All last week my students were urging me to watch a television programme on women artists. But I seldom subject myself to the moronic inferno of television, and if I did I suspect the subject of this short post wouldn't be mentioned in this programme.
Clément Boulanger, née Marie- Élizabeth Blavot, later Madame Edmund Cavé is not a name well known to even art historians, let alone the general public. By all accounts her painting wasn't memorable, and if she is recalled to the mind of art history today, it is for her books on painting: in 1850 she published Les Dessins sans maitre (Drawing without a Teacher) which attracted attention, especially from artists of the calibre of Delacroix and Ingres. They had other reasons too: she was a very beautiful woman and turned heads. Her beauty is captured in this lovely oil sketch by Ingres (Met, New York link) which may have been done in 1831 when she married her cousin, Boulanger who was a pupil of the great draughtsman.. After her first husband died, she re-married, her husband Edmund de Cavé, the Director of Fine Arts in 1843. Mme de Cavé had a brief liaison with Delacroix, and though it ended quickly they remained firm friends; she continued to assist him in his career. As the spouse of the Director of Fine Arts, she was an important figure to cultivate, though one wit said that she was the Director of Fine Arts, not her husband who seems to have been unpopular with intellectuals and writers because of his censorship; he was also criticised for the use he made of his position to advance his wife’s career.Delacroix kept a diary and in it we meet this couple: there is a visit to Edmund's house where Delacroix notes the Director is recovering from an attack by his dog! Delacroix was fond of him though; in 1852 he records his sorrow at Monsieur Cave's burial.
Delacroix was very impressed by Mme de Cave's writings and fulsomely and frequently praises them, including her book on watercolours. Her remark about mind speaking to mind instead of knowledge speaking to knowledge helped Delacroix to formulate his ideas on portraiture, a genre that was something of a sideline to him, though he was very skilled at capturing a personality in paint, or on paper; the delightful vignettes of his social world in his Journal attest to that. For Delacroix, painting is overall a bridge from the work to the spectator, not an exercise in cold accuracy.
We have one self-portrait, probably done in the late 1830s: (location unknown) the artist shows herself painting at her easel; intriguingly, the emerging figure on the canvas has the look of one of Delacroix's oriental figures, though they didn’t meet until the 1840s. According to a catalogue of an exhibition of Ingres’s portraits held in New York (no. 123 link), her hair style in this self-portrait is based on Leonardo's "La Belle Ferronière”. This seems plausible; the portrait was in the Louvre and it was considered a fine example of the renaissance portrait.
I haven't been able to locate a pastel that Delacroix drew of her about 1846, probably in a private collection in Paris; but there is a drawing (link) thought to be of her at Harvard. Though some say this figure resembles the famous actress Rachel, the hair style matches Mme Cavé's, and I think it is her likeness. The pose of the woman in the Harvard drawing resembles that of Cleopatra in Delacroix's famous painting, Cleopatra and the Peasant, shown in the Salon of 1859. Could Mme Cavé have been the model for Cleopatra? She probably is the model for some of the beautiful women in Ingres's work too.Unsurprisingly Mme de Cavé knew many beauty secrets. She reprinted the recipe for cold cream, though she insisted that she had obtained it from Delacroix, who in turn got it from the famous performer. Mademoiselle de Mars.
After the fall of the Empire, Mme de Cavé retired to Versailles, publishing her last book, on religion in 1875. I may be wrong about her not appearing in this programme on women artists,- but I would be very surprised if she did.
Although literary texts were referred to as 'classical' at the time, artists and architecture were diligently studying the damaged artworks of antiquity. They did not call their models 'classical' but they spoke with reverence of of the ancients. They knew Roman works and cherished the hope of discovering Greek works which Latin sources themselves acknowledged as superior. Occasionally these early modern artists and architects would consider sculpture of the highest quality to be of 'Greek chisel', and were universally and deeply moved by the discovery of the Greek Laocoön amongst the ruins of Rome (1506).
My reading this week has been Salvatore Settis's little essay, The Future of the "Classical" from which the above extract is taken. In this essay, Settis wrestles with the role of classicism- and its variants- within our own civilization today; he also deals with the concept of the "classical" as viewed throughout history. During his chapter 'The Classical Before Classical Antiquity, the author mentions Poussin and his patron, Cassiano dal Pozzo, which inspired me to set down some observations on Poussin and the "classical" using Settis's observations as a framework.
What I found most interesting in this book was Settis's discussion of the evolution of the view that Greek and Roman art were different, and the implications of that for interpreting Poussin's attitude towards the ancient world. It wasn't until the the age of the German scholar Winckelmann that the distinction between Greek and Roman became part of the lingua franca of the educated scholar. During this era, Joshua Reynolds described Poussin as possessing " a mind naturalized in antiquity" and Reynolds was formulating ideas on Poussin's art at a time when this sharp distinction was being made between the Greeks and the Romans. But as Settis reminds us, the situation was more complex: notions of morality and conduct were extracted from both Roman and Greek culture which found their way into the society and debates of the Enlightenment.
Poussin was not unaware of the overlap of Greek and Roman ideals, but only through literature; he had read Plutarch's Lives of the Greeks and Romans in a French translation, and that is partly why both Greek and Roman subjects feature in his art. As to the impact of the Greek and Roman issue on visual art, despite the fact that Poussin praises the Greeks as the inventors of everything beautiful, this is not proof of an archaeological formula in which the Romans are seen as the artistic inferiors of the Greeks. In his famous monograph Blunt maintained that "the distinction between Greek and Roman art was of fundamental importance." The problem here- which Blunt noted- was that Poussin gained his knowledge of Greek art from reading Latin texts- or being told about them since he probably couldn't read Latin- which as noted by Settis proclaimed Greek art superior to Roman. It is clear that Blunt was faltering in his argument himself since he weakly concluded that the ancient art Poussin is known to have admired could be "classified as Greek in one sense or another." The examples he presented in his book are some of the least impressive statues he could have chosen despite their Greek costume.
As for the Roman case, why then are there lots of drawings after Roman sculpture like Trajan's Column? These sheets are particularly interesting, and all the more astounding when one realises that they could be based on engravings of the monument. The printmaker fossilised the Romans, but Poussin brought them back to life. Such sheets as the priests and soldiers drawing at Chantilly seem to bear out what Settis says about Poussin's attitude towards drawing the antique: it is to observe the disposition of figures; the copying of drapery from classical statues, motivated by a need to achieve convenevolezza- suitability. An effect of this is that figures on the sheet are disposed to achieve a beautiful rather than archaeological effect. The artist arranges the fragments after the antique to achieve a montage like effect; the mise en page is totally original and about as far from academic dryness as one can get. For another example, note how Poussin places objects from different contexts like battle standards, ship's prows, fragments of altars, shields, to create a striking impression.
Long before antiquarianism became codified and prescriptive in nature, Poussin was divining the beauty of the ancients in the sculpture around him in Rome. And even if he did copy some of the sculptures that Blunt mentions in that city, these are still lacklustre Roman copies of lost Greek originals, which, fortunately, Poussin empties of stiffness and formality, and instead imbues with a grace and dignity that is appealing to the eye rather than edifying to the learned mind. What I would add to Settis's account is that Poussin studies has not really considered the role of neo-Platonism in Poussin's art, though Erwin Panofsky drew attention to its significance in his book, Idea.
Poussin's convenevolezza in these drawings hints at a realm beyond: an ideal of form, structure and disposition all shaped by the "divine" hand of the painter. We should not be surprised by the scarcity of neo-Platonic accounts : the frost of Stoicism has settled on the ground of Poussin studies and will not be vanquished easily. We are told that the painter studied antiquity because he wanted to impart a moralistic, stern, "gravitas" to his compositions. While he certainly would have garnered notions of duty and morality from reading such literary sources as Plutarch's Life of Scipio, or Valerius Maximus, from whom he takes an episode for a lost painting: “Scipio and the Pirates” where a perceived ambush turns into an act of homage- he achieves far more than a noble exemplum virtutis- painting as moral example. Here in a small study for the lost painting, Poussin creates a beautiful thought, a glimpse into a mind thoroughly at one with the ancients, wether of Greek or Roman cast.
I wish I'd read Settis's book when it first came out, but better late than never. He has many valuable insights about the way the "classical", "classicism" et al are used in modern times. Where Poussin's "classicism" is concerned, I suspect we've still not got it quite right. Settis's book is useful for thinking through the problems of the "classical" in Poussin, and of course many other early modern artists. What is the "classical" in Rubens for example?