Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

0069 Rachel Esner, In the Artist's Studio with L'Illustration

RIHA Journal 0069 | 18 March 2013

In the Artist's Studio with L'Illustration

Rachel Esner

Editing and peer review managed by:

Lena Bader, Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte – Centre allemand d'histoire de l'art, Paris


Tobias Kämpf, Pamela J. Warner


This article explores the two series of visits to the artist's studio that appeared in the famed French illustrated magazine L'Illustration in the 1850s and in 1886. An in-depth examination of both the texts and images reveals the verbal and visual tropes used to characterize the artists and their spaces, linking these to broader notions of "the artist" – his moral characteristics, behaviors, and artistic practice – as well as to the politics of the art world and the (bourgeois) ideology of L'Illustration. The aim is to uncover not only the language but also the mechanics of the "mediatization" of the image of the artist in this crucial period.



  1. The nineteenth century can be said to have witnessed perhaps not the birth, but certainly the intensification of the cult of personality. The adulation of artists, writers, statesmen, scientists and military men may have been nothing new, but the means by which these celebrities were brought to communal attention certainly were: newspapers, journals and the illustrated press not only contributed significantly to the widespread dissemination of facts regarding well-known personalities, but also formed their image in the public eye. A figure of fascination since the appearance of Vasari's Vite in 1550, during the course of the nineteenth century, interest in the artist grew to previously unknown proportions. In the aftermath of Romanticism, art was no longer only understood as the imitation of nature or the product of rules handed down through institutions such as the Academy, but also as a form of expression, of both the artist's emotions and his personality. As a result, the artist soon came to be understood as the key to his own work.1 As Sainte-Beuve wrote:

La littérature, la production littéraire, n'est point pour moi distincte ou du moins séparable du reste de l'homme et de l'organisation; je puis goûter une œuvre, mais il m'est difficile de la juger indépendamment de la connaissance de l'homme même; et je dirais volontiers: tel arbre, tel fruit. L'étude littéraire me mène ainsi tout naturellement à l'étude morale.2

  1. This attitude was reflected not only in the large number of biographies, memoires and reminiscences of painters of the (recent) past published in this period, but also in the appearance of the artist as the object of ridicule (in the form of caricatures) and the subject of fiction.3 Another manifestation of the curiosity regarding the "man behind the picture" was a growing interest in the artist's place of work, his studio.4 In line with the then-current theories of Hippolyte Taine (among others) regarding the relationship between character and milieu, it was widely believed that the best way to get to know the man was by getting to know his surroundings.5

  2. At the same time, changes in their social and economic status meant that artists themselves increasingly needed to seek the limelight. Dwindling official patronage combined with a growing number of practitioners – a result of the rising wealth of the middle classes, who demanded art to decorate their homes – led to more competition. The artist, once a royal protégé, was now forced to take on the role of "exhibition artist"6 and to sell his works on the open market: at the annual Salon or, later in the century, through galleries. The need to stand out from the crowd was enormous, and the cultivation of a public persona (together with a highly personal artistic style) was one means of attracting attention – as the Realist painter Gustave Courbet early realized and exploited to the fullest.7 The artist was thus as interested in the world at large as it was in him. All this, combined with the burgeoning popular media in the second half of the nineteenth century, resulted in a spate of articles on visits to the artist's studio, among them in the prestigious and widely read French publication, L'Illustration.8

  3. These visits took place in two vastly different but equally crucial periods – in the French art world and beyond: the early Second Empire, with its efforts to achieve unity on both the political and artistic fronts; and the period of the consolidation of the Third Republic, when the first avant-garde generation had become established and the state was once again striving to put an "official" stamp on the arts.9 The first "series"10 was written between 1850 and 1857 by the author and literary critic Augustin-Joseph du Pays (1804-1879); the second by Paul Eudel (1837-1911) and published from January to June 1886. Little is known about either author, although Eudel also made a name for himself as the chronicler of the aution house Hôtel Drouot and journalist for La Vie moderne and Journal des arts, as well as for L'Illustration.

  4. Although much had changed in France in the intervening years, L'Illustration,11 which was founded in 1843 as the French counterpart to the London Illustrated News, had remained largely the same. From the outset its aim had been to inform its readers in depth about current affairs, policymaking and legislation, as well as culture. Its politics were always middle of the road; its tone always elevated and its language always sensible. Although there was less reporting on the arts than on fiscal or political issues, art matters were taken seriously and the journal counted Théophile Gautier and Paul Mantz among its regular critics.12 As elsewhere, here, too, the editors strove for balance and moderation, favoring mainstream, more or less academic artists and those with "official" status.13 Widely read but also fairly expensive, L'Illustration was designed to appeal to a wealthy bourgeois audience, that segment of society which above all desired stability14 and to see itself and its ideals reflected in the things of the world. The journal's print-run was never enormous but remained consistent over the decades, indicating that it had a loyal subscriber base.15 This meant that the editors were obliged to cater to particular interests when choosing both their subjects and their approach. Such mutual dependence was not unique in this period (nor is it today), but may in part explain the remarkable consistencies we find between the series of Du Pays and Eudel in the discussion of the artist and his studio, despite the upheavals that had taken place in French society and art between 1850 and 1886.

  5. The following essay will look closely at both series and their illustrations with the aim of unraveling the image they create of the artist and his place of work. Textual and visual analysis reveals some interesting, even surprising, similarities between the two sets of articles. As we will see, despite the turmoil experienced in the years since the heyday of the Second Empire, many of the same tropes and signs are employed by Eudel when writing about his clutch of artists as were used by Du Pays, tropes and signs that are given visual form in the accompanying plates.16 Bringing these to light is important not only for what it tells us about how L'Illustration viewed the artist, and how this might have been determined by the journal's ideology and audience, but also for what it can reveal about the mechanics of the "mediatization" of the artist in general. That is: how both the artist and his supposedly private creative realm increasingly became shared property – how, in other words, art and the artist, creativity and personality (which were viewed as indelibly linked) were understood by the public during the second half of the nineteenth century. This is a rather different approach than that taken in the scholarly literature on the artist's studio so far, which has tended to focus on artists' own conception and presentation of themselves and their working spaces.17 Here we are dealing with representations in word and image by outsiders, those whose interest in the artist, his studio and his personality may be quite different from the artist's own, and whose representations therefore have a different tenor and aim than those of the artists themselves – although, equally, the various players' interests and images may also overlap.


The artists

  1. Beginning in 1850, at irregular intervals over the next seven years, the literary critic Augustin-Joseph du Pays visited the studios of the sculptor Antoine-Laurent Dantan (Dantan ainé) (fig. 1); the genre- and portrait painter Pierre-François-Eugène Giraud (fig. 2), famous for his depictions of Spain and Morocco; Paul Delaroche (fig. 3); the history and genre painter Pierre-Jules Jollivet (fig. 4), also renowned for his Spanish genre subjects; the Swiss landscape painter Alexandre Calame (fig. 5); Rosa Bonheur (fig. 6); Eugène Delacroix (fig. 7); the "fantasy"18 painter Narcisse Diaz de la Peña – generally referred to as Narcisse Diaz (fig. 8); and the caricaturist-sculptor Jean-Pierre Dantan (Dantan jeune) (fig. 9).19 The heterogeneity here is striking. Both the linear and painterly traditions of French art are represented; the former Romantic rebel Delacroix is on the list, but so is the Ingriste Delaroche; there is a landscapist and an animal painter, although no representative of history painting in the grand manner. Genre painters enamored of the "exotic" (including Delacroix) seem to dominate. The two sculptors, with whom the critic begins and ends his series, stand for the two extreme ends of sculpture, one being a kind of classicist, dealing with elevated subjects, the other making topical and satirical portraits of his contemporaries. In fact, this eclecticism is programmatic and sets the articles firmly within the declared artistic ideology of the Second Empire.20

The Studio of Dantan ainé. Engraving from: L'Illustration, 11 May 1850, 293, The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, T 1788

The Studio of Eugène Giraud. Engraving from: L'Illustration, 6 July 1850, 29, The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, T 1788

The Studio of Paul Delaroche. Engraving from: L'Illustration, 14 September 1850, 165, The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, T 1788

The Studio of Pierre-Jules Jollivet. Engraving from: L'Illustration, 8 and 15 November 1850, 301, The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, T 1788

The Studio of Alexandre Calame. Engraving from: L'Illustration, 17 and 24 January 1851, 44, The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, T 1788

The Studio of Rosa Bonheur. Engraving from: L'Illustration, 1 May 1852, 284, The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, T 1788

The Studio of Eugène Delacroix. Engraving from: L'Illustration, 25 September 1852, 205, The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, T 1788

The Studio of Narcisse Diaz. Engraving from: L'Illustration, 19 March 1853, 185, The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, T 1788

The Studio of Dantan jeune. Engraving from: L'Illustration, 30 May 1857, 348, The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, T 1788

  1. Paul Eudel's series appeared between March and July of 1886 – the period of the Salon – and treats the painters Philippe Rousseau (fig. 10), Camille Bernier (fig. 11), Gérôme (fig. 12), Bouguereau (fig. 13), Detaille (fig. 14), Benjamin Constant (fig. 15), and Carolus-Duran (fig. 16).21 This can be considered a real series, different from the previous group of visits in that the articles appeared regularly. If we look at the artists Eudel chooses to treat, we see immediately that they represent the "official" art of the Third Republic – as if the author's interest is not only geared to but also steered by mainstream taste. These men are the "cream of the crop" of officialdom, almost all having been given formal recognition in the form of a Légion d'honneur – a fact Eudel is always careful to mention (even if occasionally a little mockingly, as in the case of Bouguereau22). They are fashionable portraitists of government and social celebrities (Constant, Carolus-Duran); decorators of official buildings (Constant); painters of pillar Republican institutions such as the military (Detaille); popular artists whose works command high prices (Gérôme) and/or were frequently bought by the State (Bouguereau); and who work in genres that appeal to both a broad public (Bernier, who painted Breton subjects, or Rousseau) and could be said to underwrite the political ideologies of the Third Republic (Detaille, but also Gérôme and Constant with their colonialist themes). In this sense, although diverse in their subject matter, they are a fairly homogeneous group, and could almost be seen as a kind of phalanx against the avant-garde tendencies of the period. The stylistic eclecticism found in the Du Pays series has been replaced by a uniformity that is as typical of the Third Republic and its striving for stability – in the art world and elsewhere – as the heterogeneity of the Second Empire had been. In this sense, both sets of articles represent and disseminate a similar ideology: the ideology of L'Illustration, which was simultaneously the ideology of those in power.23