THE paintings of the French school which hang in Gallery 50, on the long wall to the right and on the rear wall, are not many in number, nor do they give any measurable survey of French art.
This is all the more to be regretted because an opportunity was offered to have at least one period strongly represented. For Frederick the Great had been a passionate admirer of the French paintings of the first half of the eighteenth century, and as well an indefatigable and discerning collector of the works of Watteau, Lancret and Pater. But when in 1820 the Museum collection was founded and an opportunity was given to select paintings from the royal collections, this Rococo school was not regarded with any favour and only a very few paintings of this period were taken. Since then the royal collections have been closed and their treasures are barred.
French painting began in the fifteenth century with Jean Fouquet. The most notable man in the sixteenth century was Jean Clouet. Both were portrait painters. The religious Primitives are practically unknown outside of France.
With the seventeenth century the national art awoke. At first Italian influence was strong. Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), although he spent most of his life in Italy, still combined with an academic method of drawing his figures which he had acquired from the Carracci, and in which he out-distanced them, also an original love of nature which made him create the heroic, classic landscapes, peopled with Greek gods which are the foundation of the French landscape school.
The four canvases we find here by Nicolas Poussin are truly characteristic of his work. The best one is a ” Landscape of the Roman Campagna, with Matthew and the Angel ” (478A). All is grand and quiet, full of expression, consecrated. Gently the Tiber flows through the solitary plain, with the Evangelist seated upon a ruin of the old world, ready to herald the coming of the new dispensation. Other examples are scenes from mythology. In one (463), Juno is spreading the hundred eyes of Argus, who lies dead at her feet, over the tail of a peacock. A second (467) shows the infancy of Jupiter, where he is being nourished by the milk of the goat Amalthea, with the help of two nymphs and a satyr. The third (478) gives the figures of Helios, Phaeton, Saturn and the four seasons in a confused mingling which leaves the meaning beclouded. In all these works the figures show a leaning towards Greek statues, especially the heads are all built on a normal pattern. This gives his figures a peculiar classic feeling, with little animation. His thorough knowledge of antiquity is demonstrated by the correct drawing of Roman columns and other architectural remains. The landscape part, however, although suffering under the general mark of stiltedness, has still a genuine out-of-doors feeling, and is a far advance on what was being done in Italy.
His brother-in-law, Gaspard Dughet (1613-1675), adopted his name Poussin, and followed his method closely, emphasizing, however, more fully the landscape in his compositions. In his ” Roman Mountain-landscape ” (1626) the Monte Cavo and Grotta ferrata have a wild aspect, made joyous by golden sunlight.
Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) further developed landscape painting, and while still classic in his selections and sometimes even theatrical in composing, yet he infused more fully the spirit of atmosphere, of light, and the poetry of nature in his work. There is a feeling for beauty, free and unhampered, which more and more supersedes the rule of rote. A characteristic of his composition is the placing of a heavy clump of trees, or a temple building as a sidewing in the foreground, whereby the background appears so much deeper. His ” Italian Coastscene ” (448B) has a fine re-ceding motif of a gently rising ground, flanked by large trees, with the seashore and ships in the distance. The charm of it all lies in the soft, undulating light of the morning sun. The few small figures in the foreground were added by Filippo Lauri who generally painted figures in Claude’s landscapes. A socalled ” Heroic Landscape ” (428) has his usual setting, the dark sidewing of heavy trees obtrudes to the half of the canvas, leaving the other half for a far vista of undulating ground.
While these men were painting in Italy a coterie of artists were gathered in Paris at the court of Louis XIV, whose official painter was Charles Lebrun (1619-1690). He was the founder of the French Academy of Painters. and not only inspired but controlled and directed the artists who sought public recognition. An official cachet was thereby given to the work that was turned out for so we may well call it. It consisted of laudatory portraiture and grandiose historical paintings to glorify indirectly the reign of le Roi Soleil. The one characteristic word that applies to all the work of this period is pomposity. It applies to the large portrait-group of the family of the banker Eberhard Jabach (471), a noted art lover of his day, whose collection passed in 1672 to Louis XIV and forms to-day still an important part in the Louvre collections.
Still Lebrun did not have it all his own way. Pierre Mignard (1610-1695), who had studied in Rome, on his return to Paris became the rival of Lebrun in public favour. His ” Portrait of Marie Mancini ” (465. Plate XII ), a niece of Cardinal Mazarin, at the age of twenty, shows with all its grace and beauty a greater sincerity and simplicity than the assertive work of his opponent. Largillière (1656-1746) was more academic. his portrait of his father-in-law, the landscape painter Jean Forest (484A), is exceedingly conventional. A still later academic portrait painter was Antoine Pesne (1683-1757), who became court-painter in Berlin in 1711, and resided there until his death. He had much to do with the garnering of many of the valuable eighteenth century paintings which are today treasured at Sans-soucy, Charlottenburg, and other royal palaces and castles. The influence of the later Rococo tendency is seen in the portraits by Pesne which we find here, of ” Frederick the Great, as a Youth ” (489) and ,of the ” Artist with his two Daughters ” (496B).
If any time it was the eighteenth century when French artists were radically expressive of the character of their period. With the death of Louis XIV France entered upon a new era. Pomposity and arrogance were done away with, and a new life entered upon, less rigid, more joyous and gay, running every note in the scale of gallantry and coquetry, with all that was superficial and amusing. And artists interpreted its love of pleasure, its elegance, its easy morality. The grand style was over, the style of mediocrity and prudery; instead of magnificence came grace, instead of great ideals the fantasy of love-making and masquerade after the huge wigs and voluminous draperies of Rigaud and Largillière the powder and satin coats of Nattier and Tocqué. Then when the undertone of suffering and sorrow was heard amongst all that frivolity, as voiced in the philosophy of Diderot, Chardin, and, in a measure, Greuze, echoed his doctrines of humanity in their scenes of the bourgeoisie. And again the stern thunderroll of the Revolution called forth the classic Academicism of David and Ingres.
The first great painter of this dramatic century was Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). He was the originator of the school of gaiety and trifling which ushered in the eighteenth century. He painted irresponsible people passing their way through floral bowers and sylvan groves, laughing and courting, without the cares of a day. And he painted these in a novel way, original, decorative, charming; with a new freedom of laying on paint and using colours, unique as compared with anything that ever had been done in Italy.
There are four of his paintings in the Berlin Museum. The largest of these belongs to his most charming works. It is one of his ” Fêtes Champêtres ” (474B), a motley gathering of young men and maidens, strolling among the trees, dancing and singing, or withdrawn for murmuring and whispering where the doves also are cooing for it is towards evening and later the nightingales will be heard.
Two other paintings, pendants, give fantastic displays of costumed gallants and ladies in masks; the one called ” Love at the French Comedy ” (468), the other “Love at the Italian Comedy” (470). In this latter picture Watteau painted a group of those comedians who, banished from France by Louis XIV, were recalled twenty years later by the light-hearted, pleasure-loving Regent, Philippe, Duke of Orleans, and who figure so frequently in Watteau’s works. Gilles in white stands in the centre playing the guitar to Columbine, and around them the Doctor of Bologna, in black, Harlequin with his mask, and the clown Mezzetin holding a torch which effectively lights up this nocturnal scene. There are also other characters of the Italian comedy, among whom Scapin and Brighella. Nowhere else,” writes Claude Philips, ” is Watteau’s characterization of the comedy personages so keen or so humourous as here. The piece has an irresistible buoyancy, a contagious charm, which gives it a place apart even in his gallery of stage pictures.”
The fourth canvas shows a ” Breakfast al fresco ” (474A) of two ladies with their lovers, a work of great elegance, charm and grace.
A few minor men of that school are yet to be noted. Jean de Troy (1679-1752) has another breakfast scene (469), not quite so charming, and more like the genre of the next century. Jean Raoux (1677-1734), for the nonce, chooses a mythological theme, ” Cephalus and the wounded Procris ” (498A).
The man who during this period turned from the gay frivolity of the do-nothing classes, and pro-claimed, as Mirabeau was doing, the gospel of the common people a gospel which few heeded during his lifetime, was J. S. Chardin (1699-1779), whose genre is now recognized as among the most exquisite productions of the time. His example here is a ” Stillife,” a subject which he always introduced even in his figure compositions, and in which he rivalled the greatest of the Dutch still-life painters.
J. B. Greuze (1725-1805) also clung for his models to the lower orders, but he attenuated the effect of his work by sentimentalizing. The little ” Girl’s Head ” (494C), which we find here, is but one of a great many which he turned out, full of cloying sweetness and vapid sentiment. From Joseph Vernet (1712-1789), otherwise known as a marine painter, we have here a view of the ruins of the temple of Sybil at Tivoli (484).
( Originally Published 1912 )
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