With his talent for working on a large scale and with the good will which he enjoyed at court, Thomas Couture could easily have been the Rubens of the Second Empire. What he achieved during the Empire, however, was disappointing and fragmentary. He lived for ten years or so on the credit of his big, frozen orgy, ‘The Romans of the Decadence’, exhibited sensationally at the Salon of 1847, but he never painted another picture that equalled its success. The murals in the recently restored church of Saint-Eustache, the one official commission that he completed, were severely criticised and two other major works, The Enrolment of the Volunteers’ and ‘The Baptism of the Prince Imperial’, were left unfinished in a state which charms the modern taste for the ‘instinctual’ but fell short of what his patrons had expected.
Professor Boime explains the failure of Couture in terms of the psychology of the French nation. His stimulating account is not a standard monograph but an ambitious attempt to link the art of the 19th century to the society that created it. Boime’s belief that painting between David and the Impressionists reflected the political and social problems of a century divided between liberty and constraint leads him to describe a large part of French art (and music, literature and philosophy) as the product of a juste-milieu, stuck like Hercules at the crossroads, between Classicism and Romanticism, between the Academy and the avant-garde, or between any of the familiar polarities which historians of the period have found so useful in reducing art to simple terms. However, apart from a few commonplace suggestions that Romantic art is ‘passionate and painterly’ and Classicism is dogmatic and ‘firmly rooted in a pictorial tradition’, Boime never tells us what he means by ‘Classicism’ and ‘Romanticism’. This sometimes makes it difficult to see how art on the middle ground differed from art on the extremities. The art of the middle ground, on the other hand, is abundantly described.
An artist of the juste-milieu, for instance, might choose his subjects from the Middle Ages (because they were a source of mediation between antiquity and modern times), admire the philosophy of Cousin and the eclectics, prefer universal values to narrow prejudice, study the artists of the past as a source of inspiration, contain and moderate his lively brushwork with an accentuated outline, express a sense of melancholy in his art and life, and (because genuine eclectics are attracted by the harmony of opposites) he might practise Chevreul’s theory of colour. This sounds like a description of Delacroix. But Delacroix is almost always used by Professor Boime as the typical Romantic and it is, in fact, a description of Couture. However, as Boime points out, style alone is not what makes artists, differing as widely in their technique as Delaroche and Diaz, members of the juste-milieu. Technique and style, according to Boime, are, in this case, only symptoms of an unbalanced mind, driven to despair through the effort of uniting incompatible extremes.
Boime duly analyses each of Couture’s main works and many minor ones as the product of unresolved tensions between freedom and oppression. The argument is exciting and ingenious. But there are times when even art-historians of the sophistical New Left will ask themselves if Boime has paid enough attention to the science of William Ockham.
Couture’s three panels in the church of Saint-Eustache (painted directly on the plaster, and not on canvas in the studio, as Boime states) have a prosaic forcefulness that offended some of his contemporaries. But they rank, in retrospect, among the most interesting pictures in a brilliant decade of church art. Professor Boime, however, makes the surprising suggestion that these compositions are not straightforward works of piety but represent an attack upon the cult of the Virgin, an insult to organised religion, a criticism of contemporary society and a self-abasing admission that the artist, as a good member of the juste-milieu, has compromised his integrity by selling out to the forces of reaction. Boime supposes that the mural on the left of the altar, the Stella Maris, is a comment on the failure of the Virgin to save lives because it shows an angel carrying a victim of shipwreck through the air to Heaven while figures in the foreground vent the rage and disillusionment of humanity. But is the man plucked by an angel from the sea not still alive and flying on his way to the safety of the shore? Professor Boime rightly draws attention to the distinction between the elegant women praying by the shrine in the right-hand mural and the poor and disabled gathered in the background. He concludes that Couture intended to show the sad fact that those who most need the consolation of the Virgin are denied her benefits. This reading of the picture, as an ironic comment on the inhumanity of religion, is apparently strengthened by a drawing in the Louvre which, according to Boime, shows a tramp begging outside the church of Notre Dame de Bon Secours while the rich owners of the wheelchairs parked outside alone have right of access. But two of the three wheelchairs are so dilapidated that any reference to their owners as plutocrats is an obvious misreading.
Hasn’t Professor Boime turned the sense of the murals inside out? Appearances might suggest that victims of shipwreck are forsaken, as the despairing survivors seem to think, but, in reality, the angels of the Virgin are carrying out unseen acts of mercy. Appearances might suggest that rich people alone enjoy the benefits of religion, but the angel in the background, pleading for the poor and suffering in the right-hand panel, with eyes turned towards the Virgin, suggests that, In reality, the Virgin takes the dispossessed into her special care.
Because Couture once attributed the decadence of modern art to the moment when Michelangelo cut his name across the Virgin’s sash, Boime concludes that Couture’s signature on the edge of the Virgin’s skirt in the centre panel was a deliberate act of rebellion ‘against the entire social complex that made him the kind of artist that he was’. But Couture’s modest signature, barely visible on the hem (much less visible than the bold signatures used by many of his fellow artists when they decorated a chapel), hardly compares with the effrontery of Michelangelo’s inscription and might (if anything) imply a criticism of the sculptor’s self-esteem. At one point, Boime tentatively attributes the pose of two angels, one kneeling, the other with hands clasped, to a source in Guido Reni’s Annunciation in the Louvre, but, as he admits, angels kneeling and clasping hands in adoration are not uncommon in religious art. Later, while discussing Michelet’s attack on Reni’s Annunciation as an anodyne novelette inspired by Jesuit hypocrisy, the note of caution is discarded and the ‘fact’ that Couture was inspired by Reni ‘further attests to his deliberate attempt to incriminate himself as well as his society in the Saint-Eustache murals’.
Lastly, the Dominican that Couture had once intended to include in the centre panel is associated by Professor Boime with a passing reference in Michelet’s Histoire de France to the vision of St Dominic. But the presence of a Dominican in a mural of the 1850s would not have recalled Michelet’s embittered anti-clericalism but the radical Catholicism of Lammenais and Lacordaire, who, as Boime points out, had many friends in common with Couture. Unconventional the mural may be, but in a sense that is humanitiarian, pious and consoling, as was appropriate for the biggest church in one of the poorest quartiers of Paris. Boime’s conclusion, therefore, that Couture succeeded in finishing this one commission because its negative and pessimistic view conformed to the mentality of the juste-milieu is, perhaps, more ingenious than obvious.
Professor Boime is one of the liveliest in a generation of American art historians who have revised our ideas about the art of the 19th century. His work on studio practice, extended here in a detailed account of Couture’s influence, is treasured by students of the period. The idea of an eclectic juste-milieu, however, is an ancient commonplace, borrowed from the politics of moderation and passed from one critic to another as a handy dustbin for the majority of artists who do not conform to the stereotypes of reaction and reform. Léon Rosenthal’s classic history of French painting between David and Courbet, Du Romantisme au Réalisme (1914), accepted it without reserve and it has been taken up in recent years by Joseph Sloane and Pontus Grate. It has survived, not because it tells us anything about the artists themselves that is not also true of Rembrandt, Géricault, Raphael, Tintoretto, the Carracci and of everyone and anyone in the history of art, but because it enables students of the period to take a comprehensive view of 19th-century France without sacrificing the conventional idea of art progressing down a high road from David to Manet and the modern age. Professor Boime’s new book is, itself, a juste-milieu between modern scholarship and tradition, packed with material about Couture and the artists of his time, but weighed down with a few ideas that are no more convincing for being very old.