Gawkers: Art and Audience in Late Nineteenth-Century France

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams is an artist, critic and poet, based in the UK. He writes art criticism for The Critic, Standpoint, Apollo, Burlington Magazine, Print Quarterly, Printmaking Today, The Jackdaw and other publications. He publishes articles on censorship and free speech, as well as book reviews, on Spiked-Online.

Alexander Adams

Images and discussions of public spaces in Paris over the nineteenth century are dominated by certain types: the flâneur, the policeman, the child, the prostitute, the beggar, the crowd. Bridget Alsdorf, associate professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University, looks at these types through the perspective of fine art, illustration and photography. She notes the badaud (French: gawker) as a common subject for consideration by writers and artists. “Badauds abound in late nineteenth-century art and literature, yet they have received only a minute fraction of the attention devoted to the flâneur. […] The badaud has been largely ignored. There are several reasons for this, but the crucial one is this: badauds’ passivity and collectivity run fundamentally counter to the pervasive model of modern identity exemplified by the flaneur, a free and active agent with a bounded, cultivated sense of self.” 

The author takes as her subject the way the badaud was seen by artists in the 1890s. “More than any other artist, Vallotton seized on badauds as a subject of deep significance to late nineteenth-century urban culture. The social intelligence and graphic significance of his work unlock the badaud’s importance to the art world of his time.” Félix Vallotton (1865-1925), the Swiss painter-printmaker, is taken as the quintessential artist of the Parisian street. His woodcut illustrations (made in the 1890s) of domestic interiors, public spaces and street scenes were popular and artistically influential. British readers may remember his wonderful exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2019. Two related artists which Alsdorf takes as her subjects are Vallotton’s fellow Nabi Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) as artists engaged by badauds, the life of the street and commercial art. All three worked for La Revue blanche, the literary-artistic periodical published 1891-1903.    

Alsdorf mulls Vallotton’s politics. His writings are inscrutable but some have seen the prints as sympathetic to anarchism, due to the inclusion of police violence and the largely good-natured depictions of crowds. This chimes with her own view. She is hostile towards those writers who are critical of crowds, calling it an “irredeemably top-down view”. The chapters are divided by the events that gave rise to the crowd, including crime, accident and entertainment. The crime story – both as fiction and journalism – was all the rage It was also a live scientific subject, with criminology, psychology and phrenology all vying to explain the boom in criminality in modern cities.

Alsdorf is on the look out for responses from Vallotton that are sympathetic towards crowds. She finds it disappointing that he does not reprove bystanders who watch two brawlers being taken off to gaol. Why should bystanders be supportive of these men? She detects implicit disapproval in Vallotton’s public execution, which the artist depicted a number of times, perhaps taking as subjects the guillotining of anarchist assassins. She contrasts Vallotton’s relatively ambiguous attitude to Jean-Léon Gerôme’s paintings, that treat the crowd at public spectacles as cruel and even predatory.

Honoré Daumier’s paintings and prints of theatre audiences are more varied and less negative than other French artists of the time. His images of art connoisseurs in a home and theatre audiences provided a teasing but warm view of the badaud bourgeois. Daumier’s lithographic illustrations in journals allowed him to poke fun at bastions of refined taste. Alsdorf sees later commentators as more critical of the crowd. “Later artists, echoing Maupassant, bristled at this, disturbed by what they saw as the theatricalized relations between art and its viewers. Drawing on Daumier selectively and darkening his humor, they pictured the audience as an intractable problem.”

Oddly, Alsdorf sees Degas as averse to depicting the audience. “He does not focus on the relationship between the audience and the performers but on the lack thereof, and his oblique perspectives make the viewers of his pictures conscious of the angle and quality of their attention. When viewing Degas’s work, we are almost always in a position of nearly looking away.” This seems to overlook the importance of his sketches of observers at horse races – the woman with the binoculars is an explicit reference to the distancing effect of the act of spectating – and the women visitors at the Louvre. If one were being generous with parameters, all those pictures of women watching others trying on hats might fall into the area of the observer observed.

Bonnard’s approach to figures on the street during his Nabi period (the 1890s) was more about body language, shape, movement and colour. The facial expression is both less important and less legible in his colour lithographs and his paintings. His album of colour lithographs Some Aspects of Parisian Life (1895-9) investigates reportage through essential shapes and atmosphere. The author speculates about the possible influence of the Lumière Brothers’ films of crowds, which commenced in 1895. These crowds were soon corralled by assistants of the filmmakers, as they threatened to impede the view of the filmed spectacle due to their curiosity. At this early stage, badauds were subjects, extras and onlookers of documentary filmmaking on the streets – as well as being the audience for the final films.

The book also assesses the modern spectacle of the shop window, newspaper kiosk and street poster, discusses how these new forms (designed to attract the badaud) lent themselves to commentary through fine art. Toulouse-Lautrec made posters for café-concerts, dancehalls and performers, which included views of onlookers. His inclusion of dramatic silhouettes of the crowd and the placing of the viewer on the dance floor changed the way such scenes were treated. The artist painted the exterior of a dancehall, turning it into a giant poster advertising itself. Among the portraits of the audience was one of Oscar Wilde, who was (at the time of painting) on trial in London – coverage of which was front-page news.

Gawkers covers the political subtext of images of onlookers, audiences and crowds, explaining how current events such as the trial of Oscar Wilde, the execution of anarchists and the Dreyfuss Affair became entangled with the reaction of people in public. The author’s research into the sources and histories of the era shed fascinating light on the subtly coded images that pass judgement mingled with observation. Alsdorf acts as a knowledgeable guide to Parisian art of the nineteenth century art, especially the prints of the newly popular Vallotton, linking the artists to influential poets and social critics of the time. Gawkers is recommended for enthusiasts of art of this period, as it effectively supplies a missing link for non-francophones, introducing them to the complex social signals and commentary that is present in the art we so often take for granted.   

Bridget Alsdorf, Gawkers: Art and Audience in Late Nineteenth-Century France, Princeton University Press, 2022, hardback, 296pp, fully illus., £48, ISBN 978 0 691 16638 4