Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. 264 pp.; 4 color ills., 73 b/w. $45.00
These two eloquent studies are lucid theoretical investigations of French art circa the mid-19th century, centering on the later production of two artists, Delacroix and Meissonier. Both are concerned with these painters' relationships to artistic traditions; Hannoosh situates Delacroix's writings, primarily his Journal, in a fertile dialogue with past art theory, while Gotlieb positions Meissonier in a burdened struggle with the artistic accomplishments of the past. Both studies, then, consider the status of "cultural achievement" in the 19th century for their respective protagonists, although neither account is deeply concerned with conventional, politically freighted historical categories (July Monarchy, Second Empire, Third Republic). In different ways, modernist notions underpin both arguments.
It could be said that both studies redefine marginal productions in such a way as to demonstrate their meaningful and central relationship to what have been seen as more important artistic projects. Hannoosh argues that Delacroix's writing is not merely a subordinate text to his primary practice of painting; she sees it rather as the vehicle to pictorial invention and revelation about that painting, in its very form, furthermore, embodying Delacroix's views about painting's superiority over literature. Gotlieb writes about Meissonier, an outsider to the conventional story of modern art, using the very modernist tools of interpretation that have long served to preclude consideration of academic art. In that sense, both books have an underlying recuperative beat, but it is to their credit that in neither case does "celebration" carry the full force or significance of their arguments.
Michele Hannoosh's book serves as an interpretive prelude to her critical and annotated edition of Delacroix's Journal, soon to be published by Macula, the first new complete edition since Andre Joubin's three-volume version was published in 1931-32.(1) Her reexamination of the Journal has led to nuanced additions and corrections, including changes of dates and placement of portions of the text, the fruit of which becomes apparent in the current book. This scrupulous editorial examination of the original manuscripts lends her interpretive work here a particular and unique density, refreshingly distinct from the sweeping quality of many discussions of Delacroix's art theory and, indeed, of French pictorial Romanticism generally. Her extensive treatment makes vivid Delacroix's singularity as a painter who wrote so much.
As a literary scholar, Hannoosh is particularly well placed for this enterprise; she brings to her readings of Delacroix a wealth of comparative textual history that compellingly illuminates both broad themes and seemingly incidental passages. The importance of her text depends, however, not on its erudition alone, but also on its up-to-date interpretation of the relation between word and image in Delacroix's writings and art, its main preoccupation. In general, current, interpretive work on this artist is sorely needed. The last major assessment of his work appeared in 1970; Lee Johnson has since published a tremendously useful and informative multivolume critical catalogue. But by and large, reassessments of 19th-century art have yielded little reinterpretation of Delacroix.(2) And while there has been work on Delacroix's writings on art, it has not been involved with the word-and-image nexus Hannoosh sets up; previous scholarship on Delacroix's art theory predates the theoretical inroads that enrich her study. Finally, the late career of Delacroix, to which the bulk of the journal belongs, has been particularly resistant to analysis, as it falls outside the conventional frames by which Romanticism has been examined (and essentialized): this older artist is the Delacroix of the stuffy Nadar photograph, the politically reactionary Delacroix, Delacroix the academician.
The main thesis of the book is that Delacroix was preoccupied with a dialogue between painting and writing; that Delacroix sets out the rivalry in new form, creating a kind of painterly writing, and challenges, in his writing as in his painting, the literary dominance in French painting tradition. (Happily, Hannoosh never reduces this tension to an easy dichotomy of Romanticism versus Neoclassicism, a cliche of much of the Delacroix literature.) Half of the six chapters deal with Delacroix's writings, mostly from the Journal, with one chapter devoted to the project for the Dictionnaire des Beaux-Arts (which was sketched out in the journal). The other three carry the argument about antinarrative structures into readings of four of Delacroix's decorative cycles, the libraries of the Bourbon and Luxembourg palaces, the Apollo Gallery at the Louvre, and the Chapel of the Holy Angels at the church of St-Sulpice.
The most interesting sections of Hannoosh's book reveal the dynamic relations between text and image for Delacroix. Her analysis is structural and thematic. She asks what writing gives the painter; in other words, she takes Delacroix seriously as a writer. "By its liberating separateness," she states, "writing became the space of reflection, and perhaps even transformation, for painting" (p. 20). She contradicts previous treatments that implicitly posited an unproblematic transparency of writing to painting, seeing the writing as a mirror of the painting or as its neutral, explanatory key. To begin with, Hannoosh points to the significance of the journal form itself: the journal as a genre of writing, in its "wayward temporality," its fragmentation, disunity, and contradictory points of view, counters the linear seamlessness of narrative and, in that sense, embodies Delacroix's pictorial enterprise. As Hannoosh says, "it responds to Delacroix's search for a 'painter's' writing, adequate to a 'pictorial' vision of the world. In so doing, it reflects a particular notion of art, and of time, experience, and history too" (p. 6). Furthermore, Delacroix does not conceive of the journal in conventional terms, the author shows, as a storehouse of memories enclosing the past, but (in...