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Nineteenth-Century European Art. A Topical Dictionary.

Nineteenth-Century European Art. A Topical Dictionary. By Terry W. Strieter.

London: Aldwych Press, 1999. Pp. x + 300.[pounds]75.00.

This is a reference-book which begs many questions, starting with what one gets for its astonishing price. It claims to be 'a survey, arranged alphabetically, of the major art movements, works of art (notably in painting and sculpture), art themes, people, and events of the period from 1789 to 1914' (p. vii). There is also an avowed emphasis on France, justified by the fact that so many expatriates gravitated towards its capital or took home with them 'the strong brew of Paris' (p. ix). What remains unclear are the informing principles of selection or the kind of user for whom the entries are written. Nor is it merely the choice of individual works which sometimes seems arbitrary. We find an entry devoted to Monet's singular Rouen Cathedral at Sunset (p. 214) rather than to his serial experiments. Frith's Derby Day (1858) gets a mention, but not the painter himself. If Monet's Rue Montorgeuil is now in the Musee d'Orsay, Manet's masterpieces are here located in the Louvre, 'considered to house the nation's be st collection' (p. 131; my italics). While Olympia's indexing of the High Renaissance is acknowledged, we learn of Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe only that it was sold in 1873 to a baritone at the Paris Opera and that it 'seems to be moving us towards the instantaneous capturing of everyday events in their simplest forms, what would later be called the Impressionist school' (p. 55). The latter was apparently established in the mid 1860s and 'ignored by the bewildered public until about 1890' (p. 110). If Manet's Nana (1877) was rejected by the Salon jury because 'Victorian hypocrisy could not be so brazenly and publicly condoned', it does not seem entirely logical that the 'canvas was consequently displayed in a suave gallery' (p. 156). More seriously, one learns nothing of the graphic artist in the entry for Victor Hugo, described as 'the foremost writer since Shakespeare' (p. 105). Courbet's three submissions to the Salon of 1850 make him 'a revolutionary socialist' (p. 48). We can only be grateful that all those graduate students helping Professor Strieter never came across L'Origine du monde. Courbet's Atelier du peintre 'turned out to be a covert attack on Emperor Napoleon III': 'obviously a man with an immense ego, the painter has taken over an enormous space to offer, among other things, his own conviction of a perfect artist and social cosmos where he is the center and, indeed, the exclusive architect' (pp. 171-2). Cezanne, by contrast, was 'a shy and retiring man' who 'suffered from diabetes after 1890' (p. 37).

Seldom has a 'dictionary' been so judgemental in other ways too. Louis Leroy gets a paragraph in recognition of his abuse of the term Impressionist in Le Charivari of 25 April 1874; seminal critics like Castagnary and Laforgue are nowhere to be found. Apollinaire, Huysmans, Mallarme and even Pierre Loti figure amongst the writers juxtaposed to the visual arts. Zola gets passing mention only in other people's potted biographies and under Manet's 1868 portrait of his championing art-critic. But there is clearly an eccentric hierarchy informing a survey which has room for Emily Osborn's Nameless and Friendless (1857) at the expense of Sisley, Pissarro, Vuillard and Toulouse-Lautrec. This is equally true of some of the details included. Camille Doncieux (Monet's future wife) gets a whole page to herself, having survived those 'hard times' when she and her illegitimate son 'did not have coal for heat' (p. 58). Notwithstanding the fact that 'the sculptor also had occasional affairs with other models', Rose Beuret squeezes out Camille Claudel 'whose turbulent relationship with Rodin became the subject of novels and at least one film in the 1980s and 1990s' (p. 24). We can hardly argue with Curvilinear ('Said of a design that consists of curved lines', p. 51). More problematic is the definition of Romantic Symbolism as 'an artistic movement' (p. 213) embracing Moreau, Redon and Puivis de Chavannes. But the notion of a Lorette being a 'call-girl' (p. 127) may force us to rethink the history of the telephone. It is good to know that the author of this compilation received institutional support for the project in the shape of 'reduced teaching loads and avoidance of heavy committtee assignments' (p. viii). Advertised in the Introduction, however, there is the bad news that his publishers will soon be bringing out a companion volume on twentieth-century European art.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Journal of European Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1999
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