Critics and painters: Fry, Bell and the twentieth century

Roger Fry (1866–1934), Self-portrait (1928), oil on canvas, 45.7 x 37.1 cm, The Courtauld Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1910, midway between Cézanne’s death and the outbreak of war in Europe, a science graduate turned critic, painter, and art historian, organised an exhibition at the Grafton Galleries, London, entitled Manet and the Post-Impressionists. For many who attended, it was their first exposure to works by Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse and Vincent van Gogh, and even Édouard Manet may not have been too familiar.

Although slated by most critics, over twenty-five thousand attended the exhibition, and it was followed by a second only two years later. These, and the much larger and broad-based 1913 Armory Show in New York, established the reputations and places in art history of Cézanne and others, at least in the English-speaking world. At the same time, they sealed the fate – for much of the rest of the twentieth century, at least – of John Singer Sargent.

The two London Post-Impressionist exhibitions were part of a campaign which became Roger Fry’s mission in life, ably supported by his notable friends in the Bloomsbury Group, a clique which continues to dominate several spheres in the world today. In addition to Fry and the art critic Clive Bell, the group included novelists E M Forster and Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey the popular biographer, and the economist John Maynard Keynes. Close friends, but outside the central clique, included T S Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, Vita Sackville-West, and at times extended to the likes of Aldous Huxley and Bertrand Russell.

Members of the Bloomsbury Group were decidely upper middle class; most of the men were educated at Cambridge University, and several had first met there as members of an exclusive society (fraternity), the Apostles. When he had completed his Natural Sciences degree there with first class honours, Fry changed tack and went to London, then to Paris and Italy, to learn how to paint. His early paintings appear to have been fairly realist with impressionist tendencies. He visited Venice, which he painted very competently, but did not show any obvious genius.

Roger Fry (1866–1934), Venice (1899), oil on canvas, 76.6 × 101.7 cm, Bucks County Museum, Aylesbury, England. Wikimedia Commons.

On his return to the UK, he specialised in art history, which he taught at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, in particular pre- and early Renaissance painting, and in 1899 published a book on Giovanni Bellini. In 1903, he was one of the founding members of The Burlington Magazine, then the first scholarly publication in Britan dedicated to art history, which was to publish more than 200 articles of his.

In 1906, the year of Paul Cézanne’s death, he ‘discovered’ the art of what he termed the Post-Impressionists, including Cézanne, Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and the Neo-Impressionists (Seurat, Signac, and others). He quickly started to enthuse about their paintings in lectures and in print. He was also appointed Curator of Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and declined an invitation to head the National Gallery in London as a result.

Fry joined the Bloomsbury Group in 1910, a momentous year for him as well as his Post-Impressionists. His wife was committed to a mental hospital as a result of serious mental illness, leaving him to care for their two children. He was introduced to the group by his friend Clive Bell and his artist wife Vanessa, sister of Virginia Woolf. When the prestigious Grafton Gallery in London had a vacant slot for an exhibition, Fry seized the opportunity and Manet and the Post-Impressionists took the critics and public by storm.

Unfortunately his efforts to promote the exhibition had a serious side-effect. Prior to this, he had expressed some critical views about John Singer Sargent’s paintings, but Sargent remained hugely popular and these had passed largely unnoticed. For comparison with Fry’s painting of Venice above, I offer a contemporary watercolour by Sargent below.

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Rio dell Angelo (1902), watercolour, 24.8 x 34.9 cm, Private collection. WikiArt.
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Rio dell Angelo (1902), watercolour, 24.8 x 34.9 cm, Private collection. WikiArt.

After the critical backlash resulting from the opening of Manet and the Post-Impressionists, Fry tried to salvage the exhibition by writing three articles which were published in The Nation, an influential weekly journal published in New York. The last of these, which appeared on Christmas Eve, listed artists who supported the aims of Post-Impressionism: Fry added Sargent’s name to that list.

Sargent’s response was contained in two open letters which were published in The Nation early in the New Year, in which he made his critical views of Fry’s beloved Post-Impressionists quite explicit. From then on, Fry and Sargent were at war. Even after Sargent’s death, Fry refused to bury the hatchet, writing a long and viciously critical review of the memorial retrospective exhibition of Sargent’s work which was mounted at the Royal Academy in 1926. Sargent’s reputation didn’t recover for nearly fifty years.

It is also worth noting that several of those billed in its catalogue as being patrons of Manet and the Post-Impressionists disavowed themselves of such support after the opening of the exhibition, and its critical outcry.

Fry’s miraculous conversion to the champion of Post-Impressionism was accompanied by an equally dramatic change in his painting style.

Roger Fry (1866–1934), Still life: jug and eggs (1911), oil on wood panel, 30.5 x 35.3 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Wikimedia Commons.

Until after the end of the Great War, Fry’s paintings became more experimental, in Post-Impressionist style. Like Cézanne, he turned from landscapes to still lifes, which had many similarities with those painted by Cézanne thirty years before: above is Fry’s Still life: jug and eggs (1911), and below Cézanne’s Boîte à lait, carafe et bol (1879–80).

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Boîte à lait, carafe et bol (1879–80), oil on canvas, 45 x 54 cm, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Wikimedia Commons.

He did still paint some landscapes, such as the view below of the garden at his house in affluent and rural Guildford, Surrey. But even these were influenced by the styles he had seen in his favourite Cézannes.

Roger Fry (1866–1934), The Artist’s Garden at Durbins, Guildford (c 1915), oil on canvas, 46.7 x 75.9 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.
Roger Fry (1866–1934), Still-life with blue bottle (1917), oil on canvas, 62.2 x 45.1 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

Between 1911 and 1913, he had an affair with Vanessa Bell, still his friend’s wife at the time, and this was left unrequited when she left him to live with the other artist in the group, Duncan Grant. However, in 1922 he still felt able to write a review of Vanessa Bell’s exhibition for The New Statesman, which opened with the sentence: “The first quality of Vanessa Bell’s painting is its extreme honesty.” Nowhere in the review did he declare his relationship with her.

Fry painted a number of portraits of members of the group; in these too he didn’t follow Cézanne’s lead. Here is the art critic and aesthetic philosopher Clive Bell, whose ideas on art and aesthetics largely coincided with those of Fry.

Roger Fry (1866–1934), Clive Bell (c 1924), oil on canvas, 73.4 x 60.0 cm, The National Portrait Gallery, London. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the 1920s he appears to have painted more landscapes, in a mature and realist style, quite unlike the landscapes of the Post-Impressionists whom he was still promoting.

Roger Fry (1866–1934), View of Cassis (1925), oil on canvas, 71 x 105 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

This late self-portrait shows him at the age of 62, shortly after the publication of his highly influential book, Cézanne. A Study of his Development (1927), which remained a key work until John Rewald’s more substantial Paul Cézanne (1948) and History of Post-Impressionism: From van Gogh to Gauguin (1956).

Roger Fry (1866–1934), Self-portrait (1928), oil on canvas, 45.7 x 37.1 cm, The Courtauld Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

A few of his later paintings were also more modern, but only in comparison to his early work. By the time that he painted Carpentras (1930), below, Matisse and Picasso had long abandoned their Post-Impressionist styles which he had revealed to the public back in 1910.

Roger Fry (1866–1934), Carpentras (1930), oil on cardboard on aluminium, 46.1 x 54 cm, The Courtauld Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1933, he finally attained the academic appointment which he had long desired, as Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge University, his alma mater. He died the following year.

Roger Fry was the leading art historian, critic, and painter in the Bloomsbury group, but it was Clive Bell who laid down the aesthetic theory which underpinned the group’s thrust to change the direction of art in the twentieth century.

Bell (1850-1942) was born into a wealthy family, which had made its money from coal mines in Wiltshire, England, and Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. He read history at Cambridge University, after which he was awarded a scholarship to study in Paris, where he became interested in art, and by his own account ‘became familiar with the modern French masters’, including Cézanne, Gauguin, and Matisse. He married the painter Vanessa Stephen, who was Virginia Woolf’s sister, in 1907, and became a core member of the Bloomsbury group.

He wrote his first book, titled simply Art, in 1913, in which he expounded his aesthetic philosophy in the context of art, its history and appreciation. You can download the complete text of the 1914 edition from Project Gutenberg, or

Mosaic of Theodora – Basilica of San Vitale (built A.D. 547), Italy. UNESCO World heritage site. By Petar Milošević, via Wikimedia Commons.

Bell’s choice of illustrations may seem strange:

  • a 5th century Wei dynasty (before 534 CE) figure from China,
  • an 11th century Persian dish,
  • an early Peruvian pot,
  • a 6th century Byzantine mosaic from San Vitale, Ravenna, (above)
  • Cézanne’s Maison devant la Sainte-Victoire près de Gardanne (1886–90), (below)
  • and an early painting by Picasso.
Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Maison devant la Sainte-Victoire près de Gardanne (1886–90), oil on canvas, 65.5 x 81.3 cm, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, IN. Wikimedia Commons.

His concept of art is thoroughly elitist: only certain people are capable of “personal experience of a peculiar emotion” when they are confronted by works of art, those who are “sensitive”. Those objects that provoke this particular emotion in such sensitive people “we call works of art”. Late in the book he writes: “A sure sensibility in visual art is at least as rare as a good ear for music.”

Later in the book he offers criteria for distinguishing ‘good’ and ‘bad’ drawing: “What we mean when we speak of ‘good drawing’ and ‘bad drawing’ is not doubtful; we mean ‘aesthetically moving’ and ‘aesthetically insignificant.’ Why some drawing moves and some does not is a very different question.”

One potential test which he provides is that “people who cannot feel pure aesthetic emotions remember pictures by their subjects; whereas people who can, as often as not, have no idea what the subject of a picture is. They have never noticed the representative element, and so when they discuss pictures they talk about the shapes of forms and the relations and quantities of colours. Often they can tell by the quality of a single line whether or no[t] a man is a good artist.”

Examples of true art, in Bell’s judgement, include:

  • the works illustrated in the book,
  • Giotto’s frescoes at Padua,
  • paintings by Poussin, Claude Lorraine, El Greco, Rembrandt (but see below), Velasquez, Vermeer, Rubens, Jordaens, Chardin, Ingres, Corot, Daumier, Manet, Renoir, Degas,
  • paintings by Piero della Francesca, and several contemporaries,
  • paintings by Cézanne, Gauguin, van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso,
  • most works known as ‘Primitive’,
  • only 3-4% of Cubist or Impressionist paintings,
  • paintings by Duncan Grant and Roger Fry.

Examples of what Bell considers is not art include:

  • Frith’s Paddington Station (1862) (see below)
  • “descriptive pictures”, which imitate nature, including most realist paintings,
  • the paintings of most Royal Academicians, including Frederic, Lord Leighton,
  • most painters “who flourished between the high Renaissance and the contemporary movement may be divided into two classes, virtuosi and dunces”, neither of which he deems to be art,
  • JMW Turner, who is dismissed as “an after-dinner poet”,
  • John Singer Sargent,
  • Neo-Impressionists, including Seurat, Signac, and Cross.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, A Woman bathing in a Stream (1654), oil on panel, 61.8 x 47 cm, National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, A Woman bathing in a Stream (1654), oil on panel, 61.8 x 47 cm, National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Bell’s comments on Rembrandt are particularly scathing: “Rembrandt, indeed, perhaps the greatest genius of them [17th century masters] all, is a typical ruin of his age. For, except in a few of his later works, his sense of form and design is utterly lost in a mess of rhetoric, romance, and chiaroscuro. It is difficult to forgive the seventeenth century for what it made of Rembrandt’s genius.”

William Powell Frith (1819–1909), engraved by Francis Holl (1866) The Railway Station (1862), original oil on canvas, this print mixed media engraving on wove, finished with hand colouring, 66 x 123 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.
Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Sous-bois (Wood) (1900–02), oil on canvas, 81 x 64.5 cm, Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

In contrast, “Cézanne is a type of the perfect artist; he is the perfect antithesis of the professional picture-maker, or poem-maker, or music-maker. He created forms because only by so doing could he accomplish the end of his existence – the expression of his sense of the significance of form.”

Between them, Roger Fry and Clive Bell not only destroyed the reputation of John Singer Sargent during his final years, but laid the ground for what happened to painting over much of the rest of the twentieth century – a period in which many were to lament that painting was dead and buried. Perhaps John Singer Sargent should enjoy the last word.

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1922-25), oil on canvas, 348 × 317.5 cm, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

In the end, art still wins: Sargent’s wonderful paintings live on, while Roger Fry and Clive Bell have been all but forgotten.