French Art – Careaux And Barye

CARPEAUX perhaps never did anything that quite equals the masterpiece of his master Rude. But the essential quality of the ” Chant du Départ” he assimilated so absolutely and so naturally that he made it in a way his own. He carried it farther, indeed. If he never rose to the grandeur of this superb group, and he certainly did not, he nevertheless showed in every one of his works that he was possessed by its inspiration even more completely than was Rude himself. His passion was the representation of life, the vital and vivifying force in its utmost exuberance, and in its every variety, so far as his experience could enable him to render it. He was infatuated with movement, with the attestation in form of nervous energy, of the quick translation of thought and emotion into interpreting attitude. His figures are, beyond all others, so thoroughly alive as to seem conscious of the fact and joy of pure existence. They are animated, one may almost say inspired, with the delight of muscular activity, the sensation of exercising the functions with which nature endows them. And accompanying this supreme motive and effect is a delightful grace and winningness of which few sculptors have the secret, and which suggest more than any one else Clodion’s decorative loveliness. An even greater charm of sprite-like, fairy attractiveness, of caressing and bewitching fascination, a more penetrating and seductive engagingness plays about Carpeaux’s “Flora,” I think, than is characteristic even of Clodion’s figures and reliefs. Carpeaux is at all events nearer to us, and if he has not the classic detachment of Clodion he substitutes for it a quality of closer attachment and more intimate appeal. He is at his best perhaps in the “Danse ” of the Nouvel Opéra façade, wherein his elfin-like grace and exuberant vitality animate a group care-fully, and even classically composed, exhibiting skill and restraint as well as movement and fancy. Possibly his temperament gives itself too free a rein in the group of the Luxembourg Gardens, in which he has been accused by his own admirers of sacrificing taste to turbulence and securing expressiveness at the expense of saner and more truly sculptural aims. But fancy the Luxembourg Gardens without “The Four Quarters of the World supporting the Earth.” Parisian censure of his exuberance is very apt to display a conventional standard of criticism in the critic rather than to substantiate its charge.

Barye’s place in the history of art is more nearly unique, perhaps, than that of any of the great artists. He was certainly one of the greatest of sculptors, and he had either the good luck or the mischance to do his work in a field almost wholly unexploited before him. He has in his way no rivals, and in his way he is so admirable that the scope of his work does not even hint at his exclusion from rivalry with the very greatest of his predecessors. A perception of the truth of this apparent paradox is the nearest one may come, I think, to the secret of his excellence. No matter what you do, if you do it well enough, that is, with enough elevation, enough spiritual distinction, enough transmutation of the elementary necessity of technical perfection into true significance — you succeed. And this is not the sense in which motive in art is currently belittled. It is rather the suggestion of Mrs. Browning’s lines :

” Better far Pursue a frivolous trade by serious means Than a sublime art frivolously.”

Nothing could be more misleading than to fancy Barye a kind of modern Cellini. Less than any sculptor of modern times is he a decorative artist. The small scale of his works is in great part due to his lack of opportunity to produce larger ones. Nowadays one does what one can, even the greatest artists ; and Barye had no Lorenzo de’ Medici for a patron, but, instead, a frowning Institute, which confined him to such work as, in the main, he did.

He did it con amore, it need not be added, and thus lifted it at once out of the customary category of such work. His bronzes were never articles de Paris, and their excellence transcends the function of teaching our sculptors and amateurs the lesson that ” household ” is as dignified a province as monumental, art. His groups are not essentially “clock-tops,” and the work of perhaps the greatest artist, in the line from Jean Goujon to Carpeaux can hardly be used to point the moral that ” clock-tops ” ought to be good. Cellini’s “Perseus” is really more of a “parlor ornament ” than Barye’s smallest figure.

Why is he so obviously great as well as so obviously extraordinary? one constantly asks himself in the presence of his bronzes. Perhaps because he expresses with such concreteness, such definiteness and vigor a motive so purely an abstraction. The illustration in intimate elaboration of elemental force, strength, passion, seems to have been his aim, and in everyone of his wonderfully varied groups he attains it superbly—not giving the beholder a symbol of it merely ; in no degree depending upon association or convention, but exhibiting its very essence with a combined scientific explicitness and poetic energy to which antique art alone, one may almost say, has furnished a parallel. For this, fauna served him as well as the human figure, though, could he have studied man with the facility which the Jardin des Plantes afforded him of observing the lower animals, he might have used the medium of the human figure more frequently than he did. When he did, he was hardly less successful ; and the four splendid groups that decorate the Pavillons Denon and Richelieu of the Louvre are in the very front rank of the heroic sculpture of the modern world.

( Originally Published 1892 )

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