Eugène Fromentin (fraw-mahn-tan) is remembered in literary history for his only novel, Dominique, published in 1862, but his amateur’s success in this form was perhaps indebted to his originality as a painter and art critic. Dominique is a sentimental novel of love and renunciation, so vivid and analytical that it has been compared to Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe (1816) and Marie de La Fayette’s La Princesse de Clèves (1678; The Princess of Clèves, 1679). In Dominique the author explores the depths of feeling in his autobiographical hero with the same romantic intensity he devoted to his researches in painting.
Fromentin studied art in Paris between 1839 and 1843 and later traveled widely in North Africa, where he painted scenes of desert and Arab life that distinctly foreshadowed Impressionism. He wrote of his travels in three books: Un Été dans le Sahara (a summer in the Sahara), Between Sea and Sahara, and Voyage en Égypte, which records his trip with Théophile Gautier and Louise Colet to attend the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. In The Masters of Past Time, published two years after he was elected to the Goncourt Academy and constituting his one contribution to art criticism, he dealt with the Dutch and Flemish schools of painting more acutely than any other critic of his time.
Dominique, however, remains his most remarkable accomplishment. Only the marriage of his childhood friend, Madeleine, causes Dominique, the young hero, to realize that he loves her. Although she divines his feeling, she chooses her duty, and he returns to his native town. The clarity of descriptive detail in the handling of this situation reflects his painter’s sensibility but does not overshadow his psychological perceptiveness.