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Title: Balzac and the visual arts
Author: Adamson, Donald
ISNI:       0000 0004 2742 812X
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 1971
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The aim of this thesis is simple, yet complex: to provide a systematic analysis of Balzac's references to the visual arts, not only in the Comédie Humanine but in the apprentice novels and miscellaneous writings. In the words of this year's Année Balzacienne, it sets out to be a "bilan d'influences et d'allusions picturales", and as such is the first recent project in this field. It is a simple project in that it largely confines itself to the presence, in Balzac's work, of identifiable visual refences. It is complex in that there are many thousands of such refences, sometimes moulding and inspiring the creation of character or setting, sometimes merely serving as objects in the novels (a painting, a porcelain vase or a buhl sideboard), sometimes - but less often present in a didactic manner; moreover, the Comédie Humaine itself is in a state of constant evolution, as when (for instance) a Joseph Bridau is substituted for a Delacroix, or a Watteau fan for a pearwood crucifix carved by Giradon; and to add still further to the complexity, the territory of this exploration includes not only the visual indebtedness but equally Balzac's personal involvement with painting, sculpture, architecture, furnishing and engraving - together with a brief analysis of his fictional artists. Much has been written already about the theoretical aspects of Balzac's concern with painting, sculpture and engraving. This detailed account of the visual sources will, it is hoped, assist later theoretical discussions. Yet such is the range of the novelist's interest that even this account must be selective. In the chronological outline of Balzac's interest in the visual arts, it is stressed that even as a youth he had ample opportunity to study many of what were then considered the finest masterpieces in European painting. Until 1816 pictures confiscated from Italy, Spain and the Netherlands were held at the Louvre — in addition to that gallery's "indigenous" collection. There were also his visits to foreign collections: Vienna, Munich, Venice, Florence, Milan, St Petersburg, Berlin, Dresden, The Hague, Amsterdam, Rome. Almost equally important were his actual contacts with painters such as Delacroix and Boulanger, the failed painter Gautier, and the sculptor Théophile Bra. Despite Bazlac's indebtedness to Girodet's "Endymion", Delacroix's colourful treatment of the Faust theme, and his special debts to Sigalon and Delorme, much the greater debt to contemporary French art is to caricature, which influenced him in the choice of certain types of subject-matter. Many of his early serial publications - L'Usurier for example — are transpositions into words of visual image popularised by Gavarni and Monnier. The same interest in caricature accounts for the part played in the Comédie Humaine only in the novels - by dandies, lorettes, grisettes and the stock figure of the crass bourgeois. In traditional French painting Balzac appreciated the Rococo style at a time when it had only recently begun to be fashionable again. Amongst Dutch, Flemish and German painters, he disparaged Rubens for his "montagnes de viandes flamandes, saupoudrées de vermillon"; he almost equated Rembrandt with the genre painters in his admiration for "les vieillards que le pinceau de Van Ostade, de Rembrandt, de Miéris, de Gérard Dow a tant caressés"; from Flemish painting he derived both Porbus and a mythical artist, Frenhofer, to whom yet another Flemish artist, Mabuse, supposedly transmitted the ultimate secrtes of his art. In Italian painting Raphael was the outstanding personality, both to Balzac and most of his contemporaries; in the Comédie Humaine he is usually associated with angelie and etherial virtue; its radiantly pure virgins are modelled upon Raphael's Madonnas, but so too are some of its loveliest courtesans. Balzac almost certainly saw the "Apollo Belvedere", the "Antinott", the "Venus de' Medici" and other masterpieces of Classical sculpture during their confiscation in France; such statues inspire many fictional portraits. The portrait of Camille Maupin reflects a topical interest in Egyptology. Of the sculptors of his own time Balzac found Canova and Thorwaldsen the most congenial, neo-Classicism being more suited to sculpture than to painting. In architecture he undoubtedly failed to respond to much that is great and imaginative. Like Stendahl, he was indifferent to the Baroque style, even the Baroque architecture of Paris. What most elated him in erchitecturw was the vastness of such buildings as Bourges Cathedral. In Balzac's treatment of furnishings and settings, modern furniture is made into a symbol of parvanu vulgarity. Furnishings and settings of many historical epochs are presented in the novels, from the early fourteenth century to the First Empire. Of all these Balzac infinitely preferred the Louis XV style: again, he was a forerunner in the revival of interest in the eighteenth century. Engravings are not an aspect of the visual arts in which Balzac appreciated the best. The only great engravers to have exerted any marked influence upon the Comédie Humnaine are Callot and Delacroix: Callot in his inspiration of La Frélore, and Delcroix in that he helped to popularise the Faust theme. Painters, sculptors, writers — even natural scientists — are all artists, In Balzac's definition of the term; and the primary loyalty of all is to their own art. Balzac does not share the Romantic notion of the artist's role as Philosopher King. As in the cases of Claës and Poussin, art can give rise to heartrending conflicts of loyalty, but all true artists resolve such conflicts to the advantage of their art. Other qalities of the true artist are spontaneity and ingenousness, qualities that would debar him from the political mission of a Lamartine or Hugo. Sarrasine, La maison du Chat-qui- Pelote and Le Chef-d'oeuvre all emphasize that the artist's dedication and naiveté lead to a discordance with reality - an idea essentially derived from Hoffmann. In the main, Balzac's artists fail to achive worldly success. Grassou, who does achieve it, is a second-rate ddauber. But he pleases the wealthy middle class, whereas Joseph Bridau, the true artist, disgruntles them. Joseph is totally worsted in his conflict with Flore Brazier and Max Gilet; though eventually he becomes wealthy, it is only through an irony of fate. Artistic success in the Comédie Humaine isn dearly and bitterly won, but money is a stimulus to creative effort — as is an understanding woman. As Steinbeck's career reveals, the greatest danger threatening any artist is failure through sheer lack of application. But hardly less serious a danger is to theorize, rather than experiment brush in hand. Indeed, an artist's indolence often arises from the much greater difficulty of executing works of art than conceiving them. Excessive theorizing leads Frenhofer to the opposite pitfall, a constant process of retouching, an obsessive desire for an impossible perfection. Yet despite his tragic slowness in production Frenhofer may have been the pioneer of abtstract art — whose still greater tragedy lay in his own destruction of his work.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Art in literature