Volume 21, Issue 1 | Spring 2022

Loss in French Romantic Art, Literature, and Politics by Jonathan Ribner

Reviewed by David O’Brien

Jonathan Ribner,
Loss in French Romantic Art, Literature, and Politics.
Routledge: New York and Abingdon, 2022.
278 pp.; 32 color and 57 b&w illus.; notes; bibliography; index.
$120 (hardback)
ISBN: 978–1–032027–03–6

Exactly as its title suggests, Jonathan Ribner’s new book explores themes related to loss in French Romantic art, literature, and politics. The loss comes especially in relation to political events: assaults on Catholicism and the forced emigration of counterrevolutionaries under the Revolution; death and suffering caused by the Napoleonic wars; the damage to national pride brought about by the collapse of the Empire; efforts to revive Catholicism across the first half of the nineteenth century; and the July Monarchy’s failure to deliver on the promises of 1830. Individual chapters explore loss in relation to religious experience, as a consequence of exile, in memories of Napoleon, and in episodes of national defeat. While works of art receive the most space and the most detailed and original analyses, politics and literature are sometimes explored in their own right, with little or no reference to art. That is to say, this book reads something like a broader cultural history that pays attention first and foremost to art. At the same time, the book often posits politics (including those related to religion) as a source or cause of artistic developments and less frequently explores the political agency of artists or works of art.

The proposition that loss is central to French Romantic art is hardly new. As Ribner notes, numerous scholars have already examined specific instances of it. Most notably, Beth Wright has demonstrated that key aspects of Romantic paintings of historical events arise from post-Revolutionary sentiments of being “abandoned by the past;” Marc Gotlieb has explored how many mid-century mural painters felt cut off from the grand tradition of large-scale painting begun in the Renaissance, and inadequate in the face of its achievements; Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby has noted that numerous major French Romantic paintings of colonial subjects are preoccupied not with mastery and conquest, but with “loss, degradation, and failure.”‍[1] Other studies could be cited.‍[2] There is, however, great value in Ribner’s account because it provides a broad overview of themes of loss and demonstrates the extent to which modernity has been experienced in terms of trauma, misfortune, destruction, sorrow, or absence.

Two opening chapters focus on changing policies and attitudes regarding religion. The first offers an account of basic developments: vandalism, de-Christianization, the Concordat, Chateaubriand’s celebration of Christianity, the policies of Restoration and the July Monarchy regarding religion, and Félicité Lammenais’s evolution from ultramontanism to a form of Christian socialism. Ribner borrows the notion of “spectator Christianity” from Robert Rosenblum to describe an enduring effect of de-Christianization on Romantic art: rather than offering images that would engage viewers directly in prayer or devotion, painters frequently depicted figures absorbed in acts of piety or religious experience. The idea is used to point up particular features of works by François Gérard, François-Joseph Navez, and Victor Schnetz. The chapter also describes the mixture of archaic artistic styles and academic conventions developed variously by Victor Orsel and Hippolyte Flandrin to signal their renewed devotion to Christianity.

The second chapter explores “the sacrifice of public, devotional function to private concerns in Christian art dating from the first half of the nineteenth century” (57). Depictions of Christ in the Garden of Olives by Eugène Delacroix reveal that, while the artist appreciated how the episode foregrounded Christ’s isolation and human frailty, he subordinated religious meanings to aesthetic concerns. Théodore Chassériau used the same subject, according to Ribner, not to deliver doctrinal religious messages, as some have argued, but to explore the bleakness of Christ’s predicament, especially through tonal effects. Similarly, Ribner argues that Alfred de Vigny’s various versions of a poem about the Agony in the Garden, as well as Delacroix’s return to the subject late in his life, explore human despair and isolation in their own right, without clear reference to theological concerns. Congruent readings are offered of Crucifixion scenes by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon and Delacroix, which are more concerned with an exploration of suffering than the promise of resurrection. The chapter concludes with an extended discussion of The Poem of the Soul, a cycle of eighteen paintings (1835–54) and sixteen large charcoal drawings (1872–81) by Louis Janmot, who also painted an extremely idiosyncratic Christ in the Garden of Olives (1840). The series celebrates innocence, faith, and piety while attacking republicanism and other secular, rationalist forces in French life. Individual paintings combine naturalistic detail and dramatic lighting with bizarre, dreamlike images and obscure symbolism. While Janmot’s art may have sincerely aspired to reinvent Christian devotional art, for Ribner it is no less personal than Delacroix’s and equally marked by the experience of de-Christianization.

Chapter 3 focuses on depictions of exile and begins with a review of classical allegories for the experience of emigrés by François Gérard and Pierre-Narcisse Guérin. Exile is further explored in the writings of Germaine de Staël, representations of Greek exiles, the writings of famous Polish exiles, and pictures by Delacroix of Frédéric Chopin as Dante, the Babylonians in captivity, and Ovid. More unexpected are discussions of depictions of Hagar and Ishmael by Camille Corot, Jean-Gilbert Murat, and Jean-François Millet, and of Cain by Antoine Étex, as figurations of exile. In these works, Old Testament narratives of forced displacement and suffering are offered as allegories for the experiences of modern exiles, rebellious outsiders, and accursed artists. The chapter ends with a consideration of depictions of the Second Empire’s most famous exile, Victor Hugo.

A fourth chapter centers on the absence created by the fall, exile, and death of Napoleon Bonaparte. Ribner begins by noting the enormity of Napoleon’s life and deeds, and the mythic proportions these had already taken on in representations made while he was still in power. Artists and writers working during the Restoration had to manage this complex legacy. Chateaubriand, like many royalists, now condemned Napoleon completely. Horace Vernet, Théodore Géricault, and Nicolas-Toussaint Charlet kept the memory of Napoleon’s military achievements alive, though they emphasized patriotism, loyalty to Napoleon, and suffering in varying degrees. Napoleon’s death on the south Atlantic island of St. Helena in 1821 only increased interest in him. Hagiographic representations of Napoleon created by his inner circle appeared—most notably, Emmanuel Las Cases’ Memorial of Saint Helena (1823). Bonapartism remained a political force throughout this period, but there also emerged a more broadly popular, less politicized Napoleon. This figure garnered new sympathy, exemplified well by Victor Hugo’s conversion from a royalist into a bard of the Napoleonic legend. Another Napoleon, beloved in the countryside and often dressed modestly in a bicorne hat and grey overcoat (le petit caporal), was the military genius and bringer of prosperity and progress, famously described in Balzac’s The Country Doctor (1833).

With the fall of the Restoration in 1830 and the establishment of the July Monarchy, official policies toward the Napoleonic legend shifted from censorship and disapprobation to efforts at controlling and channeling it. The return of Napoleon’s remains to Paris in 1840 raised adulation of him to a fever pitch. At its most extreme, admiration for Napoleon led to depictions of him as a resurrected or messianic figure, but one of the difficulties of writing about representations of Napoleon is that there were so many versions of him. Ribner does an admirable job of indicating this diversity, even if in the end he must limit himself to a small number of examples. He notes that the Napoleonic legend is sometimes considered a separate thing from the evolving political force that was Bonapartism, but he also correctly observes that popular representations can be converted unexpectedly into real political power, as is demonstrated by the rise of Napoleon’s nephew, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, to the presidency of the Second Republic and then to the imperial throne of the Second Empire.

The final chapter examines what Ribner terms the “anti-heroic mode.” The chapter begins with the feelings of historical belatedness, or of having missed the opportunity for greatness, experienced by such writers as Alfred de Vigny, Alfred du Musset, and Charles-Augustin Saint-Beuve. It then turns to explorations of defeat and suffering in paintings of the Russian Campaign, first in the work of Géricault from the 1810s and then in paintings of the 1830s. Finally, there is a long section on paintings from the 1830s and 1840s with classical and biblical subjects featuring “moody imaginings of sensuous, exotic bodies” (190). While these works make no clear reference to modernity, Ribner sees them as providing an escape from the banality of life under the July Monarchy. The figures that populate them—introverted, melancholic, idle, self-absorbed, lethargic—are further instances of the belated, disempowered subjectivity described earlier in the chapter. Hippolyte Flandrin’s Nude Young Man Seated at the Edge of the Sea (1835–36) is a perfect example, but Chassériau is the star of this section, with Ribner offering strikingly original readings of a number of his paintings.

An epilogue traces many of the book’s central themes through the final decades of the century, as they offered apt responses to new experiences of loss: defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, retribution against and exile of Communards, efforts to reinvigorate French men, and still another Catholic revival. Among other things, Ribner demonstrates that however spectatorial Romantic paintings of Christian subjects may have been, they don’t make nearly as much of a spectacle of religion as Paul Gauguin’s Vision After the Sermon (1888).

There is no question that loss is a major theme in Romantic art and literature, and certainly its significance for artists and writers in this period derives from the historical circumstances described by Ribner. Still, I am left with the feeling that there are some deeper metaphysical issues lurking in this material, awaiting further elucidation. In the introduction, Ribner cites Peter Fritzsche’s assertion that, following the Revolution and Empire, Europeans began to feel cut off from the past, or “stranded in the present.”‍[3] In other words, the past appeared increasingly like something that was discontinuous with and different from the present. History came to seem more unpredictable, unprecedented, contingent, and potentially catastrophic. There is, indeed, much in Fritzsche’s account that rings true with Ribner’s. As Fritzsche notes, the exile or the outcast became an exemplary figure of modernity precisely because people felt so estranged from or disoriented by contemporary life. Common experiences of world-changing, transnational events such as revolution and total war created feelings of dispossession, loss, and suffering and allowed for the construction of new shared identities. There is much more in Fritzsche’s book along these lines, and his account is just one of a number that claim convincingly that people’s relation to the past changed fundamentally in the Romantic era.‍[4] There are also compelling accounts arguing that during the Romantic era, modern notions of politics, morality, and social life, devoid of any reference to a transcendent realm, force, or being, created lacks or absences in people’s spiritual lives that had to be addressed in various ways.‍[5] My point is that loss might be experienced not simply in relation to concrete historical instances of it, but also in relation to changed conceptions of history or as part of one’s sense of self or the coherence of one’s world. Disenchantment was experienced broadly and profoundly in this period, and not always in response to specific events. Perhaps Romantic art might be interrogated for further insights in this regard, with the art allowed to speak directly about exactly what is absent or has been lost.

One of the many rewards of Ribner’s book is that the narrative is created not simply from the existing canon of Romantic art, but also from lesser known and unexpected works. Janmot, Chassériau, and Étex receive more attention than is usual, and J.-A.-D. Ingres much less. Thus, for experts, the book provides a refreshingly original synthesis from an important perspective. At the same time, individual chapters are very accessible and could serve as excellent readings in undergraduate classes, particularly because they introduce not just important paintings, but also key historical events and literary works. Classes in history or literature might also use it to place historical events or literary works in a broader context. Irrespective, however, of how the book enters into curricula, it will long serve as an essential introduction to the period for serious students of French art, literature, culture, and history.


[1] Beth S. Wright, Painting and History during the French Restoration: Abandoned by the Past (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Marc Gotlieb, The Plight of Emulation: Ernest Meissonier and French Salon Painting (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996); and Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, Extremities: Painting Empire in Post-Revolutionary France (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), quotation from page 4.

[2] Limiting consideration to art history, see, on the theme of exile, James Henry Rubin, “Oedipus, Antigone and Exiles in Post-Revolutionary French Painting,” Art Quarterly 36 (1973): 141–71; Mehdi Korchane, Figures de l’exile sous la Révolution. De Bélisaire à Marcus Sextus (Vizille: Musée de la Révolution Française, 2016); and Thomas Crow, Emulation: David, Drouais, and Girodet in the Art of Revolutionary France (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995). On mourning and death, Suzanne Glover Lindsay, Funerary Arts and Tomb Cult—Living with the Dead in France, 1750–1870 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012). Loss as experienced subjectively and in relation to bodily, sexual, gender, and political ideals has been explored in Eva Lager-Burcharth, Necklines: The Art of Jacques-Louis David after the Terror (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999) and Satish Padiyar, Chains: David, Canova, and the Fall of the Public Hero in Postrevolutionary France (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007). An older, somewhat facile book that took up some of these themes is Jack Lindsay, The Death of the Hero: French Painting from David to Delacroix (London: Studio, 1961).

[3] Peter Fritzsche, Stranded in the Present: Modern Time and the Melancholy of History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

[4] See, for example, Stephen Bann, Romanticism and the Rise of History (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995); and Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Keith Tribe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).

[5] For example, Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007).