Claire Barbillon

The Canons of the Human Body in French Nineteenth-Century Art Publication date : February 20, 2004

References to the canon of physical proportions were a constant in writings about art throughout the nineteenth century and up until the twentieth when artists began questioning representational art. What is the meaning of the canon? Why do normative guidelines make such a powerful comeback during the neoclassic period, and hold sway until Le Corbusier? It would seem that definitions of art, proportions, science and metaphysics had been fixed in a stable equilibrium since the Renaissance, yet in the nineteenth century the terms of this structure were altered. And it was when the representational system in western art was under attack that the idea of a canon returned with such force.
This raises the wider, more fruitful issue of the tension between an abstract norm, whose goal is to order representation, and the obsession with clinical realism. In France, the canon of proportions played a key role, though not in art criticism written by outsiders - it was seldom mentioned in articles on the Salons in the press, or in critiques of avant-garde artists, or in articles supporting the Academy. It was in internal debates among artists - either in articles written by the artists themselves, or in those written on their behalf - that the canon was so important. In other words, it played a direct part in the artists' thought process about artistic creation and its ideological foundations.
In order to understand why theories of proportion flourished so abundantly, to comprehend the amazing dreamlike constructions that they elicited (and which are evoked in the book), and the disconcertingly obstinate desire to force nature and rules to coincide, the author examines a number of factors. These include the background of the history of ideas, the development of the science and the pseudo-sciences of Man, and the enduring power of the nudes of Antiquity as paradigms of beauty, in opposition to the myth of the “common man”.

Claire Barbillon is a director of studies at the Ecole du Louvre and was formerly a senior lecturer in art history at the University of Bordeaux III-Michel de Montaigne. She has a doctorate in art history and studied at the Institut National de l'Histoire de l'Art. She is the author of a commentary for an edition of Van Gogh's illustrated letters.