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  • Art and Literature of the Second Empire/Les Arts et la Littérature sous le Second Empire
  • Sara Pappas
Baguley, David, ed. Art and Literature of the Second Empire/Les Arts et la Littérature sous le Second Empire. Durham: University of Durham, 2003. ISBN0-907310-54-0

In the fields of literature and the plastic arts, classifying and canonizing the Second Empire has never been an easy task. On the side of painting and sculpture, the period is problematic, despite the fact that there are several paintings and Salon scandals now considered pivotal moments in the history of Western art: Courbet's Un Enterrement à Ornans (painted and exhibited between a revolution and a coup d'état: 1848-1851), Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe and Olympia (1863-65), the Salon des Refusés (1863), and events in and around the Exposition Universelle of 1867, including Manet's painting of the same name. Despite these instances we have since identified as aesthetically revolutionary, painting of the Second Empire is frequently characterized as "eclectic." It is during this period that the Salon will close its ranks, becoming more and more resistant to innovations in pictorial form, as those artists who do adhere to the rules governing academic art are labeled "juste milieu" – a politically-charged term associated with compromise and conformity. The domain of literature is no less problematic. Despite the audacious writings and subsequent trials of both Baudelaire and Flaubert, the period of the Second Empire remains "transitional." It is eclipsed by the literary and artistic movements that it borders in time: preceded by Romanticism and Realism, and followed by Symbolism, Naturalism, Decadence, and Impressionism. In his preface to Art and Literature of the Second Empire, David Baguley remarks that works from this period are usually placed into one of two categories: either "officially sponsored, conformist, institutionalized," or "subversive, marginalized, clandestine" (XI). This collection of ten articles represents an effort to revise this view of the Second Empire, often analyzing texts, images, and politicians that do not fit neatly into either category, and arguing that the interaction between state and culture actually "gave rise to works of undeniable originality and lasting value (xi). The edited volume is divided into three sections: Arts, Institutions, and Letters/Lettres.

Part One, "Arts," is perhaps the strongest in the collection. In an article on landscape painting, Patricia Mainardi considers the period's notorious eclecticism as a positive attribute. By focusing on Corot instead of Courbet, Mainardi argues that landscape painting of the Second Empire has been underestimated because of our tendency to view the period as exclusively pre-Impressionist. Although she never states it directly, Mainardi seems to be asserting that landscape painting of the Second Empire, even by artists who would later become Impressionists, constitutes its own category and resembles that category more than Impressionism itself. In the second article of this section, Robert [End Page 161] Lethbridge looks at how political engagement can go along with l'art pour l'art. It has long been argued that Manet's politics are difficult to ascertain from his images. Lethbridge argues that allusion, overlap, multiple references, and especially the "blague" were in fact a response to the Second Empire's desire to prevent the slippage of meaning. In this way, Manet's art can be seen as an ironic response to the politics of the period and part of an assertive strategy. In his contribution, Richard Hobbs seeks to problematize the "juste milieu" label. "Juste milieu" began as a political reference to the bourgeois monarchy, taken from Louis-Philippe's 1831 declaration, "nous cherchons à nous tenir dans un juste milieu" (quoted in Hobbs, 42), but has since become an expression associated with artists who compromised their integrity and sacrificed innovation and originality to please the crowd and/or the Academy. Hobbs explores the application of this label to the art of Thomas Couture, an artist best known today for having been Manet's teacher. Hobbs justifies the contested placement of Couture's Les Romains de la Décadence in the main sculpture gallery of the Musée d'Orsay by arguing that "juste milieu" can be seen as an engagement...


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pp. 161-163
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