French Art – An Outline Of French Art

FRENCH ART, at more than one period of its being so widely known, so justly celebrated, and exercising so great an influence on the Art of Northern Europe, has for a considerable time been completely ignored in England. Our national collections—with the one exception, so recent that it cannot be taken into account; of Hertford House—contain few examples of French pictures or sculptures later than the days of Poussin and Claude Lorraine, of Jean Goujon and Germain Pilon. And it is safe to say that no modern nation has been so ignorant of what French Art has accomplished in the last hundred years, as England.

Within the last decade, however, a remarkable awakening of interest has been manifested. This has been mainly due to two causes. First, to the efforts of private collectors, who have generously allowed the public to see the master-pieces in their possession of Corot and Rousseau, Millet, Diaz, Troyon, Daubigny, and many others. Secondly, to the extraordinary impulse given by the memorable Centennial Exhibition of 1889 in Paris, where a unique opportunity was afforded to the civilized world of studying the progress of French Art since the Revolution. English artists are now beginning to complain that it is not just that they should be forced to go out of their own country to study the work of their French brethren. And the English Art-loving public is slowly waking up to the fact, that a great and splendid expression of Art has existed and does still exist across the Channel—a national Art, as important, in many respects, as the Art of Italy and Spain, beyond which two countries a large majority never dream of looking.

Believing in the extreme importance and value of this artistic expression, both in the past and in the present, the endeavour of this book will be to supply English people with a guide, which will enable them not only to make fuller acquaintance with the works of Modern French artists, but enable them to judge French Art as a whole. A guide which will give them some insight into the history and development of French Art, which for 800 years has stood alone, individual and national, untouched by the schools of neighbouring nations. A guide which will show why it has flourished with such remarkable vigour, and what are the tendencies of race and soil which have contributed to its growth, and its often repeated renaissance.

We have therefore to ask, what are the influences which have fostered the growth of French Art? And by Art, Sculpture and Painting alone are not meant. In studying this subject it is necessary to take that wider acceptation of the term, which happily is obtaining more and more in modern days. We must not ignore Architecture, of which Sculpture was but the handmaid, until she grew strong enough to stand alone. Nor must we forget the miniatures, the medals, the ivories, the enamels, the decorative metal work. All these bear their part in French Art. All have helped in perfecting that expression of the artistic sense in France, which has set its stamp of exquisite taste and distinct artistic quality on all that the nation has produced, whether in the so-called ” Fine-Arts,” or in manufactures. The same artistic sense which has made French literature a model of form, distinction, and purity of diction to the whole world.

We believe that an intimate connection exists between the Art of a nation and its literature, and that both are influenced by its social and political conditions. We further believe that the intellectual and artistic activity of a nation is, to a very great extent, formed and modified by its geographic aspects. And in France it would seem that each province, differing widely in racial as well as in geographic character, has brought a distinct note of its own to add to the general harmony of the French genius.

In other nations we see that their Art has undoubtedly been affected by conditions of race, soil, and climate.

The blue sky and blue waves of Italy—its vines, and olives, and cypress groves, the grace and charm of its women, in whom the mysterious attraction of the goddess of antiquity seems to live afresh, were predestined to produce that most perfect flower of Art, which has made the whole country a shrine. And to that shrine a ceaseless stream of devotees have flocked for hundreds of years, paying eternal homage to eternal beauty. In Spain—the land of fierce adventure and passionate serenade, severe in its natural aspects, with a people of strongly-marked characteristics, tough as their own Toledo blades, gloomy and fanatical in their religion —we get the very key to Spanish Art. And the inexpressible charm which reigns over the English landscape —the sense of tranquil security—the country life and love of nature which are so closely bound up with the life of the whole nation—the deep, heavy colour—the moist verdure of hedgerow and pasture, woodland and moorland —to all these elements we owe our great landscape artists, who have so nobly interpreted the solid, steadfast, yet tender beauty of their country.

France is in some respects the most richly-dowered country on earth, both in the characteristics of her race and in the diversity of her natural gifts. And France has always captivated the world by her very contradictions. Despite momentary irritations and impatiences, she must always be, not only to her children, but to all who have once experienced her subtle charm, what she was called of old-” La douce France “. Her race, composed of many elements, has pre-served the characteristics of each, and gradually fused them into a harmonious whole.

From her Roman Conquerors, from the Latinized Gauls of Narbonne and Acquitaine, France derives, besides her language, the taste for unification and authority, precision, distinctness, lucidity. With their irruption into Gaul, the Burgundian tribes brought their skill as artizans from beyond the mountains. And ” the Gothic people almost immediately ” after their settlement in Acquitaine, manifested a singular ” aptitude for a yet higher civilization “. From her original inhabitants, the Gauls, she gets that courage which, as Sir James Stephen says, ” when unchilled by oppression and ” slavery was of an almost incomparable ardour. Keenly ” susceptible of every kind of impulse, impelled into speech ” and action by a restless constitutional vivacity, fickle of ” purpose, impatient of the tranquil rule of law, and involved ” in perpetual disunions with each other, this ingenious, ” volatile enthusiastic race might seem to have been moulded ” by the hand of nature herself, as a living antithesis to ” their Teutonic Conquerors (the Franks). The subtle, in-” sinuating, courteous Gaul despised, even while he obeyed, ” the sluggish, simple-minded German ; and found inexhaustible food for ridicule in his blunt speech and phlegmatic demeanour. The Gaul yielded himself recklessly to ” every gust of emotion. The German lived under the control of passions as measured in their outward manifestation, ” as they were fervent and enduring in reality. The Gaul was egregiously vain. The German neither rendered ” nor coveted any idolatrous homage, but meditating the interests of his nation, or his tribe, merged his own fame in ” theirs, and cheerfully abandoned his separate purposes to ” promote the designs of his associates in policy or in arms.”

Thus from the mercurial, emotional Gauls, and from their phlegmatic, but equally passionate Frankish Conquerors, France derives, besides courage, enthusiasm for noble causes, the desire for self-devotion, not exempt perhaps from a certain curiosity with regard to the affairs of others, her eloquence, her vivacity, and that imaginative faculty in which her children take refuge as an escape from the unhappy realities of life, which are too often their own handiwork.

The soil of France is as rich in diversities as the elements that go to make up her race. And, as with her race, these manifold diversities in no way impair that unity, which is the object France always has in view, and which is an absolute necessity to the French race.

At one extreme we find Flanders, with its wide expanse of flat, fertile country, inhabited by a stolid and masculine people. At the other, those provinces of the South, where the soft languor of nature, basking lazily in the sun, does not hinder the southern character from being vigorously equipped for the struggles or excitements of commerce or politics—even as the fierce mistral sweeps across the sunlit land. There is Brittany—the Armorica of the ancient Gauls —dreamy and passionate, with its mysterious landes, peopled with supernatural beings who form part of the everyday life of the Breton peasant. Brittany, with its robust and serious faith, which makes even the most sceptical bow his head as the Pardon passes by. Brittany, where the love even of the poorest is pervaded with an element of tender and religious sadness.

” Belle amie, ainsi vas de nous ” Ni vous sans moi, ni moi sans vous.”

Champagne, light and sparkling as its own wine. The Lyonnais, where, above the busy factories and workshops, rises the mystic spire of Notre Dame de Fourvières. Normandy, of fat pastures and racy legends ; whose faithful, hard-working race, despite their matter-of-fact appearance, are as solid and sturdy as the architecture that bears their name. Poitou, which Scaliger called the ” Soul of France ” ; a luminous centre of civilization in the dark ages of her history. The rugged, volcanic Auvergne, with its industrious people, the hewers of wood and drawers of water for the whole of France. Touraine where the language is so pure, the laugh so hearty and wholesome, and Chateaux and Palaces of King and Courtier lie scattered thick along her noble rivers. ” L’aimable et vineuse Bourgogne.” And Paris, where France finds her supreme expression.

The French soil, therefore, with its unique variations, has undoubtedly been a considerable factor in moulding the French race, formed in its turn of such diverse elements. And all outside attempts to destroy the whole that we call France, have only resulted in welding these various and widely differing particles into a great unity. For, although at times the very existence of France may appear to be imperilled by internal dissensions, all are forgotten if her integrity is menaced from without. And it is the actual exaggeration of that love of the Patrie—so admirable in itself—that leads France, at times, to make herself somewhat absurd in the eyes of calmer and less vivacious nations. For go where you will, place him in what circumstances you will, the Frenchman—be he from Normandy or Bordeaux, from Provence or from Brittany, remains essentially French ; and will always be more French than anything else.

Sensitive, quick-witted, impulsive, suspicious of other nations and ready to take offence, truly patriotic, believing in the absolute superiority of his own country over all others on earth, the Frenchman, that mixture of Latin, Gaul and Franc, is above all an Artist. His delight is in the expression of the beautiful in well-ordered form—whether in literature—in the Fine Arts—in the cooking of his food—or in the trimming of a bonnet. And this keen artistic sense, does not merely belong to the educated classes of France. It belongs to the very soil. It manifests itself in all parts of France. It has done so from the earliest days of her history. Those untaught, untrained, nameless monks, who covered the Cathedrals of Provence and Acquitaine, Flanders and l’Isle de France with sculpture, were sons of the people. If we examine the biographies of French artists, we find that a large proportion of those who have distinguished themselves in painting or sculpture, from the 15th century to the present day, have been the sons of poor peasants. In French literature it is the same. The most exquisite literary taste has been cradled in the peasant’s hut, or on the small farm. This has been seen during the last twenty years in the remarkable poetic revival in Provence ; where it has fallen out at the annual meeting of the Félibres, that the writer of the prize poem of the year cannot attend to receive her prize, because her father needs her help in the hay field.

Art in France is indeed the heritage of the people. And even where it does not attain that full expression which makes the Artist, the artistic sense, which belongs to France, makes itself felt in every industrial product, in every manufacture. Each dainty article de Paris that we buy for a few pence—each yard of stuff—besides being admirably well-made, possesses a certain distinction and grace, a harmony of colour and design, that in the course of centuries has made Paris the arbiter of fashion for the world. And do not let us treat this matter too lightly. It is not the result of mere chance, or of a passing fancy. A far deeper significance underlies it. For it is the evidence of forces which have won this position by some intrinsic merit of their own.

The French spirit is intensely articulate. Though the thought may not be of the deepest or the greatest, the expression of that thought, whether in Art or in literature, is always perfectly lucid ; put in the most admirable form ; and fearless, because deeply convinced. That love of the concrete rather than of the abstract, which leads France into the worship of an exaggerated bureaucratic system, of an excessive centralization, enables her also to see the goal clearly, and to make direct for it without hesitation or uncertainty. There is nothing tentative or nebulous in the works of Art or of literature that France has produced. That conscience in intellectual matters, which, as Matthew Arnold tells us, the Frenchman possesses in such an eminent degree—” his active belief that there is a right and a ” wrong in them, that he is bound to honour and obey the ” right, that he is disgraced by cleaving to the wrong “—is brought to bear on all that he does. It is to be seen and felt in his plays, his pictures, his buildings, his manufactures. And the reason why we go to France for our china, our jewels, our gowns, our stuffs—the reason why we are be-ginning to go to France for our pictures and our statues—is, that the production of each, whether costly or of no value, shows the evidence of that intellectual conscience, which for hundreds of years has trained and guided the taste of the whole nation.

The ground is ready—prepared by a series of fortuitous circumstances, by qualities of exceptional variety and value in race and soil. We have now to see what is the crop it brings forth.

French genius may be said to be the harmonious result of two tendencies which at first sight are contradictory. The taste for positive realizations, and imaginative sentiment. And French genius has always shown itself triumphant in the handling of those two primordial forms of Art, which are the outcome of these tendencies—Architecture, and its immediate successor Sculpture. The Gallo-Franc is by nature an architect and a sculptor. And no people have brought a more lively invention, a more sustained and closely reasoned logic, a more continuous power of renewal, of fresh growth, to bear on these two expressions of the esthetic idea, than the French.

The object of this book will be to give in as far as is possible, a consecutive history of the growth of French Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting from the 12th century to the present day. And to demonstrate that French Art has throughout been in sympathy with the national characteristics of the country, and of the people of France.

In Architecture we shall glance at the early styles.

The Romanesque of the Gallo-Roman provinces of Provence and Auvergne ; and the Romanesque or Norman of Bayeux and Caen. The Gothic, which had its origin in the very heart of France ; and the Flamboyant, which marks its beautiful decay. Then we shall watch the effect of the Italian Renaissance on French architects. The gradual development of the purely French style, in those Chateaux that clustered down the Loire like beads upon a rosary—those palaces that sprang up in and about Paris, now at length the real capital of the Kingdom. The magnificences, severe and official, of the reign of Louis XIV. The later Classic revival of the end of the 18th century. And we shall study the lives and aims of the brilliant line of architects from Bullant, De l’Orme and Pierre Lescot, from Le Vau and Mansart, Le Mercier and Perrault, to Fontaine and Percier, Labrouste and Visconti, Brongniart and Duban, Viollet-le-Duc and Charles Garnier.

We shall see how Sculpture, from being a mere accessory to Architecture, develops under the humanists of the French Renaissance into a noble and distinct art, in the hands of such masters as Jean Goujon, Germain Pilon, Pierre Bontemps.

It was a gradual development. And to trace it from its source is a task of deep interest and import.

Sculpture, up to the end of the 13th century was almost wholly religious. For Architecture till that period was almost exclusively in the hands of the Church, and was the expression of the religious idea. But as early as Louis le Gros’ accession in 1108 we get the first faint sign of Naturalism. It is shown primarily in ornament. The leaf of the French Arum appears in capitals. A little later we find it in the treatment of figures. And gradually the Byzantine ideal dies out, when Naturalist begins to take the place of Hieratic Art about 1150, as we may see in the figures of Bourges and Chartres.

In the reign of Philippe-Auguste (1180-1223), when Royalty and the Church turn to the laity for help, the great expansion of sculptural Art—the building of the Cathedrals—is reached. Gothic Art, strong, fertile, fully equipped, is ready to make its superb response to the extraordinary demands made upon it. And we find the sculptors of the 13th century are more than capable of carrying out the tremendous programme laid before them. For they now draw their inspiration, not from an effete Byzantinism, but from the wells of truth itself. And they create an original, national, living, expressive art, admirably suited to its object —” picturesque while it is grave, delicate while it remains ” monumental, an art at once free, ingenuous, flexible and ” varied, the eloquent interpreter of the religious thought ” which inspires it—the docile assistant of those architectural ” forms, of which its Mission is to accentuate the decorative ” functions “. And Sculpture, like Architecture, gradually becomes the exact expression of the habits, the climate, the social conditions, and the very race of France.

At the end of the 13th century, four great Schools of Sculpture, each bring their special territorial expression to the history of the Art—Champagne—Picardy—Burgundy—Ile de France. In the 14th century however, an important change takes place in Sculpture. Architecture has now become an exact Science. Sculpture, like Painting, turns towards a closer expression of reality. Art, as a whole, is tending towards Naturalism. We find what has been aptly called ” l’inquiétude du portrait “. And we see how this preoccupation with the exact portrait, which has been developing for half a century in the purely French provinces, gains a footing in Flanders, and thence spreads all over France. Sculptors now become known byname and gather schools about them. Jean d’Arras, to whose chisel we owe the earliest Royal statue in marble, that of Philippe le Hardi (1298-1307), the first of the superb series of authentic effigies of the Kings of France. André Beauneveu of Valenciennes. Jean de Cambrai, one of the strongest individualities in French Sculpture. And that great Flemish-Burgundian, Claux Sluter, whose Philippe le Hardi, Duke of Burgundy, at Dijon, has been justly compared as a work of art to some of the greatest statues of the 16th, 18th and 19th centuries.

This brings us to the end of the 15th century and the dawn of the French Renaissance ; to a strong territorial expression of French Art, the rise of the School of Tours, with that noble artist Michel Colombe at its head. And although it has been repeatedly asserted that this was a period of senility—that the French genius was worn out, and needed the infusion of new blood from Italy—later and less prejudiced research has demonstrated that the racial energy was so deeply rooted—the vital force of French Sculpture so intense —that it was able to maintain the continuity of a national ideal of Art—a logical evolution, through the Franco-Flemish, from the old Gothic foundation. In the early Renaissance period the architectural form remains Gothic. It is only ornament that becomes Italian for a time. And French Sculpture really bore the mark of Italy for a very short period. Under François I. (1515-1547) there was a pause, when Sculpture became purely decorative and architectural again. But this was only a pause to gather fresh strength. For it was followed by the great national revival under Henri II. (1547-1559), when French Art blossomed once more with renewed vigour ; and the permanent instincts of the race triumphed over formulas which seemed destined to obscure them for ever. That splendid period, when Philibert de l’Orme and Pierre Bontemps erected the world – famous tomb of François I.—when Germain Pilon sculptured his Birague—and the immortal Jean Goujon gave us the decorations of the Louvre and the Fontaine des Innocents, the Diane Chasseresse, and how many more masterpieces.

We then reach the Naturalist reaction under Louis XIII. and the successors of Germain Pilon. The ” Siècle de Louis XIV.” with its Girardon and Desjardins, its Pierre Pujet and Coysevox. The purely French Art of the 18th century with the Coustous, Bouchardon, Pigalle, the Caffieri, Pajou, Houdon. And so we come to the Revolution—the dawning of the 19th century—and all the noble Modern School of sculptors, from Rude and the great Barye, to Carpeaux and Falguière—Frémiet and Mercié—Guillaume and Chapu—Saint Marceaux and Rodin.

While speaking of Sculpture we must also give space to the series of French Medals—a form of Art flourishing during the Renaissance under Guillaume Martin, Guillaume Dupré, Jean Warin, and Germain Jacquet. And now carried to what seems the summit of artistic attainment, by Ponscarme, Michel Cazin, Dupuis, Chaplain, Patey, and that supreme master, Roty. And some mention must be made of the ivories, especially those of the 13th and 14th centuries ; when great and nameless artists produced such chefs-d’oeuvres as the Descente de Croix of the Louvre, the Couronnement de la Vierge, and the entrancing Vierge de la Sainte Chapelle.

In the history of French Painting, to which a great part of this book will naturally be devoted, considerable difficulty and obscurity exists when we attempt to trace its very beginnings. Sculpture and Architecture had reached a high point of attainment before painting began to hold its own in France. The earliest paintings are to be found in missals. The earliest existing portraits are-miniatures in manuscripts. And this exquisite art of miniature painting has flourished with almost unrivalled success in France, from anonymous monks in the 13th century, to Gerbier and Petitot in the 17th, Isabey, Guérin, Augustin, Frédéric Millet, etc., in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The long roll of authentic French artists begins in the 15th century, with Jehan Fouquet of Tours, and King René of Anjou. But the distinctive French School can hardly be said to exist before the 16th century, which opens gloriously with those renowned portrait artists the Clouets, Jean, and François his son, both ” peintres du roi ” ; with Jean Cousin, and Corneille de Lyon. While a little later, we find Simon Vouet, the father of French Orientalists ; the Le Nains, whose poignant pictures of the peasant seem to presage the work and aims of Jean François Millet, nearly 300 years before he lived ; and the great Poussin. In the 17th century under Louis XIV., artists take their profession seriously. The Academy is founded. And Art becomes aristocratic and official—depending on the King and the government for long years to come–under the system of unification and order, instituted by Louis XIV. and Colbert. And now such great names stand out in the crowd of painters as Gaspar Poussin (Dughet) and Claude Lorraine in landscape ; the lofty and delicate talent of Le Soeur ; Mignard, Largillière and Rigaud, and the triumphant Le Brun.

With the 18th century comes a reaction against officialism—a return to a gayer, softer, less rigid view of life and Art than that of the Grand Siècle. We delight in Watteau and Lancret, Chardin and Boucher, Greuze and Fragonard. While Nattier and Tocqué paint the powder and paint, the silks and satins of the society of Fêtes galantes. It is then that the first real intercourse takes place between Art and Letters, in the relations of the Philosophers and the artists. Art Criticism begins ; and Diderot talks of ” local colour “. Then the Revolution bursts upon the world. And we find that far from destroying Art, it is to the Revolution that Modern Art owes its life. For though in places, the mob destroyed many priceless works of Art, the chiefs of the Revolution did all in their power to preserve them. The Convention organized Museums and Schools of Art, instituted public exhibitions of pictures, fostered the Academy of Rome, created the Museum of the Louvre—and in short gave French Art that without which no Art can flourish—that of which it had so long been deprived—Liberty.

At the end of the 18th century we find a fresh Classic revival. Its history, the tendencies and the results of the Classic school of David and his successors, are of high importance in any study of the art of the 19th century. While the reaction against this false classicism, in the so-called Romantic movement under Géricault and Delacroix, is of even greater interest. In 1830 we reach the Naturalist revival—Corot and Rousseau, Dupré and Diaz, Daubigny, Harpignies, and Troyon, and all that they have taught the modern world. Then the painters of the Peasant—that evidence of the Democratic spirit of the age—the great Millet—the revolutionary Courbet—Bastien-Lepage, Jules Breton, and many more.

With the Military painters we again watch the evolution of the democratic idea—from Gros, Charlet, Raffet, and the Wars of Napoleon, to the terrible struggle of 1870, and its painters, De Neuville and Detaille.

The endless series of Genre painters we shall find sub-divided into many groups, as we study the painters of Still Life, the Neo-Greeks of 1848, the Modern Classics, the painters of History and literature, of everyday life, whether of town or country or sea-shore. And that living and growing school of Orientalists, which began with Simon Vouet in the 16th century, and numbers among its members such men as Delacroix, Decamps, Fromentin, Henri Regnault, and many another fine artist of the present day. The Portrait painters too repay serious study. And thus we reach the most modern developments of French Art. The Decorative painters, from Delacroix to the great master, Puvis de Chavannes. The Symbolists, Idealists, Mystics, such as Gustave Moreau, and Henri Martin. And lastly the Impressionist school of to-day, from Manet to Claude Monet.

All through the long centuries from 1100 to 1900, the vital energy of French Art, drawn from those varied elements of the race and soil of France, has enabled it to stand alone, to be itself. While invaded from time to time by foreign influences, such is the inherent vigour of the French race and French genius, that it has at last always succeeded in using those influences for its own ends, subordinating them to its own purposes, bending them to its service—not yielding up its own individuality to them.

French Art has been true to itself—true to the dominant characteristics of the French race.

As Joubert says ” En France, il semble qu’on aime les ” arts pour en juger bien plus que pour en jouir “. And so the French race has always been more intellectual than impressionable—more reasonable than moral–more literary than poetic—” éprise de clarté “—often putting a practical business capacity in the place of common-sense—finding its highest artistic pleasure in the perfect order of architectural lines—making unity the guiding principle of its politics, its literature, its art. But, in fine, always clinging with passionate devotion to what it takes for truth, and to that lucidity of expression which is one of the most admirable forms of self-respect.