The Invention of Folk Art (1830-1870)

Directed by

  • Michela Lo Feudo (Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II)


The aim of this research theme is to examine the emergence of the debate around the notion of folk art with its ideological, formal and aesthetic implications in the artistic and cultural milieu of France between the July Monarchy and the Second Empire. (...)

Although the whole range of artistic productions relating to folk culture certainly existed before the 19th century, the studies carried out by Daniel Fabre show that, in the period between post-romanticism and the first realist generation, this vast and heterogeneous field began unprecedentedly to catalyse the interest of a certain number of authors expressing the emergence of a new sensibility. Around them, a network of intellectual exchanges was taking root that deserves to be explored, a network which was likely, on the one hand, to discuss the dominant aesthetic hierarchies; on the other hand, it would fuel an important moment of theoretical reflection for the development of ethnographic knowledge that would be increasingly structured in the following decades around various notions. These included folklore, the people, the primitive, the childish, the nation, tradition, folk arts and traditions, material culture, and traditional techniques based on the work of the generation of scholars born under the Third Republic, including Van Gennep, Patrice Coirault, and Paul Delarue, for example.

From this perspective, the July Monarchy can be seen as the first great period in which social observation simultaneously invaded the political and artistic-intellectual domains, which echoed each other. On the one hand, attempts were made to systematise institutional empirical surveys coordinated by the Académie des sciences morales et politiques for essentially administrative and security purposes on poverty, education, the conditions of the working class, etc.; on the other hand, a genuine culture of enquiry began to take hold through literary and journalistic writings disseminated above all by the periodical press (Kalifa 2010; Thérenty 2017; J. Lyon-Caen 2017).

In this centrifugal and changing panorama, artists (the term is to be understood in the continuity of its broad romantic meaning including visual, literary, artistic, musical and performing creators) began to question the forms of folk art in more depth: they engaged both theoretically and practically, through writings, paintings, drawings or prints, musical compositions or theatrical performances. Aiming at the union of the arts, Eugène Delacroix, Théophile Gautier, Gérard de Nerval, George Sand, Jules Champfleury, Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt, for example (the list is by no means exhaustive) saw in the definition of folk art – the shift from the plural to the singular is noteworthy – an attempt to delimit a field of research to be legitimised and enriched for artistic purposes (Fabre: 2009).

Amplified by the failure of the Second Republic and the establishment of Napoleon III’s empire, the commitment of certain authors trained in the post-romantic and republican milieu developed in a realist perspective. The research carried out by George Sand, Gustave Courbet, Jules Champfleury, Max Buchon and Edmond Duranty in visual art and literature shows, in fact, that the questioning of artistic hierarchies goes through a renewal of the notion of mimesis, itself with the aim of assimilating visual codes and narrative strategies inspired by non-legitimised cultures (Privat: 2017; Lo Feudo: 2021). While it produced a real ’turning point’ in the history of ethnographic knowledge (Scarpa; Fabre (dir. ): 2017), there remains the question of further questioning the presence of this “spontaneous ethnology” (Fabre: 2004, ds Scarpa: 2017) with its actors, its approaches, its results and its limits from a historical perspective. This needs to be done while trying to situate it in an era in which the creative projects associated with this movement are in dialogue – often problematically – with notions such as “philology”, “object” and “evolution”.

The corpus that feeds this reflection is varied and difficult to define. It surpasses the actors of the debate themselves. Indeed, it brings together forms and artefacts that are part of both material culture and aesthetic issues; earthenware, signs, prints, Epinal imagery, folk songs, children’s drawings, etc., constitute a shifting body of work that raises questions about the “other of art”, the specific features of which it would be useful to explore further, in line with Daniel Fabre’s intuitions. It is a subject that is all the more intriguing as productions from marginalized or distant territories such as the provinces of France or the New World (Fabre: 2006) and from bygone eras are taken into consideration by these authors as well as contemporary expressive forms, the fruit of an expanding ’minor’ urban culture such as journalism, caricature or pantomime (Lo Feudo: 2013). They are part of a reflection that includes the folk art of the cities with its underbelly (Kalifa: 2013), an art that is part of the continuity of the process of democratization of culture inaugurated by the French Revolution while extending itself in the transformations of the cultural field linked to the diffusion of mass media and industrial art.

This research theme calls for and presents studies on:

 the notion of folk art as a historically situated theme: artists, genres, forms and spaces (geographical and social) considered here for their heuristic value and not only from the perspective of art history;
 the artists and intellectuals who have contributed to the reflection on the notion itself, their methodological and theoretical contribution within the French and European debate of the time;
 the exchanges on the subject between writers, artists, scholars, collectors, image makers and travellers;
 the dialogue between folk art and experimental poetics: intersections between non-legitimised forms and innovative literary and artistic productions (folk art as a springboard, repellent, etc.);
 the problem of visual and textual representation of morals in the realist era;
 folk art in its relationship with the construction of ethnographic knowledge in the 19th century, based on the relationship with other key notions such as: survey, philology, object (conceived in its material and aesthetic dimension), witness, etc.

Bibliographical references cited

Fabre, Daniel, “L’effet Catlin”, Gradhiva, 3, 2006, pp. 55–75 :

Fabre, Daniel, “‘C’est de l’art !’ : Le peuple, le primitif, l’enfant”, Gradhiva, 9, 2009, pp. 4–37 :

Fabre, Daniel & Jean-Marie privat (eds.), Savoirs romantique. Une naissance de l’ethnologie, Presses Universitaires de Nancy, 2020.

Fabre, Daniel, “D’une ethnologie romantique”, in D. Fabre, J.-M. Privat (eds.), Savoirs romantiques. Une naissance de l’ethnologie, 2020, pp. 5–75.

Kalifa, Dominique, “Enquête et ‘culture de l’enquête’ au XIXe siècle”, Romantisme, 2010, n° 149, pp. 3–23 :

Kalifa, Dominique, Les bas-fonds : histoire d’un imaginaire, Éd. du Seuil, 2013.

Lyon-Caen, Judith, “Enquêtes, littérature et savoir sur le monde social en France dans les années 1840”, in M. Scarpa & D. Fabre (eds.), Le Moment réaliste. Un tournant de l’ethnologie, pp. 31–58.

Lo Feudo, Michela, “‘Égyptiens’ aux Funambules. Les pantomimes de Champfleury entre hiéroglyphes et arts populaires”, in G. Chamarat & P.-J. Dufief (eds.), Le Réalisme et ses paradoxes (1850-1900). Mélanges offerts à Jean-Louis Cabanès, Classiques Garnier, 2013, pp. 157–169.

Lo Feudo, Michela, “Champfleury écrivain et la caricature. Éléments pour une poétique du trait”, Fabula / Les colloques, Littérature et caricature (XIXe-XXIe siècles), edited by A. de Chaisemartin & S. Le Men :

Privat, Jean-Marie, “La Mare au diable ou comment ‘faire le populaire’”, in D. Fabre, J.-M. Privat (eds.), Savoirs romantiques. Une naissance de l’ethnologie, pp. 257–289.

Scarpa, Marie & Daniel Fabre (eds.), Le Moment réaliste. Un tournant de l’ethnologie, PUN, 2017.

Scarpa, Marie, “D’une ethnologie réaliste”, in M. Scarpa & D. Fabre (eds.), Le Moment réaliste. Un tournant de l’ethnologie, pp. 7–28.

Thérenty, Marie-Ève, “‘Choses vues’, corps impressionnés au XIXe siècle. Du journal au roman”, in M. Scarpa & D. Fabre (eds.), Le Moment réaliste. Un tournant de l’ethnologie, pp. 59–73.

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Michela Lo Feudo

Michela Lo Feudo