PRINT December 1975

Neutralizing “The Age of Revolution”

THE EXHIBITION “FRENCH PAINTING 1774–1830: The Age of Revolution,” like “The Impressionist Epoch” of last year, was seen on both sides of the Atlantic. Starting at the Petit Palais in Paris, it went to the Detroit Institute of Art, and then to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Conceived by Robert Rosenblum, whose work is well known to students of the 19th century, and by Fred Cummings, Director of the Detroit Institute of Art, it represents the collaborative efforts of both French and American scholars. But unlike “The Impressionist Epoch,” which consisted largely of works that hang permanently in the Metropolitan and a few other East-Coast museums, this show brought together many paintings from out-of-the-way collections in both Europe and America. Rarely seen canvases by David, Ingres, Géricault and other luminaries of the late 18th and 19th centuries were borrowed from provincial museums and private collections. And numerous works, once famous but now forgotten, by Vincent, Regnault, Boilly, Delaroche and a host of other late 18th- and 19th-century artists were dug out of museum storage rooms. Thus, even though Americans saw only three-quarters of the 206 works listed in the catalogue,1 what we did view was a highly unusual and varied selection of Salon painting that is unlikely to be shown again for a long time.

Aside from appreciating the superb curatorial effort behind the show, one still has the problem of what to make of this varied mass of material. For what gave these works an urgency in the 18th and 19th centuries is not always self-evident to modern eyes. Many of these paintings, which assumed high moral or intellectual import, lack an appropriate visual strength. Though they strive for the grandeur of past art, they lack its conviction.

Yet, for all its seeming remoteness, the painting of this epoch constitutes a storehouse of suggestive thought and feeling, of fantasy and illusion. It is, in its way, a kind of history that can tell us much about the beginnings of our own times. For these are precisely the decades in which France (along with other Western nations) transformed itself from a monarchy into a modern bourgeois state. It is the adolescence, if not the infancy, of our age, and to a large extent the culture it forged still lives within us. The issues with which it struggled, and which were voiced in social and political ideals, also had their repercussions deep within the collective and individual consciousness of those who shaped culture. Those issues resounded from one end of this exhibition to the other.

Not least among them is the issue of art itself, its nature and purpose. The years the exhibition covers begin at a time when ambitious Salon painting was often a vehicle for the expression of moral and political optimism. Like the French stage, to which it habitually looked for inspiration, it stirred the emotions by magnifying the significance of moral choice. The dramatic scenes of heroism envisioned by David, Vincent, Peyron and Drouais between the 1770s and the 1790s were born of a rhetorical conception of art allied to a classical faith in the efficacy of individual action. Their harshly realistic heroes breathe the conviction that real social experience—history, not mythology—is the medium in which Man (but not Woman) realizes his fullest, noblest potential.2 They wanted to recreate and imaginatively relive not the deeds of Christians but of Romans and Greeks, men who shaped their destinies in lucid, pre-Christian air. In the 1770s and ’80s, such scenes could muster strong emotions in educated men. Stifled by a corrupt, inefficient governance structure that excluded them from meaningful decisions, they longed for such a stage in reality and for the political opportunities it would provide.

The rooms that were devoted to monumental, ambitious figure painting in the later 1790s and the early days of the 19th century document not merely a change in style, not merely an “artistic” trend to abstraction and fanciful subject matter, but the collapse of that optimism. There is also a different set of expectations about art and its purpose. By the late 1790s, strange, moody, cooly rendered fantasies and themes of amorous longing or ill-fated love largely replace moral and social feeling as the main artistic inspiration of prestigious art. Girodet, Guérin, Charpentier, Broc and others create elegant but enervated, despairing or dying heroes. Even where subject matter refers to politics and the present—as in images of Napoleon or in the vast, spectacular battle scenes he commissioned—the appeal is to a passive observer who contemplates his own emotive state rather than his potential for moral passion and decision. What social idealism remains to inspire art has been metamorphosed into arcane allegories or obscure mysteries, as in the strange “Masonic” subject by the former radical, Regnault, Physical Man, Moral Man . . .

Where ambitious figure painting once called upon the viewer to imagine himself in a rationally understood world, engaged in gripping and significant life decisions, it now invited him to dwell upon the emotional feelings attendant to his own state of powerlessness. Sublimely horrible situations that chill the blood and paralyze reason; themes of reverie and retrospection; images of otherworldly spirits glimpsed through luminous mists; lost loves and sleeping or dying lovers: these and other themes speak of yearnings unrealized and unrealizable, of hearts that must cool, and of loss.

The attitude toward immediate sense experience many of these works project is striking. Girodet, Gérard, Ingres (as well as lesser-known artists) display a certain fear of the flesh, an asceticism, a closing down of sensual consciousness. David had already chastened his vision, banishing from his painting those sensually appealing features that the 18th century had cultivated to such excess: the loaded brush, scintillating colors, luxurious textures—all that feasted the eyes and suggested the fragrance of nature and the pleasures of touch. In his painting of the ’80s, the world is streamlined, filled with ungiving surfaces and sharply defined spaces. It is an all-business, man’s world in the modern sense, accommodating only male action and passion and female emotional response. The bodies of men are bony, hard-muscled, their skin like tautly stretched leather; women’s bodies, imagined with less specificity than the sturdy linen that drapes them, are conceived as smooth, generalized volumes.

David’s students (and he himself at various times after 1800) recoil even further from sensory experience. Just as faith in individual action collapses, so the space in which figures exist contracts, and the figures themselves, often immobile, freeze into svelte, fastidiously rendered surface patterns. In paintings by Girodet, Gérard and others, a self-oppressed sensibility finds comfort in the hairless, waxlike bodies of young men and women, or—as in Prud’hon’s rendering of flesh—in soft, decomposing substances.

The same impulse that glorified individual action in the later 18th century also appears to have been extraordinarily fascinated with a specific character type: the virtuous but victimized old man. This figure positively haunts late-18th-century painting. In this exhibition alone he appears three times as Belisarius, the wrongly dishonored general of the Emperor Justinian, who, blind and reduced to begging, shamed Rome (Vincent, Peyron and David painted him in 1776, 1779 and 1781 respectively). He also appears as Socrates, portrayed by David in 1787 choosing to die rather than betray his principles. And he is Suvée’s Admiral de Coligny (1787), represented in confrontation with assassins. He is also a destitute, crazed Oedipus by Harriet (1796, not in the New York show) and a Priam by Garnier (1792). Priam, from the ramparts of Troy, sees his son’s body dragged by the chariot of Achilles. These and other old men suffer extraordinary indignities, bodily harm and loss of their worldly and mental powers. At least one artist deliberately distorted his text in order to arrive at such an image. Lethière’s Philoctetes at Lemnos (1798) shows a wounded, ragged, white-haired patriarch struggling for survival on the rocky island on which he was abandoned—even though Homer describes this character as a younger man.

The noble old man, traditionally a symbol of revered authority, was not new to art. Nor was his counterthesis, the ridiculous old man.3 But so many noble but pitiful old men or noble but endangered, dying and suffering old men—these are not common in the history of art. The very repetitiousness with which their deaths and sorrows are rehearsed points to some unusual and deeply felt preoccupations. For this figure is far more than one of those exemplary models of virtue encouraged by late-18th-century French reformers. The theme of the victimized old man gave shape to what must have been profound and ambivalent feelings about authority, both before and during the Revolution.

The art historian James R. Rubin has identified the Oedipus theme as a political allegory in which Oedipus stands for emigrés and the pre-Revolutionary social order.4 Literary evidence bears this out for the 1790s, but images of victimized old men, including Oedipus, appeared well before the Revolution. Before Oedipus became a way of referring specifically to politics in the ’90s, the theme of the old man was hard at work responding to the broader critique of authority then at its height in educated, enlightened society.

Through him, consciously and unconsciously, boldly and cautiously, the age explored its deeper feelings and ambivalence about patriarchal authority. In these same years, the radical William Blake pursued the links between political, social and sexual repression, arguing a thesis remarkably similar to ideas current in the 1960s among New Left thinkers (especially Herbert Marcuse). In both his poetry and his art, which often treated the French and American Revolutions, Blake used a cast of recurrent types that include a bearded, white-haired patriarch—always an image of repressive law and domination—and a strong, rebellious youth, who represents both sexual and political liberation and who often overthrows the old tyrant and his laws.5 Blake almost always represented this youth with his arms outstretched, his body opening up and extending itself into the space around it; while the constricted and constricting spirit of the old man is conveyed by hunched, squatting, downward-looking poses. The figure of a youth who symbolizes liberation and revolution also appeared in French art, and this exhibition included an example. In the painting Liberty or Death (1795), by the Jacobin Regnault, the Genius of France is a youth hovering in the air, borne on tri-colored wings, with arms outstretched (Blake’s youths were also airborne, but angrier, more muscular and more dangerous-looking than this one). Another winged youth appears in a small, delicately rendered painting by Landon, Daedalus and Icarus (1799). But far from Blake’s embattled youths, this one is sent quietly into flight by a nonrepressive father (significantly younger than the old men I have been describing). Like a flicker of memory of a bygone dream, this little picture imagines that innocent, hopeful moment when, in the bright light of morning, the youth embarks on his flight to freedom—to a destiny, however, that turned out to be identical to that of Regnault’s Genius of France. Whether or not Landon was consciously alluding to the fallen political hopes and illusions of the past does not matter. Such longings were more than strictly political and were fueled by more than conscious reason could account for.

Clearly in these French Salon paintings, the questioning of patriarchal authority is almost never as penetrating, unambivalent or consciously critical as in Blake’s art (or, for that matter, in the kind of popular French print that would never appear in the Salon). While the viewer is repeatedly presented with the image of a weak, powerless, or mistreated old man—a ruler, a general, a father—the wish such images carry is never overtly admitted: the viewer is not invited to think consciously of an overthrown father-tyrant. Even the guilt such a wish provokes is assuaged: the old man is emphatically noble, wise and deserving of pity—even while he is mutilated, murdered, deranged and destitute—or, like Oedipus and Belisarius, symbolically castrated (blinded). Thus, in Regnault’s Deluge (1789), where the wish is almost stated, the decrepit old father, who literally weighs down his son, is still portrayed with passable sympathy, despite the fact that because of him, his son must choose between guilt (throwing him off in order to save his wife and child) and his own manhood as husband and father. On a psychological level, the son’s choice is related to France’s political choice between liberty and death, between individual freedom and the deadening weight of authority.

In Vincent’s Belisarius the guilt that this theme evokes, but which is normally repressed, is sharply rendered. Here, as in other statements of the theme, Belisarius is seen in opposition to younger men. But unlike his other confrontations, in this one he is threatening, scowling, powerful-looking. He asserts his presence against those who confront him. The aggressiveness of this blind but accusatory figure is boosted by his position on the left side of the painting, since such scenes are normally read from left to right. On the right (in this context, the side of the weak), two disturbed-looking younger soldiers (as well as two less prominent old men) visibly cringe before him, their eyes obscured in shadow. David, in his painting of the same situation (1781), resolved the uncomfortable feelings Vincent brought up (critics had accused Vincent of treating this noble theme coldly). David’s emphatically pathetic Belisarius is back on the right side of the picture, the usual place for these sympathetic old men. The single soldier is kept at a distance and allowed to express only the surprise of recognition. In any case, Belisarius is unaware of him; his blindness and his weakness are unequivocally stated, and he appears lost in his own sorrows. And for added protection, the comforting figure of a Roman matron mediates between the two. Wiping away a tear, she drops a coin into the general’s helmet, repeating the act of Vincent’s guilt-ridden soldier.

In this, as in David’s other great paintings of the 1780s, an apologist defense of fathers, generals and heads of state is firmly asserted.6 Although they are sometimes victims of some established order, moral authority is on their side. The new ruling class that emerged at the end of the century—the class for which David already spoke in the 1780s—would also reaffirm the paternalistic authority that 18th-century educated culture so cautiously and ambivalently questioned. Indeed, the caution in so many of these pictures foretells the outcome of the issue as it was finally expressed in the laws governing social and familial institutions.7 It is fitting that the old man faded from art around 1800. Although transformed, his authority was once again secure, firmly readjusted to the new social and political forms of the 19th century, and probably more deeply internalized by his sons than before. The king had been killed, but not the bourgeois father. Significantly, with the disappearance of the old man, high art ceased to explore the possibilities of individual moral action, and the excited passions such scenes expressed began to look staged and artificial.8 Ambitious figure painting turned instead to the esthetic contemplation of impossible fantasies, remote myths (including the rapidly developing one of Napoleon), and—not surprisingly—of melancholy maidens and powerless, dying youths.

Years later, after the Revolution of 1830, Delacroix painted his Liberty Leading the People, the last work in this exhibition. It is a social fantasy very different from David’s. The open, atmospheric space is largely structured around the strong, moving figure of the half-naked Liberty, whose glistening, womanly flesh, maternal breasts and serene features are spotlighted. In this figure, who is both allegorical and real, Delacroix projected longings that are at once social and psychological, public and personal. Liberty, in whose protective shadow a small boy finds courage, is both sexual and motherly, strong and gentle. Under her confident guidance, men of all classes, ages and races unite. She turns to beckon them on as she carries the tri-colored flag over the lifeless bodies that clutter the foreground—the corpses of men in torn military uniforms. The liberated state is feminine, nurturing and mothering. She will attend to the needs of her all-male citizens, who, in her care, will shed their separateness as they transcend the struggles that divide them. The substance of this liberty is individual gratification and social harmony, not individual power. The promise of gratification—of sensual gratification—comes through the rendering as well as the imagery, in the rich, thickly applied paint and the sonorous colors. In Delacroix’s fantasy, men would be liberated from the bourgeois world that David’s idealized heroes prophesy.

Obviously, the impact of an exhibition like this one depends almost totally on the historical consciousness—and not merely the stylistic consciousness—that the viewer brings to bear on the art. The issues that made these paintings seem compelling to those who commissioned or painted them are not always self-evident and not common knowledge for most American museum-goers. Yet, little in the design of the exhibition itself informed the viewer of the context that once made these works speak of vital feelings and interests. No historical thesis was presented, no suggestions about why this was an age of Revolution or what those revolutions were about. The small wall plaques next to each work, although occasionally supplying a piece of information about the subject matter or the patron, were mostly intent on identifying the style to which art historians have assigned the work or the earlier style it emulated. One was left with the impression that artists were motivated primarily by the history of art and sought only to imitate older art. Politics and history were referred to only in blatantly propagandistic works that featured kings or the Emperor. The few columns of print supplied in a free brochure (the only alternative to the $15 catalogue) were too brief and too general to help the viewer make sense of specific works.

For example, the brochure treats the relationship between 18th-century Enlightenment philosophy and monarchical interests in art in a few lines that manage only to confuse the issue (the catalogue does no better). One reads that the philosophes—Enlightenment writers —believed in liberty and “criticized absolutism in France,” but also that their writings inspired the crown to encourage art that would teach virtue to its subjects and “purify the taste of France.” Certainly state-commissioned paintings reflected aspects of Enlightenment thinking; but toward 1780, philosophes, ever more radical, were expounding decidedly anticlerical and antiaristocratic views that openly conflicted with the interests of the crown.9 The images of virtuous nobles that the state commissioned, while they can be rationalized as appeals to nationalism, patriotism and morality (as both the brochure and the catalogue suggest), were meant to promote an established social order that was defending its image from aggressively critical segments of the bourgeoisie.

Such a scene is Durameau’s Continence of Bayard, exhibited in the Salon of 1777. Contradicting the charges of corrupt morality leveled at the aristocracy by dissident writers, this painting depicts an aristocrat of yore bestowing a generous dowry upon a young woman who had been brought to him not for this purpose but for his own pleasure. (According to the Salon description, cited in the catalogue, the chevalier changed his intentions toward her only when he learned of her noble blood.) Nor does the catalogue entry, written by Anne Leclair, question the intent of the work. Leclair, enchanted by its authentic Gothic details, is puzzled by the hostile reactions it provoked in 18th-century critics, who liked neither the subject nor the image of Bayard “coldly holding up a purse.” “It is paradoxical to see a work judged so harshly,” writes Leclair, “when it would appear to correspond to the criteria of the new taste in its exaltation of national subject matter made fashionable by literature.” In fact, the criteria Leclair invokes obscure rather than clarify the critical response, and in the guise of art history offer the 20th century essentially the same rationalizations that the 18th century advanced to explain a campaign launched by and for the nobility. The same uncritical approach characterizes both the catalogue essay covering this period and many of the descriptions of specific works. It is as if the Louvre, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have dressed up for the bicentennial by donning the robes of the Royal Academy.

I will return later to the catalogue (not all of whose contributors are as naïve about the ideological purposes of the art they explicate). Here I want to characterize the immediate experience of the exhibition itself, the paintings and the written information provided in the galleries. For next to the outstanding curatorial effort, the most striking thing about the exhibition was its failure to provide relevant historical information. For the most part, the exhibition simply presented these works as so many separate pieces of art history. Invariably labeled according to style, their historical meanings apparently derive from the fact that such was the “taste” of the time—with the exception, of course, of blatantly “political art.” The lack of explanation and analysis was so striking that, despite the protected ambience of the museum, experiencing “The Age of Revolution” came very close to watching television news.

There, too, one is confronted bluntly with a series of events, facts and occurrences, presented briefly, uncritically and without analysis: accidents, crimes, official government pronouncements, cost-of-living data, strikes and the Dow Jones. The very mode of presentation reinforces the illusion that reality is fragmented, without history, unexplainable except in terms of immediate causes, current “trends” and the personalities of individuals. The news is always “objective” events, never the on-going web of relationships from which events arise. So, in this exhibition, each canvas was presented as a discrete item, an objective occurrence. The list of historical news events on the back of the brochure, all headline stories in their day (“1793: Execution of Louis XVI”) only reinforced the impression of fragmentation and the irrelevance of history-as-news to art.

In any case, Salon painting—and this is what the exhibition consists of almost exclusively—was the medium least able to respond to and express the living feelings and immediate experience of the Revolution. As officials of the Revolution complained, David included, Salon painting was a product of the Academy, a privileged corporation controlled and financed by the crown and openly conceived as a servant of monarchical interests. From its beginning under Louis XIV, the esthetic standards it promulgated reinforced the prestige of painting that glorified the throne and the altar, e.g. pictures of virtuous kings and aristocrats, religious subjects and scenes of individual heroism drawn from the literature of elite culture (the classics). The 18th-century Academy had become lax in carrying out this mandate, but under Louis XVI, a reform campaign was launched to revive the “noble” ends of the old Academy. Working within official goals, David pushed them as far as possible into the service of his own progressive ideals. But during the Revolution (and notwithstanding the acclaim his earlier Salon paintings were now accorded), he and others in the Convention questioned the relevancy of Academic teaching. Above all, Revolutionary authorities sought to remove art from the control of an institution that, in their eyes, was organized to promote the image and the interests of despotism.

The problem, as they perceived it (but which they never solved to their satisfaction), was to convert high art—and ambitious artists—to the cause of the Revolution. At one point, in the conviction that patriotic citizens were better judges of art than Academy professors, the Convention set up a jury of citizens to judge an art competition. The actors, writers, journeymen, artists and other professionals who sat on this jury found the art submitted generally devoid of Revolutionary spirit, and they did not award first or second prizes.10 During the Revolution, David himself virtually abandoned Salon painting, not only for politics, but in order to put his art into the streets—in the design of public pageants, festivals, mass demonstrations and political prints.11 The pervasive institutional and ideological controls that governed the production of Salon painting in general (and not only images of rulers in particular) would seem a most relevant fact to include in an exhibition of Salon painting. But rather than look at past ideology critically, the exhibition generally gives us past ideology as objective, neutral truth.

This brings me to the catalogue. This 712-page book was compiled by 22 scholars. Aside from the entries for each of the works exhibited, separate essays introduce the exhibition as a whole and each of its four periods (the reign of Louis XVI, 1774–1789; the Revolution, 1789–1799; the reign of Napoleon, 1800–1814; and the Bourbon Restoration, 1814–1830).

The first two of these essays present distorted pictures of the conditions under which art was produced. In this, they tell more about established academic thinking in the 20th century than about 18th- or 19th-century art. The first essay, by Pierre Rosenberg, curator of painting at the Louvre, suggests that painting was somehow affected by the many political changes that mark this epoch, but he offers no thesis as to the nature of these changes or how painting registered them. Indeed, he states that the purpose of the exhibition is simply to trace “artistic tendencies” in themselves. Though history painting ( pictures of noble rulers, religious subjects, etc.) is reported as “the most highly regarded category,” it is not examined critically in relation to the interests of those who determined the hierarchy of genres. (Later in the catalogue, Antoine Schnapper points out that the higher genre was never popular beyond official and professional circles.) But what is more disturbing are the historically unwarranted claims Rosenberg makes for the freedom of the arts in these years and the disinterested motives of artists, officials, critics and patrons.

. . . Because of the unfamiliarity of the period, we thought it advisable where possible to follow the judgment of the artists themselves; consequently, we have attempted to exhibit works that were shown at the Salons.

Rosenberg goes on to characterize the Salon as an institution whose doors were generally “open” to all art. Evidently it existed only to encourage good art, for “the artists considered the works they sent to the Salon to be their very best.” The reader is assured that the exhibition presents the best art of this era because it has selected paintings that were “celebrated” by contemporary critics. We further read that 18th- and 19th-century critics praised or condemned paintings only on the basis of their “objective” artistic merits.

Fortunately, other pages of the catalogue make it clear that politics and esthetics were not so separable in late 18th- and early 19th-century criticism. Jacques Vilain, for example, in his catalogue entry for Regnault’s Liberty or Death, observes that the political radicalism of this work was surely the cause of the harsh criticism it received. Expressing “the pure and violent ideology of the Terror”—“Liberty or Death” was a motto of 1793—it was not exhibited until 1795, during the Thermidorian reaction, when such sentiments were decidedly unpolitic. In fact, throughout much of this epoch, the press was closely watched by the government, and under both Napoleon and the Bourbons, fines and even imprisonment could befall the critic or editor who praised the esthetic quality of paintings that contradicted the official ideological view of things.12

The second essay, by Frederick Cummings, treating the fifteen years, preceding the Revolution, continues in the same spirit. Not a single word is wasted on the historical conditions of the time. Whatever led to the Revolution apparently has absolutely nothing to do with art. The impression gained in this essay is that the art of the period changed because taste changed, both changes occurring in a perfectly sealed cultural vacuum. Evidently, new themes developed fortuitously, and all the crown wanted from artists was a new art style. Louis XVI and the Comte D’Angiviller, who directed the king’s campaign to improve art (i.e., to reharness it to the interests of Royalty) simply had a taste different from Louis XV and his contemporaries. In fact, this Louis was apparently an extremely nice king who liked pictures of virtuous subjects. According to Cummings’s essay, he wanted only to encourage art that would regenerate society and purify taste. The story has a happy ending, for the efforts of Louis XVI and D’Angiviller were crowned by success: artists gave them a “revolution”—in painting, a new style characterized by David’s “new set of pictorial values arising from his study of the art of Caravaggio and Poussin.” David was the most influential artist of the time because his art was the most individual; it displayed the strongest personality and passion. His “severe republicanism” is referred to once, in passing, but his art, like the art of others in the 1780s, essentially expresses only such general and abstract concerns as “the human condition” and “the regeneration of society.”

With the third essay, the catalogue becomes serious. Antoine Schnapper, writing about painting during the Revolution, sharply contradicts many of the unfounded claims that precede his well-researched essay. And for the first time, the clamor of history is echoed in the pages of the catalogue. According to Schnapper, D’Angiviller’s attempt to “reform” painting contributed to the violence of the crisis that split artistic circles and disrupted institutional life during the Revolution. The crisis revolved around the central issue of the Revolution: equality vs. privilege; and dissident artists, with David at their head, forcefully challenged the authority of the Academy. (In the midst of this, D’Angiviller, a hard-line Royalist, was hustled out of France by Louis XVI. Evidently Louis believed that his presence would further incite the hostility of the rebelling artists.)13

While Schnapper draws a clear enough picture of these disputes, in his treatment of David’s particular role, the issues once again become obscured. He attributes David’s rancor against the Academy solely to feelings of personal injury saved up since student days, when the artist was repeatedly denied the Prix de Rome (according to Schnapper, justifiably)—this despite David’s ongoing critical analysis of art patronage and privilege and the developed political ideals he often expressed in his active career in the Convention (over which, for a time, he presided). The last part of this essay gets completely bogged down in a futile attempt to demonstrate the purely esthetic merits of David’s late work.

The final two periods, the Napoleonic era and the Bourbon Restoration, are treated by Robert Rosenblum in two separate essays. Only here is visual material sensitively examined. To my mind, the second of these essays goes deeper into the substance of the art than the first and also gives a more detailed picture of the ideological flavor of early 19th-century high culture. The first essay, while it stresses the propagandistic nature of images of Napoleon, tends to catalogue other, equally ideologically significant art according to various art categories. As a consequence, “political art” appears to be a category separate and distinct from other art. For example, paintings idealizing the medieval past are treated primarily as a new, entertaining vogue that the age explored for esthetic enjoyment alone, a “counterpart” to Greco-Roman subjects. While there is some truth in this, the vogue appears in a different light when it is seen in relation to the conflicting ideologies of the time, namely the Enlightenment’s vehement rejection of “the Gothic” and the Royalist’s and _emigrés’ defense of the Christian past. That is, the appearance and disappearance of medieval subjects relate to the issue of church authority, a central issue of the Revolution and one which would arouse violent emotions and bitter memories for decades to come.

Similarly, a painting by A. E. Fragonard (the son of the famous Honoré), Vivant-Denon Returning the Bones of El Cid to his Tomb (c. 1812), “ignores the grim military facts of the French invasion of Spain in favor of a mysterious meditation upon death, medieval heroes and gloomy Gothic vaults.” But this work implicitly acknowledges those grim facts by countering them with a whitewashed version. Rosenblum does not spell out what he means by “grim facts.” I assume he is referring to the cruel atrocities that French soldiers were inflicting upon an already brutalized peasantry—a counterrevolutionary peasantry, who, stirred up by a fanatical, ultra-royalist clergy, fought for a corrupt, oppressive monarchy. (Goya’s Disasters of War characterizes those who fought this war and the atrocities that both sides committed.) Fragonard’s painting not only is designed to ignore the real effects of French foreign policy, it presents for home consumption the picture of a high-ranking Napoleonic official bestowing great respect upon a relic venerated by the Spanish people. (Actually, according to the catalogue description, French troops had destroyed the original tomb of El Cid thinking that they would find treasure to loot.) In more ways than one, then, this work cynically contradicts the reality of the French invasion. To treat it primarily as an innocent Gothic entertainment is to rationalize and advocate, however unintentionally, the political interests that originally prompted it.

In general, the historical realities to which Napoleonic propaganda was addressed—realities which explain its specific impact—are barely mentioned. Rosenblum vividly describes the interesting shift in the way Napoleon was portrayed, from a heroic but still human figure, acting in a rationally understood world, to a remote, unreal deity (best seen in Ingres’ painting Napoleon Enthroned). The effects of these works are sensitively evoked, but they are not related to the changing situation they addressed.14 Rosenblum recognizes that images of Napoleon idealized what was, in fact, an authoritarian regime; and he has often explored the ways in which Napoleonic imagery utilizes older artistic traditions in order to manipulate the viewer and evoke in him feelings of awe and obeisance. But rather than develop the meanings of these works in relation to historical realities and to Napoleon’s ideological needs, he invites the viewer to savor their esthetic qualities in isolation from their other meanings (see below, the passage on David’s Napoleon at Saint Bernard). The questionable political attitudes those effects were designed to reinforce (e.g. the acceptance, even enjoyment, of one’s own powerlessness before the ruler) are not probed.

Rosenblum’s effort in this essay, as in his past writings, is directed toward dismantling the old dichotomy that classified the art of the period as either Neo-Classical or Romantic. By now, he has pretty much killed those categories. In their place he has put a new, more varied set—primitivism, medieval subjects, love-death subjects, propagandistic images of the emperor, etc.—all of which can be empirically demonstrated. But because the focus is usually on describing them and their immediate esthetic effects, on convincing the reader of their existence as esthetic categories, the concrete experience that prompted them necessarily becomes secondary and even irrelevant to the main task at hand. That is, the kind of categorical thinking Rosenblum employs inherently precludes understanding the art dialectically, in relation to historical experience. The emphasis is on esthetic distinctions, not dialectical relationships.

The inner logic of this approach, by no means unique to Rosenblum, implicitly fosters the illusion that social and political experience affect people’s thought, feeling and expression only in obvious and highly circumscribed ways. That is, “political art,” because it is treated separately, becomes a roped-off exception, leaving other art presumably untouched by political and social values. Whether or not its author intends this effect, it accords with the 20th-century predisposition to regard public, social and collective aspects of experience as separate from and even opposed to what is personal, private and individually felt, the latter being considered the more significant form of consciousness and the true source of art. The social and political powerlessness of the modern individual thus becomes rationalized and even advocated as a cultural value, a precondition of the esthetic experience. Rosenblum alludes to history often enough to suggest that art-making was more than the production of objects that fit into one or another descriptive category. But the historical experience that once gave these works urgent meanings cannot be developed dialectically without endangering the separate esthetic character of each category.

But Rosenblum is really better than his approach. He almost always knows more than his esthetic categories admit as relevant. His descriptions often touch upon the historical circumstances within which art is generated. Highly responsive to expressive content, he especially senses the ambivalent intentions of a work, its bad faith, the way it strains to convince. To account for what he sees and feels, he is often forced to refer to history, and in a few words he frequently characterizes historical tensions and pressures better than many writers who set out to evoke them. But in the end, it is not historical experience, with all its unresolved conflicts, that he seeks to recreate. On the contrary, he is after resolution, resolution in esthetic experience. Thus, in his description of Napoleon at Saint Bernard by David, while at first he is skeptical of the lie, he ends up going with it, adopting its voice, suspending critical judgment:

Represented crossing the precarious mountain pass not on a mule, as was actually the case . . . but rather, in the Consul’s own words, on a fiery steed . . . Napoleon suddenly looms up as a passionate heir to a long tradition of equestrian figures that echo across history from the processions of classical antiquity through the baroque energies of rearing horses and royal riders by a Bernini, a Rubens, a Falconet. There is, to be sure, something willful, and hence artificial about David’s message. A great man has come from nowhere to fulfill an historical destiny, which is not his by genealogical right, but by virtue of his duplication of the great deeds of the past and by virtue of the almost supernatural energy and control that he promises as the great new leader of France. Resolutely, he masters his horse and his will as he points upwards against a dramatic crescendo of icy winds and stormy sky that act as a romantic foil of wild nature against his firm exercise of reason and discipline.

Rosenblum’s second essay treats the years from 1814 to 1830, the years in which the restored Bourbon Monarchy tried to recreate the pre-Revolutionary social order. It is by far the best essay in the catalogue. The main effort here is directed less toward classifying art and more toward characterizing its ideological climate. He consistently pursues this not only in overt state propaganda but in other kinds of expression less obviously determined by political interests. He emphasizes the emptiness of official Bourbon ideals to artists, who, disillusioned with public life, turned inward and projected into their art restless, often dolorous feelings. The painting of this period, he writes, favored themes that “seemed to be increasingly shrouded in an aura of nocturnal mystery that turned substance to shadow, public myth to private reverie.” Hence, Delacroix’s Christ in the Garden of Olives (1827), like other church-commissioned paintings of this time, speaks more of the artist’s personal feelings than of collective religious beliefs. The malaise, the feelings of powerlessness and the growing privatism of the period following the fall of the Empire became apparent in the art itself, especially when it ostensibly propagandizes for the established order:

The exploration of human beings reduced to a state of animal despair, unguided by ideals embodied in great heroes or in highminded sacred or secular beliefs, was a recurrent motif in painting. . . . Even when Ary Sheffer tells us of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ faith in God during a storm, we are somehow more impressed by human terror than by divine benevolence.

In these and other observations, Rosenblum conveys a feeling for these works as living responses of individuals to a shared historical experience. Although that experience is only suggested in brief asides, masterpieces of the period by Géricault, Delacroix and others begin to come alive, not merely as well-formulated instances of one or another esthetic, but as emotional and ideological “hits”; statements that gave shape to real feelings that pressed for conscious expression. But in his conclusion, Rosenblum reaches again for art-historical resolution and subordinates historical reality to that purpose. The period ends, he writes, with landscape painting and other “lower” genre challenging history painting. It is a conflict between “the preservation of inherited attitudes and the quiet search for an almost naive truth.” “The future of French painting” would be in the latter rather than in

the perpetuation of the grandiose historical rhetoric that, in the painting of Ingres and Delacroix and their lesser satellites, reached by 1830, a passionate climax, but one that was as retrospective as the monarchy itself. In the decades that followed the July Revolution, the artistic conflicts of the Bourbon Restoration were finally to be resolved in favor of immediate personal truths rather than inherited public myths, of the urgent new demands of the 19th-century present rather than the veneration of a long-lost historical past.

Certainly various modes of realism would thrive in the future, but the kind of “truth” they reflected depended very much upon the social class to which one belonged and the sort of facts one’s ideology acknowledged. At the same time, paintings with pretentions to the grand tradition would be produced throughout the 19th century. In any case, to associate public and social experience with “myth” and defunct traditions and to link “truth” and relevancy to personal experience implies that old categorical separation again, a separation that denies the very fusion of personal and social feeling that characterizes some of the best art of the 19th century (Daumier, Courbet).

In fact, the period of history that followed the Revolution of 1830 gave cause for such feeling. It did not resolve things, either in art or in society. The Revolution of 1830 did not extend privileges to the many, and Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, far from being retrospective in 1830, as Rosenblum suggests, remained a frightening and offensive specter of democracy to good bourgeois citizens right into the Second Empire—that is, when it could be seen. Officials of both the July Monarchy and the Second Empire kept it out of sight most of the time. When it was brought out at the 1855 World’s Fair (at Delacroix’s instigation), that image of Liberty as a woman of the people leading the people was as inspiring and upsetting as it had been in 1831, when many critics had complained about the commonness of Liberty and her unclean friends. It was returned to the museum storeroom (the state had bought it in 1831) and remained there until the 1860s and the liberalizing policies of the later Second Empire.15

By then, Delacroix was becoming acknowledged as a great French artist. His vision of the Revolution of 1830 (a benign affair compared to events of 1848 and 1849) would be seen increasingly as a work of art, an expression of individual genius. The vision of liberation and the still-unresolved social reality of which it was born was becoming merely the “subject matter” of a masterpiece whose real significance resides in its affirmation of the values of individualism. Delacroix, long since withdrawn from politics, and always an aspirant to the grand tradition, must have watched the fate of his painting with a certain ambivalence. In any case, the character of Salons and museum exhibitions was rapidly changing. The extraordinary development of a mass press and the appearance of photography were making the museum a different kind of place; the public was increasingly provided with other representations of reality than those given by artists. The museum was becoming what it is today—the kind of space in which this exhibition was held.

In the physical space of the museum, as in the constructs of art history, reality—past and present—is easier to take. Not least among the treasures museums preserve is the illusion that one can step away from the “grim” facts of reality. For those who are privileged to frequent them and who are initiated to their uses, the gracious galleries of the museum constitute a special kind of space where history is distilled into a series of individual and cultural achievements. Just as religious frescoes once articulated the meaning of halls consecrated to religious ceremonies, so in the museum, art objects function as architectural decoration: they articulate the meaning of a space consecrated to the ceremony of esthetic detachment. They occasion—and, in the modern era are normally conceived as—a mode of apprehending reality that sublimates its grim facts by transforming them into subject matter. But where religious frescoes marked enclosures consecrated to collective experience, the rooms furnished by art objects or acts promote private consciousness, confirm social passivity and acclaim the values of individual experience. In the seemingly ahistorical space of the museum or gallery, the alienated modern spirit, self-consciously individual, anxiously seeks relief from the insecurities, hurts and conflicts outside, desiring above all a feeling of resolution.

Carol Duncan teaches art history at Ramapo College of New Jersey.



1. The Metropolitan Museum did not commit to the exhibition the funds necessary to bring it here in its entirety; evidently it was unwilling to invest in a show that would not be as strong a crowd-getter as “The Impressionist Epoch.”

2. Male Enlightenment thinkers generally agreed that motherhood was both the destiny and the fulfillment of women (see my “Happy Mothers and Other New Ideas in French Art,” Art Bulletin, December, 1973, pp. 570–83.

3. Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood, New York, 1962, pp. 30–31.

4. “Oedipus, Antigone and Exiles in Post-Revolutionary French Painting,” Art Quarterly, Autumn, 1973, pp. 141-71.

5. David V. Erdman, Blake: Prophet Against Empire, Princeton, N. J., 1954; and J. Bronowski, William Blake, 1757–1827: A Man Without a Mask, Penguin Books, 1954.

6. Patriarchal authority and the traditional father role were being criticized then as too authoritarian and severe. Before David’s paintings, Greuze’s fathers had also been apologist images (see my “Happy Mothers”).

7. Needless to say, women lost rather than gained rights in the new bourgeois order. The authority of fathers over their sons was not abolished, but legally regulated by the state (see Louis Delzons, La Famille française et son evolution, Paris, 1913, pp. 15–25).

8. Michael Fried’s discussion of action in late 18th- and early 19th-century history painting is relevant here (“Thomas Couture and the Theatricalization of Action in 19th-Century French Painting,” Artforum, June, 1970, pp. 41–43 and notes).

9. Peter Gay, The Enlightenment, New York, 1968, pp. 17–19 and passim.

10. James A. Leith, The Idea of Art as Propaganda in France, 1750–1799, University of Toronto, 1965, pp. 116–118.

11. Lloyd D. Dowd, Pageant-Master of the Republic, Jacque-Louis David and the French Revolution, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1948; and Robert Herbert, David, Voltaire, Brutus and the French Revolution, New York, 1973, p. 68 and 94–112.

12. I. Collins, The Government and the Newspaper Press in France, 1814–1881, London, 1959, p. 17 and passim; and C. Ledré, La Presse à l’assaut de la monarchie, 1815–1848, p. 18 and passim.

13. Herbert, David, pp. 55–56.

14. For example, in 1810, the artist Franque painted an allegory of the political situation in 1799—the eve of Napoleon’s advent to national leadership. Rosenblum’s essay, as well as the catalogue entry, dwells on the style of this large, ambitious work and relates it to other, earlier works made for Napoleon. But what the historical situation was in 1799—or, more to the point, in 1810, when the work was made—is not discussed or related to the image.

15. As T. J. Clark notes, “the King had bought it as a gesture to the Left, and then had never dared to put it on show.” (The Absolute Bourgeois, Greenwich, Conn., 1973, p. 20).

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