P.J. sends me a little etching of a river with windmills, signed in one corner Leon Gaucherel (1816-86) and in the other Claude Mannet, a little known painter (not the great painter Claude Monet). Why does this etching bear two artist’s names? And why is it so boring?
Many good artists made interpretive etchings “after” (which means, roughly, copying) other artists. Leon Gaucherel was such an artist, as was Meissonier. In fact, Gaucherel copied (legally) Meissonier, etching a favorite subject of Meissonier’s “The Sentinel” on vellum in 1867, published by Leggatt of London. These were the days before the camera could copy exact images, the days of the rise of the middle class. This class wanted a parlor filled with art, but couldn’t afford oils; artists like Gaucherel translated oils into etchings on paper. P.J.’s little river scene is such a translation, executed in 4” x 6”, small enough for any parlor.
Gaucherel was a product of not only the technology of his age but the French “banquet years,” as termed by Roger Shattuck in his groundbreaking book The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant Garde in France 1885 to WWI. Artists like Gaucherel represented the cultural elite, conservative, imperialistic, nationalistic and morally virtuous, of a generation situated firmly in the glories of the socially strictured Second Empire. When such stalwarts as this archconservative artist Gaucherel reigned, making art that everyone understood, the avant-garde will rise in reaction in the next generation.
Beloved, Gaucherel was an academic medal winner at the Salon de Paris (1847-9), holding the Legion d’honneur, awarded in 1869, his works entered the Victoria & Albert Museum. He copied other conservative artists who pictured nostalgic scenes of Old France.
Since we today think of artist as anything but conservative, it’s difficult to understand that the roots of Bohemianism took hold during the hide-bound Second Empire. As Arnold Hauser writes about Gaucherel’s era in The Social History of Art IV, “the dissolution of the ancient regime enters (now) its final stage, and with the disappearance of the last representatives of the good old society; French culture goes through a severe crisis…bad taste had never set the fashion so much as now… (during this) period of eclecticism…without a single original idea.” What do you do when the social structure is so stolid that it will take one rumble to set it crumbling? You bastion up ideology and give out awards for supporting the status quo. Hence, a mediocre copyist received the Legion d’honneur in 1864.
Established in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Legion’s awards were structured, from the top down, Chevalier, Officer, Commander, Grand Officer, to the least, the Grand Cross. A great building, the Palais de la Legion d’Honneur (next to the Musee d’Orsay), originally the Hotel de Salm (built for Frederick III of Germany) was ‘nationalized’ by France in 1804, burned in the Paris Commune of 1871, rebuilt until 1925. This magnificent palace is rooted in the moral, fraternal, nationalistic ideals of the Chivalric order founded in the Crusades (1099-1291), an order of courtly knighthood that today is reflected in other national medals of honor.
Originally, the Chivalric Code was based on the Holy Roman Empire’s idealization of military bravery, service, morality and fraternity. The ideas never died. By the late 19th C., the French writer Leon Gautier’s book La Chivalerie (1883) gives a summary of (good old) ancient code of chivalry that we saw reflected in such diverse places as the Scotland of Sir Walter Scott and the Confederacy of the US Civil War.
Here’s Gautier’s 10 commandments of chivalry, which he maintained should form the basis of French late 19th C. society:
Courtesy, fidelity, Church-defended morality was celebrated in artists of third quarter 19th century France in such as Gaucherel; the polemical purpose of holding this medal was to defend status quo. After this, the deluge. French artists like Guillaume Apollinaire, Alfred Jarry, Erik Satie, and Henry Rousseau followed in the next generation, real slices of French avant-garde.
Like most art that echoes yearnings for the good old days, P.J.’s etching is lacking in vitality. The art market thinks so too; Gaucherel’s etchings fetch around $50.
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Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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