Practitioners of the noble art of illustration are, as we know, modest men, but no matter the degree of their modesty they are all distanced by the record in shyness still maintained by Constantin Guys. This artist was once a living protest against Goethe’s assertion that only fools are modest, and the monument recently erected to his memory in Paris is provocation enough to bring him ferrying across the Styx to enter a disclaimer in the very teeth of his admirers. So set in his anonymity was he that Charles Baudelaire, his critical discoverer, was forced to write a long essay about his work and only refer to the artist as C. G. The poet relates that once when Thackeray spoke to Guys in a London newspaper office and congratulated him on his bold sketches in the Illustrated London News, the fiery little man resented the praise as an outrage. Nor was this humility a pose. His life long he was morbidly nervous, as was Meryon, as was Cézanne; but he was neither half mad, like the great etcher, nor a cenobite, as was the painter of Aix. Few have lived in the thick of life as did Guys. To employ the phrase of Turgenieff, life, like grass, grew over his head. In the Crimean camps, on the Parisian boulevards, in London parks, Guys strolled, crayon in hand, a true reporter of things seen and an ardent lover of horses, soldiers, pretty women, and the mob. Baudelaire called him the soldier-artist. He resembled in his restless wanderings Poe’s man of the multitude, and at the end of a long life he still drew, as did Hokusai.
Who was he? Where did he receive his artistic training? Baudelaire did not tell, nor Théophile Gautier. He went through the Crimean campaign; he lived in the East, in London and Paris. Not so long ago the art critic Roger Marx, while stopping at Flushing, Holland, discovered his baptismal certificate, which reads thus: “Ernes-tus Adolphus Hyacinthus Constantinus Guys, born at Flushing December 3, 1805, of Elizabeth Bétin and François Lazare Guys, Commissary of the French Marine.” The baptism occurred January 26, 8o6, and revealed the fact that he had for godfather an uncle who held a diplomatic position. Guys told his friends that his full family name was Guys de Sainte-Hélène which may have been an amiable weakness of the same order as that of Barbey d’Aurevilly and of Villiers de l’Isle Adam, both of whom boasted noble parentage. However, Guys was little given to talk of any sort. He was loquacious only with his pencil, and from being absolutely forgotten after the downfall of the Second Empire to-day every scrap of his work is being collected, even fought for, by French and German collectors. Yet when the Nadar collection was dispersed, June, 19o9, in Paris, his aqua relies went for a few francs. Félix Fénéon and several others now own complete sets. In New York there are a few specimens in the possession of private collectors, though the Lenox Library, as a rule rich in such prints, has only reproductions to show.
The essay of Charles Baudelaire, entitled Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne, to be found in Volume III of his collected works (L’Art Romantique), remains thus far the standard reference study concerning Guys, though deficient in biographical details. Other critical studies are by Camille Mauclair, Roger Marx, Richard Muther, and
George Grappe; and recently Elizabeth Luther Cary in a too short but admirably succinct article characterised the Guys method in this fashion: “He defined his forms sharply and delicately, and used within his bounding line the subtlest variation of light and shade. His workmanship every-
where is of the most elusive character, and he is a master of the art of reticence.” Miss Cary further speaks of his “gentle gusto of line in motion, which lately has captivated us in the paintings of the Spaniard Sorolla, and long ago gave Botticelli and Carlo Crivelli the particular distinction they had in common.” Mauclair mentions “the most animated water-colour drawings of Guys, his curious vision of nervous elegance and expressive skill,” and names it the impressionism of 1845, while Dr. Muther christened him the Verlaine of the crayon because, like Verlaine, he spent his life between the almshouse and a hospital, so said the German critic. Furthermore, Muther believes it was no mere chance that made of Baudelaire his admirer; in both the decadent predominated – which is getting the cart before the horse. Rops, too, is recalled by Guys, who depicted the gay grisette of the faubourgs as well as the nocturnal pierreuse of the fortifications. “Guys exercised on Gavarni an influence which brought into being his Invalides du sentiment, his Lorettes vielles, and his Fourberies de femmes.”
It is not quite fair to compare Guys with Rops, or indeed with either Gavarni or Daumier. These were the giants of French illustration at that epoch. Guys was more the skirmisher, the sharpshooter, the reporter of the moment, than a creative master of his art. The street or the battlefield was his atelier; speed and grace and fidelity his chief claims to fame. He never practised his art within the walls of academies; the material he so vividly dealt with was the stuff of life. The very absence of school in his illustrations is their chief charm; a man of genius this, self-taught, and a dangerous precedent for fumblers or those of less executive ability. From the huge mass of his work being unearthed from year to year he may be said to have lived crayon in hand. He is the first of a long line of newspaper illustrators. His profession was soldiering, and legend has it that he accompanied Byron to Missolonghi. The official career of his father enabled the youth to see much of the world — Greece, the Balkans, Turkey, Persia, and perhaps India. On returning to France he became an officer of dragoons and for some time led the life of a dandy and man about town. With his memory, of which extraordinary tales are told, he must have stored up countless films of impressions, all of which were utilised years later.
In 1845 we find him installed at Paris, though no longer in the army. Then it was he began to design. He became contributor to many periodicals, among the rest the Illustrated London News and Punch. For the former journal he went to the Crimean war as accredited art correspondent. ,The portfolio containing the Crimean set is now most sought for by his admirers. He is said to have originated the expression “taken on the spot,” in the title of one of his instantaneous sketches. Few draughtsmen could boast his sure eye and manual dexterity. The Balaklava illustration is as striking in its way as Tennyson’s lines, though containing less of poetic heroism and more ugly realism. Like the trained reporter that he was, Guys followed a battle, recording the salient incidents of the engagement, not overemphasising the ghastliness of the carnage, as did Callot or Goya or Raffet, hut telling the truth as he saw it, with a phlegm more British and German than French. Though he had no Dutch blood in his veins, he was, like Huysmans, more the man of Amsterdam than the man of Paris. He noted the changing and shocking scenes of hospital life, and sympathy without sentimentality drops from his pen. He is drily humorous as he shows us some plumaged General peacocking on foot, or swelling with Napoleonic pride as he caracoles by on his horse. And such horses! Without a hint of the photographic realism of a Muybridge and his successors, Guys evokes vital horses and riders, those seen by the normal vision. The witching movement of beautiful Arabian steeds has not had many such sympathetic interpreters.
In Turkey he depicted episodes of daily life, of the courts of the Sublime Porte itself, of the fête of Bairam, which closes the fast of Ramadan. His Turkish women are not all houris, but they bear the stamp of close study. They are pretty, indolent, brainless creatures. In his most hurried crayons, pen-and-ink sketches, and aquarelles Guys is ever interesting. He has a magnetic touch that arrests attention and atones for technical shortcomings. Abbreviation is his watchword, his drawings are a species of shorthand notations made at red-hot tempo, yet catching the soul of a situation. He repeats himself continually, but, as M. Grappe says, Is never monotonous. In love with movement, with picturesque massing, and broad simple colour schemes, he naturally gravitated to battle-fields. In Europe society out of doors became his mania. Rotten Row, in the Bois, at Brighton or at Baden’ Baden, the sinuous fugues of his pencil reveal to succeeding generations how the great world once enjoyed itself or bored itself to death. No wonder Thackeray admired Guys. They were kindred spirits; both recognised and portrayed the snob mundane.
As he grew older Guys became an apparition in the life of Paris. The smash-up of the Empire destroyed the beloved world he knew so well. Poor, his principal pleasure was in memory; if he couldn’t actually enjoy the luxury of the rich he could reproduce its images on his drawing-pad. The whilom dandy and friend of Baudelaire went about dressed in a shabby military frock-coat. He had no longer a nodding acquaintance with the fashionable lions of Napoleon the Little’s reign, yet he abated not his haughty strut, his glacial politeness to all comers, nor his daily promenade in the Bois. A Barmecide feast this watching the pleasures of others more favoured, though Guys did not waste the fruits of his observation. At sixty-five he began to go down-hill. His habits had never been those of a prudent citizen, and as his earning powers grew less some imp of the per-verse entered his all too solitary life. With this change of habits came a change of theme. Hence-forth he drew filles, the outcasts, the scamps and convicts and the poor wretches of the night. He is now a forerunner of Toulouse-Lautrec and an entire school. This side of his career probably caused Dr. Muther to compare him with Paul Verlaine. Absinthe, the green fairy of so many poets and artists, was no stranger to Guys.
In 1885, after dining with Nadar, his most faithful friend, Guys was run over in the Rue du Havre and had his legs crushed. He was taken to the Maison Dubois, where he lived eight years longer, dying at the venerable age of eighty-seven, though far from being a venerable person. Astonishing vitality! He did not begin to draw, that is, for a living, until past forty. His method of work was simplicity itself, declare those who watched him at work. He seemingly improvised his aquarelles; his colour, sober, delicate, was broadly washed in; his line, graceful and modulated, does not suggest the swiftness of his execution. He could be rank and vulgar, and he was gentle as a refined child that sees the spectacle of life for the first time. The bitterness of Baudelaire’s flowers of evil he escaped until he was in senile decadence. In the press of active life he registered the shock of conflicting arms, the shallow pride of existence and the mere joy of living, all in a sane manner that will ever endear him to lovers of art.
George Moore tells the following anecdote of Degas: Somebody was saying he did not like Daumier, and Degas preserved silence for a long while. “If you were to show Raphael,” he said at last, “a Daumier, he would admire it he would take off his hat; but if you were to show him a Cabanel, he would say with a sigh, “That is my fault.’”
If you could show Raphael a croquis by Constantin Guys he would probably look the other way, but Degas would certainly admire and buy the drawing. Artist: Constantin Guys (1802 – 1892)Constantin GuysConstantin Guys @ Wikipedia