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Duality and Cultural Borders: Heine and the French Painters of 1831

The July Revolution of 1830 in Paris produced startling consequences throughout Europe, and most particularly in Germany. One result of this revolution was the formation of a new group of young authors, known as the Young Germans, who advocated political action in order to achieve republican ideals. Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), although not officially a member of the Young Germany school, was allied with them in many of his beliefs and ideals. As a poet, critic, and satirist of the government in Germany, Heine encountered difficulty in his homeland, and in 1831 he undertook a voluntary exile to Paris, where he lived for the rest of his life. In Paris, he was a correspondent for the German Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung; he also wrote several books and translated German works into French for the French public. In so doing, Heine became a kind of middleman between France and Germany, facilitating communication and promoting increased understanding of the two cultures. In spite of the claims of many critics, who say that Heine fled Germany to immerse himself in French affairs, Heine's writings show that he retained an active and vital link with his homeland, and that he was a strong advocate of the ideals of the July Revolution and republicanism. In particular Heine's 1831 newspaper essays entitled Französische Maler (French Painters) served as a decisive agent in conveying the changes in French civil society to a distant German readership. Following an examination of Heine's self-stated goals and his position in Parisian exile, a detailed analysis of the French Painters, both as historical document and as art criticism, will determine the means by which Heine achieved his aims. [1]

In France, after Charles X had ascended the throne in 1824, he attempted to undo many of the changes that his brother, Louis XVIII, had made before him. Charles became fiercely royalistic, arguing for more power and the right to control his subjects, and this angered the French people tremendously, especially those who had played a role in setting the more democratic Louis XVIII on the throne after the defeat of Napoleon. On July 26, 1830, when Charles published a set of ordinances which suspended freedom of the press and reduced the size of the electorate, the people became outraged; the next day, July 27, the city of Paris, under the leadership of liberal advocates such as François Guizot, Louis Adolphe Thiers, and the aging Marquis de Lafayette, rose up against Charles. Three days later, Charles abdicated and fled to England, while his cousin, the Duke d'Orléans, was crowned as Louis-Philippe, the 'citizen-king'. His reign, known as the July Monarchy, lasted until the revolution of February 1848. [2]

In Germany, as throughout Europe, the effect of this revolution was strong and immediate. The German states, while still not truly united, were in effect led by the two kingdoms surrounding them, Austria and Prussia. Austria in particular possessed an exceptionally reactionary government which was still responding with fierce absolutism and repression to the threat caused by Napoleon; Prussia, too, although seen as reformist, enforced strict measures of censorship and control over its inhabitants. The people, however, or at least the bourgeois and the lower classes, welcomed the July Revolution as a hopeful sign. In addition to a positive social reaction, there were literary and political consequences as well: as elsewhere in Europe, a republican movement arose, consisting mainly of younger writers born after 1800, who advocated using the French system as a model for the rebuilding of their own, and who were in favor of destroying the ancien régime of German feudalism. As one author states:

 To all those who had felt oppressed by the political stagnation after the Carlsbad decrees in 1819, the revolution which broke out in France in July 1830, overthrowing the Bourbon monarchy, marked both an end and a new beginning; in particular it inspired students and young intellectuals in Central Europe to call for changes in their countries. [3]

Modeling themselves on similar groups in other European nations, such as Giuseppi Mazzini's Young Italy, this group of authors, most of whom were journalists or fledgling novelists, began to call themselves 'Young Germany'. The title came from the dedication of a book by one of their leading authors, Ludwig Wienbarg, in which he writes: "To you, young Germany, I dedicate this work, not to the old." [4] These authors were strongly attracted to the ideals of the July Revolution and to the philosophy of Saint-Simon, one of the liberal thinkers in France at the time; Saint-Simonism advocated, among other social goals, the liberation of women and the emancipation of the senses, in addition to encouraging republican and democratic sentiments. The Young Germans also felt that the time had come for politically active literature, as opposed to the classical and romantic conception of literature as divorced from politics; advocating the example of France, Karl Gutzkow wrote in 1832:

 There are people in Prussia who are ashamed to say the word Constitution, and they are not even the worst ones! In France, politics and the struggling of the parties hold together all areas of the writing and thinking spirit .... The necessity of the politicalization of our literature is undeniable! [5]

Although most of these authors did not promote open revolution against their governments, they were nonetheless seen as dangerous by the political leaders, as well as by the more conservative members of the newly-formed Poetic Realism and Biedermeier schools, who preferred stately, serene, and controlled literature, not the often shocking and wild imagery of the Young Germans. Perhaps the sharpest critic of the Young Germans was a fellow journalist, Wolfgang Menzel, who, both out of personal quarrels, anti-Semitism, and ideological differences, led a campaign to ban the works of the Young Germany school. His critique of Heine's influence on German literature, published in 1859, after Heine's death, shows clearly some of the harsh accusations which he heaped upon Heine and the Young Germans:

 In spite of his obvious and intentionally displayed worthlessness, Heine was practically deified in Germany, and he gathered under his dirty banner a whole swarm of imitators. These people called themselves 'Young Germany.' When one thinks back on the image of German youth as we recognize it in Siegfried, one sees here the nauseating opposite. The physiognomy of Young Germany was that of a Jewish boy, coming out of Paris clothed after the latest fashion, but totally blasé, unnerved by sloppiness, and with a specific musky, garlic-like odor. [6]

Menzel's relentless attacks on the Young Germans succeeded in 1835, when the German Bundestag, the Federal Diet, passed a resolution condemning by name several of the authors:

 ... all German governments hereby assume the obligation to take action against the authors, publishers, printers, and distributors of the writings of the literary school known as Young Germany or Young Literature, to which by name belong Heinrich Heine, Karl Gutzkow, Heinrich Laube, Ludwig Wienbarg, and Theodor Mundt, and, by full force of the law, to suppress them by a lawful ban ... [7]

Although the Bundestag listed Heine among the authors of the Young Germany school, in reality he did not consider himself to be allied with them. Certainly he shared many of the same ideals; he, too, held to the tenets of Saint-Simonism, rejoiced at the July Revolution, and believed that literature should no longer be excluded from political comment. He did not, however, encourage or even advocate the idea of a violent revolution in Germany, and he was not even wholeheartedly supportive of all French ideals. In fact, even his writings shortly after 1831, such as the newspaper reports later published under the title French Painters, show his ambivalent attitude toward the new social upheavals in Parisian society, as we shall examine in greater detail below.

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Heine was, though, already in exile in France by the time the Bundestag's decree was made. After leaving Düsseldorf, where he had been born in 1797, and attending consecutively the universities of Bonn, Berlin, and Göttingen, Heine had begun his career in literature by publishing a collection of poems, and then the successful Reisebilder, which assured his popularity as a poet and novelist. He had obtained his doctorate of law in 1825, and at the same time had decided to convert from Judaism to Christianity. This was necessary because of the severe restrictions on Jews in the German states; in many cases, they were forbidden, without specific permission, to have their own businesses or to leave the areas in which they were assigned to live. Understandably, then, as Heine himself said, his conversion was "the ticket of admission into European culture." [8] He continued to publish, writing both poems and novels, but he met increasing resistance, both from members of the Romantic school, who criticized his writing as too harsh and cynical, and from the Poetic Realism school, who objected to his sarcasm and to what they considered obscenity (i.e., sensuality) in his works. He contemplated moving to another country in order to write more successfully, but none was particularly appealing to him. In 1830, when he heard the news of the July Revolution, he was overjoyed; he truly believed in the cause of the revolution, and thought that it would succeed. At the same time, seeing the newfound liberty in France made Heine sadly aware of the oppressive conditions in his homeland; he realized, however, that the German people simply did not have the strength or the impetus to accomplish such an action themselves, and that maybe they never would. In a letter dated November 29, 1830, Heine wrote the following:

 Ah! the great week of Paris! The spirit of freedom which spread from thence to Germany has upset the bedroom candles here and there so that the red curtains of certain thrones have caught fire and golden crowns have grown hot under blazing night-caps; but the old bailiffs, on whom the Imperial Government rely, bring along fire-buckets and spy all the more warily and bind the faster the secret chains, and already I perceive that yet a closer prison wall is rising invisibly about the German people. Poor captive people! despair not in your need! O that I could speak catapults! O that I could blaze forth firebolts from my heart! The coating of ice about my heart melts and a strange sorrow creeps over me. Is it love? Love for the German people? Or is it sickness? [9]

Heine became so caught up in the July Revolution, and indeed in French ideals, that, especially in later years, he often used French subjects in metaphors while speaking of German topics. Thus, for instance, did he characterize Martin Luther's hymn, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God", as "the Marseillaise Hymn of the Reformation." [10] Also, although Heine in general did not advocate a violent revolution in Germany, he nonetheless seemed to believe that if such a revolution could be accomplished, it would do good to the nation. Speaking metaphorically in his essay entitled The Romantic School (1833), he compares inhumane practices and restrictions on liberty to goblins and ghosts, noting that France is "a country where there are no ghosts"; he then proceeds to describe Germany:

 O how I would like to stand on top of the Strassburg cathedral with a tricolored flag in my hands that would stretch to Frankfurt! I believe that if I could wave that sacred flag over my dear fatherland and at the same time recite the proper incantation, then the old witches would fly off on their broom sticks; the cold sluggards would crawl back into their graves; the golem would again disintegrate into mere clay; the fieldmarshal Cornelius Nepos would return to wherever he came from; and this entire spoof would come to an end. [11]

Heine thus decided to visit France, on what was supposedly a temporary visit; he arrived there in May of 1831, almost a year after the July Revolution. He had been debating the journey for quite some time. He realized that life was growing more difficult for him in Germany; censorship was becoming even more strict, and he was having increasing difficulty publishing his work. He did, however, love his homeland, and did not want to spend the rest of his life in exile. However, the July Revolution and the activities in Paris inexorably drew him closer; as early as August 1830, he had written:

 Everything is still like a dream to me; in particular the name Lafayette sounds like a legend from my earliest childhood. Is he really now sitting on his horse once again, commanding the national guard? I am almost afraid it isn't true because it's in print. I want to go to Paris myself to convince myself with my own blessed eyes.... Lafayette, the tricolor, the Marseillaise! My longing for peace is gone. I know now what I want to do, what I should do, what I must do ... I am the son of the Revolution, and I take up the charmed weapons upon which my mother has pronounced her magic blessing. [12]

Shortly before he left for France, Heine published a collection of letters which he had written while on a trip to England in 1827. He added an afterword to this piece, and in it he spoke of the effect of the July Revolution; one scholar has seen this as a reflection of his attitudes while contemplating his move to France:

 The state of mind in which Heinrich Heine crossed the Rhine may be seen in the concluding words added to his Letters from England immediately before publication: "Liberty is the new religion, the religion of our day .... The French are the chosen people of that religion, for in their tongue are written its first gospels and its first dogma: Paris is the new Jerusalem, and the Rhine is the Jordan which separates the holy land of liberty from the country of the Philistines." [13]

In Paris, Heine found that he was eagerly welcomed into the salons and spoken of highly in the most fashionable circles, all as a result of his being an émigré from Germany, a country which the French saw as suffering under a tyrant regime. In fact, Heine loved life in Paris. In 1832 he wrote to a friend, "if anyone asks you how I am tell him 'like a fish in water,' or rather, tell people that when one fish in the sea asks another how he is, he receives the reply: 'I am like Heine in Paris.'" [14] Just before he left Germany, he had been contacted by the German newspaper publisher Baron Cotta, who asked Heine to be a French correspondent for Cotta's Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung. Heine was happy to do this, for not only did it provide him with a steady income, but it also allowed him the opportunity to express his ideas to the public he had left behind.

In fact, it was around the time of Heine's arrival in Paris that he began to develop a feeling for what his exact purpose would be there. This point has been disputed rather vigorously among scholars, but it seems that Heine felt that he was to play the role of mediator between the two cultures -- a goal which is clearly expressed in Heine's own writings. Not surprisingly, most older historians and literary critics (writing before 1970) have stated that Heine, rather than remaining devoted to his homeland, abandoned Germany for Paris, and spent the rest of his life immersed in French affairs. Thus, in a highly biased overview of German literature, Kuno Francke states that, because Heine and Ludwig Börne (another Young German) fled to Paris and lost touch with attitudes in Germany, he feels compelled to acknowledge

 ... that neither Heine nor Börne was in a true sense an intellectual leader, that neither Heine nor Börne has added to the store of modern culture a single original thought or a single poetic symbol of the highest life. Their strength was consumed in negation; their mission was fulfilled in fighting the principles of the Holy Alliance, in helping to break down the absolutism of Metternich... [15]

Francke goes on in many places to criticize Heine for his lack of consistency, his social ideals, and his writings while in Paris. In his concluding remarks, Francke's bias turns to outright disparagement, criticizing practically all of Heine's actions and decisions, and asking: "Is it too much to say that of all the writers of his time Heine is the saddest example of the intellectual degeneration wrought by the political principles of the age of the Restoration?" [16]

This sentiment is echoed by other historians as well, although usually in a less colored manner. Eda Sagarra, for instance, calls Heine a "turncoat" to his homeland [17], and one of his biographers, Antonina Vallentin, criticizes him for being out of touch with the state of affairs in Germany by 1835: "Heine by no means realized the changes which had come to pass in Germany since his departure; he knew only the Germany of 1830, as his friends remarked." [18]

Some of these statements may have been true for Heine, and it is undoubtedly fair to say that he loved France and the ideas he encountered there. He did not, however, forsake Germany. Perhaps due to the very necessity of writing his columns for Cotta's newspaper, but also because of his extreme interest in German politics, Heine remained attuned to German culture. Obviously he did not have first-hand access to events, nor could he freely travel into Germany after the decree of the Bundestag in 1835. His writings, however, clearly show how concerned he was with his homeland. In essence, Heine believed that he could be a mediator in the communication between Germany and France. He therefore wrote not solely for one group or the other; he addressed his works to both Germans and French, and he attempted to promote understanding between the two peoples by enriching the availability of knowledge about the two cultures.

Recent scholars have been more fair in their assessment of Heine's stated goals and his ability to carry them out. The prominent Germanist Robert Holub is but one example: rather than criticizing his move to France, Holub's introduction to a collection of Heine's essays brings out clearly Heine's true motives in France, as seen through his writings and his actions:

 ... in a century in which the relations between Germany and France were frequently strained, if not openly bellicose, Heine endeavored to promote increased understanding between the two nations with his writings .... Despite the difficulties resulting from an often paranoid censorship, Heine was able to show his German readers that there were alternatives to the oppressive state of affairs on their side of the Rhine ... Heine's essays on German affairs, on the other hand, were supposed to serve as both a corrective and an admonition for the French. Originally written for a French public that Heine felt misunderstood the developments and tradition of German letters, they attempt to rectify false notions of Germany that had become current in French intellectual circles and to warn the French against following certain wayward German fashions. [19]

Heine also warned the French about what he thought might occur in Germany in the future. In his essay Concerning the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany, written in French and published in 1834 in a magazine devoted to French-German affairs, the Revue des Deux Mondes, Heine set out his beliefs as to what was in store for Germany. He believed that someday there would be a reversal of the current order; whether this would happen through revolution or simple progression was ambiguous. In any case, however, he warned the French that this overturning was coming, as in this explicit and powerful example:

 The old gods will then arise form the forgotten ruins and wipe the dust of centuries from their eyes, and Thor will at last leap up with his giant hammer and smash the Gothic cathedrals. When you hear the crash and the clashing of arms, watch out, you neighbor children, you French, and don't meddle in what we are doing at home in Germany. It might cost you dearly. Take care not to fan the fire; take care not to put it out. You could easily burn your fingers in the flames. [20]

This essay, when first published, was dedicated to Prosper Enfantin, then considered the head of the Saint-Simonistic school, although the dedication was withdrawn in 1855 at Heine's request. In the opening lines of the book, Heine specifically states his intentions; his purpose in writing the book, he says, is to give the French people a discussion of German literature that they can understand, and which will aid them in their quest for understanding their mysterious neighbors:

 In recent times the French believed they could attain an understanding of Germany if they made themselves acquainted with the best products of our literature. By so doing they have merely raised themselves from a state of total ignorance to the level of superficiality. The best products of our literature will remain for them only mute blossoms, the whole German mind a dreary puzzle, so long as they do not know the significance of religion and philosophy in Germany. I believe I am undertaking a useful enterprise in trying to provide some explanatory information about both .... The people are hungry for knowledge and will thank me for the bit of intellectual bread which I will share fairly with them. [21]

The same work was later included, together with Heine's earlier essay The Romantic School, in a book entitled De l'Allemagne. In explaining his purpose in writing this essay, Heine said in the mid-1840's that his work was a direct response to a survey of German literature by Madame de Staël, which had been published in 1814, with, not coincidentally, the same title:

 ... after my arrival [in Paris] one of my most important occupations was to declare war against the prevailing book by Madame de Staël. I did this in a series of articles that I soon thereafter published as a complete book under the title De l'Allemagne. With this title I did not intend to enter into a literary competition with the book by that renowned woman .... I did not dwell on individual errors and falsifications; I confined myself to showing the French what was the real meaning of that Romantic School which Madame de Staël exalted and celebrated so much ... how right I was in showing them in a German mirror the intrigues which creep around in France as well and now raise their shorn heads more boldly than ever. [22]

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It has been shown that Heine was adept at communicating the intrigues and delicacies of German life to his French audience -- but the communication was by no means one-way. Perhaps the most telling example of Heine's attempt to communicate with his German audience came very early on during his Parisian exile. Within months after his arrival in Paris in the Spring of 1831, Heine began writing a series of essays on the Salon of 1831, an exhibition of over three thousand paintings on display to the French public, for Cotta's Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung. Surprisingly, then, Heine did not begin the process of communicating the intricacies of French society to a German audience with an editorial on the recent revolution, or even an essay about the conditions of the contemporary French state; rather, he chose the exhibition of artworks as the medium for his comments. Heine's attention was thus immediately drawn not to the ancient political frameworks and their restructurings, but to the restructuring of civil society itself, as indicated through the 'public' exhibitions of private painters. For indeed, the painters in the Salon were private individuals, and each painting reflected a subjective view of the artist's perception of societal conditions.

Heine's essays, however, are not really about the art of painting, nor do they stand within the traditional framework of art criticism. Heine's style of argument, his confrontational and ironic comments about each painter and work, and his inclusion of historical context make these writings into socio-historical commentaries, designed to lay out the author's own views of prominent events happening around him. Only in this setting does it become clear why Heine avoids formal analysis of the paintings as such, and focuses instead on the themes and contexts which he perceives within them. So too does his focus on the Salon and its public audience become comprehensible: the Parisian Salons were a cultural event, sponsored by the state and open to the greater public. They were not intended for the exclusive benefit of the artists and connoisseurs, but rather they served as an insight into the attitude of the political regime -- in 1831 the new July Republic -- toward the arts in general, and thus toward civil society. Such a window was an invaluable asset for Heine, and he lost no time in making use of it. Additionally, in portraying the French society through the mirror of the exhibition, Heine was undoubtedly aware of his German readers' reception, for Germany had at the time no such public exhibit, with the exception of the court museum in Dresden. German readers had no access and no possible ways to view the works on display in Paris (various lithographs were made, but were slow to be distributed) -- thus Heine had a captive audience, perhaps even an envious one, to entertain and persuade with his arguments.

The Salon of 1831 was an indisputable center of attention in Paris, and Heine was fully aware of its peculiar cultural significance. The Parisian exhibitions were a long-standing tradition, the first Salon having been held in 1664, at which time it was open only to members of the royal court. Only in 1815 did the Salons, held on an irregular but well-publicized schedule, open their doors to members of the general public and, in fact, all nationalities. The Salon of 1831 was a milestone in several respects: it was the first to be held in four years, and the first to occur after the July Revolution. These new circumstances of the French state caused Heine and many others to ponder weighty questions: how exactly would these political upheavals translate into art? Would the rebirth of French politics and republicanism bring a new life to works of art as well, and if so, how would this new life manifest itself? [23] For Heine, then, the Salon of 1831 was an obvious starting point for his investigation and analysis of the new French culture.

As stated, Heine's French Painters was composed explicitly for a German audience, and appeared in the regular edition of the Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung -- not, it must be emphasized, in a special art supplement. As such, they were considered just another piece of "news" from the French capitol, though of course there could be no mistaking their personally biased and rhetorical intentions. In trying to inform his German readers about the important cultural changes taking place in the Parisian art world, Heine naturally widens his focus to include discourses on the social and political context of the paintings he discusses. In addition, in an attempt to bring the art and culture closer to his audience, Heine's essayistic style conveys the author's entire presence, as if the readers where strolling through the gallery with him. Not content to merely describe the painting and critique it, Heine's text encourages its readers to take an active role in the analysis, to form their own opinion. It goes without saying that Heine tries his hardest to be persuasive and to convey his own judgments of the works in question, but in the end the reader is left with a remarkably candid assessment of the work's importance in the larger scheme of the exhibition and of Paris itself, not least through the inclusion of spectators' comments, press reception, and contextual background.

But Heine's essay, however fairly executed, won him few friends in Germany. Politically, of course, Heine sided with the revolution -- a none too precarious position to take in a German newspaper under the watchful hand of the government censors. Not only his politics were the cause of his disdained reception, though: Heine's German audience, consisting for the most part of educated middle-class readers schooled in the tradition of Goethe and Schiller's classicism, were quick to find fault with the young upstart's irreverent asides and his flippant political allusions, leading to criticisms of the work as 'fragmented' and 'confused.' His text, they claimed, was far too subjective to be more than a mere polemical vignette expressing the author's peculiar likes and dislikes; in addition, the unsystematic nature of his art criticism -- the lengthy tangential discussions of politics and social circumstances -- were seen simply to interfere with the cohesion of the piece as a whole.

These criticisms have a grain of truth to them: Heine, it is true, does not ally himself with the traditional patterns of art criticism, especially not as practiced by the Germans. Goethe, for example, had outlined in his journal Propyläen the proper classical approach to art historical analysis, calling for an objective and reasoned analysis of the artist and the work of art itself -- noticeably absent is any discussion of an artwork's historical significance, let alone reception by the general public. As Peter Uwe Hohendahl explains, "for the classical Goethe the autonomy of art criticism is absolutely essential for the understanding of aesthetic production." [24] Heine was clearly at odds with such a view, which had arisen even as early as Winckelmann and Lessing and become the dominant model for great works of art criticism in Germany, such as Schiller's articles for Die Horen (1795-1797),Goethe's Propyläen (1798-1805), and the Schlegels' many essays. More to Heine's favor were the French art critics, starting with Diderot's Salons, who preferred to set the painting they described into a narrative form, often fashioning an entire story from the simple image in front of them. The new style of newspaper articles, the feuilletons, continued this tradition, and in many ways Heine aligns himself with them, bringing his painting to life for the German viewer. But Heine goes further, and in many ways combines and at the same time defies both the French and German traditions. Unlike all of his predecessors, Heine does not consider the paintings he discusses to be

 ... objects of devotion to be appreciated and revered by the connoisseur. Rather, he places them into a confrontational historical context. Paintings are confronted with other paintings in a series of abrupt cuts; they are juxtaposed with spectators and their enthusiastic or derogatory comments, their literal or metaphorical readings; they are related to history and "set in motion" by the intrusion of politics. [25]

Heine's new style of art criticism is guided by the curious love-hate relationship to Romantic theory which he exhibits in all of his mature works. Although he has no qualms about poking fun at the late Romantic school in Germany, with its long-haired Nazarenes and staunchly conservative neo-aristocrats, he nonetheless remains indebted to the Romantic view of literature and art -- thus he is no friend of the emerging "realist" school which sought to faithfully reproduce the natural world, and he abhorred any campaign to classify the new experiments with Daguerreotype photography as a form of 'art.' [26] Finding models for Heine's aesthetic views is difficult not only because he was somewhat of a lone maverick, but also because he crossed many traditional boundaries between established aesthetic movements. As we have seen, his Romantic School and Concerning the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany, as well as many other works, attempt to clarify the distinction, as Heine perceived it, between the French and German Romantics. Perhaps his closest affiliation lay not with his German contemporaries, then, but with the French Romantics, most notably Victor Hugo and Eugène Delacroix, whose paintings Heine enthusiastically praises.

In French Painters, though, Heine is little concerned with a stylistic analysis of the works, and even less with a formal categorization of the artists involved. Instead of devoting his attention to works of a specific genre, school, or subject matter, Heine chose, out of the three thousand paintings on display, to comment only on the works of eight artists: those who, as he observed, received the most public attention, both from visitors to the exhibition and in the daily press of Paris. This narrowing of focus is not arbitrary -- naturally it was necessary to confine his remarks in order for his essay to even begin to take shape. More importantly, though, Heine needed a framework within which he could contextualize and historicize the importance of these paintings, and thus the exhibition as a whole.

For indeed, Heine had a curious view of painting, one which deserves further consideration. In his 1834 work Die Bäder von Lucca (Baths of Lucca), Heine dismisses paintings in general as nothing more than a "platte Lüge" -- a flat lie. As Susanne Zantop explicates, such works of art are for Heine "two dimensional, static artifacts which need language to come to life." [27] And bringing them to life is exactly what Heine does: the paintings he analyses from the Salon of 1831 are used not as paintings per se, but as "metaphors or referents, as illustrations, as subject matter, as pre-text and as raw material to work with in order to solve aesthetic-political problems that -- according to Heine -- affect art at all times." [28] Heine's analysis thus remains fixated on themes and contexts, rather than systematic formal analysis of the paintings. By passing over (for the most part) their aesthetic qualities and structure, Heine is able to underline their social context -- a context foreign to his German audience. And by choosing only those paintings to which the public responded with a great interest, Heine conveys even more clearly the attitudes of Parisian civil society.

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Heine's analysis of the Salon of 1831 opens straightaway with a reference to the undertrodden masses, clearly setting the tone for the rest of the piece to follow. The paintings at the Salon, he writes, are like "poor children of art, to whom a busy crowd tossed only the alms of an indifferent glance." Indifferent not because the paintings were undeserving of attention, but because the people's minds "were occupied elsewhere and filled with anxious politics." [29] A strange opening for a work of art criticism, indeed! And Heine continues in a similar vein, turning immediately to a comparison: the Italians, as it turns out, had also some works on display. These, in sharp contrast to the French, did not evoke images of orphaned ruffians, but "suckled their nourishment at the breasts of a great common mother" -- the Catholic Church. Without hesitation, then, Heine has already set up a curious duality: no friend to the conservative Catholic resurgence in France, Heine can nonetheless praise the effects of such a stable cultural presence in the Italian works. In France, he is quick to point out, any attempt at support from the Church would be doomed to failure, of course, since the Church has lost power and status in Parisian society; but in a country like Italy, not yet fragmented by the demands of modern liberty, the Church provides the necessary 'nurturing' for the development of great art -- art that reflects its own time.

After explaining his selection of artists -- those "genuine pearls" which the French public were so quick to pick out -- Heine turns first to a discussion of Ary Scheffer and his four works on display. General remarks about the artist's "morose" use of color lead to an analysis of the Faust portrait, a static and even stoic image which Heine adeptly brings to life:

 Yes, this man is a beautiful human ruin; in the folds above those weatherbeaten eyebrows fabulously learned owls make their nest, and behind this forehead lurk evil ghosts; at midnight the graves of dead wishes are opened, pale shadows rush out, and through the deserted chambers of his brain shuffles, as though her feet were tied, Gretchen's ghost. [30]

Not content with a motionless description of Faust's face, Heine has instead fashioned an entire narrative about the goings-on in Faust's mind, complete with owls, ghosts, and rushing shadows. A subjective analysis, to be sure, but one which communicates far more to the reader than many an objective rendering. Similar techniques are used in Heine's elucidations of the Gretchen portrait and the Prince de Tallyrand; the latter, a sly politician who helped to reinstate the monarchy in 1814, becomes the brunt of Heine's sharp wit, with dehumanized portrayals criticizing his disingenuity and façade: "it is the man you could kick from behind, and the trademark smile would never leave his lips." Scheffer's Leonore receives more gracious attention: after another lively description -- and, incidentally, another dual comparison in which the painter's Catholic Leonore is compared with the original (Bürger's) Protestant one -- Heine concludes that this portrait is "a beautiful, musical composition; the colors sound with such clear gloom, like a melancholy song to spring." [31] The first of many such synaesthetic metaphors, this sentence is perhaps the most memorable of the entire section.

Heine does not much care for the works of the next painter he discusses, Horace Vernet, saying that "he did not adorn this year's Salon with an array of gems." Nonetheless, the critique of Vernet's Judith and Holofernes is more than adequate in its lifelike portrayal: the young man, Heine claims, is really rather ugly: "perhaps he is snoring," Heine muses, and certainly "his lips are still moving as if they were kissing." In general, however, Heine dismisses the artist's other contributions to the Salon, calling them banal and almost "pamphlet-like."

Since the next painting, by Delacroix, had the largest crowd of people in front of it, Heine embarks on a more detailed analysis of Liberty Leading the People. At first it seems as if Heine adores the painting, which he describes as breathing "a great idea, marvelously wafting our way." After a short (and remarkably static) description of the canvas, however, Heine falls prey to his ever-present irony. The goddess, he admits, reminds him of "those fleet couriers of love or fleet lovers who crowd the boulevards in the evening" -- referring, no doubt, to the growing numbers of courtesans in Parisian circles. But Heine cannot remain ironic for long in the face of so sacred and glorious a subject. He quickly waxes into a poetic outpouring of joy (mixed with a cautious fear), recalling the struggles for liberation in July of 1830: "Sacred July days! How beautiful was the sun and great was the people of Paris!" [32] Yet again, though, his enthusiasm drains, and irony returns, as he begins to report the words of the spectators around him. A young "Carlist" cries to his father: "Papa, she doesn't even have a chemise on!" At which point his father turns to a priest and begins mocking the efforts of the struggling workers; the Catholic priest and the Royalist strike up an alliance, which does not go unnoticed by Heine, who begins a short tirade against the conservative royalist factions. "But I am forgetting that I am just the reporter of an exhibition," he reminds himself, and breaks off to discuss the next painter. The alternating irony and honest political enthusiasm in this section are no coincidence, just as the ambivalent assessment of the painting serves to underscore Heine's own fears about the future of the new Republic.

The next painter, Alexandre Gabriel Decamps, receives Heine's unabashed praise, not only for his technical achievements -- his use of color and chiascuro is discussed in marked detail -- but also for his so-called "realism," perhaps better termed genuineness. Although Heine, as stated, did not encourage a pale imitation of nature on the canvas, he did admire those works which conveyed the entirety of the human experience as genuinely as possible. Thus Decamps' Night Patrol at Smyrna is one that Heine finds "curiously striking" in its depictions of Turkish life:

 Later I learned that Decamps himself had lived in Turkey and that it was not only his original coloring that struck me, but also the truth expressed, with faithful and modest colors, in his pictures of the Orient. [33]

In his praise, Heine again turns to synaesthesia, combining the colorful images with sound and claiming that "the congenial rainbow tones resounded wondrously in my heart." In attempting to clarify his assessment of the artist, Heine begins the first of his more tangential discourses, this one revolving around the role of art criticism. It is not proper, he claims, for a critic to ask "what should the artist do?" since such an attitude assumes a predestined set of norms and genres which are applied indiscriminately to all artists -- leading, Heine claims, only to a mass of imitators who lack inspiration. The proper question is, then, "what is the artist trying to do?" Judging the painting on its own merits, asking whether the artist has achieved his goals and used the right means to do so, is the true realm of art criticism, for such questions will encourage the individual genius, not the blind imitator. A final, almost passing comment, betrays yet another reason for Heine's admiration of Decamps' painting: the passing guardsmen, almost jolly in their procession, invoke not admiration on the part of the watching women, but stoic acceptance, resignation to the absolutist regime that controls their lives. Heine concludes by making a jab at German repression, claiming that the painter of such a picture had to be a Frenchman, the citizen of a free state: anyone else "would have applied the colors more heavily and bitterly; he would have mixed in some Berlin blue or at least some green bile, and he would have missed the basic tone of persiflage." [34]

Passing quickly over Emile Aubert Lessore's The Sick Brother, which Heine admires but devotes only a few sentences to, he comes to Jean Victor Schnetz, who, for various reasons, displeases the author. In short, Heine says, Schnetz "paints well, but he is not a good painter." [35] He has fallen prey to the most deadliest of sins: mediocrity. His images are superfluous, lacking in inner vision and originality. Heine admits that his painterly technique is impressive, but can find nothing redeeming about the outcome of his paintings. "I can assure you this: that he has not lifted up my soul, just beaten it down." [36]

The polar opposite holds true for the next painter's work. Léopold Robert's Reapers in the Pontic Swamps overwhelms Heine with its enthusiastic and life-affirming wholeness. Heine can find nothing wrong with such a work, for it is a complete depiction of the fullness of human life. After a lengthy and somewhat defensive tangent about the stupidity of assigning genres to such a painting -- after all, "history" painting in the old sense no longer exists, and "genre" painting is merely a depiction from various "genres" of ordinary life -- Heine progresses to a dazzling display of wit and ingenuity of description. The Reapers, he claims, is the "apotheosis of life," with not even the slightest hint of despair. Heine proceeds to narrate the painting, describing first the setting, then the background about the family of farmers, and then the present scene, in which he can hear and see the joyous activities of the resting workers -- their songs and dances and conversations. Even the melody and words become clear to him: "Damigella, tutta bella, versa, versa il bel vino," they sing. Robert has done what every great artist must aim towards: he has taken these figures into his own heart and soul, where they have become transfigured and set onto the canvas. A casual mention of Raphael brings Heine, not surprisingly or coincidentally, to a discussion of Catholicism in the new French state. The French are "soured" on Catholicism, and cannot draw any positive energy from it now; in fact, he claims, The Reapers succeeds to the extent it does because its farmers have abandoned the restrictive bounds of the Church's guidelines. Heine's remarks betray his Saint-Simonian ideals: the reapers are not only "free of sin, they know no sin ... they are in bliss without heaven, redeemed without sacrifice, pure without constant ablutions, wholly holy." [37]

Heine then continues on to the final painter in his discussion, Paul Delaroche. Perhaps because of his overtly political standing, the very mention of the artist's name immediately invites a long discourse on politics and the interaction with civil society. As Heine noted, "no location provided a better opportunity to overhear popular sentiment and the opinions of the day." [38] After comparing, with great attention to historical events and context, Delaroche's history paintings, namely Cardinal Mazarin's Last Sickness, The State Barge of Cardinal Richelieu on the Rhône, The Princes in the Tower, and Cromwell Opening the Coffin of Charles I -- with, it must be noted, a number of allusions to both German and French history, as well as the by now well-established techniques of narration and synaesthesia -- Heine presents a final duality: a comparison between Delaroche's Cromwell and Robert's Reapers.

 It was truly salutary and comforting that Robert's painting was placed side by side with Delaroche's. Sometimes, when I had contemplated the Cromwell for a long time and had immersed myself wholly in it so that I almost heard his thoughts, terse harsh words irritably snarled and hissed in the manner of that English dialect which resembles the distant rumble of the sea and the shrill calls of the storm birds: then did the quiet magic of the neighboring painting gently call me back to my senses, and it was as if I heard smiling sonority, as if I heard Tuscany's sweet tongue ringing from Roman lips, and my soul was calmed and soothed. [39]

But this comfort does not last for long. A truly surprising move occurs even in the next paragraph: instead of continuing his discussion of the painting, Heine leaves behind all mention of art or culture, and begins shouting out, distracted from his writing by the marches outside his window:

 ... a disorienting din; the drums rage, the weapons clatter, an outraged sea of humanity frantic with pain and cursing, the people of Paris surge through the streets of Paris and wail: "Warsaw has fallen! Our vanguard has fallen! Down with the ministers! War to the Russians! Death to the Prussians!"

In fact, these events prove to signal the beginning of the end of the essay. Too distracted to continue, Heine fades instead into a fascinating mixture of dream-images born from the paintings discussed only moments before. Not content merely to compare the paintings in a dualistic unity, he instead blurs them together and comes up with frightful, disturbing images betraying his fear of bloody upheaval. For although Heine believed in the idealistic hopes of the revolution, he was by no means hungry for another war on the barricades; in fact, he states openly that he would rather have the monarchy, with its patronage to art and culture, than a revolutionary massacre which would surely lead to the end of les beaux arts. [40] His dream-images, then, pit liberty against the monarchy of Catholicism:

 Delacroix' goddess of liberty strides toward me with a face wholly transformed, almost with fear in her fierce eye. Miraculously Vernet's picture of the pope is metamorphosed: the old, feeble deputy of Christ suddenly looks so young and healthy and rises, smiling, from his armchair, and it is as if his mighty bearers had opened their mouths wide in a Te deum laudamus. [41]

In the concluding section of his essay, Heine returns to a dualistic view of historical progressions, and begins to prophecy about the future of art in a society so concerned with its own survival. Since it had been grounded in the tenets of the Enlightenment and the ancien régime, Heine recognizes that the aesthetic project of German Classicism and Romanticism had already come to an end. The political upheavals of 1830 had brought about a cultural rupture as well. But what will happen next? Heine has two possible answers: one a hopeful, positive attitude (quite unusual in the scope of his works), the other a darker and more pessimistic one. Perhaps, he says, "art in general and the world itself [is] on its way to a woeful end," for the upheavals have been too great and too many to overcome. But just perhaps, a rebirth will occur, and indeed this rebirth may signal the beginning of a truly "whole" and unfragmented art, in harmony with its surroundings, "an art in enthusiastic harmony with that age, and art that does not need to borrow its symbols from a faded past" [42] -- an art form which can articulate the (as yet) unexplored needs of the people. [43] And it will be the French, Heine believes -- who have already been reborn -- who will inaugurate this new art:

 I believe that France will breathe forth from the depth of the heart of her new life a new art as well. This difficult task, too, will be solved by the French -- by the French, this light, flighty people that we so like to compare with a butterfly. But the butterfly is also a symbol of the soul's immortality and its eternal rejuvenation. [44]

divider line

Peter Uwe Hohendahl has called Heine's procedure in French Painters a type of "emblematic reading" -- in which each work of art is given an inscriptio and a subscriptio: the inscriptio arises from the constellation of the figures in the painting itself, while the subscriptio is formed by Heine's lengthy 'description' or interpretation. Significantly, this interpretation -- which Heine calls the painting's "Zeitsignatur" (the signature of its times) -- is wholly Heine's own. What comes across as an objective analysis is in fact quite subjective, or, as Hohendahl states:

 In this context it is ultimately unimportant whether the artist intended to express such a philosophy. The emblematic interpretation is based on the reading of the thematic configuration from which the reader derives the meaning. [45]

But how and with what means does Heine achieve this curious new mixture of description, narration, and critique? First of all, like Diderot and the feuilleton writers, Heine focuses on the narrative of the painting, not the formalist qualities. Each of his analyses starts off with a static description of the image portrayed on the canvas; slowly, though, this image comes to life and takes on motion, action, and even auditory elements: Heine describes in great detail the 'songs' and 'melodies' not only of the human figures in the narrative he tells, but the metaphorical melodies of the colors and paints themselves. This synaesthesia, although far removed from the later Symbolist use of such terminology, nonetheless serves to personify the paintings, imbuing them with lives of their own, with which Heine can then converse and interact. It must be noted that Heine focuses almost exclusively on the human figures in the paintings he elucidates; he avoids any mention of the numerous landscapes that were also on display in 1831. This is less a prejudice against the genre of landscape painting on Heine's part -- in fact he speaks out strongly against such categorizations, saying that the traditional genres no longer hold true in the modern world -- than a negligence motivated by Heine's status as poet and storyteller; for indeed, what story can be told (given Heine's predilection for human interaction in his narratives) by the scene of a snowy valley or a hilltop pine? And even more, what social commentary can be offered by such a painting? For this reason, Heine turns to the works that he does, all of which -- even those he finds aesthetically displeasing -- betray the secrets of their time and of their society.

But Heine does not confine himself to a mere narration of the events in the paintings. Instead, he brings in a wide variety of 'extraneous' material to help convey his judgments and critiques. Each analysis makes use of different means: in one, Heine reports the conversations of his fellow observers, quoting their dialogue and interjecting his own witty observations; in another, he waxes poetic about the glorious days of the July Revolution and bemoans the fate of his own homeland; and in a third, he sets up two paintings against each other and compares their emotional and heart-stirring effects on him. In sum, Heine's analyses offer a total picture of the exhibition as Heine saw it. Not only the paintings are set into motion by his words, but the culture and society around him become enlivened on the page, and the readers are permitted a glimpse into Heine's flights of fancy and imaginative inferences. In short, Heine's text describes, instructs, analyses, and entertains, and above all conveys a full picture of the Salon and its visitors to the audience.

It has been argued by many critics, and most certainly by Heine's contemporaries, that his essay is 'fragmented,' 'disjointed,' or 'confused,' and to the casual reader, it certainly seems to be. In fact, however, Heine has in the French Painters, as in nearly all of his works, achieved a unity in spite of the text's own fragmentation. [46] Heine's individual considerations and comments in the essay may be episodic and even disconnected, but the text manages, through stylistic as well as contextual strategies, to maintain its unity and integrity. The most significant device used to preserve this unity is the continual offsetting of arguments into polarized pairs. Dualisms run rampant throughout Heine's text, and underlie the entire structure of his arguments. Not content with showing the two sides of contemporary France -- its political struggles and its cultural fashions -- Heine also contrasts the new social movements and problems (most obviously the growing lower classes) with the remnants of the ancien régime and the Catholic conservatives. Heine is, above all, concerned with the contradictions of modern life, the irony (much in Baudelaire's later sense of the term) and the disparate messages conveyed even within the halls of the Salon. Heine, through his narrative techniques, brings paintings to life on the page, thus undercutting the boundaries between art and life, and accentuating all the more the most serious of concerns: the future, not only of art, but of civil society itself -- both of which are being torn apart and fragmented by the demands of the modern world.

In fact, this dualism lies at the heart of Heine's own aesthetic -- and it is the root of that which he desires as the ideal aesthetic formulation. His peculiar fancies for one painting over another may seen whimsical to the casual reader, but in fact his ideals are coherent and unified. In short, for Heine a painting must express the "Weltgeist" -- it must reflect the spirit of the world in all of its manifestations, even in its fragmentation. Thus Delacroix' Goddess of Liberty, whose glorious strides reflect the hopes of the undertrodden, is at the same time seen as dirty, resembling even a prostitute -- a clear reflection of the Paris Heine found in 1831, with its downtrodden masses gaining freedom only at the price of respectability, such as the lower-class prostitute who slowly gains access to her lover's house and home. It is this constant yet subtle underscoring of the duality and complicity of modern life that brings cohesion to Heine's essay, and raises it to a new level of art-historical criticism. It is also this duality which is reflected in Heine's two-way efforts to mediate, not only between the French and the Germans, but between the very spheres of art and life.

Works Consulted:

Breunig, Charles, The Age of Revolution and Reaction, 1789-1850 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1977).
Francke, Kuno, Social Forces in German Literature (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1896).
Hermand, Jost, ed., Das Junge Deutschland: Texte und Dokumente (Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam, jun., 1966).
Heine, Heinrich, The Memoirs of Heinrich Heine, ed. Gustav Karpeles, trans. Gilbert Cannan (New York: John Lane Company, 1910).
Heine, Heinrich, The Romantic School and Other Essays, ed. Jost Hermand and Robert C. Holub (New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1985).
Heine, Heinrich, Zeitungsberichte über Musik und Malerei, ed. Michael Mann (Frankfurt: Insel Verlag, 1964).
Sagarra, Eda, Tradition and Revolution: German Literature and Society 1830-1890 (New York, Basic Books, Inc., 1971).
Vallentin, Antonina, Heine: Poet in Exile, trans. Harrison Brown (New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1956).
Zantop, Susanne, Paintings on the Move: Heinrich Heine and the Visual Arts (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).
Zepf, Irmgard, Denkbilder: Heinrich Heines Gemäldebericht zum Salon 1831 (Munich: Wilhelm Funk Verlag, 1980).


(1)  Historical background and basic biographical information in the following discussion arise in part from an undergraduate seminar I participated in at Pomona College, in the Spring of 1991, taught by Professor Barbara Schönberg. [return to text]
(2)  Charles Breunig, The Age of Revolution and Reaction, 1789-1850 (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1977), pp. 217-220. [return to text]
(3)  Eda Sagarra, Tradition and Revolution: German Literature and Society 1830-1890 (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1971), p. 126. [return to text]
(4)  Ludwig Wienbarg, Ästhetische Feldzüge, ed. Jürgen Jahn (Berlin, 1964), quoted in Sagarra, p. 310. [return to text]
(5)  Karl Gutzkow, Briefe eines Narren an eine Närrin (Hamburg, 1832), p. 215, quoted in Jost Hermand, ed., Das Junge Deutschland: Texte und Dokumente (Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam, jun., 1966), p. 161. My translation. [return to text]
(6)  Wolfgang Menzel, Deutsche Dichtung III (Stuttgart, 1859), quoted in Hermand, ed., p. 338. My translation. [return to text]
(7)  quoted in Hermand, p. 331. My translation. [return to text]
(8)  Heine, quoted in Sagarra, p. 11. [return to text]
(9)  Heinrich Heine, The Memoirs of Heinrich Heine, ed. Gustav Karpeles, trans. Gilbert Cannan (New York: John Lane Co., 1910), Volume I, p. 253. [return to text]
(10)  Heine, The Romantic School and Other Essays, p. 160. [return to text]
(11)  Ibid., p. 97-98. [return to text]
(12)  Ibid., pp. 275-276. [return to text]
(13)  Antonina Vallentin, Heine: Poet in Exile, trans. Harrison Brown (New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1956), p. 157. [return to text]
(14)  Heine, Memoirs, p. 277. [return to text]
(15)  Kuno Francke, Social Forces in German Literature (New York; Henry Holt & Co., 1896), p. 517. [return to text]
(16)  Ibid., pp. 526-527. [return to text]
(17)  Sagarra, p. 134. [return to text]
(18)  Vallentin, p. 200. [return to text]
(19)  Heine, The Romantic School and Other Essays, pp. ix-x. [return to text]
(20)  Ibid., p. 243. [return to text]
(21)  Ibid., p. 128. [return to text]
(22)  Ibid., p. 289. [return to text]
(23)  Susanne Zantop, Paintings on the Move: Heinrich Heine and the Visual Arts (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 3. [return to text]
(24)  Peter Uwe Hohendahl, "The Emblematic Reader," in Zantop, p. 10. [return to text]
(25)  Zantop, p. 4. [return to text]
(26)  For an intriguing discussion of Heine's sometimes ambivalent attitude toward photography, see Siegbert S. Prawer, "Heine and the Photographers," in Zantop, pp. 75-90. [return to text]
(27)  Zantop, p. 5. [return to text]
(28)  Zantop, p. 6. [return to text]
(29)  Heinrich Heine, "The French Painters," trans. David Ward, in Zantop , p. 121. NB: Ward's is the only recent translation of Heine's essay into English; all further Heine quotes also refer to his translation in Zantop's volume. [return to text]
(30)  Heine, in Zantop, p. 123. [return to text]
(31)  Heine, in Zantop, p. 126. [return to text]
(32)  Heine, in Zantop, p. 130. [return to text]
(33)  Heine, in Zantop, p. 132. [return to text]
(34)  Heine, in Zantop , p. 136. [return to text]
(35)  Heine, in Zantop , p. 137. [return to text]
(36)  Loc. cit. [return to text]
(37)  Heine, in Zantop, p. 141. [return to text]
(38)  Heine, in Zantop, p. 152. [return to text]
(39)  Heine, in Zantop, p. 153. [return to text]
(40)  Heine, "Postscript" to French Painters, in Zantop, p. 167. [return to text]
(41)  Heine, in Zantop, p. 153. [return to text]
(42)  Heine, in Zantop, p. 156. [return to text]
(43)  Hohendahl, in Zantop, p. 12. [return to text]
(44)  Zantop, p. 156. [return to text]
(45)  Hohendahl, in Zantop, p. 12. [return to text]
(46)  "Fragmentation" is a contentious word for Heine scholars; I use it here only in the casual sense, although I believe it could be applied in the more specific sense (cf. the Romantic fascination with the fragment, and Heine's own belief in the necessity of the fragmented text due to the conditions of the modern world) as well. For a fascination and well-reasoned discussion of Heine's "fragmented" writing and self, see Theodor W. Adorno, "Heine the Wound" in T.W. Adorno, Notes to Literature Vol. I (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), pp. 80-90. [return to text]

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1997 for Art History 350 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Duality and Cultural Borders: Heine and the French Painters of 1831." Website Article. 29 April 1997. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/AH350frpaint.html>.