We Are All Responsible[i]

Let me clarify before I begin – this is not a book review.   Like my husband, Jim Booth, I prepared a reading list for 2013 but unlike him (professor of English and Writing and novelist) I have not been reviewing the books on my list.  This is no exception.   These are simply my thoughts about and reactions to the latest book on my list.

That book is The Judgment of Paris The Revolutionary Decade That Gave The World Impressionism by Ross King.  Throughout my reading of it I considered  how little things have changed in the last 150 years.  The book presents the rise of Impressionism within political, societal, and historical contexts.   In doing so it also compares artists and movements that were competing for an audience.   For French artists the Paris Salon, or the ‘Exhibition of Living Artists”, shows were the premiere events to showcase their work and to establish their reputations.

The decision as to who would have their work displayed was based on regulations written and published by the Ministry of the Imperial House and Fine Arts a section of the Ministry of State under Napoleon III.  Where kings and bishops had made the decisions prior to the French Revolution, politicians now took charge (any idea how this will turn out?).  In 1857 the make-up of the selection committee was altered from elected artists to only the members of the Academie des Beaux-Arts effectively preventing any new artists, or styles, from being given a place in the exhibit which occurred every two years.  In 1863 further changes limited not only who could be on the committee but the number of paintings an artist could submit.  Artists that were rejected in the Salon exhibits received a form letter from the Ministry stating that they had not been selected and their work was returned with an ‘R’ in red stamped on the back.[1]

Fast-forward to ‘Calls for Artists’ in the 21st Century.  How many potential exhibits allow an artist to submit as many works as they want for consideration?  Almost every exhibit or juried show comes with its set of guidelines often limiting the number of entries to two or three per artist.  In that way the same rules continue to guide the selection of works in today’s non-solo artist exhibits.  Very little is known by the submitting artist about the make-up of ‘selection committees’ and rejections rarely provide clear, concise reasons for exclusion.

The difference between then and now is that those artists knew that they were being excluded due to prejudices of “…the self-perpetuating elite of forty ‘immortals’ whose duty it was to guide and protect French Art”.[2]  The 1863 regulation changes led to the excluded artists demanding that their work be shown and, as a result, Napoleon III announced a separate exhibit would be held for the artists whose works had been refused (Salon Des Refuses).    Was it out of the goodness of his heart that Louis-Napoleon agreed with his advisors to establish this showing?   The author mentions impending assembly elections and cites Louis-Napoleon as having claimed at one time that “‘One of the first duties of a sovereign…is to amuse his subjects of all ranks in the social scale.'”   The author himself states, “If his subjects could be entertained, he [Napoleon] reasoned, then perhaps they would fail to notice or to care about the fact that most of their liberties had vanished.”[3]

When I read this, I had a flash back to another book I read earlier this year Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman.  Again, it seems little has changed.  We are so wrapped up in ‘Reality’ TV, Sports Mania, Soap Operas, and, now, ‘Social’ media that we lack the time to contemplate issues affecting our community, our country, and even our planet.  I’ve paused several times already trying to decide whether I want to spend the time to write this piece.   I could be doing something much more mind-numbing.  But as powerful as that draw might be the desire to write this is more compelling.    In the decade covered in this book, one of the public’s amusement was based on what they considered good art.

Initial complaints resulted from, public and juror alike, the movement from Romanticism to Realism in paintings.  Up to this point the majority of paintings were related to historical events, mythology or religion.  However, the realists began to paint scenes of real-life people and events.   Why was this so unsettling for people?  The most popular form of painting had been based on nostalgia.    That is true of today as well since, at least in the area in which I live, the most successful painters over the past thirty years have been those whose subjects have evoked feelings and memories of ‘simpler times’.    The subjects of log cabins, old barns, pristine pastures and streams, often rendered in meticulously photo-realistic detail, have been the staple of the careers of the founders of the “Blue Ridge Realists. ”

I’ve experienced this preference, even bias, towards nostalgia in my own work.  The painting I have done that receives the most compliments is a ‘realistic’ nostalgia painting.  The painting was done for an aunt of mine that allowed me to be caretaker of many things that had been her mother’s.  I was deeply moved by the trust she had shown in me somewhat colored by another family member-by-marriage repeatedly maintaining that certain things needed to be ‘kept in [their] family’.  So I created a still life of these things as a tribute to my grandmother and as a heartfelt thank-you to my aunt and titled it “Granny’s Gifts.”   It accomplishes the goal and as a piece revering nostalgia was even included in a show this year titled “Nostalgia.”

The public reaction to Impressionists’  paintings depicting real life scenes was disdain.  The 1867 Salon was held in conjunction with the Universal Exhibition – essentially the equivalent or precursor to today’s World’s Fairs – but Manet opted to not send work for review, and likely refusal, by the Salon jurors.  instead Manet created his own one-man exhibit.   He had fewer viewers than hoped and ‘most of the spectators apparently came to laugh…”[4]

We have all had to deal with criticism, or perhaps worse, indifference to our work.  Every artist reacts differently to such criticism; the early Impressionists were no exception.  The public was not just derisive of the commonplace subject matter but of people being in depicted in modern day French attire.  For Manet’s Le Bain (later renamed Le déjeuner sur l’herbe) the complaints were in some ways more about clothing than the fact that the female in the painting was nude.[5]  At the time female flesh was forbidden in public but popular paintings depicted mythological characters cavorting in the nude.  How was such criticism and rejection received by those artists?

When  Jules Holtzapffel ‘s work was refused in 1866 by the Salon, when his work had been accepted in prior years, he shot himself in his studio leaving behind a note that stated, ‘”The member of the jury have rejected me, therefore I have no talent….I must die.”‘  Thus the jury of 1866 came to be known as the Jury of Assassins.[6]  Most artists did not react so violently to rejection and criticism.

Monet had been accepted into the 1865 and 1866 Salons, receiving ‘exuberant praise’ [7], but was rejected by the Salon Jury in 1867.  One of the jurors, Jules Breton, publicly stated he had voted against Monet because of his success saying, “‘ Too many young people think only of pursuing this abominable direction [lack of attention to detail and finish]….It is high time to save them and to save art.'”  [8]  Monet reacted by obtaining permission to set up his easel on one of the Louvre’s balconies and created Garden of the Princess.   After the rejection of the following year Monet retreated, with his wife and child, to Saint-Michel, where he painted en plein air, often with Renior.

Manet, on the other hand, was often belligerent and complaining, when his work was criticized or refused.  One must only read the chastising letter from one of his main proponents, Baudelaire, to see how distraught he could be upon rejection – “‘Do you think you are the first man put in this predicament?…Are you a greater genius than Chateaubriand or Wagner?  And did not people make fun of them?  They did not die of it.'”[9]  But to Manet’s defense how many artists would relish being branded ‘The Apostle of Ugliness’?  While Manet complained to those close to him, Paul Cezanne, was not beyond directing his vindictive to those in charge of the regulations.  In a response to one of his many rejections by the Salon Cezanne wrote letters to Nieuwerkerke the second – in reply to non-response by Nieuwerkerke – Cezanne stated, “‘ I ardently wish the public to know at least that I do not wish to be confused with the gentlemen of the jury…any more than they seem to wish to be confused with me.'” [10]

In another example of artists’ reactions Gustave Courbet ,who had been exiled from Paris in 1863, reacted by moving to Trouville and reinventing himself as a portrait painter to the idle rich.  “‘ I am gaining matchless reputation as a portrait painter…I have doubled my reputation and have made the acquaintance of everyone who can be useful.'” [11]

Many of the artists and even those running the Salon recognized that what had been once an exhibit of great art had become, “in the eyes of many of its critics, little more than a marketplace for which commodities – such as easel painting for the walls of the middle-class apartments – were manufactured by the thousand.  Chennevières reservations about this commercialization were expressed by Ingres, another arch-conservative, who fulminated against this ‘bazaar’ in which business ruled instead of art:  ‘Artists are driven to exhibit there, ‘ he wrote, ‘ by the attraction of profit, the desire to get themselves noticed at any price, by the supposed good fortune of an eccentric subject capable of producing and effect and leading to an advantageous sale.'”[12]

Marketing is not so new to the art world.  A societal hypocrisy of the Salon of 1865 meant that while art was allowed to show the human body ‘sans vêtements’ the advent of camera use was creating police raids of pornographic photographs. [13]  So in addition to marketing and commerce technological advances affected art long before our current dialogue about digital photography as art began.  While I’ve always embraced technology where it improves lives or makes jobs easier and/or more rewarding I’m still on the fence about the use of digitally manipulated photographs as art.  This is another idea the book is making me reconsider (acknowledgement –  I have created several images using digital manipulation recently).

Advances in chemistry of the “Industrial Revolution meant nineteenth-century painters possessed a much wider range of pigments than artist of earlier centuries”.  Was this technology embraced by painters of that era?  On the whole most stuck with the teaching at the École des Beaux-Arts’ prejudice against color to the point of “coating [their paintings] with transparent brownish glazes”.   But Monet utilized those new pigments readily.  Two colors he added to his palette were chromium oxide green and cobalt violet.  “Monet blended [cobalt violet] with Prussian blue to create the shimmering water in the foreground [of La Grenouillere].”[14]  In fact Monet is quoted as declaring, “‘ I have finally discovered the color of the atmosphere. … It is violet.'”

So while things move forward in art, music, and literature much stays stable with each generation embracing their prejudices and preferences.  On completing this book, which I would recommend any artist read, I’m left wondering what will become of painting in the advent of ‘easy’ digital photography.   What will happen to art photography when everyone can produce and manipulate photos with their smart phones.  But in addition there is the sobering realization that artists recognized in their lifetimes are often not those that posterity admires.

The main juxtaposition of Manet’s work in the book is with that of Meissonier whose works shown at the 1867 Salon resulted in the widespread conclusion that he was “Frances – and indeed the world’s greatest living artist”.[15]  However, as the author notes in his Epilogue, “‘More than a century after their deaths, Manet ‘endures in glory, flooded with light and fame’ while Meissonier gathers dust in museum storerooms.”

It is good to be reminded that many exceptional artists were poor but dedicated in their lifetimes even though recognition and prosperity eluded them.  Even Baudelaire‘s work at his death was either out of print or yet to be printed.  It took thirty-five years for an appropriate monument to be created to commemorate his work on his tomb rather than just the initial ‘three terse lines inscribed [below his father’s] that “simply recorded that [Baudelaire] had died in Paris at the age of forty-six.  No mention was made of his career as a poet.”[16]

[1] “‘What terrible events,” [Manet on returning to Paris after the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune] wrote….’Will we ever recover from them?  Everyone blames his neighbor, but the fact is that we’re all responsible for what has happened.'” – King, Ross.  The Judgment of Paris The Revolutionary Decade That Gave The World Impressionism.  New York, Walker and Company, 2006. 312. Print.

[1] King, Ross.  The Judgment of Paris The Revolutionary Decade That Gave The World Impressionism.  New York, Walker and Company, 2006. 60. Print.

[2] King – 32, [3] King – 69, [4] King – 201, [5] King – 89, [6] King – 171, [7] King – 150, [8] King – 196, [9] King – 151, [10] King -176, [11] King -179 – 180, [12] King – 74-75, [13] King – 153 – 154, [14] King – 268, [15] King – 202-204, [16] King – 212,


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