A Look at Eugène Fromentin's,

Les Maîtres d'autrefois (1876)


Raichel Le Goff

Trinity College, Oxford 

Essentially, this book is a travelogue written by a French artist journeying through Northern Europe in the late nineteenth century, seeking out examples of Flemish and Dutch art. It is a self- portrait of the artist as connoisseur. "I shall be only describing truthfully the quite unimportant impressions of a pure dilettante.", he wrote. The author's methodology consists of standing in front of paintings for a long time and noting down his spontaneous reactions to the works of art. As he was commissioned to write a series of articles on Dutch painting for the Revue des Deux-Mondes, he expands on these notes retrospectively at great length allowing them to act as catalysts for deeper discussion. Yet for the purposes of this book, which came out in 1876 after the articles had been published, he also included what are little more than transcriptions of his notes. The overall emphasis however is on freedom and individuality of expression. As Fromentin has declared in his introduction, he attempts to view every painting with a fresh eye. To prove he is not swayed by the writings of others, he criticizes even the best-loved pictures. Of Rubens' Christ a la paille, he says it is "too celebrated" and proceeds to give his views as to why it should be less celebrated. Some accepted masterpieces he dismisses altogether. Of Rubens' The Incredulity of Thomas in Antwerp he says "This is a Rubens? What a mistake!" and he also slanders Rubens as a portrait artist. As for Fromentin's desire to "raise questions and stimulate thoughts", it is by the very nature of his visceral and subjective reactions to these works of art that he provokes the reader to re- examine such legendary giants as Rubens, Rembrandt and Van Dyck. Fromentin often introduces a chapter with a controversial question, in order to grasp the reader's attention.

Chapter VII opens with "Is Rubens a great portrait-painter or is he only a good one?". He interacts with the reader, challenging us to name any one portrait by Rubens that "satisfies you as the result of faithful and profound observation, enlightens you as to the personality of his model, and instructs you..."? Questions like these are weapons in the author's crusade against the accepted norm. The intimate style of the text, where the author constantly addresses the reader, sometimes in a pedagogic fashion, further facilitates Fromentin's aim to "stimulate thoughts and to inspire those who might do the same." However, it is unlikely that stylistically he is hoping to create a new literary fashion in art theory/art criticism that will be emulated by others. After all, his own literary style is based on that of Saint-Beuve. Rather it is what he has to say that he wishes to be recognised, rather than the way he says it. He does not wish to dwell on the lives of the artists nor to narrate a catalogue of their works, in the tradition of Vasari, Ridolfi, Malvasia, etc. In fact, he calls upon others to do this, saying that there is not a decent biography to be had on either Rubens or Van Dyck and someone should take on the task.

The ideal commentator on art he says, should be equal parts "historian, philosopher and painter." As he concedes to being only a painter used to looking at the physical evidence before him, Fromentin explains he will concentrate on grasping "certain physiognomic traits of their (the artists) genius or talent." His reactions to the works of art are thus, primarily connoisseurial in that he deals with the effects an image has upon the beholder: such as surprise, pleasure, astonishment and disappointment. This leads to a style of description that is emotional and poetic. The Assumption by Rubens is likened to a "midsummer carnival", "an improvisation in the happiest colour-effects". Fromentin is easily caught up with the effects of light and colour across the canvas, and the energy and movement conveyed by the figures without seriously analyzing the iconographic meaning or the formal structure of the composition. He can also be misleading for we are told that in contrast to the colourful Assumption, Rubens' Pieta is "a work done in his later style - grave, greyish and black", suggesting to the uniformed reader that all later paintings of Rubens followed this formula.

A typical example of what I call his self-indulgent "waffling" style is to be found in Chapter III, one of Fromentin's six chapters on Rubens, where a single paragraph stretches for nearly the entire page in which no real information or facts are transmitted to the reader. To quote an extract : "He fills the last row of the gallery, and he diffuses there that restrained splendour, that mild yet strong radiancy which forms the beauty of his genius. No pedantry, no affectation of vain grandeur or offensive pride; he compels attention quite naturally." Such descriptive writing could be called "Abstract Impressionism". The content is expressed in abstract terms which at best leave the reader with only a dull impression of what the author has seen. The only concrete facts we end up with at the end of the page is that eleven pictures by Rubens hang on the wall. In his foreword to the book Fromentin declares "I shall avoid the abstruse and the obscure" yet surely long recitals such as this contradict that pledge?

Overriding all, there is a nationalistic element in play. Fromentin is a Frenchman who really doesn't like Dutch painting and whom only praises Flemish painting when it seems influenced by Italy. He even has a chapter where he conducts a form of paragone of Dutch and French landscape painting (XVIII) concluding : "France has shown a great deal of inventive genius, but little real faculty for painting. Holland has not imagined anything , but it has painted miraculously well."

Frances Haskell wrote that "sterility of the imagination" lay at the heart of Johann Huizinga's argument in his book on Flemish art, The Waning of the Middle Ages - yet Haskell might just as well have been summarising Fromentin's attitude to Dutch art. Disenchanted with the monotonous stream of Dutch genre paintings Fromentin comments that the artists took refuge in seascapes, landscapes, village fair scenes, country scenes, milking cows, tavern scenes, interiors and even though their country was in turmoil, they did not bother to paint historic events. "One is always tempted to question these indifferent, phlegmatic painters and to say to them: Is there then nothing new?"

Here is an example of the flippant Fromentin, raising questions in a dilettantish fashion. More serious are his attempts along the same lines to raise questions such as why does there seem to be this whole period of Dutch painting when art largely ignored the recording of historical events? Indeed "What motive", asks Fromentin, "had a Dutch painter in painting a picture?". To this extent, Fromentin was successful in stimulating his reader to explore the whole psychological profile of Northern painting as opposed to simply analysing the images. I think he was also aware, that to a large respect he was walking on untrodden ground. He could take risks with plunging statements and acidic critique because there was so little solid literature on the subject of Northern art to contradict him, especially if we make comparisons to what had been written on Italian art.

Whatever Fromentin is, he is not boring to read. Like an artist with his brush he is constantly inventive as he creates this commentary on art in his own idiosyncratic style. To best relate the intrinsic nature of seascapes by van Goyen and van de Velde he takes the reader on a diversionary excursion to the town of Scheveningen and stands on the beach describing the scene before him as if it were in a painting. To give the reader a modern perspective on the value of Paulus Potter's famous painting of a Bull in the Hague museum, he imagines a catalogue entry describing the picture as if it were in an auction sale. Taking the picture at face value, a "truthful" evaluator he tells us, would not give it a very high estimate. This auction room motif is a device to defuse the gonflated mystique that surrounds any painting that hangs in pride of place in a museum and to subject it to a thorough examination by those who would be asked to part with a fabulous sum for it. Needless to say, in Fromentin's fictional auction, the Bull does not fair well.

Curiously, even though he is quite bold and captious in many of his judgements on Flemish and Dutch art, he has a naive desire to remain carefully diplomatic. When disclaiming a famous painting such as the Bull he concedes that although public opinion may disagree with him, that public opinion "is never altogether wrong". In other words, he gives the reader of his book who is also a viewer of the work of art, the liberty to formulate their own opinions and not to be dictated to by his own. Aware that he was courting controversy and opprobrium, especially from the scholars of the time who might frown upon a mere painter tackling the subject, Fromentin escapes all blame by stating in his foreword, "in truth, these studies will be mere notes, and these notes the unconnected and disproportionate elements of a book that is yet to be written." At times, Fromentin revels in his own absence of method. He delights in going "up-stream" instead of down, and chronicling his artists without regard for logical order.

Certainly, his re-appraisal of Rubens which predominates his book, is original, lively and brave. Again though, Fromentin's prudence is clouded by his French background. He was fifty-five years old at the time of his travels and disliking what he had seen of the Impressionists in Paris, Fromentin maintained an old-fashioined respect for tonal painting and the masters of the Italian renaissance. The admirer of Leonardo or Raphael he writes, can only be "irritated" by the art of Rubens. The fleshy beauty of the master's teenage wife, Helene Fourment is not to be compared to the grace of a Perugino woman. "We must never compare him with the Italians", says Fromentin, as he would fair for the worse. But diplomatic as ever, he insists upon placing Rubens in an unique category wherein the artist can be appreciated all on his own.

It is the sympathy of his artist's eye which adds another dimension to this book lacking in those who write about art but who do not paint. He even allows Rubens to have his "off" days - (p. 24 Martyrdom of St. Lieven) which is something art historians hardly every understand. Despite bouts of verbosity, Fromentin the artist lends a rare sensitivity to his observations as Fromentin the writer.

It is a romantic aim to neglect everything that has been written on a subject and offer up something newborn. Perhaps only an artist could attempt it. Fromentin's own painting technique developed at the tailend of the Romantic era emulating Delacroix and Chasseriau and it is Romaniticism that best reflects the style of his writing as well.

 p. 56  Example of Fromentin's pedagogic form of address to the reader: cf. p. 21 - "you must examine....etc."  p.22 p. 20, paragraph : "The Gallery....himself at home."  p. 116  p. 112  p.118

copyright © Raichel  Le Goff
ISBN 960-85312-0-9
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