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.

The new attitude to French 18th-century painting is different in character. It is argued that when interest in the art of the Ancien Régime revived in the early decades of the 19th century – a revival which culminated (rather than originated) in the extremely influential championship of the Goncourts – the artists chosen for revaluation were entirely unrepresentative of those who had been most highly thought of in their own day and that this bias has been encouraged by collectors and writers ever since. In the 18th century itself, French painters had been graded according to a hierarchy which placed religious, history and allegorical painting at the peak, with portraiture, landscape, genre and still-life far below in the esteem of critics and the most important patrons. What can be called ‘the Goncourt revival’ reversed this scale of values. Watteau, Boucher, Chardin, Greuze, Quentin de la Tour, Fragonard were written about and sought after: Restout, Antoine Coypel, Carle van Loo and many others were neglected. It thus becomes the job of the historian today to present a more balanced picture of 18th-century French art and in so doing, it is implied, he will find much to reward him and us.

Conisbee fulfils the first part of this double mission with considerable success. His opening chapter on ‘The Artist’s World’ is outstanding and provides an admirable account of how the arts were taught and organised under the Ancien Régime – the workings of the Academy, exhibitions and patronage, the nature of criticism. His discussion of individual artists is often excellent; it is not surprising, given that he organised the beautiful Vernet exhibition a few years ago, that he is particularly rewarding when he writes about this painter. His shaking-up of conventional values goes very far indeed. Perronneau, for example, that most subtle of portraitists, is simply not mentioned at all. Is this because Conisbee is so keen to register, indeed endorse, contemporary opinion that he thinks it not worth bothering with an artist who was, in his lifetime, overshadowed by Quentin de la Tour, whatever may have been thought since?

The aesthetic consequences of a historical reappraisal do, in fact, present very great difficulties, and I am not sure that Conisbee has always been able to overcome them. The main problem is this. While ‘the Goncourt revival’ was certainly misleading, it was not wholly arbitrary – even when judged against the standards of the 18th century itself. It is true that ‘history painters’ (taken here to include painters of serious allegory and of religion as well as of history) were honoured more, encouraged more and often paid more than the ‘painters of minor genres’ (discussed in Conisbee’s Chapter Five, where Watteau makes his first significant appearance), but it is also true that, for most of the 18th century, these history painters were nearly always felt to be lacking in stature. They were needed to some extent – for official decoration and, above all, for the production of altarpieces – but their works only very rarely attracted great enthusiasm. Conisbee puts the case for them very fairly, explains what they were trying to do, how much they depended on the example of earlier artists and so on, but he is (naturally enough, perhaps) very reticent indeed when he comes to assessing how far he believes them to have succeeded. Looking through his well-chosen plates, we may well accept his cautious verdict that ‘they do offer their own delights,’ and yet feel – as did many writers in the 18th century – that, until the arrival of the fully-formed David, their achievements failed, with only rare exceptions, to match up to the expectations aroused by the prestige with which they were surrounded. The reasons for this failure in a society so extraordinarily rich in artistic talent should be a matter of interest to the historian.

The ‘frivolity of the age’ can be dismissed at once, even if it was sometimes advanced at the time. Venice, generally held to be the most frivolous and irresponsible of cities, produced by far the greatest history painters during the first half of the century. Indeed, comparisons with Italy are indispensable and telling. It must, for instance, be significant that Pierre Subleyras, the one French religious painter of outstanding quality, should have spent virtually his entire working life in Italy. Almost alone among the French, Subleyras was consistently able to master, without any sense of strain, the grand manner of the 17th century and add to it highly personal qualities – of colour, and also of reserve and deep, but quietly expressed emotion – which rightly led to his being acclaimed among the great masters of Rome and being commissioned to paint an altarpiece for St Peter’s. Yet Subleyras was trained in France (admittedly mainly in the provinces), and although it would be ludicrous to base elaborate theories on the career of one man, the fact is worth stressing because Conisbee’s account of the excellent French system makes one reluctant to suggest that it should be held responsible for the comparative weakness of just that branch of painting which it was specifically designed to promote. Subleyras had personal reasons for wishing to stay in Rome – he came from the South, he suffered from a weak chest – but it is tempting to believe that he also felt that it was only in Italy that his true merits would be fully appreciated. Conisbee understandably echoes the comparisons which some writers have made between Subleyras and Chardin, and adds that ‘had Chardin ever painted a gardener, he would surely have looked rather like the figure on the right [of Subleyras’s Miracle of St Benedict].’ This is probably true enough, but one feels that while Chardin might well have painted a gardener, he could never have painted an altarpiece covering more than six square metres; and, still more, that the qualities which he would have tried to bring to such a task would not have been those required of him.

If one compares almost any of the French religious or historical pictures discussed by Conisbee with works by their Italian contemporaries, it is surely the lack of fluency, the sense of strain, which are most immediately striking – weaknesses which are quite absent from the mythologies or allegories of Boucher or Fragonard. It is as if the more elevated the subject the more self-conscious the effort that had to be made to live up to it, and to earlier traditions depicting it (though, ironically enough, an authentic sense of gravity now seems to us to be just the quality most lacking in such pictures). This was certainly true of most religious painting of the 19th century, but it may already have been the case a hundred years earlier, when it was widely agreed that the very fluency (or facility) of contemporary Italian painting was a mark of its falsity, and, by implication, of its insincerity. Thus it may well be that it was not lack of religious feeling, but – on the contrary – an excessive concern with the correct way of expressing religious feeling, that proved so damaging to this branch of French art. Even the exquisite and withdrawn sensibility of a Subleyras may have seemed unsuitable on a French altar because, by appealing to the connoisseur, it detracted too much from the didactic message it was intended to convey (the sort of issue that is discussed in depth by Bryson).

The problems faced by painters of Ancient history were somewhat different until the last quarter of the century: their pictures were treated with excessive attention by the theorists and considerable indifference by collectors. France, quite unlike Italy, looked back with nostalgia to ‘the age of Louis XIV’ when (so it came to be believed) true values in art had been appreciated as well as formulated; and, as usually happens in such circumstances, exaggerated – not to say, misguided – respect could be inhibiting. So it was perhaps that those artists with genuine individual gifts found it more rewarding – psychologically and sometimes even financially – to devote themselves to subjects that were either despised as insignificant (such as portraiture, landscape, still-life, genre) or new (such as fêtes galantes and light-hearted erotic mythology). Only towards the end of the century, when the administration showed that it had a real, as well as theoretical commitment to history painting, did a number of very talented artists, and one genius, David, move into the field.

Bryson covers some of the same ground as Conisbee, but his choice of artists to discuss is essentially that made by the Goncourts – hard though it would be to imagine an approach more different from theirs, or from that of art-historians in general. This is his declared aim, for we are told that he wrote his book ‘in the belief that art history has allowed itself to enter a phase of intellectual isolation from the other humanities, and in the hope that, this isolation once ended, art history may be returned to a position of central importance in the study of human culture.’ He takes care to give simple explanations of the technical vocabulary he finds it essential to use, but parts of his book are very difficult to follow for those not familiar with recent developments in literary criticism; and in attempting to summarise his arguments while, for the most part, avoiding his terminology, I am aware how likely it is that I may have misunderstood them.

Breaking away from the standard stylistic approach to French art of the 18th century, Bryson asks us, instead, to note a continuous series of adjustments between two polarities: on the one hand, the discursive – that aspect of a painting concerned with a textual message, and hence closest to literature – and on the other, the figural – that aspect of a painting which is peculiar to itself and cannot, as it were, be translated into other forms of communication. Certain painters of the 18th century have often been thought of in terms of these polarities, but Bryson’s book is notable for the extremely systematic way in which he works out his thesis, and also for the fact that while he feels, or seems to feel, much more at ease in his discussion of ‘discursive’ painting, he always comes down firmly on the side of the ‘figural’. This can lead to unexpected insights, but also to some very curious conclusions.

The story begins with Le Brun, who sacrifices his painterly gifts (seen in the beautiful equestrian portrait of Chancellor Séguier in the Louvre) to the more textually-orientated propaganda with which he celebrates the victories of Louis XIV. Le Brun’s theories of expression rightly play an important role in Bryson’s (as, too, in Conisbee’s) discussion of 18th-century painting as a whole. With the withdrawal from the scene of Le Brun, ‘discursive’ painting loses ground (here Bryson’s adoption of ‘the Goncourt revival’ leads him into an excessively simplistic interpretation of later developments). However, the paintings of Watteau do not lack ‘discourse’: they merely destroy the straightforward, almost mechanical relationship established by Le Brun between gesture and meaning, and introduce in its place a note of ambiguity. The varied groups and solitary figures to be seen in Watteau’s fêtes galantes invite speculation as to their relationship with each other while concealing the answers. Indeed, Bryson finds that Watteau’s images are rendered banal by critics who try to trace specific meanings in them, as they do with the Fêtes Vénitiennes in Edinburgh: in this picture the sad figure playing the bagpipes is thought to be a self-portrait, while the fat man in oriental dress is Watteau’s friend, the artist Nicolas Wleughels. Conisbee agrees that a literal interpretation is no longer attainable, while suggesting (surely rightly) that some hidden, personal meaning is likely to have been present in the works of an artist who painted largely for a small group of friends. Bryson enjoys himself demolishing previous interpretations of Watteau, but his mockery would be more telling if it were not sometimes misleading. It is fun to read of the various composers to whom has been credited the music which is supposed to enter our minds when we contemplate Watteau’s musicians: ‘Sibelius is perhaps the weirdest choice; Ravel is sometimes cited, but more usual are Debussy (sometimes chamber music, sometimes ‘L’Après-midi d’un Faune’), and Chopin (mazurkas, ballades).’ It is, however, something of an anti-climax to refer to the four separate footnotes and find that all four composers are alluded to in just one, totally forgotten book. Moreover, ridicule comes awkwardly from an author whose errors can be so very disturbing. To build an important argument concerning the use of perspective and differences of scale on Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation while assuming that this panel (of 58-by-82 cm) is a fresco shakes the reader’s confidence, which will receive a real battering a few pages later when it is claimed at some length that a particularly well-known controversy among 17th-century art-theorists about Poussin’s omission of camels from Eliezer and Rebecca concerned a different picture.

It is in his discussion of Chardin that Bryson shows himself well aware of recent reinterpretations of the nature of Dutch genre painting. In following what is now believed to be a moralising tradition, Chardin can be seen as a ‘direct successor of Le Brun’, and I find Bryson at his most persuasive when emphasising ‘the high moral seriousness with which Chardin regarded his subject-matter’, despite the fact that such moral seriousness was not really understood by his contemporaries. I am, however, confused by his discussion of the changing nature of Chardin’s reputation, which is based on wholly inadequate evidence, and am still more confused when his admiration for this great painter leads him to mount a sudden rescue operation to bring him into the ‘figural’ camp.

With Greuze, according to Bryson, the pendulum swings back to the ‘discursive’, but the discourse no longer functions adequately because too much (and too much that is self-contradictory) is required of it. This leads to a neurotic breakdown in communication which makes it impossible for Greuze to introduce a normal, virile young man into the family groups of which he was so fond. Bryson keeps some of his greatest surprises for his chapter on David, an artist whom he profoundly admires and who cannot therefore be allowed to be ‘discursive’, as the implications of the argument would seem to require. We are thus given a curious, stimulating and yet not wholly convincing analysis of the ambiguities to be found in David’s treatment of antique history – ambiguities which, according to Bryson, enhance his true qualities as an artist at the expense of his exaggerated reputation as a propagandist.

There can be no doubt that this is a very ingenious book by someone who has thought hard and adventurously about paintings which have hitherto attracted more flabby rhetoric than intellectual concentration. Much of what it says, usually in passing, is both new and perceptive. It will almost certainly encourage fruitful thought about the 18th century, though I am not convinced that the alternative history which it proposes is as arresting as the author appears to imply. Its ideas would have been enriched, and controlled, by an awareness of Conisbee’s approach, just as Conisbee’s valuable summing-up of recent developments in art history might have gained in depth from some consideration of Bryson’s lively ideas.