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Stendhal (Beyle, Marie-Henri)

Date born:  1783

Place Born:  Grenoble, France

Date died:  1842

Place died:  Paris, France

Author and government official; wrote art criticism and a history of Italian painting. Stendhal attended his school years in Grenoble, where he was raised. A chance school prize of the book Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et la peinture (1719) by Jean-Baptiste Dubos set him on a career in art writing. In 1799 he moved to Paris, his official home for the rest of his life. In Paris he studied art with Jean-Baptiste Regnault, though he seems never to have been intent on a career in painting. He entered the Ministry of War in 1800 to earn his living in an administrative career. After a visit to Italy the same year, he determined to spend as much time there as his government positions would allow. In 1810 in job briefly involved inventorying the national collections, then huge because of Napoleon's conquests. The same year he wrote his first "review" of the Salon of 1810--a letter to a friend. Stendhal returned to Italy in 1811, researching his history of Italian painting. It appeared in 1817 as Histoire de la peinture en Italie. The work had a strong effect on a number of romantic artists, especially Eugène Delacroix. He began reviewing the Parisian Salons, the official exhibition of paintings by the French Academy in 1824, which was serialized into 17 parts. Though his Salon reviewing was short, and none of the others as lengthy as the 1824. Stendhal approved of the painting of Horace Vernet, yet approached romantics, such as Delacroix, with reserve. His dictum, that the best art was that which brought the most pleasure to the most people, initially found Delacroix wanting. He changed his stance, approving of Delacroix over Vernet, by 1828. In 1840 Stendhal collaborated with the painter Abraham Constantin (1785–1855) to publish Idées italiennes sur quelques tableaux célèbres. The work, part travelogue, part guidebook, part technical treatise, added architecture to the list of objects he considered.

L'Histoire de la peinture en Italie was neither a work of scholarship nor vision. In fact, Stendhal borrowed unscrupulously from other art historians whom he failed to cite. L'Histoire like much of the postivistic art histories charts Italian art as ever ascending to the acme of Michelangelo. It remains important, particularly for Romanticism, for its call to painting to energy and vitality, which neo-classicism had for the most part lost. Stendhal believed that art appreciation was not a matter for the mind so much as a matter of the heart. His writing fueled the public appetite and believe that it could be as much the harbinger of art history as official taste. Étienne-Jean Delécluze (q.v.) termed it disparagingly as "the Koran of the so-called Romantic artists". His Salon reviews were important for the influence they exerted on writers and critics including Charles Baudelaire. Stendhal decried what he saw as the pedantry of many connoisseurs. Despite his accomplishments he referred to himself as a "simple amateur".

Home Country:  France

Sources:  Fernandez, Dominique. Le musée idéal de Stendhal. Paris: Stock, 1995; Berthier, Philippe. Stendhal et ses peintres italiens. Geneva: Droz, 1977; Wakefield, David. "Stendhal and Delécluze at the Salon of 1824." in, The Artist and the Writer in France: Essays in Honour of Jean Seznec. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974, pp. 76-85; Lilley, E. D. "Stendhal." Dictionary of Art.

Bibliography: [collected edition] Voyages en Italie illustrés par les peintres du romantisme. 3 vols. Paris: Selliers, 2002.