French Art – Academic Painters

But quite aside from the group of poetic painters which stamped its impress so deeply upon the romantic movement at the outset, that to this day it is Delacroix and Millet, Decamps and Corot whom we think of when we think of the movement itself, the classic tradition was preserved all through the period of greatest stress and least conformity by painters of great distinction, who, working under the romantic inspiration and more or less according to what may be called romantic methods, nevertheless possessed the classic temperament in so eminent a degree that to us their work seems hardly less academic than that of the Revolution and the Empire. Not only Ingres, but Delaroche and Ary Scheffer, painted beside Géricault and Delacroix. Ary Scheffer was an eloquent partisan of romantic-ism, yet his ” Dante and Beatrice ” and his ” Temptation of Christ ” are admirable only from the academic point of view. Delaroche’s ” Hemicycle ” and his many historical tableaux are surely in the classic vein, however free they may seem in subject and treatment by contrast with the works of David and Ingres. They leave us equally cold, at all events, and in the same way—for the same reason. They betray the painter’s preoccupation with art rather than with nature. They do, in truth, differ widely from the works which they succeeded, but the difference is not temperamental. They suggest the French phrase, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Gérôme, for example, feels the exhilaration of the free air of romanticism fanning his enthusiasm. He does not confine himself, as, born a decade or two earlier, certainly he would have done, to classic subject. He follows Decamps and Marilhat to the Orient, which he paints with the utmost freedom, so far as the choice of theme is concerned —descending even to the danse du ventre of a Turkish café. He paints historical pictures with a realism unknown before his day. He is almost equally famous in the higher class of genre subjects. But throughout everything he does it is easy to perceive the academic point of view, the classic temperament. David assuredly would never have chosen one of Gérôme’s themes ; but had he chosen it, he would have treated it in much the same way. Allowance made for the difference in time, in general feeling of the æsthetic environment, the change in ideas as to what was fit subject for representation and fitting manner of treating the same subject, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that Ingres would have sincerely applauded Gérôme’s “Cleopatra ” issuing from the carpet roll before Cæsar. And if he failed to perceive the noble dramatic power in such a work as the “Ave, Cæsar, morituri te salutant,” his failure would nowadays, at least among intelligent amateurs, be ascribed to an intolerance which it is one of the chief merits of the romantic movement to have adjudged absurd.

It is a source of really sthetic satisfaction to see everything that is attempted as well done as it is in the works of such painters as Bouguereau and Cabanel. Of course the feeling that denies them large importance is a legitimate one. The very excellence of their technic, its perfect adaptedness to the motive it expresses, is, considering the insignificance of the motive, subject for criticism ; inevitably it partakes of the futility of its subject-matter. Of course the personal value of the man, the mind, be-hind any plastic expression is, in a sense, the measure of the expression itself. If it be a mind interested in ” pouncet-box” covers, in the pictorial setting forth of themes whose illustration most intimately appeals to the less cultivated and more rudimentary appreciation of fine art—as indisputably the Madonnas and Charities and Oresteses and Bacchus Triumphs of M. Bouguereau do—one may very well dispense himself from the duty of admiring its productions. Life is short, and more important things, things of more significant import, demand attention. The grounds on which the works of Bouguereau and Cabanel are admired are certainly insufficient. But they are experts in their sphere. What they do could hardly be better done. If they appeal to a bourgeois, a philistine ideal of beauty, of interest, they do it with a perfection that is pleasing in itself. No one else does it half so well. To minds to which they appeal at all, they appeal with the force of finality ; for these they create as well as illustrate the type of what is admirable and lovely. It is as easy to account for their popularity as it is to perceive its transitory quality. But not only is it a mark of limitation to refuse all interest to such a work as, for example, M. Cabanas ” Birth of Venus,” in the painting of which a vast deal of technical expertness is enjoyably evident, and which in every respect of motive and execution is far above similar things done elsewhere than in France ; it is a still greater error to confound such painters as M. Cabanel and M. Bouguereau with other painters whose classic temperament has been subjected to the universal romantic influence equally with theirs, but whose production is as different from theirs as is that of the thorough and pure romanticists, the truly poetic painters.

The instinct of simplification is an intelligent and sound one. Its satisfaction is a necessary preliminary to efficient action of any kind, and indeed the basis of all fruitful philosophy. But in criticism this instinct can only be satisfied intelligently and soundly by a consideration of everything appealing to consideration, and not at all by heated and wilful, or superior and supercilious, exclusions. Catholicity of appreciation is the secret of critical felicity. To follow the line of least resistance, not to take into account those elements of a problem, those characteristics of a subject, to which, superficially and at first thought, one is insensitive, is to dispense one’ s self from a great deal of particularly disagreeable industry, but the result is only transitorily agreeable to the sincere intelligence. It is in criticism, I think, though no doubt in criticism alone, preferable to lose one’s self in a maze of perplexity—distressing as this is to the critic who appreciates the indispensability of clairvoyance in criticism—rather than to reach swiftly and simply a conclusion which candor would have foreseen as the inevitable and unjudicial result of following one’s own likes and whims, and one’s contentment with which must be alloyed with a haunting sense of in-security. In criticism it is perhaps better to keep balancing counter-considerations than to determine brutally by excluding a whole set of them because of the difficulty of assigning them their true weight. In this way, at least, one preserves the attitude of poise, and poise is perhaps the one essential element of criticism. In a word, that catholicity of sensitiveness which may be called mere impressionism, behind which there is no body of doctrine at all, is more truly critical than intolerant depreciation or unreflecting enthusiasm. “The main thing to do,” says Mr. Arnold, in a significant passage, ” is to get one’s self out of the way and let humanity judge.”

It is temptingly simple to deny all importance to painters who are not poetic painters. And the temptation is especially seductive when the prosaic painters are paralleled by such a distinguished succession of their truly poetic brethren as are the painters of the romantic epoch who are possessed of the classic temperament. But real criticism immediately suggests that prose has its place in painting as in literature. In literature we do not insist even that the poets be poetic. Poetic is not the epithet that would be applied, for instance, to French classic verse or the English verse of the eighteenth century, compared with the poetry, French or English, which we mean when we speak of poetry. Yet no one would think of denying the value of Dryden or even of Boileau. No one would even insist that, distinctly prosaic as are the qualities of Boileau—and I should say his was a crucial instance—he would have done better to abjure verse. And painting, in a wide sense, is just as legitimately the ex-pression of ideas in form and color as literature is the expression of ideas in words. It is perfectly plain that Meissonier was not especially enamoured of beauty, as Corot, as Troyon, as Decamps was. But nothing could be less critical than to deny Meissonier’s importance and the legitimate interest he has for every educated and intelligent person, in spite of his literalness and his insensitiveness to the element of beauty, and indeed to any truly pictorial significance whatever in the wide range of subjects that he essayed, with, in an honorable sense, such distinguished success.

Especially in America, I think, where of recent years we have shown an Athenian sensitiveness to new impressions, the direct descendants of the classic period of French painting have suffered from the popularity of the Fontainebleau group. Their legitimate attachment to art, instead of the Fontainebleau absorption in nature, has given them a false reputation of artificiality. But the prose element in art has its justification as well as the poetic, and it is witness of a narrow culture to fail in appreciation of its admirable accomplishment. The academic wing of the French romantic painting is marked precisely by a breadth of culture that is itself a source of agreeable and elevated interest. The neo-Grec painters are thoroughly educated. They lack the picturesque and unexpected note of their poetic brethren—they lack the moving and interpreting, the elevating and exquisite touch of these ; nay, they lack the penetrating distinction that radiates even from rusticity itself when it is inspired and transfigured as it appears in such works as those of Millet and Rousseau. But their distinction is not less real for being the distinction of cultivation rather than altogether native and absolute. It is perhaps even more marked, more pervasive, more directly associated with the painter’s aim and effect. One feels that they are familiar with the philosophy of art, its history and practice, that they are articulate and eclectic, that for being less personal and powerful their horizon is less limited, their purely intellectual range, at all events, and in many cases their æsthetic interest, wider. They have more the cultivated man’s bent for experimentation, for variety. They care more scrupulously for perfection, for form. With a far inferior sense of reality and far less felicity in dealing with it, their sapient skill in dealing with the abstractions of art is more salient. To be blind to their successful handling of line and mass and movement, is to neglect a source of refined pleasure. To lament their lack of poetry is to miss their admirable rhetoric ; to regret their imperfect feeling for decorativeness is to miss their delightful decorum.