What we think about painting

John Barrell

  • Past and Present in Art and Taste: Selected Essays by Francis Haskell
    Yale, 256 pp, £20.00, March 1987, ISBN 0 300 03607 8

‘At the very end of the 18th century and in the first years of the 19th, when the Imperial Republic of Venice had finally crumbled and the city itself was being handed backwards and forwards like a playing card between France and Austria, an exceedingly old Frenchman known as the Baron d’Hancarville used to enthral the guests who assembled regularly at the Salon, not far from the Rialto, of Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi, something of a blue-stocking, but above all one of the most famous society hostesses in Europe, at different times the friend of Byron, Foscolo and Canova.’ In this manner, Francis Haskell begins the third of his selected essays, written over the last twenty years and brought together in this volume. It is a manner which seems to parody, in its relentless accumulation of the circumstantial, a lost genre of writing, the late 19th-century ‘imaginary portrait’. And it reminds us immediately of what has always been so distinctive about his work: the sympathetic attention to patrons, collectors, connoisseurs and scholars whom more orthodox art historians, concerned more exclusively with the art-object, have consigned to oblivion; and the narrative style which manages to impart an extraordinary amount of detailed information while seeming to represent each essay as a short story. His writing can be read as an attempt to close the gap between historical scholarship and belles-lettres.

Haskell, however, can seem unwilling to contemplate the fact that at some point the narrative must stop, if a piece of writing is to become the ‘essay’ he claims it to be. He sometimes writes as if the kind of narrative pleasure he has to offer were incompatible with any mode of instruction other than the presentation and arrangement of hard information. Who said what, who painted what, who bought what, even who thought what (as long as the thought can be summarised briefly and pointedly) – these can all constitute the matter of narrative. But to reflect at any length on what it means that such things happened, or why a story is worth telling, is to do something which narrative, or at least the kind of narrative Haskell produces, cannot often do: something which would interrupt his story, and which, he seems to feel, might therefore cause pain, if only by the sudden cessation of pleasure. Many of the essays in this selection began life as lectures, and they suggest that Haskell sometimes believes he can hold the attention of his audience – and I have no doubt he always does that – only by approaching them as a raconteur.

The essay on Baron d’Hancarville is a case in point. D’Hancarville was an ‘adventurer’ – the word, writes Haskell, ‘could have been coined for him’. His life involved ‘military adventures in Germany and debtors’ prisons in most countries in Europe’; ‘brushes with the police over pornography’; ‘participation with the crowd who had swarmed into the Bastille’; and much more that was not much less like the career of a character out of Smollett. He was also an art historian who developed a fairly original theory of the origin of visual art and of the function of its different forms, and was the inspiration of Richard Payne Knight’s Discourse on the Worship of Priapus. Like Haskell, he had the storyteller’s ability to ‘captivate’ his audience, and nothing could be more appropriate, in Haskell’s account of the life and adventures of this picaresque traveller, than that we read it in a permanent state of suspense, of curiosity about what will happen next. And what happens next is almost always extraordinary, whether it is his pregnant mistress running off with a monk, or d’Hancarville himself turning up in Florence ‘with a wild scheme to borrow money by supplying Tuscany with fresh fish’.

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