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Huysmans the art critic

During the nineteenth century it became almost a rite of passage for any serious writer to review the annual Salon des Beaux Arts in Paris. The Salon was the most important institution in the French art world, the means by which artists acquired their reputations and received commissions for their work. Stendhal, Baudelaire, Gautier, the Goncourts, Zola, all, at various stages in their careers, turned their hand to reviewing the Paris Salon. Although he is more widely known as a novelist than an art critic, J.-K. Huysmans (1848-1907) was no exception. In the 1870s and early 1880s, when he was still trying to make a name for himself in the literary world, he too assumed the mantle of art critic and wrote reviews of the Salon.


Like the great writers that preceded him, Huysmans justified his decision to write about art through his own personal connection to it. But while Gautier made much of the fact that he was a former art student, for example, and the Goncourts were known to be passionate collectors of art (and Jules was himself an accomplished watercolourist), in interviews and profiles with the press Huysmans went one step further. He played the trump card of his artistic ancestry, claiming that he was descended from the Flemish landscape painter Cornelis Huysmans (1648-1727), and that he was the product of a long line of painters, from father to son across the generations. In an autobiographical profile written in 1885, Les Hommes d’aujourd’hui (‘Men of Today’), he described himself, only half tongue-in-cheek, as ‘an inexplicable amalgam of a refined Parisien and a painter from Holland’. Huysmans never shied away from massaging the truth if it served his purposes: in truth, his father was not so much a fine artist in the Flemish tradition as a struggling commercial painter and lithographer.


Nevertheless, Huysmans’ passion for, and admiration of, art was genuine, and his work, both as a writer and a journalist, revolved around art. His first published piece of writing was a review of a landscape exhibition in 1867, and throughout the 1870s and 1880s he wrote reviews of art exhibitions, profiles of painters and analyses of paintings for a number of Paris- and Brussels-based journals. Huysmans’ fiction was equally art-centred, either making specific references to painters and works of art, or practicing what Gautier termed ‘transpositions d’art’ – literary passages that described or invoked real or imaginary works of art in words.

When Huysmans published his first book, a collection of prose poems entitled Le Drageoir à épices (1874), he included a prefatory poem that described its ‘principal subjects’ – which also included fictionalised stories from the lives of painters such as Adriaen Brouwer and Cornelis Bega – in metaphorical terms as ‘old sculpted medallions, enamels, faded pastels, etchings and prints’. Again, in 1880, when Huysmans published a collection of short prose pieces, he entitled it, aptly enough, Croquis parisiens (Parisian Sketches). With its descriptive scenes of café-concerts and circuses, its evocations of suburban Parisian landscapes, and its word portraits of working-class characters such as the baker, the chestnut-seller and the streetwalker, Huysmans seemed to be doing with the pen what Degas and the Impressionists were doing with the brush. Even his novels didn’t escape this imaginative fascination with the artistic image, and some of the most striking scenes in his fiction revolve around stunning ‘transpositions d’art’, such as that of Gustave Moreau’s painting of Salomé with the head of John the Baptist in À rebours of 1884, the description of Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion in Là-bas, of 1891, or that of Fra Angelico’s Coronation of the Virgin in La Cathédrale of 1898.


But Huysmans’ devotion to art went beyond just writing about it. He bought work by the artists he admired – contemporary photographs of his apartment reveal walls lined with paintings and engravings – and his first novel included a frontispiece commissioned from Jean-Louis Forain. He was also an early supporter and purchaser of the work of Odilon Redon – consistency was not one of Huysmans’ strong points – and the writer who praised Degas or Forain for their accuracy in depicting life as it really was, could also laud artists such as Gustave Moreau and Redon, whose work was stylistically at the opposite end of the spectrum.

All of which, if it didn’t exactly constitute a comprehensive, academic training in art history, put Huysmans in a better position than most when it came to discussing works of art. Added to which he had a vivid style that enabled him to describe them in striking terms: he knew what he liked – and equally importantly what he didn’t like – and he had the power to convey his aesthetic feelings through his writing.


In many ways Huysmans couldn’t have chosen a better time to launch himself into art criticism than the second half of the nineteenth century. By the 1880s, the art world centred round the Paris Salon was changing, and a new group of independent artists had begun to assert its commercial and aesthetic influence. Huysmans captured this moment perfectly in L’Art moderne (Modern Art), a collection of his art criticism first published in 1883. The decision to alternate the book between reviews of the Salon and exhibitions of the Independents was an inspired one. It is the binary nature of the articles that gives the collection its animus: Huysmans is variously stimulated to derisive, contemptuous outbursts at the tired, cliché-ridden works displayed in the Salon, and then to positive enthusiasm by the innovative work of the Independents and their attempts to represent scenes from contemporary life. Ultimately, this is one of reasons why Huysmans’ art criticism – and L’Art moderne in particular – remains so fascinating, capturing as it does a significant moment in art history, the decline of the establishment system and the rise of a group of independent artists who constituted the first big movement of modern art: Impressionism.

Brendan King

Brendan King's new translation of 'Modern Art' by J.K. Huysmans was published by Dedalus in Feb 2019 priced £10.99.

Readers may also be interested to read the excellent review of the new translation by Julian Barnes in the London Review of Books on 2 April 2020

'Brendan King… has produced an excellent version. Rarely can it have been such fun to read translated denunciations of so many forgotten French pictures' Julian Barnes


1 The cover of Les Hommes d’aujourd’hui (‘Men of Today’) in 1885 which included a mock interview, written by Huysmans himself, in which he described himself as ‘an inexplicable amalgam of a refined Parisian and a painter from Holland’.

2 Huysmans’ first novel Marthe, histoire d’une fille, the second edition of which included a frontispiece commissioned from Jean-Louis Forain.

3 Huysmans’ apartment at 11 rue de Sèvres, Paris, with its walls lined with pictures. Just above his head is an engraving by Jean-Louis Forain. Photographed by Dornac.

4 La Fleur de marécage (The Marsh Flower), from Odilon Redon’s Hommage à Goya, a series of six lithographs produced in an edition of just twenty-five in 1885. Huysmans’ imaginative review of the portfolio – which he described in a sequence of dream-like visions – originally appeared in La Revue Independante, and was subsequently included in the second edition of Croquis parisiens (1886).    

Posted on:Monday 27th April, 2020