La Rochelle, France
Saint-Maurice, Paris, France; [near La Rochelle]
Painter; founder of the modern practice of art criticism and art historian who helped reassert the primacy of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Dutch/Belgian masters. Fromentin's father, Toussaint Fromentin-Dupeux (d. 1867), was a doctor and amateur painter (trained under Jean-Victor Bertin), and his mother, Jenny Billotte Fromentin-Dupeux, the daughter of a Naval administrator and regional councillor in La Rochelle. Fromentin excelled in Greek and Latin in school, receiving a bachelierre in 1838 in La Rochelle but remained at home for a year instead of going directly to college, writing poetry and translations of classical and foreign authors. In 1839 he began studying law in Paris, receiving baccalauréat en droit in 1841 and his licence (the second required law diploma) in 1843. When he failed the French bar exam, Fromentin switched to painting, studying under Jean-Charles-Joseph Rémond (1795-1875) and then Nicolas-Louis Cabat. His first important piece of criticism appeared as the Salon of 1845. Fromentin visited Algeria in 1846 and debuted as a painter in the Salon in 1847 with two Algerian scenes, subjects occupying his interests throughout his career. He returned to Algeria twice more in 1847 and 1852, exhibiting in between as an Orientalist at the 1850-1851 Salon. He married Marie Cavellet de Beaumont, the neice of his compatriot Armond du Mesnil, in 1852. Around the same time he began writing travel books drawing on his north-African experiences, Un Eté dans le Sahara in 1857, and Une Année dans le Sahel in 1859. He was recognized at the Salon of 1859 with a first-class medal and the Légion d'honneur. After 1860, his reputation as a painter secure--and only then able to fully leave his family's financial support--Fromentin turned to writing in earnest. His 1863 novel Dominique (serialized first in 1862 in the Revue des Deux Mondes) remained a popular work in the French confessional style. The following year, he took on the powerful French Academy in a lecture, Une programme de critque, 1864. After failing to gain admission to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1867, he withdrew to summer residence at Saint-Maurice (near La Rochelle). He continued to paint Orientalist scenes and a series of centaur paintings in 1868, the latter generally depricated except for the critic Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Degas. Fromentin returned to Algerian-subject painting (and success with the critics) in the 1874 Salon. His health ever poor, Fromentin visited the Low Countries in 1875 for a respite and became deeply enamored with the early Dutch and Flemish masters. He wrote what has become on of the most important books of 19th-century art-history writing, Les Maîtres d'autrefois shortly before his death. Penned hurredly at the Saint-Maurice residence during the summer of 1875, he initially published it serially at the suggestion of Francois Buloz (1803-1877) in the Revue des Deux Mondes (January-March 1876) appearing in book form the same year. A sensitive and sympathetic account of these artists, the book was ground-breaking particularly because their work was under-appreciated in France at the time. His hopes that the book would garner the Académie des Beaux-Arts' award were again dashed when the award went to Charles Blanc. Blanc used his postion as a member of the Académie to chide Fromentin as unsuited to judge art because he writing was too subtle (!). Fromentin exhibited once more at the Salon of 1876, contributing an anonymous criticism of the Salon to the Bibliothèque universelle et revue suisse in Lausanne. He contracted cutaneous anthrax (a malignant tumor) and died at Saint-Maurice at age 56, while working on a re-write of Domnique. He is buried in the cemetery at Saint-Maurice. Fromentin conceived of art history as problems to be solved through the use of a variety of methods, though principally employing his knowledge of artistic techniques and strong visual analysis. He avoided overt methodological positions (Udo Kultermann termed him an "anti-methodical subjectivist" akin to Jakub Burckhardt). Fromentin's comparatively sober analysis of art caused the art historian Mary Pittaluga to declare him the first modern art critic. Les Maîtres d'autrefois remains his most important work in art historiography. In it, Fromentin departed from typical French art criticism combining instead a more theoretical framework with profound technical sensitivity (color, space) and evaluative methods. Perhaps surprisingly, he was uninterested in most early Netherlandish art or Vermeer, reflecting the general attitude of the French art public. His chapters on the seventeenth-century masters Rubens (six alone), Rembrandt, and Jacob van Ruysdael, as well as sixteenth-century painters Jan and Hubert van Eyck and Hans Memling, focused on a detailed analysis of individual paintings to conclude the personalities of the men behind these paintings, a determinist approach borrowed from the philosophy of Hippolyte Taine. Modern critics have tended to see this work is more literary than art-historical (Sagnes). His account of the portraits of Rembrandt are among his finest writing. His popularization of art critique is characteristic of Gründerzeit impulse and the rising power of an educated middle class. Esthetically, he was largely opposed to the Impressionists, Edouard Manet for example, perhaps because of the challange they provided to his work painted work. In his own time, the art historian/critic Émile Michel remarked that "Fromentin first gave the example of an art critic who was himself a work of art." In the twentieth century, Fromentin was positively re-evaluated by Jan Bialostocki and Meyer Schapiro; eminent translators of his work included Henri van de Waal into Dutch. A manuscript version of a second Les Maitres d'autrefois is held at the municipal library at Versailles.
Sagnes, Guy, ed. OEuvres complètes. Paris: Gallimard, 1984; Dominique. Paris: Librairie de L. Hachette et Cie, 1863, English, London: Howe, 1932; "Programme de critique" [manuscript], 1864; Les Maîtres d'autrefois: Belgique, Hollande. Paris: s.n., 1876, English, The Masters of Past Time: Dutch and Flemish Painting from Van Eyck to Rembrandt. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.
Michel, Émile. Essais sur l'histoire de l'art. Paris: Société d'édition artistique 1900; Pittaluga, Mary. "Eugène Fromentin e le origine della moderne critica d'arte." L'Arte 20/21 (1917/18); Gerson, Horst. "Editor's Introduction." Fromentin, Eugène. The Masters of Past Time: Dutch and Flemish Painting from Van Eyck to Rembrandt. London: Phaidon Press, 1948, pp. vii-xiii; Schapiro, Meyer. "Fromentin as a Critic." Partisan Review 16 (January 1949): 25-51; Bialostocki, Jan. "Rembrandt and Posterity." Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 23 (1972): 131; "Man of Two Muses." Apollo 110 (December 1979): 458-465; Kultermann, Udo. The History of Art History. New York: Abaris, 1993, pp.118-19; Thompson, James. "Fromentin, Eugène (-Samuel-Auguste)." Dictionary of Art; Mickel, Emanuel J. Eugène Fromentin. Boston: Twayne, 1981.