French writer and artist; b. at La Rochelle, October 24, 1820; d. at Saint-Maurice, near La Rochelle, August 26, 1876
Fromentin, EUGENE, French writer and artist; b. at La Rochelle, October 24, 1820; d. at Saint-Maurice, near La Rochelle, August 26, 1876. His father, a distinguished physician and art connoisseur, intended him for the bar. After a brilliant course of studies, the young man came to Paris, in November, 1839, to follow the lectures in law. In 1843 he became associated with Maitre Denormandie, an attorney-at-law. But his literary and artistic inclinations gradually rendered his profession insupportable. Marilhat’s exhibition of 1844 definitely decided him to devote himself to painting. He became a pupil of Cabat, who was, with Flers, Huet, Corot, and Rousseau, one of the restorers of modern landscape painting. A short journey to Algeria, in 1846, showed him more clearly the line he was to follow. In 1848 and 1852 he again visited that country, to garner material for his work. He exhibited at the Salon in 1847. In 1850 he sent in eleven paintings, and was awarded a second-class medal. The only other notable events in his life were a voyage to Egypt, in the autumn of 1869, in the company of Napoleon III, at the time of the opening of the Suez Canal; and a short stay of some weeks in Holland, in July, 1875, where he obtained matter for his book, “Les Maitres d’autrefois”. He was made chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1859, and officer in 1869. He married in 1851.
In his lifetime, it was as a painter rather than as writer that he became renowned. Orientalism was then in vogue. It suited the romantic tastes of the age, and satisfied the general curiosity for exotic customs. Great painters like Decamps, Delacroix, and Marilhat, had already made a specialty of it. Moreover, all thoughts were turned towards Algeria, a new, mysterious country, only half-conquered, which had just been the scene of a long colonial war. The public were never weary of hearing about it. Since the land has become so well known, this interest has ceased; and it must be admitted that Fromentin’s reputation has suffered in consequence. Such is the penalty of a success partly based on the informative and teaching qualities of the painter’s art. The actuality has ceased to interest us; and the glory of the artist who depended on it must necessarily fade. But Fromentin is far from deserving the obscurity into which he is now relegated. His work, as a painter, is that of a charming artist, the work of a landscapist and a painter of customs, who had the secret ambition of becoming an historical painter, and who, wisely enough, selected in the modern world subjects and plan best accommodated to his ambition and his ability. Fromentin’s art, either by the nature of his paintings or the dimensions, rarely surpasses the “genre” properly so called; and yet there is something naturally impressive in the beauty of the Arab life and manners, in that nomadic, feudal, warlike existence, the majestic simplicity of the desert spaces, and the immutable tranquility of the Orient. Finally, one cannot fail to recognize the distinctive mark of Fromentin’s art. He is not a faultless painter, but he is one of exquisite delicacy. After 1860, especially, under the influence of Corot, he becomes one of the cleverest modern “harmonists”. His blue slate-colored Algerian pictures, with their remarkable greyish tints, have not been excelled. As a painter of the Arab horse, in the “Curee” of the Louvre, he has no rival. Sometimes he is eloquent, as in the “Simoun”, the “Soif”, or the famous “Rue d’El Aghouat”. But the works that show his art at its best are those that depict both customs and scenery, as the “Passage du Gue” (New York), the “Chasse au Faucon” (Chantilly): in these he is a kind of modern Wouverman, more elegant and poetic than the former. And one may anticipate the day when, Africa in its turn having been subjected to civilization, industry, and uniformity, these pictures will be the sole witness of its ancient customs, and will then assume their historic signification.
It is, however, as a writer that Fromentin is rising more and more to fame. His work is very varied. As a result of his travels, he published, under the titles of:” Un etc dans le Sahara” (Paris, 1856); and “Une annee clans le Sahel” (Paris, 1858), the souvenirs of his two last sojourns in Algeria. In these he inaugurates a new method of description, much less “literary” than Chateaubriand’s, less “technical” than Gautier’s, a method which, in French tradition, marks the transition from Bernardin de Saint-Pierre to Loti. “Dominique” appeared later (Paris, 1862). This autobiography and transparent history of a pure youthful love is, together with “Adolphe” and the “Princesse de Cleves”, one of the masterpieces of the French “roman d’analyse”. But the work that will transmit Fromentin’s name to posterity is his “Maitres d’autrefois” (Paris, 1876). This book is composed from the notes made during a journey through Belgium and Holland to study the old painters; or rather, this journey was the occasion of the work. For the author, in connection with the paintings he saw, discusses, in passing, the questions of aesthetic moment which he raises. It may be said that this book really originated artistic criticism. As a critic Diderot is purely literary, Hegel metaphysical, Ruskin religious, moral, or apocalyptic, Taine historical, or philosophical; but Fromentin made criticism strictly “artistic”, that is to say, he seeks the secret of the significance, value, and beauty of a picture solely in an examination of the work, its style, and its methods of execution. It is through the painting thus understood and examined that he succeeds in determining the personality and the moral characteristics of the author. Here Fromentin is a great creator and a great writer, who really invents everything: methods, systems, and terminology. Some of his descriptions of paintings are the last word in the art of writing. Certain of his analyses, such as those of Rubens and Rembrandt, are definitive, and fix, forever, both the rules of the style or class, and the portraits of these great men. If to understand is to equal, it is by such pages that this distinguished writer, who has won a place among the first prose-writers of the last century, has really added something to the art of painting—that is to say—the manner of expressing it in writing.