Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siecle France: Politics, Psychology, and Style

Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siecle France: Politics, Psychology, and Style

by Debora L. Silverman



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Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siecle France: Politics, Psychology, and Style by Debora L. Silverman

Explores the shift in the locus of modernity in fin-de-siecle France from technological monument to private interior. The text examines the political, economic, social, intellectual and artistic factors specific to the French fin-de-siecle that interacted in the development of art nouveau.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520063228
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/24/1989
Series: Studies on the History of Society and Culture Series , #7
Pages: 450
Product dimensions: 6.75(w) x 10.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Debora L. Silverman is Professor & University of California Presidential Chair in Modern European History, Art and Culture at UCLA

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Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siecle France

Politics, Psychology, and Style
By Debora Silverman

University of California Press

Copyright © 1989 Debora Silverman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-06322-8

Chapter One

The Brothers de Goncourt between History and the Psyche A generation before the Eiffel Tower arrived on the Paris skyline as a powerful symbol of public, collective existence, urban invasiveness had been experienced and overcome in an elaborately crafted retreat to the interior. The architects of this retreat were the brothers de Goncourt; its component parts were aristocratic: the rococo arts of the eighteenth century. Although the political, social, and psychological conditions initiating the Goncourts' retreat to the interior differed from those of the fin-de-siècle modernists, the results of their work played a direct and formative role in the development of a modern style as interior nature style in the 1890s.

Edmond de Huot de Goncourt (Fig. 4), born in 1822, and his brother Jules, born in 1830, were half-aristocratic, half-bourgeois. Their father was an army officer who died in 1834, their mother a descendant of Old Regime nobility whose own father had been guillotined in 1793. A modest inheritance allowed the brothers to devote their energies to art; they decided first to become painters and later settled on a collaborative career as writers and art critics.

The brothers were deeply attached to an idealized image of the social hierarchy and cultural grace of Old Regime France, whose culmination they assigned to the epoch of Louis XV (1715-1774). Resentful and bitter children of the nineteenth century, the Goncourts considered themselves born too late to enjoy the effervescent leisure and languorous sensuality that noble elites had enjoyed during the era of the fêtes galantes.

Edmond and Jules reached adulthood in the wake of the bloody fratricidal violence of 1848 and the coup d'état of Louis-Napoléon. They assimilated the new realities of the Second Empire to the pre-1848 ideology that equated laboring classes with dangerous classes. The Goncourts' contempt for and terror of the masses were unrelenting; they defined the lower classes as the "dissolute canaille" and as the destructive and barbarian mob. Their abhorrence of the lower orders was matched only by their vindictive indictment of the philistine bourgeois, whose corrupt materialism and corrosive individualism instilled greed and envy in the people and eliminated the refinements of hierarchical culture. To them the French Revolution was the first enemy, nineteenth-century democratic individualism the second. For them the taste, politesse, and cultivation of the Old Regime nobility had been replaced during the Second Empire by the bourgeoisie's crude leveling pursuit of Mammon. Fated to live in a world without legal aristocracy and gracious sociability, the brothers de Goncourt translated their anger and resentment toward the nineteenth century into the creation of an alternative world of eighteenth-century arts. There they found compensatory association with the dead generations of the Old Regime. Scorning the lower classes as vile animals and the bourgeois as vulgar philistines, they dedicated their lives to reconstituting the aristocratic art, manners, customs, and objects of the era of Louis XV.

The cultural treasures of the mid-eighteenth century had attracted a series of nineteenth-century enthusiasts, both official and avant-garde. Like the successive waves of Japonism, the rococo revival served different purposes for its various proponents. The first official champion of the era of the fêtes galantes was Louis XVIII, who believed that with the restoration of the monarchy, the cultural vestiges of Napoleonic rule had to be obliterated; the resuscitated extravagances of the mid-eighteenth-century nobility replaced Egyptian enigma and the sober linearity of the First Empire style. Disaffected literati during the Restoration were also entranced by the rococo, for reasons that differed from those of their counterparts at court. Gérard de Nerval celebrated eighteenth-century dalliance as part of his cult of art for art's sake. During the bourgeois monarchy of Louis Philippe, the literary devotees of the rites galantes included Théophile Gautier and Arsène Houssaye. Gautier expressed his rococo passions by glorifying woman as a natural artificer and by celebrating fashion as art. The playful sensuality of the first style moderne fueled Gautier's affirmation of modernity, of the enthralling spectacle of contemporaneity. Arsène Houssaye, a less marginal man of letters than the romantic bohemian Gautier, began in the 1840s a lifelong apotheosis of the "etiquette," "passion," and "elegance" of the "century dominated by Woman." Houssaye's own writings consciously emulated the preciosity and punning of the rococo saloniers.

The Second Empire witnessed rococo revivals in both official and avant-garde circles. Empress Eugénie's infatuation with the eighteenth century resulted in the court craze for the fêtes galantes and led her to appear at masked balls as Marie Antoinette or Madame de Pompadour. Moreover, because of her enthusiasms, eighteenth-century furniture was brought to the imperial dwellings at Saint-Cloud, Malmaison, and the newly erected Tuileries Palace. The Garde-Meuble National, originally the Garde-Meuble Royal, built by Louis XV, provided her with a storehouse of royal furniture. Louis-Napoléon's support for the industrial arts during the 1860s contributed to the reemergence of eighteenth-century forms of craft embellishment. Yet this official endorsement of rococo styles yielded inconsistent pastiches and gaudy composites; eighteenth-century rockwork and vines commingled, in effusive ostentation, with quintessentially Second Empire inventions. Aesthetes, collectors, and art dealers of the 1860s countered the bastardized rococo revival favored by the emperor with accurate artistic restoration, especially in painting. By 1870 the wealthy collectors Doctor La Caze and Walferdin donated their holdings of Fragonard, Watteau, Nattier, Boucher, Van Loo, and Lancret to the Louvre, establishing the first galleries devoted to the "lesser masters" of the fêtes galantes. Simultaneously, the art dealer Martinet organized a large exhibition of these same eighteenth-century painters, stimulating the enthusiasm of Manet, Duret, Baudelaire, and Arsène Houssaye.

The Goncourts were unique, during the Second Empire, in pursuing a historical and cultural reconstitution of the eighteenth century and in documenting the integration of all the rococo arts. Their interests ranged beyond painting to the fashion, applied arts, and interior design christened by the refined elites of the epoch of Louis XV.

After writing a series of scholarly books on the art of the fêtes galantes of the mid-eighteenth century, the brothers began to collect the objets d'art and drawings themselves. Their consuming fever of identification with the elite of the Old Regime compelled them to assemble relics of the nobility's daily life: fashion manuals, address cards, signs, invitations to masked balls, memoirs of the mistresses of Louis XV, furniture, fire screens, jewelry, picture frames, porcelain bowls, vases, boxes of all shapes and sizes, tapestries, candelabra, and many etchings, engravings, and pastels. Complementing these French rococo objects were the Japanese products that eighteenth-century French elites had sought out enthusiastically: lacquer screens, ebony and onyx small furnishings, ivory carved boxes and miniatures, and painted porcelains. The Goncourts' identification with the dead aristocratic generations culminated in 1869 when they installed their vast collection in a spacious mansion in Auteuil, on the outskirts of Paris, arranging the objects to create an authentic ensemble of eighteenth-century interiors. At once the place of work and rest for the brothers, the house was conceived as a sealed fortress where the Goncourts could live completely surrounded by vestiges of a lost aristocratic culture.

The impetus to create this home as aristocratic fortress was the new invasive metropolis. The house in Auteuil was a response to the experience of menacing Haussmannization, which Edmond described in 1860:

My Paris, the Paris where I grew up is disappearing. Social life is undergoing a vast evolution. I see women, children, households, and families in the cafés. The interior is dying. Life threatens to become public... I am a stranger to what is coming, to what is there, like these new boulevards, lacking in all curves, implacable axes of the straight line. It makes me think of some American Babylon of the future. To struggle against this menace of invasive public life, the Goncourts enclosed themselves in a world of private interiors. To counter the oppressive boulevard, "lacking in all curves, implacable axes of the straight line," the Goncourts celebrated in their aristocratic retreat the epitome of an art that defied regularity and uniformity. In their house, every object was unique, glorifying nature's undulating, curvaceous, and irregular rhythms. Every raw material, from gold to bronze to iron and ceramic, was stamped by the hand of a distinctive artisan. Edmond described his objets d'art as examples of the "tour de force" and "tour de main" of each individual creator; even bronze and metal assumed the "supple," "pliant," and "molded character of melted wax." In their house, claimed Edmond, "all harsh and rebellious matter was subordinated to the supple caress of the artisan." The Goncourts' house was recorded in photographs that Edmond commissioned. Detailed descriptions of every object in the house and the arrangement of objects in suites of interiors are contained in his two-volume work La Maison d'un artiste, first published in 1881.

Figure 5 documents the outside of the house, whose facade proudly proclaimed the tone of the interior. Incised in the iron balcony over the entrance was a medallion with a portrait of Louis XV, "signaling the richest and most complete container of the eighteenth century that exists in Paris." Figures 6 and 7 present two views of the grand salon. Figure 6 shows an elegant canapé, "sofa," "elongated to hold the hooped skirts fashionable at the time," according to Edmond. It was embroidered with scenes from a fable by La Fontaine, interpreted by the rococo artist Oudry. On the walls hung framed drawings and engravings (Gravelot's L'Entretien Galant is at the lower right). At the far right corner stands a lacquer corner table, called an encoignure, on which rests a Sèvres porcelain vase; Edmond imagined Madame de Pompadour touching the vase before adjusting her skirts to seat herself on the sofa. Figure 7 shows two Oudry chairs, matching the sofa with their embroidered fables; the frames for the Boucher and Fragonard drawings are of gilded wood, shaped at the top into a fanning scroll or shell. The same form graced the backs of the Oudry chairs and sofa.

A final photograph and description captured the tone of the Goncourts' interiors. On the bedroom walls (Fig. 8) are cascading floral garlands and cameos of lovers romping in pastoral settings. The canopy over the bed, visible in the mirror at the left, had a crown sculpted of wood and adorned with a gilded floral wreath. This bed, Edmond explained, had originally been part of the chateau at Rambouillet, a prime example of rococo decoration. The bed had been made for and used by the chatelaine, the princesse de Lamballe. Lying in bed, with Boucher's scenes of amorous country romps on the walls, Edmond could "open his eyes not on the era I abhor but on the era that is the object of my studies and the love of my life." "My bedroom," he continued, "is an authentic room of a chateau, where I become a sleeping beauty from the era of Louis XV." From this citadel of aristocratic reaction came the theoretical and visual bases for the style moderne of the 1890s. The Goncourts' house, collection, and writings reconstituted systematically for the first time the splendor of mid-eighteenth-century craft arts. Through their scholarship and their model home, the Goncourts offered primers of rococo design principles to the nineteenth century.

With their knowledge of the technical skills that had allowed eighteenth-century artisans to infuse the objects of daily aristocratic life with beauty and sensuality, the Goncourts launched a critique of the ugliness and bad taste of contemporary industrial society. They operated in France as John Ruskin did in England, using an aesthetic measure from the past to judge the deformations of the industrial and commercial present. Ruskin's vision was medieval and social, the Goncourts' rococo and elite. Ruskin's main targets were the industrial revolution and the division of labor; the Goncourts' were the French Revolution and the leveling of taste. The power of the Goncourts' critique and their impact on the producers and promoters of art nouveau in France were as decisive as Ruskin's effect on the generation of William Morris in England.

The Goncourts' recovery of eighteenth-century arts clarified three precedents that would shape the assumptions of fin-de-siècle craft reformers. The first was the unity of the arts as an aristocratic patrimony. Until the end of the eighteenth century, the word art signified technical skill, the capacity for masterful execution, not visionary talent or the capacity for originality. This tradition flourished under a noble elite. Beginning with the establishment of the privileged métiers by King Henri IV at the Gobelins, the arts somptuaires, subsidized by Louis XIV, continued as an appendage of autocratic power. But the reign of the Regency and Louis XV from 1715 to 1774 witnessed a golden age when all the arts were unified, for the expansion and displacement of the aristocratic elite in these years gave an unparalleled stimulus to artisans. Liberated from the restrictive court life at Versailles after the death of Louis XIV, the nobles transplanted themselves to Paris. There they avidly consumed the elegant accoutrements provided by all the craft guilds. The court of Louis XV encouraged an increase in the number of artisans and in the refinement of their work. In the Royal Academy of Painting, for example, the preference of Louis XIV for large-scale history paintings gave way to one for diminutive decorative panels of nature. Watteau began a fashion for an antihistorical and non-narrative painting of the fêtes galantes, which triumphed in the Academy under Boucher and Fragonard. These artists were all artisans, the producers of street signs, drawings of all types, and decorative wall panels. Their work, with its naturist subjects and serpentine forms, was often commissioned for installation in interior spaces. Boucher and Falconer, a favored sculptor of the period, were also the directors of the Royal Porcelain Manufacture at Sèvres, founded by Madame de Pompadour in 1756. There these artists transferred to porcelain and terra-cotta the same forms and themes they executed in their paintings and sculptures.


Excerpted from Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siecle France by Debora Silverman Copyright © 1989 by Debora Silverman. Excerpted by permission.
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