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Description: Art of the Actual: Naturalism and Style in Early Third Republic France,...
~This book is based on the Slade Lectures that I gave at the University of Oxford in Hilary Term 2009. While in Oxford between January and March the eight lectures were redrafted and expanded, and they have undergone further iterations. Nevertheless, the book retains something of the liberty that the lecture series allows: an expansive tone, the opportunity both...
PublisherYale University Press
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This book is based on the Slade Lectures that I gave at the University of Oxford in Hilary Term 2009. While in Oxford between January and March the eight lectures were redrafted and expanded, and they have undergone further iterations. Nevertheless, the book retains something of the liberty that the lecture series allows: an expansive tone, the opportunity both to bring together themes developed over one’s career and to broadcast experimental ideas, the projection of sequential and even to a certain extent polemical arguments which – in contrast to academic books of a different character – are streamlined and assume a certain knowledge of the period.
The book centres on naturalism in France and its ideological linkage to the Third Republic in the two decades between 1880 and 1900. That chronological span has been chosen because it marks a period, a short generation, between the emergence of the Third Republic, founded during the turmoil of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, as a regime keen to demonstrate its reformist credentials and the turn of the century, fêted in Paris by the great Exposition Universelle which also calmed the national mood after the disruptions of the Dreyfus Affair. The pivotal argument of the book is that there was a consensus between the naturalist aesthetic and republican ideology. Although presidents, ministers, governments and policies came and went in the evolving turmoil of political processes over these twenty years, in essence the Third Republic sought to project itself to its truculent national constituency as a regime motivated by a body of progressive ideas: a fraternal collectivism founded on universal manhood suffrage, an egalitarian commitment to the value of the individual citizen across the hexagone, liberty of expression and a belief in secularism, education, science and technology as beacons which would free the French from the moribund grip of clericalism. As a political project, republicanism was predicated on building a consensus, of convincing older citizens of and training younger ones in those values that the Republic promoted. For its part, naturalism was an aesthetic which, while it had roots deep in the art and literature of the mid-nineteenth century and beyond, struck a close alliance with republicanism in the period covered by this book. Naturalism’s quintessential commitment to the physical, visible world, to actual experience in its every guise, made art from daily experience, the stuff of everybody’s shared existence, and was therefore egalitarian. The representation of our common lot – in painting or sculpture, on stage, in the pages of a novel – made naturalist forms of representation legible and inclusive; everybody could understand what everybody knew from the diurnal round of fraternal life. The attentive observation and close description of bodies, environments and social organisms that was naturalism’s aesthetic core was in tune with the scientific character of modern existence. The purpose of this book is to explore how that effective interaction between republicanism and naturalist art functioned in France at this period, and how and why artists colluded with that consensus. It also asks how others might have tried to adapt or to skirt such collusion. Finally it suggests that naturalism was a centripetal force, bringing artists back to the centre, and ends by projecting the notion (emitted but not analysed in these pages) that early in the new century it became necessary for young artists to generate aesthetic violence to sunder that deeply entrenched alliance.
Within this pattern of argument is an attempt to redefine naturalism in French art of this period. Concentrating primarily on painting, my objective is to recast our understanding of naturalism, to insist on it as multifaceted, pluralist and determinedly modern. As the subsequent pages will show and, I hope, substantiate, artists as apparently different as the military painters Meissonier and Detaille or peintres d’histoire such as Laurens and Weerts can usefully be considered under the naturalist rubric, and not merely painters of rural labour such as Bastien-Lepage and Dagnan-Bouveret who typically form what is in my view a rather limited cast for such an expansive stage. In my understanding, naturalism dealt with the description of the physical, with the mimetic transformation of materiality into art, with the belief that the best in art is what makes the represented the most apparently actual. By that account, Meissonier painting Napoleonic battles or Laurens medieval clerics were operating as naturalists; the goal was to make paintings that offered the viewer – any viewer – a convincing sense of something seen, of lived actuality. It is worth asking, as I do, if in that case certain kinds of painting by Degas or by Monet do not also come under the aegis of naturalism. For another crucial part of this argument is that there were many naturalisms, that there were no consistencies of composition as there had been in neo-classicism, no assumptions about certain kinds of brushwork or facture, no idées fixes about suitable subjects. If this was the case, can naturalism be called a style; indeed, as contemporaries will be heard worriedly fussing, was it style-less? Artists who took issue with naturalism, who wished to evade the ideological consensus, capitalised on those questions, exaggerating the style of their own work the further to distance themselves from both descriptive aesthetic and collective ideology. Thus the book seeks to widen understanding of naturalist art by engaging it with the equally diverse and developing currents of republicanism and with the mentalité of fraternity, collectivism and documentation in which the Republic strove to recast national identity and values. Naturalism was undoubtedly an important current in other countries at this time but these pages are dedicated to the specific and complex patterns evolving in France.
I should enter some caveats. This is not a text book about naturalism, introducing the reader to key painters or giving a history of the movement back into mid-century and beyond. The emergence of the réalismes of mid-century under the Second Republic and Second Empire, of Courbet, Millet and Bonvin and later Manet, Legros and Fantin-Latour, dovetails with the material and issues covered here, but is the business of other books. Nor is this an institutional history, about structures, funding, commissioning and prizes, or a detailed examination of the interplay between this or that administration with such and such artists. Some artists who might have found a place in the following chapters have not, for example Goeneutte, Lerolle, Gérôme or Marie Bashkirtseff, or might have played a larger role than they do, such as Cazin (whom I write about elsewhere). That said, I have made a point of dealing with both well-known artists and lesser known, even forgotten figures – Gueldry and Tattegrain, Bergès and Baudoüin – to demonstrate the plurality of what I understand by naturalism and to draw attention to the fascinating work to be found outside the still restrictive canons of art history. I am conscious that few women artists appear, reasons for which become evident in the text, although women as players of central social roles, voices of opinion and signifiers of meaning in works of art are necessarily to be found throughout. I exempt myself of any charge that this is an attempt to diminish great painters, citing as evidence previous books and exhibitions on Degas, Monet, Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec. However, the present book does try to see their work in less usual contexts, within or against the wider patterns of naturalism.
I have tried to use the lectures and this book to lay down a set of challenges for understanding late nineteenth-century French art, how it might be analysed and discussed afresh. The two decades between 1880 and 1900 were not chosen just because they were an important phase in the seventy-year political span of the Third Republic, but also because they were a fruitful and diverse period in French art, giving rise to an extraordinary flowering of French visual culture which had deeply important ramifications for the generation of modernism both at the time and into the twentieth century. I have taken for granted the diverse manifestations of impressionism, the significance of Seurat’s and Signac’s neo-impressionism and the Nabism of Denis, Bonnard and others, the emergence of those flawed mentors Cézanne and Gauguin, all of which are well handled in a distinguished literature. Expecting on the reader’s part a general grasp of the period’s political and artistic history, I have attempted to open up some areas which deserve further work and are handled only briefly here, for example the links between naturalist painting and naturalist novels, the lyrical naturalism of the 1890s in the work of artists such as Cazin, Dagnan and the elderly Breton, the artists of the Bande Noire like Cottet and Simon and, finally, the violent reaction against naturalism when it came in the middle of the first decade of the twentieth century. The main challenges which I put forward are discussed at length in the text, others – tangential to the central thrust of the book – are alluded to in passing and can be put as a series of questions. Should impressionism be understood less as an autonomous movement and more as a current within the far broader stream of naturalism? Was symbolism, fascinating as it is, little more than an aesthetic with only an elite resonance? Do new approaches – given the vacuity of terms such as post-impressionism – need to be found to allow for a more complex sense of the art at this period? Above all, can one any longer deny naturalism’s central place in understanding late nineteenth-century art, a dominant role due in large part to its alliance with republicanism?