PRINT Summer 1970

Thomas Couture and the Theatricalization of Action in 19th Century Painting


WHAT IS THE POSITION of Thoams Couture in 19th-century French painting? This question was raised most recently by the University of Maryland Art Gallery’s exhibition of paintings and drawings by Couture from American collections and by the informative catalog that accompanied it.1 The question would be important even if Manet had not been Couture’s student: the manifest ambitiousness of the Romans of the Decadence and of what has survived of his work towards the Enrollment of the Volunteers makes sure of that. But the exact nature of Couture’s ambition in these works has resisted definition; and largely as a result his role in the painting of mid-century France has been misconstrued. The remarks that follow take their impulse here.

In a brief Introductory Note to the Maryland Couture catalog George Levitine resurrects the argot term pompier which, he explains, refers to “any kind of artist whose productions are marked by a pretentious and turgid banality, rooted in the stereotypes of the official academic establishment.”2 He adds: “It is not known whether Thomas Couture . . . was ever called a pompier during his lifetime. At any rate, it is certain that many of Couture’s paintings beg for this epithet, which finds a perfect . . . illustration in his famous Romans of the Decadence.” Levitine notes that just as Manet was Couture’s student, Renoir, Monet, Sisley and Bazille studied under Gleyre (“less well known than Couture, but certainly a pompier”), while Géricault and Delacroix worked in the studio of Guérin, “who deserves to be called an early pompier.” And he suggests, partly following Dorival, that “the technical clichés of pompier art preserved some of the ingredients of the great tradition of French painting. Admittedly, these ingredients were most often preserved in a little recognizable, somewhat dehydrated form, but the ingredients were there, nonetheless, ready to be revived. The young artists did not have to approve their masters’ ponderous clichés, but they left their studios, imbued with an old and rich tradition which lent itself to inexhaustible rediscoveries and revolutionary interpretations.”

In the essay that follows Levitine’s remarks, Alain De Leiris emphasizes the importance of Couture’s technique, and concludes: “I believe Couture did make a positive contribution to a renovation of tradition. There was determination, a self-assurance, and a conviction about his pronouncements which are also manifest in his art. By simplifying the craft of painting, by insisting on freshness and vigor in his results, on the development of a manual know-how or dexterity, and on the importance of technique, he ideally equipped his pupils with a basic and solid craft. Some among them who possessed genius applied this learning to new discoveries.”3

De Leiris cites Albert Boime’s important article, “Thomas Couture and the Evolution of Painting in Nineteenth-Century France,” where Couture is described as belonging to the juste milieu group of painters, which Boime defines as “painters striving to conciliate avant-garde and conservative tendencies.”4 For these men, Boime writes,

. . . compromise was a source of painful confusion. Compromise here implied a conflict between the priorities of the past and the demands of the present. Sensitive artists among this group found their own time valid for pictorial themes and experienced a deep sense of personal independence, but their commitment to the classical ethos hampered the full expression of this outlook. Less confident than, for example, Delacroix or Courbet, they nervously sought a style capable of reconciling their longing for traditional forms with their anxiety to be modern. The tension between an inner need for direct participation in a changing contemporary world and the desire to achieve the high status accorded the traditional painter is perhaps most marked in Couture’s life and work.5

He goes on to say:

. . . Couture and others of the juste milieu group experienced conflict between the dual requirements of personality and tradition, and their work bears the scars of their struggle for compromise. These artists found themselves caught in a vise between those who demanded an unequivocal originality of form and expression and those who insisted on the outworn vocabulary of the past.6

Boime finds that Couture’s writings reveal “the ambivalence of this group.”7 And in an interesting hut to my mind unconvincing discussion of Couture’s failure to complete the Enrollment of the Volunteers and the Baptismal Ceremony of the Imperial Prince, Boime explicitly minimizes the importance of political or for that matter personal factors and instead stresses what he sees as a series of linked conflicts in Couture’s art—between allegory and reality, idealization and naturalism, spontaneity and deliberateness, the freshness of the sketch and the traditional demand for completeness. He writes in closing:

Political factors aside, [Couture’s] conflicts arose because of both a want of artistic poise and the incipient collapse of the academic tradition during the course of his development. While he gave voice to the general sentiment in favor of individuality and modernity, he did not possess sufficient confidence to realize it in his work. Trained in the ateliers of Gros and Delaroche, he was inculcated with the idea of “grande peinture,” and this outlook resulted in personal frustration as emphasis shifted from tradition to innovation.8

Having seen Couture’s conflicts close up for six years, the young Manet “firmly resolved to vanquish them in his own work.”9

I shall discuss Boime’s article further on. For the present I want simply to note that whatever their differences, Levitine, De Leiris and Boime seek to explain Couture’s problematic role in 19th-century French painting in terms of a set of concepts, most importantly that of tradition, whose meaning they seem to regard as more or less self-evident. Phrases like “great tradition of French painting,” “old and rich tradition,” “renovation of tradition,” “priorities of the past,” “classical ethos,” “longing for traditional forms,” “high status accorded the traditional painter,” “personality [versus] tradition,” “unequivocal originality of form and expression [versus] the outworn vocabulary of the past,” “grande peinture,” and “tradition [versus] innovation” are basic to their accounts of Couture’s art. But the notion of tradition itself, as well as the counter-notions associated with innovation and originality, remain nothing more than abstractions. Far from having the force of explanation, they stand in need of being explained. Worse, they may actually screen from us a gulf in our understanding of Couture’s intentions, of the circumstances in which he worked, and of the broader issues at stake in French painting in the 1840s and ’50s.

In a long essay, “Manet’s Sources: Aspects of His Art, 1859–1865,” published in the March 1969 issue of this magazine, I put forward a different account of Couture’s enterprise. Roughly, I tried to show that the Romans of the Decadence and the Enrollment of the Volunteers are products of a deliberate, altogether conscious attempt by Couture to resume, and hopefully to re-establish, a specific pictorial tradition, if we may call it that, which seemed to him to have lapsed: that of the heroic national art of David, Gros and Géricault. In support of this view I quoted Couture’s Méthode et entretiens of 1867; and pointed to the relationship, as I see it, between the Romans of the Decadence on the one hard and David’s Tennis Court Oath and Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa on the other, as well as between the Enrollment of the Volunteers and David’s Triumph of the French People plus, again, the Raft of the Medusa. I went on to claim that both Couture’s artistic nationalism and the ardent republicanism in which it was grounded had perhaps their most important source in the teachings of the great historian and political philosopher Jules Michelet. In that connection I recalled that Couture painted Michelet’s portrait in 1843; pointed to what I believe are significant correspondences between Michelet’s Le Peuple of 1846 and the politically charged program of the Romans of the Decadence; suggested that a similar relationship may obtain between the Enrollment of the Volunteers and Michelet’s lectures of late 1847 and early 1848; and observed that Michelet’s themes pervade Couture’s writings of the sixties and seventies.10 I shall not rehearse those arguments here, but refer the reader who is not acquainted with them to section XIII of “Manet’s Sources” where they are developed. Even Couture’s mature technique, which De Leiris discusses, has its source in the art of David, Gros and Géricault. For example, the use of dark brown or brownish-blue underpainting to produce transparent shadows derives from David; while the bravura modeling with bright, often livid color (yellows, pinks, greens) that one finds in pictures like the superb Springfield sketch for the Enrollment is adapted from Géricault, e.g. the Walters Gallery Riderless Horses.

If all or most of this is right, it is not useful to try to see Couture’s art in terms of, say, a conflict or compromise between the priorities of the past and the demands of the present: because for the Couture of the Romans of the Decadence, the Enrollment of the Volunteers and, as I shall try to show, the Saint-Eustache murals of 1851–56, it was precisely his understanding of the present situation in art and politics—an understanding deeply influenced by Michelet—that determined both his involvement with a specific canon of past art and the way in which he used that art in his work. Similarly, if we try to motivate Couture’s activity during those years by appealing to supposed conflicts between the longing for traditional forms and the anxiety to be modern, or between the need to participate in the contemporary world and the desire to achieve the high status accorded the traditional painter, we inevitably obscure his actual undertaking, in which the ambition to belong fully to his time entailed engaging, not with tradition in general (whatever we may take that to mean), but with a relatively small number of masterpieces by a few inspired predecessors. It was not the idea of “grande peinture” as such, but rather that of a truly national art, that obsessed and motivated and eventually haunted him.11 Not that Couture’s art was therefore free from conflict; far from it. I suggest however that if we accept Boime’s much too general account of the sources of such conflict as there may have been, we lose sight of the most important problems Couture faced—for example, those generated by the tension between his aspirations towards a heroic national art based on David, Gros and Géricault and the wider reality, above all the political circumstances, in which at different times he found himself. A brief consideration of his chief works of the years 1844–56, in particular the Saint-Eustache murals of the first half of the fifties, helps make this clear.

Couture painted the Romans of the Decadence between 1844 and 1847, the last years of the July Monarchy, which it symbolically arraigned. His next major project, the Enrollment of the Volunteers, was commissioned in October 1848 by Charles Blanc, Director of Fine Arts in the Provisional Government of the Second Republic; the plan was to place it in the Salle des séances of the National Assembly, just as David’s portraits of Le Peletier and Marat had hung in the chambers of the National Convention more than fifty years earlier. Confident, full of ideas, Couture set to work at once. Whereas the meaning of the Romans of the Decadence had resided in the carefully staged antithesis between the heroic virtues of the republican past (symbolized by the statues that stand above the revelers) and the viciousness and dissoluteness of the Orleanist present (the revelers themselves), with pictorial emphasis falling inevitably upon the latter, the Enrollment offered Couture the opportunity, for which he must have longed, to express his great theme of heroic republican nationalism directly, passionately, exclusively—to express it heroically rather than through the medium of a deliberate and artful anti-heroism.12 And it was the wider reality of the moment, the Revolution of 1848 and the founding of the Second Republic, both of which Couture ardently supported, that made that directness of heroic expression conceivable. In March 1851. Couture received a further commission for three mural paintings in the Chapel of the Holy Virgin in the Church of Saint-Eustache, Paris. And in December 1851 Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état signaled the demise of the Second Republic, which however lasted exactly another year, until the proclamation of the Second Empire. According to Couture, it was soon after the coup d’état that De Persigny, Minister of the Interior, visited his studio and advised him to stop working on the Enrollment which he called a “tableau de démagogues.” But the Saint-Eustache commission seems to have proceeded undisturbed. Couture worked on the murals throughout the first half of the fifties, and in October 1856 they were opened to the public. (My discussion of them relies on information provided by Jane Van Nimmen in her excellent essay, “Thomas Couture’s Murals in Saint-Eustache, Paris,” also in the University of Maryland catalog.13)

The central panel, the most conventional and as it happens the least interesting of the three, bears the descriptive legend “Mater Salvatoris Ora Pro Nobis,” and represents the Mother of the Savior holding the infant Jesus and flanked by thirteen angels. The two side walls do not depict the Virgin but “show instead her special relationship to humans in need through two poetic images from her litanies: the Star of the Sea and the Consoler of the Afflicted.”14 The first of these, bearing the legend “Stella Maris Ora Pro Nobis,” is especially striking. Mrs. Van Nimmen describes it as follows:

In the Stella Maris panel a group of two men and two women have been shipwrecked on a rocky island in a stormy sea. One of the women kneeling on the rock reaches both hands toward the sky, frowning, with tears on her cheek. The second woman clings to her with both arms, her head cast down. One man kneels beside them, leaning with his forearms on the rock, his head bowed and hands clasped; the second man claws at the edge of the rock, trying to pull himself up. A third man rises in the air over the rock, supported by an angel’s hands under his right arm and left wrist. Another angel lifts a bare-breasted woman out of the waves on the left side. A boat, its mast broken and its stone anchor dangling, has run aground on the rock at the right. Some seaweed grows on the rock in the foreground.15

The subject matter alone should alert us to the possible importance, once again, of the Raft of the Medusa; and in fact Mrs. Van Nimmen observes in a footnote:

Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, in addition to being an obvious reference for any nineteenth-century shipwreck painter—along with other works such as Girodet’s After the Deluge—was perfect compositionally for the chapel of the Holy Virgin. Hope for the raft came from the right, the direction Couture wanted to emphasize to unite Stella Maris with Mater Salvatoris. Where Géricault placed his rescue ship, Couture set out the alley of light cast by the Star of the Sea. The inspiration from Géricault is particularly strong in the woman being lifted out of the surf by the lower angel, in the man below her clinging to the rock, and in the position of the central weeping female.16

This is true enough. But more is at stake than these remarks suggest. In the first place, the use of the Raft of the Medusa in the Stella Maris is further proof both of Couture’s deep involvement with Géricault and of what I have described as his aspirations towards a heroic national art.17 Indeed Couture’s use of Géricault at Saint-Eustache must be understood chiefly in the context of that involvement and those aspirations. It is for example highly unlikely that Couture first decided to paint a scene of shipwreck and then, for thematic and compositional reasons, turned to the Raft of the Medusa for support. Almost certainly it was Couture’s long-standing concern with Géricault (and David and Gros), and in particular his passionate admiration for the Raft, that determined the subject matter of the Stella Maris—that led him to seek out a religious theme which lent itself to the depiction of a scene of shipwreck and thereby enabled him to establish a strong, more or less self-evident relationship between his mural and the Raft of the Medusa.

Furthermore, Couture’s use of Géricault must be understood in the context of the political situation of the years 1851–56. Specifically, I suggest that the shipwreck represented in the Stella Maris ought to be seen as a deliberate if indirect allusion to the destruction of the Second Republic by Louis Bonaparte; and that Couture’s ultimate sanction for using both the theme of shipwreck and the Raft of the Medusa in that way derived, also once again, from Michelet. In his lecture of January 15, 1848, entitled “Dangers de la dispersion de l’esprit,” Michelet discusses Géricault’s life and work at length, finding in him, as I remarked in “Manet’s Sources,” not only the greatest painter of his age but virtually the sole Frenchman who remained true to France during the years that followed Waterloo:

One knows the strange reaction of 1816, and how France seemed to become untrue to herself then. But as she did so Géricault adopted her. He protested for her, by the wholly French originality of his genius, and by choosing national types exclusively. Poussin painted Italians, David painted Romans and Greeks, but Géricault, amidst the bastard mixtures of the Restoration, kept the national idea [la pensée nationale] strong and pure. He did not submit to the invasion and yielded nothing to the reaction.18

Michelet goes on to describe the Raft of the Medusa in terms whose relevance to the Stella Maris is suggestive to say the least:

In 1822 [actually 1818–19] Géricault paints his raft, the shipwreck of France. He is alone, he sails alone into the future without taking notice or making use of the reaction. This is heroic.

It is France herself, it is our whole society that he cast onto the raft of the Medusa . . . Image so cruelly true that the original refused to recognize itself. People recoiled before this terrifying painting; they passed it by quickly; they tried not to see or understand . . .19

There is no question in my mind but that Couture was familiar with Michelet’s reading of Géricault, and that largely on the strength of that reading he decided to express his resistance to the imperial regime, and probably his acute disappointment at suspending work on the Enrollment, through the theme of shipwreck and the use of the Raft of the Medusa. At the same time he expressed his belief in the eternity of France, which following Michelet he identified with the ideals of the original French Revolution, through the angels that are shown coming to the rescue of the human protagonists of the Stella Maris, and through the Marian symbolism of the Saint-Eustache murals generally. The apparent anger of the chief kneeling woman, who is based especially closely on an analogous male figure in the Raft, and who may symbolize the French people, reinforces this interpretation. Her expression of intense frustration, verging on defiance, is unintelligible within a strictly Christian context. (The third mural, the Consolatrix Afflictorum, alludes only somewhat less explicitly than the Stella Maris to the art of David, Gros and Géricault;20 and it is conceivable that we are meant to understand the distinction between the three well-dressed women at the base of the statue of the Virgin, none of whom actually looks at her, and the group of the afflicted to their right in political terms. But this is speculation.)

To sum up: between 1844 if not earlier and 1856 Couture pursued a single ambitious undertaking, the resumption of what he saw as the heroic national art of David, Gros and Géricault. His chief projects of those years—the Romans of the Decadence, the Enrollment of the Volunteers and the Saint-Eustache murals—must be seen as attempts to make good that undertaking under drastically different political conditions. Throughout this period, a stretch of more than ten and perhaps more than fifteen years, the political meaning of Couture’s art remained true to the republican ideology of the French left of the years before 1848, in particular to the teachings of Michelet, whom he knew personally, whose portrait he painted, whose lectures he attended, with whom he discussed his work. This is perhaps not a Couture we are familiar with. But I am convinced that it is the Couture Manet knew and learned from.

At this point Couture’s career took a dramatic turn: Nieuwerkerke, Napoleon III’s Superintendent of Fine Arts, awarded him three important official commissions, including the Baptismal Ceremony of the Imperial Prince.21 The commissions date from July 3, 1856; but Couture must have been approached, and must have expressed his willingness to accept them, earlier that year.22 So that before the Saint-Eustache murals were opened to the public, and possibly before they were entirely finished, Couture agreed to memorialize the very regime which, if I am right, those murals deplore. At the same time the obvious basis of the Baptismal Ceremony in David’s Coronation of Napoleon strongly suggests that that project too must be seen in terms of Couture’s aspirations towards a heroic national art. It was, so to speak, the politics of his aspirations that shifted—and even in this Couture may well have seen himself as finding sanction in David’s career. In fact it is hard to see how Couture could have continued to pursue those aspirations, which required a monumental scale for their realization, in opposition to the Second Empire, assuming that he still opposed it. I do not mean to claim that Couture’s acceptance of the imperial commissions was motivated solely by artistic considerations. He must have been flattered by Nieuwerkerke’s offer and greatly tempted by the promise of a degree of success with honors and social eminence which had previously escaped him. But these were not his only reasons for accepting them, and it is possible that they were not the decisive ones.

On one level, then, Couture’s acceptance of the imperial commissions is consistent with his previous undertaking as I have characterized it. While on another his acceptance marks a sharp break, if not with that undertaking as such, at any rate with the political convictions on which it rested. This is a different view from that held by Albert Boime, who introduces a great deal of new evidence to show that Couture subsequently enjoyed warm relations with the imperial family, that he took part in the social life of the court, and that for a while his position was roughly one of a court painter.23 These facts are important and we are in Boime’s debt for insisting on them. But the main conclusions that he draws from them seem to me doubtful. For example, Boime ends an informative paragraph on Couture’s relations with the imperial court with the statement: “Thus he found it easy to slip from a republican to an imperial regime without tarnishing his reputation—and indeed, succeeded in coming away with outstanding commissions in both cases.”24 Further on Boime describes Couture’s artistic eminence under the Second Republic and remarks: “Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état did not alter his position; the Second Empire’s Fine Arts Administration considered him one of its leading official painters and assigned him projects of the highest priority.”25 Now the projects in question are those commissioned in 1856; and it seems to have been only then that his involvement with the imperial regime began. In both these instances, and throughout Boime’s article, the interval between the coup d’état and Couture’s acceptance of the imperial commissions is glossed over, elided, as if with the collapse of the Second Republic Couture simply and immediately went over to the empire. But the truth is obviously more complex. Far from having “found it easy to slip” from the Second Republic to the Second Empire, Couture had remained at large for more than four years, and had even used a religious and therefore ostensibly conservative commission to make a politically revolutionary statement—though neither the critics who reviewed the murals in 1856 nor, presumably, Nieuwerkerke himself was aware of their meaning. In the present state of our knowledge we cannot claim with certainty that Couture’s political convictions remained constant throughout the first half of the fifties. Perhaps his attitude towards the Second Empire gradually softened. But even if it did, his ultimate acceptance of the imperial commissions must be understood, not as capping an effortless glide from one comfortable situation to another, but at least partly as an act of capitulation, an almost formal transfer of allegiance, a repudiation and in a sense a betrayal of his former politics.26

Boime’s elision of the years 1851–56, and the sharp downgrading of Couture’s republicanism that goes with it, is part of his larger effort, which seems to me misconceived, to minimize the importance of political factors, and to emphasize the importance of “esthetic” ones, for our understanding of Couture’s art—specifically, our understanding of his failure to complete the Enrollment of the Volunteers and the Baptismal Ceremony of the Imperial Prince.27 Couture’s political convictions may have been less deep—or less deeply political—than those of, say, Daumier or Nadar. But they were central to his aspirations as a painter, and it is impossible to understand his most ambitious works, whether realized or unfinished, except in terms of both. The collapse of the Second Republic presented Couture with what must have seemed a virtually insuperable problem, which nevertheless he managed to resolve at Saint-Eustache. His resourcefulness and probably also his courage deserve our admiration. The political and economic success, the stability and apparent lastingness of the Second Empire through the first half of the fifties compounded the problem; and in 1856 Couture made his separate peace with Napoleon III. There is no telling how deep, or how unhappy for Couture, the artistic consequences of that act may subsequently have proved to be. In any case, for whatever reasons, the year 1856 marks the end of by far the most fruitful period of Couture’s life, and the beginning of an increasingly troubled and uncertain phase that lasted until his death.


EVENTUALLY, HOWEVER, IT WILL be necessary to place Couture’s art in a broader, though not inherently more “esthetic,” context than the one I have adumbrated so far. I have said that Couture was intent on resuming the heroic national art of David, Gros and Géricault. That committed him, at any rate up to a point, to an art based on the representation of heroic action. And by the 1840s the representation of action in other than a trivial, merely anecdotal mode, as in genre painting or (what Rosenthal, not Boime, means by) juste milieu art, was acutely problematic. This state of affairs, which admits exceptions but in the large seems to me incontestable, came about as the result of a long development whose roots go back as far as the middle of the 18th century. The importance of that development for our understanding of French painting from David to Manet, in whose art it climaxes and is at last sublimated, is fundamental; and while I cannot hope (and shall not try) to do justice to the subject here, I want at least to summarize that development, and to say something, not very much, about the kinds of problems and issues that it raises.

Very roughly, the history of the representation of action and expression in French painting of the late 18th and early 19th century is the story of what may be described as their progressive theatricalization—the gradual usurpation of action by the theatrical and of expression by grimace. The single most important figure in that development is David; and its early, decisive phases are most clearly recorded in his history paintings from the profoundly fecund Oath of the Horatii (1784) to the compelling but far less influential Leonidas at Thermopylae (begun 1800 but not finished until 1814). In a future study I hope to demonstrate convincingly that David’s intentions in his major canvases of the 1780s—the Horatii, the Death of Socrates (1787), and the Brutus Receiving the Bodies of His Sons (1789)—must be understood in the context of previous developments in the theory and criticism not just of painting but also of theater. As early as the 1750s the demand for fundamental reforms in both painting and drama was expressed, most importantly by Diderot and Lessing, in terms that implied a deep rapprochement between the two arts. Diderot, for example, urged playwrights to stop contriving elaborate coups de théâtre (surprising turns of plot, reversals, revelations) and instead to seek tableaux (eloquent, apparently natural groupings of figures);28 the spectator in the theater, he argued, ought to be thought of as before a canvas, on which the dramatis personae are to be grouped and regrouped as if by a great painter.29 By the same token, the art of painting was conceived of as having for its highest aim the convincing, and by implication dramatic, representation of action;30 while its unique essence as an art was held to consist in the painter’s restriction to no more than a single moment in the action to be represented.31 Consequently the nature of that action, the choice and declaration of moment, and the staging and larger unity of the painting as a whole were vital and explicit concerns for more than twenty years before the Oath of the Horatii resolved them in ways that David’s contemporaries found definitive.32 (In this respect, as in others, the Horatii must be seen as an inspired response to almost universally acknowledged needs: hence its virtually instantaneous acceptance by artists and connoisseurs of all nations as paradigmatic for ambitious painting.) The same preoccupations control David’s chief works of the later eighties, the Socrates and the Brutus. Both paintings differ from the Horatii, and from each other, in significant respects. But all three, as well as the unfinished Tennis Court Oath (begun 1790), appear to address themselves to the basic problem of securing pictorial unity through the representation of a single emotionally charged moment (cf. Lessing’s “most pregnant moment”) in a single heroic action. The subsequent fate of the representation of action in 19th-century French painting must be seen against the definitive, though not unproblematic, solutions that these pictures comprise.33

The reaction against them came soon enough. Remarkably, the major figure in that reaction was David himself and its major document his Sabines of 1796–9. In part his dissatisfaction with his previous work stemmed from his new knowledge and appreciation of ancient Greek art, which seemed to him vastly superior to the Roman models that had influenced his description of the human figure in the great paintings of the eighties. But he seems also to have become dissatisfied with those paintings on what I shall call dramaturgical grounds: specifically, he appears to have wanted to replace their moment-bound, or moment-binding, imitation of action by another, less dramatic, less actively temporal mode of representation. What we find in the Sabines is not an attempt to declare a single moment in an action so much as the suspension of action altogether. We may want to say that it represents a moment of sorts, but one that has been dilated, expanded, to the point of no longer serving to advance the action, and within which the actors themselves have been made to relax, to suspend their efforts, in the general détente.34

Delécluze tells us that while working on the Sabines David contrasted that painting with the Horatii, whose composition, a term that for both men included considerations of action, he now, found “theatrical.”35 As we might expect, a major source of that concept as a pejorative for painting seems to have been the writings of Diderot, where it is associated with what he regarded as the hopelessly mannered conventions of the theater of his own time, in particular the convention, as it seemed to him, of forever taking the beholder into account, of playing to him and for him, as if overtly seeking his applause; and consequently of forgoing all naturalness and verisimilitude in the representation of action. It was in opposition to those conventions that Diderot advocated the development of a new dramaturgy, pledged to the convincing representation of action and based on the pursuit of the tableau, in which actors would be prepared to face one another, to turn their backs on the beholder, and in general to treat the latter as if he were not there.36 This is more or less exactly the dramaturgy of the Horatii, the Socrates and the Brutus. And yet by the second half of the nineties David himself reacted against the representation of action in those paintings, characterizing it as theatrical, a term that for Diderot had evoked all that he most disliked in the stagecraft and painting of his own time. Clearly, the term itself had changed its meaning, or at least its reference, in the interim. Or perhaps we may say that the theatrical as such had undergone a shift, probably an enlargement, in the course of the previous thirty-five years, so that by the second half of the nineties it comprised, not just the obviously mannered and artificial portrayal of action that Diderot had deplored both in painting and on the stage, but also the radically different and reformist representation of action of David’s paintings of the eighties. David’s concern with the proper limits of expression must also be seen in this connection. In 1807 he gave Delécluze a drawing of two heads that he had made roughly thirty years before. One head had been copied accurately from the antique while the other, based on the first, had been enlivened in various ways. “I gave it,” David remarked, “what the moderns call expression and what today I call grimace.”37 Significantly, the suspension of action in the Sabines goes hand in hand with an unmistakable toning down of expression among the chief protagonists. This suggests that by the mid-nineties David had come to feel that attempts to represent a single moment in an action were inevitably theatrical, and that attempts to render the expression appropriate to that moment tended inevitably towards grimace. The result in the Sabines is a perspicuous withdrawal from action and expression as such.

That withdrawal is carried still further and made still more perspicuous in his next and last ambitious history painting, the Leonidas at Thermopylae, in which the principal action, that of Leonidas himself, is explicitly atemporal and anti-dramatic—a purely inward act of meditation, of consecration, almost of prayer.38 It is as though by the early 1800s, when David conceived the Leonidas, all outward action and expression had come to strike him as theatrical, as a species of grimace, and therefore as unrepresentable with verisimilitude except at the cost of theatricalizing the painting as a whole. This must have posed a dilemma, recognized as such or not, for a painter who was at once repelled by whatever struck him as theatrical but for whom ambitious painting absolutely entailed the representation of heroic action. David’s solution, as put forward in the Leonidas, seems to have been to depict outward action no more than nominally, to merely denote it rather than to try to make it expressive of inner meaning (as in the paintings of the eighties); and to seek to represent convincingly, indeed actively, only the inward or internal action of his chief hero, an action that by its very nature aspired towards changelessness, timelessness, eternity.

The philosophical significance of David’s history paintings is enormous. The Horatii, his great work of 1784, was instantly and universally accepted as a paradigm for ambitious painting largely because of the unequalled perspicuousness with which it sought to represent a single moment in a heroic action. Within little more than fifteen years David found himself compelled to relinquish that ambition, to forgo all but the most nominal representation of outward action and expression, and to concentrate instead upon depicting a purely inward or internal action whose avowed content could not have been less momentary or more final. It is hard not to see in this development a drastic loss of conviction in action and expression as resources for ambitious painting, if not in fact a loss of confidence in the non-theatricality, which is to say the self-sufficiency, of action and expression as such. Only the most inward and spiritualized action, David seems to have felt, escaped being theatrical; only action that no longer engaged with the world, either physically or temporally, could express its meaning purely, self-sufficiently, other than as theater. If this is true, then David’s history paintings record the expansion with a vengeance of the realm (the world?) of the theatrical.

At least initially, Gros’ most famous paintings, the Plague-House at Jaffa (1804) and the Battle of Eylau (1808), may appear to controvert these claims. In an obvious sense it simply is not the case that they evince a loss of conviction in action and expression as resources for ambitious painting. Both are representations of heroic action in specific contexts—a plague-house filled with suffering men, a winter battlefield after days of carnage. Neither appears to address itself to the particular problems that I have suggested were David’s in the Sabines and the Leonidas. And in fact Gros does not seem to have shared David’s preoccupation with the theatrical as a fundamental pictorial, not to say ontological, category. Nevertheless, the crisis in the representation of action that makes itself felt in David’s history paintings—more accurately, the theatricalization of action that engendered that crisis—is fundamental to our understanding of Gros’ art, and in essential respects conditioned his achievement.

Roughly, we may say that in the Plague-House and the Eylau Gros in effect placed the representation of action on new ground; and that it was what I have suggested may be thought of as the increasing theatricalization of action, as recorded in David’s history paintings, that impelled that development, or at any rate that conferred on the totality of Gros’ innovations and choices the deep significance for the representation of action that they clearly had. What we find in paintings like the Plague-House and the Eylau is the unqualified and so to speak unconscious acceptance of action and expression as already wholly theatricalized—the acceptance, that is, of the theatrical as normative rather than as just pervasive—as the universal ground of action and expression rather than as a corrupt, and in that sense exceptional, modality of these. In Gros’ major paintings the theatrical is not a plight or peril or temptation of action, just as grimace is not a plight or peril or temptation of expression. Instead both are natural forms—together they constitute the natural state or condition—of all action and expression from the most overt and outward to the most restrained and inward-seeming. (The universality of the theatrical in these works makes itself felt in part as a deliberate exploitation, even exacerbation, of the theatrical; but also seems to have made possible a new and compelling naturalness of action and expression.) Accordingly an entire range of problems that I have claimed were central to David’s art disappeared or rather never arose. Above all, it may seem tautologically, Gros did not find himself compelled to meet what was for David the overriding problem of having to defeat the theatrical, which as we have seen meant different things to him at different times, but which throughout his history paintings crucially involved the representation of action and expression. And in general the differences between David’s and Gros’ respective modes of representing these are perhaps greater, or deeper, than has usually been recognized.39

Broadly speaking, then, the development that I have called the theatricalization of action and expression is complete in Gros’ Plague-House and Eylau, that is, well before the end of the first decade of the century. And nothing that happens in French painting after that time may be said to undo that theatricalization; on the contrary, the work of the most ambitious painters of the next decades, including Couture, confirms its universality. This however is not to say that all of them accepted the theatrical, or were at home in it, as Gros did and was. In particular Géricault, a greater painter than Gros and one of the master figures of European Romanticism, seems to have found the theatricalization of action personally intolerable—to have experienced it as virtually the loss of the world, understood as that set of conditions, that ground, upon which self-sufficient action is alone possible, and the self in its essential unity of inner meaning and outward expression is alone realizable other than as a theatrical performance. And he seems to have spent most of his short, heroic life in an impassioned effort, both in and out of painting, to repossess the world bodily, by main force, in a single physical act that aspired to go beyond the theatrical by virtue of its sheer intensity, of the singleness and so to speak the excessiveness of its commitment, if not to its own meaning exactly (the possibility of that commitment being precisely what the theatricalization of action had called into question), at any rate to its own inspired or tormented physicality. Géricault’s extensive reliance on animals, especially horses, in his paintings and lithographs must be seen partly in this context. He appears to have found in the representation of horses, either alone or in conjunction with human riders, a means of representing actions and expressions that literally exceed human capabilities, but which by virtue of their essential nature—their animality—escape being seen as theatrical, as grimace. In fact the representation of animals whether active or in repose seems to have provided Géricault with the only refuge from the theatrical that he had: as if the relation of animals to the world—the terms on which they may be said to have a world—are such as to preclude the theatricalization of that relation or those terms no matter what. This is to say more than that animals take on an unprecedented, virtually human expressive burden in Géricault’s art; though that is certainly true. It is to suggest that in his art animality becomes an ideal of humanness—a modality of possessing, or being in, both body and world—which ultimately turns out to lie beyond our reach. (The unattainability and consequent bestializing of that ideal is part of the tragic content of the Raft of the Medusa and the magnificent but sexually berserk paintings of severed heads and limbs that immediately preceded it.)40

Géricault’s importance to successive generations of French painters was profound. For example, Delacroix’s major canvases of the 1820s investigate the consequences for ambitious painting, which still essentially comprised the representation of action, of Géricault’s ultimate failure (if that is what it was) to de-theatricalize action and expression and so reclaim the world; though Delacroix seems chiefly to have aspired, not to defeat or even to escape the theatrical, but somehow to come to terms with it that would allow him to go on making major art. (The Scenes from the Massacre at Scio of 1824 and the Death of Sardanapalus of 1827 are extremes of that investigation.) Another artist, younger than Delacroix, appears to have accepted the theatricalization of action and expression more or less as he found it in Géricault’s art, but to have done so in a way that makes that theatricalization fully explicit and at the same time subjects it, as it were implicitly, to an essentially non- (or anti-) theatrical ideal of action—an ideal that seems to have been not only unrealizable but unimaginable in its own right. The artist was Daumier and the medium of his simultaneous acknowledgment and critique of theatricality was caricature. In fact I suggest that it was the natural relation of caricature, which entailed the freezing of intense action and expression, to the theatrical and to grimace that made it, in Daumier’s hands, a vehicle for major pictorial energies and specifically for a sense of the dramatic comparable to David’s.

This brings us at last to the question: What is the relation of Couture’s most ambitious paintings, above all the famous Romans of the Decadence, to the development I have just tried to summarize? Here it is not enough to say that the Romans simply is theatrical and leave it at that—not enough because it fails to recognize the measures that Couture took to counteract or moderate the undeniable and, given his ambitions, inescapable theatricality of the painting as a whole. I will mention four: (1.) The manifest subject of the Romans is, of course, an orgy. But Couture chose to depict a scene towards the end of the orgy rather than at its height. And altogether Couture’s painting is deliberately not a representation of violent or ecstatic activity. The few incidents of that kind that there are take place only at the fringes of the main group, whose members by and large are shown either in repose or performing the simplest of actions, e.g. holding a goblet, pouring wine, standing up. This suggests that Couture’s choice of moment (in the broadest sense) was partly motivated by the desire to constrain action and expression within strict limits, and by so doing to minimize the obviousness of their inevitable theatricalization. (2.) It is not just any action whose winding down Couture chose to represent. Théophile Gautier wrote at the time:

. . . the moment chosen by the painter is that when pleasure becomes a fatigue and the orgy a struggle, the period when the tongue thickens, when sleep weighs invincibly upon the eyes . . . when revolted nature refuses new excesses and draws back like a horse that an insane master wants to try to make leap a precipice. There they are, reclining, heads low, arms hanging, muscles slack, inert and somnolent, conquered by vice, they whose ancestors conquered the world.41

The emphasis in the Romans, as Gautier saw it, was on the overwhelming, through surfeit and exhaustion, of physicality; and on the extinguishing, through sleep and wine, of consciousness. If this is right, and it is likely to have been what Couture intended, the Romans not only does not offer us a representation of unconstrained action and expression—what it does represent implies the present impossibility of both. The result, almost a parody of Géricault’s efforts to go beyond the theatrical through the representation of a single excessive physical act, further minimizes the obviousness of the theatrical, at least as far as individual actions and expressions are concerned. (3.) In the same spirit, Couture seems to have tried to escape grimace by literally avoiding the representation of facial expression wherever possible, either by turning the faces of his protagonists away from us or by obscuring them in shadow. In view of these considerations it is surprising to find Levitine, in his Introductory Note to the University of Maryland catalog, calling Couture’s protagonists “a crowd of frantic pantomimists,” or referring to the “outrageous obviousness of [their] gesticulations and grimaces,” or accusing them without distinction of “overacting.”42 As a description of the dozen or so principal figures in the painting this is simply inaccurate. (4.) Finally, I suggest that Couture’s decision to provide an audience within the painting for the collective action it depicts ought partly to be seen as an attempt to explain, in the first instance to himself, the deep and ineluctable theatricalization of that action—to justify or rationalize the theatrical and thereby to neutralize it. I am referring, first, to the two severe standing figures at the front right, who have been variously interpreted but who were plainly meant by Couture to be seen as detached from and standing in judgment on the general debauch; and second, to the ancestral statues themselves, which at least metaphorically are silent witnesses (Gautier calls them “mutely eloquent spectators”43) of the degeneracy of their line.

Couture’s dramaturgy in the Romans consisted, then, in the minimizing of the theatricality of particular actions and expressions, and the rationalizing—and hopefully the neutralizing—of the theatrical as a general condition of action and expression as such. Again, I am not suggesting that theatricality was a conscious issue for Couture. But it seems clear that he regarded the representation of action and expression as problematic, and that the specific measures that he took in regard to them engaged indirectly but unmistakably with the theatrical on several fronts. Nor do I mean to imply that those measures are to be seen as having resolved the problems Couture faced. His attempts to minimize the theatricalization of particular actions and expressions aimed for at best a relative success; while the inclusion of detached, critical observers in the Romans actually works not so much to neutralize as to heighten the theatricality of the action as a whole. (The provision of an audience for that action making it all the more irrevocably a performance.) In any case, the relation of Couture’s painting to the central theme of this discussion is far from simple. Largely because of his determination to compete on equal terms with the great achievements of David, Gros and Géricault, the Romans constitutes a unique revelation of the depth of the crisis for ambitious painting which the theatricalization of action and expression had brought about by the 1840s—a crisis which was to be overcome only through the radical reorientation of ends and means that Courbet was shortly to accomplish. I suggest in fact that perhaps the most revolutionary, or most deeply fecund, aspect of Courbet’s achievement in his great paintings of the late forties and fifties was the invention and promulgation of a new paradigm for ambitious painting that no longer essentially comprised the representation of action.44 Not surprisingly, Couture remained committed to his action-based conception of the pictorial enterprise throughout the major projects of the next decades, though with the passage of time that commitment seems to have become increasingly difficult to sustain. For a brief moment after the Revolution of 1848 political events appear to have given him access, in his work on the Enrollment, to far less constrained action and expression than that which he had represented in the Romans. But when those events were cancelled by others the completion of the Enrollment became tortuous and finally impossible. (Could the seeming unity in action of the French people in the Revolution of 1848 have been felt by Couture as a de-theatricalization of action and expression?—as another kind of going beyond the theatrical through a single liberating act?45) In any event, the frustration of action is virtually thematic for Couture’s next important project, the Saint-Eustache murals, which as we have seen symbolically express his opposition to the imperial regime. It is even conceivable that they were furthered by the explicitly theatrical aspects of their intended public function, which in effect provided the audience that he had had to build into the Romans. But this too is speculation.

One last point. In “Manet’s Sources” I characterized Manet’s art, in particular the great paintings of the first half of the sixties, as essentially theatrical. By that I referred above all to the relationship—roughly one of confrontation, of mutual facing—which Manet seems to have found himself compelled to establish between each painting in its entirety (the painting itself, the painting as a painting) and the beholder.46 In this sense Manet’s paintings may be said to take account of the beholder; in any event they refuse to accept the fiction that the beholder is not there, present before the painting, which Diderot a century before had insisted was crucial to the convincing representation of action. (Manet’s exploitation of Watteau, whom Diderot found theatrical, is a further index of that refusal.) Not that Manet’s paintings revert to a prior dramaturgy. For Manet, as for Courbet, ambitious painting no longer entailed the representation of action. Accordingly the theatricality of his great canvases of the early sixties is as it were disengaged from action or expression—though the complete opacity, the frozen (or freezing) blankness of both in those pictures ratifies that theatricality and makes it all the more perspicuous. Paul Mantz writing in 1863 found in Manet’s paintings, “the caricature of color and not color itself”;47 while in the same year Paul de Saint-Victor complained that Manet “made his lines grimace.”48 The theatricalization of action and expression ends in that of paint.49

Michael Fried


1. The exhibition, entitled Thomas Couture, Paintings and Drawings in American Collections, was held from February 5 through March 15, 1970. The catalog of the same title contains an Introductory Note by George Levitine and essays by Alain De Leiris and Jane Van Nimmen. The entries for individual works are by Mrs. Van Nimmen.

2. George Levitine, “In Defense of the Pompiers,” ibid., pp., 9–10. All quotations from Levitine are from these pages.

3. Alain De Leiris, “Thomas Couture the Painter,” ibid., p. 24.

4. Albert Boime, “Thomas Couture and the Evolution of Painting in Nineteenth-Century France,” Art Bulletin, March 1969, p. 48. It should be noted that these are not the terms in which the painters of the juste milieu are characterized by Léon Rosenthal in his classic study Du Romantisme au Réalisme, Paris, 1914, pp. 202–31; and that Rosenthal, unlike Boime, includes neither Couture nor Chassériau in that category.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid., p. 54.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., p. 56.

9. Ibid. Manet studied under Couture from January 1850 until early 1856.

10. Michelet’s Journal (Tome I, [1828–48], edited by Paul Viallaneix, Paris, 1959) contains numerous references to Couture. The two men were in touch as early as August 1841. During the next seven years Couture often dined with Michelet; attended his lectures at the Collège de France; and discussed with him at least one projected painting, the Love of Gold (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Toulouse; first exhibited in the Salon of 1844; see Michelet’s entry for December 2, 1842). These remarks do not begin to suggest the closeness of Couture’s involvement with Michelet’s thought. In general Michelet’s importance to the painters and sculptors of his time has still to be appreciated.

11. In “Manet’s Sources” I suggested that what I saw as Manet’s conscious preoccupation with the Frenchness of French art may have had important roots in Couture’s cruder but deeply felt artistic nationalism.

12. In his Salon of 1847 Théophile Gautier describes the figure being carried off at the left of the Romans as “shipwrecked by the orgy” (quoted in Bertauts-Couture, Thomas Couture, 1815–1879. Sa vie, son oeuvre, son caractère, ses idées, sa méthode, par lui-même et son petit-fils, Paris, 1932, p. 21); and remarks of other figures, “The orgy, like war, has its heroes” (ibid.).

13. Jane Van Nimmen, “Thomas Couture’s Murals in Saint-Eustache, Paris,” Thomas Couture, Paintings and Drawings in American Collections, pp. 27–47.

14. Ibid., p. 33.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid, p. 46.

17. The Raft of the Medusa is obviously the primary source for the Stella Maris. But there are intimations of other sources as well, e.g., David’s Sabines and Gros’ Plague-House at Jaffa, which support the view of Couture’s intentions put forward here. The possible relationship of the Stella Maris to Manet’s Dead Christ with Angels of 1864, a painting which in “Manet’s Sources” I connected with the Raft of the Medusa, ought also to be remarked.

18. Jules Michelet, L’Etudiant, cours de 1847–48, Paris, 1877, p. 129. The lecture of January 15, 1848 expands and recasts portions of an earlier lecture on David and Géricault, given in 1846 and published posthumously in the Revue des Deux Mondes, November 15, 1896, pp. 241–62.

19. Ibid., p. 130.

20. Above all, I think, to the Raft of the Medusa and the Plague-House at Jaffa. Couture does not seem to have regarded the use of a Napoleonic source—the Plague-House—as implying support for Napoleon III.

21. Boime, p. 50, note 24: “The other commissions were the Rentrée de l’armée d’orient à Paris and L’Empire s’appuyant sur l’Eglise et l’Armée pour repousser l’Anarchie, the latter of which was to decorate the recently restored Salle Denon in the Louvre. Neither of the works went beyond the sketch stage.”

22. Boime (p. 50, notes 26 and 29) shows that Couture attended the baptismal ceremony in Notre Dame on June 14, 1856; and that he was in communication with court officials as early as January of that year.

23. Ibid., pp. 50–52.

24. Ibid., p. 50.

25. Ibid., p. 51.

26. Couture’s friendship with the imperial family came under attack almost at once. See Bertauts-Couture, pp. 63–65.

27. Most of all Boime tries to show that Couture’s failure to finish the Enrollment was not chiefly the result of governmental antagonism to the project. Here too he presents new evidence and points up inconsistencies in Couture’s accounts of official harassment. But once again I find his conclusions less than wholly convincing. The following remarks, coming after a paragraph in which Boime shows that Nieuwerkerke during the sixties made repeated requests for both the Enrollment and the Baptismal Ceremony, summarize his point of view:

Now this is not to deny that the government might have found the Enrollment theme objectionable or exerted covert pressures on Couture to force his withdrawal from the project. The Duke de Persigny was a fanatical Bonapartist who had to be removed from office during the so-called Liberal Empire of the sixties, and Couture’s claim of the Minister’s hostility to the work seems entirely justified. One may also question the conviction of Nieuwerkerke’s formal requests. But my main point here is that it cannot have been such political opposition alone that prevented the fulfillment of these projects, and that the attempt to “whitewash” Couture in this respect has tended to conceal other vital factors relating directly to aesthetic developments in mid-nineteenth-century France. Even Couture’s own assertion that the government refused the Enrollment because it “gave too much emphasis to liberty” raises further doubts about the credibility of his own personal testimony. The only intimation of “liberty” in the composition was the semi-symbolic figure of Théroigne de Méricourt, a popular heroine of the period celebrated by the historian Jules Michelet, which Couture claimed to have modified later to appease the regime. Couture implied that the government saw in the work a picture of insurrection and rebellion, when in fact the theme clearly depicts the termination of class antagonisms in the concerted effort to meet an external threat. Couture’s Enrollment illustrates the virtues of Courage, Unity, and Devotion—certainly valid pictorial themes for the Second Empire. Even the specific imagery was acceptable to the regime; in the Exposition Universelle of 1855 the painter J.-B.-A. Vinchon exhibited a work entitled Enrôlments volontaires (22 janvier 1792), and its description in the catalogue corresponds closely to Couture’s composition. Napoleon III was obviously less worried about Couture’s allegorical representation than about Manet’s portrayal of what was closer to home—the Execution of Emperor Maximilian. Finally, if Couture was indeed thwarted in his efforts to complete the project on political grounds alone, why was he unable to finish it during the Third Republic? (pp. 52–53).

The passage as a whole reflects a failure to appreciate both the depth of Couture’s republicanism in the Enrollment and, more important still, what I have tried to show was the close, internal relation between political and artistic conviction in his most ambitious projects. Boime’s claim that “the only intimation of ‘liberty’ in the composition was the . . . figure of Théroigne de Méricourt” does not stand up: the Springfield and Colmar pictures are as direct and passionate expressions in painting of the ideology of the Second Republic as we have. Their subject matter looks to Michelet, but not (as Boime suggests in a footnote) in connection with “contemporary agitation on behalf of civil rights for women” (p. 53, note 62). It was the impassioned republicanism and revolutionary fervor of Michelet’s writings of the second half of the forties that left their stamp on the Enrollment. If it is true that De Persigny characterized Couture’s painting as a “tableau de démagogues,” meaning, as he would have, Michelet and Quinet among others, he could not have been more right.

In any event the government of Napoleon III, at least in its first years, could not but have seen in the Enrollment a glorification of the first French Revolution, whose doomed reprise it had just liquidated. Boime’s assertion that Couture’s painting “clearly depicts the termination of class antagonisms in the concerted effort to meet an external threat” is correct as far as it goes. But it neglects the all-important truth that the external threat Couture’s volunteers are shown mobilizing against menaces not just France but the Revolution. Hence the perfect aptness of the subject for the Second Republic, and hence also its unsuitability, and perhaps potential danger, for the new government. After several years the danger passed. The Second Empire consolidated its power; local insurrections were put down; France enjoyed unequalled prosperity; and the subject of the Enrollment, as Boime demonstrates, gradually became acceptable to the regime. (Almost certainly France’s military adventurism in the mid- and late fifties was a factor in its rehabilitation.) Even so, Nieuwerkerke’s requests for Couture’s painting, discovered by Boime, date from no earlier than the second half of the sixties. By then the project was more than fifteen years old. Couture himself was in his fifties, out of sympathy with contemporary tendencies in painting, without support from critics or younger painters (other than his students). His relations with the imperial regime appear to have deteriorated badly. The wider, intensely political reality that had originally inspired the Enrollment had long since ceased to exist. Perhaps most important, by accepting the commissions of 1856 Couture had compromised his own previous republicanism, and thereby further estranged himself from that reality and that inspiration. Besides, as Boime acknowledges, Couture’s protest that without a larger atelier it was physically impossible for him to complete the Enrollment may have been justified. By the time the Third Republic came into being Couture had suffered the destruction of much of his work by Prussian invaders and had aged strikingly (Bertauts-Couture, pp. 48–49). Boime largely ignores these considerations, all of which militated against completing the Enrollment, and argues that “a fuller explanation may be found in [Couture’s] aesthetic conflicts: in his inability to reconcile reality and idealism and to bridge the gap between sketch and finished work” (p. 53). But Couture had no trouble finishing the Saint-Eustache murals, a project that ought to have evoked those conflicts, if such they were, far more strenuously than the Enrollment. As for the Baptismal Ceremony, Boime observes that its incompleteness “is most conspicuous in the absence of Louis Napoleon’s head and the unfinished character of the Empress Eugénie” (p. 51), but does not draw the conclusion, which seems to me inescapable, that these are portions of the work where the projected “aesthetic conflicts” are not likely to have come into play. In an obvious but by no means trivial sense Couture could have painted in Napoleon III’s head whenever he wanted to. Its absence must therefore be seen as the result not of an inability so much as of a refusal to do so. And while Boime succeeds in pointing out contradictions in Couture’s accounts of his eventual break with the imperial family, it seems clear that some such break took place, and the inference is strong that the deterioration in his relations with them was an important factor in his abandonment of the Baptismal Ceremony.

28. Denis Diderot, “Entretiens sur le Fils naturel,” Oeuvres esthétiques, Paris, 1959, p. 88.

29. Ibid., pp. 89–90; “De la poésie dramatique,” pp. 276–77.

30. The primacy of the imitation of action is assumed throughout Diderot’s writings on painting. Cf. Jean Seznec, “Un Laocoon français,” Essais sur Diderot et l’Antiquité, Oxford, 1957, p. 69: “. . . for [Diderot] as for his contemporaries the highest form of painting [la peinture par excellence] is history painting.” For Diderot’s implicitly dramatic criterion of convincingness see for example his discussion of Greuze’s Le Mauvais fils puni (excerpted from his Salon of 1765 in Oeuvres esthétiques, pp. 548–52). Lessing argues that actions rather than descriptions of people or things are the peculiar subject of poetry (Laocoon, translated by Ellen Frothingham, New York, 1963, p. 91); but Rensselaer Lee goes too far when he claims that Lessing denies to painting “virtually all but the depiction of corporeal beauty” (Ut Pictura Poesis: The Humanistic Theory of Painting, New York, 1967, p. 68). The force of Lessing’s discussion of painting is to determine the conditions under which it is able to represent actions convincingly and without violating its nature. Cf. note 31.

31. The classic statement of that restriction is Lessing’s: “Painting . . . can use but a single moment of an action, and must therefore choose the most pregnant one, the one most suggestive of what has gone before and what is to follow” (Laocoon, p. 92). For similar statements by Diderot see for example his remarks on composition in “Essais sur la peinture”: “The painter has only an instant; and he is no more allowed to embrace two instants than two actions” (Oeuvres esthétiques, p. 712); or the following from “Pensées détachées sur la peinture”: “The unity of time is even more rigorous for the painter than for the poet; the former has only one virtually indivisible instant” (ibid., p. 774). Both Lessing and Diderot qualify these strictures elsewhere, suggesting that the painter may find it necessary to include traces of prior and subsequent developments in his chosen moment.

32. Robert Rosenblum has shown that the subject matter of the Horatii had important precedents in Neoclassic painting of the 1760’s and ’70s; and has suggested that David found in the oath motif “the most active image of urgent dedication to an ideal of political morality” (“Gavin Hamilton’s ‘Brutus’ and its Aftermath,” Burlington Magazine, January 1961, p. 15). But it should also be noted that the swearing of an oath provides a powerful, and perhaps unique, means of involving a multiplicity of figures in a single action in the same way. That is, the nature as action of swearing an oath is such as to have enabled David in the Horatii to represent the three brothers as participating in it equally and at the same time. And by that I mean not just simultaneously but so to speak synchronically: as if each of the participants is felt to belong to exactly the same phase of the action as every other. Furthermore, the nature as action of swearing an oath makes possible what in the Horatii is experienced as a perfect matching or fusion—a further, deeper synchrony—of the moral or spiritual and the physical or bodily: as though the inner meaning, even the private intensity, of swearing an oath were entirely manifest in its outward, public expression. (I think of that as establishing the self-sufficiency of the action in question.) I am not suggesting that David consciously took these considerations into account. My argument is rather that they and related aspects of swearing an oath made it strongly attractive as subject matter to David and others; and that this was so largely because the need to secure a new and more perspicuous unity of action had become crucial to ambitious painting during the latter decades of the 18th century.

33. Not unproblematic because of the nature of the problems with which they ultimately engage. viz., What is an action (or a single action)? And what is a moment in an action? The exact elucidation of that engagement is the task of the art historian.

34. The suspension of action in the Sabines is noted by Louis Hautecoeur, Louis David, Paris, 1954, p. 180. Cf. also Robert Rosenblum, Transformations in Late Eighteenth Century Art, Princeton, 1967, pp. 90-91. The desire to dilate the moment and to suspend the action is reflected in David’s choice of subject, which reverts surprisingly to his initial idea for the Horatii. David originally planned to represent Horatius père defending his eldest son before the Roman people; but when he described his project to a group of friends, one of them, the playwright (and friend of Diderot) Sédaine, remarked, “The action that you have chosen is almost nil; it is all in the words” (Hautecoeur, p. 71). The painter seems to have taken this criticism to heart—in any case, the nature of the action represented in the final painting is radically different. The principal action of the Sabines, however, is close to that of the first sketch for the Horatii: in a livret issued for the public exhibition of the Sabines in 1799 David not only described the historical background to the combat between the Romans and the Sabines but actually provided a speech of more than 170 words for Hersilie, the wife of Romulus, who intervenes between her husband and Tatius, chief of the Sabines, to prevent further bloodshed.

35. M.E.J. Delécluze, Louis David, son école et son temps, souvenirs, Paris, 1855, p. 120. Delécluze is one of the outstanding art critics of the 19th century. His opposition throughout his career to what he saw as Diderot’s over-emphasis of dramatic considerations reflects his training in David’s atelier during the latter nineties (cf. Delécluze, Souvenirs de soixante années, Paris, 1862, p. 144). The concept of the theatrical, used pejoratively and related to other concepts such as action and the unity of action, moment, expression, grimace and coups de théâtre, not to mention composition and tableau, appears to have been basic to David’s thought. In fact the entire family of concepts is central to art theory and criticism, as well as to the practice of painting, in the second half of the 18th century; and sooner or later we are going to want exact knowledge of their meanings and interrelationships in the different historical situations in which they were used. It will also be necessary to trace their evolution in 19th-century art writing.

36. See for example “Entretiens sur le Fils naturel,” pp. 102–103, p. 133; “De la poésie dramatique,” pp. 230–31. Cf. also his criticism of Watteau in “Essais sur la peinture,” pp. 713–14; and his characterization of Carle Van Loo’s Medea as, theatrical and false (cited by Seznec, “Un Laocoon français,” p. 72).

37. Delécluze, Louis David, p. 112.

38. Once again Delécluze throws invaluable light on David’s intentions. In the early stages of his work on the Leonidas David asked his students to sketch their conceptions of the subject and Delécluze complied; he quotes David’s response at length:

You have chosen . . . another instant from the one that I propose to render. Your Leonidas gives the signal to take up arms and march to combat, and all your Spartans respond to his appeal. As for me, I want my scene to be more grave, more reflective, more religious. I want to paint a general and his soldiers preparing for combat like true Lacedaemonians, knowing well that they will not escape; some absolutely calm, others garlanding flowers for the banquet that they will hold in Hades. I do not want passionate movement or expression, except for the figures who accompany the man inscribing on the rock: Traveler, go tell the Spartans that her children have died for her . . . In this painting I want to characterize that profound, great and religious sentiment that love of country inspires. Therefore I must banish from it all those passions that not. only are foreign to it but would defile its sanctity. Your Leonidas is not mine . . . you have made him animated and resolved to come to blows; mine will be calm, he will think with a gentle joy of the glorious death waiting for him and his companions in arms. You must understand now, my friend, the direction I will be aiming for in the execution of my canvas. I want to try to put aside those movements, those expressions de théâtre, which the moderns have called peinture d’expression. In imitation of those artists of antiquity, who never failed to choose the instant before or after the great crisis of a subject, I will make Leonidas and his soldiers calm and contemplating immortality before the battle . . . But I will have a hard time getting those ideas accepted in our time. We love coups de théâtre, and when one does not paint the violent passions, when one does not push expression in painting to the point of grimace, one risks being neither understood nor appreciated (Louis David, pp. 225–27).

David’s repudiation, in terms derived from Diderot, of the taste for dramatic representation of action that his own paintings of the eighties had done much to promote could not be more explicit.

39. For example, whatever unity of action meant to Gros, if in fact he concerned himself with it as such, it did not entail the kind of singleness of action that seems to have been part of David’s aims up to and including the Sabines, and in a sense even in the Leonidas. (This is perhaps the most important difference between the Plague-House and the Tennis Court Oath, which was an important precedent for Gros’ use of subject matter based on actuality.) Nor, a fortiori, does it seem to have entailed taking up David’s intense preoccupation with declaring or dilating or ablating a single moment in an action. In both respects, which we have seen were crucial to David’s attempts to achieve a non-theatrical representation of action and expression, Gros’ pictures manifest a looseness, almost (we may feel) a vagueness or imprecision, in comparison with David’s; though it is more accurate to say that in the Plague-House and the Eylau considerations of singleness or simultaneity of action and sameness or (so to speak) duration of moment simply do not apply.

Most important, what I have called the deeper synchrony of inner meaning and outward manifestation of action and expression (see note 32) is not at issue in Gros’ art—not because it is realized beyond dispute but because the efficacy or meaningfulness of action and expression in his pictures is not of that kind. This difference shows itself in part as a difference between the kinds of action each man represents: between actions whose inner meaning and indeed whose spiritual and physical enactment are at least in principle accessible to the beholder, who is in that sense positioned to adjudge, or to acknowledge, the success or failure of that enactment, and actions which cannot so be apprehended or adjudged and whose performance seems to have for its aim merely the provoking of appropriate responses in ourselves and others (both in the picture and outside it). Very crudely, the difference is between actions that have an inside and an outside, as even that of Leonidas does, and others which for all intents and purposes only have an outside, which are performed solely to be seen and thereby to have a predetermined effect on their audience.

Here it is relevant that Gros’ masterpieces are set in the present (that is, the recent past), in specific locales, and represent events in the life of the greatest man of action the modern world has known, Napoleon, which actually occurred, or rather are meant to be seen as having actually occurred, in exactly that way. It is as though in paintings like the Plague-House and the Eylau, as in Napoleonic painting generally, belief in the actuality of what is represented takes the place of conviction in the non-theatrical modality of action that David strove for under changing conditions for roughly thirty years. (David’s commitment to that modality of action as at once exemplary and normative was perhaps his deepest idealism.) In fact it may not be too much to say that in Gros’ masterpieces it is not just the actuality of what is represented but Napoleon himself as the guarantor and shaper of that actuality—not just the knowledge that certain events are supposed to have occurred but faith in Napoleon as both heroic protagonist and unique author of those events—that takes the place of Davidian conviction. And whereas the heroism of David’s protagonists, being in principle accessible to the beholder, is therefore exemplary for him, the heroism of Gros’ Napoleon is neither. The emphasis in both the Plague-House and the Eylau is on Napoleon’s singularity and isolation; the actions which he performs and the virtues which he exhibits are his and his alone; they are to he seen, admired, even worshipped; but they cannot be imitated and certainly cannot be matched. Such an emphasis was ideally suited to the purposes of Napoleonic propaganda. But it was not determined by those purposes, which were entirely congruent with, and moreover were themselves largely exploited by, the inherent theatricality of Gros’ art.

40. Géricault’s intuitive revulsion against the theatrical aligns him with David. But his position is infinitely worse than David’s in the Leonidas. Compare for example the representation of what I have described as a purely inward or internal action in that painting, an action which although it does not engage with (and indeed expressly renounces) the world nevertheless takes place in it, with Géricault’s ultimate presentment of unrelieved internality in his famous portraits of the insane. We have yet to grasp the full import of Géricault’s life and work.

41. Théophile Gautier, Salon of 1847, quoted by Bertauts-Couture, p. 21.

42. Levitine, “In Defense of the Pompiers,” p. 9. However Levitine also believes that “the ludicrous overacting of Couture has the eloquence of a symptom” (p. 10), and suggests that a quality of self-consciousness in action “constitutes a distinct nineteenth-century current” (pp. 9–10). The “current” to which he adverts is not unconnected to the development I have tried to outline here.

43. Gautier, quoted by Bertauts-Couture, p. 20.

44. This claim calls for further elucidation, which I hope to provide in the larger study of Manet’s art that I am now preparing.

45. Cf. Couture’s description of the subject matter of the Enrollment in Méthode et entretiens, Paris, 1867, pp. 278–80.

46. Cf. “Manet’s Sources: Aspects of His Art, 1859–1865”, Artforum, March 1969, notes 27, 46, 98, 114.

The relationship may be described as one of reciprocal and instantaneous disclosure.

47. Quoted by Etienne Moreau-Nélaton, Manet raconté par lui-même, Paris, 1926, p. 46.

48. Ibid.

49. For the concept of the theatrical in relation to contemporary painting and sculpture see Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum, June 1967, pp. 12-23; “Two Sculptures by Anthony Caro,” Artforum, February 1968, pp. 24–25. Cf. also the use of the concept chiefly though by no means exclusively in relation to Shakespearean tragedy in Stanley Cavell, “The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear,” Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays, New York, 1969, pp. 267–353.