It was a strange Paris, that one. You do remember it: cholera was everything; it had absorbed everything, politics, uprisings, theater, intrigues. It was the whole of society, morality, belief, the end goal of every thought, the center of all activities.--Le Journal des Debats, 1832 (1)
In his diaries from Paris, the German poet Heinrich Heine recounts the outbreak of the great cholera epidemic in the spring of 1832:
Its arrival was officially announced on the 29th of March; and as this was the Mi-careme [mid-Lent], and a bright and sunny day, the Parisians swarmed more gaily than ever on the Boulevards, where masks were even seen mocking the fear of the cholera and the disease itself in off-color and misshapen caricature. That night, the balls were more crowded than ever; hilarious laughter all but drowned the louder music; one grew hot in the chahut, a fairly unequivocal dance, and gulped all kinds of ices and other cold drinks--when suddenly the merriest of the harlequins felt a chill in his legs, took off his mask, and to the amazement of all revealed a violet-blue face. It was soon discovered that this was no joke; the laughter died, and several wagonloads were driven directly from the ball to the Hotel-Dieu, the main hospital, where they arrived in their gaudy fancy dress and promptly died, too.... [T]hose dead were said to have been buried so fast that not even their checkered fool's clothes were taken off them; an d merrily as they lived they now lie in their graves. (2)
A blend of fact and fiction, of live reportage and surreal fantasy, Heine's chilling account--the source for Edgar Allan Poe's fantastic tales "King Pest" and "Mask of the Red Death"--may be read as a metaphor. His revelers, comedic puppets on strings swinging carefree on the stage of life, allude to pleasure-loving bourgeois society brutally shaken out of complacency by sudden and incommensurable calamity. Heine uses the trope of carnival, a parodic commentary on reason, order, and hierarchy, here scorned in turn by a higher force, a mightier sneer. The mask of his merry harlequin, suddenly struck by the disease, is overruled by the real-life mask of death imprinted on his unveiled face. To allude to this lethal confrontation, this terminal comedy of errors, Heine employs the language of irony and inversion. His account takes the form of a morbid satire.
Since its first appearance in the nineteenth century--in India, August 1817--cholera cast a pall over Europe. Every year the disease moved west, from southeastern Asia, in 1819, to China in 1820, and to Siberia in 1823. It was in Moscow by 1830, in Vienna and Berlin in 1831. It reached London in early 1832. France had been bracing against the epidemic since at least 1830, readying its hospitals, dispatching scientific teams to observe infected countries, and enforcing sanitary measures along its northeastern borders. But to no avail. The first cholera case was declared in Paris in March 1832. By April, the city's death toll was nearly 13,000. By September, when the epidemic finally subsided, Paris counted 18,000 victims, and France as a whole more than 100,000. (3) Contemporary accounts--Heine's is one of many--evoke the capital in the grip of terror: the stricken collapsing on the street; the dead wrapped in lime-soaked sacks piled up in the market places and squares; the hearses rattling their way to the co mmon graves day and night.
It is in the midst of this atmosphere of horror and death, sometime in 1832, that Eugene Delacroix painted his portrait of Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840), an image of the Italian violin virtuoso performing onstage (Fig. 1). Against a dark backdrop, invisible footlights pick out Paganini's lithe silhouette, sheathed in a formal black suit. Eyes closed, he appears wholly absorbed in the sounds arising from the violin cradled between his pale, gaunt face and fingers. But his body seems restless, its forms undulating as if under the impulse of muted inner rhythms. The hips are pushed in one direction, the legs in another. The left leg, flat and sinuous, extends forward to the tip of its elegant beribboned slipper, as if tapping time.
Despite its modest size--a mere 17 3/4 by 12 inches (45 by 30.4 centimeters)--the picture includes Paganini's entire vivid, febrile figure. In that respect, it differs from most contemporary lithographic portraits of the violinist, which show him bust-length, his piercing gaze riveted on the viewer (Fig. 2). Delacroix's effigy redirects our attention from the face with its downcast eyes to the whole of Paganini's agile body. This is also in marked contrast to Delacroix's other musical portrait, that of his friend Frederic Chopin, a sensitive, psychological close-up of the composer's brooding features (1838, Fig. 3). Instead, Paganini, especially by averting his gaze (and ours from his face), demands to be considered as a totality--body, face, and limbs in unison, constituted as a single expressive sign. To this end, Delacroix enlisted a number of compositional and technical strategies: the violinist stands alone against a neutral ground, extracted from the darkness as if by a spotlight. Essence and drama supe rsede concerns about verisimilitude or accuracy. Built with large, sweeping strokes, Paganini's forms are generalized and abstracted, free of confining naturalist precision and distracting narrative detail and unbound by restrictive outlines. Transformed into a burst of dematerialized energy, his figure swirls fluidly upward like a dark flame. To Chopin's pensive interiority, Paganini opposes his explosive physical vitality.
Scholars agree that the portrait most certainly relied on Delacroix's immediate impressions from attending at least one of Paganini's Paris engagements, the first of which took place on March 9 and 13, 1831, at the Academy of Music (or Grand Opera). (4) The concerts attracted the cream of the Romantic avant-garde: Heine, Franz Liszt, Theophile Gautier, Jules Janin, Charles Nodier, and George Sand were all present; Delacroix--a lover of music, especially Italian music and opera by composers such as Ferdinando Paer Giovanni Paesiello, Domenico Cimarosa, and Gioacchino Rossini--was undoubtedly among them as well. (5) The following year, from late March to early June 1832, Paganini was back in the French capital for a series of ten concerts. The first was on March 25, only days before the first cholera death was announced in Paris. On the eve of his second concert, on April 6, terrified ticket holders fleeing the city in fear of the epidemic stampeded the box office demanding their money back. Delacroix had been away in Morocco with the diplomatic mission of the comte de Mornay since January and would have missed this second round of performances. But he was in town for the maestro's third visit to Paris, with one concert on September 27, when the epidemic began to abate.
"Cholera was everything," declared the Journal des Debats. Cholera was indeed the defining factor of both the first years of the July Monarchy (1830-48) and of Paganini's brilliant premiere on the Parisian musical scene. In an age such as ours, when even terrifying epidemics are eventually contained, rationalized, and sanitized, if not entirely conquered, it is hard to imagine the magnitude and extent of the ravages of the 1832 epidemic on the social, political, and spiritual community, let alone the individual body, and especially to visualize its all too immediate, tangible, even audible horror and the individual's day-to-day raw exposure to it. (From his Paris apartment, Heine, for one, complained of being unable to write because of "the horrible cries of my neighbor who was dying of cholera." (6)) The disease disrupted all aspects of civil culture and swept the social imagination with a force equal only to that of revolutions. Like revolutions, too, it served as a potent generator of myth and metaphor. (7 ) Its gruesome realities, transposed to the related domains of ideology, politics, religion, and science, were invested with new meaning, reconstituted as moral allegories that captured and encapsulated overarching contemporary perceptions. The arts were inevitably drawn into the powerful epidemic vortex as well.
The purpose of this essay, therefore, is to explore the catalytic impact of cholera and its metaphoric mutations in the realm of aesthetics, more particularly, Romantic aesthetics. I use the persona of Paganini, real and constructed, and his portrayal by Delacroix as the emblematic pivot around which several key Romantic notions, up till then diffuse or bereft of focus, crystallized as a result of the atypical cultural field shaped by the disease. With Delacroix's painted evocation of the violinist as my point of departure, I inquire, for example, how the visual and ideological discourses forged by illness and death meshed with the Romantics' views on the relation between physicality, spirituality, and creativity, and how these in turn were symbolically incarnated in Paganini's largely fictionalized persona, textual as much as visual. Originated in a time of crisis, of structures and beliefs overturned or challenged, these views, I maintain, were steeped in the ironies of a parodic "world upside down," which forcefully erupted through the fissures of normative culture created by the traumatic cholera experience. Delacroix's portrait of Paganini bears witness to such altered and alternate reality. To record it, the painter resorted to a fittingly inverted representational vocabulary, in imagery and style, in which the sacred gave way to the profane, the ideal to the decadent, and earnest immediacy to parodic ambivalence. This counteraesthetic language dwelled in the diseased, the morbid, the horrific, the repulsive, and the uncanny, all of which fell under the blanket category of the grotesque, an aesthetic category that rose to legitimacy during the Romantic movement and which anticipated, in both its...