Before Photography – French genre painting at the beginning of the 19th century
Nationalmuseum has acquired three paintings from early 19th century France, by the artists Étienne Bouhot and Charles Marie Bouton. The trio of works reflect the era’s fascination with city views and different forms of spatiality. These images of everyday life are utterly unsentimental. At the same time, they offer viewers a glimpse of the reality of the time period in which they were created. Perspective and light are important artistic tools that can be used to create a sense of illusion.
Ever since the Renaissance, when the classic technique for constructing central perspective was developed, artists have been fascinated by the different ways in which they can create illusions of space and depth. During the latter half of the 18th century, increased tourism created a market for cityscapes of metropolises such as Paris. Many artists in the field had received their training as perspective painters while working as set designers in the theater industry. Some of them came to develop the panorama, a room adorned with painted images divided into different scenes that ran around the surrounding walls, and with space at its center for the viewing public. The paintings were usually cityscapes that incorporated the illusion of a high vantage point, or images of dramatic contemporary events, such as great fires and military battles.
Circa 1800, Paris’s leading panorama painter was Pierre Prévost (1764-1823). Among his pupils were two artists whose works were recently acquired by the Nationalmuseum: Étienne Bouhot (1780-1862) and Charles-Marie Bouton (1781-1853). Both painters were well-known names in their day, but have since fallen into undeserved obscurity. Bouhot made his debut at the Salon of 1808, and specialized in Parisian cityscapes. His paintings presented a new view of the city. While Bouhot maintained the traditional focus on famous Parisian buildings and monuments, he depicted them from unusual vantage points or unexpected perspectives. Archways are often used to frame well-known monuments. He also leaves room for intimate glimpses of the Paris of the common people – of coach houses in back courtyards and other nooks and crannies of the metropolis. It is this sense of the everyday that Bouhot has captured in his painting of an unknown Paris street. The reproduction of details are meticulous, and the use of chiaroscuro is masterful. The staffage figures enhance the illusion of space and pull the viewer into the scene. Not only do they heighten the painting’s visual sense of depth, they also add a layer of social context to the work. These characters occupy different levels of the image, like actors on a stage.
Étienne Bouhot became very popular with the period’s influential collectors, amon themthe Duke of Orléans, the future King Louis-Philippe. He commissioned two paintings from the artist, and the grateful Bouhot also presented him with a sketch of the Nationalmuseum newly acquired painting, which was completed in 1823. Bouhot’s son died that same year, and the artist eventually returned to his native Burgundy. He settled in the town of Semur-en-Auxois, not far from the small community of Saint-Thibault. The village’s Gothic priory was originally intended to soar to cathedral-like heights, but its final dimensions were more modest. The church was among the first of its kind to be named a national historical monument, and it was later restored by the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Bouhot’s painting (recently acquired by the Nationalmuseum), depicts the ruined church prior to its restoration. The interior is not considered to be a completely accurate representation of the historic building; rather, it is a testament to the era’s craze for the Gothic. It also constitutes a mildly absurd reportage painting of the nation’s state of affairs in the wake of the rampant vandalism of the French Revolution. The vaulted ceiling and roof of the church are crumbling and caving in, yet the priest stands calmly beneath them, chatting with a few of his parishioners. A glimpse of blue sky and the light that streams through the broken window contribute to the evocative character of Bouhot’s painting.
In his The first Communion in the Crypt of the Church of St Roch in Paris Claude-Marie Bouton also plays with different effects of light, space, and volume, but his approach is of a far more complex nature. The left-hand side of the painting depicts the church’s large nave, where a First Communion mass is underway. The adjacent smaller rooms are dedicated to parishioners engaged in private, individual devotions, while in the background Louis Pierre Deseine’s sculpture group recreates the burial of Christ. These different spatial relationships and varying degrees of reality are achieved through the evocative treatment of the areas of light and shadow that result from the differently shaped windows overhead. The painting features not one single perspective, but many. Together, they lend the church’s interior an air of reverential mystery. It is therefore unsurprising that along with Louis Daguerre, Charles-Marie Bouton invented the diorama, which built upon the art form of the panorama but used the addition of light to create the illusion of movement.
These three paintings make it possible for Nationalmuseum to present a visual arts phenomenon that was of enormous significance for the continued development of Western visual culture as it advanced toward its next major milestone, the invention of photography.
These acquisitions have been made possible by a generous donation from the Hedda and N D Qvist Memorial Fund and the Wiros Fund. Nationalmuseum receives no public funding for new acquisitions, but relies on gifting and financial support from private funds and foundations to enhance its collections of fine art and craft.
Nationalmuseum is Sweden’s premier museum of art and design. The collections comprise older paintings, sculpture, drawings and graphic art, and applied art and design up to the present day. The museum building is currently under renovation and scheduled to open again in 2018. In the meantime, the museum will continue its activities through collaborations both in Sweden and abroad as well as temporary exhibitions at Nationalmuseum Design at Kulturhuset Stadsteatern in Stockholm. Nationalmuseum has partnerships with Svenska Dagbladet and the Grand Hôtel Stockholm.