French and English Art-Writers
ALL fine expression is reproductive. However perfect the particular art, we are not contented until we have found its counterpart and explanation in the written or spoken word. It seems that language is the only final and sufficient means of expression, common and accessible to all, by which music and painting and sculpture and architecture become intelligible to us. The literature of art is the verbal result of the plastic expression. It is a department of modern letters enriched by the work and genius of the most illustrious modern writers ; and it has been the stepping-stone of some of the finest and gravest intellects. Guizot and Thiers wrote Salons, — that is, reviews of pictures for the French public; and some of the most precious and delightful pages of the immortal Denis Diderot relate to his contemporaries, Greuze, Boucher and Vanloo. A painter so celebrated as Delacroix, so exclusively a painter, was not satisfied until he had given verbal expression to his understanding of Michel Angelo’s Last Judgment, in the Revue des Deux Mondes ; and that strong, original Decamps, who saw everything from the picturesque and artistic point of view, wrote Les Arts du XIXme Siécle. Other contributors to the literature of art, although they cannot be called artists, have made the preliminary studies of the painter.
I suppose no one will dispute the assertion that Ruskin, in England, has contributed the most impressive and beautiful literary matter for the elucidation of art; and that Diderot, Lamennais, and Taine, who have won the first rank in France, would not together make such a mixed and inconsistent statement of doctrine and practice as is furnished by a thousand pages of John Ruskin’s writing.
I might cite a number of English writers on art in addition to Hazlitt, Ruskin, and Hamerton ; but only those who have added something new to the sum of art literature are valuable in our present study. The minor writers would only embarrass us.
All fine and beautiful elements of style have been placed at the service of the plastic arts, —the sonorous, sweetly flowing and mournful eloquence of Lamennais, the ample, flexible, and lucid phrases of Georges Sand, the closepressed and tense sentences of Taine, the prodigal, glittering and richly-colored words of Gautier, the bright, vivacious, and bold expressions of Diderot, the vigorous work of Proudhon. Less striking in character are the admirable criticisms of T. Thord and Gustave Planche, the instructive studies of Charles Blanc, Victor Laprade, and the peculiar writings of Stendhal. In England, the reckless and overcharged phrases of Swinburne concerning pictures are mere pieces of verbal extravagance ; Rossetti and Palgrave are judicious but not striking art-writers. Ranking below those 1 have named is a host of men of letters, who furnish instructive and often stimulating pages about art and artists.
The literature produced by the leading writers on art is fervid and unrestrained. Impressionable and poetic minds have paid tribute to art, and the vividest words and the most unchecked admiration have propagated the influence of great pictures. The writings of Ruskin, Hazlitt, Hamerlon, Diderot, Stendhal, Georges Sand, Taine, Thore, and Gautier seem noblest and closest to the subject. One page of Thackeray’s about Rubens is not surpassed by any piece of expression that I know, and it is more like Diderot than Ruskin. Thackeray had a just and real but not profound feeling for art.
The fervidness and conscientiousness of Ruskin, the good sense and enthusiasm of Hazlitt, the intelligence and temperance of Hamerton, are more comprehensive than the definite and systematic work of the French writers.
I find more intelligence, more coherence, in the French ; more religion, morality, cant, and genius in the English. Art has been better stated in French than in English literature ; it has been separated from all bemuddling considerations, and especially from the influence of an ignorant public, that tests art by the prejudices engendered by a sectarian education.
In English literature art has been taken up by the roots ; and the soil into which those roots have struck, has become a part of the discussion concerning the beautiful fruit that lias grown in different epochs of civilization. The question of art, with the representative English critic, Ruskin, concerns all the phenomena of our social life, and introduces the mind to serious and difficult studies. What Ruskin did illogically, but with a compensating genius, Taine has done in a logical manner and with all the cleverness of talent. He has studied and written about art without going back of the human and historic to the natural and spiritual, which increase the scope of Ruskin’s writings, and enrich us with those fine studies of nature that are the charm and glory of his work. But what can one say to Ruskiu’s sometimes solemn exhortations, which make us forget the critic and listen to the preacher, outside of his time and distressed by tendencies that he cannot check ?
Art-criticism begins in the eighteenth century with Diderot,— that is to say, with one of the most impressionable and expansive men that ever lived, a man devoid of the self-restraint and tenacity necessary for the production of a work of art, but admirably gifted to describe such a work so far as it may be described in the talk of a man of wit, of sensibility, of generosity. From Diderot to Ruskin, that is to say, from a man of wit and humor who talked about pictures, to a man devoid of wit and humor who preaches about them, one passes from a writer that amuses the mind, and communicates a prodigious zest of life, to a writer that humiliates and excites. The preacher in John Ruskin abases us; the catching gayety of the good-liver and inconclusive thinker in Diderot delights us. Between these two types is Taine, a mere thinker in the literature of art, — rapid, plausible, and pretentious in his generalizations; opening and closing his subject with unfailing assurance ; bold and prosaic in Ids temper; without the power to render or the delicate sense to appreciate the atmosphere and palpitation of life, which is always found in the most enchanting writing, which increases the charm of design, which does not weaken the force of expression, but at times discreetly hides a fact and exquisitely graduates an effect. No book on art displays a more hardy descriptive talent, none more skill in the use of descriptive phrases, than Taine’s Voyage en Italic; but so much force, so much assurance, so little vagueness, so little hesitation, finally beget distrust, for they suggest a sweeping and oblivious mind, — a mind that lias never taken a plunge into the unknown, and is limited in its experience to purely material and visible things. Taine’s thoughl and emotion are always at the same pitch ; his phrases ably arranged, and pressing the reader forward, exhibit neither grace, nor subtilety, nor tenderness, nor imagination, but an alert, voracious, and assimilative mind, which reduces everything to its own measure, and disposes of everything with uncommon skill.
Taine is the refuge of many against the inconsistent and the arbitrary, which in Ruskin coexist with a most conscientious and painstaking spirit. Both are conclusive thinkers and take art-criticism out of the hands of men of sentiment and out of the hands of pedants. Ruskin inspires the more universal interest and is stimulative. Taine gives the clearer and more instructive account of art; but he never opens his subject to the depths, never shows the refinement and beauty which give a value to Ruskin’s work apart from its conclusions. If you wish to be helped to an intelligent and harmonious knowledge of art in its social significance and historic aspects, you should read Taine ; if you wish to share a passionate study*, and to examine art in its relation to morality and nature, you should read Ruskin. The latter represents the English, the former the French mind. Together they exhibit the advantages and limitations of two systems of education. Back of Ruskin are the Bible and nature : back of Taine, man and epochs of civilization. Ruskin tests all work of man by its concurrence with, or subjection to, what he understands as the work of God : Taine tests it by its concurrence with, or divergence from, the great historic types of expression. This original and radical difference makes Taine live in the past and look upon sculpture and pamting as an exhausted development, although his work abounds in positive statements to the effect that art itselt is as enduring as civilization. While Ruskin is as arbitrary and expansive as St. John in the Apocalypse, Taine is as positive and limited as the real achievements of man. He is submissive to the historic fact, and is satisfied with a purely mundane experience. None of his reflections, none of his conclusions, are affected by personal, theological, moral, or sentimental ideas, for he has no conceptions to speak of. and he is indifferent to those of other people.
It is remarkable that Ruskin’s purpose was simply to defend Turner against the attacks and dispraise of English critics and connoisseurs, and to change the unreflecting admiration which was felt for the old masters into intelligent appreciation of a great living painter. His vast and minute studies were occasioned by a purely personal enthusiasm for the works of a misunderstood genius. He diverted the ignorant and facile homage of thousands from the old masters to modern painters; or rather he created a new public to enjoy art ; and he made intense partisans and disagreeable talkers. His work, commenced in an enthusiastic temper, with a mind heated by indignation against a stupid public, sharpened by contempt for shallow critics, fervid with admiration of Turner’s genius, forced him into studies that had never before been made in the service of art-criticism. The result was the broadest and intensest discussion of the works of the old masters, and the most varied and shifting examination of, and comment on, them. The volumes that hold his impressions and reflections are full of solemn eloquence and efflorescent beauty; they often show that he has all of Jeremy Taylor’s wealth of illustration, and something of his grave and pathetic mind. Tn Ruskin, Gothic extravagance and gloom are associated with chivalric worship of loveliness and Gallic pleasure in mere expression.
Amongst French writers, Lamennais and Victor Laprade are the most effective in treating art as a development of the religious sentiment. With them it is a subject of impressive declamation and philosophical thinking. Lamennais, some time before Taine, neatly stated the principle of Taine’s philosophy of art when he said : “ It is not genius which is wanting to artists ; it is a milieu in which genius can freely develop itself.” But Lamennais is general and abstract to a degree foreign to the taste of any but a Frenchman, Laprade is general, abstract, and, what is worse, an unemancipated thinker and verbose writer.
Rusk in holds the first rank among art-writers because of the high value, the fulness and variety, the depth and sincerity, of his thought and utterance concerning art. No French art-writer equals him in abundance and unexpectedness of thought; but all of them excel him in neatness, clearness, justness, and consistency of expression.
The historical sequence and representative character of the manifestations of art are admirably stated by Lamennais, the individual and artistic expression, by Thore ; the spiritual and moral value of the personal work, and the significance of its social service, are best shown by Ruskin. Lamennais places the mind in just relations with the general aspects of art, and gives a philosophical explanation of the origin and meaning of historic types. Raskin has influenced the practice of painters, Lamennais the minds of art-theorists like Laprade and Taine.
There are great delects in Ruskin’s writings, —defects which show how dependent a great writer is upon his time. We refer especially to his prolonged and tedious discussions, which presuppose him addressing a public totally ignorantof, and indifferent to. art. There Is an excess of unsystematized matter, an excess of mere notes ; and lie does not give, in fact he does not aim to give, a general and sequent survey of art. He is oftenest descriptive and didactic, while Lamennais and Taine are philosophical and critical. But he does what they have not done: he elucidates his subject by means of notes and reflections made in the mountains and meadows : Taine elucidates it by means of notes and reflections made in cities and galleries. Vet, notwithstanding the noble and beautiful phrases that have made Ruskin’s fame as an English writer, few' great books seem more hastily put together than his. The studies for them were long and serious, but the making of the actual book seems to have been a mere grouping of notes under verbal classifications which suggest sequence and system, but which, on examination, prove to be arbitrary and inaccurate. This judgment is supported by bis own confession, when he says that, had he written for future fame, he would have written one volume instead of five ; that the five have been “ altered in shape, and even warped and broken, by digressions respecting social questions.”
The fact is, Ruskin’s is a feminine mind, and could not be kept close to his subject. He is seduced by the allurements of new and unexpected things. Every step forward opened to his sensitive and excitable mind aspects that he had not dreamed of, and he indulges himself in plucking a flower, in breathing a regret, in uttering his joy, in Sermonizing about all things, without caring for congruity or coherence. He has never limited himself to the idea of art as that idea is understood in schools and amongst painters ; and this is the merit and novelty and irritating peculiarity of his works. He sought to trace, in his own wilful way, every expression of man’s genius “to a root in human passion or human hope.” The feminine character of his mind is betrayed in various fashions, — by his unrestrained enthusiasm, by his extravagant eulogies, by his passionate and personal dispraise, by his confused and ingenious thinking, by his subtilty, by his incapacity for large views, by his caprice and hurry, by the looseness of his expression, by his subserviency to tradition in morals and religion.
It makes a vast difference whether one examines and discusses the historic manifestations of genius with a mind perfectly submitted to religious dogma, like Laprade’s, like Rusk in’s, or with a mind emancipated from authority and from the service of the ecclesiastical spirit. Taine examines and discusses art with a masculine and emancipated mind. The masculine and emancipated mind is prosaic, without charm, runs over ever}’ subject very much like a well-kept highway over a beautiful country. The poetry, the obscurity, the reference to the holy and pure, which makes so great a part of the eloquence and incongruity ot Ruskin’s writings, is not in Taine. It is in Lamennais, although in him it is less frequent and familiar than in the English critic, and it finds a place in the verbiage of Lapradc.
Ruskin’s works have heated and intensified very mediocre minds, inoculated pedagogues with the virus of detraction, and authorized sectarian critics to talk about “ truth ” without knowing any but the most obvious truths of imitative art. The best service of Ruskin’s writings has been amongst those most ignorant of, or most indifferent to, art. These they have awakened ; these they have introduced into a new and vast and beautiful world of expression. I should say his greatest service has been social rather than artistic ; that is to say, he has awakened society to the value and meaning of art. The greatest service of the French critics has not been so far-reaching. It has been for the advantage of painters, and for the pleasure of people who were already interested in art.
A large part of Ruskin’s Modern Painters,” being the record of his observations and impressions of nature, is not to be matched by anything in Taine, Diderot, or Lamennais. Ruskin is the first art-writer who made it a point to study nature apart from the human figure, — who sought a new means to elucidate art and test the truth of the painter’s work. This alone added a new element to the literature of art. Ruskin tests masterpieces by other tests than those of academies and studios ; and his example has encouraged ignorant and brutal writers to assail those who draw their art-nourishment from academies and studios.
With the development of landscape art, with the culmination of Turner’s genius, art-literature had to consider more than the human figure ; it had to view all aspects of life. Ruskin shows the ascendancy of that new development, whereas all French writers, from Diderot to Taine, — save Thore in a minor way—-represent everything of art subordinated to the human figure.
The worth of the modern French literature of art is in its admirable classification, and simple, straight-forward comments on painting and sculpture as means of expression. In Thoré, in Diderot, in Planche, the reader will find the purely literary statement of the work of painters and sculptors, consistent, clear, unmixed, and unexaggerated. Hamerton combines some of tiie merits that belong to the French and English critics respectively; but he has not the originality of Ruskin nor the boldness of Taine.
The literature of art, represented by the works of the men I have named, cannot be said to have much unity. It is, like all literature, precious as so much persona] expression. Gustave Planche and Proudhon have shown the finest appreciation of Rembrandt; Taine, of the Italian painters ; Thore, of Delacroix, Rousseau, and Decamps ; Ruskin, of Turner, Tintoret, Titian; Gautier, of Rubens and Velasquez ; Stendhal, of Da Vinci. These writers, except Ruskin and Proudhon, are direct and attractive. Ruskin and Proudhon are the most aggressive ; the habitual temper and experience of the artistic mind are foreign to them. Diderot, Ruskin, and Proudhon, alike sincere and bold thinkers, bring art closest to us ; but Ruskin alone has the profound and noble sense of beauty. Proudhon’s sympathies were with the natural and strong; with the art of Rubens, Rembrandt, and Courbet; Diderot’s sympathies were with the natural, the delicious, the familiar ; Taine’s sympathies are with the splendid, the vigorous, the beautiful; Thoré’s, with the romantic, imaginative, and natural. Proudhon, like Ruskin, arrayed himself directly against the practice and opinions of contemporary painters. He has made a vigorous protest against art as an adjunct of luxury, and claimed its service for the humblest and most characteristic aspects of our democratic and industrial existence. He would forbid every form of art but that which illustrates contemporary life. I believe he has stated best the thoughts of the democratic man concerning art and its function in modern society. All his vigor and ingenuity and narrowness were needed to reach such conclusions. But they are the conclusions which we have practically accepted here. It has been natural and easy for us to reach them, for they point to art separated from tradition, the mirror of the actual and common experience of men ; and that is American art.
But Proudhon has no refinement nor subtilty of mind: he has no illusions ; he has very little reverence. In estimating art by the moral and democratic idea, he hopelessly cheapens the works of men who have lived outside of both. Whoever has touched the past with emotion, and been under the sway of its achievements, has in some sort detached himself from his time ; the work of such a man, manifestly, so long as he remains in that condition, is among antiquities, and in’s effort must be one of reproduction and restoration. He may not be great, but he may be as sincere as the lover of nature at his study in the meadows or mountains of his native land.
Proudhon saw that the average French painter spent his time in galleries, or served the heartless and corrupt world of elegance ; that he painted courtesans, and was too much demoralized to devote himself to what Proudhon calls " the only admissible genre,” — contemporary life in its humblest aspects, or at least life outside of the social hot-houses of the empire. He traced the roots of this evil in love of luxury rather than of art, in tradition rather than in nature. He made himself the most destructive critic that ever livedHe wrote the rudest and most ruthless phrases that the polite world in Paris ever read. Classic and romantic, religious and fanciful, painters were condemned without measure, and shown to be incapable of further advance ; classed as signs of exhausted effort, to be succeeded by a new art, — an art exclusively for the people, living with the sentiment of humanity, placed at the service of the poor and laborious.
Art as an illustration of the human form culminated among the Greeks; as an illustration of force and splendor, among the Italians ; as an illustration of pomp and multitude of actual life, in Flanders and Holland : it is now to illustrate aspects of nature.
A just and comprehensive understanding of art is not to be attained by the exclusive study of one epoch, or by reading the reflections of one art-writer. The subtile, exclusive and psychological Stendhal, the enthusiastic and thoughtful Tliore, the vital and familiar Diderot, the lofty and abstract Lamennais, together give an adequate interpretation and expression of art from the stand-point of the Gallic mind. Hazlitt, Ruskin, and Hamerton give an adequate interpretation of art from the stand-point of the English mind.
It becomes necessary for simple and direct and gentle minds to seek different teachers. Proudhon is too logical, brutal, and severe ; Ruskin is too complex, and Lamennais too general. Taine, devoted to the ancient and complete forms of art, does not help us with our contemporaries. At this stage we are ready for a page of Diderot about Greuze, a page of Tliore or Georges Sand about Delacroix or Rousseau. Diderot and Tlioré seem to me the most modern, and discuss their contemporaries ; and, in holding the artist close to nature and beauty, they have not confounded his work with that of the preacher and moralist. Stendhal is the most subtile and uncommon of art-writers. I should oppose his Histoire dr la Pcinfttre en Italie to Proudhon’s Du Principe de l'Art et de sa Destination sociale. They correct each other, and inspire a profound and living interest. To a mind habituated to prosaic comtemplations and a purely materlal experience, Proudhon would be the more satisfactory and irresistible writer. But that intercourse with nature, which has formed the English and American landscape poets, as it has formed our landscape painters, prevents us from being occupied exclusively with the social and democratic principle in art, while it leaves us guiltless of that enormous passion for the past which has made so many of the finest artists and critics in France spend their time in grafting Italian and Greek art upon French art.
In reading Taine and Lamennais we are chiefly instructed by art-theorists. In Diderot we have simply the impressionable mind, that takes pleasure in uttering itself and uses painting as a means of social enjoyment. In him the literary talent encroached so closely upon the painter’s that it has created a literature quite distinct from the general literature of art; I mean the Salons, which form so large a part of the current Parisian literature. These are chiefly’descriptive, and have made half the fame of modern Frencli art.
Since Diderot, painting has been subordinated to literature ; art has become an adjunct of book-making. The prose of the writer makes a more vivid impression than the forms and colors of the artist. Turner’s pictures needed Ruskin’s inflamed prose ; Greuze’s certainly were indebted to Diderot’s vivacious and charming phrases. Our own people are perfectly obtuse to the beauty and merit of pictures, even of landscapes, unless they have been helped by the newspaper critic. A picture incapable of producing a literary result is lost; for our public always follows the journal. Without literary aid art would languish in our society, which has only the passion of knowledge and of success. The immense superiority of our intelligence to our imagination has given the ascendancy to the literary expression of art; it has made descriptive criticism. The best contemporary art-writers are almost exclusively descriptive and interpretative. Great painters, life Turner and Delacroix, have needed defenders, interpreters, and partisans. But amongst the Greeks and Italians, great sculptors and painters were wholly intelligible to the people, and did not need the services of art-writers, to us so indispensable. They had no literature corresponding to that which we have been considering.