Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 2, 2009
Diana Knight Balzac and the Model of Painting: Artist Stories in "La Comédie humaine" Oxford: Legenda, 2007. 121 pp. Cloth $65.00 (9781905981069)
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Artists figure conspicuously among Honoré de Balzac’s characters. The maniacal Frenhofer and fatally naive Sarrasine may be the most familiar to art historians, though painters and sculptors play key roles in several of the stories and novels that comprise La Comédie humaine. Some of these characters, like Joseph Bridau and Wenceslas Steinbock, recur, their lives and artworks contributing in important ways to Balzac’s morally ambiguous tales of post-Revolutionary France. It is as metaphorical counterparts to the artifice of contemporary society that Diana Knight positions these narratives of artistic identity and creative expression. The ability of artworks to seduce, deceive, enrich, and even overpower individuals corresponds to the shifting, illusory character of economic and political advantage, especially during the Restoration. This capacity to mirror contemporary culture, Knight contends, accounts for Balzac’s attraction to artistic themes.

To make her case, Knight devotes each of the six chapters of her short monograph to one or more of Balzac’s stories. Focusing on Sarrasine and the similarly well-known “Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu,” the first chapter eases the reader into her argument. Subsequent chapters address “La Bourse,” La Vendetta, La Maison du chat-qui-pelote, La Rabouilleuse, and the cycle of stories involving the successful salon painter Bridau. Not sparing type to provide synopses of the narratives she discusses, Knight’s text is lean and written for an audience thoroughly familiar with Balzac’s writings. This is not to say that Balzac and the Model of Painting can only serve scholars of nineteenth-century literature; art historians will find much to complement as well as challenge recent accounts of the intersections between literary and visual realism.

Knight departs most forcefully from contemporary scholarly trends in her disavowal of “the well-established tradition of feminist criticism that denounces realism as a literary mode for compounding Balzac’s misogyny” (2). Though tracing the origins of this approach to Naomi Schor’s George Sand and Idealism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), Knight singles out Alexandra K. Wettlaufer’s Pen vs. Paintbrush: Girodet, Balzac and the Myth of Pygmalion in Postrevolutionary France (New York: Palgrave, 2001) as typical of gender-based analyses, which assert that “Balzac writes women out of subjecthood by his very choice of literary form” (3). Knight suggests instead that the several disenfranchised and even abused female characters who appear in his stories are “a focus and vehicle of Balzac’s lucid realist critique of the gender politics institutionalized by the 1804 Civil Code” (3).

Knight’s discussion of the novella La Vendetta exemplifies her deployment of this argument. La Vendetta recounts the misfortunes of Ginevra Piombo, whose family relocated to Paris from Corsica in 1800 following the catastrophic resolution of a feud with the Porta family. Sixteen-year-old Luigi Porta was the only survivor. He, like Ginevra’s father, sought to overcome the legacy of local jealousies by joining Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Injured at Waterloo, the proscribed Luigi found refuge in the Paris studio of a Bonpartist painter, Servin. Something of a progressive, Servin taught exclusively female students, Ginevra among them. Despite Servin’s efforts to keep Luigi hidden, Ginevra spies the convalescent and secretly sketches him through a peep-hole each day while he sleeps. Eventually, Ginevra and Luigi fall in love and resolve to marry. Her father refuses, however, on the basis of the old feud, despite the men’s shared political allegiance. Relying upon the new right given by the Napoleonic Code for women to choose their own husbands upon attaining the age of twenty-five, the lovers wait the necessary few months and marry legally. But the end is tragic: disavowed by Ginevra’s family, the pair soon find themselves destitute and with a baby. The sale of their only assets—Ginevra’s artworks—provides temporary relief, but, finally, mother and child succumb to starvation, and the vendetta is fulfilled when Luigi delivers the hair of his dead wife to her father.

Knight’s account of this story focuses on Ginevra’s agency as an artist and sexually curious woman as she studies the sleeping Luigi, evoking Diana’s erotic mastery of the exposed body of the unconscious Endymion. It is Ginevra’s creative activities that propel the narrative, producing a series of artworks, an emotional and erotic attachment to Luigi, and an infant. But the latter two ultimately consume the first, and the civil protections promised by the Napoleonic Code can even be seen as contributing to Ginevra’s dispossession and death. By the end of the chapter, Knight has aligned herself—if only briefly—with the feminist argument she had aimed to overturn: “By making [Ginevra’s father’s] behaviour seem socially as well as psychologically pathological, the melodrama that is La Vendetta may seem to normalize the homosocial exchange between fathers and sons-in-law that is inscribed in the 1804 Civil Code. For all Balzac’s exploitation of pathos, and his exaggeration of plot and character, is this an instance of mimetic writing at the service of a conservative patriarchal ideology?” (60) Knight does not answer her rhetorical question, but presumably her response would be emphatically negative, a point she goes on to make in the following chapter on La Maison du chat-qui-pelote. Balzac’s appeal to melodrama, Knight suggests, is meant to expose rather than condone the impossible social tensions operating under the Bourbon Restoration. Knight’s claims here could be strengthened by directly challenging the interpretation that she acknowledges La Vendetta seems to elicit rather than deferring her argument by shifting to a new chapter and a new story. The ambiguity she puts into play here is not resolved. Aside from restating the possibility that “my analysis of La Vendetta . . . risks normalizing the exchange of daughters that is institutionalized in the Civil Code,” Knight never returns to the story to demonstrate how it participates in the “lucid realist critique of . . . gender politics” that she ascribes to Balzac (68).

Debates about the aesthetic character and social significance of realism continue to unfold, and Balzac and the Model of Painting emphasizes the need for scholars to test their arguments against literary as well as visual manifestations of the movement. Among the many promising paths of inquiry that Knight’s book presents to art historians is her allusion to Balzac’s exploration of the relative suitability of painting versus sculpture for realist aims. Knight implies (though never directly states) that the author wrestled with a sort of paragone in which sculpture and painting vied for primacy as vehicles of truth. Repeatedly noting the moments where Balzac seems to prefer metaphors of sculpture over those of painting, Knight suggests that he attributes distinct values to each of them. In Sarrasine, for instance, La Zambinella is portrayed in both marble and oil paint, with the sculpture contributing to Sarrasine’s confused rage while the painting prompts admiration and wonder. But the painting is a mere copy of the sculpture, the narrator makes clear, and is far removed from the original. Are painting and sculpture equally liable to distort lived experience, or is sculpture capable of securing a closer approximation of material truth? This is just one of the intriguing questions suggested by Balzac and the Model of Painting.

Elizabeth C. Mansfield
Professor and Head, Department of Art History, Penn State

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