I was recently reading Hugh Honour’s Neo-Classicism (part of Penguin’s excellent Style and Civilization series from the ’60s and ’70s) and not enjoying it very much. The book is fine, but the topic was less than scintillating. I guess it depends on your tolerance for sentimental art about civic duty. Then I was jolted awake by a short passage in the epilogue:
[Jacques Louis] David was no better pleased with another group of his pupils, the Primitifs who, in the later 1790s, stretched to breaking-point the beliefs that underlay the Neo-classical doctrine of the Ideal. Their passionate yearning for line and simplicity was combined with an aggressive abhorrence of colour, modeling, compositional integration, any suggestion of illusion or even technical competence.
Hello! Where have you been all my life?
Trusting to their own genius, they held the general public in utter scorn and were probably the first artists who consciously sought to épater le bourgeois, by growing beards (hence their nickname, the barbus), by wearing curious Greek cloaks over their clothes and by bathing naked in the Seine. Despising the arts of the age of Pericles as much as those of the Renaissance, they admired only the most primitive Greek vase paintings and Paestum Doric architecture.
Dang! Where do I sign up? Unfortunately Honour adds, “It is hardly surprising that only one of their paintings survives – a vast Ossianic scene by P. Duqueylar in the Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence.”A Google search led me to the painting in question, which was a little disappointing.
It might have looked radical in 1800, but it wouldn’t have stood out to me in a museum, even with my penchant for pale dramatic ladies. To add insult to injury, the depicted Ossian turns out to be a made-up ancient poet, a hoax that had taken the 18th century by storm.
Much more rewarding was another painting by Paul Duqueylard, this one of Orpheus (another imaginary poet), auctioned in 2012. Once attributed to David, it very clearly looks forward to my man Ingres, whom Honour believes was influenced by the Primitifs.
And that’s pretty much all that’s left of the Primitifs. You can read a 1962 scholarly article about them here, but aside from some curious sleuthing and a more extensive description of their outfits, it doesn’t add anything to what Honour wrote. Worse still, it features long quotes in untranslated French. Quelle horreur! My search for ancestors continues.