The Vice of Banality

L’origin du monde, Gustave Courbet

“The object of a painting is to express, according to the nature of the means at its disposal, the society which produces it.”

– Jules-Antoine Castignary, ‘Le Salon de 1863’

For much of the volatile nineteenth century in France, the principal instrument of artistic expression for aspiring painters was le style historique. Encompassing biblical, mythological, and allegorical themes, as well as historical events, it also, importantly, satisfied the majority’s aesthetic and moral requisites, whatever their political leanings, during the many decades of internecine conflict. Eventually, calm would prevail, and with it, France witnessed the emergence of an extraordinary new generation of artists, who, in operating outside of official channels, would question not only their role within society but also the method of its expression. Across the English Channel, history painting was again popular.1 The socio-political climate, however, was a comparatively stable one, despite incidences of regional rioting.2 England, ostensibly, having already crossed the revolutionary bridge two hundred years earlier when, in publicly decapitating their God-given king, parliament resolutely quashed any notion of divine right and ushered in a republic. Unlike their French equivalent, the supposedly more radical Victorian artist chose a regressive course, and with it the solace of a spurious past;3 ultimately, leading the country into a bog of medievalism, in which, even today, it is still partly marooned, despite the best efforts of IKEA.4

Whether there is a causal nexus between these various facts is moot.5 It is, nevertheless, tempting to propose that whatever rationale prevented the Victorian dissenter from vacating pew, or workbench, in collective revolt, as their French brethren had repeatedly done, likewise, determined Birmingham or London would never produce artists as original as Courbet and Manet.6

The overwhelming visual effect of history painting was theatrical. Petrified actors, posed at a significant moral point in a story, conveying fundamental human expressions such as wonder, fear, surprise, and disdain, all sourced from a licenced physiognomic primer that formed an essential part of an artist’s training.7 Conversely, venturing between those twin bastions of prescribed taste – the Salon in Paris and the Royal Academy in London – during the burgeoning decades of the nineteenth century, a degree of resistance to the strictures of this classical melodrama was also apparent. In London, two artists in particular, stood out. The recalcitrant and innovative landscapist Joseph Mallord William Turner, a lingering fart for which the inimical critics of the Athenaeum, La Belle Assemblée, and Examiner could find no effective deodorant; and John Constable, whose Brexit-minded vision of the English landscape, emancipated from European interference, appeared, disappointingly for some, to indicate a greater interest in the inclement British weather than the pictorial aesthetics of his illustrious predecessors.8 While, in Paris, the intemperate Eugène Delacroix, fabled Romantic and allegedly the illegitimate son of de Talleyrand, would mark Les Trois Glorieuses, the violent birth of the July Monarchy in 1830, not with the usual pretentious set-piece of posturing archetypes but a topless doxy in a Phrygian cap, seemingly plucked from the pages of a novel by Victor Hugo or the young Honoré de Balzac.9

Eventually, Turner would find a champion in John Ruskin, as Delacroix’s would in the scandalous French poet Charles Baudelaire. First, in his reviews of Delacroix’s work exhibited in the Salons of 1845 and 1846, then, more famously in an encomium marking the artist’s death almost twenty years later, conjuring, amidst a seemingly interminable mash of pleonasms, the image of a brilliant and vehement artist who Baudelaire describes as ‘passionately in love with passion, and coldly determined to seek the means of expressing it in the most visible way.’10 Delacroix, however, was also an artist who, despite his shocking Liberty, ‘scarcely touched modern life’, a subject for which Baudelaire was, at the same time, forming new ideas.11

At the epicenter of this nascent philosophy was a plea for artists to forego the theatrical dressing up box of sartorial props for which painters – even one as supposedly daring as Delacroix – were still largely reliant and, in its place, discover a new and vital subject matter in the protean and seemingly contradictory times in which they now lived. For Baudelaire, this was not a simple act of topical coverage but one that involved a typically byzantine constellation of ideas around which orbited an equally complex metaphysical algorithm, whereby an immutable and eternal ideal somehow precisely complemented the ‘ephemeral, fugitive and contingent’ quiddities of everyday existence. More simply put, he implored artists to use the ineluctable fundamentals of their craft and apply them imaginatively to the world around them, rather than to the fusty orthodoxy of history painting or, for that matter, the direct and elemental transcriptions of ‘nature’ which were, at the same time, gaining attention.

In response, Baudelaire redirected his subscriber’s attention to a self-effacing auto-didact named Constantin Guys.12 As Baudelaire obliquely refers to him, Monsieur G was the ‘painter of modern life’, inexplicably finding much to praise in his assiduous but feeble illustrations depicting an insouciant mix of both contemporary lower and middle-class Parisian life.13 Oddly, Edouard Manet, an artist evidently more deserving of praise in this respect, was amongst Baudelaire’s friends. Still, Manet receives scant recognition for his more significant efforts.14 Whether this extraordinary aberration means Baudelaire knew less about art than he is often given credit for is arguable. His writing does, however, offer some fascinating philosophical and aesthetic insights, giving us a clue to his tastes and temperament. Indeed, there seems to be something vaguely Freudian in his apparent disgust with nature, associating it with all manner of crimes and bodily functions. Echoing his hero Delacroix, nature, said Baudelaire, offered artists nothing more than a glossary of primary facts which, if simply copied, resulted in ‘..a great vice, the vice of banality’.15

The principal target of this criticism is landscape painters, for whom Baudelaire is, at best, ambivalent.16 In particular, a group, ostensibly under the direction of Camille Corot and Théodore Rousseau, who had encamped in the town of Barbizon on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau, south of Paris, during the 1830s and 40s.17 You might also add to this particular antipathy two other targets. The first is photography, which, by the mid-nineteenth century, had started to shake off its nascent association with science and develop into an artistic activity. Unsurprisingly, photography was also adopted by several well-known painters, including Corot himself, eager to explore a new process of depicting the world, in addition to imitating in paint some of its aesthetic qualities.18 Finally, the so-called ‘Realist’ Gustave Courbet; part Ken Loach, part Andy Warhol, Courbet was the sort of artist who would detect pathos in a ham sandwich.19 Courbet was a man of the people and, therefore, he chose to paint the people, not in the usual manner of genre painters, however, but on a grand scale usually reserved for history painting, a heresy that brought him considerable notoriety.

With these various points in mind, you might argue that the ‘vice of banality’ could just as easily be applied to the informal reportage of Guys. However, that would be to miss a more significant philosophical point, for Baudelaire tells us that we are supposed to appreciate in Guys’ work a ‘painter of a passing moment and all the suggestions of eternity that it contains.’ He also reports that Guys did not want to be known as an artist. For a man like Baudelaire, clearly exasperated by the aesthetic pretensions of his age, one can see, therefore, how attractive someone he later equates with a ‘man-child….a genius for which no aspect of life has become stale’ would be. This ingenuousness, however, does not mask the fact that Guys’ lack of understanding for the formal limits of his craft – in effect, the ‘eternal and immutable’ half of Baudelaire’s mystical sum – meant that however hip Guy’s ‘botanising on the asphalt’ was, he did not possess the technical skills to convincingly realise what he saw.20 Baudelaire tells us that Guys drew from memory, just as Delacroix claimed to do in his final works; but Delacroix, by virtue of his expertise, completely understood the forms his intellect was then exercised to recall, and, as such, the conceptual path along which he reached his final paintings was one that he had already travelled countless times.

Within the context of art history, Guys, at best, joins a host of other puffed-up artists who have been afforded the luxury of critical attention as a result of attracting sponsors who confuse artlessness with virtue. What eventually followed, of course, was so-called Impressionism, so, with Baudelaire in mind, I made my way to Paris and the Musée D’Orsay, the home of one of the most significant collections of Impressionist painting in the world.

Today, it seems, Impressionism never fails to satisfy the vast and various interests of our age: images of domesticity, leisure, work, nudity, sex, all of which, in one form or another, is mirrored in the fathomless banality of social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Pornhub. Whether the unquestioning hoards that pass through the Musée D’Orsay’s galleries each year are conscious of this irony is uncertain, or that, by compulsively recording themselves and the paintings around them on their various devices, they perform the same complacent reflex as the artists whose paintings they have come to see. In this era of ubiquitous pornography, how the public interprets one of the museum’s more controversial exhibits, Courbet’s, L’origine du monde, a diligent rendering of a flocculant and rosey pudendum, is equally unclear.21 The painting, which is now thought to have been reduced, eliding the model’s head, was commissioned by the Turkish-Egyptian diplomat Khalil-Bey. The model is possibly the ballet dancer Constance Queniaux. Before passing into the collection of the Musée d’Orsay, the painting had been owned by the psychoanalyst Jacque Lacan. According to the museum’s website, this infamous painting escapes pornographic status due to its ‘virtuosity and the refinement of his amber colour scheme’, but ‘still raises the troubling question of voyeurism’. Regardless of its aesthetic merits, however, it evidently presented a troubling semantic dilemma for the Luxembourgian performance artist Deborah de Robertis, who, in 2014, decided to place herself between the painting and the gathered onlookers and make a public and graphic display of her own ‘origin of the world’; a re-enactment that for some in the astonished crowd, no doubt, appeared to confuse a cultural day out with a visit to the gynaecologist.22

The Musée D’Orsay’s Impressionist exhibit slyly follows modernist dogma by including only those who conform to a teleological line of development from the early pioneers of unorthodoxy, Manet and Courbet, to the watershed not just in pictorial manners but also in gist for which the Impressionists are famous.23 Outside this select few are, in fact, several fine painters, all of whom showed work in the first exhibition of Impressionist work in 1874 but are now, largely, consigned to the dark margins of art history.24

Opening the exhibit is Manet’s principal contribution to this specious narrative, his notoriously confusing Playboy picnic, Le Déjeuner Sur L’herbe.25 This remarkable painting, in which Manet indecently collaged contemporary figures into a pseudo-Renaissance composition, is an artful joke, albeit one lost on many contemporary critics whose opprobrium would then influence public opinion, turning both the painting and its creator into targets of ridicule.26 Manet, who politely declined to exhibit with the Impressionists, many of whom were among his friends, did not, in fact, consider himself as an outsider, as they eventually did, but as someone who might occupy a position within the establishment mainly on his terms. A position that ironically made him more of an apostate than ever.

Manet’s subject matter could, at times, be perplexing. His technical radicalism, however, is often overstated, along with any notion that it was a direct challenge to the depictive imperatives of his profession.27 Ultimately, it was Manet’s resplendent candour than any perspicuous plan to undermine the indivisibility of the Franco-Italian tradition with his idiosyncratic facture which defines his very best work. If you are looking for a genuine troublemaker, Courbet is the more likely fugitive, a tendency that is particularly evident in his landscapes. At times, Courbet even seems to be maliciously antagonistic toward his profession, laying on the paint with the aid of a wide blade in thick and uneven patches, as in a vulgar act of manual labour, instead of the refined and intellectual process to which the public was accustomed.

It was Claude Monet’s cursory painting of the caliginous harbour of Le Havre, completed a year after his return from exile in London in 1871, that would provide the infamous collective with their ultimate designation.28 First exhibited in 1874, as part of what was initially labelled as an exhibition of the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs, catalogue number 98, Impression Soleil Levant, would become emblematic of the critic Louis Leroy’s satirical review in the illustrated magazine, Le Charivari, in which he recounts a conversation between himself and ‘M Joseph Vincent… landscape painter’, with whom he supposedly toured the exhibition. Of the paintings highlighted in Leroy’s unsympathetic report, Gelée Blanche, painted in 1873 by Camille Pissarro, is the most notable example in the Musée D’Orsay’s collection; a work that is reported to have caused the eminent landscapist, first to suspect that his glasses were unclean, before decrying what he finally perceived to be ‘palette-scrapings placed uniformly on a dirty canvas’.29

Unable, or simply unwilling, to equate the material surface of Pissarro’s painting with what its title professed it to be, Leroy’s ventriloquial act echoes a similar exegetical crisis faced by Turner’s English critics thirty years earlier.30 Turner, for his part, had upset the precise balance of form and content to which the English public was accustomed. A synergic arrangement that, as Judith Fisher indicates, also, crucially, allowed Victorian critics to precisely translate paintings into words, as their role as arbitrators of taste demanded. Turner, in effect, inadvertently challenged this relationship by allowing the material process of his technique free reign at the expense of clearly delineating the subject matter, thereby forcing his critics, many of whom came from literary backgrounds, into a semantic corner from which the only means of escape was to find a new glossary of terms with which to interpret his work. The fact that Turner gave his work explicit literary titles made their jobs all the more difficult. The overall response, not surprisingly, was inevitable: shock and disdain. The English novelist and critic, William Thackeray, even felt assaulted, comparing the experience of seeing a particular Turner painting to the bedazzling effect of receiving a black eye.31

Culinary references were particularly popular with Turner’s English critics, just as they would be, later, with their French counterparts.32 Thackeray, for example, compared the fish in Turner’s painting of 1840, Slavers throwing over the dead and dying: Typhoon coming on to ‘huge, slimey (sic) poached eggs’; while the sumptuous Ariel: A snowstorm, painted two years later, occasioned a critic in the periodical Athenaeum, evidently stimulated by what he perceived as the comestible quality of Turner’s audacious use of impasto, to contemplate the visible properties of cream, chocolate, jelly, and egg yolk, rather than the drama surrounding the fate of a steamer at the mercy of tempestuous British weather.

In 1874, Leroy and his imaginary companion were equally discombobulated by what they saw at the inaugural Impressionist exhibition. Guiding the shell-shocked artist through the exhibition, he recounts how they finally alighted upon Monet’s Impression Soleil Levant, the old academician, in this instance, locating an appropriate equivalence in the decorative rather than culinary arts, commenting that ‘Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.’

Of Manet’s select disciples, Monet stands the tallest amongst the landscapists, not just for the sheer overall quality of his work but also for his longevity. He was lucky to have met and learned from Eugène Boudin so early in his career;33 luckier still, at times of abject penury, to have companions with deep pockets, like his friend and fellow artist Frédéric Bazille, who sadly never lived to see his friend’s commercial and critical apotheosis.34 Monet would learn to equate nature with his brush better than any of his generation, using an extraordinary range of graphic correspondences, particularly in his paintings of water. However, along the way, his colour became increasingly high keyed, which, when combined with a shift in emphasis from the supposedly empirical to the manifestly picturesque, would ultimately result in some of his most meretricious and popular paintings.35

Less convincing are Monet’s followers, notably Alfred Sisley, who is no more than a gifted epigone, despite more recent and generous reappraisal. An obsessive landscapist, Sisley’s subject matter is the epitome of banal: views of dreary riverside towns and villages along the Seine’s western course in which an informal Dutch geometry of land and sky offered him, one supposes, the reassurance of aesthetic precedent and with it some chance of success.36 Not an artist to take pictorial risks, even when he does break from the traditional tonalities of his illustrious antecedents and, following Monet’s example, extends his palette with a new range of ostentatious colour effects, he continues to fall back on the same crowd-pleasing compositional devices that had governed landscape paintings for centuries. Monet, of course, could be equally obsequious in his design, but, importantly, Monet would also begin to see the landscape in dissection; not just broken colour, but negative space, pattern, and shape and, as such, would come to discover new potential where Sisley saw only Jacob von Ruysdael à la Seine.37

Like Sisley, the indemnity of literal transcription also infiltrates the work of Camille Pissarro. However, unlike some of his peers, Pissarro assiduously chose to turn his back to the Seine’s burgeoning towns and resorts and, instead, depict the polluting factories that also lined its banks.38 By the same political token, rather than the spirited day-trippers in search of the ameliorating effects of open-air, water, and sunshine that Monet and Renoir, in particular, documented, it was the residual peasant class Pissarro propagandised.39 His noble proletariat, like myriad genre painters before him, one suspects, more imaginary than extant. An incorrigible reviser, his niggling uncertainties are manifestly clear in the accumulated layers of his lack-luster and mostly overworked paintings, and after an embarrassing dalliance with the pseudo-scientific inanities of Divisionism in late middle age, he would eventually come full circle, seeing out his final decade churning out muddy Canalettos of Paris and Dieppe with the monotony of Henry Ford.40

He was not the worst, though; that distinction belongs, arguably, to Pierre-Auguste Renoir. A close friend of Monet, Renoir moved between genres with uniform ease and facility. His prodigious gifts, however, were equally matched by his profligacy. Surrendering himself to the saccharinity of unmodified colour like an errant child let loose in a sweet shop, much of Renoir’s work, if not visually indigestible, is emetic. His set-pieces of the middle-classes, dining, conversing, and dancing are arguably his most substantial contribution to Baudelaire’s contemporary census.41 The implication that Renoir is in any way progressive, however, is, largely, a disservice, for his art was unashamedly founded on others’ more notable accomplishments: Venice wholesale, Rubens, more notably, Watteau, Boucher and Delacroix. One even supposes that had he been less coy about the sex of his abundant phallocratic nudes – if pubic hairs can deservedly be called indices of modernity – we would discover that they were brutally depilated as those of that French master of allegorical strippers, William Adolphe Bouguereau.42 The very obvious salaciousness of Renoir’s late work has, naturally, gone in and out of fashion, but whether empowering or demeaning, erotic or pornographic, this does not detract from their overwhelming egregiousness; his extravagant use of pure colour, foreboding, as the split atom, would Hiroshima, the chromatic ‘horrors’ of Post Impressionism, and later Matisse and the Fauves.

Of the two females amongst the group, Berthe Morisot, like Pissarro, also appears to have been equally indifferent to the French middle classes’ fashionable pursuits. In truth, it was more a question of the limitations placed upon her gender and, in that regard, her work can be read as that of a closet artist confined to those zones of bourgeois activity appropriate to her sex. Blessed with the encouragement of her parents, she, at least, fared better than Shakespeare’s metaphorical sister and was for a short time a pupil of Corot.43 As a woman in the nineteenth century, a will was not Morisot’s to have, and if she did have one, it was hers to politely conceal. As such, one might interpret the surface flack of her mostly embryonic paintings as expressing an understandable frustration and resentment.44 By the same semantic token, the other gender wild card, Mary Cassatt, appears to have been more comfortable with the subservient and procreative role of her gender, appearing, if her paintings are anything to go by, to have spent most of her life confined to the nursery documenting the chubby manifestations of her various siblings.

Whether or not the wealthy dilettante Gustave Caillebotte deservedly has a place in the Impressionist narrative is less certain. To his credit, he bailed out Monet on numerous occasions. His most important contribution, therefore, is causative, like that of John Goffe Rand’s, the inventor of the collapsible paint tube, and the chemist Louis Nicholas Vauquelin, who was responsible for producing many of the colours which give Impressionist paintings their peculiar vibrancy.45

In contrast, Edgar Degas trained as a history painter and was the greatest draughtsman of his generation. He is also known principally for his paintings and drawings of Parisian ballerinas. Works that, in fact, hide a darker truth to which it could be argued – in this age when moral relativism is invariably dismissed as sophistry – he was wholly complicit.46 ‘Les petits rats’, as the dancers were commonly known were, to adopt today’s moral lens, entrapped in an unbalanced power dynamic in which the multi-functional role to which they were dependent for their livelihoods meant that they were as equally engaged on their knees in the wings satisfying the carnal desires of theatre’s affluent patrons as they were on their pointy little feet.47 Regardless of this fact, Degas’ dancers continue to underpin the daily takings of the world’s museum gift shops; related posters, mouse-mats, umbrellas, scarves, calendars, and alike, proving if nothing else, obfuscation and myth are invariably more profitable than truth. In particular, Degas is commended for his abruptly cropped and decentralized compositions, features usually attributed to the combined influence of instantaneous amateur photography, as well as the work of Japanese Ukiyo-e printmakers such as Utagawa Hiroshige. The latter’s influence is clearly evident. The influence of photography, however, remains muddled with supposition and chronological uncertainties, despite Degas’ avid interest.48 As Deborah Johnson highlights in her excellent essay on this subject, the Japanese Ukiyo-e print even appeared to meet the metaphysical criteria that Baudelaire deemed necessary for the creation of a modern work of art, ‘in its marriage of the imaginative and the real….. at a time when French painting seemed hopelessly polarized in its dedication to one or the other’.49 However, faced with a pictorial language infinitely more sophisticated than anything previously seen before in the west, the best artists could hope for was to scratch at the surface of Japanese art in a search for new formulas, and, as such, ‘Japonisme’, as it came to be known, was as much a fad as that which had inspired previous generations to depict rosey-nippled Venuses and medieval troubadours.

Manet also greatly appreciated Japanese art, but it was to Spain and Holland, via the Louvre, rather than the Orient that he first looked for redirection. Following his example, Monet would also attempt to reconcile the past and the present, first, in creating his version of Le Déjeuner Sur L’herbe,50 followed, in 1869, by a series of en plein air paintings made out of doors (along with Renoir) at a popular bathing spot on the Isle de Croissy known as La Grenouillère. Originally intended to serve as preparatory sketches for a larger studio painting that never materialized, the surviving canvases from La Grenouillère are now regarded as the inadvertent debut of the Impressionist experiment.51

Painting out of doors presented painters with a unique challenge, one, in fact, closer to performance. Faced with the constraints of time and weather as well as the vagaries of immediate and unfiltered stimulus, ‘nature’ was now something with which they now competed rather than control as part of a prescribed and methodical process, as the art academies taught. As a result, some paintings, if not immediately discarded, were later corrected and improved, not necessarily to a faithful standard.52

In later life, this niggling polarity may, in part, have inspired Monet to construct his own landscape at his home in Giverny on the outskirts of Paris. In which, by determining its geography and mood, he appeared to betray the Impressionist cause to which he had supposedly devoted much of his life in reverting to a classical ideal dating back to the sunset king Claude Lorrain that placed nature at the behest of art, not vice versa. That Monet’s garden project was also contingent on imperiously rerouting the local water supply to create his famous Lily ponds should, therefore, equally be of no surprise, for, ultimately, art is just another form of tyranny.

Today, Giverny has forgiven this act of aesthetic despotism, evolving into a gift-village whose existence, it seems, is mainly contingent on serving Monet’s high-minded horticultural cynosure, and for which the ‘foolish cult of nature’, as Baudelaire referred to it, has now become creed. As such, every year, tens of thousands of eager supplicants make their way from the Quai d’Orsay to Monet’s final home to take in the chromatic splendours of his famous house and garden, passing along the way those immortalized Impressionist centres, Argenteuil, Chatou, Asnière and Bougival, to name just a few, all, now barely traceable amidst the desultory wasteland of Paris’ western suburbs. Now housed in the artist’s former studio at Giverny, the shameful kitsch of the Fondation Claude Monet gift shop is a fittingly banal conclusion to this journey and further testament that Baudelaire’s invidious aphorism was, ultimately, a warning to humankind. One, it seems, to which we have paid little heed.

Post Script

My first memory of Impressionist art is a Renoir poster pinned to the wall of the classroom of my prep school French teacher.53 ‘Bungee’, as we affectionately knew her, was famed for driving around the playground after fleeing pupils in a pea green Morris Minor, a vehicle that perfectly mirrored her own bulbous shape, and which she said, was given to her by J. R. R. Tolkien. Further references, in post card form, to ‘Randee-wa’, as she called him, were concealed in a locked desk drawer that she delighted in opening for pupils whose interests in the fine arts were invariably superseded by more instinctive enquiries into the ineffable mysteries of the female body. Bungee was also renowned for her extraordinary munificence – as if the sight of fleshy and fulsome breasts wasn’t good fortune enough for a nine year old boy – producing, weekly, from a capacious leather satchel beneath her desk, an apparently endless supply of lavish rewards, including fountain pens, calculators and technical drawing sets. A number of years later it was reported in the local newspaper that the font of this cornucopia of school supplies was, in fact, WHSmith’s, who, it seems, for much of her adult life, Bungee had deftly avoided the licit obligation of paying for her acquisitions. Having finally been caught, the occasion of the newspaper report was Bungee’s trial. The court heard that, as well as attempting to steal a number of items, on being apprehended, Bungee had taken a hammer from her bag and bludgeoned the diligent, interfering shop assistant on the head. The shop assistant later died of her injuries.54

  1. The Royal Academy was evidently more liberal than its French equivalent, which maintained a hierarchy of categories for much of the century. During Victoria’s reign, what was known as Genre painting of the type later attacked by Clive Bell in his famous essay Art (1914) and exemplified by artists such as Sir Samuel Luke Fildes and William Powell Frith, both of whom Bell invidiously targets, became a ubiquitous and popular narrative form.
  2. The Reform Riots (1831) were arguably the closest England came to a full-scale revolution.
  3. The target is principally William Morris and the Art and Crafts Movement, although you could also add the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and the Gothic proselytiser A. W. N. Pugin to this observation.
  4. IKEA famously launched an advertising campaign in 1996 with the slogan Chuck out Your Chintz. The advert depicts a large group of (one assumes) housewives violently removing their outmoded furnishings to an oversized skip that has been placed outside in a street of typical mid-Victorian terraced houses. The communal mayhem is orchestrated by a catchy song which highlights sexual equality, at the same time opining, ‘that flowery trimmage (sic) is harming our image, so chuck out your chintz today’. Inference, chintz is also a sign of female oppression. The skip’s operator, in placing the skip in the middle of the road, appears to be breaking a number of important license requirements. Alternative reading. There are no children, men, or pets in the advert and the street has no cars, symbols traditionally associated with middle-class British values. An all-female society, therefore, appears to be wreaking revenge on more than a century of crap design, before marching to their local IKEA to replace it with contemporary furniture seemingly named after characters from Beowulf. The skip is a metaphor. Shortly after Tony Blair came to power in 1996, a famous British tabloid led with the metaphor, ‘Downing Street chucks out its chintz’. Metaphors are not yet subject to licencing. Perhaps they should be. The idea, slogan and song, were the brainchild of Naresh Ramchandani. Chintz was originally a printed or painted cloth produced in India.
  5. Paul Wood in his case study The avant-garde from the July Monarchy to the Second Empire in The Challenge of the Avant-Garde states that the reason why modern art emerged in France rather than Britain is ‘one of those large and largely unanswerable questions.’ He then attempts to, partly, answer the question. Firstly, by presenting the fact that the politically liberal climate in Victorian Britain offered a stable environment for artistic and cultural debate, and that ‘the sensations of modernism were anything but stable’. He then proposes that the link between the political absolutism of the ancien régime and continuing dominance of the Académie (albeit in a revised form) after the revolution of 1789, resulted, ultimately, in a parallel revolt within the arts in form of Romanticism, exemplified by Delacroix, which, logically, is then associated by conservative factions with Jacobinism.
  6. The question…why Birmingham or London did not produce a Courbet or Manet, came to me during a toilet break at Winchester Service Station.
  7. For example, Louis Gauffier’s The Generosity of the Roman Women. Exhibited at the Salon of 1791, the painting depicts the story of the woman of ancient Rome donating their gold and jewelry in the act of paradigmatic partisanship. An event that apparently inspired a group of artists’ wives to do likewise, shortly after the fall of the Bastille. Whether or not the painting pays homage to this contemporary fact, however, remains politely implicit, as the times dictated. Jon and Linda Whiteley use the phrase ‘pantomime, without words’ to describe history painting. By ‘physiognomic primer’, I am referring, specifically, to French artists use of Lebrun’s illustrated lecture on the passions, given to the Académie in 1668, which was transcribed and later published. Also, Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy. I also recommend Stephanie Ross’ Painting The Passions: Charles Lebrun’s Conférence Sur Expression, for an in-depth analysis of this subject.
  8. See Ray Lambert, John Constable and the Theory of Landscape Painting. Also, Nicholas Pevsner’s radio broadcast on Sunday 20th November 1955 (part of his Reith Lecture series) for the BBC’s Third Programme entitled, Constable and the pursuit of nature. Pevsner alludes to a Constable cloud study with meteorological annotations in the margins. He also mentions Constable’s interest in the wind conditions, indicated by two windmills in a painting by the Dutch landscape artist Jacob von Ruisdael, highlighted in a lecture Constable gave to the Royal Institute in 1836. Pevsner also reports that the eminent academician Henry Fuselli is said to have been compelled to think of his ‘grey coat and umbrella’ when confronted with Constable’s paintings. Constable never travelled abroad. Although he is said to have admired Claude Lorrain’s paintings, he preferred what he called ‘the pure apprehension of natural facts’ to the classical Franco-Italian tradition that was the paradigm for 18th and 19th Century English landscape painting. Constable’s seemingly ‘informal’ The Haywain (1821) created a stir at the Paris Salon of 1824. In response, an inspired Delacroix is said to have repainted the background landscape in his Massacre at Chios (1824). Creative osmosis only made possible by the defeat of Napoleon.
  9. The painting is question is La Liberté guidant le peuple (1830). A Phrygian cap is a soft conical hat with the top curled forward. In ancient Rome freed slaves wore a similar style of cap, called the pileus, to indicate their liberty. Over time, the two types became confused with each other. It was first adopted as a symbol of liberty in France in the 17th century, later becoming an important of symbol the French Revolution. Phrygia is modern day Turkey. Smurfs: French, Les Schtroumpfs, wear Phrygian caps.
  10. Charles Baudelaire The Life and Works of Eugène Delacroix. In the form of aletter to the editor of Opinion Nationale, published in three parts on September 2nd, and November 14th and 22nd 1863. Delacroix died on the 13th August 1863.
  11. In The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Charles Baudelaire. (1964) Translated and Edited by Jonathan Mayne. This apt phrase comes from Mayne’s introduction.
  12. Clive Bell writes at length about Constantine Guy in An Account of French Painting, calling him a ‘man of genius and an inventor.’ Jonathan Maynard, not surprisingly, skirts over Guys in his introduction to The Painter of Modern Life and other Essays, calling him only, a ‘delightfully gifted but essentially minor painter’.
  13. Guys reported for the London Illustrated News during the Crimean War. After settling in Paris, he worked as an illustrator.
  14. See T.J.Clarke who, in effect, anoints Manet the ‘painter of modern life’. Clarke demonstrates how Manet’s art, as well as that of the Impressionists, is an expression of the dramatic and complex social changes of the time, therefore, shifting the emphasis away from the formalist theories of Clement Greenberg. Clarke’s irritation with the formalist proselytising of Greenberg would famously boil over in the early 1980s when he entered into a dispute with the Greenberg disciple Michael Fried.
  15. Charles Baudelaire, The Life and Works of Eugène Delacroix. (1863)
  16. See Juliette Pegram’s, Baudelaire and the rival of nature: The conflict between art and nature in French landscape painting. A surprisingly clear (for an academic) and excellent account of Baudelaire’s complex and, at times, contradictory attitude to landscape painting.
  17. The designation, Barbizon School, like Impressionism, is a convenient one but can be misleading in suggesting collective artistic purpose. Clive Bells in An Account of French Painting states that ‘Corot had nothing to do with Barbizon.’ By which he means that Corot’s practice of painting en plein air served as a propaedeutic for larger allegorical work, just as it had for previous generations of painters. Fronia Wissman, in her essay The Generation Gap in The Rise of Landscape Painting in France: Corot to Monet, makes the important point that only a select few would have seen Corot’s en plein-air experiments within his lifetime; the teleological link that is sometimes made between his ‘proto-impressionist’ sketches and Impressionist painting is, therefore, untenable. Corot was hostile to many Impressionist painters, although a number of them, notably Pissarro, admired him. Clive Bell did not like Corot, who, he says, ‘seems to have been without the gift of self-criticism; to put it bluntly, he was stupid.’ Herbert Read in The Meaning of Art is much kinder, calling him a ‘milder, more evanescent Rubens.’
  18. In 1859, the Salon opened its doors to photographers for the first time, many of whom, according to Deborah Johnson in her essay Confluence and Influence: Photography and the Japanese Print in 1850 in The Rise of Landscape Painting in France Corot to Monet exhibited Barbizon forest scenes. Also, that the famous photographer Nadar ‘was compared to the best painters of the day, one reviewer going so far as to call him a Titian.’ The painter Paul Delaroche, who is often quoted as saying ‘from today painting is dead’, on seeing photography for the first time, in fact, went on to say more on the subject. As Carol McNamara points out in her essay The Aesthetic of the Instant, Delaroche’s more positive remarks were later incorporated into Francois Arago’s official announcement of the daguerreotype process. Of note, he said, ‘The painter will find in this process a rapid method of assembling a collection of studies that he otherwise could obtain only with much time and difficulty, and in a much less perfect manner, no matter how talented he might be….In short, the admirable discovery of M.Daguerre has rendered an immense service to the arts.’ In his review of the Salon of 1859, Baudelaire calls photography a ‘servant of science…a humble servant like typography and stenography which have created nor improved literature.’
  19. Ken Loach is a left-wing film maker and the winner of two Palme d’Or. Many of his films are of the kitchen sink variety. ‘Kitchen sink’ is a term appended to a group of English painters and film-makers in the 1950s whose subject matter was, essentially, mundane.
  20. Quotes in Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life. (1863) With regards to Delacroix painting from memory, I am reminded of the words ‘only experience knows the minimum of means’, taken from a book entitled Painters’ Idiom by R.W.Alston.
  21. See Linda Nochlin’s Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde: The Origin Without an Original. Nochlin considers the work pornographic. Apropos the title of Nochlin’s essay, the original painting’s whereabouts were unknown for much of the 20th Century.
  22. When questioned why she chose to expose herself by the Belgian newspaper, Luxemburger Wort, Deborah de Robertis obliquely replied, ‘There is a gap in art history, the absent point of view of the object of the gaze. In his realist painting, the painter shows the open legs, but the vagina remains closed. He does not reveal the hole, that is to say, the eye. I am not showing my vagina, but I am revealing what we do not see in the painting, the eye of the vagina, the black hole, this concealed eye, this chasm, which, beyond the flesh, refers to infinity, to the origin of the origin.’ The museum administration commented, with, apparently, little sense of irony, ‘No request for authorization was filed with us. And even if it had been, it’s not certain we would have accepted it as that may have upset our visitors.’
  23. I am referring specifically to the art criticism of Clement Greenberg. Greenberg justifies the importance of some works of art over others in relation to certain defining characteristics he identifies as modernist, and which he first perceives in the paintings of Edouard Manet. It is a compelling theory but also one that stands accused of what Karl Popper called ‘historicism’. Historicism is, in effect, a retrospectively organised argument in support of a preordained conclusion, which is to say Greenberg first tells us what is important and what is not (according to his taste) and then points us back in the direction of where to find it, largely, at the expense of all else. 
  24. One example, the Franco-Italian Giuseppe De Nittis, who was included on the insistence of his friend Edgar Degas, not just to offer some diversity but also, one suspects, the indemnity of distinguishable quality lacking in the work of many of the less well-established contributors.
  25. Musée D’Orsay. Room 29.
  26. As a likely source of inspiration, see Le Concert Champêtre (1509) by Titian in the collection of The Louvre.
  27. In his essay Modernist Painting, Greenberg states that ‘Manet’s became the first Modernist pictures by the frankness with which they declared the flat surface on which they were painted.’ What Greenberg means by this is that Manet, by shortcutting key aspects of traditional painting technique; the use of carefully modulated tones to create an illusion of sculptural form, undetectable brush strokes and a consistent finish inadvertently declared the material facts of his craft – brushes, paint, turpentine, and support (canvas). Manet’s application of staccato tones, gestural brushwork and uneven finish, therefore, now operated in excited opposition to the fiction they were tasked to represent. Robert Hughes, in his 1983 review of Manet 1832-1883, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York makes the point, however, that seen first-hand, Manet’s paintings are not as flat as they are in reproduction. Even Greenberg concedes that the academician Dominique Ingré was a flatter painter, and the important point that Manet was certainly not the first painter to use paint expressively and, thereby, draw attention to the procedures of painting, 16th-century Venetian artists such as Titian being an obvious example. In England, Thomas Gainsborough easily comes to mind and, of course, Turner and Delacroix. However, for Greenberg, the argument between form and content in Manet’s paintings borders on an obsession. The reason for this is sophisticated. Greenberg identifies what he perceives as a major flaw in the development of fine art up until Manet, namely, a tendency toward ‘literature’, by which he means narrative, as well as a related tendency toward mimicking sculptural form and creating tactile illusion aimed at serving this narrative, both of which were key aspects of traditional art education. Greenberg, conversely, places storytelling exclusively within the scope of theatre and literature, and the honest representation of three dimensional form within the remit of sculpture. Painting’s specific scope or ‘competence’, he says, is in the expression of the medium itself and, in doing so, openly declaring the flat support upon which it is placed as well as the frame in which it is contained. In Manet, he claims, we see the first substantial reaction against this ‘confusion of the arts’, as he calls it in an earlier essay, in the form of a ‘self-critical’, at the same time ‘self-defining’, tendency that rids painting of traditional obligations toward naturalism and narrative and, in doing so, purifies it.
  28. Impression Soleil Levant is in the collection of the Musée Marmotan, Paris. Monet and Pissarro both travelled to London in 1870 to avoid conscription and where they are reported to have visited the National Gallery and seen Turner’s paintings. Monet is often cited to have been influenced by Turner and, indeed, some of his later works, particularly those made in Venice at the turn of the century, have ‘Turneresque’ qualities, albeit superficial. Monet, in later life, is reported to have denied being influenced by Turner, claiming to find his paintings too colourful and lacking rigour.
  29. Gelée Blanche. Musée D’Orsay, Room 32.
  30. M Joseph Vincent is fictional. Leroy describes him as ‘recipient of medals and decorations under several governments!’ A possible source may be Vincent Joseph François Courdouan, whose notable achievements included being awarded a Gold Medal at the Salon of 1848 for his painting, Battle of the Romulus.
  31. The painting in question is said to be Light and Colour (Goethe’s theory) — The Morning after the DelugeMoses Writing the Book of Genesis (1843).
  32. See Judith L Fisher’s, Magnificent or Mad? Nineteenth-Century Periodicals and the Paintings of Joseph Mallord William Turner. Also, Allison Deutsch’s, Good taste: metaphor and materiality in nineteenth-century art criticism which deals with French critic’s tendency to link the ‘aesthetic with the alimentary’. Conversely, Emile Zola used culinary references to attack official Salon art.
  33. On the invitation of Monet, Boudin exhibited in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, but none thereafter. He was also successful in having his work exhibited in the Salon. Once apparently described by Corot as ‘the master of the skies’ his paintings, particularly those of the English Channel and port at Le Havre, have a distinctive and direct quality characterised by loose, expressive brushstrokes, largely the result of working in haste out of doors. A comparison with Monet’s work clearly demonstrated the influence that Boudin had upon him.
  34. Frédérick Bazille was killed in action during the disastrous Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
  35. See Les Villas à Bordighera (1884). Musée D’Orsay, Room 32.
  36. See L’Inondation à Port-Marly (1876). Musée D’Orsay, Room 30.
  37. See Effet de vent, série des peupliers (1891). Musée D’Orsay, Room 34. Jacob von Ruysdael was a 17th Century Dutch landscape painter.
  38. See Bateaux à l’écluse de Bougival. (1873). Musée D’Orsay, Room 29.
  39. See Bergère rentrant des moutons (1886). Musée D’Orsay, Room 32. The ownership of this painting has been in dispute for many years. A legacy of Nazism.
  40. The idea of comparing Pissarro’s late paintings with the production of the Model T Ford was inspired by Clive Bell, although he uses the reference in a slightly different form and in the context of Charles Daubigny.
  41. See Bal du moulin de la Galette. (1876). Musée D’Orsay, Room 30. This painting was first exhibited in the Third Impressionist exhibition in 1877.
  42. See Grand nu. (1907). Musée D’Orsay, Room 35. William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) was an Academician known, in particular, for his painting of classical subject matter, notably The Birth of Venus (1879). Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s essay The Legs of the Countess, states that the French photographic society eventually banned nudes after concerns were raised about their ambiguity, one critic complaining that ‘the photographer displayed exactly what the painter elided: pubic hair, dirty feet and face, the bodies of real woman.’
  43. The concept of Shakespeare’s sister, Judith, comes from Virginia Woolf’s book, A Room of One’s Own, in which she posits a parallel history in which the bard has a sibling who is unable to flourish as a result of the iniquities of the era in which she was born.
  44. Possibly, as a reaction to the fact that many exceptional female artists, some equal, if not better, than their more famous male contemporaries, remain side-lined even today, there has been a recent temptation to raise the status of this minor artist. See Jeune femme en toilette de balen (1879). Musée D’Orsay, Room 31.
  45. The discovery of iron chromate in the Var region of France resulted in the chemist and pharmacist L.N Vauquelin (1763-1829) developing a range of new colours, notably chromes, orange and yellow, and viridian green, which are commonly found in Impressionist painting. Cobalt Blue is also a frequently used colour, suggesting to some that the Impressionist suffered from indigomania. Cobalt blue was first introduced in France in 1807, but not widely used until mid-century. 
  46. See Répétition d’un ballet sur la scene. (1874). Musée D’Orsay, Room 32.
  47. Degas preferred the term ‘petits singe’. French for little monkey.
  48. In his case study, Photography and Modernity in Nineteenth-Century France in The Challenge of the Avant-Garde, Steve Edward’s points out that up until the 1880s photographers were still applying the same traditional compositional rules as painters. It was only after this point that casual, instantaneous amateur photography was widely seen. Degas’s ‘radical’ compositions predate this aesthetic watershed. He suggests, therefore, that ‘Degas’ vision was more photographic than photography in the 1870s’.
  49. See Deborah Johnson. Confluence and Influence. Photography and the Japanese Print in 1850.
  50. Musée D’Orsay, Room 30.
  51. La Grenouillère. French for The Frog Pond. There are five known surviving paintings, two by Monet and three by Renoir. Charles Harrison’s analysis, Monet at La Grenouillère in Modernity and Modernism French Painting in the Nineteenth Century, is essential reading, particularly in reference to Greenberg.
  52. Monet is often cited to have been unhappy with the results, calling them ‘mauvaise esquisse’. Both of his surviving paintings were clearly edited at a later stage. He exhibited only one work from La Grenouillère in the second Impressionist exhibition in 1876. This may be the one in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Painting out of doors, in fact, has its origins in the 17th century when the French painter Claude Lorrain set about scientifically recording in paint the gradations of atmospheric tone in the countryside around Rome as a reference for his large-scale exhibition paintings. Claude Lorrain would later attract a following and by 1666, a French Academy was established in Rome, making it the official centre for painting out of doors, a distinction it held for almost two hundred years. In France, the practice was championed by artists such as Francois Deportes and Roger de Piles, the latter writing the influential Cours de peinture par principes in 1708, while in England, Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West were early exponents, paving the way for the likes of John Constable and William Turner. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the principles of the outdoor painted sketch were also beginning to be formulated into academic discipline. Its greatest propagandist was the French academician and disciple of Claude Lorrain, Joseph Vernet. Like his master, Vernet asserted that to truthfully convey nature in studio paintings one had to directly observe and record nature up close. None of Vernet’s sketches have survived and he never published, and so it was, therefore, left to his pupil Pierre-Henri de Valencienne to be, in effect, Plato to Vernet’s Socrates, publishing in 1800 a monumental polemic called Elémens de perspective practique in which he asserted the moral and aesthetic superiority of what he termed the ‘historical landscape’ painting over other genres. Valencienne, like his teacher, had first painted out of doors in the Roman countryside, and he included in his book a chapter advising students on the principles of painting en plein air in which he stated that two hours was the most time you had before the light changed drastically. However, he advised that at the beginning and end of the day a painter had no more than half an hour at best. Valencienne’s protégé Achilles Etna Michallon would later become a teacher of Corot. There is a large collection of Valencienne’s wonderful en plein air paintings hidden away on the top floor of the Musée D’Orsay.
  53. See Le déjeuner des canotiers. (1881). Philllips Collection, Washington.
  54. Oxford Mail. Date unknown.