Theophile Silvestre's Histoire des artistes vivants: art criticism and photography.

Author:Hannoosh, Michele
Position:Critical essay

In its ambition and its novelty, Theophile Silvestre's Histoire des artistes vivants francais et etrangers: Etudes d'apres 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. Yet this "naturalist" thrust was hardly naive: Silvestre understood the complexities, and the techniques, of representation, as we shall see. That the artists' "own words" are chosen, cropped, framed, assembled, even commented on by the critic is presented as wholly consistent with, even necessary for, "truth."

Second, in this critical period of mechanical reproduction, Silvestre grasped the full potential of the new technologies. His was the first publication of its sort to reproduce contemporary paintings through photography, which had been previously thought inadequate to the task: the folio edition was accompanied by actual photographs taken directly from the original works and not, as was usually the case, from engravings of them. (8) The extent of this challenge was signaled in the prospectus: "It was claimed that photography, despite the progress it has continued to make and the results it has obtained, was limited to the easy reproduction of portraits, natural sites, engravings, etchings, drawings, sculptures and monuments; but it was forbidden to dare even to approach works of painting." (9) And in meeting it, the photographers were equated to artists: "Thanks to his perseverance, and to the noble participation of the best artists, long dedicated to the harshest experiments, to the most subtle manipulations, the author ... has at last achieved his goal. The greatest difficulties inherent in the photographic reproduction of paintings have been overcome." (10) In addition, Silvestre included with each biography a photograph of the artist--another "first"--thus adding to the written portrait a visual one that would become an integral part of the artist's persona. (11) These calotypes, salt paper prints from paper negatives, were produced by some of the finest photographers of the time: Edouard Baldus, Louis-Auguste and Auguste-Rosalie Bisson, Henry Le Secq, Victor Laisne, Emile Defonds, perhaps Gustave Le Gray. (12) They are outstanding examples of the calotype process, with its characteristic softness, suppression of detail, and uncluttered composition, in contrast to the hard, clear precision of the earlier daguerreotype or the emerging collodion process. (13) The prominence given to the new medium reflects the valorization of photography in this work; significantly, the original subtitle included photographers among the artists to be treated in it.


Photography was not just a means of reproduction or an art form to be included as a subject: it was also a figure of representation. Silvestre conceived his special form of critical biography in terms of the photographic process, sustaining an elaborate photographic metaphor throughout his methodological exposes. This does not mean "impersonal" or "uncontroversial"--quite the contrary, as we shall see. Instead, images and text, joined through a common "photographic" aesthetic whereby reality represents itself directly, collaborate in ensuring the "veracity" of the account. (14) Such an approach was imperative in this case; with the artist still in the prime of life, the oeuvre necessarily unfinished, the judgment of posterity still a long way off, the history of the living artist, lacking the end points by which the art historical narrative was usually constructed, would not presume to present a definitive judgment--but it could put before the eyes of the reader the whole range of "living" evidence. For Silvestre, the lack of such a work about artists of the past is an unbridgeable gap, one that condemns us to "fables and stories" and also means that we may be ever denied the possibility of truth. For the decisive factor in the formation of character, as he sees it, is utterly unpredictable, sometimes completely banal, and might be lost in the historical record: "The greatest vocation might have been determined in [the artist], perhaps, by such an apparently trivial circumstance that a historian might never have been able to discover it." (15) The photographic approach in image and text might hope to record this transient moment, this instantaneous, unnoticed truth at the basis of the historical subject.

Third, Silvestre's publication, blurring the line between personality and oeuvre, between biography and autobiography, and between the "image" and the "reality" of the artist, could not long remain uncontested: in April 1856 he was sued by one of his subjects, Horace Vernet, for misrepresentation and unauthorized use of original materials. This was a trial about the control of one's image and story, raising all the questions that continue to inform trials of celebrities today. Such a controversy was indeed inherent in the "photographic" approach itself; having the artists speak "for themselves" made them not only authors of their "own" image and story but also participants, willing or not, in the creation of a public image and story, beyond their control, which had the aura of truth. The artist could henceforth be interpreted like the oeuvre, and the controversy would rage no less fiercely. The trial of the Histoire des artistes vivants was that of art criticism under the new representational regime of photography.

The conception of the artist that emerges from this work is consistent with the critical project itself: the artist is studied as a "whole" character, in terms of life, work, thought, temperament, and physical appearance. The material publication supported this conception: in addition to direct quotations and photographs, Silvestre planned to include facsimiles of the signature, handwriting, and/or monogram of the artist, a catalog of the oeuvre complete with buyers and prices, a list of salons at which each exhibited, and an inventory of prizes and honors received. While the "whole" character, the merging of life and work, the mixture of physical and moral...

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