(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.”