New York

The Neglected 19th Century

H. Shickman Gallery

As the catalog to the exhibition explains, The Neglected 19th Century is not a comprehensive survey: the paintings in it are taken entirely from the gallery’s stock, and the result is the spotty and miscellaneous kind of show one nearly always finds when New York dealers attempt to cover important areas of art. It is likely that the title of the show does it an injustice in another way, too. The fact is that very few of these painters are “neglected,” unless perhaps by people whose opinion is not worth very much—in fact, many of them have come in recent years to be rather fashionable—and the result is that the visitor is in danger of going to it in hopes of seeing revelations that are simply not to be found. Of the 49 paintings in the show, only the Dufeu, the Latouche and the Vibert provided anything unfamiliar; but none of them, even the Vibert, generates more than a mild interest. Finally, even what coherence a dealer’s stock might have is lessened by some odd inclusions (of painters who are very far from being “neglected,” as it happens: Prud’hon, Daubigny, Jacque, Jongkind). But to be honest, these reservations are as confused as the show. Let’s say that, all in all, what is in the exhibition (except for the Prud’hon) is anything that was not done by one of the Great Names, whether of neoclassicism, romanticism or the modernist movement.

Actually, I think it is good that the show was so heterogeneous, since in my opinion the usual idea of the relation of the modernist movement to the academic group is altogether false. In fact, there were no such monolithic factions, whether in respect of style, subject matter or what can be called the politics of the art world—the activity of an artist as an artist but outside his art. What has happened is that modernist painting has been studied in the light of the modernist ideology itself, which is to say that a certain conclusion has been imposed on the 19th century rather than elicited from it. The modernist ideology tends—or until very, very recently has tended—to regard important works of art as being created in reaction to, outside, indeed above a (prevalent) context; its origins are to be found in a romantic view of history as something that is made by isolated individuals, whose projects run counter to and rise above the general trends of the time. But obviously to study artists according to this bias is not to study them historically.

On the basis of the present show, it is of course only possible to illustrate this point haphazardly. Still, one can see very clearly that painters like Fromentin and Gérôme form a kind of bridge between the legendary antagonists Delacroix and Ingres, and that in their meticulousness they are as much “realists” as they are “romantics” in their exoticism or “neoclassicists” through their dry handling and hard surfaces. But of course there had been a great deal of middle-class realism in David, and even more in Ingres; all that was necessary was to isolate it from the elevated connotations of mythological subjects, and this is what Orientalism suggested a way to accomplish, even though it only replaced one aura by another. The factual reportage of painters like Detaille (or Meissonier, who is not in the show) shows what can happen to a Davidian technique when it is applied to subjects that have no elevating associations, Oriental as well as ancient. Characteristic of another offshoot of neoclassical painting is Gérôme’s portrait of Mlle. Duvergier, one of the finest paintings in the show: it keeps the extraordinary attentiveness to detail that one finds in Ingres, but deprives the detail of the intense sensuousness it has in Ingres as well as of the curvilinear contours of the neoclassic style. What results from these purifications is a “realism” that differs from Courbet’s only in the latter’s painterliness.

On the whole, it was the painterly paintings that provided the principal lesson of the show. It may seem paradoxical, since in the 19th century most supposedly modernist work was painterly, but it is certainly true that during this period painterly work remained closer than other kinds to baroque models—it is generally much less “realistic” than work done in a “neoclassic” manner. And if there is a surprise to be found in the present exhibition, it is to see the importance in this respect of Georges Michel, even much more than of Vernet: his understanding of the conventions of Dutch baroque painting, which was profound, leads directly to Daubigny, Jacque and Jongkind. That baroque tendency which is more strictly Caravaggesque, as close to Manet (at least in his still lifes) as to Courbet, is seen to advantage in Ribot and Vollon.

I suppose that of the painters in this show the arch-eclectic is Tissot, and personally I always find it enjoyable to see how he works, even if he is so familiar: his technique is midway between Bouguereau and Manet, and his compositional methods would derive wholly from Degas, were it not for his irrepressible tendency to center the position of his objects and the observer’s point of view!

Jerrold Lanes