Masters & Pupils: The Artistic Succession from Perugino to Manet (1480-1880)

Masters & Pupils by Gert Rudolf Flick

Cover of the book by Gert-Rudolf Flick

Many would be surprised to learn that Manet, considered by many to be the first artist of the modern period, was the last in a long line of teachers going back to Perugino. In his book Masters& Pupils: The Artistic Succession from Perugino to Manet 1480 to 1880, Gert-Rudolf Flick traces the artistic genealogy of Manet connecting him to Carracci, Raphael and many of the greatest artists in Western history.

From the inside flap:

The line of descent that connects Perugino with Manet is made up of just eighteen artists. Some are household names such as Raphael and David. Others, for example, Horace Le Blanc and Louis Boullogne, have fallen into obscurity. All are connected by a common bond: the belief that art could be taught and learned, and that skill and knowledge would be passed on from an older artist to a younger. With Manet, the succession came to a halt, marking the end of a great tradition but also the beginning of the modern art wold, in which the desirability of teaching art has been thrown into question.

Flick traces the genealogy with an in-depth exploration of each artist in the line–eighteen in all–together with examples of each artist’s work.

These days, we do not talk much about the dynastic traditions carried down from one artist to another. For example, we talk of philosophical connections between Warhol and Banksy, but not where they studied. The idea of training an artist seems counter to the freedom inherent in our conception of “artistic expression.” How can an artist be trained by someone and, then, be expected to create something worthwhile?

The idea that tradition and training stifles an artist’s god-given talent may have begun with Manet. Together with other artists of his day, he had an antagonistic relationship with the art establishment in Paris.
In the last half of the nineteenth century, the annual Paris Salons were the premiere showcase for painters. Over 20,000 people would visit the Salon daily. Artists whose work appeared in the show were much more likely to be commercially successful. For every painting shown in the Salon ten were rejected.

A group of elite people, a mix of government appointees and past winners judged the Salon and accepted or rejected paintings. These judges were often teachers in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and would reward their own students. It was a system that had tremendous stakes for artists who felt artistic merit was often subject to nepotism and rigid decisions. (For a very entertaining and accurate description of this struggle in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, I suggest reading Ross King’s The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism.)

It was, I believe, this institutional favoritism–teacher favoring student–in the academic system that led to the ultimate downfall of the master and pupil system. It bred a resentment in Manet’s generation, ultimately resulting a series of artistic movements (e.g. Impressionism, Divisionism, Futurism, etc.) that opposed academic training. By rejecting the system and encouraging others to do the same, Manet laid the foundation for its destruction.

Flick remains even-handed in his approach to the topic; not casting doubt on the idea that artists are born not trained. Reading the book, it is difficult to not come to the conclusion that the system should have been reformed rather than lost.

While it is true that there are many talented artists today, few of them can participate in a system that allows them to instill that talent in another generation. As a result, each generation discovers painting for themselves. This leads to a lot of fresh ideas, but severs them and us from the experience that leads to deeper understanding.

If Newton “stood on the shoulders of Giants,” where do the artists from Manet to today place their feet? That is the question that haunts this book and one that we need to have a serious debate about.

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