Feel the detail

Romanticism and its Discontents

Anita Brookner <em>Viking, 198pp, £25</em>

ISBN 0670892122

Anita Brookner, the art historian and Courtauld professor, fell silent in the early 1980s after the publication of her magnificent book on Jacques-Louis David. Anita Brookner, the fiction writer, took over, using each dusty long vacation to write a neat novel about the dizzying interior life of quiet people. With clockwork precision, every September was accompanied by the publication of a new book, including the Booker Prize-winning Hotel du Lac. The 21st novel is promised for early next year.

Brookner's silence as an art historian has been a huge loss: not only is she a leading authority on French 18th- and 19th-century painting, but she writes about it exceptionally well. Her particular skill, as in her fiction, is spotting the detail of feeling. You may not quite understand the impact that the full, bold stare of an Ingres portrait has on you, but Brookner does, and she can tell you why. Cavalry Officer Charging (1812) may strike you as smudgy and insubstantial, until Brookner points out that it is Gericault's way of showing Napoleon's army at that breath-holding moment between victory and defeat. She can describe the powdery finish of a tint, or the narrative of a crowded corner of a history painting. This ability to put pictures, and their effects, into words is particularly crucial to a book such as Romanticism and its Discontents, which suffers from a distinct lack of illustration (a paltry eight of the 24 pages of plates are in colour).

Still, strictly speaking, this is not a book of art history or art criticism. Brookner has set herself the task of tracking romanticism through literature as well as painting, using the work of writers such as Baudelaire and Zola to bridge the gap between two worlds. Romanticism is notoriously tricky to pin down, changing its dates and shape according to the national landscape (Britain's version, for instance, was pretty much over by 1830). Confining herself to France, Brookner sees romanticism as lasting from 1800-80, and defines it as the moment at which the "moi", the subjective presence of the author or artist, presses forward into play.

As the Enlightenment's promise of a serene and improving future broke down in the ghastliness of the Terror and the triumph of Napoleon, French artists found themselves restless with the rigid rules of classicism. It no longer seemed right for the artist to stay outside the frame of his own painting, simply noting down the scene laid out before him. The rational clarity of David could hardly hold in a world that was frenzied with movement and colour. As the cult of the heroic individual - different, special, apart - grew apace, it made sense for the painter to make his presence felt as a commentator, and even explicit maker, of the scene before him.

Increasingly, that scene came to register rebellion, flux and despair before it finally settled into ennui - a term that Brookner says will not bear translation. She starts with an excellent chapter on Antoine-Jean Gros, the man who shattered David's tight control of the canvas by introducing a reflexive element that allowed new, subversive meanings to emerge from even the stuffiest of state commissions. The irony was that Gros was no flamboyant rebel, no Byron of the canvas determined to shock and disgust. Rather, he was a devoted pupil of David's who was genuinely appalled at the way his moi intruded into the most public subjects, turning such a documentary as Napoleon in the Plague Hospital at Jaffa (1804) into a virtual Christian allegory. Unable to cope with the idea of himself as a traitor to the cause of classicism, Gros gave himself the most Romantic of all ends by committing suicide.

In literature, too, Romanticism valued the unique, special, even perverse viewpoint. Alfred de Musset, for instance, called his novel La confession d'un enfant du siecle, and spoke of the exhausted longing that came from growing up too late to participate in Napoleon's glory years during the first decade of the century. Twenty years later, Baudelaire published Les fleurs du mal, a volume of poems so heavy with self-absorption that they were immediately dubbed obscene. Even a brisk and outward-looking writer such as Emile Zola counts as Romantic, argues Brookner, because he revelled in a shared sense of exclusion, championing "la petite bande" of like-minded souls that included his childhood friend Paul Cezanne.

Romanticism is sometimes portrayed, wrongly, as nothing more than a gush of feeling, a flood of sticky sentiment. Brookner is good at reminding us that its urge towards self-expression makes sense only when played against a strict set of rules and boundaries. Ingres's portraits, for instance, are powerful precisely because of the tension between their formal, classical poses and their quirky, compelling stares. Zola's best novels, such as Germinal and L'Assommoir, achieve their shocking power only because they are told through a patient compilation of documentary detail. Romanticism and its Discontents is, then, an extraordinarily good book, deep in detail, yet elegant throughout. It reminds you of what a remarkable brain lies behind those 20 novels.