Why so late and so painfully?

Frederick Brown

  • BuyCézanne: A Life by Alex Danchev
    Profile, 488 pp, £30.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 1 84668 165 3

In 1857, when Cézanne was 18, the government lawyer prosecuting Madame Bovary as an affront to public decency declared that the novel was ‘a painting admirable from the point of view of talent but execrable from that of morality … Monsieur Flaubert embellishes his paintings with all the resources of art but without any of its caution; there is in his work no gauze, no veils – it shows nature in the raw.’ Those who bowed to convention could expect to be rewarded. If an artist aspired to the Prix de Rome (or even if he didn’t) he should spend long hours copying paintings in the Louvre, whose dimly-lit galleries were obstacle courses where young men sat three-deep at wooden easels. Like the trophy wife, the well-bred artist served a purpose no less significant for being largely decorative. In an address to the Royal Academy in 1840, François Guizot noted that ‘the statues of great men have come to populate public squares,’ as though they represented the oligarchy of a stable civilisation. ‘It is a happy thing in the era and present state of modern societies,’ he added. ‘What would you do, what would any of us do with these hordes incessantly raising themselves to the level of civilisation, of influence, of freedom, if they were so consumed by thirst for material wellbeing and by political passions as to have nothing in mind but thoughts of enriching themselves and fighting for their rights? They need other interests, other sentiments, other pleasures.’

Distracting middle-class condotierri from issues of moment was the task of the artist who didn’t want to risk exclusion from the Salon, an annual bazaar organised under official auspices. When, in 1863, Louis-Napoleon gave those rejected by the Salon leave to hang their work in separate premises, the critics lost no time comparing this Salon des Refusés to Charenton, the French counterpart of Bedlam. It was unseemly of the state to conduct itself like a fairground entrepreneur who displays freaks in his booth and charges admission, Maxime du Camp declared with mock indignation. Better that ‘monstrosities’ (among them works by Manet, Pissarro, Whistler, Fantin-Latour, Jongkind and Cézanne) be quarantined lest they contaminate public space.

At the Royal Academy Guizot spoke on behalf of men who feared the socioeconomic vehicle they themselves had made and ridden. As the vehicle accelerated, with new money ageing in a generation and men of no repute becoming rich overnight, their apprehensions increased. Change, or the feeling that any trick of fortune might end their reign, induced them to celebrate stultification. During the Ancien Régime, no word could, en principe, be uttered on stage and no painting exhibited without the king’s leave. Art existed as art only insofar as it was an agreement with the judgment of his cultural arbiters. When the king was beheaded, his authority devolved onto neoclassical conventions to which, half a century later, the middle-class establishment could not have clung more tenaciously had it been a candidate for the scaffold. Academic art shielded its champions against the spectre of alienation. Did they feel threatened by the masses? They could relax in classical company. Had the shape of life become unclear and its rhythm breakneck? The more reason to idealise meticulous lines and glassy finishes that sealed time in images drawn from mythology, the Bible and the heroic age.

What detractors found offensive about Impressionist art was precisely its lack of ‘finish’, the shimmer of life it embodied. Théophile Gautier, whose notion of ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ endeared him to the upper-class connoisseur, wrote, apropos of a Barbizon painter, Charles-François Daubigny: ‘It is really too bad that he … should be satisfied with an impression and should neglect details to the extent that he does. His pictures are nothing more than rough drafts left in a very unfinished state.’ Thirty years later, Monet, Pissarro and Sisley escaped him altogether. How many who shared his incomprehension also sought through art to find asylum from the horrible quotidien? To abolish detail, to leave brushstrokes, gobs of paint and bare patches on the canvas, to take pleasure in representing mundane or ephemeral things was to profane the temple.

In the temple, where eyes were fixed on the past and masters were seen as custodians of a sacred practice, there wasn’t much talk of artistic fatherhood. Fathers belonged to the realm of change and generation; and in that realm the title of ‘father of modern art’ has most often been conferred on Cézanne, the painter belatedly recognised as such by critics and curators. To Bonnard he was ‘the painter most powerfully armed in the face of nature, the strongest, the most sincere’. Matisse honoured him as ‘a sort of God of painting’. Picasso said that ‘he was like the father of us all.’

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