From one point of view, Thomas Crow’s remarkable pair of books, Painters and Public Life in 18th-Century Paris (1985) and Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France (1995), can be described as a history of the decline and fall, and amazing final reprieve, of history-painting in France. Long cherished by the Academy of Painting and Sculpture as the highest and ‘noblest’ genre and the summit of a painter’s ambition, by the middle of the 18th century the theme of critics and philosophers was that, in the France of Louis XV, history-painting was simply impossible. The radical ambiguity of the term ‘noble’, the schism between its ethical and its social meaning, had become too glaring. It was true that Mme de Pompadour and her clan, intensely aware of the political significance of the fine arts, had reformed the Academy in the interests of a revival of history-painting – or, to put it in Crow’s words, of ‘rebuilding the Academy’s capacity to generate publicly-oriented narrative pictures that were stylistically and morally disciplined by the classicism of the past century’. Still, as is well known, what the Pompadour and her entourage actually enjoyed was the Rococo, and their favourite painter was Boucher. Their heart was not in the reforms, and the new Poussin, the ‘Phoenix’ destined to restore the nation’s sense of the ‘noble’ and the ‘ideal’, obstinately failed to arise.
The turning-point seems to have come, at any rate symbolically, with David’s Belisarius Begging Arms, the great success of the Salon exhibition of 1781. In David’s painting, a soldier stands in shocked amazement and sorrow at the spectacle of his one-time commander, the Emperor Justinian’s great general Belisarius, as a blind beggar seeking alms in the street. The formula had already been used in a lost painting attributed to Van Dyck, well-known through an engraving; and in 1762, in a remarkable letter, Diderot had praised it as an example of the impersonality and anti-theatricality desirable in painting. This painting, he argued, did not need to address itself to a spectator, since the soldier stood in for the spectator (‘the soldier was playing my role’).
Diderot was using the Van Dyck in his campaign against the Rococo, but what the David version added was a more explicit political message. For what could be a better or more moving symbol of the neglect and rejection suffered by enlightened statesmen, in their efforts to rescue France from chaos and bankruptcy: what better stand-in for the exiled chief minister Choiseul, or the great Turgot, dismissed for his attempts to rationalise the grain trade? History-painting seemed to have found a theme for itself, in a patriotism not abstractly conceived but rooted in the current conflicts between Court, Parliament and Church.
The Belisarius is a strange painting. Crow speaks of its ‘errors’: for instance the perspectival and proportional awkwardness of the soldier’s position, his right foot being too near the female alms-giver’s heel – though these are features for which Michael Fried has found an unexpected justification, as being part of a scheme to unsettle the conventional relationship of viewer to canvas. According to Crow, at all events, David’s decision was to ‘go for the bold stroke’ and to push forward regardless of technical deficiencies. His stylistic innovations, Crow suggests, were to be revealed more fully and triumphantly in his Oath of the Horatii of 1785.
In more senses than one, David’s style was oppositional. It was a cardinal tenet of Académie teaching that all transitions should be ‘friendly’ and harmonious. Here, on the contrary, was a painting of ‘abrupt transitions’ and ‘dialectical sharpness’, features of not only aesthetic but also of political significance. The stark compositional division in the Horatii between the simple-mindedly heroic posture of the male group (the elected defenders of Rome), and the mourning and tragic pose of the female group (these, the sisters of the Horatii, being related both by kinship and marriage to Rome’s enemies the Curiatii), plunged the viewer into ethico-political problems and dilemmas. Further, the painting is closely related to Corneille’s tragedy Horace and may be said to be influenced, or indeed inspired, by the contemporary debate, which itself was partly political, over the relative merits of Corneille and Racine.
‘Racine makes lovers out of his syllables so that nothing can separate them,’ wrote a contemporary critic. ‘Corneille joins his ideas together so forcibly that his phrases resemble so many Gordian knots that must be cut through to be untied.’ The teaching of the Académie favoured Racine, whereas David’s style loudly proclaimed its affinity with Corneille. ‘The impasse of the 1750s,’ writes Crow, referring to the apparent impossibility of history-painting, ‘will at no point be resolved before the Revolution, any more than will the social conflicts which underlay it, but its contradictions will be made the stuff of art.’
Crow’s new book also has another theme, however: the ‘family relationships’ of David’s studio. Taking the word in a broad sense, David’s ‘Studio’ seems to have dominated the French art-scene for several decades, and it was organised in a very peculiar and original manner. As Crow puts it, ‘David-the-artist was a collective project from the start.’ He finds it significant that David’s most brilliant pupils had, like David himself, lost their fathers at an early age. It led them, he thinks, to form, within the studio, ‘ties freighted with the emotional charge and drama of family life’. David, he says, was seeking the same things as they were. He, too, was pursuing ‘an exalted life in art suffused with the emotional richness of familial bonds’.
It is, of course, extremely relevant that the heart of Académie teaching was drawing from the nude male model. (‘An Académie’ became a standard phrase for a study of the male nude.) At one point David attempted to take women students, but this was severely repressed by the Académie authorities; and indeed in the decade preceding the Revolution there was, says Crow, a growing masculinisation of advanced art, and an increasing compulsion ‘to imagine the entire spectrum of desirable human qualities, from battlefield heroics to eroticised corporeal beauty, as male’. (We need not perhaps be too much surprised that feminists, or anyway woman feminists, had such a rough time of it during the Revolution.)
From the talk of missing fathers it should not be inferred that David’s attitude towards his pupils was patriarchal. On the contrary, he encouraged them to think of themselves as his equals and was happy to sign their copies of his paintings as his own work. His relationship with his pupil Jean-Germain Drouais became a sort of mutual idolatry. When Drouais died of smallpox, at the age of 24, David remarked, ‘I have lost my emulation’ – an oddly-phrased but expressive remark, suggesting his uncertainty as to who was pupil and who was master.
Drouais’ emulation of David was both inspiring and agonising. It led him, according to Crow, to produce canvases that were, in a sense, direct reversals of famous works by his master. (It was not ‘the anxiety of influence’ in Harold Bloom’s sense, for the works were not Bloomian ‘misreadings’ but conscious acts of homage.) Drouais’ Marius at Minturnae (1786) is based on the scene in Plutarch, in which a young Barbarian soldier is sent to murder the exiled Marius but is so terrified by the ‘strong flame’ from the old man’s eyes that he has to shield his face and flee from the room. It is the confrontation in David’s Belisarius in reverse, the vicious and half-mad Marius, with his flaming eyes, being the direct antithesis of the noble and blind Belisarius, just as the soldier’s reaction to him reverses that of the soldier in David’s canvas. But, less directly, we are also to see in the Marius an inversion of David’s Oath of the Horatii, together with unmistakable allusions to that painting’s style and composition:
David’s heroes are engaged in rapt attention to the tense point of contact between them: the vision of the spectator is vicariously engaged with the same intensity. When, however, that same spectator puts himself in the place of either protagonist in the Marius, the effect is blindness and isolation. Neither actor can see the other. The false face of Marius confronts an abyss, a cancellation of vision, the conflict between generations affirmed and denied in the same moment.
On his premature death, Drouais was canonised as a cult-figure, not just for David but for his whole entourage, and especially so for Anne-Louis Girodet (of the famous Sleep of Endymion), whose career, according to Crow, became a prolonged and hopeless effort to emulate the genius and legendary dedication of the sainted Drouais. In some sense, obviously, David was using the cult to reinforce his own influence, and disgruntled pupils would complain of his deviousness, and his feline technique of playing off one pupil against another. All doubts, though, about his studio having been genuinely egalitarian fall away in face of his great Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons (1789), for which he handed over central passages in the painting to his young pupils Gérard and Girodet, extracting something positive from the difference in their styles. Crow, in his ingenious way, finds this ‘dismemberment’ of the canvas a metaphor for the dismemberment of Brutus’s sons.
This brings us to the general question of Crow’s ingenuity, or super-ingenuity, in interpretation. He is very prone, as in the case of the Brutus, to make play with absences in paintings. His elaborate and cunning interpretation of David’s Marat at His Last Breath (1793) turns on the suggestion that the line of Marat’s head and body, as they emerge from the bath, are an almost literal tracing of the contour along the heads and shoulders of the Virgin in Girodet’s Pietà (1790). (What an amazing invention, by the way, this painting is, in which the Virgin and the dead Christ sit almost back to back, as if plunged in their own thoughts.) Once Crow has pointed out the visual echo or allusion, it is very hard to deny it, as it is to deny his claim that ‘no such contour can migrate innocently from one work to another; it will necessarily carry something of its original meaning with it.’ Thus one finds oneself accepting his theory that David is invisibly conjuring up a woman grieving over a martyred male body and, with a gulp of hesitation, even accepting the further notion that the largely unseen corpse of Marat takes in both bodies, those of Christ and of the Virgin. ‘As the actual corpse drew women to it’ – they laid Marat’s body out amid flowers – ‘here Girodet’s conception of the universal mother – which traces its descent from the grieving nurse of the Brutus – is incorporated inside the contours of the Jacobin hero.’
Even more predicated on an absence is Crow’s analysis of Drouais’ magnificent Philoctetes on Lemnos (1788). As is well known, in his play the Philoctetes Sophocles confronts the young Neoptolemos, son of Achilles, with the exiled hero Philoctetes, marooned on Lemnos with his bow (given him by Heracles) and his never-healing wound. In Crow’s eyes the painting is so inseparably related to the play as to be positively dominated by the unseen Neoptolemos. The viewer, he argues, stands vicariously in the place of Neoptolemos, and, in this ‘decisive encounter between an imposing older man and a young soldier’, he is, though invisible, ‘more of a presence’ than the would-be assassin in Marius at Minturnae. The painting in fact becomes an expression of Drouais’ relationship to David. ‘As Drouais stood before his Philoctetes, he ... contemplated an exemplary older male whose predicament allowed a younger protagonist scope for choice and action: the father is wounded while the son is whole.’
Crow’s account is wonderfully clever, but it has to be said that at some point – it is hard to spot exactly where – it seems to slip from the analytical to the anecdotal. The interpretation (there is much more of it than I have mentioned) strikes one as brilliant but arbitrary, a fiction such as Diderot might have woven to explicate an allegory by Greuze.
As we know, when the Revolution came, David was appointed its pageant-master and was called in to arrange flesh-and-blood history-tableaux as well as painted ones. What Crow makes plain, though, is that Neoclassical history-painting found itself actually less at home, and in a sense less effectual, in the Revolution than it had been during the previous decade. We learn of the extraordinary contortions and prudential calculations to which, when commissioned to commemorate Marat, David had to resort to avoid offending Robespierre. In this case, the challenge produced a masterpiece.
By the time of his next (and last) assignment of this kind, however, the constraints had become absurdly and impossibly restrictive. On this occasion he had to commemorate the Revolutionary boy-martyr Joseph Bara, murdered by royalist rebels in the Vendée; and the ‘simple rule’ which he was up against was, says Crow, that ‘the more coercive and conformist the political moment, the more abstractly beatific the image had to be.’ Accordingly, borrowing from Girodet’s Endymion and the Borghese Hermaphrodite, he removed Bara almost altogether from the real world, depicting him stretched out – naked, androgynous and weirdly emasculated – on a featureless landscape. The result, it must be said, is very horrid.
The final decline of this David-inspired school of painting is traced by Crow at least in part through the calamitous professional débâcle of the hugely talented Girodet; and for an epitaph on it he directs us to Balzac’s story ‘Sarrasine’ (familiar to us from Roland Barthes’ S/Z). According to Crow, the story both draws heavily on Girodet’s life-history and is an allegory of two of his paintings, the Endymion and the Galatea, and Balzac is using castration (the mysterious central figure in the story is a castrato named La Zambinella) as a figure for the death of a tradition.
History-painting, as Balzac rightly saw, had reached the end of the line, and the next great step in the history of French painting, according to Crow, lay in Géricault’s portraits of the mad, in which the presupposition ‘that a liberated society could be figured only in a male body of perfect soundness and beauty’ has given way to the notion of a society that ‘realistically incorporated the frailty and the inevitable short-comings of any individual’.
It is the fate of the ignorant amateur, like myself, to be convinced by whichever art-historian he happens to be reading at the time. But dazzled I certainly am, and, with the occasional sceptical twitch, also convinced, by Crow’s book, which humanises and makes deeply involving a school of painting I used to consider chilly and remote.