French Art – Claude And Poussin

FURTHERMORE, the qualities and defects of French painting —the predominance in it of national over individual force and distinction, its turn for style, the kind of ideas that inspire its substance, its classic spirit in fine—are explained hardly less by its historic origin than by the character of the French genius itself. French painting really began in connoisseurship, one may say. It arose in appreciation, that faculty in which the French have always been, and still are, unrivalled. Its syntheses were based on elements already in combination. It originated nothing. It was eclectic at the outset. Compared with the slow and suave evolution of Italian art, in whose earliest dawn its borrowed Byzantine painting served as a stimulus and suggestion to original views of natural material rather than as a model for imitation and modification, the painting that sprang into existence, Minerva-like, in full armor, at Fontainebleau under Francis I., was of the essence of artificiality. The court of France was far more splendid than, and equally enlightened with, that of Florence. The monarch felt his title to Mæcenasship as justified as that of the Medici. He created, accordingly, French painting out of hand—I mean, at all events, the French painting that stands at the beginning of the line of the present tradition. He summoned Leonardo, Andrea del Sarto, Rossi, Primaticcio, and founded the famous Fontainebleau school. Of necessity it was Italianate. It had no Giotto, Masaccio, Raphael behind it. Italian was the best art going ; French appreciation was educated and keen ; its choice between evolution and adoption was inevitable. It was very much in the position in which American appreciation finds itself to-day. Like our own painters, the French artists of the Renaissance found themselves familiar with master-pieces wholly beyond their power to create, and produced by a foreign people who had enjoyed the incomparable advantage of arriving at their artistic apogee through natural stages of growth, beginning with impulse and culminating in expertness.

The situation had its advantages as well as its drawbacks, certainly. It saved French painting an immense amount of fumbling, of laborious experimentation, of crudity, of failure. But it stamped it with an essential artificiality from which it did not fully recover for over two hundred years, until, in-sensibly, it had built up its own traditions and gradually brought about its own inherent development. In a word, French painting had an intellectual rather than an emotional origin. Its first practitioners were men of culture rather than of feeling ; they were inspired by the artistic, the constructive, the fashioning, rather than the poetic, spirit. And so evident is this inclination in even contemporary French painting–and indeed in all French æsthetic expression—that it cannot be ascribed wholly to the circumstances mentioned. The circumstances themselves need an explanation, and find it in the constitution itself of the French mind, which (owing, doubtless, to other circumstances, but that is extraneous) is fundamentally less imaginative and creative than co-ordinating and constructive.

Naturally thus, when the Italian influence wore itself out, and the Fontainebleau school gave way to a more purely national art ; when France had definitely entered into her Italian heritage and had learned the lessons that Holland and Flanders had to teach her as well ; when, in fine, the art of the modern world began, it was an art of grammar, of rhetoric. Certainly up to the time of Géricault painting in general held itself rather pedantically aloof from poetry. Claude, Chardin, what may be called the illustrated vers de société of the Louis Quinze painters— of Watteau and Fragonard—even Prudhon, did little to change the prevailing color and tone. Claude’s art is, in manner, thoroughly classic. His personal influence was perhaps first felt by Corot. He stands by himself, at any rate, quite apart. He was the first thoroughly original French painter, if indeed one may not say he was the first thoroughly original modern painter. He has been assigned to both the French and Italian schools—to the latter by Gallophobist critics, however, through a partisanship which in aesthetic matters is ridiculous ; there was in his day no Italian school for him to belong to. The truth is that he passed a large part of his life in Italy and that his landscape is Italianate. But more conspicuously still, it is ideal—ideal in the sense intended by Goethe in saying, ” There are no landscapes in nature like those of Claude.” There are not, in-deed. Nature has been transmuted by Claude’s alchemy with lovelier results than any other painter — save always Corot, shall I say ? — has ever achieved. Witness the pastorals at Madrid, in the Doria Gallery at Rome, the Dido and ,Aeneas ” at Dresden, the sweet and serene superiority of the National Gallery canvases over the struggling competition manifest in the Turners juxtaposed to them through the unlucky ambition of the great English painter. Mr. Ruskin says that Claude could paint a small wave very well, and acknowledges that he effected a revolution in art, which revolution ” consisted mainly in setting the sun in heavens.” ” Mainly ” is delightful, but Claude’s excellence consists in his ability to paint visions of loveliness, pictures of pure beauty, not in his skill in observing the drawing of wavelets or his happy thought of painting sunlight. Mr. George Moore observes ironically of Mr. Ruskin that his grotesque depreciation of Mr. Whistler—” the lot of critics ” being “to be remembered by what they have failed to understand ” —” will survive his finest prose passage.” I am not sure about Mr. Whistler. Contemporaries are too near for a perfect critical perspective. But assuredly Mr. Ruskin’s failure to perceive Claude’s point of view—to perceive that Claude’s aim and Stanfield’s, say, were quite different ; that Claude, in fact, was at the opposite pole from the botanist and the geologist whom Mr. Ruskin’s “reverence for nature” would make of every landscape painter—is a failure in appreciation than to have shown which it would be better for him as a critic never to have been born. It seems hardly fanciful to say that the depreciation of Claude by Mr. Ruskin, who is a landscape painter himself, using the medium of words instead of pigments, is, so to speak, professionally unjust.

” Go out, in the springtime, among the meadows that slope from the shores of the Swiss lakes to the roots of their lower mountains. There, mingled with the taller gentians and the white narcissus, the grass grows deep and free ; and as you follow the winding mountain paths, beneath arching boughs all veiled and dim with blossom—paths that forever droop and rise over the green banks and mounds sweeping down in scented undulation, steep to the blue water, studded here and there with new-mown heaps, filling the air with fainter sweetness—look up toward the higher hills, where the waves of ever-lasting green roll silently into their long inlets among the shadows of the pines.”

Claude’s landscape is not Swiss, but if it were it would awaken in the beholder a very similar sensation to that aroused in the reader of this famous passage. Claude indeed painted landscape in precisely this way. He was perhaps the first—though priority in such matters is trivial beside pre-eminence—who painted effects instead of things. Light and air were his material, not ponds and rocks and clouds and trees and stretches of plain and mountain outlines. He first generalized the phenomena of inanimate nature, and in this he remains still unsurpassed. But, superficially, his scheme wore the classic aspect, and neither his contemporaries nor his successors, for over two hundred years, discovered the immense value of his point of view, and the puissant charm of his way of rendering nature.

Poussin, however, was the incarnation of the classic spirit, and perhaps the reason why a disinterested foreigner finds it difficult to appreciate the French estimate of him is that no foreigner, however disinterested, can quite appreciate the French appreciation of the classic spirit in and for itself. But when one listens to expressions of admiration for the one French ” old master,” as one may call Poussin without invidiousness, it is impossible not to scent chauvinism, as one scents it in the German panegyrics of Goethe, for example. He was a very great painter, beyond doubt. And as there were great men before Agamemnon there have been great painters since Raphael and Titian, even since Rembrandt and Velasquez. He had a strenuous personality, moreover. You know a Poussin at once when you see it. But to find the suggestion of the infinite, the Shakesperian touch in his work seems to demand the imaginativeness of M. Victor Cherbuliez. When Mr. Matthew Arnold ventured to remark to Sainte-Beuve that he could not consider Lamartine as a very important poet, Sainte-Beuve replied : ” He was important to us.” Many critics, among them one severer than Sainte-Beuve, the late Edmond Scherer, have given excellent reasons for Lamartine’s absolute as well as relative importance, and perhaps it is a failure in appreciation on our part that is really responsible for our feeling that Poussin is not quite the great master the French deem him. Assuredly he might justifiably apply to himself the “Et-Ego-in-Arcadia” inscription in one of his most famous paintings. And the specific service he performed for French painting and the relative rank he occupies in it ought not to obscure his purely personal qualities, which, if not transcendent, are incontestably elevated and fine.

His qualities, however, are very thoroughly French qualities—poise, rationality, science, the artistic dominating the poetic faculty, and style quite outshining significance and suggestion. He learned all he knew of art, he said, from the Bacchus Torso at Naples. But he was eclectic rather than imitative, and certainly used the material he found in the works of his artistic ancestors as freely and personally as Raphael the frescos of the Baths of Titus, or Donatello the fragments of antique sculpture. From his time on, indeed, French painting dropped its Italian leading-strings. He might often suggest Raphael—and any painter who suggests Raphael inevitably suffers for it–but always with an individual, a native, a French difference, and he is as far removed in spirit and essence from the Fontainebleau school as the French genius itself is from the Italian which presided there. In Poussin, indeed, the French genius first asserts itself in painting. And it asserts itself splendidly in him.

We who ask to be moved as well as impressed, who demand satisfaction of the susceptibility as well as—shall we say rather than ?—interest of the intelligence, may feel that for the qualities in which Poussin is lacking those in which he is rich afford no compensation whatever. But I confess that in the presence of even that portion of Poussin’s magnificent accomplishment which is spread before one in the Louvre, to wish one’s self in the Stanze of the Vatican or in the Sistine Chapel, seems to me an unintelligent sacrifice of one’s opportunities.

( Originally Published 1892 )

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