P.N. Furbank

  • Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France by Thomas Crow
    Yale, 288 pp, £29.95, January 1995, ISBN 0 300 06093 9

From one point of view, Thomas Crow’s remarkable pair of books, Painters and Public Life in 18th-Century Paris (1985) and Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France (1995), can be described as a history of the decline and fall, and amazing final reprieve, of history-painting in France. Long cherished by the Academy of Painting and Sculpture as the highest and ‘noblest’ genre and the summit of a painter’s ambition, by the middle of the 18th century the theme of critics and philosophers was that, in the France of Louis XV, history-painting was simply impossible. The radical ambiguity of the term ‘noble’, the schism between its ethical and its social meaning, had become too glaring. It was true that Mme de Pompadour and her clan, intensely aware of the political significance of the fine arts, had reformed the Academy in the interests of a revival of history-painting – or, to put it in Crow’s words, of ‘rebuilding the Academy’s capacity to generate publicly-oriented narrative pictures that were stylistically and morally disciplined by the classicism of the past century’. Still, as is well known, what the Pompadour and her entourage actually enjoyed was the Rococo, and their favourite painter was Boucher. Their heart was not in the reforms, and the new Poussin, the ‘Phoenix’ destined to restore the nation’s sense of the ‘noble’ and the ‘ideal’, obstinately failed to arise.

The turning-point seems to have come, at any rate symbolically, with David’s Belisarius Begging Arms, the great success of the Salon exhibition of 1781. In David’s painting, a soldier stands in shocked amazement and sorrow at the spectacle of his one-time commander, the Emperor Justinian’s great general Belisarius, as a blind beggar seeking alms in the street. The formula had already been used in a lost painting attributed to Van Dyck, well-known through an engraving; and in 1762, in a remarkable letter, Diderot had praised it as an example of the impersonality and anti-theatricality desirable in painting. This painting, he argued, did not need to address itself to a spectator, since the soldier stood in for the spectator (‘the soldier was playing my role’).

Diderot was using the Van Dyck in his campaign against the Rococo, but what the David version added was a more explicit political message. For what could be a better or more moving symbol of the neglect and rejection suffered by enlightened statesmen, in their efforts to rescue France from chaos and bankruptcy: what better stand-in for the exiled chief minister Choiseul, or the great Turgot, dismissed for his attempts to rationalise the grain trade? History-painting seemed to have found a theme for itself, in a patriotism not abstractly conceived but rooted in the current conflicts between Court, Parliament and Church.

The Belisarius is a strange painting. Crow speaks of its ‘errors’: for instance the perspectival and proportional awkwardness of the soldier’s position, his right foot being too near the female alms-giver’s heel – though these are features for which Michael Fried has found an unexpected justification, as being part of a scheme to unsettle the conventional relationship of viewer to canvas. According to Crow, at all events, David’s decision was to ‘go for the bold stroke’ and to push forward regardless of technical deficiencies. His stylistic innovations, Crow suggests, were to be revealed more fully and triumphantly in his Oath of the Horatii of 1785.

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