An Artist's Idyl
IF in reading this desultory but charming volume,1 by an artist whose pictures are known and loved in our country as in his own, we are reminded in the earlier pages of an ErckmannChatrian novel, and in certain later passages of that Idylle d’un Savant which told the life of André Marie Ampere, and which, if it had not chanced to be fact, would have ranked among the most exquisite discoveries of fiction, neither comparison impugns the veracity of M. Breton’s recollections or the originality of his treatment. For artist and chronicler there exists the same truth, which is the spirit of truth. The genial Alsatian novelists hardly attempted to lower their bucket to the depths of the well, but in devising the well-knit narratives related by their boy heroes they undoubtedly drew upon a fund of incident and impression accumulated in boyhood, and they had the art of reproducing its atmosphere as viewed from the standpoint of maturity, of portraying scenes and characters as the man thinks he saw them when a boy. M. Breton’s reminiscences take him to a different region, the Pas-de-Calais, but to the same land of childhood, though of a more conscious and highly endowed sort; seen, too, through the same medium of affection and playful poetry, that unconscious fiction of memory which is a part of its truth.
But while the material of a very fresh and pleasing story lies ready at hand in the life which M. Breton has to relate, and is regarded by him with the tenderness of the artist, he has made no attempt to arrange it even so far as to produce a consecutive narrative. Inside the chronological grand divisions of childhood, youth, and later life, which are indicated clearly enough without being too distinctly outlined, there is little order or sequence, events omitted in their due time being brought up elsewhere in some indirect connection. In writing his autobiography, if so formal a name can be given to so light a book, M. Breton does not find it necessary to avoid egotism of tone by taking the position of a mere looker-on. Neither does he treat himself as an historical personage, but rather as a personality, looking clearly and simply about him, but always grouping the things reported of in their relation to his own individuality and life as an artist. Perhaps one explanation of the autobiographical successes in French literature, particularly in books of this easy, intimate, inconsequent sort, will be found to lie in a certain simplicity of the French character. The passion for naïveté, the deliberate hunting for simplicity, in that literature often appears to us, and in some cases undoubtedly is, an affectation ; but in its happiest phases it is a choice of the best, and a return to an element of French life lying behind la vie as understood and practiced in Paris, — to a certain natural and spontaneous way of looking at things which exists more distinctively than with us in common life, and is more often preserved side by side with the highest culture. As M. Breton himself somewhere says of his early mistakes in the art galleries, we must get over ignorance to arrive at real simplicity of taste.
One of our cleverest and best equipped littérateurs, Mr. Earl Shinn (Edward Strahan), for many years the art critic of The Nation, and now, alas ! a memory in its files and in other publications of yesterday, coupled Millet and Jules Breton as the Burns and Wordsworth of peasant painting: the former, himself a peasant, depicting the life of the people with the fervor and intensity of one whose own veins throb to its heart-beats ; the latter loving it as a result of meditation and worship of a universal nature to which the man of the soil seems to him especially near. The comparison, while not intended in either case to draw an exact parallel between poet and painter, indicated very justly the relative position of the two artists. Jules Breton had early associations, but no tie of birth, with the peasants whom he loved to paint. His father, like Wordsworth’s father and George Eliot’s, was a land steward, — a position which brought him into continual relations, apparently on the whole of a very friendly character, with the neighboring population. He had charge of the estates of the Due de Duras, and occupied a house with a large garden at Courrières, a village of which he became mayor some time before his death. At Courrières, Jules, with his brothers Louis and Émile, passed a childhood which is bright and pleasant to read of, and which remained in his mind as an epoch of unclouded sunshine. The distinction between weather and climate made by one of the youthful contributors to English as She is Taught, defining the former as lasting for a time, while “ climate is always,” often becomes blurred as we look back, a morbid childhood leaving an exaggerated record of rainy days. M. Breton’s touch of fancy is therefore in the true line of biography. Characteristic, also, of the blending of impressions in a child’s mind is his picture of the mother who died when he was very young, leaving “ a remembrance at once vague and powerful,” in which two details stood forth : one of her sitting by the fire with leeches on her breast, and saying to him, “ I am going to die ; ” the other of her catching sight from the window of the tailor with the boy’s first trowsers, and calling out, “ Jules, here are your clothes.”
The mother’s memory was cheerfully cherished in the atmosphere of French filial devotion, and under the influence of a certain venerable cousin Catherine, who came in the summer to cut the grass on the lawn, arid who reported to the children having seen their mother in the sky. “ She and I always understood each other ; she was so old, and I so little.” The boys themselves had visions, on which they compared notes from their several beds, — pictures which appeared spontaneously, “actually seen by the inward eye ; not like those vague images which later haunt the mind, and are so slow to take the definite form with which we seek to invest them.” Hence M. Breton draws the deduction, almost platonic in its suggestiveness, that “ ideas in the brain of the child are conceived as images. Before he becomes a thinker man is a seer. This marvelous faculty of vision, I know not why, tends to become atrophied as the power of thought expands. The latter kills the former, and what a pity it is ! ” Couture, in his pleasant rambling volume which belongs to the same class as M. Breton’s, but is more egotistical in tone and less vivid, mentions the same circumstance, counting it part of his birthright as an artist. “ I thought in images,” he says, “ as other people think in words.” With M. Breton the pictorial imagination is referred to the whole human mind, and forms part of the heaven which “lies about us in our infancy.” These mental panoramas were a source of enjoyment even when they exhibited “ great plains, red like blood, with deep shadows in which dreadful serpents, stiff as poles, advanced with a motion that corresponded to the loud beating of my arteries.” In spite of these unpleasant visions and others of a more agreeable character, where “ the sky shone with magnificent golden clouds, on which walked St. Nicholas, St. Catherine, the Virgin, and the little Jesus,” the Breton boys appear to have led a healthy and happy existence. Their father was often absent from home upon visits to the different properties of the duke, and on these occasions they were left to the guardianship of a grandmother, who, after passing heroically in her youth through the ordeal of imprisonment under the Terror, spent her old age tranquilly seated by the kitchen window. and of an uncle, who was a man of books, and the framer of daily intellectual tasks for his nephews. They escaped from these bonds as quickly as possible, to run about with the village boys, hold snow-fights in winter, and spend “ fresh summer mornings in the garden with the wet roses.” These early pages are full of exquisite out-of-door pictures, of observations and sentiments which have the flavor of childhood and poetry, and in regard to which M. Breton says, with a clear sense of the relation of life to art: “ To reproduce all these emotions, so delicious for the very reason that they are inexpressible and infinite, I am forced to make use of words of which I was ignorant at the time. But if one undertook to talk as a child, one would say nothing. The sensation suffices for him ! ” Of this sort is the boy’s delight in “ running everywhere he will and as he will, on roads which sometimes come all at once to an end, as if there were nothing beyond, as if the world itself ended there.” The effect on the three minds — for M. Breton writes as one of three, in speaking of his childhood—of the religious processions and pictures which are common sights in rural France is very charmingly described, but there is rather an excess in relating in full the history of the nursery hero locally known to him as Jean d’Arras, but more widely familiar as Jack the Giant Killer.
The achievements of the village housepainter excited a lively emulation in Jules, and led to his early choice of an artistic career. A general education came foremost, however, in the judgment of his relatives, and when ten years old he was taken from the garden of roses and sent to a small seminary, the name of which he does not give, where he passed three unhappy years, exposed not only to humiliations distressing to a sensitive child, but on one occasion to a cruel punishment for the perpetration of a caricature. He made no complaint at the time, but having by chance, during a vacation, come upon the offending picture, which had been sent to his father, and discovered that it was regarded as a work of art rather than a disgrace, he told his story, and was at once removed from the school. At the college at Douai his lot was better, and a new life opened for him, on leaving school, through a chance visit to Courrieres of the Belgian artist Félix de Vigne, who saw his sketches, and got him admitted as a pupil at the Royal Academy of Art at Ghent, where he was himself a professor.
At Ghent, where Breton passed three years as an art student, we find the beginning of a little idyl, so slight that we can almost quote it entire, but with something of the grace and charm of André Ampère’s. It opens in the studio of Félix de Vigne, who had three children.
“ The eldest, the little Élodie, was growing modestly. An indefinable charm shone already in her dark blue eyes shaded by long, silky lashes. She went about the house noiselessly, gliding rather than walking, her slight body thrown a little backward, and bending under the weight of a brow already serious, the delicate profile of an angel in a Gothic cathedral. Her father, in creating her, had gone to the heart of that mediæval period which he knew so well. She was about seven years old. and she danced on my knee.”
In 1847 Breton went to Paris with his father, and was received into the studio of Dralling, who said of a stilllife shown for admission, “ Mais c’est peint comme un ange! ’’ a note of praise uttered just in time to please the ear of the father, who was already touched by the illness of which he died in the following year. He had been ruined financially by an imprudent purchase of forest land immediately before the depreciation of money in the revolution of 1848. and he left the burden of a debt which was cheerfully shouldered, and in due time discharged, by the family. The sons gave up their mother’s property. Louis undertook the management of a brewery established by his father. Émile enlisted in the army, and his career, as incidentally sketched in the book, is a striking one. Born with a talent and passion for art, but obliged to defer his hopes as an artist, first for a military, afterwards for a business life, it was only after long waiting that he took up the brush in earnest, and produced landscapes marked by sincerity and feeling. Louis, also, while remaining a brewer, had artistic leanings, shown in paintings and verse. It is evident that the brothers adored each other; and though the achievements of the family talent already known to the world are but lightly dwelt upon in the volume, it is not the place in which to look for any coldly critical view of their powers. M. Breton’s pen is dipped liberally in his affections. In relating a visit, of his brother Louis to Paris, he tells how they talked without pause and without sense in their joy, “just as the birds twitter.” His friendships, too, are warm, and each chum who comes into view receives in passing a cordial grasp of the hand.
The family troubles and the revolution of 1848 are merged in that blending of personal and general experience which makes the consciousness of the artist, Jules Breton’s first picture was a garret interior, Misère et Désespoir. It, was followed by another, entitled La Faim, which drew tears from tender-hearted ladies. He had returned to Ghent, his joyous nature under the shadow of a depression which led him to wander solitary about the streets, under “ a sun of lead and a high wind that blew the dust about in incessant whirlpools most irritating to the eyes.”
But there were consolations in Ghent, though not unmixed with disquietudes, the story of which we have spoken being now in full process of development.
“ Towards eleven o’clock, before dinner, I left the studio and went down to the salon, where my little favorite was practicing on the piano her conservatory pieces, with abrupt movements of the head at the difficult passages, her elbows a trifle pointed, her shoulder-blades standing out. She was fourteen and still in short dresses, the age of a charming awkwardness, when the figure lengthens, exaggerating the slenderness of childhood. Her dark eyes, grave and candid, yet with something impenetrable in their depths, no longer looked at me with those glances of affectionate mirthfulness which had so rejoiced my heart in the days already far behind, when she had made a collar of her little arms round my neck and danced on my knee.
“ I took an interest in all her lessons, and overwhelmed her with advice. These attentions embarrassed her, and she exhibited signs of impatience, which I misinterpreted, attributing them to aversion. But, after all, what right had I over her ? Why was I vexed at her greater familiarity with Winne, whom she addressed simply as Whine, whereas she called me Monsieur Jules? She had a right to prefer him to me. And on what ground did I decide that she hated me ? . . . One day I went to hear her perform at the concours of the conservatory. She played well, and, eager to offer my congratulations, I went to wait for her at the foot of the stairs. She came down soon after with her little friends. I advanced to meet her; but on seeing me she turned away her head abruptly, and walked on without saying anything. ' Evidently,’ I said to myself, ‘ that child has no heart.’ ”
A little later, seeing her come away, on the day of her graduation, with her arms full of prizes, weeping at the separation from her teachers, he decides that she has “a heart for other people.” He leaves Ghent, taking with him a portrait of her, caught surreptitiously, and returns to Courrières, where he makes studies of peasant life, and begins to paint the Petite Glaneuse. He resolves not to look at the portrait, but takes it out again and again.
“ And, behold, on the 22d of August, 1853, she arrived with her father! She had become a young lady. I was astonished at the change wrought in her face. She was no longer severe. She was so happy to come to us ! . , , She said, naively, ' The nearer I got, the more my heart beat! ’ What a softness in the frank glance of her eyes! The next day, when I was alone, she came to me and uttered just these words: ‘I know I have sometimes given you pain. I am sorry for it. Can you forgive me ? ’ I kissed her.
“ Two days later we were engaged. It had all come about in the most simple way. I was painting her portrait in the little studio, and when I came to the eyes I stopped, with a sudden sense of oppression, and said to her, ' You understand me ? ' She made an affirmative sign of the head. ‘ Will you be my wife ? ’ The same motion of the head gave me an affirmative answer.”
They were married in 1858. Happily, the romance had no such end as that of Ampère and Julie. Madame Breton became herself known as an artist, and was the mother of Madame Virginie Demont-Breton, to whom her father dedicates his autobiography, and of whom he is said to have declared many times that she was his superior as an artist.
During that sojourn at Courrières, while happiness lay in wait for him unseen, the artistic conviction which had haunted M. Breton’s mind in the studios and galleries took shape in the fields, and crystallized into work. In studying and admiring the earlier schools of French art. he had felt that “there was one thing which had not yet been attempted, namely, the relation between the living creature and the inanimate creation. Painters had not yet fully associated the life of man with the life of things, or made their figures alive with all the ambient vibrations, participants of all the phenomena of earth and sky ; they had not made them breathe their natural element, the air.”
At Courrières a new beauty came out on the face of the familiar landscape, and bore testimony to the same idea.
“ The most beautiful moment of the day was when, in the evening, after supper, we smoked our pipes, sitting with our chairs tipped back against the wall of the house, and letting our eyes wander along the street, where the vapors of night were beginning to rise through the vibrations of the air, still warm with the day. . . . The dark masses formed by people and objects, still radiated by little gleams of gold, stood out with marvelous force against the saffron sky, and dying flames shot up from behind the rich darkness of the thatched roofs. Tall, sunburnt girls passed by, with the heat of the day still held amid the tangles of their hair in lingering aureoles, and surrounding their dark silhouettes with a thread of light. They seemed to gain a fuller and graver beauty in the dim mystery of the twilight, with their sickles, on which the cool glow of the sky shone like moonlight.”
That is a picture which needs no signature. The artist had ceased to paint misery in a garret. He sent three canvases to the Exposition of 1855, and received the acknowledgment, “ Your pictures have obtained a great success; that of the Gleaners, above all, has dazzled [éblouit] the jury.”
The Gleaners preceded by two years Millet’s treatment of the same subject. But long before it was painted Breton had taken note of the pictures of the peasant artist who so deeply “ associated the life of man with the life of things,” and had been “ strangely impressed ” w ith a color “ cooked in the sun, austere and earthy.” In the remarks on art and artists which abound in the book, and are always vivid and full of insight, he pays tribute again and again to the genius of Millet, and reproduces in words, with great felicity, the effect of his pictures, dwelling upon the power which “ can take a rugged field with a plough lying in it and a few bristling thistles, and, with two or three tones and an awkward, woolly handling, can move the depths of the soul and chant the infinite.” But the two artists stood for different ideas; there was a divergence, not alone of method, but of temperament, between them. The prophet note in Millet could be felt by Breton, but it awakened no response in his sunny nature. “This sort of implacable rusticity,” he says, “ is not in the least characteristic of our northern peasantry, though we sometimes find it in the people of La Beauce.” While awed and reverent before Millet, it is to Corot, whose poetry is that of pure painting, that M. Breton turns with a salute of sympathy and delight. His last chapter is a review of the Exposition of last year, a glance backward and forward, an admirable summing up of reminiscence, and a confession of artistic faith. “ And the Corots, the incomparable Corots, so resplendent in their idealism that they transport us to heaven, so true that we seem to contemplate them through a window opened upon nature itself ! ”
Has not M. Breton himself painted from the same window ? He has given us no such lofty idealism or magic truth as Corot, but in the union of the two elements lies the poetry of what he has painted, and in his perception of their otieness the value of a very candid and attractive book.