The following discussion is note 36 to the author’s Unwilling Moderns: The Nazarene Painters of the Nineteenth Century.

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ee, for instance, Muther 1907, 1.112. Muther saw an "archaeologist"  in the neoclassical David, but also a "naturalist," whose work was enlivened by his involvement in the tumultuous events of his time and society. On the one hand, "Simplicity beneath his hands became dryness, nobility formal…painting a sort of abstact geometry for which there existed hard-and-fast forms. There was something mathematical in his effort after dry correctness and erudite accuracy. The infinite variety of life with its eternal changes was hidden from his sight."  Much of David's work on themes from classical antiquity is characterized by "a mixture of dryness and declamatory pathos; diligence without imagination;…careful arrangement without the slightest trace of that gift of the inner vision whereby the whole is brought complete and finished before the eye" (1.193). David's pupil Gros  "stands far above David and all his rivals in his power of perception…Gros remains ever fresh, because he painted under the impulse given by real events, and not under the ban of empty theories" (1.210). In David, "all is calculation; in Gros fire" (1.212). In the end, however, Gros accepted his teacher's criticism of him "for having taken the trouble to paint the battles of the Empire, 'worthless occasional pieces,' instead of venturing upon those of Alexander the Great and thus producing genuine historical works."  As a result, when he took over David's studio, "the incubus of David's antique manner" began once more to press upon him" and destroyed his original talent (1.213). On the other hand, however, when David gave "himself up entirely to the delineation of what came under his direct observation in his own life and experience…he became not only a rhetorician, a revolutionary agitator, but a really great painter." Lepelletier on his Deathbed (destroyed), Death of Marat (Musées Royaux, Brussels) and Death of Bara (Musée Calvet, Avignon) are "works of a mighty naturalist" (1.105–06). Similarly, in his portraits, David "is neither rhetorical nor cold, but full of fire and the freshness of youth….The best painters have never treated flesh better….The relief-tones of blue and light rose seem almost to anticipate the delicate, toned-down tints of modern Impressionism" (1.106, 109).

The essential thing is that technique itself was never an object of scorn in France. The academic tradition was never broken.

David, the great painter of the Revolution, who cast the pictures of Boucher out of the Louvre, and whose pupils used to shoot breadcrumbs at Watteau's masterpiece, the 'Voyage à Cythère,' yet conveyed with him into the new age, as an inheritance from rococo, its prodigious knowledge.…This art…at no time lost its touch, technically, with the acquisitions of former epochs, but evolved in its various directions from one center…Géricault, Delacroix, Courbet, and Manet, widely as they differ from one another, are links in one chain of evolution" (1.113).

[Return to Unwilling Moderns]

13 August 2016