By the sword and the plow: Theodore Chasseriau's Cour des Comptes murals and Algeria.

Author:Miller, Peter Benson

On May 23, 1871, the Palais d'Orsay was ravaged by a fire during the wave of incendiary violence set off by the popular uprising in Paris following the Franco-Prussian War. As the seat of two powerful government agencies, the Cour des Comptes and the Conseil d'Etat, the Palais d'Orsay became a target of the Communards' iconoclastic rampage claiming monuments associated with the autocratic regime of Napoleon III. A further casualty of the conflagration was the mural cycle painted by Theodore Chasseriau between 1844 and 1848 along the grand staircase leading to the Cour des Comptes, the institution charged with the regulation of government expenditures. (1) Those fragments of Chasseriau's program initially spared remained exposed to the elements for almost three decades while officials argued over the fate of the gutted building (Fig. 1). (2) As a result, the posthumous fame of Chasseriau's murals became inextricably bound to the renown of the picturesque modern ruin in the heart of Paris. (3) To some, the vestiges of these paintings--often called frescoes, but actually oil and encaustic applied directly to dry plaster--resembled the remnants of a Roman decorative cycle. (4) Maurice Denis wrote in 1902, "The fate of this great work in its crumbled ruins has rendered even more evident the real analogies between Chasseriau's art and the antique frescoes rediscovered in the ruins of Pompeii." (5)

Paradoxically, the deterioration of Chasseriau's decor provides an avenue to reconstruct the experience that the artist engineered for his contemporaries at the Cour des Comptes. An august classicizing style shaped the contours of an allegorical program arrayed over an expanse of more than four hundred square meters (almost three thousand square feet) featuring, principally, the personifications of Peace, War, Commerce, Force, and Order (Fig. 2). (6) An antique paradigm guided Chasseriau's choice of allegory, just as it structured the reactions to the cycle in ruins. Indeed, its archetypes pervaded many aspects of mid-nineteenth-century art criticism, particularly those arguments championing mural painting. A classical model also drove public discourse about the conquest and colonization of Algeria, the so-called African question, throughout the course of the July Monarchy. Interrogating the convergence of the various uses of this paradigm at the Cour des Comptes and the political context surrounding the African question in the 1840s offers a road map to track how Chasseriau's allegories, in a program devised by the artist himself, resonated with references to the Algerian campaign and contested plans for the development of the French colony launched by the military in 1830. (7) Due in part to the legacy of modernism, the prestige of easel painting, and the authority of social art history, however, the examination of the ways that mural paintings convey meaning in concert with their architectural context has been all too rare in the study of nineteenth-century art. (8) By redressing this gap and exploring the function of monumental imagery and allegory during the July Monarchy, we can gain insight into the way visual representation was harnessed to political discourse.

The circumstances surrounding the commission and the function of the Cour des Comptes reinforce the status granted to Algeria and its politics as a frame of reference in Chasserian's conception of the project. After his pursuit of the project through the usual administrative channels stalled, he had his brother Frederic Chasseriau--an official in the Ministry of the Navy and of the Colonies and the principal aide to Admiral Victor-Guy Duperre, who led the marine invasion of Algiers in 1830--press his case with the influential statesman and parliamentary deputy Alexis de Tocqueville. (9) The latter, who was instrumental in securing the commission, was also one of the best-informed and most authoritative voices in the development of Algerian policy. While he had reservations about certain initiatives. Tocqueville wrote in his 1847 Rapports sur l'Algerie that "our domination in Africa should be firmly maintained." (10)

A member of a special commission created in 1842 to examine the Algerian problem. Tocqueville intervened in the contentious debate that erupted in the National Assembly in June 1846 concerning the funds allotted to the African campaign. Because of its accounting and regulatory responsibilites, the Cour des Comptes was integral to the polemics generated by the uneven results of the costly war effort. (11) Discussions about the government expenditure in Algeria continued up to the collapse of the July Monarchy and the unveiling of Chasseriau's decorations in 1848. In light of Tocqueville's decisive role in obtaining the commission, his long-standing involvement in Algerian affairs, and his participation in budgetary battles concerning the ongoing conquest, the timing of Chasseriau's three-month voyage to Algeria, from May to July 1846, in the midst of his work on the Cour des Comptes, seems hardly fortuitous.

Reformulating Allegory

Among the institutional constraints governing Chasseriau's cycle were two interrelated agendas with significant investments in the decoration of public spaces. The first, manifest in the number of government commissions between 1830 and 1848, was the use of mural painting to spell out the goals of Louis Philippe's constitutional monarchy. The second was the call from critics and arts administrators for a reinvigorated monumental art expressive of high-minded civic values. Decorative cycles from the ancient world were integral to these arguments, as both an aesthetic standard and a model for art in tune with public concerns. Invoking examples from Athens and Rome, voices from across the political spectrum demanded that murals regain their social agency, the power to educate and unify a national polity riven by factionalism and self-interest. (12) The grandeur of the French nation required artists to set aside their squabbles and contribute selflessly to the collective good. Convinced that civic spaces were the most ennobling and accessible venue for art--"salons of the people"--poet and arts administrator Louis de Ronchaud lobbied in 1847 for a didactic monumental art galvanizing a collective national spirit. (13)


In attempting to gauge Chasseriau's response to this challenge, we must contend with his use of allegory. With its emphasis on personification and topical allusion, allegory has a long association with political discourse. (14) During the French Revolution allegory was revived as a vehicle to express the events and values of contemporary history. (15) As Craig Owens points out, French history painting relied on allegory to portray "the present in terms of the classical past." (16) Rather than examine allegory within modernism, as Owens does, we propose it as a viable means of pictorial communication in Paris during the July Monarchy. The question is considered synchronically as opposed to diachronically along a genealogical trajectory beginning with Gustave Courbet, which necessarily consigns the grand manner history painting practiced by Chasseriau to the margins. By the mid-nineteenth century, allegorical visual codes were increasingly beyond the reach of most viewers. (17) Republican critic Theophile Thore complained repeatedly that allegory was made up of "hieroglyphic characters" whose meanings were available only to an erudite few. (18) As such, it was unable to convey meaning to a broad public and effect national consensus. Nevertheless, aesthetic conventions stipulated that allegory was the only appropriate format for buildings that critics envisioned as the nexus of a new collectivity. (19) Those artists who took on the assignment were wedged between conflicting demands; called on to produce edifying civic temples, they had to work within a system ill-equipped to impart legible messages.


Obviously, not all painters accepted the brief. As the headquarters of a government agency with restricted access to the public, the Cour des Comptes was perhaps not the ideal forum that the more republican critics had in mind when they demanded mural paintings for "salons of the people." Moreover, Chasseriau's chief spokesperson, Theophile Gautier, was the exponent of a formalist criticism--"art for art's sake"--that insisted on the autonomy of painting from political expression. Yet mural painting had a status apart in Gautier's reviews; he accorded it more of an integral role in the social fabric than he allowed for works on canvas. (20) We also must be careful not to overestimate Chasseriau's social engagement; he certainly did not espouse radical political views. Keeping these qualifications in mind, we may nonetheless proceed in opening Chasseriau's allegories to interpretation.

For our purposes, the notion of allegory as an airtight code with limited one-to-one correspondences is of little use in exploring the Cour des Comptes murals. Public art envisioned by midcentury critics required that allegory communicate effectively. Moreover, an architectural context shapes and produces meaning differently than do easel paintings. Deployed in three dimensions, allegory could rely on the narrative created by the sequential progression of images and the dialogue between them. Meaning resulted as much from the way allegory addressed and incorporated its viewers moving through space as it did through the associations triggered by the subjects represented. In this sense, Angus Fletcher's model of an allegorical narrative style is tailored to paintings viewed in an architectural context: "emblematic, isolated, mosaic imagery; the paratactic order; the ritual that accompanies religious observance; the lack of perspective that would create a mimetic world." (21) Fletcher's notion of ritual animating allegory and linking its isolated thematic units will help us move up the...

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