From one point of view, Thomas Crow's remarkable pair of books, Painters and Public Life in 18th-Century Paris (1985) and Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France (1995), can be described as a history of the decline and fall, and amazing final reprieve, of history-painting in France. Long cherished by the Academy of Painting and Sculpture as the highest and 'noblest' genre and the summit of a painter's ambition, by the middle of the 18th century the theme of critics and philosophers was that, in the France of Louis XV, history-painting was simply impossible. The radical ambiguity of the term 'noble', the schism between its ethical and its social meaning, had become too glaring. It was true that Mme de Pompadour and her clan, intensely aware of the political significance of the fine arts, had reformed the Academy in the interests of a revival of history-painting - or, to put it in Crow's words, of 'rebuilding the Academy's capacity to generate publicly-oriented narrative pictures that were stylistically and morally disciplined by the classicism of the past century'. Still, as is well known, what the Pompadour and her entourage actually enjoyed was the Rococo, and their favourite painter was Boucher. Their heart was not in the reforms, and the new Poussin, the 'Phoenix' destined to restore the nation's sense of the 'noble' and the 'ideal', obstinately failed to arise.
LRB 3 August 1995 | PDF Download