Jean Racine (1639–1699) is considered "one of the three great playwrights of 17th-century France, along with Molière and Corneille". The Wikipedia article about the playwright contains a section on the reception of his work, for example in the 19th century, where we find the following information:

As Racine returned to prominence at home, his critics abroad remained hostile due mainly, Butler argues, to Francophobia. The British were especially damning, preferring Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott to Racine, whom they dismissed as "didactic" and "commonplace." This did not trouble the French, however, as "Racine, La Fontaine, or generally speaking the chefs-d'œuvre de l'esprit humain could not be understood by foreigners."[citation needed]

Butler, in the above quote, is Philip Butler, author of Racine: A Study (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1974). The embedded quote at the end presumably comes from his study, even though no reference is provided. What I would like to find out, however, is not a page number in Butler's book but the publication that expressed the sentiment in the last quote. If there were several, what was the earliest one?

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For the record, here’s the context of the sentence from Butler that was quoted in Wikipedia. Butler does not give any further identification of the “French critics” who retorted to Hazlitt. I’ve restored the full quotation from Hazlitt, which was heavily redacted by Butler, whose elisions I have indicated by brackets.

For no better reasons foreign criticism was hostile to Racine out of Francophobia. English Victorian critics sadly distinguished themselves in that respect, and some of their more ridiculous pronouncements make one wonder if they had ever read the plays they dismissed with such withering contempt. “The genius of Shakespeare is dramatic, that of Scott narrative and descriptive, that of Racine is didactic. He gives, [as I conceive,] the common-places of the human heart [better than any one, but nothing or very little more.] He enlarges on a set of obvious sentiments with considerable elegance of language and copiousness of declamation [but there is scarcely one stroke of original genius, nor any thing like imagination in his writings. He strings together a number of moral reflections, and instead of reciting them himself, puts them into the mouths of his dramatis personae, who talk well about their own situations and the general relations of human life.] Instead of laying bare the heart of the sufferer, [with all its bleeding wounds and palpitating fibres, he puts into his hand a common-place book, and] he reads us a lecture [from this. This is not the essence of the drama, whose object and privilege it is to give us the extreme and subtle workings of the human mind in individual circumstances, to make us sympathise with the sufferer, or feel as we should feel in his circumstances, not to tell the indifferent spectator what the indifferent spectator could just as well tell him.] Tragedy is human nature tried in the crucible of affliction, not exhibited in the vague theorems of speculation.” Why then was he so highly praised? “Because nothing that is French can be barbarous in the eyes of this frivolous and pedantic nation”. Thus did Hazlitt pontificate† in the Plain-Speaker—which did not trouble French critics at all: they retorted that Racine, La Fontaine, or generally speaking the chefs-d’œuvre de l’esprit humain could not be understood by foreigners.

Philip Butler (1974). Racine: A Study, pp. 4–5. London: Heinemann.

† William Hazlitt (1826). ‘Sir Walter Scott, Racine, and Shakespear’. In The Plain Speaker, volume II, pp. 359–360. London: Henry Colburn.

The only French critic I was able to find who makes a clear statement along the lines indicated by Butler was Francis Yvon Eccles, in his monograph on the English reception of Racine:

Difficulties of a kind that may fairly be called national stand in the light of English readers when they turn from their own dramatic poets to explore that other continent of French tragedy. They may bring perhaps an open mind to the discovery, but not a vacant memory nor an unprejudiced ear. They are bred to a habit of poetical speech which the French manner contradicts at many points; which governs their expectation, and may easily prepare their disappointment. Their own playwrights of the great period have accustomed them to a higher temperature of language and to a freer solicitation of the senses. They are apt to think feverish and coloured words essential to any poetry which deals with human passion; nor do they readily imagine mortal issues cramped within the walls of an antechamber that seems to open no windows on the world. It is besides for many an English reader a disillusion to find in Racine no sublime irrelevance, no fantasy, no pathetic symptoms of metaphysical incertitude.

Francis Yvon Eccles (1922). Racine in England, pp. 28–29. Oxford: Clarendon.

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