Goncourt, de family
- David Scott
French family of writers, critics, printmakers, painters and collectors. Edmond de Goncourt (b Nancy, 26 May 1822; d Champrosay, 16 July 1896) and his brother Jules de Goncourt (b Paris, 17 Dec 1830; d Paris, 20 June 1870) were born into a minor aristocratic family. Their father, Marc-Pierre Huot de Goncourt, died in 1834, and after the death of their mother, Annette-Cécile Guérin, in 1848 they were sufficiently well-off to set up as painters. Jules was notably talented, his etchings being published in 1876. However, the Goncourts soon turned to literature, in which, in a remarkable collaboration that lasted until the death of Jules in 1870, they made their name, first as journalists and historians, and a little later as novelists and art critics. Their finest and best-known works, such as L’Art du XVIIIe siècle (published in 12 fascicles between 1859 and 1875) and Manette Salomon (1867), a novel about artists and the female model, combine the various strands of their creative abilities. In L’Art du XVIIIe siècle, art historian, critic and artist unite (the book was illustrated with etchings by Jules) to give an unforgettable account of the working methods and achievements of 18th-century French artists, both major (e.g. Watteau, Boucher) and minor (e.g. Charles-Nicolas Cochin (ii), the Saint-Aubin brothers). In Manette Salomon the brothers’ insight into both the studio life and practice of contemporary artists, and the psychology of the art student and the female model, finds expression in a style of startling originality and modernity. Their Journal, started in 1851 and continued by Edmond after Jules’s death until his own in 1896, is a fascinating record of Parisian literary and artistic life in the second half of the 19th century.
More than any other 19th-century writers, the Goncourts made the vocation of writer synonymous with that of artist. This new desire for identity or synthesis was reflected in their concern with developments in precisely those areas that were fundamental to both literature and painting: style, technique and taste. For the Goncourts, the function of the writer, like that of the visual artist, was to reproduce the materiality of experience through the medium of its communication, as well as through content. Their concern, like that of the painter, was to capture the vividness or the transience of sensation, the surprise of elements juxtaposed, fragmented, rearranged or partly concealed by the accidents of experience. This necessitated the creation of an écriture artiste, which modified or inverted the conventional logic or order of syntax and grammar. The Goncourts’ systematic use of nominalization (well analysed by Ullmann) and their creation of a new vocabulary of aesthetic neologisms (explored in detail by Fuchs) was taken up and developed by later 19th-century prose writers and poets. (Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes, 1869, owes much to L’Art du XVIIIe siècle.)
As art critics and writers, the Goncourts constantly stressed the importance—and the fascination—of technique (or cuisine as they often called it). Two concepts were central to them: colour and the fragment. In their account of the Exposition Universelle of 1855 they argued that painting was a daughter of the earth, a materialist art in which colour, not drawing, best enlivened form; its natural field was not the history painting that had dominated European art since the Renaissance, but landscape and contemporary genre. The Goncourts were great admirers of the Barbizon school and Edmond, later, of Constable and Turner (though, surprisingly, they had little time for their contemporaries, the Impressionists). They considered Paul Gavarni the modern genre painter par excellence, publishing a study of him in 1873, although later Edmond recognized the originality of Degas in this field. Their boredom with literary or academic painting led them to promote the concept of the suggestive fragment, which, whether a sketch or a drawing, they often valued more highly than a complete masterpiece. Thus the legless marble torso in the Vatican was preferred to a work by Raphael, the latter being dismissed as ‘purely academic’. Though men of letters themselves, the Goncourt brothers constantly recommended the banishment of literature from painting so that its sensual and physical qualities could be brought to the fore.
The Goncourts’ ability to combine the skills and knowledge of the artist with the flair of the journalist and publicist enabled them to exert considerable influence on the development of taste in the second half of the 19th century. In the 1850s and 1860s their eloquent celebration of 18th-century French painting not only confirmed its rehabilitation but also indicated its relevance to contemporary aesthetic concerns—both literary and artistic. Similarly, their enthusiastic and informed reception of Oriental and, above all, Japanese art encouraged the fashion for Japonisme that was later taken up by many other writers, artists and collectors. In La Maison d’un artiste (1881), in which the term ‘artist’ was again used interchangeably with that of ‘writer’, Edmund wrote that he and Jules had acquired their first album of Japanese prints as early as 1852, and this interest was to remain with him for the rest of his life, his works on Kitagawa Utamaro and Katsushika Hokusai being published in 1891 and 1896.
The originality and importance of the Goncourt brothers was much disputed during and after their lifetime and has only in the second half of the 20th century been more widely recognized. Living in a period when the relationship between literature and art became increasingly complex and profound, they had a vital impact as writers and connoisseurs on developments in French literature (both in the novel and in literary style in general) and on the evolution of later 19th-century taste.
- E. de Goncourt and J. de Goncourt: L’Art du XVIIIe siècle, 12 vols (Paris, 1859–75); ed. J.-P. Bouillon in L’Art du XVIIIe siècle et autres textes sur l’art (1967)
- E. de Goncourt and J. de Goncourt: Manette Salomon (Paris, 1867); ed. H. Juin (1979)
- E. de Goncourt and J. de Goncourt: Gavarni: L’Homme et l’oeuvre (Paris, 1873)
- E. de Goncourt: Les Frères Zemganno (Paris, 1879); ed. E. Caramaschi (Naples, 1981)
- E. de Goncourt: La Maison d’un artiste (Paris, 1881)
- E. de Goncourt: Outamaro: Le Peintre des maisons vertes (Paris, 1891); ed. H. Juin as Outamaro, Hokousaï: L’Art japonais au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1986)
- E. de Goncourt: Hokousaï (Paris, 1896); ed. H. Juin as Outamaro, Hokousaï: L’Art japonais au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1986)
- E. de Goncourt and J. de Goncourt: Journal, ed. R. Ricatte, 4 vols (Paris, 1956–9)
- P. Burty: Eaux-fortes de Jules de Goncourt: Notice et catalogue (Paris, 1876)
- M. Fuchs: Lexique du ‘Journal’ des Goncourt: Contribution à l’histoire de la langue française pendant la seconde moitié du XIXe siècle (Paris, 1912)
- P. Sabatier: L’Esthétique des Goncourt (Paris, 1920)
- F. Fosca: Edmond et Jules de Goncourt (Paris, 1941)
- R. Ricatte: La Création romanesque des frères Goncourt, 1851–1870 (Paris, 1953)
- A. Billy: Vie des frères Goncourt, 3 vols (Monaco, 1956)
- S. Ullmann: ‘New Patterns of Sentence Structure in the Goncourts’, Style in the French Novel (Oxford, 1964), pp. 121–45