Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Juste Milieu

Juste milieu is a name given to both a philosophy of painting and a movement of painters in 19th century France.

The juste milieu artists have been unjustly ignored in the oversimplified and polarizing narrative offered by most art history texts.

These days there aren't many books on them; they don't yet have a Wikipedia entry; they're not even mentioned in many authoritative books about French painting—at least not books in English. But if you read accounts from the period, they were talked about constantly. (Click on any image for enlargement, and to see the artist's name and the title of a work.)

"Juste milieu" translates as “the right mean,” or the “happy medium.” These artists aimed for a middle way between the Impressionist and Academic camps.

Many of today’s new realist painters are trying for a similar kind of synthesis, introducing the best of both approaches into their work.

Starting in the Third Republic in the 1870s, independent painters were beginning to make inroads into the authority of the French Academy.

By the late 1880s, the juste milieu group separated from the Academy, forming under the name “Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts.” Among these defectors were Carolus-Duran, Duez, Besnard, Raffaelli, Roll, and Braquemond.

They combined progressive ideas, like a lighter palette and looser brushwork, with high standards of draftsmanship. Those drawing skills were often lacking in the radical—and now famous—proponents of the new style, Impressionism.

The work of the juste milieu had a looser handling than would have been acceptable during the July Monarchy. They preferred to avoid the “licked” finish of Gerome, Cabanel, and Bouguereau.

At the same time, certain members like Dagnan-Bouveret (above) portrayed contemporary rural folk traditions with a dignity that Academic painters had previously given to classical subjects.

The juste milieu commitment to the middle way won them the admiration of many of the artists from around the globe who came to France for training and inspiration. Joaquin Sorolla journeyed to Paris not to see Monet, but to see Bastien-Lepage. (above).

Most of the worldwide impressionist movements, particularly in England, Australia, Russia, and America, were more influenced by the juste milieu artists than by those that we think of as Impressionists, like Sisley, Pissarro, and Renoir.

Degas, who felt the impact of the group, said of Besnard, (ceiling decoration, above) “[He] has stolen our wings.”

Tomorrow: Frontal Lighting


Anonymous said...

Now that was one enormous eye-opener. I see what you mean about mixing the best of both worlds - what they did 130 years ago is incredibly similar to what's going on in digital art. This piece for instance:
Bretons Praying

The treatment of light and use of colour is eerily similar to what digipaint pioneer Craig Mullins has approached in his experiments. Thank you very much for this. If you know of any books on these artists, please speak up?

Unknown said...

Really fascinating. I wonder why the establishment moved away from this so quickly? The work doesn't strike me as kitsch. Perhaps the avant garde swept everything up and away. Technically, it looks very similar to the way I was taught to paint, a balance of the figurative with an appreciation of the medium.

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite paintings at the Met is, Joan of Arc by Bastien Lepage. If you haven't already, check out a great book, Beyond Impressionism, The Naturalist Impulse by Gabriel Weisberg. Very Interesting. Thanks as always for your great blog.

jeff said...

This is an interesting period on painting, it brought forth some great painters and changes on how paintings were created.

Carolus-Duran was Sargent's teacher
I suppose he could be included in this group.

However I disagree with the statement that the work is not kitsch as I find some of it falls right into that mode.

Depicting peasant life as romantic is a bit problematic as well but that's a different issue.

Some Impressionist were very good draughtsman; Degas as was Monet and Cassatt.

Unknown said...

Well, if you define Kitsch as garish or tasteless or a copy of an existing style I don't think this qualifies. Depicting things romantically shouldn't be problematic at all, could you elaboate on this Jeff?

Shane White said...

Wow...interesting. It says a lot about movements and style choices. Solid draftsmanship and good color theory applied in a 'middle of the road' fashion gets more overlooked than controversial and/or hyperrealistic applications. I mean, if you want to get noticed beyond being a 'functioning' artist, I guess you need to lean one way or the other a little more.

I wonder how much of this influenced Mucha. That last ceiling piece has a similar feel in drawing and color.


jeff said...

The paintings themselves are not garish, but some fall into tasteless by todays standards. Not all mind you fall into an area that is kitsch. I find the paintings of overly romanticized views of poor people a bit much. The lives of street kids and flower sellers in the late 19th century was not as portrayed in some of these works. Most did not have rosy cheeks and the vast majority were malnourished. The healthy people in these paintings are not realistic.

That said it is a small minority of paintings that are like this.

I like William Bouguereau for his ability but I find the subject matter to be a bit much. Depicting Nymphs and Satyr's running around in the forest is corny. The painting is amazing but the subject is just not to my taste.

I guess it is a matter of taste.
If you look at Sargent's painting of the Boit children and then compare it to Lepage's "Young Girl"
both are painted to a high standard. The Sargent stands out to me due to realism he was depicting as opposed to the romanticism the way the painting veers ever so close to being cute.

Victor said...

Great post, but where's Thomas Couture?

I love the juste-milieu artists. Many of them are covered in Gabriel Weisberg's books, as larry noted. I checked them out from the library after James made an off-hand mention of Weisberg in an earlier post. Dagnan Bouveret is one of my favorites. He does an amazing job of capturing both the overall vitality of a scene and all the little nuances and details.

Anonymous said...

Oh wow, thank you for introducing me to this type of work, I had never heard of it. I have only the sparsest art education, which is to say, I've been bashed over the head with Impressionism a hundred times and never learned a lick about any other type of art. Personally, while I can appreciate the historic value of Impressionism, the works never struck much of a chord with me.

Unknown said...

Jeff, when I think of Kitsch, I usually think of people like Bouguereau, although I totally agree with your assesment of him. I think I'm wary of using the term Kitsch to describe this type of work because modern critics have used the term as a big stick to beat up these artists with. Unfairly I think. But, when I think about it this stuff was probably considered kitsch and that partly answers my original question.

Anonymous said...

...I think that Genre Painting is more descriptive, while Kitsch, derogatory.

Erik Bongers said...

There's an interesting discussion going on here.
Taste/tasteless, kitch/art...
The problem with these discussions is that for everyone, and I do mean FOR EVERYONE, the line between those is different.
Worse : even the 'definition' of art and kitch is different for everyone.
So that makes a question like "Can you explain why painting A is kitch and painting B" worthless, because it ignores the fact that you're not talking about exactly the same thing.

Conclusion 1: 'Art' is different for everyone and thus trying to 'prove' that something is art or not is pointless.

Second thing I noticed in these messages is the attempt to 'prove' that something is kitch (or art) on ethical grounds. "...depicting poor children as cute..."
However this is also problematic as 'proof' for art/kitch.
As an example : I could find a poster that promoted the Stalinist regime very impressive, eventhough I know what 'evil' purposes it served.
So I think it is best not to mingle 'ethical' and 'aesthetical' because I think it is 'false logic' to try to prove that something is 'art' or not on ethical grounds.

Conclusion 2: 'Art' can not be 'proven' based on ethical grounds. Ethical and aesthetical appreciation of something can be perfectly independant.

That doesn't mean I believe one should not express or discus aesthetical appreciation.
I LOVE to hear different points of view and tastes.
I just don't like the use of the verb TO BE in that context.
Rather "I really like that painting because so and so..." than "That painting IS art because so and so..."
The latter implying that there is something more general going on than just personal taste.

Sorry for this 'philosophical sermon', but I reallllly lovvvve to talk about this stuff.

Unknown said...

Just to clarify things, I wanted to know why these artists have been all but forgotten in much of art history. I felt they didn't look like kitsch to me, as in garish or tasteless, and wanted to know if any one knew any other reasons.

jeff said...

I don't think kitsch is a derogatory, it does conjure up a certin kind of art, but you now have painters such as Odd Nerdrum claiming this as part of his work.

I have been thinking about this, I think that under the definition of kitsch the large portion of the uste-milieu artists are not really falling into that genre but I do think some of it is corny although technically excellent work.

What is interesting if you look at Rembrandt or Hals and Rubens this does not come up although through commercial use some of this work becomes cliché, I am thinking of the use of Rembrandt's work used to sell cigars.

Erik I don't understand how one can take context out of painting.

Socialist realism is not the same as this and even you like that kind of work, it's a red herring to remove the context of Stalin from the work. That kind of painting was made to serve the state, that it was done well is not an argument for it being good art, it was propaganda.

I am not saying the work is not good art, quite the contrary, I admire the ability. But there is visual content that one is responding to, how can that not define how we view it?

If you have read Dickens then you have know that children of a certain class had pretty awful lives. That some 19 century painters decided to make them cute rosy cheeked waif's is kind of hard to over look.

I am not an advocate of post-modernism, in case you wondering, I hate the stuff myself however I can't look at this kind of art without thinking this way.

One can look at art and for that matter anything out of context, but there does come a point when it is an issue. A lot of the Nazi artist were very good painters and sculptures but I don't think you can remove the fact that these party members were part and parcel to.

The same can be said of David, he was a close ally of Robespierre's and he was willing participant in the terrors, in short he was a bit of a monster.

Yet his painting of the Death of Marat is one of the most defining images of that period, as well as his portrait of Napoléon.

Unknown said...

I agree with you on these points, Jeff, however I still hold that to call these paintings kitsch is to use to broad of a brush.

jeff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jeff said...

Sorry I guess I am being misunderstood. I don't think these paintings are kitsch, some of the subject mater is, but the way they are painted is not.

This is a personal view point of mine. Some of the subject matter is just not working for me.

I just happen to prefer the 16th and 17th centuries for painting myself.

For landscape my favorite is Inness who's work is romantic in a lot of ways. I also love Turner and Constable. Turner was definitely a painter in the romantic tradition so I am not adverse to this kind of work, quite the contrary.

The Juste-milieu painters were anything but middle of the road, and most had very good careers.

Michael Damboldt said...

Hey James, I love your commentaries on these artists. It really fills in the gaps of some of these time periods. (I took five art history classes but still find new movements and artists) I had wondered what others were doing when Degas and Renior were orchestrating their compositions.

Unfortunately Art History seems to only focus on the 'cutting edge' and not on the art community as a whole whenever textbooks and art history books are printed. Reviewing theses artists is an absolute pleasure to read!

stephen erik schirle said...

nice post james, I was able to see a great lepage show in paris last year, along with a jss/sorolla show at the same time. my eyeballs almost exploded it was so fantastic!

Erik Bongers said...

I agree with Michael.
These posts on painters have introduced me to quite a few ones I had never heard of.
Art history (and quite often history in general) is told as if it's a straight line.
But reality is that it's a tree structure : it get's broader and broader over time.
Hey, right ! I just remembered this post with the art history arrows, where traditional art history is one of the 'branches' next to comics, animation, etc...

James Gurney said...

I appreciate all your comments on this topic. There needs to be more debate and study about this amazing period in art history. It was not as simple as we were told in school.

There' was an exhibit of Bastien Lepage at the Musee d'Orsay a couple years ago, but the catalog so far is only in French. As Larry pointed out, the best book is G. Weisburg's "Naturalist Impulse." Another source that I used is "The Academy and French Painting in the 19th Century" by Albert Boime.

Boime points out that the juste milieu painters were able to reform the Salon by requiring that the juries were selected by the artists, which had not happened before. As a result of their support, impressionists like Manet were allowed into the Salon competitions, and the public was made more receptive to the new trends in painting.

I think Eric O, Michael, and Shane are right that moderate voices get overlooked in the simplified histories, but that will change with artists and collectors of our own time dusting off these treasures.

And as Erik B. said, the real story is more like a multi-branched tree, especially in Paris, where there were so many currents and ideas swirling around.

Anonymous said...

I thought the Juste Milieu referred to the regime Louise-Philppe? In the context of art history what does it refer, i feel like theres more to it than just peasants shown in a classical idealized way

Anonymous said...

I thought the Juste Milieu referred to the regime Louise-Philppe? In the context of art history what does it refer, i feel like theres more to it than just peasants shown in a classical idealized way

Anonymous said...

I thought the Juste Milieu referred to the regime Louise-Philppe? In the context of art history what does it refer, i feel like theres more to it than just peasants shown in a classical idealized way