Category Archives: 19th Century


L’histoire est une résurrection.
–Jules Michelet

Immediately after news of the execution of Emperor Maximillian I of Mexico reached Paris on 1 July 1867, Édouard Manet began work on monumental painting depicting the event. The planned work would appropriate the scale and gravitas of history painting for the representation of a barely historical,  politically dangerous event.

Initially, the painting’s political credibility was thought to depend on its observed veracity–the painter of modern life, Baudelaire’s man in the crowd, must be present as history unfolds. That wasn’t possible in this case, but Manet was able to obtain details of dress, setting, and figure position from the few published accounts and photographs of the execution that had evaded Napoléon III’s censorship of the press following the incident. Over the following 18 months, revisions, corrections, and additions to those accounts caused Manet to abandon two  large-scale versions of the Execution of Maximilian, which misrepresented either the place, time of day or order of events, before he arrived at the final version. For that version, instead of doggedly attempting to create an illusion of empiricism, he focused on the ability of his chosen medium to capture and frame history. He did so by setting the representation of a political execution in broader art historical context by conspicuously alluding to Goya’s Third of May 1808, which he had seen for the first time on a recent trip to Spain.

The wisdom of Manet’s decision to forego full, descriptive accuracy in order tell a deeper truth about the execution’s political and historical significance becomes clear when his final version is compared to The Last Moments of Maximilian (1882), by academician Jean-Paul Laurens. Fifteen years after Maximilan’s death and 11 years after the end of the Second Empire, Laurens had access to the full historical record, which he scrupulously recreates in every detail of costume, setting, gesture, and position. Laurens’ slavish accuracy overwhelms the viewer with superficiality, as if to divert attention from the utterly banal interpretation of the event, which idealizes and flatters the emperor and demonizes the executioners. Despite his ostentatious fidelity to the record, Laurens omits the most, if not the only, significant fact of that record, the execution itself, sparing us the sight of violence in favor of sentimental “last moments,” while Manet shows us the precise and horrible moment when incident passes into history.

Turning back to Manet, aspects of the Execution of Maximilian that initially appeared to be faults–cramped composition, overly-close point of view, awkward occlusions and so on–now seem like virtues, as the cursory brushwork and laconic approach to detail underscore the empty prolixity and meretricious nature of Laurens’ handling of history and paint.

Due the politically-charged content, none of Manet’s versions of the Execution of Maximilian were exhibited in France in his lifetime.



Rodin dominates the little that is said anymore about 19th-century French sculpture, but behind the Gates of Hell lurk other sculptors, some as successful and more admired in their time, and who participated in the creation of the major public monuments of Paris.

After seeing the young Antoine Étex’s figure of the Death of Hyacinthe at the Salon of 1833, Adolphe Theirs, at the time the minister of public works, chose Étex to sculpt two of the monumental high-relief groups for the façades of the Arc de Triomphe, the colossal victory arch left unfinished by Napoléon, upon which work had resumed after a 20 year hiatus.

A student of Joseph Pradier, Étex learned his trade during the late, sentimental phase of Neo-classicism. He was not a prodigy and failed to win the Rome Prize. His early reputation was based on his facility for carving single figures and small groups in marble, often arranged in languid to limp poses and composed of soft curves. The scepter held by Blanche de Castile serves as an index of the degree to which the curves of the figure and drapery deviate from a straight line.

Étex’s soft, flowing style was well-suited to the lugubrious and tragic subjects in vogue at the time, like the Hyacinthe, its pendant, the Damalis, and the leaden (in both senses) Cain and His Cursed Race. His memorial and funerary monuments are equally fluid and flaccid. The recumbent bronze tomb effigy of Géricault appears to have been poured on to the sarcophagus and pooled there, while the melodramatic, nevertheless impressive, veiled mourner of the Raspail tomb flows from the grate above like a glacier.

The Arc de Triomphe, however, called for semi-allegorical, political subject matter, narrated in multi-figure scenes of gigantic proportions, assembling figures from pre-carved pieces and working with limestone which, unlike marble, was not suited to fine details and surface effects. Apart from adapting to these material constraints, Étex was obliged to harmonize his work with the two completed façades, one of which was the highly-praised Départ de 1792 by François Rude. To put it simply, the commission drew on none of Étex’s strengths and required him to change his entire approach to sculpture.

To his credit, he succeeded in doing so. The resultant summary, planar, and angular style manipulated light and shadow to improve legibility from a distance and from the ground. He wisely did not attempt to match the histrionics of Rude, favoring a more stalwart mood. An army of assistants were entrusted with the carving the simplified forms from a forgiving stone that required no finishing by the master. Building the group from multiple blocks allowed for the simultaneous carving of multiple parts, which accelerated the project’s pace.

The Arc de Triomphe was as high profile a commission as one could imagine and the style of its sculptural reliefs was widely disseminated through prints and photographs, and Étex’s effective and economical approach to official public monuments was taken up across Europe and America and practiced through the 1930s, whereas Rodin’s influence was mainly visible inside museums.


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The Major General Francis Slater–Rebow commissioned John Constable (British, 1776-1837) to paint a picture of his country house at  Wivenhoe Park in 1816.

The General intended Wivenhoe Park to serve as a visual record of the improvements to the estate carried out during his tenure as owner. He specified the parts of the property to be shown in the picture, including the house, built in the 1750s; the artificial lake and the dam that regulates it; the palings and fences that protect the trees from deer and keep out poachers; the fishing of the lake by net; and the establishment of alleys and paths for carriage traffic.

The conspicuous fencing reflects the practice of enclosure, whereby access to manorial lands, traditionally open to tenant farmers for their use, was restricted to the owner. Judicious landowners such as Rebow who correctly managed and protected their estates by enclosure insured its undivided and unencumbered transmission to the next generation.

Enclosure preserved the landed gentry’s hegemony at the expense of the tenants and villagers who, deprived of arable and pasture land, were driven into poverty. The Black Laws of the 18th century granted landowners the right to shoot peasants caught poaching on their properties.

The ideology of enclosure of Wivenhoe Park extends beyond its iconography. The stipulations of the commission required Constable to depict aspects of the property that could not be seen at once from a single viewpoint. To solve this problem, he created a custom-sized, panoramic scene by stitching three pieces of canvas together and adjusted the positions of the house, lake and trees so they could all be apprehended at once. Just as the General had transformed the estate’s contours and reasserted its boundaries, Constable enclosed the estate in a single, unified, artificial point of view.

Wivenhoe Park was purchased by the British government and transformed once again into the campus of the University of Essex, which opened 50 years ago. Wivenhoe House is now a four-star hotel managed by the University’s Hospitality School and its students.

J.M.W. TURNER: Pictures of Nothing

We here allude to Turner in particular, the ablest landscape painter now living, whose pictures are, however, too much abstractions of aerial perspectives, and representations not so properly of the objects of nature as of the medium through which they are seen. They are a triumph of the knowledge of the artist and of the power of the pencil over the barrenness of the subject. They are pictures of the elements, air, earth, and water. The artist delights to go back to the first chaos of the world, or to that state of things when the waters were separated from the dry land, and light from darkness, but as yet no living thing, nor tree bearing fruit was seen on earth. All is “without form and void.” Someone said of his landscapes that they were pictures of nothing, and very like.

— William Hazlitt, “On Gusto” (1816)


In the summer of 1986, the Museum of Modern Art mounted the Vienna 1900 exhibition and acquired Gustav Klimt’s Hope II (1902), thereby admitting Klimt and his Zeitalter into the official canon of modern art. Despite this belated acknowledgement, and setting aside for a moment his fervent participation in the Wiener Secession (“Der Zeit Ihre Kunst und Der Kunst Ihre Freiheit”), Klimt still looks very much like a late 19th-century artist working in a conservative center at the edges of Europe that valued historicism, eclecticism and high-gloss academic finish. In his early work from the 1890s, he changes styles depending on the job—meticulous, hard-edged idealization for official public commissions like the Kunsthistorisches Museum vestibule murals, to gauzy, soft-focus late Impressionism for portraits and landscapes to murky Symbolist topoi executed in a slick,Jugendstil serpentine manner.

This isn’t quite the eclecticism of the Ringstraße, that schizophrenic collection of revival-styles emblematizing the problem of 19th-century historical self-consciousness in general, which the Secession categorically opposed. Klimt’s eclecticism consists of an ability to inhabit fully and to replicate perfectly a range of styles, each closely associated with other, usually French, painters, without privileging one over the other. This nearly post-modern agnosticism is most visible in Klimt’s landscapes, a genre in which he worked throughout his career. Here, his palette of styles ranges from plein air Impressionism and, more specifically, Monet’s Nymphéas, to the pointillism or Seurat and Pissarro to the expressionism of Van Gogh. It’s not hard to see why Klimt worked this way—each mode has its own gorgeous effects and, is suited to particular landscape sub-genres and his technical mastery of all of them is breathtaking.

The overall application of uniform, atomized, pin-points of pigment to the picture plane in representations of trees—Rose, Birnbaum and, most winningly, in Der Park—is the closest Klimt gets to a modernist concern. This exploration of surface effects on differs considerably from the broadly applied decorative patterning seen in the golden paintings, which in its derivation from Byzantine mosaics, is another example of eclectic historicism. His landscapes are also free of the lurid, psycho-sexual heavy-breathing of the golden paintings and other Symbolist-inflected works, which, ironically, makes them seems more modernist than the works he himself would have considered his most avant garde.

SCULPTOR OF MODERN LIFE: Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux

In his essay “Le Peintre de la VIe Moderne” (1863), Charles Baudelaire described the modern artist as “the man in the crowd,” an “outsider, observer, philosopher and flâneur,” “the passionate spectator,” and “the painter of the passing moment.” Like a journalist, he wanders the streets of the city, collecting details of everyday life without drawing attention to himself. The artist’s subject was, ultimately, modernity:

By modernity I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and immutable … This transitory, fugitive element, whose metamorphoses are so rapid, must on no account be despised or dispensed with. By neglecting it, one cannot fail to fail into the abyss of an abstract and indeterminate beauty, like that of the first woman before the fall of man.

Although the ostensible subject of “Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne” is Constantin Guys, Baudelaire’s essay reads less like a performance review and more like a job listing, in that it specifies the skills required and elaborates on the nature of the work to be done. The post was filed quickly, as the year of the essay’s publication coincided with that of the Salon des Refusés and the beginning of Baudelaire’s friendship with Édouard Manet. As an observer of Hausmann’s Paris and Napoléon III’s Second Empire, Manet met the essay’s requirement that the artist be up-to-date and engaged with contemporary events at street level.

Baudelaire’s modern artist must also be able to capture “the passing moment” and to register in his work instantaneity, contingency, impermanence and temporal flux. With its lack of academic finish and interest in changeful lighting and atmospheric effects, Impressionism in general seemed to answer to that aspect of Baudelaire’s essay. However, it is clear Baudelaire was speaking more of temporal contingency and flux in relation to human actors, not haystacks and sunsets. One contemporary candidate for the “painter of modern life” might be Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-75), master sculptor of marble and bronze in the service of an emperor.

To be sure, Baudelaire might not have agreed, having published an essay in 1846 called “Pourquoi la sculpture est ennuyeuse,”(Why Sculpture is Boring”) which decried the limitations of three-dimensional sculpture in comparison to painting, arguably a more versatile and evocative medium. Carpeaux, however was called le sculpteur impréssioniste for his uncanny ability to register transient emotions, passing moods, ineffable character traits, foreshadowing and instability in a medium prized for its durability and permanence and traditionally used for monuments with aspirations to timelessness.

This most evident in Carpeaux’s portrait busts. The formal typologies were self-consciously derived from imperial Roman models, filtered through Neo-classcism, and spoke to the current political structure of the French state. The incredible individuation, the representation of personality and the uncanny ability to capture a fleeting moment or feeling in stone, however, is where Carpeaux is at his most modern, in Baudelaire’s sense of the word. It is true that some of Carpeaux sculptural devices for the representation of transience or impermanence (which in turn creates the sensation of temporal flux), like the impression of fingertips in the flesh of Ugolino’s leg, are themselves traditional—Giambologna and Bernini used the effect, which has its roots in antiquity.

Although the genre of the marble portrait bust brings with it expectations of the atemporality and generality associated with classicism and idealism, Carpeaux aggressively counters those expectations, giving us instead a high degree of personal particularity and temporal specificity. Even allegorical personifications, who by definition are outside of temporality, are not immune to Carpeaux’s temporal modernity, as seen in the face of the Observatory fountain’s America, who glares over her shoulder, allowing us a glimpse of some momentary annoyance.

Most daringly, Carpeaux uses the same treatment on the official portrait of the emperor. While he acknowledges tradition by depicting the emperor with undraped shoulders à l’antique, his portrait of Napoléon III evinces a surprising degree of mutability and ephemerality as the emperor glances downwards and slightly to one side, revealing the faintest suggestion of a sly smile, prompted by an unknown passing thought. The is a remarkable freedom taken by the artist, as it humanizes a personage who is, theoretically, above such transitory preoccupations, and it is a freedom which Carpeaux takes with his Roman exemplars as well, ignoring the time-honored generic requirements of decorum and impassivity.

Napoléon III’s fallibility brought down the Second Empire in 1870, forcing Carpeaux, who was closely associated with régime, to flee France, returning only in 1873, at the request of the Empress Éugénie, to see the dethroned Emperor on his deathbed. In 1874, Carpeaux was diagnosed with bladder cancer, and although he had a tumor removed, he died at Courbevoie in June 1875, at the age of 48.

Current exhibition: The Passions of Jean-Baptiste CarpeauxNew York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, March 10–May 26, 2014

Suggested reading: Anne Wagner, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Sculptor of the Second Empire (Yale University Press, 1985).