The Presence of the Past in French Art, 1870-1905

French art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has been widely and richly studied. But modernism has put the emphasis on progressive momentum, with one avant-garde leading to the next, a sequence counter-balanced by the opposition of tired academicism. This pattern inadequately acknowledges the significance of art of the past at this period, during which it can be seen to serve many purposes, among them repository of political values, spur to cultural associations, and indeed stimulus to stylistic innovation.

In this blog, author Richard Thomson opens up new paths to a deeper understanding of the fascinating interplay between the mentalities of the early Third Republic and the visual arts. Read more about the artists and their works explored here in his new book – The Presence of the Past in French Art, 1870-1905.

From the Classical World to Modern French Art

The book focusses on three stylistic currents from the past, all drawn from outside France: the classical legacy of ancient Greece and Rome, the Rubensian, and the possibilities to be drawn from the Italian quattrocento. Contemporaries understood these in different ways. The lycée-educated élite was steeped in the culture of the classical world; after all, the French Mediterranean coast had been settled by peripatetic Greeks and Gaul had been ruled by the Romans for centuries. Senior Republican leaders were even classical scholars, and parallels between modern France and the classical world were frequently drawn in political rhetoric, everyday journalism and public life. The statue of Liberty, donated by France to her fellow republic the United States, embodied classical style and values. When the modern Olympic Games was launched by Pierre de Coubertin at the Sorbonne in 1894, music by Gabriel Fauré was performed based on a hymn to Apollo recently excavated at Delphi.

Yet it was not just the establishment which drew such parallels. Paul Gauguin used photographs of the Parthenon Frieze for Tahitian compositions, and Georges Seurat’s stylistically adventurous Chahut combined Neo-impressionist chromatics and surface with the repetitive and caricatural stylisations of ancient Greek black-figure vases. By the late 1890s Paul Signac, having studied Turner’s work in London and appreciated its inheritance from Claude Lorraine, was painting port scenes which echoed that continuity of ordered composition. During the early years of the twentieth century some artists were stirred by the rhetoric, often phrased with classical allusions, of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy; Henri-Edmond Cross and Ker-Xavier Roussel relished the subversive Dionysian energies which corresponded with their anarchist ideology.

Rubens and Politics

By contrast with classicism’s typical order and clarity, the example of Rubens stood for dynamism and sensuality. But this example could be adopted by very different political persuasions. In the early 1870s the neo-royalist government of ‘Moral Order’ commissioned ceiling paintings for the palais de Luxembourg, 250 years after Rubens had been commissioned to decorate the place for the Bourbon monarchy. If that project (never completed) planned to enlist the seventeenth-century master for reactionary politics, then by contrast Jules Dalou’s massive sculpture the Triumph of the Republic, finally installed in the place de la Nation in 1899, adapted Rubensian energy and allegory to the public endorsement of the republican values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Rubens also stimulated artists outside politics. Paul Cezanne, for one, was drawn to his work, and a painting such as L’Éternel Féminin seems a response to the composition and allegory of one of Rubens’s Médicis Cycle works.

Quattrocento Style

Looking at the quattrocento drew artists away from the established perfections of the High Renaissance, offering examples such as Andrea Mantegna and Sandro Botticelli, whose work combined authority and elegance with a certain imperfection or gaucherie. In the 1870s Gustave Moreau’s Hercules and the Hydra of Lerna set its mythological subject in a rocky setting reminiscent of Mantegna, as a confrontation of heroic values against destructive evil, a comment by the conservative artist on the recent upheavals of the Paris Commune. Like ancient Athens or Rome, early Renaissance Florence had been a republic, which created a resonance for contemporary France. Thus, the profile head of Marianne, female embodiment of the Republic, modelled by the medallist Oscar Roty and used on many official mintings, was derived from a drawing of a condottieri by Leonardo da Vinci.

Yet, once again, past style could be pulled in divergent ideological directions, with Joséphin Péladan’s reactionary Roman Catholic Ordre de la Rose + Croix also favouring quattrocento-derived imagery. Just as an élite education made associations with the classical past a familiar language, particularly for the upper echelons of French society, so quattrocento style was appropriated by the Parisian chic in the 1890s, with headbands typical of Florentine portraiture widely adopted by stylish women.

The Presence of the Past in French Art deals with a wide range of material, from monumental sculpture to the classically influenced dance of Loïe Fuller and Isadora Duncan, an early film still and caricatures from the illustrated press, quattrocento-derived portrait sculpture and decorations for the Sorbonne, table-top figurines and the Villa Kérylos, built on the Côte d’Azur between 1902-8. Bringing in new material on avant-garde artists such as Edgar Degas, Louis Anquetin and Maurice Denis, it also engages with Luc-Olivier Merson, Alfred Roll and Armand Point, celebrities of their time. Above all, The Presence of the Past sets out to show that at this period in France, modernity and continuity could co-exist in fertile, unexpected, challenging and sometimes humorous dialogue.

Richard Thomson is research professor in the History of Art at the University of Edinburgh.

The Presence of the Past in French Art, 1870–1905 introduces a vivid new reading of French art and society at a crucial period of history. Find it online or ask for it at your favourite local bookshop.

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