Théophile Silvestre's Histoire Des Artistes Vivants: Art Criticism and Photography

By Hannoosh, Michèle | The Art Bulletin, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Théophile Silvestre's Histoire Des Artistes Vivants: Art Criticism and Photography


Hannoosh, Michèle, The Art Bulletin


In its ambition and its novelty, Théophile Silvestre's Histoire des artistes vivants français et étrangers: Études d'après nature was arguably the most important large-scale project of contemporary art critical biography of the nineteenth century (Fig. 1). Originally meant to comprise one hundred installments on both French and foreign artists in a deluxe folio edition, the work ceased prematurely after having covered, between three separate editions produced within a space of three years, only eleven artists of the French school. What actually constituted Silvestre's work has long remained obscure, for the folio edition, which began to appear in July 1853, has been almost wholly lost; what we know of the project comes primarily through an inexpensive truncated edition published in 1856. The uncertainty of the corpus itself is noteworthy in a project that aimed to fix a "true" image of the artists and their works. Many of its chapters have nevertheless remained the founding, and sometimes the sole, account of a particular artist.1

Biography had been the primary form of art criticism since the Renaissance. In nineteenth-century France, it flourished in both popular and specialized forms, and by the late 1860s, as Nicholas Green has shown,2 had become a major element in the system of marketing art: the life of the artist promulgated an ideal of individualism that accompanied the growing individualization of the market (away from more generalized "luxury consumption"), and the speculative value of the work increased as the biography guaranteed the artist a place in history.3 Most art biography of this sort, however, was written after the death of the artist; as Green observes, the proliferation of biographies in the late 1860s occurred with the deaths of the major painters of the Romantic and Barbizon schools.4 The occasional biographies of living artists that appeared, notably in the periodical press, were mostly short pieces, often tied to an event such as an exhibition or sale.5 In its vast scope and its focus on the living artist, Silvestre's was already a fundamentally different kind of project. But it differed from these in more crucial ways, too. In both the project that it sought to realize and the fortunes it underwent, it concentrates many of the issues surrounding artistic biography and artistic identity at this formative period in the idea of the modern artist.

First, Silvestre's studies forgo the typological conventions of the genre (anecdotes, stereotypes of origin, of recognition of genius, of august patronage) in favor of direct quotation from the artists' conversations and writings, the latter largely unpublished and, for the most part, unknown.6 Silvestre interviewed his subjects and their friends, gained access to their notebooks and diaries, solicited their personal memoirs, letters, recollections, and opinions: he was the only one, for example, to read and exploit Delacroix's journals during the painter's lifetime. This method sometimes had scandalous results: reporting Horace Vernet's indiscretions about Ingres landed Silvestre in court. At the time, these accounts were meant to penetrate the private thought of public figures, in keeping with the vogue for personal biography in post-Revolutionary France. The biography of the artist, in particular, traditionally promised to reveal the nature of genius and the origins of creativity. In this context, Silvestre's "direct" approach sought to give a literal (and literary) "voice" to practitioners of the essentially "silent" visual arts, letting them speak for themselves in a dialogue with the critic or reader. "What true art-lover would not give," Silvestre asks rhetorically, "all the literary fantasies [that constitute the biographies of past artists], for a private conversation, for ten lines snatched from Michelangelo, Raphael, Holbein, Velasquez or Rembrandt?"7 Such a citational text aimed to clear away the "fables" and "fantasies" that, in conventional biographies, left the historical subject, and thus the true source of creativity, obscured in the shadows of myth. …

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