Fellow Men: Fantin-Latour and the Problem of the Group in Nineteenth-Century French Painting

Julian Barnes writes:

Thirty-four men, 20 of them standing, 14 sitting, spread across four paintings and 21 years. Almost all are sombrely dressed, in the black frock coat worn by bourgeois and artist alike in the France of their day; the least sartorial departure – a pair of light trousers, a coat of proletarian grey, a white painter’s smock – startles. The spaces in which these men are depicted are matchingly sombre, narrow from front to back, airless, and claustrophobic: there is not a window in sight, and only in the final painting is a door indicated; otherwise, there seems no means of escape. There may be pictures on the wall, but not of the sort that offers any view outwards; darkly unreadable, they return us to the intense clusters of men. Occasionally, a slight relief comes in the form of flowers, or fruit, or a carafe of wine, and there is a red tablecloth, but even this is a murky red which does not break the dark tonality and funereal mood. And though each set of men has been gathered for a common purpose – to pay homage to a dead painter, to watch a living one wield his brush, to hear poetry read, to gather round a piano – none of them seems to be having any fun. There is not a laugh, not a smile to be had from the whole 34 of them (33, in fact, as one appears twice). Most give off a sense of gravity and high purpose, though quite a few appear distrait, lost in their own private world, even bored. Some are friends (two are lovers), most are allies, collaborators, members of a self-selecting elite or avant-garde; and yet there is very little interaction between them. None of the figures touches his neighbour; they may abut, overlap, hide behind one another, but there is no contact between them. It is almost as if they can’t wait for the sitting (and the standing) to be over, so that they may return to their own studio, workshop, study, music-room.

(LRB 11 April 2013)