Quandt on Ribner (2022)

Ribner, Jonathan P. Loss in French Romantic Art, Literature, and Politics. Routledge, 2022, pp. xvi + 261, ISBN: 978-1-032-02703-6

In Jonathan Ribner’s vivid account of multiple genres and media spanning the post-revolutionary years to the 1930s, loss is presented as a salient impetus for the creative process throughout the development of modern art in France. As its title suggests, this book does not merely present a survey of paintings, but purposefully seeks to buttress visual art with literary and political texts that percolated with urgency as post-Revolutionary France underwent a series of upheavals and traumatic conflicts. The theme of loss and exile is a prominent trope in early nineteenth-century art and literature, but Ribner veers away from what has become a formulaic mal du siècle and illuminates instead how artists each fashioned their own “anti-heroic mode” in provocative ways. Reconstructing “a cycle of creativity and grief,” Ribner decodes how works of art that initially appear to be outmoded or regressive would have strongly resonated with a genuinely bereaved nineteenth-century public. Ribner digs deep, unearthing a trove of poets (Pierre-Jean de Béranger, Jacques Delille, Alfred de Vigny), proponents of liberal Catholicism (Félicité Robert de Lamennais, Henri Lacordaire), and exiled figures (Adam Mickiewicz) who inspired generations of post-revolutionary artists and writers. Ribner’s thorough contextualization allows artists’ works to scintillate in their unique representations of exile and alienation.

Ribner sets out in his introduction to nuance the familiar motifs and standard receptions associated with early nineteenth-century visual art. Providing historical context as he sketches the immediate wake of the French Revolution, as well as situating his study against the backdrop of important historians and literary critics who have left a legacy of “inductive, contextual art history” (Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, Paul Bénichou, Frank Paul Bowman, and Michèle Hannoosh, for example), the author leads us through a rich entanglement of a history of ideas. As such, the book is not meant for a novice. It takes a scholar at least somewhat well versed in the debates and discourses circulating at the outset of the nineteenth century to follow Ribner’s own take on loss as spurring an “anti-heroic mode” that manifested itself in striking ways: unexpected meetings of the sacred and the secular, particularly heightened identifications with Old Testament narratives, or Messianic portrayals of Napoleon. Names such as François-Joseph Navez, Louis Janmot, or Jean-Gilbert Murat (to name just a few) might not be immediately familiar to even specialists of this period, but Ribner provides helpful and often fascinating biographical and historical details.

The subsequent chapters each narrate, through clusters of representative works by artists and writers primarily active in the first half of the nineteenth century, predominant themes that stimulated innovative expressions of loss. After briefly outlining the sense of loss that colors René de Chateaubriand’s profoundly influential Génie du christianisme (1802) and tracing the emergence of Ultramontanism, chapter one turns to the paintings of François Gérard, Jean-Victor Schnetz, and Navez as reworkings of traditional Catholic imagery and to those of the Lyonnais painters Victor Orsel and Hippolyte Flandrin as examples of eclectic archaism. Lamennais’ life and works are woven in throughout the chapter, and his evolution into a disillusioned anti-hero who ultimately abandoned the priesthood illustrates the sense of bitter loss with which contemporary artists clearly grappled. Chapter two examines, via works by Eugène Delacroix, Théodore Chassériau, and Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, the disparity between the traditional genre of religious painting and these artists’ secular approaches to biblical subjects. Ribner demonstrates how they emphasized mood and aesthetic effect instead of Catholic fervor. Continuing to trace the tension between devotional and artistic intent, the chapter ends with a return to the Lyonnais school through a lengthy analysis of Janmot’s Le Poème de l’âme, a cycle of eighteen paintings produced between 1835–1881 that, despite their devout content, Ribner reads as expressing Romantic innovation through the artist’s personal vision. Extending the pervasive topos of exile beyond the Revolution to the Empire and beyond, chapter three establishes how late eighteenth-century painting, as well as Mme de Staël’s novel Corinne (1807), served as prototypes for artists and exiles such as Mickiewicz (a Polish émigré who circulated within important European intellectual spheres), and for a cluster of painters and sculptors (Delacroix, Navez, Camille Corot, Murat, Jean Millet, Antoine Étex, Henri de Triqueti) who focused intently on biblical narratives of banishment, before culminating with Victor Hugo’s poetry of exile. Noting how Jan Monchablon’s full-length portrait of Hugo (1880) invokes Napoleon’s exile on Saint Helena, Ribner makes the transition to chapter four, which examines the tenacity of the Napoleonic legend. With a wide constellation of writers and artists across the political spectrum (Antoine-Jean Gros, Lord Byron, Chateaubriand, Horace Vernet, Théodore Géricault), the author demonstrates how they were all galvanized by Napoleon’s legacy. François Rude’s sculpture Napoléon s’éveillant à l’immortalité (1846) is perhaps the most dramatic example of the extent to which Napoleon had become a Christ figure in the artistic imagination. Chapter five, delving into the sense of ennui that fueled works from the early July Monarchy (Edgar Quinet, Alfred de Musset, Vigny), considers paintings of Napoleon’s ill-fated Russian campaign as dramatic expressions of nostalgia for a lost Empire before turning to a lengthy excursus on an extensive selection of Chassériau’s paintings. Demonstrating how they are more than mere escapes into imaginary worlds, Ribner decodes Chassériau’s representations of mythical figures and scenes as operating in an anti-heroic mode that “resonates with the bereft patriotism overdetermined since Waterloo and galvanized by the return of Napoleon’s remains in 1840” (203–204). The book culminates with a brief but sweeping epilogue that examines the indelible influence of ruins, nostalgia, and exile from the bloody aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war to the Catholic revival paintings of Paul Gauguin and Georges Rouault.

Loss is an attractive and engaging monograph that will appeal to any serious student or scholar of nineteenth-century French studies. Its endnotes provide a wealth of bibliographic material, and its accessible prose makes an otherwise dense and complicated history inviting and dynamic. While Ribner certainly makes a convincing case that his impressive cast of overlooked artists deserves reappraisal, the expansive host of artists and works as well as the varied length of each chapter’s subsections can detract from the central narrative of loss and an overall sense of cohesiveness. A more “user-friendly” approach to the book’s structure might have been to provide a concise introduction, with just a brief exposition of thesis and outline, before proceeding to a full-length first chapter devoted to the fleshing out of the “anti-heroic mode.” Organizational trifles aside, this is an expert contribution to French Romanticism, and leaves the reader craving an accompanying exhibition.

Karen Quandt
Wabash College