French Art – Chapu

CHAPU, who died a year or two ago, is perhaps the only eminent sculptor of the time whose inspiration is clearly the antique, and when I add that his work appears to me for this reason none the less original, it will be immediately perceived that I share imperfectly the French objection to the antique. Indeed, nowadays to have the antique inspiration is to be original ex vi termini; nothing is farther removed from contemporary conventions. But this is true in a much more integral sense. The pre-eminent fact of Greek sculpture, for ex-ample, is, from one point of view, the directness with which it concerns itself with the ideal—the slight temporary or personal element with which it is alloyed. When one calls an artist or a work Greek, this is what is really meant ; it is the sense in which Raphael is Greek. Chapu is Greek in this way, and thus individualized among his contemporaries, not only by having a different inspiration from them, but by depending for his interest on no convention fixed or fleeting and on no indirect sup-port of accentuated personal characteristics. Perhaps the antiquary of a thousand years from now, to whom the traits which to us distinguish so clearly the work of certain sculptors who seem to have nothing in common will betray only their common inspiration, will be even less at a loss than ourselves to find traces of a common origin in such apparently different works as Chapu’s “Mercury” and his “Jeunesse” of the Regnault monument. He will by no means confound these with the classical productions of M. Millet or M. Cavelier, we may be sure. And this, I repeat, because their purely Greek spirit, the subordination in their conception and execution of the personal element, the direct way in which the sculptor looks at the ideal, the type, not only distinguish them among contemporary works, which are so largely personal expressions, but give them an eminent individuality as well. Like the Greek sculpture, they are plainly the production of culture, which in restraining wilfulness, however happily inspired, and imposing measure and poise, nevertheless acutely stimulates and develops the faculties themselves. The skeptic who may very plausibly inquire the distinction between that vague entity, “the ideal,” and the personal idea of the artist concerned with it, can be shown this distinction better than it can be expressed in words. He will appreciate it very readily, to return to Chapu, by contrasting the ” Jeanne d’Arc ” at the Luxembourg Gallery with such different treatment of the same theme as M. Bastien-Lepage’s picture, now in the New York Metropolitan Museum, illustrates. Contrary to his almost invariable practice of neglecting even design in favor of impersonal natural representation, Bastien-Lepage’s ” Jeanne d’Arc ” is the creature of wilful originality, a sort of embodied protest against conventionalism in historical painting ; she is the illustration of a theory, she is this and that systematically and not spontaneously ; the pre-dominance of the painter’s personality is plain in every detail of his creation. Chapu’s ” Maid ” is the ideal, more or less perfectly expressed she is everybody’s ” Maid,” more or less adequately em-bodied. The statue is the antipodes of the conventional much more so, even, to our modern sense, than that of Rude ; it suggests no competition with that at Versailles or the many other characterless conceptions that abound. It is full of expression —arrested just before it ceases to be suggestive ; of individuality restrained on the hither side of peculiarity. The “Maid” is hearing her “voices” as distinctly as Bastien-Lepage’s figure is, but the fact is not forced upon the sense, but is rather disclosed to the mind with great delicacy and the dignity becoming sculpture. No one could, of course, mistake this work for an antique—an error that might possibly be made, supposing the conditions favorable, in the case of Chapu’s ” Mercury ; ” but it presents, nevertheless, an excellent illustration of a modern working naturally and freely in the antique spirit.

It is as affecting, as full of direct appeal, as a modern work essays to be ; but its appeal is to the sense of beauty, to the imagination, and its effect is wrought in virtue of its art and not of its reality. No, individuality is no more inconsistent with the antique spirit than it is with eccentricity, with the extravagances of personal expression. Is there more individuality in a thirteenth-century grotesque than in the ” Faun ” of the Capitol ? For sculpture especially, art is eminently, as it has been termed, “the discipline of genius,” and it is only after the sculptor’s genius has submitted to the discipline of culture that it evinces an individuality which really counts, which is really thrown out in relief on the background of crude personality. And if there be no question of perfection, but only of the artist’s attitude, one has but to ask himself the real meaning of the epithet Shakspearian to be assured of the harmony between individuality and the most impersonal practice.

Nevertheless, this attitude and this perfection, characteristic as they are of Chapu’s work, have their peril. When the quickening impulse, of whose expression they are after all but conditions, fails, they suddenly appear so misplaced as to render insignificant what would otherwise have seemed “respectable ” enough work. Everywhere else of great distinction—even in the execution of so perfunctory a task as a commission for a figure of “Mechanical Art” in the Tribunal de Commerce—at the great Triennial Exposition of 1883 Chapu was simply insignificant. There was never a more striking illustration of the necessity of constant renewal of inspiration, of the constant danger of lapse into the perfunctory and the hackneyed, which threatens an artist of precisely Chapu’s qualities. Another of equal eminence escapes this peril ; there is not the same interdependence of form and ” content ” to be disturbed by failure in the latter ; or, better still, the merits of form are not so distinguished as to require imperatively a corresponding excellence of intention. In fact, it is because of the exceptional position that he occupies in deriving from the antique, instead of showing the academic devotion to Renaissance romanticism which characterizes the general movement of academic French sculpture, that in any consideration of this sculpture Chapu’s work makes a more vivid impression than that of his contemporaries, and thus naturally takes a foremost place.