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From Géricault’s Monomanes to Balzac’s La Recherche de L’absolu


These remarks take off from my essay “Géricault’s Romanticism,” which appears in my 2014 book, Another Light: Jacques-Louis David to Thomas Demand.1 A key passage in that essay reads:

My basic claim is this: reaching early maturity during the last years of the Empire, Géricault from the first was drawn to values of action and expression such as had inspired David’s history paintings of the 1780s—of painting as drama in the Diderotian sense of the term—under conditions that made the actualization of those values very nearly impossible. Not that he was critical of Gros and other Napoleonic painters. On the contrary, he admired Gros enormously, and of course the stylistic resources that the young Géricault deployed with astonishing panache—the painterliness and colorism that made the Charging Chasseur so dazzling to the eye—owe far more to the painter of the Jaffa and the Eylau than they do to David. But what sets Géricault apart from Gros or any other artist of the Napoleonic generation (also from his teacher Guérin) is the overriding ambition, manifest in every stroke of his brush, to reclaim for painting certain powers that it was on the verge of losing (more strongly, that in effect it had already lost)—above all the power of representing dramatic and expressive action of a Diderotian stamp, action that not only was not primarily intended to be beheld but would on the contrary be so directed toward, so caught up in the accomplishment of its impassioned purpose as to refute the very possibility that the beholder had been taken into account. And what in my view largely determined the course of Géricault’s baffled and in the end tragically frustrated and incomplete career was an inherent tension or contradiction between that radically antitheatrical ambition and what had become the extreme difficulty, the near-impossibility, of realizing such an ambition in large-scale, multifigure, narratively coherent tableaux that would in effect undo or reverse the retreat from action and expression that [takes place in Jacques-Louis David’s] Sabines and Leonidas and beyond them in [David’s] “Anacreonic” works …. One might even say—I want to say—that precisely that ambition and the near-impossibility together form the core of Géricault’s romanticism, as if he intuited in the theatrical an ever-present existential threat not only to his art but also to his humanity, not that from our vantage point the two are separable other than in principle. It is that “existential” aspect of Géricault’s artistic vision that sets him largely apart from other French Romantics, and indeed establishes a sort of commonality between his art and that of poets and writers such as Hölderlin, Leopardi, Kleist, Lermontov. (And leaping ahead in time, a special affinity, Stephen Crane.)2

I am going to assume that the intellectual and artistic background to this passage, in particular the emergence of the issue of theatricality in Diderot’s writings on the stage and on painting in the 1750s and 60s, along with the pertinence of that issue to the art of Chardin, Greuze, Fragonard, Hubert Robert, David, and Gros (to mention only those six major figures) can be taken as understood—in any case, it would be otiose for me to rehearse those same points once again.3 Nor do I feel I need to repeat my reading of Géricault’s one major painting, the Raft of the Medusa, in which I see a collective effort by almost all the surviving naufragés to attract the attention of a tiny ship on the far horizon, as if being beheld by that ship (amazingly named The Argus) would lead to their rescue from being beheld by us, that is, by the actual beholder or beholders standing before the painting (fig. 1).4

Figure 1. Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1818–19. Oil on canvas, 490 cm × 716 cm (16 ft 1 in × 23 ft 6 in). Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Further on in “Géricault’s Romanticism” I make a proposal that I want to underscore, namely, that owing to the situation summarized in the passage just quoted, Géricault was faced with what I describe as a loss of “world,” a process that can be seen happening as if before one’s eyes in David’s “Anacreonic” paintings, in which the very attempt to depict meaningful action is given up in favor of scenes featuring direct address to the beholder, which is to say an acceptance of theatricality as inescapably the fate of painting.5 More precisely, I see Géricault as having sought to counteract that state of affairs in and through the depiction of a sometimes hyperbolic degree of masculine bodily effort (“to make a world for the body by way of the body” is how I put it), a hypostatization of contrast and opposition not simply as regards particular motifs but also with respect to the treatment of light and dark, and a career-long obsession with horses and other animals that on the one hand are “poor in world” (to use a concept from later Heidegger [GR, 88–89]6) but on the other are, so to speak, immune to theatricality. (The concern with animals reaches a peak of expressiveness in the moving Head of a White Horse in the Louvre.) Here too I refer the reader to “Géricault’s Romanticism” for a more detailed exposition of these claims (see pp. 84–102). I will only add that the extraordinary strategy employed in the Raft, of seeking to neutralize the beholder’s presence before the painting by locating a rival source of beholding at the farthest limit of representational space, indicates an awareness on Géricault’s part that something other than dramatic action as such was called upon to secure this most ambitious of all his works against theatricality.

Finally, I go “beyond” Géricault with the suggestion that ten years after the painter’s death

dramatic action and expression, based on themes of violent opposition and involving antagonists depicted in intensively corporeal terms, positively surge to the fore in early Balzac, who understands perfectly well that this is what is happening—see for example the repeated invocation of the notion of drama (drame) in “Le Colonel Chabert” or indeed the first pages of Le Père Goriot, the decisive early novel. … Put slightly differently, it is as if in Balzac the Diderotian ideal is given new life, with two vital differences or indeed advantages: first, literally nothing in the realm of human action or desire or sheer will is inherently too excessive to be dramatically credible (hence the understandable invocation by modern commentators of the notion of melodrama to characterize his narratives); and second, a related point, the problematic of theatricality such as was developed by Diderot in response to the theater and painting of his time has only limited application to prose fiction, the dynamics of reading stories and novels being fundamentally different from that of beholding stage plays and paintings …. (GR, 105)

And I go on to develop this point with a sustained reading of an early novella by Balzac, the above-mentioned “Le Colonel Chabert” (1832), the protagonist of which, a heroic commander of cavalry at the bloody Napoleonic battle of Eylau, is left for dead on the battlefield (GR, 106–9).7 Eventually he is rescued, having dug himself out from under a heap of corpses using the Herculean severed arm of another soldier (think of Géricault’s studies of severed heads and limbs), and after a torturous recovery makes his way back to Paris, immensely diminished from the outstanding specimen of military manhood that he had earlier been. There he discovers that his wife Rose Chapotel, a beautiful former prostitute, is now married to a returned émigré, the Count Ferraud, and refuses so much as to acknowledge his existence. (The story is set in 1819, the year the Raft was shown in the Salon.) However, with the help of a sympathetic lawyer, Derville, the Countess is forced to acknowledge Chabert, but then he learns that she wishes only to be rid of him. Disgusted and disillusioned, he abandons his suit, becomes a vagrant, and ends up a patient in a mental asylum, on the grounds of which he is later encountered by Derville, whom he fails to recognize, bringing the story to an end. (Chabert appears to believe he is still a military commander, recalling Géricault’s monomane “of delusions of military grandeur.”) My summary account can only suggest the interest of “Le Colonel Chabert” in the present context. To quote myself again:

It is as though Balzac at this critical juncture in his career found himself compelled to demonstrate, to spell out almost didactically, that the heroic values of the previous period had no purchase in the new era [of the Restoration], and that whatever place there turned out to be in his writing for action, expression, and passion—in short for “drame”—and place for these there was in abundance—required to be constructed on a different basis, in keeping with the new and from an earlier perspective grossly amoral social realities he saw emerging around him. (GR, 109)

My final proposal being that “Balzac’s brilliant, searing story provides a fitting epilogue to Géricault’s inspired but ultimately doomed endeavor” (GR, 109).


Put slightly differently, my point in appending a reading of “Le Colonel Chabert” to my account of Géricault was to suggest that what we find in the painter’s career is ultimately the defeat of drama and expression in the Diderotian/Davidian sense of both, which is also to say, in the terms developed in my essay, at least a partial loss of world as representable by painting. Nor does French painting following Géricault’s death undo that defeat and that loss. As I remark in “Géricault’s Romanticism,” the two major figures that dominate the scene in the second half of the 1820s and 1830s, Ingres and Delacroix, found ways of bypassing or disabling the issue of theatricality by shifting the imaginative center of their art altogether elsewhere, toward what I think of as a “stylistic” or, better, “esthetic” register (GR, 58–60). By so doing both artists secured long and productive careers, ones, however, that from my point of view remained somewhat askew to the dominant thrust or dialectic of the central current of French nineteenth-century painting.

Indeed, if one glances ahead at the state of French painting in 1834, the year of the first publication of Le Père Goriot and two years after the appearance of “Le Colonel Chabert,” five paintings in particular offer an overview of the situation:

Figure 2. Paul Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, 1833. Oil on canvas, 246 cm × 297 cm (97 in × 117 in). National Gallery, London.

1) Paul Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, a historical subject based on the beheading of seventeen-year-old Lady Jane Grey in 1554 after a nine-day reign as queen following the death of Edward VI, was in obvious respects the “star” painting of the Salon of 1834 (fig. 2). The moment chosen is just before her beheading; her outer clothing has been removed, she is blindfolded and appears to be kneeling or half-kneeling on a low pillow as she tentatively reaches with her hands in an effort to locate the block on which she will soon lay her head. The scene is pitched near the picture plane, and at the foot of the block, in the immediate foreground, is a quantity of brightly lit, realistically depicted straw.

The question now is whether Delaroche’s canvas was antitheatrical in intent, and the answer must be no. Not that historical questions of intent can be resolved simply by examining the work or works in question; to take an obvious example, no paintings could appear more theatrical to modern taste than Greuze’s genre paintings of the 1760s, and yet my argument has always been that understood in their historical context their seeming theatricality and sentimentality had as their essential function the retention or enclosure of all the personages within the painting so as to secure their “ontological” unawareness of being beheld, an antitheatrical project. In Delaroche’s case, it is necessary to take into account the conclusions of the art historian Stephen Bann, whose invaluable 1997 monograph, Paul Delaroche: History Painted, as well as his contribution to an exhibition catalogue on the Lady Jane Grey, mark an epoch in Delaroche studies.8 By this I mean that Bann found a way to treat Delaroche as a serious artist while at the same time not inflating his achievement. In particular he stresses Delaroche’s departure from the Davidian convention of dramatic opposition, noting that in the Lady Jane Grey the two men in the scene, the executioner waiting to perform his task and the Lieutenant who guides Jane to the block, “are not monopolizing power and vision. They are assisting in a spectacle whose dénouement they are powerless to impede.”9

This is undoubtedly true and raises the possibility that Delaroche sensed that by 1834 a pictorial strategy of dramatic opposition was fated to appear excessive and theatrical. But the word “spectacle” in the remarks just cited seems exactly right, implying as it does a mode of theatricality geared to direct presentation of the painted scene to an audience of beholders. Bann underscores the point when he stresses the impression “that the spectacle has been constructed and raised into view for our perusal,”10 a theatrical effect in the simplest sense of the word. Then too there is the brightness of the colors, designed, one feels, to attract one’s gaze, as is also true of the ultra-realistic straw. All this is to say nothing of Lady Jane Grey’s hesitant actions and gestures, which contravene the energetic gestural paradigms of David’s history paintings of the 1780s.

So much seems clear strictly on the basis of observation. But we also have the testimony of contemporary art critics, in particular that of Gustave Planche, one of the leading art writers of the 1830s. Planche holds the Lady Jane Grey in low esteem, in contrast to its considerable success with the public. This in itself is interesting in that it signals the emergence of a rift, which will only grow, between the tastes of a mass or at least a “bourgeois” public and the sophisticated judgment of critics like Planche, Thoré, and Gautier. (The widespread characterization of Delaroche’s art as belonging to a “juste milieu,” essentially a political term, confirms the point.) Going further, Planche engages succinctly with the crucial issue. “The Jane Grey of M. Delaroche is theatrical rather than dramatic,” he writes dismissively,11 a point seconded by other critics such as Alexandre Decamps (“his paintings resemble carefully arranged scenes of the theater,”12) and Gabriel Laviron (Lady Jane’s expression “smacks of the theater and seems that of an actress afraid of losing some of her grace if she abandoned herself too much to the impression of the moment”13). Remarks such as these prove that the Diderotian categories were still alive, but that in Delaroche’s case, the painter was not seeking to close off the painting to the viewer, quite the contrary. (It’s significant, too, that Planche, Decamps, and Laviron make a point of expressing their admiration for Géricault, who in the relatively short time since his death had begun to be regarded as an exemplary master.14)

Figure 3. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, The Martyrdom of Saint Symphorian, 1834. Oil on canvas, 407 cm × 339 cm (160 in × 133.5 in). Autun Cathedral, Autun.

2) Another key work in the Salon was Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s The Martyrdom of Saint Symphorien, an ambitious religious painting, more than thirteen feet wide by more than eleven feet high, made for the Cathedral of Saint-Lazare in Autun, where it remains to this day (fig. 3).15 Its setting is Autun in Roman times, when it was the city of Augustodunum, and its subject, prescribed by the commission, was a moment in the martyrdom of Symphorien, a second-century Christian who refused to recognize the gods of Rome. In Ingres’s painting, a dense mass of men, women, and children, led by the Roman official Heraclius, fills the bulk of the picture space as they crowd Symphorien into the foreground en route to his martyrdom. Just behind Symphorien and to his right (our left), Heraclius, on horseback (therefore elevated), looks out of the painting—as if somewhat toward the viewer’s right—and points with his right arm and hand, presumably in the direction in which the crowd is to go. (Symphorien was martyred by beheading.) The moment in question marks a break in the movement of the crowd, as Symphorien stops, raises both arms in a dramatic, not to say theatrical, gesture that immediately draws the viewer’s attention and turns his own gaze upward and to his right in the direction of a woman, his mother Augusta, on the city wall. For her part, she not only gazes intently down at her son but extends her right arm and hand toward him while, with her left arm and hand, she gestures upward, presumably toward the Christian heaven, as she urges him toward his martyrdom.

Figure 4. Jacques-Louis David, The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons, 1789. Oil on canvas, 323 cm × 422 cm (127 in × 166 in). Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The use of a strong sightline—indeed a pair of opposed sightlines, hers and his—goes back to David’s Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1789), which depicts an exchange of highly charged gazes between one of the lictors bearing the headless bodies at the left and Brutus’s wife and daughter, who rise to their feet in response to the appalling sight (fig. 4). Also in the David there is in the left foreground the seated figure of Junius Brutus who faces out of the painting but who we are to understand has been absorbed in painful thought. (In accordance with Roman law, he has ordered the death of his sons.) The moment depicted shows him reacting to the arrival of the lictors and conceivably also to the cries of the women. In other words, the isolation of Brutus is registered in contrast to the visual (also emotional) communication between the lictor and the women, and it is possible that Ingres intended an analogous contrast between the exchange of gazes between Symphorien and his mother and the outward look and gesture of Heraclius, for all the differences between the two pairings.16

In David’s Brutus, however, the structure in question with its strong lateral emphasis makes immediate compositional sense, binding together the left- and right-hand portions of the painting, which can’t be said of Ingres’s canvas, in which Symphorien’s intense exchange of gazes with his mother gains its histrionic vividness at the expense of the rest of the scene: thus Heraclius’s gaze and gesture, once we notice them, seem merely odd, passionless, unconnected with anything, just as his elevation requires the viewer to deduce that he is on horseback, the head of his horse being mostly blocked from view by Symphorien’s upraised right arm. As for the crowd of persons accompanying Symphorien to his place of martyrdom, as mentioned it forms a dense collective mass that the viewer explores visually only with difficulty, assuming that he or she takes the trouble to do so. In the words of one critic, Fabien Pillet:

If … I turn my eyes over the multitude of men and women who press around the saint, I cannot distinguish any plan. All these superimposed figures resemble so many adherent bodies, and it is only after a quarter of an hour’s attention that I was able to discover, in the middle of this highly compact crowd, the immobile horse of the proconsul. How could the horse and two or three others, of which one barely only perceives the feet or the ears, how did they get there? How are they going to leave? How will they not suffocate there?17

Critics also noted with displeasure the drab coloring of the whole as well as the excessive musculature of several of the figures, in particular the nearest lictor, who twists in place so as to look up toward Augusta, though here too it takes a moment to realize that that is what is going on.

As commentators on the picture emphasize, Ingres’s canvas, originally commissioned in 1824, would have been in keeping with the conservative character of the Bourbon Restoration. But by 1834 the political situation had changed radically, not simply by the replacement of the Bourbon line by Louis Philippe but also, equally tellingly, by the growing reaction against the latter’s government. In sum, despite positive notice by certain conservative critics, Étienne-Jean Delécluze in particular, Ingres’s painting, the product of intense labor over a decade, was not a success and in fact marked his last submission to the Salon. Disappointed, he closed his teaching studio and took up a six-year term as director of the French Academy in Rome, removing himself from the contemporary scene.

As for the Saint Symphorien’s relation to the Diderotian problematic summarized earlier, it seems clear that nothing could have been further from Ingres’s intentions than to negate or neutralize the presence of the beholder. On the contrary, part of the confusion sown by the work in 1834 has to do with the different and jarring solicitations of the viewer that it proffers—in the first place the featured exchange between Augusta and Symphorien (we are to imagine her calling out to him to be faithful to the end); in the second the very different solicitation implied by the teeming crowd with its profusion of jammed together heads, limbs, helmets, fasces, and so on, which calls for the beholder to peruse it closely (but to what end?); and finally the figure of Heraclius, who scarcely seems to belong to the rest of the composition and whose pointing gesture seems meant for the viewer rather than for those in his train. The result is not so much a descent into theatricality as it is a kind of visual cacophony that the fabled strength of Ingres’s contour drawing is powerless to redeem.18

Figure 5. Eugène Delacroix, Women of Algiers in their Apartment, 1834. Oil on canvas, 180 cm × 229 cm (70.9 in × 90.1 in). Musée du Louvre, Paris.

3) With Eugène Delacroix’s Women of Algiers in their Apartment we come to the one truly outstanding painting in the Salon of 1834, a work of stunning originality and stylistic mastery (fig. 5). The background to the painting is well known: Delacroix traveled to Morocco in 1832 in the entourage of the comte de Mornay, who had been charged with a diplomatic mission by the government of Louis Philippe.19 This enabled Delacroix to spend six months in Tangier making numerous drawings, watercolors, and notes. The mission having succeeded, Mornay and Delacroix on their way back to France stopped off in Algiers for just a few days, at which time the painter, according to notes jotted down at the time, explored the city. On his return to Paris Delacroix made a number of drawings of female models dressed in Algerian costume, as well as of possible groupings of figures, eventually settling on the final composition of four women, three of whom, light-skinned and in exotic dress, are seated on the floor (more accurately, on a low pillow and a striped rug), while to the right a black woman, presumably a servant, walks out of the picture. (Her right foot with its heel rising from her slipper being one of Delacroix’s characteristic small strokes of gestural genius.) The scene is set in an interior space clearly meant to represent the sort of room in which Algerian women in a harem might be found, despite the likelihood that Delacroix himself never penetrated such a sanctum. But the room as depicted is full of “authentic” items and details—bright red painted woodwork, a tilted blank mirror in an ornate gold frame high on the wall, richly colored, inset faience, the rugs and pillows already mentioned—while the exquisitely managed lighting with its delicate chiaroscuro adds greatly to the viewer’s sense of being offered privileged access to a distinctly “feminine” interior.

As has always been remarked, the canvas is fairly large, just under six feet high by seven and a half feet wide, dimensions that considerably exceed the traditional size of a genre painting. And yet by virtue of its subject matter, not simply its setting in the chronological present but also its eschewal of significant action of any sort, it positively rebuts being taken as a history painting. By far the most interesting contemporary response was by Planche, who wrote:

This outstanding work, which interests only by virtue of painting and has nothing to do with the literary inanity of gawkers or the sentimentality of frivolous women [a reference to the presumed audience for Delaroche’s canvas] marks a grave moment in Delacroix’s intellectual life.20

Two points are worth emphasizing. First, viewed in these terms, the Women of Algiers (hereafter simply the Women) has no proper sequel in Delacroix’s art. By that I mean that although Delacroix went on to paint numerous North African subjects, including works of great brilliance such as the Jewish Wedding in Morocco (1841) and Arab Players (1848), no later picture of that sort could be said to present the sort of generic conundrum associated with the canvas of 1834.21 Indeed his subsequent production continually exploited specific subject matter, often drawn from a wide canon of literary texts (by Shakespeare, Scott, Byron, Goethe, Tasso, et al.), of a religious character (Christ on the Cross, Pietàs, Sebastian being rescued by the women), or simply pursuing a wide range of possibilities in­spired by previous works by masters such as Rubens, a parti­cular favorite—not to mention large decorative projects based on classical themes. Simply put, the Women was an almost unique creation, not the advent of a new conception of painting. (There would be no new conception of panting until the emergence of Courbet’s Realism in the late 1840s, an altogether different matter.22)

And second, I take the “painting and nothing more” aspect of the Women as marking a kind of crisis with respect to the pictorial treatment of dramatic action, a point strongly suggested by some remarks by Alexandre Decamps:

In a word and above all, it is painting, painting as was done by Veronese, however without resembling him; and beyond that the moral character of the painting concedes nothing to the execution; there is in the pose of these African women a feeling of indolence, in their heads an expression of inoccupation and insouciance which is worth all the dramatic scenes ….23

As if the women’s passivity and “inoccupation” (mindlessness?) were a viable alternative to the intense absorption of David’s and Géricault’s protagonists. But in fact the Women has nothing about it, except that it is a figure painting, that relates meaningfully to the Diderotian/Davidian problematic that was the core of Géricault’s endeavor.

Figure 6. Louis Léopold Robert, Fishermen Departing on the Adriatic, 1834. Oil on canvas, 186 cm × 247 cm (73.2 in × 101.2 in). Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

4) Another painting that is to the point is the Swiss-born Léopold Robert’s Departure of the Fishermen of the Adriatic, much less well-known than the works by Delaroche, Ingres, and Delacroix we have just considered (fig. 6).24 In fact the Fishermen was not shown in the Salon of 1834; it had been intended for that occasion but was not completed in time and was not shown until the following Salon, that of 1836. (By then Robert had committed suicide.) Thematically, the Fishermen was the last in a planned series of four ambitious paintings depicting the different seasons in Italy and also, it is usually said, the four races of Italians. The first, shown in the Salon of 1827, was the Return from the Fête of the Madonna dell’Arco, a springtime scene featuring Neapolitans (fig. 7). The second, which proved to be the most admired of the group, was the Summer Reapers Arriving in the Pontine Marshes, shown in the Salon of 1831 and purchased for the state by Louis Philippe (fig. 8). There was to be a third canvas depicting Florence and her autumn vineyards, but Robert found that difficult for one reason or another and moved directly to the fourth planned work, the Fishermen. When the latter was exhibited it was widely regarded as disappointing, a falling off from the level of the Summer Reapers. Again, Planche’s commentary on the Fishermen is interesting, praising the execution of individual figures but concluding, “He has lots of actors but doesn’t find the drama.”25

Figure 7. Louis Léopold Robert, Return from the Fête of the Madonna dell’Arco, 1827. Oil on canvas, 142 cm × 212 cm (56 in × 83.5 in). Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Figure 8. Louis Léopold Robert, The Arrival of the Harvesters in the Pontine Marshes, 1830. Oil on canvas, 141.2 cm × 212 cm (55.6 in × 83.5 in). Musée du Louvre, Paris.

This last observation is undoubtedly true. But the point is—Planche’s point should have been—that all three of Robert’s ambitious Italian canvases are devoid of drama and that not by accident but by design. Not only do they all basically face the beholder (though the Return from the Fête has a nominal left-to-right structure), they unembarrassedly offer themselves in a presentational, not action-based, manner; they are gatherings of costumed figures striking mostly static poses rather than scenes of action or records of events. The dominant impression from a modern perspective in the Summer Reapers and the Fishermen is indeed akin to that of a final scene in a comic opera, Léon Rosenthal’s dismissive characterization of the Fishermen decades later.26 Not surprisingly, Robert’s reputation, mixed as it was, did not long survive his death, but my point in calling attention to his brief flowering is to underscore what I see as the rejection or at least the avoidance of drama and expression in key works of the 1830s. (In the case of Delaroche, it may seem as if one should speak of the failure of both of these. But the terms of that failure imply an un-Diderotian embrace of what was recognized at the time as a blatant theatricality.)

Figure 9. François Granet, The Death of Poussin, 1834. Oil on canvas. Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence.
Figure 10. Félix-Henri Bracquemond, The Death of Poussin, after Granet, c. 1870. Etching.

5) A fifth work, also in the Salon of 1834, different in kind from the others, bears interestingly on our topic. In his Death of Poussin the older painter François-Marius Granet depicted a group of mourners of various ages, most conspicuously the Cardinal Massimi in crimson, gathered around the great painter’s deathbed.27 (The original painting, in the Demidoff collection in Florence, was destroyed during World War II; our understanding of what it looked like is based on a preliminary canvas by the painter, today in the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence (fig. 9), as well as by a later etching by Félix Bracquemond (fig. 10). The title of the painting in the Salon livret is: Le Poussin avant d’expirer reçoit les soins du cardinal Massimo et le secours de la religion.) The overall mood was unmistakably absorptive, as is usually the case in Granet’s paintings of church and monastery interiors (a favorite subject), but what most importantly distinguished Granet’s canvas from the others we have considered is that it was devoid of overt action of any sort, that the scene was pitched at a considerable distance from the viewer (this too is characteristic of Granet), that the figures were modest in scale, that the setting was conspicuously ordinary (Poussin’s bedroom, largely bare though with two of his paintings on the wall), and that the expressive tenor of the whole (again, as usual in Granet) was carried by the solemn nature of the proceedings as well as by the subdued lighting and diffuse chiaroscuro. The moment depicted follows the giving of the last rites, which adds to the sense of protracted temporality—the painter is drawing his last breath as those closest to him look on. Throughout the scene stillness reigns. Planche in his Salon of that year considers this the painter’s “most beautiful work” (“plus bel ouvrage”); what he stresses in his admiring commentary is the painting’s overall unity, the mastery with which Granet composed “with his depths and his figures a homogeneous whole, one, inalienable, indivisible, from which no part can be subtracted without loss.”28 Planche is impressed, too, by the treatment of the individual heads, each of which seems to him to quietly express the appropriate melancholic emotion but in a manner consistent with all the others. Finally: “There isn’t a corner of the painting that draws the eye”29—in contrast, for example, with the straw in the extreme foreground of the Lady Jane Grey. (Two more disparate works based on historical subjects would be hard to imagine.) Put in the terms we have been tracing, it seems fair to say that in Granet’s Death of Poussin a collective absorption made itself felt as a general effect at the expense of even the slightest hint of dramatic action.


My aim in briefly surveying the situation with regard to the state of French painting in and around 1834 has been to flesh out a contemporary context for Balzac’s pursuit of Diderotian drama and expression in “Le Colonel Chabert” and Le Père Goriot—specifically, to underscore my claim that with regard to painting these were in abeyance, to say the least. But I now want to propose that Balzac’s relation to the recent history of French painting was even richer, one might say more intensely compensatory, than I have suggested until now. This calls for a return to Géricault, specifically to his five remarkable so-called Portraits of the Insane (Monomanes), a reasonable guess being that they were painted after his return from London to Paris in 1821. (The paintings were discovered by chance in Baden-Baden in 1863; they hang today in museums in Paris [fig. 11], Lyon [fig. 12], Ghent [fig. 13], Winterthour [fig. 14], and Springfield, MA [fig. 15]. Supposedly there were five more portraits that have never come to light.)

Figure 11. Théodore Géricault, Monomaniac of Gambling (La Folle monomane du jeu), 1821. Oil on canvas, 77 cm × 65 cm (30.3 in × 25.6 in). Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Figure 12. Théodore Géricault, Monomaniac of Envy (La monomane de l’envie), 1821. Oil on canvas, 72 cm × 58 cm (28.3 in × 22.8 in). Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon.

Nothing definite is known about the circumstances of their production, though it has been surmised that they bear some relation to Géricault’s own psychological breakdown, which led to his being treated by a young doctor, a student of the famous Jean-Étienne-Dominque Esquirol and pioneer in the study of monomania, Étienne-Jean Georget, with whom he seems to have lived for a time.30 (Not that we have any hard information about the breakdown itself; knowledge of key details of Géricault’s life is frustratingly sparse.) Traditionally too they have been designated as studies of specific types of monomanes, monomaniacs, which is to say that the subjects of the portraits are taken to be, as I write in “Géricault’s Romanticism”:

persons wholly absorbed in one or another delusion or obsession but otherwise normal. (Géricault’s sitters—three men, two women—are said to be monomaniacs of theft, the stealing of children, gambling, envy, and delusions of military grandeur.) All five paintings are incontestably among the most compelling portraits ever made, masterpieces at once of hyperacute objective observation and of unimpeded sympathetic identification (how can this be?). Each facial expression is utterly individual in its suggestion of mental disturbance but without the least hint of exaggeration, much less of caricature. The gazes are oblique, not so much vacant as haunted-seeming (each in its own way), and one has the sense that this or rather the absorption or distraction that the gazes signify allowed the painter to scrutinize each sitter with a closeness and an intensity—also, as I have said, a sympathy—that ordinary interaction between social peers would have made inconceivable. The brushwork is vigorous but impasto has mostly been eschewed in an attempt to record the actual texture and condition of the sitters’ skin—again, scarcely a feature of conventional portraiture even at its most distinguished. And as Michel remarks [the reference is to Régis Michel’s entry on the portraits in the catalogue accompanying the great retrospective exhibition of 1991–92], attention is also paid to the individual subjects’ dress (also to their tenue or bearing), which he rightly sees as conferring on them a dignity that implicitly argues for their humane treatment. To all this I will simply add that one way of characterizing their general condition as portrayed by Géricault might well be as self-evidently “poor in world,” if not indeed as very nearly worldless—a basis, perhaps, for the rapport between painter and sitter that can be felt in every touch of the brush. (GR, 101–2)

Figure 13. Théodore Géricault, Kleptomaniac (Le Monomane du vol), 1821. Oil on panel, 61.2 cm × 50.2 cm (24 in × 19.8 in). Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent.
Figure 14. Théodore Géricault, Monomaniac of Military Grandeur (Le Monomane du commandement militaire), 1821. Oil on canvas, 81 cm × 65 cm (31.9 in × 25.6 in). Musée Oskar Reinhart “Am Römerholz,” Winterthur, Switzerland.

Such an account places the portraits in the context of my larger absorption/theatricality dialectic, in that the sitters’ mental condition is understood as rendering them, for all intents and purposes, wholly unaware of or indifferent to being beheld. Indeed Georget’s characterization of monomanes in his important book De la folie (1820) goes still further, seeing in them persons not only wholly absorbed in one or another obsessive delusion but also as seeking to flee their fellows, either to escape being seen by them or “to entrench themselves all the more securely in their own manner of looking.”31 Which if true makes Géricault’s success in winning his sitters’ confidence sufficiently to scrutinize and portray them at close range all the more impressive. In any case, the portraits in their very extremity are consistent with the painter’s almost hyperbolic version of the Diderotian project as I have presented it.

Figure 15. Théodore Géricault, Monomaniac of Child Abduction (Le monomane du vol d’enfants), 1821. Oil on canvas, 65 cm × 54 cm (25.5 in × 21.2 in). Michele & Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA.

I say as much in the pages on Géricault in Courbet’s Realism and “Géricault’s Romanticism,” as my quotation from the latter indicates. Now I want to go a step further and propose that the portraits of monomanes represent not only a climactic stage in Géricault’s development but also a decisive episode in the antitheatrical dialectic generally—as if they mark the limit case of absorption, beyond which for the moment, but perhaps not only for the moment, it was impossible for painting to go. This is a new thought for me, by which I mean that until now I had never granted the portraits of monomaniacs that sort of larger, limit-case significance.

An excursus seems in order, however, not to call into question what I have just written but rather by way of introducing a small group of works that throws further light on the situation of French painting in 1834. Here I follow a discovery made by Stephen Bann in Paul Delaroche: History Painted. Bann begins by discussing a project for mural decorations in the Madeleine Church in Paris, a commission that collapsed, but not before Delaroche visited Italy, specifically the monastery and hermitage of Camaldoli in Tuscany, where he made several portrait oil sketches of monks during the summer and early autumn of 1834 (fig. 16). According to Bann:

Indeed, this remarkable series of portrait sketches … stands out as a vivid and appropriate record of this turning-point of Delaroche’s career. [Bann’s reference is to Delaroche’s turn toward mural projects, itself a significant development in view of my larger topic.] The technique of the oil sketch as a way of recording individual features that would be subsumed in a larger composition was a well-known device of the school of David. But Delaroche has given the faces of these Camaldoline monks an intensity of characterization, which, at the same time, seems to be incapable of being taken any further; it is as if the functional differentiation of the young and the old, the prior and the oblate, were subsumed in a total self-sufficiency—the outward sign of their existence, for each other, as members of the community.32

Bann also describes the portraits “as indices of a time of meditation and instruction, far from Paris and indeed from Rome, which belonged nowhere in terms of the accepted hierarchy of pictorial genres, but whose irreducible appeal could be preserved by their being simply transferred to the collection of a friend” (the duc de Feltre, who bequeathed them to the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nantes).33

Figure 16. Paul Delaroche, Head of a Camoldine Monk, 1834. Oil on panel, 23 cm × 19 cm (9 in × 7.5 in). Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes.

I think Bann was brilliantly right to single out these portrait sketches for special notice, and I find his description of the faces of the monks as evincing “an intensity of characterization, which, at the same time, seems to be incapable of being taken any further” (emphasis added) immensely suggestive: as if the portrait sketches as understood by Bann are themselves limit-works at the far pole from depictions of absorption, there being a sort of antithesis between the mode of characterization Delaroche sought (the monks’ “existence, for each other, as members of the community,” which is to say of a tightly circumscribed social world) and the non-communicating, intensely subjective, indeed solipsistic nature of states of absorption such as are depicted in Géricault’s portraits of monomanes. Bann also wonders whether Delaroche’s images, “‘of an extraordinary clarity of expression’, as a writer in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts later phrased it, have been caught up in a process of social and personal exchange, which already eludes the concept of property and propriety associated with the tradition of the portrait.”34 Nothing remotely like social or personal exchange takes place in Géricault’s canvases, of course, but his monomanes elude the concept of property and propriety even more emphatically than Delaroche’s sketches of monks. My further thought is that the sketches’ eschewal of absorption in a context, religious retreat, that would traditionally have justified it confirms this essay’s reading of the state of French painting in the mid-1830s.


At this juncture I want to return to a consideration of Balzac, specifically his remarkable novel of 1834, La Recherche de l’absolu [The Quest of the Absolute], written in the course of four months, after which he went on to write Le Père Goriot—an astonishing dual feat of literary creation.35 The plot of La Recherche is basically simple, but it comprises more than enough distinct phases and internal developments to make summarizing it difficult without going on at excessive length. Here, then, are the bare narrative bones of the novel.

The story is set in Douai, a town in northern France with a Flemish character. The dramatis personae are Balthazar Claës, the scion of a distinguished family, who is fifty-four years old when the narrative begins in 1812. His wife is Josephine, also from a good family (one with Spanish roots); she is devoted to her husband, who loves her dearly despite certain bodily imperfections. (We are also told that she is beautiful.) There are four children, the oldest of whom is Marguerite, who will play an important role in the story; there is also a younger son, Gabriel, and another daughter, Félicie. Other significant characters are an ambitious notary, Pierquin, who at first aspires to marry Marguerite but eventually settles for Félicie; Lemulquinier, an aged servant who serves as a personal assistant to Balthazar; and the Abbé de Solis, eighty years old, Josephine’s confessor, retired from active life in order to supervise the education of his nephew, Emmanuel, an appealing youth who eventually will marry Marguerite. Fairly late in the novel we also meet M. Conycks, a great-uncle of Marguerite, who will come to her aid at a difficult time. Almost as important as the characters is the family house, an elegant structure that goes back centuries and is filled with valuable furniture, adjoins a garden with prize tulips, has on a higher floor a room that Balthazar makes his private laboratory, and also includes a gallery of paintings, which will play a large role in the narrative. (One painting in particular, a Titian portrait of an illustrious ancestor, the great Claës, will be a special focus of attention.)

The basic idea of the narrative could hardly be simpler: Balthazar, previously devoted to Josephine and his family (we are told the couple married in 1795), has taken up chemistry in an attempt to discover the Absolute—a kind of philosopher’s stone—having been inspired to do so by an earlier one-day visit from a Polish officer named De Wierzchownia. (A key incident that took place in 1809, as Balthazar later explains to an appalled Josephine.) He is assisted in his researches by the servant Lemulquinier, but what they are up to remains secret between them, though at one point Balthazar tries to explain himself to Josephine. The narrative centers on the efforts of the family, in the first place Josephine and then later Marguerite, with the help of the Abbé de Solis and eventually Emmanuel and Conyncks, to counteract Balthazar’s consuming obsession with his chemical research, which time and again brings the family to the brink of financial ruin. He continually sends to Paris for chemicals and equipment, oblivious to the damage he is thereby doing to the family’s finances. At several junctures in response to Josephine’s urging he breaks off his research, but inevitably he returns to his laboratory, selling off remaining portions of the family holdings, including the paintings in the gallery, believing every time that the great discovery he seeks is imminent. Finally Marguerite, with the help of Conyncks, arranges for him to take up an administrative position in Brittany as a way of removing him from the house and allowing her to take steps to restore some portion of the family fortune, but when he returns to Douai five years later it emerges that even while away he had continued his researches and contracted further debts. (During Marguerite’s voyage to bring him home Pierquin, Emmanuel, and Conyncks have restocked the painting gallery so that it will not be bare on Balthazar’s return. One of the notable features of the story is the importance conferred on the gallery, as if to alert the reader to the importance of painting to the novelist’s project.) A lull follows until in 1821 Marguerite and Emmanuel travel to Spain, where she gives birth to a son; the reason for the voyage is to deal with various estates that had been settled on Emmanuel. Eighteen months later they begin to return to Douai, but in Cadiz they find a letter from Félicie informing them that Balthazar has again ruined himself financially. And when they arrive home they find a house empty of furnishings, everything having been sold, including the sculpted panels and the portrait of the great Claës. Eventually—by now it is the early 1830s, very nearly the moment when the book was written—Balthazar becomes a laughing-stock in the town, and when he realizes this he suffers a paralytic stroke. Marguerite once again pays his debts and refurnishes the house, but his condition worsens, until one morning Emmanuel reads to him from a newspaper, which includes the announcement that a Polish mathematician has discovered the Absolute. Balthazar cries out “Eureka!” and dies.

Commentaries on La Recherche de l’absolu (from now on simply La Recherche) have not failed to recognize Balzac’s interest in painting, which is reflected in the initial fine-textured description, characterized as a “peinture,” of the Maison Claës and its contents. Indeed, reading the pages in question, it is hard to believe that Balzac had never visited Douai and that he had no actual Maison Claës before his eyes; this is also the case as regards his description of the most spectacular of many works of art amassed by the family during the previous two centuries, the sculpted ebony woodwork by an artist named Van Huysium comprising no less than sixty panels depicting 1400 principal figures (no such artist existed).

Finally the description of the house and its works of art comes to a close. There follows:

On a Sunday afternoon, after vespers, towards the end of August, in the year 1812, a woman was sitting in a large easy chair by one of the windows that looked out on the garden. The rays of sunlight falling on the side of the house slanted across the room in broad beams, played with fantastic effect on the opposite wall, and died away among the somber ebony figures of the panels; but the woman sat in the purple shadow cast by the damask curtain. A painter of mediocre ability who at that moment portrayed the woman could not have failed to make a striking picture with a head so full of sadness and melancholy. The pose of her body and of her feet stretched out before her expressed the exhaustion of a person who loses consciousness of her physical existence in the concentration of her forces absorbed by a fixed idea, one that seemed to open up the paths of the future just as often a ray of sunlight piercing through the clouds lights up a gleaming path on the horizon of the sea. Her hands hung over the arms of the chair; her head, as though too heavy, rested against the cushions ….36

The woman is Josephine, wife of Balthazar, and her state of mind has a cause that will soon become clear, namely her knowledge that her husband not only is burning through considerable sums of money in his chemical researches but also that he now thinks of nothing else—that having been a loving and considerate husband and father he is now seemingly indifferent to anything but the object of his quest. Scenes that develop this point will recur throughout the novel, but what I want to call attention to at the outset is that our first sighting of Josephine is of a person totally absorbed in thought to the extent of “losing all consciousness of her physical existence,” after which we are told that “A painter of mediocre ability who at that moment portrayed the woman could not have failed to make a striking picture with a head so full of sadness and melancholy.” Such a picture, of course, would be a study of absorption, and my suggestion is that its strategic prominence so early in the narrative should be taken as keying the reader to the novel’s overriding concern with extreme versions of that state of mind as well as to the theme of painting, about which there will be more to say.

And in fact we are soon told that Josephine has become aware of footsteps slowly descending the staircase leading to the parlor where she has been sitting. Not surprisingly, it is her husband whose footfalls she hears, but their heavy, lagging character fills her with dread. “The grave slowness, the dragging steps of the man doubtless would have made unthinking persons impatient. But an observer or nervous persons would have experienced a feeling close to terror at the measured sound of those feet that seemed lifeless, and which made the floorboards resound as if two iron weights struck them alternately. You would have recognized the indecisive and heavy tread of a thinker walking majestically beneath the weight of worlds.”37 Balthazar enters the parlor, but “either [he] did not look at the woman in the low chair, or if he looked at her it was with unseeing eyes.”38 At this point Balzac goes on to describe Balthazar closely at some length, emphasizing his premature aging, bent posture, disheveled hair, wrinkled brow, and sunken eyes, above all his air of distraction, “in keeping with the magnificent monstrousness of his physiognomy,” and noting his neglect of his person, “but in Balthazar Claës it was the neglect of genius.”39 (Throughout the novel reference is made to Balthazar’s genius, despite the failure of his experiments to produce the results he craves. Balzac evidently wants the reader to take Balthazar’s efforts seriously, whatever their cost to his family.) Josephine speaks to him but he doesn’t answer. “His wife bowed her head, clasped her hands, and waited, she knew that his silence was due neither to contempt nor to indifference, but to tyrannical preoccupations.”40 Finally he goes to a window giving on the garden, “where the tulips blazed in all their glory. Then he stopped suddenly, as if he had come into collision with a wall, and exclaimed, ‘Why should they not combine in a given time?’”41—the reference obviously being to an experiment. In other words, he has not taken in the presence of his wife or, for that matter, the tulips—his sole preoccupation is what has been going on in his laboratory.

At this point Balzac breaks off the narrative and gives us the back story of Balthazar’s early years in Paris, where he studied chemistry with the great Lavoisier, which is why years later he was susceptible to De Wierzchownia’s urging that he take up the pursuit of the Absolute. Soon, however, his attachment to his native Flanders and the quiet happiness of life there brought him back to Douai and in time led to his falling in love with Josephine, then Mlle. Temninck, who at first feared to respond in kind, self-conscious as she was of her bodily imperfection, but in the end came to trust his feelings. In 1795 they married and settled in Douai. (Throughout the narrative we are given dates that mark the passage of some forty years.) Significantly, we are told that she brought with her “several fine paintings by Murillo and Velasquez” along with her mother’s diamonds and various splendid wedding presents.42 Several pages are then devoted to an account of the happy early years of the marriage, including the birth of two boys and two girls, followed by the death of Josephine’s brother in Spain, leaving her a rich bequest. At which point we read:

It was a sufficiently difficult problem to know what to do with the money. The Maison Claës was so rich in treasures of art, in pictures and valuable furniture, that it was scarcely possible to find anything worthy of being added to such a collection, formed by the taste of their ancestors. The noble collection of pictures had been begun by one generation and completed by those that followed, a love of art having become a family tradition. There were fifty paintings in the state apartments on the first floor, and in the long gallery which connected those rooms with the quarter in in which the family lived there were more than a hundred famous pictures by Rubens, Ruysdael, Van Dyck, Terburg, Gerard Dou, Teniers, Mieris, Paul Potter, Wouwerman, Rembrandt, Hobbema, Cranach, and Holbein. Three centuries of patient research had assembled them. Examples of the French and English schools were in the minority, but nevertheless they were all of them genuine and of capital importance.43

In addition, in the parlor where the Van Huysium sculptures were displayed there hung over the chimney-piece the Titian portrait of the earlier heroic Claës who had been martyred by the Spanish, founding the family’s renown. The collection will subsequently be sold to fund Balthazar’s researches, and when years later Emmanuel and his uncle succeed in acquiring replacement pictures he will take advantage of Marguerite’s and Emmanuel’s absence to do so again. In short, the paintings are a major leitmotif throughout the novel, both the collection as a whole and the portrait of the famous ancestor, which is cited more than once as if presiding over the family in its travails. In the end, even that talismanic masterwork is sold by Balthazar.

Balzac’s fascination with painting has long been recognized as one of the hallmarks of his art. Not only was he the author of arguably the greatest of all literary texts on the subject, “Le Chef d’œuvre inconnu” (first published 1831), as well as the novella “Sarrasine” (1831), which Roland Barthes later made the subject of one of his most original analyses, S/Z (1970), and the short story “Pierre Grassou,” in which Balzac’s interest in Dutch and Flemish painting, so prominent in La Recherche de l’absolu, again comes to the fore. (Among Grassou’s works are “a servile imitation of Dutch landscapes, of Metsu interiors, [and] a copy of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson.”44) Indeed French scholars such as Olivier Bernard and Thierry Laugée have emphasized the influence of Dutch and Flemish pictures on Balzac’s descriptions in his novels and stories both of individual figures and of shadowy interiors.45 Eventually, too, Balzac would collect paintings and form a modest gallery of his own. And in “Géricault’s Romanticism,” as noted earlier, I suggest in and through a reading of “Le Colonel Chabert” that something of the extreme drama and corporeal energy of Géricault’s art finds a rebirth or, perhaps better, a continuation (after a temporal hiatus) in Balzac’s fiction of the 1830s. I shall advance an equivalent suggestion in regard to La Recherche de l’absolu, but before doing so I want to survey a range of scenes from the novel, each representing Balthazar as obsessed with his pursuit of the Absolute to the exclusion of everything else.

Relatively early on we are told:

Before very long there set in a reaction of the mental on the physical existence. The ravages thus wrought were scarcely visible at first, save to the eyes of a loving woman, who watched for a clue to her husband’s inmost thoughts in their slightest manifestations. She could often scarcely keep back the tears as she saw him fling himself down after dinner into an easy-chair by the fireside, and sit there with his eyes fixed on one of the dark panels, gloomy, abstracted, heedless of the silence about him. She watched, too, with terror the gradual changes for the worse in the face that love had made sublime for her; it seemed as if the life of the soul was day by day withdrawing itself and leaving an expressionless mask.46

Slightly further on Josephine learns that Balthazar has contracted a debt of thirty thousand francs to a supplier of chemicals and equipment in Paris and sends for her husband to discuss this. But: “When Balthazar came at last, his physiognomy looked more terrible, more absorbed, more distraught than she had ever seen him; when he gave her no answer, she sat for a while fascinated by the immobility of that empty blank gaze, by all the devouring thoughts distilled within that bare forehead. Under the shock of this impression she wanted to die.”47 And later: “Science devoured Balthazar so completely that neither the defeats suffered by France, nor Napoleon’s first fall, nor the return of the Bourbons, drew him from his occupations; he was no longer a husband, father, or citizen, he was a chemist.”48 At this point, toward the end of 1814, Josephine is sufficiently ill with consumption that she is confined to her bed, which has been set up in the parlor. But Balthazar rarely comes to see her, though he remains with her after dinner, saying almost nothing, so that there “reigned in the parlor a dreadful silence.”49 Balthazar’s indifference to his terminally ill wife would have seemed criminal to a stranger seeing it for the first time, we are told.50 And in fact his preoccupation was so all-consuming that he took his wife’s illness to be a simple indisposition.51 But Josephine was dying, and when at last she arranges to receive the last rites (Josephine is Catholic), Balthazar, having been summoned to her side, shows up only at the last moment. Tears flow down her cheek. Oblivious to the situation, he is happy with the result of his latest experiment, which he starts to explain, horrifying the others in the room. He responds:

“What was it that they told me?” he began. “Are you really worse? … What has happened?”

“This,” said the Abbé de Solis indignantly in Balthazar’s ear, “this—your wife is dying and you have killed her!” … Balthazar stood for a while as if thunderstruck and gazed at his wife while shedding tears.

“You are dying, and I have killed you?” he cried. “What does this mean?”

“Dear,” she answered, “I lived only by your love, and without knowing it you undid my life.”52

There follows a passionate monologue by Josephine in which she makes it clear that although she has never ceased loving Balthazar and regards him as a great man, she is clear-eyed about the havoc that his obsession has wreaked upon the family, culminating in the statement, “‘Two millions and six years of toil have been thrown into that bottomless pit, and you have discovered nothing—.’”53 Finally she implores him to have pity on their children, knowing perfectly well that he will be unable to change. A few minutes later, sitting by her bed after her death, “[Balthazar] doubted whether his heart could resist his genius, then he felt that the impulses of remorse had grown weaker already at the first menaces of a return of his passion, and he was afraid of himself.”54

After Josephine’s death, leadership in the family passes to Marguerite, who is driven to one makeshift after another, aided by De Solis and Emmanuel, in order to protect the family’s dwindling resources from the heedless depredations of her father. All these scenes demonstrate his unwavering fixation on his project, which at times takes the form of bullying demands that Marguerite give him more money to support his experiments. Significantly, the term monomaniac or monomania occurs twice, the first time in describing his condition in 1817, a moment when he has broken off his researches and is trying unsuccessfully not to think about chemistry—but of course, he fails. Still, he tries not to return to the laboratory, but can he restrain himself when he is so near final success? Then: “He was then fifty-nine years of age, and his idea possessed him now with the dogged fixity which slowly develops into monomania.”55 In fact with peace in Europe at last the order of the day, scientific research everywhere is once again flourishing, with the result that “Balthazar’s frenzy was but the more violent because it had been so long subdued.”56 He resumes his experiments, and we follow his depredations in detail, as they again bring the family close to financial ruin. Not that he is immune to feelings of shame: thus at one point he is described as without hope, humiliated at having devoured three fortunes; in short “he was crushed beneath the ruins of his house, beneath the burden of hopes that were disappointed but not extinct. The man of genius, curbed by necessity, acquiescing in his own condemnation, was a tragic spectacle which would have touched the most unfeeling nature.”57

The second reference to monomania occurs somewhat later. Around 1820 Marguerite makes a mysterious journey to Paris; on her return it emerges that with the help of De Solis she has arranged a position for Balthazar in Burgundy, to remove him from the house and its remaining valuables. (An arrangement that lasts five years.) This allows Marguerite and her sister, with the aid of De Solis and indeed Pierquin, to take important steps to repair the family’s fortunes. While he is gone Marguerite and Emmanuel declare their love for each other. By 1824 (the year of Géricault’s death) Marguerite has managed her finances so well that the family is free of debt. In 1825 Félicie will marry Pierquin, and she is offered several fine paintings to decorate the gallery. In addition, Monsieur Conyncks arranges for fifty of the most beautiful paintings to be repurchased for the gallery’s empty walls. Marguerite makes several visits to Balthazar whom she finds living penuriously, having spent nearly all his income on further experiments. We are then given a virtual portrait of Balthazar at this stage of his life:

He was only sixty-five years of age, but he looked like a man of eighty. His eyes were deeply sunk in his face, his eyebrows were white, his hair hung in a scanty fringe round his head, he allowed his beard to grow, cutting it with a pair of scissors when its length annoyed him, he stooped like an old vine-dresser, his neglected dress suggested a degree of wretchedness that was frightful when combined with his look of decrepitude. Sometimes his face looked noble still when a great thought lighted it up, but the outlines of his features were obliterated by wrinkles; his fixed gaze, the desperate look in his eyes, and his restless uneasiness seemed to be symptoms of insanity, or rather of many forms of insanity. A sudden gleam of hope would give him the look of a monomaniac; an access of impatience, that he could not guess this secret which flitted before him and eluded his grasp like a will-o’-the wisp, would blaze out into impotent anger like madness, to be followed by a burst of laughter at his own folly; but as a rule he lived in a state of the deepest dejection, and every phase of frenzy was merged in the dull melancholy of the idiot.58

Nothing could more closely resemble the Portraits of the Insane, which as mentioned earlier came to light only in 1863.59

One more passage, the last in the novel, depicts Balthazar on the verge of death, having just learned of the discovery of the Absolute:

Suddenly the dying man raised himself on his elbows; his glance seemed like lightning to his terror-stricken children, the hair that fringed his temples rose, every wrinkle in his face quivered with excitement, a breath of inspiration passed over his fact and made it sublime. He raised a hand, clenched in frenzy, with the cry of Archimedes—EUREKA! (I have found it!) he called in piercing tones, then fell heavily back like a dead body, and died with an awful moan. His convulsed eyes expressed until the doctor closed them the regret of having been unable to leave to science the solution of the Great Enigma revealed to him too late, as the veil was torn asunder by the fleshless fingers of death.60

Considered as a picture in words, this last view of Balthazar is closer to certain works by Greuze than it is to any by Géricault. But my point throughout the preceding pages has been less a matter of comparing La Recherche’s verbal “portraits” of Balthazar with Géricault’s depictions of monomanes than it has been to suggest that the novel’s relentless presentation of a case study in monomania, not only in “close-ups” of Balthazar but throughout the narrative, continually inflected by the many references to the paintings in the Claës gallery, may be understood in relation to Géricault’s Portraits, not by way of the influence of the latter on the former—the Portraits were unknown to Balzac—but by virtue of something more profound, a kind of transposition of the sheerly pictorial into a capacious and “mixed” genre, the Balzacian novel of the 1830s. (Blondet to Lucien de Rubempré in Les Illusions perdues: “Our young literature proceeds by tableaux [paintings] in which are concentrated all the genres, comedy and drama, description, characters, dialogue … The novel, which seeks feeling, style, and image, is the most immense modern creation.”61) And by this I mean not merely that the Balzacian novel of the 1830s exploits dramatic pictorial scenes and effects with a new explicitness and power, which it surely does, but that as regards both drama and expression in a heroic mode and the very different, not to say clinical, condition of monomania, according to an imaginative and writerly dynamic that is hard fully to conceptualize, it “belongs” to the dialectic of the Diderotian pictorial tradition as that tradition found itself at that difficult, temporally stalled or suspended moment. Specifically, I propose that we see in La Recherche a displacement from painting to fiction with respect to the representation of that extreme of absorption that was then called monomanie, monomania—which is to say, that we understand La Recherche as standing in an equivalent relation to Géricault’s Portraits of the Insane to that already posited between “Le Colonel Chabert” and Géricault’s often martial images of dramatic action—not to mention the resemblance between Chabert as encountered by Derville on the grounds of an asylum late in the novella and Géricault’s Monomaniac of Military Grandeur. This goes far beyond the suggestion by commentators like Bernard and Laugée that Balzac’s stories and novels frequently describe scenes and persons that show the influence of Dutch and Flemish art. Such a claim is undoubtedly true. But it fails to recognize Balzac’s relation to previous French painting, Géricault most of all.

Two further remarks. First, La Recherche’s concern with—I’m tempted to say obsession with—monomania has been a focus of interest on the part of its commentators; my insistence on that aspect of the novel therefore has nothing original about it. What is original, for better or worse, is the proposal that Balzac’s representation of monomania be understood as in some “deep” sense going on from— renewing the impulse behind—Géricault’s magnificent Portraits of the Insane and more broadly the Diderotian valorization of absorption, in this case at its most extreme. (Also at its most “unnatural,” its farthest remove from everyday experience.) To somewhat generalize my point: I am proposing that in certain fictions by Balzac of the 1830s the boundary between painting and the novel is suspended, or at least crossed, with regard to the depiction both of dramatic action and of that version of absorption that was known as monomania. And second, of particular interest in this context, it has also been recognized that Balzac’s treatment of monomania was mediated by a familiarity with the writings of Étienne-Jean Georget, the brilliant young psychiatrist who pioneered the clinical analysis of that condition and who, as mentioned earlier, treated Géricault when the painter suffered one or another of the mysterious mental crises that apparently marked the last years of his life. Georget himself died young, in 1828, but it has been suggested that the psychiatrist and the novelist, both from Tours, might actually have crossed paths in the early 1820s.62 Whether or not they did, the influence of the one on the other seems beyond question.


Figure 17. Aimé de Lemud, Master Wolframb, 1838. Lithograph.

One more work deserves notice: an ambitious chiaroscuro-filled lithograph in an innovative technique entitled Maître WolframbMaster Wolframb—by a young artist, Aimé de Lemud (fig. 17). According to Nadar, the lithograph, completed in 1838, was soon to be found in every young artist’s studio in Parisian Bohemia.63 The subject is based (as Stephen Bann explains in an exemplary discussion of Lemud in his Distinguished Images: Prints in the Visual Economy of Nineteenth-Century France) on E. T. A. Hoffmann’s tale of a competition between medieval Meistersingers, chiefly involving “Wolframb von Eschenbach, a pure and generous figure, and his rival, Heinrich von Ofterdingen, who invokes the devilish power of the magician Klingsohr in order to gain an advantage over his rival.”64 Bann continues:

In Lemud’s lithograph, the roles are clearly distributed. Heinrich broods in the center, his fingers tightly crossed, while a sinister Klingsohr slides off leftwards at the rear. The general mood of the company is one of enthralled attention to the musical improvisations with which Wolframb accompanies his song.65

My interest in Lemud’s lithograph is of course owing to its treatment of absorption—Bann’s “enthralled attention”—which, I argue in my book Courbet’s Realism, made it a significant “source” for Gustave Courbet’s first Realist painting, An After Dinner at Ornans (1848–49).66 (All this is acknowledged and indeed endorsed by Bann.) The further significance of such a relation is that absorption, often in the form of sleep or somnolence, which is also to say keyed to a consistent thematization of embodiment, turned out to be one of the staples of Courbet’s Realism. But with Courbet and his epochal achievement, there opens a new phase of the dialectic of nineteenth-century French painting, one that lies beyond the limits of this essay.67


1. For their advice and comments, I owe a special debt of thanks to Stephen Bann and Marc Gotlieb.
2. Michael Fried, “Géricault’s Romanticism,” in Another Light: Jacques-Louis David to Thomas Demand (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 64. Hereafter cited in the text as “GR” followed by the page number.
3. See Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (1980; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); and Michael Fried, “Approaching Courbet,” in Courbet’s Realism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 1–52.
4. See the analysis of the Raft in GR, 76–83.
5. On the “Anacreonic” paintings see Michael Fried, “David/Manet: The ‘Anacreonic’ Paintings,” in Another Light: Jacques-Louis David to Thomas Demand (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 7–39.
6. On “poor in world,” see Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, trans. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 185ff.
7. See also Honoré de Balzac, Le Colonel Chabert, ed. Stéphane Vachon (Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 1994 and 2012).
8. See Stephen Bann, Paul Delaroche: History Painted (London: Reaktion Books, 1997), 119–45; and Stephen Bann and Linda Whiteley, Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey, exh. cat. (London: The National Gallery, 2010). Bann’s discussion of the Lady Jane Grey in both texts is rich with observations that there is no place for here.
9. Bann, Paul Delaroche, 126.
10. Bann, Paul Delaroche, 125.
11. Gustave Planche, “De l’École française au Salon de 1834,” Revue des Deux-Mondes, 3rd series, vol. 2 (April 1, 1834): 54. “[Le publique] s’inquiète fort peu que la Jane Gray de M. Paul Delaroche soit plutôt théâtrale que dramatique.”
12. Alexandre Decamps, Le Musée: Salon de 1834 (Paris: A. Ledoux, 1834), 31. “Ses tableaux ressemblent à des scènes de théâtre bien disposées.” And more: “ses figures à des acteurs dont la place, le geste, le regard ont été bien calculés pour concourir à l’effet de l’ensemble; mais il n’y a ni inspiration soudaine, ni passion vive ni émotion rapide pour le spectateur […].”
13. Gabriel Laviron, Le Salon de 1834 (Paris: À la librairie de Louis Janet, 1834), 73. “l’expression qui sent le théâtre et semble celle d’une actrice qui craint de perdre quelque chose de sa grace en s’abandonnant trop à l’expression du moment.”
14. See Gustave Planche, Salon de 1831 (Paris: Imprimerie Pinard et Fonderie Pinard), 57–59; Decamps, Salon de 1834, 5; and Laviron, Le Salon de 1834, 53. Planche in 1831 suggests that Géricault might have had more success with the public had he not expended so much effort on the Raft (“un chef-d’œuvre immense, mais unique” [Planche, Salon de 1831, 58]) but instead produced a large number of smaller works—a thought that in itself marks a break with the Davidian tradition.
15. On the Saint Symphorien, see Susan L. Siegfried, “A Fractured Climax,” in Ingres: Painting Reimagined (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 339–71. For a survey of the criticism, see Andrew Shelton, “Le Martyre de Saint Symphorien at the 1834 Salon,” in Ingres and His Critics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 15–53.
16. Another possible—I would even say likely—source of inspiration for Ingres, one that has previously escaped notice, is Gabriel-François Doyen’s Miracle des Ardents of 1767, prominently on view in the chapel of Saint Genevieve in the church of Saint-Roch in Paris. In Doyen’s large, vertical-rectangle canvas, discussed at length by Diderot in his Salon of that year, no exchange of gazes takes place, but there is an upward sequence beginning with the kneeling, gesturing, seemingly desperate woman in white, leading to Saint Genevieve, the focus of her prayers, on a strikingly solid cloud, who in turn looks upward and toward her right, presumably toward Mary, to whom appeal is ultimately being made.
17. F. P. [Fabien Pillet], “Beaux-Arts: Salon de 1834 …,” Le Moniteur universel 66 (March 7, 1834): 510. Quoted by Siegfried, Ingres, 342, 459n10.
18. See, however, the suggestion by Stephen Bann that the intense crowding in the Saint Symphorien—“the sense of the painting being a huis clos which nothing can escape”—“is also intrinsically antitheatrical. Governed by the logic of Ingres’s draughtsmanship, the mass of juxtaposed bodies appears to constrain and compress the pictorial space. The experience makes us intimately aware, through the pent-up energy that is registered, of the lack of continuity between the compressed pictorial space and the diffuse spatiality that we as spectators inhabit. There is a sense that the painting would almost have to explode, showering us with an awesome cargo of disjointed limbs, for the mismatch between the tension in the two spaces to be resolved.” Stephen Bann, Ways around Modernism, Theories of Modernism and Postmodernism in the Visual Arts, vol. 2 (New York: Routledge, 2007), 108–9. It’s an interesting thought but of course no less Diderotian “solution” to the issue of theatricality could be imagined.
19. Malika Dorbani Bouabdellah, Eugène Delacroix. Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement (Paris: Somogy Éditions d’art, 2008); Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, “Orients and Colonies: Delacroix’s Algerian Women,” in The Cambridge Companion to Delacroix, ed. Beth S. Wright (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 69–87.
20. Planche, “Salon de 1834,” 58. “Ce morceau capital, qui n’intéresse que par la peinture et n’a rien à faire avec la niaiserie littéraire des badauds ou la sentimentalité des femmes frivoles [a reference to the presumed audience for Delaroche’s canvas], marque dans la vie intellectuelle de Delacroix un moment grave.” Planche, Salon de 1834, 58. Planche goes on to write: “This canvas is in my view the greatest triumph that M. Delacroix has ever obtained. To interest by painting reduced to its sole resources, without the aid of a subject which one interprets in a thousand ways and too often distracts the eye of superficial viewers, occupying their mind which esteems the painting according to their dreams and conjectures, is a difficult task, and M. Delacroix has carried it out.” “Cette toile est à mon avis le plus excellent triomphe que M. Delacroix ait jamais obtenu. Intéresser par la peinture réduite à ses seules ressources, sans le secours d’un sujet qui s’interprète de mille façons et trop souvent distrait l’œil des spectateurs superficiels, pour n’occuper que leur pensée qui estime le tableau selon ses rêves ou ses conjectures, c’est une tâche difficile, et M. Delacroix l’a remplie.” Planche, Salon de 1834, 59.
21. Two essays by Ralph Ubl might be cited here. On the Jewish Wedding, see Ralph Ubl, “Eugène Delacrox’s Jewish Wedding and the Medium of Painting,” in Judaism and Christian Art: Aesthetic Anxieties from the Catacombs to Colonialism, ed. Herbert L. Kessler and David Nirenberg (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 359–86. And on the Arab Players, see Ralph Ubl, “Delacroix’s Parade,” Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 73–74 (Spring–Autumn 2020): 155–69.
22. See Fried, Courbet’s Realism.
23. “C’est qu’en un mot et avant tout, c’est de la peinture, de la peinture comme en faisait le Véronèse, sans cependant qu’elle lui ressemble; c’est en outre le caractère moral du tableau ne le cède en rien à l’exécution; il y a dans la pose de ces Africaines un sentiment d’indolence, dans leur tête une expression d’inoccupation et d’insouciance qui valent bien des scènes dramatiques […].” Decamps, Salon de 1834, 57–58.
24. In what follows I am deeply indebted to an unpublished essay by Marc Gotlieb, “Death in Venice,” the subject which is Robert’s suicide and the various contexts that surround it. My thanks to Gotlieb for making his brilliant essay available to me.
25. Gustave Planche, “Salon de 1836,” in Études sur l’école française (1831-1852), vol. 2 (Paris: Michel Lévy frères, 1855), 28. “Il compte les acteurs et ne trouve pas de drame.”
26. Léon Rosenthal, Léopold Robert, peintre de l’Italie (Paris: Bibliothèque de “La Vie moderne,” 1898), 61. Cited in Gotlieb, “ Death in Venice.”
27. On Granet, see Denis Coutagne, François-Marius Granet, 1775-1849. Une vie pour la peinture (Paris: Somogy Éditions d’Art, 2008). Coutagne briefly discusses the Poussin picture on 172–73. See also the acute remarks by Marc Gotlieb in “Poussin’s Lesson: Representing Representation in the Romantic Age,” Word & Image: A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry 16, no. 1 (2000): 124–43.
28. “[…] plus bel ouvrage […] avec ses fonds et ses figures un tout homogène, un, inaliénable, indivisible, dont aucune partie ne pourrait être impunément distraite.” Planche, Salon de 1834, 242–43.
29. Planche, “Salon de 1834,” 56. “Il n’y a pas un coin du tableau qui tire l’œil.”
30. The portraits are briefly discussed in GR, 101–2. The basic article is Margaret Miller, “Géricault’s Portraits of the Insane,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 4, no. 3/4 (1940–41): 151–63. See also Lorenz Eitner, Géricault: His Life and Work (London: Orbis Publishing, 1983), 241–49; and the brief but highly intelligent discussion of the portraits by Régis Michel, “Portraits de fous,” in Géricault, exh. cat. (Paris: Galeries nationales de Grand Palais, 1991–92), 244. Esquirol appears to have been the first to coin the term monomania; Michel wonders if it might have been he who solicited the portraits from Géricault. But this, along with the suggestion that they were done for Georget, is speculation.
31. Étienne-Jean Georget, De la folie: Considérations sur cette maladie … (Paris: Chez Crevot, 1820), 112. I quote more from Georget in GR, 290n45, where I also remark: “The lability that this alternative captures goes to the heart of Géricault’s vision.”
32. Bann, Paul Delaroche, 174. See also Richard Wrigley, “Paul Delaroche’s Italian noviciate,” Word and Image: A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry 16, no. 1 (2000): 106–15.
33. Bann, Paul Delaroche, 178.
34. Bann, Paul Delaroche, 178.
35. Honoré de Balzac, La Recherche de l’absolu suivi de La Messe de l’athée, ed. S. de Sacy (Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 1976). Hereafter cited as “R” followed by the page number. Honoré de Balzac, The Quest of the Absolute, trans. Ellen Marriage (1989; Sawtry: Dedalus, 1997). Hereafter cited as “Q” followed by the page number. Quotations in the text will be in English, in the notes in French. At several points I’ve modified the English translation to more closely match the French. A study devoted to the novel and its various contexts, with emphasis on Balzac’s Flemish affinities, is Madeleine Ambrière, Balzac et la Recherche de l’Absolu (1968; Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1999).
36. Q, 15. “En 1812, vers les derniers jours du mois d’août, un dimanche, après vêpres, une femme était assise dans sa bergère devant une fenêtre du jardin. Les rayons du soleil tombaient alors obliquement sur la maison, la prenaient en écharpe, traversaient le parloir, expiraient en reflets bizarres sur les boiseries qui tapissaient les murs du côté de la cour, et enveloppaient cette femme dans la zone pourpre projetée par le rideau de damas drapé le long de la fenêtre. Un peintre médiocre qui dans ce moment aurait copié cette femme, eût certes produit une œuvre saillante avec une tête si pleine de douceur et de mélancolie. La pose du corps et celle des pieds jetés en avant accusaient l’abattement d’une personne qui perd la conscience de son être physique dans la concentration de ses forces absorbées par une pensée fixe; elle en suivait les rayonnements dans l’avenir, comme souvent, au bord de la mer, on regarde un rayon de soleil qui perce les nuées et trace à l’horizon quelque bande lumineuse. Les mains de cette femme, rejetées par les bras de la bergère, pendaient en dehors, et la tête, comme trop lourde, reposait sur le dossier.” R, 36–37. And more to that effect in the same long paragraph.
37. Q, 18. “La lenteur grave, les pas traînant de cet homme eussent sans doute impatienté des gens irréfléchis; mais un observateur ou des personnes nerveuses auraient éprouvé un sentiment voisin de la terreur au bruit mesuré de ces pieds d’où la vie semblait absente, et qui faisaient craquer les planchers comme si deux poids de fer les eussent frappés alternativement. Vous eussiez reconnu le pas indécis et lourd d’un vieillard ou la majestueuse démarche d’un penseur qui entraîne des mondes avec lui.” R, 40–41.
38. Q, 18–19. “Balthazar Claës se montra tout à coup, fit quelques pas, ne regarda pas cette femme, ou s’il la regarda, ne la vit pas, et resta tout droit au milieu du parloir en appuyant sur sa main droit  sa tête légèrement inclinée.” R, 41.
39. Q, 20–21. “… la magnifique monstruosité de sa physionomie” … “mais qui, chez Balthazar Claës, était le négligé du génie.” R, 43, 44.
40. Q, 23. “Claës ne répondit pas; sa femme baissa la tête, joignit les mains et attendit, elle savait que ce silence n’accusait ni mépris ni dédain, mais de tyranniques préoccupations.” R, 46.
41. Q, 24. “Il fit quelques pas pour jeter les yeux sur le jardin où s’élevaient de toutes parts de magnifiques tulipes; mais il s’arrêta tout à coup comme il se fût heurté contre un mur et s’écria: —Pourquoi ne se combineraient-ils pas dans un temps donné?” R, 47.
42. Q, 30. “… quelques beaux tableaux de Murillo et de Vélasquez.” R, 54.
43. Q, 35–36. “L’emploi de cette somme fut assez difficile à déterminer. La maison Claës était si richement fournie en meubles, en tableaux, en objets d’art et de prix, qu’il semblait difficile d’y ajouter des choses dignes de celles qui s’y trouvaient déjà, le goût de cette famille y avait accumulé les trésors. Une génération s’était mise à la piste de beaux tableaux; puis la nécessité de compléter la collection commencée avait rendu le goût de la peinture héréditaire. Les cent tableaux qui ornaient la galerie par laquelle on communiquait du quartier de derrière aux appartements de réception situés au premier étage de la maison de devant, ainsi qu’une cinquantaine d’autres placés dans les salons d’apparat, avaient exigé trois siècles de patientes recherches. C’était de célèbres morceaux de Rubens, de Ruysdaël, de Van Dyck, de Terburg, de Gérard Dow, de Teniers, de Miéris, de Paul Potter, de Wouwermans, de Rembrandt, d’Hobbéma, de Cranach et d’Holbein. Les tableaux italiens et français étaient en minorité, mais tous authentiques et capitaux.” R, 62.
44. “ … une servile imitation des paysages hollandais, des intérieurs de Metzu, [and] une copie de La Leçon d’anatomie de Rembrandt.” Honoré de Balzac, “Pierre Grassou,” in Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu et autres nouvelles, ed. Adrien Goetz (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), 281. Interestingly, Grassou’s studio is located on the rue des Martyrs, where Géricault had had his studio. Toward the beginning of “Pierre Grassou” the narrator deplores the present state of the Salons, comparing the post-1830 years with the years that saw the exhibition of major works by Sigalon, Ingres, Delacroix, Eugène Deveria, and Géricault, with reference specifically to the Raft. Balzac, “Pierre Grassou,” 272.
45. Olivier Bernard, La Peinture dans la création balzacienne (Geneva: Librairie Droz-Genève, 1969); Thierry Laugée, “Les Couleurs de l’âme: Balzac et les peintres d’intérieur,” L’Année balzacienne 12, no. 1 (2011): 45–61.
46. Q, 40. “Bientôt la réaction du moral sur le physique commença ses ravages, d’abord imperceptibles, main néanmoins saisissables à l’œil d’une femme aimante qui suivait la secrète pensée de son mari dans ses moindres manifestations. Souvent, elle avait peine à retenir ses larmes en le voyant, après le dîner, plongé dans une bergère au coin du feu, morne et pensif, l’œil arrêté sur un panneau noir sans s’apercevoir le silence qui régnait autour de lui. Elle observait avec terreur les changements insensibles qui dégradaient cette figure que l’amour avait faite sublime pour elle; chaque jour, la vie de l’âme s’en retirait davantage, et la charpente restait sans aucune expression.” R, 67–68.
47. Q, 54. “Quand elle vit entrer Balthazar dont alors la physionomie lui parut plus terrible, plus absorbée, plus égarée qu’elle ne l’avait jamais été; quand il ne lui répondit pas, elle resta d’abord fascinée par l’immobilité de ce regard blanc et vide, par toutes les idées dévorantes que distillait ce front chauve. Sous le coup de cette impression elle désira mourir.” R, 84.
48. Q, 113. “La science dévora si complètement Balthazar, que ni les revers éprouvés par la France, ni la première chute de Napoléon, ni le retour des Bourbons ne le tirèrent de ses occupations; il n’était ni mari, ni père, ni citoyen, il fut chimiste.” R, 159.
49. Q, 115. “ … se taisait et laissait régner au parloir un épouvantable silence.” R, 161.
50. R, 164; Q, 117.
51. R, 165; Q, 118
52. Q, 123–24. “— Que m’a-t-on dit? reprit-il. Tu es donc plus mal? Qu’est-il arrivé? — Il arrive, monsieur, lui dit à l’oreille l’abbé de Solis indigné, que votre femme se meurt et que vous l’avez tuée. … Balthazar demeura comme foudroyé et regarda sa femme en laissant tomber quelques larmes. — Tu meurs et je l’ai tuée, s’écria-t-il. Que dit-il donc? — Mon ami, reprit-elle, je ne vivais que par ton amour, et tu m’as à ton insu retiré ma vie.” R, 172.
53. Q, 125. “Deux millions et six années de travaux ont été jetés dans ce gouffre, et tu n’as rien trouvé …” R, 174.
54. Q, 127. “Balthazar doutait de son cœur trop faible contre son génie; puis, il entendait un terrible grondement de passion qui lui niait la force de son repentir, et lui faisait peur de lui-même.” R, 176.
55. Q, 144. “Il avait déjà cinquante-neuf ans. A cet âge, l’idée qui le dominait contracta l’âpre fixité par laquelle commencent les monomanies.” R, 197.
56. Q, 145. “Balthazar fut-il bientôt emporté par une passion d’autant plus violente, qu’elle avait plus longtemps dormi.” R, 198.
57. Q, 180. “… il pliait sous le poids de ses ruines, sous le fardeau de ses espérances moins détruites que trompées. Cet homme de génie, muselé par la nécessité, se condamnant lui-même, offrait un spectacle vraiment tragique qui eût touché l’homme le plus insensible.” R, 241.
58. Q, 200. “Quoiqu’il ne fût âgé que de soixante-cinq ans, il avait l’apparence d’un octogénaire. Ses yeux s’étaient profondément enfonces dans leurs orbites, ses sourcils avaient blanchi, quelques cheveux lui garnissaient à peine la nuque; il laissait croître sa barbe qu’il coupait avec des ciseaux quand elle le gênait; il était courbé comme un vieux vigneron; puis le désordre de ses vêtements avait repris un caractère de misère que la décrépitude rendait hideux. Quoiqu’une pensée forte animât ce grand visage dont les traits ne se voyait plus sous les rides, la fixité du regard, un air désespéré, une constante inquiétude y gravaient les diagnostics de la démence, ou plutôt de toutes les démences ensemble. Tantôt il y apparaissait un espoir qui donnait à Balthazar l’expression du monomane; tantôt l’impatience de ne pas deviner un secret qui se présentait à lui comme un feu follet y mettait les symptômes de la fureur; puis tout à coup un rire éclatant trahissait la folie, enfin la plupart du temps l’abattement le plus complet résumait toutes les nuances de sa passion par la froide mélancolie de l’idiot.” R, 266–67.
59. A book that on the basis of its title sounds as if it should be relevant to our topic is Marina Van Zuylen’s Monomania: The Flight from Everyday Life in Literature and Art (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005). But apart from a handful of passing references, Balzac doesn’t figure in it at all; Georget is mentioned once, on page 3, in connection with Balzac. Géricault’s portraits of monomanes are mentioned but don’t make it into the index.
60. Q, 226. “Tout à coup le moribond se dressa sur ses deux poings, jeta sur ses enfants effrayés un regard qui les atteignit tous comme un éclair, les cheveux qui lui garnissaient la nuque remuèrent, ses rides tressaillirent, son visage s’anima d’un esprit de feu, un souffle passa sur cette face et la rendit sublime, il leva une main crispée par la rage, et cria d’une voix éclatante le fameux mot d’Archimède: EURÉKA (j’ai trouvé). Il retomba sur son lit en rendant le son lourd d’un corps inerte, il mourut en poussant un gémissement affreux, et ses yeux convulsés exprimèrent jusqu’au moment où le médecin les ferma le regret de n’avoir pu léguer à la science le mot d’une énigme dont le voile s’était tardivement déchiré sous les doigts décharnés de la Mort.” R, 299.
61. “Notre jeune littérature procède par tableaux où se concentrent tous les genres, la comédie et le drame, la description, les caractères, le dialogue … Le roman, qui veut le sentiment, le style et l’image, est la création moderne la plus immense.” Honoré de Balzac, Les Illusions perdues, in La Comédie humaine, vol. 5, ed. Pierre-Georges Castex (Paris: Gallimard, “Bibliothèque le la Pléiade,” 1977), 459.
62. The importance of Georget for Balzac’s ideas about monomania is emphasized by Ambrière, Balzac et la Recherche de l’Absolu, 138–43. The suggestion that they might possibly have encountered each other is put forward on page 143.
63. In his Histoire de Murger, Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon) recalls that “tout jeune France était tenu d’accrocher au mur de sa chambre, comme le prévôt d’espadon son brevet, une lithographie sentimentale et surtout prétentieuse—Maître Wolfram [sic]—dont le principal mérite consistait en un travail de pointe alors nouveau en lithographie.” Quoted by Jean Prinet and Antoinette Dilasser, Nadar (Paris: Armand Colin, 1966), 17–18.
64. Stephen Bann, Distinguished Images: Prints in the Visual Economy of Nineteenth-Century France (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 153–54.
65. Bann, Distinguished Images, 153–54.
66. Fried, Courbet’s Realism, 90–93.
67. For a beholder-centered account of Courbet’s art, see Fried, Courbet’s Realism. I might add that the French writer whom I associate most closely with Courbet is Gustave Flaubert. See Courbet’s Realism, 267–70 and passim; and at greater length, Michael Fried, Flaubert’s “Gueuloir”: On Madame Bovary and Salammbô (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 71–84, 98–105.
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