Ribner on Thomson (2021)

Thomson, Richard. The Presence of the Past in French Art, 1870-1905: Modernity and Continuity. Yale UP, 2021, pp. 288, ISBN 978-0-300-25710-6

Given the stature of Richard Thomson as an authority on art of the Third Republic, it is hardly surprising that The Presence of the Past in French Art, 1870-1905: Modernity and Continuity is a tour de force. The author’s knowledge of art—whether canonical or long forgotten, public or private, Parisian or provincial—is no less astounding than his command of nineteenth-century French art criticism, fiction, political discourse, and patronage. What makes this book stand out as a study in visual culture is its seamless integration of deft formal analysis with explication of richly contextualized content. It provides an interdisciplinary lens through which to perceive a turbulent era anew.

Against the grain of naturalism and its corollary imperative—il faut être de son temps—which dominated vanguard art and literature of the early Third Republic, Thomson demonstrates that attachment to the legacies of classicism (whether of antiquity or the Grand Siècle), Rubens, and the quattrocento could nurture even the most intrepid innovation. Revealing submerged genealogies, the approach is comparative. At the same time, neither discovery of sources nor establishment of affinity to anterior models are pursued as ends in themselves. Rather, Thomson’s argument foregrounds complexity, contradiction, and transformation, bringing salience to the stylistic and ideological malleability of the imagery at hand.  

Collisions of contemporaneity with idealism and historicism abound in this study. Two works discussed in chapter one, “The Third Republic’s Classical Vocabulary,” exemplify this phenomenon. In La Physique (1896), from a cycle of paintings by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes decorating the staircase of the Boston Public Library, two classically draped women (representing good and bad news, respectively) fly above closely rendered telegraph poles. No less startling is Louis Édouard Fournier’s Aux Gloires du Lyonnais et du Beaujolais (1889–93) in the Salle des déliberations du conseil général of Lyon’s Hôtel du Département. There, fifty-eight men and seven women who enriched the region’s history and culture are portrayed larger-than-life before a row of seated figures (with regional significance) culled from classical history and myth. The particularized period dress of post-classical luminaries (such as the Lyonnais painter Puvis de Chavannes) amplifies the anachronism of the painting’s venerable antecedents, L'Apothéose d'Homère of Ingres (1827) and The School of Athens of Raphael (1509–11).

Shared artistic inheritance was subject to competing ideological claims. In chapter two, “The Rumbustious Rubensian: Reactionary or Republican?” we see the Flemish master’s legacy serving antagonistic political aspirations. Felix-Henri Giacomotti followed the conventions of Baroque, cloud-borne allegory in La Gloire de Rubens et de la Peinture (1875–78), commissioned by the legitimist Directeur des Beaux-Arts, marquis Charles-Philippe de Chennevières-Pointel, for the Palais du Luxembourg. Yet, political change kept the canvas from that destination; Chennevières resigned in May of 1878, the month Giacomotti’s painting went on view at the Salon. Never installed in the Palais du Luxembourg, it was moved from storage to the Ancien Hôtel de Ville, Bourges in 1922. Shortly after La Gloire de Rubens was completed, the untrammeled energy and fulsome corporeality of Rubens were grandly channeled by the leftist sculptor Jules Dalou in Le Triomphe de la République (1879–99; Place de la Nation, Paris). 

Nor was infatuation with Italian Renaissance prototypes less capacious; we learn about this in chapter four (“‘Fra Angelico has been put out to stud’: Quoting the Quattrocento”). Despite indebtedness to Andrea Mantegna, Gustave Moreau transformed his borrowings nearly beyond recognition, as in the ominous Hercule et l’Hydre de Lerne (1876), possibly infused, as Thomson argues, with hatred of victorious Germany and horror at the Commune. Armand Point’s La Princesse à la licorne (1896), in contrast, is but a pastiche of Sandro Botticelli’s Pallas and the Centaur (ca. 1480–5). Whereas both artists traffic in remote idealism, others appreciated the quattrocento as font of naturalism, as in a remarkable series of distinctly individuated busts coupés à l’italienne (i.e., cropped at mid-chest and devoid of plinth). Clothed and groomed in Third Republic fashion, these portrait sculptures impressively blend revivalism and actuality. Such hybridity is also manifest in the appearance of modern hunting apparel within the archaically flattened space of Le Départ (1897), one of the paintings in a cycle by Maurice Denis regarding Saint Hubert. Here, a devoutly Catholic devotee of the work of Fra Angelico turned to a Florentine courtly prototype–Benozzo Gozzoli’s Journey of the Magi (1459–61) fresco in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. 

Central to lycée curriculum, the classical heritage is preeminent among the three lines of retrospection at issue. It is the topic of chapters one, three (“The Originality of Tradition: Classicism and the Avant-Garde”), and five (“Classicism for the New Century”). Common coin in Third Republic visual and verbal culture, that legacy could be obliquely appropriated in surprising ways. Degas provides a case in point, notwithstanding the edgy modernity of his subject matter, vantage points, and appetite for rough finish. Accordingly, the well-known pastel Le Tub (1886) assumes an ambivalent relationship to antiquity—at once admiringly imitative and archly contemporary—when compared to an unexpected source in chapter three, the Vénus de Vienne (a Roman copy of the second century CE after a Greek original of the third century BCE), acquired by the Louvre in 1878. 

Thomson’s nuanced approach also clarifies Cézanne’s complex relationship with his classical forebears. Conventional linkage to Poussin is persuasively downplayed in favor of reliance on nineteenth-century painters who mediated seventeenth-century traditions of paysage historique and outdoor nudity. New purchase on Cézanne’s views of Mont Sainte-Victoire is provided by comparison with two unfamiliar landscapes dating from the Bourbon Restoration—by Prosper François de Barrigue de Fontainieu (1816) and Jacques Raymond Brascassat (1828), respectively—available to Cézanne nearby in Marseille’s Musée des Beaux-Arts. And long-lost kinship is reestablished between the post-impressionist’s transgressively ungainly female bathers and Jean-Jacques Henner’s ingratiatingly sensual Les Naïades (1877). “The avant-garde’s appropriation of the possibilities of classicism,” concludes the author, “could be cunning, subtle and well-integrated, but it could also be compromised” (151). 

Reinventing the classical heritage in order to speak with urgency to the present is a chronic French impulse, whether manifest in Jacques-Louis David’s stirring antique narratives painted on the eve of the French Revolution or in Fernand Léger’s mechanized anatomies articulated in the aftermath of the First World War. Like Kenneth E. Silver’s Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914-1925 (1989), The Presence of the Past reads protean revivalism in light of cultural pressures and political passions particular to its historical moment. Both authors address periods of creative engagement with classicism occurring in the wake of cataclysmic war with Germany. Yet, unlike the retrospection of le rappel à l’ordre, that of the early Third Republic predates twentieth-century modernism’s assault on mimetic illusionism and historical mimicry—integral aspects of the late nineteenth-century art masterfully illuminated by Richard Thomson.

Jonathan P. Ribner
Boston University