The New Departure in Parisian Art
“The first annual exhibition of the Société Nationale [des Beaux Arts] was opened upon the 15th of May, 1890. Everything about it was new and original.”
The months of January and February, 1890, saw the culmination of a new movement in the art world of Paris which is destined to have widespread and lasting consequences; for Paris is to-day incontestably the art centre of the world, and what affects art in Paris necessarily affects high-class art the world over. The importance of the affair cannot well be overestimated; it demands the earnest attention of all who care to keep in touch with the art movement of the epoch, and it will be my endeavor to elucidate its causes and point out some of its possible effects.
In order to a clear understanding of the subject, it is necessary to go back to the early years of the present century, when the first Napoleon, after stripping the galleries of Italy to enrich the Louvre, set himself the task of founding a truly national school of art at home. The cultivation of the arts, letters, and the drama became almost as serious a consideration with him as the subjugation of the environing peoples; for he was keen enough to perceive that without some such intellectual aureole his reign would shine with only a secondary lustre in history; and he spared, therefore, no pains to effect his purpose. When at home in Paris he spent much of his time in superintending various works of art and restorations, and when abroad, even in the midst of his most disastrous campaigns, he occupied himself frequently with literary and artistic affairs, as is proved by the famous decree of Moscow, regulating the affairs of the Théâtre de la Comédie Française. The fact that this side of Bonaparte’s activity has received so little attention only serves to accentuate the wonderful comprehensiveness of the man’s genius; for what was accomplished by him in this line alone would have been sufficient to make the reputation of any lesser prince as an illustrious enlightened patron of the fine arts. By his orders, the palace of the Louvre was largely augmented, the palace and church of the Invalides were built and richly decorated, the column of Vendôme and the Arc de Triomphe were erected and covered with rich sculptures, and the monuments of mediæval art were restored; while the painters David and Horace Vernet filled the halls of the Tuileries and Versailles with great historical canvases illustrative of the victorious battlefields of the imperial epoch.
This policy of state-aided art, inaugurated by Napoleon, was continued under the various paternal governments which succeeded him. Monuments were erected continually; palaces and public buildings were decorated with rnural paintings; the École des Beaux Arts was founded, and made free to the students of all nations; the use of the galleries of the Louvre, and afterwards of the splendid Palais de l’Industrie, was conceded to the artists for the purposes of their yearly exhibitions, and medals of considerable intrinsic value were awarded to the most meritorious works exhibited therein. All these things were paid for out of the public funds; and it was considered so natural and proper a thing that the state should thus support and encourage the art production of the nation that no one ever thought of questioning the legality or the advisability of the proceeding. With Frenchmen the financial part of the business never seemed worth discussing. With them the vital side of the whole question was the æsthetic side; and even to-day, those who are loudest in their condemnation of the policy leave the question of political economy entirely on one side, and base their objections to the system upon the ground that it has become directly deleterious to the best and highest interests of art itself. They do not deny that contemporary art owes much to the careful nursing and fostering which it received in its infancy at the hands of the government, but they claim that the child of 1800 has grown to the estate of manhood, and is now only hampered by the leading-strings which were useful enough in its earlier years. They also state that the system is responsible for a very great evil, — an evil which was not contemplated by its founders, but is none the less a direct result and consequence of all its tendencies; and they further aver that this parasitic growth has attained such formidable proportions as at last to smother and destroy all the good which may at one time have belonged to the system. The evil thus referred to is the formation and gradual development of a distinctly official school of art, — an art which is admirably adapted to the decoration of ceremonious apartments of state, smooth, polished, and impeccable in technique, but utterly lacking in the qualities of soul and sentiment. Beginning with David and the two Vernets, this conventional school was continued under the restoration and under the monarchy of Louis Philippe by Ary Scheffer, Paul Delaroche, Cogniet, and Drolling, and under the second empire by Ingres, Cabanel, Pils, and Lehmann. It is to-day represented by so large and flourishing a body of painters that to name them all it would be necessary to transcribe here a full third of the names in the salon catalogue. Perhaps the most prominent members of the school, at present, are Bouguereau, Jules Joseph Lefebvre, and Robert-Fleury. With slight variations, the art of all these men has been identical. Thorough and even clever after its kind, it is always conventional, vitreous, and essentially false to nature. It may be a little prettier in the works of Bouguereau and Lefebvre, a little more pompous in those of David and Robert-Fleury, and a little more affected in those of Cabanel and Cogniet; but it is the same art in all of them, bearing unmistakably the ear-marks of the unnatural conditions which gave it rise. It is the art of the courtier and the palace; well dressed, polite, polished—and false.
From time to time men of genius and great force of character have risen against this art of the antechamber, and have uttered a manly protest in favor of freedom and individuality of expression. First came Delacroix with his firebrand of romanticism; then Géricault with a clear, strong note of realism; and finally the splendid open-air school of Barbizon, headed by Millet, Corot, and Rousseau. These were followed by a thousand talented young fellows, who, finding the gates of the fields thrown open, rushed forth joyously into the fresh air and sunshine, and set to work to paint all the sweet and beautiful and touching and awe-inspiring things that they found in the great panorama of nature spread out before them: dewy morning and pale twilight effects, rosy sunsets and rising moons, apple blossoms, snow, daisy fields and rolling rivers, breezy seascapes and stormy coasts, fisher folk and peasants, poppies, and harvest fields, and dim forest glades, and I know not what besides. Oh, what a joy was theirs! To see things as eyes had never before seen theta; to go forth every day like new Argonauts in search of a new golden fleece; to rifle the rich store-house of nature of a precious loot whose very existence had never before been suspected, — was not this in itself ample compensation for many disappointments and much hardship? And if, when they returned with their priceless booty, they found the gates of the old temple of art closed against them, had not they their reward?
But the gates were closed, and closed hermetically. The school of official painters, intrenched close to the ear and the purse-strings of the government, had become alarmed at the extent of the new movement, and had put their taboo upon all who dared to depart from the old standards and traditions; and as they controlled the government patronage, and held in the palm of their hands the various medals, traveling-purses, and other official favors which are so liberally dispensed at the yearly salon, and as the private patronage of art in France was only a drop in the bucket twenty years ago, it will be seen that the young party of progress and revolt had to contend against almost insurmountable obstacles. But once having tasted the joys of freedom, it was impossible that they should again submit to wear fetters upon their vigorous young limbs; and many a talented man has chosen to live for years upon bread and cheese and sour wine, rather than paint the pretty or conventional trash which would have assured him an easy competence and even wealth. So they braved manfully the storm of adversity, and bided their time, confident that the great art-loving public must come one day to see the fresh new beauty which their own eyes saw so clearly.
The divergence between the two rival schools grew ever wider and more marked, for they represented a set of ideas and principles which were diametrically opposed to each other. I will not attempt to deny that my own sympathies are all with the young crusaders of the modern school; and even had I not imbibed their notions from the very earliest days of my student career, I believe that my natural mental bias would have led me eventually to throw in my lot with theirs. I will endeavor, nevertheless, to set down as fairly as may be and without prejudice the principal beliefs and tenets of the classic faith.
In the first place, the members of the official school hold that art in its highest manifestations is a direct offspring of the human intellect; that it is something which is evolved from the highly cultivated brain of a peculiarly gifted man; and that it is, therefore, more the child of thought and reverie than of simple observation and refined feeling. According to them, observation is of course necessary, as also a close study of nature; but nature, they say, is to be regarded as an auxiliary, and is to be used only in so far as it helps to express and give form to the conception which has been previously elaborated in the brain of the artist. Nature, in fact, must be the artist’s servant, and not his master. But as he works from the inner consciousness outward, he must not despise knowledge, and he must have all the technical part of his craft at his finger ends. Some eight or ten years ago, when Bastien-Lepage had just completed his famous Joan of Arc Listening to the Voices, I asked my master, Cabanel (who was also Bastien’s master), his opinion of the work which was destined to be so widely and so hotly discussed. Cabanel, although belonging himself to the old classic school, was a man of great liberality of opinion and wide intelligence, and as Bastien was one of his favorite pupils I expected a fair commendation of the picture, with the addition, perhaps, of some interesting criticism upon its execution and the disposition of the various parts of the composition. I was nearly dumfounded, therefore, when, with a darkening brow and an angry emphasis, he replied: “It is bad art, — very bad art; so bad that I have no patience either with it or Bastien. He has painted a common peasant girl in a commonplace back garden, where every leaf and every apple are nearly as well wrought out as the face of the martyr heroine itself. With the figure, however, I will not quarrel. Every man has a right to his own conception of an historical character, and Bastien’s Jeanne is after all pas mal. But the rest of the picture is detestable, abominable. The very excellence of this clear gray landscape, with its bit of fence, its weeds, and its apple-trees, is in itself a crying fault; for he should have given us a conventionalized background, wherein everything was subordinated to the figure, and made to emphasize the elevation and nobility of idea which are the very essence of a subject like this. That kind of thing was permissible enough in his haymakers and his gleaners, but in Jeanne d’Arc—non! à jamais, non!”
You see Bastien had reversed the old order of pictorial composition altogether. He had gone to Nature first of all, had questioned her as to how the simple but noble little scene would in all probability have actually occurred, and then had set to work to render his impression exactly and faithfully; altering nothing, adding nothing, taking nothing away; content to paint the unadorned truth so far as it was given him to know it, and to leave the result to the artistic conscience of the future. The consequence of this uncompromising probity has been that the Joan of Arc is, and always will be, a test picture, before which any one may know at once to which party he belongs by nature. It epitomizes the ideas of the younger school, and emphasizes clearly the differences of opinion which divide them from the classicists.
The friends and companions of Bastien in fact believe that the truth is always and under all conditions nobler and more beautiful than any fiction. They insist also that nothing can come out of the human brain that has not at one time or another been put into it, and that therefore the painter who takes his impressions direct from nature sits at the fountain-head of all true inspiration. Nor do they think that the precious quality of individuality, which is as the bloom upon the fruit, is thereby endangered, but rather the contrary; and in proof of this they point to the great difference which exists between the works of Millet and of Corot, of Bastien-Lepage and of Harpignies, all of whom have painted what they saw frankly, simply, and honestly.
It was only after much hardship had been endured, and as the result of many struggles, that the modernists succeeded at last in forcing the doors of the salon, and obtaining a certain recognition for their work. Once awakened, however, the public appreciation grew surely as the general taste became more enlightened, until finally it could be said that the painters of nature, the pleinairistes, stood higher in the esteem of the art-loving world than their opponents of the official school. This result was arrived at without materially affecting the position of the painters of the official group; for the decoration of all the city halls, museums, churches, and public buildings still fell to them, and they continued to control the distribution of the salon medals and other prizes.
During the past decade the lines between the rival factions have been drawn more sharply than ever, and the skirmishes have been more frequent and more bitter. It is only fair to say, however, that, until quite recently, the war has been a frank and loyal one upon both sides, each party being supported by an honest belief in the justice of its cause. But some four or five years ago the pleinairiste party became conscious of a subtle and powerfully malefic influence, against which it could no longer battle with any chance of success. Its sharpest shafts fell away from this mysterious barrier as from a wall of granite, and the school of convention and tradition, which had seemed tottering to its fall, rose again, as secure and triumphant as ever. Traced to its source, this new force in the world of art was found to emanate from a stout little personage of. Jewish extraction, by the name of Jullien. The career of this remarkable man has been so unique, and his influence in French art matters has become so preponderant, that the paragraphs which it will be necessary here to devote to him might be expanded easily to the proportions of a voluminous chapter. In person he is a man of fifty, slightly gray, of gentlemanly bearing, who wears the red ribbon of the Legion of Honor in his buttonhole. In manners he is courteous and self-possessed, affable alike to friend and foe, and never allowing his serenity to be disturbed by the most ferocious of personal attacks.
Some thirty odd years ago Jullien was an art student in the Latin Quarter. He was ambitious, like the rest of the Bohemian tribe, and, becoming impatient of the long preliminary studies which were required of the student who wished to gain admittance to the École des Beaux Arts, he joined a group of other young blades who were of like mind, and together they hired a studio and models, and opened an independent life-class of their own. Jullien was elected massier, or treasurer, of this small republic, and he at once showed himself so eminently fitted for the post that he was reelected year after year. The little society flourished and expanded considerably, and when, finally, it became necessary to seek more commodious quarters Jullien assumed the entire responsibility, and opened the school under his own name. Thenceforward the Académie Jullien became a factor in the art world of Paris, and a factor whose astonishing growth and final preponderance can be fully appreciated only by those who have themselves long mingled in the turmoil of Parisian art life. Jullien himself had considerable technical skill as an artist, and one of his pictures even obtained for him the honor of medal at the salon; but at the close of the year 1877, when I first came into personal contact with him, he had definitely abandoned the practice of his art in order to devote himself the more closely to the commercial side of his enterprise. At that time he had just opened a second studio to accommodate the growing number of his students, and the monthly fee of two francs, which had been found sufficient to defray all expenses at the outset, had been raised to thirty francs. He had also induced two excellent artists of the old school to come and criticise the students’ work twice a week, as is the custom in Parisian art schools. These men were Jules Lefebvre and Boulanger, both masters in their own line. As the pupils increased and the studios multiplied, these two were joined by two others, Bouguereau and Robert-Fleury, both of whom were leading spirits in the camp of conventional art. It was Jullien’s ambition to rival, and if possible to surpass, the famous École des Beaux Arts, and he was careful to choose masters who would train his students upon the academic lines there in vogue. To this end he bent all his efforts, and the excellent judgment which he displayed in the choice of his professors became apparent, as first one and then another of his students carried off the Prix de Rome, which is the highest honor that can be attained by an art student in France. The winner of this prize is sent to Rome at the expense of the government, and maintained there for a period of four years, during which time he is supposed to perfect himself in his art by a careful study of the old masters. The splendid Palazzo Barberini is devoted to the service of the laureates, and a competent professor, generally one of the veterans of French art, is appointed to overlook their work. In spite of the depreciation with which it has been somewhat the custom to speak of this prize of late years, it is a very great honor still, and is justly regarded as the crowning glory of a student’s career in France. The fact, which has been pointed out, that Bastien-Lepage, Dagnan, and some others of the great luminaries of French art have failed to obtain the prize may perhaps place in question the fairness of the judges who have awarded it, but can be no criticism upon the intrinsic value of the prize itself, or the great advantage that may be derived from it by an artist of intelligence and sympathetic perceptions. At any rate, it is much sought after, and the school which can boast of having turned out one or more Prix de Rome is sure to be filled to overflowing with a crowd of eager young fellows who have a covetous eye upon the same glittering distinction. So the Académie Jullien flourished amazingly, and grew and grew, until at the date of writing it boasts of six or eight hundred students, who are crowded into twelve large studios, and criticised by no less than seven able professors. Like a great octopus, it has sucked away the life of all the other independent schools of art in Paris. The schools of Bonnat and Carolus Duran have been closed, and those of Laurens and Colarossi have dwindled to less than half their former proportions.
Of course this state of things could not exist for any length of time without inducing some of those phenomena which are peculiar to combinations and monopolies the world over. The pupils of the École Jullien, as they were drafted out of the schools into the salon, looked to their professors to forward their interests, and to obtain for them the coveted medals which are so indispensable to young French artists at the opening of their career; and it was presently observed that more than a fair share of these honors fell to graduates of the Académie Jullien. In return for this service, the grateful pupils voted their masters, and those of the older artists who belonged to the same clique, into prominent places upon the salon jury. Year after year Bouguereau was elected president of this body, while either Lefebvre or Robert-Fleury was its secretary with scarcely a break, and the rest of the Jullien professors and their sympathizers were constantly among its most influential members. The control of art matters had always belonged to the official school, but now it fell into the hands of that part of it which was represented by the École Jullien. This was so entirely the case that, a year or two ago, it was difficult for a young man to obtain the best deserved salon recompense unless he could write the name of one or more of the Jullien professors after his own in the salon catalogue. The influential Cabanel, indeed, was still able to compel justice for his pupils, but the poor devil who was a pupil of neither Cabanel nor Jullien must be content to dwell in an outer desert where medals obtained not; and those who know the importance which is attached to a salon medal in France will be able to appreciate the forlorn isolation of the position to which he was thus condemned. The salon medal not only means fame and honor to its recipient, but also represents immediate bread and butter; for the medals are all large plates of solid gold, which range in value from three hundred francs to more than five thousand. Many a poor fellow has existed for months upon the proceeds of the sale of his salon medal; and there is a little shop, well known to the impecunious brotherhood, where the generous gold pieces can be exchanged for cheap but excellent imitations, the difference in value being handed over to the artist in glittering louis d’ors.
Another and still more important attribute of the salon medal is the hors concours privilege which is attached to it, by the action of which the winner of two third medals or of one second or one first medal becomes independent of the action of the salon jury, his pictures being thereafter hung by right, and an honorable position upon the line reserved for them. The artist who is hors concours represents the nearest approach in France to the English R. A. This privilege is naturally regarded as of the first importance, and it was around it that the battle was fought of which I shall speak later on.
Meanwhile, it will be necessary to explain briefly the nature of the various salon awards. These are divided into no less than seven distinct classes. First in order comes the grand medal of honor, which is destined to crown the career of an already famous artist, and is intended not so much to recompense the particular pictures upon which it is placed as to reward a long series of fine works which must have preceded it. Next follows the first medal, a rare distinction, which is seldom conferred, and only upon some work of quite transcendent merit. After this comes the second medal, which is the highest honor that may ordinarily be expected by a rising artist, and which, as I have before explained, carries with it the hors concours privilege. The third medal, which follows, is no mean distinction, and is always welcomed with sufficient rejoicing by the young fellow to whom it may be accorded. Quite distinct from these medals is the Prix du Salon, which is open only to young Frenchmen under the age of thirty. This prize takes rank with the Prix de Rome, and, like that award, sends its recipient to Rome for a period of four years, with an annual allowance of four thousand francs. There are also dispensed yearly a dozen well-lined traveling-purses, containing from four hundred to four thousand francs each; and finally a generous allowance of Mentions Honorables. This award partakes of the nature of an encouraging pat on the back, and it may safely be stated that the youth upon whom it is conferred would always infinitely prefer a third medal. A large number of pictures, also, are annually purchased by the government, to decorate the walls of the many public museums of Paris and the large provincial cities. And when to all this we add the little red ribbon of the Legion of Honor, which is occasionally bestowed upon successful artists, it will be seen that the control of the official patronage of art in Paris is no small affair. That this control has of late years passed completely into the hands of M. Jullien and his followers is an open secret in Paris, and so universally conceded that there is nothing to be gained by glozing it over here. Even Jullien himself would probably admit as much, with a certain quiet and pardonable pride in the success of his operations; but as to the means which he has employed to arrive at these ends he would probably remain discreetly silent. Nevertheless, I shall venture to pry a little into this means; and while it will probably strike us as incongruous to find many of the principles and methods of the bucket-shop applied to the cause of art education in Paris, we shall be forced, I think, to admire the astuteness of the clever financier who has succeeded in amassing a large fortune in so unpromising a field.
It is, I suppose, generally known to the readers of The Atlantic that the great French masters—Bonnat, Carolus Duran, and others—have invariably given their services and their time free of charge to the art students who have come to them for counsel and advice. All these men directed large schools for long periods of time, and esteemed it an honor and a pleasure to communicate gratuitously to the rising generation the results of their knowledge and experience. The practice might, by some, be considered quixotic, or at least unnecessary; but it must be conceded that it is a noble and generous one, conducive to great mutual respect and to a high standard of endeavor upon the part of the pupils.
Be this as it may, Jullien thought he saw his advantage in a reversal of this principle, and the professors who teach in his academy receive a share of the profits therefrom accruing. They perform a stated service for a stated wage; and the generous and communicative enthusiasm of the older men, which could not be brought down to a commercial basis and measured by a standard of dollars and cents, is thereby entirely eliminated from the question. To be sure, a certain clock-like order has been secured by the change. The Jullien professors have always been most exact and diligent in the performance of their pedagogic duties; so that, while it occasionally happened that the pupils of Duran or Bonnat were left to their own devices for a week or so, under the Jullien régime no such irregularity has ever been known. The students in his academy can rest assured that punctually at nine o’clock upon every Tuesday and Friday morning the professor will be on hand to criticise and correct their work; and that if one of the masters chances to be incapacitated, by illness or from any other cause, his place will be taken by another, so that the regular routine of the school work may not be interfered with.
Whether this revolution in the system of art education is to be regarded as a gain or a loss will, of course, depend on the personal bias of whoever approaches the subject; but many will certainly regret the kindly and helpful personal interest which, under the old régime, the masters were able to take in their pupils.
It will, perhaps, be marveled at that men like Lefebvre and Bouguereau, who already held a commanding place in French art, should have been willing to accept this subordinate and salaried position even for the substantial money gage which was attached to it; but it must be remembered that, in addition to the financial inducement, Jullien was able to point out to them that, banded together in a close syndicate under his leadership, and backed and supported by their great and ever-growing body of pupils, they were able to wield an almost omnipotent power in all matters pertaining to art in France, — a power to which they could never aspire so long as they remained divided and unsupported units. It was a very alluring bait to hold out, and its attractions must have been well-nigh irresistible to ambitious men like the president and secretary of the salon jury. But it was the selfish and soulless principle of the ring and the corner applied to art, and its effects would have proved most disastrous had not a timely check finally been put upon it; for art, true art, is one of the few things that cannot, with advantage, be subjected to the rules which govern commercial enterprises. Not competition, but generous and helpful camaraderie, stimulating individual effort, is the soul of art. Fortunately for the cause of art in France, this fact was understood by many of her most prominent painters, and the time arrived at last when their kindly and generous enthusiasm prevailed over the selfish policy of their opponents. Strange to say, the instrument which enabled them to effect this surprising result was one which, properly handled by their adversaries, might have definitely consolidated the power which they had succeeded in usurping so cleverly.
Some six or eight years ago, the artists of France constituted themselves into a corporate body, known as the Société des Artistes Français, for the general purpose of taking upon themselves the management of the salon, which had formerly been a government prerogative; and, incidentally, of founding a home and retreat for the aged and unfortunate members of their own guild. This society, including, as it did, nearly every professional artist in France, was declared to be of utilité publique by the government, and was granted the same privileges as had previously been accorded to artists in general. These privileges consisted in the free use of the Palais de l’Industrie for the purposes of the salon exhibition, and the distribution of the various medals and prizes, which the government continued to provide as before. A body of this kind was, of course, a most propitious field for the operations of the Jullien set, and the direction of its affairs, before long, fell quite naturally into the hands of this clique. Indeed, without some such corporate body to work through, they could never have grasped the almost absolute power which they had succeeded in acquiring toward the close of the year 1888; and consequently the revolt of which I am about to speak would, in all probability, never have occurred.
This, then, was the condition of art matters in France as the preparations for the universal exposition of 1889 approached completion: the École Jullien all-powerful and triumphant, with a strong and indignant minority always bearing down against it, and striving, by every means in its power, to undermine and destroy it. When the jury for the art section of the great world’s fair was appointed, the government, taking cognizance of the unfortunate divisions in the camp of the artists, decided, wisely, to silence the malcontents upon both sides by appointing to its presidency the veteran painter Meissonier, who owned allegiance to neither party, and was known to be a man of sturdy and almost ferocious integrity. Under his leadership there was a temporary cessation of hostilities. For the nonce the two rival factions seemed to have agreed to work together in a spirit of harmony and mutual concession; and I have never heard it intimated that this jury, acting under the direction of the veteran miniature-painter, performed its duties otherwise than fairly and well. Medals and other honors were freely dispensed, — almost too freely, some have thought, — but there was no suspicion of injustice in their distribution. A generous share of the recompenses was accorded to the foreign exhibitors, and the French painters and sculptors of the Jullien clique obtained no more than a due proportion of the honors. Now, the medals awarded at universal expositions in France have always been held synonymous with those distributed at the yearly salons, and they have, therefore, carried with them, when of sufficient grade, the much-coveted hors concours privilege. This had been the case with the awards at the two previous expositions of 1858 and 1878, and it was understood that the custom should hold good upon the present occasion. But when the exposition was drawing to its close, when the awards had all been announced, and many of the foreign exhibitors had already returned to their homes, people were surprised to hear a rumor that the Jullien party had decided to refuse the hors concours privilege to the medalists of the exposition of 1889. They would decline, it was said, to allow the salon suddenly to be inundated by a flood of new laureates, in whose creation they had had little or no voice. “Let the outer barbarians be content with their medals,” they were reported as saying; “as for the salon, we intend to keep it for ourselves.” When knowledge of the above intention came to the ears of the president of the exposition jury, Meissonier, he rose in wrath against the iniquity of the proposal. “To invite all the world to a sumptuous banquet,” he said, “and then, when the guests have arrived and are admiring the magnificence of the repast spread out before them, quietly to take away from before their very eyes the daintiest of all the dishes, is a gross breach of honor. Worse than that,” he added, “it is a breach of courtesy, a falling away from that old-time Gallic politeness which is the chief distinction and glory of the French nation, and it is not, therefore, to be tolerated for a moment. Either abolish all medals and all privileges, or let all who have honestly gained them profit by them.”
It became the question of the day in Paris. For a month the newspapers were filled with bitter polemics upon the subject. As yet the thing had been decided upon only in committee, but the storm raised by the announcement of the committee’s decision was so great that it was at last found necessary to call a plenary meeting of the Société des Artistes Français to pass upon the matter. More than three thousand artists responded to the call, and the vast glass-covered auditorium of the Palais de l’Idustrie was filled as it had never been filled before. After a long and stormy debate, M. Bouguerean, who was in the chair, finally put the question to the assembled multitude. The Jullien party triumphed by an immense majority. When the result of the ballot was announced, Meissonier arose, and, followed by four hundred of the leading artists of France, stalked majestically out of the hall.
The breach thus dramatically opened was destined to prove final and irrevocable. Neither party would abate one jot of its demands, and all attempts at reconciliation were fruitless. Indeed, many of the artists who followed Meissonier out of the Palais de l’Industrie, that day, heaved a great sigh of relief as they passed the door. They felt like men who suddenly and unexpectedly escape from an irksome and more or less shameful servitude, and the freedom which they had attained was not lightly to be thrown away again. Their leader, Meissonier, went about like a new Peter the Hermit, preaching death and destruction to the vandals who were desecrating the temple of art with their mercenary traffic. New recruits flocked daily to his standard, and finally nearly six hundred enthusiastic young crusaders met, at his invitation, and proceeded to lay the foundation of a new and purified society, and to make with all dispatch their preparations. for the holding of a new and independent salon. It was already the end of February; by the middle of May, at the latest, their exhibition must be open to the public; and in order to justify their venture in the eyes of the world, it was felt that the new salon must be good beyond the average of the old ones. They had no time to lose, therefore. The government was applied to for recognition and aid, and although much pressure was brought to bear upon it by the old society, it acted in a spirit of fair and even-handed justice in the matter. It declared the new society to be of equal utilité publique with the old one, and granted its members the use of the magnificent Palais des Beaux Arts, which was so admired during the recent universal exhibition.
In framing its constitution and bylaws, the new society made a clean sweep of all the old moss-grown traditions and fungous growths which had done so much to hinder the free development of modern art. It was decided that the doors of the new salon should be open to good work of every school, without fear or favor, and that the only thing demanded of an artist should be that he was to do his best in his own way, and that the work presented should be good of its kind. Each picture was to stand solely upon its own merits. There was to be no limit as to the number of works presented by the same artist, provided only that they reached the necessary standard of excellence. There were to be no privileges to oppress the rising artist in favor of the artist already risen, and no medals to lure the unwary upon the shoals of conventionalism. For the first time in the history of art, the question of nationality was to be eliminated from art concerns, and all artists were to stand upon an equal footing, irrespective of the land of their birth. In fact, three foreigners have been elected members of its jury, one of whom, Alexander Harrison, is an American.
The most important feature of the above programme is the suppression of the medals. Indeed, this measure will appear in the eyes of all Frenchmen so radical and revolutionary that one shivers to think of the temerity of those who proposed it. But it was felt that the medals were the root of all the evil; for the system of recompenses, which has always obtained under the old régime, has long been regarded as a nuisance and a bane by the most thoughtful of the French artists. I have heard not a few of them give it as their deliberate opinion that the tableau à médaille was killing French art. How could a young fellow be expected to give free scope to his originality, when he felt that disaster awaited him unless he could secure that indispensable salon medal! He knew that a certain large conventional style of picture was required by the dispensers of official favors, and very naturally he set to work to paint what was demanded of him; in the painting of it, the chances were ten to one that he warped his talent permanently from its natural bent, and killed within him the small germ of originality which might have developed later into a flower of the first beauty. Therefore, mort aux médailles!
The Société Nationale des Beaux Arts, as the new body has been designated, includes almost all the younger artists of note, and not a few of the more famous older men. It would be very easy to cull from the list of its members the names of twenty artists of world-wide celebrity, but a few will be sufficient to indicate the class of men to whom the movement owes its origin. Carolus Duran, Meissonier, Cazin, Dagnan, Duez, l’Hermitte, and Dalow are not among those who are still seeking recognition from the public; and it is characteristic of the new movement that three quarters of its members are men who have long been hors concours under the old régime, and have nothing to gain under the new, save that wholesome feeling of freedom without which the highest intellectual effort is impossible. They have voluntarily thrown aside the armor of their privileges, and appear again unarmed in the arena.
The first annual exhibition of the Société Nationale was opened upon the 15th of May, 1890. Everything about it was new and original, — the decoration of the galleries, the arrangement of the pictures, and the disposition of the light; and, making due allowance for the success which is always commanded by an agreeable innovation, it is safe to say that it surpassed any exhibition of pictures which has been held in modern times. So much is admitted even by Albert Wolff, of the Figaro, who has always been the most adverse critic of the movement. The present paper is not the place for any detailed criticism of the works exhibited, but I may be allowed to note briefly a few of the happy innovations which have helped to place this first exhibition of the Société Nationale so far beyond all its predecessors. In the first place, the entrance was beautified and made so pleasing to the eye as to impress the visitor at once with the feeling that he was being led on to a feast of beauty. This impression was still further intensified by the rich decorations of the great central vestibule; and when at last he entered the picture galleries, which were themselves exquisitely draped and bathed in a peculiarly soft and opalescent glow, he was quite prepared to enjoy the artistic treat spread out before him. First of all, he was struck by the fact that the pictures were not crammed close upon one another, in the distracting and bewildering confusion of an ordinary exhibition, but were agreeably disposed in groups, the work of each artist by itself, with restful spaces of blank wall between them. It was possible thus to study and enjoy the work of each painter separately, without having the eye importuned by some wholly incongruous work in the adjoining frame. Many artists, too, had availed themselves of the proviso which allowed them to send an unlimited number of works to the same exhibition. Some showed as many as ten or fifteen pictures, many of them being fresh and charming sketches, whose unimportance would have excluded them from an ordinary salon. But the gain in this way to the public was inestimable, for they were thus admitted into the very secret recesses of the artist’s soul, and permitted to form an estimate of the ensemble of his work which would have been impossible under any other conditions. It is hardly necessary to say that all had sent their very best work, and in some cases that best was beyond all praise for its beauty, its sentiment, and its truth to nature.
It is too early to predict just what will be the ultimate effect of the new movement, but all true lovers of art will watch its course with the most sympathetic interest, and with the hope that the same high standard of endeavor which has marked its advent will continue to guide its future movements. It is not probable that the old system of state-aided art will disappear in a moment, for it is too deeply rooted in the prejudices of the guild quickly to be overcome. But that is not necessary, nor perhaps desirable. It is sufficient that the impetus has been given to a new and better order of things. The wheel has been set moving, and, though it may move slowly, it is permitted us to hope that it will not stop until it has ridden clear of all the old prejudices, and the new corruption which was so infinitely more to be feared, and has placed the art of the future upon a plane with the best and highest intelligence of the age.