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Russell Keziere

Tanenbaums' Other 19th Century

Vanguard, Vol. 8 #1, February 1979.
[ 1,404 words ]

In 1889 the novelist Henry James published a continuing series of fictions in the Atlantic Monthly which were later published under the title The Tragic Muse. When compared with other works of the 19th C, this fiction does no rate highly in modern eyes. James did not have the prescience of Oscar Wilde, Huysman or Mallarmé. Perhaps this is because although he himself lived through the turn of the century, his characters did not suffer the pangs of the fin de siècle. They somehow missed an integral involvement with the banquet years; their social circle did not encompass the cultural and political investigations which were to shape the fabric of the 20th C. But James's novel was extremely popular in its day. The fact that it has been overlooked in historical anthologies is not unusual: hind-sight can afford to be selective. The contemporary mind will invariably determine what was of prime importance and relegate the unimportant to oblivion.

Another very popular thing in James's day was the annual salons and expositions in Paris, where the academies and schools of art sent forth their progeny for public scrutiny. Reputations, careers and fortunes were made and ruined during these expositions. On the opening page of The Tragic Muse James begins: 'The people of France have made it no secret that those of England, as a general thing, are to their perception an inexpressive and speechless race, perpendicular and unsociable, unaddicted to enriching any bareness of contact with verbal or other embroidery. This view might have derived encouragement, a few years ago, in Paris, from the manner in which four persons sat together in silence, one fine day about noon, in the garden, as it is called, of the Palais de l'Industrie — the central court of the great glazed bazaar where, among the plants and parterres, gravelled walks and thin fountains, are ranged the figures and groups, the monuments and busts which form in the annual exhibition of the Salon, the department of statuary. The spirit of observation is naturally high at the Salon, quickened by a thousand artful or artless appeals...'

The Salons were indeed a popular event and James does not exaggerate the number of entries. The Salon makes an appropriate setting for a best seller in James's day. But posterity is a cruel master. We have sketched our history of the late 19th C. art to culminate in French Impressionism, somewhat hinted at by some of Turner's landscapes, the English tradition of symbolism within the Pre-Raphaelites and Puvis de Chavannes. This culmination has been seen as the final maturation of the early romantic sentiments of the beginning of the century. At least, that is what it represented to contemporary historians. This spirit was a conveniently appropriate reassessment of the neoclassical values of the 18th C. As far as the textbooks have been concerned, this is all very neat and an adequate perception of the way in which art evolved. But in point of fact, the 19th C. entertained artists whose breadth of popularity was warranted and whose exclusion from 20th C. annals represents a major oversight.

In recent years collectors have turned to those 19th C. works which had traditionally been ignored and avoided because of their seeming lack of innovation; i.e., references toward French Impressionism. One of the foremost collections of this work is that of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Tanenbaum, which has recently been tied together into a travelling exhibition by the National Gallery of Canada. This collection and exhibition represents a highly substantial body of 19th C. painting and sculpture, mostly emanating from the French Academies, highly popular in their day, and almost entirely forgotten now. It was recently on display at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria together with appropriate floral decor; the Gallery had included potted ferns, rather like those at the Empress Hotel, to help evoke a 19th C. atmosphere. Fortunately, the art did that quite well enough by itself.

The title chosen for the exhibition is indicative of recent trends towards a reassessment of art history in the 19th C., it is called The Other Nineteenth Century. The opinion of the Tanenbaums and the National Gallery is that there was indeed 'another nineteenth century.' As the catalogue to this exhibition (available in a huge gift edition for $29.95) makes apparent, the time is right for a re-reading. 'Profoundly infatuated with originality and the spirit of artistic invention, the 20th C. has written the history of 19th C. art from the viewpoint of its own prejudices; it is the linear history of an inevitable succession of victories for unconventional artists... Now that we know the Impressionists by heart we must look at the rest.' The rest; i.e., the conventional artists, are strongly represented in this exhibition. It includes works by Gerome, Bouguereau, Ribot, Meissonier, Alma-Tadema, Boldini and Leighton and many others. But one must question whether the motivation behind this exhibition is to in fact rectify the wrongs of a rashly written history. One might, albeit cynically, rewrite the final imperative of the above quote as follows: 'Now that we have bought all the Impressionists and they are all either out of reach financially or safely ensconced in public museums, we must collect what is left over.' Or perhaps: 'Now that we have written the books on the Impressionists and all the theses have been completed, we must create new ones.' It would not have been the first time that the historians, 'infatuated with originality and the spirit of artistic invention,' have jeopardized objectivity or overreacted to earlier overreactions. Neither would it be the first time that the art market determined the nature of major collections and influenced the validating mechanisms of the art historians and critics.

The point is that there were and are good reasons why some of this work was relegated to oblivion and that in correcting some of the incorrect emphasis of earlier histories which may have influenced our interpretations of 19th C. art, we must not err in the opposite direction.

The truth of the matter lies, as it generally does, somewhere, more or less happily, in the middle. The Tanenbaum's collecting preferences and the curatorial input of the National Gallery have brought to light the undeniable fact that there were experiments with light, colour, content and form which foreshadowed those works which have since predominated. Perhaps even the term 'foreshadowing' is a misnomer; a more accurate assessment might be that the Impressionists were not so spontaneously generated as all that.

The studies of James Tissot, for example, have rudimentary sketches in the background which show an understanding of the basic operations of light which Monet himself might have acknowledged. In Girl in an Interior the foliage behind the french doors is of an interestingly complex level. When executed in the final stages the works retain strong aspects of the period. The Woman of Fashion and Without Dowry present an image of a woman of the day, similar in spirit to the actress Miss Miriam Rooth in The Tragic Muse, the young penniless actress who went on to fortune and fame in the theatres of London and Paris.

Similarly, the works of Frederick Lord Leighton, such as Nausicaa or Hercules Wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis are heavily involved with the symbolist tradition and transcend a superficial concern for historic themes. While a staid and conservative perspective dominates the majority of these works, inklings of a more circumspect and intuitive political awareness are apparent. Some of the works excel under any criteria, such as Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux's naughty young woman entitled Spirit of the Dance.

The pangs of the fin de siècle are not predominant in The Other Nineteenth Century. Rossetti's pained and angst-ridden women are absent; the flight into the truths of abstracted light are, for the most part, avoided. But the importance of this alternative vision is nevertheless strongly represented. If The Other Nineteenth Century does not rewrite history completely, it will certainly highlight some important omissions. At the same time it inadvertently substantiates some of the claims of the 20th C. perspective of preferring the more innovative — history is not always wrong.


Vanguard, Vol. 8 #1, February 1979.

Text: © Russell Keziere. All rights reserved.

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