Some years ago Louk Tilanus, my friend and collegue from the art history department at Leiden University, pulled out his copy of the Grammaire des arts du dessin by Charles Blanc, first published in 1867. He was surprised that I didn’t know the work since, in his view, it is the best compendium of the principles and techniques of the arts of architecture, sculpture and painting espoused in the French academic education of artists. I shelved the reference until I came across a copy in a second hand bookshop and bought it. When I started reading, it became immeditately clear how much intellectual effort Blanc had invested into the endeavour of writing such a compendium. As Claire Barbillon has pointed out in her valuable introduction to the 2000 reedition of the Grammaire, Blanc sets up an elaborate theoretical framework that would account for the nature and principles of the three arts. To do so, he draws upon an extensive and eclectic body of references, ranging from Quatremère de Quincy’s writings on architecture to Victor Cousin’s aesthetics, while adopting Humbert de Superville’s theory of the affective properties of lines to account for the emotional and even moral effects of works of art.
The Grammaire is not an obscure work. It was perhaps the most popular treatise on art in late nineteenth century France, not in the least because it was aimed at an educated but not specialised audience and Blanc himself occupied a central position in the most important cultural institutions of the country. For that same reason, the figure of Blanc has been the object of a number of studies (the bio-bibliographical notice produced at the INHA provides the most complete bibliography). And because Le Corbusier read and valued Blanc’s Grammaire, the book has been rightly recognized as a possible source for some of the architect’s ideas, such as the very definition of architecture in Vers une architecture.
Still, even in the presence of excellent studies by for instance Barbillon, Song Mi-Sook or and Estelle Thibault, the Grammaire deserves further scrutiny, not in the least because it attempts to bring together a vast range of ideas on architecture and the arts. Emblematic of this endeavour is Blanc’s combination of two categorically different explanations of the origin of architecture: the first – in Blanc’s view less important – situating the beginning of architecture in man’s need for shelter, the second in his desire to emulate the sublime spectacle of nature through the erection of monuments. That architecture has multiple origins had been argued earlier by, for instance, Quatremère de Quincy, who distinguished the hut, the tent and the cave as the primitive models for the architecture of different people. And, as Richard Wittman has shown, the notion that the emergence of architecture was motivated by the religious urges of man became deeply engrained in the course of the second half of the eighteenth century. But contrary to his predecessors Blanc sensed very clearly that distinguishing a tectonic and monumental origin of architecture has important implications for how the art of architecture is practised and valued in society. By letting go of the idea that a single origin should account for the tectonic, formal and symbolical aspects of buildings, Blanc casts architectural design as a complex operation of synthesis, mediated by what he deems to be the essential quality of all art forms, the line, the immaterial entity organizing matter and generating expression.