The Life and Works of Ary Scheffer
THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.
A MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE, ART, AND POLITICS.
VOL. IV.—SEPTEMBER, 1859.—NO. XXIII.
No painter of this age has made so deep an impression on the popular mind of America as Ary Scheffer. Few, if any other contemporary artists are domesticated at our firesides, and known and loved in our remotest villages and towns. Only a small number, indeed, of his original works have been exhibited here,—yet engravings from them are not only familiar to every person of acknowledged taste and culture, but are dear to the hearts of many who scarcely know the artist’s name. Young maidens delight in their tender pathos, and the suffering heart is consoled and elevated by their pure and lofty religious aspiration. An effect so great must have an adequate and peculiar cause; and we shall not have far to seek for it, but shall find it in the aim and character of the artist. Scheffer has two prominent qualities, by which he has won his place in the popular estimation. I The first is his sentiment. His works are full of simple, tender pathos. His pictures always tell their story, first to the eye, next to the heart and soul of the beholder. His admirable knowledge of composition is always made subordinate to expression. His meaning is not merely historical or poetical, but is true to life and every-day experience. “Mignon regrettant sa Patrie” is felt and appreciated by those who have never sung,
“Kennst du das Land wo die Citronen blühen,”—
and “Faust” and “Margaret” tell their Story to all who have felt life’s struggles and temptations, whether they have read them in Goethe’s version or not. Added to this power of pathos and sentiment is the deep religious feeling which pervades every work of his pencil, whatever be its outward form. His religion is of no dogma or sect, but the inflowing of a life which makes all things holy and full of infinite meaning. Whether he paint the legends of the Catholic Church, as in “St. Augustine" and “St. Monica,” or illustrate the life-poem of the Protestant Goethe, or tell a simple story of childhood, the same feelings are kindled, in our heart’s faith in God, love to man, the sure hope of immortality. It is this genuine and earnest religion of humanity which has made his works familiar to every lover of Art and sentiment, and given us a feeling of personal love and reverence for the artist.
It is now nearly a year since his labors on earth terminated, and yet no adequate account of his life and labors has appeared. It is very difficult to satisfy the craving desire to know more of the personal life and character of him who has been a household friend so long. Yet it is rather the privilege of succeeding generations, than of contemporaries, to draw aside the veil from the sanctuary, and to behold the works of a man in his greatest art,—the art of life. But the cold waters of the Atlantic, like the river of Death, make the person of a European artist sacred to us; and it is hard for us to realize that those whom we have surrounded with a halo of classic reverence were partakers of the daily jar and turmoil of our busy age,—that the good physician who tended our sick children so faithfully had lived in familiar intercourse with Goethe, and might have listened to the first performance of those symphonies of Beethoven which seem to us as eternal as the mountains. Losing the effluence of his personal presence, which his neighbors and countrymen enjoyed, we demand the privilege of posterity to hear and tell all that can be told of him. We can wait fifty years more for a biography of Allston, because something of his gracious presence yet lingers among us; but we can touch Scheffer only with the burin or the pen. So we shall throw in our mite to fill up this chasm. A few gleanings from current French literature, a few anecdotes familiarly told of the great artist, and the vivid recollection of one short interview are all the aids we can summon to enable our readers to call up in their own minds a living image which will answer to the name that has so long been familiar to our lips and dear to our hearts.
Ary Scheffer was born about the year 1795, in the town of Dordrecht, in Holland; but, as at that period Holland belonged to the French Empire, the child was entitled by birth to those privileges of a French citizen which opened to him important advantages in his artistic career. French by this accident of birth, and still more so by his education and long residence at Paris, he yet always retained traces of his Teutonic origin in the form of his head, in his general appearance, and in his earnest and religious character. He always cherished a warm affection for his native land.
Many distinguished artists have been the sons of painters or designers of superior note. Raffaello, Albert Dürer, Alonzo Cano, Vandyck, Luca Giordano are familiar instances. It seems as it the accumulation of two generations of talent were necessary to produce the fine flower of genius. The father of Ary Scheffer was an artist of considerable ability, and promised to become an eminent painter, when he was cut off by an early death. He left a widow, many unfinished pictures, and three sons, yet very young. The character of the mother we infer only from her influence on her son, from the devoted affection he bore to her, and from the wisdom with which she guided his early education; but these show her to have been a true woman,—brave, loving, and always loyal to the highest. The three sons all lived to middle age, and all became distinguished men. Ary, the eldest, very early gave unequivocal signs of his future destiny. His countrymen still remember a large picture painted by him at Amsterdam when only twelve years old, indicating extraordinary talent, even at that early age. His mother did not, however, overrate this boyish success, as stamping him a prodigy, but regarded it only as a motive for giving him a thorough artistic education. He went, accordingly, to Paris, and entered the atelier of Guérin, the teacher then most in vogue.
It was in the latter days of the Empire that Ary Scheffer commenced his studies,—a period of great stagnation in Art. The whole force of the popular mind had for many years been turned to politics and war; and if French Art had striven to emancipate itself from slavish dependence on the Greek, it still clung to the Roman models, which are far less inspiring. “The autocrat David, with his correct, but soulless compositions, was more absolute than his master, the Emperor.” Only in the Saloon of 1819 did the Revolution, which had already affected every other department of thought and life, reach the ateliers. It commenced in that of Guérin. The very weakness of the master, who himself halted between two opinions, left the pupils in freedom to pursue their own course. Scheffer did not esteem this a fortunate circumstance for himself. His own nature was too strong and living to be crushed by a severe master or exact study, and he felt the want of that thorough early training which would have saved him much struggle in after life. He used to speak of Ingres as such a teacher as he would have chosen for himself. From the pupil of David, the admirer of Michel Angelo, the conservator of the sacred traditions of Art, the student might learn all the treasured wisdom of antiquity,—while the influences around him, and his own genius, would impel him towards prophesying the hope of the future. His favorite companions of the atelier at this time were Eugène Delacroix and Géricault. Delacroix ranks among the greatest living French artists; and if death early closed the brilliant career of Géricault, it has not yet shrouded his name in oblivion. The trio made their first appearance together in the Saloon of 1819. Géricault sent his “Wreck of the Medusa,” Delacroix “The Barque of Dante,” and Ary Scheffer “The Citizens of Calais.”1
The works of these friends may be considered as the commencement of the modern French school of Art, still so little known, and so ill appreciated by us, but which is really an expression of the new ideas of Art and Humanity which have agitated France to its centre for half a century. Their hour of triumph has not yet come; but as the poet sings most touchingly of his love, neither when he rejoices in its happy consummation, nor in the hour of utter despair, but when doubt still tempers hope,—so does the artist labor with prophetic zeal to express those sentiments of humanity and brotherhood which are not yet organized into institutions. A careless eye might have perceived little departure from the old models in these pictures, but a keener one would have already discovered that Scheffer and his friends worked with a different aim from that of their predecessors. Not merely to paint a well-composed picture on a classical theme, but to give expression to thought and feeling, was now the object. The Wreck of the Medusa” of Géricault is full of earnest, struggling life. Delacroix has followed his own bent with such independent zeal as has made him the object of intense admiration to some, of bitter hatred to Others. But Ary Scheffer has taken his rank at the head of the Spiritualist school, and has awakened a wider love and obtained a fuller appreciation than either of them. The spirit which found in them its first expression is continually increasing in power, and developing into richer life. The living artists of France are the exponents of her genuine Christian democracy.
“The entire collection of Rosa Bonheur’s works,” says a French writer, “might be called the Hymn to Labor. Here she shows us the ploughing, there the reaping, farther on the gathering in of the hay, then of the harvests, elsewhere the vintage,—always and everywhere labor.” Edouard Frère, in his scenes from humble life, which the skilful lithographer places within the means of all, represents the incidents of domestic existence among the poor. “The Prayer at the Mother’s Knee,” “The Woman at her Ironing Table.” “The Child shelling Peas,” “The Walk to School amid Rain and Sleet,” are all charming idyls of every-day life. With yet greater skill and deeper pathos does the peasant Millet tell the story of his neighbors. The washerwomen, as the sun sets upon their labors, and they go wearily homeward; the digger, at his lonely task, who can pause but an instant to wipe the sweat from his brow; the sewing-women bending over their work, while every nerve and muscle are strained by the unremitting toil; the girl tending her geese; the woman her cows: —such are the subjects of his masterly pencil. Do not all these facts point to the realization of Christian democracy? If the king is now but the servant of the people, so the artist who is royal in the kingdom of the mind finds his true glory in serving humanity. What a change from the classic subjects or monkish legends which occupied the pencils of David and his greater predecessors, Le Sueur and Poussin!
And yet those students of the antique have done French Art good service; they have furnished it with admirable tools, so that to them we are indebted for the thorough drawing, the masterly knowledge, which render Paris the great school for all beginners in Art. Such men as we have named do not scorn the past, but use it in the service of the present. While Scheffer always subordinated the material part of Art to its expression, he was never afraid of knowing too much, but often regretted the loss of valuable time in youth from incompetent instruction.
Encouraged by the success of his first essay, Scheffer continued to paint a series of small pictures, representing simple and affecting scenes from common life, some of which are familiar to all. “The Soldier’s Widow,” “The Conscript's Return,” “The Orphans at their Mother's Tomb,” “The Sister of Charity,” “The Fishermen before a Storm.” “The Burning of the Farm,” and “The Scene of the Invasion in 1814,” are titles which give an idea of the range of his subjects and the tenor of his thoughts at this time. The French have long excelled in the art of composition. It is this quality which gives the greatest value to the works of Le Sueur and Poussin. Scheffer possessed this power in a remarkable degree, but it was united to a directness and truth of feeling which made his art the perfection of natural expression. A very charming little engraving, entitled “The Lost Children,” which appeared in “The Token” for 1830, is probably from a picture of this period. A little boy and girl are lost in a wood. Wearied with their fruitless attempts to find a path, the boy has at length sunk down upon a log and buried his face in his hands; while the little girl, still patient, still hopeful, stands, with folded hands, looking earnestly into the wood, with a sweet, sad look of anxiety, but not of despair. The contrast in the expression of the two figures is very touching and very true to Nature;—the boy was hopeful so long as his own exertions offered a chance of escape, but the courage of the girl appears when earthly hope is most dim and faint. The sweet unconsciousness of this early picture has hardly been surpassed by any subsequent work. “Naturalness and the charm of composition,” says a French critic, “are the secrets of Scheffer’s success in these early pictures, to which may be added a third,—the distinction of the type of his faces, and especially of his female heads,—a kind of suave and melancholy ideal, which gave so new a stamp to his works.”
These small pictures were very successful in winning popular favor; but this success, far from intoxicating the young artist, only opened his eyes to his own faults, He applied himself diligently to repairing the deficiencies which he recognized in his work, by severe studies and labors. He knew the danger of working too long on small-sized pictures, in which faults may be so easily hidden. About the year 1826 he turned resolutely from his “pretty jewels,” as he called them, and commenced his “Femmes Suliotes,” on a large canvas, with figures the size of life. M. Vitet describes the appearance of the canvas when Scheffer had already spent eight days “in the fire of his first thought.” It seemed to him rather like a vision than a picture, as he saw the dim outlines of those heroic women, who cast themselves from the rock to escape slavery by death. He confesses that the finished picture never moved him as did the sketch. Three years earlier Scheffer had sent to the Saloon of 1824, in company with three or four small pictures, a large picture of Gaston de Foix after the Battle of Kavennn. It was a sombre picture, painted with that lavish use of pigment and that unrestrained freedom which distinguished the innovators of that day. The new school were in raptures, and claimed Scheffer as belonging to them. The public judged less favorably; “they admired the noble head of Gaston de Foix, but, uninterested in the remainder of the picture, they turned off to look at ‘The Soldier’s Widow.'” Scheffer did not listen to his flatterers; but, remembering Michel Angelo’s words to the young sculptor, “The light of the public square will test its value," he believed its the verdict of the people, and never again painted in the same manner. It was one of his peculiar merits, that, although open to conviction, and ready to try a new path which seemed to offer itself, he was also ready to turn from it when he found it leading him astray. “Les Femmes Suliotes” did not seem to have been designed by the same hand or with the same pencil as the “Gaston de Foix.” The first sketch was particularly pleasing,—already clear and harmonious in color, although rather low in tone. Many counselled him to leave the picture thus. “No,” said Scheffer, “I did not take a large canvas merely to increase the size of my figures and to paint large in water-colors, but to give greater truth and thoroughness to my forms.” In 1827 this picture was exhibited with ample success, and the critics were forced to acknowledge the great improvement in his style, although he had not entirely escaped from the influence of his companions, and some violent contrasts of color mar the general effect. The picture is now in the Luxembourg Gallery.
M. Vitet divides Scheffer’s artistic life into three portions: that in which he painted subjects from simple life; that devoted to poetic subjects; and the last, or distinctively religious period. These divisions cannot, of course, be very sharply drawn, but may help us to understand the progress of his mind; and “Les Femmes Suliotes” will mark the transition from the first to the second period. Turning from the simple scenes of domestic sorrow, he now sought inspiration in literature. The vigorous and hearty Northern Muse especially won his favor; yet the greatest Italian poet was also his earnest study. Goethe, Schiller, Byron, Dante, all furnished subjects for his pencil. The story of Faust and Margaret took such hold of his imagination that it pursued him for nearly thirty years. Their forms appeared before him in new attitudes and situations almost to his last hour, so that, in the midst of his labors on religious pictures, he seized his pencils to paint yet another Faust, another Margaret. Nor can we wonder at this absorbing interest, when we reflect on the profound significance and touching pathos of this theme, which may wear a hundred faces, and touch every chord of the human heart. It is intellect and passion, in contrast with innocence and faith; it is natural and spontaneous love, thwarted by convention and circumstance; it is condemnation before men, and forgiveness before God; it is the ideal and the worldly; it is an epitome of human life,— love, joy, sorrow, sin,—birth, life, death, and the sure hope of resurrection. How pregnant with expression was it to a mind like Scheffer’s, where the intellectual, the affectional, and the spiritual natures were so nicely blended! He first painted “Margaret at her Wheel,” in 1831,— accompanied by a “Faust tormented by Doubt.” These were two simple heads, each by itself, like a portrait, but with all the fine perception of character which constitutes an ideal work. Next he painted “Margaret at Church.” Here other figures fill up the canvas; but the touching expression of the young girl, whose soul is just beginning to be torn by the yet new joy of her love and the bitter consciousness of her lost innocence, fills the mind of the spectator. This is the most inspired and the most touching of all the pictures; it strikes the key-note of the whole story; it is the meeting of the young girl’s own ideal world of pure thought with the outward world. The sense of guilt comes from the reflection in the thoughts of those about her; and where all before was peace and love, now come discord and agony;—she has eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and is already cast out of her paradise. “Margaret on the Sabbath,” “Margaret going out of Church, and “Margaret walking in the Garden," are all charming idyls, but have less expression. The last picture, painted just before Scheffer’s death, and soon to he engraved, represents “Margaret at the Fountain.” “It is full of expression, and paints the joy and pain of love still struggling in the young girl’s heart, while conscience begins to make its chiding voice heard.”
The “Mignons” are the best known of all Scheffer’s works of this period. The youngest one, “Mignon regrettant sa Patrie,” is the most satisfactory in its simple, unconscious expression. The wonderful child stands in the most natural attitude, absorbed in her own thought, and struggling to recall those dim memories, floating in beauty before her mind, which seem almost to belong to a previous state of existence. There is less of the weird and fantastic than Goethe has given to her,—but the central, deep nature is beautifully reproduced. “Mignon aspirant an Ciel,” although full of spiritual beauty, is a little more constrained; the longing after her heavenly home is less naturally expressed than her childish regret; the pose is a little mannered; and the feeling is more conscious, but less deep. “Mignon with the Old Harper" is far less interesting; the old man’s head does not express that mixture of inspiration and insanity, the result of a life of love, misery, and wrong, which Goethe has portrayed in this strange character.
A very different picture, painted at this period, is peculiarly interesting to us as our first acquaintance among Scheffer’s works. An excellent copy or duplicate of it belongs to the Boston Athenæum. The original is in the Luxembourg at Paris. The subject is taken from Schiller’s ballad of “Count Eberhard.” After the victory in which his son has fallen, though the old Count has said to those who would have paused to mourn his death, “My son is like another man; on, comrades, to the foe!"—yet now he sits alone in his tent and looks upon the dead body of his child. The silent grief of the stern old man is very touching. This sorrow, so contrary to Nature, when old age stands by the grave of youth, always moves the deepest feeling; and Scheffer, in the noble old man and the brave and beautiful boy before him, has given it its simplest and most appropriate expression. This picture was painted in 1834. At that period Scheffer was engaged in some experiments in color, and this sad subject led him to employ the dark tints of Rembrandt. In 1850 he painted a duplicate of it, lighter and more agreeable in tone. He painted “The Giaour” and “Medora." from Byron, which pictures we have never seen. The wayward and morbid Muse of the English Lord does not seem to us a fit inspiration for the pure pencil of Seheffer.
The well-known composition of “Francesca da Rimini” may well conclude our brief notice of the pictures of this second epoch. M. Vitet regards it as the most harmonious and complete of all his works; but we think it has taken less hold on the popular heart than the “Mignons” and “Margaret.” Yet it is a work of great skill and beauty. The difficult theme is managed with that moderation and good taste which recognize the true limits of the art. The crowd of spirits which Dante so powerfully describes as driven by the wind without rest are only dimly seen in the background. The horrors of hell are shown only in the anguish of those faces, in the despairing languor of the attitude, which not even mutual love can lighten. The love which made them one in guilt, one in condemnation, is stronger than death, stronger than hell; but it cannot bring peace and joy to these souls shut out from heaven and God.
“Se fosse amico il Re dell’ universo,
But even prayer is denied to him who feels that he has not God for a friend. There is no mark of physical torture; it is pure spiritual suffering,—restless, aimless weariness,—the loss of hope; it is death,—and love demands life. How strangely appropriate is this punishment of spirits driven hither and thither by the winds, with no hope of rest, to those who reject the firm anchorage of duty and principle, and allow themselves to float at the mercy of their impulses and passions! The overpowering compassion and sympathy of the poets is shown in their earnest faces. Neither here, nor in the well-known “Dante and Beatrice,” which is too familiar to need description, does Scheffer quite do justice to our ideal of the sublime poet of Heaven and Hell; but neither do the portraits which remain of him. The picture was first exhibited in 1835. As it had suffered very much in 1850, Scheffer painted a repetition of it, with a few slight alterations, in which, however, his progress in his art during twenty years was very evident. This copy is very far superior to the engraving.
About this period Scheffer seems to have wandered a little from the true mission of Art, and to have esteemed it her province to represent abstract theological truths. His religious feeling seems to have become morbid, and his natural melancholy intensified. The death of his wife, and consequent loneliness, may have given this ascetic tinge to his feelings. But we must acknowledge, if it were so, that the sorrow which oppressed did not embitter his heart, and that a brave and humane spirit appears even in those works which have the least artistic merit to recommend them. The "Christus Consolator” is the best known of this class of pictures. It is cold, abstract, and inharmonious; but its religious spirit and the beautiful truth which it expresses have won for it a welcome which it seems hardly to merit. Yet it has touching beauty in the separate figures. The woman who leans so trustingly on her Saviour’s arm has a very high and holy face, whose type we recognize in more than one of his pictures; and the mother and her dead child form a very touching group. But the various persons are not connected by any common story or mutual relation, and we feel a want of unity in the whole work. Perhaps the strongest tribute to its power of expression is the story, that religious publishers found it necessary to blot out the figure of the slave who takes his place among the recipients of Christ’s blessing, in order to fit their reprint for a Southern market. As a companion to it, he painted the “Christus Remunerator,” which is less interesting. To this same class of pictures we should probably refer “The Lamentations of Earth to Heaven,” which we have never seen, but which is thus described by M. Anatole de la Lorge:—
“There are also treasures of disappointed pleasure and of bitterness in this picture of ‘The Lamentations of Earth to Heaven,’—dim symbol of human suffering. How does one, in the presence of this poem, feel filled with the spirit of St. Augustine, the nothingness of what we call joy, happiness, glory, here below,—delights of a moment, which at most only aid us to traverse in a dream this valley of tears! Certain pages of 'The City of God,’ funeral prayers of Bossuet, can alone serve us for a comparison, in order to express the effect produced upon those who have visited this chef d'œuere in Ary Scheffer’s atelier. Before producing it, the artist must have thought long, suffered long; for each stroke of the pencil seems to hide a grief, each figure speaks to you in passing, and utters a complaint, a sigh, a prayer,—sad echoes of the despair of life! The religious tendency of the thinker is here fully shown; his poetic sympathy, his aspirations, his dreams, have found a free course. We must mark, also, with what freedom his lamentations spring from the ground, to carry even to the feet of the Creator the overwhelming weight of earthly woe. Ary Scheffer’s picture is like the epitaph destined some day for the obsequies of the world; it breathes of death, and has the sombre harmony of the Miserere. And nevertheless,—a strange thing!—this dreaming painter, who seizes and afflicts us, is the same man who at the same time reassures and consoles us, —without doubt, because by dint of spiritualizing our thoughts he raises them above our sufferings, by showing the consoling light of eternity to those whom he would sever from the deceitful joys of earth.”
If the picture be not overcolored by the critic’s eye, we must believe this to be the culmination of the morbidly spiritualistic tendency which we meet in Scheffer’s works. Yet it never exists unrelieved by redeeming qualities. Many will remember the original picture of the “Dead Christ,” which was exhibited here by an Art Union about ten years ago. The engraving gives but a faint idea of the touching expression of the whole group. The deathly pallor of the corpse was in strange harmony with the face of the mother which bent over it, her whole being dissolved in grief and love. No picture of this scene recalls to us more fully the simple account in the Gospels. The cold, wan color of the whole scene seems like that gray pall which a public grief will draw across the sky, even when the meridian sun is shining in its glory. We have seen such days even in Boston. No wonder that darkness covered the land to the believing disciples even until the ninth hour.
His “St. Monica,” which appeared in 1846, met with great success. “Ruth and Naomi” is yet unknown to us, but it seems to be a subject specially adapted to his powers. Of those works which he produced within the last twelve years, very few are yet engraved. When thus placed before the public, we believe the popular estimate of Scheffer will be raised even higher than at present.
His pictures of Christ are of very superior merit. His representation of the person of Jesus was not formal and conventional, but fresh in expression and feeling, and full of touching pathos and sentiment. He has neither the youthful beauty with which the Italians represent him, nor the worn and wasted features which the early Germans often gave him, but a thoughtful, earnest, tender beauty. The predominant expression is the love and tenderness born of suffering. Three of his finest representations of the life of Jesus of Nazareth are, The Christ weeping over Jerusalem,” the “Eece Homo,” and “The Temptation.” The last is as original in design and composition as it is noble in expression. The two figures stand on the summit of a mountain, and the calm, still air around them gives a wonderful sense of height and solitude. You almost feel the frost of the high, rare atmosphere. Satan is a very powerful figure,—not the vulgar devil, but the determined will, the unsanctified power. The figure of Christ is simple and expressive, —even the flow of the drapery being full of significance and beauty. Another composition of great beauty represents a group of souls rising from earth, and soaring upwards to heaven. The highest ones are already rejoicing in the heavenly light, while those below seem scarcely awakened from the sleep of death. The whole picture is full of aspiration; everything seems mounting upwards.
Scheffer also painted a few pictures which can hardly be called his own. Such are “The Battle of Tolbiac,” and “Charlemagne dictating his Statutes.” These were painted by the command of Louis Philippe, who was his constant friend and patron. The young princes were his pupils; and Scheffer was careful to form them to better taste than that of the citizen monarch who has lined Versailles with poor pictures. For the King he painted “The Battle of Tolbiac,” and we can only regret the time which was thus wasted; but for his pupils he designed “Francesca da Rimini” and the “Mignons.”
A few masterly portraits by Scheffer’s hand indicate his power of reproducing individual character. Among these we may name that of his mother, which is said to be his finest work,—one of the Queen,—a picture of Lamennais,—and another of Emilia Manin, to which we shall again refer. He occasionally modelled a bust, and sometimes engaged in literary labor, contributing some valuable articles on Art to “La Revue Française.”
It would be impossible for us to analyze or even enumerate all of Scheffer’s works. They are scattered throughout France and Holland, and a few have found their way to this country. Most of the engravings from his pictures are too well known to require description; and we feel that we have said enough to justify our placing Scheffer in the high rank which we claim for him. Engravings give us a juster idea of the French than of the Dutch or Italian artists; for their merit is rather in design and composition than in color. We agree with M. Vitet, that color need not be a prominent excellence in a work of high spiritual beauty, and that it should always be toned to a complete harmony with the prevailing feeling of the picture. In this aspect we look upon the cold color of the “Dead Christ” as hardly a defect; it is in keeping with the sad solemnity of the scene. But if color should not be so brilliant as to overpower the expression of form and sentiment, still less should it be so inharmonious as to distract the mind from it, as is sometimes the case with Scheffer. The “Dante and Beatrice” is a familiar instance. We can see no reason why Beatrice should be dressed in disagreeable pink, and Dante in brick-red. Surely, such color is neither agreeable to the eye nor harmonious with the expression of the scene. This defect in color has led many to prefer the engravings to Scheffer’s original pictures; but no copy can quite reproduce the nice touches of thought and feeling given by the master’s hand. Color is supposed by many to belong mainly to the representation of physical beauty; but has not Allston proved to us that the most subtile and delicate harmonies of color may be united with ethereal grace and spiritual beauty? Compare his “Beatrice” with that of Scheffer. But, in truth, the whole spiritual relation of color is yet but dimly understood; and there are, perhaps, influences in the climate and organization of the French nation which have rendered them interior in this department of Art. Allowing this deduction,—a great one, certainly,—still, if the expression of the highest thoughts in the most beautiful forms be the true aim of Art, Scheffer must rank among the very first painters ot his age. Delaroche may surpass him in strength and vigor of conception, and in thorough modelling and execution; but Scheffer has taken a deeper hold of the feelings, and has risen into a higher spiritual region.
It has been reproachfully said that Scheffer is the painter for pretty women, for poets, and for lovers. The reproach is also a eulogium, since he must thus meet the demand of the human soul in its highest and finest development. Others have accused him of morbid sensibility. There is reason for the charge. He has not the full, round, healthy, development which belongs to the perfect type of Art. Compare the “St. Cecilia” of Scheffer—this single figure, with such womanly depth of feeling, such lofty inspiration, yet so sad—with the joyous and almost girlish grace of Raphael's representation of the same subject, and we feel at once the height and the limitation of Scheffer’s genius. There is always pathos, always suffering; we cannot recall a single subject, unless it be the group of rising spirits, in which struggle and sorrow do not form the key-note.
“In all your music, one pathetic minor
Your ears shall cross;
And all fair sights shall mind you of diviner,
With sense of loss.”
This is one view of human life, but it is a transitional and imperfect one,—neither that of the first healthy unconsciousness of childhood, nor of the full consciousness of a soul which has risen to that height of divine wisdom which feels the meaning of all suffering, of all life. The music of Beethoven expresses the struggle, the contest, the sufferings of humanity, as Art has never done before; but it always contains an eternal prophecy, rather than a mournful regret,—and in the last triumphant symphony it swells onward and upward, until at last it bursts forth in all the freedom and gush of song, and its theme is “The Hymn to Joy.” How much the fatherless home of Scheffer's childhood, how much his own desolated life, when his beloved companion was so early taken from his side, may have had to do with this melancholy cast of thought, or how far it belonged to his delicate physical constitution, we are not prepared to say. It becomes less prominent in his later compositions, “as faith became stronger and sight clearer”; and perhaps in those pictures yet unknown to us we may find still brighter omens of the new life of rest and joy into which he has entered.
If we turn from Scheffer’s works to his life, our task is no less grateful and pleasing. The admiration and affection which his countrymen express for his character surpass even what they feel for his works. He was a noble, generous, active, benevolent friend of humanity. He gave freely to all who were in need, counsel, money, advice, personal care, and love. Young artists found him ever ready to help them. “He gave them,” says M. Vitet, “home, atelier, material, sympathy,—whatever they needed.” Another writer, M. Anatole de la Lorge, said of him, while yet living,—“Ary Scheffer has the rare good luck not to be exclusive. His heart can pity every suffering as fully as his pencil can portray it. A faithful and intimate friend of a now fallen dynasty, (that of Orléans,) proud, even distrustful towards men in power, indifferent to their opinion, inaccessible to their offers, Ary Scheffer, in his original individuality, is one of the most independent and most honorable political men of our country. His studio is the rendezvous of all opinions, provided they are honest,—of all religions, provided they are sincere. There each one is received, not according to the habit which he wears, as the ancient proverb says, but according to the mind (esprit) which he has shown. We say mind, but it is heart that we should say; for Ary Scheffer seems to us to estimate the latter more highly than the former. His whole life proves it.” Always an ardent friend of liberty, he was also a lover of law and order, and he rendered good service in their preservation in the capital during the Revolution of 1848, for which he received honorable distinction.
The same writer quoted above gives an interesting description of his meeting with Ary Scheffer in the sick-room and by the death-bed of an Italian refugee, Emilia Manin. A young Venetian girl, full of devotion to her country and her proscribed father, she supported her exile with all a woman’s courage, buoyed up by the hope of returning to her country, redeemed from its misery. She is described as possessing extraordinary powers of mind and great beauty of person. There were no questions, however sublime or abstract, which she did not treat with a surprising depth and sagacity. “Her speech, ordinarily timid and feeble, became emphatic and stirring; her great, dreamy eyes suddenly acquired unequalled energy; she spoke of the misfortunes of her country in terms so moving as to draw tears from our eves.” But the body which contained this burning soul was very frail, “and the poor Emilia, the silent martyr, turned her head upon her pillow, and took her first hour of repose. When no longer able to speak, she had traced with a trembling hand on a paper these last words,—'Oh, Venice! I shall never see thee more!’ She yet retained the position in which she drew her last breath, when Ary Scheffer came, as Tintoret formerly came to the bedside of his daughter, to retrace, with a hand unsteady through emotion, the features of Emilia Manin. This holy image, snatched by genius from death, is one of the most admirable works we have ever seen. She lies there, extended and cold,—the poor child!—in that peace unknown to the life which she had lived in the body. It is, indeed, the intelligent brow from which the inspiration of her soul seemed to speak. It is the delicate mouth and the pale lips, which, never uttering a murmur, betrayed the celestial goodness of her heart. In truth, it would have been difficult to hide our emotion, in recognizing—thanks to the pure devotion of the painter—the touching features of this innocent victim, whom we had known, loved, and venerated during her life. Some hours later, we again found Ary Scheffer sustaining with us the tottering steps of Manin upon the freshly removed earth which was soon to cover the coffin of his child."
By the same loving and faithful hand were traced the features of the Abbé de Lamennais, a name so dear to those who live in the hope of new progress and liberty for humanity. “At the moment,” says M. de la Lorge, “when death was yet tearing this great genius from the earth, the pencil of the artist restored him, in some sense alive, in the midst of us all, his friends, his disciples, his admirers. Hereafter, thanks to the indefatigable devotion of Ary Scheffer, we shall be permitted to see again the meagre visage, the burning eyes, the sad and energetic features of the Breton Apostle.”
Into the domestic life of Scheffer it is not at present our privilege to enter. Some near friend—the brother, the daughter, the wife—may, perhaps, hereafter, lift the veil from the sacred spot, and reveal him to us in those relations which most deeply affect and most truly express a man’s inmost nature. We close this notice with some slight sketch of his life in the atelier.
None could enter this room without a feeling of reverence and sacredness. In the failing light of a November afternoon, all was subdued to a quiet and religious tone. Large and commodious in size, it was filled with objects of the deepest interest. Nothing was in disorder; there was no smoke, no unnecessary litter; yet everywhere little sketches or hints of pictures were perceptible among the casts, which one longed to bring forth into the light. A few portraits especially dear to him—best of all, that of his mother—were on the walls; a few casts of the finest statues—among others, that of the Venus de Milo— around the room. His last copy of the “Francesca da Rimini,” and the original picture of “The Three Marys,” and the yet unfinished “Temptation on the Mount,” were all there. On the easel stood the picture of the "Group of Spirits ascending to Heaven” Such was the aspect of this celebrated atelier, as we saw it in 1854. But “the greatest thing in the room was the master of it.” Ary Scheffer was then about sixty years of age, but was still healthy and fresh in appearance. His face was rather German than French, and bore the stamp of purity and goodness in every line; but the eyes especially had the fire of genius tempered by gentleness and love. It was a face which satisfied you at once, answering to all you could ask of the painter of “Mignon,” and the “Christus Consolator.” His manner was quiet and reserved, but courteous. Unconscious modesty was the peculiar charm of his appearance. One of our party said that he reminded him strongly of Allston. It was a reverend presence, which forbade common topics, and strangers thus meeting had few words to say. As we turned away, we knew that we should never meet again on earth; but we had gained a new life, and we had beheld, as it were, the face of an angel.
Two American artists stood with us in that room: one a fair young girl, whose purity of soul was mirrored in her beautiful face, who had gone to Paris to continue her studies in an art which she loved as she did her life; the other, a man of mature age, whose high and reverent genius has always met with a loving and faithful appreciation among his countrymen, which does them as much honor as it did him. The young girl lay down to die amid her labors, and her frail body rests amid the flowers and trees of Montmartre; the grown man came home but to bid farewell to home, friends, and life; the great artist whom we met to honor has gone home too. A threefold halo of sanctity rests on that room to us.
To those who shared the privilege of Scheffer’s friendship this room was endeared by hours of the richest social enjoyment. His liberal hospitality welcomed all ranks and all classes. It is related that Louis Philippe once sat waiting for him in the atelier, and answered a knock at the door. The visitor was delivering his messages to him, when the artist returned, and was somewhat surprised to find his royal friend playing the part of concierge. “It was not rare to meet in this atelier the great men of finance, who counted themselves among his most passionate admirers.” Here was conversation, not without gayety, but without loud laughter or revelry. Scheffer was very fond of music of the highest order. He was a generous patron of musicians, and loved to listen to music while he was engaged in painting. His friends sometimes held an extemporaneous concert in his room, without preparation, programme, or audience. Think of listening to an andante of Mozart’s, played in that room! “Music doubled her power, and painting seemed illuminated.” Beethoven was his favorite composer; his lofty genius harmonized with, and satisfied the longings of, Scheffer’s aspiring nature.
Ary Scheffer was a personal friend of the Orléans family. He was, however, an ardent lover of liberty; and his hospitalities were free to all shades of opinion. He did not forsake this family when their star went down. Hearing of the death of Hélène, the Duchess of Orléans, he hastened to England, to pay a last tribute of love and respect to her memory. The English climate had always been ungenial to him. He took a severe cold, which proved fatal in its results. He died soon after his return to Paris, on the 16th of June, 1858. Sadly as the news of his death struck upon our hearts, it seemed no great change for him to die. So pure and holy was his life, so spiritual his whole nature, so lofty his aspirations, that it seemed as if
“He might to Heaven from Paradise go,
As from one room to another.”
Ary Scheffer was twice married. His first wife died early. Many years after her death he again married,—very happily, as we have heard. He leaves behind him one daughter, who is also an artist. Under her loving care, we trust every relic of his artistic labors and every trait of his personal life will be faithfully preserved.
Both his brothers lived to middle age. One, of whom we know little but that M. Vitet calls him “a distinguished man,” died in 1855. The only surviving brother, Henri, is also a painter, of considerable reputation. He is a thorough and accomplished draughtsman, and a superior teacher. His atelier is one of the few in Paris which are open to women, and several American ladies have enjoyed its advantages.
We have spoken of Scheffer’s love for his native country. By his will he bequeathed to his native town of Dordrecht “the portrait of Sir J. Reynolds, by Scheffer; a dog lying down, life-size, by the same; a copy of the picture of the ‘Christus Remunerator,’ on pasteboard, of the size of’ the original in England; a copy of the ‘Christus Consolator,’ —both by himself: also, his own statue, in plaster; his own bust, by his daughter; and the Virgin and Infant Jesus, by himself.” The town of Dordrecht proposes to erect a statue in commemoration of the fame of the great artist.
It is too early to assign to Ary Scheffer the rank which he will finally occupy in the new era of French Art which is coeval with his labors. He will always stand as the companion of Ingres and Delaroche and Géricault; and if his successors surpass him even in his own path, they will owe much to him who helped to open the way. He lived through times of trouble, when a man’s faith in humanity might well be shaken, yet he remained no less a believer in and lover of mankind. Brighter days for France may lead her artists to a healthier and freer development; but they can never be more single-hearted, true, and loving than Ary Scheffer.
- This picture is now in the Louvre. It is a composition of great dramatic power. Mrs. Stowe gives a graphic description of the effect it produced upon her, in her “Sunny Memories of Sunny Lands.”↩