French Art – Courbet And Bastien-lepage

IT is at least an approximation to ascribe the primacy of realism to Courbet, though ascriptions of the kind are at best approximations. Not only was he the first, or among the first, to feel the interest and importance of the actual world as it is and for what it is rather than for what it suggests, but his feeling in this direction is intenser than that of anyone else. Manet was preoccupied with the values of objects and spaces. Bastien-Lepage, while painting these with the most scrupulous fidelity, was nevertheless always attentive to the significance and import of what he painted. Courbet was a pure pan-theist. He was possessed by the material, the physical, the actual. He never varies it a hair’s-breadth. He never lifts it a fraction of a degree. But by his very absorption in it he dignifies it immensely. He illustrates magnificently its possibilities. He brings out into the plainest possible view its inherent, integral, aesthetic quality, independent of any extraneity. No painter ever succeeded so well with so little art, one is tempted to say. Beside his, the love of nature which we ascribe to the ordinary realist is a superficial emotion. He had the sentiment of reality in the highest degree ; he had it in-tensely. If he did not represent nature with the searching subtlety of later painters, he is certainly the forerunner of naturalism. He has absolutely no ideality. He is blind to all intimations of immortality, all unearthly voices.

Yet it would be wholly an error to suppose him a mere literalist. No one is farther removed from the painstaking, grubbing imitators of detail so justly denounced and ridiculed by Mr. Whistler. He has the generalizing faculty in very distinguished degree, and in very large measure. Every trait of his talent, indeed, is large, manly ; but for a certain qualification—which must be made —one might add, Olympian. This qualification perhaps may be not unfairly described as earthiness—never an agreeable trait, and one to which probably is due the depreciation of Courbet that is so popular even among appreciative critics. It is easy to characterize Courbet as brutal and material, but what is easy is generally not exact. What one glibly stigmatizes as brutality and grossness may, after all, be something of a particularly strong savor, enjoyed by the painter himself with a gusto too sterling and instinctive to be justifiably neglected, much less contemned. The first thing to do in estimating an artist’s accomplishment, which is to place one’s self at his point of view, is, in Courbet’s case, unusually difficult. We are all dreamers, more or less—in more or less desultory fashion—and can all appreciate that prismatic turn of what is real and actual into a position wherein it catches glints of the imagination. The imagination is a universal touchstone. The sense of reality is a special, an individual faculty. When one is poetizing in an amateur, a dilettante way, as most of us poetize, a picture of Courbet, which seems to flaunt and challenge the imagination in virtue of its defiant reality, its insistence on the value and significance of the prosaic and the actual, appears coarse and crude. It is not, however. It is very far from that. It is rather elemental than elementary—in itself a prodigious distinction. No modern painter has felt more intensely and reproduced more vigorously the sap that runs through and vivifies the various forms of natural phenomena. To censure his shortcomings, to regret his imaginative incompleteness, is to miss him altogether.

It is easy to say he had all the coarseness without the sentiment of the French peasantry, whence he sprang ; that his political radicalism attests a lack of the serenity of spirit indispensable to the sincere artist ; that he had no conception of the beautiful, the exquisite—the fact remains that he triumphs over all his deficiencies, and in very splendid fashion. He is, in truth, of all the realists for whom he discovered the way, and set the pace, as it were, one of the two naturalistic painters who have shown in any high degree the supreme artistic faculty—that of generalization. However impressive Manet’s picture may be ; however brilliant Monet’s endeavor to, reproduce sunlight may seem ; however refined and elegant Degas’s delicate selection of pictorial material—for broad and masterful generalization, for enduing what he painted with an interest deeper than its surface and underlying its aspect, Courbet has but one rival among realistic painters. I mean, of course, Bastien-Lepage.

There is an important difference between the two. In Courbet the sentiment of reality dominates the realism of the technic ; in Bastien-Lepage the technic is realistically carried infinitely farther, but the sentiment quite transcends realism. Imagine Courbet essaying a ” Jeanne d’Arc !” Bastien-Lepage painting Courbet’s ” Cantonniers ” would not have stopped, as Courbet has done, with expressing their vitality, their actual interest, but at the same time that he represented them in far greater technical completeness he would also have occupied himself with their psychology. He is indeed quite as distinctly a psychologist as he is a painter. His favorite problem, aside from that of technical perfection, which perhaps equally haunted him, is the rendering of that resigned, bewildered, semi-hypnotic, vaguely and yet intensely longing spiritual expression to be noted by those who have the eyes to see it in the faces and attitudes now of the peasant laborer, now of the city pariah. All his peasant women are potentially Jeannes d’Arc—”Les Foins,” “Tired,” “Petite Fauvette,” for example. The “note” is still more evident in the “London Bootblack ” and the “Lon-don Flower-girl,” in which the outcast ” East End ” spiritlessness of the British capital is caught and fixed with a Zola-like veracity and vigor. Such a phase as this is not so much pictorial or poetic, as psychological. Bastien-Lepage’s happiness in rendering it is a proof of the exceeding quickness and sureness of his observation ; but his preoccupation with it is equally strong proof of his interest in the things of the mind as well as in those of the senses. This is his great distinction, I think. He beats the realist on his own ground (except perhaps Monet and his followers—I remember no attempt of his to paint sunlight), but he is imaginative as well. He is not, on the other hand, to be in anywise associated with the romanticists. Degas’s acid characterization of him, as ” the Bouguereau of the modern movement,” is only just, if we remember what very radical and fundamental changes the ” modern movement” implies in general attitude as well as in special expression. I should be inclined, rather, to apply the analogy to M. Dagnan-Bouveret, though here, too, with many reserves looking mainly to the difference between true and vapid sentiment.

It is interesting to note, however, the almost exclusively intellectual character of this imaginative side of Bastien-Lepage. He does not view his material with any apparent sympathy, such as one notes, or at all events divines, in Millet. Both were French peasants ; but whereas Millet’s interest in his fellows is instinctive and absorbing, Bastien-Lepage’s is curious and detached. If his pictures ever succeed in moving us, it is impersonally, in virtue of the camera-like scrutiny he brings to bear on his subject, and the effectiveness with which he renders it, and of the reflections which we institute of ourselves, and which he fails to stimulate by even the faintest trace of a loving touch or the betrayal of any sympathetic losing of himself in his theme. You feel just the least intimation of the doctrinaire, the systematic aloofness of the spectator. In moral attitude as well as in technical expression he no more assimilates the various phases of his material, to reproduce them afterward in new and original combination, than he expresses the essence of landscape in general, as the Fontainebleau painters do even in their most photographic moments. Both his figures and his landscapes are clearly portraits—typical and not merely individual, to be sure, but somehow not exactly creations. His skies are the least successful portions of his pictures, I think ; one must generalize easily to make skies effective, and perhaps it is not fanciful to note the frequency of high horizons in his work.

The fact remains that Bastien-Lepage stands at the head of the modern movement in many ways. His friend, M. André Theuriet, has shown, in a brochure published some years ago, that he was himself as interesting as his pictures. He took his art very seriously, and spoke of it with a dignity rather uncommon in the atmosphere of the studios, where there is apt to be more enthusiasm than reflection. I recall vividly the impatience with which he once spoke to me of painting ” to show what you can do.” His own standard was always the particular ideal he had formed, never within the reach of his ascertained powers. And whatever he did, one may say, illustrates the sincerity and elevation of this remark, whether one’s mood incline one to care most for this psychological side—undoubtedly the more nearly unique side—of his work, or for such exquisite things as his “Forge ” or the portrait of Mme Sarah Bernhardt. Incontestably he has the true tradition, and stands in the line of the great painters. And he owes his permanent place among them not less to his perception that painting has a moral and significant, as well as a representative and decorative sanction, than to his perfect harmony with his own time in his way of illustrating this—to his happy fusion of aspect admirably rendered with profound and stimulating suggestion.