High Anxiety

Julian Barnes

  • Fellow Men: Fantin-Latour and the Problem of the Group in 19th-Century French Painting by Bridget Alsdorf
    Princeton, 333 pp, £30.95, November 2012, ISBN 978 0 691 15367 4

Thirty-four men, 20 of them standing, 14 sitting, spread across four paintings and 21 years. Almost all are sombrely dressed, in the black frock coat worn by bourgeois and artist alike in the France of their day; the least sartorial departure – a pair of light trousers, a coat of proletarian grey, a white painter’s smock – startles. The spaces in which these men are depicted are matchingly sombre, narrow from front to back, airless, and claustrophobic: there is not a window in sight, and only in the final painting is a door indicated; otherwise, there seems no means of escape. There may be pictures on the wall, but not of the sort that offers any view outwards; darkly unreadable, they return us to the intense clusters of men. Occasionally, a slight relief comes in the form of flowers, or fruit, or a carafe of wine, and there is a red tablecloth, but even this is a murky red which does not break the dark tonality and funereal mood. And though each set of men has been gathered for a common purpose – to pay homage to a dead painter, to watch a living one wield his brush, to hear poetry read, to gather round a piano – none of them seems to be having any fun. There is not a laugh, not a smile to be had from the whole 34 of them (33, in fact, as one appears twice). Most give off a sense of gravity and high purpose, though quite a few appear distrait, lost in their own private world, even bored. Some are friends (two are lovers), most are allies, collaborators, members of a self-selecting elite or avant-garde; and yet there is very little interaction between them. None of the figures touches his neighbour; they may abut, overlap, hide behind one another, but there is no contact between them. It is almost as if they can’t wait for the sitting (and the standing) to be over, so that they may return to their own studio, workshop, study, music-room.

These four paintings by Henri Fantin-Latour (there was a fifth, which he destroyed after it was critically trashed at the Salon) are all now in the Musée d’Orsay. I have seen them several times in passing, and looked at reproductions in various books, but never realised before quite how peculiar they are, because – like most people, I imagine – I have never examined them as paintings. I have always treated them just as examples of collective portraiture, and as such they are of the highest quality: look, we say, here’s Manet, and there’s Baudelaire and Monet and Renoir and Whistler and Zola, all to the very life. And here, just here, where most people stop, at the far left of Corner of a Table, is the most famous section – the corner of a corner – of any of Fantin’s four paintings, because it shows Rimbaud and Verlaine sitting side by side. Rimbaud, the beautiful boy amid the beards, chin cherubically in palm, gazes out past our left shoulder; Verlaine, prematurely balding, is in half-profile, and looks tense, his right hand grasping a glass of the wine into which he will all too soon disappear. Yet even this pair, closest and most notorious of the 34, are not looking at one another, let alone looking like bedmates. Inevitably, with such pictures, we concentrate on the famous names; it is virtually impossible for the contemporary viewer to give more than a brief, pitying glance at the likes of Louis Cordier, Zacharie Astruc, Otto Scholderer, Pierre-Elzéar Bonnier, Jean Aicard, Arthur Boisseau, Antoine Lascoux and so on. And our pity contains an admixture, not exactly of guilt, but of unease: we are the posterity that has consigned them to oblivion.

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