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Art in an Age of Civil Struggle, 1848-1871

Art in an Age of Civil Struggle, 1848-1871

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Published by University of Chicago Press an imprint of UChicagoPress
From the European revolutions of 1848 through the Italian independence movement, the American Civil War, and the French Commune, the era Albert Boime explores in this fourth volume of his epic series was, in a word, transformative. The period, which gave rise to such luminaries as Karl Marx and Charles Darwin, was also characterized by civic upheaval, quantum leaps in science and technology, and the increasing secularization of intellectual pursuits and ordinary life. In a sweeping narrative that adds critical depth to a key epoch in modern art’s history, Art in an Age of Civil Struggle shows how this turbulent social environment served as an incubator for the mid-nineteenth century’s most important artists and writers.

Tracing the various movements of realism through the major metropolitan centers of Europe and America, Boime strikingly evokes the milieus that shaped the lives and works of Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet, Émile Zola, Honoré Daumier, Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, and the earliest photographers, among countless others. In doing so, he spearheads a powerful new way of reassessing how art emerges from the welter of cultural and political events and the artist’s struggle to interpret his surroundings. Boime supports this multifaceted approach with a wealth of illustrations and written sources that demonstrate the intimate links between visual culture and social change. Culminating at the transition to impressionism, Art in an Age of Civil Struggle makes historical sense of a movement that paved the way for avant-garde aesthetics and, more broadly, of how a particular style emerges at a particular moment.
From the European revolutions of 1848 through the Italian independence movement, the American Civil War, and the French Commune, the era Albert Boime explores in this fourth volume of his epic series was, in a word, transformative. The period, which gave rise to such luminaries as Karl Marx and Charles Darwin, was also characterized by civic upheaval, quantum leaps in science and technology, and the increasing secularization of intellectual pursuits and ordinary life. In a sweeping narrative that adds critical depth to a key epoch in modern art’s history, Art in an Age of Civil Struggle shows how this turbulent social environment served as an incubator for the mid-nineteenth century’s most important artists and writers.

Tracing the various movements of realism through the major metropolitan centers of Europe and America, Boime strikingly evokes the milieus that shaped the lives and works of Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet, Émile Zola, Honoré Daumier, Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, and the earliest photographers, among countless others. In doing so, he spearheads a powerful new way of reassessing how art emerges from the welter of cultural and political events and the artist’s struggle to interpret his surroundings. Boime supports this multifaceted approach with a wealth of illustrations and written sources that demonstrate the intimate links between visual culture and social change. Culminating at the transition to impressionism, Art in an Age of Civil Struggle makes historical sense of a movement that paved the way for avant-garde aesthetics and, more broadly, of how a particular style emerges at a particular moment.

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Publish date: Sep 15, 2008
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Art in an Age of Civil Struggle, 1848–1871

a social history of modern art
volume 4
Art in an Age of
Civil Struggle
Albert Boime
The University of Chicago Press
Chicago & London
Albert Boime is professor of art history at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The author is grateful to the Brockthorne Foundation for its support of this project.
The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637
The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London
© 2007 by The University of Chicago
All rights reserved. Published 2007
Printed in the United States of America
16 15 14 13 12 11 10 09 08 07 1 2 3 4 5
isbn-13: 978-0-226-06328-7 (cloth)
isbn-10: 0-226-06328-3 (cloth)
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Boime, Albert.
Art in an age of civil struggle, 1848–1871 / Albert Boime.
p. cm.—(A social history of modern art; v. 4)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
isbn-13: 978-0-226-06328-7 (cloth : alk. paper)
isbn-10: 0-226-06328-3 (cloth: alk. paper)
1. Art, European—19th century. 2. Art and society—Europe—History—19th
century. 3. Art and revolutions—Europe—History—19th century. 4. Realism in
I. Title.
N6757.B63 2008
∞ The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the Ameri-
can National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed
Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48-1992.
For Robert Rosenblum
Illustrations ix
Introduction 1
1 Springtime and Winter of the People in France, 1848–1852 5
2 Radical Realism and Its Offspring 77
3 Radical Realism Continued 139
4 The Pre-Raphaelites and the 1848 Revolutions 225
5 The Macchia and the Risorgimento 365
6 Cultural Inflections of Slavery and Manifest Destiny
in America 403
7 Biedermeier Culture and the Revolutions of 1848 471
8 The Second Empire’s Official Realism 577
9 Edouard Manet: Man About Town 633
10 The Franco-Prussian War, the French Commune,
and the Threshold of Impressionism 737
Coda: Menzel and the Transition to Empire 783
Notes 801
Photo Credits 863
Index 865
chapter 1
1.1 Thomas Couture, The Enrollment of the Volunteers 15
1.2 Auguste Vinchon, The Volunteer Enrollment of 1792 19
1.3 Thomas Couture, The Enrollment of the Volunteers 22
1.4 Thomas Couture, The Enrollment of the Volunteers 22
1.5 Thomas Couture, The Enrollment 23
1.6 Thomas Couture, French Volunteer 24
1.7 Thomas Couture, Man Pulling a Cannon 24
1.8 Thomas Couture, Study of the Mayor of Paris as George Washington 26
1.9 Thomas Couture, tracing of a detail of a reproduction of David’s Sabines 27
1.10 Thomas Couture, Father and Son 27
1.11 Ange-Louis Janet-Lange, Symbolic Figure of the Republic 42
1.12 Pierre-Roch Vigneron, sheet of studies of sketches of the Republic 44
1.13 Pierre-Roch Vigneron, sheet of studies, detail 44
1.14 Hippolyte Flandrin, Symbolic Figure of the Republic 44
1.15 Dominique-Louis Papety, Symbolic Figure of the Republic 46
1.16 Honoré Daumier, Symbolic Figure of the Republic 46
1.17 Honoré Daumier, Last Council of the Ex-Ministers 47
1.18 Honoré Daumier, The Divorcées 49
1.19 Jean-Léon Gérôme, Symbolic Figure of the Republic 50
1.20 Sébastien-Melchior Cornu, Symbolic Figure of the Republic 50
1.21 Charles Landelle, Symbolic Figure of the Republic 52
1.22 Pierre-Roch Vigneron, sheet of studies, detail 54
1.23 Bertall, Bertall à la recherche de la meilleure des Républiques 55
1.24 Tony Johannot, La République 56
1.25 Jean-François Soitoux, Symbolic Figure of the Republic 57
1.26 Jean-Jacques Barre, Seal of the Republic 59
1.27 Jean-Jacques Barre, State Seal, obverse and reverse 60
1.28 The Republican Medal and Its Reverse 61
1.29 There Is No Place Like Home 62
1.30 Alfred Rethel, Auch ein Todtentanz aus dem Jahre 1848 63
1.31 Adolphe Leleux, La Sortie, Paris 65
1.32 Adolphe Leleux, The Password 65
1.33 Honoré Daumier, The Uprising 67
1.34 The Great Barricade at the Entrance of the Rue du Faubourg St. Antoine, from the Place de
la Bastille 70
1.35 Adolphe Hervier, The Barricade 70
1.36 Adolphe Hervier, The Barricade 70
1.37 Léon Cogniet, The National Guard of Paris Departs for the Army in September 1792 71
1.38 Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, Souvenir of the Civil War 73
chapter 2
2.1 Jean-François Millet, The Stoning of St. Stephen 86
2.2 Jean-François Millet, The Cliffs of the Hague 86
2.3 Jean-François Millet, Antoinette Hébert 88
2.4 Jean-François Millet, Monsieur Ouitre 88
2.5 Thomas Couture, Portrait of Adolphe Moreau 89
2.6 Jean-François Millet, Oedipus Taken Down from the Tree 89
2.7 Jean-François Millet, Return from the Fields 90
2.8 Jean-François Millet, Symbolic Figure of the Republic (Egalité) 92
2.9 Jean-François Millet, The Winnower 94
2.10 French Agriculture—Winnowing 95
2.11 Jean-François Millet, The Sower 110
2.12 Jean-François Millet, Ruth and Boaz or The Harvesters’ Meal 116
2.13 Jean-François Millet, Man Grafting a Tree 119
2.14 Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners 122
2.15 Jean-François Millet, The Angelus 127
2.16 Jean-François Millet, The Man with the Hoe 131
chapter 3
3.1 Karl von Steuben, Return from the Island of Elba 142
3.2 Gustave Courbet, masthead design for Le Salut Public 144
3.3 Gustave Courbet, The Sculptor 146
3.4 Thomas Couture, The Troubadour 146
3.5 Gustave Courbet, Self-Portrait with a Black Dog 147
3.6 Gustave Courbet, The Man with the Leather Belt 148
3.7 Gustave Courbet, After Dinner at Ornans 151
3.8 Gustave Courbet, The Stonebreakers 159
3.9 Cham, Why Do They Call This Painting Socialistic, Papa? 160
3.10 Gustave Courbet, Funeral at Ornans 170
3.11 Master Mason’s Tableau with Symbols of the Legend of Hiram 177
3.12 Gustave Courbet, Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair 183
x illustrations
3.13 Thomas Couture, The Realist 184
3.14 Gustave Courbet, Departure of the Firemen Rushing to a Fire 188
3.15 Jean-Pierre Alexandre Antigna, The Fire 189
3.16 Gustave Courbet, Young Ladies of the Village 191
3.17 Gustave Courbet, The Bathers 197
3.18 Gustave Courbet, The Wrestlers 197
3.19 Gustave Courbet, The Meeting 201
3.20 Legend of the Wandering Jew 202
3.21 Gustave Courbet, The Apostle Jean Journet Setting Out for the Conquest of
Universal Harmony 204
3.22 Frontispiece for first edition of Constitutions des franc-maçons 206
3.23 Gustave Courbet, The Painter’s Studio 208
3.24 Frontispiece for Leaves of Grass 222
chapter 4
4.1 William Holman Hunt, Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of His Young Brother,
Slain in a Skirmish between the Colonna and Orsini Factions 234
4.2 Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin 238
4.3 Charles Allston Collins, Convent Thoughts 244
4.4 Richard Redgrave, The Sempstress 248
4.5 Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ecce Ancilla Domini! 252
4.6 John Everett Millais, Isabella 255
4.7 Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, two designs for stools 256
4.8 John Everett Millais, Copy of a Cast of the Apollo Belvedere 257
4.9 John Everett Millais, Copy of a Cast of Fighting Gladiators 257
4.10 William Holman Hunt, Lorenzo at His Desk in the Warehouse 260
4.11 John Everett Millais, Christ in the Carpenter’s Shop (Christ in the House of His Parents) 261
4.12 John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents 267
4.13 John Everett Millais, The Return of the Dove to the Ark 270
4.14 John Everett Millais, The Return of the Dove to the Ark 270
4.15 John Everett Millais, A Huguenot, on St. Bartholomew’s Day, Refusing to Shield Himself from
Danger by Wearing the Roman Catholic Badge 271
4.16 John Everett Millais, The Woodman’s Daughter 275
4.17 John Everett Millais, Ophelia 278
4.18 Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, The Lady of Shalott 280
4.19 John Everett Millais, Portrait of Ruskin 282
4.20 John Everett Millais, The Waterfall 284
4.21 John Ruskin, Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlas 286
4.22 John Everett Millais, The Rescue 287
4.23 John Everett Millais, Peace Concluded or The Return from the Crimea 290
4.24 “Conclusion of Peace,” headline from the Times 291
4.25 William Holman Hunt, The Hireling Shepherd 293
4.26 William Holman Hunt, The Light of the World 300
xi illustrations
4.27 Philipp Veit, Christ Knocking on the Door of the Soul 304
4.28 William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience 309
4.29 Thomas Brooks, The Awakened Conscience 313
4.30 William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat 321
4.31 William Holman Hunt, Finding of the Saviour in the Temple 324
4.32 Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Found 329
4.33 Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Found 329
4.34 Smithfield Market—Calves and Oxen 334
4.35 Smithfield Market—Sheep—The Drover’s Goad 334
4.36 Thames Embankment 335
4.37 Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix 337
4.38 Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Astarte Syriaca 341
4.39 Ford Madox Brown, Work 345
4.40 Specimens from Mr. Punch’s Industrial Exhibition of 1850 (To Be Improved in 1851) 347
4.41 Ford Madox Brown, Heath Street, Hampstead 350
4.42 What Our Navvies Are Likely to Do 351
4.43 Ford Madox Brown, Work 352
4.44 Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Work (Le Travail) 353
4.45 The Irish Street Seller 356
4.46 The Groundsel Man 356
4.47 Ford Madox Brown, Work 360
4.48 Portrait of Thomas Carlyle 361
4.49 Ford Madox Brown, Last of England 363
4.50 The Emigrants 363
chapter 5
5.1 Rafaello Sernesi, Roofs in the Sunlight 368
5.2 Vito D’Ancona, Portico 368
5.3 Domenico Induno, Bulletin of 14 July 1859, Announcing the Peace of Villafranca 375
5.4 Giovanni Fattori, French Soldiers of ’59 379
5.5 Giuseppe Bezzuoli, Entrance of Charles VIII into Florence 379
5.6 Francesco Hayez, The Kiss 380
5.7 Giovanni Fattori, After the Battle of Magenta 383
5.8 Adolphe Yvon, Magenta, 4 June 1859 385
5.9 The War—Attack on the Church of Magenta 385
5.10 Giovanni Fattori, Garibaldi at Palermo 386
5.11 Garibaldi and His Army Arriving at Marsala 387
5.12 Odoardo Borrani, The 26th of April, 1859 390
5.13 Telemaco Signorini, The Venice Ghetto 393
5.14 Telemaco Signorini, The Tuscan Artillerymen at Montechiaro Saluted by the French Wounded
at Solferino 394
5.15 Giuseppe Abbati, The Cloister 395
xii illustrations
5.16 Giuseppe Abbati, The Cloister of Santa Croce 397
5.17 Silvestro Lega, Singing the Stornello 398
5.18 Silvestro Lega, The Trellis 400
chapter 6
6.1 Hiram Powers, America 402
6.2 Richard Caton Woodville, War News from Mexico 406
6.3 George Caleb Bingham, The Verdict of the People 410
6.4 George Caleb Bingham, Order No. 11 412
6.5 Lilly Martin Spencer, Height of Fashion 416
6.6 Lilly Martin Spencer, Power of Fashion 416
6.7 Lilly Martin Spencer, The Artist and Her Family at a Fourth of July Picnic 418
6.8 Lilly Martin Spencer, Blind Faith 419
6.9 William Sidney Mount, Dawn of Day 423
6.10 Dandy Jim from Caroline 424
6.11 John Quincy Adams Ward, The Freedman 426
6.12 Edmonia Lewis, Bust of Robert Gould Shaw 428
6.13 Edmonia Lewis, Forever Free 428
6.14 Thomas Ball, Emancipation Group 430
6.15 Eastman Johnson, Negro Life at the South 432
6.16 Eastman Johnson, A Ride for Liberty: The Fugitive Slaves 436
6.17 Thomas Satterwhite Noble, The Last Sale of Slaves in St. Louis 439
6.18 Thomas Satterwhite Noble, Margaret Garner 440
6.19 The Modern Medea—The Story of Margaret Garner 440
6.20 Alexander Gardner, A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, July 1863 443
6.21 George N. Barnard, Ruins of the Railroad Depot, Charleston, South Carolina 444
6.22 Henry Mosler, Lost Cause 445
6.23 George N. Barnard, The John Ross House, Ringold, Georgia 445
6.24 Frederic Church, Our Banner in the Sky 446
6.25 “Hail! Glorious Banner of Our Land” 447
6.26 John Gast, American Progress 450
6.27 Asher B. Durand, Progress 450
6.28 Caspar David Friedrich, Landscape in the Riesengebirge 453
6.29 Caspar David Friedrich, Traveler above the Fog 453
6.30 Thomas Cole, Scene from “Manfred” 456
6.31 Asher B. Durand, Kindred Spirits 457
6.32 Thomas Moran, Mountain of the Holy Cross 458
6.33 Thomas Moran, The Grand Cañon of the Yellowstone 459
6.34 William S. Jewett, The Promised Land—The Grayson Family 461
6.35 Emanuel Leutze, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way 461
6.36 “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” with McCormick Reapers in the Van 463
6.37 Frederic Edwin Church, Mount Ktaadn 464
xiii illustrations
6.38 Frederic Edwin Church, Niagara Falls 465
6.39 Jasper Francis Cropsey, Starrucca Viaduct, Pennsylvania 467
6.40 George Inness, The Lackawanna Valley 468
6.41 Frances “Fanny” Palmer, Across the Continent: “Westward the Course of Empire
Takes Its Way” 469
chapter 7
7.1 Wilhelm von Kaulbach, The Destruction of Jerusalem 472
7.2 Commode, Southwest Germany 474
7.3 Richard Caton Woodville, The Sailor’s Wedding 476
7.4 Karl Begas, The Begas Family 477
7.5 Moritz Oppenheim, The Jung Brothers with Their Tutor 478
7.6 Johann Peter Krafft, The Entrance of Kaiser Franz into Vienna after the Paris Peace Treaty
of 1814 480
7.7 Johann Peter Krafft, Kaiser Franz Giving a Public Audience 480
7.8 Peter Fendi, Family Reunion 482
7.9 Peter Fendi, Archduchess Sophie Accompanying Her Children in the Evening Prayer 482
7.10 Peter Fendi, The Seizure 483
7.11 Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, The Seizure 484
7.12 Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Portrait of the Notary Dr. Josef Eltz, His Wife Caroline,
and Their Eight Children in Bad Ischl 486
7.13 Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, View of the Dachstein and Hallstatt Lake from the
Hütteneck Alp near Bad Ischl 488
7.14 Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Lower Austrian Peasant Wedding (Wedding in
Perchtoldsdorf) 489
7.15 Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, The Interrupted Pilgrimage 491
7.16 Moritz von Schwind, Morning Hour 492
7.17 Moritz von Schwind, Rübezahl, Berg-Geist 493
7.18 Moritz von Schwind, The Ride of the Knight of Falkenstein 497
7.19 Moritz von Schwind, Portrait of Franz von Schober 497
7.20 Moritz von Schwind, Sleeping Knight 497
7.21 Moritz von Schwind, The Prisoner’s Dream 498
7.22 Carl Spitzweg, The Poor Poet 501
7.23 Carl Spitzweg, The Bookworm 502
7.24 Carl Spitzweg, Peace in Land 502
7.25 Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, Mendel Levin Nathanson’s Elder Daughters,
Bella and Hanna 505
7.26 Christen Købke, View of a Street in a Copenhagen Suburb, Morning Light 506
7.27 Christen Købke, View of One of the Lakes in Copenhagen 508
7.28 Christen Købke, View of Østerbro from Dosseringen 508
7.29 Anton Ziegler, The Barricades on the Michaelerplatz on the Nights of the 26th and
27th of May 1848 510
7.30 Carl Friedrich Lessing, Hussite Sermon 513
xiv illustrations
7.31 Hans Holbein, The Waggoner 516
7.32 Alfred Rethel, Auch ein Todtentanz (Yet Another Dance of Death) 517
7.33 Alfred Rethel, Auch ein Todtentanz 518
7.34 Alfred Rethel, The Factory of Friedrich Harkort at Burg Wetter 518
7.35 Alfred Rethel, Auch ein Todtentanz 519
7.36 Julius Diez, Liebermann, der Berliner Sezessionswirth 520
7.37 Alfred Rethel, Auch ein Todtentanz 521
7.38 Alfred Rethel, Auch ein Todtentanz 521
7.39 Alfred Rethel, Auch ein Todtentanz 522
7.40 Title page from Goupil’s publication of Alfred Rethel, Auch ein Todtentanz 523
7.41 Karl Wilhelm Hübner, Silesian Weavers 525
7.42 Alfred Rethel, The Battle of Cordova 529
7.43 Alfred Rethel, Entrance of Charlemagne into Pavia 529
7.44 Johann Peter Hasenclever, Atelier Scene 536
7.45 Johann Peter Hasenclever, Jobs Being Examined 537
7.46 Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware 539
7.47 Johann Peter Hasenclever, Workers Confronting the Magistrature 543
7.48 Johann Peter Hasenclever, Workers Confronting the Magistrature 544
7.49 Johann Peter Hasenclever, Workers Confronting the Magistrature 546
7.50 Johann Peter Hasenclever, Workers Confronting the Magistrature 546
7.51 Johann Peter Hasenclever, Workers Confronting the Magistrature 548
7.52 Johann Peter Hasenclever, Portrait of Ferdinand Freiligrath 552
7.53 Wilhelm Müller, Silhouettes of Freiligrath and Wulff 553
7.54 Photograph of Ferdinand Freiligrath 553
7.55 Grand Funeral Procession of the Victims of the [French] Revolution 556
7.56 The Dead Carried before the King and Queen 556
7.57 Solemnities over the Dead before the Neuen Kirche, Berlin 557
7.58 Adolph von Menzel, The Public Funeral of the Victims of the March Revolution 560
7.59 Adolph von Menzel, The Anhalter Railway Station by Moonlight 561
7.60 Adolph von Menzel, The Berlin–Potsdam Railroad 561
7.61 The King of Prussia in the Streets of Berlin on the 21st March 1848 565
7.62 Revolutionary Meeting in a Cellar in Berlin 567
7.63 Adolph von Menzel, The Public Funeral of the Victims of the March Revolution 569
7.64 Adolph von Menzel, My Father’s Hand 571
7.65 Adolph von Menzel, My Father’s Hand 571
7.66 Adolph von Menzel, The Coronation of King Wilhelm I at Königsberg, 1861 573
7.67 Adolph von Menzel, The Coronation of King Wilhelm I at Königsberg, 1861 573
chapter 8
8.1 Taking Down the House of the National Assembly 579
8.2 Removal of the Inscription “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” 579
8.3 Demolitions for the Rue de Rennes 580
xv illustrations
8.4 Charles de Marville, Rue de Gindre (partie de la rue Madame) 581
8.5 Demolitions for the Avenue de l’Opéra 583
8.6 Perspective from the Avenue de l’Opéra 583
8.7 Honoré Daumier, Ratapoil 586
8.8 Honoré Daumier, “Fair Lady, Will You Accept My Arm?” 586
8.9 Honoré Daumier, New Toy Launched by Ratapoil 586
8.10 Popular caricature of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte 587
8.11 Popular caricature of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte 587
8.12 Popular caricature of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte 587
8.13 Eugène-André Oudine, The Accession of Napoléon III to the Empire 602
8.14 Edouard Detaille, Napoléon III Crowned with Laurel and Smoking a Cigarette 602
8.15 Isidore Pils, The Battle of Alma 602
8.16 Ernest Meissonier, The Emperor Napoléon III at the Battle of Solferino 603
8.17 Ange-Tissier, The Submission of Abd el Kader 604
8.18 Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Napoléon III Receiving Abd el Kader at Saint-Cloud 605
8.19 Jean-Léon Gérôme, Reception of the Siamese Ambassadors by Napoléon III and
the Empress Eugénie at Fontainebleau, 27 June 1861 607
8.20 Reception of the Siamese Ambassadors by the Emperor of the French at the Palace of
Fontainebleau 607
8.21 Jean-Léon Gérôme, Age of Augustus 608
8.22 Gustave Boulanger, Rehearsal of “The Flute Player” in the Atrium of H.I.H.
the Prince Napoléon 610
8.23 Jean-Louis Hamon, My Sister Is Not at Home 611
8.24 Jean-Louis Hamon, The Human Comedy 611
8.25 Eugène Guérard, Théâtre de Guignol (Champs-Elysées) 611
8.26 Jean-Louis Hamon, Conjuror 612
8.27 Auguste Toulmouche, Forbidden Fruit 613
8.28 Jean-François Millet, Immaculate Conception 615
8.29 Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pope Pius IX Blessing Locomotives 615
8.30 William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Entrance of the Emperor at Tarascon, 14 June 1856 617
8.31 Alexandre Antigna, The Visit of the Emperor to the Slate Quarry Workers of Angers
during the Floods of 1856 620
8.32 Ange-Louis Janet-Lange, Napoléon III Distributing Alms to the Flood Victims of Lyon
in June 1856 621
8.33 Thomas Couture, The Baptism of the Prince Imperial 622
8.34 Rosa Bonheur, Ploughing in the Nivernais 623
8.35 Rosa Bonheur, The Horse Fair 623
8.36 Jules Breton, The Gleaners 625
8.37 Charles Gleyre, Ruth and Boaz 625
8.38 Evariste Luminais, The Fair Grounds 625
8.39 François Bonhommé, The Barricade of Canal Saint-Martin, 23 June 1848 627
8.40 François Bonhommé, Diploma for a Mutual Aid Society 627
8.41 Ernest Meissonier, Les Bravi 629
xvi illustrations
chapter 9
9.1 Henri Fantin-Latour, Portrait of Edouard Manet 632
9.2 Edouard Manet, Portrait of M and Mme Auguste Manet 639
9.3 Edouard Manet, The Nymph Surprised 641
9.4 Edouard Manet, La Pêche 642
9.5 Edouard Manet, Portrait of Antonin Proust 644
9.6 Thomas Couture, Portrait of a Woman 644
9.7 Edouard Manet, The Bark of Dante 645
9.8 Edouard Manet, The Bark of Dante 645
9.9 Edouard Manet, The Infanta Margarita 646
9.10 Edouard Manet, Portrait of Roudier 647
9.11 Thomas Couture, Portrait of a Man 647
9.12 Edouard Manet, The Absinthe Drinker 650
9.13 Edouard Manet, The Boy with the Cherries 655
9.14 Thomas Couture, Drummer Boy 656
9.15 Le Gamin de Paris 658
9.16 Edouard Manet, The Fifer 659
9.17 Edouard Manet, Concert in the Tuileries 667
9.18 Edouard Manet, The Old Musician 669
9.19 Charles Monginot, Caught in the Act 673
9.20 Edouard Manet, The Street Singer 674
9.21 Frédéric Bazille, The Italian Street Singer 674
9.22 Edouard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe 676
9.23 Charles de Marville, Scene at the Bois de Boulogne, Paris 678
9.24 Eugène Guérard, Long Live Wine, Long Live the Juice Divine 680
9.25 A. Morlon, Boating Party on the Banks of the Seine 680
9.26 Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Empress Eugénie Surrounded by Her Ladies-in-Waiting 684
9.27 Henri Fantin-Latour, Homage to Delacroix 687
9.28 Henri Fantin-Latour, The Atelier in the Batignolles 688
9.29 Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus 690
9.30 Edouard Manet, Olympia 691
9.31 Titian, Venus of Urbino 693
9.32 Lambert Sustris, Venus 694
9.33 West Indian Women Laundering 697
9.34 Edouard Manet, The Universal Exposition of 1867 702
9.35 Edouard Manet, Portrait of Emile Zola 704
9.36 Edouard Manet, The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama 711
9.37 Edouard Manet, The Execution of Maximilian 714
9.38 Isidore Pils, Zouaves in the Trenches 718
9.39 Execution of Maximilian 721
9.40 Edouard Manet, The Execution of Maximilian 722
9.41 François Aubert, The Execution Squad 723
xvii illustrations
9.42 Paul-Alexandre Protais, Morning, before the Attack 726
9.43 Paul-Alexandre Protais, Evening, after the Attack 726
9.44 Jean-Paul Laurens, The Last Moments of Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico 728
9.45 Photograph of Maximilian 730
9.46 Edouard Manet, La Guerre civile 734
9.47 Charles de Marville, Fountain, Place de la Madeleine 734
9.48 Edouard Manet, The Barricade 735
chapter 10
10.1 Auguste B. Braquehais, Communards Posing at the Base of the Vendôme Column 740
10.2 Auguste B. Braquehais, Communards Posing 740
10.3 Cham, Souvenirs et regrets 741
10.4 Rebuilding 745
10.5 Karl Fichot, The Principal Monuments of Paris during the Course of the Year 1873 746
10.6 Charles de Marville, The Restoration of the Vendôme Column after the Commune 746
10.7 Claude Monet, Impression: Sunrise 752
10.8 Claude Monet, Boulevard des Capucines 754
10.9 The Ruins of Paris: Porte Maillot and the Avenue de la Grande Armée 754
10.10 Bertall, La Barricade 756
10.11 Dubois, Une pétroleuse 756
10.12 Eugène Girard, The Emancipated Woman Shedding Light on the World 756
10.13 Title page from V. Fournel, Paris et ses ruines 757
10.14 Bertall, Le Docteur Tant-Pis et le Docteur Tant-Mieux 759
10.15 Edgar Degas, The Cotton Office, New Orleans 761
10.16 Jean Béraud, A Soirée in the Hôtel Caillebotte 763
10.17 Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street, Rainy Weather 765
10.18 Gustave Caillebotte, Le Pont de l’Europe 767
10.19 A. Lamy, The Pont de l’Europe and the Gare Saint-Lazare 767
10.20 Claude Monet, Le Pont de l’Europe 769
10.21 Claude Monet, Gare Saint-Lazare 769
10.22 Claude Monet, The Railway Bridge, Argenteuil 771
10.23 Claude Monet, The Roadbridge at Argenteuil 771
10.24 Claude Monet, The Wooden Bridge at Argenteuil 773
10.25 Claude Monet, The Roadbridge at Argenteuil under Repair 773
10.26 Le Pont d’Argenteuil 774
10.27 Claude Monet, The Railroad Bridge Viewed from the Port 775
10.28 Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Hope 777
10.29 Title page from J. Claretie, Histoire de la Révolution de 1870–71 777
10.30 Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, Ruins of the Tuileries, May 1871 778
10.31 Alphonse Liebert, Interior of the Salle des Maréchaux 778
10.32 A State Ball at the Tuileries [Salle des Maréchaux] 779
10.33 M. Val Elven, Ruins. Interior of the Tuileries. Current State of the Vestibule of
the Salle des Maréchaux 779
xviii illustrations
10.34 Emmanuel Frémiet, Joan of Arc on Horseback 781
10.35 Emmanuel Frémiet, Gorilla Carrying Off a Human Female 782
11.1 Adolph von Menzel, The Departure of King William I for the Army, 31 July 1870 785
11.2 Adolph von Menzel, Soldier of the Prussian Landwehr and French Prisoners 787
11.3 Adolph von Menzel, The Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple 788
11.4 Adolph von Menzel, End-of-the-Day of Atonement (The Habdalah) 788
11.5 Adolph von Menzel, The Iron Rolling Mill (Modern Cyclops) 793
11.6 Laminoirs de Lipine (Society of Zinc, Mines, and Foundries of Upper Silesia) 793
11.7 Donnersmarck-Hütte 797
xix illustrations
Art in an Age of Civil Struggle, 1848–1871, the fourth volume in the series A
Social History of Modern Art, essentially covers the period from the Eu-
ropean revolutions of 1848 and the bourgeoning independence movement
in Italy through the American Civil War and culminating with the French
Commune. Although Biedermeier culture is also covered in this volume, I
take this step back in time from 1848 to help clarify the wellsprings of the
revolutions in Prussia and Austria and its predominantly realist sensibility.
This volume embraces the various movements of realism and culminates
just at the moment of transition to French impressionism, although the
Italian Macchiaioli already anticipate many of the principles later associ-
ated with the French movement.
This is a period characterized by a quantum leap in science and tech-
nology, and by the continuing secularization of intellectual thought and
ordinary existence. The major metropolitan centers may be seen as battle-
grounds in a double sense: as sites for civic transformation and urban re-
newal programs and as spheres of actual domestic combat. Napoléon III’s
ambitious project to rebuild Paris from the ground up had as its major aim
to transform the old medieval city into a modern metropolis, but it also
succeeded in driving the working classes to the slum districts on the eastern
margins of the city or to the shantytowns of the suburbs. The mastermind
and supervisor of the emperor’s vast scheme, Baron Georges Haussmann,
widened the boulevards and eliminated many of the narrow, winding,
crooked streets both to reduce the opportunities for street uprisings and
the construction of barricades and to allow the military to move in expe-
ditiously with rolling armor to crush them. Although some opponents of
the scheme, still reeling from 1848, feared the increase of workers that pub-
lic works would attract to the city, the program actually served to stabilize
the social and political structure by offering abundant employment. These
urban developments in Paris paralleled a similar evolution in Vienna, Brus-
sels, New York, and a host of other municipalities as these cities were re-
vamped to accommodate the privileged sectors of society and protect them
2 introduction
from “mob rule.” Napoléon III and Haussmann also influenced American
city planning and civic architecture in the post–Civil War era, similarly
aimed at facilitating more harmonious class interaction and keeping a lid
on class warfare.
Strategic considerations played a conspicuous role in the urban rebuild-
ing program and with good reason: the period is marked above all else as
one of conflict between, on the one hand, the residual but rapidly disin-
tegrating Metternichean system and, on the other, liberal and national-
ist impulses that preserved the revolutionary engagement inspired by the
principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, which continued to be cham-
pioned in progressive circles despite renewed attempts to smother liberal
ideals. The most articulate expression of liberalism in the nineteenth cen-
tury was formulated by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill in his
famous essay, On Liberty. Written in 1859, a sort of delayed challenge to the
accumulating wave of reaction following the revolutions of 1848, On Lib-
erty summarized the faith of a liberal in continuous social progress through
the capacity of humankind for freedom of thought—a classic restatement
of Enlightenment universalism. That same year Charles Darwin published
his momentous theory of evolution by natural selection, On the Origin of
Species, a milestone in biological science in that it applied the same laws to
the development of human beings and animals, creating the conditions for
linking all life with cosmic, suprahistorical forces. Darwinian ideas were
enthusiastically, if loosely, extended to social and political discussions in
the ruthless argument that came to be known as Social Darwinism and
exploited to justify harsh economic competition, racial differences, im-
perialism, and even the necessity of war. Together with his later Descent
of Man, published in 1871, Darwin’s key contributions bracket the dates
of this volume, with the later work elaborating on his crucial notion that
human beings descended from “some lowly organised form.”
Although it was mainly the conservatives who appropriated the term
“Social Darwinism” to rationalize their brute behavior in the marketplace,
social democrats were among the first to observe Darwinian parallels to their
scientific approach to history. In 1860 Marx wrote to Engels that Origin of
Species provided a “basis in natural science for our views,” and subsequently
entertained the idea of dedicating the second volume of Das Kapital to the
biologist. (Darwin, however, refused the offer.) Of course, Marx’s influ-
ential theory and criticism of contemporary society was the equivalent of
Darwin’s apocalyptic bombshell in the social sciences, beginning with his
landmark Communist Manifesto (authored jointly with Engels), published
on the eve of the revolutions of 1848. It is no coincidence that in the same
decade of the 1860s the word “capitalism” entered the West’s economic and
political vocabulary, a period when the idea that economic growth and po-
litical and social progress rested on competitive private enterprise assumed
the force of dogma. Marx predicted capitalism’s demise and replacement
by a new classless society, an intellectual act of sheer courage and bravado
3 introduction
at the time he wrote Das Kapital. Yet Marxism had an immense appeal for
both the downtrodden and their intellectual allies, promising an end to
exploitative industrial society and assuring adherents that the triumph of
their cause was guaranteed by history.
Although the influence of Marxism grew during the second wave of
industrialization in the closing decades of the century, Marx’s role in the
founding of the International Working Men’s Association (the First In-
ternational) in 1864 was instrumental in building a workers’ movement,
some of whose members participated in the Commune of 1871. Even ear-
lier, Marxist ideas circulated through his (and Engels’s) journalistic contri-
butions and deeply affected many of his contemporaries in both nationalist
struggles as well as the international movement that stressed solidarity with
laboring classes everywhere in a period of intense nationalism.
Except for the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War (in the lat-
ter case, the siege of Paris and the Commune that grew out of it are part
of the story), most of these nationalist struggles took place on domestic
fronts either to oust a foreign occupier or defend one’s class, political par-
ty, property, or way of life against the onslaught of fellow citizens. These
conflicts were fought out on home territory by ordinary citizens as well
as by uniformed soldiers in the face of the breakdown of the traditional
separation of domestic and military domains. Total mobilization of the
citizenry to support military solutions undermined the old threshold be-
tween home and battlefield and made citizens fair game as well as combat-
ants. Circumstances reached a breaking point in 1848 when the economic
crisis of the previous two years gave rise to uprisings for political liberty
and nationhood in the major metropolitan centers in Europe: Paris, Berlin,
Vienna, Milan, Naples, Venice, and Rome. Although all the revolutions
of 1848 ended in defeat for the insurgents, they set into motion powerful
forces that generated more lasting consequences. Popular uprisings were
shunned in favor of coalition building with independent nation-states as
in the case of Italy, where the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, ruled by an
indigenous Italian dynasty, helped lead the Risorgimento—the drive for Ital-
ian unification. By 1870, complete Italian unification would be achieved.
One year later, Germany was united under the aegis of Bismarck when,
on 18 January 1871, at Versailles, the German princes granted the title of
Kaiser (emperor) to Wilhelm I. In this case, however, Bismarck’s success in
foreign affairs persuaded the remnant of the liberal movement to engage in
Realpolitik, to abandon revolutionary ideals for the realities of power and a
conservative, authoritarian state.
German unity was achieved on the back of Napoléon III’s ill-fated
decision to declare war on Prussia, igniting the nationalist sympathies of
the South German states who had signed defensive treaties with Prussia
in 1866 and now came to its aid. Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian
War and the fall of the French emperor created the conditions for renewed
civil struggle in France known as the Paris Commune. It began as both a
4 introduction
patriotic refusal to accept French defeat and as a rejection of Napoleonic
rule, but when the radical faction of the mobilized populace went its own
way under the provisional government presided over by the same Thiers
who oversaw the suppression of the French workers in 1834, civil war broke
out in which Frenchmen slaughtered Frenchmen with a savagery unprec-
edented in European history.
French contemporaries labeled the conflict a guerre civile, a true civil
war between hostile citizen factions of the same country. Coming only six
years after the end of the American Civil War—the most devastating of all
fratricidal wars in the nineteenth century—the ruthless suppression of the
Paris Commune, although lasting only two months, recapitulated many
of the horrors of the bloody internecine strife of the American conflict.
The American Civil War was the bloodiest war anywhere between 1815
and 1914, and its combatants sustained even greater losses than the casual-
ties of the first Napoleonic wars. It tested the very survival of the Ameri-
can experiment, focusing on the contradictions of slavery and the problem
of race in a society dedicated to freedom and equality. The American crisis
was a matter of vital concern to the rest of the world as well, and though
no foreign power recognized the Confederacy or intervened on its behalf,
it became a world event anyway. Lord Palmerston relished the prospect of
the elimination of a dangerous rival in the Atlantic world, while Napoléon
III perceived the Civil War as the best possible cover for his intervention
in Mexico. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, both keen observers of the
Civil War, emphasized the universal significance of its elimination of the
last remnants of a feudal system in America and saw it as a victory for wage
earners in the North in smoothing the path of industrial capitalism.
The victory of the North gave to American nationalism a powerful
stimulus and helped build a sense of involvement unprecedented in Ameri-
can history. It was a great watershed in American history and went a long
way in shaping the national culture, as is evident in the literature and visual
arts of the period. Significantly, the war also advanced manufacturing in-
terests, whose success in contributing to the salvation of the Union justi-
fied a spectacular industrial expansion and growing corporate organization
as a kind of patriotic virtue. Finally, it gave a vigorous impulse to the in-
dustrial capitalists whose quest for an expanding international market will
constitute the main theme of the next volume in the series, Art in an Age of
Empire, 1871–1914.
The revolutionary movements that broke out in the late winter and early
spring of 1848 heralded the only major social and political upheaval the Eu-
ropean continent experienced during the Age of Civil Struggle. In France,
the revolution of 1848 momentarily swept away the eclectic cobwebs spun
by the July Monarchy and stimulated excited civic participation on all lev-
els of society. Previously unimagined alternatives now seemed attainable,
as the grid that held the fears and blocked the people’s aspirations broke
apart and the most disparate groups could feel themselves fraternally unit-
ed. Although the economic forecast during this period was unsurprisingly
gloomy, the social atmosphere was charged with an extraordinary ebul-
lience which was manifested in the sudden efflorescence of political clubs
(including the surfacing of several heretofore secret societies), some with
names like Jacobin and Montagnard derived from the Great Revolution
and others organized for the emancipation of women and European peo-
ples still suffering under a tyrannical yoke.
The proliferation of clubs or popular societies between March and June
helped make the February revolution a social revolution in the sense of
mobilizing and educating thousands of people previously excluded from
the political process. The club movement, supplemented by ongoing ban-
queting, provided the meeting point for mass participation at a time when
organized labor and political parties in France were still in their infancy.

They constituted a power bloc that acted to keep the Provisional Gov-
ernment on course during the unstable transition, enlisting the energies
of women, the working poor, and Fourierists, Icarians, and other utopian
sects now able to operate in the open. The proliferating banquets and the
planting of Trees of Liberty and their blessing by the clergy attested to the
hopefulness and accented the cult of the people, instanced by the opening
words of the government’s proclamation of 26 February that spoke in the
name of “the people.” The optimism expressed itself in a flood of newspa-
pers and pamphlets filled with novel social and reformist programs which
i Springtime and Winter of the People
in France, 1848–1852
6 chapter one
poured forth as soon as the Provisional Government abolished the stamp
duty and removed restrictions on the liberty of the press.
Unfortunately, the euphoria would be short-lived, as the political re-
alities set in and complicated the plans of the idealists. The idea of the
“Republic” remained anachronistically linked with the dream of 1789
and its antique ideal. Furthermore, as it turned out, the progress of the
February revolution rested on a freak alliance of classes, each of which
participated for very different reasons. The petty bourgeois, not quite
rich enough to qualify for the vote, shared with the workers their resent-
ment against the tight elite of industrialists and bankers who ran the July
Monarchy, and hoped through the expansion of the franchise to make
decisions more favorable to artisanal trade and small shopkeeping. The
workers fought to achieve some economic security and job guarantees for
all. At the same time, the smaller tradesmen were afraid for their profits
and property, and would soon begin to wax paranoid about what the aris-
tocratic and haut-bourgeois described as the “excesses of the people.” As
Marx wrote: “The Provisional Government, rising on the February bar-
ricades, necessarily reflected in its composition the different parties that
shared in the victory. It could be naught but a compromise among the
different classes that had jointly overthrown the July throne, but whose
interests were antagonistic.”
Although its break with the past was nearly complete, the Provisional
Government that emerged out of the heady successes of the first months
could only constitute a compromise of many conflicting voices. George
Sand described the moderate faction—which included Arago, Marie, Gar-
nier-Pagès, Crémieux (all four of whom had been opposition deputies
during the July Monarchy), Dupont de l’Eure, Armand Marrast, and La-
martine—as “the juste milieu of the Republic.”
This group perceived the
revolution as a political opportunity: it meant the completion of the first
revolution by the substitution of a free and democratic republic based upon
universal male suffrage for a monarchy based upon a rigidly restricted fran-
chise. Sand lined them up against the radical faction—including republi-
cans Ledru-Rollin and Ferdinand Flocon and socialists Louis Blanc and the
machinist Alexandre Martin (a veteran of the secret society Les Saisons and
known simply as “Albert” in the contemporary accounts)—for whom the
revolution implied a social and economic as well as a political transforma-
tion; they in fact wished to translate the writings of the earlier reform-
ists into practical action and cushion society against the hardships of the
new industrial age. The insurmountable dilemma of 1848 lay in the con-
flict between those who wanted to seize the opportunity to solve the social
problem by radical reform of the conditions of labor and those who were
determined to resist social changes that they feared would lead to chaos
and anarchy. The moderate group thought it sufficient to grant the right
to vote to the male population, shorten the working day, and allow a lais-
sez-faire program to take care of the rest. In the initial stages, the radical
7 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
group took to the offensive while the moderates held back out of fear of
antagonizing those who fought on the barricades. If Lamartine’s eloquence
could save the tricolor from being replaced by a red flag, the government
still had to compromise by allowing a red rosette to be affixed to the tri-
color standard.
For a brief time both camps worked well together despite their ide-
ological differences and were responsible for significant political as well
as social gains. Several members in both factions of the coalition govern-
ment—Dupont de l’Eure, Crémieux, Ledru-Rollin, Garnier-Pagès, Marie,
Flocon and Louis Blanc—bridged the gap as Freemasons, and Lamartine in
a moment of generosity could admit that in the beginning the secret societ-
ies “constituted a sort of democratic Freemasonry.” Many of the Masonic
symbols used during the revolution of 1789 were revived in this period:
the triangle, square, compass, and plumb line. At the outset of the regime,
the operative coalition between moderates resentful of Louis-Philippe’s
opposition to electoral reform and radicals seeking social change was fa-
cilitated by Masonic influence.
Working hours were reduced in Paris and
the provinces, National Workshops (Ateliers Nationaux) were created to deal
with widespread unemployment, universal male suffrage was introduced
into France, and slavery was abolished in the colonies. Nudged by work-
ers’ demonstrations, the Provisional Government made Blanc the chair of a
commission on labor issues at the Luxembourg Palace empowered to draft
wage agreements and labor codes for all branches of industry and trade.
The hesitation and vacillation of the new regime that played it by ear
on a daily basis, however, gave rise to disorders in Paris and instilled grave
doubts in a large portion of the populace, producing a sense of disquiet that
spread to the remotest parts of the country. Strapped for revenues, the gov-
ernment caused further unrest in the countryside by increasing direct taxes.
Despite the echoes of the cry for revolution heard in the clubs, it would
seem that the country as a whole in 1848 neither wished for drastic social
change nor the abolition of economic inequality. The more affluent peas-
antry, many of them now proprietors in their own right, were only fright-
ened by tales of the Parisian socialists and by rumors of the redistribution
of income and property. Even in Paris, workers’ disturbances began to have
their effect, and when the April elections for the National Constituent As-
sembly rolled around, most of the votes were cast on the side of “law and
order.” The voting results represented an overwhelming defeat for the ex-
treme radicals, who won only 100 out of 876 seats.
Early in May the Assembly began to betray its conservative direction,
and a series of demonstrations led by radicals culminated with massive ar-
rests and prosecutions, including that of Albert, who had been deposed
along with Blanc by a reorganized government authority in the form of
an Executive Commission following the resignation of the members of the
Provisional Government. Worse, this Executive Commission also decided
to disband the poorly organized National Workshops that at least provided
8 chapter one
some relief for the unemployed, a move that was perceived by the laboring
classes as immediately inimical to their interests and led once more to the
erection of barricades.
The National Workshops and Radical Thought
The institution of the National Workshops crystallized the antagonism
between the classes, looming on the political horizon as it did as an in-
auspicious expression of the socialist slogan “the right to work.” By 1848,
the critical attack on the existing economic system by Fourierists, Saint-
Simonists, and a host of other reformist groups and the projection of
their utopian alternatives had penetrated into the popular consciousness
and informed working-class agitation. The window of radical opportu-
nity opened during the first months of the Second Republic would always
be remembered as the heyday of a free political press, with hundreds of
new journals appearing in the capital and provinces and functioning not
only as mouthpieces but also as centers of political mobilization for the
diverse associations encouraging worker-controlled production. The titles
themselves often clue the readers to their respective positions: La Démocra-
tie pacifique, the Fourierist venue; La Réforme, an uncompromising opposi-
tion paper edited by Flocon, Ledru-Rollin, and Blanc; and La République,
vaunting itself as socialist and sympathetic to Icarian ideas.
Both the aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville and the radical Karl Marx
characterized the June uprising as class warfare, with the first observing
that the insurrection represented “a powerful effort of the workers to es-
cape from the necessities of their condition, which had been depicted to
them as an illegitimate depression, and by the sword to open up a road to-
wards that imaginary well-being that had been shown to them in the dis-
tance as a right.”
The agitation of workers on behalf of the concept of the
“right to work” and some economic alternative to laissez-faire doctrine
threatened bourgeois political hegemony and intensified the social divide
along clearly defined class lines. Although their immediate antagonists in
the form of the Garde Mobile were also part of the artisanal community,
these troops were on the average much younger and threw in with the
moderate Republic as a better option. But a substantial portion of the in-
surgents came out of the National Workshops, and collectively reacted to
the betrayal of the promise to workers in February guaranteeing them the
“right to work.”
The document that would become a primary text of the internation-
al labor movement, the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich
Engels—originally the platform of a secret society appearing in German
in February 1848 and in French shortly before the June insurrection—
began with an extraordinary statement defining the entire history of hu-
man society up to the present as “the history of class struggles.” Although
the authors insisted that the specific character of the antagonists mutates
9 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
according to the dominant economic ideas at any given time, it was clear
from the timing of their analysis that their immediate theoretical frame-
work had been informed by the counterrevolution and its Hegelian inter-
The history of France between 1789 and 1830 was predominantly a his-
tory of political struggle between the bourgeoisie and the old privileged
orders, the nobility and the clergy. After 1830, the unfolding of political
and social struggle shifted to a confrontation between bourgeoisie and pro-
letariat. Extrapolating the salient data from these dialectical movements in
the present and comparing them with those in the past, Marx concluded
that society boiled down to a site of contestation between an elite owning
the means of production and a toiling community whose labor has been
exploited (“alienated”) to provide wealth for this elite. Since the class with
economic power invariably controls the state apparatus and its collateral
institutions, it is able to exert political power to expand its wealth and hold
down the laboring class. Additionally, its command over mental produc-
tion and channels of information allows it to effectively propagandize itself
as the natural and inevitable outcome of human history and even succeed
to a large extent in impressing these arbitrary ideas on the exploited classes
as eternal and universal.
Marx and Engels admit the influence of other socialist pioneers on their
thought, but distinguish “communism” from “socialism” as a more ad-
vanced and scientific formulation of social and economic evolution leading
to the triumph of the proletariat. Although admiring the critical analyses of
the existing order, they claimed that their predecessors did not have a suf-
ficient grasp of the revolutionary potential of the industrial proletariat, and
looked to the bourgeoisie for reform from above to obtain redress of the
grievances of nascent capitalism. Marx mentions in this context the work
of Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen, Cabet (Voyage en Icarie), and Proudhon
(Philosophy of Poverty), but though he is dismissive of them, their ideas con-
tinued to circulate and inspire reform movements throughout the world.
The pioneers of socialism, a motley crew that included Henri, comte de
Saint-Simon (1760–1825), Charles Fourier (1772–1837), and Robert Owen
(1771–1858), experienced directly the full impact of the dual revolution and
the countervailing tendencies. By 1848, the growth of the industrial base
made their analyses even more cogent and appealing. They posited new
societies based on the spirit of cooperation rather than on competition, es-
pousing social and economic systems in which production and distribution
of goods would be planned for the general welfare of the entire popula-
tion. Their leading ideas included the elevation of the workers to “indus-
trial equality,” universal and free education, and the emancipation of the
female, thus releasing the early feminist energies in the modern era.
It was Saint-Simon who first formulated the famous slogan, “From each
according to his/her capacity, to each according to his/her needs.” Having
witnessed the confusion and horrors of the 1789 revolution, he set out to
10 chapter one
create a rational social system capable of controlling both absolute monar-
chy and what he perceived to be the excesses of popular sovereignty. His
disciples followed his missionary bent in clarifying the emerging stage in
history profoundly marked by science and industry, but they subscribed to
a scientifically and industrially organized society led by a new “priesthood”
of artists, businessmen, manufacturers, and scientists. This elite, chosen on
the basis of talent rather than noble lineage, would supersede the old so-
cial hierarchy and harness technology for the general good. Saint-Simo-
nists championed efforts to develop vast canal and railway projects, credit
institutions, and urban reconstruction, and individual ex-members of the
movement would play a major role in the transformation of Paris and the
general industrial expansion during the Second Empire.
Fourier’s bitterness toward society, the Jews in particular, sprang from
his having been financially ruined by the French Revolution, but his search
for a principle of harmony that could reconcile him to society expressed it-
self in global and universal terms. His relentless dissection of bourgeois so-
ciety was complemented by a highly original utopian solution to the social
problem. He conceived the idea that the law of the moral universe is one
of emotional attraction or gravitation, corresponding to the laws of mate-
rial gravitation in the physical world. The defects of society start from the
obstacles thrown in the path of attraction, the remedy for which is a total
reorganization of the environment to permit the full play of attraction and
thereby achieve social harmony. Unlike the Saint-Simonists, who planned
to reorganize society on the model of large-scale industry and giant rail-
way and canal systems, Fourier advocated small social units of agricultural
communities, called phalanges or “phalanxes,” comprising some 2,000 per-
sons living in huge buildings called phalanstères, where a cross-section of
disparate personalities and temperaments encompassing the full range of
the collective ideal would attain harmony by expressing their individual
passionate natures in every way to make life pleasant for themselves and
others. The inclusion here of the choice of work in accordance with one’s
temperament made Fourier the first to stress the importance of rotating
and satisfying work to overcome the oppressiveness of modern labor. (His
solution for collecting garbage was to employ children for this task since
they enjoyed wallowing in filth.) The wage system was to be abolished,
and work would be remunerated by a share of the profits accruing to the
phalanstery. All members of the association were to be guaranteed decent
food, clothing, and lodging and given stock divided into shares equivalent
to the capital the member initially brought to the association. Despite some
stunning insights into the workings of bourgeois society, he upheld the
principles of property, heredity, interest on capital, and income inequality
within the phalansteries, where people with unequal fortunes participate.
Owen, a textile manufacturer predisposed to the aims of the 1789
revolution, turned radical when exposed to widespread mistreatment of
the working classes; when he became part owner and manager of the New
11 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
Lanark cotton mills in Scotland in 1799, he resolved to improve the lives of
his employees and to prove to other capitalists that it was possible to do so
without suffering a loss of profits. Accordingly, he raised wages, amelio-
rated the work environment, refused to hire children under ten, provided
workers with neat cottages and food and clothing for reasonable rates, and
established free schools for children and adults. In 1835 he launched a new
society known as the Association of All Classes of All Nations, where the
term “socialism” was used for the first time. Owen argued against Malthus
that as a consequence of technological improvement and rapidly accu-
mulating wealth, sufficient food could be made available for all; the main
problem was not the disproportionate growth in population in relation-
ship to the food supply but the unfair distribution of wealth. Akin to the
Fourierists, Owen came to believe that environment played a key role in
character formation and that the entire social and economic order had to
be drastically revamped to achieve a sane society. He tried to establish a
model community based on his idea of group living at New Harmony,
near Evansville, Indiana, but it was doomed to an early failure. Neverthe-
less, Owen’s radicalism never wavered, and the revolution of 1848 infused
him with fresh inspiration. Then seventy-seven years old, he traveled to
France at the end of March to lend his support to the reform program that
he claimed to be the summation of his ideals.
Etienne Cabet, a radical deputy from the Côte-d’Or disheartened by
Louis-Philippe’s betrayal of the laboring classes, mounted a courageous at-
tack against the regime with his analysis of the revolution of 1830.
iled in England in the mid-1830s, he was attracted to Owen’s activities and
fell under the influence of Thomas More’s Utopia. In 1840 he published his
own utopian novel, Voyage en Icarie, which opened with a picture of serene
world, an “earthly paradise” where private property has been abolished
and the inhabitants live out their lives in supreme contentment. Men and
women are equal and everyone receives the same education. Like Owen’s
project, Cabet’s visionary organization, with its thoroughly planned and
structured walkways, vast lawns, grottoes, waterfalls, and parks, sought to
establish the sense of a community of natural equality in which the land is
shared by all and is reinvented to provide a salubrious environment capable
of shaping ideal men and women. Icarianism represented one of Europe’s
most significant and popular pre-Marxist socialist developments as well
as one of the more fascinating of the utopian experiments in the United
States. Although short-lived due to environmental factors, tentative colo-
nies were established in Texas and Illinois.
Marx and Engels cited Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s The Philosophy of Pov-
erty (Système des contradictions economiques, ou Philosophie de la misère, 1846) as
an example of “bourgeois socialism.” The artisanal author of What Is Prop-
erty? (Qu est-ce que la propriété? 1840)—and who straightaway answered the
question of the title with the famous equation “property is theft”—once
impressed Marx for his bold way of stating the issue of social stratification.
12 chapter one
Yet Marx always faulted him for lack of historical understanding, for not
perceiving economic categories as dependent on a particular historical de-
velopment and applying them as if they were absolute and eternal. Marx
was initially so outraged by Philosophy of Poverty that he wrote a rebuttal
which he perversely entitled The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), and the two
former comrades never spoke to one another again.
Proudhon’s appeal to the workings of inevitable justice and economic
equality from above would always be suspect to Marx, and his history of
contradictory positions and inconsistencies are baffling even to sympathet-
ic biographers. But Marx could not deny the French philosopher’s coura-
geous participation in the revolution of 1848 and his vociferous opposition
to Second Republic moderation as spokesperson for the poor in the Na-
tional Assembly. As seen in his Les Confessions d un révolutionnaire (1851), he
continued for strategic purposes to subscribe to the democratic and social
Republic (even including himself among the démocrates-socialistes) and to
vote with the Mountain.
Proudhon’s attacks on Louis-Napoléon led to
his arrest and incarceration in 1849, although like most radicals who man-
aged to remain in Paris he eventually made peace with the government of
the Second Empire. While respecting the merits of various socialistic and
communist programs, he inevitably dismissed them as utopian and imprac-
tical. Social order is established on the basis of inexorable justice, not on
the humanitarian shibboleths of fraternity, self-sacrifice, and love spouted
by so many well-meaning socialists. He also rejected violent revolution
as a means of social change. Alone among the major reformers, he denies
women a larger social and political role and insists on their moral and in-
tellectual inferiority to men. He agrees with most of the reformers that
central to a well-organized and just economy was the universalization of
property and the free circulation of credit, and advocated guaranteed work
for all, the equalization of wages, that labor be made the basis of all value
(as measured by time), and abolition of the distinction between labor and
capital. He was attacked by all shades of the political spectrum, and this
lack of party affiliation hardened the position of this self-proclaimed anar-
chist. Anarchism for Proudhon in 1848–1851 meant the affirmation of lib-
erty expressed in direct popular government, where all the citizens have an
immediate share in the formation of their public institutions. The state and
its irrational authority and social hierarchy would wither away as society
gradually achieved economic equilibrium and social justice.
Proudhon chooses Louis Blanc as representative of modern socialists
only to viciously refute him, while Marx refers to Blanc more sympatheti-
cally in claiming closeness with French social democrats. (Blanc’s theory
on the organization of work marks the emergence of social democracy.)
One of the most popular economic critiques in France was Blanc’s own
concept of social organization, outlined in his book Organisation du travail
(1840), in which organization of work is carried out by a network of social
workshops through a centralized, state-controlled industry. By this means,
13 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
the state could subjugate existing capitalists on their own ground with-
out disrupting the whole order of society and simultaneously promote the
well-being of the working class. The workers in the various workshops
would govern directly, equalize wages, and distribute the returns among
themselves, then use them to support the old and infirm, to alleviate the
effects of recessions in other industrial branches, and to replace worn tools
and machinery. Blanc believed that the success of these national workshops
would gradually displace privately owned firms and that private competi-
tion would give way peaceably to cooperative production or what he called
“association.” Class distinctions would eventually disappear as the state’s
authority diminished in favor of decentralized control.
The National Workshops decreed by the Provisional Government on 26
February travestied Blanc’s concept, doling out for a certain time two and
then one-and-a-half francs per day to unemployed male workers regardless
of age and ability and regardless of the type of work they performed. The
workshops were doomed to failure because the work shortage in the period
generated a number of applicants far beyond the capacity of the govern-
ment to provide work for them. Artisans of diverse skills were required to
do tasks for which they were not trained or carry out hard labor with pick
and shovel all day; often workshop members could be seen seated along the
roads reading, talking, or idling. They became demoralized and their work
discredited, and inevitably frauds were committed. In the end, workers
only had to be on hand during certain hours to receive their stipend. By 11
March, the daily expenditures amounted to over 20,000 francs per day and
kept increasing; on 19 May there were 87,942 unemployed workers regis-
tered and the subsidies totaled 182,879 francs. Whatever hopes the project
sustained (Blanc claimed it was a setup from the start), it miscarried and
was seized upon by conservatives as a pretext to eliminate the government’s
“socialist” protection of the workers.
Nevertheless, the workshops assumed a symbolic importance for the
working classes as the one attempt of the revolutionary regime to ame-
liorate their class position and rectify previous gross neglect. In addition,
the public workshops had the effect of uniting the working class for the
first time by gathering all the trades into one and the same organization.
In this way, the public workshops tended to create a feeling of class soli-
darity among the laboring community by unifying them into a single of-
ficial body. Although workers themselves recognized the limitations of the
workshops, the organization gave them a hint of the possibility of moving
from the plane of utopian theory to the plane of practical reality.
The persistence of the economic crisis had steadily hardened social an-
tagonisms and heightened the tension between workers and bourgeois.
Blanc wrote that the “counterrevolution” in 1848, which included so-
called republican converts, was specifically directed against the threat of
Already at the end of May fear of the impending dissolution
of the workshops sparked renewed street demonstrations. Conservatives
14 chapter one
argued that a government-supported organization of work on a national
scale meant financial disaster, and the government responded by disman-
tling the National Workshops on 21 June. When the decree appeared in
Le Moniteur the following day, a workers’ delegation met to protest, but
Marie, minister of public works, rejoined with threats. Most of the work-
ing-class quarters of Paris now rose sympathetically in response (or felt the
pressure to do so) and barricades were once more erected. No assurances of
future good will could persuade the workers to disperse peaceably; on 24
June 1848 the National Assembly invested General Cavaignac with special
authority to use force to put down the insurrection. A bitter civil war—a
genuine class war—ensued and was ruthlessly crushed by the government
soldiery, many of them recruited from the countryside, where there was
little sympathy for the rebels.
Lamartine’s specious apologia for the suppression of these workers be-
trayed a real lack of understanding of the social problem. For him they
were the scum of society whose uprising constituted “a plebeian and not
a popular movement, a conspiracy of subalterns and not of chiefs, an out-
break of servile and not of civil war.”
Hence these lowly laborers could
not be counted as citizens as Lamartine abused the term in his rantings
about “the people.” In the end, thousands of workers were killed, and
thousands more arrested and/or deported. All leftists were placed under
suspicion, while others like Caussidière and Louis Blanc sought refuge in
England. Clubs were subjected to supervision, new press laws reimposed
cautionary payments on those who wished to publish political papers, and
in September the working day in Paris was once again increased to twelve
hours. When the Assembly applauded Cavaignac for his suppression of the
uprising, even Lamartine could utter with dismay, “The Republic is dead.”
All the optimism of February and March dissipated in the horrors of civil
war and its aftermath. The Second Republic was henceforth to be a repub-
lic of the bourgeoisie as the previous regime had been a monarchy of the
bourgeoisie. Louis-Napoléon’s election to the presidency in December was
anticlimactic, although the ultimately terrifying result—a plebiscitarian
dictatorship—could not then have been foreseen.
Thomas Couture’s Enrollment of the Volunteers
Between the insurrection of June and Louis-Napoléon’s electoral victory,
Thomas Couture was commissioned by the government to paint The En-
rollment of the Volunteers of 1792 (fig. 1.1).
Couture was perhaps the most
popular artist in France at the moment of the outbreak of February 1848.
The memory of the Romans of the Decadence was still in everyone’s mind,
and its apparent critique of the previous regime invested him with a repub-
lican aura. (Couture even embraced Lamartine on the tribune when the
Second Republic was declared.) The Second Republic actually completed
the payments for the Romans and hung it in the Luxembourg. Couture was
15 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
selected for Salon jury duty under the new government, and actively par-
ticipated in the unions of artists seeking to reform the administration of
the arts.
It probably surprised no one when Couture was assigned one of
the major commissions of the Second Republic, La Patrie en danger, or, as it
came to be called—The Enrollment of the Volunteers.
Couture looked back to the patriotic defense of the endangered father-
land in 1792 for his pictorial narrative. He attempted to show a grand pag-
eant of peasants, priests, nobles, bourgeois, and artisans transformed into
a triumphant citizens’ army that surges with energy past a recruiting plat-
form symbolizing the threshold of conversion. Mothers raise their children
high in the air to witness this example of national esprit, while (in the ini-
tial idea) a personification of Liberty presides over the festival as harbinger
of the glorious outcome. Yet what began as an enthusiastic search for a
usable past to legitimatize one view of the revolution of 1848 would ulti-
mately fizzle into fiasco and bitter disenchantment.
The conflictual development and tragic culmination of the work are in-
separable from the disastrous history of the 1848 Republic. Couture and his
creation were ultimately caught up in both a cultural and ideological strug-
gle that began in the name of sweeping change and ended with a retreat to
the middle ground. Just as Romans points thematically to the decline of a
society and demolishes a lifeless classicism and bombastic romanticism, so
The Enrollment, with its manifest conflicts and contradictions, reveals the
political and aesthetic fissures of 1848. Its hybrid composition of realist and
allegorical features attests to the transitional and compromised character
1.1 Thomas Couture, The Enroll-
ment of the Volunteers, 1848–1879.
Musée Départemental de l’Oise,
16 chapter one
of the Second Republic and Couture’s inability to shed the cloak of grande
peinture. The work of displacing this notion would be left to the radical
realists, whose movement and personalities Couture henceforth regarded
with ambivalence. They took up the premises of the social and democratic
Republic and surmounted the ambiguities of the moderates by plunging
into politically charged subject matter out of sync with the academic tradi-
tion and conservative taste.
As for Couture, he considered his effort an authentic and novel cultural
support for the hopes and aspirations of the republicans of 1848. Undoubt-
edly, he had in mind something akin to a combination of David’s Oath of
the Tennis Court and Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, both of which
helped shape contemporary history. La République reported on 15 March
that the director of fine arts issued a special order for the installation in
the Luxembourg Museum of “Delacroix’s Liberty on the Barricades and
Couture’s Romans of the Decadence.”
Thus for a brief period during the
Second Republic the two were hung as pendants in the Luxembourg—the
alpha and omega of Louis-Philippe’s art history. Paradoxically, only after
1848 could Delacroix’s picture be shown publicly, after languishing in ob-
scurity during most of the July Monarchy. Champfleury wrote in August
1848 that it had been “hidden in an attic for being too revolutionary.”

Although Louis-Philippe’s Ministry of the Interior initially acquired it as
a gesture to the Left, after the uprising at the funeral of Lamarque in June
1832 it was never again openly displayed for fear of setting a bad exam-
ple. The picture was eventually returned to the artist—no doubt after 1839
when orders were given to consign to storage all pictures inspired by the
revolution of 1830. Following the February 1848 revolution, the minister
of the interior approved a proposal to reclaim it and exhibit it publicly, and
it eventually hung in the Luxembourg Gallery from the end of May 1849 to
the end of the Republic. The behind-the-scenes shuffling of the tableau in
1848 involved several key bureaucrats close to Couture, including Charles
Blanc, brother of Louis, who commissioned The Enrollment.
Actually, Couture was already well advanced on the project before the
government commission, one which he himself must have proposed for
official authorization. Indeed, he had executed his preliminary designs for
the painting as early as December 1847, which bears out Michael Fried’s
contention that its immediate source of inspiration was Michelet’s series of
lectures prepared for his course at the Collège de France between Decem-
ber 1847 and February 1848. Michelet’s almost evangelical lectures, known
as L’Etudiant, called for an art glorifying the legendary exploits of the 1789
revolution to reunify the nation, and repeatedly referred to the volunteers
of 1792 and their enthusiastic response to the proclamation that “the coun-
try is in danger.”
By displacing the idea of revolution safely back to its fountainhead
in the eighteenth century, Couture could not only respond to Michelet’s
appeal but at the same time satisfy the need for a patriotic history picture
17 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
glorifying the moderate regime of the Second Republic. As a contempo-
rary critic described the germinal idea: “It is intended as both a represen-
tation of a popular festival and an allegory. It is a kind of Triumph of la
Patrie taking place on an antique chariot [sic], hauled along by young men
an by women adorned with flowers, surrounded by the cannons of the
Bastille, whinnying horses, youth in arms, exalted populace, and wives
and children accompanying this heroic march.”
Charles Blanc, the brother of Louis and the director of fine arts who
commissioned the work on 9 October 1848, expressed a strong desire for a
theme relating the ideals of the government to those of the revolution of
1789. The very next day Blanc published in the official newspaper a long
article conceptualizing a republican art grand enough to rival monarchical
culture, emphasizing the need for monumental paintings for institutional
Couture’s project meshed perfectly with Blanc’s vision; Blanc
hoped to install the work in the Salle des Séances of the National Assem-
bly, awarding the artist the exceptionally high price of 12,000 francs for
its completion. The scale and location of the commission rivaled that of
David’s initial projection of the Oath of the Tennis Court, and, ironically, the
fluid political circumstances of 1848 would similarly prevent Couture from
completing it.
Despite the fact that by October 1848 the Republic remained only a
shadow of its founders’ aspiration, Couture still felt sufficiently motivated
to energetically forge a visual statement for the regime capable of arousing
popular morale. He had sided with the moderates during the insurrection
of June and shared their belief that the destabilizing forces of “anarchy”
had now been overthrown and the ground prepared for an orderly consti-
tutional process. Hence his static image of Liberty, which sits innocuously
in the center (i.e., the work of the revolution is complete). Yet it could be
only a question of time before this work would suffer a loss of enthusiasm:
its driving stimulus could only diminish from December 1848 on. In fact,
as soon as it was projected on to its definitive surface, it lost all contact with
the contemporary reality it purported to represent and became a stillborn
child of the painter’s imagination. But perhaps for this reason it is the per-
fect symbol of the strange, short-lived Republic of 1848: it condenses into
one monumental extravaganza all the contradictions and inconsistencies of
the contemporary French society as incarnated in the pictorial conflicts of
the artist.
Couture’s initial fervor for the commission reveals the lyrical illusions
of union and fraternity that momentarily held together the shaky alliance
of people and bourgeoisie. Charles Blanc recalled that when the painter
discussed it “he spoke in words of fire.”
Couture’s two official pictures,
Romans and The Enrollment, record the transition from a perception of de-
cline to one of regeneration in the public sphere. The psychological mood
switch is clearly apparent in a comparison of the two pictures: the forms
of the first are sluggish and confined, those of the second blusterous and
18 chapter one
unconstrained. Romans gives off an aura of languor and torpor, The En-
rollment radiates nearly religious exaltation and is Couture’s quickened re-
sponse to decadence. Romans manifested the oppressive weight of luxury
and immorality; The Enrollment, the regenerative infusion of moral respon-
sibility, devotion, and self-sacrifice. The degenerate atmosphere of the July
Monarchy is dispelled by the infusion of morale and by a sense of self-
respect. Couture’s perspective corresponds to that of Louis-Marc Causs-
idière, a prominent figure of 1848 who served for a time as prefect of police
and emphasized in his memoirs the “decadence of private morals” during
the final phase of the July Monarchy, whose “government of privilege”
encouraged “selfishness and corruption.”
Months before the actual enactment of the commission, the Provisional
Government affirmed in the official newspaper that “one of the best sub-
jects which the surge of patriotism has given to art is the enrollment of
Challenged by the precedent of grande peinture by David, Gros, and
Géricault, Couture again embarked on a vast synthesis linking the revolu-
tion of 1789 with that of 1848 and symbolically engaging all social classes
in a common enterprise. Couture’s theme was inspired by the concept of
a volunteer army developed by the Military Committee of the National
Assembly in 1792 to counteract the evils of a standing army. It proposed
a truly national and egalitarian conscription in which “each man, from the
moment that his native land is endangered, shall be ready to step out. . . . Every
[male] citizen should be a soldier, every soldier a citizen.”
That summer
represented a period of extreme crisis for the second and radical stage of the
revolution as Austrian and Prussian troops menaced France on its frontiers,
and on 11 July the National Assembly declared a state of emergency with
the proclamation “Citizens, the country is in danger [la patrie est en danger].”
Less than two weeks later, the call went out for army volunteers from city
squares throughout France. As Couture accurately shows, platforms for en-
rollment were hastily erected, with tables improvised of planks supported
by drums. One outfit of volunteers from Marseilles made history as they
set out for the capital singing Rouget de Lisle’s recently composed “War
Song for the Rhine Army”: those who heard the stirring chant renamed it
in honor of the singers and it has come down to us as La Marseillaise.
The theme of a volunteer army drawn from outside the metropolis ac-
corded well with the wishes of the new republican government, except
that emphasis was shifted to one class—the floating mass of unemployed
workers. Cavaignac, the minister of war, wanted a large volunteer army
and even requested the lowering of age restrictions to seventeen to achieve
this purpose. As he argued in the National Assembly on 7 June:
The February Revolution gave a new energy to the patriotism of our younger
population. . . . If this patriotism were adopted, it would further complement
the patriotic feelings which today animate the great French family by offering
an honorable career and new means of expressing devotion for their country to
19 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
the young people of the working classes, which are suffering from stagnation of
industry and commerce.
Moderates, including Cavaignac, must have anticipated working-class dis-
content, for just over two weeks later the young “volunteers” (they were
actually paid) in the form of the Garde Mobile were exploited to help sup-
press the Parisian workers’ insurrection.
Couture, however, like Lamartine, would have perceived the savage
rebels of June as unworthy of the title of “citoyen,” and therefore beyond
the pale of the nation. He envisioned the union of the good citizens fight-
ing in defense of the fatherland, not engaged in internal conflict. He chose
the moment of the volunteers’ passionate and unrestrained response to the
call to arms, forged under pressure from without. Like his hero Michelet,
he wished to project la patrie as a colossal aggregate that nevertheless pos-
sessed a unique national personality. In this, too, Couture seems to have
responded to Victor Cousin’s notion that the painter suffers a disadvan-
tage compared with the poet when attempting to personify la patrie: “How
many ideas, how many feelings the word patrie awakens in us; how many
things this word—so brief and so immense—calls to mind; God! Let a
painter try to represent God or the patrie and you see whether he will be
able to provoke emotions which are as intense and as profound.”
the self-indulgent Romans, who spurn their ancestral heritage, the descen-
dants of 1789 unite to take up the heroic struggle initiated by their fore-
bears and strive to preserve the political gains of the revolution.
The subject of the country in danger was hardly novel, and during the
July Monarchy it became a kind of running theme, but Couture’s treat-
ment differs dramatically from that of other artists. Vinchon’s Volunteer En-
rollment of 1792, for example, begun in the late 1840s and first exhibited at the
1.2 Auguste Vinchon, The Volun-
teer Enrollment of 1792, 1850. Musée
National du Château, Versailles,
on deposit with Musée des
Beaux-Arts, Lunéville.
20 chapter one
Salon of 1850–1851, transforms the turbulent event into an orderly proces-
sion of neatly uniformed automatons (fig. 1.2). Conversely, Couture makes
his lively ragtag figures carry the compositional movement, breaking out
with sweeping arm gestures and plunging forward unconstrained.
Couture’s portrayal of the spontaneous acting-together of a whole
people required the presence of an external threat. Group solidarity in
a class-splintered society often requires enemies. The menace that issues
from without generates the incentive for a society/nation to surmount its
ordinary divisions in unity against the common foe. The demonizing of
an adversary also constitutes an ideological strategy for bolstering the tra-
ditional values and customs of one’s own preferred community. Jerome
Boime demonstrated the dynamics of this process with his discovery of
“the fraternal order”—a system of political exclusion opposed to the civil
order and based on bonding through the risk of violent death. The poten-
tial duplicity of ordinary civil discourse, especially in moments of crisis or
drastic social change, creates an intolerable set of social relationships that
need to be clarified and rid of torturous doubt. This desperation induces
the desire to seek and even create situations in which the sincere affections
and hatred of others will be manifest either in self-defense or in provoca-
tion, where genuine trust and love for others can be certified, and can be
experienced reciprocally. The extreme solution of the civil order to this
problem is the field of battle or physical confrontation, a site where proof
of affiliation must go beyond verbal or written contractual conventions.
The more danger one faces, the more one can be trusted, because by that
predisposition one reveals a willing disregard for those civil values that at-
tenuate affiliation through conventional representation. True comradeship
is established only by putting our lives in danger for each other, and the
strength of this bond grows all the stronger if there are common enemies
who provide the opportunity by their hostility.
Civil wars and revolutions are classic instances of the confrontation
between the fraternal and civil orders, as the insurrection of June aptly
demonstrated. The duplicity of the moderate bourgeois republicans set the
stage for the insurrection of the working classes following the abandon-
ment of the National Workshops, who now took to the streets. Many of
those arrested in June claimed that they had been forced to participate,
suggesting, however, less an overt threat than peer group pressure. They
were confronted by circumstances that tested their commitment and class
solidarity, articulated in the form of such familiar expressions as, “Will you
stand up and be counted?” “Which side are you on?” “You are either for us
or against us!” Or as the insurgents of June put it even more succinctly in
their popular slogan: “Du pain ou du plomb!” (Bread or Lead!). If they could
not afford to earn the distrust of their neighbors in the working-class fau-
bourgs in the eastern section of Paris, their participation was further stimu-
lated by the perennial hatred of the privileged classes who feared them and
wished to arrest their social progress.
21 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
On the other side, moderates teamed up with conservatives to repress
the “barbarians at the gate” and met the emergency by conferring extraor-
dinary powers on Cavaignac, minister of war. By rushing to the defense of
the civil order and establishing a “sacred union against anarchy,” they unit-
ed through demonizing the insurgents and compensating for their tortured
sense of compromise by ruthlessly suppressing those stigmatized as radical
extremists. Louis Blanc recalled that already in April “the so-called republi-
can converts began the counterrevolution” through their vehement denun-
ciations of socialism, whose negative associations they easily affixed to the
This drastic social split played out in the insurrection of 23–26 June
eventually undermined the Republic by depriving the moderates of their
popular base and opening the way to authoritarian recuperation.
When Couture began his work this split was not yet so pronounced,
but he was well aware of the old divisions between rich and poor, radicals
and moderates (and conservatives masked as moderates). The choice of 1792
avoided links with the Jacobin era of 1793 and the onset of the Terror—
associations that Lamartine fixed on the extreme Left. Couture avoided
the ideological splits by showing that under exceptional circumstances all
classes could unite, and that once accomplished the exception—having es-
tablished a model for social cooperation—would prove the rule. Thus he
exploited for his lesson in social harmony the concept of a broad alliance
against a foreign enemy, an idea he thought he could still carry through af-
ter the misfortunes of June.
Couture conceived the composition in two horizontal layers organized
in a pyramidal design. On the lower level, representatives of the various
social groups unite in a forward-sweeping procession moving toward the
right, while above them, as the apex to the design, Couture elevated a tri-
bune, or platform, where the volunteers register. Couture ingeniously
exploits the pictorial tradition to express a modern concept: while tradi-
tionally the two-part division referred to the earthly and celestial realms,
Couture reverses this order by identifying the transcendental sphere with la
patrie and the new nation-state. Devotion is not to a spiritual but to a tem-
poral power capable of healing all earthly ills and ushering in the millenni-
um. His inversion may be likened to Marx’s rotation of Hegel’s Absolute.
Both the first sketch and the initial painted study boldly express the
rhythms of the moving file and the variety of individual gestures and poses
(figs. 1.3–4). The only figures that do not hold their place effectively in the
design are the winged allegories hovering overhead. They not only inter-
rupt the smooth flow of the slope at the right, but they are also swallowed
up by the rest of the action. Although clearly derivative of Delacroix’s Lib-
erty and François Rude’s Victory, Couture’s personifications lack their inte-
gral compositional function. The allegories of his predecessors crown the
design through their prominent scale and location, while Couture’s more
diffident allegorical figures appear lost in the vast panorama like delicate
winged insects.
22 chapter one
He made a larger sketch with the aim of increasing their size and to
give them greater visibility (fig. 1.5). Although subsequently painted out,
radiography has revealed the figures’ original presence. At some point, he
changed his mind entirely about the soaring allegories and tentatively elim-
inated them from the design. They show up again, however, in the defini-
tive, unfinished version in Beauvais, where the two allegories, now more
prominent and hugging more tightly to the train of people, still reveal that
they posed a major source of difficulty for the painter. The separate study
of the tribune indicates that the two conventionnels at the right of the plat-
form had to be shifted to the left in the final version to allow for the new
positions of the winged allegories. They also necessitated shifting the di-
rection of the billowing flag with the motto “La patrie est en danger” from
right to left, which further weakened the original design.
1.3 Thomas Couture, The Enroll-
ment of the Volunteers, chalk draw-
ing, 1848. Musée Départemental
de l’Oise, Beauvais.
1.4 Thomas Couture, The En-
rollment of the Volunteers, painted
sketch, 1848. Musée du Hauber-
gier, Senlis.
23 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
The personified abstractions marred his conception in yet another way:
they are conspicuously imaginary types in a work otherwise almost entire-
ly grounded in reality. Although for historical purposes some of the figures
are dressed in eighteenth-century costume, most of them were modeled
from life, and such material accessories as the cannon were scrupulously
reproduced from existing artifacts. Even the static figure of Liberty seat-
ed atop the cannon—which to some extent also hinders the processional
flow—had an actual analogue in the contemporary pageants and festivals.
The collision of contemporary and idealized imagery is felt through
every stage of the work and anticipates the coming realism. The combina-
tion of unsparing naturalism and idealized sentiment is seen in the Spring-
field sketch; on the left, at the extreme rear of the procession and directly
below the tribune, Couture depicted his father in contemporary cloth-
ing—a portrait omitted in the final version. Here and there we discern
other almost photographic portrayals, as in the final version’s group in the
left-hand section and the head of the unfinished soldier on the extreme left
of the upper level. Couture’s fidelity to his live models is strikingly appar-
ent in his study of the unfinished soldier, who also appears on the platform
in the Springfield sketch (fig. 1.6). In the final attempt the artisans pulling
the cannon were also carefully painted from life, their beards and trim hair-
cuts clashing with the long hair and clean-shaven faces of the other more
historically accurate types. Indeed, the cannoneer in the rear has a tattoo
on his right arm—a feature Couture expressly associated with the modern
worker. Furthermore, Couture’s need for realism in his representation of
laborers is especially evident in the preliminary studies and in his close ob-
servation of the textures of work clothes and accessories (fig. 1.7).
1.5 Thomas Couture, The Enroll-
ment, painted sketch, 1848. Mu-
seum of Fine Arts, Springfield,
24 chapter one
Still another aspect of the monumental version is its number of incom-
plete passages, or areas in various stages of completion. The surface is a
confused tangle of reworked motifs—a palimpsest of contradictory ideas.
While the numerous pentimenti reveal an abundant imagination, they also
attest to a colossal failure of nerve at critical junctures in the creative pro-
cess. The final project dissolved into a series of clashing gestures, each one
serving to negate the previous one that it overlay. At the same time, these
unfinished passages convey an air of spontaneity that contributes to the ef-
fect of dramatic action. If the picture lacks the easy handling of brushwork
characteristic of his preliminary studies, the large version shows many ar-
eas of freshness and vigor that reminded many a critic of a brilliant “first
More than any of his predecessors—not excluding Delacroix—Cou-
ture’s halting behavior in the creative process attests to the emerging as-
cendance of sketchlike ground over polished surface in modern painting.
Additionally, his abrupt tonal contrasts and vivid colorations predisposed
contemporary critics like Champfleury and Baudelaire to credit Couture
1.6 Thomas Couture, French
Volunteer, 1848. Cleveland
Museum of Art, Cleveland.
1.7 Thomas Couture, Man
Pulling a Cannon, 1848. Musée
Départemental de l’Oise,
25 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
with a potent influence on the younger generation, including the Barbizon
painter Diaz. But his work also contributed to the techniques of Millet,
Troyon, Daumier, and Manet (who studied with Couture for six years),
and would continue to be admired by later avant-garde artists like Cézanne
and Mary Cassatt. The conjunction of Couture with the Barbizon school
and other realists intimates his authentic role in the progress of modernist
technical practice, but the grand tradition haunting him forced him to par-
tially embed his methods in idealized forms that refused direct reality.
Significantly, his claim to the middle ground once again affirms his
political position in 1848. He conceived an idea of freedom inspired by a
vision of the new Republic, and the energy of his sketching procedures
was stimulated by the changing political conditions. This chaotic period
of transition, compromised though it may have been by opposing forces,
empowered him to abandon forever the residual classicism and inaugu-
rate a quasi-realist approach for magisterial work. Implicit in his politics
and choice of 1792, however, was a counterrevolutionary impulse that was
bound to check his convictions—convictions further undermined by the
rapid downfall of the regime and the restoration of authoritarian rule.
Thus the short-lived history of the Second Republic, and Couture’s own
disillusionment that followed in its wake, is inscribed graphically in the
imperfect state of the picture. For this reason, it may be positioned in the
history of art as a transition statement, mediating between the aesthetic
and political program of the moderate Second Republic and the more radi-
cal realism of Millet and Courbet.
The model of the United States appealed to the fledgling republi-
cans; and those responsible for the drawing up of a Constitution for the
new government were obsessed with the American political system—per-
haps owing to sympathy with their forebears of 1789, whose adoration for
Washington and Franklin bordered on fanaticism. Garnier-Pagès request-
ed information from the U.S. diplomat W. C. Bryant pertaining to the
American democracy, whose example “we would like to follow.” Those
most taken with the Yankee system, however, belonged to the conserva-
tive faction, who especially admired the electoral college that mitigated for
them the potential evils of universal suffrage. The Left, on the other hand,
maintained that the principle of federalism opposed social progress, and
they also rejected the bicameral organization of the legislature. All factions
opposed American slavery and what they perceived to be the reign of an
American plutocracy.
By the time Couture began his definitive work, enthusiasm for Ameri-
can politics was associated with a moderate point of view incarnated in the
image of George Washington. Evariste Colombel, the mayor of Nantes,
wrote, “At the start of our truly republican era, may we have another
Washington as in the United States!” Lamartine exclaimed in his reception
of an Italian delegation that Europeans must banish the name of Machia-
velli and substitute for it that of Washington: “We must now call out in
26 chapter one
the name of the liberty of today . . . the need of the times is for
a Washington of Europe.”
Desperate for a hero, he looked to
General Cavaignac on horseback, whom he compared to Wash-
ington after he restored public order.
Armand Marrast, now the mayor of Paris and one of those
selected to draw up the Constitution of 1848, belonged to the
moderate faction wishing to pattern it after the American in-
strument. Couture used Marrast as the model for his equestri-
an figure of the mayor of Paris in the left-hand section of The
Enrollment (fig. 1.8), wishing at the same time to give him “the
features of Washington, who presides morally over the freedom
of the world.”
His study of the mayor (mocked in his own
day for trying to imitate the look of President Polk)
as George
Washington again attests to Couture’s identification with the
moderate agenda.
As already suggested, part of Couture’s problem lay in his
desire to construct a metaphorical unity of the two revolutions
of 1789 and 1848. He employed as his central pictorial motif the
triumph, an ancient type of procession honoring great martial
heroes or rulers, derived in turn from the iconography of trium-
phal parades of mythological deities and/or such abstract person-
ifications as Virtue, Love, and War. The triumph usually depicted the hero,
deity, or allegorical personage seated or standing in a triumphal car drawn
by horses, enemy prisoners, or other participants in the parade. Often, the
triumphant protagonist was accompanied by Victory hovering above and
holding out a wreath of laurel. Couture’s initial thought was to replace the
chariot with a cannon and the martial hero with Liberty in the person of
Théroigne de Méricourt, a female revolutionary activist of 1789 praised by
Michelet in his writings for her role in such key events as the storming of
the Bastille, the Women’s March on Versailles, and the Festival of Liberty
of 1792.
In Art in an Age of Revolution it was shown that the neoclassical style of
the revolutionaries ushered in an era of real-life triumphal festivals and pag-
eants, several of which were designed and choreographed by David. In his
design for an opera curtain, dating from the period 1793–1794, David con-
ceived a triumphal march of the people in which the chariot of humanity
crushes under its wheels the symbolic attributes of kingship, church, and
feudalism, and crowning their act is the allegorical figure of Victory flying
overhead. Couture surely knew this image, since The Enrollment shares with
it the semi-draped female figure seated on the triumphal car and carrying a
scepter, the striding figures, and the parents holding their children aloft to
observe the fine example for the future. He evidently considered himself
the 1848 equivalent of the older artist, borrowing also the gestures of the
deputies in David’s Oath of the Tennis Court. But perhaps the most fascinat-
ing instance of this identification is Couture’s borrowing of the motif of
1.8 Thomas Couture, Study of the
Mayor of Paris as George Washington,
black-and-white chalk drawing,
1848. Musée National du Châ-
teau, Compiègne.
27 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
the mother raising her child above her head in David’s Sabine Women that he
actually traced from a reproduction and incorporated into The Enrollment
(fig. 1.9). Couture noted that David conceived the Sabines at a moment of
national disunity and intended it to signal an appeal for union. He singled
out the motif of the mother and child as constitutive of this appeal, thereby
testifying to his conscious association with this work in the interest of pic-
turing national unity.
Couture’s programmatic engagement with the eighteenth century
also reveals itself in his fascinating plagiarism of the condemned son in
Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s Paternal Curse, a motif he used for the prototype of
his brave youth joyously departing for the front at the far left of The En-
rollment. Since Couture took for his source a character whose enlistment
proved destructive to the unity of the family and recast it into a scene in
which the same act is viewed as heroic, it may be assumed that his use of it
had a specific narrative function. It is as if Couture exonerates the son from
the paternal curse in showing him forsaking selfish goals and acting out of
patriotic devotion to la patrie. Once again Couture manifests his recurring
1.9 Thomas Couture, tracing
of a detail of a reproduction of
David’s Sabines, 1848. Musée Na-
tional du Château, Compiègne.
1.10 Thomas Couture, Father and
Son, 1848. Musée Départemental
de l’Oise, Beauvais.
28 chapter one
preoccupation with generational conflict, but this time he does so by forg-
ing a rapprochement of generations in the service of a higher ideal. Indeed,
Couture’s original conception depicts the father embracing his son as he
accompanies him in the march to the front (fig. 1.10).
The Realism of The Enrollment
Despite Couture’s ready reliance on the past for inspiration, almost every
feature in the work reinforces the ideological mindset of his contemporary
moderate constituency. All the thematic components of the picture operate
to give tangible form to ideas circulating in the heat of agitated passion just
prior to and following the overthrow of the July Monarchy. Lamartine’s
Histoire des Girondins, published in 1847 and presented on the stage on 2 Sep-
tember of the same year, enjoyed a spectacular popular success, as a result
of which “’89 is back in fashion, and so even is ’95.”
Lamartine’s sympa-
thies were for the moderates of 1789, not the Jacobins whom he classified as
“demagogues” responsible for the Terror. As he confessed in Girondins, “So
long as revolutions are unfinished, so long does the instinct of the people
urge them to a republic; for they feel that every other hand is too feeble to
give that onward and violent impulse necessary to the revolution.” Hence,
as far as he was concerned, the founding of the Second Republic meant the
completion of the first revolution.
Although Lamartine is less sanguine about civil uprising in his History
of the French Revolution of 1848, he asserts that the later revolution extended
that of 1789, “with fewer elements of disorder and greater elements of
progress.” Further:
In both it was a moral idea which exploded on the world. This idea, this princi-
ple, is the people;—the people who, in 1789, relieved themselves from the pres-
sure of servitude and ignorance, from privileged classes and absolute monarchy;
the people which, in 1848, freed themselves from the oligarchy of the few, and a
too stringent and exclusive constitutional monarchy.
Of course, Lamartine’s lip service to the principle of popular sovereign-
ty is consistently contradicted by his dismissal of the gullible masses who
are susceptible to the demagoguery of the representatives of the “uncom-
promising Republic.” He likened them to the Jacobins of 1793 and he and
the moderates to the Girondins of 1792, and he warned against the “hor-
rors, the fanaticism, and the socialism of 1793.” And he continued with his
definition of a republic’s capacities:
If anarchy can be subdued, rest assured it is by a republic. If communism can be
vanquished, it is by a republic. If the revolution can be moderated, it is by a re-
public. If universal war—if the invasion which it would perhaps bring upon us as
the reaction of Europe—can be warded off, again rest assured it is by a republic.
29 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
His version of the republic bordered on the counterrevolutionary, suggest-
ing that his notion of “the people” expanded only slightly on that of King
Lamartine belonged to the liberal bourgeoisie who wished to sustain
property rights and laissez-faire competition in the social and economic
realms, but the fear of revolution and radical social reform drove him into
the arms of the conservatives. His vision of the republic could only have
been articulated as a theatricalized presentation of “the people” happily
accepting bourgeois hegemony in the form of a choral complement to the
ancient narrator’s recital.
His fascinating theatrical metaphor of an “an-
tique drama” was echoed by others, both on his right and on his left, who
experienced the popular movement of 1848 more as a reenactment of 1789
than a progressive cause grounded in the reality of the present. Neoclassic
and romantic imagery on the stage and in the visual arts had shaped an ex-
alted vision of the past that played itself out in the gestures and spectacles
of pre–June 1848. The enlightened aristocrat Tocqueville, who no less than
Lamartine despised socialism and feared the masses, wrote in his recollec-
tions of the period:
We French, Parisians especially, gladly mingle literary and theatrical reminis-
cences with our most serious demonstrations. This often creates the impression
that our feelings are false, whereas in fact they are only clumsily tricked out. In
this case the quality of imitation was so obvious that the terrible originality of
the facts remained hidden. It was a time when everybody’s imagination had been
colored by the crude pigments with which Lamartine daubed his Girondins. The
men of the first revolution were still alive in everybody’s mind, their deeds and
their words fresh in the memory. And everything I saw that day [24 February]
was plainly stamped with the imprint of such memories; the whole time I had
the feeling that we had staged a play about the French Revolution, rather than
that we were continuing it.
Marx, although in Brussels at the time of the February revolution,
watched its developments with keen interest, especially the June Days.
He saw the moment as a critical stripping away of popular illusions about
the true forces in opposition in modern political life. He declared that it
was the institution of universal suffrage that destroyed the romantic no-
tion of a united and harmonious people entertained by moderates like
Lamartine and Couture and that belied the reality of class division. The
moderates imagined that France consisted of citoyens much like themselves
with overlapping interests and understanding—the cult of “the people.”
But the reality of elections brought into play the opposing interests of
different social groups and thus unveiled the class struggle. In The Eigh-
teenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx agreed with Tocqueville in a fa-
mous passage:
30 chapter one
Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in
world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy,
the second as farce. . . . The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a
nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revo-
lutionizing themselves and things . . . precisely in such periods of revolutionary
crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow
from them names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of
world history in this time-honored disguise and this borrowed language.
Thus the unmasking of the illusions in June was tantamount to unveiling
the truth of class conflict and an end to the play-acting.
Couture, however, went right on trying to keep up the masquerade
by allegorizing revolution as a harmonious interaction of the classes, per-
forming a kind of historical melodrama that simultaneously operated as
living theater for his contemporaries. The Provisional Government even
decreed that its representatives wear the costume of the conventionnels (i.e.,
the members of the Convention of 1793), including the white waistcoat
with turn-down collar in which Robespierre was always represented on
stage. No one except Caussidière honored the decree, but Couture’s inser-
tion of the conventionnel on the tribune manifests the popular fantasies of
the period.
Earlier we mentioned the festivals of the first revolution, and here again
Couture’s triumphal procession fuses past and present to suit a contempo-
rary agenda. The Second Republic was fascinated by the festivals of the
earlier revolution and tried to emulate them in its own cultural program.
Two major festivals were organized in 1848 in imitation of the first revolu-
tion, the “Fête de la Fraternité” on 20 April and the “Fête de la Concorde”
on 21 May. Both of these featured dazzling spectacles in which members of
all classes marched plus magnificent floats in the form of triumphal chari-
ots with allegorical figures of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity and a co-
lossal figure of the Republic passed in review before an immense platform
upon which sat members of the Executive Commission and the National
Assembly. Tocqueville described the grand allegorical festivals of the 1848
revolutionaries as imitations of the “ridiculous [follies]” of their predeces-
sors, but he and others were in fact deeply worried by the massive turnout
of workers, now organized and militant.
Lamartine claimed that the government arranged these public festi-
vals to channel this potential peaceably and drain off working-class dis-
content. Popular demonstrations on 17 March and 16 April led by the
revolutionary clubs (filled with “incendiary” foreigners—Poles, Belgians,
Italians, and Germans—promoting insurrection and anarchy) in combina-
tion with workmen circles terrified Lamartine. The van of the vast pro-
cession that assembled along the Champs-Elysées on 17 March to demand
postponement of elections to allow more time to circulate radical reform
programs was led by a group of men and one woman sporting red caps,
31 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
“those hideous symbols of our saturnalia of terror.” Lamartine’s disgust
at the sight of the liberty bonnets, pervasive in 1848 as in 1793, made him
anxious, and even though the demonstration menaced no one, “it filled
every mind with dismay, and visibly denoted that Paris was thenceforth
wholly at the mercy of the proletarians.”
To reassure the public’s safety against the “demagogues, dictators,
and barbarians of civilization,” Lamartine and his conservative colleagues
looked for an opportunity “to reaccustom the eye of the people to the
presence, to the dazzling pomp, and to a renewal of kindly feelings to the
troops.” Hence the “Fête of Fraternity” was organized by the government
as a review of the National Guards from Paris, precincts, and nearby towns,
as well as the newly formed Garde Mobile and troops within reach of the
capital. As the troops marched down the Champs-Elysées and passed be-
neath the Arc de l’Etoile, Lamartine expressed relief to see that the public
rejoiced with him at “this vision of restored social order.”
Both Michelet and George Sand, patrons and friends of Couture, were
unavoidably swept up in the enthusiasm of 1848 and entranced by the pop-
ular and official festivals. Sand was among the visitors who thronged his
studio to do homage to the painter of The Enrollment of the Volunteers. In her
Souvenirs de 1848, she eloquently described a street parade in the aftermath
of February, perceiving it not as a disciplined military machine but more
like the spontaneous action of a volunteer passionately devoted to high
ideals. She wrote that similar processions occurred regularly and every-
where in Paris, and, deeply moved by these scenes of the intermingling of
the classes, she appealed to contemporary artists: “You artists whose pride
and personal interests have been wounded, do you not see these animated
tableaux, those expressive faces, and will the feeling which inspired these
improvised compositions not speak somehow to your heart or to your tal-
Written in April 1848, these passages share the generally optimistic
mood of the first months of the Second Republic and deep feelings of sym-
pathy with the working classes.
Michelet—undoubtedly a major source of influence on the govern-
ment’s exploitation of the festival as an official event—attached deep im-
portance in his History of the French Revolution (the first volume of which
appeared on the eve of the revolution of 1848) to the role of the festivals
in rallying the people to the cause of the Great Revolution. His attach-
ment, moreover, has to be seen in the context of his obsession with both
Théroigne de Méricourt and the volunteers of 1792. He first lauds “the dar-
ing and gallant” Théroigne de Méricourt in his History of the French Revolu-
tion and later in his Women of the Revolution, envisioning her as a latter-day
Joan of Arc who embodied the popular spirit, the very personification of
the Revolution and of Liberty. Michelet celebrated the public festivals in
which she participated, especially the spectacular festival of freedom, the
“Fête de la Liberté” of 1792, when a statue of Liberty was “towed upon a
chariot shaped into the bow of a ship.”
32 chapter one
The most momentous event of that year for Michelet was the enroll-
ment of the volunteers, and its display of unity prompted the historian
to identify the event with the festivals. He even wrote in his History of the
French Revolution that those who guided the people in the festivals were the
same who led the volunteers into battle. Michelet had previously men-
tioned the episode in Le Peuple of 1846, concluding that the “élan of ’92”
should be taught as an object lesson to school children. He picked up the
theme again in his famous series of lectures at the Collège de France pub-
lished as L’Etudiant, a course begun in December 1847, suspended on 6
January, and then resumed in March when the Provisional Government
reinstated him. He called for an art to exalt 1789 and thereby contribute to
constructing the nation by rekindling stirring memories of the past. In one
lesson he effusively declared of the volunteer enlistments of 1792:
A great day! a sublime day, to be eternally remembered, on which these solemn
words were promulgated, with the flag deployed over our squares and the can-
nons firing repeatedly: “The endangered fatherland calls its children!” (La patrie en
danger appelle ses enfants!) And after they were spoken, six hundred thousand men
had been signed up! For war? No, that is France’s unique glory. Signed up for
liberation, for universal peace, signed up for the salvation of the world.
His third volume of the History of the French Revolution, written in 1847–
1848 and appearing in 1849, devoted a long section to the enrollment of
1792. At one point in his account he interrupts the narrative to gush forth:
“O proud heart of France in ’92! When shall we know it again? What love
for the world, what happiness in rescuing it, what sacrificial ardor!” And
These innumerable volunteers all have kept the character of this truly unique
epoch which gave them life for glory. And now, wherever they may be, dead or
alive, immortal dead, illustrious scholars, old and glorious soldiers, they all re-
main marked by an emblem that sets them apart in history. This emblem, which
made the whole earth tremble, is nothing else but their simple name: “Volun-
teers of ’92.”
What Michelet found especially critical and moving “was the profound
feeling of admirable solidarity which revealed itself everywhere. Everyone
spoke to everyone, talked, prayed for the fatherland . . . everywhere there
were songs, shouts, tears of enthusiasm and of leave taking.”
Michelet described in colorful and picturesque detail the organization
of the enlistments and the physical arrangement of the enrolling booths
that were erected to accommodate them: the hastily assembled table set
on two drums, the fluttering tricolor banner with the solemn announce-
ment of the “country in danger,” the municipal officers with shoulder
sashes and the continuous stream of volunteers ascending and descending
33 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
the platform. All levels of society joined company here: “There were no
high, no low, no superior, no inferior; these were men, nothing more; this
was all of France.”
Although standing further to the left than Lamartine, Michelet similar-
ly imagines a united and fraternal society in which—to use Marx’s words—
“all the royalists were transformed into republicans and all the millionaires
of Paris into workers.” Michelet’s sentimental view of the harmonious
union of the classes differs from Lamartine’s in that it was generated out of
enthusiasm rather than from a condescending position that ignored class
antagonisms. Lamartine, for example, loathed Théroigne de Méricourt as
“the impure Joan of Arc of the public streets” who attached herself willy-
nilly to every insurrection and festival.
Couture’s canvas tries to skirt ideological distinctions and achieve the
sentimental reconciliation of the classes. The painter conceived the idea
during the period that Michelet inaugurated his inspiring lecture series,
and his description of the painting is charged with the historian’s fiery rhet-
In my picture, they are carrying liberty to the world; truth shows itself in
Théroigne de Méricourt, placed on the limber of a cannon, clothed as their idol,
and drawn by all the people. Where are they going? Down there, down there,
to the frontier. They are all united in one spirit; they desire equality, their hands
clasped, their hearts beating in sympathy. Priests, farm laborers, workers have
the same end in view, to defend their fatherland in danger. The fatherland, what
is the fatherland? It is the wife, the child, the parents, and grandparents, all help-
less, all loved. The volunteers swear to defend them, the women take the chil-
dren and raise them in the air; from the bosom of the crowd surges the genera-
tion to come.
Couture’s transcendence of actual social conflict requires a juggling act,
however; his image hovers somewhere between the visionary elevation
of Lamartine and the earthy excitement of Michelet. Conspicuously ab-
sent from his procession-festival is the emblematic bonnet rouge, and his per-
sonification of Liberty is a neutralized version of an emancipated woman.
Méricourt rode on horseback often dressed in male clothing with a pistol in
each hand. By transposing her from her role as radical feminist and activist
to an allegorical and symbolic mode, Couture deprived her of her specific
historical status and recast her as a cipher—one of the generically “help-
less” females for whom the volunteers fought.
At the same time, Théroigne de Méricourt as Liberty retains some of
the power Michelet attributed to her and enacts an emancipatory role—al-
beit circumscribed—within Couture’s thematics. As in the case of Romans,
a courtesan dominates the composition and is taken as its leitmotiv. Again
he chose his central symbol aptly: there were several instances of whores
fighting on the barricades, and Flaubert evoked these souvenirs of the 1848
34 chapter one
revolution in Sentimental Education by projecting the image of Liberty as a
prostitute. Naturally, in this instance and in other counterrevolutionary
writings the female warrior-prostitute of 1848 took on negative connota-
tions, but for Couture the moment was propitious for redeeming the fallen
woman. He could now transpose her to a higher level of symbolic meaning
by associating her with the abstract terms “liberty” and “freedom.” Cou-
ture’s Théroigne is the reformist’s image of the prostitute exalted through
the transformation of society: just as decadence was incarnated in the vam-
pirish courtesan, so the regeneration of society is incarnated by the reha-
bilitated woman. Here again The Enrollment of the Volunteers constructs a
dialectical challenge to Romans of the Decadence.
In December 1848 Prince Louis-Napoléon, trading in on his magical
name, was elected first president of the Second French Republic. Three
years later, following the coup d’état in December 1851, in true Napoleon-
ic form he virtually proclaimed himself emperor, and several months later
he overthrew the Second Republic for the Second Empire. All of this oc-
curred before Couture could complete his canvas. According to the paint-
er, shortly after the coup the new minister of the interior, the fanatical
Bonapartist duc de Persigny, visited his studio to inspect the work. Cou-
ture noted that he looked with contempt upon the theme and asked him to
suspend execution on this “tableau de démagogues.” Couture felt intimi-
dated and later admitted: “He had a most authoritative manner, and I felt
that I should look on his request as an order.”
From this moment on, his
inspiration for The Enrollment flagged and he began shifting his attention to
other commissions.
Thus the imperial regime brought into the open the social antagonism
that Lamartine and Couture glossed over, and in Couture’s case, the new
government’s more rightward shift relativized his moderate position as ex-
tremist. Under these conditions, his concept lost all of its topical relevance
and vitality, even though he subsequently tried to modify it to suit the
taste of the new regime. He eliminated the figure of Théroigne de Méri-
court and replaced her in part by a striding standard bearer reminiscent
of Napoleonic pomp. Significantly, it was less the theme—the govern-
ment purchased Vinchon’s version of 1792—than its packaging that irri-
tated the government, attesting to the link between aesthetics and politics,
and suggesting as well Couture’s proximity to the culture of the Second
There is a striking parallel between the ephemeral success of Michelet’s
L’Etudiant of 1848 and Couture’s Enrollment: both were conceived under
similar circumstances and pressures as a kind of militant banner to rally
the young, and both were rendered null and void with the suppression of
the June uprising (Michelet was sickened by the event) and the election of
Louis-Napoléon to the presidency. Although the Republic continued in
name through December 1851, the presence of a Bonaparte in office dealt
a deathblow to the hopes and aspirations of the “men of ’48.” Michelet
35 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
could never again recover the enthusiasm of L’Etudiant and Couture never
regained the ardor of The Enrollment. Both works were almost immediately
dated at the point of conception and bear witness to the surge of optimism
prevailing in the prerevolutionary days and early months of the Provision-
al Republic. As historical documents, they resemble more the ephemeral
nature of the political pamphlet than the elaborate historical treatise, the
sketchy outline more than the finished work.
The Competition for the Figure of the Republic
Couture’s painting was not the only casualty of the shifting sands of politi-
cal formations; an even more dramatic example was the open competition
for a symbol to represent the new Republic.
The fall of Louis-Philippe
and the rise of the Second Republic entailed a cultural shift from the icon-
ic representation of the father-king toward a feminized abstraction stand-
ing for a collectivity. The rhetoric of the new society offered selflessness,
compassion, and maternal protection, and consistent with bourgeois gen-
der types the impersonal female allegory most closely approximated these
attributes. Although still denied her political and civil liberties in actuality,
woman advances from the incarnation of simple virtues and qualities to the
personification of the whole nation. Yet the elevated symbolic role of the
female in public life also heightened her consciousness of the disparity be-
tween the rhetoric and the reality. The regenerated social order promised
by the Republic and its more inclusive ideal stimulated French feminism
generally and was not without influence on the contestants. The androgy-
nous character of many of the entries incorporated the latest ideas of the
reform movements and turned the competition into one of the liveliest
cultural events of the short-lived regime.
The contest marks a watershed in the development of French mod-
ernism not only for the inclusive range of its participants—classicists, ro-
mantics, juste milieu painters, Barbizon artists, and future realists—but also
because it vividly manifested the pictorial conflicts of the art community
living in a period of rapid political transition. The search for an appropri-
ate symbol of the Republic illuminated these issues precisely because of the
uncertainty of the constituencies and inconsistencies of its program. It is
symptomatic that when the time came for the final judgment, the outraged
jury rejected all twenty versions as unfit to represent the Republic and ter-
minated the competition for the painted image.
The various contests for the allegorical image (including painting,
sculpture, coins, medals, stamps, and seals), opened officially on 18 March
1848 with an announcement in the Moniteur, were designed to fulfill three
overlapping goals: (1) to give the new government a concrete identification
and an outward sign of unification and legitimacy, (2) to efface the official
visual traces of kingship generally and the July Monarchy in particular,
and (3) to demonstrate that a republican concept was capable of inspiring
36 chapter one
great artistic achievements. The contest sprang from the urgent need of the
revolution for a thorough transformation of monarchical symbolism. This
included not only a fresh visual appearance to replace the previous sign
system but a new protocol which enjoined everyone to address each other
as “citizen” and proclaim the sweet watchwords of liberty, equality, and
fraternity. The fledgling government wanted to inspire its finest talents to
project its new face throughout the nation in a cogent visual form. Further,
the divisive and wavering aspirations of the new regime made it press for
some external sign of unification and legitimacy.
The rules required an unsigned single figure in sketch format (approxi-
mately 73 by 60 cm), and, out of reaction to the restricted competitions of
the previous government, went out of its way to encourage the full range
of painters in France (native as well as foreign born). This enabled inde-
pendents to compete on the same grounds as the academicians and their
disciples. The sketches for all the competitions were exhibited after sev-
eral delays and postponements during the week of 25–30 April. The huge
turnout, however, of almost five hundred painted sketches was so unex-
pected that the blue-ribboned panel of political leaders, artists, and crit-
ics—including Lamartine, Ledru-Rollin, Flocon, Pyat, Arago, Jeanron,
Thoré, Charles Blanc, Ingres, Delacroix, Delaroche, Meissonier, Rob-
ert-Fleury, Decamps, Cogniet, and Schnetz—had to convoke a special
session to amend the contest regulations. The jury enthusiastically en-
dorsed Delaroche’s proposal to increase from three to twenty the number
of sketches to be enlarged and finished for a definitive trial in October,
and to subsidize the finalists with a stipend of 500 francs to cover their
time and expenses.
All twenty finalists evidently certified their intention to follow through
with the second test during the second week of June. But the following
month, on 2 July, Flandrin wrote Blanc that his current circumstances pre-
vented him from completing the assignment and asked to be relieved of his
obligation. He was promptly replaced by Diaz, the first supernumerary on
Blanc’s list. Daumier, who is occasionally cited as having refused to enter
the final trial, actually began work on the large-scale version. Yet for one
reason or another, he failed to complete his figure in time for the October
judgment. As a result of Flandrin’s defection and Daumier’s absence, the
final lineup consisted of eighteen of the original finalists plus Diaz.
The definitive judgment took place on 23 October 1848 by a jury com-
posed of Charles Blanc, Flocon, Arago, Albert de Luynes, Vernet, Picot,
Robert-Fleury, Meissonier, Couture, and F. B. de Mercey. Voting after
June on works inspired and painted prior to June, the jury reacted indig-
nantly to what it felt to be a disgraceful fiasco, deciding not only to cancel
the contest but even opposing the idea of a new one. There was general
dissatisfaction on all sides of the political spectrum, but for very different
reasons. Although the finalists presented a bewildering farrago of symbolic
attributes (many of these Masonic) and often tactless, hybridized personifi-
37 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
cations, the differing explanations for the outcome varied according to the
ideological lens of the observer.
An English critic, for example, dismissed the definitive pictures for be-
ing “as heterogeneous and undecided in aim as is the great original, the
French Republic itself, which resemblance is about the best encomium that
can be passed upon them.”
Louis Blanc, on the other hand, expressed bit-
ter disappointment over the outcome. He would have wished to see rep-
resentations of “force under the appearance of calm, serenity rising out of
the storm, and the power to create emerging from a heap of ruins,” but
what he saw for the most part was only “the image of a vulgarly powerful
goddess, and looking somewhat like the type depicted in the flaming iambs
of Auguste Barbier.” His explanation for the failure of the figures to live up
to expectations was that the artists had yet to discover the authentic ideals
of the new regime.
The reviewer for the centrist magazine L’Illustration, reporting on the
exhibition just prior to the final verdict, perceived the confused results from
a more explicitly partisan perspective. He began his article by asking in a
contemptuous tone, “What kind of republic should the contestant have
painted?” and follows with several possibilities: the “long-standing republic
[la république de la veille], that hydra with a thousand heads,” at war with itself
as much as with the constitutional monarch; the republic of 1793, with its
prodigious parade of monsters and heroes; the republic of the June insur-
gents, “which has already entered the stream of history with this inscrip-
tion on its flanks: ‘Pillage of the School of Law, the assassination of General
Bréa, and the martyrdom of the Archbishop of Paris.’” Or should the art-
ists have opted for the republic of the banquets of Toulouse and Mont-
pellier (referring to the savvy Montagnard political organization in these
two towns), a republic “without spirit, without heart, and without God,
and which shouts: ‘Long live Barbès! Long live the guillotine and long live
Hell!’” There were other versions of course, but to speak fairly of the Mon-
tagnards, “each of them has a republic in their pockets for their own par-
ticular use, and if France should one day find itself without a republic it will
be the result only of an overload of possibilities, of too many choices.”
The reviewer clearly identified the competition as socialist-inspired and
tagged the variety of responses as the outcome of anarchic-type freedom.
He claimed that the true idea of liberty had less to do with physical move-
ment than with the “victory of the will over the passions.” Here the artistic
process is confounded with conservative psychology, since in academic dis-
course the finished picture exhibited the rational control of the impulsive
and spontaneous gestures manifested in the preliminary sketch. The pas-
sions—identified in the competition entries with the energetic and emo-
tional qualities of the allegorical personification—needed to be tamed by
the rule of reason before the Republic could sit for its portrait.
Just as the 28 October 1848 issue of L’Illustration went to press, the re-
viewer learned to his delight of the jury’s decision not to award the prize
38 chapter one
for the painted figure of the Republic. He tacked on to his article the snide
observation that now the left-wing journals such as “La Réforme, La Ré-
publique, La Démocratie so-called pacifique and the other interpreters of the
flame-colored republic [république-ponceau] are going to blame everything
on the reactionaries.” The inclusion of this statement at the end of the re-
view dramatically highlights the political implications of the judgments of
the entries, and the slur on the “pacific” intentions of the Fourierist paper
betrays the bourgeois anxiety over the passionate and humanitarian repub-
lic that would outlaw capital punishment.
Despite the disastrous conclusion of the contest, its underlying impulse
and inspiration stemmed directly from the upsurge of optimism and po-
litical idealism marking the early stage of the regime. The competition
attracted talents of every stylistic stamp, including Couture, Daumier,
Millet, Diaz, Leleux, Devéria, Chassériau, Chenavard, Isabey, the Scheffer
brothers, Hamon, Amaury-Duval, Flandrin, and Gérôme. Daumier seized
the opportunity of testing his painterly talents in public (appealing to him
perhaps because of the guaranteed anonymity) for the first time in his ca-
reer. With rare exceptions, it was a contest for the younger generation;
older artists like Ingres, Delacroix, and Delaroche declined to participate.
Among the first group, the notable exception was Courbet; he had at first
intended to enter the competition, but at the last minute decided against
it. Still, he and his friend Bonvin encouraged Daumier to participate, and
Courbet anticipated being chosen as a copyist to reproduce the winning
figure for official buildings throughout France.
One liberal critic, responding to the first trial of the sketches, approved
of the stylistic diversity, considering this appropriate for the new Republic,
which regarded individuality in aesthetic expression as part of the broad-
ened representation of divergent opinions in the polity at large.
For the
first time in French history the bureaucracy regulating art production, dis-
play, and distribution assumed an essentially egalitarian position. It spon-
sored a totally open and free Salon in 1848 and allowed the artists greater
responsibility in the administration of the arts, sanctioning artists’ associa-
tions and juries. Indeed, during this period the government helped foster
collaborative effort and break down old prejudices. Although the govern-
ment had not initially intended to invite foreign participants, the artists
pressed a petition upon Ledru-Rollin opposing such an exclusion on the
grounds that it was contrary to the fraternal aims and universalizing spirit
of the regime.
Thus in this heady period artists enthusiastically embraced
the Second Republic’s theoretical idealism, and they refused to recognize
barriers either among themselves or between themselves and their foreign
peers—whether those barriers were of stylistic or national origin. By en-
couraging the abolition of such constraints, the nascent regime helped
relativize style as the free expression of the enfranchised citizen and gave
impetus to the independent men and women affiliated with realist and Bar-
bizon tendencies.
39 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
The Politics of the Sketch
But it is not for this alone that the contest signals a turning point in the
development of nineteenth-century French painting. In addition to the
contest’s salutary democratizing effect, the entries embodied the aesthetic
conflicts of the period, which flowed from the political contradictions of a
society in rapid transition. Many of the artists experienced difficulty in car-
rying the spontaneity and vigor of their original sketch into the definitive
work. Several critics felt that the original sketches were far superior to the
final representations. One English reviewer observed that although some of
the sketches were “the result of a few slashes of the brush, they startled by
the brilliance or boldness of their expression.”
Most of the hostile French critics, however, perceived the sketches as
a hodgepodge of unformed, “grotesque” ideas unworthy of following
through to the finished stage. The critic for the moderate paper Le Na-
tional, bent on discrediting the radical Republic and its misguided policies,
attacked even the sketch trial as a viable way of discovering talent:
Testing by way of a sketch, by its extreme facility and inventiveness, attracts
swarms of contestants, the charlatans, the apprentices, the amateurs, the entire
mob of mediocrities and savages whose shameful outpouring we witnessed for
the first time in the competitions of painting and sculpture for the symbolic fig-
ure of the Republic. . . . This absurd license, under the pretext of equality, pro-
duced only the saddest of efforts. It debased the competition; it dishonored our
tradition in public; it made it impossible to render any kind of clear, sober evalu-
ation, to make any secure selection from among such a hodgepodge of works
without name, embryos and ébauches in a welter of preliminary chaos which
would have numbed the view and tried the patience of even the most knowl-
edgeable and expert of juries.
He understood the sketch as the most equivocal of visual practices; to judge
on its basis is to judge not that which is, but what shall be. It is to try to di-
vine the picture in the canvas, and the statue in the block. Given these con-
ditions, it was inevitable that the competition should miscarry.
While the competitions brought out a complex set of associations and
historical connections, it should be noted that the republican concept it-
self often made use of the sketch as metaphor for regenerative activity.
For example, an article in the progressive Le Crédit, written in connection
with the competition for the coin designs, observed that “the Republic,
born only yesterday, is still an unformed seed, but a fertile seed beyond the
power of humans to destroy.”
Art critic and novelist Théophile Gautier,
blown away by the irrepressible sketch techniques in the first trial, wrote
that the “strange inventions” on display at the Ecole were “as impossible to
describe as the tumultuous proceedings of the National Assembly.”
more conservative L’Illustration wrote in its review of the sketch trial that
40 chapter one
the first revolution (of 1789) was an extraordinary thing, but what is its leg-
acy?—“a solitary sketch, a simple outline of a projected masterpiece.” And
it went on to elaborate: “The revolution of 1848 seems to herald the dawn
of a new era, greater than ever before, in which the government of human
society will be altering everything from top to bottom; but the immense
results that it promises everyone are at this moment still in a state of vague
The reviewer restated that the current government was still only
provisional, an unformed and shapeless institution that can be realized and
completed only through the efforts of the National Assembly. Here the
journal expressly identified the radical elements of the regime with the
confused and uncertain qualities of those sketches in the exhibition em-
bodying revolutionary attributes and audacious handling. Referring to the
sculptural maquettes, the paper reiterated that “none of the works show
anything definitive. Everything remains for the artists to complete, anal-
ogous to the members of the National Assembly.” In other words, only
when the moderates and conservatives resolve the question of the Consti-
tution and terminate the Provisional Government will the Republic com-
plete itself, as a “finished picture.”
In this instance, the right-of-center journal tried to link the negative
traits of the sketch to the unfinished work of the Provisional Republic. On
the one hand, the confident and bold execution of the first idea conjured
up the creative, dynamic Republic envisioned by Louis Blanc and feared
by conservatives, while, on the other, the sketch trial could be condemned
in the same breath as the Republic for its vague and optimistic promises
so far off from being fulfilled. Here the review in L’Illustration inevitably
touched a raw nerve in challenging the fundamental concept of the new
regime. The attempt to achieve the final Republic by a series of trials, or
sketchy policies that constitute a continually unfolding government, rep-
resented an attempt to attain the authentic realization of the social form of
Rousseau’s general will. But insofar as the regime had to be final and com-
plete in order to produce the good society, to that extent the sketched-out
plans had to be frustrating approximates. The collective art of the fledgling
Republic may be understood as a sketch inspired by an unattainable ideal
that it could not cease attempting to realize—hence, the image of the radi-
cal Republic perpetually in motion. In this sense, the spontaneity of the
radical project and the immediate conservative call for social order were
incompatibly poised against each other as sketch to finished work.
The jaded critic Laurent Jan, a political moderate, gleefully announced
at the end of November that, decidedly, “our Republic lacks a portrait.”
He implied that a social order capable of producing only barbarous sketches
did not deserve one. Anyway, he inquired, how was it possible “to trans-
late into visual terms this abstraction that we call the Republic? What is
the character, what are the symbols that can communicate to everyone:
here is the French Republic?” He concluded that the failure of the painting
41 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
competition only served to demonstrate the poverty of the radical concept
of a totally open and public competition.
The failure to give the Second Republic a visual identity and a national
symbol attests to the dramatic intersection between art and history in 1848.
The specific likeness of traditional authority made Jan more comfortable
than the abstract and anonymous personification of the Republic, and this
experience prognosticated negative tidings for the new regime. The con-
cept of the Republic, like Truth and Liberty, was an abstraction assigned to
a feminine gender (La République, La Vérité, La Liberté) and traditionally per-
sonified as female. The contestants were locked into the “always-already”
visual discourse by the very requirements of the contest, and had to invent
clever strategies for animating the ancient conventions. But like the appli-
cants to the government’s National Workshops, the artists entered a no-
win situation because, after June, the democratic Republic as the minority
imagined it could not be sustained even as a beautiful dream.
That it was still thought possible to visualize a Republic as if it were
a timeless virtue or set of qualities confirms the indebtedness to the First
Revolution declared by Tocqueville and Marx. Although all societies col-
lectively represent their social institutions and ideals through myth, the ad-
vanced nature of radical republicanism outran the capacity of the bourgeois
revolutionary myth to embody it in conventional allegorical form. Allegory
as a rhetorical device encoded synoptically to give larger meaning and sta-
tus to everyday ideas and events had to be stretched to the maximum to al-
low for the significations of the “democratic and social Republic.” The fact
that the artists were forced to work with forms that had lost most of their
contemporary validity played into the hands of the conservative majority
by pushing their radical opponents to admit the failure on aesthetic grounds
while all the time politics lay behind the Right’s scornful response.
Yet the need of the politicized artists of the competition to conceptu-
alize the Republic in an updated form easily decipherable to their broad
audience resulted in a more accessible female body and more realistically
portrayed accessories. The outward convention was infused with greater
naturalism, which at once undermined allegory and high art as the sine
qua non of visual production. The allegory, meant to stand for something
else, now partially revealed itself to be what it actually represented in out-
ward form, no more, no less—what you saw was what you got. The female
body became a person, less conceptual than actual, and thus incapable of
sustaining the vision of a collectivity replacing a ruler with a specific name
and likeness. Leloir’s definitive entry reminded Gautier of “certain types
of the quartier Bréda [a notorious red-light district].”
We saw in volume
3 that at the outset of the July Monarchy Delacroix’s Liberty barely passed
the litmus test for high art, and it is not surprising that eighteen years later
she could hardly stand on her own merits when expanded into the image
of the Republic.
42 chapter one
Those who did participate valiantly attempted to infuse the personifi-
cations provided by numismatic materials and such standard handbooks as
Ripa’s Iconologia and Gravelot and Cochin’s Iconologie par figures with vitality
and originality. Indeed, it may be said that the contest served as a kind of
junction where the historical and “learned” strains of the academic tradi-
tion and the enthusiasm for the utopian daydreams conjured up by the Re-
public were brought together in an unruly fashion. The artists were caught
in a period of accelerating change, and they came up with a Janus-faced
composite of realism and idealism just at that moment in history when one
was superseding the other in French cultural practice. Even the critics re-
flected the ambivalence: Jan declared, “Let us be republicans, but let us also
be of our times and especially of our country!”
One curious attempt to do precisely that is Janet-Lange’s Republic, in
which the allegorical figure is seated against a backdrop of a modern indus-
trial complex (fig. 1.11). Here the jarring collision of the real and the ideal,
tradition and modernity, has something of the burlesque about it: the al-
legorical Republic holds up a Torch of Enlightenment and is all but buried
in an avalanche of symbolic attributes, including gears and cogwheels, ag-
ricultural implements, the fruit of abundant harvest, and architectural and
sculpted fragments; silhouetted against the sky is the smoking chimney of
1.11 Ange-Louis Janet-Lange,
Symbolic Figure of the Republic,
sketch, 1848. Musée Carnavalet,
43 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
a giant manufacturing works and the cranes of a vast building site, pointing
to the rise of a modern metropolis. Meanwhile, perched at the Republic’s
right foot is the watchful Gallic cock, and on the pedestal of the throne are
carved reliefs of the popular triadic symbols of both Republics, the liberty
bonnet, the triangle of Equality, and clasping hands emblematically repre-
senting Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. In this instance, the allegorical
personification and traditional attributes seem to be relics of a bygone age
excavated in the midst of a modern downtown area.
The so-called Marianne figure (with its populist and religious conno-
tations) that would become commonplace under the Third Republic was
still too charged with revolutionary associations in 1848 to get past the
conservatives. The First Republic, with its dual aspect, provided the main
precedent: on the one hand, it encoded a transcendent image of force and
power; on the other, its incarnation in a female body projected maternal
qualities of charity, compassion, and sustenance. Although the images of
the two Republics are often indistinguishable, the First Republic tended to
stress the deific and militant presence of the figure, while that of 1848 gen-
erally emphasized the maternalistic principle. When campaigning in the
department of Bouches-du-Rhône in April 1848, Ledru-Rollin proclaimed
that “the nation [ironically la patrie, literally the fatherland] is a mother
who shows no preferences nor makes favorites among her children; she
embraces them all in the same love and the same solicitude. She wishes to
see all of them happy, equal, and free.”
Maurice Agulhon has refined my initial broad categories of allegorical
Republics into more subtle political classifications of radical and conserva-
tive, depending on the figures’ posture, costume, and/or accessories. He
lists calmness and vehemence in the figure’s bearing as clues to the artist’s
political views: the former suggests a republic ruled by order; the latter,
nascent Liberty, fresh from the barricades, who strives to fulfill her destiny.
Critics could perceive in the two types either the consummation of an ideal
or the embodiment of a promise yet to be achieved. Although his classifi-
cations are not always foolproof—the socialist Blanc, for example, wanted
to see the appearance of calm in his version of the Republic—they provide
useful guides to help us navigate through the parade of figures that might
otherwise appear as relatively indistinguishable.
Many of the originals exist in provincial museums throughout France,
but in those cases where the location of the work is unknown we are fortu-
nate to have a sheet of thirty-six thumbnail sketches of the anonymous Re-
publics hanging at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and identified by their original
exhibition number. The artist who made these sketches on the spot was
Pierre-Roch Vigneron (1789–1872), who also entered the competition and
evidently wanted an idea of his competition (figs. 1.12–13). Judging from
his accurate renderings of known examples by Flandrin, Cornu, and Zié-
gler, he clearly made faithful reproductions of the originals. Thanks to his
record-keeping and to the preservation of several of the originals we have
45 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
a solid sampling of fourteen known images of the twenty sketches selected
for the final trial.
Among the most remarkable of the sketch entries was the one by Flan-
drin, originally ranked as the best of the twenty preliminary winners, and
whose absence in the final trial was sorely lamented by the critics (fig. 1.14).
Awestruck and remote, Flandrin’s figure is set above the globe of the world
on the altar of Fraternity and crushes beneath her right foot the serpent of
hatred. Her right hand firmly grasps the olive branch of peace, and with
her left she holds a sword, buckler, and tricolor whose staff is encased in
a fasces, the symbol of unity. Modeled upon the ancient Winged Victory
of a type found in Pompeii or available in the iconographical manuals (but
not that of Samothrace, which had yet to be discovered), the Republic’s
wings expand (to suggest “the amplitude of her future”) and her drapery
circulates as if buffeted by wind. Her anxious eyes gaze ahead and her lips
are parted in anticipation, a realistic physiognomy joined to the allegori-
cal body.
Yet her flight is checked by the left foot, which rests flatly on the altar at
a ninety-degree angle from the right, which faces front; the stem of the fas-
ces anchors her further to the pedestal, and she appears encumbered by all
the paraphernalia she carries. Flandrin seems to have been caught between
the desire to project the static power of a national monument and a pro-
cess of rejuvenation. On the whole, however, the figure radiates a sense of
expectancy reflecting a sympathetic disposition toward the social Repub-
lic. June soured Flandrin, however; he and his brother Paul served in the
National Guard repression of the insurgents, and thereafter he threw his
support behind the framers of the conservative Constitution. It is no coin-
cidence that his letter of withdrawal from the competition is dated 2 July.
Out of deference to the members of the National Assembly, he voted in the
December elections for their bloodstained hero General Cavaignac.
Dominique-Louis Papety’s staid Republic was even more ambivalently
posed in his sketch, standing emblematically on a pedestal like an ancient
deity and leaning on a spear draped with the tricolor. Her outstretched
right arm held a globe of the world, signifying the universal outlook of the
infant Republic. In the definitive entry he altered this motif, eliminating
the globe and the tricolor to suit the moderate jury (fig. 1.15). The figure
is rigid, and the one note of movement is confined to the swarm of bees
around the beehive on the left-hand side of the pedestal, a sign of industri-
ous, intelligent, and well-organized labor. It was well known that Papety
was a follower of Fourier, whose disciples frequently used the beehive as
a symbol of the phalanstery, but nothing in the Republic’s body language
portends a drastic overhaul of the present society.
Daumier’s popular sketch, which placed eleventh and whose absent fin-
ished counterpart was also sorely missed by the critics, is a powerful female
protector and nurturer of the young (fig. 1.16). Enthroned and ensconced
in her niche, she grasps the tricolor with firmness while actively protecting
1.12 Pierre-Roch Vigneron,
sheet of studies of sketches of
the Republic, brown ink and
pencil on tracing paper, 1848.
Shepherd Gallery Associates,
New York.
1.13 Pierre-Roch Vigneron,
sheet of studies, detail.
1.14 Hippolyte Flandrin, Sym-
bolic Figure of the Republic, sketch,
1848. Private Collection, Paris.
46 chapter one
her children with her muscular left arm and maintaining a watchful eye.
The massive throne determines the formal design of the composition and
reinforces the idea of the durability of the Republic’s support. The painter
also suggested solidity and bulk by modeling the forms with heavy con-
tours and broad contrasting areas of light and shade—qualities borrowed
from his graphic work that heightened the cogency of his bare-breasted
Champfleury recalled viewing the bizarre assortment of sketches,
which included “red Republics, pink ones, green and yellow ones, marble
ones, stone ones, and ivory ones; some roasted brown, some blackened like
a pipe, some scratched and some scraped; Republics in flowered dresses, in
National Guard uniforms, in silk robes and in dressing gowns; Republics
clad in chains, arrayed in symbolic attributes, and some wearing nothing at
all.” In the midst of these uneven entries, he observed that one work stood
out for its simplicity and sobriety: “A seated female supports two children
suckling her breasts; at her feet two children [sic] read. The Republic nurtures
her children and instructs them.” Champfleury was carried away by the work:
“On that day I shouted, Long Live the Republic! for the Republic had
made a painter: daumier.”
1.15 Dominique-Louis Papety,
Symbolic Figure of the Republic, 1848.
Collection de la Ville de Paris.
1.16 Honoré Daumier, Symbolic
Figure of the Republic, sketch, 1848.
Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
47 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
One of the rare political artists to be imprisoned during the July Mon-
archy, Daumier welcomed the creation of the Republic. Something of his
attitude comes through in his caricature published in the Charivari of 9
March 1848, Dernier Conseil des ex ministres (Last Council of the Ex-Minis-
ters), showing the figure of the Republic in a liberty bonnet throwing open
the doors to the cabinet’s darkened chambers and letting in the dazzling
light of the new order (fig. 1.17). As she enters to take possession with quiet
composure and forceful step (Blanc’s ideal), the former ministers (includ-
ing Thiers, who is recognizable by his spectacles and crop of white hair)
scramble over one another in panic to exit via the nearest window. The im-
age stirred Michelet, who wrote the artist that now the Republic “has the
power and the authority as Mistress of the house. . . . She alone is at home in
Here, dark and light oppositions operate ideologically, with the
old order seen clustered in shadow in dark frock coats chased by the new,
basking in an aura of radiant glory.
Daumier’s competition sketch focuses on the humanitarian side of the
Republic proclaimed by Ledru-Rollin and others, but it also represent-
ed a radical commitment to the recognition of the responsibility of the
state for the social well-being of its citizenry. If the radicals accepted the
principle of electoral reform, it was seen as a means to eliminate poverty
and to provide free education for all. Daumier’s Republic continues to
nurture her children beyond the normal time for breastfeeding, and be-
low her right knee another reads with complete equanimity and absorp-
tion. It may be recalled that all of the major reformers emphasized the
1.17 Honoré Daumier,
Last Council of the Ex-Ministers,
lithograph, 1848.
48 chapter one
need for universal education, and the Provisional Republic made free and
compulsory elementary education a top priority on its agenda. Hippolyte
Carnot, an ex-Saint-Simonist and radical republican, was appointed min-
ister of public instruction and recommended major reforms of primary
instruction, including the raising of teachers’ salaries and the establish-
ment of écoles maternelles—places of refuge for single mothers and their
children and sites for adoption. (His proposals withered on the vine in
the post-June reaction, when he was forced to resign.) Lamartine declared
in his history of the 1848 revolution that the transmission of knowledge
from one generation to the next was the work of the state, and concluded:
“Thus society has eternally a child to instruct and to bring up”—the pre-
cise theme visualized by Daumier.
One other trait of Daumier’s Republic that owes a debt to the reform-
ers is the androgynous appearance—the female head and mammoth breasts
joined to a hard, muscular male body. The image of the androgyne appealed
to the reformists, who made emancipation of women a cardinal plank of
their platform, proposing that the new person in their utopia would be a
perfect blend of male and female. The androgynous Adam—the primor-
dial androgyne—assumed symbolic significance as an ideal of human prog-
ress for many social reformers, who perceived social equality as the prelude
for the symbolic reunion of the male and female principles. The concept
played an important role in the thought of the Saint-Simonists, who ad-
dressed themselves to their founder’s dying words, “Man and woman are
the social individual.”
As the Saint-Simonists considered their leadership under Père Enfantin
flawed in these circumstances, they posited a woman who could share with
him the role of Supreme Ruler. Since La Mère had to be Jewish, a search for
the female Messiah was launched in Constantinople, the crossroads of East
and West.
La Mère would occupy a chair next to that of Enfantin at their
regular reunions, but ultimately the exploration was fatally disrupted by
government pressure without and internal divisions within the movement.
Significantly, Daumier’s fusion of Fatherland and Republic is enthroned,
occupying the seat imagined for her by the Saint-Simonists.
Actually, Daumier’s caricatures of the period reveal a strong antifemi-
nist position during a period when the emergence of the Republic stim-
ulated the rise of associations and revolutionary clubs like the militant
laundresses and fringe-makers demanding higher wages and middle-class
feminists insisting that suffrage be made truly “universal.”
Female rights
petitioners were caught up in a swirl of activity, participating in mixed-
gender political gatherings and organizing their own conferences. In one
example from his series The Divorcées (Charivari, 4 August 1848), Daumier,
taking a cue from Couture, shows an impassioned female orator from a dra-
matic angle on the podium dramatically making her point: “Fellow Female
Citizens, the rumor is spreading that divorce will be denied us . . . let us
unite here and now to declare La Patrie est en danger!” (fig. 1.18).
49 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
Daumier catches the atmosphere of the heated debates and tumultu-
ous proceedings by building his composition in a sort of stacked pyramid
of overlapping levels reaching an apex in the ardent gesture of the speak-
er. Mobilized by Eugénie Niboyet and Jeanne Deroin, the 1848 suffrag-
ettes energetically petitioned the Provisional Government for redress of
the electoral system. The government responded by closing the feminist
clubs. Through the influence of feminists who had the ear of Pierre Ler-
oux, an ex-Saint-Simonist and imaginative social thinker on the order of
Fourier, the resolution for female enfranchisement reached the floor of the
Chamber of Deputies, only to be overwhelmingly defeated. It may be dif-
ficult to reconcile Daumier’s antipathy to equal rights for women in the
caricatures with his republican sympathies and strong female depiction in
the painted sketch. One could claim that Daumier mocks the pretensions
of individuals rather than reform itself, but his sustained and systematic
attack on bluestockings and tipsy feminists and obvious sympathy for the
domesticity of spouse and mother suggest a conventional patriarchal at-
titude. His ambivalence was symptomatic of other major male reformers
such as Comte, Proudhon, and Michelet, who could accept a regenerative
social mission for women as long as it was relegated to an abstract plane of
existence. Despite the fresh spin on the moral superiority of woman, she
1.18 Honoré Daumier,
The Divorcées, lithograph, 1848.
50 chapter one
remained superior to man only at the level of representation—when she
stood for all Humanity.
As the Fourierist paper declared shortly after the
proclamation of the new Republic: “La France, this older daughter of Hu-
manity, reoccupies her place at the head of the universal movement; she
calls on all peoples to realize the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.”
Gérôme’s muscle-bound Amazon standing stiffly before a crouching
lion points to the force of the new Republic but also suggests that its pre-
ferred state is one of reason and order, thus signifying a more moderate
position than Daumier’s sketch (fig. 1.19). The active type seems to be per-
sonified in Sébastien-Melchior Cornu’s version of the Republic; facing
front on the platform of a throne-like altar, she grasps the folds of the tri-
color in her left hand and with her right arm thrust high holds a scroll with
the inscription “Souveraineté du peuple”—Sovereignty of the People (fig.
1.20). Beneath the Phrygian bonnet the expression of the face is open and
frank, and, with her right foot extending beyond the edge of the platform,
she appears to be striding forward in the direction of the beholder.
51 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
The Republic in motion corresponds to Cornu’s radical politics and his
enthusiastic support of the regime during its early months. The radicals
and the socialists agitating on behalf of the Provisional Republic wished
to keep alive the revolutionary idealism, to isolate the opposition, and to
shelve the liberal monarchists whose conversion to republicanism they dis-
trusted. The moderates, however, tried to restrain revolutionary fervor and
conciliate the dynastic liberals amenable to a watered-down version of the
Republic. But what the first group defined as the dynamic component of
their policy hardly matched the definition assigned to it by the moderate
majority. The radicals in fact wanted to efface the memory of 1793, whose
horrific image still clung to that of the Republic for the moderates and
conservatives. It was they who sponsored legislation to abolish the death
penalty for political crimes, and they wanted to go even further in elimi-
nating it for common offenses as well, but this proposal too was blocked by
conservatives. Blanc’s idea of a revolutionary Republic was one that moved
forward to undertake the completion of her mission, not to perpetuate or
exacerbate the class struggle. Once the Constitution was established the
Left never advocated insurrection except in those cases where its conditions
were willfully transgressed.
Yet the opponents of the vision of the dynamic Republic interpreted
it as a sign of the mob’s perennial threat to social order. Thus Louis Des-
noyers, editor of the moderate journal Le Siècle, claimed that many of the
competition entries depicted “veritable viragos, furies, shrews, enraged fe-
male devils,” scrambling with their standards and pikes “over piles of pav-
ing stones, beams, barrels and overturned coaches, as if the Republic had
to be eternally storming barricades! The artists completely misjudged the
fundamentals of the subject. The Republic is neither riot nor sedition, nor
revolt, nor insurrection, nor revolution; it is, quite to the contrary, the end
of all that. It is the end, all the rest is but the means.” Not surprisingly, his
favorite—like that of several of the conservative critics—was the allegory
of Charles Landelle, depicting a stately and alluring young woman “in an
attitude of calm strength and unhurried movement,” nonchalantly leaning
on, but not brandishing, an outsized sword that she could never wield in
real life (fig. 1.21).
In actuality, none of the known images of the Republic submitted to
the competition conforms to the wild description of Desnoyers. He dis-
placed to the mild effigies his own anxieties and fears of the populace typ-
ical of the Right throughout 1848, but especially conspicuous after June.
It should be recalled that the June uprising occurred during the inter-
val between the preliminary trial held during the last week of April and
the definitive contest in October. Until that moment conservatives had
a difficult job of persuading the public of the Left’s violent intentions;
afterwards they only had to make passing references to June to raise the
specter of murderous “reds.” Every attempt was made to blame the insur-
rection on Blanc, Caussidière, and Ledru-Rollin. But the slaughter of the
1.19 Jean-Léon Gérôme, Symbolic
Figure of the Republic, 1848. Mairie
des Lilas, Paris.
1.20 Sébastien-Melchior Cornu,
Symbolic Figure of the Republic,
sketch, 1848. Musée des Beaux-
Arts et d’Archéologie, Besançon.
52 chapter one
insurgents by heavy artillery and the mass deporta-
tions demonstrated that it was the so-called “party
of order” that proved to be the party of bloodshed.
No matter; the fear of spontaneous popular vio-
lence overdetermined every image of the spirited
Republic with the vision of bloodthirsty instincts
waiting to be unleashed.
The workers’ adoption of the color “red” for
their flag, scarves, and caps was interpreted by un-
progressive forces everywhere as a sign of unbridled
savagery. Red flags conjured up the June Days, and
keeping that memory in the foreground of peoples’
imagination was central to the strategy of the con-
servatives, who seized every opportunity to remind
the bourgeois to vote for the “party of order” in De-
cember. This horror of “seeing red” was especially
evident in the reviews of the competition entries,
many of which, like the Cornu and Henri-Pierre Pi-
cou, displayed the Phrygian bonnet on the head of
the Republic. The red cap—although mistakenly as-
sumed to have been the symbol of the enfranchised
slave in antiquity—ranked as the most consistently
important symbol of all, both because it was one of
the earliest attributes of Liberty and because since
1792 it had become identified with the unrestrained
outbursts of popular protest. Not surprisingly, it
constituted the focus of anxious critical response to
the republican allegories. As early as May, L’Illustration noted that many of
the trial sketches had crowned their Republics “with the red bonnet, plain
blood.” This same reviewer could glimpse in the images of the Republic
“the guise of a Fury who treads in the shadows with an incendiary torch
in her hand.”
The Republic installed after the elections of 23 April became increas-
ingly nasty to the socialists, and ended by being openly conservative, even
reactionary. The antirepublican polemic of the moderates after June hys-
terically defined the socialists as savages and “terrorists.” They conjured up
images of bloodshed to frighten the bourgeoisie, and the most appalling
rumors about the insurgents were rife in Paris and the countryside. The
moderates attempted to make the Red Republic a metaphor for the per-
verse and pathological. Reviewing the definitive competition, Jan looked
back to the preliminary trial and recalled that there were “Republics of ev-
ery color,” but that the red ones predominated. These he associated with
the political views of the Left, “from the ex-rose pink Caussidière to the
bloodthirsty red Montagnards [rouge montagnard sang de boeuf].” He observed
a large group of Republics “with a furious look, a curse on their lips, shirt-
1.21 Charles Landelle, Symbolic
Figure of the Republic, 1848. Lycée
Saint-Louis, Paris.
53 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
sleeves rolled up, a bloody pike in their fist, and decaying corpses at their
feet, who seemed to say: This is the way we govern, whose turn is next?”
Jan predictably singled out the red cap as totally inappropriate for the
Republic, since historically the Phrygian bonnet was white and never used
in France. He singled out the attribute as the worst offense of the radi-
cal personifications: “Let us crown our Republic with laurel wreaths, oak
leaves or flowers; place on her forehead the flame of genius or the Star of
Truth; but in the name of beauty and good taste, spare us this pitiful head-
gear!” Jan couched his criticism of the red cap in aesthetics and decorum,
but he was clearly infuriated by its appearance and characterized it as a
kind of moral transgression. He betrayed his true political convictions in
describing Fossey’s figure of the Republic, which wore the red cap as “an
old Montagnard from the old days [une vieille montagnarde de la veille]”—i.e.,
not a Johnny-come-lately. He perceived Fossey’s Republic as a “wicked
woman” who “roasted” the decree of the death penalty on a small stove
like a sweetmeat. While pretending to be humane, the “chef ” (rotisseur) was
in reality a sadistic charlatan baiting a trap for the unwary.
Fortunately, we do not have to take Jan’s hysterical outburst at its face
value. Vigneron’s sheet of thumbnail sketches shows that Fossey’s Repub-
lic (the one unnumbered image in the second row) is hardly menacing:
although sporting the red cap (perhaps sufficient grounds for the conser-
vatives’ displeasure), she stands sedately, holding the Triangle of Equality
in her right hand, while her left hand supports a tricolor flag, the Scales of
Justice, and an open book inscribed with the message “Love one Another”
(fig. 1.22). At her left side a young olive tree—symbol of peace—springs
from the earth, while a broken shackle lies at her feet. What Jan saw as a
“small stove” was actually the Altar of Fraternity, in whose flames the Re-
public has thrown the decree of the death penalty, as well as other symbols
of Abuses and Privileges.
Indeed, many of the Republics, including those wearing liberty caps,
assumed a “saintlike” aspect and preached biblical virtues. An example was
August Hesse’s Republic (No. 390), whose left hand holds an open book
on which is printed the words Sanctum Evangelium, a scale, and a scepter
of Justice. Her right hand thrusts the tricolor flag upwards toward heav-
en. Not that the radicals abandoned the religious ideal entirely; although
anticlerical, they exploited the sacred iconographical traditions especially
in rural areas to gain support for the Second Republic. The spirit of 1848
was passionate and evangelical, and the republicans tried to win over the
peasantry by appealing to their folkloric tradition. The Republic appeared
in the guise of a new religion, surrounded with an emotional and even
mystical aura that explained the power of its figuration despite its seem-
ing banality.
On the whole, then, the sketches exhibited during the last week of
April 1848 intimated a modest degree of political progressivism, but even
this modicum of progressivism was immediately suspect to the moderates,
54 chapter one
who seized political control following the elections of 23 April. The reac-
tion issued mainly from the Right; the radical press was surprisingly mute
on the subject, probably because it did not know how to manipulate the
cultural and aesthetic concepts as effectively as its opponents. The reaction
endeavored to demonstrate that the Republic’s open, democratic competi-
tion attracted mainly mediocrities, that the idea of the progressive Repub-
lic was an absurdity impossible to encode, and finally that the collection of
rag-tag stereotypes exposed the creative impotence of republican culture.
At the heart of this negative criticism was a challenge to the very nature of
the Second Republic itself.
L’Illustration had a field day with the sketches, publishing an entire page
of Bertall’s caricatures of the entries (fig. 1.23).
The cartoonist’s devastat-
ing satires convey the motley character of the displays, yet at this stage they
do not manifest the captious tone of the critiques after June. Bertall’s car-
toons, however, do attest to the political implications of the contestants’
visual strategies. His first example bears this legend: “A very skinny Re-
public who appears to have fasted since 24 February. This picture is prob-
ably done by the brush of a reactionary artist.” Another example shows a
1.22 Pierre-Roch Vigneron,
sheet of studies, detail including
Félix Fossey, Symbolic Figure of the
Republic (unnumbered), 1848.
55 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
Republic with her thigh exposed, and the legend states: “Without being
entirely covered with breeches [culottée], the Republic must not be sans-cu-
lotte” (i.e., without breeches, the term for radical republicans of the First
Revolution who wore trousers in opposition to the costume of the up-
per classes). Other parodied entries referred to a “Neo-Christian Republic”
(showing a haggard creature, breasts bared and sagging, and wearing the
Phrygian bonnet), an “Industrial Republic,” a “Radical Republic” (Répub-
lique progressiste—who wears the liberty cap and holds a skull symbolizing
1.23 Bertall, Bertall à la recherche
de la meilleure des Républiques, wood
engraving from L’Illustration, 6
May 1848.
56 chapter one
Equality), an “Unreasonable Republic,” and a “Financial Republic” (sug-
gesting that no matter who governs, money reigns). All of these titles, if
not immediately suggestive of political positions, point to a distinctly ideo-
logical reading of the images.
The journal entitled this page of satires “Bertall à la recherche de la
meilleure des Républiques,” which probably inspired the title of the 1848
novel by Louis Reybaud, Jérôme Paturôt à la recherche de la meilleure des Répub-
Reybaud, who had written a pioneering if conflicted book about
the social reformers, began his career as a liberal critic of the July Monar-
chy, but the Republic frightened him and forced him to retreat to a conser-
vative position. Jérôme Paturôt attacked the Provisional Government with
sardonic humor: the eponymous hero considered himself a republican un-
der the July Monarchy (républicain de la veille), but finds himself shifting to
the opposite end of the political spectrum under the impact of the new
regime. One of the key scenes depicts the moment when Jérôme accom-
panies his artist friend Oscar to the exhibition of the sketches for the sym-
bolic figure of the Republic. Oscar, who had himself submitted an entry,
lauds the government’s magnanimous decision to hold an open competi-
tion in which masters and pupils could compete on common ground. But
after rhapsodic praise for this stimulus to the creative imagination, Oscar
launches into a tirade against the results:
See all these sketches: there is manual skill, but
where is the conception, where is the idea? Nothing
that induces reverie, nothing that transports us to
other realms!
Oscar then unwittingly condemns the whole
competition by claiming that his entry alone
merited the prize, but while he waxes ef-
fusively about it Jérôme can hardly refrain
from laughing out loud. All Jérôme saw was
“a ghastly looking Virgin tapping with an
olive branch on the terrestrial globe which
split open.”
His perception of the creature’s
physiognomy and its immoderately large eyes
was visualized in a subsequent edition of the
book by Tony Johannot (fig. 1.24). A witty
exchange that then ensues between Oscar and
Jérôme reveals that the competition for the
Republic constituted the leitmotif for the en-
tire novel. When the painter asks his friend if
he agrees that his entry is “the best,” Jérôme
responds somewhat confusedly with a ques-
tion: “La meilleure de quoi?” to which Oscar
1.24 Tony Johannot, La Répub-
lique, wood engraving from
Reybaud, Jérôme Paturôt (1848).
57 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
naively replies, “La meilleure des Républiques, Jérôme!” Later an enthusi-
astic supporter of Louis-Napoléon, Reybaud clearly singled out the paint-
ing competition with its pluralistic jumble as a means of discrediting the
new regime.
The Sculpture Competition
The sculpture competition enjoyed a very different outcome from the
painting contest. Following the presidential elections in December, the
Second Republic began operating normally with an executive installed in
accordance with the Constitution. The new president, Louis-Napoléon
Bonaparte, formed an unprogressive government of ex-royalists (both Or-
léanists and Legitimists)—the first time since February that a government
had been formed without long-standing republicans. In this changed po-
litical climate the antisocialists felt secure enough to choose
a figure of the Republic from the definitive sculptural en-
tries in January 1849.
For this second tournament ten finalists submitted plas-
ter models two and a third meters high. These ten were
Jean-Jean Allasseur, Jean-Auguste Barre, Astyanax-Scévola
Bosio (who replaced Duret when the latter withdrew),
Théodore-François Dévaulx, Georges Diébolt, Jean-
Jacques Feuchère, Jean-Louis-Nicholas Jaley, François-Gas-
pard Aimé Lanno, Louis Roguet, Jean-François Soitoux,
and Ferdinand Taluet.
It was Soitoux, a pupil of David
d’Angers and Feuchère, who was declared the winner. His
work depicted “France proud and calm,” crowned with
oak leaves and a star instead of a liberty cap, and protecting
the Constitution with a powerful sword (fig. 1.25).
sober, serene bearing was complemented by heavy classical
robes and the impersonal “look of eternity” inculcated in
the sculptor by his master David d’Angers.
Soitoux did manage to smuggle in some of the famil-
iar symbolism, such as the carpenter’s level, beehive, fas-
ces, and even a nondescript band on the Republic’s brow
which hung down on both sides of her head and carried
the inscription “République Démocratique 24 Février.”
But all this added up to no more than frosting on the clas-
sical cake, indicating that the jury could perceive that the
essentially conservative tradition of monumental sculpture
conformed perfectly to the taste and ideological predispo-
sition of the latest “republican” government. But it seems
clear that there were also formal and aesthetic factors that
contributed to the successful resolution of the sculptural
1.25 Jean-François Soitoux,
Symbolic Figure of the Republic,
final plaster model, wood
engraving from L’Illustration,
27 January 1849.
58 chapter one
For one thing, the allegorical subject appeared less ambiguous in sculp-
ture than it did in painting. Sculpture still operated optimally as apotheosis
rather than as documentation; its function was to depict magisterial per-
sons (generally male) and abstract ideals rather than ordinary people and the
immediate world. The vacant stare, idealized pose and rhetorical gesture,
and monochromatic surface all worked in favor of a conservative represen-
tation. The antique prototype, central to the fine arts curriculum, had been
a long accepted convention perpetuated by official and other privileged in-
terests trying to project the face of legitimate authority in public spaces.
Soitoux’s statue of the anonymous Republic fit the standard official
code for allegorical sculpture, only what had been previously relegated to
accessory status as symbolic of a quality or virtue in public monuments
now assumed front rank. An impersonal, collective female personification
replaced the specific portrait of male king and military hero.
Yet the tra-
ditional orthodoxy in the work could satisfy the conservative jury because
of its generality and familiarity. Sculpture by definition (except in rare in-
stances like Rude’s Victory, which operates at the level of accessory) could
not permit the impetuous action of the painted representation; rather, it
projected a sedate image in which reason had gained the ascendance over
the passions. It is no coincidence that the staid Statue of Liberty in New
York Harbor was designed by Soitoux’s disciple, Frédéric-Auguste Bar-
But if sculpture in 1849 remained intrinsically conservative in both
theme and formal presentation, its public function could never be totally
neutral in the ideological sense. One leftist reviewer noted that the design
for a commemorative medal of the Republic by Nieuwerkerke—soon to be-
come surintendant des Beaux-Arts under the Second Empire—was “hardly
democratic or social.”
Nieuwerkerke’s conservativism aside, sculpture—
even in its most placid and benign state—could assume an emphatic po-
litical character once it was designated for a public site. Like the Vendôme
Column, a work could be charged with ideological potency depending on
location, time, and the current regime. Indeed, Soitoux later claimed that
Nieuwerkerke, as head of the imperial establishment, counseled him to
transform his Republic into a figure of justice or even Liberty.
(This was
not unusual; as in the case of Couture’s Enrollment, the administration spent
much of its energy trying to persuade artists of republican disposition to
bring their work into line with the prevailing ideology of Napoléon III’s
regime.) Soitoux refused to play this nominalist game, but in retrospect it
may be observed that he could have made the alteration without compro-
mising in the least the formal integrity of his statue.
This dual nature of sculpture—its intrinsic conservatism and extrin-
sic public (i.e., performative) role—is seen in the case of one other entry
for the sculpture competition. Roguet’s Republic, which won an honor-
able mention, was later stripped of its republican attributes and shipped
to Orléans as a personification of the city. A crown replaced the Phrygian
59 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
bonnet, and its other accessories were altered in accordance with local tra-
ditions. Feuchère, another of the finalists, was commissioned by the gov-
ernment to execute a statue personifying the Constitution for the Place
de l’Assemblée Nationale, but he completed it only in 1852, after the coup
d’état, and it was therefore no longer politically relevant. Nieuwerkerke,
head of the section of fine arts, however, deemed it compatible with the
needs of the Second Empire. The administration planned to simply label
it “The Law” and install it in its destined site, now the Palais du Corps Lé-
gislatif. Only the wording of the inscription would be changed to protect
the guilty: “feliciter—regnante napoleone iii francorum imperatore anno
Thus the positive outcome of the sculptural competition confirms the
conservative direction of the government in the wake of Louis-Napoléon’s
election. The collective ideals and dynamic character embodied in the can-
vases were rejected, while a traditional look associated with notions of
social hierarchy and authority made the designs for sculpture, coins and
medals, and seals acceptable. If the jury managed also to select winners in
the coin and medal competitions, however, it came at the expense of the
favorite symbol of the Left. The government expressly prohibited the rep-
resentation of the Phrygian bonnet in these contests.
La Réforme angrily
reported this stipulation and criticized the government for its conservative
gesture: “[The Phrygian bonnet] is the only common sign of all the na-
tions; it is an allegorical emblem that
republicans must preserve.”
As a re-
sult, the engravers concocted bizarre
coiffures that appeared more like bur-
dens than ornaments.
La République
bitterly protested the ban, noting that
the red cap “frightens the members of
the Fine Arts Commission,” whom
they labeled “petty men, poor repub-
During the period that the Na-
tional Assembly debated and passed
the majority vote in favor of the Con-
stitution (October–November 1848),
Jean-Jacques Barre (the head engraver
at the mint) designed the official seal
of the Republic (fig. 1.26). His fe-
male personification is seated in pro-
file while the upper part of her body
twists to face the spectator. She is to-
tally covered in heavy drapery, and
her head is crowned with a diadem of
ears of wheat. Behind her head, like
1.26 Jean-Jacques Barre, Seal of
the Republic, 1848.
60 chapter one
a spiky halo, beam the rays of the sun. (This conservative image was used
again during the early Third Republic and resembles the type exploited by
the Statue of Liberty’s French sponsors, all moderate republicans, most of
whom had been traumatized by both the June insurrection and the Com-
mune of 1871.)
Foreign Reaction to the Competitions of 1848
Barre’s designs were given pride of place on the cover of L’Illustration for
28 October 1848 (fig. 1.27). Within France itself, the seal represented a con-
servative republican emblem of the government in the final stages of draft-
ing the Constitution. Outside France, however, any concrete visualization
of the Republic threatened defenders of the existing monarchical regimes.
Feudal England, for example, watched with horror as the Republic con-
solidated itself, even after the suppression of the June insurgency, whose
collapse it regarded with relief. The English reaction was conditioned in
part by the agitation in April of the Chartists, who took their cue and
much of their symbolism from the Provisional Government. One Chartist
organizer invoked Louis-Philippe’s recent expulsion as a model for home
politics: “Is that not a lesson for our tyrants? Should not such an example
have an effect upon our Government?” Artisans and liberal bourgeois par-
ticipating in the Chartist demonstration of 10 April carried tricolor flags
and banners with the slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” England grew
fearful as the young French Republic announced solidarity with the Char-
tists, and when, on the eve of the demonstration, the conservatives could
see that they had gained the upper hand, they boasted: “This day England
will prove how much her strength excels that of vast armies, and her liberty
that of specious republics.”
In view of the conservative British reaction to the French Republic, it is
not surprising that their media seized upon the republican imagery to vent
1.27 Jean-François Barre, State
Seal, obverse and reverse, wood
engraving from L’Illustration,
28 October 1848.
61 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
their anxieties. Punch, for example, had a field day with Barre’s seal, paro-
dying L’IIlustration’s reproductions by showing the seated allegory on one
side and a ferocious looking insurgent worker on the obverse (fig. 1.28).

The head of the defiant rebel seems to have been modeled on the likeness
of the Russian anarchist Bakunin; he carries a lighted torch in his left hand
(a subversion of the Torch of Enlightenment held by some of the painted
Republics) and a rifle in the other, while he packs a pair of pistols inside his
belt. Beneath his feet he crushes a pair of placards reading “Property” and
“Religion,” while the slogan replacing “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity”
reads “Socialism, Communism, and Atheism.”
The piece in which these caricatures appear is entitled “Pictures of the
Republic” and refers to the “Six hundred designs in painting and sculpture
. . . sent in for the allegorical figure of the Republic, intended to adorn the
Hall of the Assembly.” The accompanying verses reveal Punch’s position on
the nascent French Republic:
Come first, young rafael, moyen age of vest and hat and head,
You’ll dash in your Republic in a rusty ground of red;
A red-capp’d dame, half fishhag, half fiend in mould and mien,
And in the distance marat’s bust, crowning a guillotine.
Other verses refer to Republics whose red bonnets barely conceal a crown,
to a tunic “loop’d above the knee” which reveals beneath a “high historical
jack-boot.” The poem concludes with a bit of general advice to all of the
1.28 The Republican Medal and
Its Reverse, wood engraving from
Punch, 1849.
62 chapter one
So paint her, painters, as she is—your Republic in her youth,
Graced by no senseless symbols that lie against the truth;
Fence her with swords from her own sons, and let her motto be—
“Behold, all nations of the Earth! what I am, be not ye.”
The following year Punch, feeling less anxious about the impact of the
revolutions on domestic tranquility, published across a two-page-spread a
cartoon entitled “There Is No Place Like Home” (fig. 1.29).
It depicts a
smug, self-satisfied John Bull sitting serenely in his armchair surrounded
by his contented wife and numerous progeny in the shadow of a portrait
of Queen Victoria. Surrounding this roughly octagonal scene are vignettes
of death and insurrection sparked by the revolts of 1848–1849. The image
of the French Republic, wearing her liberty bonnet, can be glimpsed in the
lower margin, totally devastated by events and burying her face in anguish,
while directly above her, in the top margin, a figure like the one shown in
the caricature of the seal wildly brandishes a dagger and a flaming torch.
German conservatives, whose response we will analyze in more de-
tail in a subsequent chapter, also lashed out against the promises of the
Republic and its influence on local uprisings. In July 1849, L’Illustration
reprinted the series of six wood engravings by the Prussian artist Alfred
Rethel entitled “Yet Another Dance of Death in the Year 1848” (Auch ein
Todtentanz aus dem Jahre 1848) (fig. 1.30).
These wood engravings enjoyed
an immense success among the bourgeois in Germany, but their appeal
spread everywhere in proportion to the retooling of the counterrevolu-
tion. When we consider that the woodcuts were only ready for circulation
in late May and early June, 1849, the rapidity with which the series was
63 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
picked up by the French journal attests to its fundamental expression of
European reaction.
The series opens with Death called into action by a quintet of vices—
Folly, Falsehood, Cunning, Vanity, and Bloodthirstiness—who arm him
for his mission. Death is the hero of the revolution; he rides into town
like a rebel leader and, acting like a charlatan at a medicine show, incites
the people near a local tavern against the rulers in order to reap his har-
vest at the barricade. He himself stands proud and erect like a general on
the field of battle, holding the red flag, as the bullets of the national guard
play harmlessly upon his bony ribs. But those who follow him are not so
invulnerable as the grapeshot sweeps them off the barricade. The contest
between the forces of democracy and the reaction quickly ends, as trium-
1.29 There Is No Place Like Home,
wood engraving from Punch,
1.30 Alfred Rethel, Auch ein
Todtentanz aus dem Jahre 1848, wood
engraving, after the woodcut se-
ries. Reproduced in L’Illustration,
28 July 1849.
64 chapter one
phant Death, wearing a victor’s wreath around his skull, rides with his ban-
ner unfurled across the barricade, while his victims writhe in their death
struggle and children bewail their fallen fathers. As Death throws one last
scornful look at the destruction he has wrought, the legend names him
“The hero of the Red Republic.”
Rethel imitates Lamartine in associating the red flag with the blood of
duped victims of radical agitators. The entire series mocks the 1848 rev-
olution in France and its allegorical expressions. The very first panel in
Rethel’s series allegorizes the female Vices in postures reminiscent of the
symbolic figure of the Republic; Falsehood hands over to Death the Scales
of Justice—a popular emblem in several of the sketches. In Rethel’s series,
however, these scales have been stolen from Justice, who is shown bound
and helpless, and subverted by Death to deceive the townspeople into be-
lieving that a peasant’s pipe weighs as much as a king’s crown.
The numerous poses and attitudes of Death holding the scales, banner,
and sword of Justice further carry an allusion to the allegorical figures of
the Republic. Death itself is a perversion of the robust Republics—again
recalling the caricatures by Bertall published the previous year. Rethel’s
“hero of the Red Republic” also picks up on the Right’s slanderous asso-
ciations of bloodthirstiness with the symbolic color of the Left. The phobia
surrounding the color red reflected by extension the reaction everywhere
to the rallying symbol of social revolution.
In France disillusionment with the Republic is virtually inscribed in
the work of the radicals, once so full of hope for the future. On 8 March
George Sand could still exclaim: “Long live the Republic! What a dream,
what enthusiasm and at the same time what discipline, what order in Paris!
. . . We are out of our mind, intoxicated, delighted to have fallen asleep in
the mire and to have awakened in heaven.” Less than four months later,
on 29 June, she would write her daughter Augustine: “Words fail me and
my heart is broken. I don’t want to speak about it to you, you know what
I think and suffer from such a catastrophic end to our beautiful dream of
the fraternal republic.”
Sand’s sense of dejection and disillusionment was pervasive among the
intellectuals after June, and the popular election of Louis-Napoléon in De-
cember crushed their last remnant of hope. Their work, developing in a
social environment of disenchantment and loss of idealism, anticipates the
realist movement. Adolphe Leleux, who had already carved out a niche for
himself making condescending genre constructions of Breton village life
earlier in the decade, was struck by the menacing aspect of the street fight-
ing in Paris during the insurrection of June. In his work the bayoneted ri-
fles in the hands of the insurgents take on a sinister life of their own, turned
against them, so to speak, as frightening symbols comparable to the liberty
cap and red banner that sparked the hysteria leading to their suppression.
In La Sortie (The Departure), we see only the bayonet and the lower
leg stepping off as the figure is cut off abruptly by the right-hand picture
65 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
plane (fig. 1.31). It recalls the old illusionistic image composed of three
lines, a vertical, and a zigzag above and a curve below extending from the
vertical, representing “A Soldier and His Dog Going through a Door.”
Leleux breaks with convention to convey the urgency and violence of the
insurgent’s outburst, leaving behind him a disconsolate family whose own
tormented postures reveal the awful impact of his action. The sense of des-
olation established by the direction of their gaze and the bayonet fragment
appeared to critics as imbalanced and incoherent.
Similarly, Leleux’s Le Mot d’Ordre (The Password) lacked all pretense to
a picturesque arrangement, some “central idea” or didactic message to jus-
tify it as a work of high art (fig. 1.32). It shows a ragtag trio of insurgents
behind a barricade ( just barely glimpsed at the right) in a squalid district
of the city, perhaps one of the old streets of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine
where the insurrection took its last stand. (Curiously, however, the offi-
cial description of the work held that they were “three working-class citi-
zens who have become National Guardsmen”—undoubtedly a fiction that
1.31 Adolphe Leleux, La Sortie,
Paris, etching, 1848. Bibliothèque
Nationale, Paris.
1.32 Adolphe Leleux, The Pass-
word, 1848. Musée National du
Château, Versailles.
66 chapter one
facilitated the picture’s acceptance that year.
) Their bodies tense in un-
easy vigilance, as one stands guard with a watchful eye and the other two
exchange the password. A slovenly fellow whispers into the ear of a much
younger comrade—Delacroix’s boisterous gamin from the Liberty now
hardened into premature adulthood. Again, Leleux pays special attention
to the menacing weapons, now sharply silhouetted against the towering
wall behind them. Despite the slattern outfits and unkempt appearance of
the rebels, they are seen as disciplined and maintaining order in their claus-
trophobic confinement.
Lamartine recalled the popular demonstration of 17 March when the
crowd, in a surprisingly ordered manner, marched from the Champs-Ely-
sées to the Hôtel de Ville to pressure the government to ship the regular
army outside of Paris and postpone elections to allow for more time to
spread the word to the rural populations. Reacting in panic and fright-
ened by the appearance of the liberty cap, Lamartine recorded: “This
army of the populace, calm, silent, and well-disciplined, guided by the
secret watchwords implicitly obeyed, overawed the capital by its impos-
ing aspect. Though it menaced no one, it filled every mind with dismay,
and visibly denoted that Paris was thenceforth wholly at the mercy of the
The secret password, a holdover from the clandestine clubs and soci-
eties, was a matter of life and death. Louis Blanc recalled encountering
an uneasy group guarding a barricade under imminent attack during the
night of 24 February. When he tried to cross, the commander asked for
the password in a menacing tone, and when neither he nor his companions
could remember it they felt themselves in real danger. Afterwards, he re-
flected on his experience, and while like Lamartine he was impressed with
the military discipline and civic pride of the workers, instead of finding it
unsettling he lauded their barricade ritual as a symbol of their newfound
independence and freedom from official authority. The password was key
to internal self-containment, self-government, and mutual protection. The
people were now in control of their own destiny, and Blanc took solace
in hearing the nocturnal cry echoing from barricade to barricade: “Senti-
nelles, prenez garde à vous!”
Leleux’s insurgents are desperate men living on the edge, driven to
rebellion by poverty and hunger. Significantly, they are not depicted as
heroes or aggrandized as defenders of social justice, and, except for the
anxiety implied in the narrative and knowledge of the historical outcome,
the scene represented would otherwise appear as somewhat ordinary and
anecdotal. The specter of the insurgents haunted bourgeois society, and
Leleux offers relief by depicting them as pitiable human beings reduced
to the level of cornered rats. Their desperation has honed their instincts
to animal-like acuteness, but they remain connected to the human family
through their ritual signals that transform them into a community. Their
peculiar status does not permit compositional manipulation that would
67 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
frame the work with a proverbial message like Couture’s Enrollment of the
Volunteers, and the stark result disturbed spectators at the Salon of 1849 by
the revelation of a permanent oppositional social class too entrenched to be
easily read out of civil society.
Daumier’s The Uprising of circa 1849 points to a further layer of dissat-
isfaction and pessimism pictorially realized as a de-heroicized echo of The
Enrollment of the Volunteers (fig. 1.33). While Daumier translated Couture’s
symbolic parade into a working-class crowd, the central figure leaning for-
ward into the fray with clenched fist thrust upward is Couture’s enthu-
siastic artisan at the right with bared arm flung overhead. Daumier also
borrowed from this figure the white blouse and turned-up sleeve, and cer-
tain technical traits such as the bold scumbling textures, heavy black con-
tours, and the underlying red-brown ébauche. Daumier’s scenario presents
a startling contrast to that of his younger contemporary: as against the al-
legory of social and national fusion, Daumier poses a disjunctive relation-
ship between the lone agitator trying to stir the populace to action and the
crowd, which reacts passively to his appeal.
The euphoria and solidarity expressed in the disciplined demonstra-
tions of 1848 have now passed into the wariness and despondency of 1849.
The attempt of the solitary insurgent to rekindle the revolutionary pas-
sions dissipates, checked by the street crowd. Daumier effectively conveys
this opposition through the contrast between the blonde rebel in his lumi-
nous white blouse and the somber silhouettes of the bystanders, who con-
1.33 Honoré Daumier, The Up-
rising, ca. 1849. Phillips Memorial
Art Gallery, Washington, D.C.
68 chapter one
tain his lightness in their massed darkness. Their dejected, sagging, squat,
and bewildered bodies further arrest his vigorous gesture; even the lines of
the architectural backdrop seem to pull the protagonist backward and close
off possibility. Unlike Leleux’s Password, where the walled-off corner sig-
naled a last desperate stand, here it disconnects as in a short circuit.
Experiences such as this were not uncommon in Parisian life even before
June 1848, but they especially resonated with the mood of despondency of
the subsequent period. An English journalist observed one “young orator”
haranguing a crowd to obtain signatures for a petition to close shops on
Sundays and holidays at noon instead of three o’clock, and the reaction the
journalist described remarkably parallels that represented by Daumier:
But the mass around does not seem to catch his enthusiasm; for I see none of
those shifting lights in the chiaro-obscuro of the crowd, that would indicate one
of those electric movements that fall upon popular masses, under the influence
of inspiration. Now, he cries, “Vive la République! Citizens, friends, let us to
the Faubourg St. Antoine!”—the workman’s quarter, where émeutes [uprisings]
are generally cooked up. But no one seems inclined to follow him into that
distant region, in order to get up a shop-shutting insurrection.
Closer to the period of Daumier’s representation was Ledru-Rollin’s
attempt on 13 June 1849 to rouse the populace to arms to halt the govern-
ment’s expedition against the Roman Republic, a flagrant breach of the
new Constitution. By coincidence, it was the anniversary of the June in-
surrection, but this time the great majority of depressed working-class fau-
bourgs ignored the call to arms. Thousands of families were still bewailing
the deaths and deportations of the previous June, and the popular leaders
were languishing in jail or in exile. The great abolitionist and radical repub-
lican Victor Schoelcher recalled that when Ledru-Rollin took to the streets
and made an appeal to revolution, “the people did not answer.”
The bru-
tal repression of June had effectively paralyzed efforts to demonstrate in
the streets, but even if attempts were feasible it is unlikely that the working
classes would have come en masse to the aid of Ledru-Rollin. The people
recalled that he had supported Cavaignac against the insurgents, and most
of them considered his present request inappropriate. Ledru-Rollin’s abor-
tive agitation in the streets ruined his career, forcing him to flee to London
and into twenty years of exile. Like the unfortunate wretch in Daumier’s
Uprising, Ledru-Rollin had underestimated the degree of support he had
in the streets.
Daumier’s painting stands in relation to events and the emerging move-
ment in art as did his lithograph of Rue Transnonain fifteen years earlier. As
in the sketch for the Republic, his easel work achieved its effects in part
through the relationship with the lithographic medium and its bald jux-
tapositions of lights and darks. There is an almost caricatural feel to The
Uprising, not only in the flat modeling and boldly outlined and reductive
69 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
physiognomies of the protagonists, but in the way these qualities are ex-
ploited to represent a topical event. In the next chapters we will see how
popular imagery entered the realm of ambitious painting and became a
critical ingredient of realist work. Realism often attacked social conven-
tions not with the sophistication of high art styles but with the harsh in-
vective of cartoonists like Daumier. Realism was never to be simply an
attempt to replicate the empirical world but often a means of exploring the
contradictions and injustices of everyday life. Construing reality realisti-
cally is not the same as reproducing it conscientiously.
Daumier’s Uprising, with its play of contradictory forces, dealt directly
with life in the streets after revolutionary fervor had dissipated and posi-
tive expectations were defeated. Daumier brought a caricaturist’s per-
spective to high art at a moment when high art was undergoing a radical
transformation under the cumulative influence of the dual revolution and
the counterrevolutionary response. Neither romanticism nor classicism
seemed adequate to encode the contending forces then in play, nor could
either of them do justice to the mood of pessimism that gripped large seg-
ments of the populace that was now politically empowered and still seen as
dangerous by the privileged classes. They could not be elided from society
and art, but they had to be controlled in both contexts. No longer victims
or happy slaves, they could not be cast as classic heroes or romantic lovers.
Now the artist assumed the role of sociologist, and this is how the emerg-
ing realist movement could offer a lowly cartoonist the opportunity of a
I want to conclude this chapter with two depictions of the barricade
that help us map the transition to realism. The barricade as signifier of rev-
olution and symbol of popular resistance to illegitimate authority makes
sense only as a sign of the real (fig. 1.34). It is significant that both works
represent episodes of the June insurrection, the turning point of the revo-
lution of 1848 and the beginning of the loss of idealism that had marked the
popular acceptance of the political change. The first, entitled La Barricade,
is by Adolphe Hervier, and is inscribed “Juin 1848, Paris” at the lower right-
hand corner (fig. 1.35).
Hervier portrays the bloody carnage that followed
from the National Guard’s artillery salvos against the barricades: upon a
heap of blocky paving stones and other debris of the shattered structure,
broken and twisted bodies have been violently flung in every direction.
The inscription and careful observation of local detail suggest direct ob-
servation, but the arrangement indicates a reconceptualizing of his project.
The preliminary pencil and watercolor study, inscribed at the upper left
with the phrase “triste souvenir” (sad memory), also carries a smudged in-
scription below in pencil which includes the words “St. Antoine”—the tra-
ditional nest of rebellion and thus once again certifying the actuality of the
scene. The sketch further eliminates artful background detail and effects of
smoke and dust and places more emphasis on the bodies (fig. 1.36). In the
painted version, the painter tries to make meaning out the grisly sight by
71 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
tilting the pile of human and inanimate wreckage toward the spectator and
building a pyramid of corpses crowned at the apex by a tattered red flag
contained in an old wooden barrel.
It is possible that the flag makes oblique reference to the work of Her-
vier’s teacher Léon Cogniet, whose Parisian National Guard Leaves for the
Front in September 1792 used the flag as a focal point in celebrating patriotic
devotion to the nation (fig. 1.37). The emblematic banner fluttering above
its pedestal functions as transcendental sign of civic order and unity. The
two works by Hervier and Cogniet in turn display a link with the prec-
edent established by Delacroix. A flag occupying the pinnacle of a compo-
sition devoted to the barricade automatically invokes Delacroix’s Liberty,
whose tricolor banner waves in triumph and vindicates the sacrifice of the
fallen insurgents in her midst. Hervier clearly suggests its opposite in The
Barricade, where the shredded flag leans inertly in its wooden container and
no allegorical complement redeems the sprawling corpses. The tattered
red fragment signals utter defeat, ringing down the curtain on the June
drama. Hervier stains the torsos of the dead workers in the same color, re-
affirming the conservative association of the Red Republic with torrents
of blood.
1.34 The Great Barricade at the
Entrance of the Rue du Faubourg St.
Antoine, from the Place de la Bastille.
Reproduced in Illustrated London
News, 1 July 1848.
1.35 Adolphe Hervier, The Bar-
ricade, 1848. Private Collection,
1.36 Adolphe Hervier, The Barri-
cade, pencil and watercolor, 1848.
Private Collection, Paris.
1.37 Léon Cogniet, The National
Guard of Paris Departs for the Army
in September 1792, 1836. Musée
National du Château, Versailles.
72 chapter one
At the same time, the red flag mediates the scene of carnage for the art-
ist, framing it with a moral on the futility of working-class initiative and
dissent. By restaging the actual scene to climax with the shredded flag,
Hervier endowed a random act of violence with a moralizing narrative.
In this sense, Hervier manifests an analogous tension between tradition
and modernity experienced by Couture and the participants in the com-
petition for the figure of the Republic. Considering this work in relation-
ship to Delacroix’s Liberty, the older work has the advantage of an entire
repertoire of traditional motifs in which to embed revolutionary protest,
while in contrast Hervier’s narrative structure barely contains the human
detritus which threatens to overwhelm it. It makes a greater advance in the
ideological commitment to the observable world, drastically curtailing the
conventional apparatus and projecting an alternative perspective of tradi-
tionally marginalized folk. But it does so only when that group is safely
neutralized on the “wrong” side of the barricade.
Meissonier’s Souvenir de guerre civile (Souvenir of Civil War) amplifies
Hervier’s commitment in trying to see beyond the ideological curtain that
separated the classes (fig. 1.38).
Even more breathtakingly naturalistic than
Hervier, Meissonier brings us to the threshold of a demolished barricade
and its erstwhile defenders, savagely flung in every direction under the im-
pact of grapeshot. The pressure of the blasts has rendered the faces of the
relentlessly piled-up bodies almost indistinguishable from the rest of the
flattened rubble. It is as if a monster steamroller squashed the barricade out
of existence and pulverized human beings and paving stones into a homo-
geneous bloodstained mass.
Meissonier earned his reputation under the July Monarchy mainly for
his combination of eighteenth-century subjects and seventeenth-century
Dutch technique (Flemish Burghers, 1834; The Connoisseurs, Salon of 1843),
a synthesis ideally suited to the taste of fashionable patrons who collected
both centuries. The year 1848 jolted him from his complacency: a partisan
of the moderate republicans, he perceived himself as a dutiful citizen and
loyal soldier when he enlisted as a captain of artillery in the National Guard
to help crush the June insurrection. He ordered the firing of the cannon as
if acting out another of his fantasies, but when he saw the combatants in his
own unit falling around him and viewed firsthand the effects of his salvo
on the barricades, he gained deeper insight into the casuistic propaganda of
the conservatives and a better understanding of the conflict that the Right
glamorized as a struggle for “law and order.” He tried to expiate his guilt
by shifting his horror and resentment on to another officer, one totally in-
different to the bloody sight before him, which included innocent victims
accidentally killed in and around their dwellings. When Armand Marrast,
mayor of Paris, asked the officer if all the corpses were those of insurgents,
the officer replied: “I can assure you, Monsieur le Maire, not more than a
quarter of them were innocent.”
1.38 Jean-Louis-Ernest Meisso-
nier, Souvenir of the Civil War, 1849.
Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
74 chapter one
Meissonier’s Souvenir de la guerre civile was based on this experience.
His heretofore sublimated realism could now be foregrounded in a topi-
cal theme that imposed itself with overwhelming urgency. He originally
planned to entitle the work “Juin” and submit it to the Salon of 1849, but
memories of the event were still too fresh in everyone’s mind and he was
persuaded to withdraw the entry until a later date. When it exhibited at
the following Salon of 1850–1851, it had not lost its terrible power. Crit-
ics on both the Left and the Right were overcome by its relentless realism,
which reduced dead human beings to the state of inert rubble and treated
the human and material wreckage with the same precise articulation. The
reformist critic Sabatier-Ungher compared the treatment to the objectivity
of a daguerreotype and linked it with the matter-of-fact attitude of certain
historians who coolly recorded statistics of victims of some catastrophe in
one sentence and then passed quickly to the next item with a trivial anec-
dote. In this sense, Meissonier preceded Courbet in recording death with a
lack of emphasis, dramatic contrast, and a circumspect selection of detail.
Above all, critics marveled at Meissonier’s lack of artifice, as in the case
of the conservative Peisse, who declared that the work prevented an aes-
thetic distance—that its realism kept thrusting itself at the spectator. Un-
like Hervier, there is no clear culminating point or narrative focus to make
sense of the destruction (other than a sort of subliminal blue, white, and
red coloration diffused through shredded clothing and pools of blood). Fi-
nally, neither the Left nor the Right could grasp at a hint of ideological
content with which they could identify, that could be formalized in visual
terms. Despite his own conservative bias, Meissonier here penetrated one
of the social deceptions of the privileged classes. He neither heroicized nor
morally degraded the victims; this was not a neutral statement or one that
refused to take sides, but rather a depiction of reality that defeats art, that
denies art its capacity to distance the beholder from reality.
This is certainly the feature of the watercolor sketch that struck Delac-
roix when he accompanied the artist to his studio to see what he called the
“Barricade.” Delacroix winced in painful remembrance as he subsequently
described its “horrible truth,” and then he added that “though one can-
not say that the thing is not exact, perhaps there is lacking that indefinable
thing that makes an object of art out of an odious object.”
Delacroix recognized
that Meissonier had eradicated the manipulative arrangement of forms that
he had employed in his Liberty, and at the same time was thrown by Meis-
sonier’s ability to confront the subject so directly on its own terms and to
represent it so faithfully.
Alexander Herzen, a Russian radical exiled in Paris during the June
Days, heard drunken National Guardsmen sing “Mourir pour la patrie,”
while other youths from the Garde Mobile, fresh from the country, bragged
about how many insurgents they had shot. Later, when he articulated more
fully his disillusionment and no longer dreamed of the good society, Her-
zen claimed that it was possible to combat only specific falsehoods that
75 springtime and winter of the people in france, 1848–1852
were encountered close up. On the eve of 1848, Marx and Engels wrote
in the Communist Manifesto: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy
is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real
conditions of life and his relations with his kind.” Certainly, Meissonier
gained a heightened awareness of these social relations during the terrible
June Days. It was less a “truth” that he discovered than the falsity of bour-
geois consciousness.
The veil of conservative propaganda fell and the artist recognized that
what he was fighting was not a war against the savages but a “guerre civile”
against his humbler fellow human beings, and he expressed his bitter dis-
illusionment in a painstaking portrayal of the murderous fallout of social
demonization. The painting is not “real” by virtue of its simulation of ob-
servable reality, but because it is less experienced as an artifact in its absence
of conventional compositional design, staged groupings, and predictable
props. More importantly, it is “real” because it pushed back the boundaries
of social and aesthetic limitation ideologically imposed on contemporary
reality—a limitation that inescapably influenced the ability to see.
It is not the mere factual transcription of modern society and its sur-
rounding life that makes a realist, but the interpretation and penetration
of the screen of perception and deception that follows from the dominant
belief systems at any given time. That is why there is no single “realism” of
the period, but a multitude of realisms each of which corresponds to the
degree to which artists commit themselves to the discovery and visualiza-
tion of a new social fact. The realism that emerges after 1848 arose from the
disappointments and disillusionments of those who wished to resolve the
social problem; it is the realism of those whose positive expectations were
deflated and who wound up profoundly humiliated. George Sand wrote
in mid-July 1848 that she was not only “brokenhearted” but she could no
longer believe “in the existence of a republic which begins by killing its
proletarians. This is a bizarre solution to the problem of poverty. It is pure
It has been argued that the failure of 1848 is inextricably linked with the
doctrine of art for art’s sake, that young romantics like Baudelaire, Leconte
de Lisle, and Flaubert, initially carried away by the heady visions of social
change, withdrew out of bitterness from their engagement with actuality
and thereafter assumed a detached and cynical view of collectivist effort.
There is much to support this assertion, given the direction of their careers
during the Second Empire. But the doctrine had already been proclaimed
long prior to the February revolution as a subset of romantic ideals, and
even clearly articulated and critiqued by Lammenais in his Esquisse d’une
philosophie (1841).
It seems to me that their treatment of bourgeois ideals
and critique of religion has more in common with the state of disillusion-
ment I associate with the realist attitude. As in the case of caricaturists like
Daumier, they erected their ivory towers on the ruins of 1848 to survey the
dark side of the civic order.
76 chapter one
Realism implies the absence of idealism and a felt duty to carefully
trace the sources of the conditions of existence. This is also why the realist
sensibility took to the landscape sketch as a crucial tool in its kit bag; it al-
lowed for a transcription of the terrain relatively unmediated by traditional
compositional procedures and the baggage of tradition. Finally, Meissoni-
er’s commitment to representing a scene of horror without flinching re-
quired a certain detachment and lack of feeling, an absence of emotional
response that marks one type of realist disposition. (Of course, it is one
thing to withhold sympathy from dead insurgents and another to with-
hold it from live peasants.) It is from this perspective that the “realism” of
Meissonier’s Souvenir de guerre civile made a watershed contribution to the
new movement.
Realism and Its Discontents
Realism in art is perhaps less a style or a movement than a state of mind
committed to reproducing aspects of the unstable world of sensory per-
ception. Previous references to the idea of realism as the attempt to por-
tray life as it is, to describe as accurately and as faithfully as possible what
is observed through the senses, generally ignore the subjective component
of this effort. Thus there never existed a single realism but a multitude of
realisms, sharing only the engagement with the empirical world. Since this
world is constituted in human thought as a language of signs, mimetic por-
trayal of those signs is always an act of selective interpretation. The distin-
guishing factor in realism is the same factor that distinguishes one human
being from another at all times and places, reflecting the depth of his or her
engagement with the world. The more we know, the more we see, and this
is why we marvel at some realist work as the revelation of the abundance
of the earth’s potential while other variations scrupulously rendering the
external world appear vacuous. What we now classify as “escapist” or “un-
realistic” when we say that someone is “into denial” does not necessarily
imply that the individual is more drawn to the imaginative faculties than
to empirical observation, but that the part of that person’s reality belongs
to a highly selective and narrow band of experience. More complicated,
of course, is the “reality” of one’s belief system, going so far as to take the
world as it exists as illusory and mental and insisting on a “higher” real-
ity invisible to material sense. The artist with this agenda could produce a
work whose broad features would be totally formless and unrecognizable,
but still be described as an example of authentic “reality.”
There always have been fundamental contradictions within the con-
cept of realism. On the one hand, realists opposed classical and romantic
ideals with the particular and the ordinary, and, on the other, they were al-
ways confronted with the paradox of having to capture that reality through
the medium of paint, and having to acknowledge the attempt to create an
2 Radical Realism and Its Offspring
78 chapter two
illusion of reality while investing their work with ideological significance.
In short, they were always aware of deploying strategies to visualize their
sense of truth. Thus my study starts with the nineteenth-century notion
of realism as engagement with the immediate world of the senses in an at-
tempt to understand it, fix it, and even to change it. At one end is Con-
stable’s close-up vision of his provincial environment and its overarching
skies, and at the other is Courbet’s desire to capture the social relations in
a rural setting during highly charged political circumstances. The radical
realist is more intent on revealing aspects of his or her reality that have
been overlooked or deliberately obfuscated by those whose reality has been
more privileged (those who live in and wish to preserve “a fool’s paradise”).
Realism is as much a social process as a visual process, and even the most
mindless “copying” of nature is still the concrete expression of a conscious
human being. The realism driven by radical political motivation takes on
the undesirable and inegalitarian aspects of a reality denied by less progres-
sive thinkers, and is often tagged as ugly or grotesque by more conservative
critics. The manifold types of realism, then, are defined by their ideological
motivation and selective focus, and the central aim of this book will be to
characterize and contextualize the various types of realism on both sides
of the ideological divide.
The radical realist, analogous to the philosophical realist, subscribes
to the notion that objects of sensory perception exist independently of
their being perceived by a conscious mind, are real in their own right. Both
therefore share the sense that reality is ultimately knowable and capable
of mastery, even though they might resist claiming such ultimate knowl-
edge in the present. Radical realists not only accept reality as dynamic and
in continual flux, but this is one of the motivating factors in their effort
to grasp it in the here and now. But the confidence in a graspable, know-
able reality is part of their credo, even though they have no illusions about
achieving the goal at any given moment.
Realism as a style has a cyclical component, emerging regularly as a sal-
utary counterweight to fantastic, mystical, classicist, and romantic forms of
expression. As in the case of all new movements, it represents an attempt to
enlarge upon the repertoire of aesthetic possibilities in a given era. Realism
is perhaps the ultimate in stylistic change, since it states in effect that one
can paint or write about anything in the perceivable universe. In its purely
theoretical guise, realism rejects the artificiality of the various forms of
classicism and romanticism, with their hierarchical and elitist significations.
The classicist vision holds life as more orderly than it is and the romantic
version shows it to be more emotionally and adventurous than it normally
is, and both tend to focus on the heroic gestures of extraordinary peo-
ple. Radical realism rejects their sentimentality and melodrama (although
socialist realism, fascist realism, and popular magazine illustration retains
them) and replaces their grandiose subjects with ordinary individuals in fa-
miliar, everyday surroundings.
79 radical realism and its offspring
Since the dawn of human civilization realism has played a role in all the
arts of representation, but it is chiefly the self-conscious formulation of the
movement in mid-nineteenth-century France that will constitute the heart
of this investigation. Modern science inevitably influenced it, coinciding
as it does with the emergence of sociology as a scientific study of society,
the rise of professional journalism and detailed reporting, and the wish to
understand social problems in the light of current events. Realism insists
on telling the “truth” as directly and simply as possible, preferring brute
facticity to the artful dodge.
The bourgeois emphasis on science and technology created the condi-
tions for a conservative realism that espoused scientific reasoning and so-
ciological concepts but which deployed naturalistic techniques strategical-
ly to maintain the status quo. Thus a conservative realist could very well
provide a breathtakingly accurate depiction of a middle-class or working-
class environment but still manage to falsify the social relations within the
situation. The right-wing realist formulation would not only reject radi-
cal realist efforts to master reality and eliminate hierarchy, it would tend
to deny that reality is ultimately knowable. It masks itself with a scientific
veneer, but declares the realist attempt to improve on the “reality” of ev-
eryday life as a form of hubris. Both proclaim a love of “truth,” but the
conservative masquerades as an Enlightenment devotee in order to subvert
radical claims.
The tradition of Western realism allows for the broadest interpreta-
tion of realism itself. Since it is a dynamic concept always in use, realism
in one period can look very different from the styles of realism in another
era. One question that perpetually arises in connection with realist works:
Is what you see the same as what you get or is there a layer of meaning
not readily apparent? Remember that human beings—including the most
rigorous scientific minds—endow the world with meaning. No matter
how scrupulous the recording, the technician’s data and research has been
framed with a particular end in view that ultimately contextualizes his or
her conclusions. People who subscribe to realism might differ ideological-
ly, and their selection from the entire range of possibilities can drastically
differ. Let me provide an example of the world I know best. As I write,
my country on the whole enjoys a standard of living that is the envy of
the international community. A major segment of the population takes for
granted the things that surplus money can buy—travel, leisure, cars, and
beautiful homes. In the midst of plenty, however, problems persist. Per-
haps the most glaring is the presence of impoverished zones in our urban
centers. The persons living in the typical pocket of poverty are black, but
even more significantly, poor. Their existence here is a critical facet of the
historical circumstances that gave rise to these conditions. Even those who
work tend to receive wages that place them beneath the poverty line. The
houses in these zones are old and dilapidated, investment capital scarce,
crime rates high, gangs rampant, drugs everywhere, and jobs in short sup-
80 chapter two
ply. You see where I am going: one type of realist will concentrate on the
obvious improvements and blandishments of the economic well-being of
middle-class society, and another will choose to depict the impoverishment
of those living under the adverse conditions that are nevertheless insepa-
rable from the exclusionary conditions facilitating the advantaged sector
of American society. The radical realist would seek to show that society in
general and its agent, the state, have constructed these ghettos as an instru-
ment of social control and prevented their residents from sharing the wider
society’s success.
I believe this example will help clarify the contribution of the realist
movement in literature and art in the nineteenth century. Realism then was
consciously applied to individuals and movements and the notion hotly de-
bated in the press. Realism was proclaimed in France around mid-century,
but its antecedents stretch back a half century earlier, to the invention of
lithography and, later, photography. And it spread to all parts of the West-
ern world, including the United States. Although realism never fades from
the scene entirely, other styles would rival it for public attention by the
end of the century, when it became one more stylistic option among oth-
ers. Impressionism, for example, steals its thunder, but it would have been
impossible without the realist precedent.
The centrality of realism in visual representation raises many com-
plex questions of taste. For example, banal photographic realism has al-
ways been associated with philistinism or a taste for the commonplace and
kitsch. If the “true” artist strives to reach beyond the commonplace, then
to what extent does he or she distort the data of perception? Free-wheeling
experimentalism in the exploration of the visible world in all of its mani-
festations is a scientific pursuit, and those mid-century realists who consid-
ered themselves socialists and democrats subscribed to the power of human
reason to organize their world. They followed the notion that an accurate
accounting of the conditions of heretofore ignored social strata would en-
able society to understand more clearly the results of injustice and oppres-
sion and arrive at more equitable solutions to social ills.
France, 1848
Baudelaire’s entry in his Journaux intimes, “My intoxication in 1848,” is fol-
lowed a few lines later by “The horrors of June. Madness of the people
and madness of the bourgeoisie.”
For Michelet, Sand, Lamartine, Blanc,
and Baudelaire, June was the ugly revolution, the revolution gone sour,
and I believe that it is no coincidence that “ugly” is the code word most
frequently applied by conservative critics to the intentions and objects of
the realist movement. They accused the young painters of substituting the
“hideous” and the freakish in nature for the truth, stigmatizing their efforts
as vulgar, trivial, and ignoble. The coupling of realism and ugliness carried
the same associations for conservatives everywhere that “red” and “evil”
81 radical realism and its offspring
did prior to June. When Dickens uses the terms “ugliness” and “hideous”
to condemn Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents, he immediately links
it with “the vilest cabaret in France”—thus identifying what he sees as Pre-
Raphaelite deformities with French socialism.
The work of realists was overdetermined in the reaction to 1848, and
critical responses, though couched in aesthetic jargon, were larded with
political significations. On the one hand, the foregrounding of heretofore
marginalized themes, types, and environments elicited what I would call
a “xenophobic” response to what appeared as startling representations of
“alien” people and ecologies, while on the other, the conscious recupera-
tion of aspects of ordinary life systematically excluded from previous high
art was meant to amplify the limited notion of the Beautiful, now seen as a
bourgeois social category as much as an aesthetic one. George Eliot opined
that by introducing the category of the ugly into aesthetics, realism made
high art’s commitment to nature more inclusive.
Millet mocked academic claims to “absolute beauty” as “a tremendous
joke,” and he defended his right to represent nature in its fullness of expres-
sion: “Let us have no weakening of character; let Apollo be Apollo, and
Socrates be Socrates. Do not combine the two—they would both lose by
it. Which is the handsomer, a straight tree or a crooked tree? The one that is
in its place. I therefore conclude that the beautiful is the suitable.”
loved to say that “the beautiful is the ugly,” suggesting that the ugly, can-
didly represented, contained its own beauty. The realist devotion to what
was considered “ugly” in life signified a faithful portrayal of the culturally
voiceless, whereas for the opponents of the realists it meant a backsliding
to the June Days. In constituting the unsightly and uncomely as part of
the high art repertoire, radical realism implied a transvaluation of ugliness.
The negation of the ideal was seized upon by enemies of progress to attack
realists as subversive of a social order that refused to recognize the ugly as
anything other than an accident of nature, like the suffering and degrada-
tion of human beings under burgeoning capitalism.
This is how Proudhon understood the realist fascination with the dark
side of rural living. Although admitting the artists’ claim “that the ugly,
even the horrible have their role to play in art,” their representations are
not done simply for shock effect but to achieve a deeper insight into the na-
ture of reality. Defending the new movement, which he labeled the “criti-
cal school,” he explained:
Imagine that we no longer paint the immortals [i.e., gods, heroes, and saints],
emancipated from ugliness, as well as from pain and illness, superior to all out-
side influences, whose incorruptible and unchanging nature can only sustain
a single appearance and thus they can never look different from one another.
Then it would be a question of fleeting, suffering, sick creatures subject to error
and vice, slaves to sin, whom it is necessary to restore to health and reason, and
gradually lift to virtue. Artists therefore have the mandate to reproduce them
82 chapter two
in all their affections, passions, and degradations, as well as in all their perfect-
ibilities. This immense range is the prerogative of the artist, and explains why,
the more the variety of expression, the more art distances itself from the wholly
The Salon of 1850–1851 represents the triumph of the “ugly realists,”
with Millet and Courbet commanding a disproportionate share of critical
attention. During this period, when the political reaction that would soon
destroy the last remnants of the Second Republic was gaining its momen-
tum, there remained a haunting fear of the power of the people that led
to the negative critical reception of the radical realists. Thus the last Salon
of the Second Republic, for all its contradictions, offered a window of op-
portunity for the independents. The jury remained democratically run by
the artists and included Delacroix, Corot, Rousseau, and Meissonier, and
Courbet, in possession of the Medal of the Second Class awarded him in
1849, was now exempt from scrutiny.
It is not so much the much ballyhooed competition for the figure of the
Republic but the movement of realism that marks the new regime’s histori-
cal contribution to culture, and in this sense justified Charles Blanc’s dreams
of a republican art equal to that of the great authoritarian systems past and
present. The colossal official exhibition opened at the end of December
1850 and extended to the following year, taking place in a huge structure
in the vast courtyard of the Palais-Royal—still called by its republican title,
the Palais National. Among the numerous objects shown, Millet’s Sower
and Botteleurs de foin, Courbet’s powerful trilogy, Leleux’s La Sortie, Anti-
gna’s L’Incendie, Meissonier’s Souvenir de guerre civile, and landscapes by the
Barbizon painters attested to the liberating effects of the ephemeral Repub-
lic on independent and experimental art.
When Louis-Napoléon, president of the Republic, was called upon to
deliver a speech at the awards ceremony, he could only muster lukewarm
comments on the exhibition. He declared that he admired the “master-
pieces” presented to the public that year, “despite the political agitation”
that clearly took its toll on the artists’ time and energies. He hoped for a
more “beautiful” showing the next year, and then he almost tipped off the
secret of his planned betrayal when he cited a proverbial example of what
he expected in the future. He recalled that the “Emperor” (i.e., Napoléon
I) always reminded his troops that they accomplished nothing as long as
there remained work to be done. He then admonished the artists to re-
double their efforts for the next exhibition “to enhance the glory of the
French reputation.”
The subject matter of the radical realists was predominantly agrarian,
and the response shows that the potential power of the people was dis-
placed from town and urban center to the countryside. The politicization
of the rustic hinterlands was such a dramatic turnabout from the traditional
privileged view that in some ways the provincial threat was more keenly
83 radical realism and its offspring
felt than the urban. The grands notables who consolidated their political and
economic power during the July Monarchy—the landowning aristocra-
cy, financiers, large manufacturers, and public functionaries—owned both
townhouse and country estate and escaped to the land on the pretense of
espousing the values of rural society. These landed proprietors formed a
significant portion of the early patronage of the Barbizon painters and thus
their self-perception was based on an imaginary landscape that had little in
common with the sordid reality of the peasantry. Nevertheless, the elite
conceptualization of French society and political policy was decisively in-
fluenced by the landowners’ perspective.
As this rustic ambiance had been
so benignly presented in the past, any close-up and factual depiction of it
was bound to appear strange and vulgar. Even Corot himself was put off by
what he called Millet’s “new world” and admitted being frightened by it.
Agulhon pointed out that the peasantry had been traditionally conceptual-
ized en bloc, and the thought of millions of rural folk as potential reds sent
shock waves through the conservative ranks.
The power going out from
the city to the country was traveling full circuit as the countryside began to
organize and buttress the hopes of the metropolitan radicals.
What I wish to emphasize is the role of the rural ambiance generally
and the peasantry specifically in constituting the project of modernity. It
was not simply realism that paved the way to modernism. On the contrary,
the social struggle of the peasantry sparked by 1848 provided the means
for the breakthrough imagery we associate with the movement. Herbert’s
seminal thesis on the rural zone as a displaced site for concerns about the
proletariat makes perfect sense, but the reasons for the statistical increase of
the peasantry in art are clear and obvious—the pervasiveness of the agrar-
ian world and the sheer numbers of potential peasant voters enfranchised
in 1848.
Peasants did indeed pour into the cities to fill out the ranks of the
proletariat, but it was their growing political menace rather than their ab-
sence in the countryside that sparked the change in social attitude. Thus
conservative writers on the problem like Eugène Bonnemère express as
much concern for ameliorating the conditions of the peasantry and neu-
tralizing their discontent as they do for the depletion of the countryside.
Jean-François Millet
Millet and Courbet stand out conspicuously in this period for their strong
conviction about the agrarian world and for thematizing the life of the
peasantry in frank and startling ways. They are fiercely determined to
assimilate this subject matter to high art and on this score are unwilling
to compromise their naturalism. No doubt, their own rural upbringing
played a role in their stubborn persistence in the face of negative criticism,
especially after experiencing the effects of the franchise. They and a host
of other painters of the countryside were empowered by universal suf-
frage, and having crossed that threshold there could be no retreat. It is this
84 chapter two
confidence and assertiveness in their subject matter that made the radical
realists highly controversial and brought down the charges of “exagger-
ated ugliness” on their heads. Eventually, as the political agitation of the
countryside subsided and the Second Empire government felt more secure
about its rural base, this imagery not only became acceptable but was ac-
tively encouraged. The imperial regime even sought to foster an official
school of peasant painters that softened and prettified the approach of the
radical pioneers, whose work was initially perceived as politically disrup-
tive in the aftermath of 1848 and then interpreted as an affront to the peas-
ant population.
“I am a peasant, and nothing more than a peasant,” Millet always insist-
ed when critics probed for deeper meanings in his work. Like other nine-
teenth-century intellectuals of his generation, he played the hayseed as an
outward sign of sympathy with the masses but also to serve as an alternative
role model for others wishing to break with the official system. Certainly
Millet was no impoverished farm boy migrating to the big city looking for
work; he was born into a prosperous rural family with servants in the iso-
lated village of Gruchy not far from Cherbourg, Normandy, studied Latin
and the classical authors, and went to Paris on a fine arts scholarship.
mother, Aimée-Henriette-Adelaïde Henry, descended from a long line of
rich farmers from Sainte-Croix-Hague, one of the largest market towns
in the surrounding country. The family was religious, conservative, and
monarchical, and Millet’s beloved great uncle, Jean-Charles Millet, raised
to the priesthood, quit the clergy during the revolution of 1789 rather than
swear a constitutional oath required by the revolutionary regime that he
believed abused the pope. If young Millet was called upon to help out with
the chores on the large family farm, he also enjoyed the leisure time to
study, read, draw, and paint. Indeed, his family was cultivated enough to
recognize and encourage his artistic talents, and (except for his grandmoth-
er) made no effort to confine him to village life. He first studied under a
local portrait painter in Cherbourg named Bon Mouchel (or Dumoucel), a
pupil of David, and subsequently with Lucien-Théophile Ange Sosthène
Langlois de Chèvreville, a former pupil of Gros. On Langlois’s recommen-
dation, the Municipal Council of Cherbourg voted an annuity for Millet’s
advanced training in Paris (sweetened further by local benefactors), and
though it lasted only a short time the stipend gave him the jump start he
needed to launch his professional career.
Millet’s recollections of his initial encounter with the big city in Janu-
ary 1837 stress the sordid contrast between the tumult and foul air of the big
city and the bucolic world of his youth. He came upon a print-seller’s shop
advertising sleazy lithographs—sexy grisettes, women bathing or at their
toilettes—reminding him of signs for perfumery or fashion plates. (Al-
though claiming to be displeased by the sight, he would soon take up simi-
lar themes to earn his living.) That first night he stayed in a rundown hotel
and suffered from terrible nightmares, conjuring up visions of his mother
85 radical realism and its offspring
and sister spinning near the family hearth and crying as they thought of
the dangers that beset him and prayed that he would escape the perdition
of Paris. Thus his personal mythmaking begins from the initial moment of
contact with the metropolitan center, contrasting urban corruption with
the more salubrious rustic environment.
He entered the studio of Paul Delaroche, one of the most frequented of
July Monarchy workshops. Although later he confessed that the theatrical
effects of Delaroche displeased him, he enrolled with the master because
of his clout within the Beaux-Arts system. Disregarding Millet’s long prior
apprenticeship under Mouchel and Langlois, Delaroche assigned his new
pupil to the beginners’ class of the cast, and his first drawing was a study of
the Germanicus that impressed even advanced students like Couture. Mil-
let made rapid progress and soon began plotting his triumph in the Prix de
Rome competition at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He entered the contest in
1839, and though he successfully took eighteenth place in the preliminary
sketch trial, he failed the second heat. Millet protested that his figure was
outstanding, and Delaroche agreed; but after acknowledging the superiori-
ty of his figure, the master confessed that he had been obliged to defend the
work of an older pupil in preference to that of Millet. But he concluded: “I
promise that next year I’ll do all I can for you.”
Crushed and disillusioned by the politics of the Beaux-Arts system,
Millet withdrew from the academic establishment, never to return. He be-
gan independently to perfect his life drawing at the Académie Suisse, an
informal studio space without instructors but where models posed for a
fee, and he supported himself by selling pastiches of eighteenth-century
masters like Boucher and Watteau. Though Millet had to scramble to earn
a living by alternative means, his independent stance was sustained by other
academic dropouts. This experience reinforced his hostility to urban insti-
tutions whose competitive systems fostered rivalry and stifled change.
Nevertheless, Millet gained valuable lessons from his training under
Delaroche that he carried over to his independent work. A comparison
of a painted sketch, The Stoning of St. Stephen, done for a Saturday com-
position assignment, circa 1838–1839, with a landscape study executed by
Millet some three years later, is revealing (figs. 2.1–2).
The figures and
background have been roughly blocked in, the modeling in light and shade
drastically condensed and flattened, and physiognomies reduced almost to
the level of caricature. In the figure of the protagonist, the characteristics
of Millet’s mature works are found in embryo—simplified facial structure,
drapery folds rendered by solid areas of shadow, and the generalized shape
of the torso, which appears to be based on an elementary geometric form.
The group in the left middle ground anticipates his later thematic choices
and also exhibits stylistic features that he later favored.
The same technique was used for sky and ground in the landscape
study. The two sketches contain an effect of sunset: just above the hori-
zon an intense yellow-orange band has been brushed in broad horizontal
86 chapter two
strokes, while above this streak the artist applied parallel gray-blue bands.
In both, an edge of cloud peeps out from the sky in almost the same relative
location. The diagonal rock mass in the right half of the seascape bears an
affinity to the right-hand section of the academic sketch, forming a similar
2.1 Jean-François Millet, The
Stoning of St. Stephen, 1838–1839.
Musée Thomas Henry, Cher-
2.2 Jean-François Millet, The
Cliffs of the Hague, ca. 1844. Musée
Thomas Henry, Cherbourg.
87 radical realism and its offspring
diagonal leading from the distant mountain to the reclining figure of St.
Stephen. The significance of this exchange resides not simply in the formal
resemblance, but in the fact that Millet sought motifs reminiscent of his
compositional efforts in the studio. At the same time, the noticeable loos-
ening up of the paint technique in the landscape study also suggests the ex-
perimental possibilities inherent in its program.
In November 1841 he married Pauline-Virginie Ono, the daughter of
a tailor in Cherbourg, and, by the end of the year, the newlyweds were
residing in Paris, where Millet began preparations to break into the Salon
system. His first attempt in 1842 ended in disaster, and he subsequently
worked to develop a style appealing to the jury and the broad Salon-go-
ing public. During the next five years, his work takes on by turns aspects
of the rococo and an updated neoclassicism painted with loose patchwork
technique—manifesting both the final flowering of July Monarchy eclecti-
cism and his desperate attempt at commercial success. His admission to the
Salon of 1844 crowned these efforts, but his happiness was cut short by the
premature death of his wife just one month after the exhibition opened.
Two of his works, The Milkmaid and The Equestrian Lesson, were done
in an eighteenth-century mode; the critic Théophile Thoré hailed the one
as “a little oil sketch [esquisse] in the taste of Boucher,” while the other, a
large pastel of a plump smiling cherub riding naked on daddy’s back with
mommy snuggling close, he characterized as “very harmonious.”
rich and variegated surface derived from both Couture and Diaz, popu-
lar favorites in this period whom Champfleury associated with the “Ecole
Deforge”—referring to a color merchant and art dealer on the boulevard
Montmartre who exhibited their work. Positioning Couture at the head of
the school, Champfleury claimed it smacked of Boucher and the rococo,
an artificial world of hothouse flowers and kept women. He noted that the
group dominated the Salon of 1846.
Not surprisingly, it was around this
time that Deforge began to display Millet’s work in his shop window, in-
cluding some sexy nudes.
The dual influence of Couture and Diaz on Millet’s portraiture of the
mid-forties is particularly conspicuous in Antoinette Hébert and the half-
length effigy of Monsieur Ouitre, both completed in 1845 (figs. 2.3–4). Both
are painted with the loose brushwork and subtle colorations reminiscent of
the two masters, while the Monsieur Ouitre emulates the formula Couture
crystallized in his Portrait of Adolphe Moreau, also dated 1845 (fig. 2.5). More
interesting is the Antoinette Hébert, in which a young girl, whose head is
fetchingly wrapped in a rose-colored kerchief, gazes admiringly at her re-
flection in the mirror; since the girl is seen from behind, the spectator is
put into the position of voyeur peering in on what is meant to be a private
act. The picture has a curious twist in that, seen from the rear, the large
kerchief—covering half the kneeling girl’s back—and the mere glimpse of
a protruding plump cheek convey a decidedly childlike look, while in the
mirror we see a precocious and knowing face perched above bare shoulders,
88 chapter two
transforming the reflection into a sexually charged image. The gilt frame
of the mirror that she fingers constitutes the threshold between innocent
childhood and sexual knowledge, an idea of revelation reinforced by the
drawn curtain at the right. Despite Millet’s ingenious nuancing, in the end
the work exudes an erotic charm recalling the boudoir scenes of Greuze.
That same year he began to paint several pastoral idylls, including a
Daphnis and Chloe, showing the pair of quasi-nude child lovers (with the girl
seen from behind and her cheek jutting out akin to the Antoinette Hébert)
cavorting in a sylvan forest setting, he playing the flute and she dangling a
fishing pole in the nearby stream with her arm stretched across his lap. The
commercial motive of these works is apparent, but it may very well be that
at this stage in his life the pastoral theme represented a way of reconciling
his rural background with the contemporary demands of the art market.
Well acquainted through his reading of pastoral authors like Theocritus
and Virgil with the idea of an arcadian world that remains inviolate until
corrupted by civilization, Millet updated the assumption with a city ver-
sus country antinomy while still maintaining the classical associations. Ad-
ditionally, by representing the liberation of libidinous energies within the
woodland environment, he exhibits affinities with the Barbizon painters
whom he would soon join.
There is also the personal change in his life: following the death of
his first wife he plunged into a passionate relationship with an adolescent
2.3 Jean-François Millet, Antoi-
nette Hébert, 1845. Private Collec-
tion, United States.
2.4 Jean-François Millet, Mon-
sieur Ouitre, 1845. H. Shickman
Gallery, New York. Present
whereabouts unknown.
89 radical realism and its offspring
domestic servant named Catherine Lemaire whom he met in Cherbourg.
Thirteen years his junior, she became his lover and mother of four of his
children (ultimately they had nine) before they were wed in a civil mar-
riage. He hid the knowledge of their relationship from his family for sev-
eral years, and his grandmother died in 1851 without having learned of it.
Although a number of reasons are given for his removal to Barbizon in
1849, one often overlooked is the freedom from bourgeois conventions that
the secluded village offered him and his sex partner.
Sex was very much on his mind when he undertook a major prepara-
tion for the 1846 Salon, The Temptation of Saint Jerome, depicting the an-
chorite beset by a number of lascivious females; Couture admired it, but
the jury rejected it. Millet then cut up the picture to use for a new canvas,
Oedipus Taken Down from a Tree, admitted to the Salon of 1847 (fig. 2.6). It
represents the moment when a shepherd and his family rescue the infant
2.5 Thomas Couture, Portrait of
Adolphe Moreau, 1845. Musée du
Louvre, Paris.
2.6 Jean-François Millet, Oedi-
pus Taken Down from the Tree, 1847.
National Gallery of Canada,
90 chapter two
condemned to death by King Laius to prevent the prophesy that his son
would slay him and marry the queen. As the shepherd cuts the rope that
bound the babe to the tree, the infant is delivered into the arms of a young
woman nude from the waist up, and an older woman who assists her. (It
may not be coincidental that Catherine had given birth to their first son
in July 1846 and was again pregnant at the time of the completion of Oe-
dipus. The scene actually mimes the moment of parturition, and, intrigu-
ingly, the infant was kneaded out of the impastoed body of a seductive
nude from the original canvas.) Once again, the ancient scenario allowed
Millet to fuse a classical theme with a rural ambiance and justify his in-
creasingly vigorous technique, whose thick encrustations struck critics as
a kind of mason’s mortar. Thoré, although confused by the picture, admit-
ted that within the phantasmagoria he could detect “an audacious brusher
and original colorist.”
Perhaps one of his most characteristic pre-1848 works is Return from the
Fields, done in the period 1846–1847 and characterized by Sensier as a legacy
of the Fragonard or eighteenth-century rococo tradition (fig. 2.7). Here the
peasant world is projected from an aristocratic viewpoint, creating a world
of rural harmony that recalls more the bucolic scenes on Sèvres porcelain
2.7 Jean-François Millet, Re-
turn from the Fields, ca. 1846–1847.
Cleveland Museum of Art,
91 radical realism and its offspring
of counterfeit shepherds and shepherdesses specially made up for the occa-
sion. Although Millet’s muscular male and robust females resemble more
accurately their real-life counterparts, their action harks back to the ancien
régime in making rural life a site for amusement. Millet’s peasant lad pushes
a wheelbarrow improvised into a baby carriage, bearing the sweetest little
tot napping in a bed of straw, and accompanied by two buxom women
who make sure baby is as snug as a bug in a rug. This work is quite compat-
ible with Léopold Robert’s The Harvesters of the Pontine Marshes and Pilgrims
Returning from the Feast Day of the Madonna dell’Arco, the bourgeois’ paradig-
matic fantasy of peasant life that disguised hardship and toil with feast days
and moments of amusement. Like the “happy slaves” in the apologetics of
Southern slave owners, a life of drudgery and thralldom is reduced to the
fleeting instants of pleasure and self-abandonment.
I have ventured into Millet’s pre-1848 work primarily to demonstrate
the galvanizing effect of the revolutionary moment on his sensibility. Pri-
or to 1848 his prime ambition is to gain entrance into the Salon and earn
a living, and to do so he paints in a sensual, superficial mode that blends
contemporary Salon taste with eighteenth-century and classical eroticism.
His encounter with the revolutionary experience drastically transforms his
outlook, awakening him to the possibilities of a novel perspective of rural
life and empowering him to embark on a program that, while meeting with
rigid resistance and severe rebuke, finally earns him the official and popular
success he so eagerly desired.
Millet’s enthusiastic participation in the two major artistic events of the
Second Republic—the competition for the figure of the Republic and the
free and open Salon of 1848—dramatically altered the trajectory of his ca-
reer. Millet was one of the more ambitious contestants, executing at least
five different projects, none of which, however, placed among the finalists.
In a letter dated 28 June 1848, his mother complains about his neglect of
correspondence owing to his deep involvement in the competition for the
figure of the Republic. (She then launched into an attack on the govern-
ment for the new taxes exacted from the countryside and the commercial
Although the whereabouts of his painted sketch is unknown,
several of his preliminary drawings exist, including an initial study project-
ing the Republic as fearsome conqueror in the mode of the First Repub-
lic. He then shifted to a Republic steeped in “Lacedaemonian simplicity,”
flanked by rural symbols. Holding honeycombs in one hand, and a painter’s
palette and brushes in the other, she suggests less a republican allegory than
an autobiographical statement.
In one of these preliminary sketches, he depicted the Republic as a sort
of “Spartan” peasant incarnating the virtues of Liberty, Equality, and Fra-
ternity in the open countryside (fig. 2.8). Cloaked in loose-fitting garments
that assimilate the liberty bonnet to the costume as a kind of hood, the
figure is stripped of all allegorical clues save for accessories such as the car-
penter’s level or Triangle of Equality that she holds above her head. She
92 chapter two
stands barefooted in an open field, leaning noncha-
lantly on a cylindrically shaped monument that dis-
plays a relief of embracing putti—a symbol of fra-
ternal love. Directly behind her, Millet has placed a
realistically drawn plow that further establishes the
rural milieu. The suggestion of a sword attached to
the plowshare at the left invokes Isaiah’s prophecy,
“they shall beat their swords into plowshares.” The
somber, almost spectral appearance of the figure an-
ticipates Millet’s isolated and gloomy Sower, as well
as his forlorn shepherds and shepherdesses. This fig-
ure marks a personal transition between his com-
mercial rococo and pioneer realist phases.
It is no coincidence that he introduces his break-
through style in the Salon of 1848, the one Salon in
all French art history in which anyone who wished
could be admitted “without exception.” While
Courbet seized the occasion to exhibit ten of his
pictures, Millet showed only two: a biblical theme,
The Captivity of the Jews in Babylon, and The Winnow-
er. Admittedly, the first is a far cry from the coun-
tryside of the second; but he wanted to display his
full range with an example of a fresh type of history
painting as well as novel rural genre. The broadly
brushed Captivity of the Jews was based on passages
from Psalms 137:3–6, race memories of the woeful
moment when the psalmist’s people could not sing
of Zion and had to hang up their harps in shame.
When their captors demanded a song, the psalmist responded for his peo-
ple: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” Then, in a sud-
den reversal, he declares: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand
forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the
roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.” Millet’s
subject may relate to his own sense of being cut off from his native land,
and it is precisely this rupture that explains his inability to measure up to
his idealized self-perception.
(Significantly, he used this same canvas years
later to paint over it a Young Shepherdess Seated [Museum of Fine Arts, Bos-
ton]—an image of a lonely, iconic peasant.) Thus The Captivity of the Jews
symbolizes both a confession of his previous compromise and an assertion
of the need to return to his roots for authentic performance.
Millet’s analogy of his previous role as artist with a captive Jew on the
verge of emancipation is rich in metaphorical associations. Young Millet
was raised on Old Testament stories and often painted them, and his fa-
vorite expression was “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” In
actuality, Jews were making social progress during the years of his matura-
2.8 Jean-François Millet, Symbolic
Figure of the Republic (Egalité), black
chalk drawing, 1848. Musée des
Beaux-Arts, Reims.
93 radical realism and its offspring
tion, and it is noteworthy that many Saint-Simonist reformers—including
Olinde Rodriguez, Emile and Isaac Péreire, and Gustave d’Eichthal—who
would carve out important entrepreneurial niches for themselves under
the Second Empire were Jewish.
Saint-Simonism attracted persecuted mi-
norities because it promised to relieve them of borderline status and radi-
cally advance their social position. In 1846 the liberal lawyer Isaac Adolphe
Crémieux, defending a rabbi who refused to take the pernicious oath “more
Judaico”—a throwback to the Middle Ages requiring Jews in legal proceed-
ings to repeat a particularly humiliating ceremonial formula—won his case
in the Cours de Cassation (Supreme Court).
By 1847, the Jewish Fourierist Alexandre Weill could write in La
Démocratie pacifique that soon the Jewish community would completely
assimilate and henceforth there would no longer be Jews, Catholics, or
Protestants, “only brothers and disciples of Jesus.”
The 1848 revolution
enfranchised Jews as well as workers and peasants, and the Constitution’s
protection of their civil rights remained inviolate throughout the Second
Empire. Significantly, two politically progressive Jews served in the Provi-
sional Government, Crémieux as minister of justice (instrumental in draft-
ing the legislation to abolish slavery in the colonies), and Michel Goud-
chaux as minister of finance. Even James de Rothschild got into the act,
donating 50,000 gold francs to the families of victims who fought on the
barricades in February, and granting Ledru-Rollin 250,000 francs exclu-
sively for “patriotic ends.”
If the events of 1848 assumed a specifically Jewish character, it also fol-
lowed that Jews could once again be singled out for ritual persecution. Jews
were attacked in Alsace as early as the end of February, with the pillaging
and looting of Jewish homes ironically accompanied by shouts of “Long
Live the Republic!” Other similar incidents erupted throughout the Bas-
Rhin and the Haut-Rhin regions, with the result that many Jews fled across
the border to Switzerland.
Thus it is possible that Captivity of the Jews res-
onated in Millet’s mind both with the topical news and his own sense of
separation from his people.
As metaphorical Jew, Millet identifies his rural village with Jerusalem
and weeps his lament until salvation comes in the form of The Winnower—
the once oppressed slave who abruptly breaks the bonds of confinement
(fig. 2.9). What we see is a vigorous, real-life counterpart of the ambiguous
personifications of the Republic—Millet’s lugubrious peasant-Republic
come down from posing to return to work.
More importantly, the clever
technical bravado, flowery drapery, and complex groupings that marked
his previous production have now been compacted into a single powerful
figure concentrated on a solitary task. To see how far he has taken this idea
may be judged from comparing his figure with examples of popular imag-
ery (fig. 2.10). His picture has been stripped of all superfluous detail, where
even the figure’s rugged clothing helps consolidate the univocal idea. The
winnower not only stands alone, analogous to the symbolic figure of the
95 radical realism and its offspring
Republic, but also wears a red bandanna on his head in clear allusion to the
liberty bonnet. Additionally, his white blouse and trousers with blue pads
(tied to the knees to cushion them against the shock of the sieve) combine
to display the effect of the tricolor. As often practiced in the contest and
in other republican themes of the period, Millet incorporated the national
colors into the general design. Hence the winnower with his red cap rep-
resents a revolutionary symbol in the double sense of national and personal
It was Ledru-Rollin himself who purchased the work for his private
collection, the same minister of the interior who had decreed the compe-
tition of the symbolic figure and the free and open Salon of 1848. (Later,
after Ledru-Rollin had fled Paris for London, he sold off his collection,
and an American student of Couture, Robert Loftin Newman, acquired
it in 1854.) That July, through the support of Ledru-Rollin and Auguste
Jeanron, the liberal director of the National Museums in France and friend
of the artist, Millet received a commission from the government. Begun
as Hagar and Ishmael in the Desert, it ran counter to his new direction and he
left it unfinished. Instead, he proposed substituting for it Female Haymakers
[ faneuses] Resting, which wound up with three sullen women and a single
male isolated against a haystack in a large, open field eerily in mood like the
abandoned Hagar and Ishmael.
What is clear from this commission is that
2.9 Jean-François Millet,
The Winnower, 1848. National
Gallery, London.
2.10 French Agriculture.—Winnow-
ing. Reproduced in Illustrated
London News, 20 September 1851.
96 chapter two
Millet’s latest work appealed to, and was encouraged by, the progressive
wing of the Second Republic.
Gautier’s review of the 1848 Salon reflected his enthusiasm for The
Winnower’s rugged character and such veristic effects as the fine dust of
the grain that he claimed made spectators sneeze while beholding it. He
waxed less ecstatic later that year when reviewing the definitive versions
of the figure of the Republic, condemning the contestants for their failure
to rivet the crowd’s attention and make it cheer at first glance, “Vive la Ré-
Millet’s winnower perhaps proved more persuasive as symbol
of the Republic, and affirms the transition in taste.
Gautier’s critique, conditioned by the events of 1848, claimed that The
Winnower had what it took to “bristle the stubble on the clean-shaven
chops of the bourgeois,” with its thick paint plastered on the canvas like
mortar, its brutal and “uncultivated” appearance. Gautier deliberately plays
on the agricultural term inculte to designate the rude peasant, conjure up
rural wastelands, and address the unpolished surface of the picture. This
untamed winnower “heaves up his sieve with his tattered knee, tosses the
grain from his basket into the air in the midst of a column of gold dust, and
arches his back in the most magisterial manner.” This is the new peasant,
born of 1848, savage as the untilled countryside, confident in his bearing
and in control of his space.
The crude technique and the taciturn, laborious winnower combined
to convey the latent power inherent in the countryside. The critic for the
official newspaper disliked Millet’s “affectation” in the application of his
pigment, but he had to admit that the artist “solidly grasped and rendered
the rustic naiveté of his personage.”
Millet knew that his native Nor-
mandy was one of the main granaries for Paris, which to a large extent was
still dominated by the agricultural sector and subject to fluctuations issuing
from the size of the harvest. Since the price of bread measured the purchas-
ing power of the population at large, social peace in town depended on the
success of the harvest. The agricultural crisis of 1846–1847 precipitated a
sharp increase in the price of grain, and despite a good harvest in 1847 prices
and unemployment still ran high. This economic crisis certainly contrib-
uted to the social unrest that sparked the revolution, and undermined the
official view of the countryside as a bulwark of conservatism. Thus the
advent of universal suffrage foregrounded the peasantry as another contin-
gent of barbarians threatening the economic power and political authority
of the ruling landowners, manufacturers, and politicians.
Millet created in The Winnower a stark and imposing image of peas-
ant individuality and self-sufficiency. The isolated figure suggests a laborer
whose holding was insufficient for his family needs and who had to hire
himself out for wages—a considerable portion of the rural population in
Normandy. Winnowing, a crucial stage of cereal processing, followed the
threshing of the wheat, when the kernels of grain were separated from the
stalks and the straw was stacked for use in the stable and cottage. Next,
97 radical realism and its offspring
the kernels were winnowed in a wicker sieve to remove straw remnants,
chaff, weed seeds, soil, stones, and other material. Once the impurities
were winnowed out, the grain could be stored to market later or ground
into meal for family needs. Millet’s winnower launched his systematic in-
vestigation into the ways the agricultural cycle shaped the rural popula-
tion, projected from a paternalistic perspective. His close-up projections of
toiling peasants proved to be a site for displaced anxieties about the poor
in both town and country, suggesting that the 1848 revolution set into
motion forces vastly more powerful than either he or Ledru-Rollin could
control through representation.
The Realist-Rural Discourse
Of course, the ground already had been tilled for the radicals by the writ-
ing of what I will call the “realist-rural discourse.” The tendency to el-
evate the rural at the expense of the urban as a regenerative model during
the July Monarchy has already been indicated in the previous study of the
Barbizon school in volume 3, but now I wish to show the formalization
of this process under the pressure of radical historical change. The revival
of interest in seventeenth-century Lowlands painting and the earlier genre
tradition, as well as a renewed interest in the qualities of folk art, is seen in
a burgeoning body of literature representing popular subjects in the past
as well as in the critical use of this material as a standard by which to mea-
sure and legitimatize the parallel efforts of contemporaries. The number of
major entrepreneurs collecting Lowlands art suggests that realism began as
a distinctly bourgeois phenomenon, growing out of a need to find an ex-
pression of taste appropriate to the conquest of nature and therefore inde-
pendence from traditional elite aesthetic norms. The radical break pushes
the envelope to the point of revealing the social and physical effects of this
conquest, and is not merely content to aestheticize it in escapist landscape
forms. It is this tension and its articulation in radical criticism that produces
the realist-rural discourse.
It should be recalled that despite Millet’s agrarian background, the artist
clearly rejected farming as his life’s work—a crucial fact often ignored in
the literature. For all of his celebration of rural labor in various texts and in
his visual production, he refused it for himself and chose instead to repre-
sent it from the perspective of a sophisticated eyewitness. In effect, Millet’s
migration to Paris and Barbizon (a favorite weekend getaway of Parisians)
paralleled the general rural exodus of farm laborers to the towns. Once
settled, he behaved like a calculating bourgeois in earning his living, dis-
tasteful as it may have been to him personally. He never made close friends
or even socialized with peasants, but preferred the company of cultivated
townspeople and well-connected officials.
Thus he required the oppor-
tune moment opened to him by the Republic and the wider cultural shift
that accompanied it to radically redirect his energies.
98 chapter two
There are at least four strains of cultural development flowing into the
realist-rural discourse, all of them overlapping to a degree and interrelated.
First is the notion of a scientific-rational ordering of knowledge applied to
society, theorized in the writings and practical activities of Auguste Com-
te; second, there is the distinct neo-Rousseauistic literary tendency affect-
ed by utopian socialist thought that establishes a binary opposition between
town and country, between a duplicitous, greedy, and artificial civil order
and a primitive, frank, and authentic rural milieu; third, there is a ver-
nacular version of this discourse that assumes various popular forms such
as satirical poetry, songs, popular imagery, and novels, geared to diffusing
culture in the direction of greater inclusivity, pretending to appeal even to
worker and peasant by a more trustworthy and immediate representation
of their lives; finally, out of these strains emerged a sort of identity poli-
tics, with the artist or writer assuming a peasant persona based on a rural
upbringing or some country experience (invariably privileged rural status),
and laying claim to authentic agrarian values.
Writing in December 1848, in the wake of the presidential elections,
Auguste Comte, author of the philosophical system known as positivism,
observed the increasing diffusion of “moral anarchy” that has extended to
the countryside:
Since the end of the Middle Ages, the towns have taken the rural areas into tow
without bothering to consult them. They are now reacting, in turn, to this tra-
ditionally accepted subordination, which so often turns abusive. In the name of
spiritual anarchy, they propose at last to also assume leadership. All the same, I
do not believe that this predictable reaction poses a very dangerous threat, main-
ly because of the difficulty these areas will always experience in trying to con-
centrate their forces for intervention. But there will result out of all this a pow-
erful ongoing stimulus to finally take up the cause of the agrarian masses with
dignity, whose legitimate interests are still so little respected.
Here is a major text from a key framer of the realist-rural discourse devel-
oped during the July Monarchy in tandem with what he described as the
transition from the Catholic-Feudal order to the new Scientific-Industrial
order. In the same letter quoted above, Comte refers to his recently orga-
nized club, the Société Positiviste, an avant-garde group aiming to keep
the Republic on track and out of trouble with its restive urban and rural
populations. Its motto was “Order and Progress,” which he hoped to see
displayed on the future tricolor banner of the French Republic. Thus the
same forces shaping Millet’s fresh visualization of the peasant motivated
Comte to propose sweeping social and political changes, including gov-
ernment-sponsored public works programs for the unemployed in town
and countryside, a drastic reduction in military expenditures to pay for
those programs, and a revamping of the state’s educational and religious
99 radical realism and its offspring
Like Hegel, Comte wished to build a philosophical system that could
encompass all human knowledge, and like him he perceived his own era
as the final stage of historical development.
He saw himself arriving at a
moment of social and political crisis, when old institutions and belief sys-
tems were disintegrating in the face of scientific and technical discovery.
He systematically elaborated his ideas in his six-volume opus, Cours de phi-
losophie positive, published between 1830 and 1842, and though eschewing
theology and metaphysics, and delighted to witness the fall of monarchy
in 1848, his vision of a new world order based on the new science of “soci-
ology” (his term) was counterrevolutionary in design. He opposed social-
ism and communism, admonishing his followers to ignore them since they
lived “in a country where more than half of the citizens have more or less
proprietorship and the rest are trying to attain this status.” He envisioned
himself and his fellow members in the Société Positiviste as the “doctors of
the French Republic”—an elite formation that would guide the nation to its
true destiny.
Rooted in Saint-Simonist doctrine but rejecting its egalitar-
ian side, Comte could express approval of Louis-Napoléon’s coup d’état of
1851 and the possibility of a “temporal dictatorship” as a means of insuring
order for the “republic.”
Despite his mixed political and social views, Comte appealed deeply to
a broad segment of French society, including skilled artisans and socially
progressive artists like the sculptor Antoine Etex and the engraver Félix
Bracquemond. His system contributed to the critical evaluation and articu-
lation of realism as a potential regenerative force in modern culture. Comte
postulated that the social order could not be transformed until all the theo-
retical conceptions belonging to it could be submitted to scientific testing
and worked into a systematic whole. He rejected all metaphysical notions
of causality and origins and dedicated himself to investigating immediate
nature and society for practical advantage. What he called “positivism” was
meant to signify the opposite of “negativism,” distinguishing between a
doctrine that preached the supremacy of science as the ultimate source of
knowledge and one that negated this view with an assertion of outworn
prescientific dogmas. Positivism purported to express reality by describing
phenomena—that is, by processing knowledge from ongoing events and
immediate sensation in consciousness.
Comte pioneered in attempting to construct a philosophical system
along the lines of the scientific method. He assumed that knowledge was
to be obtained only through direct observation of data and the testing of
hypotheses as they unfold in experience, and that the immediate object of
knowledge is the event and the thing. He ignored the question of whether
events were subjective or objective; he aimed at discovering the statisti-
cal uniformity of their occurrence for both an observational science and
a philosophical understanding of modernity. This he traced in his famous
“law of three stages,” which mapped the progress of thought through the
theological, metaphysical, and, finally, the positivistic or scientific state.
100 chapter two
Once a disciple and trusted secretary of Saint-Simon, Comte looked to
reorganize the world on rational principles whose values could determine
the behavior of the individual. He assumed that a study of society could be
undertaken according to the principles of the physical sciences, by apply-
ing the positivistic method to a science of the civil order. What is unique
about Comte is his attempt to study social events as if they were analogous
to rocks and plants and could disclose the general laws governing society.
The notion that society could be studied like the natural world held out the
possibility for increasing power over both, thus addressing the concerns of
a broad range of political, social, and cultural critics.
Comte’s sociology represented a scientific approach to controlling real-
ity and rationalized bourgeois economic and industrial supremacy. At the
same time, Comte, no less than Marx, aspired to a lucid understanding of
the development and crisis of industrial capitalism, and historicized the
evolution of institutions and social systems issuing from it. The radical cri-
tique of society began with the assumption that it was possible to get a han-
dle on reality, hence both Comte and Marx shared the idea that the role of
the philosopher was not simply to understand the world but to change it.
Comte in effect systematized for the realist avant-garde the possibil-
ity of expanding the repertoire of culture toward greater inclusivity—en-
couraging them to probe the arbitrary boundaries of bourgeois hegemony
and ideology and to push back the limitations on possibilities. In this way,
realists shared with Comte and Marx the spirit of scientific investigation
and analysis. In its radical manifestation, realism could be seen as a form
of parallel criticism of metaphysics, superstition, philosophy, and idealism
that attacked privileged ideology and culture. Although even the conser-
vative bourgeois masked certain aspects of reality like exploitation, surplus
labor, and the contradictions of the boom-and-bust cycle—the ugly side of
capitalist economics—by blaming the victims, they nevertheless could not
omit the victims entirely from the picture.
The bourgeoisie could hardly deny that the emerging industrial capac-
ity resulted from the emancipation of the commons, whose impact was felt
in both the town and the countryside. The formation of capital permitted
intellectual growth by emancipating people from the yoke of animal labor,
and this in turn generated a synergistic effect through accumulated and col-
lective efforts. Since a large portion of the commons, however, remained in
a state of thralldom, it took a series of revolutions to disrupt the ideologi-
cal narrative that explained this anomaly. Thus between 1830 and 1848 the
realist-rural discourse focused on the poor in the town (Eugène Sue’s Les
Mystères de Paris) and in the countryside (George Sand’s pastoral novels).
Even in Mystères de Paris, however, the country is situated over and
against the town as the site of innocence, health, and sound morals. The
wholesome rural region stands as the antithesis of the degenerate urban mi-
lieu. The protagonists find their salvation in the countryside: La Gouale-
use, mired since birth in the city’s hardships and driven into prostitution,
101 radical realism and its offspring
daydreams of a rural cottage and loses herself in descriptions of rustic land-
scapes. When actually removed to a farm and dressed in peasant costume,
she experiences a sense of freedom and rebirth. Rodolphe, born with a
delicate constitution, is sent to a farm to breathe “the pure air of the fields,
the woods, and the mountains,” and undergoes a complete metamorphosis
as a type of modern superhero.
As pressures to become selective in this period mount, a displacement
from the town to the country occurs. This is the phenomenon that Her-
bert describes—the artists’ exploitation of the peasantry as a surrogate for
the relentless urban transformation and the radical critical analyses accom-
panying it.
By depicting rural areas, the artist could eliminate almost all
references to the industrial processes and the new social relations they in-
troduced. But as we have seen, the substitution backfired as the peasantry
organized itself politically and assumed the symbolic mantle of the work-
ing class. The situation intensified with the “depopulation” of the coun-
tryside and the migration to Paris, where country folk merged with the
proletariat in the crowded working-class quarters.
The most influential writer in the rural genre was George Sand, whose
pastoral novels of the 1840s resonated powerfully with the contempo-
rary public mood. She wished to problematize Balzac’s suggestion that
the anthropoid type was still to be found among the peasant population.

Whereas his Paysans of 1844 treats country folk as wild and superstitious
akin to the Jacksonian version of tribal peoples, Sand treats the peasantry
as the “noble savage.”
She wished to repair the omission in modern lit-
erature of peasant heroes and heroines, just as the pioneering historian on
the peasantry Eugène Bonnemère lamented the paucity of historical writ-
ing on the subject. Sand’s close ties to the realist and Barbizon painters is
seen in Thoré’s homage to her in his review of the 1846 Salon.
The radi-
cal art critic, who would go on to found and edit La Vraie République (for
which Sand wrote), praised her as a painter the equal of the greatest mas-
ters, claiming that she was the only “painter” he knew who could surpass
his hero Théodore Rousseau in representing a sunrise.
In 1846 Sand published her La Mare au Diable (The Devil’s Pool), launch-
ing a sequential trilogy of rustic tales glorifying the countryside. The point
of departure for her novel and revisionist view is the connection she makes
between a Holbein woodcut from The Dance of Death series and an actual
scene of farm labor. The prologue and opening scene, inspired by the print,
fired the imagination of contemporary writers and artists. Gautier was re-
minded of it more than once when viewing the work of Millet and Cour-
bet; the Prussian artist Alfred Rethel probably knew it, and Rosa Bon-
heur based her Laboring in the Nièvre of 1849 directly upon it. According to
Edward Wheelwright, an American disciple of Millet, the French painter
picked up Wheelwright’s copy of Sand’s novel, discussed it in detail, and
admitted that his controversial Death and the Woodcutter was inspired by the
opening scene.
102 chapter two
The Holbein woodcut, showing an old peasant bent at his plow urging
on a team of emaciated horses, carries the following legend:
By all thy sweat and all thy swink,
Thou’lt gain poor living, Man. And think—
That after toil and wearing heft,
death is the waiting host who’s left.
As in the other plates of the Holbein series, the single mocking figure of the
skeleton skips jauntily in the landscape, here hiding himself beside the old
peasant in the disguise of his plowboy. Sand ruminates over the difference
between Holbein’s time and her own, seeing in the earlier work a reflection
of a society burdened with an implacable sorrow and terrifying sense of
fate, while in her own she sees an insistence on the good life and the happi-
ness it brings. The peasant, however, is excluded from the bourgeois ideal:
“As he sows his grain he must know that he is toiling at the work of Life,
and must not take pleasure in the fact of Death walking by his side.”
Sand personally rejects the representation of the repulsive side of pov-
erty, claiming that the mission of art should be one of sentiment and love,
and that the artist has the responsibility of doing more than simply em-
ploying “measures of prudence and conciliation to lessen the alarm roused
by his own pictures.” In the end, she opined that art is not a study of “posi-
tive reality” but a quest for “ideal truth.” She does not intend by this, how-
ever, to shirk her own responsibilities as an observer of authentic peasant
life and the political realities that govern it. She begins her book proper
with the statement that Holbein’s woodcut made her ponder the life of the
fields and the fate of those who till them:
It is dreary, no doubt of it, to use up one’s strength and days in cleaving the
breast of this jealous earth which yields so grudgingly the treasures of its fertil-
ity, when the day’s end brings only a morsel of the blackest and coarsest bread
as one’s sole reward, the sole profit accruing from this stern toil. These riches
clothing the soil, the harvest and the fruits, the proud beasts that, fattening in the
bush grass, are the property of a few, and the instrument of the weariness and
slavery of the majority. The man of leisure, in general, has no love for the fields
or meadows in themselves, nor for the spectacle of nature or the lordly animals
who are to be turned into ringing gold for his use. The man of leisure visits the
country in search of a little fresh air and health—and then goes back to spend
the fruit of his vassals’ toil in the great cities.
Then she writes from the perspective of the toiler of the land, too unhappy
and fearful of the future to be able to enjoy the charms of rural landscape
and country life. Her privileged contemplation of the countryside is thus
troubled by the thought that what to her is an arcadian paradise is in fact a
field of sorrows for those who work it.
103 radical realism and its offspring
As she strolled along the edge of a field absorbed in these thoughts, her
attention was diverted by a group of peasants busily preparing the soil for
the next sowing. The panorama was vast enough to compare with Hol-
bein’s print, and she noted at the top of the field an old man whose broad
back and stern features recalled the plowman; he was guiding his old-fash-
ioned plow, drawn by a pair of oxen yoked together as “brothers.” Next,
her eye was attracted to a superb spectacle, “a noble subject for a painter.”
She observed at the far end of the plowland a young peasant driving a
magnificent team of four young oxen, while at his side a child prodded the
flanks of the animals with a long light switch tipped with a needle. The
sight of the sheer control exercised over the animals, despite the violence
of their struggle to overcome obstacles, produced a graceful and calming
effect over the entire scene. Finally, the young plowman began to intone a
solemn, melancholy song handed down from long tradition in the coun-
tryside, a song meant to sustain the rhythmic movement of the animals and
soothe their fatigue. The wild and peculiar song, attuned to the gait of the
oxen, established a poetic and optimistic mood in striking contrast to the
Holbein picture.
Sand then confessed that she would be “happy in his place, if my arms
grown suddenly brawny and my chest made suddenly powerful could thus
impregnate nature and sing her, and my eyes still see, and my brain under-
stand, the harmony of colors and sounds, the subtleties of tones and the
gracefulness of shapes—in a word, the mysterious beauty of things!” Thus
true happiness would be the individual equipped with the combination of
the manual skills and bodily strength of the peasant and the capacity to be-
hold the beauties of the landscape which he tills for survival.
She then admonishes her urban reader not to despise the peasant,
“all you who think you have a legitimate and absolute warrant to order
him about!” She prefers his simplicity of mind to the reader’s “deceptive
gleam,” and then proclaims that her familiarity with the peasant personali-
ties she observed permits her to tell their story. And she asks, “Is not the
husbandman’s furrow as worthy as that of the idler who happens to have
a name, a name that will endure if by some peculiarity or freak, he makes
a little stir in the world?” She holds it as a sacred obligation to rescue from
oblivion the dutiful husbandman whom history so easily forgets. Switch-
ing again to her sophisticated self, she concludes that “he will know noth-
ing of it, and will hardly trouble his mind about it. But I shall have had
some enjoyment in the attempt.”
Here in these opening sections of the book, Sand lays out the essen-
tial strands of the realist-rural discourse. Although exempting herself from
the harsh realism of some of her contemporaries, and even looking for the
bright side of country life, she nonetheless fills out the rural world with
precise observation and does not shirk the brutal aspects of everyday rural
existence. In this she differs from earlier novelists (Marivaux, Restif de La
Bretonne) who looked for models in the fields and farmyards but yielded a
104 chapter two
one-sided glimpse of their subjects. At the center of her discourse are her
barbed attacks on the urban, middle-class proprietors of the agricultural
domains and their inability to empathize with peasant life. The cosmopoli-
tan female takes it upon herself to tell the peasant’s story for fear that it will
be effaced by history’s implacable plow.
Her admitted potential to identify with the peasant and articulate their
inner lives for them hints at her belief in social metempsychosis. Sand was
close to the two outstanding writers of the period on the subject, Pierre
Leroux and Jean Reynaud, both former Saint-Simonists. These utopian so-
cialists understood metempsychosis as the process of human perfection—
an infinite series of reincarnations leading to increasingly progressive states
of existence. Deeply attached to birds, Sand believed that “feathered bi-
peds” had played a role in her anterior existences. Analogously, she felt
that an intense study of human beings and their history would enable the
investigator to identify with, and even inhabit, their bodies and souls. For
her and her fellow social reformers the unity of all the species and the dis-
solution of rigid sexual stereotypes constituted the central plank of their
utopian agenda. It is this capacity to empathize with all of God’s creatures
that empowers her to write the history of less privileged beings. Her pas-
toral novels contain many passages projected from an animal’s perspective
and sympathetic if mute exchanges between quadrupeds and humans. The
young mare, La Grise, plays a role in The Devil’s Pool comparable to that of
the lead characters, and in fact is described as “young, handsome and vigor-
ous”—the same terms used to portray the peasant hero Germain.
Sand’s next novel, François le Champi (François, Child of the Bush),
about a rural foundling (enfant trouvé) possessed with a sensitivity superior
to those around him, delves deeper into peasant psychology and clarifies
the author’s ideological position. First serialized in the Journal des débats, it
ran from late 1847 through February 1848 before being interrupted by the
revolution. In the preface—which takes the form of a dialogue with a male
artist—she again takes up the problem of the contrasting lives of peasant
and urbanite. She sets up a binary opposition, describing one side as the
healthy or “primitive life” (la vie primitive) and the other as the artificial or
“unnatural life” (la vie factice), and wondered how the creative individual
could bridge these two states.
Her friend’s proposed solution was to engage the world directly with-
out the mediation of the memories of the history of art, to obliterate
thoughts of painting when gazing at the landscape or of music when lis-
tening to the wind. He wanted to relish experience purely by instinct,
because “this singing cricket appears more joyous and elated than I can
ever be.” If he had his way, he would have been born “an illiterate peas-
ant whom God endowed with good instincts and an upright conscience;
and I imagine, with my numb and useless faculties, in ignorance born of
depraved tastes, that I could be as happy as the primitive creature dreamed
of by Jean-Jacques.” Sand shared this fantasy, but added that the “simplest
105 radical realism and its offspring
and most naive peasant is still an artist,” one whose unconventional art
lifted her soul more than all of high culture.
Delighted by her unexpected endorsement of his view, he agreed that
the peasant’s art was purer because it issued directly from nature. Sand then
complained of her having to express her thoughts in the language of the
French Academy, when she could access a natural language infinitely su-
perior for the rendering of emotions, sentiments, and thoughts. Her com-
panion then suggested that she tell her story while imagining that on her
right hand sat a Parisian who only spoke modern French, and on her left a
peasant for whom every word had to be intelligible. She accepted the chal-
lenge as a kind of scientific test of her capacity to penetrate “the mystery
of primitive simplicity and communicate to the mind the charm of an au-
thentic state of nature.”
She resolved this for herself within the novel’s
structure by creating peasant narrators who recount the story during a veil-
lée—the after-dinner storytelling and music sessions during long autumn
and winter evenings when two or more families and their friends met at a
single farmhouse to save on light and heat.
Sand’s second rustic novel takes up the question of ugliness, which she
suggests is always in the mind of the beholder, but which, as a subjective
attribute, may be modified over time depending upon social relationships.
In this instance, the marginalized rural foundling—traditionally assigned
to banditry or associated with vicious habits—is raised by a loving and
virtuous woman in the salubrious pastoral atmosphere and develops into
a good and socially useful human being. Apparent ugliness and its mis-
interpretation is the leitmotif of the book; thus the sprightly woman La
Sévère makes François uncomfortable at first sight, striking him as “being
ugly and malevolent, although she was neither one nor the other.” Later,
when François is forced to abandon his foster home, he takes work with
another farmer whose affairs prosper under his guidance. When his new
master learns of his story, he responds that “nothing is so ugly as misun-
The last of the rustic idylls, La Petite Fadette (Fanchon the Cricket),
written in the summer of 1848 and published in book form the follow-
ing year, expatiates on the theme of ugliness incarnated in the eponymous
heroine. It is a post-June narrative, dealing more directly with the issues
that she only touched upon in La Mare au Diable. The story relates the en-
counter between the ugliest, dirtiest, least esteemed person in the village
with her exact antithesis Landry Barbeau, the handsomest, hardest work-
ing, and most respected lad for miles around. An adolescent tomboy looked
upon by the villagers as an evil sorceress, Fanchon is the most authentically
religious person in her rural community. She is the female equivalent of
François le Champi, completely at home in field and marshland and the eter-
nal butt of local prejudice. She is also the fictional persona of the author
as adolescent, thus allowing for traits of identification linking Sand to the
peasant world.
106 chapter two
Fanchon perceives herself as irremediably ugly and makes herself more
repulsive by her choice of dress and foul language. In an exchange with
Landry, who attempts to explain to her why she is persecuted by the vil-
lagers, she ripostes with her own notion of beauty that approximates the
idea of the appropriate. Peasants know that everything “is fitting (avenant)
and beautiful in heaven and upon earth.” Sand makes her say that the privi-
leged classes “too often despise those things which appear neither beautiful
nor good, and in so doing deprive themselves of what is helpful and ben-
eficial”—the same humanitarian logic Millet used in justifying his use of
the “ugly” in his work.
Nicknamed after an insect, the Cricket tells Landry that she is consoled
by the knowledge that God does not find her face repulsive. Her condition
has enabled her to develop a sympathetic attraction to all creatures assigned
to an inferior lot in life; hating to see animals suffer, she resists crushing
caterpillars, torturing frogs, dismembering wasps, or nailing bats to trees,
and instead rescues them from their tormentors whenever possible. She de-
clares to the despised animals that “if every ugly thing ought to be killed,
I have no more right to live than you.” Gradually, however, Landry gains
insight into her true inner beauty and spirituality and the novel ends with
their marriage.
Significantly, the preface of the original edition (dropped after 1850)
opened, like François le Champi, with another dialogue between Sand and
her artist friend, this time set against the backdrop of the failed Repub-
lic and their shared disillusionment in the wake of June. As she seeks sol-
ace in the countryside, the melancholy song of the plowman momentarily
soothes her spirit by instilling in her a sense of the healthy intersection of
nature with the work of human beings. The strains of the human voice in
conjunction with the land rose above the travails of all “the captives and
victims of all nations, martyrs of every kind of progress!” During the pe-
riod she wrote the novel, Sand was subjected to all sorts of bizarre charges
because of her support of the radical Republic, including accusations of
harboring dangerous subversives and stocking arms in her country estate
at Nohant.
One connection between the revolution and the stories was her idea of
collectively entitling the series of rural novels The Evenings [Veillées] of the
Hemp Dresser and dedicating it to Armand Barbès, one of the most radical
of the 1848 republicans. Arrested in the insurrection of 15 May that aimed
at dissolving the National Assembly, Barbès was imprisoned until the am-
nesty of 1854. She corresponded with Barbès during his confinement, and
wanted to dedicate the work to all “our imprisoned friends,” emphasizing
that since open discussion of politics was out she could at least write tales
to beguile them and lull them to sleep. Here is solid evidence that the rural
world represented an alternative universe of discourse for a troubled city
In a later revised preface of 21 December 1851 (note the proxim-
ity to the coup d’état), Sand wrote that she drafted La Petite Fadette while
107 radical realism and its offspring
“troubled and broken hearted” by the rent in civil society, and that she had
looked to the rural world for solitude and calm.
The realist-rural discourse also appealed to progressive-minded intel-
lectuals as a means to broaden their audience by addressing the immediate
concerns of ordinary people. Salon art representing the visible world car-
ried the advantage over allegory and literary subjects in attracting a large
part of a public heretofore excluded from culture both as subject and ob-
ject. At the same time, it was a public becoming increasingly informed
through cheaply reproduced lithographic prints and political brochures.
In popular imagery, the formerly disenfranchised could see themselves
mirrored, which heightened their sense of self-identity and self-aware-
The free-swinging poet and songster Pierre Dupont was instrumental
in the popularization of rural genre and working-class themes. The gifted
songwriter and Freemason was a close friend of George Sand and almost
the entire realist contingent, including Baudelaire, Corot, Decamps, Bon-
vin, Courbet, Castagnary, Champfleury, and Murger, whose company he
joined at their favorite bohemian haunts. Rather than imitate Victor Hugo
and Lamartine, he served as a voice and role model for the commons. He
based his music on authentic folk songs and tales, and his work, like that of
the realists, was criticized for its naiveté and clumsiness.
He composed his
first rustic song in 1845, “Les Boeufs,” a solemn hymn to the peasant’s love
for his draft animals:
I have two great oxen in my stable,
Two great white oxen spotted with red;
The plow is made of maple wood,
The cow prod of a holly branch.
It is through their pains that we see the plain
Green in winter, yellow in summer;
Each week they earn
More money than they cost me.
The slow, melancholic cadence of the melody (perhaps informing Sand’s
commentary on the plowman’s song in the opening scene of La Mare au
Diable) immediately enjoyed an immense vogue during the waning days
of the July Monarchy. It would be trotted out as a kind of national an-
them at official gatherings and liberal soirées during the Second Republic.
Inaugurating in popular song a new genre, rustic realism, it projected the
“primitive” simplicity of the toiling peasant as the antithesis to what Sand
described as la vie factice. There was also a certain shock effect to the brutal
last two lines of the refrain: “I love my wife. Ah, but I would prefer / To
see her die before my oxen do.”
The following year Dupont incorporated the song in a collection en-
titled Les Paysans, chants rustiques, with a cast of characters dear to the hearts
108 chapter two
of the realists, including shepherds, poachers, and plowmen. His subse-
quent “La Chanson des foins” (Song of the Hay) portrays the hard labor of
the peasant in vivid imagery reminiscent of the opening scene of Sand’s La
Mare au Diable:
Bent in two the reaper toils unceasingly
Drenched in a pool of sweat.
Hot on his trail Death follows close,
Cutting the string of flowers like one of the Three Fates.
Dupont soon shifted his attention to the proletariat of Lyons and Paris,
also publishing his “Chant des ouvriers” in 1846. As in the case of the rus-
tic melodies, this song addresses the drudgery, widespread unemployment,
risk of death, and lack of secure wages that haunt the weavers of the cit-
ies. Baudelaire admired its melancholy mood and intense metaphors, and
even Marx refers to the “Chant des ouvriers” in a note to book 1 of Capi-
tal, quoting these lines: “Poorly clothed, lodged in holes / Under the roof
timbers, among the rubbish / We live with the owls / And the thieves,
friends of the shadows.” Tellingly, the note is found in a section devoted
to the depletion of the countryside: the forced emigration of farm laborers
to the towns as a result of concentration and capitalization of agriculture,
the conversion of arable land into pasture and machinery, and the continual
eviction of the agricultural population by the destruction of their cottages.
Reduced to pauperism by rampant exploitation, the peasantry migrates to
the towns in hopes of a better life, only to fall into the conditions exposed
in Dupont’s song.
The 1848 Republic enfranchised Dupont, who in turn believed he had
anticipated it in his songs. His radical orientation is seen in the last couplet
of a new “Chant des paysans,” published in 1849, which applauds the emer-
gence of the countryside as a political force and tries to persuade the peas-
antry to support the new government by uniting with the working class.
He calls for collective pressure to bring about the millennium: “Earth is
going to break its chains / Poverty has terminated its lease / Athirst let us
come together en masse / The wheat is ripe, the presses flow / Here is bread,
here is wine.”
Another song, “La Républicaine,” written on 25 February,
is steeped in the euphoria of the moment; it glorifies the Republic as “our
mother” in the mode of Daumier and Ledru-Rollin and delights in the ex-
perience of heaven on earth “while waiting for eternity.” But June soon
reared its ugly head and Dupont had to beat a hasty retreat: just two days
after the suppression of the insurrection, he wrote dispiritedly “A Dirge
for the Days of June.” Although unsympathetic to the uprising, he asked
for clemency for the surviving insurgents driven by hunger and poverty,
and admonished Parisians to seal “hatred and discord” in the graves of the
victims. Daumier’s Republic-Mother had lost her children.
109 radical realism and its offspring
Millet’s Sower
Millet’s new direction unfolded within the context of the vigorous realist-
rural discourse, stimulated by the revolutionary energies released in 1848.
This is strikingly evident from the critical responses to his well-known
signature piece Le Semeur (The Sower), which one critic disparaged as “too
socialist.” (Ironically, in the twentieth century it would become both a
trademark for an American bank and a revolutionary symbol in Moscow,
Beijing, and Cuba.
) Traditionally, the sower always had something of the
truculent in his gestures: when starting his field he first hurled a handful of
grain in the air, “This is for the good Lord,” another into the hedges, “This
is for the rats, mice, and crows,” and finally one on the ground, “This is
for me!”
But nothing in the makeup of the sower of old prepares us for
Millet’s astonishing interpretation (fig. 2.11). His Sower represents a trans-
formative break with all prior depictions of the peasantry, its hulking, gar-
gantuan figure lunging across the canvas like a soldier in combat. Instead
of charging with bayonet in hand, however, he strides down the furrowed
slope armed with only his grain pouch, whose contents he scatters across
the field with a powerful gesture. He grasps the seed in a large menacing
fist, simultaneously frightening and attracting the crows, who seem to dart
out of his hand against the direction of the grain. One critic saw The Sower
flinging into the sky “handfuls of grapeshot”—as if joining battle against
the forces that oppressed him.
The Sower’s old battered cap shades his face
into sinister anonymity, while his dark slash of a mouth protrudes like a
gaping wound. His leg wrappings of plaited straw add a freakish touch to
his lumbering body, resembling a golem constructed of mud and straw
suddenly endowed with supernatural power. His magnitude is heightened
by the thrusting of his massive torso through the horizon line and the sil-
houetting of its bulk against the dismal gray-blue sky. His sheer bulk, the
splayed legs, and the pitch of the landscape push him relentlessly forward
like a creature out of control. Only the wheel-less harrow drawn in the op-
posite direction by a pair of oxen on the horizon offers a counterbalance to
the sower, but, reduced to a background vignette, it barely slows his diz-
zying descent.
Michelet’s chapter entitled “The Bondage of the Peasant,” in Le Peuple
(1846), uses a military metaphor to describe the modern peasant’s relation-
ship to the land. Michelet had previously drawn a distinction between the
tightfisted peasantry of the past and their contemporary counterparts who
could no longer be content with their ancestors’ circumscribed world. To-
day’s peasant, having served in Napoléon’s army, has “higher aspirations”
and even believes in the “impossible.” Michelet explains:
The acquisition of land is a battle for him; he goes to it as to the charge, and he
will not retreat. It is his battle of Austerlitz: he will win it; of course there will
111 radical realism and its offspring
be a desperate struggle, but he has seen plenty of these under the Old Com-
Michelet then describes the peasant’s exertions to subdue the land, a fight
that requires battlefield courage. Unlike the plantation slave, who is permit-
ted a periodic rest, the peasant—a “voluntary black”—knows no repose.
The “heroic” peasant returned from the wars went to the field thinking
“that by the power of his will he could do anything, even slow down time.”
But the plowing field is quite different from the battlefield, and there “time
will not be slowed.” It is this that weighs heavily on the peasant’s shoulders
and propels him relentlessly downhill. And Michelet asks the reader rhe-
torically: “Are you surprised if, when you meet him on the land that de-
vours him, you find him dark and gloomy? You pass and greet him warmly,
but he will not look at you and pulls his hat down.”
These passages foreshadow Millet’s sower, providing a textual analy-
sis of the isolated rural laborer becoming increasingly bitter on the eve of
1848. Michelet puts it succinctly: “He hates the rich, he hates his neighbor,
he hates the world.” Alone on his miserable plot of land like Robinson
Crusoe on a desert island, the peasant turns into a “savage.” The townsman
develops an inordinate fear of this sordid person who seems “capable of
anything” and dare not approach him. The wealthy landowner visits peri-
odically, but prefers to live in the town daydreaming of rural harmony and
letting the village notary mediate his dealings with the locals.
After 1848, Millet perceived his role as that of visual “troublemaker,”
an artist-missionary sent into the world to arouse the bourgeoisie from
their slumbers and disturb them in their complacency. His sower accom-
plishes precisely that by rejecting tradition on two levels: on the one hand,
he is cast into the heroic mold of Michelet’s ex-soldier storming the field,
and on the other, he assumes the ugly and ungainly character that frightens
the townsman. The sower occupies the pictorial space with the same con-
viction as an allegorical personification, but it refuses merely emblematic
status. Gautier described his headdress as a “bizarre bonnet”—a comment
charged with memories of the competitions for the symbolic figure of the
new regime. He also experienced both the sower’s imposing presence and
his “violent gesture,” which seemed “to be painted with the very earth he
was planting”—a hint at the scatological associations stimulated by the pic-
The next year, in fact, Millet began a painting of a lone figure in a
broad expanse of field spreading manure, and the very colors and textures
seek an equivalent of the scattered dung.
It was as if he wished to bring
townspeople up close to smell the odiferous fecal matter, and experience
directly the filth and dirt associated with actual farm life. This combination
of monumentality and physical aggressiveness creates a new national icon
to replace the nurturing and sanitized Republic. Millet’s “Lacedaemoni-
an” version of the republican symbol has been transformed into a militant
Spartan clad in “proud raggedness” and smeared with cow shit.
2.11 Jean-François Millet, The
Sower, ca. 1849–1850. Museum of
Fine Arts, Boston.
112 chapter two
The Sower operated synecdochically, representing for its viewers the or-
ganized peasantry rising up from the hinterlands. No wonder that conser-
vative critics recoiled in horror from this evangelizing depiction of a vig-
orous and uncontrollable rural laborer. They tried to neutralize its effect
by comparing it unfavorably to their own feudalistic ideal. One critic, who
claimed to have directly witnessed the sowing ritual, declared that there
was nothing “violent or doleful” about the practice, and regretted to see
the artist “slandering” the peasant in this way. Another reviewer accused
Millet of cleverly exploiting his “slothful” and “indecisive” technique to
disguise “all sorts of blackguards [crapules] whom he calls peasants.”
On the other hand, the Fourierist critic François Sabatier-Ungher
wrote in La Démocratie pacifique that this powerful yet suffering laborer em-
bodies the curse of work that society has imposed on its members—work
that one day, however, will be “the only authentic pleasure of intelligent
beings in the regenerated society to come.” He concluded that The Sower
represented “the modern demos”—Greek word for the people and the root
of the title of Sabatier-Ungher’s progressive newspaper. Perhaps not coin-
cidentally, the abbreviated name for the new radical coalition was démoc-
soc [démocrate-socialiste]—close enough to see what Sabatier-Ungher had in
mind. Clearly, for both Right and Left Millet’s rural spook conjured up an
image of a political collectivity.
Millet wrote Sensier in 1851 that peasant subjects suit his temperament
better than nude women and mythological subjects, and elaborated as fol-
I must confess, even at the risk of passing again as a socialist, that it is the human
side of art that touches me most, and if I could only do what I like, or, at least,
attempt it, I should do nothing that was not an impression from some aspect
of nature, whether it be landscapes or figures. The joyous side of nature never
shows itself to me. I do not know where it is. I have never seen it.
Like George Sand, he admits feeling guilty whenever he hikes into the
woods for relaxation or calm, for inevitably he met with a toiling laborer
or woodcutter carrying a load on his back. The weariness of the laborer
strikes him, and he is tempted to ask the townsman: “Is this the happy-
go-lucky work some people would have us believe in?” This is the view
of “the true humanity” of the countryside to which he now committed
Thus between June 1848 and the 1850–1851 Salon, Millet underwent
a period of intense soul-searching, culminating with the discovery of his
true calling. Two painful events accelerated the process of self-understand-
ing. When the June insurrection broke out, Millet donned the uniform of
the National Guard and fought in defense of the Republic. He was present
at the taking of the barricades of the Quartier Rochechouart, one of the
last effective strongholds of the uprising, and witnessed the death of the
113 radical realism and its offspring
insurgent leader. Like Meissonier, he returned in disgust, outraged by the
massive repression of the laboring population and the vindictive attitude
of the conquerors. He tried to efface the bloody events from his mind by
fleeing to the suburbs and painting a quick succession of impressions of the
neighboring countryside.
The other event occurred soon after, in front of the store window of
Deforge’s shop: he overheard two youths discussing his work on display,
The Bathers. The first asked his companion, “Do you know the name of the
painter of this picture?” The other replied, “Yes. His name is Millet and
he only paints nude women.” The remark struck the artist like a thunder-
bolt, and he experienced a sense of profound shame, intensified by his guilt
over participating in the assault on the working population. He went home
to ask his wife’s approval of his decision to cease his potboiling activities,
advising her that henceforth they would have to tighten up their already
strained household budget.
Surely Millet’s decision would have been fortified by the realist-rural
discourse that had developed into something of a vogue during the period
of the Second Republic. Gautier, for example, begins his review of The
Sower by associating its impression on him with that of the opening pages
of Sand’s La Mare au Diable. Millet’s participation in the competition for
the figure of the Republic and his Winnower already hint at the transforma-
tive influence of the revolutionary moment on his thought; nevertheless,
his Sower represents the kind of drastic break with his past that is consistent
with his own testimony on the public and personal traumas of June and its
immediate aftermath.
What gave substance to the realist-rural discourse and empowered Mil-
let’s depiction of the effects of rural labor was the politicization of the
countryside. Heretofore systematically neglected by successive regimes as a
sort of amorphous but readily taxable entity, the rural population now be-
gan to awake to its potential. The invisible body of the peasantry was rap-
idly materializing into flesh and blood. Although Louis-Napoléon pulled
in a big rural vote on 10 December 1848, the countryside was still up for
political grabs as party agitation extended into the heartland. The agri-
cultural depression continued to be felt during the next two years, with a
sharp downward turn in farm prices. Peasants fell into debt and their pre-
carious hold on the land was threatened. The increased taxation of 45 per-
cent that had been levied on the land by the Republic in 1848 encountered
widespread rural outrage (including that of Millet’s mother) and even resis-
tance, particularly in the Midi and in the southeast, and the Left’s promise
of low credit rates to facilitate small landownership and neutralize usury
rallied huge blocs of the peasantry.
Ten million French peasants possessing the right to vote could theoreti-
cally outnumber all other groups in society. And the peasantry that univer-
sal suffrage had propelled to center stage was discontented and threatening.
The Provisional Republic initially alienated the peasantry with its onetime
114 chapter two
surtax, prompting succeeding governments to tread lightly on the agrar-
ian problem by enacting moderate policies such as the founding of new
schools in rural areas and a National Institute of Agriculture. Between the
elections of 13 May 1849 and the coup d’état of December 1851, all shades
of the political spectrum waged a total propaganda war to win over this
restless populace.
Despite the overwhelming victory of the conservatives in the elections
of May, they were alarmed by the large percentage of country folk who
voted the radical ticket in poor and remote rural areas. The thought of mil-
lions of French peasants waving red banners sent chills down their spines.
Louis Veuillot, editor of the ultra-Catholic newspaper L’Univers, expressed
the felt menace in noting that today’s peasant no longer believed in God,
spent his time in cabarets reading the newspapers of Proudhon and Thoré,
and voted socialist in the hopes of getting “his greedy paws on a good por-
tion of other people’s property.”
The democrats and socialists had formed an effective alliance that pre-
sented itself as the party of the future, polarizing the antagonists into two
camps: democrat-socialist and reactionary. The new coalition became af-
fectionately known by their adherents as démoc-soc, and if the first half of
the abbreviation invokes the people, it is probably no coincidence either
that soc in French means plowshare. The démoc-socs stigmatized the Party of
Order as “financial feudalists” and usurers waiting to prey on rural com-
munities. (This inadvertently helped spread anti-Semitism in the country-
side by exploiting the traditional association of Jew and usurer, although in
fact almost all rural moneylenders were local notables and often included
) The peasants and rural artisans of Dordogne voted overwhelm-
ingly in favor of the socialist candidate because of suspicion that the old
noble and bourgeois proprietors were uniting to restore feudal obligations.
In the departments of the Corrèze and Haute-Vienne, 39 of 56 rural can-
tons gave the socialist candidate an absolute majority.
As Clark has indicated, there developed an almost continuous rural
band of democratic support in the center and eastern center of France com-
prising the departments of the Cher, the Nièvre, and Allier, the Saône-et-
Loire, the Jura, the Ain and the Rhône, while to the south the Left could
claim an area bordering on the Alps extending all the way to the Mediter-
ranean Provence. The central zone reached as far as Alsace, and on the west,
skirting the edge of the Massif-Central, another belt comprised the Haute-
Vienne, the Corrèze, and the Dordogne, and an area between the Massif-
Central and the Pyrénées that included the Aude and the Ariège.
The successful spread of radicalism beyond town suburbs and the win-
ning of peasant electors explains Millet’s reiterated apologies for his “so-
cialist” imagery in the period of the Second Republic. Although he would
later disavow any specific radical message in his work, his written state-
ments betray this influence on his thought and he relished the initial recep-
tion of his new direction that positioned him as a rebel. Sensier recalled
115 radical realism and its offspring
looking at a photograph of Millet when he was around forty, looking out
confidently from his garden at Barbizon in the rough costume of the locals.
It struck him as the image of “one of those enthusiastic peasants, victims of
our civil wars, who, vanquished, look at death without flinching. . . . He
was pleased when I said: ‘You look like a leader of peasants who is about to
be shot.’”
Following his encounter with Millet in April 1853, Delacroix
came away with the distinct impression that the peasant-painter was “cer-
tainly of the constellation or squadron of artists with beards who made the
revolution of 1848, or who applauded it, apparently believing that there
would be equality of talents as of fortune.”
When his Death and the Woodcutter was refused by the Salon jury in 1859,
Millet vehemently declaimed: “They want to break my spirit and force me
into their drawing-room art, but no. I was born a peasant, and a peasant I
will die. I will say what I feel. I paint things as I see them, and I will hold
my ground without retreating one sabot.”
Yet history shows that the per-
son speaking these words is the militant bourgeois empowered by 1848, not
the peasant who migrated to the city and refused to work his family’s land.
His identification with the peasant had less to do with his background than
with the kind of fantasy that informed Sand’s pastoral novels and the real-
ist-rural discourse.
The lasting impact of his empowerment is seen in his courageous inclu-
sion of the traditionally xenophobic in his work, a feature that he refused
to disavow even after dismissing the “socialist” frame of reference. He ridi-
culed the pretensions of certain types who imagined that they could “rec-
tify the so-called failures in taste and errors of nature.” Millet believed
that it as possible to start from any point to “arrive at the sublime,” and
what the artist loved with the greatest passion and power assumed a spe-
cial beauty of its own, which he or she could ultimately impose on others.
And further:
The whole arsenal of nature has ever been at the disposal of strong people, and
their genius has made them take, not the things that one conventionally called
the most beautiful, but those which best suited their places. In its own time and
place, has not everything its own role to perform? Who would dare to say that a
potato is inferior to a pomegranate?
Millet’s aesthetic manifesto is unthinkable without 1848; it fulfills the radi-
cal realist demand for increasing inclusivity of social and material phenom-
ena. Realism allowed him to carve out a niche for himself over and against
the restricted academic franchise, and by expanding the repertoire of art he
created fresh possibilities for himself and his followers.
Some moderate critics saw in The Sower biblical allusions to the tragic
earthly destiny of human beings, thus divesting it of its political signi-
fications by transposing the work to a religious plane. Millet seemed to
want to keep them guessing in his presentation to the Salon of 1853, which
116 chapter two
he initially planned as a Ruth and Boaz, but whose title he subsequently
changed to The Harvesters’ Meal. As set forth in the book of Ruth, chapter
2, Boaz discovers the widow Ruth gleaning in the fields during the barley
harvest and bids her to join the reapers at mealtime, to “eat of the bread,
and dip thy morsel in the vinegar.” When she rises to resume her work,
Boaz commands his field workers to let her glean “even among the sheaves,
and reproach her not.” Ruth justifies the exceptional confidence of Nao-
mi’s kinsman Boaz and eventually they marry; their child Obed becomes
the grandfather of David, future King of Israel.
The elevation in the status of Ruth the Moabite from utter destitu-
tion to union with one of the first families of Bethlehem constitutes one
of the great success stories of the Old Testament. Millet updated the nar-
rative by showing a scene of modern harvesting, a pause in the labors as
the exhausted reapers take their midday meal (fig. 2.12). The picture was
planned in an elongated horizontal format to allow a panoramic glimpse
of the wide circle of laborers squatting at the foot of a towering haystack
(truncated by the oblong picture plane). Their sickles are jabbed neatly
into a sheaf of hay to announce temporary cessation of labor as well as to
define their occupation. The participants in the harvest meal are interrupt-
ed by their overseer (or perhaps a working peasant proprietor—a sickle is
slung over his left shoulder), who, having surprised a young gleaner in the
field, gently nudges her by way of invitation toward the rustic meal. With
all eyes fixed upon her, she holds back from shyness, but the older man, a
2.12 Jean-François Millet,
Ruth and Boaz or The Harvesters’
Meal, 1853. Museum of Fine
Arts, Boston.
117 radical realism and its offspring
patriarchal type, guides her firmly and assures her of the team’s positive
reception. This hospitable gesture unites the gleaner—the lowliest con-
stituent of the rural totem pole—with the larger rural family.
The critics generally liked this work, even though they invariably
harped on the “ugliness” of the reapers. The conservative Paul de Saint-
Victor began his review by asserting that Millet has “made himself the poet
of the people and the sculptor of coarseness.” The picture was “a Homeric
idyll translated into patois,” and Millet’s rustics were “of a superb, bru-
tal, primitive ugliness.” Nevertheless, one felt “a respect in the presence of
those rude peasants, companions of the great oxen, warriors armed with
scythes, nurturers of human beings.” According to Gautier, Millet’s work
demonstrated that there was nothing so coarse in nature that it could not be
exalted by style. His Harvesters were certainly not modeled after the Apollo
Belvedere: “Snub-nosed, thick-lipped, prominent cheekbones: this is their
type.” Despite their “poverty and ugliness,” however, they embodied “the
majesty of workers in close contact with nature.”
Gautier’s negative comparison of the peasant physiognomies with the
idol of neoclassicism was deliberate, since by now it was common knowl-
edge that Millet had declared war on the Academy’s category of the Beau-
tiful. Sensier claimed that Millet wanted to paint “authentic harvesters,
not in the manner of Léopold Robert . . . but true rustics burdened and
exhausted from fatigue.”
Here Sensier was referring directly to Robert’s
Arrival of the Harvesters at the Pontine Marshes, a bucolic fantasy that enjoyed
a sensational success at the Salon of 1831. (As Herbert pointed out, Millet’s
gleaner seems to make explicit allusion to an analogously positioned female
in Robert’s picture who also carries a wrapped bundle of wheat.
) Proud-
hon, who detested Robert’s painting for its false image both of harvesters
and Italians, stated in a footnote that he had learned of a picture by Millet
that eclipsed Robert’s with authentic action and types issuing from “rustic
This would suggest that word spread of Millet’s challenge to
traditional depictions of the peasantry, and that his brutish Harvesters cal-
culatedly refuted the elegant heads of Robert’s studio models.
Millet’s circle of homely reapers, dressed in coarse linen shawls and bat-
tered straw hats for protection from the sun, arranged in lumpish postures
and vulgar gestures, recalls nothing less than a witches’ Sabbath painted by
Goya. But if there is something terrifying and bestial about his peasants,
then the surprisingly positive critical acceptance of this version of the peas-
antry begs some form of historical explanation. The 1853 Salon was only
the second to be organized after the coup d’état of 2 December 1851, when
rural France Rouge rose up in protest against the Napoleonic betrayal of the
Republic. The peasants in the Nièvre, Cher, Lot-et-Garonne, Basse-Alpes,
and Var, and generally in central and southwest France, had gradually be-
come in the eyes of the moderates and conservatives the rural counterpart
of the hideous democrats and socialists who organized the insurgency of
June. The coup succeeded in large measure because most members of the
118 chapter two
National Assembly accepted the line that socialism haunted the state, re-
flecting in part the recognition of the Left’s growing influence in the here-
tofore reliably conservative rural areas. As it turned out, armed resistance
to the coup did indeed come mainly from the peasants and artisans of the
villages and small towns who were looking forward to the constitutionally
mandated elections of 1852. They had been promised freedom from taxes
and usury and a chance to gain the land inevitably bought out from under
them by the rich bourgeois, and now they asserted themselves against the
privileged just as the insurgents of June had done more than three years
earlier. Conservative accounts pictured the rural insurgents as hordes of fe-
rocious savages in tatters armed with scythes, sickles, and pitchforks. One
song found on an insurgent actually alluded to the coming “harvest” of
the tyrants:
Bugger the kings! Bugger the cossacks!
Hunger is marching today.
The harvest is coming, right soon, right soon,
And we’ll sweep all the tyrants away.
Hence Millet’s brutish laborers fit well the revised image of the peasant-
ry politicized during the years 1848–1851, a peasantry whose loyalty the
emerging imperial regime of Napoléon III made it a top priority to re-
Millet may have intended something more personal, however, since the
painting was conceived prior to the coup d’état, possibly as early as 1850.
He had as yet to introduce his common-law wife to his family, the knowl-
edge of whom he had successfully hidden from his paternal grandmother
and mother. (His brother, Jean-Baptiste, visited him in 1852 and must have
learned the truth, but evidently kept the secret.) The first died in May 1851
and the second in April 1853, and it is probably not coincidental that Mil-
let married Catherine in a civil ceremony in September 1853. He must have
been long contemplating breaking the news of his partner and children
to his family one way or another, and the image of the patriarchal over-
seer introducing the humble gleaner to his tribe probably contained private
meanings for him in that period.
Nevertheless, the central theme of the work is invitation to the feast,
an act of social inclusion by the powerful in the countryside on behalf of
the vulnerable. The patriarchal benevolence of Boaz is translated into rural
hospitality, again displacing concerns about urban social justice to a pro-
vincial site. Forever contrasting the straightforward life of the primeval
countryside and the deceitfulness and artifice of civil society, the open-
handed sociality in the one and close-fisted rejection in the other, Millet
merges his private fantasy with a cry of country against city.
Thus his modern rendition of the biblical narrative brings us back to
his engagement with the realist-rural discourse and the writings of George
119 radical realism and its offspring
Sand. But if there is protestation here and profound sympathy with toil-
ing humanity in general, it is also clear that philanthropy is dispensed from
above. Millet’s idea of sharing is not a collectivity made up of equals but
a charitable disposition of the powerful toward those less fortunate than
themselves. The Boaz-overseer figure constitutes part of a benign rural
hierarchy that monitors the heartland. Not quite a garde-champêtre (a uni-
formed rural guard representing national interests against local ones), he
nevertheless operates to maintain order in his sector of the countryside. Fi-
nally, this figure exercises patriarchal control by protecting the women—
he actually directs the young gleaner to sit with the two females grouped
at one end of the reapers’ circle.
For his next work, Peasant Grafting a Tree (Le Greffeur), exhibited in the
World’s Fair of 1855, Millet tempered his usual brutal realism, perhaps in
response to government pressure to display noncontroversial themes for an
international audience (fig. 2.13). After 1850, Millet’s friend Sensier occu-
pied a key post in the Ministry of the Interior and regularly mediated be-
tween the government of Napoléon III and the painter. Sometime in 1852
Sensier went to the office of Auguste Romieu, director of fine arts and
author of Le Spectre rouge de 1852, and delivered Millet’s domestic picture of
Two Women Sewing. After investigating Millet’s political background, Ro-
mieu awarded the painter a state commission. In the summer of the same
year, Gérôme paid Millet two visits and lauded his work (in the late 1850s
they would actually collaborate on a commission to decorate a papal rail-
2.13 Jean-François Millet,
Man Grafting a Tree, 1855.
Neue Pinakothek, Munich.
120 chapter two
way carriage). Meanwhile, Sensier was obtaining government subsidies for
his protégé, and it was within this context of official contact that Millet
began preparing his exhibit for the Exposition Universelle.
The source was a verse from Virgil, “Graft thy pear tree, Daphnis, and
posterity shall pluck thy fruit,” and from it emerged Millet’s pictorial pas-
torale of a male peasant solemnly grafting a tree in his garden, observed
reverentially by his wife and newborn child.
The wife behaves as if their
entire fortune depended on the success of the graft, anxiously watching
with rapt expectation. Instead of deploying the excremental colors of
The Sower, Millet applied a bright array of hues within a predominantly
gray tonal structure that balances the dismal and the cheerful. The woman
wears a gray-purple head covering, pink blouse, brown apron, and deep
blue skirt, while Millet kneads into the male’s clothing the three primaries
red, yellow, and blue, with both figures set against the gray-blue of their
Gautier began his review by distinguishing Millet from the “manner-
ists of ugliness, who under the pretext of realism, substitute the hideous
for the true,” for Millet looks for and attains a degree of style in repre-
senting rustic types. Although he admitted that the wife was certainly not
“pretty,” this had more to do with the fact that peasant women aged more
quickly than their counterparts in the town owing to their exhaustive ru-
ral labors. The mother and her infant, plain as they were, appeared as Ma-
donna and Child, and the theme emphasized patriarchal control, prosperity
of the family tree, and the perpetuation of the peasant population. Gautier
was happy to see these peasants—and with them their succeeding genera-
tions—“resigned” to their lot.
Pierre Petroz, one of the most astute critics of the nineteenth century,
characterized the work within the context of the realist-rural discourse.
He noted that the work affirms his own observation that family life in
remote country places often has “a tranquility, a gravity, a moral beauty, a
something primitive and powerful which is rarely found elsewhere.” And
he developed his thesis:
In the middle of one of those enclosures, half courtyard and half garden, which
front country houses, a man who has just been cutting a tree below the branches
holds in his left hand a graft, which, with the right, he inserts in the wood pre-
pared to receive it. His wife, carrying in her arms their child, still in swaddling
clothes, is watching with interest the head of the family, who, absorbed in his
work, accomplishes one of the important acts of his existence, following out
reverently consecrated custom. Round about them all breathes of order, propri-
ety, and modest prosperity; their clothes have neither stain nor rent, but show
the effect of the housewife’s care. This man, grafting a tree under the eyes of his
wife, at the time when a son had recently been born to them, represents admira-
bly—one cannot deny it—our French peasants, laborious, thrifty, planted, so to
say, in the soil, living and dying in the places of their birth, which they are never
121 radical realism and its offspring
induced to abandon by the love of adventure or the inducement of gain; and the
ensemble of this scene so full of truth has a character patriarchal, symbolic, qua-
Petroz here serves as spokesperson for the revised image of the peasant,
once again restored to the good graces of the conservatives. The creation
of the Crédit Foncier de France to extend credit to the countryside accom-
plished in agriculture what the Reds had promised prior to the coup, and
the peasantry began to enjoy greater prosperity under the Second Empire.
Farmers whose situation was improved with the suppression of the last feu-
dal remnants and by opportunities to buy land from urban absentee land-
lords became zealous supporters of Napoléon III, who would soon take
them for granted. The peasant was no longer perceived as a threatening
agent of the Left, but imagined once again as the bulwark of conservatism.
Millet’s entry for the Exposition Universelle seems to have been expressly
designed to fit the latest government version. Indeed, its popularity facili-
tated Théodore Rousseau’s successful pose as middleman for an affluent
American buyer of the painting—a fiction that permitted the landscapist
to mask the generous purchase of his friend’s work.
If Millet had been bought out, however, how can we explain his next
Salon submission, the notorious Gleaners of 1857 (fig. 2.14)? Although the
homespun textures and harvest atmosphere have come to be associated
with Thanksgiving and mom’s pumpkin pie, this work raised an even
noisier outcry than The Sower and was bitterly attacked for its presumed
social message. It depicts a trio of peasant women stooped over and gath-
ering stray ears of wheat in a vast expanse of open field; two of them
charge downfield close to the earth in synchronous rhythm, while the
third, a figure of monumental solidity, bends over from the opposite side
at a right angle to them, counterbalancing their brisk movement as if in
command of their action. Their crude heavy clothing and rough linen
head coverings for protection from the August sun, their downhill stride,
and their dominance of the pictorial field recapitulate the salient traits of
The Sower.
Conservatives responded to the work as if the three gleaners represent-
ed ferocious communists menacing the social order. The harvest failures of
1853 and 1855 had resurrected nightmarish memories of the disastrous ce-
real shortage of 1846 that sparked the economic crisis leading to 1848. Jean
Rousseau wrote in Le Figaro that behind the three gleaners he could per-
ceive silhouetted on the sinking horizon “the pikes of the popular upris-
ings and the scaffolds [i.e., for the hangings and guillotines] of ’93.” Here
he must have had in mind the armed peasant opponents of the coup d’état
carrying scythes and forks, but, unwilling to indict the contemporary peas-
antry, he displaced his anxieties to the Year of Terror of the First Revolu-
tion, indirectly incriminating the Mountain of 1848–1850. Paul de Saint-
Victor also accused Millet of demagogical intent:
122 chapter two
While Courbet sanitizes and refines his style, M. Millet is in the process of
straining his. His three gleaners have gigantic pretensions; they behave like the
Three Fates of pauperism. They are scarecrows in tatters, stuck in the ground;
and like scarecrows they lack faces: a headdress of fustian serves in their place.
M. Millet apparently believes that poverty of execution is appropriate for paint-
ings of poverty. His ugliness lacks emphasis, his coarseness is unrelieved. An
ashen tone envelops the figures and landscape. The sky is of the same tone as the
skirt of the gleaners; it resembles a huge rag hanging on a line. . . . It displeases
me to see Ruth and Naomi pacing across Boaz’s field as if they were tramping
across the floorboards of a theater stage.
Although never quite overt, Saint-Victor’s statements fairly reek with
fears of organized peasant power. The gleaners have “gigantic preten-
sions,” they are as frightening as bogeymen and as momentous as the Three
Fates, the environment takes on the very quality of their rags, and they
subvert the biblical narrative of Ruth by seizing control of Boaz’s field.
2.14 Jean-François Millet, The
Gleaners, 1857. Musée d’Orsay,
123 radical realism and its offspring
What prompted his hysterical outburst is Millet’s marshaling of his figures
in rhythmic formation and their seeming independence of any supervis-
ing agency. While the wealthy farmer-proprietor or steward on horse-
back overseeing the harvest is located in the remote distance, the gleaners
command the visual space and act in concert, literally and figuratively en-
croaching on the terrain.
Saint-Victor’s response may be clarified with some understanding of
the traditional institution of gleaning. Gleaning consisted of gathering in
the fields the odds and ends of cereal crops that escaped either the vigilance
or the implements of the harvesters. If they were lucky, gleaners might
collect enough pickings to make flour for a single loaf of bread. Once a
feudal prerogative authorized by the church and sanctioned by scripture,
gleaning rights had been continually adjusted to meet changing social and
economic conditions. Mosaic law (Deuteronomy 24:19) had stipulated that
when the harvest was complete, “and [thou] hast forgot a sheaf in the field,
thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fa-
therless, and for the widow”—an act of benevolence toward the humble in
remembrance of Jewish servitude in Egypt. Gleaning, then, was not open
to all comers: only certified indigents physically incapable of cultivating
the land—the infirm, the elderly, orphans, and widows among others—
possessed gleaning rights. Once the harvesting ended and the hayricks had
been erected, gleaners were allowed into the open fields to glean without
tools between sunrise and sunset for a limited period of the week. In ef-
fect, the state played a cunning game with gleaners—appearing to take the
high moral ground but also trying to define and categorize poverty akin to
modern welfare and preserving control over the harvest practice for facili-
tating the levying of taxes.
Gleaners, moreover, were always subject to discrimination and surveil-
lance, eternally suspected of abusing their privilege. In Normandy, Mil-
let’s native region, an ordinance issued by the Caen police as early as 18
July 1788 required the economic status of gleaners to be certified by par-
ish priests and two local notables. Not surprisingly, the cahiers de doléanc-
es—the regional complaints drawn up for the Estates-General on the eve
of the revolution of 1789—took up the matter with a vengeance, some
pleading on behalf of tenant farmers who blamed noble landowners for
failing to maintain the regulations, some taking the side of the gleaners,
who cited the refusal of farmers to permit gleaning after the harvest and
protested the increasing use of scythes that cropped close to the ground.
A new law passed by the National Convention on 20 July 1791 tightened
up existing rules but sustained the idea of gleaning as a right of the poor.
Napoléon’s rural code, however, made a significant change in the word-
ing of the gleaning laws, defining it as a charitable (aumône), rather than an
obligatory, act. By the time of the July Monarchy, gleaning was decreed
an option entirely at the disposition of the proprietor, who alone could
authorize it. In addition, gleaners had to be kept under surveillance by an
124 chapter two
authoritarian garde-champêtre during the entire time they were in the field.
The language of these years is particularly aggressive, as a large faction
of proprietors argued that the institution had lost its raison d’être because
of the extreme division of agricultural land (smallholders tended to harvest
their crop with scrupulous care) and wanted to suppress it altogether. It
was reported that in some localities “the field is invaded by gangs of wom-
en,” which could lead to “a real pilfering.” The question of gleaning rights
was hotly debated in parliamentary deliberations between 1854 and 1856
and widely reported in the press. New bourgeois landowners objected to
gleaning as an infringement of private property that only encouraged the
poor to expect a “free lunch.” In 1857 the commission on gleaning of the
Côte d’Or declared that the practice invited “all sorts of abuses and pro-
vided the occasion for numerous depredations” on the land. The criminal-
izing of gleaners led to stricter rules to prevent theft of an already secured
crop and to screen eligible candidates.
Millet’s magisterial presentation of the three gleaners and their domi-
nance of both the pictorial as well as agricultural field must have conjured
up for Saint-Victor the belligerent tone of the language used in the recent
debates on gleaning laws. As Saint-Victor’s commentary suggests, he felt
that the paradigmatic text on gleaning—the biblical encounter between
benevolent landowner and grateful dependent that Millet had translated in
Harvesters—had been rudely violated. This time instead of a humble and
grateful Ruth, Millet launched his gleaners into the field like soldiers on
the warpath.
The leftist critic Petroz shared Saint-Victor’s insight, but interpreted
the painting as a powerful visual statement on the social inequality that
condemned paupers to such humiliating conditions:
The injustice of certain social inequalities, the unfair distribution of wealth, the
extreme abundance in which some live, the penury in which the greater number
vegetate, are at least as striking in the fields as in the city. No composition has, in
our time, better made this felt than The Gleaners exhibited at the Salon of 1857.
Three poor peasant women, covered in miserable rags, but decent, pass by pick-
ing up here and there some meager ears of corn, while at the extremity of the
vast field in which they wander bent over the ground, a number of reapers, su-
pervised by the proprietor, or the farmer, pile sheaf on sheaf, and heap into lofty
stacks the abundant harvest.
Edmond About, like Saint-Victor, a government hack, tried to medi-
ate between the hostile reception of critics like Rousseau and Saint-Victor
and the socialist spin given to the work by the Left. About was allied to
Saint-Victor and may have developed a strategy in coordination with him,
the former taking the high road and encouraging those aspects of Millet
acceptable to official ideology, and the latter the low road and attacking
the features most odious to the regime. About saw in the picture a religious
125 radical realism and its offspring
image and commended its serenity. Although observing the contrast be-
tween the impoverished gleaners and the “well-fed harvesters heaping the
opulent grains and the wealth of the proprietor,” he rejected any thought
of a social antithesis. He could note neither “pitiable grimaces of maudlin
poverty nor menacing gestures of envious misery: the three women appeal
neither to charity nor to hate.” They carry out their arduous task “with
that active resignation that is the virtue of peasants.”
The apologetics of this government employee is betrayed by Millet’s
own statements and his unprecedented portrayal of the gleaning practice.
Despite About’s ingenious sophistry, the critic could hardly offset com-
ments from both Right and Left converging on Millet’s unabashed por-
trayal of the social inequities and misery of the countryside. Above all,
he shaped his gleaners into compact masses rolling down the countryside
and scaring off conservatives in every direction. I am convinced that what
sparked Millet’s militant image was another painting of The Gleaners by
Jules Breton that was the darling of the critics at the Exposition Univer-
selle of 1855. Regarding this work, which will be discussed in detail in a
later chapter, it may be noted for now that Breton softened this theme of
rural labor and emphasized the presence of the garde-champêtre. Not only is
the look of drudgery absent, Breton’s gleaners even seem to be enjoying a
frolic in the field. Such a falsified image of gleaning, with comely peasants
smartly dressed and romping in the countryside, collided with Millet’s un-
derstanding of agrarian misery, and he set out to correct this picture with
brutal fidelity to the act of gleaning.
About the time of his completion of The Gleaners, when it was objected
by critics that he consistently overlooked the handsome laddies and pretty
lassies in the countryside out of preference for the formless, he countered:
“Beauty does not reside in the face; it radiates from the whole figure and
appears in the suitableness of the action to the subject. Your pretty peas-
ants would be ill suited for picking up wood, for gleaning in the furrows of
August, for drawing water from a well.” He then reaffirmed his position of
rebellion against the stereotype: “Let them not believe that they will force
me to lessen the types of the soil; I would prefer to say nothing rather than
to express myself feebly.”
When preparing his painting for exhibition in 1857, Millet wrote Théo-
dore Rousseau that he was “working like a black slave [nègre]” to get his
picture done.
This association with plantation labor is intriguing when
we examine The Gleaners up close and note that the dark-complexioned
figure at the right could indeed pass for a black cotton picker. Stoop labor
reveals a timeless and universal bodily position that has become a metonym
for drudgery, and in 1857 it would have embodied an intertextual reference
to grinding labor everywhere in the world. As Petroz suggested, gleaning
automatically implied beggared circumstances everywhere and the sun-
rise–sunset formula would have applied equally to the serfs of Russia and
the cotton pickers of Alabama.
126 chapter two
In Eugène Sue’s popular Le Juif errant (1845), the young priest Gabriel de
Rennepont dreams of a curacy in a rural village far from Paris where he can
ameliorate the condition of the agricultural laborer, whose “existence is as
unhappy as that of a negro slave.” Thus the plantation slave may very well
have been in Millet’s mind when he painted the picture. Harriet Beecher
Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been published in French in 1852 as La
Case de l’Oncle Tom, and enjoyed almost the same widespread popularity
that it did in the United States. In January 1853 the book was favorably re-
viewed in L’Illustration, which included a biography and portrait of Stowe
and laudable commentary by George Sand, who hailed Stowe as a “saint”
and upholder of “the human being’s eternal and inalienable right on earth:
It is highly probable that Millet came across this piece, since the
same journal published an album of his sketches of laboring peasants just
one week later.
Millet also would have learned of the sensational recep-
tion of the book from his American groupies, many of whom hailed from
the Boston area—always a stronghold of abolitionist activity. Wheelwright
noted that Millet was familiar with passages from Emerson and William El-
lery Channing—both noted New England abolitionists.
Stowe’s novel in-
spired Pierre Dupont’s Tom, chant des Noirs, thus implicating blacks—“bent
beneath a yoke of iron”—in the realist-rural discourse.
It may be recalled that the nascent Second Republic emancipated the
slaves in the French colonies, and that its planners rejected the American
model of government because of the slave system. Millet may have been
especially sensitive to the issue of slavery: his well-to-do grand-uncle had
been a plantation overseer on Guadeloupe, thus earning his fortune from
slave labor. Proudhon took account of the universal condemnation of black
slavery and the systematic disregard for white servitude in France, leading
him to exclaim at one point, “Would to God that our proletariat were as
materially well off as the Blacks!”
Thus it would seem that on the eve
of the American Civil War, when the sectional divisions and abolitionism
foregrounded the slave issue, Millet’s choice of simile to describe his own
laborious process signified an ongoing commitment to his revolutionary
conversion of 1848.
Certainly the pressures of the authoritarian regime, coupled with his
need to earn a living, made him vacillate between the aggressive and idyllic
poles of his production, but Millet never entirely abandoned his 1848 ide-
als. The famous Angelus of 1857–1859 amplified the traditional theme of the
pious peasant, but it departed in subtle ways from the conventional repre-
sentations (fig. 2.15). What we see in the picture straight off is the sharing
of the farm labor by both male and female; in this case, they are digging up
and gathering the potato harvest in sacks to be transported in the wheelbar-
row. Typically, they break the horizon line, their bodies silhouetted against
the sky and the broad plain that stretches behind them. Their labors have
been momentarily interrupted by the sounding of the evening Angelus
bell from the distant spire of the church of Chailly (a village just north of
127 radical realism and its offspring
Barbizon on the western edge of Fontainebleau), and they reverently bow
their heads in prayer. Angelus is the Latin word for angel, and refers to the
Angel of the Annunciation, reminding the people in the countryside of the
birth of Jesus. The Angelus bell tolled three times a day, at sunrise, midday,
and sunset, with the strokes rung in groups of three, corresponding to the
recitation of the three parts of the Angelus litany, which began “Angelus
Domini nuntiavit Mariae”:
The angel of the Lord announced to Mary,
And she conceived of the Holy Spirit.
Behold the handmaid of the Lord,
Be it done unto me according to thy word.
And the word was made flesh
And dwelt among us.
2.15 Jean-François Millet,
The Angelus, 1857–1859. Musée
d’Orsay, Paris.
128 chapter two
Once the three couplets of the litany were recited, this prayer was added:
“We beseech thee, O Lord, pour forth thy grace into our hearts; that as
we have known the incarnation of thy Son Jesus Christ by the message of
an angel, so by his cross and passion we may be brought into the glory of
the resurrection through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.” After each cou-
plet of the Angelus a short hymn of praise was recited, beginning with the
words “Ave Maria.”
The solemn and mournful portrayal of the moment would seem to go
beyond daily ritualistic practice, and may be explained in this case by the
prayer’s allusion to the resurrection. Millet wrote to a friend that when he
painted the picture he had in mind childhood recollections of his life in
the field, at the side of his grandmother, recalling that when the Angelus
bell tolled, “we abruptly interrupted our tasks and recited the Angelus for
the wretched dead, very piously with our hats in hand.”
The fact that Mil-
let did not attend the funeral of his beloved grandmother in 1851, and that
his mother died two years later without knowledge of his common-law
family, invests the work with the special pathos that Millet had intended.
What Herbert calls “the funerary poses” of the couple may be understood
as a site of displaced guilt feelings that must have been tapped every time
Millet heard the sounding of the Angelus.
The twentieth-century surrealist Salvador Dalí was baffled by the pow-
erful appeal of what superficially appeared as an insipid and banal image.
He tried to account for his own obsession with Millet’s picture by a highly
personal psychoanalytical exploration, and his interpretation complicates
the representation to the point of making what has always been considered
safe and familiar bizarre and threatening. The phallicized pitchfork thrust
deeply into the earth, the vaginal basket that may double as a surrogate
coffin for a child, the handles of the wheelbarrow seemingly thrusting out
from the side of the woman’s body like the prongs of a fork, and the idea of
plucking sustenance from the earth—all argue for a complexity that may
indeed touch on sexuality, birth, death, and the engulfing power of the fe-
male, whom Dalí likens to a praying mantis.
Dalí is right in assuming a complicated subtext underlying the fascina-
tion for the seemingly banal. But I believe his cosmic interpretation dis-
penses with what is possible in the history of the period. Millet was deeply
attached to the distaff side of his family and missed the moral and spiritual
support they had consistently provided. None of the children, Jean-Fran-
çois above all, could ever live up to their zealous religious standard. His
grandmother and mother also had to bear the brunt of running the family
farm, and their suffering was exacerbated in their late years by the profound
regret that the male heirs—and especially their favorite—had abandoned
their ancestral land and traditional calling. As the grandmother wrote him
on 25 May 1847: “It is very sad for us when we come to think that we have
brought up a whole army of lads, all strong and handy, and then to find
that not one of them cares to till the land. We are obliged to hire labour.”
129 radical realism and its offspring
Then she quickly adds: “I should be glad to know what benefit you reaped
from your much vaunted pictures.”
Millet’s lifelong obsession with the
rural world, and his desperate attempt to live the peasant life while practic-
ing his bourgeois profession is haunted with the guilt of his refusal of the
real thing. He celebrated in paint the life that he actually rejected for him-
self, and this contradiction produced the effect that Baudelaire attributed to
Millet’s inability to content himself with the poetry of his subject and his
irrepressible need “to add something to it at any price.”
Nowhere is this more strikingly evident than in The Angelus, where
country people are made to bow with the devotion that Millet never felt.
Herbert rightfully distinguishes between the male and female attitudes,
perceiving that the man “is not praying” and appears to be “revolving his
hat between his fingers while he waits for his wife to finish her prayer.”
agree with his observation of their difference, but I see it less as an opposi-
tion than as a matter of degree. Both are praying, but the woman is more
fervent and active in her gesture. She in fact is the mainspring as well as
bulwark of the composition and, akin to the female in the same position in
The Gleaners, provides closure to the design. He stands along an absolute
vertical, while she cranes her neck at almost a right angle to his body—thus
sustaining him pictorially and spiritually.
The conventional view of the peasantry’s conservatism and religious
superstition had undergone such a wrenching transformation in the re-
cent period that the government requested a steady flow of information
from the countryside on the activities of their rural constituencies. Village
priests were asked to continually monitor their flock for adherence to rou-
tine religious rites. The daily ritual became a test of both religious faith and
political loyalty, and any deviation from the routine could be viewed as a
sign of dissent. This suggests varying degrees of belief in the countryside,
and a loss of the old fundamentalism. In this, Millet is again consistent in
problematizing the rural communities rather than conceptualizing them en
bloc as homogeneous entities. He sets up a contingency of belief just as he
established a contingency of class in The Gleaners.
Millet himself never attended church, and he married his wife in a reli-
gious ceremony a little over two weeks before he died—a gesture designed
to legitimatize her in the eyes of the church. For Millet the female incar-
nates the religious feeling and supplies the male with the spiritual fortitude
he lacks and needs. She keeps the faith for the both of them and backs him
up with the moral and social fiber derived from it. I see the work constitut-
ing an acknowledgment of his debt to the women in his life and an expia-
tion of his guilt for having strayed from the ancestral tradition.
At the same time, it is clear that official pressure and Millet’s shrewd
business sense had much to do with what ultimately turned out to be one
of his most commercially successful ventures. This may be the “religious”
image that About seemed to detect from far-off in The Gleaners—that is,
the idea he wished to plant in the artist’s mind as a future alternative to his
130 chapter two
social themes. When Millet first showed the work to an ecstatic Sensier,
he immediately asked his friend to help him sell it. (It had been originally
commissioned by an American painter, Thomas G. Appleton, a friend of
William Morris Hunt and William Perkins Babcock, two of Millet’s close
American friends, but Appleton reneged on the offer.) Sensier claimed that
he acted as his middleman, contacting potential buyers and speculators, and
it passed through the hands of the painter Papeleu and the Belgian dealer
Arthur Stevens before being acquired by the Belgian minister and collec-
tor Van Praët.
The rest of the story, as they say, is history. The Angelus went from
collector to collector, dealer to dealer, its cost endlessly spiraling; already
in 1869 Durand-Ruel purchased it for 30,000 francs, an unheard-of price
for a Millet painting in his lifetime. Following the painter’s death in 1875,
when his work became the object of wild speculation, his prices went
through the roof. Wrangling over his work sparked an international sensa-
tion in 1889, when the French and the Americans competed for The Ange-
lus at the Sécretan sale and the bidding reached the level of 553,000 francs.
The Americans finally obtained it when the French government refused
to vote the funds necessary to supplement the sum raised by the French-
led consortium. The following year French department store magnate Al-
fred Chauchard acquired it from the American Art Association for 800,000
francs and bequeathed it to the Louvre. During this entire process, Millet’s
widow received a pittance (a portion of exhibition receipts) and must have
deeply pondered the vagaries of public taste.
The astonishing changes in taste that attended upon Millet’s work in
his lifetime and beyond are already felt in the response to The Man with the
Hoe, painted in 1860–1862 and exhibited at the Salon of 1863 (fig. 2.16). The
subject is an overtaxed farm worker pausing in his labors from utter ex-
haustion, propped up by his long-handled weeding tool. His open mouth
shows hard breathing from exertion, and dark shadows fill the sockets of
unseeing eyes. Physically, he appears as a kind of prehistoric creature in the
evolutionary chain; depicted with hardly any forehead and a pointed cra-
nium, leaning on a tool that resembles a primitive weapon (the French houe
was much larger and clumsier than an American hoe), hunched over like an
agrarian Quasimodo, he broadcasts a sinister, almost terrifying look.
Unlike Peasant Grafting a Tree, where it is clear that the land belongs to
him who tills it, grows it, and cares for it, here the protagonist is unmis-
takably a hired laborer ranked only slightly higher than the gleaner in the
agrarian social hierarchy. None of Millet’s previous figures display so viv-
idly the brutalizing effects of alienated labor. Even his sower and gleaners
take possession of the land as if their work counted for something in their
lives, but in this case human toil is devalued to the level of the beast. Hat-
less and exhausted in the midday sun, his sagging body needing the handle
of his implement to sustain him, The Man with the Hoe reverts to Millet’s
horror of human misery in the countryside. He stands alone with only his
131 radical realism and its offspring
crude-handled tool in a vast, uncultivated and hilly field covered with rock
and overgrown with weeds and prickly thistles, hinting at the impossibility
and futility of the task confronting him. Millet shrewdly builds a pyrami-
dal design out of the bent, dejected form supported by the farming imple-
ment, simultaneously monumentalizing him and refusing him domination.
Strikingly reminiscent of Giacomo Ceruti’s Old Man Leaning on a Spade (see
volume 1 in this series, Art in an Age of Revolution, pp. 7–8), Millet’s painting
also ironizes the provisional status of the serf within a compositional de-
sign conventionally associated with permanence and monumentality. The
critic Jules Castagnary observed something of the crucified Christ in this
figure, the briars and thistles conjuring up the Crown of Thorns; I would
even go further in comparing Millet’s symbolic wasteland with Holman
Hunt’s Light of the World.
As in the Hunt, a new truth knocks at the portal
of modern civil society stifled by the tares of indifference, piquing its con-
science and reminding it of its failed social obligations.
2.16 Jean-François Millet,
The Man with the Hoe, 1860–1862.
J. Paul Getty Museum,
Los Angeles.
132 chapter two
Millet knew that the work would provoke controversy, but his second-
class medal, won ten years earlier, cushioned him against jury scrutiny. (As
it turned out, however, the Salon jury of 1863 suspended the exemption
status of Courbet, whose Return from the Conference was rejected for its sa-
tirical treatment of priests; it was not even allowed to be shown at the Sa-
lon des Refusés.) Millet even wrote Sensier early in 1862 that his Man with
the Hoe predisposed him “to really tell off these gents who hate the fact
that someone presents them with an alternative view of life that ensnares
and confuses them; but in the end this is the terrain on which I stand and I
will remain there.”
Despite this show of bravado, however, he was hardly
prepared for the harshness of the critics, including even Gautier, who had
begun to turn against him by the end of the 1850s. Once again his forms
were described as “ugly” and “cretinous,” and his theme denounced by
conservatives as “socialist.” This time, however, even critics who had been
disarmed by his milder subjects ranted and raved in exasperation over his
Saint-Victor’s ferocious diatribe reiterated the old saw that the artist
deliberately sought out the basest types among the peasantry:
He lights his lantern and looks for a cretin; he must have searched for a long
time before finding his Peasant Leaning on a Hoe. Such types are uncommon, even
at the Hospice de Bicêtre [a home for the aged and insane]. Imagine a monster
without a skull, with eyes whose lights have been extinguished, with an idiot’s
grin, planted with legs askew like a scarecrow in the middle of a field. No glim-
mer of intelligence humanizes this brute at rest. Does he come to work or to
murder? Does he come to cultivate the earth or dig a hole for a grave? The pub-
lic voice has disclosed his name: it is Dumolard [a notorious murderer of ser-
vants] burying a maid. . . . It is a strange tactic for honoring the people by a
painter devoted to plebeian themes, representing them under degraded masks
of brutalization! As if country folk did not have their own beauty and elegance!
As if work in the fields strikes the laborer with the stupidity of his ox!
Saint-Victor’s concluding remarks are especially revealing in marking an
ideological shift in attitude toward the peasant and a new attack strategy
against Millet’s work: by 1863 the peasant was no longer feared as a radical
force and so the critic assails Millet for insulting the peasantry.
This becomes the shared strategy of the conservatives who denounce
Millet for glorifying rural cretinism and offending peasant sensibilities.
Ernest Chesneau, for example, wrote of his models in 1864:
One seems to recognize not an individual, but a type—the type of the country
cretin. . . . By-and-by as the pictures of M. Millet pass in succession before the
eyes of the amateur, he soon recognizes that it is always the same cretin,
the same idiot, who is presented to him. . . . If pushed by curiosity, you seek in
the catalogue what can these monsters be, whom the painter takes pleasure in
133 radical realism and its offspring
reproducing without rest or respite, what is your stupefaction, when you learn
that he pretends to nothing less than to represent the laborious race of our fields;
the strong stock of the people, from which are recruited our armies, so intelli-
gent and so brave!
Chesneau virtually repeated this argument in 1868, claiming that Millet re-
vealed a strong bias in favor of “brutal reality,” and inquires of his reader
whether in the present time it is true that peasants are kith and kin to the
animal world as the painter presents them. According to Millet, peasants
lack all initiative, drive, and personal desire, and are only “machines to
weed, labor, guard and shear sheep.” The artist never shows under their
brutalized brow a glimmer of the obsession with land and property that is
so profoundly ingrained in the French peasantry. His grotesque image of
the rural populace may be faithful to the reality, but the reality is relevant
to only “a small minority whose numbers diminish daily.”
Millet answered his critics in a moving letter to Sensier, contradicting
their assertion of his narrow selection of rural types and restating his com-
mitment to the realist-rural discourse:
Is it impossible [for my critics] to admit that pictorial ideas can be inspired by
the sight of a man devoted to gaining his bread by the sweat of his brow? There are
those who tell me that I deny the charms of the country. I find much more than
charms there; I find infinite splendor. I see there, as they do, the little flowers
of which Christ said: “I assure you that Solomon even in all his glory was not
arrayed like one of these [Luke 12:27].” I see very well the aureoles of the dan-
delions, and the sun also, which spreads out beyond the world its glory in the
clouds. But I see as well, in the plain, the steaming horses at work, and in a rocky
place, a man with a broken back, whose han! [panting] has been heard since
morning, and who tries to straighten himself upright a moment to breathe. The
drama is enveloped with splendors. That expression, “The cry of the earth,” is
not my invention; it was discovered long ago. My critics are people of education
and taste, I imagine; but I cannot put myself in their place, and, as I have never
known in my life any other thing than the fields, I try to say as well as I can that
which I saw and experienced when I worked there. Those who wish to do better
have certainly the upper hand.
Despite the renewed critical attack after having improved his status and
his own growing conservatism, Millet remained from first to last a rebel
of 1848.
Nevertheless, the world had radically altered since then, and The Man
with the Hoe struck the critics differently from the threatening figure of The
Sower. As we have seen, his cretinous look especially disturbed them. This
is a complex picture to unpack, but one that evidently struck the official re-
viewers as further to the right in its implications than current government
policy. The year 1863 saw the inauguration of the so-called Liberal Empire,
134 chapter two
and even though government candidates continued to roll up large majori-
ties in rural districts, the state sought to appeal to the pocketbooks, rather
than play upon the fears, of the rural sector. The government now assumed
a rational, conservative peasantry capable of understanding that Napoléon
III guaranteed their best interests. Ironically, it was the moderate repub-
licans who assumed a doltish and brain-dead peasantry. Their spokesper-
son Jules Ferry, who wrote the pamphlet Les Elections de 1863, attacked the
peasant’s political unintelligence in falling for the government line. In this
sense, Millet’s benumbed laborer matched the concept of the frustrated op-
position, which formerly had such high hopes for rural folk.
Simultaneously, there began in the 1860s a reinterpretation of Millet’s
work in the context of Christian stoicism and the acceptance of one’s lot
in life.
Conservative critics united around the idea of a negative image of
the peasant to neutralize Millet’s political potential. Later, the magnates of
France and the robber barons of America who collected Millet’s work ap-
plied their interpretation to embrace the whole range of the poorer classes
(including the urban), perceiving Millet’s images as embodying the ethics
of hard work and resignation.
Sensier may have lamented the distressing
lack of forehead in The Man with the Hoe, but he also declared that the struc-
ture of the laborer’s body was solid, his limbs well fashioned and propor-
tioned, and altogether capable of sixty more years of productive work. His
passion and primary function was “to pick the soil and clear the lands,” and
he had “no ambition for anything else.”
This attitude was seconded by
Théophile Silvestre, a sophisticated Bonapartist critic who received a regu-
lar subsidy from the emperor’s private purse. Silvestre’s study of the artist,
originally published in the progovernment paper Le Figaro in 1867, traces
Millet’s style and thematics to the stolid peasantry of his native Gréville, a
politically conservative region where the rural laborer—“good, intelligent,
and sensitive to natural beauty”—spent his life “serving the earth” as proudly
as he manned the imperial army. For Silvestre, The Man with the Hoe epito-
mized eternal rustic resignation.
The progressively abstract interpretation of Millet’s imagery is seen
in Silvestre’s revisionist critique of earlier evaluations and his view of The
Man with the Hoe as not simply a peasant but “a portrait of the peasant-
ry.” His article dates after Millet’s turn in critical fortune at the Salon
of 1864, when the apparently benign Shepherdess Guarding Her Flock was
unanimously praised. About tipped his hand when he wrote that no one
could find fault with such a masterpiece, “where everything is true with-
out realism.”
The harmony of the landscape and the adorable young
woman watching the sheep satisfied the critics, although it did not pre-
vent them from lashing out bitterly at his solemn Peasants Bearing to Their
Farmhouse a Calf Born in the Field, shown in the same exhibition. Sensier
advised Millet to examine the Shepherdess carefully in preparation for all
future works, since it “really pleased everyone.”
The same year Millet
accepted a commission to do an allegorical cycle of the Four Seasons for
135 radical realism and its offspring
a banker’s townhouse, which he executed in an academic style. Finally, in
1868, thanks in large measure to the efforts of Silvestre, Millet received
the coveted official award of Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.
A combination of Millet’s growing marketability and conservatism
made his work more palatable to official circles and an international clien-
tele. He wrote Sensier in 1867: “I repel with all my strength the democratic
[démoc] side, as it is understood in the language of the clubs, that they have
wished to attribute to me. My sole desire has been to direct thought to the
human being consecrated to earning a livelihood in the sweat of his brow.
. . . I have never had the idea of making any plea whatsoever. I am a peas-
ant’s peasant.”
True, the denial is somewhat ambiguous and qualified; his
reference to the “language of the clubs” harks back to 1848, again affirming
the permanent imprint of this experience on his sensibility. It is sufficient
for him to restate his commitment to the realist-rural discourse and never
mind the vagaries of history that transformed his once radical stance into
an avenue of commerce.
Nevertheless, the initiating circumstances of his mature work enabled
it to persist as a contested site for the ideological agendas of both social re-
former and capitalist. The most well-known text in this ongoing debate
was Edwin Markham’s poem of social protest inspired by The Man with the
Hoe, the original of which Markham may have viewed in the William H.
Crocker collection in San Francisco. The poem first appeared in the San
Francisco Examiner in 1899 and was reprinted in every part of the world, at
a time when burgeoning democratic socialist and labor parties confronted
the robber barons and plutocrats on their own ground. Markham opposed
the Yeoman—the well-to-do farmer—with the Hoeman, “the landless
workman of the world.” I give here the opening and two closing stanzas
of the poem to indicate Markham’s use of the image as a powerful warning
against the exploitation of labor:
Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back the burden of the world.
Who made him dead to rapture and despair,
A thing that grieves not and never hopes,
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?
Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?
Whose was the hand that slanted back this brow?
Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?
… … …
O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
Is this the handiwork you give to God,
The monstrous thing distorted and soul-quenched?
How will you ever straighten up this shape;
136 chapter two
Touch it again with immortality;
Give back the upward looking and the light;
Rebuild in it the music and the dream;
Make right the immemorial infamies,
Perfidious wrongs, immedicable woes?
O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
How will the future reckon with this man?
How answer his brute question in that hour
When whirlwinds of rebellion shake all shores?
How will it be with kingdoms and with kings—
With those who shaped him to the thing he is—
When this dumb terror shall rise to judge the world,
After the silence of the centuries?
When Markham’s poem was being lauded by socialists and social re-
formers everywhere, the American railroad baron Collis P. Huntington
fretted and fumed. Huntington obsessively collected images of peasants to
represent his ideal type of laborer. He was the railroad shogun of the Far
West, a partner of Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker—
father of the owner of The Man with the Hoe—who organized the union of
the Central Pacific Railroad with the Union Pacific to form the first trans-
continental line in the United States. He carried off his ambitious project
on the backs of Chinese coolies whom he exploited for half the normal
wages. He vehemently opposed labor unions and employed paternalistic
practices to head off potential grievances. He adored Millet’s Man with the
Hoe, for him the perfect embodiment of the gospel of work, and waxed
furious over the enormous popularity of Markham’s poem. He put up a
cash prize through the New York Sun to the writer of a poem of equal merit
extolling the dignity of manual labor in contrast to Markham. He claimed
that Millet’s figure had a distinct mission in life and was much to be en-
vied when compared with the large number of “incapables” who have been
taught that “common labor of work in the trades or in the fields is beneath
them.” These incompetents were the “real brothers of the ox . . . who have
lost that true independence of soul that comes to him who dares to labor
with his hands, who wields the hoe and is master of his destiny.”
the fatalistic character of Millet’s peasants is admirably suited to the idea of
the magnates, who wanted to see peasants bound eternally to the soil and
their own workers eternally bound to them.
Thus Millet’s work provoked nostalgia for a world religiously devoted
to work in a time of industrial change and militant organization of labor.
He preached the gospel of work akin to the Victorians, displacing it from
an urban to a rustic site, which also appealed to the new financial elite late
in the century. Millet set out to paint the full range of country life and its
labors, a series of episodes of rustic life embracing the types of every age
137 radical realism and its offspring
and station in the rural districts. Comtean in principle, Millet’s systematic
record of the peasantry and their environment constitutes a sociology of
the countryside and swallows up the fine distinctions between the Beautiful
and the Ugly. He took the ugly or the nonbeautiful as part of his mission,
turning the Comtean principle to the advantage of the radicals. Everything
in that world had its designated niche, and this appropriateness justified his
embrace of it in art. He gave substance to a realm just then materializing
into a political force, and he cannot be held responsible for the fact that in
the end his work could be used to contain that force.
3 Radical Realism Continued
Gustave Courbet
When Millet learned that Courbet’s Venus Jealously Pursuing Psyche (a work
with lesbian overtones) was rejected by the Salon jury of 1864 on the ground
of indecency, he wrote angrily to Castagnary that nothing Courbet did
could ever be as salacious as the work of Cabanel and Baudry, whose pic-
tures of a supine Venus were the hits of the previous exhibition. He de-
cried the hypocrisy of the jury and added, “I admit an indecent intention
as well: this picture by Courbet would be three times as indecent for the
reason that his women must be a thousand times more alive than the oth-
Millet clearly identified with Courbet’s realism, although he could
not nurture so persistently the spark of radicalism ignited by 1848. He was
neither Christian nor socialist, but much closer to Christian Socialism than
Courbet, and his need to sermonize neutralized his ability to function po-
litically in the real world.
Nevertheless, both eschewed sentimentality in their work and were
joined in brotherhood by Thoré as the “two master painters in the Salon
of 1861.” Mocking their critics, he noted that perhaps their only mistake
was in showing “nature with too much reality.” Their pictures were the
best painted in the Salon, “but M. Courbet is a realist! M. Millet a real-
ist! Curses!” He then went on to define his own criteria for great art, an
“original feeling for nature and a personal execution.” It is the originality
of the artist that makes the master and not the choice of subject. For Thoré
to be a “realist” was to express rugged individuality and independence of
thought—the keys to elevated forms of socially responsible art.
If the carefully crafted public persona of Courbet signified anything,
it was this ideal of intellectual, political, and artistic independence. Like
Millet, Courbet’s persona evolved under pressure in response to the events
of 1848 and the realist-rural discourse. What made him unique as an artis-
tic personality was his conscious connection to the first French revolution
and the sense of being its beneficiary. To a large extent this construction
140 chapter three
could be historically justified: the family fortune was established partly by
his paternal grandfather, Claude-Louis Courbet, a peasant who profited
from the sale of estates confiscated from émigrés fleeing the revolution,
and partly by his maternal grandfather, Jean-Antoine Oudot (1768–1848),
a revolutionary veteran awarded land for his ardent support of the Jaco-
bins in 1793. Castagnary claimed that it was the unreservedly self-confident
and tenacious grandfather Oudot who provided the decisive role model for
young Courbet. Courbet always remained close to his maternal grandpar-
ents, who raised him during much of his childhood, and the grandfather
initiated him into his own republican and anticlerical views.
Courbet was born in Ornans on 10 June 1819—a generational year for
naturalism that also witnessed the births of Ruskin, Eliot, Fontane, and
Whitman. His maternal grandparents lived in Ornans, a small town in the
Franche-Comté region in the valley of the Loue river in eastern France,
and his mother (née Sylvie Oudot) returned home to have her baby. Cour-
bet’s father, Régis, was a major landowner and vintner in Franche-Comté,
owning property and vineyards in the village of Flagey and in Ornans, and
a vineyard in the valley of Valbois that produced over five hundred gal-
lons of wine per year. Indeed, the elder Courbet was prosperous enough
to qualify as one of the privileged 200,000 electors during the regime of
Louis-Philippe, thus positioning him in the hybrid social category of ru-
ral bourgeoisie. Gustave would always address him in correspondence as
“Monsieur Courbet, propriétaire.” Well-to-do and impractical at the same
time, he spent his leisure time devising several crackpot schemes to ame-
liorate the labor of his farm workers, inventing a new kind of harrow that
destroyed the seedlings and a five-wheel vehicle (one in the rear) to carry
provisions for the chase.
It is Régis’s peculiar social status, with its combi-
nation of rustic and bourgeois preoccupations, that set the conditions for
the unfolding of Gustave’s career.
Gustave was the firstborn and only son of the family; after him came
four daughters, Clarisse, Zoé, Zélie, and Juliette, the first of whom died at
the age of fifteen. The powerful female presence in Courbet’s life—includ-
ing mother and maternal grandmother—played a preponderant role in his
self-perception. A hint of this shows up in his many images of women de-
picted in groups or in pairs, often including portrayals of his sisters. It may
be that his fascination for lesbian themes displaced a sexual attraction to his
sisters, especially since the representation of intimate love between females
in his day titillated a predominantly male audience. As early as 1840, he at-
tended a masked ball in Paris dressed as a woman,
in a dress cut lower than my shoulders, with my hair turned back and braids at
the back of my head, and I had flowers, a black velvet bodice, and wide flounces
at the bottom of my muslin dress. I looked so good that I was forced to dress
like that again, but that time the ladies dressed me. I had to dance with all the
gentlemen of the company, for I was all the rage.
141 radical realism continued
Courbet’s delight in his successful cross-dressing, his flagrant narcissism,
and his fetishistic preoccupation with the costume details hint at his frustra-
tion of growing up male in a feminine-dominated space. Even his later af-
fectation of a masculinist boorishness to help create his rustic persona never
effaced entirely the female traits he must have harbored in his fantasies.
Actually, he reverted to his rural origins in resisting the process of
bourgeoisification (including male responsibilities) that his father wished
to impose upon him. Thus when the watershed events of 1848 occurred he
was mentally prepared to accept their liberating political and social con-
sequences. Although his identification with the peasantry would always
be somewhat self-conscious, he could assimilate the pretense as part of his
persona. In this, he differed from Millet, whose direct claim to the rural
subject stemmed from actual farm life and whose portrayal of the peasant
always carried with it a sense of nostalgia and loss.
Young Courbet began his studies in 1831 at the Little Seminary (a sec-
ondary school so named to distinguish it from the regular diocesan insti-
tution), administered by the archbishopric of Besançon, the capital of the
province, which prepared pupils for both religious and secular education.
Courbet’s disinterest in classical languages may or may not reveal an ear-
ly inclination toward modern life, but if he showed slight interest in aca-
demic subjects, the school provided an early outlet for his nascent artistic
gifts. The drawing teacher, “Père Beau,” had studied with Gros and often
took the pupils out on field trips to draw directly from nature. The sight of
Courbet’s notebooks filled with scribbles of every imaginable subject filled
the elder Courbet with consternation. He would have wished to see his
son in one of the bourgeois professions, especially law, a decision warmly
endorsed by cousin François-Julien Oudot, a professor at the School of
Law in Paris. Accordingly, in 1837 Régis sent him as a boarder to the Col-
lège Royal de Besançon to study philosophy, thinking that the experience
would turn him around.
Courbet dropped out of school altogether in 1838, and by the end of
the following year he traveled to Paris ostensibly to study law and satisfy
parental aspirations. Although reticent at first within his new urban sur-
roundings, he gradually gained fresh confidence and asserted his indepen-
dence by dropping the law courses and plunging into advanced art training.
Courbet always claimed to be an autodidact, but he spent several months in
the studio of Baron Karl von Steuben, and remained there as late as January
Steuben was a well-known academic history painter who exhibited
regularly at the Salons (in 1839 he showed La Esméralda from Hugo’s Notre-
Dame de Paris), and had been picked to participate in Louis-Philippe’s pet
project of the Galerie des Batailles for the Versailles Museum.
He had pre-
viously attracted attention with his Return from the Island of Elba, exhibited
at the Salon of 1831, a work appealing to the then current mania for Na-
poléon, who is shown being greeted warmly by a crowd of veterans, civil-
ians, and former opponents (fig. 3.1).
Steuben tried to reach a broad public
142 chapter three
and had already circulated the image in reproduction to achieve maximum
popularity. His public relations savvy and reputation may well have attract-
ed young Courbet; Steuben’s Battle of Poitiers was exhibited in the Salon of
1838 and then seen again in its permanent location in the newly renovated
Versailles Museum. (In the 1840s Courbet also attended the Académie Su-
isse and regularly visited the studio of Auguste Hesse, another frequent
contributor to the Salons.)
During this period, Courbet reveals aspects of his personality that an-
ticipate the mature adult. He is terribly aware of proper fashion while liv-
ing in Besançon and strives for the right effect in dress, complaining at one
point that his clothes are “in a hellishly mean state,” and wanting to order a
new set from the tailor; on another occasion he lamented that he had noth-
ing to wear “in the way of summer daytime trousers,” and that his one suit
weighed “at least fifteen to twenty pounds, and his daytime vest is merely
a blue cloth double-breasted vest,” guaranteed to make him catch cold.

Later, newly arrived in Paris and partying like mad, he spends more than
twenty francs on white gloves, and when Oudot’s children remark his lack
of proper attire he is “forced” to order a suit and black trousers. In the same
letter, he complains that Parisian heat demanded summer clothes, includ-
ing a jacket, two pairs of trousers, a vest, and boots.
The term for “dressing up” in the Franche-Comté region generally
meant a disguise, and although this referred more to the peasantry’s mind-
set than to that of the rural bourgeois, it is noteworthy that Courbet was
conscious of role-playing at an early age.
This facet of his personality al-
ready reveals itself in his confrontation with the army examining board.
3.1 Karl von Steuben, Return
from the Island of Elba, engraving of
original shown at Salon of 1831.
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
143 radical realism continued
Conscription in the military was done through a lottery for a certain num-
ber of recruits from every canton; lots were drawn annually and young
men with numbers higher than the required contingent were exempt.
Courbet, however, received a low number and rather than buy himself
a substitute decided to get himself rejected. He ultimately succeeded by
stammering throughout the interview, even though the medical authori-
ties accused him of “playing dumb.” In the letter to his father describing
the proceedings, Courbet twice stated that, primed with cognac and to-
bacco, he “played his role” to perfection.
As his sense of self developed, he assumed the persona of the shrewd
rustic who could meet sophisticated Parisians on their own plane. This de-
spite the fact that as early as March 1844 he could write home that “I am
not much in tune with country tasks anymore.”
Like Millet, he migrated
from country to town and exploited rural resources to make a living from
those whom he professed to despise. He wrote his friends Francis Wey (the
author) and his wife in 1850, “Yes, dear friends, even in our so civilized so-
ciety, I must lead the life of a savage. I must break free from its very gov-
ernments. The people have my sympathy. I must turn to them directly, I
must get my knowledge from them, and they must provide me with a liv-
ing. Therefore I have just embarked on the great wandering and indepen-
dent life of the bohemian.”
In this same letter Courbet referred to the popular reception of an ex-
hibition of his work in his native region, gibing that the population of the
Franche-Comté were willing to pay fifty centimes to see the show, and out
of “their own pockets imagine that!” But this early strategy of appealing to
rustic audiences with works celebrating the countryside soon gave way to
a patronage of the privileged classes. Yet Courbet never ceased playing the
role of the bold, outspoken bumpkin as he simultaneously transposed high
culture to his provincial point of origin and, conversely, incisively revealed
an unexpected slice of rural life to the know-it-alls of Paris. What empow-
ered Courbet in this early period was the progressive climate created by the
revolution of 1848 and his engagement with the realist-rural discourse that
led to the government purchase of his painting After Dinner at Ornans.
Akin to Millet, Courbet’s painting was decisively affected by the revo-
lutionary moment. Four years younger, however, and inflamed with the
grandiose role for artists projected by the reformists (he claimed to have
arrived in Paris a convinced Fourierist), he planned to carve out a niche for
himself by transforming the conditions of perception and taste. In 1846 he
thought, like Millet, of making a name for himself and wanted to “gain
the public’s acceptance,” but he showed himself more innately courageous:
“The more different you are from the others, the more difficult it is. You
must realize that to change the public’s taste and way of seeing is no small
task, for it means no more and no less than overturning what exists and
replacing it. You can imagine what jealousy and bruised egos that produc-
The passage is important for his emphasis on the public’s “way of
144 chapter three
seeing,” an idea that he will reiterate throughout his lifetime and which
is, I believe, the core of his realist platform. His statements reflect Thoré’s
doctrine of originality: in a letter of 21 March 1847, Courbet mentions a
planned visit to Thoré in connection with a project for a counter-exhibi-
tion to house the large number of works rejected by the Salon jury, includ-
ing all three of his own submissions. Courbet’s preference for an alternative
exhibition space grows out of his awareness of official control over the
Salon (“the only game in town”) and indicates his budding radicalism. In
addition to contact with Thoré, he is by this time participating in the bo-
hemian circle of Dupont, Buchon, Murger, Schanne, Baudelaire, Champ-
fleury, and the painter François Bonvin.
Poised for success just one month prior to the 1848 breakout, he writes
confidently of his project for the Salon and his growing status in the art
world: “Even without [the Salon piece] I am about to make it any time
now, for I am surrounded by people who are very influential in the news-
papers and the arts, and who are very excited about my painting. Indeed,
we are about to form a new school, of which I will be the representative
in the field of painting.”
For his friends Champfleury, Baudelaire, and
Toubin he designed a vignette for the masthead of the second issue of their
short-lived radical newspaper, Le Salut public. In this barricade scene in-
spired by Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, Courbet replaced Liberty
with a male worker in smock and battered top hat and carrying a flag with
the slogan Voix de Dieu, Voix du Peuple (fig. 3.2). Courbet thought of par-
ticipating in the competition for the figure of the Republic (“to replace
Louis-Philippe’s portrait”) as his mentor Auguste Hesse did, but at the last
minute decided against it. Alternatively, he hoped for a commission to do
one of the 800 copies of the definitive image of the Republic projected for
3.2 Gustave Courbet, masthead
design for Le Salut Public, no. 2
145 radical realism continued
distribution in Paris and the provinces, and planned to enter the songwrit-
ing competition organized for musicians (another of his talents).
As a middle-class intellectual, he always assumed he was doing his share
by aligning himself with a radical perspective. As he wrote his family in
Anyhow, I am not getting very involved in politics, as usual, for I find noth-
ing emptier than that. When it was a question of destroying the old errors, I did
what I could, I lent a hand. Now it no longer concerns me. Do what you think
is best. If you don’t do things right I will always be ready to lend a hand again to
destroy what is badly established. That is all I am doing in politics.
And he added: “To each his own: I am a painter and I make paintings.”

Since the government decreed that all submissions would be accepted that
year, Courbet showed ten paintings—making up for the previous refusal
of his Salon offerings.
By April, he could attest to the triumph of the realist-rural discourse as
the cultural complement to social reform. Writing home to his family and
inquiring about the progress of his father’s harrow, he predicts that it will
become a necessity, for “the way things are going . . . even painters are go-
ing to want to become farmers.” In the same letter, he recounts the events
of 16 April and the government’s attempt to undermine the working-class
parade by spreading rumors of an imminent Communist takeover. Cour-
bet knew that the crowd was not conspiratorial and looked on bitterly as
the National Guards whipped up animosity against the so-called “Commu-
nists” and stirred up cries of “Long live the Provisional Government.” He
characterized these developments as “ridiculous and meaningless,” sad to
see that moderate onlookers who “had fallen for a joke” went home smugly
imagining “that they had nipped the evil in the bud.”
He took the side of the radical republicans and sympathized with the
insurgents of June, but watched events with a sense of detached irony. He
evidently belonged to the National Guard, and in his letter to his family
of 26 June 1848, which he painfully begins “we are in the midst of a ter-
rible civil war,” he noted that the “insurgents fight like lions . . . and have
already greatly harmed the National Guard.” For him the “distressing spec-
tacle” was even more devastating than St. Bartholomew’s Day 1572, when
thousands of French Huguenots were killed in a massive religious purge.
Observing that the National Guard and the Mobile Guard kept watch in all
the streets, Courbet outlined his position:
I don’t fight for two reasons. First, because I do not believe in wars fought with
guns and cannon, and because it runs counter to my principles. For ten years
now I have been waging a war of the intellect. It would be inconsistent of me
to act otherwise. The second reason is that I have no weapons and cannot be
tempted. So you have nothing to fear on my account.
146 chapter three
The letter is clearly a rationale for a noncombative position, but I still see it
as a progressive formulation given the almost universal middle-class loath-
ing of the insurgents in June. As a member of the National Guard, Courbet
is not considering fighting with the insurgents but actually declaring his re-
fusal to take up arms against them. This is a radical position in June.
Again, as for Millet, the revolutionary moment galvanized his effec-
tive synthesis of personal style, working methods, and thematic concentra-
tion. We may judge this more precisely by examining his early work, most
of it designed for the official Salon although often rejected. The major-
ity of these paintings, including the narrative subjects, are self-portraits
and correspond to an intense introspection in the painter’s early twenties.
They betray a marked debt to late romantic medievalism and the trouba-
dour style of artists gathered around the “Ecole Deforges” (Couture, Henri
Baron, and Faustin Besson, among others), baptized by Champfleury in
his review of the 1846 Salon. This is not to say that his early works lack
original traits—indeed, many of them represent quirky and eccentric at-
tempts to revitalize a waning idiom—but that they take off from already
popularized styles. Courbet’s Sculptor (1844) and Guittarero (1845) recall such
works of Thomas Couture as Troubadour (1843), Jocondo (1844), and Falconer
(1844–1845), especially in their tilting heads, dreamy preoccupation, and
3.3 Gustave Courbet, The Sculp-
tor, 1845. Private Collection.
3.4 Thomas Couture, The Trou-
badour, 1843. Philadelphia Muse-
um of Art, Philadelphia.
147 radical realism continued
languorous, awkwardly posed bodies decked out in medieval tights (figs.
3.3–4). The landscape of the Guittarero evokes Moritz von Schwind’s Bie-
dermeier Gothicism, resembling an illustration for the fairy tales of the
brothers Grimm. The shallow landscape nooks with their convenient rocky
perches seem more like scenic backdrops than natural prospects.
His first work admitted to the Salon was Self-Portrait with a Black Dog,
painted, according to the artist, in 1842, but accepted in 1844 (fig. 3.5). Here
Courbet presents himself as a dandified outdoorsman, resting after hav-
ing climbed with his spaniel to the crest of a mountain. At his side, leaning
against a boulder, is his elegant walking stick and sketch album; but instead
of showing himself at work at his elevated station, he and his dog turn to
confront the spectator, who, as Michael Fried has pointed out, is positioned
to view them from below.
This subverts the conventional image of the
poet-artist climbing the heights to gaze down rapturously on the sublime
scene below—indeed, there is just such a prospect in the painting—essen-
tially turning the voyeuristic gaze back on itself. Typically, the absorbed
poet-painter is a certifiable conduit of proper taste who inferentially invites
the spectator to share the exalted view, but in this case the poet-painter
turns abruptly to catch the beholder in the act of beholding. Instead of be-
ing able to contemplate the magnificent perspective in safe isolation, the
spectator is forced to confront the knowing artist and spaniel staring down
at her as an unwanted interloper. Courbet plays on the romantic trope,
3.5 Gustave Courbet, Self-Portrait
with a Black Dog, 1844. Musée du
Petit Palais, Paris.
148 chapter three
showing that he is well aware of romanticism’s waning status, and search-
ing for ways of giving it an original and perhaps even parodic twist.
I think we see this process reiterated in The Man with the Leather Belt
of the mid-1840s, a work that references Old Master Dutch, Spanish, and
Venetian portrait painting but replaces the aristocratic sitter with the art-
ist himself (fig. 3.6). The half-length seated figure is actually painted over
a copy of Titian’s Man with the Glove (Louvre, ca. 1519), and there is a cal-
culated connection between the hand grasping the belt in the Courbet and
the bare right hand at the lower framing edge in the Titian. Courbet simi-
larly represents himself as a dashing cavalier, but one who has to work for a
living. His right elbow rests on the same leather-bound album glimpsed in
Self-Portrait with a Black Dog, with a porte-crayon lying across it. He simul-
taneously seeks traits of identification with the great art of the past while
declaring his independence from it. Unlike Titian’s sitter, moreover, whose
eyes turn away from us, Courbet faces outward, his right hand (and pro-
vocative bared wrist) debonairly brushing back his long hair to let the spec-
tator get a better look at him, his left forcibly grasping the rugged leather
belt. The dexterous relationship of the two hands suggests both sensuality
and virility, an interplay of sexual invitation and physical presence. Near
the end of the July Monarchy, when utopian movements grew in strength,
3.6 Gustave Courbet, The Man
with the Leather Belt, 1845–1846.
Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
149 radical realism continued
Courbet narcissistically flaunts both feminine and masculine aspects of his
personality as the foundation of the creative act—the artist as androgyne.
Thus during his apprenticeship years we see Courbet expending his
creative energies in a number of hit-and-miss directions, and though dem-
onstrating a distinctly original and satirical turn of mind, he remains mired
in the throes of a fading romanticism. Although never as financially needy
as Millet, his thirst for fame is just as pressing and he eagerly plunges into
the official fray to establish his reputation. As late as spring 1848, he had yet
to find his focus—conspicuously evident in the jumble of themes submit-
ted to the free Salon that year. His ten pictures included a Classical Walpurgis
Night, inspired by Goethe’s late classicizing sequel to Faust, several por-
traits, and a variety of landscape and genre scenes. One of the landscapes,
Midday (Le Milieu du jour), showed a man in a frock coat and top hat chasing
a nymph through the woods!
Yet between the winter of 1848–1849 and the following spring Courbet
embarked on a series of monumental pictures that constitute a watershed
in both his personal and creative development. These large figure composi-
tions, centering on his native region around Ornans and exploring the social
relations of his family members and friends, mark the emergence of mod-
ern critical realism. Through contact with Thoré, Buchon, Champfleury,
Dupont, and Sand (Courbet’s 1848 Salon entries included a musical theme
inspired by Sand’s novel Consuelo), Courbet assimilated the realist-rural dis-
course and grasped its ideological appeal to the moderate Second Repub-
lic. Except for Sand, these middle-class males assembled at the Brasserie
Andler, a rendezvous for late bohemian and realist intellectuals anxious to
debate cultural politics and inaugurate a new movement. The romantic bo-
hemianism of the early July Monarchy had by now taken a sharply politi-
cal turn, recognizing that mere cultural measures could never alone reform
a materialist society. In a sense, Courbet’s testing of romantic tropes in his
work of the 1840s corresponds to the late phase of bohemianism marking a
transition to realism. Thus bohemians cum realists shared collectivist aspi-
rations and a refusal of bourgeois culture, and although bohemianism was a
distinctly urban phenomenon, its fringelike status placed it in a sympathet-
ic relationship to rustic life. Analogous to the peasantry migrating from the
countryside only to wind up in the working-class slums of Paris, so artists
and writers of rural origin like Courbet and Buchon wound up merging
with more urban types like Baudelaire, Champfleury, Mathieu, and Du-
pont, who developed strong ties to folk and popular culture.
Buchon and Champfleury were especially open to the work of the Ger-
man authors exploring folk themes, in particular Johann Peter Hebel and
Berthold Auerbach, who opposed rustic candor to the duplicity and im-
personality of town and city. Buchon translated from Hebel’s Schatzkästle-
in des rheinischen Hausfreundes and Auerbach’s Schwarzwälder Dorfgeschichten,
and Champfleury devoted a long critique to Hebel and pored over Auer-
bach and the Swiss Albert Bitzius (aka Jeremias Gotthelf ). Hence there are
150 chapter three
points of intersection between Biedermeier culture and French realism that
will even overlap in 1848, when revolution breaks out in Berlin and Vienna
and Biedermeier turns critical.
We know that 1848 marks the critical turning point in Courbet’s ca-
reer because Champfleury, in his letter to Sand recapitulating the paint-
er’s development, declared, “Since 1848 M. Courbet has been privileged
to amaze the crowd,” and Courbet’s full title of his magnum opus/mani-
festo of 1855—The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory Summing Up a Seven-Year
Phase of My Artistic Life—affirms that the significant date of departure for
his artistic maturity was 1848. Castagnary wrote in his unpublished biog-
raphy of Courbet that just at the moment when the artist had acquired
technical mastery, political events disrupted everyday life and eliminated
at one fell swoop the bourgeois monarchy and the sway of the Academy
of Beaux-Arts, which “gave freedom to everyone, including the painters.”
He added that the “new master could now paint freely and according to
his own ideas . . . and Courbet had an idea, more than an idea, a doctrine:
he was a realist.”
Given these eyewitness accounts we may infer that the transformative
moment in Courbet’s life and art is inseparably linked to the revolutionary
events of that year. Years later, Courbet wrote to Jules Vallès that in 1848
he “raised the flag of realism, which alone put art in the service of human-
ity.” As a consequence of that action, he had since consistently resisted all
forms of illegitimate authority, desiring to see human beings governing
themselves according to their needs. He added that in the same year he
opened a “socialist club” to rival other radical clubs filled with “so-called”
republicans, and although neither his correspondence nor the accounts of
his friends support this assertion, the statement nevertheless testifies to his
own belief in the decisive importance of 1848 for his artistic and political
In addition to the stimulus of the revolution, the death of his beloved
maternal grandfather, Jean-Antoine Oudot, on 13 August of that year, pro-
foundly moved him. The coincidence of the demise of his boyhood idol—
a hero of the 1789 revolution—with the painful crises of 1848 bracketed an
entire history of the French radical tradition up to that moment. Courbet
chose at that juncture to carry on the grandfather’s memory by consecrat-
ing his efforts to sustaining that tradition through his art and his intellect,
if not through direct action.
One month after Oudot died Courbet visited his family in Ornans, and
by December was back in Paris hard at work on After Dinner at Ornans. The
work centers on Courbet’s father, Régis, and three family friends seated
around a table, and although the painter inscribed in the register of Salon
entries that the event took place in the home of Urbain Cuenot, Castag-
nary claimed that the interior resembled “that of the Courbet family in
Ornans.” The melancholy mood of the scene and dejected posture of Ré-
gis probably resonates with the painter’s own mental state in this period.
151 radical realism continued
One reviewer wondered why the artist went out of his way to “convey
the sense of sadness by vastly extending his mournful and dirty painting,
as if it had been executed with the ashes of the fireplace?”
In the wake of
1848 and the death of his grandfather Courbet needed to renew contacts
with family, boyhood acquaintances, and his natal environment. Along
with this work, Courbet exhibited several views of the topography sur-
rounding Ornans.
Life-size at six by eight feet, the immense canvas represented his first
major undertaking of a rural theme; it made a powerful impression on
the 1849 Salon audience unaccustomed to seeing an ordinary genre scene
blown up to history painting proportions (fig. 3.7). In a space with a large
fireplace—known in Franche-Comté as a chambre du poêle, which func-
tioned as kitchen, salon, and dining room combined—Courbet’s father at
the left, Cuenot, and an artist friend, Adolphe Marlet, meditatively listen
at table to Alphonse Promayet at the far right playing the violin. As in
The Draughts Players (1844), the protagonists are seen close-up from behind
and to the side and the table is aligned with the frontal picture plane; the
3.7 Gustave Courbet, After Dinner
at Ornans, 1848–1849. Musée des
Beaux-Arts, Lille.
152 chapter three
spectator is thus positioned as if suddenly opening a door onto the scene.
This effect is reinforced by the location of the legs of the chairs close to
and touching the lower picture edge, so that the distance between the
spectator’s space and the illusionary space is all but negated. The actuality
of the scene is made all the more convincing by the size of the figures in
relation to the shadowy interior, by the starkly precise rendering of the
accessories, and by the mellow, flickering light.
Within the space itself the figures appear unstaged and refusing a co-
herent pattern; rather, they are strung out in a wobbly line as if assuming
artless positions. In fact, however, a subtle diagonal unites the key figures
from left to right, from Courbet père, sunk heavily in his chair, to Pro-
mayet, raised slightly above the others on an improvised bench. Both cross
one leg over the other and lower their heads in total absorption. The other
two gaze in rapt attention at the virtuoso performer and serve as linkages
between what I believe to be the two principal figures: Régis Courbet and
Promayet. This fits Courbet’s own explanation that on the occasion depict-
ed he and his friends persuaded Promayet to specifically play for his father.
Régis does more than merely listen, however: he is drawn into himself and
his memories by the music—the alter ego of the painter still mourning the
loss of grandfather Oudot. Courbet once established a historical lineage
linking all three in a common bond of integrity: “My grandfather, who
was a 1793 Republican, adopted a maxim that he always repeated to me:
‘Shout loud and walk straight.’ My father has always followed it and I have
done the same.”
The original title of the work, Une Après-Dînée à Ornans, suggests more
than an ordinary dinner, but carries the connotation of a dinner caught
on the run, on the road. The protagonists still wear their bulky hunting
clothes, and have come in out of the late autumn cold to share the warmth
of a friendly hearth. Clark characterized the moment as a veillée, a rural rit-
ual that took place between supper and bedtime during autumn and winter
evenings, but others—Georges Riat and Hélène Toussaint in particular—
have stated that the time of day depicted is the afternoon. I share Clark’s
opinion, mainly on the direct testimony of the artist himself, who referred
to the work in a letter as Evening at Ornans [Soirée à Ornans], and also Cast-
agnary, who declared that the picture recalled for him the “evenings” he
spent with the Courbets at Ornans when the “large room that served at
once as salon and dining room was transformed into a reading room or
music session.”
Weber has described the veillées as after-supper moments in rural house-
holds when an hour or two before bedtime was given over to singing or
listening to music. The veillée was a regular ritual throughout most of rural
France that began as the fall labors diminished. Late fall and winter eve-
nings were long, cold, and isolating, and fires had to be carefully tended
and nursed. Around the fire would gather neighboring families who took
nightly turns at one another’s home, thus saving on light and heat. Music
153 radical realism continued
and folklore were standard features of most veillées (recall that Sand want-
ed to call her pastoral tales the “Veillées of the Hemp Dresser”), and the
talk was filled with reminiscences. Typically, the event took place when
the light was poor and music then became indispensable entertainment in
country life. Notables and officials generally detested the veillée because the
discourse and songs frequently turned bawdy and subversive.
Courbet’s work thus documented the participation of his family and
friends in a common social ritual of the countryside, narrativizing an or-
dinary rustic scene on a scale reserved for history painting. The absence of
old Oudot within the unfolding circumstances of 1848 revealed to Courbet
the possibility of glimpsing history at work within the present, of under-
standing history as constitutive of the dynamic here and now. Painfully
aware of having missed the opportunity to record Oudot within context
for posterity, Courbet’s historical sense expanded to encompass contempo-
rary commonplace events. He now grew conscious of watching history un-
fold before him and believed it was possible not only to participate in that
history but help shape it. This attitude clarifies one of Baudelaire’s headings
in notes for a projected essay on the painter: “Courbet saving the world.”
Courbet consistently wrote of realism as “my way of seeing” (ma
manière de voir), admitting up front its subjective and ideological implica-
tions, but also acknowledging his role in the construction of contemporary
His letter to his prospective students was quite clear on this issue,
asserting that “art, or talent, should be to an artist no more than the means
of applying his personal faculties to the ideas and the events of the times in
which he lives.” And he continued:
Every age should be represented only by its own artists, that is to say, by the art-
ists who have lived in it. I hold that the artists of one century are totally inca-
pable of representing the things of a preceding or subsequent century, in other
words, of painting the past or future. It is in this sense that I deny the possibil-
ity of historical art applied to the past. Historical art is by nature contemporary.
Every age must have its artists, who give expression to it and reproduce it for
the future. An age that has not managed to find expression in the work of its
own artists has no right to be expressed by later artists. That would be falsifying
After Dinner at Ornans represented his first mature attempt to put that
doctrine into practice. Conservative reviewers of the 1849 exhibition were
characteristically ambivalent in their responses to the work: generally
bowled over by Courbet’s technical mastery, they were incensed by what
they considered a huge wasted effort. Their strategy was to implicate his
work in the negative discourse surrounding the daguerreotype, to reduce
his painting to the level of mechanical process. The art critic of L’Illustration
noted that the subject would have well suited a small genre picture, but
why did the artist have to give the “vulgar thing the proportions of Ingres’s
154 chapter three
ceiling decoration of [the Apotheosis of ] Homer?”
Louis Peisse got the
ball rolling with his statement that no other artist could “degrade art [enca-
nailler l’art] with greater technical know-how,” a remark picked up by oth-
ers searching to position Courbet’s work. “Feu Diderot” of L’Artiste, for
example, admitted the crudity of the term but felt that it was the sort of
truth that comes from the bottom of a well. Advising the painter to interpret
and not simply imitate nature, the critic admonished Courbet to infuse his
work with more “passion” and elevate it above the trivial. He declared that
Courbet “suffered a grievous fault, and that is to be satisfied with himself.”
He needed to search for and discover beauty—that is, “nature seen through
the lens of poetry.”
Courbet’s response to these critics (in a letter to Francis and Marie Wey)
acknowledged full responsibility for their particular reading of his new
work: “Yes, M. Peisse, it is necessary to degrade art. For too long you have
been affirming art that is pomaded and in ‘good taste.’ For too long paint-
ers, even my contemporaries, have based their art on stereotyped ideas.”
What is curious in both Peisse’s and feu Diderot’s remarks is an implied fa-
miliarity with Courbet’s mindset, as if he were a veteran of the Salon. They
treated him as an experienced professional who had somehow strayed from
the straight and narrow and needed to get back on track, and, conversely,
Courbet answered them as the bellwether of the new movement. This in-
dicates the profound impression his work made in 1849, echoed in Delac-
roix’s exclamation before the picture: “Have you ever seen anything like it,
anything so strong, without dependence on anyone else? Here’s an innova-
tor, a revolutionary, too; he burst forth all of a sudden, without precedent:
he’s an unknown!”
Lagenevais of the conservative Revue des deux mondes began his review
by wondering out loud why Courbet painted a genre scene on a five-foot
[sic] canvas. A kitchen interior pleases on a modest scale, he continued, but
loses its charm when scaled to actual size. When magnified this way acces-
sories that were normally so enchanting in small Flemish cabinet pictures
simply became boring and commonplace. Like Peisse and feu Diderot, he
acknowledged Courbet’s technical virtuosity and precision but regretted
that it produced nothing more than a “trivial truth.” Nevertheless, he used
Courbet’s example of modernity positively to put down the faux “realist”
work of Meissonier and Fauvelet, who insisted on slotting their scenes into
a comfortable rococo niche and depriving the Salon audience of the inel-
egant aspects of modern life.
The critic for the center-right journal L’Illustration made an important
contribution to the discussion: he observed that the four protagonists of
the picture were “half-bourgeois and half-rustic,” hinting at Courbet’s
more complicated understanding of the rural social structure and helping
explain another side of the critics’ consternation. The painting problem-
atized the inhabitants of the countryside at a time when that popula-
tion could no longer be taken for granted. When Lagenevais claimed that
155 radical realism continued
realists had pretensions of being revolutionaries, he surely had in mind
their larger-than-life workers and peasants. Yet I believe it was the very
instability of the peasantry in this phase of the Republic that guaranteed
Courbet’s official success that year, for despite the acerbic critiques he
won a second-class medal (exempting him henceforth from ordinary jury
scrutiny) and the state purchased the work for 3,000 francs.
On 5 August 1849 the official government newspaper, Le Moniteur uni-
versel, ran a review-article on agriculture that began as follows:
In an era when the most subversive doctrines have spread throughout the coun-
tryside, when society is attacked on all sides, when the family, property, every-
thing is open to question, it is the obligation of honest people and especially
eminent men placed at the head of affairs to lend their good name and talents in
support of the nation in order to arrest the evil, to attack and combat it, and re-
store the calm and repose to society that a few fanatics have wrested from it tem-
porarily. One of the most efficacious means of achieving this is to moralize the
rural populations, to increase their well-being in augmenting agricultural pro-
duction through positive improvements, and to enhance in their own eyes and in
the eyes of all the art that they cultivate, the most ancient, the most noble, and
the most essential to mankind.
In this official statement on the rural areas, the government sets as its pri-
ority their stabilization and moralization, the restoration of “the calm and
repose” that have “temporarily” been lost because of the radical politici-
zation of the countryside. Now what Courbet shows in his work are rural
inhabitants totally entranced by the dulcet strains of the violin, soothing
them into a state of absolute calm and serenity. Music is shown to have
a “civilizing” effect on rustic folk. Here the ambiguous “half-bourgeois,
half-rustic” portrayal may have aided in sustaining the image of a peasant
capable of absorption in higher cultural forms.
It may be worthwhile to confront this work with the American William
Sidney Mount’s Music Hath Charms or The Power of Music of 1847. Courbet
may have known Mount’s work since it was sent to Paris and lithographed
by Goupil in 1848 for European consumption.
Mount similarly showed
three men (wearing hats like that worn by Marlet) in a rustic ambiance
captivated by a violinist, one of whom is an African American who stands
outside the barn where the others, all white, gather to listen. Particularly
intriguing is the opening into the barn, which operates as a surrogate frame
whose lower edge barely contains the figures, analogous to Courbet’s com-
position. The difference being, however, that Mount exploits the contain-
er motif to depict an outside as well as inside, thus excluding the African
American, who nevertheless listens as attentively as the whites inside.
Mount’s title invites the idea of the “savage beast” who may be
soothed—a theme dear to the heart of dominant elites everywhere whose
concerns were the same in wishing to contain dissenting peasants, mili-
156 chapter three
tant artisans, feminist agitators, and upstart blacks. What was crucial was
securing them all to a fixed place within the scheme of things. Returning
now to the Courbet, it is possible to speculate that the imaginary spec-
tator brought close-up to the pictorial space is an excluded auditor like
the black in Mount’s work, a peasant servant perhaps (who is surely there
somewhere), not permitted to share the space of the “half-bourgeois, half-
rustic” fraternity. Thus the spatial arrangement implies an element of ex-
clusivity in its proximity to the beholder, who is made to feel debarred
from the intimate gathering. Courbet’s social and political consciousness,
though developing rapidly, still retained elements of class bias at the outset
of his radical phase.
The logic of events acted as a corrective on his bourgeois blind spots.
Two days before the 15 June opening of the Salon of 1849, the radical re-
publicans, led by Ledru-Rollin, staged one final attempt to gain control of
the government. Outraged by Louis-Napoléon’s violation of the Constitu-
tion in intervening in Italy to suppress a sister republic, a long column of
assorted republicans and National Guardsmen from the working-class dis-
tricts made their way toward the National Assembly. Government troops
broke up the demonstration, and when Ledru-Rollin and a loyal group of
followers rallied at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers to organize a full-
scale insurrection, the troops again easily put down the rebellion.
Courbet monitored these events closely and wrote his father that the
“Constitution has been violated from top to bottom,” thus echoing the
position of the extreme radicals. He condemned the “insolence of the re-
actionary party” and noted that General Changarnier, who led the troops
against the insurgents, announced that France would have an emperor by
morning. Radical newspapers had been vandalized, and barricades once
more erected. Changarnier was fired at by a sniper “but unfortunately not
hit. Everyone who fired was killed on the spot. As for M. Napoléon, he has
not been shot at yet, which is even more unfortunate.”
Thus by 1849 Courbet’s political progressivism had moved solidly to
the Left and between then and the end of the Republic critics positioned
him as leader of the radical realists. When two weeks before the coup d’état
a critic named Garcin called him “the socialist painter,” Courbet wrote the
editor of the newspaper with an energetic avowal of principle: “I accept
that title with pleasure. I am not only a socialist but a democrat and a re-
publican as well—in a word, a partisan of all the revolutions and above all a
realist . . . a sincere lover of the honest truth.”
He now perceived himself
as a role model to empower others, intending to “be so outrageous that I’ll
give everyone the power to tell me the cruelest truths. You see that I am
up to it. Don’t think that this is a whim, I have thought about it for a long
time. Moreover, it is a serious duty, not only to give an example of free-
dom and character in art, but also to publicize the art I undertake.”
Courbet made good on his word in the Salon of 1850–1851, where he
exhibited three major multifigure pictures, two landscapes, and four por-
157 radical realism continued
traits, including the well-known self-portrait Man with the Pipe—the art-
ist moved by the spell of tobacco rather than the muse. His explanation of
this portrait to the patron who bought it emphasizes his evolving “realist”
demystification of bourgeois ideology: “It is the portrait of a man unbur-
dened of the nonsense that made up his education, who seeks to live by his
own principles.”
Courbet added that his numerous self-portraits disclose
his gradually changing attitude and altogether constitute an “autobiogra-
phy.” Here he testifies to his striving for self-knowledge, a process inextri-
cable from his visual production. He insisted in his “realist manifesto” of
1855 that his main objective had always been “to draw forth from a com-
plete acquaintance with tradition the reasoned and independent conscious-
ness of my own individuality.” Applied to his art this meant, “To be in a
position to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch,
according to my own estimation; to be not only a painter, but a man as
well; in short, to create living art—that is my goal.”
Courbet’s robust presence on the Salon scene of 1851 created a sensa-
tion; in spite of themselves, the most conservative critics converged on his
pictures as if riveted by a magnetic force, often devoting such a dispropor-
tionate amount of space in their reviews to his painting that they wound up
apologizing to their readers for sinking in the mire with a miserable char-
latan. Their excuse was their fear of Courbet’s bad example for the young-
er generation and the need for clarity on first principles. When Louis de
Geofroy of the lordly Revue des deux mondes overheard someone describing
Courbet’s work as “socialist painting,” he responded, “too bad for social-
ism! the pictures of M. Courbet do nothing to render it attractive.” Yet he
began and ended his long critique of the Salon harping on Courbet, one of
the new barbarians glorifying ugliness and “widening the breach” of the
Salon wall.
Courbet was ultimately passed over in silence by the awards
committee, and an outraged Gautier, with rare generosity, wondered how
this was possible: Courbet had stirred up the public as well as the artists,
and despite his defects his superior qualities and incontestable originality
merited a first-class medal just like Antigna.
Castagnary made it clear that the wild reception of Courbet’s work was
overdetermined by the charged political conditions:
What! They had dissolved the national workshops; they had conquered the pro-
letariat in the streets of Paris; they had overcome the republican bourgeoisie of
the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers; . . . They had purged the general election,
eliminating by the law of 31 May [1850] three million voters—and yet there were
the “vile masses” who had been chased out of politics, reappearing in painting!
Castagnary recalled that the period was shot through with tension as the
right wing of the National Assembly aggressively pursued with Louis-Na-
poléon the unraveling of the Republic, and nervously felt a “presentiment
of an approaching catastrophe.”
158 chapter three
Courbet’s response took the form of a retreat to his native homeland.
His three ambitious pictures and the landscapes were all painted in and
around Ornans, where he spent the fall and winter of 1849–1850. He con-
verted a space in a family-owned house in Ornans into a workshop and
once again plunged into the social and cultural life of the familiar country-
side. All the titles of his works in the Salon carry that specificity of locale—
for example, Un enterrement à Ornans, Les Paysans de Flagey revenant de la foire
(Doubs), and Les Casseurs de pierre (Doubs). The images of the social structure
and topography of his native environment were essential to his ongoing
self-analysis and to the public expression of his ebullient personality.
The Stonebreakers
We know a great deal about the origin of The Stonebreakers, which Courbet
began in November 1849, concurrent with his work on Funeral at Ornans.
Apparently, the sight of two laborers along the road crushing rocks into
gravel stirred him to momentarily suspend effort on his magnum opus and
immediately take up what he considered a pendant to his After Dinner at
Ornans (fig. 3.8). Near the end of November he wrote his friends Francis
and Marie Wey about his encounter on the road, prefacing his description
of the circumstances with reflections on his restless mental state in the vi-
cinity of his rural hometown: “If after I left, you were beginning to find
me lazy, my God, what would you say now? And you would be right! But I
will clear myself heroically, you’ll see. When I am in Ornans, I am in Paris,
my thoughts wander. Here especially I enjoy that kind of vague idleness
where one does so many things while doing nothing. That is not what I
mean by clearing myself, but it is coming.” I take these comments as indica-
tive of his soul-searching at the outset of the most productive period of his
life, and that his intention to “clear himself ” signified his perseverance in
probing the ideological boundaries that constrained pictorial vision—his
“heroic” equivalent to fighting on the barricades.
He immediately followed these insights with his eyewitness account of
his experience on the road:
I had taken our carriage to go to the Château of Saint-Denis to paint a landscape.
Near Maisières I stopped to consider two men breaking stones on the road. One
rarely encounters the most complete expression of poverty, so right there on the
spot I got an idea for a painting. I made a date to meet them in my studio the fol-
lowing morning, and since then I have painted my picture. It is the same size as
Evening at Ornans. . . . On one side is an old man of seventy, bent over his work,
his sledgehammer raised, his skin parched by the sun, his head shaded by a straw
hat; his trousers, of coarse material, are completely patched; and in his cracked
sabots you can see his bare heels sticking out of socks that were once blue. On
the other side is a young man with swarthy skin, his head covered with dust;
his disgusting shirt all in tatters reveals his arms and parts of his back; a leather
159 radical realism continued
suspender holds up what is left of his trousers, and his mud-caked leather boots
show gaping holes on every side. The old man is kneeling, the young man stand-
ing behind him energetically carrying a basket of broken rocks. Alas! in this class
[état], this is how one begins, and that is how one ends.
Concluding his description with an inventory of their tools—a pannier
(for carrying on the back), a hand barrow, a hoe, and a farmer’s lunch pail—
Courbet noted the irony of the entire wretched scene taking place in a
bright, sunlit landscape, in the middle of the countryside. Significantly, it
is precisely at this juncture that he challenged Peisse’s comment on his After
Dinner at Ornans, “Yes, Monsieur Peisse, we must degrade art. For too long
you have been affirming art that is pomaded and ‘in good taste.’” If any-
thing, The Stonebreakers must be seen as an aggressive encroachment on the
ideological boundaries of Salon art and a further extension of Courbet’s
self-awareness. The two road menders are in effect the absentees in the After
Dinner, the equivalent of Mount’s excluded blacks and Millet’s ostracized
gleaners, now come home to demand their place at the table.
Some of Courbet’s other remarks in this letter and in subsequent corre-
spondence with Champfleury confirm his heightened sensitivity to the class
issue and ability to empathize with those outside his tribe.
The epiphany
upon spotting the two workers—the fact that he suspended other picto-
3.8 Gustave Courbet, The Stone-
breakers, 1849. Destroyed. For-
merly Staatliche Gemäldegalerie,
160 chapter three
rial labors to take up the stonebreakers’ theme—hints at some kind of rev-
elation. Courbet’s self-disclosure is most evident in his fascination for the
clothing of the laborers, always keeping in mind his own former dandified
obsession with the elegance of his figure and setting it off to best advan-
tage with the latest male fashions. At the same time that he is repulsed by
their garb, he itemizes their every costume detail just as he did when or-
dering his own tailored dress. Courbet recognized in the articles of cloth-
ing sure signs of class, and delineates them with scrupulous objectivity.
Rather than mask the body as in bourgeois clothing, however, these filthy,
patched, gaping, and tattered hand-me-downs disclose the wretchedness
of working-class physical existence. The wracked and stricken bodies of
the stonebreakers—in a letter to Champfleury he adds that the young man
suffers from scurvy—are revealed by the clothing in inverse proportion to
fashionable concealment or conscious display of status. Courbet noted in
his letter to Champfleury that the old man’s coarse trousers “could stand
by themselves,” and his attempt to give them the weight and feel of coarse
fabric was strikingly apparent to the critics. Contemporary cartoonists had
a field day in seizing upon this motif as the salient feature of the painting
(fig. 3.9).
In his letter to the Weys Courbet wrote in a postscript that he had just
purchased a pair of blue leather sabots, suggesting his identification with
the rural laborers. Fried sees the nearness of the stonebreakers to the fron-
tal plane as evidence of Courbet’s own bodily investment in the picture’s
3.9 Cham, Why Do They Call This
Painting Socialistic, Papa? wood
engraving from Revue comique du
Salon de 1851, 1851.
161 radical realism continued
physicality, but I would go further in arguing that this nearness has a social
function in representing Courbet’s desire to attach himself corporeally to
the bodies of the road menders.
He told Champfleury that he loved the
winter season, a time when “the servants’ drinks are as cool as their mas-
ters,’” and he bragged that the local vine-growers and farmers were much
taken with his painting, claiming that nothing could “be more true to life.”
Thus he delights in the broadening of his audience with an idiom that tran-
scends “art for art’s sake” and communicates to a constituency normally
excluded from representation in the institutionalized venues of display. Fi-
nally, the letter to the Weys describes the old man as “bent over,” which in
French is “courbé,” a pun on the painter’s own last name. These are only
tantalizing snippets to be sure, but in their aggregate I believe they are tell-
ing indications of Courbet’s increasing class-consciousness in the break-
through period.
Stone-breaking for roadbeds was commonplace in rural areas especially
during the off-seasons (after hay-time and harvest) when the primary farm
chores had been accomplished and extra income was needed. Rocks were
quarried from the side of the roads and crushed into gravel to pave new
thoroughfares or repair old ones for the winter weather. The Second Re-
public also funded roadwork in the countryside to avoid an influx of un-
employed peasants into Paris, and the association of this project with the
memory of the disastrous National Workshops may have exacerbated the
critical response of conservatives to Courbet’s enterprise in 1851.
During the economic hard times of 1848, the Municipal Council of
Chavignolles (Calvados) offered relief to the unemployed by commission-
ing a branch road built to a local nobleman’s château.
Courbet noted
that he was on the way to the picturesque Château of Saint-Denis to do a
landscape when he came upon the road menders, once more indicating his
awareness of class oppositions and contradictions. It was clear that from
the official perspective, stone-breaking was “make work” activity, a low
form of unskilled labor designed to prevent the rural canaille from pillag-
ing and filling the ranks of the “idlers” in town and province. Courbet
wanted to observe this painful spectacle by refusing as much as humanly
possible to idealize and sentimentalize it, to record it unburdened by bour-
geois prejudice.
Although shocked reviewers of the 1850–1851 Salon concentrated their
commentaries on Funeral at Ornans, the brief comments on The Stonebreak-
ers are nevertheless telling. Geofroy launched his review with this work:
M. Courbet says to himself, “What’s the use of seeking out beautiful types that
are only accidents of nature and reproducing them according to an artificial
arrangement that is never seen in ordinary life?” Art that is made for everyone
should represent what everyone sees; the only rule to follow is perfect exacti-
tude. Accordingly, our theorist plants his easel on the side of a highway where
road workers are breaking stones. Here is a picture already made, and, for fear
162 chapter three
that a single detail might escape him, he copies the two manual laborers in all
their grossness and natural size. The older worker, glimpsed in profile, wears a
straw hat and a striped vest with two rows of buttons; he has removed his jacket
and kneels with one knee on the ground to work; his shirt is of a very coarse lin-
en and his trousers are patched; finally, he wears sabots, and his dirty heels show
through the worn wool stockings. His young companion carries a load of rocks
and we see him only from the rear; but this part of his body is not without some
important peculiarities: one shoulder strap retained by a single button and a rent
in his shirt that reveals his bare shoulder, etc.
These comments demonstrate Courbet’s capacity to force his critics to
meet him on his own ground. Geofroy practically repeats verbatim the de-
scription that the painter gave the Weys, including the special emphasis on
the clothing. We find over and over again that Courbet’s sensitivity to cos-
tume as a social signifier irritated the conservatives for the very reasons that
their own ideological attraction to this aspect of his work obligated them
to admit their own class-consciousness. He compelled his critics to think
and argue his work in political terms, which is precisely what they wished
to avoid in their Salon reviews. This is seen in the writer for L’Illustration
whose inordinately long section on Courbet’s Funeral at Ornans prompt-
ed an apology to his readers. Describing The Stonebreakers as still “another
reality,” he continued:
Two stonebreakers of the department of Doubs. That’s it! It is a subject with
very little appeal. To render it even more unpleasant the artist has suppressed
the two heads of the poor laborers, that is to say, the only things capable of pre-
serving the interest of such an empty subject. The standing worker turns his
back to us and we see only his nape; the other who kneels has his head hidden
under his straw hat. What happens to the principal objects of a painting if they
are not treated with the importance that is evidently accorded them, positioned
with their relative legitimate value, expressive of a certain truth, and rendered
with a vivacity suitable to display the artist’s talent for material execution? In-
stead of that wan and ambiguous glimmer of light spread throughout the scene,
shouldn’t we feel the full effect of sunlight that the painter meant to put there,
indicated by the cast shadows that, however, do not sufficiently achieve the aim
of making it shine?
Here again the critic affirms Courbet’s intention to refuse his subject all
idealization, although he finds it painful and disturbing to behold. The crit-
ic finds Courbet’s clinical detachment intolerable and wants some kind of
dramatic lighting scheme and narrativizing concept, pathos, or moral con-
trast to justify the painter’s choice of subject matter.
According to the critic of the Le Moniteur universel, Fabien Pillet, Cour-
bet should be counted among the painters “who reveal a marked predilec-
tion for the least civilized of rustic customs and habits.”
This restated the
163 radical realism continued
general concern for Courbet’s rejection of idealized forms and content and
his seeming preference for the sordid aspects of human behavior and social
existence. At the core of this new construction aimed at displacing classic,
romantic, religious, and metaphysical interpretations of nature and soci-
ety was a novel concept of time, an experience in real time opposed to the
“timelessness” of classical beauty and spiritual perfection.
The old dualism of the timeless and the temporal realms was replaced
by the monistic emphasis on an imperfect time-ridden human dimension.
Classicists and romantics celebrated the epic and episodic moment, even
when their work was based on actuality: David’s Oath of the Tennis Court,
Goya’s Third of May, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, and Delacroix’s Liberty
Leading the People are all stage-managed to elevate reality to the level of
epic consciousness. The moment chosen is a heroic moment demanding
an undivided state of heightened adoration and thralldom, the suspension
of critical thought. Similarly, notions of the Beautiful and Divine Perfec-
tion presupposed the negation of the consciousness of change and contra-
diction in pointing to an exalted state. Realism’s focus on the empirical
world, however, revised the aims of high art to align it with the scientific
and positivist method, providing a sense of concrete time that flattened out
climactic historical representation and, by extension, history painting. It
was the uninflected present that preoccupied the realists, and in the hands
of the radicals realism’s embrace extended to the squalor of life, the social
contradictions, and the alienation of labor analogous to Marx’s analysis of
modern capitalism.
Contrary to the conservatives, Proudhon lauded the work as a success-
ful case study of “socialist painting.” Simply reproducing the realities of
the contemporary present was not enough; artists have to touch the con-
sciences of their audiences and make them think. In this light, Proudhon
understood The Stonebreakers as an ironic comment on “our industrial civi-
lization, which every day invents marvelous machines to labor, sow, reap,
harvest, thresh the grain, grind it, knead, spin, weave, sew, print, manufac-
ture nails, paper, pins, cards; in short, to execute all sorts of jobs, often very
complicated and delicate,” but which “is yet incapable of liberating the hu-
man being from the grossest, most painful, the most repugnant tasks—the
eternal lot of the poor.”
Proudhon continued his discussion of modern machines, declaring that
they are more skillful than human beings and achieve better results, and
once in motion “they replace us with immense advantage.” Machines have
only one fault: they do not act by themselves but require people to moni-
tor, control, and even to serve them. But what is there to prevent some-
one from inventing a machine to crush stones like the one invented to saw
them? Proudhon responds that Courbet would have had simply to modify
his subject, since the problem of manual labor remains the same and is in
fact insoluble. One invention invokes another ad infinitum, but universal
mechanization of all tasks in creation is as impossible as a perpetual motion
164 chapter three
machine. One day someone will invent a machine to break stones, but to
be of significance to the capitalist it will then be necessary to invent one to
extract the stones from the quarry, another to load them, another for the
vehicle to transport them, and still another to spread them, and the process
goes on without end. Even if we admit the possibility of total mechaniza-
tion, what would then happen to the suffering laborers who live off these
wearisome tasks, and who would then be completely disinherited from
Thus it is that the human being becomes a slave to the machine, the
outcome of human ingenuity. The more mechanized we become, the more
we increase servitude, and the grosser the task and the more servile the
function the greater is the physical, intellectual, and moral impoverishment
of our proletarian slaves. This is the fatal law of labor in a capitalist society
with no alternative in sight. Proudhon suggests what he considers the sole
remedy, to distribute this heavy task as a public service among all the eligi-
ble members of society, either in the form of a duty or paid labor. Outside
of that solution there is only endless exploitation, and consequently deg-
radation and disfigurement of the human race. If aesthetic idealism and the
fine arts accept and hide servitude as a natural social state, then the rights of
the human being and citizen established in 1789 have lost their meaning.
Proudhon then asks his reader to guess which of the two laborers in the
painting most effectively expresses servitude and poverty, predicting the
obvious in the choice of the old man, since youth is better able to tolerate
afflictions. But Proudhon writes that this response would be mistaken:
The kneeling old man, bent [courbé] over his rude task, who breaks stones on
the side of the road with a long-handled hammer, is certainly worthy of your
compassion. His immobile body reflects a melancholy that goes straight to the
heart. His stiff arms rise and fall with the regularity of a lever. Here indeed is the
mechanical or mechanized human being in the state of desolation to which our
splendid civilization and our incomparable industry have reduced him.
The old man has at least seen better days, since he has lived; though his
present is without illusion and without hope, he has his memories and
regrets to sustain him, while the youth will never know the joys of life.
Chained before his time to penurious labor, he is already coming apart at
the seams; his shoulder is out of joint, his step is enfeebled, his trousers are
falling down; uncaring poverty has made him lose his self-esteem and the
nimbleness of adolescence. Ground down in the prime of life, he is already
half dead. Proudhon then elaborates on the same conclusion reached by
Courbet in his letter to the Weys:
Thus modern bondage devours the generations in their growth: this is the state
of the proletariat. And we speak of liberty, of human dignity! We declaim
against the enslavement of blacks, whose status as beasts of burden at least
165 radical realism continued
protects them against the excesses of pauperism! May it please God that the pro-
letariat may be at least as materially well off as the blacks!
Doubtless, it would not be completely fair to judge this great nation of ten
million sovereign voters by this sad example; but does it make it any less true
that this is one of the shameful aspects of our society, and that there is not one of
us, city dweller or peasant, worker or proprietor, who may not one day, through
a quirk of fate, see herself reduced to this? The condition of the stonebreakers is
that of more than six million souls in France; then boast of your industry, your
philanthropy, and your politics!
Proudhon quotes a critic of a rival school of thought who called The
Stonebreakers “a masterpiece in its genre.” He accepted this judgment with
the qualification that the genre to which the painting belonged had to be
considered the most elevated genre of the day, indeed, the only one ad-
missible in contemporary art. He then asked rhetorically what the canvas
would need to gain unanimous approval. He answered that it would have
to be less real and more traditional. For example, if Courbet loved antith-
esis and melodramatic contrast like the romantic author Victor Hugo, he
would have located the stonebreakers at the entrance of a château; behind
the gate, in perspective, a vast and superb garden, and beyond, the mas-
ter’s mansion with terrace, portico, and marble statues of Venus, Hercules,
Apollo, and Diana. Courbet, however, preferred the broad open high-
way, completely bare, with its emptiness and monotony, which Proudhon
thought was preferable. There is where work occurs without diversion,
where poverty is unrelieved by holidays, and only dreary solitude reigns.
Proudhon concluded his discussion of The Stonebreakers with an affir-
mation of its broad appeal, noting that some peasants who have viewed the
painting wanted to possess it to install it—“guess where?”—on the high
altar of their church. He suggested that Hippolyte Flandrin, the student
of Ingres famous for his biblical scenes in the churches of Saint-Séverin
and Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris, take a hint from Courbet’s “moral-
ity in action” to improve his religious compositions. Here again Proudhon
transposes Courbet’s monumental genre paintings to the level of official
high art.
At this point, Proudhon again enters into dialogue with his imaginary
middle-class reader as a pretext for spelling out the conditions of a realist
sensibility. “Poverty grieves you,” Proudhon declares, and although admit-
ting high tragedy and catastrophic misfortune into the art canon, the read-
ers undoubtedly feel that it is beneath art’s dignity to reproduce everyday
suffering. His readers reply that everyone knows that life is not a bed of
roses: our hospitals, prisons, asylums, pawnshops, and penitentiaries are
constant reminders of our misfortunes. Since pain is more universal that
happiness, why confound them? If art has a mission, surely it is to throw
a veil of consolation and decency over the misery of the century. Kindly
spare us the cruel refinements of “critical art.”
166 chapter three
Proudhon then retorts that this is precisely the error of the critics of
realism and the defenders of all previous art movements, who wish to sep-
arate that which is intrinsically inseparable: light and dark, spirit and mat-
ter, form and substance, beauty and ugliness, pleasure and pain, art and
science/industry, fantasy and conscience, joy in work and illness, freedom
and thralldom, life and death, glory and humiliation. They refuse to recog-
nize that human life consists in the union of these binaries, mixed in vary-
ing doses. Instead, they have compartmentalized life into a type of God
and a type of human being, a type of aristocrat and a type of slave; they
have dreamed of one existence of perfection and exalted bliss, and another
of eternal damnation and punishment, and they have declared: the first is
the Ideal, Paradise, Art; and the second is Reality, Barbarism, Hell. And
thus they have proscribed nine-tenths of the human race, reserving for
themselves the ideal and condemning all the rest to hard labor. Proudhon
rejected these self-serving categories and argued that art must embrace ev-
erything at the risk of infamy for the entire human race. Here, I believe, he
gives the most succinct definition of realist ambition in the post-1848 era,
converting aesthetics into political ideology and expanding the repertoire
of the artist to encompass hitherto proscribed themes and forms.
Courbet’s art provoked such responses in a tense atmosphere of po-
litical transition, which is why the conservatives so resented him at the
Salon of 1850–1851. The Moniteur universel reported on 22 February 1851
that the district attorney had seized all the issues of the newspaper Le Vote
universel with the article “Aux Paysans, études politiques et sociales” (To
the Peasants, Political and Social Studies), and was prosecuting the author
and publisher for “inciting hatred and mistrust of one group of citizens
against another.”
The art critic of the government newspaper considered
Courbet’s “Franche-Comtois” laborers a representation of the worst form
of degraded human being in the countryside, and although this genre was
unpleasant to the eye, the artist at least had the merit of “treating it with
scrupulous fidelity.”
In other words, the viewer of Courbet’s painting
could get a good picture of the type of rustic ruffians most susceptible to
Red propaganda.
Max Buchon’s advertisement for Courbet’s dry-run exhibition of his
new pictures in Besançon and Dijon in the spring and summer of 1850
(pending the official opening of the Salon) described the two stonebreakers
as the alpha and omega, the dawn and twilight, of modern galley-slave [for-
çats] existence. The old codger with his crude labor, his poverty, and sym-
pathetic physiognomy was not yet the last word in human distress. Indeed,
things could get much worse: “If the poor devil had the least thought of
turning socialist, he could be envied, denounced, expelled, cashiered. Just
ask the local prefect.”
Buchon’s observation of the old man’s “automatic precision given by
long habit” and Proudhon’s mechanical metaphor to clarify the signifi-
cance of The Stonebreakers echoed the thoughts of Courbet, who described
167 radical realism continued
the kneeling road mender as “an old machine.” Courbet’s metaphor arose
at the moment of observation, for it is built right into the composition,
unstructured and artless as it might appear at first sight. (We have already
seen that the concealment of the heads of the two laborers impersonalizes
their activity as mere motion at work.) Starting with the movement of the
youth, who steps off at a diagonal, we read zigzaggedly across the picto-
rial field from left to right, impelled in part by the absence of any reliev-
ing horizon or opening for visual respite. The movement initiated by the
angle of the younger worker’s left foot is extended by the diagonal of the
hoe leaning against the side of the road, which in turn directs us to and
parallels the back of the older man, continues in his upper right arm, and
culminates in his raised right forearm and sledgehammer. Thus the two
figures are linked in a movement reminiscent of the axes of a piece of ma-
chinery, akin to the connecting rods of the wheels of a locomotive. The
idea of beginning as one, and ending up as the other, suggests an endless
cycle of rotating machinery, the perpetual motion machine dreamed up by
Proudhon’s capitalist.
As automatons, their lives are predetermined by outside social forces.
The pioneer writer on the peasantry, Eugène Bonnemère, hinted at this
process in appealing to the privileged classes to alleviate the conditions of
the peasantry:
You can multiply the schools, you can make education free, but you will have
done nothing, absolutely nothing, as long as you have not changed the condi-
tions of the existence of this person who, bent over [courbé] and brutalized
on his furrow every hour and every day of his entire life, arrives at the end of
his career as ignorant and almost as miserable as at the beginning of it.
Courbet’s robotic laborers participated in a wider field of discourse than
the merely representational, forging a radical political tract as much as a
radical artistic manifesto.
The allegorizing of modern society as a web of sinister invisible forces
ensnaring the helpless individual is parodied in Sue’s Wandering Jew, where
the Jesuits, a murderous Javanese cult, and rapacious capitalism are made to
possess a common conspiratorial purpose against the commons. The Abbé-
Marquis d’Aigrigny, mastermind of the Jesuitical conspiracy, describes the
power of the Order to transform the individual into an automaton. Once
enlisted, the new recruit
becomes but a human shell; its kernel of intelligence, mind, reason, conscience,
and free will, shriveled within him, dry and withered by the habit of mutely,
fearingly bowing under mysterious tasks, which shatter and slay everything
spontaneous in the human soul! Then do we infuse in such spiritless clay, speech-
less, cold, and motionless as corpses, the breath of our Order, and lo! the dry
bones stand up and walk, acting and executing, though only within the limits
168 chapter three
which are circled around them evermore. Thus do they become mere limbs of
the gigantic trunk, whose impulses they mechanically carry out, while ignorant
of the design, like the stonecutter who shapes out a stone, unaware if it be for
cathedral or bagnio.
This mechanized existence echoes on a perverse religious level the lives
of proletariat men and women beaten down into submission by a pitiless
power with mechanical precision. The symbolic incarnation of this prole-
tariat is the perpetual wanderer, the Jewish artisan who mocked Christ and
was condemned to roam the world unceasingly. He represented the race of
laborers, a race “always slaves, who, like me, go on, on, on, without rest or
intermission, without recompense, or hope; until at length, women, men,
children, and old men, die under their iron yoke of self-murder, that oth-
ers in their turn then take up, borne from age to age on their willing but
aching shoulders.”
Implicit in Sue’s novel and in Proudhon’s analysis of the robot-like
Stonebreakers is the notion of alienation soon to be articulated in less fan-
tastic terms by Marx. Actually, the two laborers were alienated in a double
sense—from their own drudgery as depicted in the painting and from the
spectator’s wish to see them conform to the conventional aesthetic and so-
cial code. Social roles once determined transform social relations into the
form of a relation between objects. Human relations are replaced by object-
like relations between roles. This is what Marx refers to as “reification,”
the state in which the object masters us and the world we have forged turns
against us “as something alien, as a power independent of the producer.” The
proletariat’s labor ultimately serves to increase the wealth and power of
the capitalist, thus reinforcing the conditions of her or his own oppression.
Machinery, intended as a means of emancipating human beings from the
yoke of animal labor, becomes alienated from their control and winds up
exercising power over them.
Millet and especially Courbet wanted the viewer to experience the ma-
terial existence of their subjects by transferring the sense of weight and
texture of the external world to the canvas, hence the sheer density of
their surfaces. The rough, mortar-like accumulation of pigment (applied
by Courbet with palette knife) substitutes for the actual material substance
portrayed. Hence the difference between realism and its later offshoot im-
pressionism, which addresses almost exclusively the fleeting effect of light
as it falls on matter. The realist’s light effect is composed of broad opaque
patches that transform the universe into a mosaic of solid chunks of mat-
ter, whereas that of the impressionist is a transparent web of loosely con-
nected brushstrokes. The realist is still involved with the accumulation of
empirical detail translated as viscous pigment, whereas the impressionist’s
emphasis on the fugitive atmospheric effect ignores the look and scope of
cognitive substance.
169 radical realism continued
The reviewer of the Moniteur universel declared that Courbet’s “bulky
and heavyset diggers [terrassiers] in The Stonebreakers perform their task with
praiseworthy zeal, but their forms needed to have been modeled more
firmly,” and later complained that the execution of Funeral at Ornans was
“more rustic than meticulously finished,” here punning on the word rus-
tique which meant both coarse and countrified.
The bold execution of
Courbet’s work in the 1850–1851 Salon implicated him in the sketch-finish
debate that had been sharpened by the discussion of the Barbizon painters
and then folded into the realist-rural discourse. His unemphatic presenta-
tion of his figures called for an overall surface execution that in the eyes
of contemporary critics made his forms appear flat and primitivized as in
popular prints. But read in the context of his ungainly rural workers, the
rough execution reinforced the awkwardness of the first impression and
intensified the raw power exuded by the country types.
Other reviewers alluded to the “unfinished” surfaces of these works, a
characteristic that many of his colleagues likened to pochades, or the most
summarily painted sketches. In this sense, Courbet’s work approximated
more the landscapist’s étude than the history painter’s esquisse—that is, a
study of nature rather than an imaginative composition for a finished tab-
Whereas the esquisse depended upon chiaroscuro, a more or less arbi-
trary arrangement of light and shade, the étude stressed the light values of a
natural site. The étude required a certain dexterity to capture the ephemeral
light effect and played down the clarity of specific objects in favor of the
general ensemble. Thus it was primarily the visual, rather than the struc-
tural, elements that dominated the surface of a painting.
Instead of relying on the old composition in arbitrary light and shade
(as Courbet had done in The Man with the Leather Belt, for example), inde-
pendents like Corot and Courbet came to accept the actual arrangement
of light and shade as the foundation of their pictures, spreading the values
over the entire canvas. An artist cannot accept the actual conditions of light
as governing the light and shade of his work without extending the same
scheme of relations over the whole surface. Otherwise the values would be
contrary to empirical fact—a problem detected by Dupays in The Stone-
breakers, where the shadows cast by the figures contradict the predominant
gray tonality. Despite what the critics perceived as defective drawing, they
grudgingly admitted the validity of the atmospheric effect that they nev-
ertheless tried to dismiss by classifying his work as pochades.
Yet a certain ambivalence pervades the critical responses in decrying
at one and the same time Courbet’s mechanical exactitude and his sketchi-
ness, his accuracy and his slovenliness, a contradiction growing out of the
monumental projection of Barbizon-like études. What bothered them was
his capacity to convey the sense of the literal weight and texture of ob-
jects with an economy of means, thus bolstering the claims of the inde-
pendent sketchers against the academic and official finishers. He managed
170 chapter three
to establish the look of gravity through the viscosity of his medium while
retaining the consistency of the light values, and this technical ambiguity
contributed still further to the perturbations in his already confused field
of mixed peasant/bourgeois social relations.
Funeral at Ornans
The most hysterical outcry of the critics was reserved for Funeral at Ornans
(fig. 3.10). A bigger target than The Stonebreakers, it may have been easier to
attack. The size of Funeral at Ornans is twenty-one feet long and eleven feet
high and has come down to us with fifty-one life-size and larger-than-life-
size figures (Buchon counted fifty-two in 1850). Courbet’s original title for
the work, entered by him in the Salon register, was “Tableau of Human
Figures: History of a Funeral at Ornans,” suggesting both his Faustian aspi-
rations for the work and his desire to raise a local incident to the level of his-
tory painting. He momentously dubbed it his “declaration of the principles
of realism” and elsewhere presented it as the “funeral of romanticism.” It is
a canvas that vies in magnitude with the battle scenes of Steuben and Vernet
in the Galerie des Batailles, and it strives for similar accuracy in reproducing
the site, costumes, accessories, and physiognomies. Instead, however, of
depicting military celebrities engaged in heroic combat, it modestly limns
a community of relative unknowns ranged sedately in a queue.
The event takes place in the new cemetery of Ornans opened in Sep-
tember 1848 on a hill in the stark open countryside outside of the town.
(Ornans is unseen on the lower ground of the Loue river valley between
3.10 Gustave Courbet, Funeral
at Ornans, 1849–1850. Musée
d’Orsay, Paris.
171 radical realism continued
the spectator and the limestone cliffs on the horizon.) On the left is the
Roche du Château, where we see houses in the locality of the Château
d’Ornans, a former residence of the dukes of Burgundy, and on the right
are the majestic cliffs of the Roche du Mont. Courbet’s narrative seems
to hover between an inaugural event or civic ritual and an act of burial:
hardly anyone present is mindful of the deceased, and several faces wear
expressions of boredom, impatience, and indifference. Even the dog in the
foreground, typically a symbol of loyalty and watchfulness, turns his head
away from the proceedings. The diversity of expressive states suits the in-
coherent assembly that mills around without a single vivid formal gesture
or dramatic focus to unify them, save for the harsh landscape panorama that
encloses them.
It may be recalled that Courbet interrupted his work on Funeral in No-
vember 1849 to take up The Stonebreakers. I believe that the two are dialec-
tically related, both subjects constituting a working through of Courbet’s
unfolding socialist and collectivist ideals. (Courbet always measured his in-
tellectual progress in terms of specific stages or phases connected with peak
moments of his career.
) Courbet employed no professional models for his
colossal canvas, an unprecedented gesture in an enterprise of this scope.
Funeral was literally a community project, as the painter tapped into his
immediate district to document what could have been an actual neighbor-
hood event. What most excited the painter in the process of painting the
large picture was the local community’s enthusiastic participation in his
project. As he wrote Champfleury early the next year:
Here models are for the asking. Everyone would like to be in the Funeral. I could
never please them all, I would even make quite a few enemies. Those who have
already posed are the mayor, who weighs four hundred [pounds]; the priest; the
justice of the peace; the cross bearer; the notary; Deputy-Mayor Marlet; my
friends; my father; the choirboys; the gravedigger; two veterans of the revolu-
tion of ’93, in the clothes of that time; a dog; the deceased and his bearers; the
beadles (one of the beadles has a nose as red as a cherry but broadly proportioned
and about five inches long, something for Trapadoux to fool with!); my sisters,
and other women as well, etc. I had hoped to get by without the two precentors
of the parish, but there was no way to do it. Someone warned me that they were
offended, that they were the only church people I had not included. They com-
plained bitterly, saying that they had never done me any harm and that they did
not deserve such an affront, etc.
It was as if the individuals of his village were conscious of their mission to
body forth for the benefit of the Salon spectator their social and political
Visually, this common point of reference is shown as a freshly dug
open grave in the center foreground, cut off abruptly by the lower fram-
ing edge, which seems to extend the physical matter of this focus straight
172 chapter three
into the spectator’s space (or face). Assuming that the serpentine procession
of mourners loops around the grave site, this motif would then invoke the
viewer’s participation in the interment ceremony and in the community as
well. The obsequies are about to commence, as the pallbearers barge into
the scene from the left carrying the draped coffin, the curate thumbs the
pages of his prayer book, his assistants take their places, and the gravedigger
kneels impatiently by the open grave. The lateral disposition of the cortege
of mourners and officiants is seconded by the panoramic landscape in the
distance, whose projecting cliff lines echo the parallel rows of heads and
sustain the tug of the horizontal, frieze-like movement.
Courbet chose a funeral ceremony as the unifying motif around which
to assemble the members of the provincial community, and to orchestrate
a massive group portrait on the scale of both Dutch guild and company
portraits and allegorical/historical composite murals such as Ingres’s Apo-
theosis of Homer, Chenavard’s ill-fated Universal Palingenesis cycle for the
Pantheon, and Delaroche’s Hemicycle at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Un-
like these precedents, however, and even earlier funeral paintings of Christ,
the saints, or historical figures glorified in Poussin’s Funeral of Phocion and
El Greco’s Funeral of Count Orgaz, which focus on the specific identity of
the deceased to enshrine immortality, Courbet’s enormous canvas brings
neighbors and relatives to the grave site of an unknown person.
By thus insisting on the anonymity of the deceased, Courbet refused
any intimation of transcendence or promise of the afterlife. The departed
survives only in the memory of those left behind, not in a heavenly as-
cent or gravestone marker. Courbet’s funeral rite approximates the Jewish
doxological prayer for the dead, the Kaddish, in which neither the name
of the deceased nor that of relatives is mentioned but instead praise is ren-
dered to God for blessings to the “whole house of Israel” and hope ex-
pressed for the speedy establishment of His kingdom on earth. Although
we feel a powerful sense of absence of a once-palpable presence, it is ex-
perienced through the attraction of the crowd to the yawning grave site.
It is the community that endures and who will selectively retain the im-
age of the person mourned, thus insuring a certain version of immortal-
ity that will vary from individual to individual. If the deceased’s identity
remains undisclosed, every one of the mourners was recognizable and
Courbet’s burial scene is a site of reconciliation and locus
of memory—a commemorative event in which the community takes pre-
cedence over the individual. This is a scene of public as opposed to private
mourning, a communal grief distributed among all the social strata in
town and village. Though nothing of consequence seems to be recorded,
Courbet’s painting is preeminently political in emphasizing the commu-
nity in its varied social composition united around a common point of
historical memory.
Although attempts have been made to identify the defunct, the fact that
neither Courbet nor his friends, relatives, and early biographers ever cared
173 radical realism continued
to do so confirms that the person being buried was always less important to
the painter than those who came to bury him.
Courbet depicted a cross-
section of the population of his hometown district rather than a memorial;
indeed, his stated attitude to the mourning process at this time attests to a
surprising indifference to the dead. Apologizing to the Weys in March 1850
for not writing on the occasion of the death of Francis’s father, Courbet
I don’t know whether I have told you my philosophy toward the dead. First of
all, I don’t mourn the dead, convinced as I am that one mourns not for them but
for oneself, out of egoism. I would perhaps grieve for them if the life of one
man was directly useful to the life of another, but I don’t believe that is the case,
for I would not appreciate a man whose existence was based on another. I would
not grieve for a man for I would use the time I spent grieving to free myself of
him, etc.
This is a rather bizarre admission and probably overstates the case, but giv-
en his reaction to the death of grandfather Oudot less than two years before
it may represent his hardened response to the trauma. The callous disregard
for the feelings of the Weys may represent Courbet’s strategy for camou-
flaging a sense of guilt, but it agrees with the attitudes of other realists—
Meissonier and the German Adolph von Menzel, for examples—whose
capacity to record scenes of death and destruction with cool objectivity
depended on clinical detachment and affective distancing from their tragic
or horrific aspects.
This is an attitude born of the combination of disillusionment and sud-
den self-knowledge in the failure of the 1848 revolution. In the case of
Courbet, the coincidence of the demise of his maternal grandfather—the
hero of ’93—with the bafflement of republican hopes in ’48 could only
have intensified his letdown. The withholding of emotion (associated with
romanticism) and a more “realistic” appraisal of events was related to fear
of further disappointment and humiliation. At the same time, Courbet’s
declared desire to “free” himself from the influences of others as an alterna-
tive to grieving was consistent with his freshly won struggle to unlearn the
false ideals inculcated in him since birth. Hence the association of his real-
ist sensibility with the repudiation of conventional bourgeois morality and
residual romantic expression. Viewing with detached objectivity the cycle
of destruction from 1789 to 1848—the mounting toll of society’s laboring
victims, and the social and religious rituals that tried to redeem the unequal
distribution of justice—Courbet put on display a pageant of a localized
community to disclose the mainsprings of the social mechanism.
Like Comte and Marx, Courbet conceived of his work as an expression
of the process of historical change. Realism constituted the aesthetic equiv-
alent to positivism in representing the final stage of historical development.
In Funeral he depicts aspects of the social role of religion, the conquests of
174 chapter three
natural science, and the possibilities of human progress. His subject allowed
him to carefully assemble a microcosm of society which he could classify
and to which he could apply a strict empirical approach. As in the case
of The Stonebreakers, he could stay within the realm of immediate experi-
ence and still contribute to an understanding of the laws governing human
affairs. The small-town society comprehensively represented in Funeral
served as a test case for realist documentation of historically progressing
society, passing from the stages of the rule of priests and exploitative labor
to the highest stage of society, when the mind breaks with all illusions in-
herited from the past, formulates laws based on careful observation of the
empirical world, and reconstructs society in accordance with these laws.
The clergy—the first estate—are there in full array: they include the
bald-headed curate Bonnet at the left dressed in a black, silver-embroidered
cope, looking for the right page in his prayer book; his two beadles, Jean-
Baptiste Muselier and Pierre Clément, wearing the Franche-Comté uni-
form of flared red cap and scarlet robes edged with black; behind them
the church organist, Promayet (father of Alphonse), in white surplice and
black cap; two choirboys carrying candle, holy water stoup, and brush;
and the cross-bearer, also surpliced, named Colart; and behind him the
sacristan, Cauchi, in a tall, black, triangular-shaped toque. Next comes the
notables, or prominent citizens of the town, who dominate the central sec-
tion: the portly mayor, Claude-Hélène Prosper Teste de Sagey, and to his
right, occupying the pictorial center, Hippolyte Proudhon (no relation to
the philosopher), a well-known lawyer of Ornans, and Courbet’s equal-
ly prominent father, Régis, facing the spectator just to the right of the
mourner crying into his handkerchief, and behind them Urbain Cuenot,
bareheaded, and probably Adolphe Marlet, wearing a top hat. This circle
of male figures is completed by the two veteran republicans of ’93, Cardet
and Sécretan, the latter garbed in festive eighteenth-century dress includ-
ing knee breeches, silk stockings, tail coat, and bicorne (cocked hat). He ex-
tends his hand, palm upward, toward the open grave, as if to comment on
the meaning of death (or the futility of life—“See how it all ends!”).
Consistent with Catholic custom, the women form a separate group,
and in their mourning cloaks seem to coalesce into a mass of black, relieved
only by the whites of handkerchiefs and some lace bonnets. Like the cliff
face of Roche du Mont rising above them, they provide a bulwark of sup-
port for the community, as well as expressing the collective grief of their
households. Above the mayor, the heads of two of the tearful women—Jo-
séphine Bocquin’s ample black hood swells to a crescendo—crown all the
rest, bringing up the extreme rear of the cortege and projecting directly
into the rock face of the Roche du Mont. Farther to the right, we come
upon “Mère Gagey,” the craggy-faced woman in white bonnet fifth from
the far right and looking away from the central group. She was the spouse
of Claude François Gagey, Courbet’s old stonebreaker, and her head is lo-
cated close to the rocky mass in the background. Courbet’s sisters are the
175 radical realism continued
three figures in black hoods in the foreground just right of Sécretan: Ju-
liette covers her mouth with her handkerchief, Zoé’s face is buried in her
handkerchief, and Zélie bows her head pensively. Their mother, née Sylvie
Oudot, also wearing a black cloak, is at the extreme right, holding the hand
of a young daughter of the mayor’s family and thus sharing the load of the
communal grief beyond her familial duties.
Courbet’s spread of the social strata of the town is complicated in this
ritual, since many of the rustic participants are endimanchés, dressed in their
Sunday-best or mourning clothes, blurring the differences in rank and sta-
tion. In addition, even artisan and peasant members of the tiny population
literally wore more than one hat in having to serve double functions in
times of emergency and on special occasions, or, as in the case of the ru-
ral stonebreakers, to supplement their meager incomes. For examples, the
beadles, Muselier and Clément, were by occupation vine-grower and shoe-
maker respectively, and the cross-bearer, Colart, was also a vintner. The
most remarkable of the participants, the gravedigger kneeling on one knee
beside the gaping cavity, Antoine Joseph Cassard, was another vine-grower
who supplemented his income by digging graves.
The brawny peasant gravedigger cuts a curious figure at the side of his
excavation; isolated from the rest by his kneeling position and disengage-
ment from the mourning process, head erect and alert, hand authoritatively
flexed on his upraised thigh, he eyes with impatience the clumsy pallbearers
who bulldoze their way through the crowd and get a severe look from a
jostled choirboy. Although he alone kneels—the quintessential symbol of
inferiority in nineteenth-century genre painting—his commanding torso
and robust physique surmount the conventional designation and invest him
with a singular dignity and authority that surpasses even that of the clergy
and civic officials.
In the process of excavating the grave, Cassard has disinterred the skull
and bones of an ancient inhabitant of the region—perhaps suggestive of
the life-and-death cycle of the communal theme. Buchon, in a revision
of the text of his Besançon ad for the exhibition at Dijon, was singularly
drawn to the gravedigger, who reminded him of “the old dances of death,”
of the skeletal figure of Death personified, who “forced kings, popes, em-
perors—all the great men of the world and all the oppressors of the poor—
to pirouette to his tune, whether they liked it or not.”
Buchon probably
had in mind Sand’s prologue to La Mare au diable, which incorporated Hol-
bein’s woodcut series into her realist-rural discourse, but instead of deploy-
ing the danse macabre to point up the hardships of rural life, he affirms the
image as an instrument of radical thought.
Calling the gravedigger “the gatekeeper to the hereafter,” Buchon next
makes an unexpected connection between him and the old stonebreaker,
coyly concluding: “In the mind of the painter he might well be nothing
but the psychological antithesis, the counterbalance [to the stonebreak-
er]—I would say almost the avenger.” This is a significant statement from
176 chapter three
Courbet’s friend and compatriot, who is depicted in startling profile at the
left rear of Funeral, just above the pallbearer’s hat. His head too is held high
and, also like the gravedigger, he seems to stand apart from the others. The
connection with the old stonebreaker is apt: the kneeling gravedigger with
his shovel, just glimpsed at the bottom edge of the picture, partially mir-
rors the other in pose and costume. Although their legs are reversed, the
position is identical, with both kneeling on improvised pads to cushion
the knee and both wearing the peasant vest and full-sleeved chemise. The
stalwart gravedigger operates as a kind of regenerated counterpart of the
crushed stonebreaker.
Although I accept Lindsay’s interpretation of this statement as a spiritu-
al inversion of earthly status in which the last shall be first, I do not believe
that it is meant to condemn the social body depicted. This is a dynamic
aggregate that stands behind the gravedigger, an image of a society forced
in spite of itself to undergo the process of social change. Marx wrote in
the Communist Manifesto that the bourgeoisie inadvertently produces “its
own gravediggers,” a reference to the inevitability of the proletariat’s suc-
cess. Courbet shows a social resurrection in progress, beginning with the
class heretofore bowed to the earth in brutish humiliation; it is fitting that
its emblematic representative kneels on one knee, ready to rise at the ap-
propriate moment. This ironic twist to the funeral ritual is expressed in the
curious position of Colart, who, holding up the paradigmatic symbol of
the resurrection, looks outward at the spectator with a wily glance. A key
figure in the composition, his strong vertical crucifix relieves the domi-
nant horizontality of the composition and acts as an anchoring mechanism.
Narratively, however, he behaves rather inappropriately for the sacrosanct
porte-croix. He functions akin to those shrewd bystanders in nineteenth-
century American genre who exchange a visual wink with the spectator,
thereby commenting on that aspect of the pictorial narrative unseen to its
other participants. Colart’s disruptive glance ironizes the resurrection as a
social rather than a religious phenomenon, affirming further that its refer-
ence is to the overburdened living rather than to the liberated dead.
This is the meaning of the presence, at the extreme left, of grandfather
Oudot, who peers over the assembly as an interested spectator. It makes no
sense to see his marginalized physical presence as a resurrection in the spiri-
tual sense. Instead, as a historical commentary on the renewal and progress
of society, he aptly fulfills the function of role model and witness. He cor-
roborates the class origins of Courbet and his family, and evokes memo-
ries of his participation in the political and social struggle that surmounted
them. The crowd at the funeral operates as a synecdoche of human history
realizing itself in the victory of the proletariat. The deceased republican
of ’93, seconded by still living veterans of the first revolution who tow-
er over the grave site, brackets the progressive evolution of French soci-
ety from 1789 through 1848. The impulse given to the deliverance of the
working classes by Oudot’s generation still resonates through the society,
177 radical realism continued
expressing itself in the uplifted heads of Buchon and
Cassard. Although the accomplices of slavery and des-
potism still exist, the end of their reign of terror is im-
minent. When Courbet shared with Bruyas his plans for
a counter-exhibition in 1855, he applied the metaphor
of the gravedigger to himself to symbolize the destruc-
tion of the old order: “So we will lay our plans and
proceed to this great burial. You have to admit that the
role of gravedigger is a fine role, and that sweeping the
earth clean of all that rubbishy jumble is not without
its charms.”
Grave-digging, stone-breaking, rebuilding on new
foundations—these are terms that carry a frankly Ma-
sonic significance, and in Funeral there is a striking piece
of evidence that confirms this interest.
The pall spread
over the coffin is decorated with black crossbones and a
series of droplets or “tears” near the trimming, a well-
known Masonic combination symbolizing the death of
Hiram, the officially recognized architect of King Sol-
omon’s temple (fig. 3.11). Legend had it that three jour-
neymen working for Hiram, impatient to progress to
master status, tried to wrest from him the sacred words
of initiation to this level. Each one waited for him at one
of the three doors of the temple, and when he refused
in turn to divulge the secret they wounded him mor-
tally with the tools of the trade: square, ruler, and mal-
let. They then buried his remains outside the town and
planted a branch of the acacia tree to mark the spot.
The restaging of this legend is central to the ritual of elevation to the
degree of Master Mason, as the journeyman undergoes a kind of psycho-
drama representing the chief scenes in the murder of the architect. This
myth turns on the ritual of death and resurrection, with the three blows
representing Hiram’s physical, emotional, and mental death, and his rebirth
at the same time in an improved body, heart, and mind. The allegorizing
of Hiram is pervasive at the highest level of Masonry and focuses on the
skull and crossbones as emblematic of the physical death of Hiram; tears
(usually silver) symbolizing lunar rays or the loss of the solar (corporeal) in-
fluence; and a Latin cross signifying immortality. The appearance of these
three symbols in close proximity in Courbet’s work complicate the fune-
real theme with a Masonic signification that transforms it into a performa-
tive ritual.
Although Louis-Napoléon’s coup d’état of 2 December 1851 would ush-
er in a burgeoning of secret societies forced to go underground in the coun-
tryside, Freemasonry flourished openly in the short-lived republican era.
The government itself was largely composed of Masons and contributed to
3.11 Master Mason’s Tableau
with Symbols of the Legend of Hiram,
nineteenth century.
178 chapter three
its solidarity during the early Provisional phase. Many of Courbet’s friends
in this period were Masons or would become initiated in the near future,
including Proudhon, Champfleury, and Bruyas. No documented proof of
his initiation exists, but enough visual evidence has been accumulating to
attest to intimate contact with Masonic ideals. Given the intimate links be-
tween Masonry and the revolutionary tradition in France, it is possible that
the presence of this material in Funeral pays homage to grandfather Oudot
and represents a further development of French society in the direction
of fraternal association. The gravedigger and his shovel (actually we see
only the blade, which could pass for a mason’s trowel) and the stonebreaker
hammering away the impurities (the pierre brute) of his own existence may
then be seen as shapers of the new unity among all creatures.
Despite the many novel features of the work and its social and politi-
cal significations, it still may not be clear as to how such a work could have
aroused the Parisian critics to violent discussion in 1851. One question espe-
cially drove them up the wall: was Courbet serious or was he trying to put
one over on them? Some of the motifs in Funeral struck them as grotesque
and primitive, more suitable to popular imagery and satire than to Salon
art. The ruddy faces and especially the cherry-colored noses of the two
beadles chimed with their uniforms, together with the perceived stiffness
and flatness of the figures, impressed reviewers as anticlerical caricature. As
we have already seen, caricature and realism went hand in hand in dealing
with the sordid aspects of nineteenth-century society, but Courbet’s mon-
umental display of everyday ugliness overtaxed critical tolerance.
Clément de Ris noted Courbet’s urge “to do the ugly thing” and re-
fused to be dragged into a discussion of Funeral at Ornans, which he could
“not take seriously.”
Dupays of L’Illustration had the most to say about the
picture, which inspired a long disquisition on the decline of classical ideal-
ism and the fatal tendency of modern art to “enter into alliance with the
ugly.” Funeral manifested such a “harsh prejudice, an affectation of trivi-
al or grotesque ugliness so offensive, that it seemed exclusively aimed at
shocking us with a system.” (The critics’ repeated use of “system” to de-
scribe Courbet’s intention was a coded rebuke of his radical agenda.) On
this level, he felt compelled to address the picture, but it irritated him to
hear that it was causing commotion in artistic circles as an art “of the peo-
ple”—grandiose words too frequently abused in the present epoch and
fraught with danger.
The reviewer noted that After Dinner should have warned him, for once
again Courbet exaggerated the dimensions of his subject and failed to har-
monize his color scheme. He wondered what the artist had in mind with all
these grotesque singularities. One thing Courbet made abundantly clear,
however, with all his bizarre motifs, he did not aim “to please.” Dupays
next provided a detailed description of the painting, describing the class
makeup of the gathering as “half peasant, half bourgeois”—different from
the previous year when he characterized the individual figures in After
179 radical realism continued
Dinner as half-and-half. He perceived in the long file relatives, friends, and
indifferents, all pressed closely together in great confusion, conforming to
the reality of a funereal event but acting contrary to the aims of art, which
presupposed a tasteful selective process:
The types of physiognomies are the most vulgar imaginable; for the most part
they appear to be no more than portraits, which lowers the level of the work
even more as a composition. It would seem that this is one of those pictures
where one groups, as much as possible, the members of an extended family de-
siring to have their portraits reunited in the same space. Finally, in the midst of
this terribly uninteresting crowd, the two beadles distinguish themselves by their
grotesque look and their drunkard’s faces, which, like the dazzling red of their
robes and toques, clash with the black and white that dominates the rest of the
picture. Why these comical caricatures among this sadness?
Geofroy of the Revue des deux mondes agreed that the heads of the men
and women are either so “insignificant or repugnant” that they fail to in-
spire interest:
If these are family portraits, leave them in Ornus [sic]. For those of us who are
not of Ornus, we need something more to hold our interest. What is necessary
to awake in the spectator is the natural feeling aroused by such an event in real-
ity; now this is not exactly the result achieved by your grotesque caricatures. We
will scarcely weep in front of this burial, and this certainly proves that the verity
is not always true.
Pillet of the Moniteur universel more or less repeated these ideas, but as a
writer for the government newspaper he could accept the grotesque por-
trayals as authentic images of that hostile portion of the countryside allying
itself with the Reds:
Let us give credit to the artist, where credit is due: if the heads of his peasants
are generally ugly and negligently modeled, if the flesh tones are not true, there
is at least in the physiognomies, as in the demeanor of these villagers in their
Sunday best, a sort of rustic naiveté which does honor to the observant attitude
of the artist.
Courbet’s able defender, Proudhon, denounced the critics for treating
the work as gross caricature, but he had to admit that “the contrast between
the figures and the pious motif that unites them is of such violence” that
it would take a long time for the public to appreciate it. Of all life’s events,
Proudhon continued, the one that lends itself least to irony and satire is the
one that terminates it, death. If anything must remain sacred on this plane
of existence, for both the believer and the unbeliever, it is the last mo-
ments, the solemn farewells, the graveside ritual for the deceased.
180 chapter three
How then was it possible for Courbet to take pleasure in ridiculing such
a scene and in making its actors play the fool? It is all the more remarkable
and indeed, sacrilegious, that the event takes place among the simple peas-
antry in the religious atmosphere of a small town:
Look at the gravedigger with the heavy, brutish face; the impious and mischie-
vous choirboys; these pimple-nosed beadles, who, for a few sous, have left their
vineyards to come and participate in the funereal drama; at these priests, jaded
with funerals as much as with baptisms, rushing through with a distracted air the
indispensable De Profundis: what a sad and distressing spectacle! A shameful sight
to spread before the eyes, is it not?
So who would be interested in such a work? What is its proper niche? Sure-
ly not in a church, where it would be an insult; not in a school, a town hall,
or a theater. Even an eccentric man of leisure who might wish to exhibit it
for the gaze of the curious would hesitate to display it in his living room.
Given the lack of moral purpose in this work, what is the rationale for
its existence? Proudhon answers that this criticism is precisely the painter’s
justification. Anyone who has ever attended a modern funeral and observed
its proceedings knows that French society has long ago abandoned the sub-
lime poetry of ancient Christian burial rites. The French have lost faith in
prayers and ridicule the idea of a hereafter, and the death of a human be-
ing is considered on the same level as the death of an animal. Despite all
the outward display of churchly pomp and decorum, the dead are treated
as ciphers. All the old signs of immortality, the ceremony, the marble, the
crosses, and the inscriptions, have been emptied of their traditional mean-
ing. It would suffice to simply order a dustcart from the police to remove
the corpse to the cemetery.
It is this perverted development in modern society that Courbet wished
to lay bare—excepting the authentic tears of the women. All the rest is a
joke and a sacrilege. Courbet proves once again to be as profound a moral-
ist as he is a painter, holding up a mirror to the brute facts of French exis-
tence. By offending the outworn ideal, he calls his fellow countrymen back
to their authentic dignity. If Funeral is not flawless, at least it is salutary and
original, and it would be judged prodigious if people had an ounce of feel-
ing for art and modern hearts and souls were not corrupted.
Proudhon’s interpretation plays down the communal theme in favor
of the work’s apparent anticlericalism, thereby in effect agreeing with the
general commentary but taking a more positive view of what most review-
ers condemned as negative. Nevertheless, he does imply that the funereal
rite functions as a rallying point for understanding modern society, even if
for its baser aspects. Funerals, then as now, assumed a class dimension in the
period, with clear distinctions made between those of the rich and those
of the poor. Most poor people were buried in pauper’s or common graves,
and the rising cost of funerals was a point of sore contention by radical
181 radical realism continued
pamphleteers. Since the uprising at the funeral of Lamarque in 1832, it was
noted that socialists used the assemblies at obsequies as a platform to launch
political demonstrations.
Courbet’s manifestation of anticlericalism within the context of a fune-
real rite was understandable from the perspective of the church’s discrimi-
natory practices. For example, in Sue’s Le Juif errant, two funerals take place
the same day at the church of Saint-Méry; in the first a couple of distracted
choristers, wearing soiled surplices, chant prayers with a sullen air around
a plain pine coffin, attended only by a sobbing old man and miserably clad
child. Neither the beadle nor the sacristan put on their robes, and they
yawned with impatience during the entire ceremony. That same morning
the funeral of a wealthy donor also took place, and this time the numerous
clergy of the parish turned out in full procession with their dazzling robes
and brilliant uniforms, and a team of choristers wearing fresh white sur-
plices sang out in thunderous unison.
Critics consistently responded to the male fashions in Funeral, mocking
the pretentious airs of the rural bourgeoisie and the vine-growers in their
Sunday best. Clothing was a critical marker of class status in this period,
and we have already seen to what extent Courbet himself experienced
the pressures of the mania for the fashionable. Dress as status symbol is
always a tangible sign of economic and social change, signifying a society
in a state of transition and the perception of new possibilities. The com-
ments on the black coats and parade of the rural social structure showed
Courbet’s ability to heighten Parisian consciousness of class differentiation
in the countryside, again calling attention to the political potential of the
Champfleury’s defense of the picture emphasized the way in which the
bourgeois aspects of the work, especially the male costume, indirectly re-
inforced the issue of class differentiation in town and country. He wrote:
“As for the alleged ugliness of the bourgeois of Ornans, he has not exagger-
ated anything; it is the ugliness of the province as opposed to the ugliness
of Paris.” He jeered at his contemporaries, unable to appreciate modern
dress and ignorant of the fact “that the modern costume is in harmony with
modern physiognomy, and that the fancy frills of Watteau would make us
look more ridiculous than Cassandre [a commedia dell’arte character].” In
Courbet’s work, the “simplicity of the black costumes is akin to the gran-
deur of parliaments in red robes by Largillière. It is the modern bourgeoi-
sie, full-length, in all its ridiculousness, its ugliness, and its beauty.”
These comments may be traced to Baudelaire’s conclusion to his Salon
review of 1846, in which he pleads for a recognition of the beauty and na-
tive charm of contemporary garb. The black dress coat and frock coat is
the necessary fashion for “our suffering age, which wears the symbol of
perpetual mourning even upon its thin black shoulders.” This clothing not
only possesses a special political beauty, which is an expression of universal
equality, but also their poetic beauty, which is an expression of the public
182 chapter three
soul—an immense cortege of pallbearers. Even the peasant dresses up for a
funeral in his black Sunday best—hence funereal black is the common de-
nominator of the modern male.
Courbet faced up to his community without flinching at the sight of its
absurdities, contradictions, and ugliness. The way we describe society dic-
tates our ideological position, and in Courbet what we see is a community
undergoing a process of change, carefully spelled out in the differentiation
of personalities and social types and in the lack of internal cohesion. Typi-
cally, a recurrent activity like a funeral ceremony helps maintain structural
continuity within social life, but in this instance Courbet seizes upon it as
an occasion to disrupt that continuity by breaking with its protocol. He
confounds in varying degrees the codes of beauty and ugliness assigned to
the different social levels, spreading traits of deformity and coarseness egal-
itarian-like among all ranks in the countryside. If physically the gravedig-
ger fits the gross stereotype of the rustic, he is also positioned as the most
magisterial figure in the composition.
Courbet reorganizes his community on canvas for the purpose of show-
ing its imminent dissolution in actuality. The provincial remnant of or-
ganic feudalism is simultaneously rent by atomistic capitalism and healing
socialism. Courbet breaks up his family and disperses its members through
the crowd, thereby politicizing it through identification with a social con-
stellation transcending his immediate tribe and social class. The commu-
nity rests on no clear-cut hierarchy or political authority: the sacredness of
the ecclesiastical tradition is questioned and the legal authority in the per-
son of the mayor and his adjoint are lost among the mass of mourners.
Courbet shrewdly exploits a funeral rite as the pretext for the recon-
ciliation of the diverse constituencies of this society, for the funeral, like
the Sunday dress, equalizes its participants and temporarily suspends the
effects of the division of labor. Dupays called it “the love of the ugly in
Sunday dress, all of the trivialities of our disgraceful and ridiculous modern
costume taken seriously.”
The worker/peasant, whom the system daily
impoverishes and reduces to a machine, takes his place at the interment as
assistant to the clergy, as symbolic bridge between revolutions, and, ulti-
mately, as the sturdy gravedigger who embodies the future. The ceremo-
nial occasion and the funereal costume diminish the distance between town
and countryside, between the urban and the rustic, so that the only differ-
ence that remained was the degree of ugliness.
Funeral at Ornans exemplified the realist-rural discourse carried to its
logical conclusion, depicting the rural world as being as much a political
and social mess as its cosmopolitan counterpart. It might be said as well that
Courbet’s small rustic society was realizing itself as part of a larger con-
stellation, evolving from the local to the national and fulfilling Rousseau’s
conception of the “general will.” Thus it is altogether unsurprising that the
theme troubled middle-class art critics for one reason or another. While
Louis-Napoléon’s regime was gradually suppressing republican innova-
183 radical realism continued
tions and trying to achieve a disciplined social order, Courbet presented an
uncontrollable community with a seeming penchant for troublemaking.
Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair (Doubs)
Almost as imposing as Funeral and Stonebreakers, Courbet’s Peasants of Flagey
Returning from the Fair similarly excited howls of protest and lamentations
on society’s inevitable lapse into barbarism. The outraged Dupays claimed
to see in it an extension of the author’s “systematic exposition of vulgar
realism,” and his deliberate attempt “to disabuse us at one fell swoop of all
our rural fantasies, to dispel forever the [Horatian musing] O rus, quando te
[ego] aspiciam?—Oh countryside, when can I behold you?” And he contin-
ued: “It is possible that on the day of the fair the highways out of Flagey
are charged with figures as decidedly disagreeable as the ones we see here;
but then it is necessary to pass over them and return another day for a bet-
ter choice.”
A parody of a rural religious pilgrimage, Peasants of Flagey—another
view along the highways and byways of Courbet’s hometown region—de-
picts a parade of rustics trudging home with their commodities and newly
purchased animals after a long day at the fair in Salins (fig. 3.12). The prom-
inence of the animals indicates Courbet’s fascination for the territory here-
tofore reserved for animaliers such as Troyon and especially Rosa Bonheur,
whose popular image of an ox-drawn plow, Ploughing in the Nivernais, was
purchased by the government in 1849. (Of course, Dupont’s song of Les
Boeufs still enjoyed an immense vogue, and some of its rustic humor may be
3.12 Gustave Courbet, Peasants of
Flagey Returning from the Fair, 1855
version. Musée des Beaux-Arts
et d’Archéologie, Besançon.
184 chapter three
reflected in Courbet’s “deux grands boeufs” at the left of the picture, who
return the spectator’s gaze.)
Courbet’s obvious relish in portraying this menagerie created a memo-
rable impression on Salon goers, seen in the contemporary caricatures of
the painting that cast the subject as a procession of stuffed animals and toys.
(The picture that exists is actually a later version, with a few changes, most
notably the woman carrying the basket on her head, who originally was
located at the far right.) The figure in the right foreground leading a pig by
a long cord tied around its hind leg impressed itself so vividly on Thomas
Couture’s imagination that he satirized the realist by showing a painter in
rough peasant costume seated on a classical head and sketching a severed
pig’s head (fig. 3.13). The critic Geofroy sneered at Courbet’s identification
of the locale and the indigenous natives:
What does it matter to us . . . whether they come from Flagey or Pontoise? But
it is necessary to be precisely true: it is definitely Flagey (department of Doubs)
from whence they come; one has a blouse, the other a suit and a beaver hat.
Good heavens! I almost forgot to mention that the latter [sic] is leading a pig by a
cord around the right hind leg. It is not clear who has the most gauche demeanor
here, the human beings, the oxen, or the pigs.
3.13 Thomas Couture, The Realist,
1865. Crawford Municipal School
of Art, Cork, Ireland.
185 radical realism continued
Actually, it is the rider with the blouse who wears the beaver hat, and
he is Régis Courbet, the artist’s father and mayor of Flagey, accompanied
by his farmhands, servants, and neighbors. Régis on horseback occupies
the compositional center, his tall hat strongly silhouetted against the twi-
light sky. Although depicted as a person of authority, he wears the peasant
smock, reminding us that Courbet’s father worked his own land in con-
cert with his hired hands. The young rider alongside Régis looks back to
exchange a smile with one of the two women following behind, one of
whom leads a bull by the horn, as the other, a neighbor named Josette
d’Arbon, brings up the rear with a basket of goods balanced on her head.
On the right, walking along the side of the road, the odd character
walking the pig wears a hodgepodge of bourgeois and country clothing—
including both peasant vest and black frock coat—castoffs perhaps picked
up at the fair. His left hand grasps the strap of an oil keg on his back, while
his right holds both an outlandish cotton umbrella and the pig’s leash. A
kind of peasant chiffonnier or junk collector, this large-scaled figure also
flouts conventional perspective in moving across the picture plane coun-
ter to the dominant diagonal movement. Although coming up abruptly as
he does adds to the feeling of an exodus, his idiosyncratic manner has an
ungainliness reminiscent of the eccentrically clad figures of the Munich
painter Carl Spitzweg—The Poor Poet with his umbrella and sundry acces-
sories especially comes to mind—whose satires of bourgeois costume were
themselves inspired by contemporary French caricaturists.
Of the three major pictures exhibited in the Salon of 1850–1851, this has
always been considered the least worthy of extensive analysis. Yet Proud-
hon awarded it pride of place in his aesthetic treatise, using it as his quint-
essential test case in defining realism and art’s social purpose and putting it
in opposition to his bête noir of inauthentic representation—the “decked
out” Harvesters of Léopold Robert. In Peasants of Flagey there is not the least
bit flattery or posturing, not the slightest glimmer of an “ideal figure.” For
Proudhon everything in that work was “true, taken directly from nature,”
painted with so much naiveté and sincerity that we are tempted to accuse
the painter of merely substituting a daguerreotype for a work of art.
But if we pause long enough before the work to get past this “real-
ism of vulgar appearances,” we would soon sense that hidden beneath this
vulgarity is “a depth of observation which I believe is the essence of art.”
Proudhon begins his reading of the picture by placing the scene a little be-
fore 1830, during the time of the Restoration or “at least thirty years after
the revolution.” Next he describes the characters, beginning with the man
in the foreground, who evidently wore breeches and a three-cornered hat
in the original, and then comments that the younger peasant on horseback
was turned toward a young girl in the rear of the company. He agreed that
at first glance none of this seemed to hold anything of strong interest, ac-
customed as most viewers were to paintings of exalted religious scenes,
ancient history and mythology, or Shakespearean drama, and that it might
186 chapter three
even strike beholders as a tavern sign or an item destined for the flea mar-
ket. Yet these seeming banalities concealed a significant statement.
Proudhon returned to the man leading the pig, whom he claimed could
be defined by his clothing. He was actually a small village landholder al-
ready anxious about his winter provisions in the springtime. He represent-
ed one of the volunteers who heeded his country’s call in 1793 and fought
on the Rhenish front, where he took up smoking. Having returned from
his military campaigns, he resumed his rustic life and no one who saw him
would ever guess him to be a hero of the Republic. He went to the fair first
of all to do his shopping, and then to cash his pension check earned in the
war against the émigrés. If memories of the revolution are little to his taste,
however, the stubbornly opinionated fellow preserves even greater rancor
against the ancien régime, and come the July Days of 1830 he will be among
the first to rally to the tricolor flag against the priests and the nobles.
The mature man riding the horse is a rich peasant, mayor of his com-
mune, the chief of a major farming operation. He is a notable in the com-
munity who, beneath the blouse, knows how to preserve his official status,
speaking little and with discretion, professing moderate opinions, and
couching his responsibility in the trappings of superior authority. The se-
rious and reserved demeanor of our mayor betrays the positivist outlook
of a satisfied rustic, a man of order, proud of the beauty of his horses, and
who, as a privileged elector, considers it beneath his dignity to vote with
the opposition.
He is accompanied by his son, whom he has just secured against the
risk of conscription, and who, on his side, has not the slightest intention
of playing hero. No one is less avid of medals and military honors than
the French peasant. The youth exchanges a smile with the peasant woman
walking behind: is it his fiancée? No, the fiancée of the mayor’s son would
never travel alone on foot, lost in the crowd. Neither is she his mistress;
in the marriage practice, the Franche-Comté peasant moves in a measured
tread; a mismatch is as antipathetic to him as it would be to a bourgeois
or noble. As to free love, he thinks twice about it: he dreads the potential
scandal and its disadvantages, and it is certain that he would never adver-
tise his passion. As much as he might appear to be flirtatious, it is certain
that there is nothing to it. On her side, the young woman, even though she
pays him the honor of returning his smile, would never dream of a mar-
riage out of her class.
Proudhon sees all this as an authentic image not only of the peasantry
of Franche-Comté, but of the French peasantry generally thirty or for-
ty years removed from the revolution, in one of any number of typical
scenes of provincial life. Courbet’s types may disappoint lovers of Rob-
ert’s more agreeable Harvesters, but they have the virtue of representing the
stock out of which “our fathers emerged and on which our future poster-
ity depends.” It is indeed France’s last bastion of regenerative potential in
the declining state. Here is rustic France, with its indeterminate humor and
187 radical realism continued
positive outlook, its simple language, its gentle passions, its unemphatic
style, its thought more down to earth than in the clouds, its mores equidis-
tant from democracy and demagoguery—a portrait of a once healthy and
happy juste milieu consistently betrayed and exploited by the reigning au-
thority and whose morals are now as corrupted as those of urban, industri-
alized France. Thus “Courbet’s Country” and its precious values represent
a world threatened with extinction, and in documenting it for posterity
the painter rose to the stature of the Old Masters. Proudhon concluded
that Courbet’s work would one day be worth one hundred times all the
fantasies of David, Delacroix, and Ingres put together.
No doubt Proudhon went over the deep end in propounding his fan-
tastic interpretation of the work; setting Courbet’s scene in some idealized
recent past is surely a figment of his wildest imagination. One of Cour-
bet’s early biographers who knew the painter hints at his repudiation of
Proudhon’s zany explanation.
Nevertheless, Courbet carried on exten-
sive written and personal exchanges with the philosopher in the course
of his research on the book and Proudhon—though clearly not bound by
them—was therefore privy to at least some of the artist’s intentions.
Some of Proudhon’s narrative details resonate with the known facts
of Courbet’s family. His father was mayor of Flagey and politically more
conservative than Courbet’s grandfather, the old veteran of 1793. Although
Gustave was the only son in his family and would have been too young to
serve as the gallant swain in a narrative set around 1830, Régis did secure
his son against conscription and it is true that Gustave detested military
jingoism and battlefront heroics. This adds up to a scenario akin to the Fu-
neral, where Courbet links the generation of the revolution with that of
the present.
As Rubin argues, Proudhon’s narrative declares the ideals associat-
ed with the old rural world as the source of moral and physical renewal.
Proudhon envisions a bright, new France where all of the marvels predict-
ed by Fourier have been realized. But first the people have to be instructed
in science, history, in the cult of justice, and in the true joys of work and of
association. Responsible intellectuals should give up their bohemian hab-
its, engage in prolonged study, immerse themselves for ten to fifteen years
in mechanical works and in business projects before addressing the public;
certify their reason by their labors, produce late in life, and not indulge
in literature, philosophy, and the arts until after forty or fifty years have
transpired. Under these conditions, the long transition traced by the Re-
naissance, the Reform, and the French Revolution will have ended and re-
generation will be complete.
Proudhon thus used Courbet and the realist-rural discourse to promote
his own agenda, and this meant taking certain liberties with the material
when necessary to make it conform to his program. What is significant is
that the philosopher, who admitted his ignorance in matters of art, could
find in Courbet’s work a link to his radical social and humanitarian thought.
188 chapter three
Akin to Baudelaire’s defense of the poetry of Pierre Dupont, Proudhon per-
ceived Courbet’s coarse and awkward portrayal of country types in Peasants
of Flagey as a breath of fresh air in art and in life—a wholesome respite amid
the general corruption in modern urban France.
Departure of the Firemen Rushing to a Fire
Courbet began an immense canvas, Departure of the Firemen Rushing to a Fire,
after his return to Paris in the summer of 1850, but he abandoned it before
completion for political reasons sometime in 1851 (fig. 3.14). It is his only
large-scale urban scene (twelve by eighteen feet), and that it follows so soon
his major rural subjects is probably no coincidence. If he had intended to
displace academic history painting with monumental genre, he now strat-
egized against the sacrosanct category by substituting domestic firefighting
for classical and modern battle scenes. One obvious clue to Courbet’s inten-
tion is the pun on the French word for fireman, pompier, and the insider’s
jeering term l’art pompier to designate pompous classical Salon works whose
heroes wore metal helmets resembling those of modern firefighters. On a
deeper level, however, he was also expressing an antimilitaristic position in
eulogizing civilians whose courage was the equal of any warrior, past and
present. I see the mobilized firemen as covert representatives of the metro-
politan citizens who took up arms against the coup d’état.
Nochlin has suggested a connection between the subject and Pierre
Dupont’s song L’Incendie, chant des pompiers, published in 1851.
3.14 Gustave Courbet, Departure
of the Firemen Rushing to a Fire, 1850–
1851. Musée du Petit Palais, Paris.
189 radical realism continued
explained his song as “a kind of military march for the use of fire depart-
ments, these true soldiers of the peace, who confront fires with as much
courage as our armies, but whose acts are too often little noted or forgot-
ten.” His verses sustain this central idea: “Our firemen, peaceful soldiers /
Who also know how to conquer or die.”
Courbet took over this idea but
politicized it, perhaps in response to Antigna’s L’Incendie, which showed
in the Salon of 1850 and was awarded the medal for realism that Gautier
felt should have gone to Courbet (fig. 3.15). Antigna’s painting depicts an
impoverished family trapped by fire in their attic chamber, and focuses on
their terror in the face of impending tragedy. Representations of the poor
could be raised to the level of serious painting when enfolded into the cat-
egory of the sublime, and not surprisingly, critics positioned Antigna as a
realist alternative to Courbet. Courbet’s response is to send for help to put
out the fire and rescue the destitute family that Antigna would risk for the
sake of Salon honors.
As in Funeral, he organizes a social collectivity around a specific inci-
dent, in this case the sounding of a fire alarm to which a brigade of fire-
men hastily respond. Although the regimented units pulling the fire wagon
with its pumps and hoses dominate the composition, they are flanked by
the real protagonists of the picture: on the right, an artisan in his smock at
the side of the chief fire officer and anxiously summoning his help, and on
the left a working-class woman—presumably the artisan’s wife, who looks
across the picture in his direction—lifting her skirt in preparation to rush
3.15 Jean-Pierre Alexandre
Antigna, The Fire, 1850. Musée
des Beaux-Arts, Orléans.
190 chapter three
alongside the team of firemen. Together they lead the way to the location
of the blaze and the officer directs his team according to their pleas. The
woman carrying an infant in her left arm while another child clutches at
her dress bears a striking resemblance to the panic-stricken mother in An-
tigna’s picture. Courbet also sustains the class context by depicting at the
far right a bourgeois couple who show little concern for the situation and
coldly withdraw from the scene.
Courbet chose the fireman as his paradigmatic type in the representa-
tion of urban realism as a sign of the heroism in everyday life. The roman-
tic conflagrations were typically inspired by biblical or infernal sources,
but now the representation of fire need not be associated with apocalyp-
tic visions but with catastrophic scenes of everyday life. Fires were com-
monplace in the town and country, especially within the crowded Parisian
slums. Antigna depicted one such scene as high tragedy, whereas Courbet
chose to exemplify social solidarity with the poor. The vicious French mil-
itary suppression of the Roman Republic in 1849 may have further stimu-
lated Courbet to displace heroic combat in the field to the daring actions of
firemen in the civil domain.
The officer in the picture was the actual supervisor of the fire station
off the rue Saint-Victor at 24, rue de Poissy, and he arranged for the alarm
to be sounded one evening to give Courbet a glimpse of the proceedings
at first hand.
As it turned out, this officer, Victor Frond, was a radical re-
publican who rallied his firehouse to resistance against the coup d’état in
December 1851. What happened to him may explain Courbet’s subsequent
abandonment of the picture. Writing his family about the fate of one of his
friends in the aftermath of the coup, Courbet notes:
As for me, I was lucky and narrowly escaped. If I had been in Ornans two weeks
later, I would be in his position, or two weeks earlier in Paris, I would have been
transported because of my association with that idiot [Victor] Frond, officer of
the fire brigade, who has just been sent off to Lambessa [a penal colony in south-
ern Algeria] for having roused his firehouse to insurrection. I could have un-
dergone the same fate, quite likely, for I had included him in my painting. I am
forbidden to continue until further order and everyone is quite amazed that I am
allowed that much.
Significantly, Courbet considered his painting “quite daring,” suggesting
a more complex reading of the subject than meets the eye. Executed in a
period of crisis, the depiction of the republican Frond leading his “troops”
on behalf of the working class may have been a metaphor of the hoped-for
movement to quench the destructive political fires engulfing the nation.
The Salons of 1852 and 1853
Despite Courbet’s insistence that he would “never applaud M. Napoléon”
191 radical realism continued
no matter what he did, the repressive period following the coup forced him
to moderate the direction of his work during the next few years. In turn,
the administration, recognizing his gifts, also offered him inducements to
produce works more favorable to the official taste. (Louis-Napoléon had
already offered to buy The Man with the Pipe in 1851, but as Courbet had ac-
cepted a previous offer he turned him down with relish. As will be shown,
Napoléon III’s regime actually promoted an official realist style and tried
to enlist Millet and Courbet in the program.) Early in 1852 Courbet wrote
Champfleury about his forthcoming Salon submission that he was dis-
arming his judges by shifting the terms of the realist debate: “I have made
something graceful.”
He was referring to his Young Ladies [Demoiselles] of
the Village, and evidence of the government’s encouragement of Courbet is
seen in the purchase of this work by the comte (later duc) de Morny, Lou-
is-Napoléon’s half-brother, minister of the interior, and one of the leading
architects of the coup d’état. His name was listed in the catalogue entry as
the owner of the picture, giving Courbet a certain official cachet if not pro-
tection from the venom of some of his critics.
What we see in the picture is a pasturage enclosed in a rugged hill site
setting above Ornans where the humans and animals seem to have been
added as an afterthought (fig. 3.16). Three women, incongruously dressed
to the nines as they saunter to a picnic area, encounter a young cowherd
who is barefoot and clad in a patched pinafore and apron. They stop to chat
with her and the one closest to her hands her a galette (a thin, flat cake) from
her picnic basket. The young girl’s free hand is close to her body and she
3.16 Gustave Courbet, Young
Ladies of the Village, 1851.
Metropolitan Museum of Art,
New York.
192 chapter three
appears hesitant to accept the treat, but the young woman urges her to
accept it. The other two women regard the transaction with a some-
what condescending air, while their spotted black-and-white dog keeps
a close watch on the cattle on the opposite side of the stream that mean-
ders through the grassy ravine. Although empirically located on different
planes, cattle, dog, women, and cowherd are telescoped to form a single
line running across the picture plane, uniting them in a type of processional
movement favored by the artist.
Courbet posed his three sisters as the models for the fashionable wom-
en: Zoé at the right in a yellow broad-brimmed hat that matches her dress;
next Juliette with an umbrella and Indian shawl draped over her shoulders;
and finally Zélie, who interacts so graciously with the young cowherd.
Dupays, who had several reservations about the picture, nevertheless ad-
mired the “harmonious accord” that existed between the figures and the
Indeed, the earth tones, especially the yellow ochers, resonate
throughout the surface, linking rocks, flora, cattle, and figures by way of
the dresses of Zoé and Zélie and the straw hat of the young cowherd. It
would seem that Courbet wished to show metaphorically the intimate con-
nection between the inhabitants of the region and the land, that despite
differences in degree of biological development and class, all creatures in
the Franche-Comté were bound by a common ecological heritage, and that
these relationships were solid and enduring like the geological formations
of Ornans.
Critics once again rose up in protest, but this time the sense of outrage
was muted somewhat by Courbet’s feint to the right and the intimidat-
ing fact of the picture’s owner, the comte de Morny. Dupays sandwiched
his attack on the one hand with the recognition that the painter evident-
ly wished to “humanize” his work—instead of giving us a “scarecrow,”
he met us halfway with “a truly pastoral scene”—and on the other with
praise for the vivacious execution and aura of freshness and candor. All
this despite the “too harsh and crude literalism” and the painter’s monoto-
nous fixation on the same regional landscape motif—clearly missing the
point of Courbet’s devotion to his native region. Finally, Dupays pulled
out the class card, arguing that in the final analysis the painting represented
a “bourgeois—rustic if you wish—but a trifling form of art” that fell woe-
fully short of the standards of high performance.
Clément de Ris, who couldn’t take Funeral seriously at the previous Sa-
lon, noted that the painter’s style had “singularly modified since last year;
he has, as they say, mixed a little water with his wine.” He was not cer-
tain if Courbet had heeded the criticism, but he congratulated him in any
case on the positive change. Although he faulted Courbet for still failing
to make appropriate choices and for accepting all views and types willy-
nilly, he thought that the landscape was “full of truth, energy, and radi-
ance” and praised the simplicity of the style and dexterous paint handling.
He criticized the work for a lack of aerial perspective that made the dog,
193 radical realism continued
cows, and background appear at the same distance from the viewer, but he
also defended the artist’s presentation of the three women against unfair at-
tacks on their commonplace appearance. It was clear to him that Courbet
wanted to show commonplace creatures, so that the criticisms were not
only misdirected but could be interpreted as indirect eulogies. Here again
he raises the class issue: “Humble bourgeois women of a tiny provincial vil-
lage, or the daughters of artisans habituated to woolen or organdy dresses,
could not be expected to show the free and easy manner of a Parisian wom-
an long accustomed to enveloping herself in the folds of a cashmere shawl
or a cloud of fancy lacework.” In the end, he flat-out declared that Courbet
would never do better.
Only Gustave Planche of the stuffy Revue des deux mondes remained ada-
mant in his denunciation of Courbet. Nevertheless, he saw fit to consider
Courbet at the very beginning of his review. At the outset of the Salon,
he heard it rumored that Courbet’s entry would silence his critics, and he
looked forward to reviewing this new work and welcoming Courbet into
the official pantheon of artists. Despite all the ugly figures in Funeral, no
one could deny their “powerful reality” nor the bountiful pictorial gifts of
the painter. But if he thought Courbet had heeded the advice of enlight-
ened critics and “tempered his predilection for the ugly,” he was sorely
disappointed by the actual sight of Demoiselles de village. He could still mar-
vel at Courbet’s expressive power and astonishing transcription of details,
but there remained the same old mistrust and disdain “for everything that
smacked of the beautiful and elegance of form.” The young women who
share with the cowherd “are ugly enough to frighten you,” and they pro-
voke only disgust from the sophisticated Salon viewer.
Planche’s critique oscillated between outright condemnation and awe
of Courbet’s potential: at one point he claimed that the artist’s skill is of
the type admirably suited for sign painting, and if that seemed cruel, he did
not mean by it to imply that his work lacked natural qualities. The only
thing to praise in the work is the treatment of the topography, yet even
here the want of perspective and erroneous scale of the cattle (like wooden
toys) undermines the landscape effect. Planche then gives the game away by
suggesting that if the realist school had rested its hopes on this year’s per-
formance by Courbet it was doomed to disappointment. Planche claimed
that the infatuation with his work has begun to fade, and he was happy to
see this development because the inordinate acclaim that Courbet’s paint-
ing won in some circles could only wound those honest laborers who have
never separated “imitation of nature from ideal beauty.” At the moment
when literal, prosaic, and vulgar imitation will become the last word in art,
when the imagination will be dismissed as an irrelevant and useless luxury,
then the worthy followers of the Renaissance tradition will find themselves
disowned and humiliated. But at last the hour of Courbet’s comeuppance
has arrived, and now he may be ranked among those crude apes of nature
who have never glimpsed the true mission of art.
194 chapter three
What Planche feared most of all were not the frightening demoiselles,
but the example that they might set for a younger generation. It is fasci-
nating to see the critics fall all over themselves in trying to cope with an
innovative painter with recognizable talent who flaunts the tradition that
is central to their approach to art. They want him to renounce his unruly
ways and “more rustic than thou attitude” and devote his talent to the art
of the Beautiful. All the lamentations about the painter squandering a bril-
liant talent were at bottom an expression of displaced anxiety about the
direction of contemporary art. In all this, there is evidence of a concerted
effort that may have been inspired by the comte de Morny on behalf of the
government. The oscillating critiques of 1852 suggest a subtle form of co-
ercion hinting at conspiratorial action.
We have seen as well the class readings of the work by the critics:
Planche for example decried the “pimply noses” of the young women that
one might find in the “cabaret,” and Gautier described one of Courbet’s
sisters as looking like “a cook in her Sunday best.” As in his previous work,
Courbet raised the issue of class structure in the countryside through his
insights into the ideology of fashion, and otherwise complicated the static,
homogeneous view of the rural world maintained by partisans of the sta-
tus quo. The juxtaposition of the barefoot and impoverished cowherd with
the fashionably dressed women who offer her a charitable gift conjured up
a problematic class structure in the countryside, and not surprisingly critics
consistently pointed out the women’s want of elegance. By emphasizing
the lack of good taste among the aspiring bourgeoisie, they tried to absorb
them into that amorphous rustic mass that had until 1848 conformed rather
reliably to the elite myth.
Once the threat of this problematic in the rural areas subsided, after
the suppression of resistance against the coup, the old myth began to re-
vive. Already at the end of 1851 the conservative L’Illustration began a series
on peasant life, celebrating rustic life as the cradle of French civilization,
whose virtues and values remain constant amid “the confusion of ideas and
dissolution of morality” in the present age. While nine million city and
town folk are busily occupied with politics and art, twenty-seven million
country folk are laboring in the field to provide them with the necessities
of life. Yet there is little overall recognition of their contributions to con-
temporary society. The author of the series ostensibly wanted to get be-
yond stereotypes and address key questions thus far ignored: What role do
peasants play in modern society? What part do they play in the daily prog-
ress of our civilization? To what extent do new ideas or biases penetrate
their customs?
The peasantry, as the only class that preserves tradition, serves as a
counterweight to accelerating historical change. As French people are
dragged unwittingly to an uncertain future, the peasant’s persistent loy-
alty to the fatherland and love of family should provide a model for the
nonpeasant population. Describing the peasantry’s cultural behavior, the
195 radical realism continued
writer admitted their coarse manner of speaking and acting but qualified
this assertion by noting that if there was “rudesse” (roughness) there was
no “grossièreté” (grossness)—the term used so often to put down Cour-
bet’s types. Unlike eager townfolk, always anxious to get ahead, the peas-
antry is content with their lot in life.
Following the coup, the same author began a new series called “Er-
rors and Prejudices of the Peasants,” recounting in detail the regional su-
perstitions of even the most pious of the peasant population. This time he
claimed that it would probably take a half century before these “barbaric”
practices will have disappeared, and that the generation now arriving at ma-
turity would probably blow off the last vestiges. Yet he reiterated his pre-
vious conclusion in the form of a question: Would peasants then be more
civilized than they are today? Foreseeing the moment when progress would
sweep away tradition and morals would be set free from their mooring, the
author conceptualized the peasantry as the one fixed point of stability amid
the vast sea changes brought on by bourgeois industry.
In short, the tenor
of his journalistic series ran counter to everything implied in Courbet’s pic-
torial series, which perhaps helps explain the hostility aroused by his Sa-
lon exhibits in the moderate and conservative press and the reasons for the
government’s interest in his work.
As we have seen, the other side to the two-pronged attacks on Courbet
concerned the “socialist” implications of his painting, typically invoked
to discredit his work as entrenched in a distinct political agenda. In 1852
L’Artiste ran an article entitled “Socialism in Art,” a vicious swipe at Cour-
bet’s attempt to mingle art and ideology. The author labeled any attempt
to introduce socialist principles in art as a “monstrous” deviation from
tradition, a move which could only end up “burlesquing” itself. A gifted
painter impatient for fame, Courbet unwittingly put on a “mask of trivi-
ality” by attempting to embody socialist ideas in his work. Courbet needs
to get back on track by recognizing that “socialist art” is an oxymoron,
and that great art can never be egalitarian but must remain aristocratic and
This position dovetails with that of Dupays, who demeaned the subject
matter of Demoiselles de village in class terms as “bourgeois,” that is, as in-
ferior to the traditional status of noble painting. Dupays would clarify his
position in the ensuing years through his dialogue with Courbet’s work,
culminating with a clear statement of his position in his article on the real-
ist presence in the Exposition Universelle of 1855. Noting that economi-
cally the bourgeoisie had gained the ascendant in society, culturally they
remained at the bottom of the heap. Dupays reiterated the cliché that art is
essentially an aristocratic activity not used to keeping bad company. Like
the great lord of an estate, art invites shepherds, shepherdesses, and beggars
to his peasant festivals, but rejects with an exquisite disdain “that race of
pretentious upstarts in their Sunday best, who from one end of the earth
to the other all have the same physiognomy, the same expression, and the
196 chapter three
same dress suit.” Dupays felt palpably uncomfortable in the presence of ru-
ral folk he could not quite pigeonhole, and he classified them in the same
category as the bourgeoisie, who, in their ugly fashions, are indistinguish-
able from one another. He argued that it was to this bourgeois concept
of art that Courbet was devoted—the bourgeois in trousers, in vest, in
derby, in black dress suit, half-bourgeois, quarter-bourgeois—of the type
you find in Demoiselles de village, the most antipicturesque and disagreeable
scene it is possible to imagine, where “boors pretend to elegance.” Accord-
ing to Dupays, this bourgeois pretentiousness constitutes Courbet’s sole
claim to fame, and he isolated him from other realists in a special category
of “vulgarism.”
Courbet’s confounding of bourgeois and villager, urban and rural, ugly
and elegant, underscored the changes in French society that elevated com-
moners to the level of the old elite. The sight of half- and quarter-bour-
geois suggested an aspiring and upwardly mobile peasantry transforming
the countryside into a hotbed of political agitation that threatened to over-
turn the dominance of the old order. Thus Dupays’s negative definition of
Courbet’s radical realism served to reinforce it as a political and social as
well as cultural force.
This was affirmed in his comments on the painter in the Salon of 1853,
when once again Courbet’s entries attracted a disproportionate amount of
critical attention. Courbet had planned from the outset of that year’s Sa-
lon to take up the traditional category of the nude and run it through the
alembic of radical realism. He treated the female nude in his Bathers and the
male in his Wrestlers, and both were greeted with consternation as parodies
of academic standards (figs. 3.17–18). The Bathers spotlights a hefty woman
seen from her fleshy rear, stepping out of a shallow forest pool totally na-
ked save for a scanty drape held below her buttocks, while The Wrestlers—
painted over the old Classical Walpurgis Night to literally efface his romantic
phase—shows a pair of bulky fighters locked in tense struggle before a dis-
tant crowd of spectators.
It is symptomatic of Courbet’s approach that he
contextualized his figures with a convincing modern narrative that justified
their nudity: they were not simply posing for an audience of voyeurs.
Dupays immediately jumped on Courbet, dubbing him the “chief of
the school of the ugly,” and not of the type of ugly expressed as supernat-
ural grandeur and force, but of “vulgar ugliness, ignoble ugliness.” What
does Courbet want? He no longer needs a reputation, since he already has
earned more notoriety than any artist in recent memory. The critics and the
public are even prepared to forgive his “offending eccentricities” as youth-
ful peccadilloes, but instead of appeasing them he continues to squander
his talent on caricatures enlarged to the scale of history painting. Dupays
contemptuously claimed that no one could pass The Bathers without laugh-
ing out loud, and Gautier likened the massive central figure to a “Hotten-
tot Venus” mooning the beholder with her “monstrous rump.” All that
adipose tissue in the compositional center shocked the Salon audience: the
197 radical realism continued
emperor supposedly struck the canvas with his riding crop in indignation,
and Empress Eugénie, who had been admiring the massive haunches of the
Percherons in Rosa Bonheur’s Horse Fair, wisecracked before The Bathers,
“Is she a Percheron too?”
Dupays was also offended by the female servant of the fleshy bather:
“This slut has not yet revealed her deformities; she has only begun to re-
move her stockings. As she undresses she gazes upon her companion, en-
tirely nude and turning away, and is unable to stifle her surprise and her
laughter at the sight of this elephantine portliness.”
Dupays and even
Delacroix misunderstood the meaning of the exchange that goes on be-
tween the two women: as the lusty bather steps from the water she raises
her right arm in modesty to signal her companion not to look at her, but
the latter cannot forbear a quick peek and gazes in admiration at the ampli-
tude of her mistress. That there is something distinctly sensual in this ex-
change is reinforced by the half-undressed servant’s grasp of a nearby tree
branch, upturned to suggest an erect phallus.
Courbet took the elegantly contoured nude of the academics and lit-
erally and figuratively turned it inside out, thereby attacking the Acade-
my’s paradigm of the Beautiful. Instead of depicting his nude frontally as
3.17 Gustave Courbet, The Bath-
ers, 1853. Musée Fabre, Mont-
3.18 Gustave Courbet, The Wres-
tlers, 1853. Museum of Fine Arts,
198 chapter three
did Ingres and Gérôme, he hides her sexuality from spectators and shows
them her behind; instead of a typically smooth and graceful modeling, he
submerges the female anatomy in layers of fat. The only one privy to her
charms is the maidservant, again flouting the conventional notion of the
female nude as less a site of sexual arousal than an exemplar of ideal purity
for a predominantly male audience. Courbet’s subversive nude was meant
to disrupt the prevailing hypocrisies of contemporary cultural display and
through gross emphasis on the flesh forcefully project the substance and
variety of human existence.
Here Proudhon is once again instructive as confidante of Courbet and
interpreter of his works. Taking on the critics of the work, he jeers at their
preference for the nymphs of the academic sculptors Pradier and Clésinger,
always displayed in some impossible posture suffering the arrow of Eros,
or for the “aphrodisiacal” odalisques of Ingres. He points up their hypoc-
risy in salivating over a prostituted or millionaire Venus wearing tucked-
up nightgown and turning away in disgust from the “honest woman” of
Courbet, who exits her outdoor bath while showing them her big behind.
This is authentic art and not pornography disguised as mythology: you
would never confuse his “horsy” and “big-assed” bather with a Diana or
Hebe. Nevertheless, she is neither humpbacked nor bowlegged, and not
badly built; the world is full of beautiful women, who, when undressed,
would not look half so good. So why the indignation and repugnance?
Courbet’s only sin in painting the figure with “a truth, a realism, if you
will, that will never be surpassed,” was that he broke with the stereotype,
the arbitrary convention of the ideal. Proudhon then recounts the anec-
dote of the empress’s confrontation with the picture and her clever sally in
response: “Is she a Percheron too?” He claims that if he had been present
at the time he would have replied, as he politely doffed his hat, “No, ma-
dame; she is only a simple bourgeoise, like so many others in our society,
and whose husband, liberal under Louis-Philippe, reactionary under the
Republic, is now one of the most devoted subjects of the emperor.” And he
elaborated on his idea of the bather as personification of her class:
Yes, here is this fleshy and well-to-do bourgeoisie, deformed by fat and luxury;
whose flabbiness and mass stifles the ideal, and foreordains them to die of cow-
ardice if not of molten grease. Here is what their foolishness, their egoism and
cuisine have given us. What amplitude! What opulence! They may be likened to
a lamb awaiting slaughter.
Proudhon’s interpretation is revealing in showing us how a radical inter-
pretation of the work could intersect at many points with the conservative
accounts. They differed fundamentally, however, in evaluating the motives
of the painter: for the radical, Courbet’s work excelled in clarifying the
state of the society, while for the puzzled conservatives (including Dela-
croix) it contributed to its debasement. Proudhon asserted that Courbet
199 radical realism continued
mercilessly stripped his victims to disclose the vulgar forms beneath, while
Dupays saw this display of the forms as itself a manifestation of bourgeois
The conservative reaction is also seen in the mocking critiques of The
Wrestlers, similarly discussed in class terms. Typically, wrestlers were of peas-
ant origin, selling their physical power for the entertainment of society’s
privileged sectors. In this case, the site of the wrestling match—the open-
air arena of the Imperial Hippodrome on the periphery of the Champs-
Elysées—was a favorite sporting ground for the upper classes of the Second
Empire. Dupays argued that in order to compensate for his bather’s affront
to the “fair sex,” Courbet attempted to produce with even more rude-
ness “the deformities of the vilain”—a pun on the feudalistic term for serf
and its topical connotations of blackguard, or filthy and wicked charac-
ter. Whatever their anatomical merits, the wrestlers were overshadowed by
content exclusively devoted “to blackness, ugliness, and triviality.”
All three works by Courbet were subjected to scatological insults; the
critics seemed to have sniffed a malodorous aroma around every one—
monumental unwashed bodies reeking with the stale stench of bodily
fluids of every sort. The predominant gray cast of the wrestlers’ bodies
sparked an obsessive harping on the theme of darkness, which suggests still
another manifestation of a regional and class-bound discourse tinged with
racism. Charles Tillot, for example, claimed to see “two Auvergnat trad-
ers in coal” (keeping in mind the stereotype of Auvergnats as petty sharp-
ers), and Clément de Ris pretended to perceive them as an advertisement
for “shoe polish merchants.” Gautier, who had previously described the
bather as a Hottentot Venus, saw the wrestlers as having “rolled in soot
and coal dust” prior to the match, and even refers to them at one point as
“black men.” Eugène Loudun mocked the muscular athletes as “enormous
black, burly, bullnecked men, with blacksmith’s arms and boxer’s hands
that could break your jaw with one blow. . . . It’s real enough to scare the
hell out of you.” Despite the scoffing context of these remarks, they betray
what Herding rightfully interprets as a displaced fear of the potential threat
of the underclasses.
The wrestlers sell their labor power as purveyors of entertainment, he-
roic warriors operating outside the military domain to divert the bour-
geoisie from the exploitative routine of everyday life. Now the French
word for wrestler, lutteur, derives from lutter, meaning to struggle, to strive
against, to cope with, so that wrestling quickly springs to mind as a meta-
phor for the struggle for existence or the class struggle.
Courbet’s wres-
tlers go about their work as strenuously as the stonebreakers; their swollen
veins demonstrate that they are using every fiber of their bodies to accom-
plish their task. Yet instead of setting up a dramatic confrontation between
opposing forces as Géricault and others did in fistfights and other com-
petitive sports, Courbet ironizes his contest as a stalemate between evenly
matched contenders. Dupays and others were confused by the positions of
200 chapter three
the fighters, whose legs line up like the legs of a piece of furniture, as if
united into a single interlocking mass. Despite their intense struggle on be-
half of the bourgeoisie, these bigger-than-life proletarian combatants wind
up in a deadlock, and by extension probably refer to the standstill of the
entire republican movement.
The Meeting
The 1853 Salon had one positive outcome for Courbet; it brought him into
contact with Alfred Bruyas of Montpellier, soon to become his single most
important patron. Bruyas was profoundly moved by the works at the Salon
and promptly purchased The Bathers and The Sleeping Spinner, as well as The
Man with the Pipe, and even commissioned his own portrait (a favorite sub-
ject, judging from the number of his portraits in his gallery). Just two years
younger than Courbet, living a similar bachelor existence, Bruyas had in-
herited a fortune from his banker father and lived out the role of wealthy
Maecenas. Despite his wealth, however, he was always in delicate health,
and he seemed desperate to leave something to posterity. An obsession with
his own self-image represented one pole of his desire for immortality; find-
ing a solution to the world’s social ills constituted the other.
It is this longing that made the rich connoisseur an unexpected partner
of the realist and socialist Courbet. Bruyas espoused Saint-Simonist and
Fourierist principles, among them the importance assigned to the artist in
advancing humanity’s quest for fulfillment. Their mutual friend, the Fou-
rierist critic François Sabatier-Ungher, sympathetic to the radical realists,
may have brought them together. Bruyas felt obligated to buy The Bathers
despite the attacks against it because it represented to him a new truth and
a vivid instance of creative independence. He associated realism with posi-
tivism in the evolution of human progress and championed Courbet as its
leading exponent, envisioning the artist as a model of social as well as of
artistic freedom.
The painter’s first portrait of his new friend and benefactor, called Tab-
leau-Solution, depicts Bruyas with his left hand resting on a fictive book en-
titled “Etudes / sur / l’Art moderne / Solution / A. Bruyas.” According to
Silvestre, the painting represented a symbolic pact between artist and pa-
tron to promote their shared views on the “solution” to contemporary life
and art. Their solution, of course, was Courbet’s brand of realism, and its
realization implied the patron’s commitment to subsidizing Courbet’s work
and maximizing his freedom of action. Bruyas, however, was a bundle of
contradictions who confused his art patronage with the public good. He
stood behind the coup d’état as a socially stabilizing act whose beneficent
results, he predicted, would be reflected in the Salon exhibits of 1853! Then
he purchased The Bathers, the most provocative work in the house, because
it raised the most challenging questions about art and its relationship to
reality. Yet his favorite painting of 1853 represented him in the middle of
201 radical realism continued
Octave Tassaert’s studio holding forth with the painter on a canvas in prog-
ress, and this image, he wrote Courbet, embodied “the true poem of mod-
ern painting.” Courbet had found a partner loonier than himself, although
art history has privileged Bruyas as a mere “eccentric.”
Courbet consistently took advantage of Bruyas’s foibles, and nowhere
is this more evident than in the picture entitled La Rencontre or The Meet-
ing (fig. 3.19). Commissioned by Bruyas, The Meeting bears visual testimony
to their partnership and commemorates Courbet’s stay at Montpellier be-
tween June and October 1854 to collaborate with the patron on their joint
“solution.” Just before he left Ornans for Montpellier he wrote Bruyas that
he planned to realize a “unique miracle” in his lifetime, to live off his art
without sacrificing his principles. In Bruyas he had found his ideal spon-
sor: “I have met [rencontré] you. It was inevitable because it was not we who
3.19 Gustave Courbet, The Meet-
ing, 1854. Musée Fabre, Mont-
202 chapter three
have encountered [rencontrés] each other, but our solutions.” The reiterated
form of rencontre, to meet, the meeting, is the operative metaphor in the
picture, a meeting of minds bent on a single purpose.
Courbet and Bruyas and Bruyas’s manservant Calas all meet at a sym-
bolic crossroads just outside Montpellier and exchange formal salutations.
Their body language and costume make a study in contrasts while appar-
ently meeting on a common plane. Courbet, as fashion-conscious as ever,
portrays himself as a sturdy vagabond with a huge pilgrim’s staff, roughing
it in the wilderness with gaitered boots, a battered hat crushed in his left
hand, and his portable landscape equipment strapped to his back; Bruyas
carries an elegant walking stick and wears kid gloves and his fashionable
trademark olive green jacket with striped collar; the servant wears lumpy
bourgeois hand-me-downs and carries a knob-headed cane along with a
spare wrap for his master. Courbet energetically thrusts himself forward
with his staff planted ahead, his right foot advanced, his head upraised and
beard stiffly pointing outward; Bruyas stands rigidly at attention, halted in
his tracks by his formidable partner, and extends
his hat outward in welcome, while Calas, who also
doffs his cap, bows his head in reverence. (About
claimed that the self-effacing servant behaved as if
he were assisting a priest at mass.) Even Bruyas’s
dog stands erect on all four legs, wagging his tail
and barking a ceremonial greeting. Courbet not
only reverses the traditional hierarchical relation-
ship of artist and patron but equates himself with
visiting royalty and saintly heroes.
At the same time, he alters conventional class
decorum in posing himself as a journeyman crafts-
man confidently facing his bourgeois better. Ironi-
cally, the source for the image was a portion of
a popular broadside of the Wandering Jew, repre-
senting an encounter of Ahasuerus and two up-
right citizens (“Les Bourgeois de la Ville parlant
au Juif errant”) on the road to a nearby town
(fig. 3.20).
The Legend of the Wandering Jew
was well known in Courbet’s circle: in addition
to Pierre Dupont’s poem on the theme (1856),
Champfleury would later use this same woodcut
print as the frontispiece for his Histoire de l’imagerie
populaire (1869), and the voluminous notes of his
systematic study of the legend suggest that he had
been engaged in the research over a long period,
accumulating along the way a major collection of
prints illustrating the subject that Courbet surely
3.20 Legend of the Wandering Jew,
woodcut, early nineteenth cen-
tury. Frontispiece for Champ-
fleury, Histoire de l’imagerie populaire
203 radical realism continued
Briefly, the genesis of the theme of the Wandering Jew traces to a leg-
endary inhabitant of Jerusalem named Ahasuerus, who, when Jesus agoniz-
ingly bore his cross to Calvary and paused for a rest at his doorstep, drove
him away with the rebuke, “Walk faster!” and received in turn this chiding,
“I go, but you will walk until I come again!”
Ahasuerus was henceforth
condemned to perpetual wandering until Jesus returned to redeem human-
kind. Popular literature in the late medieval period linked him and his fel-
low Jews to the Antichrist, and thus he was fused with the anti-Semitic
deicidal Jew. Although the mythical figure undergoes various mutations
throughout history depending on time and place—peripatetic observer of
human folly, harbinger of disaster, example of man’s inhumanity to man,
and mysterious stalker of the night—he is most often the suffering sinner
who abused Jesus and can never know peace until the advent of Christ’s re-
turn. If then he repents and converts, he could at long last find his eternal
resting place. Thus on one level he embodied a Christian parable on the fate
of the Jewish people, and on another served as a warning to other would-
be dissidents within the church.
Later folkloric accretions made Ahasuerus a shoemaker, an artisan, and
in the most influential treatment of the legend—the Fourierist-inspired
novel Le Juif errant by Eugène Sue—he emerges as the intermittent synec-
doche of the downtrodden proletariat. Joined by his sister, the Wandering
Jewess, the two stand as symbolic spokespersons for the oppressed laborers
of the world, Jew and Gentile, male and female. Indeed, in the novel the
persecution of the Jews (symbolically enacted in the long-suffering Samuel
and Bathsheba) and the curse of the Wandering Jew merge with the afflic-
tions of the proletariat, as uttered in this lamentation of Ahasuerus: “My
brethren! through me—the laborer of Jerusalem, cursed by the Lord, who
in my person cursed the race of laborers—a race always suffering, always
disinherited, always slaves, who, like me, go on, on, on, without rest or in-
termission, without recompense, or hope.”
The vignette of Ahasuerus encountering two solid burghers of the lo-
cal town (a constant in the Franco-Flemish version of the legend) and ac-
companying text were crucial to establishing the moral and social contrast
between the accursed pariah and the upright citizenry to whom he invari-
ably confesses his woeful tale. Courbet clearly chose this secondary image
to play up the incongruity between himself and his patron, preferring in
this instance to identify with the outcast Jewish artisan in opposition to his
solidly bourgeois patron. As in the case of the allegorical personification
of the Republic, where the abstract female image could embody positive
energy, so the image of the Jew, also operating on the plane of abstraction,
could serve as role model for the realist condemned to pariah status.
Courbet in fact had used the image once before in painting the portrait
of Jean Journet, a Fourierist missionary, who, staff in hand, marches off
to announce to the world the benefits of the phalanstery. Courbet also ex-
ecuted a lithograph of the radical evangelist entitled The Apostle Jean Journet
204 chapter three
Setting Out for the Conquest of Universal Har-
mony, showing him beginning a nationwide
pilgrimage with his staff and shoulder bags
loaded with brochures and extra clothes (fig.
3.21). Significantly, the lithograph is enclosed
on three sides by a complainte, a plaintive lyric
of the type attached to the image of the Wan-
dering Jew.
Champfleury felt a strong affection for
this madcap Fourierist true believer who
disrupted theatrical performances and pri-
vate parties with a call for converts to the
cause. Journet considered himself the mod-
ern “savior of the world” and Champfleury
quotes him as having written to Chateaubri-
and: “The apostle is he who condemns, who
absolves, who judges; it is he who is the last
man on earth, it is he who is powerful, it is he
who is the apostle, it is I, it is Jean Journet.”

This is the kind of rhetorical bravado that ap-
pealed to Courbet, who considered himself
the “apostle” of realism.
Journet, who left the Parisian nonbeliev-
ers for the provinces, established a precedent
for Courbet in trekking to Montpellier to
preach his Fourierist doctrine to local church
dignitaries. Traveling on foot like his Fourier-
ist role model and the Wandering Jew, he de-
liberately eschews such bourgeois conveniences as the diligence receding in
the distance. Despite his humble lifestyle, however, the outcast is not only
elevated socially in relation to the townsmen but immodestly accepts their
acknowledgment of his superiority.
The Meeting was one of eleven canvases accepted for the Exposition
Universelle of 1855, and Courbet wrote Bruyas that the work created “an
extraordinary impression.” Critics, he noted, were calling it Bonjour, Mon-
sieur Courbet, and the numerous foreigners crowding around it attested to
its “universal success.” The various doggerel verses, satirical poems, and
caricatures devoted to the picture would seem to confirm Courbet’s sense
of its reception, but most often they were aimed at deriding the sheer nar-
cissism of his self-presentation:
And the somber foliage, hollowed out like an arch,
The meadows, the branch that a swollen fruit caused to curve [courbait],
Sang in unison: “Bonjour, M. Courbet, the master painter!
Monsieur Courbet, salut! Bonjour, M. Courbet!”
3.21 Gustave Courbet, The
Apostle Jean Journet Setting Out for
the Conquest of Universal Harmony,
lithograph, 1850. Bibliothèque
Nationale, Paris.
205 radical realism continued
About, who nicknamed the work “Fortune Bowing before Genius,”
mockingly observed that neither the bourgeois patron nor his servant cast
a shadow on the ground: “M. Courbet alone has power to obstruct the
sun’s rays.”
Yet on the peripheries of About’s jibes there is inadvertent testimony
to some of the work’s positive qualities: the critic gleans from the land-
scape the weather (“It is a hot day”), the time of day (“between eleven
and noon”), and the topographical location (“outskirts of Montpellier”).
For what is remarkable is that just as he convincingly conveyed the pecu-
liar geological features in and around Ornans, here Courbet captures the
brightness and warmth of the southern atmosphere, low horizon, big azure
sky, and indigenous vegetation of the Midi in late spring. Courbet’s Meet-
ing represents an actual moment in time, but a moment mediated by a se-
lectively staged action reminiscent of the popular source that informed it.
Although embedded in the ordinary act of greeting, the picture stands as
the first of Courbet’s “real allegories.”
Indeed, it represents a sort of ritual encounter commemorating the cre-
ative association of Bruyas and Courbet. The ritualistic component may
overlay a Freemasonic intention: Bruyas belonged to a local lodge and
wears white gloves in the painting, an indispensable item of the ceremo-
nial dress worn at Masonic unions. White gloves symbolize the purity of
the soul and possess a protective power—qualities that Courbet may have
wished to assign to his patron under the circumstances. Canes—usually
decorated with prominent pommels like the round-headed type held by
Calas—also form part of the symbolic garb at lodge meetings when car-
ried by the Master of Ceremonies. It may be stretching it a bit to confront
the frontispiece of the first edition of The Constitutions of the Free-Masons
(1723) with The Meeting, but the juxtaposition reveals some intriguing par-
allels (fig. 3.22). In the ritual encounter of the two principal officers, the
Grand Master commits the constitutions to his successor with a hand ges-
ture resembling that of Bruyas, while the attendant at the left holding a
wrap (apron?) and a pair of gloves and inclining his head strikes me as the
prototype of Calas.
Courbet may have used Masonic materials to lend emphasis to this
rite of passage, but they are of minor importance within his larger real-
ist enterprise. They relate to Courbet’s projection of himself as itinerant
artisan, the type of journeyman or compagnon who traveled freely from
town to town seeking to ply his skills. George Sand’s novel Le Compagnon
du tour de France celebrates the independence of these skilled craftsmen as
they rambled through the countryside. In addition, their craft brother-
hoods and signage were modeled on Freemasonry, which in turn associ-
ated itself with the tradition of the compagnonnage. The itinerant craftsman
could be seen as a regenerated version of the Wandering Jew, and Cour-
bet, as has been shown, transposed the sign of persecuted artisan into one
of liberation.
206 chapter three
By joining the rural and the urban, town and country, Courbet’s scene
metaphorically realized the Comtean ideal of social and environmental
transformation through synthesis of scientific knowledge. His exploita-
tion of a popular image for the source of his painting drew on tradition-
al folklore as a bridge between high and low culture, making his subject
matter more inclusive and enabling him to emancipate himself from elite
aesthetic norms. The landscape as sign of untrammeled nature served as a
locus of freedom for reconciliation of town and country, artist and society,
worker and bourgeois, bourgeois and peasant, thus fulfilling the ideals of
the realist-rural discourse. The fact that Montpellier and the department
of Hérault generally had formed part of Red France, and that its well-or-
ganized working classes and petty bourgeoisie resisted the coup d’état in
December 1851, perhaps made this symbolic reunion especially urgent for
The celebratory meeting of the townsman and the artist/work-
er/peasant at the rural crossroads heralds the resolution of social and politi-
cal divisions in the post-1848 period.
3.22 Frontispiece for first edition
of Constitutions des franc-maçons
207 radical realism continued
The Studio
By the decree of 22 June 1853, the Salon of 1854 was canceled and post-
poned to 1855, when it was to be combined with the Exposition Univer-
selle. The Exposition Universelle of 1855 represented the imperial riposte
to Britain’s Great Exhibition of 1851, and the French government meant to
surpass its predecessor by staging a vast spectacle of the fine arts, a com-
ponent missing from the London show, limited to the display of sculpture
and examples of the industrial arts. Writing for L’Artiste, Charles Perrin
puffed this innovation for France, which for the first time in history per-
mitted “art to appear face to face with industry.” Ironically, Perrin, who
loathed Courbet, inadvertently wrote the apologia for the painter’s attrac-
tions. Speaking for France, he claimed that the nation called upon art in
1855 to function “as a more or less faithful image of our society and that of
foreign societies as well,” a role that industry could never fulfill.
It already has been shown to what degree the government’s plans for
the Exposition influenced Millet’s exhibit of Peasant Grafting a Tree, and it
remains to be seen what strategies were deployed to win Courbet’s sympa-
thy. Around October of 1853, Courbet wrote to Bruyas about a luncheon
date with Nieuwerkerke, the authoritarian surintendant des Beaux-Arts
who wielded enormous clout over cultural matters during the Second Em-
pire. Courbet noted that the engagement had been arranged by the two
“sell-outs” Chenavard and the landscapist Louis Français (recently named
Chevaliers in the Légion d’Honneur), and that the sole intention of the su-
rintendant was to convert him to the government’s position. Nieuwerkerke
told Courbet that the administration hated to see him going alone, that he
could win its full support if only he would tone down his approach and
“mix a little water with [his] wine” (recall the same expression by Clément
de Ris, a critic close to the seat of cultural power). Nieuwerkerke admitted
the regime’s great respect for Courbet’s talent, and declared that the gov-
ernment hoped to see him produce his greatest work yet for the coming
World’s Fair and that he, Nieuwerkerke, would personally steer it through
appropriate channels.
Courbet’s reply to Nieuwerkerke, as he related it to Bruyas, was filled
with righteous indignation, but he also made it clear that he understood
why the government needed his talents: “I alone, of all the French art-
ists of my time, [have] the power to represent and translate in an original
way both my personality and my society.” When a startled Nieuwerkerke
blurted out, “Why, Monsieur Courbet, you are quite proud,” Courbet re-
plied: “Sir, I am the proudest man in France.” He opposed himself as an
individual one-person government to the collective government of Na-
poléon III and shouted that the attempted bribe insulted the entire com-
munity of artists. When Nieuwerkerke requested a definitive answer to
his request for a special work for the Exposition Universelle, Courbet re-
sponded that the government owed him 15,000 francs for drawing so many
208 chapter three
paid admissions to their previous exhibitions. Defeated, Nieuwerkerke re-
treated to the door in disgust, but turned back one last time to admonish
Courbet: “Note well that it is the government and not just me that has in-
vited you to lunch today!”
One year later we find Courbet hard at work on his magnum opus,
the immense, multifigured Atelier, or The Painter’s Studio, one of fourteen
entries that he initially planned to submit to the Paris Exhibition of 1855
(fig. 3.23). This ambitious canvas, twenty feet wide and twelve feet high
and containing thirty-three life-size figures, was unmistakably the fruit of
the exchange between Courbet and Nieuwerkerke. We first learn of its ex-
istence in a letter to Bruyas where Courbet informs his patron that he has
completed the outline sketch of the definitive tableau. He describes it as
“the moral and physical history of my atelier, including all the people who
serve me and participate in my action. In the background of the painting
will be The Bathers and Return from the Fair. On my easel I’ll paint a land-
scape with a miller driving his donkeys loaded with sacks to the mill. I’ll
title it the ‘first series,’ for I hope to have society pass through my studio, to
become aware of and to love my inclinations as well as my aversions.”
He amplified and clarified his theme in even more detail in his letter to
Champfleury, written not long afterwards (autumn 1854). Here he states
that the work—as yet untitled—is divided into two parts, but then runs
3.23 Gustave Courbet, The
Painter’s Studio, 1854–1855. Musée
d’Orsay, Paris.
209 radical realism continued
them together in his opening description of the first: “These are the people
who serve me, support me in my ideas, and take part in my activity; people
who thrive on life, and those who thrive on death; society at its best, its
worst, and its average—in short, it’s my way of seeing society with all its
interests and passions; it is the whole world coming to me to be painted.”
Spelling out more precisely the differences of the two divisions of the
painting, he locates on the right the shareholders (actionnaires) in his enter-
prise—that is, friends, working colleagues, and art lovers. On the left is the
other world of commonplace life—the people, misery, poverty, wealth,
the exploited and the exploiters, the people who thrive on death. Courbet
himself is in the middle of these two groups, painting away at his easel, this
time modifying the subject to show the miller pinching the butt of a young
girl he meets on the way to the mill. After this general description, he gets
down to specifics, starting from the extreme left:
On the edge of the canvas is a Jew I saw in England making his way through the
feverish activity of the London streets, devotedly cradling a coffer in his right
arm and covering it with his left hand. He seemed to be saying, “It is I who have
the best of it.” He had an ivory complexion, a long beard, a turban, and a long
black robe that trailed on the ground. Behind him is a curate with a red bloated
face and triumphal expression. In front of them is a poor, very thin old man, a
veteran republican of ’93 (that minister of the interior, for example, who was
part of the Assembly when Louis XVI was condemned to death, the one who
as recently as last year was taking courses at the Sorbonne), ninety years old, a
beggar’s pouch in his hand, wearing a patched white linen jacket and a broad-
brimmed hat; he is looking at a pile of romantic paraphernalia at his feet. (The
Jew takes pity on him.) Then there’s a hunter, a reaper with his scythe, a circus
Hercules, a clown, an old-clothes merchant, a laborer’s wife, a laborer, and an
undertaker’s assistant; a skull lying on a newspaper; an Irishwoman nursing her
child, and a studio mannequin. . . . The old-clothes man presides over all this,
displaying his shoddy goods to all these people, each of whom in their own
way pays the greatest attention. Behind him, in the foreground, is a guitar and a
plumed hat.
Next, Courbet enumerates the aggregate of individuals on the opposite
side, starting with himself at the easel, but not bothering to reveal as much
descriptive detail as in the first part. Watching him paint over his shoulder
is a nude model, with her clothes piled up behind his chair. A white cat ca-
vorts on the floor nearby. Next comes his friend Promayet, holding his vio-
lin beneath his arm, followed by Bruyas, Cuenot, Buchon, and Proudhon.
Champfleury he includes seated on a stool, and beside him an elegantly clad
lady with her husband. Baudelaire would be depicted at the extreme right
absorbed in a book, and next to him a “Negress looking coquettishly at her
reflection in a mirror.” Finally, in the rear of the painting, in a window re-
cess, two lovers will be whispering sweet nothings to one another.
210 chapter three
Courbet’s description was by no means exhaustive, but it characterized
the work’s conceptualization up to that moment. He made several changes
and additions as he continued, most notably the introduction of the seat-
ed braconnier or poacher, with his rifle and dogs, on the left, and a peasant
child watching Courbet paint at the easel along with the nude model. He
also altered the painting on the easel, removing the incident of the miller
and the young girl and confining himself to a pure landscape of the Loue
banks near Ornans. Next to Champfleury, he added a young boy lying on
the floor making a child’s drawing—a subject akin to popular imagery that
especially intrigued the writer. Finally, just before exhibiting the picture
he eliminated the black woman; Edouard Houssaye, editor of L’Artiste,
noted her presence as late as April 1855, describing her as a person of the
“yellow race.” She was actually Jeanne Duval, the mixed-race mistress of
Baudelaire, who requested that Courbet remove Duval from the picture.
(The chemistry of oil paint, however, has allowed her to remain as a faint
silhouette hovering above her lover.)
When Courbet completed the work he called it The Painter’s Studio: A
Real Allegory Summing Up a Seven-Year Phase of My Artistic Life, using the
oxymoronic form of “allégorie réelle” to reconcile his realist approach with
an attempt at historical synthesis—a kind of realist riposte to the histori-
cal cycles of Chenavard, Ingres, and Delaroche. Since he began the work
at the end of 1854, modern commentators tend to date his “seven-year”
phase from 1847, but it was actually the delivery date of the picture and
the event of the Exposition Universelle he had in mind, making the start-
ing year 1848. Thus the work constitutes a summation of his career from
the decisive revolutionary moment at which he attained political as well as
artistic maturity.
Several emblematic passages in the painting signify the rejection of
both classicism and romanticism: on the side of those who thrive on death
the mannequin of St. Sebastian pierced with arrows suggests the demise
of classicism, while the undertaker’s assistant presides over a pile of props
dear to romantic imaginations, including plumed slouch hat, dagger, and
a guitar that Courbet had himself used in his own romantic phase. Also to
the side of the undertaker’s assistant is a skull nestled in a crumpled copy
of the Journal des débats, a newspaper that extolled classicism and romanti-
cism and scoffed at Courbet’s realism. His emblematic barbs specifically
targeted the chiefs of the two schools, Ingres and Delacroix, who were
given special retrospective exhibitions at the World’s Fair, as well as the
sycophantic press who puffed them as representative of France’s cultural
supremacy. The peddler of shoddy goods who attracts the crowd alludes
to the government-controlled press that camouflaged outworn ideas with
inflated rhetoric.
Meanwhile, Courbet shrewdly paints a landscape while turning his back
on the posing model—an outright refusal of the academic routine. The un-
schooled model, the innocent peasant lad—and perhaps the playful animal
211 radical realism continued
reacting instinctively—alone grasp the importance of Courbet’s work, rep-
resentative of that wider natural community (Sand’s la vie primitive) Courbet
hoped to reach with his art. This theme is reinforced by the child sketching
on the floor near Champfleury who, as Schapiro pointed out, profoundly
admired children’s drawings for precisely those traits of sincerity and truth-
fulness that he admired in folk imagery.
At the same time that Courbet rejects outworn classicism and roman-
ticism and reaffirms realism and its sources in spontaneous nature, he also
announces his program of social inclusivity in the post-1848 period. His
wide range of types include agricultural and town laborers, artisans, moun-
tebanks—including a clown in Chinese costume, perhaps signaling the
imperial ties of the Second Empire—religious figures, a peddler of cheap
goods, and a destitute woman clinging to life for herself and her suckling
infant, as well as the affluent in his circle, including a number of prominent
landowners, financiers, entrepreneurs, and intellectuals.
There can be no doubt that he produced this magisterial effort in re-
sponse to Nieuwerkerke’s request. Early in 1855, as the deadline for submis-
sion drew close, Courbet, delayed by illness and the enormity of the task
he set himself, asked Français to intervene with Nieuwerkerke on his behalf
to obtain a special extension to complete it. He reminded his friend that
Nieuwerkerke “offered me his help in your presence,” and hoped that he
“could hold him to his word at this time.”
Courbet was granted the ex-
tension, but in the end the selection committee of the Exposition Univer-
selle of 1855 rejected the picture, along with two others, Funeral at Ornans
and his portrait of Champfleury. (Although the pretext for refusing the big
works was the want of space required for the foreign displays, the rejection
of the portrait of Champfleury hints at behind-the-scenes manipulation.)
The committee, however, did accept eleven of his entries, including The
Stonebreakers, The Meeting, and Demoiselles of the Village.
Courbet’s desire to be represented by Funeral and especially the new
Studio prompted him to organize a retaliatory counter-exhibition in a
hastily constructed iron and hollow-brick structure on 7, avenue Mon-
taigne, opposite the Fine Arts pavilion of the World’s Fair. Opening just
six weeks after the inauguration of the Exposition Universelle, his display
of forty paintings and four drawings approximated the numbers allowed
to Ingres and Delacroix, who carried the banners for classicism and ro-
manticism in their separate retrospectives. His special show was advertised
by a large sign over the entrance which read “le realisme”—a clear shot at
his official competition.
Well aware that the administration had used realist rhetoric to justify
its inclusion of the fine arts in its commercial and industrial exhibition,
Courbet reappropriated the high ground by emphatically declaring, in the
catalogue printed for his private show: “To be in a position to translate the
customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch, according to my own esti-
mation; to be not only a painter, but a man as well; in short, to create living
212 chapter three
art—this is my goal.” Calling upon Bruyas to ship The Bathers to Paris for
the show, he reminded him that “in this you are serving a holy and sacred
cause, the cause of liberty and independence, a cause to which I, like you,
have consecrated my entire life.”
Courbet’s paranoid dreams of overwhelming his enemies and earning
profitable returns from thrill-seeking crowds were quickly dashed, how-
ever, when only a trickle of visitors showed up each day. Critics like Perrin
calumniated him for his inordinate vanity in posing “heroically as com-
mander-in-chief of realism,” although they could hardly avoid confront-
ing The Painter’s Studio. Writing for L’Artiste, Perrin saw, on the left-hand
side of the painting, “a battalion of monsters escaped from the Cour des
Miracles—Courbet’s lamentable personification of ‘our era.’” Yet this was
the same work that Delacroix went to visit in early August and which held
him spellbound for nearly an hour. He confessed in his diary that he simply
“could not tear” himself away from the sight of the singular “masterpiece,”
and concluded that the selection committee refused “one of the most ex-
traordinary works of our time.”
Courbet’s subtitle, suggesting the conclusion of a distinct phase of his
career, clarifies the paradoxical coupling of “real” and “allegory.” The work
tries to marry the autobiographical and the social in a historical synthesis
that conveys the “appearance of my epoch, according to my own estima-
tion.” There is a suggestion of a concealed message in the work, a puzzle
that needed to be deciphered. He wrote to Français that it would “take too
long to explain what I want to let you guess when you see it. . . . It is fairly
mysterious, it will keep people guessing.” This statement has given rise to
all sorts of ingenious interpretations by modern art historians, but since
Courbet had already delivered the long version to Champfleury, I believe
there is no need to think beyond what the painter reiterated for Français as
“the story of my atelier, what goes on there morally and physically.”
Most of the recent work of interpretation has been based on Toussaint’s
identification of the figures on the left-hand side as well-known historical
celebrities, some of them quite convincing, as for example, the Jew (Achille
Fould, minister of state) and the curate (Louis Veuillot, the ultramontane
Catholic editor of L’Univers). But I find her other identifications less per-
suasive, including the designations of the seated poacher as Napoléon III
and the purveyor of shoddy goods as Persigny, minister of the interior.
Courbet may very well have employed actual personalities for his types on
the left-hand half of the composition, but they could have easily served
him as representative ethnic or occupational types of what he characterized
as the exploiters, those who “thrive on death,” rather than as hidden por-
traits in a preplanned puzzler. This type of abstruse riddle is totally alien
to Courbet’s sensibility, and it hardly makes sense for Courbet to have in-
cluded revolutionaries like Garibaldi, Kossuth, and Kosciuszko (who died
in 1817!)—as Toussaint supposed—among those who “thrive on death.”
213 radical realism continued
On the other hand, I am sympathetic to her Masonic reading of the picture,
which I shall return to in a moment.
My rejection of the identification of the poacher with Napoléon III
means also that I have to reluctantly reject Herding’s imaginative interpre-
tation of the work as an adhortatio ad principem, an exhortation to the ruler
calling for reconciliation between rival nations, parties, and classes.
I see
the picture is an enterprising attempt at a temporal synthesis of Courbet’s
experience within a given time period, and a monument to his intellectual
mastery of people and events. Not unlike Ingres in his Apotheosis of Hom-
er, Courbet visualized a universal scheme of culture that emanated from a
single powerful source. He differed significantly from Ingres, however, in
placing himself, the artist, at the center of that formation. In a sense, Cour-
bet broke the ice with this picture by daring to place himself at the hub of
history and society. If Toussaint is right in her identification of the poacher
as Napoléon III, his presence in a subordinate position serves to categori-
cally affirm Courbet’s dominance within his realm of action. (Recall his
statement to Nieuwerkerke that he too was “a government.”) In express-
ing gratitude to Bruyas for his support of the private exhibition, Courbet
reminded him of the historical importance of participating “in my action.”
But here as elsewhere he meant no mere show of egocentricity, but a re-
versal of the social and political conventions that would impose arbitrary
constraints on human beings.
Here is where I believe Toussaint’s Masonic reading offers a possible
clarification of Courbet’s intent, although she seems to have confused his
early label for his effort—“first series”—with the first three degrees or
Blue Lodge degrees of Masonry. The term “series” is used almost uniquely
in the Rite of Misraim (or Rite of Egypt) that is divided into four series of
ninety degrees, of which the first series is “symbolic” (série symbolique) and
comprises thirty-five degrees including apprentice, journeyman, and mas-
ter. The final degree in this series is “Grand Commandeur du Temple,” and
Toussaint rightfully suggests that Courbet’s description of Bruyas’s pose as
“triomphant et commandeur” carries this Masonic connotation.
all, she points out the significance of the term “atelier” in French Masonry
as a synonym for loge or lodge. Actually, “atelier” in the Masonic termi-
nology means much more: it is the generic term for the entire Masonic
edifice. Masons cannot exist in isolation, but only in groups, and it is the
group concept that is designated as “atelier.”
Thus the Masonic symbol-
ism lends support to Courbet’s totalizing attempt to harmonize metaphori-
cally the varying levels of his society. The representative community of
Funeral at Ornans now expands into a global fraternal association united
around a common vision of nature or reality.
This is symbolized in the Franche-Comté landscape that Courbet
paints on his easel, the focal point of the composition.
The whole world
comes to Courbet’s doorstep to participate in his celebration of his native
214 chapter three
environment—the rustic alternative to town corruption, the site of recon-
ciliation of the urban and the rural, and of the restoration of inner peace to
troubled souls, the model for the regeneration of French society. As in The
Meeting, he again metaphorically resolves the conflict between town and
country and pictorially realizes the realist-rural discourse as a “solution”
to the social question.
Until now, not much attention has been paid to the significance of that
part of the title referring to the picture as a résumé of a “seven-year phase.”
I intend to develop this idea even more fully in my discussion of Whitman
and Courbet, but for now I wish to point out that Courbet consistently
conceptualized his career as a series of discrete “stages” of development
progressively leading to his realization as a complete person making “living
art.” This is an idea borrowed from Comte, who believed that his own era
opened upon the final stage of historical development. Comte’s sequence
of three historical stages, culminating with the positive, provided the con-
ceptual model for thinking about human progress—the philosophical and
sociological foundation of Courbet’s seven-year phase crowned by his ful-
fillment as a realist painter. In one sense, Courbet’s Studio, which brings the
whole world to his doorstep, visualizes Comte’s design for a comprehen-
sive philosophical system capable of encompassing all human knowledge.
This interpretation assumes a public and political intention in the
construction of the monumental composition, but we have also seen the
attempted government intervention to pressure him to conform to its pro-
gram. It would have been difficult for anyone, even a strong-willed person-
ality like Courbet, to stoutheartedly resist a combination of blandishments
and threats by the authoritarian regime. Several years later, in a bitter letter
to the exiled Victor Hugo, Courbet compared his lot under Napoléon III’s
regime to that in which Hugo and Delacroix worked:
When you and Delacroix were in your prime, you did not have, as I do, the
Empire to tell you, “Outside of us there is no salvation.” There was no warrant
for your arrest; your mothers, unlike mine, did not make underground passages
in the house to hide you from the police; Delacroix never saw soldiers violating
his home, effacing his paintings with a bucket of turpentine, by ministerial or-
der; his works were not arbitrarily shut out of the Exposition [1855]; he did not
need ridiculous chapels to house his pictures outside the Exposition; the annual
official speeches did not single him out for censure; unlike me, he did not have
that pack of mongrels baying at his heels, in the service of their mongrel masters.
The battles were about art and questions of principle; you were not threatened
with proscription.
Here, whether partially hallucinatory or not, he attests to the intense
compulsion to conform that he experienced at the time of the Exposition
Universelle. Clearly his capacity to demonstrate his convictions required
the government’s facilities, including its permission for an extension of
215 radical realism continued
the deadline to complete his picture and for erecting his temporary pavil-
ion near the grounds of the Exposition Universelle. In the end, I believe
that these pressures acted negatively on him to produce an outcome that in
many ways contradicted his stated convictions.
Most modern observers point out the lack of communication among
the diverse figures assembled in the painter’s studio and the painter’s utter
indifference to their presence, including his dearest friends, mentors, and
patrons. In a work pretending to visualize a harmonious reconciliation of
modern social factions, the want of a shared activity or reciprocal recogni-
tion militates against a metaphorical resolution of the social question. In
addition, there are what I would call “ethnic slurs” in the composition that
undermine its stated claim to inclusivity. The “Negress” that has been ef-
faced was originally gazing at herself “coquettishly” in the mirror while
her lover read, and the circus clown wears a mocking Chinese mask and
costume. But it is especially the image of the Jew, hugging tightly his jewel
box (a familiar trope in the literature) and muttering to himself that he has
the best of it, who betrays Courbet’s social and ethnic prejudices. Signifi-
cantly, Courbet began his description of the theme in his letter to Champ-
fleury with the position of the Jew, and in the composition it is the Jew’s
full-length body with his prominent fur shtreimel and caftan at the extreme
left-hand edge that towers over all the others and frames the section of
those who “thrive on death.”
Courbet could identify with the pariahs of society when projected on
a level of abstraction like the fabulous Ahasuerus, but when it came to em-
pathizing with them in actuality he expressed traditional rural prejudices
that irrationally associated Jews with usury. Leftist anti-Semitism found
a source of strength in the financial policies of the house of Rothschild,
which maintained close ties with Louis-Philippe and supported his relative
neutrality in foreign affairs. (Generally, the Rothschilds opted for politi-
cal stability and the reigning authority, but rumors of their subvention of
the coup d’état did not endear them to the enemies of Louis-Napoléon.)
Alphonse Toussenel’s notorious Les Juifs, rois de l’époque; histoire de la féodalité
financière (The Jews, Kings of the Epoch; History of Financial Feudalism),
first published in 1845—the most popular book in a flood of pamphlets
against the Rothschilds—was enthusiastically endorsed by the entire radi-
cal press. A disciple of both Michelet and Fourier, Toussenel articulated the
resentments of a large portion of his society who perceived the handful of
Jews in Paris in control of Louis-Philippe.
Courbet was close to a number of anti-Jewish leftists, including his
friends Toussenel (whom he knew from the Brasserie Laveur) and the poet
Pierre Dupont, who wrote a particularly nasty piece about Jewish usury.

In addition, he clearly shared the virulent anti-Semitism of his compatriots
from the Department of the Doubs, Proudhon and Fourier, who decisively
contributed to the development of an anti-Jewish ideology in France. Fou-
rier knew that more Christians practiced usury than Jews in France, but
216 chapter three
stigmatized Jewish usury as more dangerous and therefore opposed Jew-
ish emancipation. His disciples Toussenel and Proudhon identified the Jew
with usurious parasitism and condemned the Jewish arriviste as the epitome
of crass philistinism and vulgarity.
During the Second Empire, French Jewry attained the height of its
power and prosperity in the nineteenth century and became linked sym-
bolically with the regime. Louis-Napoléon was predisposed toward Saint-
Simon’s technocratic program, and a number of Jews who had been
affiliated with Saint-Simonism, including the brothers Emile and Isaac
Péreire—founders of the Crédit Mobilier to help provide capital and
credit for rapid industrialization—carved out distinguished careers for
themselves. The banker Achille Fould, another prominent Jewish Saint-
Simonist, subsidized Louis-Napoléon’s campaign for president in 1848, and
subsequently held key positions as minister of finance and minister of state
in his administrations.
As one of the key organizers of the Exposition Universelle of 1855, it
was Fould who ultimately authorized permission for Courbet to organize
his private show. Courbet’s references to Fould in his letters are always re-
spectful, but he acknowledges him as the seat of power in his dealings with
the regime. If Toussaint is correct in identifying the Jew as a disguised
Fould (there even appears to be a letter “f ” on his shtreimel), then the Jew’s
body may be a site for displaced anxieties about Jewish influence in cul-
tural matters generally and in the World’s Fair specifically. At the picture’s
opposite end is Baudelaire, the Jew’s counterpart, who is a source of moral
support and creative inspiration. The Jew and Baudelaire constitute the
boundaries of the composition, the flanking antipodes of constructive and
destructive influence on the artist’s work. Given the salient role of the Jew
in Courbet’s textual and visual formulations, he implies that the pressures
constraining him at the point of creative practice stem from overweening
Jewish ascendance in French culture.
What I see in the picture is a retreat from the radicalism of the 1848–1854
phase and a settling into a bourgeois mode that he had for so long valiantly
resisted within and without the familial context. His need to please his pa-
tron, the Bonapartist Bruyas, as well as the strains of government coercion
must have affected his compromised “solution” to the social question. Un-
like Funeral, where the community organizes around a commonplace ritual
and his social criticism has a logic, in the Studio there is no correlation be-
tween the negative and positive poles of society and no implied critique of
the political and social constraints responsible for conditions of exploita-
tion. Indeed, he has nothing but praise for the rich bourgeois on the right
side who participate in his action. These controvertible gestures and built-
in limitations flagrantly disrupt his prior development, and the resultant
guilt feelings may have been displaced to the body of the close-fisted Jew.
Against this Jewish “other,” Courbet can gesture expansively and magnan-
imously within a narrowly circumscribed field of action.
217 radical realism continued
In any case, the Studio, far from posing a threat like the previous pic-
tures, indicated the concessions he made in response to his patronage and
government efforts to modify his style. The work might be more ap-
propriately subtitled “An Allegory Summarizing My Bourgeoisification
during the Last Seven Years.” First, it is composed in the academic man-
ner that he studiously avoided in previous work. It converges on a single
dominant figure flanked on either side by well-defined groups, recalling
David’s Leonidas or any number of conventional history paintings invok-
ing the frieze principle, with a hero or ruler occupying the compositional
center. Indeed, at the Exposition Universelle of 1855 there were several
major variants of this pattern, including Couture’s Romans of the Decadence,
Chassériau’s Tepidarium, Hamon’s Human Comedy, and Müller’s Last Roll
Call of the Revolution.
Second, Courbet’s painting ranges him directly among the dominant
elite performing the role of a courtly entourage. His version of the Hu-
man Comedy is divided into two distinct groups, a privileged class who
serves his cause and provides for his support, and a parasitic and marginal-
ized class who “thrive on death” or who are otherwise exploited. There is
no question as to his affiliation; he wears the fashionable jacket with striped
collar beloved of his patron Bruyas, as seen in the comparison of his self-
portrait study for the Studio and his portraits of Bruyas for this picture and
The Meeting. The striped collar and piping emanate from the same tailor’s
workshop, and his wearing of it in his studio betrays the rustic garb he
wears in The Meeting as masquerade.
Significantly, the aspiring grand bourgeois, as we have seen, uses the
language of the stock exchange to describe his relationship to his patrons:
he called them “actionnaires,” or shareholders in Courbet, Inc. It is no co-
incidence that in the period 1855–1856 Courbet speculated on the stock
market, investing heavily in railway and other shares. The result, however,
was disastrous, and his financial losses (including those incurred by the pri-
vate show) threw him into a profound depression during the latter part of
1855. Proudhon was himself preoccupied with the Bourse in this period.
His friend and biographer, Sainte-Beuve, wrote that Proudhon tried to get
railroad concessions for friends in 1853–1854 and asked for help from Prince
Napoléon. Proudhon also advised English capitalists who sought to finance
railways in Switzerland. It was in this period that he decided to publish,
although anonymously at first, the sensational potboiler The Manual of the
Stock Exchange Speculator, consisting of a mass of statistical information on
all the leading companies listed on the Bourse. Courbet must have read the
work, because his letter to Champfleury describing the Studio borrows its
terminology. Proudhon declared that the public of the Bourse, similar to
the world of production and consumption, divides itself into two catego-
ries, the exploités and the exploiteurs. The first—the more numerous—con-
sists of the “vile multitude, the rubbish heap of porters, domestics, rentiers,
petty bourgeois, hard working but greedy.”
218 chapter three
The very title of Courbet’s painting reflects an entrepreneurial attitude.
The Masonic implications of the term atelier have already been discussed,
but another related definition is that of a small factory, designating a loca-
tion where mechanical and artisanal activity of every kind was carried out
under the direction of a chief called the patron. And what does Courbet pro-
duce in his atelier? A landscape, now an artifact removed from nature, or
the prime source of realist inspiration. This marked a new direction; in the
next few years he churned out numerous landscapes and hunting scenes for
the market inspired partly by the British artist-entrepreneur Edwin Land-
seer. He purchased several pieces of real estate, including land on which he
wanted “to plant clumps of trees of all species for my painting.”
Champfleury wrote at this time that it disturbed him to witness Cour-
bet’s concessions, that he was becoming increasingly preoccupied with the
concerns of his patrons. This observation was seconded by conservative
critics who noted that he was gradually humanizing his work, while the
more progressive Thoré regretted throughout the 1860s Courbet’s apparent
renunciation of his social commitment. Finally, in 1866 Courbet’s provoca-
tive nude, Woman with a Parrot, earned him universal esteem from the Sec-
ond Empire gang, and no one was more pleased to see it than Sainte-Beuve,
a Second Empire lackey, who raved about it in the company of Troubat,
the chaplain of Princess Mathilde, and Edmond About, who suggested that
Courbet now quit his modest studio and live like the true Renaissance Man
in a sumptuous Parisian townhouse.
The Studio then, though a magisterial effort to visually contextual-
ize the sociological conditions of a contemporary artist’s career, pulls its
punches and discloses a conservative tendency. Dupays argued that the
work should be viewed “as a general confession of the error of [Courbet’s]
youth,” like those farewell reunions organized for the noisy and scatter-
brained companions associated with the wild heyday of youth just at the
moment one accepts a serious position in life. He saw in the work’s left
half all the “hideousness of the world,” the deformities, vices, gruesome-
ness, decrepitude and poverty, frightful women, detestable types of every
stamp. Concentrating his repugnance on the Irish mother, the reviewer
wondered how Courbet had the courage to place “this vermin next to him
and one of his friends in a hunter’s outfit, instead of relegating her to an ob-
scure corner, behind the indescribable dustheap of humanity in which we
can pick out peasants, street porters, a Jew, an old-clothes peddler, a clown,
and an undertaker’s assistant.” But Dupays noticed that Courbet had deci-
sively turned his back on this human debris in favor of his landscape, signal-
ing a wholly new and improved direction in his work.
Striking as this testimony is from one of Courbet’s most ardent oppo-
nents, it pales in comparison with the curt observation of Courbet’s men-
tor Proudhon on the work. The anarchist philosopher, who could read a
political message in a grain of sand, had only this terse comment to make
about the Studio while moderately critiquing the self-indulgent display of
219 radical realism continued
the painter’s monumental ego: “He has made a purely personal picture in
his Real Allegory, a work that is at the same low level of quality as Lot and
His Daughters”—an early biblical theme done before Courbet’s realist re-
nunciation that shows a father seducing his daughters.
Yet in the end this centerpiece of his private exhibition produced a pos-
itive outcome in stimulating a heated debate on the meaning of “realism”
in the modern age. Champfleury’s famous open letter to George Sand de-
fending Courbet was written in support of his private show at a time when
the painter sustained acrimonious attack from the press. The letter was first
published in L’Artiste, a journal generally hostile to Courbet but whose
editors hoped to exploit the painter’s notoriety to ingratiate itself with the
government and gain increased readership.
Although Champfleury was
not wholly uncritical of Courbet’s work, troubled especially by the self-
contradictory subtitle of “Real Allegory,” he nevertheless ends on a strong
note of support for Courbet’s painterly independence.
Champfleury’s letter has become a canonical text in Courbet scholar-
ship, but the equally important response to it by Charles Perrin has been
systematically elided from the literature. Perrin directed his letter to Hous-
saye, managing director of L’Artiste, opening it with an expression of shock
that anyone other than the artist himself took Courbet seriously. Perrin be-
gan by denying any animus against realism per se; in fact, some brands of
realism were perfectly acceptable to him, including Champfleury’s novel
Chien-Caillou, which mingled grace and beauty in its “sincere expression
of nature.” Realism and poetic expression are not incompatible, but Perrin
denied that there was an ounce of poetry in Courbet’s “notorious bazaar”
on the avenue Montaigne and challenged any of his readers to prove him
Perrin understood Courbet’s realism as a way of painting “that exalts
and exaggerates only one of the many true aspects of nature—I speak of
the material side—at the expense of another no less true, which is the spiri-
tual.” Ugliness, Perrin continued, had no claim to art other than to serve as
“a diaphanous veil through which the spiritual penetrates, and it makes no
difference whether this spiritual gaze is objective or subjective, whether it
emanates from the painter or the model.” Perrin then seized upon the ex-
ample of Champfleury’s correspondent to exemplify his point, opposing
Sand’s pastoral novels to Courbet’s Demoiselles de village. Sand painted real-
ity, but her types were neither rococo nor ugly, and never did “the mon-
strous realism of The Bathers ever sully her brush.” Perrin then followed
with an exclamatory note, first observing that Courbet wished to paint his
century and then protesting: “My God! It is possible that the century is
ugly; however, with all due respect, not as ugly as that!”
Perrin concluded his rebuttal of Champfleury’s defense with his wick-
ed analysis of the Studio, declaring that Courbet’s “battalion of monsters
escaped from the Court of Miracles” were the sick models of reality Cour-
bet relied upon to personify the epoch. Nevertheless, he still felt that the
220 chapter three
Studio showed progress over his previous work, and that, although a failure,
it would have made a great painting had Courbet eliminated everything in
the picture except himself alone at the easel. What troubled and perplexed
Perrin most of all was that “Courbet, young, handsome, and well built,
with a spiritual physiognomy, stubbornly refuses to see anything in nature
but the ugly.”
Since good taste, like good breeding, was predicated on
the ability to appreciate the Beautiful, Courbet’s assertion of the ugly in life
threatened the cherished assumptions and class supports of high culture.
Perrin’s dogmatic riposte to Champfleury was in turn taken up by a more
progressive writer, Fernand Desnoyers, soon to be an eloquent spokesper-
son for the idea of an official Salon des Refusés as an alternative outlet for
independent and experimental work rejected by the Salon juries. Desnoy-
ers wrote that one did not have to be an apologist for ugliness and evil to
perceive that realism had “the right to represent that which exists and that
which is visible to the naked eye.” He then concluded with a positive ap-
preciation of the new tendency while making a sly dig at its opponents:
“Singular school, is it not? Where there is neither master nor pupil, and
whose only principles are independence, sincerity, and individuality!”
The debate on realism stirred by Courbet’s private show proved im-
mensely valuable in articulating and clarifying the aims of the independents,
and paving the way for the avant-garde painters of the next generation. Ad-
ditionally, it caused consternation among bourgeois progressives by align-
ing itself with the new era of technology, science, and faith in progress yet
at the same time dwelling on the negative aspects of the market economy.
At the Exposition Universelle, Courbet’s imagery raised the controversial
issue of laissez-faire economics versus state intervention in the face of hu-
man misery. Finally, Courbet’s grim representations rent the veil from the
world of illusions to reveal the politics of culture beneath.
Coda on Courbet and Walt Whitman
I wish to conclude this chapter with a parallel study of Courbet and Walt
Whitman to suggest that Courbet’s persona was not unique in the Age of
Civil Struggle, but represented a type of individual challenge everywhere
in the individualized battle against illegitimate authority. In the case of
Courbet and Whitman, their thematic and subjective affinities are so strik-
ing that past failure to make the case for their relationship appears as an
historical oddity. Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric” (titled “Poem of
the Body” in the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass) mingles images of labor-
ers, athletes, and firemen reminiscent of Courbet’s subjects of the 1850s, at
one point juxtaposing swimmers, wrestlers, and firemen in a single verse
and thematically converging with Courbet’s Salon entries of 1853, which
included The Bathers and The Wrestlers. The poet’s allusion to firefighters in
“Song of Myself ” (one of the untitled “Leaves of Grass” in the 1855 first
edition) practically transcribes Courbet’s Firemen Rushing to a Fire:
221 radical realism continued
Those ahold of fire-engines and hook-and-ladder ropes more to me than
the gods of the antique wars,
Minding their voices peal through the crash of destruction,
Their brawny limbs passing safe over the charred laths . . . . their white
foreheads whole and unhurt out of the flames;
By the mechanic’s wife with her babe at her nipple interceding for every
person born . . .
The poet and the painter were particularly responsive to water and of-
ten walked the seashore, identifying their expansive egos with the infinite
regression of the sea’s horizon and the surging ocean. Courbet’s paintings
of himself saluting the sea at Palavas (1854) and the later stormy seas done
at Etretat in 1869 come alive when juxtaposed with Whitman’s “As I Ebb’d
with the Ocean of Life,” first published in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass
(and excerpted here from a later edition):
As I ebb’d with the ocean of life,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walk’d where the ripples continually wash you Paumanok,
Where they rustle up hoarse and sibilant,
Where the fierce old mother endlessly cries for her castaways,
I musing late in the autumn day, gazing off southward,
Held by this electric self out of the pride of which I utter poems,
Was seiz’d by the spirit that trails in the lines underfoot,
The rim, the sediment that stands for all the water and all the land of the globe.
Or again from the first edition:
Sea of stretched ground-swells!
Sea breathing broad and convulsive breaths!
Sea of the brine of life! Sea of unshovelled and always-ready graves!
Howler and scooper of storms! Capricious and dainty sea!
I am integral with you . . . I too am of one phase and of all phases.
It may be argued that the remarkable coincidence in their artistic strat-
egies and thematics is nothing more than the playing out of a nineteenth-
century episteme and that other similar parallels could be easily adduced
out of the welter of periodic or Zeitgeist options. Nevertheless, let us press
on. The basic biographical facts of the lives of Whitman and Courbet are
in themselves full of intriguing coincidences. Whitman was born on 31
May 1819 and Courbet less than two weeks later on 10 June 1819, an un-
likely pair of twins starting their lives under the sign of Gemini. They
were passionately fond of music, swimming, and hunting and incorporate
these recreations into their work as thematic testimony to the free-spirited
222 chapter three
Both Whitman and Courbet entered adulthood with only a semi-edu-
cation because of conflicts between their career preferences and paternal
pressures, and both passed through a “romantic” phase before forging their
identity in a self-conscious “realist” mode which crystallized in the year
1855. That year Whitman and Courbet outraged the establishment and the
public on both sides of the Atlantic, and the savage epithets heaped upon
their work for lack of decorum, aesthetically flawed structures and com-
positions, and their aggressive assertion of self-importance seem to have a
common source. They flaunted their lack of “finish” and “polish” in their
work and lifestyles, borrowing metaphors from the sketching practices of
the art world to describe their broadly brushed ventures. The two “roughs”
then associated their respective cultural production with their idea of de-
mocracy, functioning as Messiahs and way-showers of a New Age. They
deployed the open-air landscape and its material rugosities as the chief
vehicle for their republican and nationalist proclivities.
This also explains the curious coincidence of their personas: the earthy,
free-swinging independents shouting a “barbaric yawp over the roofs of
the world.” I shall never forget the flush of excitement I experienced when
I first juxtaposed the frontispiece of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass—the so-
called “carpenter’s portrait” based on a photograph taken on a hot July day
3.24 Frontispiece for Leaves of
Grass, engraving, 1855, after Ga-
briel Harrison’s daguerreotype,
Walt Whitman (1854). Photograph
courtesy of the Pierpont Morgan
Library, New York.
223 radical realism continued
in 1854—with Courbet’s self-projection in The Meeting, painted the same
year and exhibited for the first time at the Universal Exposition of 1855 (fig.
3.24). Rakish, bearded, defiant, casually clothed in workman’s costume,
they identified themselves with the independent itinerant artisan.
Perhaps the most striking material parallel in their respective careers is
their notorious manifestoes of 1855, Leaves of Grass and The Painter’s Studio:
A Real Allegory Summing Up a Seven-Year Phase of My Artistic Life. Operat-
ing on the margins of the establishment in their respective countries, they
undertook at their own expense to bring these works before the public.
Whitman published his own book and Courbet erected a large pavilion to
show his rejected work in competition with the official international ex-
position. Whitman described his ultimate intention in Leaves as “a feeling
or ambition to articulate and faithfully express in literary and poetic form,
and uncompromisingly, my own physical, emotional, moral, intellectual,
and aesthetic Personality, in the midst of, and tallying, the momentous
spirit and facts of its immediate days, and of current America—and to ex-
ploit that Personality, identified with place and date, in a far more candid
and comprehensive sense than any hitherto poem or book.”
And here is what Courbet wrote in his realist manifesto of 1855: “I have
studied, outside of all systems and without prejudice, the art of the ancients
and the art of the moderns. I no more wanted to imitate the one than to
copy the other . . . No! I simply wanted to draw forth from a complete ac-
quaintance with tradition the reasoned and independent consciousness of
my own individuality. To know in order to be able to create, that was my
idea. To be in a position to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance
of my epoch, according to my own estimation; to be not only a painter, but
a man as well; in short, to create living art—this is my goal.”
It is now possible to see as one outcome of the American and French
Revolutions the rise of the independent creator, the autodidact who wishes
to free her- or himself from illegitimate authority. Whitman, one of the
“roughs,” and Courbet, “maître-peintre,” assumed the pose of the self-
taught, literate artisan. Both read deeply into contemporary science and
sometimes pseudoscience to liberate themselves from orthodoxy and nour-
ish their particular brand of realism. They went outside academic, politi-
cal, and literary establishments in their attempt to empower themselves to
empower others, identifying with a kind of pantheism that recognizes the
Godhead, or good, in everything and everyone, in their likes as well as their
dislikes. To break from authority meant realizing their freedom with the
kind of “retching” effort Whitman spoke of in his Eagle review on Hazlitt,
and they meant to serve as a paradigm for everyone to follow. Their boast-
ful brand of self-respect carried with it respect for the underdog. Two dis-
tinct yet similar artists draw upon the same sources for their own sense of
national identity, and in the process struggle to preserve the flame of lib-
erty in the midst of repression.
The Origins of the Pre-Raphaelites
In volume 3 of the Social History of Modern Art (Art in an Age of Counter-
revolution), I explored the neo-Gothic influences on the young Pre-Rapha-
elites, in particular the writings of Pugin, Ruskin, and Disraeli, and the
visual contributions of their immediate disciples. It now remains to show
how the Pre-Raphaelites attempted to cull from the religious debates of
the period a strategy for tempering the reformist sensibilities to make them
compatible for their public. It is this tension between their religious pre-
disposition and their effort to modernize artistic production through scien-
tific accuracy that gives their work its peculiar Victorian flavor.
Karl Marx was in London when the English celebrated their industrial
leadership and unprecedented material progress with the first international
exposition. The Great Exhibition of 1851, housed in a kind of giant green-
house called the Crystal Palace, provided a significant comparison of the
relative economic development of the participating countries. Despite all
the high-sounding rhetoric of pacific rivalry and international fellowship,
the British ruling classes were out to prove their superiority in quantity,
size, and variety. But the exhibition gained a symbolic foothold in his-
tory because it glorified the productive ingenuity of the bourgeois class
everywhere. Four years later, Napoléon III’s government inaugurated the
first international World’s Fair in Paris to demonstrate the new prosperity
and expansion of his nation. He even went the Great Exhibition one bet-
ter by organizing a major international exhibition of paintings to show off
French culture as a complement to its industrial and agricultural progress.
But it could not have escaped anyone’s notice that the magnificent specta-
cles of 1851 and 1855 were designed to efface the physical and mental traces
of 1848. In this way, the bourgeois component of the counterrevolution
could mask its reactionary motives with a solid front of technological in-
novation and industrial progress.
Although the Pre-Raphaelites shared many of the political, social, and
religious preoccupations of their older contemporaries and mentors dis-
4 The Pre-Raphaelites
and the 1848 Revolutions
226 chapter four
cussed above, the immediate stimuli to the formation of their community
were the revolutionary movements of 1848. At the time of the French out-
break, Hunt, Millais, and Rossetti had yet to attain their majority and were
open and idealistic enough to receive multiple impressions from the welter
of ideological and religious agendas then being declaimed throughout the
nation. The pressures of the reaction, however, gradually foreclosed their
initial identification with marginalized groups.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was established in early September
1848 in the home of the parents of John Everett Millais at 83 Gower Street.
Millais, together with Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, better known as
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt, bound in close friend-
ship, constituted the core of the group and provided most of its creative
energy. It is particularly their innovative work of late 1848 and early 1849
that established Pre-Raphaelite painting as a distinctive style. But there
were seven founding members in all, and youth was a precondition for
membership: they included Rossetti’s brother William Michael, a writer
who earned his living as a civil servant at the Inland Revenue Office; the
sculptor Thomas Woolner; and the artists James Collinson and Frederic
George Stephens. Millais, William Michael Rossetti, and Stephens were
the youngest at nineteen, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was next at twenty, Hunt
was twenty-one, Woolner twenty-two, and Collinson, at twenty-three,
was the oldest. All were of middle- and lower-middle-class origin. The
father of the Rossettis taught Italian at King’s College, London; Millais’s
father was retired from a commission in the Island Militia of Jersey; Hunt’s
father was a warehouse manager; Woolner’s father was a letter-sorter in
the city; Stephens’s parents were for a time the supervisors of the Strand
Union Workhouse, London; and Collinson’s father was a bookseller. Thus
this was a brotherhood of talented and confident middle-class youths who
grew up empowered by the Reform Bill of 1832 and burning with ambition
to make their mark on English society.
They idealized their ambitiousness as a wish to revitalize the whole of
English painting, to carry out in art what Carlyle, Pugin, Ruskin, Dick-
ens, and Disraeli were hoping to achieve through their social criticism. As
Hunt recalled, “Millais and I had thought at first of husbanding only our
own fields, but the outspoken zeal of our companions raised the prospect
of winning waste lands, and of gaining for English art a new realm from
the wilds, such as should be worthy of the race.”
They were precociously
astute and public-minded, well aware of the political and religious com-
plexities and contradictions of Victorian society. They united in their de-
testation of the conventionalizing and potboiler program of the Royal
Academy that institutionally meant to them what the “cash nexus” meant
to Carlyle. The combination of the terms “Pre-Raphaelite” and “Brother-
hood” were not arbitrarily selected, but decided upon after careful consid-
eration of their connotations.
227 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
Although there are differing versions of the origin of the term Pre-
Raphaelite, it is clear from my discussion in volume 3 that the general
concept was already a commonplace in Victorian art criticism. It is not
surprising that Rossetti at first suggested Early Christian, or that Brown
recalled that when he heard the group discussing the early Italian masters
he reminded them “of the German P.R.’s, and either [the name] pleased
them or not, I don’t know, but they took it.” After Hunt and Millais read
Charles Bell’s Anatomy of Expression, with its examples of Old Master paint-
ing, they waxed critical of the affected posturing of the figures in Raphael’s
late work (specifically, the cartoon of the Transfiguration), which they per-
ceived as a disregard for “the simplicity of truth” and a step in the direction
of decadence. This opinion they immediately advanced to their fellow stu-
dents, who replied, “Then you are Pre-Raphaelite.” Hunt recalled that he
and Millais “laughingly agreed that the designation must be accepted.”
As in the case of the term post-modern, Pre-Raphaelite joins its prefix to
the subject it wishes to negate while simultaneously affirming its very cen-
trality for the new tendency. Hunt claimed that early Raphael was accept-
able—only late Raphael declined into mannerism and insincerity. Either
way, Raphael loomed large in their imagination as the focus of their attack
on tradition and academic formulas. They had to grapple with the heroic
appeal of Raphael to persuade themselves of the “manliness” of their un-
dertaking. This required collective action as a political statement, and it
was Rossetti who added the crucial qualifier “Brotherhood.”
It belittles the concept of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood whenever it is
interpreted exclusively or even primarily as an aesthetic designation. Hunt
chose “Pre-Raphaelite” over “Early Christian” as “more radically exact,”
while Rossetti defended “Brotherhood” against the imputations of cleri-
calism. He recalled their heated political debates at Woolner’s studio, and
their host’s hatred for “our governing and wealthy classes,” as well as the
immersion of their close associate Walter Howell Deverell in the writings
of Carlyle and Charles Kingsley which dwelt “on the miseries of the poor,
the friendless, and the fallen, and with this special interest he had . . . a
general sympathy for all social and human concerns.”
On one occasion
the group broke into a chorus of the Marseillaise and Mourir pour la patrie in
the streets of London. It is noteworthy that immediately after Hunt and
Millais accepted the denomination of Pre-Raphaelite from students at the
Academy, they experienced a release from institutional pressure, and ex-
pressed their exhilaration by participating in the last major outbreak of
Chartism on 10 April 1848.
This new manifestation was generated by the return of economic dis-
tress after 1846, but its immediate stimulus was the series of revolutions on
the Continent. The deplorable conditions of the working classes and wide-
spread food shortages throughout the 1840s reenergized Chartism—the
first British independent working-class movement. Chartism emerged in
228 chapter four
its practical form during the late 1830s and resembled the later international
socialist and labor movement; Marx and Engels absorbed many of its ideas.
While its “People’s Charter” was directed at a moderate constituency with
its call for electoral reform, its real aim was to overthrow capitalist society
and put production, distribution, and exchange on a cooperative basis.
The severe winter of 1847–1848 had brought grim times to the working
classes; economic conditions had steadily worsened during the second half
of 1847; depressed trade and vast unemployment led to widespread work-
ing-class discontent. As already shown, this unrest was made manifest in
the heightened Chartist activity inspired in good measure by the February
revolution at Paris. In March uprisings broke out in London, Glasgow, Ed-
inburgh, Liverpool, and other large towns. The Chartists’ projected mass
demonstration in London on 10 April 1848 faded as the government moved
quickly to weaken support, passing emergency legislation to curb assem-
blies and virtually transforming London into an armed camp. The Char-
tists took their cue and much of their symbolism from the recent French
revolution. One organizer invoked Louis-Philippe’s expulsion as an ex-
ample for home politics: “Is not that a lesson for our tyrants? Should not
such an example have an effect upon our government?” Artisans and liber-
al bourgeois gathering on Kennington Common carried tricolor flags and
banners with the slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”
Their goal was to
submit to Parliament a petition signed by a million subscribers reiterating
the charter’s demands.
Hunt and Millais accompanied the marchers from Russell Square
across Blackfriars Bridge to Kennington Common, but they did not cross
onto the grass where the demonstrators assembled and instead watched
the proceedings as spectators from behind the enclosure. In the midst of
the orations, the police showed up and warned Feargus O’Connor—edi-
tor of the Northern Star and leading Chartist spokesperson—that the peti-
tioners would be blocked from crossing the Thames from the south to the
north side. It was pointed out to O’Connor that snipers occupied the roofs
of the neighboring houses. O’Connor then advised his followers to dis-
perse, while the huge petition would be carried to Westminster Palace in
three cabs. (Clownish signatories who inscribed “Victoria Rex” and “Mr.
Punch” did much to discredit the petition and made it easy to dismiss.)
Hunt described the dense, artisanal crowd as “law-abiding,” but also ob-
served a gang of hired thugs armed with bludgeons who were determined
to confront the demonstrators. At this point, he and Millais (who had to be
whisked away) made their way to London Bridge, then to the Bank of Eng-
land and the Mansion House, all the while observing soldiery concealed
behind sandbags. Suddenly, a rainstorm broke, and both they and the re-
formers cleared the streets and “scampered home.”
Although it is clear from Hunt’s testimony that he and Millais were fair-
weather radicals, their escapade should not be taken lightly. When Hunt
conceived the painting Rienzi that year, he recalled that, “Like most young
229 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
men, I was stirred by the spirit of freedom of the passing revolutionary
time.” A year later, harking back to the spirited discussions in Woolner’s
studio, he remembered: “The world was then too agitated with discontent
not to call forth all our political views.”
The political agitation of 1848
acted upon the imagination of the future Pre-Raphaelites, pushing them
toward reform and predisposing them to sympathy with other marginal-
ized groups.
Here they acted contrary to the predominantly conservative British
middle and upper classes, who breathed a sigh of relief when “the spring-
time of the people” ran out of steam and the reaction gained the upper
hand. An editorial for Blackwood’s Magazine eloquently spelled out the ma-
jority feeling at the end of 1849:
If the year 1848—“the year of revolutions” was preeminent among all others
for the magnitude and interest of the events it brought forth, the year which
has just expired—the year of the reaction—is still more worthy of serious re-
flection, and affords subjects for more cheering meditation. If the first exhibited
the whirlwind of anarchy let loose, the second showed the power by which it
is restrained; if the former filled every heart with dread at the fierce passions
which were developed, and the portentous events which occurred in the world,
the latter afforded reason for profound thankfulness, at the silent but irresistible
force with which Omnipotence overrules the wickedness of men, and restrains
the madness of the people.
The Pre-Raphaelites initially stood to the left of such right-wing tri-
umphalism, although they accepted the neomedieval notion that religious
reform would be conducive to social reform. There is yet another dimen-
sion of their political attitude, and that is the affixing of the word “Broth-
erhood” to their appellation. It has already been shown that Rossetti had to
fend off its implication of clericalism, and here he may have been the most
qualified in the group to do so. By now we should be accustomed to think-
ing of the Restoration idea of “brotherhood” in a double sense, both in the
monastic connotation associated with the Nazarenes, but also as a secret,
fraternal order associated with insurrection. The Pre-Raphaelites inherited
both meanings, and it is this ambiguity carried through in their imaginative
projections that makes even their biblical scenes quirky and modern.
One the one hand, it is hardly to be doubted that “Brotherhood” signi-
fied some sense of solidarity with the Italian Primitives and the Nazarenes,
thus showing their immersion in the Gothic revival preached by Pugin and
Ruskin. One mediating influence was the careful outline work of Josef
Führich, a disciple of Overbeck whose engraved illustrations served as a
model for their own illustrative attempts.
Hunt complained much lat-
er in life about the influence of medievalism on the taste of the period,
but the types of criticism he deploys—faults of proportions and awkward
shapes—were those the Pre-Raphaelites then associated with sincere faith
230 chapter four
and natural truth. On the other hand, “Brotherhood” carried unmistak-
able allusions to a Freemason-like fraternity. Significantly, when the group
agreed to use the monogram P.R.B., each member had to swear an oath to
keep its meaning secret—the key formula of all exclusive fraternal associa-
tions. Although this particular group assumed the guise of a secret order
ostensibly “to do battle against the frivolous art of the day,” what is impor-
tant to note is that the group organized against a perceived external threat
that mobilized them as a unit.
During the period of the Brotherhood’s sorest travail, Hunt’s father
admonished the son that it was impossible to succeed as an artist in Britain
“without rich and influential friends.” He regretted that he lacked “that
masonic bond in your favour of having been at a public school.”
Hunt reflected late in life on the nation’s need for a national art, he insisted
that it not be done for a privileged few but must “be a freemason’s sign to
I believe that the P.R.B. constituted a surrogate “Masonic bond” for
the brethren. Members of the group even addressed each other in corre-
spondence as “brother.” Hunt was often invited to the Rossettis for dinner
in this period, and he recalled that the senior Rossetti was always surround-
ed by foreigners, “all escaped revolutionists from the Continent.” They
spoke mainly Italian, and he could tell from the tone when they were de-
nouncing their opponents (Bomba, Pio Nono, and Metternich) or praising
their heroes (Mazzini, Garibaldi, and Louis-Napoléon—not yet the trai-
tor to republicanism).
Hence the Rossetti home was a haven for escaped
Freemasons and ex-Carbonari participating in the Risorgimento, the re-
surgence of Italian independence and quest for national unity.
One Italian historian of the Pre-Raphaelites wrote that the elder Ros-
setti was “the poet of our Risorgimento.”
Indeed, the career of the fa-
ther, Gabriele Pasquale Giuseppe, a native of Vasto in the Abruzzi when
it belonged to the Kingdom of Naples, was inescapably linked to the po-
litical events of the early Risorgimento.
He himself had belonged to the
secret society known as the Carbonari and joined in the uprising of 1820
that forced Ferdinando I to draw up a Constitution.
At the time when
the Austrian invasion of Naples was imminent, Gabriele wrote a patriotic
poem with this quatrain addressed to Ferdinando: “I vindici coltelli / Sa-
paran passarvi il cor: / I Sandi ed i Luvelli / Non son finiti ancor” (Aveng-
ing knives will direct themselves to your heart: the Sands and Louvels are
not yet done with their work).
When Metternich’s armies suppressed the
insurrection the following year and the rebels were dispersed, Gabriele
managed to escape to Malta disguised in an English uniform on a British
flagship in the custody of Admiral Sir Graham Moore. He eventually made
his way to London and was appointed professor of Italian at King’s Col-
lege. He married Frances Mary Lavinia Polidori, daughter of Gaetano Poli-
dori, another exiled Italian writer who once served as secretary to the poet
and dramatist Alfieri. Gabriele never severed his contacts with the Italian
nationalists, and kept a close watch on the developments of 1830 and 1848.
231 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
His house became a well-known haven for Italian refugees and patriots,
whose cause was generally favored by the English.
That the elder Rossetti was also a Freemason
played a major role in
his literary work. In his analytical and allegorical interpretation of Dante’s
Divine Comedy (La Divina Commedia con commento analitico, 1826–1827),
written shortly after his arrival in London, Gabriele perceived Dante “as
a member, both in politics and in religion, of an occult society having a
close relation to what we now call Freemasonry.” He also declared that
the Commedia and the books of other famous authors in various languages
and epochs were based on a similar coded program. In correspondence
with Dante scholar and botanist Charles Lyell (father of the geologist) he
writes that “the entire poem of Dante, all the lyrics of Petrarca, almost
all the works of Boccaccio, and, in fine, all the old writings of that class,
are nothing else than downright doctrine and practice of the Freemasons, in the
strictest acceptation of the word.” In the same letter he refers to John
Hookham Frere, a Freemason who befriended him on Malta, being fear-
ful that his seemingly bizarre interpretations and analysis may be a first
step in betraying their position to the world, and Rossetti concluded: “I
am not so mad as to plan detriment to the society, and to myself ”—a clear
hint that he belonged to the Craft.
Significantly, his application for an
appointment at the recently founded King’s College was strongly sup-
ported by Sir Gore Ouseley, a prominent Mason in the Grand Lodge of
the United Kingdom.
Rossetti’s arguments convinced Isaac Disraeli, a fellow Freemason,
who must have shared his enthusiasm for the political interpretation of
Dante with his son Benjamin. (Isaac’s father was born in Cento in the
district of Ferrara, and thus felt a strong bond with Italian culture.) The
elder Disraeli was responsible for encouraging Benjamin in the direction
of a mainstream gentile life that inevitably included Freemasonry.
importance of Freemasonry for Jews everywhere in the nineteenth cen-
tury lay in its opening a path for integration into the non-Jewish social
environment. Here then may be a major source of Disraeli’s fraternal con-
cept of Young England, which overlaps with Mazzini’s contemporaneous
Young Italy (Giovine Italia)—an offshoot of Freemasonry and Carbon-
arism. It is noteworthy that after Mazzini settled in London in 1837, he
carried on an extensive public relations campaign promoting his organi-
zation. Mazzini and Rossetti kept in close touch, and although Disraeli’s
Toryism had nothing in common with their ideology, all three advocated
the liberation of peoples from the yoke of animal labor and impoverish-
ment. That early conservative critics grasped onto the initials P.R.B. as an
artistic equivalent of Young England attests to the heightened fears of po-
litical conspiracy in the 1848 epoch associated with secret societies, Jews,
and subversive movements.
Soon after Mazzini arrived in London he joined the Italian colony, and
he and the elder Rossetti allied on the basis of a shared vision of Italian
232 chapter four
unity. They corresponded frequently right through 1848, and Mazzini
evidently hoped at one point that Rossetti would support his plans for a
republic. The elder Rossetti, however, believed that Mazzinian agitation
ultimately led to the abortive insurrections in Italy of 1848–1849, and the
hesitation of foreign powers—especially the French—to extricate Italy
from the Austrians. Thus he advocated a moderate politics along the lines
of a constitutional monarchy, though favorable to the actions of the heroic
Garibaldi (a well-known member of the Craft) consistent with his Freema-
sonic sympathies. This is also seen in Rossetti’s support for the pending Re-
form Bill of 1832: “God forbid that this Bill should not pass—there would
certainly be a revolution.”
Gabriele continued to write in the vein of his first work, and his subse-
quent Sullo spirito antipapale che produsse la Riforma (1832) develops the idea of
a secret society to which Dante and other writers belonged, explaining the
anticlerical and antipapal sentiments covertly expressed in their work.

He is even more specific about the Masonic subtext of the Divine Comedy
in the exegetical Il mistero dell’amor platonico del medio evo of 1840.
He inter-
prets the Inferno of Dante as a symbol of the wretched state of Italy under
the popes at the time it was written. As opposed to Pugin, he saw the Ref-
ormation not as the progenitor of spiritual decline but as the outcome of
the Church’s ruthless policies to preserve power. Yet the elder Rossetti nei-
ther renounced his Catholicism nor joined the Church of England, taking
a middle course with respect to religious issues. His religious ambivalence
allowed his wife Frances (née Polidori)—sympathetic to High Church ide-
als—to take over the religious training of their children.
Like Ruskin, Rossetti took it for granted that every text had a double
meaning that could appeal on one level to the understanding of the “com-
mon reader” and on another to “brighter intellects.”
He termed these two
levels of reading the literal and the allegorical, which he also attributed in
Dante’s case to a need for a coded system that would enable him to evade
papal retribution. The simple reader would have been a Guelph, or blind
subscriber to strong papal rule, and the wiser a Ghibelline, like Dante, who
conspired against the pope and desired the secular reign of monarch or
emperor. These two opposing factions had their counterparts in the Italy
of Rossetti’s time, with neo-Guelphs proposing to achieve independence
from foreign control by federating the various Italian states under a pa-
pal president, and neo-Ghibellines wanting to unify under the aegis of the
king of Sardinia-Piedmont. Rossetti’s identification with the neo-Ghibel-
lines insured that his own texts always carried the hidden significance that
he ascribed to the writings of his hero.
His tight typological reading of texts anticipates the Pre-Raphael-
ites’ own symbolic system, in which every detail carries meaning both in
and of itself and in relationship to the whole. Hunt’s direct contact with
the senior Rossetti would have reinforced the approach he gleaned from
Ruskin’s Modern Painters. As the charismatic and learned father of two of
233 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
the founding members of the group and genial host to the others, the elder
Rossetti’s intellectual influence was probably decisive in orienting them to
his interpretive bent.
The fact that early meetings of the P.R.B. took place upstairs in the
Rossetti residence while the heated Risorgimento discussions went on be-
low further attests to the intersection of art and politics in 1848. Both Ga-
briel Dante and William Michael were well aware of their father’s role as
Carbonaro in the Neapolitan uprising as well as of his strong Masonic sym-
pathies, and they were surrounded daily by the exiled members of Young
Italy and patriots of the Risorgimento.
It is therefore inconceivable that
the P.R.B.—especially in light of Rossetti’s contribution of the idea of
“Brotherhood”—could have come into existence without the political agi-
tation and ideological ferment of 1848. Hunt’s response to Millais’s query
on the nature of his scruples was that they were “nothing less than irrever-
ent, heretical, and revolutionary.” When Hunt declared that he and Mil-
lais resolved in 1848 “to join in the search for new possibilities in art,” he
essentially admitted to their solidarity with the regenerative ideals of in-
surgents everywhere that year. Finally, Hunt stated that the group “agreed
upon” the Pre-Raphaelite principle in February 1848—the very month the
French revolution broke out.
It is no coincidence that the work Hunt conceived in the wake of the
Chartist procession was his Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of
His Young Brother, Slain in a Skirmish between the Colonna and Orsini Factions,
a fourteenth-century subject to which he gave the highest priority de-
spite his many other pressing projects (fig. 4.1).
It was his pioneer Pre-
Raphaelite presentation and one he claimed was inspired “by the spirit
of freedom of the passing revolutionary time.” When it was exhibited at
the Royal Academy in 1849, it represented his first public display to carry
the initials P.R.B. The entry was accompanied by a slightly modified text
from the opening chapter of the picture’s literary source, Bulwer-Lytton’s
1835 novel, Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes:
But for that event, the future liberator of Rome might have been but a dreamer,
a scholar, a poet—the peaceful rival of Petrarch—a man of thoughts, not deeds.
But from that time, all his faculties, energies, fancies, genius, became concen-
trated to a single point; and patriotism, before a vision, leaped into the life and
vigour of a passion.
The plot, steeped in Risorgimento politics, was conceived by the author
in Rome following the revolutionary upheavals of the early 1830s—an
influence reflected in the dedication of the novel to the Milanese Alessan-
dro Manzoni, author of the celebrated historical romance I promessi sposi.
Manzoni’s sweeping saga, told in the Italian vernacular, of an aristocratic
and clerical conspiracy against a betrothed peasant couple established him
as a popular hero of the Risorgimento. In the second edition of Rienzi,
234 chapter four
which appeared in 1848, Bulwer-Lytton claimed credit for contributing to
the nationalist fervor “among the rising generation of Italian youth.”
concluded his preface with a hope for a Ghibelline outcome in Italy: “And
in now looking round Italy for a race worthy of Rienzi, and able to accom-
plish his proud dreams, I see but one for which the time is ripe or ripening,
and I place the hopes of Italy in the men of Piedmont and Sardinia.”
Hunt himself explained the motivation for using the text as a source:
“The appeal to Heaven against the tyranny exercised over the poor and
helpless seemed well fitted for pictorial treatment.” Swept up in the poli-
tics of Rossetti’s household, he posed Dante Gabriel for the head of the
Tribune Rienzi, and his brother William Michael for the figure of Adrian
di Costello, who tries to comfort Rienzi with the words “Let me be your
brother. . . . I want a brother like you.” Since Millais served as the model
for the slain victim, the work added up to a genuine “Brotherhood” proj-
ect, with three of the P.R.B. members posing for the protagonists, and the
central character crying out “Justice! Justice!”
Hunt’s source centered around two feuding noble factions, the Orsinis
and Colonnas, who carry on the tradition of the Guelphs and the Ghibel-
lines. The first chapter, entitled “The Brothers,” opens in Rome with Cola
4.1 William Holman Hunt,
Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the
Death of His Young Brother, Slain in
a Skirmish between the Colonna and
Orsini Factions, 1848–1849. Private
235 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
di Rienzi and his younger sibling walking and musing along the banks of
the Tiber. Cola di Rienzi launches into a tirade about the exploitation of
plebeians like himself by the patrician Colonna faction, outraged by the du-
plicitous practice of recruiting pliable plebeians under the cloak of a demo-
cratic show. The brothers separate as Cola runs an errand and the younger
gathers flowers for a garland for their sister. Suddenly he is swept up in the
retinue of Orsini knights hunting Colonnas, and in the melee that ensues
he is mistaken for an Orsini by one of the Colonnas and killed. Returning
just at that moment, Cola kneels by his murdered brother and, lifting his
crimsoned hand to the sky, cries for vengeance against the aristocratic rul-
ers of Rome. Rienzi now vows to liberate the state from tyrannical control
and restore power to the people.
The novel is awash in anachronisms redolent with topical significance.
In a key scene the author establishes a setting of an elevated pile of large
chunks of stone dragged “from the ruins of Rome,” a remnant from a
recent street skirmish that served “as a barricade for citizens against citi-
More than once Bulwer-Lytton compares Rienzi to Bonaparte;
when the physiognomy of the mature Rienzi is described, the author finds
“a certain resemblance to the popular pictures of Napoléon.” By 1347,
Rienzi has gathered a sufficient following of plebeians and liberal nobles
to pull off a bloodless insurrection. As the nobles either temporarily leave
the city or retreat into hiding, a Constitutional Assembly is declared and
a democratic series of laws (what Bulwer-Lytton calls the “New Constitu-
tion”) is accepted with acclaim. Although Rienzi himself is given unlim-
ited authority to complete the work of the revolution, he takes the modest
title of Tribune and for the remainder of the novel struggles against the
temptations of ambition and personal power to dispense justice consistent-
ly for patrician and peasant alike.
Hunt’s representation displays the influence of Pugin and Ruskin, sig-
naled by the gushing figure of Adrian di Costello at the left wearing a medi-
eval corselet and the turreted buildings in the background. The redemptive
gesture of Rienzi, the pietà-like pose of his brother, and the presence of a
Madonna figure coming up over the hill and carrying two infants in her
arms gives the picture’s structure a New Testament feeling. He merges the
medievalizing and Christianizing themes, however, with the modernity
of plein-air painting and his revolutionary sympathies—a paradigm of the
P.R.B. synthesis. Hunt recalled that in 1848 the appeal of the poor and
helpless to Divine Providence for release from tyrannical control was no
mere literary theme: “‘How long, O Lord!’, many bleeding souls were cry-
ing at that time.”
Hunt repeatedly insists that Rienzi was a revolutionary work, both in
content and style. He explained to Rossetti that he was putting into prac-
tice his “principle of rejection of conventional dogma, and pursuing that
of direct application to Nature for each feature, however humble a part of
foreground or background this might be.” He meant thereby to eradicate
236 chapter four
“the stereotyped tricks of decadent schools, and of any conventions not
recommended by experienced personal judgment.”
Excepting the figures
and a few details, most of the picture was painted out-of-doors at Hamp-
stead Heath; the fig tree was painted on the spot in the garden of Stephens’s
father at Lambeth, “its leaves and branches in full sunlight, with what was
then unprecedented exactness.” The patches of grass with dandelion puffs
and other blossoms and the young trees were rendered “directly and frank-
ly, not merely for the charm of minute finish, but as a means of studying
more deeply Nature’s principles of design, and to escape the conventional
treatment of landscape backgrounds.”
It is difficult to believe that the twenty-one-year-old Hunt spoke with
such authority of his intentions, but it should be recalled that he was re-
cording his reminiscences in old age and writing history to shore up and le-
gitimatize his key role in the founding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
His seemingly well-thought-out responses of 1848 were actually those of
his mature reflections. Much of this record was also affected by the art
criticism at the time in which he was writing, especially the late symbolist
critique (itself heir to Ruskinian and P.R.B. doctrine) of realist-type ap-
proaches that would have captured Hunt’s attention. Now almost exclu-
sively associated with modernity and urban life, realism was once again
equated with antireligious and materialist preoccupations. He ends his au-
tobiography with a thundering denunciation of impressionism as “ma-
terialistic and soulless” and threatening nothing less than the extinction
of modern art. Thus despite the P.R.B. emphasis on nature in the years
1848–1850 akin to their counterparts in France, Germany, Scandinavia, and
America, Hunt subsequently declared that he and his colleagues “were nev-
er realists.” One can hear the echoes of contemporary criticism when he
asserts that an artist’s work “must be the reflex of a living image in his own
mind, and not the icy double of the facts themselves.”
Since no artist could ever simply replicate the facts of brute existence,
the symbolist critique actually targeted the ideology as much as the aes-
thetics of the painters espousing the representation of everyday life. Hence
it addressed the political and social intentions of realist artists, reflected in
Hunt’s unfavorable attitude to French realism and in the nature of P.R.B.
technical precision and surface finish. Realism not only leaves God out of
the equation but induces us to look upon the world “as without design or
finish, unbalanced, unfitting, and unlovely, not interpreted into beauty as
true art makes it.” Hence P.R.B. “realism” required careful attention to
surface detail as opposed to Courbet-like crudity to charge it with the sym-
bolic significance necessary to give closure—that is, completion—to the
world. The Victorian and utilitarian bourgeois urge to practical moral and
religious purpose required perfection of style to convey the thought that
the solutions to social problems were already available within biblical for-
mulae. They needed only to be practiced to produce the True, the Good,
and the Beautiful. The work of the French bourgeois realist, on the other
237 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
hand, still embodied the ethos of revolutionary individualism, where the
“unfinished” surface signified the expression of freedom from social and
political constraint. The advances of the Industrial Revolution at mid-cen-
tury and the extent of British global power—symbolized by the Great Ex-
hibition of 1851—promoted the sense that perfection was then within the
grasp of human society.
That the Pre-Raphaelites acted on this dictum is seen in Hunt’s history
of the movement, which from first to last addresses itself to “the nation”:
In the exercise of her holy function art must sort out the good and the beauti-
ful from the base and hideous. She presents the form of a nation’s spirit, exactly
as the sandy atoms on a vibrating plane make a constant and distinct pattern to
the sound of a given note. . . . But while the temper of the people is of necessity
reflected by its art, in wise hands it may be controlled to an independent course
and initiate a purifying influence, and help to mould the nation’s thoughts, affec-
tions, and impulses.
Though written in retrospect, it shows that the Pre-Raphaelites embraced
the Carlylean combination of sympathy for the underprivileged and a wise
paternalism. Like their contemporaries elsewhere in Europe and America
they practiced a form of plein-air realism to demonstrate their rebellious
position in 1848, but it was tempered by their religious attitudes and typo-
logical symbolism. Every detail in a composition had to carry the burden
of a moral judgment and offer the viewer the possibility of redemptive
In this they shared the prevailing middle-class fascination for natural
history, especially botany and geology, which even carried over into cleri-
cal hobbies. The divine purpose could be disclosed in every leaf, blossom,
and stamen, and walks in the countryside and nature hikes into the woods
represented opportunities to observe the workings of the Infinite Mind
and the bounties of unlimited Creation. Armed with a geologist’s hammer
and a collecting basket, Victorian men and women approached plant life
and fossils with a missionary zeal.
This is already evident in the plant and flower symbolism of Rienzi.
The fig tree at the left of the picture probably symbolizes the disdain of
the nobles for the plebeians, seen in the indifference of the riders leaving
the scene, while the garland of flowers strung by the dead youth contains
hyacinths, anemones, daisies, and violets, all of which have a bearing on
the picture’s theme. The hyacinth symbolized misfortune and sorrow; in
Greek legend, Hyacinthus was the name of a handsome youth beloved by
Zephyrus and Apollo, who were rivals for his affection. During a game of
quoits between Apollo and Hyacinthus, the jealous Zephyrus deflected a
discus thrown by Apollo so that it struck and killed Hyacinthus. The grief-
stricken Apollo summoned the flower out of the blood-stained earth in
remembrance of his beloved. Similarly, the tears shed by Venus over the
238 chapter four
body of the fallen Adonis were translated into the commemorative anem-
one, also a symbol of the brevity of existence. The daisy represented inno-
cence and fidelity, and the violet embodied similar attributes of modesty
and faithfulness. Finally, dandelions (seen in the right foreground and on
the hills at the left) are associated with prophecy, as the act of blowing the
seedball foretold a person’s fortune.
Of course, flower symbolism is not stable and each blossom may of-
ten carry multiple meanings, and we can never be sure that each and every
flower in a composition painted out-of-doors signified a specific idea. But
there is enough evidence to demonstrate that for Pre-Raphaelites, held in
the powerful grip of Ruskin’s writings and of the contemporary typologi-
cal tradition, all objects in the natural world served both a representational
and symbolic function in their painting. Thus they could balance their in-
novative plein-air work with traditional emphasis on storytelling and care-
ful polish.
This self-conscious synthesis is also a hallmark of Rossetti’s The Girlhood
of Mary Virgin, painted in the same period as the Rienzi and the first work
produced by a P.R.B. member to be exhibited with the group’s monogram
(fig. 4.2).
Rossetti got the jump on Hunt
and Millais somewhat to their annoyance,
showing at the Free Exhibition of Mod-
ern Art in the Chinese Gallery at Hyde
Park Corner which opened on 24 March
1849—over a month earlier than the Roy-
al Academy.
Although scarcely a revo-
lutionary theme and based on the New
Testament episode, it departed from tra-
dition in several distinctive ways. Beyond
the interior space there is a view of a nat-
uralistic, brightly lit landscape represent-
ing a glimpse of the Sea of Galilee. The
design’s vivid colorations, shallow space,
and vertical orientation recall medieval
manuscript illumination. The reviewer of
the Athenaeum, predisposed to Puginesque
ideals, declared that the work’s “sincerity
and earnestness” reminded him “forcibly
of the feeling with which the early Flo-
rentine monastic painters wrought.” He
took to the idea that Mary was shown in
a familial setting and engaged in the or-
dinary task “of embroidering drapery to
supply possibly some future sacred vest-
Significantly, Rossetti not only
treated Mary’s childhood in an everyday
4.2 Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The
Girlhood of Mary Virgin, 1848–1849.
Tate Gallery, London.
239 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
secular context akin to genre painting but also featured characters based
on his own family circle. The Virgin was modeled directly after his sister
Christina, St. Anne after their mother, and St. Joachim after “Old Wil-
liams,” an occasional handyman and servant employed by the Rossettis.
The incorporation of family members into his work inevitably invoked the
tense psychological drama of interpersonal relationships—a trait his work
shared with Pre-Raphaelite work generally.
The picture depicts the Virgin engaged in embroidering a scarlet cloth
with the image of a tall lily stem, which she is copying from life. Sitting
closely to her is St. Anne, who supervises her needlework. The actual lily
in its vase, supported by an angel, rests on a pile of six large tomes inscribed
with the names of the cardinal and theological virtues: “Caritas,” “Fides,”
“Spes,” “Prudentia,” “Temperantia,” and “Fortitudo.” The palm branch
crossed by a thorny briar on the floor in the foreground, the ingenious cru-
ciform trellis, the red robe draped over the tiled balustrade, all presage the
Passion, while St. Joachim’s act of pruning the vine points to the Eucharist
and Christ’s sacrifice. The haloed dove perched on the trellis symbolizes the
protective Holy Spirit awaiting parturition.
Then there is the flower symbolism. The white Madonna lily, associ-
ated with the Virgin, symbolizes purity, and the lone rose in the glass atop
the balustrade recalls the traditional sign of her miraculous incarnations.
But Rossetti’s use of Christina as the model for his Virgin charges the floral
metaphors with personal significance. Their father had written these verses
about Christina and his other daughter, Maria:
Christina and Maria,
My dear daughters,
Are fresh violets
Opened at dawn.
They are roses nurtured
By the earliest breezes;
They are lovely turtle-doves
In the nest of Love.
Here we see that the metaphorical predisposition of the elder Rossetti could
be applied to living specimens as well, nurturing and liberating their poetic
instincts. Indeed, flower symbolism pervades Christina’s writing: one of
her childhood examples apostrophizes “The Solitary Rose,” published in a
book of her poetry printed privately in 1847 by her maternal grandfather,
Gaetano Polidori. Christina’s identification with the flower, which she ul-
timately chose as her personal sign, is stated in the first verse:
O happy Rose, red Rose, that bloomest lonely
Where there are none to gather while they love thee;
That art perfumed by thine own fragrance only,
240 chapter four
Resting like incense round thee and above thee;—
Thou hearest nought save some pure stream that flows,
O happy Rose.
This same preoccupation is seen in Dante Gabriel’s two sonnets writ-
ten for the picture, the first attached to the original frame and the second
written for the catalogue of the Free Exhibition (both are now affixed to
the present frame):
This is that blessed Mary, pre-elect
God’s Virgin. Gone is a great while, and she
Dwelt young in Nazareth of Galilee.
Unto God’s will she brought devout respect,
Profound simplicity of intellect,
And supreme patience. From her mother’s knee
Faithful and hopeful; wise in charity;
Strong in grave peace; in pity circumspect.
So held she through her girlhood; as it were
An angel-watered lily, that near God
Grows and is quiet. Till, one dawn at home
She woke in her white bed, and had no fear
At all,—yet wept till sunshine, and felt awed:
Because the fulness of the time was come.
These are the symbols. On that cloth of red
the centre is the Tripoint: perfect each,
Except the second of its points, to teach
That Christ is not yet born. The books—whose head
Is golden Charity, as Paul hath said—
Those virtues are wherein the soul is rich:
Therefore on them the lily standeth, which
Is Innocence, being interpreted.
The seven-thorn’d briar and palm seven-leaved
Are her great sorrow and her great reward.
Until the end be full, the Holy One
Abides without. She soon shall have achieved
Her perfect purity: yea, God the Lord
Shall soon vouchsafe His Son to be her Son.
Rossetti, however, shared the fascination for the emblematic use of na-
ture and religious symbolism with a knowing constituency. His description
of the picture in a letter of 14 November 1848 to Charles Lyell mentions
241 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
that it belonged “to the religious class which has always appeared to me the
most adapted and the most worthy to interest the members of a Christian
This statement suggests that he had a specific audience in
mind prior to painting the work, and was attuned to the religious ferment
of the period. He also noted that though the work illustrates the traditional
Education of the Virgin theme, he wanted to give it a special twist by sub-
stituting the act of embroidering for the conventional scene of reading. Ac-
cording to his brother and close associates, Dante Gabriel was never more
than a casual attendant of the Anglican Church, so that his interest in ap-
pealing to “a Christian community” is less a religious act than a calculated
strategy. The work’s curiously detached quality seems more appropriate to
genre than to religious painting, as Dante Gabriel carefully piles up symbol
upon symbol in a style closely approximating his father’s methods for de-
coding medieval literature.
Hunt, who recognized the influence of Brown’s Wycliffe Reading His
Translation of the Bible to John of Gaunt on Girlhood, perceived Rossetti’s pic-
ture as a holdover from the older artist’s “Overbeckian phase.” But this
“phase” was also mediated by the contributions of Pugin and his collabo-
rators, whose work Brown had consulted in the process of searching out
sources for his own painting. The bench on which the Virgin sits and the
portable organ behind her carved with the legend “Laus deo” are distinctly
Puginesque accessories, while the tiles of the balustrade resemble the me-
dieval-style encaustic designs the porcelain manufacturer Herbert Minton
began producing in the period. In addition, the figure of Mary and certain
accessories such as the handsome book bindings recall picturesque details
from the frontispieces of Pugin’s True Principles of Pointed Architecture and
Specimens of Gothic Architecture.
This brings us back to Rossetti’s stated intention to produce a work pe-
culiarly fitted to address a particular religious community, and here again
it seemed appropriate for him to exploit his mother and sister as models for
the biblical subject. One of the major Tractarian writings was a sermon on
the Annunciation which emphasized the link between the incarnation of
Christ and the apostolic succession—tracing the ministry of the primitive
church back through the Apostles to Christ incarnate.
At the moment,
Rossetti’s mother and sister were deeply attracted to the Oxford Move-
ment and High Church teachings.
Since 1843 Frances Rossetti and her two daughters had begun attend-
ing Christ Church, Albany Street, one of the main London centers of the
movement, whose vicar was Reverend William Dodsworth, a disciple of
Pusey, Keble, and Newman. Under his direction, Pusey and many other
leading Tractarians preached Sunday sermons at Christ Church. Frances,
Christina, and Maria all enthusiastically embraced Anglo-Catholic teach-
ing, but for Christina it marked a period of upheaval in her life. While
eventually she would devote her poetry to propagating High Church gos-
pel and be recognized as the poet laureate of the Oxford Movement, the
242 chapter four
immediate impact of Anglo-Catholicism upon her precocious adolescent
sensibility stirred her with burdensome guilt feelings. Sometime in the
spring of 1845, then nearing her fifteenth birthday, she suffered a nervous
breakdown and for the next five years had to be placed under medical su-
pervision. Significantly, the breakdown was diagnosed at one point as a
form of religious mania, a state of excessive self-reproach for failing to ful-
fill one’s religious obligations. Although showing symptoms that moderns
could relate to anorexia, Victorians made their diagnosis of turbulent fe-
male adolescence within the parameters of religious experience.
One clue to Christina’s crisis in the 1840s is the short story she wrote in
1850 entitled Maude, in large measure an autobiographical projection treat-
ing the onerous problems that beset her in the previous decade. Maude
Foster is fifteen when the story begins, a poet, always in a delicate physical
state, excels in improvising bouts-rimés (a game of rhyme endings) sonnets,
occasionally attends St. Andrew’s Church, is fascinated with the prospect
of an Anglican sisterhood, feels like a hypocrite in comparison to the sim-
ple religious faith of one of her friends, and is torn between her gifts for
writing and ambition for success and the Victorian pressure against female
display—all vivid features of Christina’s self-portrait at the moment of her
crisis in 1845.
Maude is also a female-centered world where males are mar-
ginalized at best, leaving the protagonist to work through her difficulties
free from the masculine gaze of father and brothers.
By coincidence, the first Anglican sisterhood—promoted by Pusey and
Dodsworth—crystallized in the Christ Church parish in 1845 and made its
first public appearance on Easter Sunday. Christina admitted an early attrac-
tion to the convent, but was probably discouraged by her mother.
Maude asks her mother if she should mind her becoming a nun, the reply
came, “Yes, my dear; it would make me miserable.” Nevertheless, Christina
retained a romantic attachment to the idea of a female religious order and
eventually did rescue work for a penitentiary in Highgate run by Anglican
nuns. Wearing the habit of an Associate of the Order and called “Sister
Christina,” she administered to unmarried mothers and prostitutes.
In this sense, I believe that Maude is a response to her brother’s depic-
tion of Girlhood, which attempts to subject her and their mother to the pro-
grammatic exigencies of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—an exclusive
fraternal association that did not permit female members. Thus the single-
sex concept of the religious sisterhood stood in opposition to the intel-
lectual brotherhood, although Christina was as ambivalent about the one
and the other as were her brothers, who knew she qualified mentally and
creatively for the P.R.B. When Maude’s friend enters a convent, it inspires
the eponymous heroine to compose a poem tracing the diverse motives of
three girls who decide to become nuns. The poetic thoughts contrast with
the characterization in the painting. For example, the first novitiate, seek-
ing womb-like protection and nostalgic relief from the pains of matura-
tion, states:
243 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
There, while yet a child, I thought
I could live as in a dream,
Secret, neither found nor sought:
Till the lilies on the stream,
Pure as virgin purity,
Would seem scarce too pure for me:—
Ah, but that can never be.
Here the ideal of lily-white purity remains an elusive goal rather than the
reality of the religious devotee in the picture. The second girl, disillusioned
in love, perceives the nunnery as an escape to a refuge where her personal
self-sacrifice enables her to achieve resolution to her earthly pain:
Yea, the reward is almost won,
A crown of glory and a palm.
Soon I shall sing the unknown psalm;
Soon gaze on light, not on the sun;
And soon, with surer faith, shall pray
For him, and cease not night nor day.
The third girl enters as part of her struggle to attain spiritual happiness,
associating herself with the male-identified imagery of Girlhood:
Oh for the grapes of the True Vine
Growing in Paradise.
Whose tendrils join the Tree of Life
To that which maketh wise.
Growing beside the Living Well
Whose sweetest waters rise
Where tears are wiped from tearful eyes.
Referring to her own floral emblem, Christina hints that this girl is her
I will not look upon a rose
Though it is fair to see:
The flowers planted in Paradise
Are budding now for me.
Red roses like love visible
Are blowing on their tree,
Or white like virgin purity.
Christina/Maude has her own agenda independent from the role assigned
to her by her brother in the picture. Although the Middle Ages scripted the
nun as the bride of Christ, in Christina’s short story each of the novitiates
244 chapter four
commits herself to the convent with the aim of resolving private doubts
and insecurities. They are not precisely compliant daughters who unques-
tioningly submit to the will of God.
This is the kind of complexity absent in male representations of sister-
hood. The well-known Convent Thoughts, for example, painted in 1850–
1851 by Charles Allston Collins, a High Church follower and close associate
of the Pre-Raphaelites, depicts a simplistic male schema of the ideal Vic-
torian woman, whose natural habitat is a walled-off garden cloister (fig.
Surrounded by symbolic flowerbeds of lilies and roses, she gazes con-
templatively at a passion flower, whose name was derived from the resem-
blance of its parts to the shape of the cross, the five wounds of Christ, the
crown of thorns, and even the nimbus signifying divine glory. The two
pages of the open medieval missal held in the nun’s other hand illustrate
the crucifixion and the Virgin Mary, again representing her selfless dedica-
tion to religious obligations. An inscription at the top of the frame, “Sicut
Lilium,” is a fragment taken from the Song of Solomon 2:2, referring to
the verse, “As the lily among thorns [Sicut lilium inter spinas], so is my
4.3 Charles Allston Collins,
Convent Thoughts, 1850–1851.
Visitors of the Ashmolean
Museum, Oxford.
245 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
love among the daughters.” This is often interpreted in the typological tra-
dition as both a sign of Christ’s love of the Church and an allusion to the
Virgin Mary. The white lilies pointing upward to the nun and the roses in
the rear reinforce the link to Mary and the idea of the woman as a pure,
flower-like essence.
The image of the closeted, dreamy, virginal, self-sacrificing female
clearly appealed to one side of the Victorian male sensibility, but its erotic
implications could be smuggled in among the religious allusions. Millais
informed Hunt that the work started out as a paean to a “fancied love af-
fair” which evidently fizzled out, and Collins changed the subject from the
female protagonist in Shelley’s Sensitive Plant, “Who out of the cups of the
heavy flowers / Emptied the rain of the thunder showers,” to the nun med-
itating on the significance of the passion flower.
Thus the High Church
references gloss the original theme of romantic love, perhaps seen in the
detail of the erect lilies pointing in the direction of the nun’s body.
The patron for this work was Thomas Combe, the prominent super-
intendent of the Clarendon Press (Oxford University Press), Oxford, and
churchwarden of his parish. He and his wife were influential High Church
people within the Oxford University community and became major pa-
trons of the Pre-Raphaelites. The Combes had purchased Hunt’s A Con-
verted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the
Druids, and Millais jokingly began his correspondence to Combe as “Dear
Early Christian”—a clue to his Anglo-Catholic status and to Millais’s own
early attraction to High Church principles.
Combe noted that the flowers in Convent Thoughts were painted in the
garden of his own home located in the quadrangle of Clarendon Press. Al-
though otherwise critical of the picture, Ruskin praised Collins’s rendering
of the water plant in the goldfish pond, Alisma plantago, which he knew at
firsthand from his own botanical study. Ruskin claimed that it had never
been “so thoroughly or so well drawn,” proof positive to him that truth to
nature was paramount in the P.R.B. program.
But invariably their syn-
thesis of the natural and symbolic constituted an attempt on the part of na-
scent intellectuals to add instant profundity to their productions.
Like Convent Thoughts, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin ostensibly reflects an
attempt to convey “a symbol of female excellence. The Virgin being taken
as its highest type.”
Although Rossetti’s picture depicts Mary confined
and closely supervised by a sort of “mother superior,” the scene unfolds in
a secular context, in an everyday domestic setting that reminded the Athe-
naeum’s critic of John Rogers Herbert’s Our Saviour Subject to His Parents at
Nazareth. Thus it avoids overt references to a female religious order, perhaps
partly in response to Low Church critics of Anglican nunneries as papist-
inspired but also to the idea that they constituted a menace to the fam-
ily structure and to patriarchal authority.
Rossetti’s imagined “religious
community” for whom he presumably painted the pictures comprised a
fair share of sceptics (including Rossetti himself and brother William) and
246 chapter four
Puseyite opponents, and the awkwardnesses of the picture relate to his re-
ligious ambivalence. If he borders on Mariolatry under the pressure of the
High Church beliefs of the female side of his family, he justifies it by the
genre-like presentation. In a sense, he created a subject out of the immedi-
ate family tensions as they were played out in Victorian religious struggles
for control of social change.
This tension is observed in the picture in the anxious interaction of
Mary and St. Anne at the embroidery frame, posed by Christina and Fran-
ces. St. Anne/Frances practically sits on top of Mary/Christina, staring
fixedly at the needlework and folding her hands in impatience. A bored
and tight-lipped apprentice, Mary avoids eye-contact with her mother and
looks straight ahead at the lily plant. In reality, Frances Rossetti undertook
both the secular and religious education of all her children at home. She
was a firm disciplinarian who carefully regulated their routine. Since the
daughters were raised to be governesses, she closely supervised their train-
ing, including such practical domestic chores as needlework and embroi-
dery. Christina, however, hated the idea of becoming a governess and grew
to despise her needlework chores. Yet this engendered a conflictual mindset
which contributed to her adolescent turmoil, for while as children she and
Maria enjoyed an egalitarian upbringing with the boys, they were gradu-
ally reigned in to conform to the Victorian model of femininity. Her desire
to create poetry and be admired for her gifts ran counter to the self-effac-
ing feminine ideal as well as to the notion of religious self-sacrifice. When
Maude espies her cousins Mary and Agnes Clifton embroidering a cover
for the lectern in their church, she compliments their handiwork and they
invite her to join them at the frame. Maude, however, demurs at the task,
claiming inability and lack of time to learn, but then she murmurs to her-
self, “How I envy you. . . . I am sick of display and poetry and acting.”
The motif of the embroidery frame is central to Rossetti’s idea. Al-
most every Victorian novelist (and not only in Great Britain) wishing to
represent maidenhood, the good wife and mother, depicted their female
protagonist seated in an isolated alcove absorbed in spinning, sewing, or
embroidering. George Eliot’s Mrs. Transome, in Felix Holt, the Radical, took
to embroidering useless objects—“then the resource of many a well-born
and unhappy woman.” Disraeli in particular consistently employs the im-
age to conjure the self-sacrificing and submissive Victorian woman: in Con-
ingsby he writes of the stirring sight of graceful English women “bending
over their embroidery frames,” while in Sybil he has Lord Marney’s wife
Arabella, the epitome of the long-suffering, passive wife, sitting often at
her embroidery frame. Equally important for Rossetti’s picture, the cer-
emonial revival of the Oxford Movement encouraged embroidery-work
for altar frontals and vestments, harking back to a tradition that had ended
with the suppression of the religious orders in the sixteenth century.
symbolic connection between the embroidery frame and Victorian ide-
als of femininity and the Oxford Movement makes it possible to see the
247 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
ambivalence of Mary/Christina regarding the needlework in her brother’s
portrayal and in her own self-projection in Maude as allusions to Christina’s
actual religious crisis and breakdown in the 1840s.
Significantly, in Maude the designs on the embroidery correspond in
large part to the symbolism in Girlhood. Maude observes a cross, crown of
thorns, and several floral emblems. Agnes also points out a palm-branch
and notes that the border is to be decorated with vine leaves and grapes.
When Maude asks her if the flowers mean anything, Agnes replies by citing
the opening line of chapter 2 of the Song of Solomon, the one just preceding
the verse quoted by Collins in the inscription above the frame of Convent
Thoughts: “I am the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valleys”—hence
linking the motif with both that work and Girlhood and through them with
the P.R.B. program generally.
There is yet another social facet of the image that embeds it in a topi-
cal Victorian discourse. The flip side of the popular image of the upper-
class woman absorbed in her embroidery frame is that of the working-class
needlewoman slaving away in the clothing trade. Approximately ten per-
cent of the female workforce employed in the huge London garment trade
were seamstresses, dressmakers, and milliners.
The drudgery and small
wages made the needlewoman socially, economically, and sexually vulner-
able. Her condition, written up in contemporary government and munici-
pal reports and journalistic accounts, was highlighted in Thomas Hood’s
sensational poem, “The Song of the Shirt.” Published in the Christmas
number of Punch, 1843, its melodramatic verses achieved widespread no-
toriety and did much to heighten public awareness of the ruthlessly ex-
ploited seamstress:
O! Men, with Sisters dear!
O! Men! with Mothers and Wives!
It is not linen you’re wearing out,
But human creatures’ lives!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
Sewing at once, with a double thread,
A Shroud as well as a Shirt.
… … …
With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread—
Stitch! Stitch! Stitch!
In poverty, hunger and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch,
Would that its tone could reach the Rich!
She sang the “Song of the Shirt.”
248 chapter four
The poem inspired the artist Richard Redgrave to paint The Sempstress,
exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1844, portraying the despairing needle-
woman in a dingy garret, laboring on a man’s shirt into the wee hours of
the morning by the flickering light of a lone candle (fig. 4.4). Elizabeth
Gaskell’s Ruth (1853) probably took its cue from this picture for one of its
opening scenes, in which the impoverished heroine toils on a luxurious
ballroom gown during the early morning hours in a dark, chilly corner of
a dressmaker’s sweatshop. She strains her “aching eyes” in gazing out of the
window “on the lovely sky of a winter’s night.” An unwed yet singularly
self-sacrificing mother, Ruth is ultimately martyred on the rack of double-
dealing Victorian morality.
Anti-Semitism also reared its ugly head in connection with the cloth-
ing and needlepoint trades. This is especially evident in Charles Kingsley’s
Alton Locke, where sweaters and rapacious workshop masters are almost al-
ways identified as Jews. Henry Mayhew’s popular Morning Chronicle series
of 1849–1850, “London Labour and the London Poor,” which drew pub-
lic attention to the deplorable working conditions of tailors and needle-
women, had previously prompted Kingsley to write his pamphlet on the
sweating system entitled Cheap Clothes and Nasty (1850).
(Sweaters were
middlemen whose work was farmed out to them by enterprising tailors,
and the laborers often took part of their work home to their wives and
daughters.) Although Jews formed a minority among the sweaters, Kings-
ley singles them out as characteristic of the occupation and even attaches a
4.4 Richard Redgrave, The
Sempstress, 1846 version. Forbes
Magazine Collection, New
249 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
special onus to them for exploiting “the unfortunate Christian.” He makes
Crossthwaite, a Chartist in Alton Locke’s shop, declare: “We shall become
the slaves, often the bodily prisoners, of Jews, middlemen, and sweaters
who draw their livelihood out of our starvation.”
Although not openly hostile to Judaism, Christina Rossetti’s dialogue
poem “Christian and Jew” (written in 1858, the year Parliament passed the
Jewish Disabilities Removal Act) denies the Jew a place in paradise except
at the price of baptism and conversion. If brother William recognized the
“genius” of young Simeon Solomon, he could still refer to him as “an un-
sightly little Israelite.”
It may be recalled that at the end of 1847 members
of Parliament hotly debated the admission of Jews, and Disraeli outraged
the body when he declared that Jews were the “authors” of Christianity.
Much as the Anglicans deprecated papal influence, some of them dreaded
even more the thought of Jews gaining political power. The hostility of
ultra-Protestants on this issue matched the intensity of their anti-Catholic
opposition, with the result that the controversial parliamentary exchange
gained widespread notoriety.
It could hardly be doubted that Christi-
na and her brothers were aware of the arguments, since the person who
taught them German, Dr. Adolph Heimann, was Jewish, and his young
wife, Amelia, became one of Christina’s closest friends. Indeed, shortly
after her “Christian and Jew” appeared, Christina felt compelled to send a
note of apology to the Heimanns.
One of the common stereotyped arguments advanced by opponents
of Jewish admission to Parliament was the Jewish lack of allegiance to
England—that Jews were permanent outcasts and aliens whose spiritual
home remained Judea. They had to twist Disraeli’s argument by stripping
away from modern Jews the Judaism of the Old Testament and assigning
to them the “false” religion of the Pharisees as recorded in the New Tes-
tament. That the curious identity problem connecting Judaism and “the
early Christians” vexed Rossetti is manifested in his poetic interpretations
of New Testament themes. The poem “The Seed of David” wrestles with
the ironies of Christ’s Jewish ancestry:
Christ sprang from David Shepherd, and even so
From David King, being born of high and low.
The Shepherd lays his crook, the King his crown,
Here at Christ’s feet, and high and low bow down.
The question of the dual identity of Jesus arises again in “The Passover in
the Holy Family,” which confronts the book of Exodus with the Synoptic
Here meet together the prefiguring day
And day prefigured. “Eating, thou shalt stand,
Feet shod, loins girt, thy road-staff in thine hand,
250 chapter four
With blood-stained door and lintel,”—did God say
By Moses’ mouth in ages passed away.
And now, where this poor household doth comprise
At Paschal-Feast two kindred families,—
Lo! the slain lamb confronts the Lamb to slay.
The pyre is piled. What agony’s crown attained,
What shadow of Death the Boy’s fair brow subdues
Who holds that blood wherewith the porch is stained
By Zachary the priest? John binds the shoes
He deemed himself not worthy to unloose;
And Mary culls the bitter herbs ordained.
In a sense, Rossetti, who once conceived a picture of a Passover Seder in
Jesus’s family when Christ was still a child, embeds the Jewish clan of The
Girlhood of Mary Virgin in a British milieu and merges their identity with
the artist’s own household. He thus attempts to divest the early Christians
of their Judaic links and “convert” them into High Anglicans. The mo-
ment of the angel’s appearance to Mary and the allusions to the martyrdom
of her son and her subsequent sufferings constitute the threshold of their
conversion. Henceforth the wicked or unrepentant Jew serves as the dia-
lectical foil for the good Christian, just as the impoverished and exploited
needlewoman is held in sexist and class tension with the reflex image of the
woman at the embroidery frame. Both the needlewoman and the well-to-
do embroiderer are female victims of the Victorian code, but the self-sacri-
ficing spouse was socially conditioned to feel superior to her destitute and
marginalized sister.
As one of the few socially committed painters of the 1840s, Redgrave
would certainly have attracted the attention of the young Pre-Raphaelites.
His ability to create sympathetic and socially redeeming portrayals of help-
less women could have contributed to Rossetti’s psychological projection
of his sister. Part of Christina’s guilt stemming from her preference for po-
etry over needlework may have been implicated in her sense of class as well
as gender and religious conflict. As members of the lower middle class, all
the Rossettis had to earn a living to survive, and the rejection of handicraft
occupations in connection with her planned future as governess implied a
rejection of a working-class livelihood.
If Dante Gabriel scrupulously depicts the psychological exchange be-
tween his mother and sister, he must also express his own sibling rival-
ry with his talented sister. It should be recalled that the publication of a
book of Christina’s poems in 1847 made her the family star in this period,
and although there was a good deal of mutual support for one another the
Rossettis were an extremely competitive clan. Christina would have rep-
resented a formidable rival to her brothers in their quest for worldly fame,
and the threat she posed to them may be reflected in her exclusion from
251 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
their male fraternity. Rossetti’s insertion of her into a religious setting that
simultaneously secures her submissive obedience to a Victorian code of
values (“a symbol of female excellence”) suggests his attempt to metaphori-
cally divest her of her self-assertion and special gifts and exploit her guilt-
ridden sensibility. His sisterly ideal fit that of the patriarchal requirements
and granted his unstated jealousy an aura of legitimacy. Indeed, Rossetti’s
covert recommendation for her to give up creative work and surrender to
church work and housework followed the current medical cure for her
type of invalidism. Finally, he identified her with the victimized needle-
woman in a trade supposedly dominated by Jewish “sweaters” and thereby
further marginalized her. In this connection, the “Jewish mother” care-
fully supervising Mary stands in for the exploiting middleman of Petticoat
Lane and ultimately implicates the Rossetti household in the detested Ju-
daic culture. Thus he ran the full cycle from Anglicizing and Christianizing
his Jewish protagonists to imbricating them with practices that fixed the lot
of actual Jews in British culture.
This ambiguity may be traced to Rossetti’s ambivalent relationship with
his sister, the schismatic pressures within High Anglicanism that affected
the family generally, and Victorian sexual repression. By tailoring the im-
age of his sister to conform to the prescribed mold, he not only eliminated
his rival in symbolic representation but also transformed her into the spiri-
tually vulnerable, hothouse type associated exclusively with the demarcat-
ed feminine sphere. As in the case of Collins’s indelicate Convent Thoughts,
I am suggesting a latent eroticism in Rossetti’s depiction of pubescence in
Girlhood. In this instance, however, the image is overlaid with incestuous
implications. Jan Marsh detected in Christina’s writings evidence of incest
trauma and guilt, which she speculates related to interaction with her fa-
ther. But in Dante Gabriel’s obsessive recording of his sister’s face and body
and in their intense creative exchange it is also possible to glean an erotic
fixation of brother and sister. Whether this was mutually experienced can-
not now be stated with any certainty, but Rossetti’s eccentric Ecce Ancilla
Domini! or The Annunciation, his follow-up composition to Girlhood in a
projected triptych on the life of the Virgin, contains a number of bizarre
features hinting at incestuous desire.
Rossetti conceived the work at the end of November 1849, and from
the start he meant it to be novel and sexually engaging (fig. 4.5). Traditional
representations of the event showed the modestly attired Virgin reading a
prayer book at a prie-dieu in a fairly open interior. Yet Rossetti informed
his brother that he intended to show the Virgin in bed “without any bed-
clothes on, an arrangement which may be justified in consideration of the
hot climate; and the angel Gabriel is to be presenting a lily to her.”
liam Michael took the comment on the bedclothes as an instance of Pre-
Raphaelite commitment to the representation of “probable facts.” As in
Girlhood, Rossetti turned to his sister Christina as the principal model for
the Virgin’s head, although he changed her brunette hair color to red.
253 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
Rossetti’s preference for red-haired women and the traditional associa-
tion of red hair with both Jews and heightened passion already invested the
work with personal eroticism. But by dressing Christina in a white, loose-
fitting, sleeveless nightgown, exposing her uncovered in bed in the intima-
cy of her bedchamber, and showing her shrinking in fright from a robust
male whose nudity peeks through the folds of his tunic, he automatically
charged the scene with a keen sexual undercurrent. Christina is hemmed
in tightly on all sides: by the angel, the walls, and the upright embroidery
frame in the right foreground transferred from Girlhood—a feeling of con-
striction intensified by the narrow vertical composition. The unrelieved
taut verticality is disrupted only by the diagonal of the lily held awkwardly
by the angel, and pointing downward toward Christina’s knees. As Chris-
tina anxiously withdraws into her corner, she concentrates her entire atten-
tion on the stem of the lily as if it were a surrogate male penis.
It is curious that no previous writer has observed that the angel who
announced to the Virgin the divine plan for her conception had the same
name as the author of the picture. Dante Gabriel Rossetti was familiarly
known by his second name, and thus the overshadowing apparition of the
angel Gabriel in the picture merges with the authorial presence. It is per-
haps understandable that Rossetti did not portray himself directly in the
role of Gabriel, but instead modeled the angel after his brother and alter
ego William, thereby projecting his incestuous desire while insuring the
fraternal sexual tension with their sister. Since William was also a fellow
Pre-Raphaelite, the work further displaces the sexuality to a synecdochic
level in which the collective identity or “Brotherhood” (Woolner also sat
for the angel) substitutes for the individual member. The passive, sexually
threatened Christina is constructed as the P.R.B.’s ideal “sisterly” coun-
terpart. Significantly, one of the group’s inside jocular interpretations of
their initials centered on Rossetti’s sexual preoccupations—“Penis Rather
Despite the satirical intention, however, this reading gives the
“brothers” a masculinist orientation.
The title Ecce Ancilla Domini!—“Behold the handmaid of the Lord”
(Luke 1:38)—was exclaimed by Mary at the moment she yielded to her
divine role as ancillary to God’s will. The utterance followed the angel’s
response to her question—“How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?”—
that the conception would take place through the Holy Spirit without
human mediation. As in Girlhood, Rossetti represents the Holy Spirit by
the dove, here flitting in through the window like one of the canaries in a
dream of Christina’s. Rossetti’s initial title assumes the perspective of the
Virgin, who after initial hesitation resigns herself to the inevitable. Rosset-
ti’s revelation of High Church sentiment again veered close to the edge of
Mariolatry and popery, and he even inscribed Latin mottoes on the original
frame. As he did in Girlhood, however, he tried to temper the image with
naturalistic detail and a novel compositional point of view. In the end, at-
tacks on the picture and its sale to a Belfast shipping agent named Francis
4.5 Dante Gabriel Rossetti,
Ecce Ancilla Domini! 1849–1850.
Tate Gallery, London.
254 chapter four
McCracken prompted Rossetti to change the title to The Annunciation. By
so doing, he reinterpreted the scene and shifted the thematic focus to the
messenger bringing tidings from the Lord.
One of the novelties of the picture, consistent with P.R.B. aims, was
the clean, fresh look of its surface and vivid colorations. The Pre-Raphael-
ites tried to reproduce the brilliance of early Renaissance panels painted in
fresco and tempera (in which egg yolk is the binding medium) on a gesso
ground. The dominant tonality of Rossetti’s work is white with accents
of the prismatic colors red, blue, and yellow. All of these colors could be
justified for their conventional symbolic associations, and even Dickens
could write that everyone knew that blue was “the Madonna’s favourite
What is unique is the geometric scheme and division of space.
The plane of the blue curtain behind the Virgin partially conceals the angle
of the two walls forming the corner and flattens the design, while the verti-
cal of the embroidered red cloth draped over its frame reinforces this planar
effect. Between the blue hanging and red cloth, the circular golden halo
behind the Virgin’s head adds a piquant note. The simplicity of the color-
ations is almost startling, and the absence of conventional light and shade
contribute to the visionary effect.
The abusive response from some critics to Ecce Ancilla Domini! at the
National Institution (the former Free Institution of Modern Art now
moved to Portland Gallery in Regent Street) in 1850 so discouraged Ros-
setti that, with few exceptions, he thereafter refused to exhibit in London.
The reviewer of the Athenaeum considered it “an example of the perver-
sion of talent which has recently been making too much way in our school
of Art and wasting the energies of some our most promising aspirants.”
He criticized the picture for want of a fuller range of light and shade, its
flat color, and eccentric composition. Although Rossetti and his colleagues
professed to look at nature “in its truth and simplicity,” in fact they were
nothing more than “slavish imitators of artistic inefficiency.”
Since the
“secret order” of the P.R.B. now stood unveiled in the public sphere, the
consternation among critics expressed itself primarily in the form of an at-
tack on its self-proclaimed sincerity.
Perhaps the first revelation of the meaning of the notorious monogram
appeared in Angus B. Reach’s column, “Town Talk and Table Talk,” of 4
May 1850, which fairly ridicules the novel features of the group and their
ostentatious identification with the medieval Old Masters:
Has any casual reader of art-criticisms ever been puzzled by the occurrence of
three mysterious letters as denoting a new-fashioned school or style in paint-
ing lately come into vogue[?] The hieroglyphics in question are “P.R.B.,” and
they are the initials of the words “Prae-Raffaelite Brotherhood.” To this league
belong the ingenious gentlemen who profess themselves practitioners of “Early
Christian Art,” and who—setting aside the Mediaeval schools of Italy, the
Raffaelles, Guidos, and Titians, and all other such small-beer daubers—devote
255 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
their energies to the reproduction of saints squeezed out perfectly flat. . . . A
glance at some of the minor exhibitions now open will prove what really clever
men have been bitten by this extraordinary art-whim, of utterly banishing per-
spective and everything like rotundity of form. It has been suggested that the
globe-shape of the world must be very afflicting to the ingenious gentlemen in
The “artfully-shaped and coloured pancakes” of the group were hence-
forth attached to a movement cloaked in secrecy—in some quarters, a rec-
ipe for radicalism. The group certainly promoted this image, as the case of
Millais’s first P.R.B. picture, Isabella, painted in the same period as Hunt’s
Rienzi and Rossetti’s Girlhood of Mary Virgin (fig. 4.6). It proudly adver-
tised the group allegiance with the monogram in two places, once after
Millais’s signature and date and again carved Puginesque-like in the leg of
the wooden stool at the lower right (fig. 4.7). Isabella was inspired by the
narrative poem by John Keats, “Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil,” itself taken
from a story by Giovanni Boccaccio about the ill-fated lovers Lorenzo and
4.6 John Everett Millais, Isabella,
1848–1849. Board of Trustees
of the National Museums and
Galleries on Merseyside, Walker
Art Gallery, Liverpool.
256 chapter four
Until joining with Hunt and Rossetti, Millais had
been merely a precocious academic student, winning
prizes at the Royal Academy and astonishing his older
peers. He was only eleven when he entered the Royal
Academy, on 12 December 1840, on the recommendation
of Sir Martin Archer Shee, president of the Academy.
Millais’s academic exercises of 1842–1843—developed
in the popular preparatory school located at 6 Charlotte
Street in Bloomsbury run by Henry Sass—already dis-
play brilliant promise (figs. 4.8–9).
A fair portrait paint-
er but gifted teacher, Sass grounded the neophytes in the
tedious process of copying the “flat” (engraved outlines
of ancient statuary) before assigning them to a huge plas-
ter ball to teach the intricacies of light and shade. He
loathed the French practice of shading with charcoal and
stump (a coiled paper shaped like a pencil rubbed into
the charcoal) and insisted on the linear precision of me-
ticulous cross-hatching. The highly finished surfaces of
Millais reveal the earmarks of Sass’s highly disciplined
pedagogical system.
Swept up in the excitement generated by the com-
petition for the decorations of the New Palace of West-
minster, Millais submitted a colossal cartoon (ten by
fourteen feet) in 1847 based on a New Testament sub-
ject, The Widow’s Mite. Although rejected, it attests to
the influence of the medieval revival on Millais’s initial
careerist ambitions. This influence expressed itself more
fully in the Isabella: Millais recalled that some of the
“vestments” of the characters followed the illustrations
of medieval costumes in a book Rossetti loaned him. Al-
though Millais had access to Camille Bonnard’s Costumes
historiques (1829–1830), his use of the term “vestments” conjures up Pugin’s
encyclopedic Glossary of Ecclesiastical Ornament and Costume (1844). Lorenzo’s
costume seems to have been inspired by the habit of the monk shown in
Pugin’s frontispiece, and the sculpted carpentry of Isabella’s stool invokes
Pugin’s furniture designs, which often display his carved monogram as well
as Gothic mottoes—most striking in the plates of his influential Gothic Fur-
niture in the Style of the Fifteenth Century.
The immediate idea of the painting grew out of Hunt and Millais’s col-
laborative project for a series of copperplate etchings in “slightly shaded
outline” to illustrate Keats’s poem. Keats figured with double asterisks on
the Pre-Raphaelite list of “Immortals” exemplifying their creed, and his
lyrical style especially appealed to Hunt and Millais. The moment of the
Isabella story Millais chose to depict is a scene at table, alluded to in the
very first stanza:
4.7 Augustus Welby Northmore
Pugin, two designs for stools,
wood engravings, from Gothic
Furniture in the Style of the 15th
Century (1835).
4.8 John Everett Millais, Copy of
a Cast of the Apollo Belvedere,
ca. 1842–1843. Royal Academy
of Arts, London.
4.9 John Everett Millais, Copy
of a Cast of Fighting Gladiators,
1842. Royal Academy of Arts,
258 chapter four
Fair Isabel, poor simple Isabel!
Lorenzo, a young palmer in Love’s eye!
They could not in the self-same mansion dwell
Without some stir of heart, some malady;
They could not sit at meals but feel how well
It soothed each to be the other by;
They could not, sure, beneath the same roof sleep
But to each other dream, and nightly weep.
Lorenzo is a clerk in the employ of Isabella’s protective brothers, who see
him as her social inferior and wish to terminate the relationship. They lure
him to his death, bury him in the woods, and then report to their sister
that he has been sent away to “foreign lands” on urgent business. Lorenzo’s
shade, however, appears to Isabella in a vision and discloses his actual fate.
Her old nurse helps her locate and exhume the body, and together they
cut off the head and take it home. Isabella lovingly washes, combs, and
dresses it, wrapping it in a silken scarf before tucking it into a garden pot
which she covers with the common house plant sweet basil. She daily pines
away before the pot of basil until her brothers become suspicious; they steal
the incriminating evidence and flee Florence never to return again. After
launching a futile quest to recover the basil pot, Isabella dies of a broken
Millais’s presentation of the banquet scene comprises a fascinating
blend of medievalism, symbolism, and modernity, equal to the retelling of
the early Renaissance story in Keats’s idiom. The table is shown from an
odd perspective, longitudinally leading away to the left from the observer,
with the short side parallel to the picture plane. We see dense rows of semi-
caricatured faces on both sides of the table viewed in profile consistent with
the archaizing style of early Renaissance painting, but treated with such
physiognomic singularity and gestural liveliness that the central motif of
Lorenzo (the lone exception shown frontally) sharing a symbolic blood or-
ange with Isabella at the right-hand edge of the table all but disappears
into the general compositional movement. This arrangement leaves open
a space in the foreground for presenting the bizarre threatening gesture of
the brother at the left, whose right foot kicks out the breadth of the table
to brutalize a docile animal.
Meanwhile Lorenzo gazes tenderly at Isabella, holding out a plate with
two halves of the blood orange—signifying at once their paired relation-
ship and drastic separation. The plate in front of them displays a scene of
decapitation, while behind them a pair of passion flowers climbs a column
of the balcony. The theme of the Last Supper is implied in the thirteen
participants, although the Judas-positioned servant standing isolated from
the rest here acts the role of knowing spectator. The falcon at the left
perched on the back of one of the brothers’ chairs tears at the white feath-
er of a slain bird, intimating the savagery to come. Impending violence is
259 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
further intimated by the spiteful brother at the left wreaking havoc in his
every action; he knowingly strikes out at the dog gently fondled by Isa-
bella—a displaced sign of her tender affection for Lorenzo. In his exertion,
his chair lurches violently forward, overturning the salt cellar, and leaving
in his wake a pile of broken shells wrought from his menacing nutcracker.
He crushes a nut just as he plans to crush the too presumptuous clerk and
teach his gentle sister a lesson.
The curious motif of the brother’s impulsive rabbit kick did not pass
unnoticed by the contemporary critics, one of whom described the “un-
wieldy leg” in the immediate front of the picture as an “absurd piece of
mannerism” that bordered “on the verge of caricature.”
By and large,
however, neither the monogram (not yet fully understood) nor the oxymo-
ronic medieval-modern presentation disturbed the critics, who grasped the
work as an attempt to emulate the sincere if flawed qualities of early Italian
painting and praised its meticulous execution.
The reviewer for Fraser’s Magazine emphasized the vivid characteriza-
tion of the “whole family” seated at table, the dynamics of their interaction
and individualized personalities. This insight was facilitated by Millais’s
personalized approach to his models, all of whom were either his relatives
or close friends. The artist’s father posed for the guest fastidiously wiping
his lips with his napkin and Mary Hodgkinson, his sister-in-law, posed for
Isabella. The Pre-Raphaelites were represented by William Michael Ros-
setti sitting for Lorenzo; Dante Gabriel Rossetti as the tippler at the end
of the table drinking from a tall glass; and Frederic George Stephens as the
brother on the left regarding the lovers through his upraised glass. Each of
the banqueters engages in an isolated action, with only Lorenzo and Isabel-
la relating to each other, and the mood is joyless. The drama at table thus
invokes the dynamics of both family and group interactions, and introduc-
es a powerful note of realism into the early Renaissance scene.
Keats’s poem embraces a whole slew of ideas bearing upon the well-
springs of Pre-Raphaelite production and ideology. Isabella works dis-
tractedly at her embroidery, and metaphorical plants and flowers abound
through the text. As in the case of Rienzi, this work of 1848–1849 con-
demns the arbitrary actions of ruthless despots. Here they are merciless ex-
ploiters of people’s labor in factory and mine:
With her two brothers this fair lady dwelt,
Enriched from ancestral merchandize,
And for them many a weary hand did swelt
In torched mines and noisy factories . . .
Thus Isabella indirectly alludes to the current reformist preoccupation with
the deplorable working conditions in the factories in the north of England
and in the coal mines. Hunt’s drawing of Lorenzo at His Desk in the Ware-
house, preliminary to an etching for the planned series, picks up the issue
260 chapter four
of class conflict and exploitation (fig. 4.10).
The brothers are depicted as
sadistic taskmasters, humiliating and driving their employees to tearful ex-
asperation. Workers in the rear of the warehouse are shown loading and un-
loading heavy cases, while below the floor in the cellar we glimpse youths
prying open wooden crates—a clear reference to child labor in the mines.
The work’s topicality is expressed in Hunt’s comment that his personal
“business experiences” helped him formulate the composition. Further-
more, Charles Kingsley referred to the crucial passages invoking the mer-
chant brothers in Yeast when he wished to portray the hard-driving mill,
mine, and landowner Lord Minchampstead: “Half-ignorant [he] turn’d an
easy wheel, / That set sharp racks at work, to pinch and peel.”
Keats compared the merchant brothers to “two close Hebrews” who con-
spired “in hungry pride and gainful cowardice.” As in the case of the maga-
zine Punch, a proper Victorian could espouse humanitarian reforms yet still
be anti-Jewish.
Millais’s portrayal of the brothers’ cruelty constitutes an indictment
against the callousness and greed of a mercantile society. Thus it comple-
ments the image of social injustice with one of economic injustice, filling
out the programmatic efforts of the P.R.B. to participate in the movement
of social reform. The fate in store for Lorenzo was analogous to the fate
meted out to workers daily in Victorian industrial society, often victims of
what they themselves called “social murder.” Although like Rienzi it dis-
places its social concerns from the present to the medieval past, represen-
tations of this past were so charged with ideological complexity that they
were capable of relaying troubling messages to a contemporary audience.
The Pre-Raphaelite work that most dramatically demonstrated this
point was Millais’s Christ in the Carpenter’s Shop (Christ in the House of His
4.10 William Holman Hunt,
Lorenzo at His Desk in the Ware-
house, pencil and ink drawing,
1848–1850. Musée du Louvre,
261 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
Parents), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1850 (fig. 4.11).
No other work
sparked as much controversy or gained as much notoriety for the group
when it was unveiled to the public.
It sent shock waves through a com-
munity now thinking itself privy to the significations of the monogram
“P.R.B.,” and reading sinister implications into the work of the imagined
secret society. Ultimately, the attacks on the work impelled Ruskin to rush
to the defense of the Pre-Raphaelites.
At once devotional and symbolic in content and naturalistic in detail, it
stands as one of the Brotherhood’s seminal productions. Against the back-
drop of a rural dwelling, Millais constructed a carpenter’s milieu based on
contemporary workshops of the type attached to artisans’ cottages. The
long horizontal planing table determines the compositional layout as well
as the symmetrical distribution of the figures. Joseph, the master carpenter,
reaches over one end of the table, to examine the hand of the child Jesus,
who has injured it on a nail extending from the tabletop and from which a
drop of blood has trickled down to his left foot. The Virgin Mary, who oc-
cupies center foreground together with Christ in front of the workbench,
has recognized the signs of the stigmata and kneels beside the child with
a pained expression. Just on the opposite side of the table St. Anne, the
Virgin’s mother, bends over to touch the handle of a pincers whose pair of
jaws surround the lacerating nail. At the same time, young St. John whips
4.11 John Everett Millais, Christ
in the Carpenter’s Shop (Christ in
the House of His Parents), 1849–
1850. Tate Gallery, London.
262 chapter four
around the right end of the table near St. Joseph, carrying a bowl of water
to cleanse the wound. Meanwhile, Joseph’s apprentice, seemingly oblivi-
ous to the significance of the event, leans over the left end of the table tru-
ing a line.
All of the accessories exemplify the typological approach of writers
like Ruskin and the elder Rossetti. Millais’s strategic use of St. Joseph’s
workshop provided him a convenient set of symbols. The nail jutting from
the table, the planks of wood leaning against the walls, the ladder, and the
tools in the rack on the rear wall, as well as the bleeding wound in Christ’s
hand, all prefigure the crucifixion. A triangular square on the rear wall (that
may also bear a Masonic allusion) just above the child’s head suggests the
Trinity, and this is reinforced by the presence of the white dove perched
on one of the rungs of the ladder. The palm stems springing up from the
wicker basket in the left foreground recall Christ’s triumphal entry into Je-
rusalem, and through the opening at the left we see a flock of sheep—the
metaphorical object of the Good Shepherd’s mission. The scarlet poppy
anemone (Anemone coronaria) growing at the foot of the sheep pen conven-
tionally symbolized sorrow, having blossomed at the foot of the cross the
evening of the crucifixion and colored red from the drops of blood flowing
from Christ’s wounds.
Millais carefully reproduced the details of an actual carpenter’s shop in
London to establish the veracity of an artisanal milieu. The most remark-
able feature of his documentary realism—one that immediately grabbed
the critics’ attention—was the heaps of curled wood shavings strewn over
the floor around and beneath the table. There is a distinct fussiness, al-
most obsessiveness, in the execution of these thinly planed shavings, which
almost certainly added to the irritation of those Victorian spectators re-
sponding negatively to this presentation of the Holy Family. The natu-
ralism of the scene is confirmed in George Eliot’s novel Adam Bede, which
opens in a carpenter’s shop immediately identified by its long planing table
and its abundant “transparent shavings” piled everywhere on the floor.
In a vein similar to Rossetti’s Girlhood of Mary Virgin and John Rog-
ers Herbert’s Our Saviour Subject to His Parents at Nazareth, with which it
was often compared, Millais’s intent was to depict in vernacular terms the
childhood environment of Jesus. Both a large segment of the public and a
number of critics, however, objected to the unidealized conception which
portrayed St. Joseph as a common artisan at his workbench (right down
to the dirt under his fingernails) and the Virgin and St. Anne as homely
members of a laborer’s family. The crowding of several generations into
the workshop space and demoralized physiognomies suggested the insuf-
ficient accommodations of the English working-class domain. Above all,
the excessive representation of the shavings exuded the aroma of a sordid
interior of the type described in the reformist literature of Oastler, Car-
lyle, Dickens, Disraeli, and Henry Mayhew in the Morning Chronicle. The
net result of Millais’s treatment was to flaunt the conventional ideal of the
263 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
Holy Family and violate Victorian codes of religious and social propriety.
As the critic of the Times expressed it: “Mr. Millais’s . . . picture is, to speak
plainly, revolting. The attempt to associate the holy family with the mean-
est details of a carpenter’s shop, with no conceivable omission of misery,
dirt, of even disease, all finished with the same loathsome minuteness, is
Already in 1844 Engels described the overcrowding in poorly venti-
lated single rooms and the unsanitary surroundings of working-class fami-
lies in the towns of London and Manchester, often relying on journalistic
accounts, medical studies, and parliamentary reports of these conditions
appearing throughout the decades of the 1830s and 1840s. He quoted one
article of 1844 that inventoried the wretched interiors of impoverished
workers where they are reduced to sleep on nothing better “than a bag
of straw or shavings.” Engels agreed with most of the commentators in
pointing out that in such hovels “only inhuman, degraded and unhealthy
creatures would feel at home.”
This common assumption lay at the heart
of the hostile attacks against the painting, and attests to the P.R.B.’s open-
ness to the current debate. Although Millais depicts the village cottage of a
rural artisan rather than the impoverished dwelling of an unskilled factory
laborer, the combination of the religious controversy, the revolutions of
1848, and the fears of Tory reformers overdetermined the reception of this
work and embedded it in a larger discourse of class and social conflict.
Thus the ingenuous and awkward features given by Millais in an effort
to convey a feeling of sincerity provoked a response analogous to that ac-
corded Courbet and Millet the same year. Both in France and England the
“realist” depiction of working classes was stigmatized as ugly and preten-
tious, coded formulations for the effort to portray types associated with
the current social unrest. While Courbet and Millet were reviled for their
rough execution and lack of surface polish that contributed to their “ugly”
effect, the Pre-Raphaelites were condemned for using their polished style
to serve a similar end. The reviewer for the Tory publication Blackwood’s
Magazine claimed that despite their knowledge of anatomy and drawing,
Rossetti, Hunt, and Millais “delight in ugliness and revel in diseased as-
pects.” He went on to attack the deformities in their bodily types:
Ricketty children, emaciation and deformity constitute their chief stock in
trade. They apparently select bad models, and then exaggerate their badness till
it is out of all nature. We can hardly imagine anything more ugly, graceless,
and unpleasant than Mr. Millais’ picture of Christ in the carpenter’s shop. Such
a collection of splay feet, puffed joints, and misshapen limbs was assuredly never
before made within so small a compass.
What Millais and Pugin may have seen as a healthy return to the re-
ligious authenticity of pre-Protestant Europe struck the reviewer as the
visual articulation of a sickly underclass typical of the poor in a Catholic
264 chapter four
country. This ideological interpretation is especially evident in the paral-
lel and remarkably vicious diatribe of Dickens against this painting of the
young Millais. He begins by confessing disappointment at the sight of the
so-called Holy Family, and sarcastically assumes the imagined standpoint
of the painter in describing his experience before the picture:
You will have the goodness to discharge from your minds all Post-Raphael
ideas, all religious aspirations, all elevating thoughts; all tender, awful, sorrow-
ful, ennobling, sacred and graceful, or beautiful associations; and to prepare
yourselves, as befits such a subject—Pre-Raphaelly considered—for the lowest
depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting. You behold the inte-
rior of a carpenter’s shop. In the foreground of that carpenter’s shop is a hideous,
wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed-gown; who appears to have
received a poke in the hand, from the stick of another boy with whom he has
been playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be holding it up for the contemplation
of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness, that (supposing it were possible
for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she
would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret
in France, or the lowest gin-shop in England.
The terminology recalls the vivid descriptions of the locales of Fagin
(also red-headed) and Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist, linking Millais’s reconstruc-
tion of the biblical milieu with the criminal underworld. Further, in in-
voking the images of vile cabaret and low gin-shop, Dickens betrays his
preoccupation with the recent revolutionary and Chartist demonstrations.
It is significant that just prior to the Royal Academy opening, the left-wing
French novelist Eugène Sue was reelected by the department of the Seine
by a considerable majority, raising the alarm of a “red peril.” As an edito-
rialist wrote in the Illustrated London News:
The party represented by M. Eugène Sue is the hungry, clamorous, zealous,
enthusiastic party of the dissatisfied multitude—a party that revels in crude
theories of government, that dreams of social re-organisation, that has a wild
and fanatical faith in human perfectability, and that would make the next
generation a generation of angels, by the rather strange process of converting
the present race into a race of demons.
It is hardly a coincidence that Les Mystères de Paris, Sue’s popular social nov-
el, carries keen descriptions of the type of cabaret mentioned by Dickens
and linked in the popular imagination to insurgent activities.
Thus at one level Dickens read the picture through the overdetermined
lens of the Tory still reeling from the shock of the revolutions of 1848. On
another, the political reading merged with the current religious contro-
versy and became entangled with domestic issues. Dickens began by decry-
ing the present age as “perverse” and “short of faith,” but was delighted to
265 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
find that at least among the ignorant the “Young England hallucination”
no longer held people spellbound. He leaps into a litany of various imag-
ined “brotherhoods” to mock the pretensions of the “pious” Pre-Raphael-
ites, including a Pre-Laurentius Brotherhood established “for the abolition
of all but manuscript books. These mr. pugin has engaged to supply, in
characters that nobody on earth shall be able to read. And it is confidently
expected by those who have seen the House of Lords, that he will faith-
fully redeem his pledge.” The negative associations of the Pre-Raphaelites,
Young England, and Puginesque medievalism attest to Dickens’s hostility
to Roman Catholicism, Tractarianism, and Disraeli Judeo-Anglo-Catholi-
cism, and reveal his hysteria over the gradual loss of Establishment control
of the Church of England and Parliament.
This is perhaps seen in his disparagement of the “new Holy Brother-
hood, this terrible Police that is to disperse all Post-Raphael offenders.”
As Errington has suggested, Dickens’s characterization of the deformities
and unnatural qualities of Millais’s figures establishes a link between this
critique and his attack on Catholic life and culture generally, which he
persistently associates with disease, asceticism, and unnatural tendencies.

He made the connection between Catholic encroachment, the Tractari-
ans, Young England, disease, filth, and social decline much more explicit
in a later article on papal aggression, sparked by the appointment of Car-
dinal Wiseman to the archbishopric of Westminster with twelve bishops
under him and Wiseman’s precipitate announcement that “Catholic Eng-
land had been restored to its orbit in the ecclesiastical firmament.”
of Catholic expansion in England fueled suspicion in some quarters that a
foreign conspiracy to deprive the nation of its liberty was underway. The
immigration of Irish laborers further reinforced public panic over both the
spread of popery and labor unrest in the slums, thus absurdly linking the
presumed Catholic conspiracy with secret societies and workers’ insurrec-
tion. Dickens himself had made the link in his own mind four years earlier
in his Pictures from Italy, when he recalled observing during High Mass at St.
Peter’s “stealthy Jesuits creeping in and out, and the extreme restlessness of
the Youth of England, who were perpetually wandering about.”
for Dickens the “Catholicizing” tendency of the Pre-Raphaelite Brother-
hood—exemplified in Millais’s picture—made it suspect in both the reli-
gious and political sense.
Dickens wanted an idealized and sanitized Holy Family consistent with
Victorian fantasy, and Millais’s version appeared as unhealthy and subver-
In Dickens’s opinion, Millais fell woefully short of representing “the
most solemn passage which our minds can ever approach.” Instead, Mil-
lais’s presentation of “the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive,
and revolting” came closer to Dickens’s perception of “hollow-cheeked”
monks, “dirty beggars,” and “miserable cripples exhibiting their deformi-
ty” at the doors of churches, hideous paintings of martyrdoms, and the
“rags, and smells, and palaces, and hovels, of an old Italian street.” What
266 chapter four
Dickens looked for in an image of the Holy Family was more akin to a roy-
al portrait of Albert and Victoria and their brood of cherubic children—an
anglicized appropriation of the traditional image.
The Athenaeum’s critic spelled out more concretely the troubling con-
tent of the work when he wrote that Millais gave to noble forms a loath-
some “circumstantial art-language” that for many will seem a pictorial
Thus the picture profaned on two counts: once for dragging
the Holy Family down into contemporary class antagonism, and again for
pushing it toward an Anglo-Catholic and Tractarian articulation.
The Pre-Raphaelites approached social problems with religious fervor,
and they shared the sense of both social injustice and Christian failure in the
existence of so much human destitution. This disposition empowered their
realist bent and social critique but also blocked their appreciation of more
radical solutions. They looked to romantic religious movements like Trac-
tarianism and Christian Socialism to channel the reformist energies.
The subject of Millais’s picture was based on a verse from Zechariah,
which served in place of a formal title at the Royal Academy Exhibition of
1850: “And one shall say unto him, What are these wounds in thine hands?
Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my
friends” (Zechariah 13:6). According to Hunt, Millais derived the idea from
a sermon on the text that he heard at Oxford.
Although the entire book
of Zechariah is a rich compendium of metaphors for carpentry, building,
and reconstruction, a close reading of the context of the passage shows that
it deals not with the Messiah of the new dispensation but with false proph-
ets who wish to conceal their true identity as husbandmen. The false but
repentant prophet is one who finally admits his deception, and confesses
that the wounds were probably self-inflicted.
Edward Morris has shown that Millais’s erroneous interpretation of the
text can be traced to the Tractarian Pusey by way of the twelfth-century
medieval mystic Rupert of Deutz.
Pusey accepted the earlier commenta-
tor’s notion that Christ was prefigured in the passage, and his powerful po-
sition within the Oxford Movement gave the notion credibility. It should
not be overlooked, however, that Zechariah does contain a passage of mes-
sianic portent relevant to Millais’s picture: “And I will pour upon the house
of David . . . the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look
upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one
mourneth for his only son” (Zechariah 12:10). This was cited in John 19:37,
“And again another scripture saith, They shall look on him whom they
have pierced.” Tract 89 of Tracts for the Times invoked this typological text,
referring to the prediction of “the outward and bodily event as narrated by
the evangelists.”
Thus it is not surprising that Anglo-Catholics responded favorably to
Millais’s work while Low Church people such as Ruskin and Dickens de-
tested it.
It may be recalled that it was the High Church follower William
Dyce who excitedly called Ruskin’s attention to Christ in the House of His
267 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
Parents. In addition, the Tractarian Guardian praised the work, as did the
Illustrated London News, always sympathetic to the Anglo-Catholics. The
latter not only reproduced the picture (fig. 4.12), but placed it alongside
Dyce’s Meeting of Jacob and Rachel as the two high points of the exhibition:
What is called, somewhat slightingly, the pre-Raphaelism of this picture, is its
leading excellence. We may look in vain throughout the whole of the Exhibition
for another picture (Mr. Dyce’s alone excepted) in which we shall find a sincerity
of look in the heads of the principal figures at all comparable to this. The inten-
tional deformities, such as the frost-bitten toes of Joseph, the sore heel of the
Virgin, &c, are not at all to our taste; but the picture has so many merits, that all
its eccentricities may be very well excused, though they cannot be overlooked.
Thus there is no doubt that the picture appealed to a Tractarian audience,
suggesting the influence of the Oxford Movement on Millais’s thought,
and by extension, on that of the Pre-Raphaelites generally. Millais’s father
blamed the influence of Rossetti’s medievalism for the negative criticism,
claiming that his work was “church traditional . . . with gilt aureoles and
the conventionalisms of early priesthood, which we did away with at the
One facet of this connection to the Oxford Movement may be the mo-
tif of baptism, which both Millais and Hunt incorporated into their pic-
tures of 1849–1850. In Christ in the House of His Parents, young John hurries in
with a bowl of water, ostensibly to cleanse Christ’s wound, while in Hunt’s
A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution
of the Druids a similar clay bowl is conspicuously located in the foreground,
and behind it stands a child in a fur loincloth—an attribute of the Baptist.
4.12 John Everett Millais, Christ
in the House of His Parents, wood
engraving from Illustrated London
News, 11 May 1850.
268 chapter four
This shared motif suggests the Brotherhood’s programmatic effort to join
with the Tractarians in the recent controversy concerning the doctrine of
Baptismal Regeneration that tore open the Church of England.
Known as the Gorham case, it involved an Evangelical clergyman who
was refused admission and institution to the vicarage of Brampford-Speke
by the Bishop of Exeter for being “unsound in doctrine” on the question
of baptism. When Gorham took legal action, the bishop showed cause in
declaring that Gorham did not accept a necessary connection between bap-
tism and regeneration, thus denying children automatic status as members
of Christ. Gorham claimed that baptism was accompanied by regeneration
only in relation to the worthiness of the recipient. High Church people,
including Tractarians, held that after baptism the infant was immediately
changed into a child of God, while Evangelicals believed that this inter-
pretation made conversion unnecessary.
Although the Court of Arches
found in favor of the Bishop of Exeter on 2 August 1849, the judgment was
appealed, and on 8 March 1850 the Privy Council reversed it. The bishop,
however, still refused to budge, and the Archbishop of Canterbury had to
intervene in August to institute Gorham. The decision outraged the Trac-
tarians, who read it as Anglican sanction of unorthodox views on baptism,
and it prompted a number of defections to Roman Catholicism.
The crisis of the Church of England brought on by the Gorham case
(as well as the scandalous notoriety attached to the perceived Romanism of
the group) seems to have directly affected the Brotherhood: in May James
Collinson resigned from the P.R.B. on the grounds that his membership
was incompatible with his renewed commitment to the Roman Catholic
faith. (A previous convert, he reverted to Anglicanism to please Christina
Rossetti, to whom he had become engaged. His return to the Church of
Rome and a vow of celibacy broke their engagement and broke Christina’s
It is difficult today to imagine that a doctrinal debate on the baptismal
rite could have such far-reaching effects, but such was the fragile state of
Victorian society and the crucial role of religion as a stabilizing factor in
everyday life. The Gorham case was carefully monitored in the press, and
the subtle points of the doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration rehearsed for
the public. The presence of a juvenile John the Baptist in the works by
Millais and Hunt invoking themes of conversion and cleansing signal their
alignment with the Tractarian position linking child baptism and spiritual
As Grieve has indicated, the links between Millais and Oxford had been
close since 1849. He formed an acquaintance with prominent Tractarians
during the interval when he began work on the picture, including Thom-
as Combe, superintendent of Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press),
and his wife Martha. The Combes were influential High Church members
who wholly identified themselves with the Oxford Movement; no less a
Tractarian than Newman had officiated at their marriage in 1840, and they
269 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
remained close even after Newman’s conversion to Roman Catholicism.
The Combes became the first major patrons of the Pre-Raphaelites and
encouraged their budding efforts.
In 1850 Millais stayed with the Combes at Clarendon Press while paint-
ing Thomas’s portrait. They exerted a powerful influence on his developing
sensibility, and in his correspondence, as we have seen, he often addressed
his patron familiarly as “The Early Christian”—an explicit reference to his
High Church affiliation. His letter of 16 December 1850, referring to the
stress he has sustained since the unpleasant critical reception, invokes the
schism in the Church of England and the secessions to Rome:
I think I shall adopt the motto “In coelo quies,” and go over to Cardinal Wise-
man, as all the metropolitan High Church clergymen are sending in their resigna-
tions. To-morrow (Sunday) Collins and myself are going to dine with a Univer-
sity man whose brother has just seceded, and afterwards to hear the cardinal’s
second discourse. My brother went last Sunday, but could not hear a word, as it
was so crowded he could not get near enough. The Cardinal preaches in his mitre
and full vestments, so there will be a great display of pomp as well as knowledge.
He ended his letter with earnest assurances to “Pat” (his nickname for Mar-
tha) Combe that he had no intention “to turn Roman Catholic just yet.”

Here he jokingly alludes to the panic over the defections to Rome, and
current fears of the destruction of the Church of England. Although the
anti-Catholic frenzy of the period incriminated the Tractarians for abet-
ting “papal aggression” and for allowing Romish doctrine and practices to
flourish within the bosom of the Establishment, High Church people for
the most part, including Pusey and the Combes, wished to remain loyal to
the national church.
Millais mentioned Charles Collins, an artist friend and High Church-
man whom Millais and Hunt unsuccessfully proposed for membership in
the P.R.B. During their joint landscape expedition at Botley, a suburb of
Oxford (where Collins painted the background for Convent Thoughts), Mil-
lais and Collins had been invited by the Combes to work under their aus-
pices in Oxford. The two stayed at their house painting portraits of Combe
and his wife’s uncle, William Bennett. Later, Millais wrote Pat that ever
since they returned to London, he and Collins have attended the Wells
Street Church, a favorite of High Church Ritualists. Together with Hunt
they developed a friendly working relationship with the Combes, whom
they did their utmost to please; when Ruskin’s Notes on the Construction
of Sheepfolds (1851)—a pamphlet admonishing Evangelicals and Tractarians
to make common cause against Rome—came into their hands, Martha
Combe sent them Dyce’s rebuttal, Notes on Shepherds and Sheep, and they
duly promised to read it. Millais knew what he was saying when he wrote
her in September 1851 that the three of them were living together “as hap-
pily as ancient monastic brethren.”
They spent one evening “sitting in
270 chapter four
judgment on the Thirty-Nine Articles”—the foundation charter of the
Church of England that had been the subject of Newman’s notorious Tract
No. 90 (“Remarks on Certain Passages in the Thirty-Nine Articles”) hold-
ing that the articles were not in conflict with the Roman Church.
At this
time, Hunt also began his preparatory studies for The Light of the World, his
most Tractarian realization to date and made to order for the Combes, who
paid the extraordinary sum of 400 guineas for it. No wonder that he con-
sidered them “two of the most unpretending servants of goodness and no-
bility that their generation knew.”
Hunt had previously sold the Combes
his A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary, and Collins’s
Convent Thoughts, painted in part in the garden of their home in Oxford,
had also been acquired by them. The sale of the Hunt was ardently instigat-
ed by Millais, who persuaded Martha’s uncle to buy the work and present
it to the Combes, thus demonstrating the P.R.B’s appeal to High Church
affiliates from the start.
4.13 John Everett Millais, The
Return of the Dove to the Ark, 1851.
Visitors of the Ashmolean Mu-
seum, Oxford.
4.14 John Everett Millais, The
Return of the Dove to the Ark,
wood engraving from Illustrated
London News, 24 May 1851.
271 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
Meanwhile, stimulated by this patronage, Millais embarked on an am-
bitious painting program in 1851 which culminated with major entries for
the Royal Academy Exhibition. The Return of the Dove to the Ark, depict-
ing two of the wives of Noah’s three sons fondling the dove that returned
with the revealing olive leaf, was sold to the Oxford couple (fig. 4.13). He
conceived of his work in this period as pictorial sermons, and one idea
never executed but also destined for the Combes was meant to teach a les-
son about the folly of not looking “to God for help in times of trouble.”
He had initially planned to do a John Martin–type extravaganza about the
Deluge, with an accumulation of individual responses of those deaf to the
prophecy, save one who “prays for mercy for those around her.”
The re-
duction of the story of the Deluge to the two Noachian women caressing
the dove would have had deep resonance with Tractarians, who empha-
sized the gathering of the floodwaters as the metaphorical foundation of
the Church, as well as its replenishment from among the heretics and hea-
Here the pre-Christian women kiss
and fondle the dove which is also the sym-
bol of the Holy Spirit in Rossetti’s Girlhood
of Mary Virgin and Christ in the House of His
Parents. The appeal of the picture to the High
Church faction is seen in the fact that the Il-
lustrated London News reproduced it—the sec-
ond year in a row they accorded this honor
to the young Millais (fig. 4.14).
At the same
time, anti-Tractarian papers like the Times
and the Athenaeum attacked his work vicious-
ly, the one contemptuously dismissing “the
mistaken skill” by which he “transferred to
canvas the hay which lined the lofts in Noah’s
Ark,” and the other perceiving “his old per-
versity” and a “good thought marred by its
Art language.”
It is true that the young painter’s A Hu-
guenot, on St. Bartholomew’s Day, Refusing to
Shield Himself from Danger by Wearing the Ro-
man Catholic Badge, exhibited in 1852, disclos-
es a retreat from the High Church sympathies
of 1849–1851 (fig. 4.15). Bowing to the criti-
cal pressure and the controversial implica-
tions of the group’s religious significations,
he concocted a theme that would put to rest
once and for all the suspicions surrounding
his own position. (He did so by drawing in
large part for inspiration from the popular
opera Les Huguenots by the Jewish composer
4.15 John Everett Millais, A
Huguenot, on St. Bartholomew’s
Day, Refusing to Shield Himself
from Danger by Wearing the
Roman Catholic Badge, 1851–1852.
Makins Collection, London.
272 chapter four
Meyerbeer.) The popularity of the work at the Royal Academy Exhibition
of 1852 attested to the effectiveness of its public message.
We can trace the immediate stimulus of the work to a letter Millais
wrote Martha Combe on 22 November 1851:
My brother was with us to-day, and told me that Dr. Hesse of Leyton College,
understood that I was a Roman Catholic (having been told so), and that my
picture of “The Return of the Dove to the Ark” was emblematical of the
return of all of us to that religion—a very convenient construction to put upon
it! I have no doubt that likewise they will turn the subject I am at present about
to their advantage. It is a scene supposed to take place (as doubtless it did) on
the eve of the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day. I shall have two lovers in the
act of parting, the woman a Papist and the man a Protestant. The badge worn
to distinguish the former from the latter was a white scarf on the left arm.
Many were base enough to escape murder by wearing it. The girl will be en-
deavouring to tie the handkerchief round the man’s arm, so to save him; but he,
holding his faith above his greatest worldly love, will be softly preventing her.
I am in high spirits about the subject, as it is entirely my own, and I think
contains the highest moral.
This shift in Millais’s religious emphasis constitutes a turning point in the
critical fortunes of the painter, and coincides with the defense of the Pre-
Raphaelites by Ruskin. Previously vitriolic in his commentary on Millais’s
work, the full-time reviewer of the Times now claims to “discover genius
in Mr. Millais.” Whereas the microscopic detail of earlier work was finicky
and intrusive, now the background wall’s “mosses, its stains, its cracks, and
its tendrils of ivy are a surprising example of patient observation and skilful
reproduction.” The Catholic female “is admirably wrought with tender-
ness and terror,” while “the lover is stiff, tall, and a thorough Calvinist”—
in short, a proper British gentleman. No wonder the reviewer concluded
that, despite some awkward passages in the work,
Mr. Millais has unquestionably moved the public to interest as well as curiosity;
and, though we still smile at some of his puerilities, we recognize with pleasure
in his works an earnest will and an increasing power of execution: we hope to
see him cured of his singularities, and in turn he will gradually educate the pub-
lic to appreciate his merits and to reward his perseverance.
The Athenaeum’s reviewer, also previously hostile, similarly underwent
a change of attitude with regard to A Huguenot, admittedly “Mr. Millais’s
best work.” Following a sensitive description of the two lovers, the critic
clearly delights in the male’s refusal of Catholic symbolism:
He looks wistfully down on her,—fully conscious of the sacrifice he is about
to make in this struggle between love and creed; and while he draws her nearer
273 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
to his heart with one hand, with the other—truer to his Calvinism—he firmly
unlooses the scarf which she fondly tries to fasten.
This observation of the religious principle is crucial to the entire context
of the review, which begins with an overview of the brief history of the
Pre-Raphaelites and the Nazarene tradition from whence they sprung:
Raphaelism in Art seems in some respects to be a part and parcel of the spirit of
the present age and akin to tractarianism in faith. It is the reaction and an antago-
nism to the conventional, the sensual and the unbelieving—and has the false-
hood and exaggeration common to reactions in general. Its object is, to give new
life to dry bones, and to spiritualize the formal and the material. It is the protest
of the nineteenth century against the seventeenth and the eighteenth especially.
The critic could now view Tractarianism and Pre-Raphaelitism historical-
ly, indicating that in the wake of the Great Exhibition and the consolida-
tion of Evangelicalism exemplified in the Queen’s court, the religious and
social furor had begun to die down and distance achieved.
As the review-
er stated: “Nor have we much ultimate fear of men like Mr. Millais. Mind
and talent will manifest themselves whatever the vehicle, and will pierce
through and ultimately reject the eccentric and the fantastic; and already
we see, to some extent, the bursting of his self-imposed bonds.”
This easing up of pressure on Millais and the Pre-Raphaelites gen-
erally coincides with the capacity to contextualize them as well as the
Oxford Movement with which previously they had been closely associ-
Millais’s innate conservatism and desire to reach a broad audience,
however, could not allow for extended engagement with the contentious
political and religious issues of the day. His correspondence with Mrs.
Combe professes a growing nationalist pride and disdain of the laboring
class (both domestic and foreign) in connection with the Great Exhibition:
“Such a quantity of loathsome foreigners stroll about the principal streets
that they incline one to take up a residence in Sweden, outside the fumes
of their tobacco. I expect all respectable families will leave London after
the first month of the Exhibition, it will be so crowded with the lowest
rabble of all the countries in Europe.”
A month later, he tries to flatter
his patrons by calling their attention to Ruskin’s offer to buy the picture
earmarked for them, The Return of the Dove to the Ark, adding: “I have had
more than one application for it, and you could, I have little doubt, sell
it for as much again as I shall ask you.” This statement reflects his mar-
keting strategy and awareness of the investment potential of innovative
work, indicating his growing sense of the convergence of Pre-Raphaelite
originality with the technological and scientific wonders exhibited in the
Crystal Palace. He assures his Oxford patrons of the investment potential
of Pre-Raphaelitism when trying to pitch a sketch by Collins to a friend
of the Combes:
274 chapter four
Most men look back upon their early paintings—for which they have received
but poor remuneration—as the principal instruments of their after wealth. For
one great instance, see Wilkie’s Blind Fiddler, sold for 20 pounds, now worth more
than 1000 pounds! Early works are also generally the standard specimens of art-
ists, as great success blunts enthusiasm, and little by little men get into careless-
ness, which is construed by idiotic critics into a nobler handling. Putting aside
the good work of purchasing from those who require encouragement, such pa-
trons will be respected afterwards as wise and useful men amongst knavish fools,
who should be destroyed in their revolting attempts to crush us—attempts so
obviously malicious as to prove our rapid ascendancy. It is no credit to a man to
purchase from those who are opulent and acknowledged by the world, so your
friend has an opportunity for becoming one of the first-named wise patrons who
shall, if we live, be extolled as having assisted in our (I hope) final success.
A shrewd business sense clearly underlay Millais’s constantly shifting stylis-
tic and thematic approaches.
This includes his transition to the representation of modern life, the
first example of which, The Woodman’s Daughter, was painted for the 1851
Royal Academy Exhibition (fig. 4.16). Inspired by a poem by Coventry Pat-
more and painted in part in Wytham Wood near Oxford, I see the work as
an experiment in outdoor painting at the service of a socially conservative
idea. The poem’s author, roughly the same generation as the Pre-Rapha-
elites, stood high on their list of favorite poets and they even persuaded
him to contribute to their short-lived journal, the Germ. Patmore repre-
sented another Victorian success story of a lower-middle-class type able
to leap the social barriers. His heroes and friends were Carlyle, Ruskin,
Tennyson, and Dickens, all intensely patriotic and rigid Tories recruited
from the middle classes, but unlike them he was also a High Church fol-
lower who would convert to Catholicism in the next decade. Although
Patmore shared Ruskin’s love of the Gothic style as the style of Christian-
ity, his spiritual predisposition brought him closer to Pugin, whose work
he greatly admired.
According to Patmore, Millais approached him “in great agitation and
anger” in the wake of the furious attack on his Carpenter’s Shop, begging
him to solicit Ruskin’s support in his defense. Patmore went at once to
Ruskin, who then wrote the legendary letter to the Times defending them
while simultaneously admonishing them against Tractarian tendencies.

Despite the chronological confusion (Carpenter’s Shop exhibited in 1850 not
1851, the year Ruskin wrote the letter), Patmore’s intercession was probably
crucial, and he became the representative poet of the Brotherhood. Millais
idolized Patmore, painting his wife, Emily Augusta in 1851, and accepting
his advice to keep a diary as a sacred duty.
The narrative poem that informed Millais’s picture tells of Gerald, a
woodman, and his daughter Maud, who is seduced by a squire’s son and
who, when abandoned, drowns her illegitimate child and plunges into
275 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
madness. The lines from the poem given in the catalogue accompanying
the exhibition of The Woodman’s Daughter ran as follows:
She went merely to think she helped;
And, whilst he hack’d and saw’d,
The rich squire’s son, a young boy then,
For whole days, as if awed,
Stood by, and gazed alternately
At Gerald, and at Maud.
4.16 John Everett Millais, The
Woodman’s Daughter, 1850–1851.
Guildhall Art Gallery, London.
276 chapter four
He sometimes, in a sullen tone,
Would offer fruits, and she,
Always received his gifts with an air
So unreserved and free,
That half-feigned distance soon became
The poem opens in Gerald’s cottage, where “Innocent Maud” spends long
hours at her spinning wheel—again conjuring up the female ideal sacred
to Victorians. (Patmore waxed quite conservative on the feminist issue,
holding to woman’s exclusive domestic role and strict subordination to the
) On occasion, she accompanies her father into the woods, where he
works valiantly “from dawn to dark.” The idle squire’s heir watched them
to entertain himself, and over the years the two children build a relation-
ship—open and innocent at first but in time secret and furtive. Their clan-
destine encounters stem from their dawning inability to “give themselves /
A reason why they met”—that is, to justify meeting on a common ground
given the awareness of the difference in their social rank. Too late Maud
learns of the cruel deception, and tragedy follows tragedy as she seeks to
stabilize her existence.
There is a hint of class conflict in the painting, as the squire’s son coldly
offers a handful of strawberries to a grateful and delighted Maud. The dif-
ference in their attire and demeanor is also sharply contrasted: he wears a
new bright red tailored outfit and leans rigidly against an oak tree with an
improvised riding crop, while she wears an old violet pinafore and worn
shoes and holds out her hands greedily to receive the gift.
Since the oak is
traditionally a symbol of sturdy aristocratic manhood, it is significant that
the woodman is seen in the distance chopping one down. Gerald and Maud
are clearly on a collision course with the young noble.
Yet Patmore’s poem is consistent with the Victorian double standard in
exonerating the aristocratic male from his act of seduction while making
the female bear the burden of her fall. In Patmore’s mind the only sexual be-
havior allowable was marital intercourse for the sake of children (he wrote
the classic Victorian celebration of marriage—The Angel in the House), and
thus he argues that Maud should have stuck to her spinning wheel and ig-
nored the siren’s call to a loftier social station. In the end, it is artless Maud
who pays for the illicit relationship and destroys the harmony of the rustic
existence that she and her father had previously shared.
That Millais interpreted the poem in these terms is evident from his
first rendition of Maud’s expression, which Patmore himself described as
having the look of “a vulgar little slut.”
A drawing in the Princeton Uni-
versity Art Museum (possibly a replica of the first version by another hand)
gives Maud a precocious, knowing look. Although the artist subsequent-
ly repainted Maud’s head, he evidently planned to make her the primary
guilty party. The theme of the fallen woman—a term reminding us of the
277 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
pedestal upon which the idealized Victorian female was placed—haunted
the Pre-Raphaelites, and while often blaming the victim they also revealed
a sensitivity to the class and social circumstances that contextualized her
plight. Here they followed such social novelists of the period as Elizabeth
Gaskell and George Eliot, whose sympathy for their fallen female charac-
ters was considered morally questionable by self-righteous critics.
Gaskell, Eliot, and a host of their male compatriots wrote in a realist
mode depicting the effects of industrial society and utilitarian indifference
to the pain of the poor at mid-century. They bring to their effort a combi-
nation of what Raymond Williams described as “sympathetic observation”
and “imaginative identification.”
Although rejecting reform from below,
they nevertheless relied on close reporting to point out the contradictions
and human suffering located at the heart of industrialism. Eliot exempli-
fied in her practice the displacement of romanticism when she wrote that
“realism ought to further its conquest of romance by patient observation
and faithful depiction.”
Despite their early Puginism and Gothic sympathies, the Pre-Rapha-
elites comprehended in both their style and program the realist ideology
embodied in the work of Eliot. Given their range of interests, penchant for
accuracy, and social concerns, it was inevitable that they would shift to the
representation of themes drawn from contemporary life. This is already
anticipated in the title of their ephemeral journal, the Germ, signifying the
genesis of a new set of ideals they wished to propagate at home and abroad.
The title was the brainchild of William Cave Thomas, a Nazarene-inspired
painter close to Ford Madox Brown who had won a commission for the
House of Lords.
This may help explain the magazine’s combination of
Pugin-Ruskinesque medievalism and contemporary concerns, especially in
the first issue, prepared at the end of 1849 (but appearing only on 1 January
1850). Holman Hunt’s layout of his two illustrations for two of Thomas
Woolner’s poems, “My Beautiful Lady” and “Of My Lady in Death,” re-
semble the paired imagery in Pugin’s Contrasts, and the scenes are set in a
generic medieval society and naturalistic landscape. An essay in the second
issue, “The Purpose and Tendency of Early Italian Art,” by Frederic G.
Stephens (writing under the name John Seward), sounds like a page straight
out of Pugin and Ruskin in running past the reader the achievements of
Gozzoli, Orcagna, Giotto, Fra Angelico, and Ghiberti and insisting that
the arts have always functioned optimally as “important moral guides” in
vigorous, wholesome, and religious nations.
As the subtitle of the Germ
suggests—“Thoughts towards Nature in Poetry, Literature, and Art”—the
magazine was to be a vehicle for planting the seed of their new paradigm
in the public space.
Although Millais’s next major subject, Ophelia, was inspired by Shake-
speare’s Hamlet, nothing in the picture—save for the title—betrays a lit-
erary or epic source (fig. 4.17). This would seem to be pure Victorian
melodrama orchestrated by a botanizing clergyman gone mad with his
278 chapter four
collecting basket. For all we see when we view the picture is a riotous dis-
play of floral specimens let loose on an unsuspecting heroine in a densely
overgrown neck of the woods. The facetious reporter for the Times wrote
that Millais’s Ophelia made him think “of a dairymaid in a frolic.”
According to the artist’s son, the greatest compliment paid the work’s
microscopic fidelity was the time a professor of botany, unable to take his
class on a field trip because of inclement weather, lectured to them in front
of the painting.
Of course, floral and plant imagery abounds in act 4 of
the play, in which the episode of the drowning of Ophelia, driven mad by
her lover’s rejection and his murder of her father, Polonius, is narrated by
Hamlet’s mother, the Queen. At one point, Ophelia, gradually succumb-
ing to mental illness, sings the line “larded with sweet flowers,” while she
enters the scene on another occasion “fantastically dressed with straws and
flowers.” All of this meshed with the Pre-Raphaelite obsession with ty-
pological symbolism, and in the end the dozens of meticulously rendered
plant and flower species in the picture command almost as much attention
as the uncanny floating body they surround.
This relates Ophelia to the treatment of The Woodman’s Daughter, which
similarly strove for a balance of human psychology and natural history. The
two works are also linked thematically through their female victims and
the curse of drowning in a pleasant woodland site: in both Shakespeare’s
tragedy and Patmore’s poem the fatal spot is marked by a willow overhang-
ing a brook choked by waterweeds, but whereas Maud drowns her child
and goes mad, Ophelia’s madness precipitates her own “muddy” plunge.
Patmore set the moment during a “gentle day of June,” while Millais’s adds
4.17 John Everett Millais,
Ophelia, 1851–1852. Tate Gallery,
279 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
to the Ophelia a robin warbling in the willow tree to provide a springtime
pathos to the tragic episode.
Many of the painter’s contemporaries were riveted by Ophelia’s glazed
expression as she floated face-up downstream singing her own “death-
dirge.” The critic for the Times claimed that Millais rendered death by
drowning “as if it were some freak of rude health instead of the climax of
The bizarre image of the drifting body, with elbows close
to the body and palms upraised, her skirts spreading out like moss on the
surface of the water, is the ultimate image of feminine passivity and help-
lessness. Another reviewer declared, “The expression aimed at is, that of an
incapability of estimating ‘her own distress.’”
It would seem that Millais
succeeded in again appealing to the Victorian fascination for neurasthenic
women whose fatal attraction to aristocratic males led them to break with
society’s norms. The appeal of a rejected and deranged Ophelia plunging
into a botanical quagmire rested on the Victorian imaginative projection
of the abnormal female unsuited for domestic life and therefore without
The unmarried heroine condemned to a watery suicide (Waterloo
Bridge was the site of choice) was a commonplace in the Victorian litera-
ture, and though she’s neither victim of seduction nor prostitute, Oph-
elia’s choice of the forest wilderness for refuge made her as much of an
outcast and marginalized creature as Patmore’s Maud. Although Millais’s
sexual fantasy may seem to border on necrophilia, it is possible that in his
close-up and obsessive concentration on the spot he imagined himself to
be Ophelia’s potential rescuer. As in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, where
the eponymous hero delivers Mirah Lapidoth from a watery grave, Millais
and his Pre-Raphaelite brethren perceived themselves as would-be rescu-
ers of talented but downtrodden females. All of the women associated with
the Pre-Raphaelites in their period of formation were in fact daughters of
lower-middle-class and working-class families who were cast into the role
of dependents by men uncomfortable with sexual knowledge and emo-
tional intimacy.
One such example is the woman who posed for Ophelia, Elizabeth
(“Lizzie”) Eleanor Siddal. An artisan’s daughter, Lizzie Siddal worked at
a milliner’s shop near Leicester Square where she met Walter Deverell and
his mother. Struck by her good looks and stately carriage, Deverell hired
her as a model for his picture Twelfth Night and introduced her to the Pre-
Raphaelite circle. She subsequently sat for Hunt, Millais, and Rossetti, to
whom she became engaged and eventually married in 1860 after a stormy
decade-long relationship. Siddal was intellectually gifted but relatively un-
educated and, stimulated by her contact with the band of youthful ideal-
ists, took to drawing, painting, and writing poetry. As lover and teacher,
Rossetti had the most decisive influence on her work, but together they
forged a creative partnership that resulted in some remarkable collabora-
tive productions.
280 chapter four
Siddal gravitated to the medievalism of the group, to the novels of
Sir Walter Scott and the Arthurian poetry of Tennyson. One of her first
documented works was a drawing for Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,”
first published in 1832 and a favorite of the Pre-Raphaelites (fig. 4.18). The
Lady of Shalott is confined to a tower on an island near Camelot, subject
to a curse that forbids her direct intercourse with the outside world. Day
and night she compulsively works at her loom, weaving a “magic web”
of shadowy imagery reflected from outside onto her mirror. Sick of mere
shadows and captivated by the appearance of Sir Lancelot riding down to
Camelot, she abruptly turns from her labors to gaze upon the dazzling hel-
met and plume of the fabled knight. At that moment, the mirror cracks,
the web flies out of the loom, and too late she realizes that the curse has
come upon her. Siddal’s sketch of 1853 shows her at the fatal instant, turn-
ing away from the mirror with its reflection of Sir Lancelot on horseback
to look back through the window.
Once again, the female is seated at her loom or embroidery frame in
a sheltered environment. Siddal’s conception ingeniously constructs gen-
der individuation in Victorian society, depicting the contrasting outdoor
arena of the male hero and the sequestered realm of the female.
daydreams were unavoidable but tolerable so long as they remained at the
level of reflection, but once the boundary between male and female spheres
was transgressed the female paid dearly. The Lady of Shalott’s active gaze
symbolizes a sexual desire and enfranchisement that bridges the line of re-
spectability, and for this she pays with her life.
The virginal Lady of Shalott, having left the island, is punished for
her rashness by going to a watery grave as she floats downstream in a boat
4.18 Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal,
The Lady of Shalott, 1853. Collec-
tion Jeremy Maas, London.
281 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
toward King Arthur’s court. Tennyson surely had Ophelia in mind when
he had the dying Lady of Shalott floating down to Camelot “singing her
last song.” Both female characters are denied wifely possibilities and con-
demned to outcast status. This brings us to Siddal’s part in Millais’s Ophelia
and the representation of an innocent female whose inadvertent disruption
of social boundaries places her outside the realm of domestic love. Siddal’s
fascination for the theme is manifested in the seriousness with which she
assumed her responsibilities as model for the picture. Bent on accuracy,
Millais had Siddal lie in a large bath filled with water that was heated by oil
lamps placed beneath the tub. On the day that the picture reached its final
stage, the absorbed painter failed to perceive that the heating lamps had
gone out and that the water had turned ice cold. Siddal remained in the
chilly water for hours without complaining until quite benumbed, and af-
terwards contracted a severe cold. Her outraged father threatened a lawsuit,
but Millais handled the situation by paying the medical bills. The self-sacri-
ficing Siddal, however, seems to have identified with the martyred females
dear to the heart of the Pre-Raphaelites.
It may have been this condition of Euphemia (“Effie”) Chalmers Ruskin
(née Gray) that first endeared her to Millais, when they came in close con-
tact in 1853. (Although the daughter of a solid middle-class family, at the
time of her marriage her solicitor father veered on the edge of bankrupt-
cy as a result of railroad speculations and she became entirely dependent
upon Ruskin and his parents, who always considered her “lowly born and
lowly bred.”) Millais accompanied Ruskin and his wife that year on a sum-
mer holiday in Scotland. Unhappily married to Ruskin, who had yet to
consummate their conjugal union after five years, Effie and Millais were
drawn to one another during their sojourn in the Highlands, culminating
with their own marriage two years later. She combined for him some of
the traits of both Ophelia and the Lady of Shalott; in his sketches of the
vacation period he painted her with a wreath of foxgloves in her hair while
she sat sewing, and in another instance depicted her in an extravagant out-
fit with a necklace and headdress of bindweed (morning-glory). Effie left
Ruskin in April 1854, and as she and her family prepared to travel to the
seaside for their annual holiday, Millais warned her mother to make sure
that Effie wore “a necklace of corks for there must not be an Ophelia fin-
ish to the tragedy.”
During their Highlands visit, Millais planned a pair of pictures for the
Ruskins: one a majestic portrait of Ruskin looking over a steep waterfall
cascading through Glenfinlas and the other of Effie inside a tower of nearby
Doune Castle at one of the windows through which the windings of the
river could be seen. Although only the portrait of Ruskin was executed, it
is tempting to see in the other a fantasy of the Lady of Shalott waiting for
her Sir Lancelot to ride to the rescue.
Effie won an annulment of her marriage with Ruskin one year later on
the grounds of nonconsummation, but the scandal that ensued embroiled
282 chapter four
them, their families, and friends in an acrimonious aftermath. Throughout
Millais described the divorce as a release from “imprisonment,” as a “deliv-
erance” and “restoration.” Perceiving her as a martyr, he declared that “the
poor ill-used Countess [his nickname for her] must return to her former
happy life, playing, dancing, and drawing, and never for a moment permit
her thoughts to rest upon the tragic farce in which she has so patiently
played a suffering part.” While Effie was complaining that Ruskin consid-
ered her “unhappily diseased” and somewhat mad, Millais demonized him
as a wicked tyrant. Millais championed her cause as her protector, and it is
not surprising that he had no other choice than to marry her once she won
her divorce, though many of his associates considered it an act of pure chiv-
The story reeks of Arthurian legend, with the knightly champion
rescuing the “virgin-wife” from the clutches of the malevolent Templar.
Millais’s outdoor portrait of Ruskin at Brig o’Turk in the Trossachs
(north of Glasgow) does its best to cover up the resentment that Mil-
lais felt toward the sitter, especially in the work’s final stages (fig. 4.19).
Ruskin disports himself on a rocky ledge overlooking the waterfall akin
to Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant in Asher B. Durand’s Kindred
Spirits, painted four years earlier. (Coincidentally, Ruskin was establish-
ing his reputation in the United States through the American publication
in 1847 of the first volume of Modern Painters, and Durand became one
4.19 John Everett Millais,
Portrait of Ruskin, 1853–1854.
Private Collection.
283 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
of his fervent admirers. Durand’s son, John, was co-editor with William
James Stillman of Crayon, the main journalistic outlet for Ruskinian and
Pre-Raphaelite ideas in America, and William Michael Rossetti became
its English correspondent. Stillman, who met Ruskin as early as 1850, may
very well have mediated some connection between Durand and the Eng-
lish critic.
) But the two works differ in the figure-landscape relationship:
whereas the Hudson River artist poses his nature-worshippers within the
vast panorama of the magisterial gaze and nationalist aggrandizement, the
Pre-Raphaelite closes in on the specific geological composition of the site
and reverses the relationship of human and environment. Although Millais
may have seen a reproduction of Durand’s picture, he deviates from it dras-
tically in subordinating the landscape to the imposing figure of Ruskin,
who bestrides the craggy shelf like a colossus. By microscopically analyz-
ing the striations of the metamorphic gneiss formations beneath Ruskin’s
feet, Millais metonymically represents the scientific and industrial revolu-
tions that made the English the dominant economic power in the world.
Here Millais could have identified with the sitter, whose fashionable cos-
tume of long frock coat and high shirt collar was identical to that always
worn by Millais, who hated to be taken for a bohemian artist.
The initial concept of the picture may have been influenced by British
reaction to the coup d’état in France and the rise to power of Napoléon III.
Millais wrote Charles Combe on 5 February 1852 to inform him that he
has joined one of the numerous volunteer rifle clubs organized to prepare
for an attack by the French. He announced his newfound patriotism: “I am
sure you will see that such measures are stringent upon all Englishmen.”

The Rock of Ages on which Ruskin disports himself may be a metaphor
for the unassailable durability of the British nation.
Mention has already been made of the projected pendant to the work
that would have shown Effie at a window of Doune Castle and the analogy
with the Lady of Shalott. Millais also painted a preliminary study of the
site slightly lower down the stream, a horizontal composition with a lone
figure seated on the rocks at the far right (fig. 4.20). It is none other than Ef-
fie doing her sewing—the supreme Victorian male fantasy here carried to
absurd lengths in the great outdoors! Rather than engage with the sublime
scenery like her husband, she sits absorbed in her dutiful domestic tasks and
subordinated to the natural setting like one more spectacle within it. The
rock on which Ruskin would be posed is prominent in the foreground, but
now it is conspicuously vacant and it is clear whose “absence” is intended.
Subject to Millais’s gaze—he is perched above her out of sight—Effie is also
the imagined conquest of he who occupies in the imagination the exalted
place on the rock. The bold phallic outcropping in this location also asserts
Millais’s will to dominance.
Significantly, this salient outcropping is barely visible in the scene of
Ruskin. Its phallic surrogate is the walking stick he holds somewhat ten-
tatively in his right hand. Yet in the present position the stick is physically
284 chapter four
impossible to lean on (unless wedged in a crevice, which appears unlike-
ly), but without it Ruskin would seem to be precariously poised on the
rock, peering “into the turbulent sluice beneath.” Thus what appeared at
first glance as a seamless depiction of mastery over nature suddenly be-
comes unglued and rife with internal contradiction. Staley has described
Ruskin’s figure (painted much later) as seemingly “pasted on the surface,”
and Ruskin himself remarked that his “figure’s standing in the way.”
lais depicted the master of nature covertly as a “milksop” with a rickety
stick, with the rocky substance shown beneath his feet as alone enduring
and timeless.
Lyell classified gneiss, which consists of the same materials as granite,
as one of the “primary” rocks of creation.
He quoted his colleague Mac-
culloch, who noted that in Scotland the masses of gneiss had “become con-
torted and irregular as they approach the granite,” indicating the dynamic
effect of the molten intrusion of granite into the preexisting sedimentary
strata. Ruskin was fascinated by the undulating patterns of gneiss, which
for him seemed “to form the world,” symbolizing the vitality of primor-
dial creation. Indeed, “from the lowest valley to the highest clouds, all is
theirs—one adamantine dominion and rigid authority of rock.”
his profound admiration for the look of power of the crystalline forma-
tions, however, Ruskin also pointed to an ambiguous signification of these
“noble rocks”:
They, which at first seemed strengthened beyond the dread of any violence or
change, are yet also ordained to bear upon them the symbol of a perpetual Fear:
4.20 John Everett Millais, The
Waterfall, 1853. Samuel and Mary
R. Bancroft Collection, Dela-
ware Art Museum, Newark,
285 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
the tremor which fades from the soft lake and gliding river is sealed to all eter-
nity, upon the rock; and while things that pass visibly from birth to death may
sometimes forget their feebleness, the mountains are made to possess a perpetual
memorial of their infancy,—that infancy which the prophet saw in his vision:
“I beheld the earth, and lo, it was without form and void, and the heavens, and
they had no light. I beheld the mountains, and lo, they trembled; and all the hills
moved lightly.”
Thus the structure and appearance of mountains bear witness to the mo-
ment of Creation, and carry the impress of unfathomable awe along with
the projection of the majesty and authority of their formations.
Everything obeys the laws of the Divine Blueprint, and the closer the
observation of the objects of nature the more they reveal clues to the higher
reality. Unlike the cataclysmic approach to geology of John Martin that lent
credence to millennial preoccupations in a period of rapid change, Ruskin’s
obsession with the minutiae of landscape constituted an attempt to recon-
cile and buttress British Protestant faith with visual and scientific accuracy.
His extravagant indulgence in the “pathetic fallacy”—the endowment of
natural objects with emotional and philosophical meaning—helped him
surmount the felt threat of geological discovery to the biblical narrative. In
the bizarre contortions and irregularities of both Gothic art and geologi-
cal phenomena he could perceive the authentic manifestation of Intelligent
Design. He latched on to the Pre-Raphaelites because their combination
of microscopic accuracy and awkward thematics epitomized his sense of
visual sincerity. His sermonizing on the links between art, science, nature,
and religion also paralleled the work of the industrialists and manufactur-
ers who wanted public support for their relentless attempts to bring the
world under subjection. In this sense, his commitment to the brute factic-
ity of existence brought him much closer to the Gradgrinds of his era than
he might have realized.
Ruskin actually did his own drawing of a gneiss formation on the op-
posite bank of the stream along which he stands in the Millais painting, and
it may have served as a guide for the artist (fig. 4.21). Its remarkable clarity
and sharp focus exemplify the acuity of his observation as well as charac-
terize his subjective response to the ferocious veinous patterns that seem to
heave and devour the space. Millais, I believe, achieved the sense of ambi-
guity in both sitter and landscape in his portrayal of Ruskin, representing
the solidity of the rock formation but also the ceaseless activity of geologi-
cal process, and depicting the “master” of nature looking less iron-willed
than vacuous as he surveys his domain.
Millais’s break with Ruskin proved to be irreparable and occurred just
when the P.R.B. was beginning to dissolve. He then was kicked upstairs
by his election as A.R.A. (Associate of the Royal Academy) in 1853, and
thereafter began devoting his energies to satisfying middle-class Victorian
Christina Rossetti’s satirical farewell to the Pre-Raphaelite move-
286 chapter four
ment notes Millais’s ascendance: “So luscious
fruit must fall when over ripe, / And so the
consummated P.R.B.”
When Hunt finally
got around to criticizing Millais’s commercial-
ism, his old friend responded:
You argue that if I paint for the passing fashion of
the day my reputation some centuries hence will
not be what my powers would secure for me if I
did more ambitious work. I don’t agree. A painter
must work for the taste of his own day. . . . I want
proof that the people of my day enjoy my work,
and how can I get this better than by finding people
willing to give me money for my productions, and
that I win honours from my contemporaries. . . .
There is a fashion going now for little girls in mob
caps. Well, I satisfy this while it continues; but
immediately the demand shows signs of flagging,
I am ready to take to some other fashion of the last
century which people are now keen on, or I shall
do portraits or landscapes.
By 1855, Millais could even make peace with
Dickens and take his place as a leading repre-
sentative of British painting. He now so close-
ly identified with British nationalism that he
began orchestrating an elaborate campaign to
promote the British school at the Paris Uni-
versal Exposition of 1855. Early that year he asked Combe to ship the best
examples in his collection of Hunt and himself “for the sake of showing
the Frenchmen that we have a school of painters in this country (which
they doubt).”
Perhaps these efforts helped neutralize Ruskin’s resent-
ment against his rival in love (at least publicly); the critic seemed to har-
bor no professional ill-will against Millais and continued to warmly praise
his work.
This is most strikingly evident in the case of The Rescue, exhibited in
1855, one of his most popular works to date and one that Millais himself
prized highly (fig. 4.22). The subject is a fireman’s daring rescue of three
children from the upper story of a blazing household and his deliverance
of them to the anxious mother below. The melodramatic theme has been
enlivened by Millais’s bold use of a dominant red tonality to convey the fi-
ery ambiance of the interior. Through the window in the hall we glimpse
a billowing cloud enveloping the rooftops, while a trail of flame seems to
follow rapidly in the footsteps of the fireman as he descends the carpeted
steps. Ruskin went into raptures over the work, gushing, “It is the only
4.21 John Ruskin, Gneiss Rock,
Glenfinlas, 1853. Visitors of the
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
287 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
great picture exhibited this year; but this is very great. The immortal ele-
ment is in it to the full. It is easily understood, and the public very gener-
ally understand it.”
Millais’s changing reputation is also seen in the often positive commen-
tary of the Athenaeum’s reviewers. By 1855, the Athenaeum could refer to
“our Pre-Raphaelites” as models of conscientiousness, artists who would
“not spare us an ‘apple on the rock’ when they have to paint a Yarrow glen,
nor a chip on the carpenter’s floor, if the Dwellers at Nazareth are their
4.22 John Everett Millais, The
Rescue, 1855. National Gallery of
Victoria, Melbourne.
288 chapter four
subject.” Two years later, the Athenaeum takes for granted the public accep-
tance of the group and refers to them by their initials only, as “P.R.B.’s”
The critic in 1855 had mixed feelings about The Rescue, but had to admit that
“the comet—the burning star—of the Exhibition is Mr. Millais’s Rescue,—
a picture that would be cheap for any public office wishing to save coals in
hard winters. Not that, with some heretical exceptions, it is not a work of
force and originality, full of purpose and sentiment, and daring endeavour
to paint the poetry of English nineteenth-century life:—the life we, and
not others, live.” The patriarchal Victorian mentality shows through the
critic’s comments on the two protagonists: “The face of the fireman is very
good. Thoroughly English, cool, determined, and self-reliant, and what is
more, of that type of feature that any physiognomist would at once recog-
nize as common among his profession. The mother is plain, but that might
happen, and fantastically wild, which need not be.”
According to Millais’s brother William, the scene was inspired by their
observation of two firefighters plying a hose from a rafter when the roof
suddenly collapsed and carried them with it. As Millais and his brother
continued on their way, Millais declared: “Soldiers and sailors have been
praised on canvas a thousand times. My next picture shall be of the fire-
It is curious that the English Millais and Dickens, the French
Courbet, and the American Whitman all chose the fireman in the 1850s
as a paradigmatic type in the representation of urban realism, and did so
in order to signal the heroism of everyday life. Considering the appall-
ing conditions sustained by British troops in the Crimea during the winter
of 1854–1855 that exposed the flawed military presence there, and the vi-
cious French military suppression of the Roman Republic in 1849, it would
seem that Millais and Courbet had the incentive to displace heroic combat
in the field to the daring actions of firemen in the civil domain. The fire-
man represented an instance of a working-class male who could be ideal-
ized for his loyal and courageous service on behalf of the more privileged
groups. Like the navvy, the fireman performed outside the factory system
constituting the locus of working-class organization and threat. The Vic-
torian bourgeoisie needed working-class heroes to offset the Chartists and
dangerous classes inimical to their interests. Millais could even boast of
his many forays with the London fire brigade, whose captain was a friend
of his; the painter donned firemen’s overalls and helmet in rushing to the
scenes of action.
Fires of course would be increasingly identified as inevitable catastro-
phes associated with the growth and concentration of urban populations,
where the combination of the density of buildings and dwellings and coal-
burning sites guaranteed the rapid spread of conflagrations. Dickens re-
corded 838 fires in London alone in 1849, and in an article in Household Words
he wrote of the heroism of the London fire brigade, including one instance
of the rescue of a child with a nightcap to the cries of the crowd shouting
“Bravo! Bravo! God bless ’em! Bravo!”
289 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
Dickens and Millais finally reconciled their differences through their
common fascination for the fireman. After an intense discussion of Millais’s
projected tableau on 12 January 1855, Dickens sent the painter his account
of the fire brigade, at the same time expressing his admiration for Millais’s
progress in what he felt to be the “higher and better things.” Millais kept
Dickens informed of the progress of the picture, and just before its comple-
tion he even invited him to his studio to inspect it. Although Dickens was
unable to see it on that occasion, it is likely that he eventually viewed it in
friendly and private circumstances.
Millais’s Peace Concluded (or “The Return from the Crimea”) of 1856
culminates his transition from provocative Pre-Raphaelite painter to fash-
ionable crowd-pleaser and attests to his definitive capitulation to the reac-
tion (fig. 4.23). Perhaps his most sentimental picture to date, it again earned
Ruskin’s extravagant praise. The subject is drawn from contemporary his-
tory, alluding to the treaty of peace signed between the allies of Turkey on
one side and Russia on the other that ended the Crimean War. In a cozy,
richly carpeted corner of a Victorian parlor, an officer recuperating from
his wounds in the Crimea lies on a divan surrounded by his family and their
Irish wolf-hound, curled up at his feet. The officer displays with his left
hand a headline on page nine of the Times, dated Monday, March 31, that
announces, “Conclusion of Peace” (fig. 4.24). His wife, modeled after Effie,
sits beside him tête-à-tête on the edge of the sofa, affectionately embracing
him and holding hands. Meanwhile, he gazes down approvingly at one of
his daughters who, holding his medal, has arranged on her mother’s lap a
cluster of toy animals including a bear, a lion, a turkey, and a rooster—all
national emblems of the principals signing the treaty. The child has picked
out these toys from a miniature Noah’s Ark sitting on the floor at the ex-
treme left. Standing behind it is her sister, who stares directly at the specta-
tor while affectedly holding up in her left hand a miniature dove with an
olive branch.
The desire to reach the public is seen in the speed by which he hastened
his subject to completion: since the newspaper is dated 31 March and the
Royal Academy Exhibition opened at the beginning of May, he had ap-
proximately one month to conceive and execute his picture. The treaty and
the conduct of the Crimean War was still in everyone’s mind at the time,
kept in the foreground of the news by the Crimean Board of Inquiry’s in-
vestigation of charges of mismanagement and poor organization. Mean-
while, the British government and military personnel tried to put a good
face on the tragic episode; one member of the House of Lords praised the
running of the war as an example of the traditional “worth of national
character and the grandeur of national enterprise.”
The theme of Noah’s Ark, which had previously provided Millais with
the inspiration for epic conceptions of the religious and social upheavals
within Victorian society, has now been reduced to the level of children’s
toys. The subjects that he risked at the beginning of the formation of the
291 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
P.R.B. now operate as self-conscious playthings to be manipulated at will
for the benefit of his bourgeois audience. Ruskin himself must have shared
in this development, since he had only praise for the painter and his picture.
Once he thought that Millais would fall behind others of his school, “but
Titian himself could hardly head him now.” The critic predicted that in
the future it will rank “among the world’s best masterpieces,” and he con-
cluded with his highest accolade: “I am not sure whether he may not be
destined to surpass all that has yet been done in figure-painting, as Turner
did all past landscape.”
The defining moment of Pre-Raphaelite painting in British culture had
arrived, replacing the romantic epoch of Turner and Martin. In his preface
to the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1856, Ruskin addressed readers about
the change in appearance of the annual shows, warning them that they will
no longer be able to
distinguish the Pre-Raphaelite works as a separate class, but that between them
and the comparatively few pictures remaining quite of the old school, there is a
perfectly unbroken gradation, formed by the works of painters in various stages
of progress, struggling forward out of their conventionalism to the Pre-Rapha-
elite standard. The meaning of this is simply that the battle is completely and
confessedly won by the latter party; that rejection has changed into emulation,
astonishment into sympathy, and that a true and consistent school of art is at last
established in the Royal Academy of England.
4.23 John Everett Millais, Peace
Concluded or The Return from the
Crimea, 1856. P. D. McMillan
Fund. Minneapolis Institute of
Arts, Minneapolis.
top right
4.24 “Conclusion of Peace,”
headline from the Times, 31
March 1856.
292 chapter four
William Holman Hunt
Ruskin’s declaration occurred paradoxically just as the brethren were sepa-
rating and going their own way. Hunt’s progress in the early 1850s paral-
lels that of Millais, except that just at the moment of rupture in 1854 he
took off for the Holy Land, where he stayed for two years. He made his
retreat cognizant that the movement had become, “at least in part, a sig-
nal failure.”
Nevertheless, his abrupt departure forestalled a formal break
with the group—a move that helped sustain what Alan Bowness has called
Hunt’s “sense of mission,” enabling him to keep faith with the type of sin-
gular theme that characterized the early P.R.B. program.
The year that Millais exhibited his Ophelia and A Huguenot at the Roy-
al Academy, Hunt entered The Hireling Shepherd (fig. 4.25). Shot through
with irony and contradiction, this complex work points to the group’s ear-
ly calculated striving for breakthrough thematics as well as a new system
of painting. This is already evident in the quotation from Edgar’s song in
King Lear (act 3, scene 6), which accompanied the listing of the picture in
the 1852 exhibition catalogue:
Sleepest or wakest thou, jolly shepherd?
Thy sheep be in the corn:
And, for one blast of thy minikin mouth,
Thy sheep shall take no harm.
The expression “jolly shepherd” hardly fits the biblical theme of the “hire-
ling,” one of many jarring incongruities presented by the picture. But it
makes sense if we imagine the group wanting to invent an art capable of
carrying multiple levels of literary associations and global enough to em-
brace Shakespeare and the Bible.
On the surface, the reconciliation works: what we see is a heedless
shepherd dallying with a shepherdess while the unguarded sheep break out
of the fold and wander into the corn. In this situation, he could well pass
for either a “jolly” or a “hireling” shepherd. But Hunt knew his Bible, and
the verses of the parable in St. John from whence the title derives constitute
one of the canonical Christian texts. The chapter reveals Christ as the Son
of God responsible for the wider flock of humanity, and contrasts the idea
of the good shepherd, who would give his life for the sheep, with that of
the hireling, “whose own the sheep are not,” and who when he “seeth the
wolf coming . . . leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them,
and scattereth the sheep.” And the parable concludes: “The hireling fleeth,
because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep” (St. John 10:12–13).
This is a prelude to the resurrection, after which “there shall be one fold,
and one shepherd”—identifying the crucifixion with Christ’s sacrifice for
his sheep. Hence if the “hireling” is the anti-Christ, he must bear witness to
the exclusion from the possibility of eternal life. This is too heavy a burden
293 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
for a “jolly” shepherd to carry, and probably explains the presence of the
death’s-head moth which the shepherd shows to his female companion.
Hunt claimed late in life that his primary aim in the work was to paint
authentic rustic people, “not dresden china bergers,” in “a landscape of
full sunlight, with all the colour of luscious summer without the faintest
fear of the precedents of any landscape painters who has rendered Nature
Hunt’s work coincides with the emergence of Jean-François
Millet and Gustave Courbet in France, and his preoccupation with “real”
people parallels their commitment to a naturalistic representation of rural
life. In addition to his botanical fidelity, Hunt meticulously replicated the
coarse textures of the British peasantry’s costume, their sunburnt visages,
and even such accessories as the beer keg slung from the shepherd’s tangible
leather belt.
Contemporary reviewers agreed with his claim to verisimilitude: the
Times critic, characterizing the work as “ludicrous and repulsive,” declared:
“Shepherds and shepherdesses with such fiery complexions, such wiry hair,
and such elephantine feet were not born in Arcadia,” while the writer for
the Athenaeum elaborated:
4.25 William Holman Hunt,
The Hireling Shepherd, 1851–1852.
City of Manchester Art Galler-
ies, Manchester.
294 chapter four
Like Swift, [Hunt] revels in the repulsive. These rustics are of the coarsest
breed,—ill favoured, ill fed, ill washed. Not to dwell on cutaneous and other
minutiae,—they are literal transcripts of stout, sunburnt, out-of-door labourers.
Their faces, bursting with a plethora of health, and a trifle too flushed and
rubicund, suggest their over-attention to the beer or cyder [sic] keg on the
boor’s back. . . . Downright literal truth is followed out in every accessory;
each sedge, moss, and weed—each sheep—each tree, pollard or pruned—each
crop, beans or corn—is faithfully imitated. Summer heat pervades the atmo-
sphere,—the grain is ripe,—the swifts skim about,—and the purple clouds cast
purple shadows.
On another level, however, the pair retain some of the features of eigh-
teenth-century china imagery: the conventional pyramidal composition fa-
vored by Boucher, for example, and though keyed to the biblical source,
the preference for showing rural people during a leisurely moment rather
than at work. The Athenaeum’s critic mockingly called the work “Love in
Idleness.” George Eliot wrote critically that while in The Hireling Shepherd
Hunt “gave us a landscape of marvelous truthfulness, [he] placed a pair of
peasants in the foreground who were not much more real than the idyllic
swains and damsels of our chimney ornaments.”
At the time Hunt privileged the verisimilitude of the characters and
landscape over the narrative, he was surely responding to avant-garde
claims to originality and vivid technique that in many ways the Pre-Rapha-
elites pioneered. Yet he would also disclaim the title to realist painter and
later rejected impressionism as “a standing peril to honest and honourable
art” and as soulless and materialistic. Hunt’s didactic turn of mind required
a moral framework for his picture-making, and it is the symbolism of The
Hireling Shepherd that ultimately determined its purpose.
Writing in the same letter quoted above, Hunt recalled that in produc-
ing the work he did indeed “have an occult suggestion in mind of a very
simple character”:
Shakespeares [sic] song represents a Shepherd who is neglecting his real duty
of guarding the sheep: instead of using his voice in truthfully performing his
duty, he is using his “minnikin mouth” in some idle way. He was a type thus of
other muddle headed pastors who instead of performing their services to their
flock—which is in constant peril—discuss vain questions of no value to any
human soul. My fool has found a death’s head moth, and this fills his mind with
forebodings of evil and he takes it to an equally sage counsellor for her opinion.
She scorns his anxiety from ignorance rather than profundity, but only the more
distracts his faithfulness: while she feeds her lamb with sour apples his sheep
have burst bounds and got into the corn. It is not merely that the wheat will be
spoilt, but on eating it the sheep are doomed to destruction from becoming
what farmers call “blown.”
295 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
Aside from Hunt’s disdain for his rural folk, what is remarkable in this
statement is the lack of confidence in the capacity of the “flock”—always
in “constant peril”—to disentangle the chaff from the wheat. Hunt betrays
his elitist concern with the credulity of the masses, and criticizes them for
elevating “muddle headed” types to leadership positions. As in Millais’s
work, the radical edge has become blunted in this work of 1851–1852 and
the message more covertly represented. Nevertheless, its very ingenuity in
fusing a starkly realist depiction of a rural setting with a fervent ideological
program positions it as a milestone of Pre-Raphaelite production.
Hunt’s allusions to pastors leading their flocks astray and to “sectarian
vanities and vital negligencies of the day” also places the picture squarely
in the center of the theological controversies still raging in British society.
The work plays on the idea of the “pastoral” duties of the nineteenth-cen-
tury clergy and their sense of vocation. Hunt’s religious position in rela-
tionship to the picture has been debated by various authors, their arguments
turning on whether or not Hunt was attempting to throw off suspicions
of Tractarianism linked with his previous A Converted British Family Shelter-
ing a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids or reinforcing his
ties to the movement. As Macmillan and Errington show, Hunt was still
tight with the Combes and even admitted to being “at the very centre of
the High Church party in Oxford,” thus making it unlikely that the work
condemned Tractarian ecclesiastics for leading their flocks astray.
We also
know that just as he began work on the background of the picture he wrote
to Coventry Patmore asking to borrow his copy of Richard Hooker—ed-
ited by John Keble in the previous decade—whose works deeply informed
Tractarian doctrine. As Errington suggests, he may not have had to read
very far before stumbling on a relevant passage: Dr. John Spenser’s intro-
ductory “To the Reader” prefixed to the 1604 edition of Hooker’s Of the
Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity closely resonates with The Hireling Shepherd:
This unhappy controversy, about the received ceremonies and discipline of the
Church of England . . . hath by the unnatural growth and dangerous fruits there-
of, made known to the world, that it never received blessing from the Father of
peace. For whose experience doth not find, what confusion of order, and breach
of the sacred bond of love hath sprung from this dissension; how it hath rent the
body of the church into divers parts, and divided her people into divers sects;
how it hath taught the sheep to despise their pastors, and alienated the pastors
from the love of their flocks . . .
Hunt’s shepherd-pastor has led his flock astray, but Hunt never tells us
from what idea or principle. In March 1851, Ruskin published his famous
pamphlet Notes on the Construction of Sheepfolds, a work Hunt read that July
while painting the picture. Ruskin railed at the schism between the Evan-
gelical and High Church parties in Britain as “one of the most disgraceful
296 chapter four
scenes in Ecclesiastical history.” By paralyzing the Protestant faith, the pet-
ty jealousies and disunity played into the hands of the Romanists. What was
urgent for this Low Church Anglican was the pressing need for the Church
of England to unite within herself the entire Evangelical body “and take
her stand against the Papacy.” This required the devotion of the “pastors”
of both the English and Scottish churches in seeking common ground for
union, “and thus the whole body of Protestants, united in one great Fold,
would indeed go in and out, and find pasture; and the work appointed
for them would be done quickly, and Anti-Christ overthrown.”
stressed the shepherds because he had little confidence in the sheep; in the
same essay he could write, “Of all puppet-shows in the Satanic Carnival of
the earth, the most contemptible puppet-show is a Parliament with a mob
pulling the strings.” Hunt would have found confirmation of Ruskin’s
position in Hooker, who declared the necessity for learned ministers to
preach the word, for “if the blind lead the blind both needs fall into the pit
. . . teachers are shepherds whose flocks can be at no time secure from dan-
ger, they are watchmen whom the enemy doth always besiege.”
Hunt’s Hireling Shepherd owes a debt to Ruskin as well as to Hooker
for its inspiration, since his negligent shepherd-pastor causes his misguided
flock to stray from the path of unity. This is the central theme of the pic-
ture, with hints of popery as the subtext. The Oxford reformers vigor-
ously debated the possible schismatic outcome stemming from the attempt
to restore the Catholic idea of the Church, but always insisted on the uni-
versality of the Church. There was inevitably a segment of the movement
that drifted toward Rome, with a heavy tide of secessions occurring in
1851. Except for Newman, however, none of the major leaders convert-
ed, and the main body of the movement remained steadfastly loyal to the
English Church. Already in Tract No. 71, “On the Controversy with the
Romanists,” it was declared that to go over to Roman Catholicism would
result in “fomenting divisions among ourselves.” Tractarians further casti-
gated Evangelicals for separating from High Church practices.
As if the
dispute-ridden established church did not provide sufficient fuel for con-
troversy, the 1851 Census of Religious Worship (whose results were made
known in 1854) demonstrated that Protestant Nonconformity matched in
sheer numbers the aggregate membership of Anglicanism—a shocking rev-
elation of the strength of British dissent.
The other statistical surprise was
the formidable number of British “habitual neglecters of the public ordi-
nances of religion”—chiefly among the working classes and the peasantry.
The greatest fear of the Tractarians sprang from their perception of the An-
glican Church besieged by growing secularism and materialism, and they
hoped to establish its spiritual supremacy beyond the political authority of
the nation. It was this challenge of secularism and widespread unbelief—fi-
nally laid bare in 1851—that stimulated the rise of the Oxford Movement.
A more immediate response to working-class infidelity and politics
emerged after 1848 in the form of Christian Socialism, which wanted
297 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
workers to rally under the banner of more egalitarian-minded Anglican
clergy and their upper-class supporters. Well known to the Pre-Raphael-
ites, its arguments were spelled out in the popular novel Alton Locke (1850),
by Charles Kingsley, who, together with its founder Frederick Denison
Maurice, was the mainspring of the movement. The eponymous artisanal
hero of the novel, who undergoes a conversion from Chartist radicalism to
Christian Socialism, early on condemns the clergy for its dependence on
Tories and neglect of the working classes. The clergy earn their income
either by pew rents (which created social distinctions among churchgoers
and discouraged working-class worshippers from attending) or by a system
that rests on tithing—a source of clerical income keyed to a rent charge on
the land dependent upon the price of corn (grain). Either way, the clergy
aligned themselves with the exploiting classes and prohibited all free dis-
cussion of doctrinal matters. Locke denounces Anglican clergy for “com-
manding us to swallow down, with faith as passive and implicit as that of
a Papist, the very creeds from which their own bad example, and their
scandalous neglect, have, in the last three generations, alienated us.”
stated relationship between clerical income’s dependence on the high price
of corn and the clergy’s “scandalous neglect” of their working-class flocks
links the book to Hunt’s picture. Although Christian Socialists rejected
Tractarianism, their preoccupation with the recovery of dissident working
classes for Christ brought them into its ideological orbit.
Hunt’s Hireling Shepherd gives us a grossly sensual male and female pas-
tor of the rural type far removed from the Tractarian persuasion; although
Hunt says little of the woman’s symbolic role, she could represent the type
of lay Methodist preacher like George Eliot’s Dinah Morrison (Adam Bede),
who preached to rural artisans out-of-doors. Here the shepherdess careless-
ly feeds deadly sour apples to her sheep, manifesting the same kind of dis-
regard for the flock as her male counterpart. The central importance of the
shepherd’s display of the death’s-head moth in attracting the female’s atten-
tion may be a metaphor for the local fears associated with Romanism and
its “superstitious” dogmas. Anti-Catholic feeling reached a peak during the
winter of 1850–1851 with so-called “Papal Aggression”—Pope Pius IX’s
creation in Great Britain of a territorial hierarchy of twelve bishoprics and
the elevation of Wiseman to cardinal. The Tractarians were immediately
scapegoated for having led their flocks to Roman “mummeries of supersti-
The outpouring of indignation spread throughout the country-
side, with the rural clergy using their Sunday services as an opportunity to
join the swelling protest movement. Hunt and his Tractarian friends must
have viewed these accusations with some misgivings, and would have de-
cried the alarmist atmosphere they created. According to Hunt, the sight
of the moth fills the shepherd’s “little mind with forebodings of evil and he
takes it to an equally sage counsellor for her opinion.”
The responsibility for the proliferation of the claims of free thought
and commitment to individualism could be laid at the doorstep of Evan-
298 chapter four
gelicals and dissenters. The effective leadership of both the Evangelicals
and the dissenting community was urban, provincial, and upper middle
class, sustained by an influential network of banking, manufacturing, and
professional families. This group was open to the discoveries of geologists,
astronomers, and natural scientists, as well as to recent historical criticism
of the biblical narrative which ran counter to the traditional acceptance of
the Bible and cast doubt on specific Christian doctrines.
The personal crisis of faith generated by the incompatibility of recent
scientific discovery and critical liberalism with religious tradition inflected
the thought of numerous Victorian intellectuals, whose various strategies
for dealing with the conflict decisively affected Victorian culture. Both
Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites tried to deploy an aesthetical vision to
reconcile the apparently contradictory views. I believe that Hunt’s con-
spicuous display of the death’s-head moth corresponds to his own fascina-
tion with natural history, but that he displaced the painful consequences
of this involvement on to the pastor-shepherd. Thus the death’s head is
Janus-faced, indicating the extremes of papist superstition on one side and
rationalist control of human activity on the other. According to conserva-
tives, the very dependence on science and industry as a panacea instilled
a sense of helplessness that could be viewed as a kind of superstition.

The shepherd’s attempt at seduction through natural history must mean
that he is promoting it among his diocesan flock and leading them to their
destruction. This position would have coincided with the views of the
Oxford reformists, who wished to counteract what they perceived to be
the alienating tendencies of scientific thought and industry. The “muddle
headed pastors” then—the Low Church people, the Evangelicals, and the
Nonconformists—were those who with their butterfly nets and collecting
baskets made concessions to the changing social order and lured their fol-
lowers from the true Church.
Hunt himself was caught in conflict between his own need for “liberty
of conscience” and scientific accuracy in representation with the impera-
tives of the established church. Like the Tractarians, he wanted to differen-
tiate the Anglican Church from the secular order on the plane of common
human action. This created a dilemma, for the pictorial solution he chose
emphasized the empirical disposition of the secular world he attacked. His
dilemma was played out in the intense religiosity of his next picture, and
in his abrupt departure for the Holy Land two years later. It was his way
of reconciling material practice with spiritual desire and assuming the role
of a “clear headed pastor” able to guide lost sheep “to the true religion of
Hunt sincerely believed in the P.R.B. mission to use art instrumentally to
bring about a spiritual change in the hearts and minds of his fellow citizens.
299 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
No other work so clearly attests to this missionary zeal than the forbidding
Light of the World, arguably the most memorable of all British religious im-
ages (fig. 4.26). It seems to embody the highest aspirations of the Gothic
Revival and the Oxford Movement, merging ritual and symbolic realism
into a spiritually transcendent whole. (Its appeal to the Tractarians is dem-
onstrated in the swift willingness of the Combes to pay the enormous price
of 400 guineas for it.) Its conception and development overlapped with
the production of The Hireling Shepherd and represented an attempt to re-
solve the painful antinomies of naturalist voyeurism and spiritual revela-
tion. Hunt’s aim in this instance was to turn the realist strategy on itself,
carrying it to the point of such excessiveness that it could oxymoronically
convey an unearthly naturalism and arouse a sense of spiritual awe.
Hunt shared the exciting moment of his conception with Millais,
sparked by a reading in Revelation (3:20): “Behold, I stand at the door, and
knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come to him,
and will sup with him, and he with me.” Hunt went on to justify a noctur-
nal effect not mentioned in the text:
Nothing is said about the night, but I wish to accentuate the point of its mean-
ing by making it the time of darkness, and that brings us to the need of the lan-
tern in Christ’s hand, He being the bearer of the light to the sinner within, if he
will awaken. I shall have a door choked up with weeds, to show that it has not
been opened for a long time, and in the background there will an orchard.
Although Hunt specifies the precise point of departure for the work, he
again complicates the textual sources by deriving his title from a passage
in St. John (8:12): “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall
not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” The use of the sec-
ond text, however, is more than an intellectual conceit, for it also justifies
the night effect and gives a positive signification to the otherwise morose
theme. Hunt needed the idea of light as a metaphorical means of dispel-
ling the darkness and gloom he clearly associated with the subject. When
Millais volunteered to paint a companion piece to be called “The Repen-
tant Sinner,” Hunt protested on the grounds that it would destroy the
sense of uncertainty of the response to Christ’s knock that he wished to
achieve. (Eventually, Hunt used the idea anyway in his Awakening Con-
science—what he considered to be the material counterpart of The Light of the
World.) Hunt’s rather hysterical rejoinder to Millais’s benign offer indicates
his ambivalence to the picture and his profound psychological investment
in its achievement.
The reviewer of the Athenaeum characterized The Light of the World as “a
most eccentric and mysterious picture,” adding, “The face of this wild fan-
tasy, though earnest and religious, is not that of a Saviour. It expresses such
a strange mingling of disgust, fear, and imbecility, that we turn from it to
relieve the sight.”
Here the alien qualities of the work are foregrounded,
4.26 William Holman Hunt,
The Light of the World, 1851–1853.
Warden and Fellows of Keble
College, Oxford.
301 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
perhaps in response to the obvious manifestation of its Gothic and Tractar-
ian tendencies. Its highly personal symbolism gave it a psychological twist
that many critics found uncomfortable.
The rather negative reception to the picture impelled Ruskin once
again to rush to the defense of his protégé, who was by then traveling in
the Holy Land. In his letter to the Times of 5 May 1854, Ruskin called it
“one of the very noblest works of sacred art ever produced in this or any
other age.” Yet his follow-up description of the picture suggests that even
he perceived it as a rather bizarre presentation of the subject:
On the left-hand side of the picture is seen this door of the human soul. It is
fast barred: its bars and nails are rusty; it is knitted and bound to its stanchions
by creeping tendrils of ivy, showing that it has never been opened. A bat hov-
ers about it; its threshold is overgrown with brambles, nettles, and fruitless corn
. . . Christ approaches it in the night-time,—Christ, in his everlasting offices of
prophet, priest, and king. He wears the white robe, representing the power of
the Spirit upon him; the jewelled robe and breastplate, representing the sacerdo-
tal investiture; the rayed crown of gold, inwoven with the crown of thorns; not
dead thorns, but now bearing soft leaves, for the healing of the nations.
Ruskin then fixed on the controversial lantern, the “light of conscience,”
which is suspended by a chain wrapped around the wrist of Jesus, “showing
that the light which reveals sin appears to the sinner also to chain the hand
of Christ.” The lantern’s “fire is red and fierce; it falls only on the closed
door, on the weeds which encumber it, and on an apple shaken from one
of the trees of the orchard, thus marking that the entire awakening of the
conscience is not merely to committed, but to hereditary guilt.” Ruskin’s
stern Evangelical upbringing predisposed him to read this chilling image as
“noble,” but it could easily have been his own heavy burden of guilt that
was aroused by the sight of the picture.
Hunt admitted that the first viewers of the work were more interested
in its “occult” and “mystic” treatment, and that the details were not based
on conventional ecclesiastical symbolism but on his own private fantasies.
When the normally supportive Carlyle saw it, he delivered a loud, lengthy
harangue against it:
You call that thing, I ween, a picture of Jesus Christ. Now you cannot gain
any profit to yourself, except in mere pecuniary sense, or profit any one else on
earth, in putting into shape a mere papistical fantasy like that, for it can only be
an inanity, or a delusion to every one that may look on it. It is a poor misshaped
presentation of the noblest, the brotherliest, and the most heroic-minded Be-
ing that ever walked God’s earth. Do you ever suppose that Jesus walked about
bedizened in priestly robes and a crown, and with yon jewels on his breast, and
a gilt aureole round his head? Ne’er crown nor pontifical robe did the world e’er
give to such as Him. Well—and if you mean to represent Him as the spiritual
302 chapter four
Christ, you have chosen the form in which he has been travestied from the be-
ginning by worldlings who have recorded their own ambitions as His, repeating
Judas’ betrayal to the high priests. You should think frankly of his antique heroic
soul, if you realised His character at all you wouldn’t try to make people go back
and worship the image that the priests have invented of Him, to keep men’s silly
souls in meshes of slavery and darkness.
In this fascinating commentary, Carlyle confounds the Jewish high priests
and the Vatican’s priests while admonishing Hunt for garbing Christ in
“priestly robes.” Carlyle at once expressed his anti-Jewish and anti-Catho-
lic feelings in his outraged response to Hunt’s picture, again pointing to its
deep-seated psychological origins.
The oxymoronic Light of the World is even more bizarre than The Hire-
ling Shepherd in negotiating the temporal and spiritual realms and is as close
as the P.R.B. ever gets to manifesting the Disraeliesque tension between
Anglicanism and what I will call “Anglican Judaism.” All of the major Vic-
torian Gentile intellectuals invoked in this chapter were obsessed with the
Old Testament heroes while simultaneous practicing anti-Semitic stereo-
typing. Hunt himself, who traveled to the Holy Land seeking authentic
Jewish subjects, could fall into a Dickensian mode in describing a chance
meeting with “a short, bloated, dirty, satin waistcoated Jew of about for-
During the debates on whether or not to admit practicing Jews to
sit in the House of Commons, Disraeli offended the MPs by reminding
them of the contradiction between British anti-Semitism and the fact of
Judaism as forerunner of Christianity. His ideal of a synthesis of Juda-
ism and Christianity, growing out of his own upbringing as an Anglican,
gave rise to the enigmatic fictional character of Sidonia, a Jewish convert,
whose ambiguities resonate with Hunt’s Light of the World (see Art in an Age
of Counterrevolution).
Hunt’s voyage to the Holy Land followed the ideological pattern of
Disraeli’s novel Tancred, as he seeks evidence of “primitive” worship and
ceremony and decries “the ugliness, emptiness, and class vulgarity of the
Anglican and Prussian worship, as found in the city of Jerusalem.” Hunt
immerses himself in rabbinic law, visits the synagogues on the Sabbath
and Passover, reads the Old Testament, the Talmud, and Josephus, ready
“to reject tradition, religious as well as artistic, not convincingly true.”

Like Tancred, his quest was to uncover the possibilities of spiritual renewal
through contact with the source of all religion.
Disraeli’s claim that Judaism was the foundation of Christianity is
echoed in Hunt’s depiction of the Christ who wears, according to the
artist’s own description, a clasp that conjoins “the Israelitish and Gentile
breast-plates.” Later, Stephens would clarify this by referring to the clasp’s
inclusion of the “mystic Urim and Thummim” and a set of precious stones
bearing “the names of the chosen tribes.”
At one point in Hunt’s research
for the painting, he innocently inquired of a Jewish acquaintance if rabbis
303 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
still wore the Urim and Thummim, and if this were the case he wanted to
borrow an example to depict in his picture.
Nevertheless, he was well
aware of the oracular function of the Urim and Thummim and the tra-
ditional Christian associations of them with “revelation and truth” and
“lights and perfection.” He also knew that the breastplate that contained
them was “four-square” and held twelve precious stones engraved with
the names of the twelve tribes of Israel.
According to Josephus, these
oracles foretold victory in the field when rays of light emanated from the
twelve precious stones. Finally, just below the domed top in front of the
lantern are three apertures unmistakably shaped in the form of the Star
of David. Hunt himself made it clear that “the diversity of designs of the
openings of the lantern” were “essential to the spiritual interpretation of
the subject.”
Hunt’s occult figure and exceptional symbolism go beyond the con-
ventional typological approach of Victorian artists who prefigured Christ’s
coming with Old Testament allusions. Here Christ himself is shown ar-
rayed in the symbolic vestures of the high priest of Israel. Significantly,
when Hunt visited the Holy Land in search of authentic Jewish models
for his New Testament themes, he claimed to have felt most at home with
converted or “Messianic” Jews. At the time, intense British missionary ef-
forts in the Holy Land operated as an adjunct to British strategic interests in
seeking to establish a Protestant foothold in the predominantly Greek Or-
thodox and Latin Catholic Christian environment. The British campaign
was dominated by the evangelical London Society for Promoting Christi-
anity amongst the Jews (founded 1809) and the Presbyterian British Soci-
ety for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Jews (founded 1842). The
former, established by Anglicans, was then also known as the London Jews’
Society. Its mission was stationed on what was then called Mt. Zion, in the
vicinity of the Anglican church at Jaffa Gate, near the Jewish quarter. The
chief stated aim of the English bishop was the conversion of all Jews in the
Ottoman Empire.
Hunt established close contact with most of the members of the Lon-
don Jews’ Society mission, and they facilitated his projects and travels in
the Holy Land and assisted him in finding Jewish models. He could even
call his Finding of the Saviour in the Temple his “Jewish picture.” Like Dis-
raeli, whose novels work through his psychological condition as both Jew
and Christian, Hunt was trying to find pictorial solutions for reconciling
Christianity and Judaism. Although he believed in Christianity as the New
Dispensation, the continuing presence of the stiff-necked Jew was a living
reproof of his religious heritage. The converted Jew, on the other hand,
who accepted Jesus as the Messiah, shored up his religious identity and con-
firmed the rightness of his spiritual quest.
One further piece of evidence of Hunt’s ambivalence toward Jews was
the possible pictorial inspiration of The Light of the World. It was observed
from the moment it exhibited in 1853 that it was based on an engraving of
304 chapter four
a similar theme by the Nazarene artist Philipp Veit. Entitled Christ Knocking
on the Door of the Soul, it exhibits a similar vertical format and compositional
format, with a frontally positioned Christ standing next to the door at the
side of a building angled toward the horizon in rapidly receding one-point
perspective (fig. 4.27). Hunt asserted that it was Lizzie Siddal, after discov-
ering the print in a Catholic bookstore, who first brought it to his attention
in the midst of his production. While Hunt denied having foreknowledge
of this work when painting his picture, and pointed out the differing ap-
proaches to the subject, it was impossible for him to deny the family like-
ness of the two works.
Recalling the primal influence of the Nazarenes
on the nascent Pre-Raphaelites and their perusal of prints by their dis-
ciples, it is highly probable that a previous view of Veit’s image (perhaps
subsequently forgotten) informed Hunt’s conception. What is crucial here,
however, is that the Nazarene composition was the work of a converted
Jew whose mother was the daughter of Moses Mendelssohn. Hunt’s work
differs primarily in heaping upon his work one symbolic attribute after
another, perhaps perceiving the stark simplicity and absence of Christian
emblems in the earlier treatment as “too Jewish” for comfort.
An Italian scholar in direct contact with the Pre-
Raphaelites, about whom he authored a pioneering
book, was profoundly affected by the eerie light and
sinister shadows of The Light of the World. He wrote
that it awed the spectator by its look “quasi di ter-
This association of the celebrated religious
painting with a mood of dread and horror must now
be considered in the context of Hunt’s personal psy-
chology and the “blaspheming Jew” of traditional
British anti-Semitic lore. It will be my contention
that The Light of the World may be traced in large part
to a recurring nightmare afflicting Hunt since child-
hood, and which helps explain the discrepancy be-
tween the title and stated biblical source.
The progression from Shylock to Fagin demon-
strates that the Jew as metaphor and social construct
persistently haunted the British imagination. James
Shapiro’s recent research gives several case studies of
Elizabethans plagued in their sleep by images of di-
abolical Jews.
The myth of Jewish ritual murder
of Gentile children remained as part of every Chris-
tian’s heritage, and high and low art portrayed Jews
much as people viewed them in their nightmares.
Maria Edgeworth’s six-year-old Harrington has
been so cowed into obedience by the threat of the
old-clothes man that every night he lay under the
bedcovers “in an indescribable agony of terror,” sur-
4.27 Philipp Veit, Christ Knock-
ing on the Door of the Soul, engrav-
ing by D. Rist, 1824. Städelsches
Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt-am-
305 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
rounded by visions of grinning, glaring, bearded Jewish faces carrying bags
“in which I fancied were mangled limbs of children.” Walking down East
London streets, Harrington imagines that in the dark narrow lanes of the
Jewish quarter children like him were being dragged down through trap
doors for secret feasts and “midnight abominations.”
As late as 1851, the
image of the monstrous old-clothes man with a bag slung over his shoulder
could be paraded in the popular magazine Punch to explain the contempo-
rary delinquency of English youth.
If in the case of Scott it may be said that he was more sympathetic
to Isaac of York than most of his readership, he nevertheless managed to
squeeze into the narrative of Ivanhoe all the fanatical beliefs that still sur-
rounded the “unbelieving” Jews in England. Scott, however, developed an
insight into the medieval conditions of Jewry that may have still been valid
in his own time. He notes that detestation of the Jew united the normally
factious Norman, Saxon, Dane, and Briton, providing them with the ex-
ternal enemy they needed to define their common religious center. Analo-
gously, the English obsession with the no more than 35,000 Jews in Great
Britain during the early Victorian era may have been related to the crisis
of the splintering and instability of the Church of England in this period.
The greatest opposition to Jewish civil rights came from the Anglican es-
tablishment, still reeling from the relief of Nonconformists and Roman
Catholics. Under these circumstances, maintaining Jewish disabilities and
demonizing Jews as the Other may have worked once again to supply the
common enemy that helped shore up the British sense of national identity.
The vicious anti-Jewish comments from the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel
Wilberforce, on 25 May 1848, smacked of medieval superstition and clearly
reflected his sense of threat.
As in the case of the Irish Catholics, differ-
ences were vastly exaggerated and distorted to bolster and reaffirm the nor-
mative values of the dominant society. Here again Jews and Catholics could
be fused in the popular imagination as the deviants against which Victorian
religious ideals could be measured.
The thirty-year debate on the Jewish Question was sounded as fre-
quently as the Condition of England Question and, unfolding from 1828 to
1860, coincided with the emerging Pre-Raphaelite generation. Their own
religious identity would have been forged within the crucible of the parlia-
mentary exchanges on Nonconformist, Roman Catholic, and Jewish dis-
abilities. Jewish emancipation would have fixed their attention if only for
their need to recover the sources of primitive Christianity.
The presence of Jews, however, cast into doubt the doctrine of Chris-
tian revelation (what anti-Semites projected as their “mockery” of Chris-
tian religion). Meanwhile, the Tractarian emphasis on “Early Christian”
history and the idea of the New Dispensation logically required the Jewish
connection. This is why Ruskin’s discussion of Tintoretto’s Annunciation,
which took place in a deteriorating house, so profoundly impressed Hunt:
he could read the ruins as a symbol of the collapsing “Jewish church,”
306 chapter four
which Joseph the Carpenter would rebuild on new foundations. Similarly,
in The Light of the World Jesus as the Divine Redeemer appears reincarnated
in the vestments of the Hebrew high priest.
In Maria Edgeworth’s Harrington, the shock of revelation of Simon the
Jew is accompanied by the sudden illumination of a lamplighter’s “blazing
torch.” Coincidentally, Hunt experienced a trauma in childhood relating
to a sudden flash of light in a claustrophobic space whose indelible impress
on his personality was felt vividly once more during the production of his
picture. Hunt recalled that in his childhood there was always one moment
of the day “full of awe” for him. This was after hours in the warehouse that
his father managed, when the entire building was cast “in ghostly dark-
ness” and his father, “armed with a bull’s-eye [a lantern with a circular
lens], descended into the cellars,”
traversing each winding to its remotest corner, and, ascending, proceeded stage
by stage, going slowly with every sense intent to make sure that nothing any-
where boded ill for the safety of the place. Every room, so lately palpitating with
energy, lively conference, and the bandying of quick retort and laughter, was
now silent as the void after a thunder-clap, and to my senses seemed as threaten-
ing; so that when my father, examining some newly arranged pile, shot a stream
of glaring light into the distant mystery, it was to my awed mind like the flash of
lightning of a searching eye from another world.
Hunt intimated that the remembrance of this daily event profoundly influ-
enced his imaginative life, and the convergence of the simile of “the flash of
a searching eye from another world” with the theme of his religious paint-
ing is particularly striking.
Hunt experienced similar moments of dread while working on the pic-
ture. One night he ventured out with his lantern to explore the landscape
and hut he wished to include in the picture, descending into a densely over-
grown area “where the objects commanding my sight were only those on
which the spoke rays of the lantern were shed.” As he dwelt on the hut’s
desolation, he pictured in his mind “the darkness of that inner chamber,
barred up by man and nature alike.” This in turn brought to mind a mem-
ory of “an altogether unexplained experience” that had occurred to him
five years earlier. He had arrived by the last train from London at the Ewell
Station when the stationmaster was closing his office and emerged with a
lantern to walk home. Hunt was delighted to accompany him for the light.
When they entered a dense thicket, Hunt cautioned him that some crea-
ture was advancing toward them. The two gradually grew more frightened
as the object turned into a tall man “wrapped in white drapery round the
head and down to the feet.” The appearance of this ghostly being paralyzed
Hunt and the stationmaster with fear. When Hunt wanted to borrow the
lantern to pursue the apparition as it passed in the thick darkness, his com-
panion refused.
307 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
Late in the autumn of 1851, when developing his composition, he paint-
ed on moonlit nights in a makeshift sentry box using candlelight to pick
out the subtleties of color. This nocturnal routine unnerved him, especially
since the avenue in front of the farm was believed to be haunted. At mid-
night, Hunt heard a new noise,
like the rustling of dead leaves . . . evidently coming nearer as I paused to listen,
but the road trodden by the thing of night was hidden from me. . . . The steps
had arrived at the face of the house, and now were turning aside to the orchard,
where soon indeed I could see a hundred yards off a mysterious presence. I
shouted out, “Tell me who you are.” A flash of light shot across the orchard, and
then with solemn step the village policeman approached. “I thought you were a
ghost,” I said. “Well to tell the truth, sir, that was what I thought of you.”
On another occasion, while residing in an ancient Paris hôtel, Hunt was
haunted by a recurring nightmare of horrific specters after he had extin-
guished the lights, and on the third night he was so unnerved by the cries
“It’s death, it’s death, it’s death!” that he resolved to leave Paris immedi-
The resemblance of these “ghostly” encounters to the haunting
memories of Hunt’s childhood points to The Light of the World as a means of
working through primal superstitions. The image of Christ with a lantern
blends in with the paternal figures of these ghostly episodes—his father, the
stationmaster, and the policeman—all of whom come searching for Hunt
with a light to rescue him from the nocturnal demons that haunt him.
There is an intriguing coda to Hunt’s episodes of nocturnal traumas,
again bearing upon the picture. Some years later, he and his wife decided
to visit his old studio on Cheyne Walk, where he had completed The Light
of the World. Hunt remembered that they made their way after dark, and
as they approached the old building and could see the “blank windows”
a mysterious feeling overcame him: “No sign of light and life could be
seen there, and all was dark and silent as we turned the corner to the side
entrance.” Hunt knocked at the door of the caretaker, but the sounds of
the rapping only echoed down “deserted chambers and untrodden stairs.”
Finally, one last forceful attempt brought the caretaker from across the
street, who had not expected them so soon and had neglected to bring
the key. Unable to open the door from the outside, he climbed the garden
wall, then withdrew the heavy bolts and chain. Hunt and his party were
then startled by the “strangeness” of the caretaker, who, “tall and upright,
stood in the void with a lantern in his left hand.” The astonished look on
their faces prompted this apology: “I could find no proper candlestick . . .
and as this old lantern happened to be handy . . . it will light you over the
house.” Hunt then observed: “Walking before us, he finally stood, lantern
in hand, in innocent ignorance of its fitness, in the very place where my
model had stood to receive the conflicting lights that expressed the mean-
ing of my picture.”
308 chapter four
Hunt, however, had undergone more than a déjà-vu experience. The
circumstances not only recapitulated the episodic encounters in his father’s
darkened warehouse but mingled them with his reminiscences of the cre-
ation of his picture. The incident distinctly linked these related memories
to the painting’s theme, with the caretaker suddenly appearing in the guise
of the Saviour carrying the lantern and unfastening a bolted and chained
door for the locked-out sinners on the other side. Thus the caretaker joined
the lengthy parade of Hunt’s phantasmal custodians, whose authority
seemed to conjure up primal guilt and fear of punishment while delivering
him from his nocturnal dread. Whence his personal relief gleaned from the
promise in St. John 8:12, which also served as the subtext of the picture: “I
am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness,
but shall have the light of life.”
The shadows that Hunt would dispel also relate to his childhood fears
of the “old-clothes man” who inhabited every British youth’s storehouse
of memories. In that cavernous warehouse of Hunt’s memory there were
fabrics and cotton goods stocked, and it may easily be imagined that the
cellar functioned as that mysterious zone where children were dragged
down in the old-clothes bag and feasted upon during midnight revels.
Hence the preternatural aspect of The Light of the World emerges out of the
weird amalgamation of Tractarian and Jewish symbolism that carried Hunt
to the edge of religious hysteria.
The Light of the World was dialectically linked to Hunt’s next major pic-
ture, the modern-life representation of The Awakening Conscience (fig. 4.28).
Even Ruskin’s interpretation of The Light of the World included the phrase
“awakening of the conscience” in connection with the approaching radi-
ance. Inspired by the theme of urban prostitution, its significance could be
understood as an expression of Hunt’s sexual fears displaced to the site of
the female body. Hunt claimed that he wanted a contemporary “material
counterpart” of the idea in The Light of the World, and chose as his comple-
mentary text Proverbs 25:20: “As he that taketh away a garment in cold
weather, and as vinegar upon nitre, so is he that singeth songs to an heavy
heart.” Hunt wished “to show how the still small voice speaks to a human
soul in the turmoil of life.”
Hunt’s final melodramatic idea takes the form of a kept woman sud-
denly recognizing the error of her ways under the impact of spiritual
insight. She rises abruptly from her callous lover’s lap as if startled into
consciousness, drawn magnetically to the light of revelation that illumines
her face and is symbolically represented by the springtime view reflected in
the mirror behind her. Hunt claimed that he had been initially inspired by
the episode in Dickens’s David Copperfield where Mr. Peggoty searches for
his niece Little Emily, who no longer feels at home in respectable society.
4.28 William Holman Hunt,
The Awakening Conscience, 1853–
1854. Tate Gallery, London.
310 chapter four
Hunt admitted visiting “different haunts of fallen girls to find a locality
suitable for the scene of the old mariner’s pursuing love.” His object was
not simply to illustrate a specific moment in the story, but to use in part
the idea of a loving seeker of a fallen child suddenly discovering the object
of his search. Emily’s repentance, sparked by memories of former days un-
der her uncle’s loving care, enabled Hunt to fill out his pictorial narrative
with the theme of “the willing conversion and instantaneous resolve for a
higher life” that he felt needed to be emphasized.
My understanding of Hunt’s first thought is that in The Light of the
World Christ comes knocking at the door, while in The Awakening Con-
science he shows us what happens on the other side in response to the knock.
He wished to depict a real-life example “in which the appeal of the spirit
of heavenly love calls a soul to abandon a lower life.”
Yet the presenta-
tion of the theme of redemption is shrouded in the same kind of ambiguity
as the response to the knock in The Light of the World, and it is precisely the
tension between redemptive possibility and spiritual unresponsiveness that
is tearing at Hunt’s own conscience in this period.
The biblical passages accompanying the title of the work in the Acad-
emy’s exhibition catalogue of 1854 obliquely confirmed the theme of re-
generative opportunities for the mortal sinner. The first was a homily taken
from the Wisdom of Ben-Sira (or in Latin, Ecclesiasticus), an apocryphal
book of the Old Testament: “As of the green leaves on a thick tree, some
fall and some grow; so is the generation of flesh and blood”; and the other,
an adaptation from Isaiah 35:3–4: “Strengthen ye the weak hands, and con-
firm the feeble knees. Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear
not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recom-
pence; he will come and save you.”
Reviewers typically greeted the painting with an admixture of ani-
mosity and perplexity. The Athenaeum’s critic stated that it was “heralded
in the catalogue by two mystical, irrelevant texts of Scripture,” and noted
that the picture
is drawn from a very dark and repulsive side of modern domestic life; but we
need scarcely say, is treated, in spite of strange heresies of taste and common
sense, with an earnest religious spirit, and, with a great, though mistaken, depth;
enigmatic in its title, it is understood by few of the exoteric visitors. . . . It rep-
resents a lady just risen from the piano, upon which lies a piece of music, and,
turning from a “fast man” who laughs fiendishly, looks at the spectator with pale
face, staring eyes, and clenched teeth. Innocent and unenlightened spectators
suppose it to represent a quarrel between a brother and sister: it literally repre-
sents the momentary remorse of a kept mistress, whose thoughts of lost virtue,
guilt, father, mother, and home have been aroused by a chance strain of music.
The author of “The Bridge of Sighs” could not have conceived a more painful-
looking face. The details of the picture, the reflection of the spring trees in the
mirror, the piano, the bronze under the lamp [the bronze clock on the piano is
311 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
under glass—but there seems to be no lamp], are wonderfully true, but the dull
indigoes and reds of the picture make it melancholy and appropriate, and not
pleasing in tone. The sentiment is of the Ernest Maltravers School: to those who
have an affinity for it, painful; to those who have not, repulsive.
Following his letter to the Times of 5 May, Ruskin proceeded to write a
second letter on 25 May defending The Awakening Conscience. Noting that
spectators at the exhibition “gaze at it in blank wonder, and leave it hope-
lessly,” he took it upon himself to clarify the narrative:
The poor girl has been sitting singing with her seducer; some chance words of
the song, “Oft in the stilly night,” have struck upon the numbed places in her
heart; she has started up in agony; he, not seeing her face, goes on singing, strik-
ing the keys carelessly with his gloved hand. I suppose that no one possessing the
slightest knowledge of expression could remain untouched by the countenance
of the lost girl, rent from its beauty into sudden horror; the lips half open, indis-
tinct in their purple quivering; the teeth set hard; the eyes filled with the fearful
light of futurity, and with tears of ancient days.
Ruskin took account of the excessively finished details and accessories that
may detract from the central thought and thus account in part for the be-
wildering impact on the viewers. Here his explanation reinforces my thesis
that Hunt’s hyperrealism has now assumed a transcendent function:
Nothing is more notable than the way in which even the most trivial objects
force themselves upon the attention of a mind which has been fevered by violent
and distressful excitement. They thrust themselves forward with a ghastly and
unendurable distinctness, as if they would compel the sufferer to count, or mea-
sure, or learn them by heart. . . . There is not a single object in all that room—
common, modern, vulgar . . . but it becomes tragical, if rightly read. That furni-
ture so carefully painted, even to the last vein of rosewood—is there nothing to
be learnt from that terrible lustre of it, from its fatal newness; nothing there that
has the old thoughts of home upon it, or that is ever to become a part of home?
Those embossed books, vain and useless—they also new—marked with no hap-
py wearing of beloved leaves; the torn and dying bird upon the floor; the gilded
tapestry, with the fowls of the air feeding on the ripened corn; the picture above
the fireplace, with its single drooping figure—the woman taken in adultery; nay,
the very hem of the poor girl’s dress, at which the painter has laboured so close-
ly, thread by thread, has story in it, if we think how soon its pure whiteness my
be soiled with dust and rain, her outcast feet flailing in the street.
Ruskin’s interpretation, however, barely touched on the prodigious ac-
cumulation of symbolic detail that reflects Hunt’s stress just prior to tak-
ing off for the Holy Land. He begins with the title of the song sheet on
the piano, “Oft, in the Stilly Night,” a poem set to a Scotch air by the Irish
312 chapter four
poet Thomas Moore. The opening stanza, which pricks the woman’s con-
science, contrasts memories of a stainless past with the actual miseries of
the present:
Oft, in the stilly night,
Ere Slumber’s chain has bound me,
Fond Memory brings the light
Of other days around me;
The smiles, the tears,
Of boyhood’s years,
The words of love then spoken;
The eyes that shone,
Now dimm’d and gone,
The cheerful hearts now broken!
Thus, in the stilly night,
Ere Slumber’s chain has bound me,
Sad Memory brings the light
Of other days around me.
The female victim has started up in a typical Victorian conceit, eyes wide
open, hands clenched in pained deformation. Her companion, who is clue-
less, continues to sing raucously (rather than laughs), oblivious to the reve-
lation that impels her to rise. His insensitivity is also vividly brought home
in his indifference to the content of the song. Meanwhile, on the floor in
the left-hand corner is another piece of sheet music rolled in a coil but with
the title partially exposed, a musical rendition of Tennyson’s elegiac lyric,
“Tears, Idle Tears,” in The Princess:
Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.
Set to music by Hunt’s friend Edward Lear, the verses show that the artist
himself was undergoing a nostalgic predilection for an earlier and guilt-
less time.
Ruskin especially called attention to the “fatal newness” of the acces-
sories, a mark of the mismatched couple’s social pretentiousness and mer-
etricious taste. Hunt would have found inspiration for this idea in recent
literature, including Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848), where the pretentious
Rawdon Crawley (who purchases a pair of kid gloves, sign of the aristoc-
racy) and Rebecca Sharp engage lodgings and install a new piano and lav-
ish bric-a-brac. Hence the corrupt present stands in glaring contrast to the
sense of the innocent past, when love was freely expressed through shared
313 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
feelings and not through the display and consumption of objects. And in
Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Ruth, when Bellingham takes the eponymous her-
oine to her old home, “She saw a vision of former days—an evening in the
days of her childhood; her father sitting in the ‘master’s corner’ near the
fire, sedately smoking his pipe, while he dreamily watched his wife and
child; her mother reading to her, as she sat on a little stool at her feet. It was
gone—all gone into the land of shadows.” Although this incident occurs
prior to Ruth’s seduction, it serves to contrast her present hard lot with her
idealized memories of childhood.
An artist perhaps inspired by this scene in Ruth, Thomas Brooks, sub-
mitted a work to the 1853 Royal Academy Exhibition entitled The Awak-
ened Conscience (fig. 4.29). The remarkable coincidence of the title of the
picture, the subject of the contrast of past purity with a disillusioned
present, and even the lines from Moore’s poetry in the exhibition cata-
logue with Hunt’s construction, attests to the Victorian obsession with the
theme of lost innocence. Brooks’s work depicts a man and woman visiting
the humble cottage of a large family, with the female looking longingly
upon the scene of the patriarch of the household teaching his young child
to pray. The review in the Illustrated London News described it in the fol-
lowing terms:
A group of more than ordinary, and at the same time painful, significance. What
may have been the previous history of the young female, and of her reckless
4.29 Thomas Brooks, The Awak-
ened Conscience, wood engraving
from Illustrated London News, 14
May 1853.
314 chapter four
companion, who are near the door of the honest yeoman’s home, where they
are receiving hospitality; why should she weep, and he scowl, at the sight of the
young child saying his prayers, the artist leaves us to imagine.
The reviewer concluded with the accompanying catalogue quotation from
none other than the poet Thomas Moore: “There was a time, thou blessed
child! / When young, and haply pure as thou, / look’d and pray’d like
thee—but now.”
Both Ruth and the female protagonist of Hunt’s picture feel eternally
trapped, and their escape takes place in the imagination through the sight
of flowers. Signs of entrapment are omnipresent in the painting, from the
claustrophobic space to the skeins of embroidery yarn on the carpet and
the wild-eyed cat below the table tormenting a bird. In Dombey and Son,
the catlike clerk, Carker, is described as always ready for a spring, a tear,
or a scratch, and Dickens raises the question: “Was there any bird in a
cage, that came in for a share of his regards?” Hunt noted that in recalling
the memory of her childhood environment, the woman resolves to break
with her clerk-lover and escape “from her gilded cage.” Even the luxuri-
ant paisley shawl fastened around her waist seems to restrict her move-
ment. But the sight of white spring blossoms and sprouting trees glimpsed
through the window (somewhat confusedly reflected in a mirror hanging
behind the couple) has inspired a recovery of a personal virginal spring-
time. Rather than confine as in Collins’s Convent Thoughts, here the garden
without represents liberation while the parlor within imprisons. Analo-
gously, Ruth as an orphan apprentice is assigned to the coldest and dark-
est corner in the dressmaker’s workroom, but her morale is sustained by a
series of panels painted with floral wreaths, including “white lilies, sacred
to the Virgin,” as well as “every flower which blooms profusely in charm-
ing old-fashioned country-gardens,” which reminds her of her childhood
As seen in the abundant literary allusions of the period, the trope of
seasonal change richly resonated with the Victorian mindset. The Athe-
naeum’s critic compared Hunt’s picture with Ernest Maltravers—a novel by
Bulwer-Lytton first published in 1837. In the novel, young Maltravers and
Alice Darvil hire a cottage, and they often spend time at the piano singing
together. Alice, raised by a rogue father, is naive in sexual matters, and,
eventually seduced by Maltravers, she has a child. The parallel movement
of the narrative is the tension between Maltraver’s “Conscience” and his
temptations and Alice’s late-blooming “Conscience.” Still pledged to one
another, the ebb and flow of their life together is marked symbolically by
seasonal changes: “Time went on, winter passed away, and the early spring,
with its flowers and sunshine, was like a mirror to their own youth.”
Hunt’s melodrama inscribes the onus of sexual guilt and sin on the
body of the woman. Although his friend Edward Lear wrote him in Octo-
ber 1853, “I think with you that it is an artificial lie that a woman should so
315 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
suffer and lose all, while he who led her [to] do so encounters no share of
evil from his acts,” Hunt clearly had mixed feelings about the recovery of
respectable social status for fallen women.
It is true, as Susan Casteras has
suggested, that since most Victorian images of sexual transgression made
the woman alone carry the burden of guilt, the mere presence of the male
paramour in Hunt’s picture at least pointed to shared responsibility for the
woman’s predicament.
He even describes the seducer as “the companion
of the girl’s fall.” Nevertheless, while Hunt’s protagonist rises symbolically
from her shameful station, she is held in suspense within a richly symbolic
field without clues to a positive outcome. The Athenaeum’s reviewer noted
that the author of “The Bridge of Sighs”—Thomas Hood’s popular em-
blem for the fatal destiny of whores—could not have conceived of a more
pained expression for the woman’s face (subsequently modified for the pa-
tron Thomas Fairbairn).
Thus Hunt created a modern Magdalen without the means to reclaim
her blameless status. This is a historically accurate perception of the condi-
tion of the penitent female, despite Victorian attempts to find a social solu-
tion for her recovery. The most effective route to take was that of Dickens’s
Little Emily, who emigrated to Australia to start a new life. The strategies
of those who protested society’s treatment of the fallen woman consisted
mainly of attacks on conventional Christianity. It is no coincidence that
Gaskell makes a “dissenting minister” the savior of Ruth, since ordinary
Christians were only too happy to condemn fallen women.
Hunt goes further than most in his abundant allusions, even to the
extent of marshalling contemporary sociological arguments about prosti-
tution, its causes, consequences, and remedies. The initial poverty of the
woman may have made her susceptible to the blandishments of the seduc-
er, expressed in her fashionable dress and musical accomplishments, which
also hint at her previous vanity and love of display. Meanwhile, the cheap-
looking parlor contrasts with a woman’s true domestic sphere, where she
might have known true fulfillment had she hewed to the straight and nar-
row. Finally, she takes it upon herself to supply the remedy in repenting
for her waywardness. An Evangelical slant is perhaps present in the por-
trayal of her paramour as a callous brute, a cat playing with a mouse.
Hunt certainly drew upon contemporary tracts on prostitution issu-
ing from Evangelical and Nonconformist circles. The influential research
of the surgeon William Tait, which would have been accessible to Hunt,
contained many useful suggestions for his picture. Tait notes that prosti-
tution deprives the female of the enjoyments and sympathies of society,
banishing from her mind “the thought of her father, mother, brothers and
sisters. Her conscience tells her that she is the outcast of the family, and
the cause of much vexation and grief to every member of it.” Gradually,
fallen women draw a contrast between former and present life, “but when
they look around for help, there is none to rescue them.” Tait stressed the
long-term effects of sin on the prostitute: “Everything which formerly
316 chapter four
rendered them attractive is completely banished. Every feature appears al-
tered in expression, and gives frightful indication of the writhings of an
agonized conscience.”
Typically, however, Tait reiterated the Victorian dictum that once a
woman lost her virginity and it was publicized there was no way back to
the society from whence she came: “Let an unfortunate female who has
seen the error of her ways propose to a more virtuous course of life, and
she is despised by those who formerly loaded her with kindness and atten-
tion.” Tait also attacked a “benevolent Christian public” whose hearts go
out to every other class of delinquents yet who remain obdurate and “un-
forgiving” toward the fallen woman. He called for more public support of
female penitent asylums and refuges, then meagerly subsidized by a society
that thought nothing of wasting fortunes on horse racing, foxhunting, and
Those who ran the “refuges,” halfway houses for modern Magdalens,
may have been sincere in their efforts, but they were entirely ineffective
in getting their charges reinstated in society. Sexuality had become a new
field for state power, and unregulated female sex threatened patriarchal au-
thority. The best the victims could do was to tough it out heroically by ac-
knowledging their sin openly and withstand the slings and arrows of their
tormentors. In the 1840s, Evangelicals, religious workers, and a few physi-
cians condemned male license, while defending patriarchal authority in the
family and state. The treatment advised for the fallen generally was repres-
sion, for though Evangelicals believed that individuals could be saved, for
them prostitutes had abandoned “the prerogatives of civil liberties.”
1844 reform bill on prostitution pushed by the Evangelicals failed in Parlia-
ment, even though clauses about permitting legal action against seducers
were dropped.
Owenite socialists offered an effective critique of the ambivalent stand
of the middle class on prostitution, seen in an 1841 article, “British Fe-
male Penitent Refuges,” published in their journal, New Moral World. They
claimed that “Refuges” were a hypocritical sop to Victorian society, for if
from the female armies of the night the old duffers snatch one victim, their
sons stand ready on the opposite side to replace the ranks with new recruits.
The article also observed that when women leave the refuge, they have lim-
ited options and remain as unprotected as before.
The Evangelicals in turn blamed the Owenites for encouraging pros-
titution by openly advocating the elimination of religion, property, and
conventional marriage through easy divorce—the very moral founda-
tions of Christian society. Popular lectures published that same decade on
what was called “Magdalenism,” or “the illicit intercourse of the sexes,”
were designed to combat Owen’s “beastly system” and “awaken” a spirit
of regeneration. The Reverend Ralph Wardlaw hoped that his publication
would “be the humble but chosen instrument of opening the eyes of many
to the error of their ways,” that it would
317 the pre-raphaelites and the 1848 revolutions
incline their steps to the paths of rectitude and virtue, and teach their hearts to
look from temporal into everlasting life; and if but one, who has hitherto been
a wanderer from the fold of her heavenly Father, shall turn from her evil ways,
and, after living in the enjoyment of virtue, and religion, and that peace of
mind which the world cannot take away, shall die with the hope of a glorious
resurrection into eternal life,—the aim of those who have watched over this
publication with anxious solicitude, will be fully answered.
Invoking the authority of Parent-Duchâtelet and Tait, Wardlaw distin-
guished several classes of Magdalenism, and among the varieties there were
“first of all, your kept mistresses;—and, these are of very various grades,
from the first-rate style of keeping down to the lowest; but, though vary-
ing in the scale of . . . gentility, all are alike in that of moral turpitude.”

Wardlaw contrasts an earlier time of promise in the lives of the fallen wom-
en with the wretchedness of their present circumstances:
I shall leave, in a great measure, to your own imaginations, the wounded honor,
the offended pride, the shame, the indignation, the grief, the pity, the bitterness
of disappointment in retracing the pleasing promises of the past, and the dreary,
heart-sinking blight of all that was cheering in the anticipations of the future;
—which are the inevitable results, when a daughter, or a sister, has strayed from
the paths of purity.
Wardlaw made it clear that once defiled, full recovery of former social sta-
tus is well-nigh impossible:
And even should that daughter, forsaking the paths of sin and shame, find her
way back to her abandoned and dishonored home, the very pleasure of her
return is but a “bitter-sweet”; the venom which the barbed arrow carried with
it to the heart, can never be thoroughly extracted; the very smile of parental love
is ever after a pensive smile, and is followed by the sigh and the tear of hidden
Wardlaw tried to put a happy face on the work of the female houses of
refuge, but his accounts of the low success rate of restoration and of the
unwillingness of employers to hire reformed prostitutes must have made
the prospect of remaining permanently confined to these asylums a worse
option than returning to the streets.
Although Wardlaw observed an increasing number of female seduc-
ers waiting to “ensnare” young men, he reserved his sharpest invective for
males who degrade women to the level of a mere instrument of “selfish and
sensual gratification”:
Let it no longer be—that, while the liar and the thief are hooted and hissed
out of society, the spoiler of virgin innocence—the mean and selfish robber of
318 chapter four
the weak and defenceless—woman’s robber of her most precious possession,
the pearl of her purity, and with it her peace, her self-respect, her character,
her reputable subsistence, her place in the esteem and affections of her former
friends, her prospects in the world, and, possibly and probably too, her health
and her life;—that this man should still be the gentleman and the man of
honor! Let him be branded as he deserves.
Not surprisingly, however, Wardlaw then addressed the males in his audi-
ence as the only potential saviors of the distaff side of the British popu-
lation. He reminded them that they were “the natural guardians of the
feebler sex . . . committed by Heaven to your protection.” He called upon
them, “as men,”
to stand forward on their behalf; to come with the shield of your protection
between them and danger; to prevent their degradation, and vindicate their
honor; to screen their purity from the putrid breath of pollution; to maintain
and elevate that of the community to which they belong.
Here Wardlaw expresses one of the central paradoxes of the Victorian
ideology of patriarchal authority—reinforcing the idea that women, as
sexually different and somehow vulnerable, needed the moral protection
and control of the same men who perpetuated the system that victimized
Hunt was himself entangled in this web of paradox at the time he paint-
ed his picture. Hunt always felt uncomfortable with respectable young
women from the cultivated class, but felt more at ease with the working-
class model who posed for the woman in The Awakening Conscience, Annie
Miller, a sexually active barmaid employed by the pub around the corner
from Hunt’s studio.
They worked intensely together for several months
and developed a close, if not yet intimate, relationship. While she posed,
Hunt lectured to her on the perniciousness of sex outside marriage—evi-
dently displacing his own guilty thoughts at the time he was working on
his painful subject. (Like the clerk, Hunt’s hair was copper-colored and
combed in waves on both sides of a part down the middle.) Hunt was deep-
ly attracted to Miller, the very type of female that he and his fellow Pre-
Raphaelites fantasized about rescuing, but, insecure about his own want
of culture, he had trouble negotiating her lower-class vulgarity, illitera-
cy, and profanity. Nevertheless, he dreamed of elevating her to a pedestal
through a rehabilitation program that he naively imagined would culmi-
nate in their