Like @ SAC! 19th Century Salon Criticism

Skirmish in the Sackler
Francis Haskell and the study of French Art at Oxford

 

In his review of work exhibited at the 1824 Paris Salon, the writer Stendhal explosively declared that the arts were on the eve of a revolution. Citing as adversaries in this upcoming battle the two leading newspapers of the day, the traditional Journal des débats, and the more liberal Le Constitutionnel, he was frustrated that the controversial inclusion by the most successful painter of late eighteenth-century France, Jacques-Louis David, of nude male figures in his 1799 tour-de-force, L’Intervention des Sabines, had spawned the servile inclusion of figures that imitated statues in much of contemporary French academic art. [1]

 

These debates over the state of French art, and the nature and representation of beauty are some of the controversies that lie discreetly tucked away amongst the Haskell Room shelves on the second floor of the Sackler Library. Stacked with pamphlets and small volumes bound mostly in blue green, these documents contain the personal insights and opinions of an elite group of critics, artists and writers on the paintings, prints and works of sculpture exhibited at the Paris Salons in late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France. The majority of these Salon reviews were published in the form of ‘feuilletons’ or cultural supplements which, being exempt from Napoleon’s strict censorship laws, had flourished after the Revolution.[2] The Haskell Room is one of the most comprehensive and outstanding collections of French art criticism material outside Paris. As such, both the room and its contents provide scholars with an insight into the history of the History of Art at Oxford, as well as the rich and complex reception of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French Salon art.

The room is named in honour of Professor Francis Haskell, Professor of History of Art from 1967 until his retirement in 1995. Renowned for his work on sixteenth- and seventeenth- century Italian art, Haskell greatly expanded the scholarly resources in the then little explored field of nineteenth-century French academic art on his arrival in Oxford, rapidly developing a small but formidable focus for graduate research.[3] These resources include a set of original Salon catalogues acquired by Haskell, which include several very rare supplements and a run of reviews that are now in the Rare Books room produced by the nineteenth-century artist, critic and publishing entrepreneur, Charles-Paul Landon. These original materials are further buttressed by an extensive collection of photocopies of other, difficult-to-find texts. It is the work of two of Haskell’s former students, Dr Jon Whiteley, the recently retired Senior Assistant Keeper of Western Art at the Ashmolean, and his wife Dr Linda Whiteley from the History of Art Department, that is evident in this room. Not only did they painstakingly copy and collate the important art critical resources that make up the bulk of this collection, but also compiled the four-volume subject index of Salon paintings, which covers approximately 134,000 paintings exhibited between 1673 and 1881, and also resides in the Haskell Room. Perhaps the most fundamental result of this concentration on the history of the Salon was the three volume A bibliography of salon criticism in Paris from the Ancien Régime to the Restoration, 1699-1827, compiled by Neil McWilliam, Vera Schuster, Richard Wrigley, with the assistance of Pascale Méker. One further result of Haskell’s commitment to French academic art, the outstanding character of the collection, and the dynamic atmosphere of the department which Haskell described as ‘a golden age’, was that the late Professor Lee Johnson chose to bequeath his Delacroix archive to the History of Art Department.[4]

 

 

Stendhal’s ‘declaration of war’ was typical of his provocative nature and literary bravura, and each critic brought his or her written style to their epistolary engagement with the art exhibited. The most significant of the photocopies of the Parisian papers represented in the Haskell collection in terms of its circulation and longevity is the Journal des débats, which was briefly renamed the Journal de L’Empire during the Napoleonic period. Other newspapers include the Décade philosophique which changed its name to the Revue philosophique, the Journal des Arts, the Petites affiches, Nouvelles des arts, Le Spectateur, Le courrier français, and Le petit magasin des dames.  Copies of satirical magazines, such as the Arlequin au Muséum and Cassandre et Gilles, which were produced anonymously, are also well represented.

In the 1790s the reviews took a marked turn from the beautifully styled and imaginative musings on art that were characteristic of the work of Diderot and Abbé de la Porte, and instead were structured as descriptive pieces of text often recounting the story line that the painting represented, and then the skill of the artist in executing the work. In the period around 1810-14, the reviews became more discursive, and often focused on one particular artist, or on one particular genre of painting. Some writers approached their analysis by categorising the artworks according to their genre, (for example, history or allegorical painting, battle painting, landscapes, sculpture), or focused on key works and specific artists exhibiting at the Salon.

 

 

Although David had exhibited Les Sabines privately in 1799, his contested handling of the male figures resurfaced again in 1810 when it lost out in the prix décennal to Anne-Louis Girodet’s Le Déluge, and it was still the subject of controversy as late as the 1880s. Other concerns expressed by the critics focused on issues such as the status of French art, and unease over the upsurge in battle paintings and portraits exhibited at the Salons. These are most evident in the works of lesser known artists, and demonstrate more clearly where the demarcation lines for the artistic establishment lay between the different hierarchies and genres of painting, and the particular challenges faced by artists in executing work.

Towards the end of the Napoleonic period, critics engaged with the artworks from a more conceptual perspective, making generalised remarks on the state of French painting, the nature of Art and Beauty, and then using the specific works of art exhibited as examples to illustrate their points. In the early 1820s there was a sharp polarisation of critics into two camps: those who supported ‘David’s school’, such as his pupil Étienne-Jean Delécluze, Pierre-Alexandre Coupin and Fabien Pillet, and later, those such as Adolphe Thiers, François Guizot and Stendhal who with their different written styles, and for different reasons, were highly critical of the use of male ‘académies’ in history painting, and were drawn more to the work of Delacroix and Géricault. Coupin, for example, in his 1819 review of Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa exclaimed, “Monsieur Géricault seems mistaken. The goal of painting is to speak to the soul and the eyes, not to repel.”[5] In a similar tone, Pillet recounted an incident at the 1824 Salon of a visitor on first seeing Delacroix’s Scènes des massacres de Scio, and going red in the face with anger, describing it as  ‘…frightful, … it’s appalling, it’s the abomination of desolation’. [6] His own response was equally colourful.[7] This emotive and polarising language became more characteristic of later art criticism writing, as can be seen in the rhetoric of Stendhal.

 

 

Significant figures consistently represented in the Haskell Salon collection include Baron de Boutard who wrote for the Journal des débats between 1800-1817, and his successor Delécluze who became one of the great chroniclers of the nineteenth-century art world and who is best known for his 1855 biography of David.[8] Other critics include the novelist and poet François Ducray-Duminil who wrote for the Petites Affiches de Paris, Gault de Saint-Germain, who  wrote for Le Spectateur, and François-Xavier Fabre who wrote for the Revue Philosophique. The Comte de Kératry wrote an important 1822 treatise on beauty, and Auguste Jal is also well represented in the collection.

At a time when many of these resources are available online through database services such as Gallica, the integrity, and cohesiveness of the Haskell Room collection is enormously valuable to the researcher overwhelmed by the vast amount of data to work through. The material presence of these Salon reviews reminds us of the challenges that scholars had in accessing this material before digitisation, and of the visual and tangible quality of the art objects they engage with. These resources embody the legacy of Francis Haskell and his former students (of whom I am one), and the continued engagement with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French art at Oxford University.

Fiona Gatty, Research Fellow (DPhil, History of Art, 2015)

 

Readers are welcome to request to view materials from the Haskell Collection of Salon Criticism, whether housed in the Sackler Library’s Haskell Room or the Rare Book Room.  You can find a list of 19th century Salon Criticism materials collected by Haskell here: List of 19th century Salon Criticism in Haskell Room. All items are on SOLO, the Bodleian Libraries’ online catalogue. A shelfmark plus location (Haskell Room or Rare Book Room) must be supplied for each item requested.  Please apply in person at the Sackler Library’s Help Desk; or by email: sac-enquiries@bodleian.ox.ac.uk

A University/Bodleian Libraries reader ID is necessary before accessing the Sackler Library and materials in this Collection. Please see:  http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/using/getting-a-readers-card.

Requested items are for consultation in the designated area near the Sackler Library’s Help Desk.  Photography of materials for research and study purposes is permitted.

Digital copies of items in the collection can be requested via Imaging Services, Bodleian Libraries. Please note: The Sackler Library is unable to provide scans or photocopies direct.

We welcome suggestions for future blog contributions from our readers.
Please contact Clare Hills-Nova (clare.hills-nova@bodleian.ox.ac.uk) and Chantal van den Berg (chantal.vandenberg@bodleian.ox.ac.uk) if you would like propose a topic.

 

[1] Stendhal, Mélanges D’art: Salon De 1824.152. 11-12.

[2] Siegfried, S. Politicisation of Art Criticism. Orwicz. 9-28. 24.

[3] https://oxfordarthist.wordpress.com/2015/08/

[4] http://www.hoa.ox.ac.uk/lee-johnson-archive, https://oxfordarthist.wordpress.com/2016/04/15/delving-into-delacroix-an-introduction-to-the-lee-johnson-archive/

[5]Pierre Alexandre Coupin, Notice sur l’ exposition des tableaux en 1819. 528

[6]Fabien Pillet, Critique Des Tableaux Et Sculptures De L’Exposition De 1824. 25.

[7]Ibid.25-26.

[8]Louis David: son École et son temps, 1855