The Renaissance in France

ONE would say that the writings of Charles Dickens were not the quarter in which to look for theories of art. It was the one domain which, perhaps through lack of natural bias, he most carefully avoided. Yet there is a whimsical interest in noting that he constitutes himself, in his novel of Hard Times, almost the only champion who has ever appeared in opposition to the most cherished views of the present time and the fundamental principle of the whole Gothic period, — the constructive or rational system of decoration. He identifies it, it may be remembered, with all the rigid harshness of his personage, Gradgrind, a mere bloodless epitome of “facts.” He shows us Gradgrind, at the school examination, asking, “ Boys and girls, would you paper a room with a paper containing representations of horses ? No. And why not ? Because you never see horses running along the walls of a room in reality. Girl number twenty ! If you had a floor to carpet, would you choose a carpet representing flowers ? Would you put down tables and chairs on them, and have people trampling over them with their heavy boots ? ” Girl number twenty makes a timid defense that it would do them no harm ; they would be the likeness of something very pretty and agreeable, and she could imagine— “Aha! that is just the point,” exclaims Thomas Gradgrind. “ Facts ! facts ! facts ! You never should imagine anything whatsoever.”

The Renaissance system, to speak of it seriously, and by no means with derogatory intent, offers in practice the theory of girl number twenty, and no other. It had something very pretty and agreeable in the way of decoration to present; and if this were not strictly logical in its origin and manner of application, logic was a very crusty and ascetic quality, and had better be given the go-by at once. The Renaissance system was ministering to the pleasure of a gay and smiling world, which had ceased to quake under constant theological terrors, and proposed to enjoy its actual, mortal days, brief though they were. It did not wish to be too reasonable. There was an intense pleasure taken, in all departments of life, in the fragments of classic antiquity lately discovered, and hardly a possibility of getting too much of them. The times were tired of straight lines and sharp corners of every sort. The Renaissance was permitted to have brackets acanthus-leaf-shaped, ostensibly capable of supporting nothing but themselves ; festoons of fruits and flowers, realistically modeled; and dormer windows in the shape of helmets or corselets of armor. All temperance of lines was lost, at length, in one revel of windings, fantastic scrolls, and columniations, as in the eccentric Rococo period, which produced its own reaction in the modern Gothic revival.

The true Gothic, and perhaps one may fairly say the rational, system ornaments the lines and features which grow out of the actual necessities of the construction. The Renaissance erects its building, and applies and incrusts ornamentation upon it which is apt to be quite independent of the construction. There is a certain perversity in liking the Renaissance. It has produced no great apologists, no enthusiasts, in print; and has against it, on the other hand, no end of writers, — to mention only the very able Viollet le Duc and Ruskin, who have scathed it with the fiercest denunciations, and left it hardly a leg to stand upon. Yet like it we do, very distinctly. There is little to be said in its favor ; it controverts received principles at some part of even the most successful examples ; but it is apparently, in its comfortable level lines, its air of contented worldliness and open luxury, an object in itself. It survives denunciation easily. One has but to cast his eye about a little, indeed, upon the Colonial and Queen Anne, the Elizabethan, Francis I., and Henri II., mansions going up in our principal cities, after the latest fashion, to observe that the Gothic revival is waning in its turn, and Renaissance ideas obtaining again an extraordinary ascendency.

The work before us, which is mentioned as one of the most expensive of the century, and comes with the features of superb vellum paper, rubricated initials, head and tail pieces, prodigious margins, and illustrations consisting of profuse etchings of extraordinary excellence, cannot fail in some of its aspects to satisfy the lover of fine architecture, whatever his prejudices. The complete work is to be issued in thirty parts, each containing five large, full-page (small folio size) etchings, and ten to fifteen others in the text. These parts are to be devoted, in space more or less according to their importance, to the old provinces of monarchical France. The three parts up to this time issued comprise Flanders, Artois, and Picardy; the modern department of Oise, of the Ile de France, and Aisne, of the same province. The etchings, in these opening numbers, are almost beyond compare, for the kind of subjects. They are lovely in the extreme. Eugène Sadoux is himself a master hand, and has obtained from his aids, in preparing these beautiful designs, an excellence not inferior to his own.

Were it not that M. Palustre is no doubt entitled to the credit of selecting and verifying the examples displayed, which are of an unhackneyed sort and taken from the best period, we should much incline to reverse the names in their order of importance on the titlepage, and speak of the work as The Renaissance in France, by M. Sadoux, with text by M. Palustre ; and, even as it is, it must depend for its success upon the charming illustrations. The letterpress is by no means comparable to them in merit. There is no general introduction to the subject, which must be noted as a serious lack ; no mention of the specific differences or manifestations of development in the separate provinces. The writer plunges at once, in the very first pages, into a dry, technical treatment of a selected edifice in one of his departments, and even into the driest detail of this, the verification of a date. This is his ruling proclivity throughout. The persistence with which he devotes his attention to some possible quibbling expert, and goes on, page after page, to determine whether it was in 1534 or 1554 that a certain bit of carving was made, or whether or not it is likely that there were three architects of the name of Jean Vast, while we wait, in vain generally, for either critical appreciation or historical commentary of the more enlarged sort, becomes irritating. The letterpress — of no superabundant quantity, by reason of the large type and generous margins — is too valuable to be wasted in petty controversy, which does not become a splendid work of this kind. There should have been some such author as Taine to write to the etchings of Sadoux. He would have given us, with his warm fancy, a keener sense of the beauty of the monuments, — unconstructive in the sense of the logicians and purists though they be, — and, without neglecting the side of art, perhaps a trait of character or two of the sulking Constable de Bourbon, who, in his seasons of disgrace at court, occupied his time in building the stately châteaux of Ecouen and Chantilly.

  1. La Renaissance en France. Par LEÉON PALUSTRE. Dessins et Gravures sous la Direction de EUGÈNE SADOUX. Paris: A. Quantin. 1879-1880. [New York : J. W. Bouton.]