While visiting the Metropolitan Museum this past weekend we wandered through one of the galleries devoted to French painters of the post-Revolutionary period. It looks like they mostly wanted a return to normalcy. Hence Ingres’ portraits of extremely self-possessed and incredibly well-tended notables and their wives. All the storms in the world couldn’t affect their secure enjoyment of life, or so we are given to believe.
I was particularly struck though by Delacroix’s Basket of Flowers:
It’s a great painting by a great painter who spared no effort to choose and arrange the flowers and their setting the best he possibly could. The painting is purely decorative. The flowers aren’t a sign of human love, divine bounty, the transience of earthly joys or whatever. They’re just a basket of flowers to be enjoyed as a simple and straightforward (if remarkably wonderful) basket of flowers.
That means that a painter of genius is devoting his full powers to pure decoration aimed at pure enjoyment. You find something rather like that in all the arts of daily living in which the French excel—food, wine, women’s dress, and so on.
I think that’s a basic reason the French seem weird and even outrageous to Americans. The level of accomplishment seems grossly disproportionate to the nature of the pursuit. It’s incomprehensible to us that someone could devote that much attention and skill, and do so much that on many levels is so admirable, in relation to something that at bottom is so completely unserious. It seems obsessive and even somehow immoral.
The French, of course, have their own views on the topic. I suppose they could point out that the picture was painted in 1848, a year of political upheaval, and the painter evidently wanted to get away from it all. Or simply that it’s stupid not to enjoy a basket of flowers as much as possible.
I have no idea how to sort the issues out, or what they are exactly. But even if the French have the better of the argument, which a lot of people would say, doesn’t its existence show that there is an issue there somewhere? After all, it’s not just puritanical Americans on the skeptical side. Lots of classical philosophers would have joined them there.