Around the middle of the 19th century, disaster struck academic painting. Extinction threatened whole families of subject-matter – histories, moralities, fantasies – and the genres which dominate our own view of the following decades began to flourish: pictures made in the open air, scenes of modern life. What had happened? Was academic painting pushed off its perch by competing styles, or did it grow unsteady because of some failure of its own or from some fatal infection?
It was from an infection: from the virus of photography. There were other influences but none had an effect on painting, its audience or its economics comparable with the proliferation of photographic images. Paintings which were illustrative, didactic, spiritual, all proved susceptible. They took a long time to die but the symptoms were noticed early. Take two contemporary descriptions from opposite ends of the politico-aesthetic spectrum – one published by the Salon painter and writer Eugène Fromentin in 1876, the other from Zola’s Salon notes of 1866.
‘Photographic studies as to the effects of light have changed the greater proportion of ways of seeing, feeling and painting,’ Fromentin writes. Painting can ‘never be sufficiently clear, sharp, formal and crude ... talent consists in struggling for exactitude, precision and imitative force ... exactly the sensations of what we could see in the street.’ Photography in Fromentin’s view has forced a new paradigm of reality on painters. Even among the history painters, he notices a ‘spirit which has changed its surroundings, the studio is open to light from the street.’ He is shy of saying who he is writing about, but the glittering little pictures Meissonier made of musketeers, horsemen and so forth would fit his description very well. Although Meissonier’s first models were Dutch masters (Terborch and Metsu), the ‘indefinable hardness’ which Henry James, writing in 1872, identified does not come from them. Verisimilitude, James says, has become an end in itself: Meissonier
understands to a buttonhole the uniform of the Grand Army. He is equally familiar with the facial types and he renders marvellously the bronzed and battered physiognomies that scowl up from the deep shadows of shakos and helmets. Each man is perfect, but when M. Meissonier has made this – an elaborate, accomplished historical image – he has done his utmost.
Beside Millet or Delacroix he seems ‘only brilliantly superficial’.
Ten years earlier, Zola had responded differently. What James says modern painting does not do Zola says it should not do. He wants a painter who can ‘give himself, heart and body ... a strong harsh character who seizes nature in his two hands ... I have the most profound disdain for the little tricks, for the scheming flatteries, for that which can be learned at school, for that which constant practice has perfected ... But I have the deepest admiration for individualistic works which are flung from a vigorous and unique hand.’ Zola sees photographic realism as a boring beginning (‘if it were not for the existence of character no picture could be more than a simple photograph’) and Fromentin sees it as a corrupter of the imagination, but both recognise its peculiar status.
The post-photographic world was so different people hardly knew what had struck them. Max Liebermann, one painter writing about another, looked back from 1921 at the work of Adolf Menzel, the pre-eminent Berlin painter of the second half of the 19th century. Would Menzel, he asked, even if nature had given him supreme talents, ‘have been able to attain the freedom of a Rembrandt in the age of the invention of photography?’ Liebermann thought not, yet he also believed, like Zola, that photographic images were inadequate: ‘what characterises the artist is the greatest possible subjectivity in the rendering of nature.’
Paradoxically, it was histories, fantasies and mythologies, where painting was not in direct competition with photography (as it was in portraiture), which now seemed to be most false. Zola disassociated himself from the Salon public: ‘For the public, a picture is an agreeable thing which moves the heart to delight or horror ... a massacre where gasping victims whimper and drag themselves beneath the rifles which threaten them; or else it is a delightful young girl all in snowy white who dreams in the moonlight leaning on a broken column. I mean to say that most people see in a canvas only a subject which takes them by the throat or by the heart and they demand nothing further of the artist than a smile or a tear.’ According to Jane Mayo Roos, this passage shows ‘the degree to which the public came to the Salon to be amused, titillated, horrified and thrilled, much as they would seek some of the same pleasures at the café-concert.’ And why not? Why shouldn’t they expect successors to great early 19th-century set-pieces like Géricault’s Raft and Delacroix’s Massacre? Even now, the notion that all the high themes would be replaced by the subjects of Impressionism – landscapes, seascapes, domestic interiors, ‘my garden’, ‘my plate of apples’ – is slightly shocking. In the end, the high themes were abandoned – that public which did not share Zola’s distaste for painted drama would have to wait for the invention of the movies. In fact, Zola’s list of bad pictures agrees so closely with the notions of the unpaintable we have absorbed from accounts of the heroic struggles of the first Modernists that it takes a moment to realise just how much he throws out. There can be no more massacres (no new Goya), no more girls by broken columns (no new Fragonard), no more questionable thrills like those the Death of Sardanapalus offers, no new painter of solemn children like Chardin. Photographs, which Zola sees as boring mechanical records that art must get beyond, have now colonised huge territories in the iconosphere just because they are far from boring. What painting of a corpse can have you by the throat in quite the way a photograph does? What painted nude is erotic in quite the way photographs of nakedness are? As though realising this, Menzel turned to photographs to make sure the props he included in his historical pictures – weapons, for example – were accurate. But Zola was essentially right. It seemed that dwelling on the act of painting – in the case of Impressionism, the transformation of visual impressions into brush strokes – was the only move left; the ordinary world the only subject-matter.
From the bridgehead secured by photography new ways of painting, validated to an unprecedented degree by the artist’s personality, would advance. What was not then so clear, however, was the solipsism this would bring with it. Art would become sectarian: anyone could assert the virtues of a way of painting, never again would an academy convincingly claim to be an objective arbiter. It is now almost impossible to imagine that painting could be spoken of as a science, a body of common knowledge, a repertoire of transmissible skills, a grammar which allows genius to speak but also allows those without genius to perform with credit. Even the most trenchant critics of the Turner Prize cannot pretend that we could have a modern equivalent of Reynolds’s Academy Lectures. The images which surround us are multitudinous and strange. There is no demonstrable hierarchy among them, except that of talent and that talent has no validation except by acclamation, persuasion and the marketplace.
This view of things must colour any reading of Roos’s Early Impressionism and the French State. She writes about the Salon and its politics, which are peripheral if one has already decided that no politics or institution had much to do with the large-scale changes which took place in styles, subjects and markets. One could make as convincing a case for the influence of the railway on art as for that of the Salon (quicker trips to the sketching grounds, a new public exposed to natural landscape, different notions of composition suggested by the trees and fields zipping by, and so on). But if the Salon did not matter, what was the fuss about? Why didn’t the Impressionists just paint away and let history catch up? Why the repeated submissions of pictures which were so grudgingly accepted, so often rejected?
From the artist’s point of view, as Roos shows, the reasons are clear. In mid-19th-century France, the Salon was the public exhibition which mattered, the only dunghill on which the competing cocks could crow. No other way of showing your work – private exhibitions, group exhibitions, displays by picture dealers, sales of prints – could equal it. To be excluded from the Salon was to be excluded from the market, from the general public, from critical attention. Renoir believed that this state of affairs held as late as 1881, when he wrote to the dealer Durand-Ruel: ‘I have just been trying to explain to you why I send pictures to the Salon. In Paris there are scarcely fifteen people capable of liking a painter who doesn’t show at the Salon. There are 80,000 who won’t buy so much as a nose from a painter who is not hung at the Salon.’ Renoir was flexible – he was happy, at one time or another, to paint harem scenes or nudes which fitted pretty easily into Salon categories. Manet was different: he offered the Salon paintings which often seem calculatedly unacceptable in subject-matter as much as in style. Even painters who were less adaptable than Renoir did not want to do battle with the Salon; they required it to make their reputations. Their hopes were probably always misplaced. When the market for modern art did begin to flourish it was among a limited number of collectors who were not likely to see a Salon medal as a guarantee of quality. Reputation became more mysterious, as makers, observers, critics and collectors formed into self-sustaining coteries. Reproduction has since enlarged the membership of such groups to the point where many species of Modernism have become popular, dominant even. But mere dissemination cannot magically re-assemble a single art of painting, or re-create the situation in which painters could be seen to be attempting the same task and doing it either better or worse.
Could or should things have gone differently? Was the growth of Impressionism seriously hindered? Could a differently organised Salon have sustained an academic presence for longer or encouraged a different kind of academic painting? Unless one can give a positive answer to questions of that sort, Roos’s project – which aims to find ‘a valid way of moving from art to history, from paintings to events’ – in effect consists of little more than a description of two things going on at the same time which have, in any causal sense, very little to do with each other. The connections, as she describes them, seem fragile.
In Roos’s period, the politics of art, at the level of both studio and the state, were often fraught and always noisy. The Salon made it possible for the kinds of painting Zola dismisses so brusquely to be seen by large numbers of people. It also received wide coverage in the press, which inadvertently, and often by way of derisory comment, saw to it that new kinds of painting, even when rejected, achieved a higher public profile than one might expect. But this leaves open the question of whether or not the Salon was an effective agent. Nor does it tell us much about how Salon audiences received what was shown there. The best illustrations of that are contemporary commentaries, such as Daumier’s wonderful lithograph of 1866 showing a middle-aged couple at the Salon. The caption runs: ‘ “Let us leave, madame ... these nudities are revolting ...” Aside: “I’ll come back by myself.” ’ His expression is dreary and supercilious, hers pop-eyed and tight-lipped. He is dragging her off; she looks to be full of pleasurable indignation. Roos uses this caricature rather narrowly to illustrate a point about sexism and the psychopolitics of the female gaze; but it also reminds us that a popular audience is just as complicated and unpredictable as any academy. The gamble of the first Impressionist exhibition was founded on the belief that among the crowds who visited the Salon there were many whose taste was more adventurous than that of the juries.
Roos shows that many painters were furious at not being given wall space, just as some jury members were outraged by the sloppy pictures the young men sent in. Juries which comprised men like Meissonier and Cabanel were unlikely to accept work by Cézanne or Monet. Even when the list of potential jurors was broadened to include a substantial proportion of all exhibitors, it was liable to have a conservative bias. The number of works shown in the Salon ranged from 2142 in 1873 to 5434 in 1870 – typically, one painting in four or five of those submitted was rejected. In 1873, however, during the reign of Charles Blanc, more than half did not make it to the wall. Blanc, a critic and art theorist, showed that scandal-fearing politicians were much less dangerous than those, like Blanc, who took schemes for the improvement of art and morals seriously. The Salon administration issued regulations which, Roos says, ‘not only affected how art was exhibited and received, but also politicised that reception’. She offers the case of ‘Courbet and the Count’ as an example of state control at work.
In August 1865, Alfred-Emilien, Comte de Nieuwerkerke, the Superintendent of Fine Arts, paid a call on Gustave Courbet. Nieuwerkerke was, if one can trust Ingres’s portrait drawing, a fine figure of a man – a credit to his breeding, his tailor and his barber. He had trained as a sculptor, but owed his rise as an arts administrator to his friendship with the Princesse Mathilde, the Emperor’s cousin. During his visit, he agreed, by Courbet’s account, to buy two pictures. One was work in progress – Woman with a Parrot. In 1866, an acrimonious public row developed as to whether or not a price had been agreed. The details are complicated and the rights and wrongs not easy to resolve (my guess is that Courbet genuinely believed one thing and Nieuwerkerke had probably said something a little different): the more interesting question is why Nieuwerkerke chose to pay a call in the first place.
Roos thinks it was a pre-emptive strike. Courbet was one of the painters who had the right to exhibit at the Salon of 1866 without submitting his work to the jury. In the Salon of 1863, however, his portrayal of drunken priests in The Return from the Conference had caused a scandal – it was banned before it reached the jury and was even excluded from the Salon des Refusés. Then in 1864, the lesbian overtones of Venus and Psyche had caused it, in Roos’s words, to be ‘bounced out of the Salon’. Nieuwerkerke’s version of his conversation with Courbet was that no price had been agreed, but that he had promised to see that Woman with a Parrot was bought when the Salon was over, and had made it clear that this promise would be kept on condition that the painting was not significantly changed. Was he trying to make the painter toe the line? Or warning him not to ginger his picture up or introduce something politically unsavoury? Press reports had it that Courbet was in line for a medal or membership of the Légion d’Honneur, and although neither was conferred – the row itself prevented that – it seems possible that a hint was being offered about the rewards of good behaviour.
When Woman with a Parrot was shown (without scandalous additions) its fleshiness was remarked on. One critic wrote: ‘it does not rise above the level of animality. The question of the immortal soul will never be posed in relation to the Woman with a Parrot.’ Indeed no. An oppressive, unspiritual fecundity – in his pictures of flowers, trout and apples as much as in those of deer and huge-haunched nudes – marks Courbet’s work. Roos has no time for artistic reactionaries but the language of her description of Woman with a Parrot (‘a full-breasted woman with nipples erect and teeth bared’) is such as you might apply to a picture which had disturbed you. Roos notes ways in which it was pushing against the Salon’s norms of decency: for example, the woman lies on her discarded clothes, not on drapery, which makes her a bit more naked and less nude.
Courbet’s relations with the Salon are interesting for, unlike Monet or Berthe Morisot, he made pictures which said things about politics and were sexually disturbing. When his pictures were rejected he arranged private exhibitions of them. He represented a problem for the Salon authorities because to shut him out was to exclude a painter who had shown work which, although often found ugly or improper or difficult, was none the less remarkable by the Salon’s own standards. From his point of view, to show outside the Salon was a defeat – a mere thumbing of the nose at a back already turned to you. So although Roos is right to argue that the row between Courbet and Nieuwerkerke ‘sheds light on the autocratic policies of the Superintendent of Fine Arts and on the growing tensions between the modernists and the administration’, one’s first thought is that Nieuwerkerke’s conciliatory visit was less the move of an autocrat than of a functionary who wanted to avoid a fuss.
Looked at with hindsight, the Salon was a sideshow. To be excluded from it was deeply frustrating for young painters, but even the excluded were unable to suggest a way in which the new painting and the old authority could be combined. Without agreed standards of excellence honours had no meaning, and the Salon’s role in displaying the work of the national school was that of a shopkeeper, not of a mentor and judge. It is a sign of the modernists’ strengths that even those who complained loudly about their exclusion were not tempted to follow Zola’s ironic advice (‘If I were a needy painter my great care would be to guess who I might have for judge in order that I might paint according to his taste’).
The critics who found Impressionist paintings sketchy and perfunctory were of course right. Talent and intelligence no longer had to adapt to the demands of a craft. Painting became an art you lived rather than one you learned. A road to anarchy, seemingly, but an anarchy in which pockets of order quickly grew. Validating agents – critics, galleries, curators, collectors and the publicity their activities generated – all played their part in confirming value. The extent to which modern painting has been able to achieve canonical status shows how quickly the machinery of taste can develop. The end-result was the construction of a new hierarchy, not the democracy which those excluded from the Salon sometimes seemed to be calling for. But that was never really an option. Direct democracy could never have mediated the balkanisation of art. No jury is a good jury was Zola’s exasperated line and it fits in with our own attitudes; we are not yet ready to abandon the belief that the best art is innovative and personal, often obscure and hard to identify.
How, then, was the commonwealth of the arts to be governed? In the end even Zola began to find things to say for the slow, exclusive mechanisms of old Academy: ‘The Academy never altered its judgments ... it kept people waiting at the door for years, but once in it never chased them out,’ while the Salon was ‘a grey, solid dish’, but predictable. Finally, he asked for the only halfway house left: ‘at least give us a salon des refusés.’
The Salon may have atrophied, but not everything died. In Salon paintings one finds the seed of the visual styles of much cinema, book illustration, advertising and, indeed, photography. Sometimes things come full circle. Eurotrash, a TV programme that specialises in the rude and tasteless, recently ran an item on a very successful painter of covers for American bodice-rippers. It showed him adjusting lace, curls and cleavages, photographing his models, and then making paintings from the photographs. Only in paint, it seems, can the meretricious glamour which Zola so despised be achieved, and one is not surprised to find that there are still plenty of kinds of illustration – caricatures, books for children and others – which go back in an unbroken line beyond the advent of photography.
Illustration was Adolf Menzel’s first career, which helps to explain how he could be both aesthetically conservative (he once apologised to a hostess for being so rude about her collection of Impressionists) yet not fit easily into the academic mould. He was only 25 when, in 1840, his illustrations to Kugler’s life of Frederick the Great began to appear. If he had done nothing else he would still be remembered for them. They are quite small – most less than half a page – and reproduced in crisp wood engraving. His effects are often achieved by devices which now seem cinematic – like a story-board. The main action may, for example, be suggested by someone seen in the middle distance looking out of a window; repeated (potentially boring) scenes of drilled and drilling troops become lively variations on the patterns muskets and sabres can make.
Menzel’s research into places and costumes was painstaking. Later in the 1840s, he made a number of oil sketches of suburban landscapes and domestic interiors which caused great excitement when they were shown in a posthumous retrospective in 1905. They are remarkably direct: quite broadly painted and with a good feeling for light, close in style to some of Sargent’s oil sketches of Venetian interiors made forty years later, and showing a phenomenal talent for direct observation of the sort Constable had already demonstrated. What Menzel exhibited in his lifetime were historical subjects (mainly from the life of Frederick the Great), paintings of modern life, including scrambling crowd scenes – Departure of King William I for the Army (1871) and Supper at the Ball (1878) – and still-lifes, including studio interiors.
Supper at the Ball, of which Degas made a copy from memory, has no focus at all – only a sea of bare backs, lace, gold braid and dark uniform coats. Menzel, the illustrator, notes that one uniformed figure has tucked his hat between his legs in order to manage his plate and fork. Candles flare, diamonds sparkle and flesh glows – you can see why the Degas of the small ballet-class paintings would have admired it. The disorder of these pictures is, to a degree, the disorder of life as we now see it through photographs. The chattering brilliance of his townscapes and the odd angles and framing of his compositions can also be read as a response to the abundance of the modern city. Menzel was a brilliant observer who had had no reason to learn the craft of formal composition. Whether the oddity and lack of smoothness in his compositions was a sign of naivety, or the result of a conscious decision is beside the point.
Menzel was a prodigious draughtsman. He mostly used pencil, from solid, soft-graphite blacks to the palest touches. In the drawings, as in the early oil sketches of interiors, he seems to be governed by his eye; the same effortless power of transcription is applied to a plate of oysters, a labourer, a pile of bed linen or the horribly emaciated wounded and dead soldiers he saw when he visited the field of the Prussian/Austrian battles of 1866 in Bohemia. He had been excused military service – he was too short for the Army (only four foot seven) but felt obliged to learn about what he had been painting in his historical pieces. His talents pulled him in divergent directions. If, in some work, critics are able to find the touch of a proto-Impressionist, in most his admiration for Meissonier is more relevant. The Menzel exhibition, which took place recently in Paris, Washington and Berlin, encourages one to conclude that his talent, which found a single, fulfilling role in illustration – which is what the crowded parties and street scenes really are – could, in other circumstances, have led him in quite other directions.
Because his work displays characteristics of post-photographic art, Menzel can seem more like his French contemporaries than he really was. The sense that his was a different world comes out in the many photographs in the exhibition catalogue edited by Claude Keisch and Marie Ursula Rjemann-Reyher. They show the painter in his studio and in the street; timber-framed buildings in old Berlin and in the new Berlin which rose during Menzel’s lifetime. One sees a whole courtyard of students at their easels painting a mounted cavalryman, and models queuing for work at the Academy. There is also a photograph showing Menzel’s state funeral: the hearse drawn by black-plumed horses, the crowd on the steps of the Altes Museum and the soldiers in uniforms from the time of Frederick the Great. The Emperor Wilhelm II decreed all this for the painter he called the ‘Apelles of old Fritz’. The painter of modern life, which Menzel undoubtedly was, was also the figure sketching away at official receptions and the artist who contributed grandly to the historical iconography of the Prussian state.