Contre Goncourt

Francis Haskell

  • Painting in l8th-Century France by Philip Conisbee
    Phaidon, 224 pp, £20.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 7148 2147 0
  • Word and Image: French Painting of the Ancien Régime by Norman Bryson
    Cambridge, 281 pp, £27.50, January 1982, ISBN 0 521 23776 9

Like last year’s student riots in Switzerland, the fact that there have recently been historiographical disturbances, sometimes of a heated kind, affecting what have long seemed to be the most placid and amiable of all artistic schools – those of Dutch 17th-century genre painting and of French 18th-century painting in general – may come as something of a shock to those members of the public who do not keep their ears uncomfortably close to the ground. There have been hints, of course – but Philip Conisbee’s book is in fact the first to bring to a wide public the new interpretation of French painting in the 18th century that has been quietly gaining ground behind the scenes. Norman Bryson, in a work which will necessarily be much less read, entirely bypasses this particular interpretation, but substitutes a new one of his own which is, in part, dependent on changing views of Dutch art of the 17th century.

Very briefly, the changes can be summarised as follows. The comfortable households, the music masters and their pupils, the idle servants, the industrious children, the guard rooms, the riotous inns – all those familiar scenes to be enjoyed in the paintings of Pieter de Hooch and Metsu, Nicolaes Maes, Jan Steen and so many others – can no longer be considered as merely the products of a new ‘bourgeois realism’, reflecting self-satisfied pride of possession. It is often possible to show, not just that a single figure, seemingly based on the most direct observation of everyday life, has simply been copied from an engraving made by some other artist many years earlier, but also that a whole composition is closely related to the stylised illustrations to be found in emblem books. This has suggested to Dutch art-historians that such scenes should be ‘read’ as moral allegories, often containing disguised symbolism (dogs, oysters, wine, pipes and so on), inculcating a system of values by means not altogether dissimilar from those used by the ‘history painting’ practised elsewhere in Europe. Moreover, the importance, even in the Netherlands, of such history painting has recently been brought to attention following a remarkable exhibition of Dutch painting, ‘Gods, Saints and Heroes’, held last year in Washington, Detroit and Amsterdam.

To the outsider (who does not read Dutch) there appears to be quite extraordinarily little external evidence with which to support this new interpretation. Contemporary inventories and nearly contemporary biographies seem to describe 17th-century genre pictures by titles very similar in kind to those we give them today, and the moralising verses attached to engravings of such pictures (as to those of Chardin in the 18th century) do not necessarily tell us anything about the painter’s intention – or even about the manner in which his pictures were viewed by those for whom they were painted. On the other hand, the absence of such external evidence is not in itself sufficient reason for dismissing the new approach – nor has it mitigated the passionate intensity with which it can be held, as will be clear to anyone reading a ferocious controversy in the Dutch (but English-language) magazine Simiolus about the nature of laughter in the 17th century. Nevertheless, however wary we may be about overinterpretation, it is unlikely that once these new investigations have been assimilated into more general literature it will ever be possible to look on Dutch painting in quite the same way. Indeed, one of the flaws in the new approach is that it is now virtually impossible to envisage just what sort of picture could have been painted by a Dutch artist wholly uninterested in morality and wanting to portray only his bourgeois client’s pride of possession.

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