Everything was changing in late 19th century Paris. A series of disastrous wars and failed uprisings had precipitated the forming of a public works commission to rebuild the city. But this rebuilding was nothing on its own. It was meant to be the emblem and agent of a wider economic transformation – the emergence of modern day capitalism and consumerism. Suddenly gone was the old Paris of narrow streets and quartiers. The new Paris of cosmopolitan boulevards cut up into little pieces the city’s pre-existing world of fragile appearances – its traffic of class segregation and urban life. And this awareness of change was to be crucial for the emergence of an artist such as Edouard Manet. The elusiveness of the social world, the precarian nature of being in it, and being of it, are central subjects of the paintings he produced at this time. […]
In 1855, three of Gustave Courbet’s paintings were rejected by the Exposition Universelle, something which Courbet took as a personal affront. It was, after all, the single largest exhibition in the history of the salon with a projected attendance numbering in the hundreds of thousands. In retaliation Courbet erected and promoted an exhibition all of his own, situated just across the road from the Exposition itself. It was called the Pavillion of The Real and inside the public were treated to over forty paintings by Courbet. Among them was a painting was called ‘L Atelier’ or ‘The Painter’s Studio: A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life’ (1855).
The artist’s studio is today considered a genre in its own right. It is a genre which lends itself well to allegory in that it offers a means of representation of the practice of art and offers up the artist as a personification of that practice. Variations of this genre can be informative illustrations of arts changing social history, the artist’s professional character and his production in relation to a market economy. Common features include introspective self-portraits such as Gericault’s ‘Portrait of an Artist in his Studio’, or the gallery of a dealer/connoisseur such as we find in ‘The Artist’s Studio’ by Amelie Legrand de Saint-Aubin. Images of poverty, power, fame, success and failure occur alongside images of the artist’s technical and iconographical resources. Sometimes we see the artist as he wishes to be seen; other times he sees us seeing him. In the paintings of Vermeer and Velasquez the studio is a site of encounter, between the artist and his model as well as other value systems. In the work of Braque, Matisse and Picasso, the studio is a metaphor for the psyche, a private world of individual creative passions. […]
Even for the gods, backlash is an inevitability. At one time considered the cutting edge, Paul Cézanne is often now conflated with artistic conservatism and the ‘rappel à l’ordre’. Bring up his name among any of the various plutocrats and brainless artists-in-residence striving to keep up the pretence of modernistic radicalism and you’ll see what I mean. It’s like brandishing a crucifix in a vampire’s face. Surely, nothing could be more unfashionable or un-hip as to talk about Cézanne in the year 2022.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, various ‘litterateurs’ who claim to admire Cézanne’s work can often be doubly guilty of superficiality; adopting a pose of soi disant aestheticism whilst simultaneously accepting all the ludicrous things produced by broadsheet art critics and authors writing history books on holiday. Sentiment, clerisy and derogation-as-vice continue to exasperate Cézanne’s reputational stability. Appropriated and excommunicated in equal turn, he is again and again subjected to the same rotary of clichés and tabloid mythology. A primitive, a prig, a homely gentleman. All middling attempts to make sense of Cézanne’s work in a self-reflecting art world where consensus has vanished and ignorance reigns supreme. […]