French Art – Character And Origin

MORE than that of any other modern people French art is a national expression. It epitomizes very definitely the national æsthetic judgment and feeling, and if its manifestations are even more varied than are elsewhere to be met with, they share a certain character that is very salient. Of almost any French picture or statue of any modern epoch one’s first thought is that it is French. The national quite overshadows the personal quality. In the field of the fine arts, as in nearly every other in which the French genius shows itself, the results are evident of an intellectual co-operation which insures the development of a common standard and tends to subordinate idiosyncrasy. The fine arts, as well as every other department of mental activity, reveal the effect of that social instinct which is so much more powerful in France than it is anywhere else, or has ever been elsewhere, except possibly in the case of the Athenian republic. Add to this influence that of the intellectual as distinguished from the sensuous instinct, and one has, I think, the key to this salient characteristic of French art which strikes one so sharply and always as so plainly French. As one walks through the French rooms at the Louvre, through the galleries of the Luxembourg, through the unending rooms of the Salon he is impressed by the splendid competence everywhere displayed, the high standard of culture universally attested, by the overwhelming evidence that France stands at the head of the modern world aesthetically—but not less, I think, does one feel the absence of imagination, opportunity, of spirituality, of poetry in a word. The French themselves feel something of this. At the great Exposition of 1889 no pictures were so much admired by them as the English, in which appeared, even to an excessive degree, just the qualities in which French art is lacking, and which less than those of any other school showed traces of the now all but universal influence of French art. The most distinct and durable impression left by any exhibition of French pictures is that the French aesthetic genius is at once admirably artistic and extremely little poetic.

It is a corollary of the predominance of the intellectual over the sensuous instinct that the true should be preferred to the beautiful, and some French critics are so far from denying this preference of French art that they express pride in it, and, indeed, defend it in a way that makes one feel slightly amateurish and fanciful in thinking of beauty apart from truth. A walk through the Louvre, however, suffices to restore one’s confidence in his own convictions. The French rooms, at least until modern periods are reached, are a demonstration that in the sphere of esthetics science does not produce the greatest artists—that something other than intelligent interest and technical accomplishment are requisite to that end, and that system is fatal to spontaneity. M. Eugène Véron is the mouthpiece of his countrymen in asserting absolute beauty to be an abstraction, but the practice of the mass of French painters is, by comparison with that of the great Italians and Dutchmen, eloquent of the lack of poetry that results from a scepticism of abstractions. The French classic painters—and the classic-spirit, in spite of every force that the modern world brings to its destruction, persists wonderfully in France—show little absorption, little delight in their subject. Contrasted with the great names in painting they are eclectic and traditional, too purely expert. They are too cultivated to in-vent. Selection has taken the place of discovery in their inspiration. They are addicted to the rational and the regulated. Their substance is never senti-mental and incommunicable. Their works have a distinctly professional air. They distrust what can-not be expressed ; what can only be suggested does not seem to them worth the trouble of trying to conceive. Beside the world of mystery and the wealth of emotion forming an imaginative penumbra around such a design as Raphael’s Vision of Ezekiel, for instance, Poussin’s treatment of essentially the same subject is a diagram.

On the other hand, qualities intimately associated with these defects are quite as noticeable in the old French rooms of the Louvre. Clearness, compactness, measure, and balance are evident in nearly every canvas. Everywhere is the air of reserve, of intellectual good-breeding, of avoidance of extravagance. That French painting is at the head of contemporary painting, as far and away incontestably it is, is due to the fact that it alone has kept alive the traditions of art which, elsewhere than in-France, have given place to other and more material ideals. From the first its practitioners have been artists rather than poets, have possessed, that is to say, the constructive rather than the creative, the organizing rather than the imaginative tempera-ment, but they have rarely been perfunctory and never common. French painting in its preference of truth to beauty, of intelligence to the beatific vision, of form to color, in a word, has nevertheless, and perhaps à fortiori, always been the expression of ideas. These ideas almost invariably have been expressed in rigorous form—form which at times fringes the lifelessness of symbolism. But even less frequently, I think, than other peoples have the French exhibited in their painting that contentment with painting in itself that is the dry rot of art. With all their addiction to truth and form they have followed this ideal so systematically that they have never suffered it to become mechanical, merely formal—as is so often the case elsewhere (in England and among ourselves, everyone will have remarked) in instances where form has been mainly considered and where sentiment happens to be lacking. Even when care for form is so excessive as to imply an absence of character, the form itself is apt to be so distinguished as itself to supply the element of character, and character consequently particularly refined and immaterial. And one quality is always present : elegance is always evidently aimed at and measurably achieved. Native or foreign, real or factitious as the inspiration of French classicism may be, the sense of style and of that perfection of style which we know as elegance is invariably noticeable in its productions. So that, we may say, from Poussin to Puvis de Chavannes, from Clouet to Meissonier, taste—a re-fined and cultivated sense of what is sound, estimable, competent, reserved, satisfactory, up to the mark, and above all, elegant and distinguished—has been at once the arbiter and the stimulus of excellence in French painting. It is this which has made the France of the past three centuries, and especially the France of today—as we get farther and farther away from the great art epochs—both in amount and general excellence of artistic activity, comparable only with the Italy of the Renaissance and the Greece of antiquity.

Moreover, it is an error to assume, because form in French painting appeals to us more strikingly than substance, that French painting is lacking in substance. In its perfection form appeals to every appreciation ; it is in art, one may say, the one universal language. But just in proportion as form in a work of art approaches perfection, or universality, just in that proportion does the substance which it clothes, which it expresses, seem unimportant to those to whom this substance is foreign. Some critics have even fancied, for example, that Greek architecture and sculpture—the only Greek art we know anything about—were chiefly concerned with form, and that the ideas behind their perfection of form were very simple and elementary ideas, not at all comparable in complexity and elaborateness with those that confuse and distinguish the modern world. When one comes to French art it is still more difficult for us to realize that the ideas underlying its expression are ideas of import, validity, and attachment. The truth is largely that French ideas are not our ideas ; not that the French who—except possibly the ancient Greeks and the modern Germans—of all peoples in the world are, as one may say, addicted to ideas, are lacking in them. Technical excellence is simply the inseparable accompaniment, the outward expression of the kind of esthetic ideas the French are enamoured of. Their substance is not our substance, but while it is perfectly legitimate for us to criticise their substance it is idle to maintain that they are lacking in sub-stance. If we call a painting by Poussin pure style, a composition of David merely the perfection of convention, one of M. Rochegrosse’s dramatic canvasses the rhetoric of technic and that only, we miss something. We miss the idea, the substance, behind these varying expressions. These are not the less real for being foreign to us. They are less spiritual and more material, less poetic and spontaneous, more schooled and traditional than we like to see associated with such adequacy of expression, but they are not for that reason more mechanical. They are ideas and substance that lend themselves to technical expression a thousand times more readily than do ours. They are, in fact, exquisitely adapted to technical expression.

The substance and ideas which we desire fully expressed in color, form, or words are, indeed, very exactly in proportion to our esteem of them, inexpressible. We like hints of the unutterable, suggestions of significance that is mysterious and import that is incalculable. The light that ” never was on sea or land ” is the illumination we seek. The ” Heaven,” not the atmosphere that “lies about us ” in our mature age as ” in our infancy,” is what appeals most strongly to our subordination of the intellect and the senses to the imagination and the sou]. Nothing with us very deeply impresses the mind if it does not arouse the emotions. Naturally, thus, we are predisposed insensibly to infer from French articulateness the absence of substance, to assume from the triumphant facility and felicity of French expression a certain insignificance of what is expressed. Inferences and assumptions based on temperament, however, almost invariably have the vice of superficiality, and it takes no very prolonged study of French art for candor and intelligence to perceive that if its substance is weak on the senti-mental, the emotional, the poetic, the spiritual side, it is exceptionally strong in rhetorical, artistic, cultivated, æsthetically elevated ideas, as well as in that technical excellence which alone, owing to our own inexpertness, first strikes and longest impresses us.

When we have no ideas to express, in a word, we rarely save our emptiness by any appearance of clever expression. When a Frenchman expresses ideas for which we do net care, with which we are temperamentally out of sympathy, we assume that his expression is equally empty. Matthew Arnold cites a passage from Mr. Palgrave, and comments significantly on it, in this sense. ” The style,” ex-claims Mr. Palgrave, ” which has filled London with the dead monotony of Gower or Harley Streets, or the pale commonplace of Belgravia, Tyburnia, and Kensington ; which has pierced Paris and Madrid with the feeble frivolities of the Rue Rivoli and the Strada de Toledo.” Upon which Arnold observes that ” the architecture of the Rue Rivoli expresses show, splendor, pleasure, unworthy things, perhaps, to express alone and for their own sakes, but it ex-presses them ; whereas, the architecture of Gower Street and Belgravia merely expresses the impotence of the architect to express anything.”

And in characterizing the turn for poetry in French painting as comparatively inferior, it will be understood at once, I hope, that I am comparing it with the imaginativeness of the great Italians and Dutchmen, and with Rubens and Holbein and Turner, and not asserting the supremacy in elevated sentiment over Claude and Corot, Chardin, and Cazin, of the Royal Academy, or the New York Society of American Artists. And so far as an absolute rather than a comparative standard may be applied in matters so much too vast for any hope of adequate treatment according to either method, we ought never to forget that in criticising French painting, as well as other things French, we are measuring it by an ideal that now and then we may appreciate better than Frenchmen, but rarely illustrate as well.

( Originally Published 1892 )

French Art:Classic Painting – Character And OriginClassic Painting – Claude And PoussinClassic Painting – Lebrun And LesueurClassic Painting – Louis QuinzeClassic Painting – Greuze And ChardinClassic Painting – David, Ingres, And PrudhonRomantic Painting – RomanticismRomantic Painting – Gericault And DelacroixRomantic Painting – The Fontainebleau GroupRomantic Painting – The Academic PaintersRead More Articles About: French Art