PRINT January 1986


Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris

Thomas E. Crow, Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985), 292 pages, 150 black and white and 8 color illustrations.

Art history struggles to ignore all issues but those raised by iconography, form, and artists’ biography The struggle usually succeeds. As practiced in universities and museums, respectable art history still has little to say about the cultural, social, and economic situations for art. Thus Thomas E. Crow’s Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris does not count as a work of art history, for it talks in detail about politics—the disengaged state into which the French aristocracy had drifted under Louis XIV’s absolutism, the bureaucratic infighting at the 18th-century court and the Academie de peinture et sculpture, the power-shifts that led to revolution in 1789. Crow also talks about painters—Antoine Watteau, Noel Coypel, Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Jacques-Louis David, others—and their work, and this material is the stuff of art history. Crow rescues it fora more important and larger history by bringing the Parisian public into the arena.

One of Crow’s chief sources for an image of the 18th-century public is the criticism churned out in response to the Académie’s yearly Salon. Some of the Salon commentators had official approval; the author takes a particular interest in those who did not, and thus had to break out of proscribed channels of publication in order to be heard. ’In much of this writing, descriptions of pictures give way to descriptions of the people looking at the pictures. Such reportage provides helpful detail, even at its most grotesquely satirical, though Crow reads it mainly for what he can discover about attitudes toward royal and academic authority, about different social classes’ definitions of “nobility,” about the claims on art made in the name of an increasingly bourgeois French “nation” Crow does an especially good job of suggesting how David persuaded history painting to switch its allegiances, deserting even the show of service to royalty for service to the revolution. During the period late in the century, art criticism brought the politics of Salon and Académie especially close to the politics of the larger world. By the 1780s politicians in both realms were addressing themselves to the same audience. My only serious complaint with the book: in charting the marginal subcultural enclaves established by artists’ and, critics’ rule-breaking, Crow tempts himself into a romance of autonomy Out on the fringes of the rapidly evolving art scene of 18th-century Paris, he claims, one could achieve something like freedom—good old familiar bourgeois individuality. Crow’s own ideological analyses provide contrary evidence. This is not a quibble, it’s a serious objection, yet it doesn’t prevent me from judging this an extremely valuable book.

Carter Ratcliff