The Studios of Paris: The Capital of Art in the Late Nineteenth Century
Yale University Press, $39.95
Delacroix, Manet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin. Seurat, Degas, Matisse and thousands of other French artists, many penniless then and still unknown, had studios in Paris. Foreigners such as Sargent, Whistler, Chagall and Miró felt they had no choice but to rush there. From the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, almost all artists looked to Paris as their mecca.
In this unusual and carefully illustrated book, John Milner, head of the Department of Fine Art at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in England, describes how French tradition and government policy, along with Parisian commerce and practical necessity, combined to create a kind of factory of art in Paris in the 19th century.
The former royal palace of the Louvre, transformed into a museum after the revolution, loomed over the Seine, crammed with masterpieces that students could behold in awe and try to copy. Intent on maintaining the tradition of the art of the Louvre, French governments set down the requirements of apprenticeship and the standards of the profession, as well as many of the rules of the marketplace. Officialdom also created the Academy of Fine Arts, which ruled the profession and tried to decree taste; and funded the School of Fine Arts (the famed Beaux-Arts), which prepared students with its exacting methods. It mounted great international fairs, sponsored the annual salons that exhibited and sold art, purchased a good deal of the work for its own museums and offices, and showered artists with decorations such as the Legion of Honor.
[photo caption] Artist's model traded lyre and pose for cigarette and moment of relaxation.
A lively commerce developed around this official encouragement of art. Established artists earned substantial extra income with private classes that prepared students for the School of Fine Arts. Immigrants, mainly from Italy, milled about the courtyard of the school in search of work as nude models. Numerous dealers came forward to sell the enormous output of so many artists. Printers popularized art by selling reproductions of the latest work of the best-known artists. A legion of critics filled the columns of the many newspapers of Paris with a wit that could wither or fashion reputations. To accommodate the mass of artists, entrepreneurs built studios throughout the city, ranging from luxurious quarters by the Monceau park to modest, sunny rooms in Montparnasse.
On top of all this, artists had the joy of the city of Paris to enhance their work. "The streets of Paris . . . were unsurpassed as a source of both inspiration and opportunity. The studio was part of the street and the street part of the studio. The relationship was symbiotic."
The professionalization of art reached its climax in Paris in the 1880s and '90s, and Milner concentrates on those years. The titans then are little noted now. Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier was perhaps the most popular and powerful painter of that era. At a time when any struggling artist would be satisfied to sell a painting in Paris for 50 francs (enough to live on for two or three days), Meissonier could sell one for 840,000 francs.
The system had grown too rigid by the final decades of the last century. Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, who had learned their trade through the system, were rebelling against the exacting rules that seemed to stifle creativity. One could learn painting in the schools of Paris, they insisted, but not art; their contempt belittled the classes, the academy and the salons. The system eventually collapsed, crushed by the genius it had nurtured. For decades, however, at least until World War II, young artists still rushed to Paris, if not for training then at least to feel the fever and tradition of the capital of art.
Milner, in the second half of his book, guides the reader through the studios of the late 19th century. Since the city really has changed very little in a hundred years, most of the studios, from the sumptuous to the lowly, still exist; many serve as living and working quarters for artists even now. Milner is a dry and academic guide, but the tour is still fascinating.