PRINT October 1963

Muse and Ego

The 75th Anniversary Exhibition of the founding of Pomona College was celebrated in part by an unusual exhibition which compared the official painting of the France of 1887 with the new development of Im­pressionism. Organized under the leadership of Dr. Bates Lowry, “Muse or Ego” was both a popular and a critical success. Dr. Lowry has since undertaken a new responsibility at Brown University and his col­league, Dr. Maurice Cope, has accepted the duties of Acting Chairman of the College’s Art Department. The exhibition of the work of the Salon and the Independ­ent Artists of the 1880’s led Dr. Cope to the interesting ideas which follow.

IT IS IRONICAL THAT what is now the most widely known and popular period in the history of art––and also the most expensive in today’s art-market––the period of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, should also be the most incompletely understood and the most subject to stereotyped thinking. Many of the artists who were best known then, the ones who would have been recommended to the speculator in the art market of the ’80s and whose works were reproduced in such books as The Crown Jewels of Art, are only names, if even that, to us today. Bouguereau, Cabanel, Carolus-Duran, Bonnat, Gérome, Bastien-Lepage, Meis­sonier, Henner––even if we recognize their names, we have difficulty seeing their works, for many of them are locked in the storerooms of museums, hidden in obscure private collections, or have simply disap­peared. Occasionally we see a few reproduced in books to set off the superior quality of the Impres­sionists, or assembled in movies to make us smile with condescending amusement at the follies of our ancestors, or arranged in an exhibition intended to evoke sentimental nostalgia for a bygone era. More often than not the works selected for such display are the poorer ones, and even when better works are included they are presented in such a way that their quality is obscured. If we merely laugh at all the Salon paintings then we are guilty of the same sort of uncritical thinking which originally held the Im­pressionists and Post-Impressionists up to ridicule, and more important, we keep ourselves from understanding the real nature of the innovations of the in­dependent artists.

Within the span of just a few years at the end of the ’80s we see the origins of a great variety of move­ments of the 20th century––Cubism, Fauvism, Expres­sionism, Surrealism, and even Abstract Expressionism––all clearly prepared for by the work of Cézanne, Gau­guin, Van Gogh, Redon, and Monet, even though some of these movements did not begin until 40 or 60 years later. The adumbrations of abstract expressionism are the least obvious, but perhaps the most significant. Of course, there are no completely abstract works in the ’80s, but the abstract expressionists’ feeling for a rich and active paint texture, which exists apart from the particulars of any represented object, was already embodied in the work not only of Monet and Van Gogh, but also of Monticelli and even in details of Moreau’s paintings. This could occur only because the artist had begun to think of his work as distinct from an imitation of the natural world, as something created in pigment and utilizing the specific quali­ties of the medium. Here the sense of the autonomy of the work of art, which is crucial to much of the critical thinking of the 20th century, develops. This was the idea the Nabis took over at the very end of the ’80s and elaborated quite self-consciously. In their hands the work of art became a subtle pattern of pure colors, and a painting like Vuillard’s Picnic essentially a brilliant large wall decoration. (The im­petus this movement gave to the decorative arts, and ultimately to commercial design and advertising, has now returned, perversely enough, to the “fine” arts in some of the pop artists’ sign paintings. Ranson’s bold flat pattern of garish colors in his Symbolic Scene of 1890 seems surprisingly close to Ruscha’s recent Spam.)

All these different approaches to art developed almost simultaneously. This was not so much a situa­tion of one artist or movement producing another—either by influencing it or by stimulating a reaction (although this certainly did happen with the reactions to Impressonism), so much as it was a series of separate and highly individual approaches to art. It is very hard to generalize about Seurat, Toulouse-Lau­trec, Redon, Gauguin, Cézanne, and Vuillard, and at­tempts to subsume some of them under the concept of art nouveau misses the essential point of their work. Each artist invented his own approach, for art had been freed—at least for them—from any concept of “beauty” or “reality”—any concept of an external ideal which would force the artist to conform to values which exist outside himself. It is not surprising that many of these artists had difficulty in achieving any recognition, for when the values, (and, as a natural consequence, the artistic form) are the invention of the artists, then criticism must lag behind creation, must completely re-orient itself for the work of each new artist. The reign of the “ego” produced both great art and great practical difficulties for the artist.

There were few such difficulties for the painters who were inspired by the “Muse,” (as the Pomona ex­hibition rightly designated the artists of the Salon). These artists, never seriously challenged either the social or the pictorial values of the day. Their aim was “Beauty,” and for them “Beauty” involved the union of two rather contradictory concepts, “reality” and “poetry,” or “realism” and “idealism.” One can see these two rather broad concepts developing in both the criticism and the painting of the 19th cen­tury. If one compares the oriental scene of both Ingres and Delacroix with Gérome’s meticulously ac­curate Camels at the Watering Place, the increase in the precise portrayal of the natural shapes and details of all objects is most apparent. A number of artists like Meissonier and Rosa Bonheur were es­pecially admired for their extraordinarily lifelike and painstakingly accurate representations, and no artist could succeed who distorted too much the objective appearance of the world. Thus the Impressionists, and even for a time Puvis de Chavannes, were con­demned for their crudities and inaccuracies in draw­ing. On the other hand, no artist was approved who painted merely an accurate representation of the world around him, for the work of art had to be “poetic,” had to create an ideal realm, in order to be beautiful. Thus realists like Courbet and Manet were condemned for being gross and immoral, for good­ness dwelt only with beauty, and the absence of one meant the absence of the other as well. Bouguereau, however, succeeded in fulfilling both requirements most skillfuliy, and became, thereby, the leader of the Salon artists. The figures in his large and lovely painting, Returning from Harvest, are very con­vincingly drawn, far more realistically than those of Ingres, from whom he derived his style; and yet the slowly curving line produces a fluid lyricism which seems to transport all his figures into a more perfect and harmonious existence. Today we are embarrassed by both his realism and his idealism. It is difficult for us to take pleasure in his skillful portrayal of light shimmering through the trees and reflected off the smooth textures of garments, and yet this aspect of his work is so strong that we cannot see it as any­thing but imitation. Actually the “realism” clothes a quite complex pictorial structure, and the smooth paint surface is not paint simply at the service of the object portrayed, but a purposely chosen smooth, sensuous texture which pervaded the entire picture, and, like the soft, rich reds and greens, helps to pro­duce the sense of harmony we feel in the painting. The grudging admiration which his Returning from Harvest arouses in younger students of abstract painting today had its counterpart in the praise ac­corded him then even by such artists as Cézanne, Van Gogh, and le douanier Rousseau. Bouguereau’s great predecessor as the leading artist in France, Cabanel, was, like him, a more realistic and softer fol­lower of Ingres. He was such a popular teacher that by the Salon of 1886 there were 112 of his pupils ex­hibiting! His Birth of Venus is one of the most famous of all 19th century paintings, and one of the few still reproduced with any frequency in books on the period. However, compared with Bouguereau, it seems strangely weak precisely where one would expect it to be strongest, in its drawing. Yet the con­ception of the work, which was highly praised then, still comes through clearly—his Venus is woman just awakening to the sensual world. The original criticism of the work reveals how the idealization of the figure overcame its sensuality: “Though wanton and lasci­vious, she is not in the least indecent. She offers curves that are agreeable and in good taste . . . and the general line is harmonious and pure.”

Manet’s slighting phrase––“the Salon of Bouguer­eau”––has stuck. We tend to think of all the artists of the Salon in terms of their most illustrious taste­master. Actually his realistic and sweeter form of Ingres’ neo-classical linear, idealism was only one of a number of styles which appeared regularly in the Salons of the ’80s. These “idealists,” as they were Galled by the critics of the time, were countered by a smaller group of “realists,” under the leadership of Bonnat and Carolus-Duran, who followed the path marked out by Courbet. But these “realists” never went as far as Courbet or Manet; they continually held their realism in check and thus preserved a form of balance between it and “beauty.” However, they were widely regarded as “dangerous” artists, because their “realism” threatened to overcome the ideal and destroy art. The interesting thing to us about these two artists is that they were close friends of Manet and, like him, had both gone to Spain in the early 1860’s and been strongly influenced by Velasquez. Their paintings have a dark impressive quality, and their forms are more boldly conceived than those of many of the other Salon artists. But the figures are more generalized and there is more emphasis on the “poetic” emotion of the subject than in Courbet. Bonnat’s Egyptian Fellah Woman and her Child was described in 1888 by Stranahan as standing “hopeless and aimless in the Egyptian twilight amid the exhala­tions of the Nile.” Both these artists make a striking contrast with the much more objective painting of Manet. By the 1880’s they were known primarily as por­trait painters, a form of art in which their modified realism was less open to objection.

Manet was closer to the Salon than we are ac­customed to think. He refused to exhibit with the Impressionists because he felt that recognition would come through the official Salon. And, for him, it did. In 1881 one of his paintings won a medal, and he therefore had his works accepted for the next Salon without having to submit them to the jury. His paint­ings also often made use of motifs or compositions by well-known masters in museums or even Salon Mas­ters. The Pomona exhibit included a drawing by Gérome for The Death of Caesar, a painting which was exhibited in the Salon of 1859 and had a great success. Four years later Manet used exactly the same pose for his painting of The Dead Toreador. Manet used the motifs of other artists not because he was a man of weak imagination, as some have sug­gested, but because the distinctiveness of his own approach becomes even clearer when he is recasting in his own style a composition which is already fa­miliar. Only when we see his strangely laconic work against the more emotional detailed paintings of the Salon do we understand the significance of his style.

Besides the idealists and the realists there was still active in the Salon of the ’80s a large and popu­lar group of Barbizon artists, even though all the original leaders of the movement were dead. Their successors in the ’80s included Breton and Harpignies, the latter of whom continued to paint in this style until his death in 1916. A far more interesting group, however, were the Impressionists, who were among the most enthusiastically received of the Salon artists. These, unfortunately, are not the Impressionists we know, but rather a group of artists who painted Barbizon subjects, but with a somewhat freer technique and a brighter palette derived from the original Impressionists. Bastier-Lepage was the “glorious master” of Impressionism, and Dagnon­-Bouveret and Besnard among the younger followers of the style. Their popularity rested on their ability to use the “technical discoveries” of the Impressionists in the creation of true art––poetic or sentimental scenes of peasant life.

The critics of the period, finally, had a general category called “new Idealists,” which included such diverse painters as Puvis de Chavannes, Gustave Moreau, Carriere, and Monticelli. Perhaps the single most impressive Salon painting in the entire collec­tion, and one of the real masterpieces of the period, is Moreau’s “Salome Dancing before Herod.” It is painted with a subtlety of tone and color, a sur­realistic wealth of weird detail, and a fantastic qual­ity of light which separates it from any of the other Salon styles, which fascinated Huysmans and may have inspired Oscar Wilde, and which is as com­pelling today as it was shocking then.

As we saw in Cabanel’s carnal yet beautiful Venus, the concepts of “realism” and “idealism” also gov­erned the choice and presentation of the subject matter. “Ideal” subjects, taken from history or my­thology or distant, exotic places, were portrayed in a very “realistic” manner so that they seemed much more immediate to the beholder. If one compares Cabanel’s Venus with Ingres’, the increase in natural­ism is immediately apparent. Conversely, realistic genre subjects taken from common life, often from peasant life, were portrayed in an “idealized” man­ner, and often told moral stories. Millet himself com­plained that his follower, Breton, made his peasant maids far too pretty ever to stay on the farm. The appreciation for idealized scenes increased between the ’60s and the ’80s, so that works by Puvis de Chavannes, which were earlier condemned as too artificial and too poorly drawn, came to be very much admired in the ’80s for their noble and austere poetry. It is likewise the “poetry” of Monet’s paintings which began to appeal to collectors and the public in the 1880’s, so that by the end of the decade he was able to sell some of his paintings for as much as $1000 each.

What the Impressionist and the Independent artists of the 1880’s did was to break the union of these two critical concepts, “realism” and “idealism.” But in breaking them they revealed how much they were indebted to them. The Impressionist esthetic is a purely “realistic” one, concerned with the represen­tation of the world as it appears to the eye of the observer, and avoiding as untrue all of the conven­tional “idealizations” which made any painting into a work of art, according to the theory of the Salon. They were, in effect, being more realistic than the “realists” of the Salon. But in doing so, they not only violated the concept of an “ideal” beauty—which is the only thing which would make a painting really worth while; they also violated the conventional con­cept of “reality,” for the reality which characterized the works of the artists of the Salon was not the appearance of objects to the beholder, but the nature of the object itself, and could be represented only by a detailed and precisely delineated reproduction of it. The loose painterly approach of the Impression­ists naturally led to the criticism that they couldn’t draw, and were merely engaged in technical experi­ments with color. This last criticism is strangely reminiscent of the recent criticism of Bouguereau, that he is not an artist but only a craftsman, a tech­nician highly skilled in the imitation of what he sees. Each age, it seems, calls what it does not consider to be art, mere “technique.”

The independent artist of the ’80s broke the union of realism and idealism in the opposite way from the Impressionists. Instead of being mere realists, Redon, Gauguin, Cézanne, and Ensor became pure idealists, and destroyed the naturalistic, three-dimensional and highly particularized world which the artists of the Salon had inherited from the Renaissance. But the form of idealism which they adopted was entirely dif­ferent from the idealism of the Salon. It was not based on the concept of a universal Beauty towards which all the arts aspire, which would incorporate, Platonically, truth and moral virtue, and which would be appreciated easily by the art public of the time. Their idealism was a much more personal thing, was quite different for each artist, and could only be ap­prehended by the public after it had educated itself to a sympathy with that particular ideal. It was in­herently a subjective thing, and a natural outgrowth of the concept of the Impressionists, for their realism was a subjective and personal realism, because it depended on the individual vision of each artist. Monet said, “I see that tree as yellow, how do you see it?” Monet’s recognition of the inherently subjective nature of sight prepared the way for other artists to create their art out of the inherently subjective nature of all experience, and to build thereby an entirely new art opposed to the objective “realism” and the objective “idealism” of the Salon.

Maurice Cope