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  • What Led to Formalism? Flaubert’s Account of Sentimentalism
  • S. K. Wertz

What were the historical and philosophical conditions that contributed to the rise of formalism? Today, formalism, in its extreme form1 appears radically implausible to the modern reader, so it is interesting to speculate on the climate of the times that led to its popularity and acceptance by critics. Bell himself hints at these conditions in “The Aesthetic Hypothesis” when he writes of “descriptive painting” as sentimental and its form as a means of suggesting emotions rather than as an object of emotions. “What it [a painting titled The Doctor] suggests is not pity and admiration,” Bell says, “but a sense of complacency in our own pitifulness and generosity” (A, p. 24). In addition to suggesting emotions, descriptive painting uses form “to convey information and ideas,” rather than “to provoke aesthetic emotions” (A, p. 24). In other words, “representation is a sign of weakness in an artist” (A, p. 29). But it is sentimentalism that is at the core of Bell’s criticism of this type of painting or art. With this in mind, a good example comes from Gustave Flaubert’s novel Sentimental Education,2 in the character of a painter, Pellerin; he is used as a paradigm for the climate of the times.

Flaubert develops a portrait of an artist—a painter—who probably resembled someone he knew in Paris in the mid-nineteenth century. [End Page 524] Perhaps Pellerin is a conglomerate of people Flaubert knew. (This is true of most of his characters in this novel and Madame Bovary.) This portrait features elements that formalism stands decidedly against, and it helps us understand how an extreme position could develop and appear plausible to critics.

The artist—Pellerin—enters early in the novel with the main character, Frédéric Moreau, and stays with him to the very end. Pellerin makes a living painting portraits of wealthy Parisian patrons. To paint these portraits, he studies masters in museums—in particular, Titian and Veronese—in order to capture their styles (SE, pp. 154–56). For instance, “He [Pellerin] started sketching in the main outlines [of the life-sized portrait], and he was so preoccupied with the great artists of the Renaissance that he began talking about them” (SE, p. 155). The artistic creation is described in detail when he brings up the subject of the portrait of Rosanette to Frédéric:

His original intention had been to produce a Titian. But little by little his model’s varied colouring had fascinated him; he had worked boldly, piling brushstroke on brushstroke and light on light. Rosanette was delighted at first; then her rendezvous with Dehnar had interrupted the sittings and left Pellerin plenty of time to be dazzled by his art. Eventually, as his admiration cooled, he had begun to wonder if his painting was not lacking in grandeur. He had gone to look at the Titians again, seen the distance which separated them from his work, recognized his mistake, and started simplifying his outlines. Next, by blurring them, he had tried to blend the tones of the head with those of the background; this had given solidity to the face, vigour to the shadows; everything seemed firmer. . . . [H]e had plucked up the courage to retouch the painting, but his heart was not in it and he felt that his work was bad.

(SE, pp. 216–17)

Pellerin has the nerve to try to sell the painting to Marshal (the model) and then to Frédéric, but to no avail (SE, p. 217). The portrait finally appears in the window of a picture dealer’s shop with these words appearing underneath: “Mademoiselle Rose-Annette Bron, the property of Monsieur Frédéric Moreau of Nogent.” Frédéric describes it thusly: “It is her all right, or something like her, with her breasts bare, her hair down, and holding a red velvet purse in her hands, while a peacock poked its beak over her shoulder from behind, covering the wall with its great fan-like feathers” (SE, pp. 235–36). Indeed, this does sound ghastly. Pellerin—instead of developing his own style—copies...


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