FRENCH sculpture naturally follows very much the same course as French painting. Its beginnings, however, are Gothic, and the Renaissance emancipated rather than created it. Italy, over which the Gothic wave passed with less disturbing effect than anywhere else, and where the Pisans were doing pure sculpture when everywhere farther north sculpture was mainly decorative and rigidly architectural, had a potent influence. But the modern phases of French sculpture have a closer relation-ship with the Chartres Cathedral than modern French painting has with its earliest practice ; and Claux Sluters, the Burgundian Fleming who modelled the wonderful Moses Well and the tombs of Jean Sans Peur and Phillippe le Hardi at Dijon, among his other anachronistic masterpieces,exerted considerably greater influence upon his successors than the Touraine school of painting and the Clouets did upon theirs.
These works are a curious compromise between the Gothic and the modern spirits. Sluters was plainly a modern temperament working with Gothic material and amid Gothic ideas. In itself his sculpture is hardly decorative, as we apply the epithet to modern work. It is just off the line of rigidity, of insistence in every detail of its right and title to individuality apart from every other sculptured detail. The prophets in the niches of the beautiful Dijon Well, the monks under the arcades of the beautiful Burgundian tombs, have little relation with each other as elements of a decorative sculptural composition. They are in the same style, that is all. Each of them is in interest quite independent of the other. Compared with one of the Pisans’ pulpits they form a congeries rather than a composition. Compared with Goujon’s “Fountain of the Innocents” their motive is not decorative at all. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah asserts his individuality in a way the more sociable prophets of the Sistine Chapel would hesitate to do. They have a little the air of hermitsof artistic anchorites, one may say.
They are Gothic, too, not only in being thus sculpturally undecorative and uncomposed, but in being beautifully subordinate to the architecture which it is their unmistakable ancillary function to decorate in the most delightful way imaginablein being in a word architecturally decorative. The marriage of the two arts is, Gothically, not on equal terms. It never occurred, of course, to the Gothic architect that it should be. His ensemble was always one of which the chief, the overwhelming, one may almost say the sole, interest is structural. He even imposed the condition that the sculpture which decorated his structure should be itself architecturally structural. One figure of the portals of Chartres is almost as like another as one pillar of the interior is like its fellows ; for the reasoneminently satisfactory to the architectthat it discharges an identical function.
Emancipation from this thraldom of the architect is Sluters’s great distinction, however. He is modern in this sense, without going so farwithout going anything like so faras the modern sculptor who divorces his work from that of the architect with whom he is called upon to combine to the end of an ensemble that shall be equally agreeable to the sense satisfied by form and that satisfied by structure. His figures, subordinate as they are to the general architectural purpose and function of what they decorate, are not only not purely structural in their expression, stiff as they still are from the point of view of absolutely free sculpture ; they are, moreover, not merely unrelated to each other in any essential sense, such as that in which the figures of the Pisans and of Goujon are related ; they are on the contrary each and all wonderfully accentuated and individualized. Every ecclesiastic on the Dijon tombs is a character study. Every figure on the Well has a psychologic as well as a sculptural interest. Poised between Gothic tradition and modern feeling, between a reverend and august aesthetic conventionality and the dawn of free activity, Sluters is one of the most interesting and stimulating figures in the whole history of sculpture. And the force of his characterizations, the vividness of his conceptions, and the combined power and delicacy of his modelling give him the added importance of one of the heroes of his art in any time or country. There is something extremely Flemish in his sense of personality. A similar interest in humanity as such, in the individual apart from the type, is noticeable in the pictures of the Van Eycks, of Memling, of Quentin Matsys, and Roger Van der Weyden, wherein all idea of beauty, of composition, of universal appeal is subordinated as it is in no other artin that of Holland no more than in that of Italyto the representation in the most definite, precise, and powerful way of some intensely human personality. There is the same extraordinary concreteness in one of Matsys’s apostles and one of Sluters’s prophets.
Michel Colombe, the pupil of Claux and Anthoniet and the sculptor of the monument of François II., Duke of Brittany, at Nantes, the relief of “St. George and the Dragon ” for the Château of Gaillon, now in the Louvre, and the Fontaine de Beaune, at Tours, and Jean Juste, whose noble masterpiece, the Tomb of Louis XII. and Anne of Brittany, is the finest ornament of the Cathedral of St. Denis, bridge the distance and mark the transition to Goujon, Cousin, and Germain Pilon far more suavely than the school of Fontainebleau did the change from that of Tours to Poussin. Cousin, though the monument of Admiral Chabot is a truly marvellous work, witnessing a practical sculptor’s hand, is really to be classed among painters. And Germain Pilon’s compromise with Italian decorativeness, graceful and fertile sculptor as his many works show him to have been, resulted in a lack of personal force that has caused him to be thought on the one hand ” seriously injured by the bastard sentiment proper to the school of Fontainebleau,” as Mrs. Pattison some-what sternly remarks, and on the other to be reprehended by Germain Brice in 1718, for evincing quelque reste du goat gothiquesome reminiscence of Gothic taste. Jean Goujon is really the first modern French sculptor.
( Originally Published 1892 )
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