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by Anita Brookner

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-374-25159-2
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

An illustrated exploration of the national psyche of post-Waterloo France through the eyes of its artists and their critics.

Booker Prize–winning novelist and art historian Brookner (Undue Influence, 1999, etc.) considers her chosen subjects—Gros, Alfred de Musset, Baudelaire, Delacroix, Ingres, the brothers Goncourt, Zola, and Huysmans—as characters in a complex drama. Employing her considerable talent as a storyteller, she shows how the various political and intellectual currents of the day combined with more personal influences in shaping the works of the French Romantics, whose revolutionary contributions to art and literature changed the course, not merely of aesthetics but of history as well. The author maintains that Romanticism, in France, was a direct reaction to the disappointment, disenchantment, and isolation that resulted from the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, and she attempts to prove her point in the lives and careers of her subjects. This is narrative history in the best tradition, and Brookner succeeds in delineating the temper of an entire age by concentrating on the figures of a few of its best representatives. She does a particularly fine job in her chapter on Huysmans, whose weary decadence and taste for the perverse strike her as the very culmination of Romanticism. Unfortunately, however, she never details the ways in which her thesis deviates from, or improves upon, those of others in her field—and her failure to cite any secondary sources is a curious and regrettable omission indeed.

Overall, though, an informative and well-crafted exploration of the interplay between public and private in the lives and works of the French Romantics.