The Old Masters in the Louvre, and Modern Art

EACH generation has to cultivate anew an appreciation of the great works of the past. It is not enough that the masters of art and of life were crowned in their time ; it is not enough that they won the best appreciation of the best spirits of the last century, — not enough that the critics, the intellectual testers, the careful assayers for the last generation, found them good. The living public of the present hour, looking with fresh eyes, curiously questions the great men, and demands a re-examination of the grounds of their splendid reputation.

Our fathers read Byron, and called him great ; we read him, and call him boyish, moody, energetic, and but for the eloquence of his discontent would hardly read the poetry of a mind without tenderness, subtilty, or sweetness. In like manner we have fallen heirs to the critical estimates of the old masters ; and all the general terms of art-appreciation have been employed to express the transcendent worth of their works. But the American mind is so remote from the habitual state of feeling and being that gave birth to the works of the old masters, that with many any enthusiasm regarding their merits is either forced and hypocritical, or the result of total ignorance of the meaning and value of art. With men who hold a true and vital relation to art, admiration, not to say love, of the old masters is not a sudden and spontaneous thing. Sir Joshua Reynolds himself, anything but dormant in his appreciation of art, confessed to a feeling of disappointment on first entering the Vatican.

My reason for writing of a subject that has engaged the first literary and artistic talent of every age since the revival of art is that it is not enough for our public that the old masters have been well appreciated by great writers and acute critics. Ruskin has proved that the question of the value of the great works of the dead masters is not closed ; he has even taught us that the question itself may be changed in its form. The truth is that the old masters judged by Continental critics according to the precedents established by the old masters themselves, and the old masters judged from the standpoint of a modern man in America, with nothing but nature and the present examples of great modern art, lead to very different conclusions, and evolve very antagonistic thoughts.

A change has come over the world of art; it is no more the thing it was to the great Venetian and Florentine masters, — it is no more the thing it was to the Greeks. The modern world is not artistic, but scientific ; it cares more for knowledge, and the reasons of things, than for enjoyment and perception. But without going into any tedious examination of the causes of this change before we know well the thing itself, I propose you shall go with me to the Square Gallery of the Louvre, rich in characteristic and remarkable works of the greatest men of the greatest epoch of Italian and Flemish art. If you are a lover of art. I think you will go to the Louvre the first day you arrive in Paris. If you are a nervous enthusiast, you will be conscious of great mental excitement at the mere thought that, after years of waiting and dreaming, at last, and in a few minutes, you shall stand before the forms and colors that have made the world sound with the great names of Titian, Leonardo da Vinci, Paul Veronese, Rembrandt, Raphael, and Tintoretto. You will hurry across the Seine, you will pass the Swiss guard with his amazing legs and gold braid, you will go up the broad steps of the palace, and in a few minutes stand breathless before Gericault’s terrible picture of “The Wreck,”so full of marvellous energy and dramatic force, — a picture expressive of the terror of death, and the tenacity of hope in the midst of despair, — in a word, the terrible picture of a suicide ; for poor, unhappy, forlorn Gericault at last succumbed to the horrible fascination of his idea of death.

While you take breath before Gericault’s great canvas, let me tell you that you stand before the last of the old and the beginning of the new in art But let us move on.

We are now in the Salon of Apollo, - - perhaps the most splendid interior in Paris. Stop one moment ; you are under Delacroix’s famous picture of Apollo slaying the Python.

Is it not a superb mass of color? Apollo himself seems bursting in light over your head ; and the Python twists his horrid length, in mortal agony, along the heaving sea. Yes, you are under Delacroix’s picture, — his great picture! What color! What richness of effect! What energy ! What largeness and affluence of conception ! You are under the plafond of Delacroix,— the greatest of modern painters,— the man great enough in his work and style as a painter to rank with the first of the old masters; noble and sad and profound enough in his subject to belong to the modern epoch, — the epoch of revolt, the twilight of the old, the dawn of the new, — the time just before science and travel had exacted a new development, — before both had given art a new direction, made it less imperial, made it commonplace and instructive instead of original and moving.

But pass on ; Delacroix is only the last effort of the genius of Painting, as that genius was known in the day of its glory. To know what that genius meant, and what was its glory, separated from all modern elements, we must enter the Square Gallery of the Louvre.

Before we look at the great examples of painting, I wish you to examine what I hold to be the first example of expression in art, and I may say the most remarkable picture in the world. I mean Leonardo da Vinci’s strange, haunting face of Mona Lisa, the Florentine wife. This head is an exceptional thing ; it is without its counterpart from any hand but that of Da Vinci’s. But I am convinced that it is of that order of excellence, and of a strange charm, which are not perceived by most men. It is both subtile and intense ; and a limited, frank, straightforward mind, a mind purely prosaic and objective in its habits of thought and in its perceptions, would simply wonder with a child’s wonder or a man’s chagrin that any one could see anything to admire, much less frequently reflect upon, in the mere portrait study of Mona Lisa. Yet one famous English critic called it the “ mighty portrait of Leonardo ” ; and the cleverest, if not the ablest, of living French critics, twelve years ago, wrote the most enthusiastic words, which today in his grave maturity he reprints, and declares that they render faithfully his impression.

The color has evidently flown from Leonardo’s picture. The lips are colorless ; the face, a pale olive, also colorless ; and the background is quite worthless, though not obtrusive. The face is an exquisite piece of modelling and manipulation. The forehead is very high and broad ; the eyes are of a soft brown, penetrating without being bright or sharp ; the nose is thin and delicate ; the mouth very small, and with a smile, ironical and sweet, yet lingering about it. The face is oval, the hair brown, the drapery a dull olive. One hand, an exquisite piece of drawing and painting, highly finished, perfectly beautiful in form, and expressive of repose of nature, rests over the other.

Leonardo was a painter of hidden things. He reached the inner life. Purely objective, frank, open minds, and simple out-of-door natures, like Troyon’s, the animal-painter, for example, or with the addition of princely traits, as we find in Veronese, rarely understand, much less appreciate, the work and character of such a man as Leonardo. You will best understand what La Mona Lisa del Giocondo is by its effect upon a clear, brilliant spirit, like Théophile Gautier.

“La Joconde ! sphinx of beauty, who smiles so mysteriously in the frame of Leonardo da Vinci, and seems to propose to the admiration of ages an enigma by them not yet solved, an invincible attraction brings every one back to thee ! Who has not remained long hours before that head, bathed in twilight half-tints, enveloped in transparent gauze, and whose features, melodiously drowned in a violet vapor, appear like the creation of a dream, through the floating blackness of sleep ! From what planet is fallen in the midst of an azure landscape that strange being, with her glance which promises unknown voluptuousness, and her expression divinely ironical? Leonardo gives to his faces such an imprint of superiority that one feels disturbed in their presence. The lids of her profound eyes Hide secrets interdicted to the profane ; and the curve of her mocking lips suit the gods, who know everything and gently despise human vulgarities. What unquieting fixedness, and what superhuman sardonic meaning in those sombre pupils, in those lips undulating like the bow of love after it has hurled the arrow. Should you not say that the Joconde is the Isis of a cryptic religion, who, believing herself alone, half opens the folds of her veil, even if the imprudent one who surprises her become insane and die for it ? Never has the feminine ideal been invested with forms more deliciously seductive. Believe that, if Don Juan had met Mona Lisa, he would have spared himself the trouble of writing down the names of three thousand women ; he would have found but one ; and the wings of his desire would have refused to carry him further. They would have drooped and become unfeathered before the black sun of these eyes. We have seen her very often, that adorable Joconde, but our declaration of love does not appear to us too burning. She is ever there, smiling with a mocking voluptuousness upon her numberless lovers. Upon her brow reposes that serenity of a woman sure of being eternally beautiful, and who feels herself superior to the ideal of all poets and of all artists.”

It is well that we have two orders of men of genius in the world. And it is important that we understand the two great types. I take Paul Veronese as the type of the frank, open, princely mind. His is a genius that looks at nature and life to simplify both, — to use them as a master. I take Leonardo as a subtile and profound mind ; a nature brooding and involved. He readily sees that the bold, happy generalizer misses a great deal ; that he is devoid of a sense of the mystery of things, and does not know the greatness of little things. The immediate honor is won by such men as Veronese, who are nearer to the public ; the lasting honors are won by such men as Leonardo. He paints a single head, he devotes four years to it ; that one head is a masterpiece for all lime, and incites more thought than the splendid canvas of Veronese, gorgeous with color, natural, simple, vigorous.

But, for myself, I go from the blare of trumpets, and the noise of festivals, and the pomp of color of Veronese’s “ Marriage at Cana,” to the profound, the silent, subtile head of Mona Lisa, the Florentine wife, on the opposite wall. What a personality is placed before us ! Not strictly speaking what you would call a beautiful woman, yet a woman fascinating, charming, — all that Gautier tries to tell with a language meant to seduce the mind.

There is something tragic in Leonardo’s head of Mona Lisa, — something that makes the sweetness a terrible sweetness. It is a face to mask the enigma of the Sphinx. Why is it so sad, so haunting ? Why does it exercise such an undying fascination ? The mouth is positively smiling, and sweet as childhood in expression. Why then is it so sad, so tragic? — hidden tragedy I should say. I call it the saddest, sweetest, most living, most feminine face,-—the face most intense and expressive of a soul of anything that I have ever looked upon. It is the work of one of the greatest and most variously gifted of the splendid men of the sixteenth century, and I know of nothing comparable to it in modern art.

Not far from Leonardo’s wonderful portrait-study is placed a fine example of Titian,—a girl at her toilet, known as “ Titian and his Mistress.” How golden and beautiful I cheerful as sunshine ; no hidden meanings ; open like the day, and of an ample character. The arms seem, perhaps, too large ; but how fine the color! how luminous ! and what a healthy type of physical beauty! But you are not to stop before this work to make the acquaintance of Titian. You are to pass on until you reach that most impressive picture, “The Entombment of Christ.” You must look well at Titian’s work, — the most perfect artist of the three great men, — Veronese, Leonardo, and Titian. Titian was as great a painter as Veronese, and a more perfect designer, certainly a man of more subtilty and poetry of mind, of more profound feeling. The “Entombment” may be taken as the most perfect, as well as the noblest, example of art in the collection of the old masters at the Louvre. The work is grandly composed,— the lines, forms, and colors are large and simple. The color is expressive of the very sentiment of the subject, — the tones solemn and rich, the grouping perfect. The mind of the master was evidently imbued with the poetic and pictorial elements of the subject. His was no mind for festivals and music and pomp, and all the splendid externals of life, as was that of the bright and joyous Paul Veronese, but a reflective and contemplative mind, without the excess of introspectiveness of the great and perhaps morbid Leonardo. Titian’s mind was admirably balanced between reflection and action.

But you are before Titian’s great picture. Look at it well. I know you feel its impressiveness. You feel its dignity and mournfulness. You do not ask whether the actors in that sad drama are Oriental; you do not ask how much local truth is in the representation ; you do not consider any question of detail or of imitation. You are simply preoccupied with the great leading facts of the subject, “The Burial of Christ.” In my judgment there is no man living capable of painting anything so large, natural, simple, true in feeling, as is this work of the free Venetian. Millet, the peasant painter of France, would be as profound and as grand, but perhaps not so beautiful in his treatment of the theme. All the modern men embarrass themselves and the spectator with the minor conditions of their subject. Titian first felt its mournfulness and dignity ; after that he saw it as painter should see his subject, — that is, as a contrast of color and a harmony of lines,— “a white body, livid, dead, carried by sanguine men, and wept, in a morning which makes them still more beautiful, by tall Lombard women with auburn hair.”

It is worth some emphasis of attention that there is but one figure painter living who understands nature and his subject in the simple way of the old masters ; and that painter is the peasant painter of France, Françoise Millet. You will observe that this Titian is not painted to set before you the beauty of the minor facts of nature,— the “ lovely detail,”the piddling truths that make certain examples of contemporary art everything but works of art, — everything but pictures as pictures were understood by the great painters of the sixteenth century.

Look at those draperies; they are simply rich stuffs. Look at those figures ; you see the forms are all large, no part delineated as if looked at very close, but as if seen from a distance. It is just here that the tendency of modern art as seen in the English PreRaphaelites is most antagonistic to the example of the old masters. They as well as the realists look at every object very close, or imagine themselves very close to their subject; hence their deficiency in rendering the effect of masses, and also their general awkwardness in giving the forms of things. They may be said to see everything in sections, in parts, whereas the great Italian and Flemish masters educated themselves to see things as wholes.

But let these general considerations go for the present. Again turn to some particular work of the great age of painting. The Louvre is rich in examples of Titian’s art. The solemn depth and mellow splendor of his color I cannot communicate to you. But I can ask you to look at his work as a portrait-painter. In the gallery of The Seven Masters are three portraits. Here we are before two figures,— two men of “ the grand and magnificent race of Venice,” clad in black,— which justify Titian’s reputation of being, with Velasquez, “ the most grand painter of portraits of the world.” In these portraits you see that Titian can be a great colorist without his crimson, gold, and blue draperies. You see with what dignity he has invested his subjects, or rather what dignity he has found in them. Look at those two figures, those faces of a sallow complexion, the gravity of the expression, the highbred air, the total absence of everything but the grave, simple manhood of those two Venetians. Remark how splendidly and easily painted are the hands, and how expressive the action. I have found much to praise in the work of our own portrait-painters, I even dare to mention their names in the same breath with the princely names of Titian and Velasquez. Mr. William Hunt’s portrait of Chief Justice Shaw, Healy’s portrait of Orestes A. Brownson, the lamented Furness’s portrait of Mr. Emerson’s daughter, seemed to me to be noble and delightful examples of portrait art. But Titian is not only happier in the costume of his subjects, he is even simpler in his artistic means; and I must say that the highest praise to be given to our best men is that they approximate to the nobleness and simplicity of these two half-length portraits of Venetian noblemen, while in vigor of style and color these two heads are quite beyond what our own men have reached. Yes, you must acknowledge that portrait art can never go beyond the art of Titian or of Rembrandt or of Velasquez ; and a walk through the galleries of the Louvre must teach you that, or it can teach you nothing.

Since we have touched upon this subject of portrait art, which is simply an artist’s capacity to paint a man, which is the beginning and the end of the highest art, look at Rembrandt’s work. Rembrandt is represented in the Square Gallery by the head of a woman ; it is placed near Titian’s beautiful Venetian girl at her toilet. At once you remark the difference in the two great masters. Rembrandt is more robust, has a more vivid sense of reality, than the noble Titian. The whole force of the personality, the full strength of the material being, is presented by Rembrandt. His manner of painting is much more solid, and seems even freer and bolder, than Titian’s. There are several heads, —heads of old men, of young men, and this one head of a woman in the Louvre, by Rembrandt. They show a more powerful hand, a surer hand, and a more sturdy feeling for reality, than any of the great masters. But do not imagine that by reality I mean what so many mean to-day by that word as applied to pictures. Not one sharp outline, not one hard line, not one rigid form, can you find in Rembrandt’s work. Not in his heads can you find any trace of the realism of the photographic, PreRaphaelite, or topographical painters. In Rembrandt’s heads everything is round, soft, mysterious, full, luminous, rich ; whereas, in the art that has Holbein, and some of the English painters since the greatest day of English art, as its best representatives, everything is thin, cold, hard, exact, defined, rigid, and dry in manner.

If these facts mean anything, they mean that the art of painting has culminated,— that it has attained its greatest perfection,—that, so far as it is a thing to be learned, we must go back to the examples left by the great Flemish, Spanish, and Venetian masters. But as all great art is an expression of personal or individual force, it is not to be taught. All the art discipline in the world could not make a Rembrandt or a Titian. It is therefore chiefly the critics’ and the amateurs’ work to study the productions of the great masters. They study, not to imitate, but to understand. If in America we have any young man with the genius of a painter, that genius will make its own development, and form its own style. This has been the case with our landscape-painters. It is true of Gifford, it is true of Kensett, of Durand, of Whittredge. I do not mean to say that these artists have in each case formed a powerful and individual style ; I mean only to say that the best part of their art is purely a personal development, and quite independent of the great examples of great and ancient masters. I understand, therefore, the value of galleries to be chiefly in their effect on the intelligence of men, and not in their value as affording models of art for the imitation of young or old painters. A collection of paintings like that of the Louvre before each generation of men forbids that a man of intelligence shall use his wit and misapply his talent in trying the painters of his time by a false idea of painting, — prevents his using his faculties of expression to annoy painters by blindly seeking to give a new direction to art, because of ignorance of what it actually is in its noblest remains.

The antiques of the Louvre and the pictures of the Venetian school form adequate critics, form discriminating minds, and actually prevent the eccentricities of criticism which characterize the powerful and unequal art-literature of the English language.

English critics are all the time making discoveries, or reacting against old tendencies. French critics always preserve a just and felicitous spirit. They either sit at the feet of the Greeks and mourn over the decadence of pure art, or sit at the feet of the Venetians and reaffirm the fundamental ideas of painting ; but they make no so-called discoveries, and do not mislead their public.

But again let me return to particular works. The whole art of painting is illustrated in the Square Gallery of the Louvre. You are now opposite Paul Veronese’s “ Marriage at Cana.” No picture in the world has had a greater influence on modem French art. Probably no picture in the Louvre represents so well the glory, the power, and the splendor of painting, to a painter, as the “ Marriage at Cana.” It is pre-eminently a painter’s picture. It is a picture full of the pride of life. It is a festival where all the guests are princely, or grand, or beautiful. The very dogs have the look of dogs of race. It was on the 7th of July, 1864, on the day of the distribution of the annual rewards of the Exhibition of Fine Arts, that Maréchal Vaillant, facing this great painting, announced that a prize of twenty thousand dollars was created by the Emperor, at the expense of the civil list, to be given every five years to the author of a great work of art, of painting, of sculpture, or of architecture. That is the way they seek to evoke great art in France. But facing Veronese’s great picture, under the canvases of Titian, Rembrandt, and Murillo, every artist, while he felt the inspiration of those great examples of art, should have recollected that they were not evoked by imperial rewards. Yet in spite of that the place for the announcement of the reward to an age so much devoted to gain was well chosen. For under those great canvases every artist must have felt the glory of his art, and burned to give to France some work not unworthy of a place under the same roof.

You who have not seen this picture need not hope that you can appreciate it by what is or has been written about it. It is, I repeat, a painter’s-picture. It has no literary element. In this it differs most from modern pictures. Nearly all famous modern pictures, outside of landscape art, have the literary element. They appeal to the literary mind ; they are like pieces out of a story, they are seldom mere spectacles to please the eye. Even if you stood with me before Veronese’s work, I could not be sure that you would have a vivid appreciation of it. There is no tragedy in it, no humor; it is simply a collection of portraits, say a piece of superb grouping of superb and magnificent people. The glory of the work is its life, its color. What painters call the just relations of color are marvellously rendered on that colossal canvas.

I have spoken of the most characteristic examples of the great age of painting in the Louvre. The question now is, How far are we from the works which elicit so much admiration ? I should give as the result of my examination of art, that the genius of painting is no longer known to figure-painters in the same sense as of old. I believe that the true painters of to-day are not figure-painters, but landscape-painters. The figure-painters have become too scientific, too literary. Their work is no more a matter of perception and feeling, as was the work of the old painters ; it is a matter of story-telling, and the subject has gained the ascendency. The landscape-painters yet hold the subject subordinate ; they are simple men of the brush.

The finest style among modern French painters is to be found in landscape art. It is in Troyon, it is in Lambinet, it is in Rosseau. All these men paint, — use the brush splendidly ; and it is just in this use of the brush (which distinguishes the painter), that contemporary figure-painters seem most deficient. So much so, in fact, that the very presence of a brush-mark is likely to bring out the reproach, “not finished enough.’'

You have now reached the point of divergence between the ancient painter’s work and that of the modern painter. In modern art, the subject is everything, and the artist servile or conscientious before it ; in ancient art the subject was common, and the artist free, and even careless, before it.

You have walked through the Square Gallery to look at the famous works of great painters, and, in spite of the different aim and the changed aspect of art, you have felt and admired the pictures of the men who represent its ancient and greatest glory. In the old pictures color is richer, forms simpler, subjects less novel, and even further from our sympathies, than anything of modern art. Yet, in spite of obnoxious or indifferent subjects, if you have any appreciation of art, you are pleased, you are even profoundly moved, by the splendid work of the first of the old masters. Why? Because of their magnificent power as painters, — power in just what our modern men are most deficient the moment we go outside of the landscapists.

Here we signal the true cause of a genuine and enthusiastic appreciation of the old masters. It is first and last in their power as painters. The ground of appreciation of modern art is novelty or originality of subject, fulness and faithfulness of representation. Need I say that a picture may be both novel and faithful as a representation of nature, and yet be a very ordinary, even mean, example of painting.

When Titian and Veronese painted, man was more than nature, and only a few persons had the passion of travel and the curiosity to know strange things. To-day we know how one goes to the Rocky Mountains, another to the Andes, a third after icebergs. In the great age of painting the painters had not that curiosity, and their public cared only for a few beautiful women. A human figure was a poem. “The subject was only the occasion to represent the apotheosis of man in all his attributes.” Then you could say, in the studio of the artist, How nobly he has seen ! Now you say, How much he has seen ! What you could have said in the studio of the old painters, you say to-day in the gallery of the Louvre, before Titian’s portraits or before Veronese’s vast compositions. They painted beautiful human ideas. We no longer care for ideas,—for the human form. Our aim is to accumulate facts, and “facts,” “beautiful” or “lovely facts,” to-day are the cant phrases of an illegitimate criticism. What we have gained and what we have lost is a vast question, more easily asked than answered ; but it is the question suggested by modern art at the Champ de Mars, and by ancient art at the Louvre.