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Nineteenth century pioneers - Baudelaire and Delacroix

Here we are, then, with the subject put on the index.  Noisy as the proclamation of this event has been, it is not, for that reason, new.  

In 1861, Eugene Delacroix wrote to Baudelaire: 'These mysterious effects of line and colour which, alas, only a handful of adepts feel ... This  aspect of music and arabesque ... for many people it is nothing ... '.  Was he not touching the heart of the problem when he said that?  And did he not put the object of painting into clear relief, in opposition to what disturbed him, the subject - that subject which nearly everyone considered was the whole raison d'être for the act of painting?  And do we not find the same idea reinforced, so to  speak, in his journal: 'Painting does not always need a subject' (Delacroix: Journal, 13/1/1857)?  Certainly, Delacroix could not follow through to the extreme consequences of what his foresight had enabled him to see; we cannot suppress the habits of centuries in a day.  But the problems of painting never ceased to occupy his attention, and what wonderful solutions his mastery and his genius were able to provide!  

Baudelaire, tireless explorer of the Word, understood him by analogy and was able - indeed several years earlier - to add some precisions of the greatest  importance.  From his 1846 Salon, Ch. III. 'On Colour',  we extract these  few lines: 'We find  harmony. melody, counterpoint in colour ... harmony  is the basis of the theory of colour.  Melody is unity in colour, or general colour.  Melody needs a conclusion;  it is a whole, in which all the effects come together for a general effect.  So melody leaves a profound memory in the mind.  Most of our young colourists lack melody.  The best way to see if a picture is melodious is to look at it long enough so as no longer to understand either the subject or the lines.  If it is melodious, it  already has a direction, and it has already taken its place in the repertoire  of memory ... '    When one thinks that these reflections were written over one hundred years ago, in a world that was less riven with anxiety over its own destiny than our own, infinitely less under the control of commercial speculation and snobbery, and, consequently, unprepared to accept all the extravagances that might be offered to it, then one can only admire unreservedly the lucid genius of Baudelaire, who, in terms that are precise, simple and measured, situates painting once again in its object, defines its substance and its poetic value, and, at the same time, obliges us to consider the subject as an accessory, and thus as something that is relative.(6)

(6) It was at this time that ‘philosophical materialism’ reached its highest point. In science, it was ‘the reduction of all the natural sciences to mechanical systems’. In art, it was the extreme importance attributed to the matter of painting, a too thick layer of paint and the crude application of these too thick layers by the painter. Courbet, quite independently of the systematic choice he made of everyday subjects, put his enormous talent to the service of this theory, which was part of the normal course of the decline of the naturalist, humanist way of thinking. After having turned the representations over and over again, the painters began to search reality in the material with which the representations had been realised. It was the material that became the responsible element. We can understand why Baudelaire found this Mr Courbet a little too primitive. There are still some painters highly regarded in our own time who continue to root about in this impasse from which all the other fields of intellectual activity are now more or less free. I say ‘more or less’ because we are still looking for the origins of life in matter reduced to atoms without, of course, getting anywhere, so that one is beginning to hint at the opposite of the materialist theory which pretended that it was matter which, through a series of random accidents, was the cause of life ... the absurdity of this theory can be shown easily with one simple example: a painting that could be explained rationally as the result of the simple evolution of a cell of matter under the pressure of chance events through thousands of years. The materialist consistent with himself must see any desire to insist on the presence of the painter as a product of superstition. 

So, a point of history has been clarified.  The affirmation of the predominance of painting as object over that of the subject, the support of Classicism, goes back about a hundred years.  The revolution, the change, begins.  Moreover, this change does not open the way to disorder - to what will be produced by the fraudulent doctrine of individual liberty in the domain of subjective Classicism when once it has been turned into an item of commercial speculation.  Baudelaire  and Delacroix make no mistake.  Against the rules of the classical subject, they, both of them, oppose a certain number of objective values that are of the nature of painting understood as such - values that are as definite and as important as the human eye, from which they derive, and as the matter on which that eye works, a matter that is not susceptible to change.  These are the secrets of a traditional craft, always faithful to itself in its principles, which are part of its very substance.  Secrets that can only be learned through apprenticeship, work, application and talent.  When we know how to use them automatically, then we are free, and the evidence of it can be seen in our work.  Planted in a soil that is provided by our emotional life, they develop and, eventually, realise their fullness, under the constant protection of rules.  Delacroix and Baudelaire are certainly the forerunners of the 'painting object' and, moreover, they are masters, for they taught, truthfully, what had to be known if that painting-object was - even partially - to be realised.  It would be unjust to reproach them with a failure to spell it out more fully.  What they said and what they did is still of value, and their lesson was understood by the true painters who came after them.