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Taine, Hippolyte

Date born: 1828

Place born: Vouziers, Ardennes, France

Date died:  1893

Place died: Paris, France

Philosopher, literary and art critic; first chair in the history of art at the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris.  Taine began as a lycée teacher at Toulon and Nevers, France.  His refusal to sign an allegiance oath to the new President of France, after the 1851 coup d'état forced his dismissal.  Taine completed his dissertation in 1853 on Lafontaine, Essai sur les fables de La Fontaine. In 1855, his Voyage aux eaux des Pyrénées appeared. His Histoire de la littérature anglaise appeared in 1864.  Student revolts to the teaching of art history and esthetics by Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts resulted in Taine's appointment to the position in 1864 by Victor Duruy (1811-1894), the famous reformist Minister of Education under Napoleon III. Taine's lectures to students and scholars were deeply inspiring.  His courses wove documents and his personal insights from his museums and travels which had recently come to light.  Taine lectured in themes encompassing five-year spands, beginning with Italy, then the Netherlands and finally Greece.  This course was repeated until his retirement in 1884. He was succeeded by Eugène Müntz. In 1882 he published his lectures as the Philosophie de l'art, rising to be the most distinguished French historian of the late 19th century. As an historian, his most important work, a history of the ancien régime and the French Revolution, Les Origines de la France contemporaine, was written between 1876 and 1893. His art writings affected an entire generation of artists and art scholars, including André Michel, Eugène Fromentin.and Renaldo dos Santos. Among his anti-positivist detractors were his successor at the École des Beaux-Arts, Müntz, and Carl Justi. He was a classmate of art historian and biographer Léon Lagrange

Taine 's methodology was positivist (the concept that history is ever-improving) and determinist.  He replaced the highly subjective, personalized account of art with a scientific model, one that he had employed for literary criticism beginning in the 1850s. For Taine, environment, social conditions and to a lesser extent race were the three essential determinants for artistic production. He praised the Italian Renaissance painters, emphasizing their imagination as their predominant "racial" characteristic. Lumping Dutch and German painters together, Taine praised those artists' positive outlook as critical to their resultant art. The arts were, for Taine, documents of history, a view he shared closely with his German counterpart, Karl Schnaase.  Taine could reproduce the facts of an historical situation in excruciating detail, which he considered part of a scientific approach to his topic.  Discounting the commonly viewed 19th-century role of the genius, Taine argued for sensitivity for the geographical, social and environmental-historical context. The role of the art critic was to first form a picture of the conditions in which the creative process of each artist took place and then come to an opinion. LS

Home Country:  France

Sources:  Kultermann, Udo.  Geschichte der Kunstgeschichte:  Der Weg einer Wissenschaft.  2nd ed. Frankfurt am Main and Vienna:  Ullstein, 1981, pp. 188-9; Kleinbauer, W. Eugene.  Modern Perspectives in Western Art History:  An Anthology of 20th-Century Writings on the Visual Arts.  New York:  Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971, pp. 81-2, 91; Bazin, Germain.  Histoire de l'histoire de l'art; de Vasari à nos jours.  Paris: Albin Michel, 1986, p. 137, 468; Dictionary of Art.

HBibliography:  Philosophie de l'art: leçons professées à l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Paris and New York: 1865.

Subject's name: Hippolyte Taine