Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 23, 2000
Bernadette Fort Les Salons des “Mémoires Secrets,” 1767–1787 Paris: Ecole nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, 1998. 380 pp. Paper $170.00 (2840560666)

Bernadette Fort has performed an important service by editing this new edition of the reviews of the biennial Salons or officially sponsored art exhibitions originally published in that remarkable 18th-century French periodical, the Memoires secrets. The eleven Salon reviews included in the volume, spanning the last two decades of the old regime, are one of the most important sources we have to document contemporary reactions to the painting and sculpture of this period, that saw the shift from Rococo to neoclassical and the emergence of such talents as Jacques-Louis David and Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun. These reviews also represent an important stage in the development of French cultural journalism, and provide important material for the understanding of the issues of public involvement in art criticism raised in Thomas Crow’s well-known Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).

Fort’s brief introductory essay explains the provenance of this extensive body of art criticism. The Memoires secrets, published between 1777 and 1789, was an anonymous chronicle of cultural and political events in France, covering the period from 1762 to 1787. Its compilers attributed the work to a well-known ‘amateur’ of the period, Louis Petit de Bachaumont, and it has commonly been referred to as the Memoires de Bachaumont, even though this reviewer and others have demonstrated that he could not in fact have been its author. (See Jeremy D. Popkin and Bernadette Fort, eds., The ‘Memoires secrets’ and the Culture of Publicity in Eighteenth-Century France, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1998).

It is ironic that the Memoires secrets have come to be associated with Bachaumont the art critic, because, in their original form, they reviewed literature, the theater, opera, concerts and every other form of high culture except the one genre with which the real-life Bachaumont had been most concerned: the visual arts. The first of the Salon reviews reprinted here appeared only in volume 11 of the 36-volume series, the majority of them were grouped together in volume 13, and the subsequent reviews continued to constitute a separate element in the publication, rather than being included in their appropriate place among its other contents. They were also the only element of the Memoires secrets to be published separately before the Revolution.

As Fort shows, the Memoires secrets’s critic cannot be identified. There is a consistent tone to the reviews, and the author of the final Salon claims credit for the earlier ones (341), leading us to believe that we are dealing with a single journalist. Each Salon consists of three separate letters. The first, normally longer than the other two, deals with the major paintings on exhibit, usually history paintings or portraits of the royal family; the others cover lesser genres, sculpture, and engravings.

At a time when public criticism of an officially sponsored exhibition could be seen as a subversion of royal authority, the Memoires secrets‘s reviewer’s stern judgments gave off at least a faint whiff of sulfur, although the series circulated fairly widely and probably enjoyed at least tacit toleration from the authorities. It is true that each Salon exhibition regularly provoked a number of unauthorized pamphlets, and that the impact of the reviews in the Memoires secrets was attenuated by the time delay between the exhibitions and the publication of the reviews. The fact that these reviews constituted a regular series, developing a consistent argument about the nature and destiny of the ‘French school’ of art, gave them a weight that the irregular pamphlets lacked, however.

Their author had no hesitation in asserting the importance of his enterprise. However much artists might protest against criticism, he insisted that they not only read it but heeded it. Furthermore, he claimed in 1785, it was the critics (by which he clearly meant above all himself) who had nagged the government into improving exhibition conditions and expanding its patronage, so that if the Salon of that year was, by general agreement, “the most magnificent and . . . the most impressive that one can remember since its establishment,” it was truly the critics, rather than the artists or their patrons, who could claim the credit. (283)

The highlight of the Salon of 1785 was David’s “Oath of the Horatii,” the one work in the entire period from 1767 to 1787 that most inspired the Memoires secrets’s critic. Its appearance marked for him the triumph of the “true principles of the grand genre . . . the male beauty of the antique . . .” over “the false taste, the brilliant but often misplaced and always overdone manner which Boucher instilled in his followers . . .” (283) By celebrating David’s masterpiece in this way, as Fort shows, the Memoires secrets‘s reviewer constructed the “grand narrative” by which the history of French art would be understood down to our own time, a theme she has elaborated in her essay, “The visual arts in a critical mirror.” (In Popkin and Fort, The ’Memoires secrets,’ 143-74)

Although the Memoires secrets’s critic made no secret of his admiration for the neoclassical style, he was not a narrow dogmatist. He made an honest effort to judge each genre and each individual work on its own terms, and he could admire the technical skill even of artists whose productions he lamented. Like the journalism of the Memoires secrets in general, his art criticism was multivocal, differentiating between the reactions of the “gens de metier” and the general public as well as offering his own opinions.

Fort sees the Salons as foreshadowing 19th- and 20th-century judgments on the neoclassical movement, and indeed there are many elements in these essays that seem surprisingly modern. The Memoires secrets’s critic was open-minded about the accomplishments of women artists, giving ample coverage to the works of Vigee-Lebrun and Guiard. His criticism took into account not only the formal qualities of the works on display but the social and political context that shaped them: he commented on the importance of patronage and campaigned for an exhibition space that would accommodate the public and allow the paintings to be seen under good conditions. Several references in the final Salons to the “rapid revolution that has taken place. . .” can make it seem as though the writer was anticipating the events of 1789.

The modernity and the devotion to the neoclassical style of the Memoires secrets should not be overstressed, however. Although the 1787 Salon concludes with praise for an engraving of the just-concluded meeting of the Assembly of Notables, the first of the events that was to lead to the Revolution (348), its author remained to the end—a man of the old regime. Rather than looking forward to the rise of the bourgeoisie, he grumbled when portraits of “this crowd of obscure commoners” took up too much space during the last years of Louis XV’s reign (56) and rejoiced when large-scale paintings of the royal family displaced them in the 1780s. Nor was he totally committed to neoclassicism. Indeed, his most insistent demand was for art that celebrated French national history by treating it with the same gravity as Greek and Roman antiquity. (199) In that respect, he looked forward to the patriotic paintings of the revolutionary and Napoleonic eras and the history paintings of the 19th century.

The Revolution of 1789 ended both the monarchy and the Memoires secrets’s special brand of insider journalism. Outspoken art criticism of the sort it had offered became a regular feature of the now-uncensored periodical press, as it has remained down to the present. The Salons thus mark an important transitional step from the critical discourse of the old regime to the new world of free discussion.

Fort has modernized the Memoires secret’s orthography and included some sixty black-and-white illustrations of works it discusses. Useful as these are, it is worth bearing in mind that the insertion of illustrations makes our experience of reading the Salons significantly different from that of its 18th-century purchasers. The anonymous critic faced the challenge of writing for an audience many of whom would never see any of the works he was describing. His skill in rendering visual impressions in words remains impressive even after two hundred years.

Jeremy D. Popkin
Dept, of History, University of Kentucky.

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