Rodolphe Töpffer and Romanticism

[Nineteenth-Century French Studies. Vol. 37.3 & 4 (Spring-Summer 2009): 227-246]

Abstract: This article outlines Töpffer’s relationship with Romanticism in light of the discourse surrounding his introduction to France’s literary scene. While Töpffer’s prose fiction lived in delicate symbiosis with Romanticism, his graphic novels playfully deconstructed it and his aesthetics treatises unequivocally combated defining aspects of it.

RTRomPic4 copy

Rodolphe Töpffer, Histoire d’Albert, 1845. Source: Wikimedia.

Certainly, the Genevan educator was far from averse to risk-taking, whether jeopardizing his academic reputation with petulant comic books or attempting to make a break into the French literary scene while attacking its literary hero, Victor Hugo. Born with the century like Hugo, Töpffer had followed the opposite political trajectory, from liberal to conservative. Hence, sponsored successively by reigning literary figures Xavier de Maistre, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Töpffer subsequently brought upon himself Théophile Gautier’s scorn as “retrograde adversary of liberty in art.” This essay aims to show that, as such object of polemics, Töpffer’s work provides a useful lens for seeing the passage from conservative Romanticism to its liberal next phase.

Töpffer’s situation within nineteenth-century culture is paradoxical: simultaneously part of the rearguard at a key juncture of a cultural paradigm shift and at the vanguard of a narrative revolution that would open the way for one of the next century’s most freewheeling forms of storytelling.

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