When about 1855-1857 Claude Monet, still in his teens, first acquired a few rudimentary ideas about the art of painting, what was the position of that art in France? What were the obstacles a young, imaginative painter might be expected to come up against?
The Old Masters had one by one receded into a limbo remote from contemporary life, and with them had receded certain strictly compositional problems. This was all to the good: the role of academicism, ineluctably, in every age, is that of devouring its own offspring and thereby disqualifying, for an indeterminate period, a number of principles which, none the less, had proved their validity.
A heated controversy was about to lose its virulence and pass into history. The antagonists were, on the one hand, a (figuratively speaking) blind devotee of Raphael and pictorial conventions deriving almost entirely from the externals of his art; on the other, a thoroughpaced "romantic," an ardent admirer of Rubens and the 16th-century Venetians. For the one, perfection of line was all that mattered; he regarded color as mere "filling," little more than an accessory of flawless draftsmanship. For the other, the splendors of color were the be-all and end-all of painting; line was merely hinted at. In practice, needless to say, the first was a highly skillful colorist and the second a draftsman of great verve and acumen. The Cubists were later to pay homage to the first, whose work, in their eyes, anthologized the wonders that could be done with planes and lines. But, pending the advent of Cubism, it . . .