Bonafos on Parker (2019)

Parker, Shalon. Painting the Prehistoric Body in Late Nineteenth-Century France. U of Delaware P, 2019, pp. vii + 167, ISBN 978-1-61149-670-3

Shalon Parker’s art historical study could be subtitled “The Representation of Early Humanity in the Œuvre of Fernand Cormon,” since this short monograph focuses on the Salon painter’s work from his 1870s Orientalist beginnings to his newfound interest in prehistoric paintings in the 1880s and 1890s. Each of the four chapters examines a defining moment in the career of Cormon, famous today as the prominent artist in whose studio Louis Anquetin, Émile Bernard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent Van Gogh briefly studied. As such, this study contributes to the reexamination of nineteenth-century artists associated with the French academic tradition, long derided for their art pompier at a time when avant-garde movements were revolutionizing the art world. Parker argues that Cormon carefully and skillfully redrew the boundaries of the traditional representation of the human figure by experimenting with a new subject matter (early humanity), while finding inspiration in evolutionary science (essentially a neo-Lamarckian reading of Darwin) and contemporary anthropological studies in order to revisit the established standards of the academic nude. Parker thus convincingly demonstrates (without explicitly saying so) that artistic experimentation with both subject matter and form was not confined exclusively to the more celebrated fin-de-siècle avant-garde movements. 

Chapter one examines Cormon’s early career, with paintings such as La Favorite déchue (1870), Sita (1873), Jalousie au sérail (1874), followed by the prize-winning 1875 Salon entry, La Mort de Ravana, all of which served to establish his reputation as an Orientalist painter, and a talented colorist worthy of Eugène Delacroix and Eugène Fromentin (the latter, not incidentally, being one of the maîtres under whom he studied). Already evidenced in this Orientalist phase was Cormon’s “wholehearted, earnest commitment to the study of human form, anatomy, and musculature” (48), which would only increase as he embraced prehistoric subjects while moving away from his first Orientalist manner. The following three chapters look in turn at three of Cormon’s works to exemplify this artistic evolution. Chapter two focuses on his famous Fuite de Caïn (1880), while chapters three and four analyze respectively two state commissions, Le Retour d’une chasse à l’ours (1884) created for the Musée des Antiquités nationales in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and the series of murals depicting early humanity (1893–97) in the Muséum d’Histoire naturelle in Paris. Backed by a large sample of Salon reviews, Parker’s minute close readings of the anatomical representations of early humans in these paintings, both in terms of line and color, make a persuasive case for Cormon’s capacity to force critics’ admiration and acknowledgment of his painstaking commitment to depicting the human form. At the same time, he destabilized their expectations regarding human figuration with his exaggeration of certain anatomical details and his use of monochromatic, washed-out tones, in La Fuite de Caïn particularly. 

The last two chapters move beyond this 1880 endeavor to present evidence of Cormon’s inspiration, not only in illustrated studies of prehistoric times, but also in an ever-increasing range of ethnographic representations. From George Catlin’s and Karl Bodmer’s depictions of Native American peoples circulated through the popular press, to the infamous showcasing of so-called primitive peoples at the Paris Jardin d’acclimatation and the Expositions universelles, Cormon relied on the nineteenth-century parallel between prehistoric societies and contemporary non-Western peoples, Native Americans especially, to express primitiveness and redirect the exotic and foreign in temporal terms in his representations of “intermediate life forms” (70). His reliance on ethnographic documentation also argued for the “authenticity” of his archaeological efforts and aspiration to “create images that educated more than entertained audiences” (110). Indeed, Cormon, as Parker signals, stood out among painters of the prehistoric for eschewing violence and the dramatized depiction of the struggle for survival in his vision of early humanity; his paintings constituted a deliberate attempt to promote a more communal vision of human development based on cooperation within a clan or family, consensually taken as the foundation of European progress, and thereby reassuringly confirming a biased worldview that radically (and racially) separated Europeans from the rest of the world.

As a general note, Parker’s frequent use of modal verbs and adverbs that convey conjecture rather than conviction occasionally makes arguments feel more circumspect than they should be. Furthermore, the work’s scope is somewhat restricted, limited to half a dozen examples, all of which are Cormon’s paintings. One wishes that the stimulating contextual discussion of Cormon’s relationship to other prehistoric painters (including Paul Jamin and Léon-Maxime Faivre) in the introduction could have been emulated systematically throughout the volume to bring in other important figures (Arthur de Gobineau, for example, is conspicuously absent). This notwithstanding, insights into the reception of Charles Darwin and the Third Republican agenda, combined with technical yet accessible readings of Cormon’s work make this book a stimulating examination of fin-de-siècle issues that will interest historians of both art and culture.