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’.

The suspense and curiosity, however, are excited not only by the narrative but by the hint, made early in the essay, that at some time the narrative will give way to something else. ‘At a time,’ Haskell writes, ‘when “conventional” art history is under strong attack from those who deplore its lack of intellectual content, there may well be something to be gained from looking at the influence exerted by a man whose genuine passion for ideas only rarely met with that critical yet sensitive response which is always necessary if the subject of art history is indeed once again to become truly significant.’ I am not sure where this sentence stands in relation to the attack it refers to. It seems, however, to amount to a promise that at some time the essay itself will develop an ‘intellectual content’ by means of an account of, and a critical response to d’Hancarville’s ideas. But when, more than half-way through the essay, Haskell finally offers us three consecutive paragraphs about those ideas (a fourth follows, a couple of pages later), he begins: ‘Any indication of d’Hancarville’s powers can only be suggested here by extreme simplification’ – and the brief summary he provides of d’Hancarville’s theories is in no sense a critical one. The summary, it seems, must be brief, and must not be critical, not because a lecture-length piece does not afford enough time to offer a fuller account, but because to do so it would be necessary to switch genres, and to start writing a critical essay. If a work of fiction achieved an effect of continual suspense by a similar refusal to fulfil the promises it made, I would no doubt be delighted: but it would be irresponsible in the reviewer of a work of scholarship – it would be to take my pleasures too lightly – to appear to enjoy the trick this story plays.

Some of Haskell’s other biographical narratives make more of an attempt to become essays, but the attempt to reflect on the point of his story is often perfunctory. The account of the Italian patron of early 19th-century French painting, and sometime friend of Napoleon I, Giovanni Battista Sommariva, and the piece on Benjamin Altman, the millionaire department-store owner who left his collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are cases in point. Each of these stories does have a point, of course, for each brings together a great deal of information about a career which is of considerable interest to the social, economic and political historian as well as to the historian of art, information made available here for other scholars to find a use for. And in the case of Sommariva, Haskell candidly acknowledges that, as far as the history of art is concerned, he does not yet know what his story means, for we will not know how typical Sommariva’s preferences were until other, contemporary collectors are studied in similar detail.

At some point, however, in both pieces, Haskell suggests that it might be possible to use the story he has been telling so as to answer some kind of historical question, but the answers he offers are as odd as they are brief. Thus the question, ‘to what extent was it possible in the early years of the 20th century for an American to build up a collection of “great art” on the lines envisaged by Altman?’ elicits a reply to what must be a different question, for it contains no reflection on why it might have been particularly difficult or easy for an American to collect the kind of pictures Altman was interested in procuring. In the case of Sommariva, the question itself, as Haskell admits, is as odd as the answer it receives: ‘what would have happened to French – and European – art if the French Revolution and Napoleon had never occurred?’ Though Sommariva’s enormous fortune was made ‘by the Revolution and by Napoleon’, writes Haskell, his collecting was characterised by a taste for mythological subjects which sensualised but still idealised the figure: the pictures and sculptures he bought reveal a pre-Revolutionary, aristocratic taste, and ‘dwell on the theme of peace and its delights’. Had the Revolution and Napoleon not occurred, this is the art that would still have been being produced (as indeed to some extent it was) twenty-five years after the fall of the Bastille – except that, as Haskell also suggests, the fact that it was still being produced is evidence of a nostalgia for the Ancien Régime. If the Revolution had not occurred, it seems, painting would not have changed: and yet insofar as the pre-Revolutionary style of painting did survive, it did so because it catered to a distinctively post-Revolutionary nostalgia for the pre-Revolutionary period. It is just about possible to square these two claims, but it would have been helpful if Haskell had made the attempt on our behalf.

So what is it that Haskell can do at his best? The best answer is to be found in his superb essay on Morris Moore, the English owner for most of the second half of the 19th century of the painting Apollo and Marsyas in the Louvre, which Moore believed was a Raphael, but which is – for the time being anyway – attributed to Perugino. This essay demonstrates as well as anything Haskell has ever written the exemplary thoroughness of his research and his remarkable narrative skill, but its triumphant success results from the fact that the narrative is always conscious of the point that the essay is going to make; there is a vast amount of information, of incident, but no redundancy.

The story of Moore’s desperate and prolonged attempt to convince anyone who would listen that he owned a Raphael is an intricate one, and can be summarised here only by extreme simplification. Among the more fascinating aspects of the story is the fact that belief in the correctness of Moore’s attribution was reinforced by the general conviction that the painting must have been the work of a young painter, a conviction which claimed to be based on a certain gaucheness in the representation of the figure of Apollo, but which one suspects was, among some of the pro-Raphaelites, more complicated than that. In a number of 19th-century writings on Raphael, there seems to be a covert homoerotic investment in his youth and beauty, such that one suspects that the identification of the painting as by Raphael may have been bound up with an identification of his body with the body of Apollo, which seems so feminine, and to have adopted so feminine a pose. Haskell illustrates two paintings, one attributed to Bacchiacca, the other by Jean-Jacques Henner, which derive from the Louvre painting or perhaps (in the case of Bacchiacca) from a drawing in Venice which is either a preparatory sketch or a copy of the Louvre painting. In both of these, the figure of Apollo has become the figure of a woman, and, in the Italian painting especially, the change of sex seems to have made it, if anything, more masculine.

No less interesting is the main point that Haskell is concerned to make. Through the 33 years of Moore’s frantic campaign, the technological conditions that influenced how an attribution could be made were continually changing. But though these changes seemed to make ‘attributionism’ a more objective activity, the question of whether Moore’s picture really was a Raphael continued to be determined as much as ever by ‘nationalism, personal feelings, unwillingness to acknowledge mistakes, financial considerations’. The point is well made because the case for making it is so thoroughly documented in the narrative. There is a sense in which the authority of attributionism derives from the fact that it cannot always supply an attribution: to acknowledge an inability to determine the authorship of one painting can be a basis for the authoritative attribution of another. But whatever doubts assail the scholar or connoisseur, they must never include a sense of what Haskell calls ‘the relativity of taste’. The doubts Haskell raises about attributionism will only be satisfied when the attributors raise them as well: when auction catalogues advertise a doubtful painting by saying: ‘Our experts believe this to be a Raphael, but they wish to remind prospective purchasers that they make this attribution as English men and women, with a distinctively late 20th-century notion of what a Raphael is, with scholarly reputations to protect, but also with financial interests to protect, which depend on their making a reasonable number of attributions, however provisional.’

The true hero of Haskell’s story is not Moore himself but François-Anatole Gruyer, who, when he first saw the Apollo and Marsyas, was convinced that it was by Raphael, but who, when negotiating to acquire the work for the Louvre, had developed serious doubts about the attribution, though he did not advertise them. He wanted the painting because it was beautiful, not because it may have been by Raphael, and his importance to Haskell derives from the fact that he ‘had the sense not only to prefer quality to attributions but also to deny that very fact in public’. But this account of Gruyer reveals a problem which, though it is never specifically acknowledged, seems to be implicit in almost every one of these essays. The problem is that Haskell’s researches everywhere convince him of the ‘relativity of taste’: the reasons people give for the judgments they make of paintings differ from one period and country to another. But he believes, no less strongly, that it is possible to make absolute judgments of aesthetic value, of the kind that Gruyer made so bravely. The quality of a work of art is absolutely intrinsic to it; and our judgments of quality are not subject to distortion by the factors that make attributionism such an uncertain activity. This position would be easier to maintain, however, if contested attributions did not themselves so often involve disputed judgments of quality.

What I take to be the longest implicit defence of the position is offered in Haskell’s essay on the Concert Champêtre in the Louvre, which was once fairly securely attributed to Giorgione, but is now apparently coming to look more and more like the work of Titian. A part of this essay is concerned to question the traditional provenance of the painting, but it soon develops into an analysis of how differently the painting has been described and enjoyed throughout its history. And then, Haskell suddenly asks: ‘does any of this matter? ... the Concert Champêtre has (with only one or two exceptions) always been loved ... Does not de Piles’s Ha, voilà qui est beau! still sum up all that we feel we can, perhaps should, say in front of it?’ But it does matter, Haskell insists, for ‘the “innocent eye” ... is as impossible a goal for the beholder as for the artist.’ Our own contemporary approaches to the painting have inevitably been ‘affected’ by the whole history of the different responses to it in the past, and we should remember this ‘as we gaze at what remains one of art’s most supreme masterpieces’.

It is essential to the nature of this argument that the painting has always been loved, has always been thought beautiful: therefore, the implication seems to be, whatever has been ‘affected’ by the history of its interpretation and analysis, it is not our estimate of the aesthetic value of the work. But what then are we going to say about works of art which have only come to be valued as supremely beautiful in this century? Or about French academic art, which ‘had, in the 19th-century, been of universal significance’, but which Haskell decides is ‘of relatively minor quality’? In such cases, it seems that not only the taste but the judgment of those who dismissed or acclaimed such works in the past were ‘conditioned and complicated by extraneous factors’, but if their judgment was thus conditioned, how do we know that ours is not? And if judgment is always conditioned, how can we say that the quality of a work of art is intrinsic to it, an assumption made throughout these essays, or that the ‘factors’ that condition it are therefore ‘extraneous’ – extraneous to what? Haskell nowhere defines what he means either by taste or by quality, and so it may be that what I am identifying as a problem in his work, on the basis of what I think he means by the terms, is to him no problem at all. But it would have been useful if he had explained on what his judgments are based.

It is the claim that works of art have certain intrinsic qualities that Haskell sets out to defend in two related essays, ‘Art and the Language of Politics’ and ‘Enemies of Modern Art’. The first of these studies the notion that ‘artistic quality reflects the social, moral, political or religious health of a society’, and, more particularly, the emergence of that notion ‘in one particular context: that of language, because it is here that its effects may be most influential and least detectable’. In what other context such a notion, or indeed any notion, could possibly emerge, Haskell does not say. More specifically, he is concerned to discuss the practice of applying political terminology to issues of style, issues which ‘seem to us to be non-political’, though who ‘us’ is he again does not say. This practice, he argues, became widespread ‘after the general politicisation of life that followed the French Revolution’. In my opinion, the notion that stylistic issues were non-political did not itself become widespread until after a general depoliticisation of art history that was finally established when it became an academic discipline. In writings on art in 18th-century France and England many of the terms in which style was discussed were avowedly political. Haskell notices this only once, when he makes the highly questionable assertion that before 1800 it was ‘on the whole’ agreed that a tendency to emphasise colour at the expense of line was ‘the outcome of freedom’. It would seem nearer to the truth to say that this was, on the whole, agreed by colourists, and contested by linearists, probably because they conceived of freedom rather differently.

Haskell’s belief that critical vocabulary was not politicised until after the Revolution seems to depend either on the fact that the political terms employed in criticism before that event no longer form part of our modern critical vocabulary, or on his subscribing to a notion of the political as something more or less confined to institutions of government and to challenges made to them on the street. It is this narrow notion of the political, together with a belief in style as something with its own intrinsic identity, that enables him to argue that political terms applied to style can only ever be metaphors, that no style is ever literally ‘revolutionary’, for example, and that it is ‘dangerous’, as indeed it might be, to use such metaphors, for they conceal the intrinsic qualities of a style. One can argue against this by questioning Haskell’s account of style, or of the political, or both. I do not understand how we can discuss style except by producing a representation of it in language, and I cannot imagine any such representation which would not be revealed as political – in the sense that it would announce a partial, an interested version of how things are – as soon as it was contested by another. Haskell’s own account of style as non-political seems to me as political as his claim that ‘we’ think what he thinks.

Other essays in this book discuss representations of Isaac Newton; Gibbon’s interest in art and his influence on art history; the representation of historical events, of the old masters and of sad clowns in 19th-century painting; Doré’s images of London; and the 19th-century Turkish collector Khalil Bey. It ends with an obituary of Benedict Nicolson. With the exception of the last essays I have discussed, there is nothing here that I did not find immensely and pleasurably informative. Whatever the shortcomings, as they seem to me, of the arguments he advances, it is difficult to value too highly the kind and the quality of Haskell’s research into the relativity of taste – even if, for me, that value is chiefly a matter of making it more possible to question the notion of the absoluteness of judgment to which Haskell himself adheres so strongly. But if he did not adhere to that notion, if he did not believe that he could protect ‘art’ from his own questions about taste, it is difficult to imagine that he could have asked those questions in the first place.