Clement Greenberg (1909-1994), this theory put forward an entity called “Modernism,” both a state of mind and a period of time, that produced an artistic attitude called “art-for-art’s sake,” which led to avant-garde art, a reaction to modernité.

According to the teleology of Modernism, the founding fathers (no mothers allowed) were Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) and Édouard Manet (1832-1883) and their progeny, the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionists and all the “isms” of the twentieth century, climaxing with Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). Any artist, no matter how historically famous and successful, could not be a Modernist unless he (not she: women were not considered) was part of that select group. The artists of the Salon were eliminated, the “official” artists were purged, English and American artists were left out, and only a small group of French male artists were allowed to be part of the club. The result was an art history based upon an evolutionary theory of a progressive march taken by art from representation to abstraction. The Greenberg story of art was an excellent metanarrative, as Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998) would later call it, but it was not a proper history of art. Modernism was a construct, a convenient fiction, complete with heroes and villains.

The Artist and the Public

Art Historian Gerald Ackerman (1928-), whom I met while I was in graduate school, began the revival of Gérôme’s art if not his reputation. At the time, Ackerman told me he had been working on Gérôme for twenty years and it is his pioneering effort that is the foundation of scholarship for today’s writers. Current scholars point out that, even in his own time, Gérôme was as controversial with the critics as the avant-garde artists. Like the latter, Gérôme had to court and please the bourgeoisie, and the career-minded artist created a juste milieu path between erudite, orthodox, high-minded history painting and low-caste genre scenes of everyday life (“Molière Breakfasting with Louis XIV,” 1862). Taking a page from the playbook employed by Ernst Meissonier (1815-1891), Gérôme rethought history painting and made it accessible and entertaining to the middle class art audience (“The Tulip Folly,” 1862). In place of classical knowledge, understandable to scholars and specialists, the artist inserted carefully researched archaeological and ethnographic detail (“Solomon’s Wall, Jerusalem,” 1876). In place of the relentless ordinariness of Realism and the remorseless observation of Naturalism, Gérôme substituted panoply of information, educating the viewer. Instead of heroes and noble characters, he created a cast for his theater of history and used the actors to tell arresting stories about life in another place and another time.

Gérôme’s art presents the viewer spectacle on two levels, echoing the culture of scopophilia and observation of the Other that was the basis of Second Empire power and Third Republic imperialism and the control of men over women. First, Gérôme’s art provided the kind of sheer spectacle that once held sway during the Roman Empire and moved it to the Salon for the delectation of the art public. Bread, circuses, food and entertainment–if you provide the people with these two necessities, they will tolerate any amount of tyranny. Whether or not this conscious policy is smart or despicable depends upon one’s political point of view. To the middle-class French people, survivors of multiple revolutions and uprisings among the disempowered, a firm hand on the wheel may have seemed a good idea. Second, there is no reason to assume that Gérôme was trying to anything more than present interesting subject matter to his audience. There was probably not much sub-text in his work. Indebted to his imperial patrons, Gérôme was a conservative who would be unwilling to offend his collectors. All he asked of the viewer was to look and enjoy. Clearly he had worked out a formula: sex and violence sells; and the exercise of imperialism in the direction of helpless people comforting to a second-class power.

Gérôme’s paintings of the Roman Empire enshrine the pleasure of looking, of seeing violence that happens to others and not to you, a pleasure called by philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797), the “sublime.” That heightened and intense emotion that Edmund Burke wrote of was, not incidentally, in relation to the excitement of the French Revolution. For excitement, beheadings notwithstanding, sheer terror and scenes of violence, nothing has out-classed the Roman Empire in its ruthless suppression of any and all acts of dissent or disturbance. No Empire has ever been more blatant in its faithful provision of circuses for its well-fed citizens, even in the provinces. The site of a panoply of horrors was the arena, a word meaning “sand,” which covered the floor in order to absorb the inevitable blood. In the Roman arena, there are no victors, only victims of a system of witnessing what was an imperial display of the Emperor’s power over life and death, preferably death.


The gladiators, who were slaves, saluted the Emperor before they died in Ave Caesar, Morituri, Te Salutant (1859) and the Christians, who in actuality were prosecuted in very small numbers, provided the fledgling religion with its first martyrs, were favorite characters for the artist. It should be pointed out, that while Christians were expendable, gladiators were not. Expensive to train and to house, the fighters were investments on the part of their owners and it was rare that any of them died in what was usually staged combat. Indeed, Maxime de Camp (1822-1894), photographer of the Middle East, complained that Gérôme was inaccurate, and the artist did, indeed, take liberties for dramatic effect. His painting of Christian martyrs showed human beings used as torches but the scene is set in daytime, while the Emperor Nero put on such a show only at night. In The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayers (1863 – 1883), the lion approaches the huddling worshipers.


Much has been written of Gérôme’s prediction of film and his use of the long pause in a narrative and, indeed, the viewer can see the emerging head of other felines coming into the sand surface of the Coliseum. Like the martyrs, we wait. As opposed to Gathering up the Lions in the Circus (1902), in real life, animals had no interest in attacking humans and had to be taught, even forced to pounce. During these centuries of arena entertainment, wild animals, entire species were either wiped out or put in danger, due to the overindulgence of the Romans who did love their spectacles. The Roman audience in Pollice Verso (1872) came to the arena to be entertained. Some commentators and historians have since suggested that the blood lust acted as a kind of drug, dulling the senses, reducing human carnage to a mere theatrical exercise. There was an endless supply of slaves and criminals to put to death in an exercise of punishment and control.


Although Gérôme could not have imagined modern film, his paintings of the Roman Empire became sources of inspiration for Hollywood film directors, from movie directors C. B. De Mille (1881-1959) to Ridley Scott (1937-). But that observation raises a rather interesting question: why are we still so fascinated with an imperial power, which used human beings as stage lights, crucified even the most insignificant dissidents, rewarded the few and persecuted the many, keeping everything in balance through constant spectacles of blood and violence? Why does Hollywood not make movies about the Greeks, unless they are fighting the Persians in tiny leather uniforms? Do we conclude that we are superior to the Romans in the arena because we are addicted only to movie violence?

In a world where schools have long since sidelined history, most of us learn of the past from the History Channel and Oliver Stone (1946-). Today we could call Gérôme a “popularizer.” If he were a history professor today, he would be complimented for helping the students identify with the events of the past. However, history painting in nineteenth-century France was not necessarily supposed to be popular, only revered and respected. Unlike Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), who dis-respected the Salon system by portraying unattractive uninteresting modern types on a large scale, reserved for history painting, Gérôme kept most of his works small or medium sized. He was, in effect, using the rules to create a new space for what the system had already approved. In the end, he slipped past his many detractors and found fame, fortune, and many honors. As Scott Allan pointed out in his “Introduction” to Reconsidering Gérôme, the artist was “appointed professor at the newly reorganized École des Beaux-Arts in 1863…. (was given) a seat in the Institut de France in 1865…(and was) nominated grand officier of the Legion of Honor in 1898.” Son-in-law to the grand impresario of art reproduction, Adolph Goupil, Gérôme was one of the most reproduced and widely distributed artists of the nineteenth-century. But was he a “good” artist?

The Artist and Technique

Technically speaking, Gérôme was an odd mixture. On one hand, he could handle paint only in a limited manner, for he was essentially a drawer who painted and colored in the lines. On the other hand, he never won the Rome Prize for good reason–he was almost blind when it came to the classical approach to the human figure. Only when he removed himself from the Beaux-Arts tradition did he become at ease with the people he painted. His nude women are borrowed entirely from other artists, especially from Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) and Théodore Chassériau (1819-1856) (Character Study for a Greek Interior, 1850), and are boneless and airbrushed to a peculiar blank flatness. But when Gérôme clothed his females, he was completely at ease. His portrait of the daughter of Betty de Rothschild, who was painted by Ingres in 1848, Portrait of Madame la Baronne Nathaniel de Rothschild (1866) is not as stunning as an Ingres portrait, but Gérôme held his own with the master. His Portrait of M. Édouard Delessert (1864) with the subject nattily dressed in blue argyle socks is a genuine character study.


Gérôme. Portrait of Madame la Baronne Nathaniel de Rothschild (1866)

Despite these near-great portraits, Gérôme seemed to have had a hard time integrating actual sites with imaginary people. For example, there is a wonderful trio, featuring Napoléon in Egypt. Napoléon and his General Staff in Egypt (1867) imagines a very large General on a very dainty camel, but it is not the size disparity, it is the startled expression on Napoléon’s face that makes today’s viewer smile. Oedipus (1863 – 86) also plays havoc with scale: Napoléon is on a tiny horse, standing in front of a shrunken Sphinx. But most interesting is Napoléon in Cairo (1867 – 68), a simple little painting with the General standing in full uniform with Islamic mosques in the background. In real life, Napoléon was short and rounded, but here he is tall and slim. The viewer is given a level of information that Meissonier would envy–the details of the uniform are exquisitely rendered and one learns, thanks to the deep shadows of selective folds of his trousers, that the future Emperor “dressed” left. There are probably several reasons for the disparity of scale and proportion in Gérôme’s paintings. One would certainly be his academic training, which taught students to think in pastiche and collage and to “paste,” as it were, standard studio poses into grand backgrounds. Another cause would have been the artist’s use of photography as his source. Photography tended to make minute details available to the human eye, and when Gérôme copied these details, the effect was to flatten the surface with non-hierarchal information that overwhelmed the displaced figures and threw off the scale.


Gérôme emerged onto the Parisian art scene as the leader of the “Neo-Grec” school (according to the critics of his day) with The Cock Fight in the Salon of 1847. The genre painting tells a story of cocks, both seen and unseen, as a young boy orchestrates a contest between two roosters while a young girl shrinks away, as well she might. However, Gérôme did not confine himself to antiquity and the choice of his subjects says a great deal about what was going on in France during his career. Just as his mentor Paul Delaroche (1797-1856) spoke obliquely about the French Revolution (matricide and patricide) with The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833), Gérôme saluted the Second Empire by celebrating the current Emperor’s uncle, Napoléon I, in a number of paintings, some direct references, some indirect. The rather marvelous The Reception of the Siamese Ambassadors at Fountainebleau (1864) was a direct steal of Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoléon (1807). Two other wonderful paintings, The Grey Cardinal (1873) and the Reception of the Duc de Condé at Versailles (1878) were painted after the fall of the Second Empire and could be interpreted as a warning against secret power (the Cardinal and by extension the late Empire) and a plea for reconciliation (Duc de Condé) after rebellion, but, given the inherent political and painterly conservatism of Gérôme, the works could be more comfortably read in relation to the nostalgic Bonapartism and a desire for a monarchy, which marked the unsteady early decades of the ill-fated Third Republic.

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Podcast 36 Painting 2: Manet to Post-Impressionism

The Painters of Modern Life

Although the Pre-Raphaelite artists initiated the artistic interest in contemporary urban life and the problems of modern people, the Parisian artists are given credit for learning how to express modernité in formal terms. The French painters found the seventeenth century Dutch painters important precursors. Inspired by the depiction of ordinary moments of daily life among the middle class in Holland, the emerging avant-garde artists began to rethink, not just how to handle modern content, but also how to use paint itself so that their art could be “of its own time.” The result of this experimentation was an evolution of painting into the twentieth century.

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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

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The Origins of Art Criticism


The Origins of Art Criticism: 1750-1850

According to Théophile Gautier, writing in 1854, “In his immortal Salons, Diderot founded the criticism of painting.” Indeed Gautier modeled his method of discussing contemporary art on the process that Denis Diderot (1713-1784) established. Art criticism emerged from the art public itself and its response to the Salon exhibitions. The Salon established the art exhibition as an independent entity, and, even though the exhibition was sponsored by the crown and was intended to show off the talents of France, any political or nationalistic goals held by France were soon overshadowed by the presence of “art,” existing in its own right, to be looked at. By the first decades of the nineteenth century, the role of art began to shift from being in the service to the state to existing in its own right. Consequently the role of the art critic shifted as well and, in France, Diderot and Théophile Gautier (1811-1872) exemplified the changing definition of art, the changing demographic of the audience and the new roles being played by artists. The new “art public” and its spokesmen, the art critics, began to redefine the social task of art in the eighteenth century, an age when the royal hand of the monarchy oversaw the development of art and its purpose. When the “first” art critic Denis Diderot emerged, he began writing at a time when major social changes were acting as a subtext for works of art.

Art should have a moral effect but what lessons should be taught? For Diderot this question of didactic content was an important one but the query itself was suspended between two competing interest groups: the prevailing order of aristocracy and the aspiring order of the bourgeoisie. Denis Diderot, who is considered the first important art writer, produced a body of work caught between contradictions seen best in hindsight–his royal audience and the Enlightenment ideals he believed in and preached to his well-born audience. Although Diderot learned about art through studio visits with the artists, his audience, European despots, who sported the sobriquet “enlightened,” were informed of French art through an internationally distributed newsletter, edited by Friedrich-Melchior Grimm and not subject to French censorship. Because his audience is unable to see the works of art to which he is refereeing, Diderot relief heavily on description of each object.

The irony of Diderot extolling middle class virtues to the lusty Czarina of Russia, Catherine, is intriguing and one can only wonder what the great queen thought when she read in his review of the Salon of 1763, “First, I like genre–it is moral painting.” Diderot’s art writing was engaged and political, a model for Marxist writers two hundred years later. Like many French thinkers, Diderot was indebted to English writers, especially the philosopher John Locke for moral precepts in a new secular age and to one of the first modern novelists, Samuel Richardson, author of Pamela for descriptive narrative flow. Art criticism, then, became a didactic hybrid, combining teaching with a story line. Diderot joined his fellow intellectuals in creating a new kind of literature and, throughout his writings, he was always seeking a new art form–an appropriately moral approach–for the new class. It was Diderot’s ambition that would define this class through Enlightenment ideas of reason and order. As one of the editors of the ongoing project, Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et dés Métiers, Diderot was well suited to the task of observing and recording, but, with art, he took the process of cataloguing one step further and crafted the art of judging.

When viewing the works of François Boucher, Diderot wrote in 1765, “Depravity of morals has been closely followed by the debasement of taste, color, composition,” and suggested a year later that an appropriate alternative to aristocratic frivolity would be antiquity: “It seemed to me that we should study the antique in order to learn to see Nature.” But Diderot demanded more than mere stylistic servitude, “First of all, move me, surprise me, rend my heart; make me tremble, weep, shudder, outrage me, delight my eyes, afterwards, if you can.” “Whatever the art form, it is better to be extravagant than cold.” Although Diderot did not live long enough to witness either Neoclassicism or Romanticism, both of which are anticipated in his writings, he articulated many important concepts in his art writing with his emphasis on naïveté, which led to primitivism (simplicity and clarity) and the grand ideal of Poussin: “Paint as though in Sparta,” he begged the artists. Diderot believed that art should teach moral development but at the same time believed in the new idea of genius. Although the moral sentiments of the works by Jean-Baptiste Greuze were admirable, Diderot lamented that he was “no longer able to like Greuze” and he came to prefer Jean-Bapiste Chardin who was not only morally sound but also the superior artist, in his opinion.

The early to mid-Eighteenth Century period is one of transition, for intellectuals found it hard to either predict the future or to foresee the logical consequences of the newly forming ideals of “reason,” “democracy,” and “equality.” Diderot’s public counterpart, the art writer, La Font de Saint-Yenne, also took a middle path and equated the aristocrats with the ancients. The aristocrats, in turn, took the prudent course of denouncing decadence and corruption and joined in the vogue for the natural by praising simplicity and order. Threatened by the wayward behavior of their hapless monarchs, the French nobles attacked royal despotism of King Louis XVI and his Austrian-born Queen, Marie Antoinette, in defense of their own privileges and positions. The new French government reached back into the ancient past to justify and legitimate the new ideas of “liberty.” Old ideas of Roman virtue and Greek democracy were revived to promote and explain the radical changes. Previous artistic styles, Baroque and Rococo, were jettisoned because of their unseemly connection to aristocracy and vice. Artists turned to ancient art, fortuitously available due to the recent discovery of ancient Roman cities, Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 in the 1740s. But after the French Revolution of 1789, the “new” “classical” art was re-deployed to legitimate the new regimes–the First Republic, the Directory, the First Empire–until the July Revolution of 1830 announced the general acceptance of Romanticism and the arrival of “art-for-art’s-sake.”


Gustave Courbet. After Dinner at Ornans (Salon of 1849)

This new territory was inherited by Théophile Gautier who would oversee an extraordinary series of artistic changes, from Romanticism to Realism to the waning of the Salon system that had given birth to art criticism. Gautier was writing to a very different audience from that of Diderot. His audience was, first of all, French, rather than international, and second, his readers were present, had attended the Salons and were familiar with the art and the artists. The demand for sheer description was a less of a burden on him than it was on Diderot, but, like Diderot, Gautier also lived in “interesting times.” He had matured in a society that had a particular idea of the “beautiful” only to find himself confronted with Gustave Courbet who courted the ordinary (ugliness). Nevertheless, Gautier had also inherited the fully developed concept of “art-for-art’s-sake” that justified excursions into naturalism, devoid of ideal beauty. In his book, The Art Criticism of Théophile Gautier (1969), Michael Clifford Spencer, pointed out that Gautier’s facility as a writer allowed him to describe, with superior writing, paintings by artists he actually did not care for. He also pointed out the prevailing concern of the post-Romantic period with the role of the imagination in art. For Gautier’s colleague, Charles Baudelaire, the imagination was “the queen of the faculties,” for Gautier, the artist worked from the “microcosm,” the starting point in the intellect and expanded upon the germ to a broader conception of the recreation of the outside world.

But Gautier is best known today for his ringing defense of artistic freedom or in the “right” of a work of art to exist as art and to be unshackled from fulfilling any other social role. In the “Preface” to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), Gautier pilloried literary critics who expected a book to fulfill what he called a “utilitarian” function. He asserted, with some wit, that

We cannot make a cotton cap out of a metonymy, or put on a comparison like a slipper ; we cannot use an antithesis as an umbrella, and we cannot, unfortunately, lay a medley of rhymes on our body after the fashion of a waistcoat. I have an inti- mate conviction that an ode is too light a garment for winter, and that we should not be better clad in strophe, antistrophe, and epode than was the cynic’s wife who contented herself with merely her virtue as chemise, and went about as naked as one’s hand, so history relates.

It should be pointed out that Gautier had no liking for his colleagues and condemned the journalists of the newspapers of his time who dis-enchanted the visual arts, the theatrical arts and the literary arts. These opinionated writers harmed artists and audiences, robbing the artist of the opportunity to freely make without having an eye to the reception of the work, rather than to the work itself. The viewer, the listener, and the reader were all preempted by the critic who formed the opinion for the audience. Page after page, Gautier condemned the paragons of society’s “virtue,” who attempted to impose a stultifying morality upon artistic creation. Of course, one should take into account that the full name of the novel was Mademoiselle de Maupin. A Romance of Love and Passion, and, therefore, one should understand that his “Preface” was as much a preemptive strike against moral approbation as it was a plea for artistic freedom from chiding critics.

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.

Gautier, however, was a stern judge of art he decided was inferior and reserved his particular scorn for juste milieu artists, or the “official” artists, such as Paul Delaroche, whose works were skillful and entertaining history paintings. As Lynette Stocks pointed out in her article, “Théophile Gautier: Advocate of “Art for Art’s Sake” or champion of Realism?” Gautier called Delaroche and Horace Vernet ballons boursouflés de lounges. His dislike of these middle or the road compromising (and very successful artists) indicated his championing of original art or artists who had a new and unusual approach to art, whether Romantic or Realist. If a taste for the new and the avant-garde was the defining characteristic of Gautiers’ art criticism, then he had an open and eclectic mind for art, a necessary virtue in France where the political and social and artistic terrain was constantly sifting, making the foundation of an art critic a slippery one. But Gautier had what we call today “an eye” for compelling works of art and stood his ground and had the foresight and the insight to praise both Gustave Courbet’s audacious After Dinner at Ornans and Ernst Meissonier’s moving The Street After June Days, exhibited at the same Salon of 1849, regardless of the thorny political paths after the Revolution of 1848.

As James Kearns pointed out in his 2007 book Théophile Gautier, Orator to the Artists: Art Journalism in the Second Republic, Gautier, as the art critic for La Presse, was a profoundly significant influence in the professional lives of artists. As the significance of the Salon waned, the importance of the art critic increased. His influence or impact operated through praise rather than condemnation and he was respected by the artists of his time, because, unlike some of his colleagues, he was did use “good taste” as his standard for judging. There were, however, limits to his criticism. Although Gautier had a fine instinct for the prevailing political winds of his time, his mode of art criticism was slowly becoming out of date. Like Diderot before his, the descriptive mode of art criticism, or what Eugène Delacroix called “pretty word painting,” approached its natural limitations. Gautier may have been excellent at describing the art of his day, but he lacked the dab hand at capturing its essence–a gift that Charles Baudelaire displayed so well. But Gautier established the importance of the role of the art critic and his journalistic work laid the foundation for the way in which art criticism would be the first word or those “present at the creation” on contemporary works of art. For art historians to come, it would be the writings of these art critics which would provide the subtext for art history.

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

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

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