The Great Business

Nicholas Penny

  • Art of the 19th Century: Painting and Sculpture by Robert Rosenblum and H.W. Janson
    Thames and Hudson, 527 pp, £25.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 500 23385 3
  • Romanticism and Realism: The Mythology of 19th-Century Art by Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner
    Faber, 244 pp, £15.00, October 1984, ISBN 0 571 13332 0
  • Géricault: His Life and Work by Lorenz Eitner
    Orbis, 376 pp, £40.00, March 1983, ISBN 0 85613 384 1
  • Tradition and Desire: From David to Delacroix by Norman Bryson
    Cambridge, 277 pp, £27.50, August 1984, ISBN 0 521 24193 6

In the National Gallery you can look into a dark and very ancient stone chamber where there is a teenage girl of exquisite beauty, wearing white satin and kneeling upon a velvet cushion, blindfold. She is supported, tenderly, by a gentleman in a black cloak and looked on by a large man in red tights who holds an axe. In front of her, between her and us, there is a wooden block surrounded by fresh straw: behind, in the shadows, ladies-in-waiting, who have divested her of robes and jewels, sob and swoon. ‘The great business of painting,’ declared Jonathon Richardson the elder, echoing almost all earlier European writers on art from Alberti onwards, ‘is to relate a history or fable’ – to compete with the poet or dramatist, and best of all with epic and tragedy. The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Delaroche reminds us that the ‘great business’ was not neglected in the 19th century, although by then there were those who argued that painting what could be seen, whether landscape or ‘modern life’, should be a higher priority. It was only in this century that theorists decided that for a painter to be concerned with narrative was improper and ‘literary’ (although writers were still permitted to be pictorial). By then the ‘great business’ had been lost to the ‘pictures’, as the cinematograph was popularly known.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey and other similar pictures by Delaroche depart with bold originality from the earlier ways of painting history or fable on a large scale which were perpetuated by the more traditional Delacroix, most of whose paintings would not have surprised, although they would have delighted, Veronese, Rubens or Reynolds. Delaroche’s picture presents Robert Rosenblum with ‘the immediate illusion of a theatrical tableau enacted by costumed players in a crystal-clear space’. It was painted for – one might say took place at – the Salon of 1834. By then many paintings were designed primarily for the great annual public exhibitions and some of them exclusively for these, with no appropriate final destination. Special shows of one or two works of art, usually large ones, were also to be seen in Paris, although less often than in London, where the American artist Copley exhibited his Death of Chatham and his Death of Major Peirson in the 1780s. Thereafter, an impresario was generally involved, such as William Bullock, who exhibited Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa as well as dwarfs, Eskimos and so on in the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly (which was later to serve as one of London’s first cinemas). Other French paintings, including a version of David’s Coronation of Napoleon, with its dazzling profusion of documentary details, were shown separately in London in the same period. By the mid-century touring exhibitions were taking some popular English pictures such as John Martin’s Great Day of his Wrath as far as America. Frith’s Derby Day even reached Australia. Hyperbolic publicity was circulated which boasted of the time consumed in making these pictures, the painstaking search for ‘authenticity’, the number of portrait heads included, and the record price paid for copyright (the profits from engravings being as important a factor in the whole undertaking as television rights are in film-making).

Art of the 19th Century is the first general history of its kind which gives proper consideration to these pictures and others like them. The intelligence with which Rosenblum discusses their significance will be granted even by those who regret that he is so tolerant of them as works of art. ‘Theatrical’ may suggest condescending praise but Rosenblum takes Lady Jane Grey very seriously. This will shock some people, but they will be relieved that Rosenblum does not recommend that we like everything. He shakes no established reputation – a pity to my mind since surveys of this sort should do more to discourage piety – but he is certainly right to accept Géricault’s painting as a masterpiece.

Although a modern episode with hot political connotations, the raft of the Medusa in Géricault’s painting looks as timeless as the deluges and storms much favoured in the late 18th century for the ‘great business’ of painting – each offers an easily comprehensible narrative of portentous and universal significance (Man against Nature, Man confronting his Destiny). Moreover, Géricault was careful to provide the wide range of contrasted expressions and gestures, the pyramidal grouping and complex axial compositional movements, the heroic anatomy and the dramatic lighting (although not the colour and not the visionary effulgence) admired in Raphael’s Transfiguration – in short, the painting follows the precepts urged by European academies for over a century. It is of course significant that its conception depended upon the stimulus of a topical newspaper story and also that it was executed, courageously, without commission and without institutional support, but that does not make it less academic, in the true sense.

Over fifty thousand people were said to have paid a shilling to view the Raft in London, and, if we believe Zola’s L’Assommoir, it was, later in the century, the painting most likely to arrest the attention of a working-class wedding party lost in the Louvre on a Sunday afternoon; but it is easy to imagine how it might have been given more popular appeal, and when it was sent by Bullock from London to Dublin it met there with competition from a ‘Marine Peristrephic Panorama’ consisting of thousands of feet of canvas painted with larger than life-size figures which unwound to orchestral music before the seated public, showing them the whole story of the raft – the cutting of the ropes, the mutiny, the cannibalism and the rescue, all under lights of changing colour. This ancestor of the modern disaster movie proved more of an attraction than the descendant of the Renaissance history painting.

The other painters I have mentioned all contributed to shaping the new world of mass visual entertainment – a world which included panoramas and Madame Tussaud’s waxworks and which culminated in Hollywood films. Copley’s Death of Major Peirson was ‘a flamboyant spectacle of national pride and grief’ resembling, Rosenblum continues, ‘a frame from a carefully directed wide-screen movie’. Rosenblum also notes that Martin’s ‘hair-raising’ spectacles inspired the Babylonian sets in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, and points out that the global success of Derby Day made it the ‘equivalent to a record-breaking popular movie’. It is, however, not the cinema but still photography which preoccupies Rosenblum most in his part (which is much the larger part) of this book.

He is especially concerned with the anticipations of photography and the analogies with it. In one picture he discovers a ‘total candour that almost prefigures photography’, in another ‘unedited flashbulb truth’, in another ‘probity, like a documentary photograph’, in another ‘the chilling veracity of a modern news photograph’, and there are many other examples. He is writing about such very different images as a portrait of the Spanish royal family by Goya, a sketch of the Roman Forum by Corot, the corpses in 12 rue Transonain lithographed by Daumier and a provincial burial painted by Courbet, but in each work it may be claimed that the artist is striving to avoid conventional formulae and to depict what he had seen as if it had never been depicted before. For this reason the paintings he describes were revered by a later generation of artists who painted reflections in the Seine, crowds on the boulevards, rehearsals at the ballet and couples at café tables and who were also inspired by photography in ways which Rosenblum also notes.

However, when the adjective ‘photographic’ is applied – by Rosenblum, or by any of us – to 19th-century painting it is most often to describe the meticulous literalness and glassy finish of so-called ‘official’, ‘academic’, ‘bourgeois’, ‘conservative’ paintings by Delaroche or, later, Gérôme or Bonnat – artists who have been opposed to the ‘modern tradition’ which has claimed Goya, the Corot of the oil sketches, Courbet, Daumier, Degas, Monet and Manet. Indeed, this opposition has been a leading theme in most histories of 19th-century art. It has meant that the academic and traditional aspects of Géricault and Delacroix have been systematically under-estimated, that the numerous battles of 19th-century art have been mistaken for one continuous conflict between the establishment and the avant-garde (with Ingres mysteriously fighting on both sides), and that Géricault has been turned into Courbet, Delacroix into Van Gogh, Corot into Pissarro, Constable into Monet – and Monet into Jackson Pollock.

Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner in Romanticism and Realism, a book based on articles written in the course of recent years for the New York Review of Books, are anxious to defend the idea of a ‘modern tradition’ and argue that Romantics, Realists and Impressionists belong to the same faith or family, and that the Realists must not be confused with the merely ‘realistic’. Their arguments are highly intelligent and provocative, but also often misleading. They try, for instance, to turn Constable into Monet, assuring us that ‘most of the sites chosen’ by Constable for his paintings ‘have no intrinsic interest’. That is an extraordinary way to describe Salisbury Cathedral, Hadleigh Castle, Stonehenge or Old Sarum; to say nothing of the mills and locks and farmland of his native Stour Valley, perhaps more laden with personal associations and ideological implications than the sites in the work of any other landscape painter in any century.

The same mythology of 19th-century art makes Lorenz Eitner, in his admirable Géricault (which was awarded the 1983 Mitchell Prize for art history), exaggerate his hero’s isolation. He even supposes that Géricault, like some Abstract Expressionist, may have painted the Raft with ‘little expectation of exhibition’. He is of course deeply embarrassed by Géricault’s warm admiration for Wilkie’s Chelsea Pensioners (not part of the ‘modern tradition’) and ingeniously proposes that Géricault was exaggerating the merit of this ‘anecdotal and sentimental’ picture because he was writing to Vernet – he believes (on a scrap of third-hand and uncontemporary evidence) that Géricault considered Vernet to be a trivial artist. This doesn’t explain why Géricault paid a special visit to Wilkie’s studio. What Géricault admired in this astonishing painting was the pathos of the expressions, and if Eitner was not so busy trying to detect the non-existent influence of the more respectable Constable he would surely have noticed how close some of Wilkie’s heads (above all that of the deaf and slow-witted veteran upon whom the news of Waterloo slowly dawns) come to Géricault’s portraits of monomaniacs.

Rosenblum’s merit is that he is always looking for connections where art historians have been determined only to see opposition. He detects connections across frontiers and across the old stylistic divisions. He has no prejudice against finding links between Géricault and Wilkie. He even makes a profitable comparison between Ingres and Courbet. He also enjoys elaborating on analogies between Degas and Gérôme – and on how both artists were influenced by photography. It is, however, worth preserving the importance of one fundamental division in French 19th-century art. The ‘truth to fact’ displayed in the manner in which Delaroche, Gérôme or Bonnat painted was allied with fictional narrative of a sort which Degas, after a decade of painful experiment, rejected. Why he and many other 19th-century artists were averse to it has never been properly explained.

It may be helpful to consider the prejudices which now prevail in our estimation of artistic photography – the prejudices, for instance, which we discover in ourselves when we ask why we find it hard not to smile at Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographic illustrations to the Idylls of the King. Historians of photography inform us that photographers, having vainly endeavoured to imitate paintings in order to be artistic, came eventually to see their folly. But Cameron was no fool. And why did art photographers abandon all forms of invented narrative? Why indeed should it now be considered absurd for the photographer, but not for the film-maker, to arrange a scene in a studio? It is tempting to propose the explanation that, since the close of the last century, photography has been able to provide a reliable record of life and it is so important for us to trust this record that we disdain the posed, the invented, even in art photography, as deceit. Is one of the problems that many of us feel looking at the ‘photographic’ pictures by Delaroche or Gérôme or Bonnat connected with some anxiety at ‘truth to fact’ being employed on an episode which the artist could not have seen?

Rosen and Zerner argue that Courbet, Manet, Degas and Monet in their different ways share an emphasis on the flat surface, on brushwork and on paint, which means that ‘not for one moment are we allowed to believe that we dream, that we have in front of us a vivid but unreal world.’ Instead, we are ‘forced to remember that we are in front of a work of art, a painting, a representation’. In the case of a merely ‘realistic’ picture, on the other hand, the ‘strategy’ is to ‘insist’ on painting ‘as an open window or an illusion’. The eye ‘goes right through the surface ... into a world of fantasy’. It should be emphasised that these responses are not mutually exclusive. There are paintings in which we almost lose ourselves, paintings which even excite devotion or desire, but which we can also appreciate as paint or pattern. When Rosen and Zerner say that in merely ‘realistic’ paintings ‘we are first aware of the scene; the means of representation take second place’, they are describing how Leonardo wanted people to respond to his paintings! It may be argued that in the case of a painting like The Execution of Lady Jane Grey it is actually quite hard to consider the means of representation: the eye not only goes through the surface, it finds it hard not to do so. That, however, is also the case with all great masters of aerial perspective such as Cuyp or Claude. And it is tendentious to use the words ‘dream’, ‘illusion’ and ‘fantasy’ (which imply the suspension of rationality) instead of ‘fiction’. We know it is fiction even if we are unaware of the surface, just as we know it is fiction in the cinema although we are unaware of the screen.

I don’t disapprove of Delaroche’s painting but I do wonder why, although it is thrilling and touching, it does not fully engage me. It is, I think, to do with that ‘truth to fact’ – the velvet, satin and straw. He must have seen all this, but since he wasn’t alive in Tudor England we think of him as painting actors. Hence the ‘theatricality’, the sense that this is a representation of a representation, which does inhibit imaginative participation. In the 18th century it was a commonplace that the ‘veneration for buttons and buttonholes’ found in Copley and the like was incompatible with true poetry or pathos. Would it not offend someone looking at a Pieta by Annibale Caracci ‘with tears in his eyes’, Sir Joshua Reynolds asked rhetorically in one of his notebooks, ‘to have his attention called off to observe a piece of drapery naturally painted’ – that is, with its texture carefully represented, as in the small Dutch cabinet pieces which were a source for the style of Delaroche’s big exhibition pictures? Rosenblum makes a similar point in his excellent discussion of a painting of Job by Léon Bonnat exhibited at the Salon of 1880. This, he points out, fails to move us in the way that the similar naked old men in the dark, desperately looking up to a heavenly light, move us when painted by Ribera, because Bonnat’s ‘photographic’ technique makes us think of the old man as a posed geriatric model.

Manet when he painted the dead Christ and Christ Mocked also failed to escape from the studio. Some would claim that he intended to demonstrate that escape had become impossible (thereby insisting on the work of art as representation). In any case, these examples make us realise how much of the traditional purpose, the ‘great business’, of painting, has been lost, for neither the Realist nor the ‘realistic’ artist could move us to tears as Annibale Caracci or Ribera do – or rather did. It is also surely obvious that we are more likely to think intelligently about Manet, indeed about 19th-century art, if we take Bonnat seriously. This is the attitude that Rosenblum encourages, and the chief of many reasons for welcoming this book.

Anxiety about the great traditions of European painting may be connected with much that we call ‘photographic’ in 19th-century painting, whether by Bonnat or Manet: realism, as much as archaism, was a way of escaping the tyranny of the Old Masters. This anxiety deserves more investigation, although it hasn’t been quite so neglected as Norman Bryson earnestly assures us it’s been. In his study of David, Ingres and Delacroix, Bryson repeatedly laments the ‘collective assumptions of art-historical practice’, but blindly follows a common assumption of contemporary art history by interpreting an artist’s sources as intentional references. For example, he claims that David’s immature Combat between Mars and Minerva, which is both derivative and confused, is a painting about stylistic confusion and derivation, in which ‘code or meta-language’ are ‘conspicuously foregrounded’. Again, according to Bryson, when David painted The Intervention of the Sabine Women he employed ‘the simplest of tropes: indented quotation’. But even when an artist repeats a pose or a detail very closely (which David does not do in this picture), we shouldn’t take it for granted that this is a quotation without considering the public for whom the artist was working. The great narrative paintings by David which once enthralled vast numbers of people are here turned into something weirdly similar to Bryson’s own books: works of criticism and theory intended for initiates. What is ‘really’ being painted, we are told, is not the oath of the Horatii but ‘what it means to be a sighted being who does not see angelically, in essence and beyond time but mortally; along with others, in tradition. In a sense what he paints is the mortality of sight.’ Really?