In search of the ubiquitous anecdote for the rank and file

To categorize pictures of the Salon type, whether by any subject or criteria, one could belabor each of the many types- the noble peasant, the Oriental, the jolly peasant, melancholy old ladies, religious pictures, the allegories- but in the end we would come down to the same conclusion: that the rank and file of Salon painting was skillfully trite, obvious, and pretty vulgar. The judgement may be harsh, but it offered a field day for gibes; helpless in its awfulness, exposed in all its shortcomings, and unpardonable in its dreary sentimentality.

William Dyce (English, 1806-1864) Titian’s First Painting, Oil on canvas. Private Collection. Eating in a London café can put you shoulder to shoulder with fascinating strangers. A few weeks ago, I was eating at an Italian restaurant in South Kensington, around the corner from the Victorian & Albert Museum. I overheard a conversation between a museum curator and a Russian journalist about the English language. The ideas they shared could have application for those who are interested in maintaining a classical painting tradition. The curator must have been in his early sixties and had the kind of impeccable British accent that indicates a certain education. He was being interviewed by a journalist with a thick Russian accent,... read more:

Yet, if an artist like Gerome is essentially ludicrous or merely dull, occasionally he did paint an anecdote like “Duel After the Masquerade” which is nicely patterned and succinct in its narratrive, and so unexpected in the nature of the narrative, that only a critic in bad faith can refuse to recognize its virtues. And if most Salon children are offensive brats, a few of them have great charm. Salon painting was based on a precise imitation of nature, in spite of all the prettying up and the artificial posing.

Gerome. Duel After the Masquerade. "The setting is pretty much explained in the title, we are seeing the aftermath of the duel. The man’s shocked friends hold him helplessly, and it’s one of the more interesting and eye-catching poses I’ve seen. Gérôme has plenty of choices in the way he sets the characters, but (as in many of his pieces) he chooses a very unique, almost startling pose. We don’t need the title of the piece at all to tell us what has happened, and that this man is in the last seconds of his life. Gérôme almost removes all of the vibrant colors he normally uses, save for the stark red. In an otherwise neutrally toned piece, the red of the man’s jacket stands out strongly, and leads your eye perfectly into the small red slash on the dying man’s outfit. Gérôme uses the palette brilliantly, and even though there are the men walking away and the dark jacket and robe standing out to the right, your eye is immediately drawn to the drama on the left through that bright red and the brighter contrasts and colors. Gérôme’s composition is the final addition to a nice piece. The characters to the left are larger, and more highlighted, while the men on the right, the victors, almost pass into nothingness. The drama to the right has passed, and we are here to bear witness to the final dying drama of the man on the left." read more:

When children were painted directly, sympathetically, and without all the rigmarole that turned them into bad actors on amateur night, they could be attractive subjects for a kind of painting that was expert in the presentation of externals. And if Edwin Landseer’s animals are usually mawkish, he also painted Blackcock , a harmony of whites, tans and greys with a spot of red in pigment so opulently weighted that the picture would do credit with Courbet. The good Landseer’s isolated from the infection of the typical mass of his work, suggest that he was one of the best minor painters of his century, instead of one of the laughable worst.

Landseer. Blackcock-Ptarmigan in a Landscape. 1833. " Here the protagonists are ptarmigans, the favorite bird of sport in Scotland, which famously mate for life. The male bird has been fatally wounded, his neck turned in mute appeal. The female apparently has also been hit, yet still guards the nest. Four luckier birds escape the slaughter and fly down a huge, empty valley. Such a scene has nobility and tragedy enough for any pair of ill-fated classical lovers. Landseer's great genius is his ability to charm us into abandoning our fear of sentimentality and to engage us in these "pathetic fallacies," which for so much of this century were dismissed as Victorian triviality. Perhaps we need the horrible distance from nature of the post-industrial age to understand again the truth of Landseer's observations and sentiments. Joseph J. Rishel, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995), p. 188." read more:

It wasn’t all bad and a mistake to throw the baby out with the bath water. For example, there is the Moorish Chief by Eduard Charlemont, an Austrian who was born in 1848 and died in 1906, who apparently had a moderate success in his lifetime  but whose name is pretty obscure today in the art world. He was in no way an innovator and appears to have painted a large number of dull, mediocre pictures. But his Moorish Chief is a beautiful work; well painted, richly colored, superbly drawn and nicely joined. The subject, a conventional bit of orientalism, is only a peg upon which to hang them and is unobtrusive because it is not forced into a pretense of more depth than it has.

---The artist, Eduard Charlemont, made the figure and the setting look so true to life—almost more real than a photograph!—that you might wonder how such an amazing illusion could be created with oil paint. To render different textures so precisely, Charlemont used a smooth wood panel as a painting surface instead of canvas. Look at the folds of fabric betwen the fingers of the left hand. Can you see any brushstrokes? To create this detailed figure, Charlemont probably combined information he found in travel books with his studies of live models and with ideas from his imagination. Illusionistic paintings of people from faraway places were extremely popular at the annual Salon exhibitions in Paris. --- read more:

Charlemont takes little more interest in his model as a Moorish chieftain than the cubists took in the violins, tables and compotes that served them as points of departure for technical exercises. But his exercise is at least as legitimate, in many ways more difficult and not more threadbare than exercises in abstraction; it is just that the abstract virtues of figurative painting are assumed to be non existent in many cases, especially if they are committed to a blanket rejection of representational painting unless its by a name brand artist. With a falsified label, say Delacroix, Moorish Chief would be sensational not only as an important picture historically, which it is not, but also as a superb piece of painting, which it is.

Despite the exceptions above,the idea behind Salon painting is still one that has a certain element of dismay: tested recipes, romantic anecdote, that allow for a formula where desirable young women are in difficulties that are stimulating to the imagination. The misogyny of sexism of Salon painting has been diluted over wider visual platforms in popular culture. Abstract aesthetic values were beyond the Salon public who like today coalesce over pictures and stories that plow through a marrow line of guaranteed cultural situations with the same laborous comedy that appeals to the vanity of the observer. Something, anything, that assures the viewer of his cultivation and depth of human understanding in search of “the ubiquitous anecdote” that arises when caught off guard by the facts of life.

tion-text">William Powell Firth. Derby Day. A few critics have defended Frith's thickly populated record of Victorian life as an accurate social document executed by a superb technician whose virtues include the same loving observation of the world that flowered elsewhere in impressionism. read more:

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