Poor “Fada”! The “innocent,” the inoffensive fool as they christened that unfortunate man of genius, Adolphe Monticelli, in the dialect of the South, the slang of Marseilles where he spent the last sixteen years of his life. The richest colourist of the nineteenth century, obsessed by colour, little is known of this Monticelli, even in these days when an artist’s life is subjected to inquisitorial methods. Few had written of him in English before W. E. Henley and W. G. Brownell. In France eulogised by Théophile Gautier, in favour at the court, admired by Diaz, Daubigny, Troyon, and Delacroix, his hopes were cracked by the catastrophe of the Franco-Prussian war. He escaped to Marseilles, there to die poor, neglected, half mad. Perhaps he was to blame for his failures; perhaps his temperament was his fate. Yet to-day his pictures are sought for as were those of Diaz two decades ago, though there was a tacit conspiracy among dealers and amateurs not to drag his merits too soon before the foot-lights. In 1900 at the Paris Exposition a collection of his works, four being representative, opened the eyes of critics and public alike. It was realised that Monticelli had not received his proper ranking in the nineteenth-century theatre of painting; that while he owed much to Watteau, to Turner, to Rousseau, he was a master who could stand or fall on his own merits. Since then the Monticelli pictures have been steadily growing in favour.
There is a Monticelli cult. America can boast of many of his most distinguished specimens, while the Louvre and the Luxembourg are without a single one. The Musée de Lille at MarseiIIes has several examples; the private collections of M. Delpiano at Cannes and a few collections in Paris make up a meagre list. The Comparative Exhibition in New York, 1904, revealed to many accustomed to overpraising Diaz and Fromentin the fact that Monticelli was their superior as a colourist, and a decorator of singularly fascinating characteristics, one who was not always a mere contriver of baccahanalian riots of fancy, but who could exhibit when at his best a justesse of vision and a controlled imagination.
The dictionaries offer small help to the student as to the doings of this erratic painter. He was born October 24, 1824. He died June 29, 1886. He was of mixed blood, Italian and French. His father was a gauger, though Adolphe declared that he was an authentic descendant of the Crusader, Godefroy Monticelli, who married in 1100 Aurea Castelli, daughter of the Duca of Spoleto. Without doubt his Italian blood counted heavily in his work, but whether of noble issue matters little. Barbey d’Aurevilly and Villiers de l’Isle Adam, two men of letters, indulged in similar boasts, and no doubt in their poverty and tribulations the oriflamme of aristocracy which they bravely bore into the café life of Paris was a source of consolation to them. But it is with brains, not blood, that painters mix their pigments, and the legend of high birth can go with the other fictions reported by Henley that Monticelli was an illegitimate offshoot of the Gonzagas; that he was the natural son of Diaz; that Diaz kept him a prisoner for years, to “steal the secret of his colours.”
Like many another of his temperament, he had himself to thank for his woes, though it was a streak of ill-luck for him when the Prussians bore down on Paris. He was beginning to be known. A pupil of Raymond Aubert (1 781-1857), he was at first a “fanatic of Raphael and Ingres” Delacroix and his violently harmonised colour masses settled the future colourist. He met Diaz and the) got on very well together, A Southerner, hand-some, passionate, persuasive, dashing, with the eloquence of the meridional, Monticelli and his musical name made friends at court and among powerful artists. In 1870 he started on his walk of thirty-six days from Paris to Marseilles. He literally painted his way. In every inn he shed masterpiece. Precious gold dripped from his palette, and throughout the Rhone valley there are, it is whispered – by white-haired old men the memory of whose significant phrases awakes one in the middle of the night longing for the valley of Durance that if a resolute, keen-eyed adventurer would traverse unostentatiously the route taken by Monticelli during his Odyssey the rewards might be great. It is an idea that grips one’s imagination, but unfortunately it is an idea that gripped the imagination of others thirty years ago. Not an auberge, hotel, or hamlet has been left unexplored. The fine-tooth comb of familiar parlance has been sedulously used by interested persons. If there are any Monticellis unsold nowadays they are for sale at the dealers.
In him was incarnate all that we can conceive as bohemian, with a training that gave him the high-bred manner of a seigneur. He was a romantic, like his friend Félix Ziem Ziem, Marcellin, Deboutin, and Monticelli represented a caste that no longer exists; bohemians, yes, but gentle-men, refined and fastidious. Yet, after his return to his beloved Marseilles, Monticelli led the life of an august vagabond. In his velvet coat, a big rimmed hat slouched over his eyes, he patrolled the quays, singing, joking, an artless creature, so good-hearted and irresponsible that he was called “Fada,” more in affection than contempt. He painted rapidly, a picture daily, sold it on the terrasses of the cafés for a hundred francs, and when he couldn’t get a hundred he would take sixty. Now one must pay thousands for a canvas. His most loving critic, Camille Mauclair, who, above any one, has battled valiantly for his art, tells us that Monticelli once took eighteen francs for a small canvas because the purchaser had no more in his pocket! In this manner he disposed of a gallery. He smoked happy pipes and sipped his absinthe in his case as desperate an enemy as it had proved to De Musset. He would always doff his hat at the mention of Watteau or Rubens. They were his gods.
When Monticelli arrived in Marseilles after his tramp down from Paris he was literally in rags. M. Chave, a good Samaritan, took him to a shop and togged him out in royal raiment. They left for a promenade, and then the painter begged his friend to let him walk alone so as not to attenuate the effect he was bound to produce on the passers-by, such a childish, harmless vanity had he. His delight was to gather a few chosen ones over a bottle of old vintage, and thus with spasmodic attempts at work his days rolled by, He was feeble, semi-paralysed. With the advent of bad health vanished the cunning of his hand. His paint coarsened, his colours became crazier. His pictures at this period were caricatures of his former art. Many of the early ones were sold as the productions of Diaz, just as to-day some Diazs are palmed off as Monticellis. After four years of decadence he died, repeating for months before his taking off: ” Je viens de la lune.” He was one whose brain a lunar ray had penetrated; but this ray was transposed to a spectrum of gorgeous hues. Capable of depicting the rainbow, he died of the opalescence that clouded his glass of absinthe.
It is only a coincidence, yet a curious one, that two such dissimilar spirits as Stendhal and Monticelli should have predicted their future popularity. Stendhal said: “About 1880 I shall be understood.” Monticelli said in 187o: “I paint for thirty years hence.” Both prophecies have been realised. After the exhibition at Edinburgh and Glasgow in 1890 Monticelli was placed by a few discerning critics above Diaz in quality of paint. In 1892 Mr. Brownell said of Monticelli in his French Art a book that every student and amateur of painting should possess that the touch of Diaz, patrician as it was, lacked the exquisiteness of Monticelli’s; though he admits the “exaggeration of the decorative impulse” in that master. For Henley Monticelli’s art was purely sensuous; “his fairy meadows and enchanted gardens are that sweet word `Mesopotamia’ in two. dimensions.” Hen-ley speaks of his “clangours of bronze and gold and scarlet” and admits that “there are moments when his work is as infallibly decorative as a Persiancrock or a Japanese brocade.” D. S. Mac Coll, in his study of Nineteenth-Century Painting, gives discriminating praise: “Monticelli’s own exquisite sense of grace in women and invention in grouping add the positive new part without which his art would be the mannerising of Rousseau, while Arthur Symons in his Studies in Seven Arts declares all Monticelli’s art “tends toward the effect of music, his colour is mood his mood is colour.”
It remained, however, for Camille Mauclair, a Parisian critic in sympathy with the arts of design, literature, and music, to place Monticelli in his proper niche. This Mauclair has done with critical tact. In his Great French Painters, the bias of which is evidently strained in favour of the impressionistic school, in his L’Impressionisme, and in his monograph on Watteau this critic declares that Monticelli’s art “recalls Claude Lorraine a little and Watteau even more by its sentiment, and Turner and Bonington by its colour. His work has the same subtlety of gradations, the same division into fragments of tones (as in Watteau’s “Embarkment for Cythera”), the same variety of execution, which has sometimes the opaqueness of china and enamel and sometimes the translucence of precious stones or the brilliancy of glass, metal, or oxides and seems to be the result of some mysterious chemistry.. Monticelli had an absolutely unique perception of tonalities, and his glance took in certain shades which had not been observed before, which the optic and chromatic science of the day has placed either by proof or hypothesis between the principal tones of the solar spectrum thirty years after Monticelli had fixed them. There is magic and high lyric poetry in his art.” I wrote of the Monticellis exhibited at the Comparative Exhibition in New York : ” At the opposite end of the room there is A Summer Day’s Idyll, upon which Monticelli had squeezed all his flaming tubes. It seems orchestrated in crushed pomegranate, the light suffusing the reclining figures like a jewelled benediction. Marvellous, too, are the colour-bathed creatures in this No Man’s Land of drugged dreams. Do not the walls fairly vibrate with this wealth of fairy tints and fantasy?” But it must not be forgotten that he struck other chords besides blazing sun-worshipping. We often encounter landscapes of vaporous melancholy, twilights of reverie.
Monticelli once told an admiring young amateur that in his canvases “the objects are the decorations, the touches are the scales, and the light is the tenor,” thereby acknowledging himself that he felt colour as music. There was hyperæsthesia in his case; his eyes were protuberant and, like the ears of violinists, capable of distinguishing quarter tones, even sixteenths. There are affiliations with Watteau; the same gem-like style of laying on the thick pate, the same delight in fairy-like patches of paint to represent figures. In i860. he literally resuscitated Watteau’s manner, adding a personal note and a richness hitherto unknown to French paint. Mauclair thinks that to Watteau can be traced back the beginnings of modern Impressionism; the division of tones, the juxtaposition of tonalities. Monticelli was the connecting link between Watteau and Monet. The same critic does not hesitate to name Monticelli as one of the great quartet of harmonists, Claude, Turner, Monet being the other three. Taine it was who voiced the philosophy of Impressionism when he announced in his Philosophie de l’Art that the principal personage in a picture is the light in which all things are plunged. Eugène Carrière also asserted that a “picture is the logical development of light.” Monticelli before him had said. “Ina painting one must sound the C. Rembrandt, Rubens, Watteau, all the great ones have sounded the C.” His C, his key-note, was the magic touch of luminosity that dominated his. picture. Like Berlioz, he adored colour for colour’s sake. He had a touch all Venetian in his relation of tones; at times he went in search of chromatic adventures, returning with the most marvellous trophies. No man before or since, not even those practitioners of dissonance and martyrs to the enharmonic scale, Cézanne, Gauguin, or Van Gogh, ever matched and modulated such widely disparate tints; no man before could extract such magnificent harmonies from such apparently irreconcilable tones. Monticelli thought in colour and was a master of orchestration, one who went further than Liszt.
The simple-minded Monticelli had no psychology to speak of he was a reversion, a “throw back” to the Venetians, the decorative Venetians, and if he had possessed the money or the leisure –he hadn’t enough money to buy any but small can-vases he might have become a French Tiepolo, and perhaps the greatest decorative artist of France. Even his most delicate pictures are largely felt and sonorously executed; not “finished” in the studio sense, but complete two different things.
Fate was against him, and the position he might have had was won by the gentle Puvis de Chavannes, who exhibited a genius for decorating monumental spaces. With his fiery vision, his brio of execution, his palette charged with jewelled radiance, Monticelli would have been the man to have changed the official interiors of Paris. His energy at one period was enormous, consuming, though short-lived -1865-75. His lack of self-control and at times his Italian superficiality, never backed by a commanding intellect, produced the Monticelli we know. In truth his soul was not complicated. He could never have attacked the psychology of Zarathustra, Hamlet, or Peer Gynt. A Salome from him would have been a delightfully decorative minx, set blithely dancing in some many-hued and enchanted garden of Armida. She would never have worn the air of hieratic lasciviousness with which Gustave Moreau inevitably dowered her. There was too much joy of the south in Monticelli’s bones to concern himself with the cruel imaginings of the Orient or the grisly visions of the north. He was Oriental au fond; but it was the Orientalism of the Thousand and One Nights. He painted scenes from the Decameron, and his fates galantes may be matched with Watteau’s in tone. His first period was his most graceful; ivory-toned languorous dames, garbed in Second Empire style, languidly stroll in charming parks escorted by fluttering Cupids or stately cavaliers. The “decorative impulse” is here at its topmost. In his second period we get the Decameron series, the episodes from Faust, the Don Quixote recall, if you can, that glorious tableau with its Spanish group and the long, grave don and merry, rotund squire entering on the scene, a fantastic sky behind them.
Painted music! The ruins, fountains, statues, and mellow herbage aboundin this middle period. The third is less known. Extravagance began to rule; scarlet fanfares are sounded; amethysts and emeralds sparkle; yet there is more thematic variety. Voluptuous, perfumed, and semi-tragic notes were uttered by this dainty poet of the carnival of life. The canvas glowed with more reverberating and infernal lights, but lyric ever. Technique, fabulous and feverish, expended itself on flowers that were explosions of colours, on seductive marines, on landscapes of a rhythmic, haunting beauty the Italian temperament had become unleashed. Fire, gold, and purple flickered and echoed in Monticelli’s canvases. Irony, like an insinuating serpent, began to creep into this paradise of melting hues. The masterful gradations of tone became bewildered. Poison was eating the man’s nerves. He discarded the brush, and standing before his canvas he squeezed his tubes upon it, literally modelling his paint with his thumb until it almost assumed the relief of sculpture. What a touch he had! What a subtle prevision of modulations to be effected by the careless scratch of his nail or the whip of a knife’s edge! Remember, too, that originally he had been an adept in the art of design; he could draw as well as his peers. But he sacrificed form and observation and psychology to sheer colour. He, a veritable discoverer of tonesaided thereto by an abnormal vision became the hasty improviser, who at the last daubed his canvases with a pasty mixture, as hot and crazy as his ruined soul. The end did not come too soon. A chromatic genius went under, leaving but a tithe of the gleams that illuminated his brain. Alas, poor Fada!