Boston Painters and Paintings
FRENCH WORKS IN THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS.
THE fairer daughter of a fair mother, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, is the legitimate offspring of the Athenæum. There is many a picture-gallery in Europe not half so rich, and this is only just begun. Let us not linger one moment in the vestibule nor among the heathen relies in plaster down-stairs, but plunge boldly into color at once. The school of France, from the seventeenth century down to to-day, promptly invites our study by the surprising abundance of its works. From Santerre, Chardin, Boucher, Greuze, Géricault, and Ary Scheffer to Corot, Troyon, Courbet, Rousseau, Millet, Couture, Bastien-Lepage and Regnault is but a step ; yet what a journey, full of wonders and contrasts! There are, of course, wide gaps to be filled one day, if we would gain a complete understanding of the school in its historical relations, but to contemplate what has been done already within a few years gives substantial encouragement with regard to the future. In considering the French, paintings, the chronological order is adopted for the sake of convenience. We therefore begin with Jean Baptiste Santerre, (1650-1717), one of the ablest contemporaries of Lebrun, though younger than that artist, who had great success as a portrait-painter, particularly after taking a vow to please his sitters regardless of whatever ugliness stood in the way.
In the romantic time of Louis XIV., when the noble Athos, the mighty Porthos, the gallant Aramis, and the generous, brave, and belligerent D’Artagnan were unhappily divided in their councils, the latter hero rode forth to an obscure village, where he found Aramis immured in a convent. After dining, D’Artagnan took his leave, as it was night, and he was obliged to return to Paris. Instead of departing at once, however, he hid himself behind a hedge to play the spy upon his devout friend ; and presently, in the moonlight, he witnessed an interview between the artful Abbé d’Herblay and a woman clad in a man’s clothing. Taking advantage of a favorable opportunity, the wind having blown her hat off, D’Artagnan “ recognized the large blue eyes, the golden hair, and the noble head of the Duchess of Longueville.” 1 Thus the keen Gascon made the interesting discovery that Aramis was her lover. By what singular chance or concatenation of chances a portrait of this lady should find its way to Boston, and into the possession of the Museum, I cannot say, but there she is, life-size, threequarters length, as Santerre painted her from life. Probably he did not need to flatter the Duchess of Longueville, who, if we may believe his report, had a pretty face, with small, regular features, a blooming complexion, golden-brown hair, a handsome neck, and elegant little hands. He was famous for painting hands well, which, as artists can testify, is no small distinction. In her right hand the duchess holds a black domino, which she has just removed from her face. Her left elbow rests on a table. To describe her dress would be a voluminous undertaking : in brief terms, it may be said that her costume comprises a profusion of handsome, heavy goldenbrown ottoman or reps, relieved by scarlet silk and immense rubies, the waist and sleeves of black velvet; a whiteand-red turban is on the head.
Hazlitt has something to say in one of his essays about the unseen beauty of commonplace things, and how a true artist may reveal it to our eyes in pictures of still-life. Taine has elsewhere and in other words expressed the same thought. They must have had in mind Chardin’s pictures. An artist who could so glorify a raw loin of lamb, a loaf of bread, a gray jug; who by his arrangement, choice of light and shade, refinement of drawing, wise contrasts and subtle combinations, above all by his perception of color, could make every-day kitchen utensils appear so beautiful that one would like almost to kiss them, was indeed the prince of stilllife painters. It could not be said of him that
A yellow primrose was to him,
And it was nothing more; ”
for although he left nothing to be desired as to the truth of his painting, he saw more and saw better than most people; as Gautier once said of Regnault, he “ gives you those sensations, those delights and joys which are of the pure domain of sight, and to which no other art can give birth.” There are two small still-life pieces by this master in the Museum, and they are simply delicious. One of them represents a group of edibles and vessels on a kitchen table ; the other a gray tea-pot, a pear, a big bunch of white grapes, and two plums. No words could do justice to the modesty, the quietude, and the incomparable harmony of these works. Other still-life painters have displayed more strength than Chardin, and some of the old Dutchmen were marvelously literal copyists of nature, but for exquisite taste and a perfect perception of the intimate character of inanimate objects, the Frenchman takes the palm.
François Boucher, who reflected in his factitious idyls the shallow but decorative life of Louis XV.’s giddy time, — a continual fête champêtre, rather silly, but undeniably pretty to look on, — was a contemporary of the more sober-minded Chardin. His pair of large pictures, the titles of which, Going to Market and The Return from Market, seem farfetched, were intended as models for Beauvais tapestries. Both of them are crowded with a meaningless mass of figures, animals, and still-life, well painted with a free brush; the gray tones are delectable, and the color in general frank, gay, and pure, if not of great depth. Boucher and Chardin represent the two Frances of the eighteenth century — the one incorrigibly light, frivolous and worldly, the other grave, thoughtful and industrious. When the former undertook to emulate the latter’s kitchen interiors, it is said that he made a Venus of the cook, from sheer force of habit.
The painting of a young woman’s head by J. B. Greuze, which, under the fanciful title of the Chapeau Blanc, has been for many years the object of much admiration, and of which many copies have been made, has a certain delicate and old-fashioned beauty of its own, but, like the rest of Greuze’s works, is rather thin in sentiment. Cool and pearly-gray tones run all through it. The flesh, the dress, the powdered hair, the hat, and the background, all are gray. On the face is a little mole which has been considered by countless school-girls vastly to enhance the beauty of the unknown model. She appears well satisfied with her own personal appearance, and if a little affectation enters into her pose, there is almost none in her expression, and it may easily be pardoned. This is a first-rate example of Greuze, as good as anything by him in the Louvre. His portrait of Benjamin Franklin, bustlength, in a dull red coat, is not an attractive work, and does not convey a flattering impression of Franklin’s character. He was not, of course, such a sanctimonious hypocrite as this description of his appearance would intimate.
Jacques Louis David, the famous head of the classical school, whose place in French art always will be important, is meanly represented by a rough study of his Hector Drawn at the Chariot of Achilles, which gives no notion whatever of his merit of design. It was on the strength of his Death of Hector, by the way, that David was received by the Academy.
Jean Louis Géricault, who, with Delacroix, may be said to have founded the modern French school of painting, is likewise represented by a study; but in this case the work, slight as it is, conveys a good idea of the artist’s powers. The Study of a Cuirassier is a strong and brilliant fragment, which I take to be the original sketch for the Cuirassier Blessé Quittant le Feu in the Louvre, painted when Géricault was twenty years old, at the same time as the famous Officier de Chasseurs à Cheval de la Garde Impériale Chargeant, representing a lieutenant mounted on a splendid gray charger rushing to battle — the embodiment of the painter’s own impetuous character, and the finest picture of the kind in the world. Géricault was one of the three great painters produced by Normandy, the others being Poussin and Millet. He was descended from an old and rich family of Rouen. In all his work he displayed the fiery and energetic character of the old Norman knights.
If one could only see Eberhart, Count of Würtemberg. Mourning over the Body of his Son, by Ary Scheffer, it might be possible to say that so pathetic a subject had been adequately treated by this romantic painter, who was really an illustrator ; but it has darkened so much that one receives a mere suggestion of the corpse of a young man in armor and of an old man bending over it with clasped hands, and the singular power of expression with which he is said to have interpreted “ The Weeper’s ” story must be taken for granted. This is a replica of the picture in the Louvre. Schiller’s ballad, which it illustrates, relates how, while the other soldiers were celebrating their victory, the old count, “ alone in his tent, with the dead body of his son,” was ever weeping. It was first exhibited in the Salon of 1834.
Hué’s Shipwreck is the conventional conception of that dreadful calamity — a dark stormy sky, of course, and a raging sea, with cliffs, breakers, a vessel on the rocks, a boatload of passengers trying to make a landing, and some figures in the water. It does not appear, from the way in which Hué has painted this scene, that he ever saw a shipwreck ; if he did, it is certain that he was not equal to giving expression to all the horror of the event.
Corot’s big painting of Dante and Virgil Entering the Infernal Regions, one of the gloomiest pictures ever painted, was given to the Museum by Mr. Quincy A. Shaw. It is eight feet six inches high by five feet six inches wide, and was first exhibited in the Salon of 1859. In a sombre forest, where the evening is doubly dark, we see two figures in the centre of the foreground. Virgil, clad in the classic white tunic and peplum, his head crowned with a laurel wreath, points towards the right, while at the left Dante, in a black gown and red skull-cap, shrinks in terror from a snarling she-wolf which shows her fangs. A panther crouches and a lion bars the way at the right of the composition, in the direction towards which the two poets are bending their steps. In the upper left-hand part of the painting is a section of silvery sky, in which lingers a faint afterglow, and against which the trunks of tall leafless trees stand out in relief. The general tone of the forest interior is a cool brown, which in the darkest places approaches black. The branches of the trees and the foliage are not made out, but suggested or generalized by bold and apparently carelessly applied strokes. The wild beasts are not distinguished by fine drawing, but there is given a forcible suggestion of their crafty and cruel natures, their strength and ferocity. There is little charm in such a picture as this, and not much to be admired, although, like much that Corot did, it is worth looking into with attention, and few will acknowledge that their scrutiny has been fruitless. In close sympathy with the poet’s description of that forest, so wild and dense and rough that the recollection of it was enough to renew his terror, so bitter that death itself seemed hardly worse, Corot undertook to convey, and in a measure succeeded in conveying, the sentiment of horror and melancholy which is felt in the passage from the Divine Comedy, of which this painting is an illustration. But, after all, it is not as an illustrator that Corot will be known to fame, nor was it in connection with grand, ponderous, and tragic themes, such as Dante’s Inferno, that the great landscapist made apparent his noblest qualities. In a word, it is evident that in this obscure and infernal wood he is not at home ; and it is not improbable that he himself may have realized that it was a mistake to abandon his chosen and familiar province for this fanciful by-way of literature.
Diaz’s Wood Interior is strictly mundane, and, though a small work, is a fair specimen of his style. It offers a glimpse of brown, dead leaves lying among gray-lichened bowlders and the massive moss-clad trunks of old oaks, in a remote recess of the mysterious forest, where slim shafts of sunlight penetrate here and there only to make the surrounding shadows deeper. Every one has seen this picture, possibly not by Diaz, though he painted it many times, but in walking through the woods. The brilliant little Oriental sketch by the same artist, A Turkish Café, describing a low, white building on the bank of a stream, under an intense azure sky, has within itself the very atmosphere and soul of the East.
The Landscape and Sheep, by Troyon, is in a large style, though of small size. It is full and juicy in color; cool, not cold; solidly painted ; breezy and easy ; in a word, a first-rate Troyon. It represents a flock of sheep coming down a lane, followed by a boy in a blouse and a woman on a donkey. On the left is a pond; in the middle distance is a village, and beyond it a hill. The sky is partially obscured, and the shadows of clouds alternate with full sunlight on the surface of the landscape. The larger painting by Troyon, Landscape near Dieppe, seems to be a great favorite, but it belongs to another and less vigorous period. It is thinner, and, although a good picture, lacks something of the force and virility of the smaller work. The pastel drawing of Oxen Ploughing, also by Troyon, has a certain timidity and tightness in the handling, which makes me think it must he one of his early works. It has none of the breadth, vigor, and conscious power of his mature paintings. Six Jersey oxen and two farmers are represented in action. All three of the Troyons are from the Appleton collection.
One of the chief glories of the large picture-gallery, where it has occupied a place of honor since 1877, is The Quarry (La Curée), by Gustave Courbet, belonging to Mr. Henry Sayles. This modern masterpiece was bought by the Allston Club, in the spring of 1866, for five thousand dollars. It was brought to Boston, with other French pictures, by Mr. Cadart, who was the first dealer to bring Corot’s paintings to this country. When one of the enthusiastic young Boston artists, Mr. A. H. Bieknell, went into the store on Bromfield Street where the Courbet was on exhibition, and saw what it was, he determined on the spot that the Allston Club ought to have it. Mr. Cadart gave him a refusal of the picture for three days. Bieknell then went to work, and, with the aid of Tom Robinson and other members of the club, he raised the necessary amount of money within the prescribed time, and clinched the bargain. Thus, during a part of May and June, 1866, a banner, eight by six feet in dimensions, swung from a window of the Studio Building with the device : —
COURBET’S GREAT PAINTING,
The critics at that time saw little or nothing to admire in the picture. There was but one Corot owned in Boston, and that was generally ridiculed. The artists alone appreciated these new lights. When Hunt first saw La Curée, Bicknell said to him, —
“ Mr. Hunt, there is a picture worthy of Paul Veronese.”
“ I will go further than that,” replied Hunt. “ In painting, he never surpassed it.”
Poor Morvillier, who knew what it was to be obliged to go without his dinner, begged to subscribe twenty-five dollars to the fund for the purchase of the Courbet. The committee dared not refuse him, for it would have cut him to the quick. The Allston Club died a natural death a year or two later, and at its demise the Courbet passed into the possession of its present owner. It was taken from the gallery in the Studio Building, and placed in the Athenæum for a while, and in 1877 it was removed to its final home in the Museum of Fine Arts. In the mean time it had been cleaned, with more thoroughness than was necessary, so that some of the most delicate glazes on its surface were somewhat impaired, as I am informed. The damage, however, cannot have been so serious that time will not to a great extent repair it. Courbet was much gratified that this picture should have been bought by an art society, and he subsequently sent to the Allston Club, through Mr. Cadart, several large lithographic reproductions of the painting. It must be borne in mind that in 1866 Courbet had a very limited following in France, and therefore the sale of La Curée to a club of American artists was of considerable benefit to him. Armand Gautier was with him on the evening that he received the money for the picture, and he relates that Courbet cried out, “ What care I for the Salon, what care I for honors, when the art students of a new and a great country know and appreciate and buy my works ? ” Gautier adds that Courbet’s rural simplicity and frugality never forsook him, and he never took a cab ; so he (Gautier) pinned the money in Courbet’s vest, and as the artist climbed upon an omnibus he said it was the proudest day of his life. La Curée and the Demoiselles de Village (bought by the Due de Morny, and now owned by Mr. Thomas Wiggles worth), both of which came to Boston, were the only important pictures by Courbet sold during his lifetime, which ended under such a heavy cloud. All his other works were locked up in his studio, — painted for the sole love of art. And it was left for the government which had fined and banished him and made his life miserable to buy his works at enormous prices after his death.
The size of La Curée is six feet and ten inches in height by five feet and ten inches in width. The prevailing tone is brown. A great variety of finely opposed cool and warm tints — greens, grays, browns, blacks, reds, yellows, and whites — fill the eye as a deep chord given out by a mighty orchestra fills the ear. Imagine, if you please, the shadowy aisles of an old pine forest, on a sunny day. The mosaic of sunlight and shadow on the luxuriant verdant carpet of the wood ; the straight brown tree-trunks rising in regular ranks ; the thick dark green canopy of foliage shutting out all sight of the sky overhead ; a complete realization of the rich gloom of the forest, set off by the dancing spots of sunlight which, filtering through the tremulous leafage, form happy notes of contrast. A deer has been shot, and is hung by one hind leg to the trunk of a tree at the left of the foreground, the head and the fore part of the body resting on the earth. At the right are two hunting-dogs, one white and dark brown, the other white and light brown or chestnut. While one dog looks wistfully at the carcass, his companion turns towards him as if to warn him not to go any nearer. In the centre and a little further back are two men dressed in hunting-costumes. One of them stands, with folded arms, smoking a pipe, and leaning against a tree, looking down. He is in shadow. He wears a soft black cloth hat, a dark green short coat, brown trousers, gray leggings, or gaiters, and rawhide shoes. His complexion is ruddy, and he wears a dark beard and mustache. This figure is said to be a portrait of Courbet himself. If so, he was a well-looking young man: the age of the original cannot have been much above thirty. At his left, and beyond him, sits the second man, a game-keeper, who is in full light, at the foot of a tree. He is lustily winding the horn to summon the scattered hunters to the quarry. His right hand rests upon his hip, while with his left he holds the horn, and his healthy cheeks are distended by the blast he is blowing. He wears a brown cap, a bright red waistcoat, buff trousers, and is in his shirt-sleeves. The coloring of this remarkable work is a rare instance of great sobriety with great brilliancy. The composition permits a wide range of colors, and no one can fail to be struck by the freshness and variety of the greens (a hue which Courbet in his landscapes used with more complete mastery and frankness than any other painter, unless Daubigny be excepted) in the leaves, the grass, the moss, etc. Nor can any one withhold his admiration when the superb array of browns is contemplated, in all degrees of depth and lightness, from the deer’s velvety coat, the two hounds’ hides, and the hunters’ trousers to the tree-trunks and the earth. Mark also the audacious but truthful treatment of white in the markings of the dogs and in the game-keeper’s shirt-sleeves ; the bold red notes provided by the latter’s waistcoat and the patches of blood on the grass near the deer’s body ; and the finely graduated gray tones conspicuous in the deer’s head and neck and in the hunter’s gaiters. What truth of color, of textures, and of light! The depth and glossy softness of the dead deer’s skin are marvelous. Who has ever painted more life-like dogs than this pair, sniffing the quarry, with every line, hue and motion distinctively canine ? They have the litheness, the intelligence, the restless animal life of real dogs, as no painted dogs ever had before in equal degree. As to the manner of handling, it is enough to say that it would be impossible to find in any modern painting of which we have any knowledge an equal frankness, directness, and strength in execution, the result of an entire parti pris, of a thorough understanding on the painter’s part as to his purpose. Each brush-mark or knife-mark in the painting of the tree-trunks near the foreground, and in the grasses and flowers, can be made out without difficulty; and there appears to be no reticence, no concealment. The workmanship is large and simple. “ The embarrassment,” Fromentin said, speaking of a picture by Rubens, “ is not to know how he did it, but how he could do so well by working thus.” Nothing is occult here but the working of the mind in its creative heat. Page bought a Titian and dissected it to find out how it was made; but all that he learned from it could not make a Titian of Page. It is interesting to notice how Courbet built up La Curée from a study. The original canvas, that on which the deer was painted, is but one piece of a patchwork; four pieces are joined to it, one on the left, one above, and two on the right. To the deer and the hunter were added as afterthoughts the dogs, the game-keeper, and the distance, as well as the branches of the trees overhead.
The Bergère Assise, or Seated Shepherdess, of Jean Francois Millet, appears to have been called originally The Young Shepherdess. Sensier makes no mention of it in his biography, an omission which leads to the inference that it was among the peasant-painter’s later works, and was not exhibited until after his death. It was given to the Museum by Mr. S. D. Warren. There is a large infusion of Millet’s best qualities in this work, and it is vastly superior to some of his pictures which are more known to fame. The color is cool, light, gray, and on a higher key than was habitually struck by the author of the Angelus. On a knoll sits the shepherdess, in a JJOsition the reverse of conventional elegance, but entirely natural, and holds in her hand, Penelope-like, a distaff. Although her expression may be regarded as stolid, sleepy, and even stupid, yet there is a certain dignity and sweetness in the face, small as to features, which is shaded by a wide-brimmed straw hat worn on the back of her head. She wears a dull green waist, and a skirt of lighter color, which may have been white, blue stockings, and sabots. The landscape is roughly painted in, and some sheep are seen on the farther slope of the knoll where the girl sits dreaming. The handling is by no means facile, but the luminosity of the sky is extraordinary ; and the manner in which the girl’s well-shaped head, under its picturesque covering, comes up against this sky and appears to be miles on miles this side of it is completely illusive, and constitutes the main charm of the picture. There is, moreover, in Boston a sentimental reverence for Millet, and a feeling of personal enthusiasm about his paintings, which is one of Hunt’s most valuable legacies. Millet is understood, appreciated, and loved in this distant town, more cordially than elsewhere. His peasants do not seem to us either insignificant or ridiculous. On the one hand, there is the same pathos in their glances, their attitudes and gestures, their heavy movements, bespeaking their silent patience, endurance, and clumsiness, that we find in the helplessness of old age or of infancy ; on the other, there is a naturalness and simplicity which, under all their rude exteriors, occasionally suggests the noblest classical models.
Besides the Bergère Assise, the Museum possesses two smaller paintings by Millet, entitled respectively the Woman Milking, and the Sewing Lesson, not to speak of an interesting group of his drawings and water-colors. In the Woman Milking, night is drawing on, and an amiable red cow stands chewing her cud in the shady foreground, while a stout dame in a white cap deftly coaxes the warm milk in two alternating slender streams from the gentle beast’s overcharged udders. Beyond a thick hedge, cows and sheep graze in a green field, which, being a little higher than the foreground, receives the last level rays of light from the setting sun. The roof of a humble house is visible above the further slope of the meadow. In the Sewing Lesson, a little girl in a red gown and a blue frock sits near an open window, trying to wield the needle properly, while her mother, a rudely moulded peasant, who holds a baby in her lap, leans forward to instruct the apprentice. This is a rough, warm sketch. I cannot turn from Millet before relating a story which deliciously illustrates how hypocritical is much of the loudly-voiced admiration of his works. A group of gentlemen stood in front of one of his pictures in an apparent ecstasy of enthusiasm, exclaiming and rhapsodizing over its beauty. After they had dispersed, one of the party, who had been among the most demonstrative, said seriously: “How much more interesting Millet’s pictures would he if he had only painted a better class of people ! ” I quoted this piece of richness to an artist who had known Hunt well, and he was immensely amused. “ If Hunt were alive,” he said, “ I would not miss the pleasure of telling him that for a hundred dollars.”
Couture was one of the modern French painters whose superior abilities were recognized at an early date in Boston, thanks to his pupils, among whom were Hunt, Bicknell, Ernest W. Longfellow, John W. Dunsmore, Frederic Crowninshield, and others. Two studies of secondary importance by the painter of the Roman Decadence belong to the Museum. The Head of a Bacchante, with its vacant expression and silly smile, is hardly worth consideration; but the study for the Volunteers of 1792, although sketchy, is full of life and character. The uplifting power of patriotism, the love of liberty, the ardent courage of young manhood, are all represented in these stern, angular countenances, of an intensely French cast; in these serious eyes the doom of tyrants might be read. The gaudy old French uniform is effective with its red epaulettes and collar, blue coat with buff facings, and black chapeau. There is something undeniably noble in the sentiment of this study.
Gustave Brion’s Coining Out from Church is a grave, sweet picture of Alsaeian life. The peasants and village people are quitting the little church which stands on a hill overlooking the hamlet. The women and children wear the quaint and sober costumes of the province. The church porch is in shadow, but a flood of sunlight strikes upon the red tile roofs and whitewashed walls of the houses below at the left. The Vosges hills uplift their blue summits afar, and over them bends a placid, blue-and-white, Sunday-morning sky. It is a scene of utter peace and rustic charm. Brion herein painted his own native and well-beloved province with characteristic seriousness. There is but one other example of his work in Boston, so far as I know, but many Americans must be familiar with his illustrations of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, into the spirit of which he entered with wonderful sympathy. Everything that Brion did was sincerely done.
The little Landscape by Théodore Rousseau, from the Appleton collection, is a perfect example of his finished work in a small form. In the centre of the composition is a road in perspective, and near the foreground a woman watches two cows drinking from a pool. In the middle distance and a little to the left is a flock of sheep; beyond them a fine group of tall trees, and still farther away a range of hills, which continues, diminishing in height, towards the distance at the right. The sky is almost full of light, warm, gray clouds, with patches of faint blue between them. The warm, sunny, mellow tone of the painting is admirable ; finish and breadth are joined in a remarkable degree.
Jacques’s Coming Storm is a blackish landscape, not in his best vein. There is a flock of sheep and some figures in a rocky pasture, with trees on a knoll at the right, and menacing clouds fill the sky.
Gustave Doré’s Summer is a huge upright painting of wild-flowers and weeds in rank profusion ; a scythe of the sort that Father Time uses lies idle among the green growths; mountains close in the distance ; and the colors are all out of tune. This is a strangely insignificant work, considering its author’s genius in graphic expression.
Opinions diverge more widely about Bastien - Lepage’s Joan of Arc than about any other picture in the United States. Many artists and critics see nothing to admire in it, and many, on the other hand, are extravagant in their praise of it, and consider it one of the great works of this century. All this disagreement but augments the fame of the painting, which has become one of the most celebrated pictures in the Museum. It was first exhibited in the Salon of 1880, was bought by an American, Mr. Erwin Davis, and shown in the exhibition of the Society of American Artists in 1881, after which it was for a short time lent to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In the fall of 1882 it was exhibited at the fair of the New England Institute, Boston, and ever since that time it has been in the picture-gallery of the Museum. It was painted in 1879, at Damvillers (Meuse), the artist’s native village. Although not his best work, it is the most striking and remarkable. It is full of faults, which are so glaring that one cannot forget them even if one desires to forgive them for the sake of the motive and the strange power of expression in the maid’s face. As a rule, painters do not do justice to the picture, which offends their sight by its want of depth, perspective, and atmosphere, and by its pale, sickly coloring. It looks precisely like a piece of tapestry, the prevailing tone in which is a cool bluish green ; and this impression is strengthened by the confused and crowded composition, and above all, by the flatness of the painting. But (there is always a but in speaking of this work) there is a spiritual beauty in the face of the Maid of Orleans that is so striking and so significant that, once seen, it haunts the memory. There she stands, awkward, ill-clad, a commonplace peasant girl, amid the most prosaic and humble surroundings, yet not all her homeliness nor the poverty of her state avails to diminish the impression of capacity for great things conveyed by her glance. Nay, the very lowliness of her condition, and the harsh, unlovely life of labor that she leads, contrasted with the glorious destiny of which she begins dimly to dream, which is to make her Heaven’s instrument for the salvation of her country, is the thought that makes the picture pathetic, and appeals to so many sympathies with so much power. The sensitive mouth has as much to do with the exalted expression of her face as the fixed pale blue eyes, whose strange look is universally remarked. The whole story of her heroism and martyrdom appears legible in these features, surcharged with an extraordinary emotion; and this alone may he said to make the Joan of Arc one of the most marvelous of modern paintings in a psychological point of view. The singular mixture of realism and ideality is not an uncommon phenomenon in Bastien-Lepage’s works. However his rank as a painter may he disputed, it is evident that his peculiar convictions were well defined and strongly held, and that he did not live aloof from convention and routine because of a desire for notoriety. It is believed in some quarters that the Joan of Are was an accidental production. A plausible theory is that it was originally nothing more than a study of a peasant woman. Certainly the maid appears too old for her role, unless we presume that hard work has prematurely aged her. The introduction of the misty, floating figures of her vision, typifying St. Michael, St. Catharine, and St. Margaret, must have been an afterthought, and is in any event decidedly open to objection. The observer’s imagination, awakened by the maid’s rapt expression, might well be left to supply for itself the vision of the three saints. This offensive insistence upon an idea, this childish embodiment of “ beckoning ghosts,” this paradoxical realization of the unreal, confirms the suspicion that the imaginative power displayed in the central figure is at least partly the result of chance rather than of pure calculation.
Henri Regnault’s Automedon with the Horses of Achilles was one of the first performances which served to call attention to the extraordinary talent of its author, whose premature death, in 1871, deprived France and the world of an artist of the highest rank. During his short lifetime the Parisian critics quarreled over him as savagely as they had fought over Eugène Delacroix; and the movement to buy this picture, in 1884, caused a very pretty little civil war among the Boston cognoscenti. On the score of taste, in regard to his motives and his manner, there will always be a respectable class of dissenters who are unable to approve of French works of this type because of their violence, their alleged bombast and sensationalism. There is no repose in Regnault, whose paintings are all fire and passion. Nevertheless, though his speech is melodramatic, he makes use of the idioms and accents common to great painters, compelling admiration. This picture, which was painted in 1868, when he was a student at the Villa Medici, was his envoi. It is a young student’s painting, and I shall let him describe it in his own words : —
“ A young Greek, Automedon, bringing in from the meadows by the shore of the Scamander the divine horses of Achilles, those steeds whose golden manes fell clear to the ground. I have conceived a movement for my young man in which Lagraine [the model] is admirable. He is between the two horses, and is running towards the spectator, holding a horse with each hand. The horses present themselves almost full front; one of them is rearing, and the other throws his head to one side in an attempt to get away from the hand that holds him. I think I have got a rather happy arrangement, both in respect of lines and masses. The young man is a splendid subject to paint. . . . You are frightened by the antique subject of my envoi, but you may take courage ; for I have done some Greek after my own fashion. It is a free translation. Automedon may be what you will, and in my horses I have sought to represent, not the particular cut of Thessalian horses’ manes, but all that is noblest and most awe-inspiring in the horse, all that the historic horse might be in this line, — the talking horse who foresaw the death of his master Achilles. The sky is overcast with storm clouds, a leaden sea begins its sullen heaving, though still upon its surface it seems asleep. A dreary ray of sunshine lights up the rocky and sterile coast on the horizon with a wan glimmer. The horses, knowing that their master will take them into the combat, that this fight will be the last, and will cost him his life, resist and struggle with the servant who has come to bring them in from their pasture. One of them, a dark bay, rises like a great sombre phantom in a silhouette against the sky. I wished to give in the picture something like a presentiment of a sinister event. But have I well said all that I wished to ? Yon are right: an artist ought to let himself go, and give himself up to the various impressions he feels in the presence of nature, and he ought not to reject or despise half his good impulses just because they are not accepted by his school or sect. Yes, nature, the true, the touching things, life and death, even real death in its awful or serene immobility, — that is what must be sought.”
The fine youthful ardor displayed in Regnault’s letter is seen also in the picture, the execution of which is vigorous and brilliant. The figure of the man, a superb study, is doubtless the best lifesize and full-length nude, in drawing, modeling and color, that we have in the United States. The horses, not having been painted from nature, are not literally true to nature, but they are in thorough accord with the spirit of the Iliad, and might well have borne through falling Trojan squadrons the slaughtering sword of the mighty Achilles, who thus addressed them : —
(Unless ye boast that heavenly race in vain),
Be swift, be mindful of the load ye bear,
And learn to make your master more your care:" . . .
The coloring of the immortal coursers’ glossy coats, especially that of the bay on the left, is exceedingly rich. The red drapery floating in the breeze from Automedon’s shoulder and loins is a superb note, worthy of Rubens. The landscape is full of deep tones, striking contrasts of light and dark, impressive lines, and is weird and suggestive in its effect. The only touch of sunlight in the picture falls on a hillside where clay and spindling grass alternate in patches at the left of the background. With the lowering sky beyond it to provide the needed relief, it is a fine stroke, which adds not a little to the dramatic character of the work. Such horizons are to be seen in mountainous regions, where the sterility and mystery of the landscape forcibly affect the imagination. Gautier called Regnault a colorist of the first order ; Hamerton thought he might have become one if he had lived ; and Regnault himself expressed the wish that he could color as well as he could draw.
The Automedon is not of even excellence throughout in color, but after all, the young man who could execute such a work, so full of life, of brilliancy, of audacity, while still a student, must have gone backwards in an uncommon fashion not to bear out Hamerton’s judgment. The policy of excluding the picture from the Museum for fear that it might demoralize the art students would have been mistaken, not to say absurd ; and it was in this belief that the artists and art students of Boston, with much unanimity, welcomed its acquisition. People who know the least are sometimes the readiest to find fault. An artist told me that one day he saw two extremely degraded, ignorant, brutish-looking men talking so earnestly that he drew near, out of sheer curiosity as to what such beings could be discussing, and as he came within hearing these oracular words met his ears: “I’ll tell you the mishtake Napol’yun Bonyparty made at the battle of Waterloo ! ”
One of the largest paintings in the Museum is Henri Lerolle’s By the Riverside (An Bord de la Rivière), a landscape with figures, of almost colossal dimensions. The composition is an upright, and represents a path alongside a smoothly flowing river, a group of tall and leafless trees on the bank, beyond the stream, in the distance, more trees with yellow foliage, and a range of abrupt hills. In the middle distance, at the left, a woman is seen driving some cattle home. In the foreground, at the right, two peasant-women, life-size, are walking along the river-side path, one of them carrying a baby, and the other a loaded saek. The sunlight strikes upon their heads and shoulders. This is a broad, simple, and true picture, quiet and satisfactory. The gray sky is luminous, and the whole effect of lighting is happy and well out-of-doors. The sentiment of the work is agreeable, if not profound; and, though it cannot be called a great painting, it is a very good example of a good class. It was first exhibited in the Salon of 1881, and became the property of the Museum through the generosity of Mr. Francis C. Foster. There is a large picture by Lerolle in the Luxembourg Gallery. He took a first-class medal in 1880.
William Howe Downes.
- Dumas : Twenty Years After.↩