French Art – Couture, Puvis De Chavannes, And Regnault

As one has, however, so often occasion to note in France —where in every field of intellectual effort the influence of schools and groups and movements is so great that almost every individuality, no mat-ter how strenuous, falls naturally and intimately into association with some one of them—there is every now and then an exception that escapes these categories and stands quite by itself. In modern painting such exceptions, and widely different from each other as the poles, are Couture and Puvis de Chavannes. Better than in either the true romanticists with the classic strain, or the academic romanticists with the classic temperament, the blending of the classic and romantic inspirations is illustrated in Couture. The two are in him, indeed; actually fused. In Puvis de Chavannes they appear in a wholly novel combination ; his classicism is absolutely unacademic, his romanticism unreal beyond the verge of mysticism, and so pre-occupied with visions that he may almost be called a man for whom the actual world does not exist —in the converse of Gautier’s phrase. His distinction is wholly personal. He lives evidently on an exceedingly high plane — dwells habitually in the delectable uplands of the intellect. The fact that his work is almost wholly decorative is not at all accidental. His talent, his genius if one chooses, requires large spaces, vast dimensions. There has been a great deal of rather profitless discussion as to whether he expressly imitates the primitifs or reproduces them sympathetically. But really he does neither ; he deals with their subjects occasionally, but always in a completely modern, as well as a thoroughly personal, way. His color is as original as his general treatment and composition. He had no schooling, in the École des Beaux Arts sense. A brief period in Henri Scheffer’s studio, three months under Couture, after he had begun life in an altogether different field of effort, yielded him all the explicit instruction he ever had. His real study was done in Italy, in the presence of the old masters of Florence. With this equipment he revolutionized modern decoration, established, at any rate, a new convention for it. His convention is a little definite, a little bald. One may discuss it apart from his own handling of it, even. It is a shade too express, too confident, too little careless both of tradition and of the typical qualities that secure permanence. In other hands one can easily imagine how insipid it might become. It has too little body, its scheme is too timorous, too vaporous to be handled by another. Puvis de Chavannes will probably have few successful imitators. But one must immediately add that if he does not found a school, his own work is, perhaps for that reason, at all events in spite of it, among the most important of the day. Quite unperturbed by current discussions, which are certainly of the noisiest by which the current of artistic development was ever deflected, he has kept on his way, and has finally won all suffrages for an æsthetic expression that is really antagonistic to the general æsthetic spirit of his time.

Puvis de Chavannes is, perhaps, the most interesting figure in French painting today. Couture is little more than a name. It is curious to consider why. Twenty years ago he was still an important figure. He had been an unusually successful teacher. Many American painters of distinction, especially, were at one time his pupils—Hunt, La Farge, George Butler. He theorized as much, as well—perhaps even better than—he painted. His “Entretiens d’atelier ” are as good in their way as his ” Baptism of the Prince Imperial.” He had a very distinguished talent, but he was too distinctly clever—clever to the point of sophistication. In this respect he was distinctly a man of the nineteenth century. His great work, “Romains de la Décadence,” created as fine an effect at the Centenary Exhibition of the Paris ‘World’s Fair in 1889 as it does in the Louvre, whence it was then transferred, but it was distinctly a decorative effect—the effect of a fine panel in the general mass of color and design ; it ruade a fine centre. It re-mains his greatest performance, the performance upon which chiefly his fame will depend, though as painting it lacks the quality and breadth of “Le Fauconnier,” perhaps the most interesting of his works to painters themselves, and of the “Day-Dreams” of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Its permanent interest perhaps will be the historical one, due to the definiteness with which it assigns Couture his position in the evolution of French painting. It shows, as everything of Couture shows, the absence of any pictorial feeling so profound and personal as to make an impression strong enough to endure indefinitely. And it has not, on the other hand, the interest of reality—that faithful and enthusiastic rendering of the external world which gives importance to and fixes the character of the French painting of the present day.

Had Regnault lived, he would have more adequately—or should I say more plausibly ?—marked the transition from romanticism to realism. Temperamentally he was clearly a thorough romanticist —far more so, for instance, than his friend Fortuny, whose intellectual reserve is always conspicuous. He essayed the most vehement kind of subjects, even in the classical field, where he treated them with truly romantic truculence. He was himself always, moreover, and ideally cared as little for nature as a fairy-story teller. In this sense he was more ro-mantic than the romanticists. His ” Automedon,” his portrait of General Prim, even his ” Salome,” are wilful in a degree that is either superb or superficial, as one looks at them ; but at any rate they are romantic à outrance. At the sanie time it was un-mistakably the aspect of things rather than their significance, rather than his view of them, that appealed to him. He was farther away from the classic inspiration than any other romanticist of his fellows ; and at the same time he cared for the external world more on its own account and less for its suggestions, than any painter of equal force before Courbet and Bastien-Lepage. The very fact that he was not, intellectually speaking, wholly dans son assiette, as the French say, shows that he was a genius of a transitional moment. One’s final thought of him is that he died young, and one thinks so not so much because of the dramatic tragedy of his taking off by possibly the last Prussian bullet fired in the war of 1870-71, as because of the essentially experimental character of his painting. Undoubtedly he would have done great things. And undoubtedly they would have been different from those that he did ; probably in the direction — already indicated in his most dignified performance—of giving more consistency, more vivid definiteness, more reality, even, to his already striking conceptions.