Modern French Painting
A GOOD model, badly posed, lends itself to very awkward studies, and does not instruct the eye as it should. French art is a subject that for a long time has been badly posed before Americans. Those of us who have been infatuated with it have not been very respectful to native talent; those who have derided it as superficial have only considered it as it appears in its most recent form.
French art is made of a great many diverse things. It is one thing in Ingres, and another in Delacroix; it is one thing in Gerome, and another in Flandrln ; it is one thing in Hamon, and another in Millet; it is one thing in Théodore Rousseau, and another in Corot.
The only common ground for a characterization under the general head “ French Art,” presenting itself to my judgment, is that each of these painters has a style which adequately corresponds with his subject ; that the short-coming of his work is never in a bad understanding of his means of expression, as is so often the case with the work of our painters, whose average power of representation is lower than the average value of their subject, — lower than that of the painters who make Paris the centre of arts.
Any generalization about French art, either for or against its ascendency, must be considered simply as a hasty dash of the mind to cover a vast and varied subject, without due consideration of the meaning and value of its parts. I do not believe it judicious, and it is not very instructive.
At the present hour French art is not maintained at its highest level. It has lost its great representative men. The ebb is so great at this moment, that all the barrenness of the French mind, when not fed from the fecund, outlying, elemental forces, is revealed; the present is the thin and shallow and corrupt hour of French art. It is beginning to correspond very well with the epoch of the Regency, which gave to France the art and literature and sentiment of courtesans. We may admire France very much, but we must admit that France is very barren in great things when it is dominated by the Parisian sentiment, and does not derive its ideas from the Continent and England, rather than from its own characteristic life. The characteristic life of France is in action and in pleasure.
But yesterday France held the great representative painters of the nineteenth century, — men who were fed by all the great springs of intellectual and moral life outside of France; to-day she has a group of figure-painters, who represent the pleasures and tragedies of Roman civilization, and seek to make France repeat the cruel, arbitrary, centralized life of the ancient imperial world.
Yesterday, France had Delacroix exercising his genius in the highest realms of imagination, and dedicating his art to the suffering of humanity ; she had Ingres, in the reasoned, restrained, monotonous, and classic world ; she had Flandrin, devout and elevated in sentiment, thorough in his work, positive in his style ; she had Scheffer, in poetry and religious sentiment; she had Delaroche, in the historical and literary; she had Decamps, in the picturesque of subject, the caprice of effect, the vivid of natural color ; — then Troyon, the great, simple, natural colorist; Rousseau, the landscapist, rich and subtile in his color ; and to-day, last members of the same group, Corot, the dreamy poet; and Millet, the profoundly impressive and simple painter of the peasants of France.
The decadence of French art — save where it is checked by such men as the landscapists of France, and Courbet in his best efforts — has been rapid since the death of Troyon. For the most part, the landscape painters are outside of imperial France.
I propose that we go back a few years, to the time when society was in ferment, and the forces of life were not suppressed by the imperial régime. The splendid outburst of thirty years ago in France was a reaction against authority; it was the substitution of the will or caprice of the individual for the fixed law of a school; it was a revolt. It was a revolt that had Victor Hugo, Dumas, George Sand, Delacroix, Géricault, and Decamps, and all the succeeding landscape and genre painters for its leaders and supporters. They resisted the Academy of Beaux-Arts and the Academy of Belles-Lettres.
To-day France is again quiet, — the last wave of revolt has nearly spent itself, the tide is low, the shore barren. To-day France is again contented with authority, and accepts tradition. The Institute and Tuileries are well guarded ; both have succeeded in convincing the cultivated classes that a nation is best when its people are kept as minors, not recognized as lords of the estate. Victor Hugo is in exile ; the forms of constitutional government are maintained only as so many tribunes from which the hireling deputies throw a dust of words between the people and the arbitrary acts of a ruler, who closes his hand tighter and tighter on the nation.
Understand well, that the epoch of constitutional government and of revolution in France is represented in painting by Géricault, Delacroix, Scheffer, Delaroche, Decamps, and the overrated Vernet. The Second Empire is represented by Gerome, Meissonier, Cabanel, Baudry, Chaplin, Diaz, and Hamon ; in literature, by Gautier, Houssaye, Féval, Feydeau, Baudelaire, and Dumas fils. These men illustrate art detached from the moral, — the artistic emancipated from ideas of morality and ideas of democracy. They represent the cruelty, the corruption, and sometimes the splendor, of the purely artistic ; but, on the whole, they may be taken as illustrations of the artistic in excess.
The epoch of revolution and constitutional government had a group of writers of greater reach, nobler purpose, and more profound genius. It had Guizot, Lamartine, Béranger, George Sand, Auguste Comte, Victor Hugo, Balzac, and De Musset,—the great names of modern France. De Musset, however, did not hold either the revolutionary or republican spirit. He was simply an unhappy soul with a rare artistic sense.
Men like Sainte-Beuve and Ingres, who exalted authority and tradition in letters and in arts as opposed to the individual genius or wilfulness, easily found their place, cushioned, under the Empire. So true it is that the mind which relies upon an external fact is always consistent, always ready for a master. Sainte-Beuve, who never had any convictions ; and Ingres, who only had one, — that is, that Phidias and Raphael fixed, for all time, the one perfect form of art,—gravitated towards the paternal government; and both have given éclat to art and letters under the imperial régime.
If my thought is true, I have indicated the place which the leading masters of painting, in France, hold in the scale of its political development. But we must go still nearer to the great masters who came after the first revolution.
No modern nation has a group of men comparable to the French painters of the last thirty years. In the art of painting, as understood by painters, they have no peers, save in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Their science of art is French ; their ideas are universal, — do not belong exclusively to the French mind. Today, French art is more local, less universal; therefore, not great. It has again fallen to the level of the average French mind. The average French mind — or genius — is exact like Gérôme, light like Chaplin, pagan and sensual like Cabanel, full of exaggeration like Doré, bold and prosaic like Vernet, whose popularity “is the accusation of a whole nation.” But, back of all these traits, which are so characteristic of the French, there is a genuine love of out-of-door life; and the modern French landscape painters are the artistic correspondence of that love. That love is universal; therefore the French landscapists have a public outside of France. They are not localized. Great men are not local. They do not correspond with the average men of theirnation ; they correspond with the superior men of the world.
The average of French art, like the average of French literature, is exclusively a matter of expression, which is generally attractive, and disengages the mind from the subject to please it with the execution. The average work of the French painter is too artistic, and outside of reality; the average work of the English painter is not in the least artistic, but awkward, yet holding a certain fixed relation to the domestic sentiment and poetic feeling of the English people.
But in arts and in letters we are not concerned with the average power of a people. We ask to know the highest or characteristic development reached by the genius of a people. It is Shakespeare, Milton, and Shelley; it is Hogarth, Reynolds, and Turner ; in France, it is Molière, Voltaire, and George Sand ; it is Claude Lorraine, Delacroix, Gowarnic.
None of Delacroix’s works have any value as studies of manners, or as realistic renderings of the subject. If you are in the habit of occupying your mind with details ; if you follow the contemporary method in art, — in which the observation is everything, and the dream nothing, — in a word, if Balzac and Thackeray are your best types, you will not understand, much less appreciate, Delacroix.
Delacroix is properly the subject of a special study; it is not within ray purpose to write a commentary on his genius. I notice his work only so far as is necessary to make apparent that his is the first name in my classification of French painters. Delacroix and Géricault are the first, among Frenchmen, who treated things with the brush of the Venetians, and in the large epic style that to-day is without any illustration in the works of living painters.
It has been Delacroix’s glory and reproach, that he spontaneously gave being to purely personal impressions, lifted the subject out of a cold, lifeless, artistic form, and hurled it, as it were, palpitating with all the emotions of his heart, to an inert public.
The aggressive Proudhon, who opposes the whole spirit and fact of French art as being anti-democratic and anti-realistic, says : “ Delacroix has a lining of Lord Byron, of Lamartine, of Victor Hugo, of George Sand; he is also the illustrator of Shakespeare and Goethe.” And then he asks : “ But what do I care for all these declaimers and weepers ? ”
No doubt these are appropriate and expressive words in the mouth of a democrat. No doubt the man occupied with the question of labor and emancipation has no respect for the romantic dreams, the spiritual and moral disorders of men and women whom excess of sensibility and passion for the ideal forbid to mix in the hurly-burly of life, but place before the spectacle of the human soul, in its body of flesh, enacting the perpetual drama of its desires and its debasements.
Proudhon’s book is a running, aggressive, democratic commentary on art. It is the only book that I know which is a brave and sturdy effort to refute the artistic idea as it is understood by the artists ; it aims to substitute a purely democratic idea of the painter’s function. The only art that can hold a place in Proudhon’s emancipated society is the modern landscapist’s ; or the art of the painter who flatly outrages the classic ideal and the studied form, — like Courbet.
If I should speak from Proudhon’s book about French art in the nineteenth century, I should be perfectly well understood by every American ; and the average reader would recognize good sense, and wonder why he ever admitted the metaphysical talk about “art” and “beauty” and “the ideal” to impose itself upon his mind and convict him of ignorance. I should be thought sensible and convincing with Proudhon’s thought on my lips ; but, let me hasten to add, I should be at once outside of the idea of art as it is understood by artists. I should be speaking from the very lapse of the artistic sense. I should be honoring common sense, which in Proudhon, as never before, does its iconoclastic work upon the beautiful world, cherished at the cost of the comfort of the people.
Proudhon’s book is the gospel of modern art as it must be developed in America; that is, free from tradition, free from the voluptuous, based wholly on the common life of the democratic man, who develops his being on a free soil, and in the midst of a vast country.
At this moment the national galleries of France contain the most perfect examples of the art of painting that have been produced in the world since 1789; at this moment they contain works the most varied in style and subject, and the most illustrative of the resources of the palette of any modern art save that of Turner ; at this moment French art is most universal in its influence, and the most expressive of art as art. But at this moment the leading men of the French school — Gérôme, Meissonier, Cabanel — do not entertain universal ideas and elevated sentiments corresponding with the ideas and sentiments of Delacroix, Scheffer, and Delaroche.
French art has become Parisian, and in becoming Parisian it has fallen to the level of a corrupt and luxurious world, — a world in which taste and voluptuousness are exacted in the work of every figure-painter. it still remains true to the idea of art for art. Need we say it gained its ascendency over the modern world when it was less local, and at a time when art was not pursued for its own sake, but because it was believed to be a beautiful and special means of expressing the sentiments and passions, and depicting the noblest and most beautiful parts of nature and the life of man ?
When France was thrown open by the Revolution, and was accessible to foreign influences, she was greater than to-day; now she is shut within herself by imperialism. When her literary and artistic genius was fed with Shakespeare, with Oriental dreams, with mediaeval imaginations, it was enriched by external things. To-day France has become more Parisian, — that is, local, — and, in becoming more Parisian, she has fallen in the scale of greatness.
So far we can generalize and render truthfully the leading facts of French art, and therefore of France itself. But we have reached our limit, and we must look more closely at the actual men of the hour, and ask in what manner they sustain the glory made for French art by the splendid group of artists whom I have so often named.
I have said that they are not imbued with the large spirit, and do not show the general aim of their great predecessors ; that the ablest and simplest men who yet live are a part of that great outburst of artistic power that began with Géricault, and seems now almost spent. Who are these men ? Certainly not the fashionable painters. Meissonier is not of them, nor Gérôme, nor Cabanel, nor even the elegant and delicate Fromentin.
Gérôme, who is the most exact and intellectual, and the most reasonable,— the man whose pictures have all the dignity that mind can give to a work of art,—is well known; and likewise so known is Meissonier; and Cabanel, who paints to charm the senses just as they are charmed at the Jardin Mabille or the Porte Saint Martin.
Properly speaking, Gérônic and Meissonier are not painters. They are simply draughtsmen or designers, who have acquired all of the art of painting that can be taught. Their limitations are limitations of organization. And yet their method of characterizing their work by the line and the design, and limiting the play of the brush and the flow of color, is in keeping with the exact and positive ideas that have taken the first place in current criticism. But the masters of painting have always made less of the refinements of the line or the form, and more of the splendid and fleeting impression of color and effect.
I have to speak of Théodore Rousseau, Diaz, Millet, Fromentin, Corot, Jules Duprez, Daubigny, and Courbet. These men represent the most healthful phase of French art, and show that, however much they may be below the epic greatness of Delacroix and Géricault, they carry forward the work so splendidly begun by those two great dramatic painters. They react against tradition, and give the ascendency to individual genius, rather than train it in classic or academic forms, according to the example of Flandrin, Ingres, and even Gérôme.
Rousseau, who died but yesterday in the poetical village of Barbison, on the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau, represents the richest and strongest genius in landscape art. His work has strength, force, and luxuriance, and all these traits and qualities are held in a rich and solid style of painting. He was varied in his subjects, and had two distinct manners ; but his proper style was solid, rich, and close. The landscapes of our own Inness, without being as firmly designed as Rousseau’s, without having the same depth and clearness of tone, yet are not unlike those of the great French landscapist.
Another painter is Corot, an old man now, and an old favorite. He paints — in a manner just the reverse of Rousseau— with a light, quick, loose touch, and makes a vague, floating, dreamy effect He paints like no one else, because he finds in nature everything but the obvious and positive forms that we know by experience. His pictures are to me the most charming reveries,—all light and air, fresh like the morning, and, suggesting I know not what pensive and veiled idyllic beings to correspond with his fresh and idyllic nature. Corot is one of the most disputed talents in France. I suppose precisely because be is not commonplace, — precisely because he has a way of seeing and rendering nature not cognizable to the vulgar. The man is charming, sincere, naïf. The studios are full of delightful stories about him. He is a man of sensibility; say, just like his pictures, — all tender and fresh and floating.
One day, standing before a picture by Delacroix, he said : " He is an eagle ; 1 am but a lark, throwing ray little song into my gray clouds.” What a charming way of saying his thought! One of those delightful words that open a window, and let fresh air into the stale atmosphere of our academic or hospital life !
Corot is reproached for being vague and sketchy. I consider the criticism shallow ; and generally it is the outflow of a common mind. But it is worth while to make apparent, that he may be both vague and sketchy, and yet a true and uncommon landscape painter. Corot understands that nature is an influence ; most landscapists have not gone beyond the idea that she is a form. Corot understands that nature is a depth lighted by a sun ; most landscapists understand her as a surface against which objects are not only inevitably defined, but “ made out,” like so many pieces of needle-work. Corot understands that nature, to the eye, is not a fixed fact, but a fleeting impression ; most landscapists understand nature as a vast piece of still-life which they must imitate, and an agglomeration of facts that they are to photograph. But Corot, being a poet, understands nature as a life, as one thing, and he aims to express it. Without being a man of great reach or varied power, he is sympathetic and true; he is penetrated with the quality and the spirit of his subject. He never delineates ; he expresses. The depth of air, the fulness of light, the penetrability of masses of foliage, the loosening of the wind, and the scattered aspect of vegetation on his canvases, are rendered with a free and light brush which gives to his work an indescribable charm.
Like a man who always looks at the distance and the floating clouds, his eye is not filled with the vivid color of the grass close to him, nor does he notice the plants that lift themselves, each after their own fashion, by his feet. No; Corot is a dreamer who sometimes even forgets the soil on which he stands, but never the look of the remote country at the horizon, or the low clouds that float over the water. Happily he is one man who has not the pretension to exhaust nature on his canvas ; he has not the pedantry implied in the so-called complete, systematic, detailed, in the midst of wonderful and inexhaustible and infinite nature! Who can help loving his delightful suggestions of the aspect of things, his breathing harmony of color ? He is the good gray landscape painter of France.
François Millet is a grand and simple painter, with something of Rembrandt and everything else of himself, — the one man in France among the artists who has made the despised peasant — broken with labor, and brown like the soil — look on the full impressiveness of his humanity in the midst of his silent and laborious life.
I cannot express to you the profound spirit, the simple and large form, of Millet’s pictures. He makes you feel the common and mysterious unity of the universal life that is in man. Millet is the poet of the peasant. He aggrandizes the traits of his subject, but never seeks for, rather avoids, the feminine graces, and the pretty parts that painters love to find even in the homeliest conditions of life. Millet is a man, not a dainty lover of the pretty. He disengages his subject from the prosaic without destroying its real character. He is more than Jules Breton, because of the trait of grandeur, because of the simpler form of his art, and because he is more profound ; and, finally, he first devoted himself to paint the peasant as he is. He is the sincerest and most truly poet of any living figure-painter in France. He alone is a protest against the false, dazzling, polished, and sensual art of the salons of Paris today. But I am too hasty; the sturdy and prosaic and unequal Courbet is also a protest against the corrupt and the classic art patronized by the officials of the Second Empire.
Last we are to speak of Diaz, who is an extraordinary colorist, a maker of rose-dreams, and creamy-tinted, flowersoft women, and also a painter of the deep, dark forest. He renders a rich and vagabond vegetation, — woods sturdy and dense, — the very home of silence and solitude.
Without defining or drawing a line, by mere combination of lights and darks, warmed and enriched with the colors of his Spanish palette, on which all soft, pulpy, juicy, mellow things have been crushed, — in one word, the palette of Keats, — he makes his canvas glow and shine, and you behold, in brown or golden shadows, Cupids and Nymphs and Fauns, or the light ladies of the Decameron ; loose, falling robes, the dazzle of shoulders; a luminous group of beautiful nude beings, neither Greek nor Parisian, belonging wholly to the ideal, — perhaps the bastard ideal,—which gave us Shakespeare’s fairies and Keats’s Endymion. His is an art that gives pleasure to the ordinary artistic sense ; it is the other side of the cold, exact, passionless, serious sensualities that have so much place in the work of a man so dignified and able as Gérôme.
Another positive talent is that of Eugène Fromentin, — a writer who, as such, has won from Sainte - Beuve, George Sand, and Théophile Gautier alike, carefully chosen words expressive of the superiority of his talent, and a painter to whom all current criticism gives a first rank. His picture of La Smala en Voyage is a beautiful example of all the finest and most elegant artistic traits proper to the subject; the color is clear and brilliant, the touch neat and rapid, the form delicate and pure. The tribe of the Smala are just crossing a shallow stream, and ascending a spur of the mountain in front of them, — the chiefs, in advance, mounted on supple and fiery Arab horses, of varied and lovely colors, with manes silken and combed like the hair of women. Negroes laden with baggage, women and children in picturesque disorder, cross the ford. The white haiks and colored bernouses of the chiefs, blown apart, reveal their sleeves and vests embroidered with jewels and gold sparkling in the light. The haughty and noble grace and grave aspect of the chiefs, the movement and character of the people of the tribe, are rendered in a vivid and picturesque, and also in an elegant manner. It is one of the many pictures that confirms Fromentin as a master in his art. In some of his earlier works I noticed a manifest artificiality of color which detracted from their value. But his is a superior and special talent, and he has as many imitators as Decamps or Gérômc.
The remaining actual workers who hold a first rank in the French school are Couture, Gustave Moreau, Isabey, Zeim, Emile Breton, and Jules Breton. They are of the first rank in power of execution, and they complete the remarkable group of French artists of the nineteenth century; they have no living superiors in mastery of the resources of the palette. They illustrate every phase of art save that of the vast and grand in landscape art of which Turner is the unrivalled master. Not one painter in France among the landscapists has ever reached the height of power that characterizes Turner’s pictures ; by the subject and the composition, they occupy a place above all contemporary landscape art. The French landscapists have rendered certain simple phases of color and effect with a brush more fed and a hand more vigorous than Turner’s. But Turner excels them by his Shakespearian imagination, and the Shakespearian correspondence with fact at the same time that he exercises a most extraordinary imagination. He has no peer among the French landscapists.
It is among the figure-painters that we must go to find the peer of Turner. Delacroix and Turner arc the two great epic poets of the nineteenth century; the one French, the other English. Both correspond with the national genius, while they rise above its purely local character. Delacroix seems like the last effort of the genius of painting, while Turner is the magician who covers the whole future of art: from Turner dates the gradual but inevitable ascendency of nature over humanity in the painter’s world. The immense fund of human passion, the invention, the unrestrained force, the fecundity of Delacroix’s genius is without a modern parallel. He is brother of Tintorett in energy, and a colorist like Velasquez.
Judge, then, how it becomes us to speak carelessly or irreverently of French art; judge, then, if we dare depreciate the work of that versatile, often superficial, but sometimes grand people, who riot in Paris and are ambitious to make themselves the gendarmes of all Europe!
No ; that feminine race has the genius of art; and although its average work belongs wholly to the domain of taste, and is meant only to flatter the eye, it has given us great examples, made in its great days, when, nourished by Continental genius, open on every side, it appropriated and aggrandized the ideas that belong to our common humanity ; then it produced works that match the best of the great masters of the great age of painting.
Liberate France from imperialism, — which shuts her from the play of foreign minds, — inundate her with the revolutionary spirit, and she gives us Mirabeau, George Sand, and Delacroix. Imprison her within the bounds of the Parisian idea, which is Cæsarism,— an organizing, centralizing, arbitrary spirit, — and she is only capable of producing works especially French. Gérôme, Baudry, Cabanel, to-day; in the past, Watteau, Boucher, and Mignard.
It is because England and America have always been so open-minded that their productive force has been so noble and great. Place the French people in the same condition, and their artistic and literary forms must embody ideas and thoughts and sentiments that appeal to the human race, instead of the local taste of the Parisian public, and the luxurious rich corresponding with that public who exist in all large cities.
At this moment we are misled by the mechanical dexterities of a Meissonier, or the delicate sensualities of a Cabanel, or the cruel, passionless, polished nudities of Gérôme, — or perhaps we fall down to the tiresome level of Frère. But these are not the masters of French art in the nineteenth century, they are simply the able men of the hour. When you say French art, base your thought upon Delacroix, Millet, Rousseau, and Corot, — for they are not local, or Parisian, but French, that is, Continental, universal. When you wish to know Parisian art, you should ask about Cabanel, Baudry, Dejonghe, and, as at its highest intellectual level, Gérôme.
The traditional or classic of French art remains in the works of David, Ingres, Gleyre; and, at its best, in Flandrin’s frescos. We must respect it because it is venerable ; we must respect it, because, like a graveyard, it holds a great many dead bodies and a great many melancholy epitaphs. But it would be folly to expect to see it exercising any marked influence upon the modern or democratic form of art. The people do not even sympathize with, much less understand, its frigid, abstract forms, sometimes beautiful, but always disengaged from the passionate, suffering, actual life of men and women in the nineteenth century. It is the official, and therefore false, side of modern French art.