Eugène Fromentin Essay - Critical Essays

Fromentin, Eugène


Eugène Fromentin 1820-1876

French novelist, artist, critic, travel writer, and essayist. For further information on Fromentin's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 10.

Fromentin, who received more recognition as a painter than a writer during his lifetime, is remembered today for his Orientalist approach to artistic and literary endeavors and for his only published novel, the confessional Dominique (1863).

Biographical Information

Fromentin was born in La Rochelle, France, on October 24, 1820. He was the second son of Toussaint Fromentin-Dupeux, a successful physician, and Jenny Billotte Fromentin-Dupeux, the daughter of a local attorney. While Fromentin's elder brother Charles followed their father into the medical profession, Fromentin's career path was far less certain. He first attended the Collège de La Rochelle, where he proved to be an exceptional student, and then he studied law in Paris after taking a year's absence to write poetry. By 1843 Fromentin had been awarded his first and second law diplomas, but he failed to pass the examination for his doctorate the following year. He decided to abandon his plans for a legal career and concentrate instead on his painting, which he had been pursuing, along with a number of literary projects, at the same time he had been studying law. In 1845, Fromentin began studying with Louis Cabat, a renowned landscape artist, and in 1846 he traveled to Algeria with his friend and mentor Armand du Mesnil and the painter Charles Labbé. That trip, and a second visit to Algeria in 1847-48, inspired a number of successful paintings as well as his first efforts at travel literature.

In 1852, Fromentin married du Mesnil's niece, Marie Cavellet de Beaumont, and after another extended trip to Algeria, the couple settled in Saint-Maurice where Fromentin's family maintained a summer home. The couple had one child, a daughter named Marguerite. In 1857, Fromentin went to Paris where his paintings had attracted the attention of such notables as Théophile Gautier, George Sand, and Charles Baudelaire. Throughout the early 1860s, he had become well known as both artist and writer, but by the end of the decade his reputation began to decline. He traveled extensively during this time, first to Egypt for the opening of the Suez Canal, then to Venice, and in 1875 to Belgium and Holland, a trip that resulted in his last publication, a well-received book of art criticism entitled Les Maîtres d'autrefois (1876). Fromentin returned to Saint-Maurice in the summer of 1876, but while preparing for a second edition of his novel, became ill. He died of a malignant tumor on August 27 and was buried at Saint-Maurice.

Major Works

As a young man, Fromentin began writing poetry and translating both classical and foreign verse, but his first publications consisted of the travel essays inspired by his first two trips to Algeria. Un eté dans le Sahara was initially serialized in the Revue de Paris from June through December, 1854, and then published in book form in 1857. Une Année dans le Sahel first appeared in the Revue des Deux Mondes in November and December of 1858, and in book form in 1859. Both texts were narrative records, in epistolary form, of his encounters with the exotic culture of North Africa, and together with the paintings inspired by his travels, they helped establish Fromentin's reputation as an Orientalist and a man whose talents encompassed both literature and art.

Fromentin's only novel, Dominique, was serialized in the Revue des Deux Mondes in April and May of 1862, prior to its appearance as a single volume in 1863. The work is confessional in nature, featuring a mature narrator nostalgically recalling the experiences of his youth. The title character's disappointing love affair was apparently inspired by Fromentin's own youthful infatuation with a slightly older married woman who lived near his parents’ summer home in Saint-Maurice. His final work, Les Maîtres d'autrefois, was a critical examination of the paintings of the Belgian and Dutch old masters.

Critical Reception

By the 1860s, Fromentin's artistic and literary reputation had been established. After the publication of his novel, he began a lengthy correspondence with George Sand, and Sainte-Beuve wrote a critical essay on Fromentin's novel and travel essays. By the 1870s, however, his standing with his contemporaries began to diminish as illness and exhaustion took their toll. His modern reputation rests almost entirely on the continuing popularity of Dominique, which has gone through more than one hundred reprints. It is often compared to the work of Benjamin Constant and Marcel Proust and is said to have inspired André Gide's novel Strait is the Gate. Although Fromentin's paintings are almost completely forgotten today, literary critics often point to the way his artistic vision informed his work as a writer. Arthur R. Evans, Jr., for example, discusses the detailed visual descriptions in the journal entries that formed the basis for Fromentin's two travel books, suggesting that the author used these descriptive notes “in a way analogous to his painting method.”

Current scholarship focuses mainly on Dominique, and most critics agree that this work is seriously flawed despite its continuing popularity. Among them is Barbara Wright, who acknowledges that the story's conclusion is unsatisfactory: “The dénouement is conducive to a vague feeling of uncertainty, a niggling awareness that something has been left unsaid which might have made this work an uncontested masterpiece.” F. M. Latiolais voices similar sentiments, quoting George Sand's famous remark that the work was “not quite a masterpiece,” and noting her suggestion to Fromentin that the novel should be expanded between serial publication and its appearance as a single volume. Geoffrey Bremner asserts that the novel's difficulties lie in the blurred distinction between author and narrator and in Fromentin's stated intention to deal with both moral issues and personal emotions in a single work. The result, according to Bremner, is that “there is no clear line of demarcation between Fromentin and the elder Dominique, between the elder Dominique and his younger self, and between any of them and the narrator; all are equally capable of judging Dominique's moral worth and equally incapable of detaching themselves from his emotions.”

Principal Works

Un été dans le Sahara (prose) 1857

Une Année dans le Sahel (prose) 1859

Dominique (novel) 1863

Les Maîtres d'autrefois. Belgique, Hollande (prose) 1876; revised as The Old Masters of Belgium and Holland, 1882

Lettres de jeunesse (letters) 1909

Correspondance et fragments inédits (letters and notes) 1912

*Voyage en Egypte (prose) 1935

Gustave Drouineau (prose) 1969

*This work was written in 1869.

†This work was written in 1842.


Barbara Wright (essay date July 1964)

SOURCE: Wright, Barbara. “Fromentin's Concept of Creative Vision in the Manuscript of Dominique.French Studies: A Quarterly Review 18, no. 3 (July 1964): 213-26.

[In the following essay, Wright considers the manner in which Fromentin's use of creative vision in Dominique changed in the transition from manuscript to published text.]

In describing the adolescent awakening of Dominique, Fromentin gives a valuable account of poetic inspiration. The expansive urge of the young hero is closely paralleled in the burgeoning of springtime, as he walks through the countryside in a state of rapture, ‘dans une sorte d'ivresse, rempli d'émotions...

(The entire section is 6253 words.)

Arthur R. Evans, Jr. (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Evans, Arthur R., Jr. “The Notational, Cumulative Sentence” and “Formal, Mannerist Patterns.” In The Literary Art of Eugène Fromentin: A Study in Style and Motif, pp. 47-63; 64-95. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1964.

[In the following essay, Evans notes Fromentin's use of symmetry, rhythm, and balance in his writing.]

Fromentin's prose is artistic, self-conscious, and highly disciplined, its distinguishing qualities deriving ultimately from expressive tendencies which are intimately related. A strongly classic formal sense evidenced in the constant use of symmetries, parallelisms, and correspondences works in harmony with a descriptive,...

(The entire section is 14489 words.)

Barbara Wright (essay date October 1965)

SOURCE: Wright, Barbara. “Valdieu: A Forgotten Precursor of Fromentin's Dominique.Modern Language Review 60, no. 4 (October 1965): pp. 520-28.

[In the following essay, Wright considers the influence that Valdieu had on Fromentin and the writing of Dominique.]

Within a tradition like that of the French personal novel, direct literary ‘influences’ are as elusive as the end of the rainbow, and just about as insubstantial when they are found. Few authors of personal novels have been spared acrimonious debates as to literary sources and possible plagiarisms,1 when in fact they were contributing to a collective culture in which each...

(The entire section is 4983 words.)

Geoffrey Bremner (essay date October 1969)

SOURCE: Bremner, Geoffrey. “Ambivalence in Dominique.Forum for Modern Language Studies 5, no. 4 (October 1969): pp. 323-30.

[In the following essay, Bremner discusses the strengths and weaknesses of Fromentin's Dominique.]

Nearly all the critics who have concerned themselves with Fromentin's Dominique, from George Sand to Dr Barbara Wright in her recent edition1 and D. G. Charlton in his review of it,2 have discussed the motivation of Dominique's withdrawal. It seems that the central problem of the novel is the one which Fromentin has been least successful in treating. We know from Fromentin's correspondence with George Sand...

(The entire section is 4149 words.)

F. M. Latiolais (essay date fall 1970)

SOURCE: Latiolais, F. M. “‘Not Quite a Masterpiece’—Fromentin's Dominique Reconsidered.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 4, no. 1 (fall 1970): 35-48.

[In the following essay, Latiolais examines the appeal of Dominique despite the criticism leveled against it.]

It is the fate of any book either to find successive readers or to perish and be relegated to the vaults of literary history, there to be looked at only by inspectors whose interest is more or less clinical. Eugène Fromentin's Dominique, in spite of its obvious deficiencies and many detractors, has managed somehow to find new readers through whom it...

(The entire section is 6964 words.)

Robin Magowan (essay date winter 1973)

SOURCE: Magowan, Robin. “Dominique: The Genesis of a Pastoral.” L'Esprit Createur 13, no. 4 (winter 1973): 340-50.

[In the following essay, Magowan analyzes pastoral attributes in Fromentin's Dominique.]

Most criticism is end-oriented. Just as we judge a novel's success by its ending, so we refuse to extend our speculations beyond the final published draft. But a work of art is more than a single autonomous whole. It is also a thing in process. It talks about time and is itself the product of time, and these two times must have something to do with one another if their world is to be thought a true world. Thus much of the confusion in genre studies—and...

(The entire section is 4309 words.)

Emanuel J. Mickel, Jr. (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Mickel, Emanuel J., Jr. “Narrative Structures in Dominique” and “Characters and Psychology.” In Eugène Fromentin, pp. 88-103; 113-23. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981.

[In the following essay, Mickel analyzes the structure and characters in Dominique.]


Dominique is the narrative account of selected moments drawn from the adolescence and youth of the book's principal character. Because of the novel's meaning, it is important that this period in Dominique's life not be seen in isolation but rather in comparison to the life being led by the principal character more than twenty years later. Thus...

(The entire section is 11613 words.)

Richard Bales (essay date November 1988)

SOURCE: Bales, Richard. “Strategies of Persuasion in Fromentin's Dominique.Essays in French Literature, no. 25 (November 1988): 37-52.

[In the following essay, Bales suggests that Fromentin used sophisticated methods of persuasion in Dominique to influence his readers.]

In an article of 1928, Marcel Cressot described Fromentin's Dominique (1862) as presenting “le procès du romantisme”.1 Thirty years later, Ronald Grimsley was to assert that the novel contains “the final expression of a Romanticism which has overcome itself only to ensure its permanent survival in a more remote and hermetic form”.2 And Graham...

(The entire section is 6400 words.)

Norma Rinsler (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Rinsler, Norma. “Fromentin's Dominique.” In Studies in French Fiction in Honour of Vivienne Mylne, edited by Robert Gibson, pp. 243-61. London: Grant & Cutler Ltd., 1988.

[In the following essay, Rinsler considers various interpretations of Dominique and concludes that Fromentin's richness of language and structure allows the work to be viewed from many different aspects.]

There are books which are so familiar that they become invisible. Dominique has been one of those books for the present writer, remembered, in Empson's phrase, as a ‘taste in the head’, and offering at a recent re-reading a profoundly surprising appearance of...

(The entire section is 8832 words.)

Further Reading


Wright, Barbara. Eugène Fromentin—A Bibliography. London: Grant and Cutler, 1973, 63 p.

Provides extensive bibliographical information on the author.


Fleming, John A. “Representational A, B, C's: Cipher and Structure in Dominique.Romantic Review 77, no. 2 (March 1986): 116-24.

Analyzes the conventional and creative structure used by Fromentin in Dominique.

Grant, Richard B., and Nelly H. Severin. “Weaving Imagery in Fromentin's Dominique.Nineteenth-Century French Studies 1, no. 3 (May 1973): 155-61.


(The entire section is 269 words.)