Valéry, Landscapes, the Whole Human


Paul Valéry, photo by Henri ManuelWhat follows is a re-translation of, and notes regarding, a chapter from Paul Valéry’s wonderful (and hardly unknown) series of observations, published in 1938 with the title Degas Danse Dessin.[1] It may seem the observations are out of date. For example, take two of the most basic: that painters—having left off painting historical or mythological scenes and devaluing portraiture as well—were now mostly doing landscapes and still lifes and had abandoned the intellectual aspect of art. These observations apply well to, say, the work of Abstract Expressionists after the Second World War, but they seem hardly to apply to more recent works of conceptual and political art.

But here is one of the dual charms of reading older intellectual works: we can be stimulated by ideas that we have not known previously existed and by the fact that ideas are of their times, and so must be our own ideas. In addition, however, Valéry’s text may be read as a critique of Impressionism, of art of the eye rather than the mind, art in which human beings are absent or valued for our surface shimmers rather than our solidity. Insofar as the work of the Impressionists and their heirs—from Seurat through Matisse, Picasso, Pollock and, say, Joan Mitchell—continues to be highly valued, it is interesting to read it critiqued. (And this by one who was a young friend of the elder Degas.)

There is here, too, Valéry’s conclusion: « L’homme complet se meurt. » The whole human being is dying. From Valéry’s perspective, this was because, in art and literature, the intellectual was being shunted aside. In 2019 we note how reading (along with intimacy and other things?) is being shunted aside. While skimming an online article about a new New York cultural institution, my eye fastened on this remark: “the average audience member is [now] assumed to be uninterested in little things like medium or tradition, and just wants access to whatever is New, Different, and Popular.”[2] Les effets instantanés is one of Valéry’s phrases; immediate sensations, not demanding much engagement or any reflection.

The poet, aphorist and philosophe Paul Valéry (1871-1945; photo above right) was of the generation prior to that of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), and the latter now seems also to have had a much greater influence on the course of modern and post-modern art.[3] However, one may find many echoes of Valéry’s observations in those of Duchamp. Two examples from Calvin Tomkins’s conversations with Duchamp in New York in the 1960s.[4]

  • From an explication by Tomkins: “In the Renaissance, art had been what Leonardo called a cosa mentale. But gradually it had become what Duchamp described as retinal art: something that appealed to the eye, and to the eye alone. He felt that the Impressionist period was completely retinal, and so were the Abstract Expressionists.”
  • From Duchamp himself: “Art for the moment, which doesn’t care about the future or the past. That I think has been characteristic of the whole [twentieth] century, from the Fauves on. And as a result, slow work is considered bad: you must do a painting at the most in an afternoon. Otherwise you’re stupid.[5] . . . I think there is a great deal to the idea of not doing a thing, but when you do a thing, you don’t do it in five minutes or in five hours, but in five years. I think there’s an element in the slowness of the execution that adds to the possibility of producing something that will be durable in its expression, that will be considered important five centuries later.”

Before moving on to Valéry’s chapter, I note that I often try to do drawings—which are meant to be finished works, not “studies”—in twenty minutes or less and rarely spend more than an hour on a watercolor painting. That one is of one’s times does not entirely prevent one from seeing its particular or peculiar features.[6]


Paul Valéry, Réflexion sur le paysage et bien d’autres choses

As translated by William Eaton, Editor of Zeteo


Aelbert Cuyp, River Landscape with Cows (National Gallery of Art)

Alandscape was initially a rural background on which something was happening. I think the Dutch were the first to be interested in landscapes for themselves, or for the beautiful cows they could show in them.

Amanecer (sunrise), possibly 1646–47, by Claude Lorrain (MET)For the Italians and in France, landscapes assumed the status of a decor. Poussin and Claude [le Lorain] organized and composed landscapes magnificently. The site changed; its relation to nature being like an opera’s to ordinary life. Trees, groves, waters, mountains and follies come to be used in a very free, ornamental or theatrical way. Nonetheless, very accurate studies are being done, and much the same will be done a century later. We arrive at the outer limit of fantasy. The career of the imaginary landscape comes to an end on Jouy’s wallpapers and canvases. Truth comes into play.

Now come to the fore some truly excellent landscape painters who, at first, continue to be concerned with composition. They choose, eliminate, adjust; but, little by little, they begin to wrestle with nature as it actually is.

They work less and less in their studios, more and more in the fields. They struggle against the solidity or fluidity of things; some of them attack the light, want to capture the hour of the day, the moment; substitute for bounded forms an envelope of reflections, of subtly gauged hues of the spectrum.

Others, on the contrary, have themselves constructed what they see.

Claude Monet, Londres, Le Parlement, Reflets sur la Tamise, 1905, Musée Marmottan Monet, ParisThus, the interest of the landscape gradually shifted. From being an accessory to an action, and more or less controlled by this action, a landscape has become a place of wonders, a place of reverie, a pleasure for distracted eyes . . .  Then, the impression comes to prevail: Matter or Light dominate.

We see, in a few years, that painting has been invaded by images of a world without human beings. The sea, the forest, the deserted countryside are enough for most viewers. This has many noteworthy consequences.

Trees and grounds being much less familiar to us than animals, arbitrariness increases in art; simplifications, even rough ones, become common. We would be shocked if someone were to depict a leg or an arm as we do a branch. As regards mineral or vegetable forms, we distinguish very poorly between the possible and the impossible. Landscape painting therefore gets much easier. Everyone takes up painting.

Also affected: the human figure. Once it was a privileged, favored object – to the point where, after Leonardo, anatomy became something artists were required to know. Now the figure has become just another object. Attention is paid to the radiance, the grain of the skin; the molding of forms is scorned.[7] Expression has disappeared from the faces; the subject’s intentions are not portrayed.[8] And so portrait painting is in decay.[9]

Finally, the development of landscape seems to neatly coincide with the quite marked decrease in the intellectual aspect part of art.

The painter doesn’t have much left to think about. It is not that there are not many artists who continue to speculate on the aesthetics and technique of their profession, but I believe that very few plan the particular works they want to create. There is no obligation on them to do so, since everything has become landscape or still life, and these have been reduced to entertainments of purely local interest.[10] The time has passed when an artist did not think it a waste of time to consider, for example, the movements or poses particular to women, the elderly or small children—making notes on the way to fixing these ideas in his mind. I’m not saying we can’t do without this. I am saying that you cannot make great art in the absence of such useless activities, and I am say that there is such a thing as great art.[11] I may come back to this later.

Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles - Number 11, 1952 (National Gallery of Australia)For each thing I have just discussed about painting one may find in the world of Letters a striking parallel. The invasion of Literature by description paralleled that of Painting by landscape, in the same ways and with the same consequences.

In both cases, the achievement resulted from the engagement of great artists, and led in both cases to a certain “capitis diminnutio”.[12]

A description consists of a sentence which, as a rule, can be inverted: I can describe this room with a series of propositions whose order almost does not matter. The gaze wanders as it pleases. Nothing is more natural, nothing more true, than such vagrancy, because . . . truth is chance . . .

Jenny Holzer, What Scares Peasants, from Inflammatory Essays, 1979But if this latitude, and habituation to the ease it entails, comes to dominate in books, it gradually dissuades writers from using their conceptual faculties, while it does away with the need for readers to pay the least attention. They need only be seduced by immediate sensations or by shocking rhetoric . . . [13]

As with the abuse of the landscape painting, this way of creating, though in principle legitimate, and though it has produced so many beautiful works, has led to a reduction of the intellectual aspect of art.

Here, many will exclaim—no matter! However, I believe that it does indeed matter that a work of art be the work of a whole human being.

But how can it be that so much importance was once given to what nowadays is considered (on faith) to be negligible? It would surprise an art lover, a connoisseur of the time of Julius II or Louis XIV to learn that almost everything he considered essential to painting is today not only neglected, but completely absent from painters’ concerns and from the demands of the public.[14] Yet further: the more refined this public is, the more advanced it is—the more divorced it is from the old ideals I am talking about. But it is the whole human being that we are moving away from in this way. The whole human being is dying.



Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Le bal du moulin de la Galette, 1876 (Musée d'Orsay)[1] With thanks to Tiziana Monacelli, a French mother tongue translator, for weighing in on what Valéry may have had in mind in several instances. I note here, too, that, as may be seen from the attached French original, Valéry makes extensive and not very telling use of italics. The translation has passed over many of these. Click for a copy of the original French text: Paul Valéry, Réflexion sur le paysage et bien d’autres choses.

[2] Ben Davis, The Shed Is a Shiny Billionaire’s Box of Dreams. Can It Be an Important Cultural Center Too?, artnet news, April 4, 2019.

[3] One may get a sense of the incestuousness of French high culture, or how one makes a place in it. In 1900, Valéry, born in Corsica and raised in Montpelier, where he studied law, married Jeannie Gobillard, a friend of Stéphane Mallarmé’s family, who was also a niece of the painter Berthe Morisot. The wedding was a double ceremony in which the bride’s cousin, Morisot’s daughter, Julie Manet, married the painter Ernest Rouart, whose father, Henri, was one of Degas’s best friends. Morisot’s husband, Eugène Manet, was Edouard’s brother.

[4] As published in Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews (Badlands, 2013), pages 13 and 44-45.

[5] Neither Valéry nor Duchamp seems to have learned much from Marx—or, more precisely, from economic determinism. Nonetheless, or therefore, it may be noted that the desire to produce artworks rapidly and to find methods and justifications for doing so . . . this comes along with the Industrial Revolution and the growth of a middle-class eager to consume relatively inexpensive and relatively mass produced “luxury” items, artworks included. Thus we have Delacroix not building up the paint on his canvases in the painstaking way of a Renaissance painter, and Monet trying to capture just one moment in a day, etc. Elsewhere in Degas Danse Dessin, Valéry bemoans the fact that painters were no longer doing preliminary studies. In an industrial, consumer age, we might say, there’s no time for studies; everything one does should be salable.

Mark Bradford, Scorched Earth, 2006 (image from Hauser & Wirth)Similarly, Valéry writes of the devaluation of the figure, of the individual human and signs of human will. Well, yes, and landscape painting hardly deserves much of the blame. Such developments are natural consequences of the growth of mass society.

[6] A brief note on where things are at with Zeteo these days. The journal was conceived for “generalist intellectuals” and has presumed the existence of such people. Furthermore, it has presumed that such people read a good deal, and if they are writers (e.g. potential journal contributors) they are interested in doing a fair amount of reading as they explore their chosen subject, go down the paths suggested by their initial intuitions. This may be a heap of assumptions that are, sadly, increasingly fanciful. But when we do receive a text that shows and encourages some kind of generalist intellectual engagement, we are happy to get to know the writer, work with the text, and publish the piece!

[7] Cf. Christopher Lasch about the late twentieth-century United States: “reality is experienced as an unstable environment of flickering images. Everything conspires to encourage escapist solutions to the psychological problems of dependence, separation, and individuation, and to discourage the moral realism that makes it possible for human beings to come to terms with existential constraints on their power and freedom.” So much for the “whole human being”?

Quotation is from “Afterword: The Culture of Narcissism Revisited’:  in The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (W.W. Norton, 1991), 249. The text of this afterword originally appeared in The World and I (February 1990).

[8] We understand what Valéry is driving at: paintings whose attention to psychology is overwhelmed by formal interests, such as in color or geometry. So where to find examples? In Cubist works? Certainly not among the German and Austrian Expressionists. In Magritte or other Surrealists? Some of Matisse’s or Bonnard’s Japanese-screen style paintings? Impressionist crowd scenes such as Monet’s Le pont neuf or Pissarro’s Le Boulevard de Montmartre? Or, more likely, a painting such as Monet’s Femmes au jardin or Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette (image above)?

LBJ (Lyndon Johnson), collage by Judith Bernstein, 1968 (in Whitney Portrait Show, 2017)[9] Valéry italicized this line, and I, being often myself engaged in drawing and painting portraits (e.g. Trouble in Mind), could only follow suit. However, the rises of such phenomena as Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and conceptual art notwithstanding, certainly the twentieth century has included some great portrait painting: Eakins’s Alice Kurtz (1903), Käthe Kollwitz’s and Egon Schiele’s self-portraits, . . . Lucien Freud’s portraits, Andy Warhol, . . . and what about Cindy Sherman or, say, Judith Bernstein’s LBJ collage (1968; image at right)? As for the Impressionists, who seem often who Valéry has in mind in this chapter, time may well place a relatively higher value on the portraits of Cézanne and Renoir than on some of their currently better known works.

[10] For example, one might imagine that a painting of a landscape in or of fresh fruits from Provence would be of interest to Americans who (inspired by Cézanne and Van Gogh) have fallen in love with that region and its products. Valéry’s larger assertion is that there is another kind of painting—e.g. of archetypal scenes from mythology or history—that would have a much broader appeal and be more ambitious in what they were trying to express. This is, among other things, to privilege over formal concerns (such as light, color, point of view) the ideas behind a painting—in the sense of ideas about human life. What would Valéry have said about work such as Jenny Holzer’s great Inflammatory Essays (1979-1982; from this series, see above What Scares Peasants).

[11] I.e. there is a class of art works that qualify as “great art,” and contemporary (nineteenth and early twentieth century) landscape and still life painting are not in this class.

Portrait of a Lady of the Saxon Court as Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Hans Cranach, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Workshop, circa 1537-1540 (Legion of Honor, San Francisco)[12] In Roman law, capitis diminnutio referred to an official diminishing or abridgment of a man’s status. This could be of three kinds:

  • Capitis diminutio maxima, when a man’s condition was changed from one of freedom to one of bondage: he became a slave, losing all rights of citizenship and all family rights.
  • Capitis diminutio media, by which a man lost his rights of citizenship and family rights, but without losing his liberty.
  • Capitis diminutio minima, in which a man’s family relations alone were changed. This left the man’s rights of liberty and citizenship unaltered.

Definition adapted from online version of Black’s Law Dictionary, consulted May 2019.

[13] One might, for example, contrast Renoir’s voluptuous bathers with many a Judith and the head of Holofernes—e.g. as painted by Cranach the Elder, Caravaggio, Gentileschi, or, say, Franz Stuck. Renoir’s paintings could be described as easier to swallow (pré-mâché) or “canned”.

[14] Louis XIV: 1638-1715. Pope Julius II was head of the Roman Catholic Church and ruler of the Papal States from 1503 to 1513. A great patron of the arts, he commissioned the Raphael Rooms and Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel.


View from the courtyard of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, oil pastels, William Eaton, 1 April 2018Images

from top of publication to bottom

Paul Valéry, photo by Henri Manuel

Aelbert Cuyp, River Landscape with Cows, 1640 – 1650 (in the collection of the National Gallery of Art)

Claude le Lorrain (Claude Gellée), Amanecer (sunrise), possibly 1646–47 (MET)

Claude Monet, Londres, Le Parlement, Reflets sur la Tamise, 1905 (Musée Marmottan Monet)

Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles / Number 11, 1952 (National Gallery of Australia)

Jenny Holzer, What Scares Peasants, from Inflammatory Essays, 1979

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Le bal du moulin de la Galette, 1876 (Musée d’Orsay)

Mark Bradford, Scorched Earth, 2006 (image from Hauser & Wirth)

Judith Bernstein, LBJ (Lyndon Johnson) collage, 1968 (image from Whitney Portrait Show, 2017)

Hans Cranach, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Workshop, Portrait of a Lady of the Saxon Court as Judith with the Head of Holofernes, circa 1537-1540 (Legion of Honor)

William Eaton, View from the courtyard of the Legion of Honor, 2018


Avid readers may be interested in another of William Eaton’s pieces on art history, also published this week: The Black Model, Portraits, Naming and Renaming.


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