Broaching the Subject of Beauty

A look at three paintings from the cusp of the 20th century that make a powerful argument for beauty.

When in 2014 the Getty Museum acquired Édouard Manet’s “Jeanne (Spring)” (1881), it commissioned a three-lecture series and invited the art historian Richard Brettell to be the first speaker. He, in turn, has now expanded his published version of those discussions to deal also with two other late 19th-century paintings in the Getty collection, Paul Gauguin’s still life “Arii matamoe (La fin royale)” (1892) and Paul Cézanne’s “Young Italian Woman at a Table” (1895-1900).

As Brettell notes at the start of his book, On Modern Beauty: Three Paintings by Manet, Gauguin and Cézanne, both ‘modern’ and ‘beauty’ have become highly problematic concepts, in part because of the legitimate concerns of feminists and scholars dealing with gender and colonialism.

Nowadays, although some philosophers talk about beauty, mostly in abstract ways, art historians mostly don’t. And yet, since all three of these very different works were understood to be beautiful paintings, his goal is to explain how exactly they all are beautiful. Brettell asks whether his artists do not make “a more powerful argument for beauty and its varieties than do philosophers.” Writing as a philosopher, I find that a good question, which deserves to be answered.

Édouard Manet, “Jeanne (Spring)” (1881), oil on canvas, 29 1/8 × 20 1/4 inches, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (all images courtesy The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

Modest only in its brevity, just 116 pages including the index, On Modern Beauty is an extraordinarily ambitious, almost entirely successful commentary, one of those rare revelatory art history books that opens your eyes, and, it can be said, a real page-turner, a clichéd phrase that only applies very rarely, in my experience, to art history writing. It is, also, extremely economical — blink and you will miss something important.

Brettell gives his reader a great deal of information, all interesting, about the dress and posture of Manet’s sitter; about the severed head of the young man presented by Gauguin, with reference to that artist’s too-little-known writings and his life in Tahiti; and about the odd difficulties of dating and placing Cézanne’s model.

Manet, Gauguin and Cézanne are contemporaries, but how different they are, in ways that challenge scholarship. Allowing that the historical evidence is not always easy to interpret, he avoids unproductive contentious debate.

Paul Gauguin, “Arii Matamoe (The Royal End)” (1892), oil on coarse fabric, 17 3/4 × 29 1/4 inches, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Meyer Schapiro, in his book on Cézanne, discusses “Jeanne” at length — a description that Brettell quotes liberally in On Modern Beauty. Writing in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism under the spell of Willem de Kooning, Schapiro writes:

We see through his work that the secular culture of the nineteenth century [. . .] was no less capable of providing a ground for great art than the authoritative cultures of the past [. . .] the conception of a personal art rested upon a more general ideal of individual liberty in the social body and drew from the latter its ultimate confidence that an art of personal expression has a universal sense.

Brettell doesn’t use the word, ‘historicism,’ but it is a term that identifies his key concern here. Between Cézanne’s time to Schapiro’s, the entire culture changed drastically, and now some 60 some years later, it has changed again. To mention only one obvious point, nowadays we lack Schapiro’s confidence in this ideal of personal expression and universal aesthetic values.

Paul Cézanne, “Young Italian Woman at a Table” (ca.1895-1900), oil on canvas, 36 1/4 × 28 15/16 inches, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

And yet, although this means that a great deal of labor is needed today to comprehend the details of these late 19-century paintings, we nevertheless find them beautiful despite the dramatic changes in our visual culture. How is that possible — and what does that tell us about the nature of beauty? In his greatest essay, “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863) Charles Baudelaire said:

Beauty is made up of an eternal, invariable element, whose quantity it is excessively difficult to determine, and of a relative, circumstantial element, which will be, if you like, whether severally or all at once, the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions.

This famous statement is perhaps consistent with Brettell’s commentary. If you believe that spelling out the significance of this “relative, circumstantial element” would resolve the puzzle, then we are home free. In Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art (2010), the renowned philosopher Alexander Nehamas deals with this very question, with reference, also, to Manet. And I believe that Brettell’s analysis maybe is consistent with this account.

When Brettell says, “Beauty is not just a spark. It can actually light a fire that burns for a much longer time in the mind of the viewer,” his account too touches on these tricky issues. It’s natural to ask, why do very different people call very varied artifacts beautiful? How, that is, can we explain this agreement? Here, then, I believe that art history and philosophy have much to learn by conjoining their concerns. That is my hope — what do you think?

Notes: I quote from Meyer Schapiro, Paul Cezanne (Abrams, 1962) and Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, translated by Jonathan Mayne (Phaidon, 1964).

On Modern Beauty: Three Paintings by Manet, Gauguin and Cézanne (2019) by Richard R. Brettell is published by The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

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