Peter Campbell

Around the middle of the 19th century, disaster struck academic painting. Extinction threatened whole families of subject-matter – histories, moralities, fantasies – and the genres which dominate our own view of the following decades began to flourish: pictures made in the open air, scenes of modern life. What had happened? Was academic painting pushed off its perch by competing styles, or did it grow unsteady because of some failure of its own or from some fatal infection?

It was from an infection: from the virus of photography. There were other influences but none had an effect on painting, its audience or its economics comparable with the proliferation of photographic images. Paintings which were illustrative, didactic, spiritual, all proved susceptible. They took a long time to die but the symptoms were noticed early. Take two contemporary descriptions from opposite ends of the politico-aesthetic spectrum – one published by the Salon painter and writer Eugène Fromentin in 1876, the other from Zola’s Salon notes of 1866.

‘Photographic studies as to the effects of light have changed the greater proportion of ways of seeing, feeling and painting,’ Fromentin writes. Painting can ‘never be sufficiently clear, sharp, formal and crude ... talent consists in struggling for exactitude, precision and imitative force ... exactly the sensations of what we could see in the street.’ Photography in Fromentin’s view has forced a new paradigm of reality on painters. Even among the history painters, he notices a ‘spirit which has changed its surroundings, the studio is open to light from the street.’ He is shy of saying who he is writing about, but the glittering little pictures Meissonier made of musketeers, horsemen and so forth would fit his description very well. Although Meissonier’s first models were Dutch masters (Terborch and Metsu), the ‘indefinable hardness’ which Henry James, writing in 1872, identified does not come from them. Verisimilitude, James says, has become an end in itself: Meissonier

understands to a buttonhole the uniform of the Grand Army. He is equally familiar with the facial types and he renders marvellously the bronzed and battered physiognomies that scowl up from the deep shadows of shakos and helmets. Each man is perfect, but when M. Meissonier has made this – an elaborate, accomplished historical image – he has done his utmost.

Beside Millet or Delacroix he seems ‘only brilliantly superficial’.

Ten years earlier, Zola had responded differently. What James says modern painting does not do Zola says it should not do. He wants a painter who can ‘give himself, heart and body ... a strong harsh character who seizes nature in his two hands ... I have the most profound disdain for the little tricks, for the scheming flatteries, for that which can be learned at school, for that which constant practice has perfected ... But I have the deepest admiration for individualistic works which are flung from a vigorous and unique hand.’ Zola sees photographic realism as a boring beginning (‘if it were not for the existence of character no picture could be more than a simple photograph’) and Fromentin sees it as a corrupter of the imagination, but both recognise its peculiar status.

The post-photographic world was so different people hardly knew what had struck them. Max Liebermann, one painter writing about another, looked back from 1921 at the work of Adolf Menzel, the pre-eminent Berlin painter of the second half of the 19th century. Would Menzel, he asked, even if nature had given him supreme talents, ‘have been able to attain the freedom of a Rembrandt in the age of the invention of photography?’ Liebermann thought not, yet he also believed, like Zola, that photographic images were inadequate: ‘what characterises the artist is the greatest possible subjectivity in the rendering of nature.’

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