The man who wanted to destroy the prejudice


What happened in the history of European art after Giorgione and Caravaggio is well-known. Realism was very successful in private collections, classicism was dominant in the churches and the public buildings, and baroque decoration, which was an escape from both realism and classicism, covered the vaults of the churches and the walls of the palaces. Everything was decorated with painting. A reaction followed in the form of neoclassicism, which triumphed in the second half of the eighteenth century and continued into the nineteenth century in spite of the new trends of romanticism and realism. Neoclassicists were considered the natural heirs of the Italian Renaissance and of Greek antiquity, the imitators of a past art, of a perfection which could not be attained again. Theirs was a system of rules rather than an impulse to create--a refined Academy of Artistic Sciences. During the first half of the nineteenth century the Academy had its best period; almost all the academicians were exalted as new Raphaels, while the romanticists were placed on a lower level, unworthy of the confidence of the government and of the élite. The convictions of the academicians were so widespread that even the greatest painters, those who were the forces behind the revolutions of romanticism and realism, were intimidated by the rules of the Academy and tried to compromise with it. They chose subject matter different from that preferred by neoclassicists, as for example historical scenes of the Middle Ages rather than of Greek and Roman antiquity, events of contemporary life rather than of mythology. They gave a new importance to the harmony of coloring and to the movement of figures, but the system of drawing inherited from the Renaissance did not change. The change in the conception of drawing was the innovation of Manet and the impressionists.
It is well to recall here that Manet painted his most famous painting, Olympia, in 1863. Ingres was still alive; he had been deified by Napoleon III and his court in 1855 as the greatest representative of the beautiful, and in recognition he had been appointed a senator of the Empire. When he died, in 1867, four years after Manet painted the Olympia, it was officially declared that outside the perfection which goes from Homer to Ingres all was fashion and caprice.
The man who wanted to destroy the prejudice in favor of the ideal--of perfect beauty--and who affirmed his anticlassicism with the greatest emphasis was Eugène Delacroix. "If," he wrote, "one understands by my romanticism the free manifestation of my personal impressions, my antipathy to the types invariably copied in the schools, and my repugnance toward academic recipes, I must confess that I am a romantic." In fact, Delacroix did more than anyone before him to renew the conception of form, to liberate it from the idea of Greek sculpture and of Greek beauty. However, he was too busy with his romantic subject matter, with literature and poetry, to avoid making some compromise. Above all, when he painted the female body, he respected the tradition of form.
When we consider the painting of Gustave Courbet, we become aware that he felt the necessity to free himself from the academic rules of form much less acutely than did Delacroix. Charles Baudelaire pointed out that Courbet was a powerful artisan and that, as far as the solidity of form was concerned, his painting was somewhat similar to that of Ingres. In fact, the great realist profited by the art of the past in order to show the power of his execution, and he openly admitted that his origins went back to Gros and to Géricault, that is, to a conception of form older than that of Delacroix --less spiritual, less poetic, still tied to the tradition of the Renaissance.
This was the state of painting when Edouard Manet began to work. He learned from Couture a technique which was generally academic rather than classic or romantic or realistic.
We know that Manet rebelled against the teaching of Couture, but he remained in his school for six years, and then he studied Velázquez, Goya, Raphael, and Frans Hals. He looked on himself as a rebel, but he knew neither the nature nor the aim of his rebellion. True, he was aware of the evils of historical painting, as was Courbet, and he longed for a not too finished form, like that of Delacroix. But at the same time he disliked Courbet, whom he considered vulgar, and he did not like Delacroix, for romanticism was no longer fashionable among the young dandies of 1860.

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