French Art – David, Ingres, And Prudhon

IT is the fashion to think of David as the painter of the Revolution and the Empire. Really he is Louis Seize. Historical critics say that he had no fewer than four styles, but apart from obvious labels they would be puzzled to tell to which of these styles any individual picture of his belongs. He was from the beginning extremely, perhaps absurdly, enamoured of the antique, and we usually associate addiction to the antique with the Revolutionary period. But perhaps politics are slower than the aesthetic movement ; David’s view of art and practice of painting were fixed unalterably under the reign of philosophism. Philosophism, as Carlyle calls it, is the ruling spirit of his work. Long before the Revolution—in 1774—he painted what is still his most characteristic picture—” The Oath of the Horatii.” His art developed and grew systematized under the Republic and the Empire ; but Napoleon, whose genius crystallized the elements of everything in all fields of intellectual effort with which he occupied himself, did little but formally ” consecrate,” in French phrase, the art of the painter of ” The Oath of the Horatii ” and the originator and designer of the “Fête ” of Robespierre’s ” Être Suprême.” Spite of David’s subserviency and that of others, he left painting very much where he found it. And he found it in a state of reaction against the Louis Quinze standards. The break with these, and with everything régence, came with Louis Seize, Chardin being a notable exception and standing quite apart from the general drift of the French æsthetic movement; and Greuze being only a pseudo-romanticist, and his work a variant of, rather than reactionary from, the artificiality of his day. Before painting could “return to nature,” before the idea and inspiration of true romanticism could be born, a reaction in the direction of severity after the artificial yet irresponsible riot of the Louis Quinze painters was naturally and logically inevitable. Painting was modified in the same measure with every other expression in the general recueillement that followed the extravagance in all social and intellectual fields of the Louis Quinze epoch. But in becoming more chaste it did not become less classical. Indeed, so far as severity is a trait of classicality—and it is only an associated not an essential trait of it—painting became more classical. It threw off its extravagances without swerving from the artificial character of its inspiration. Art in general seemed con-tent with substituting the straight line for the curve—a change from Louis Quinze to Louis Seize that is very familiar even to persons who note the transitions between the two epochs only in the respective furniture of each ; a Louis Quinze chair or mirror, for example, having a flowing outline, whereas a Louis Seize equivalent is more rigid and rectilinear.

David is artificial, it is to be pointed out, only in his ensemble. In detail he is real enough. And he always has an ensemble. His compositions, as compositions, are admirable. They make a total impression, and with a vigor and vividness that belong to few constructed pictures. The canvas is always penetrated with David—illustrates as a whole, and with completeness and comparative flawlessness, his point of view, his conception of the subject. This, of course, is the academic point of view, the academic conception. But, as I say, his detail is surprisingly truthful and studied. His picture—which is always nevertheless a picture—is as inconceivable, as traditional in its inspiration, as factitious as you like ; his figures are always sapiently and often happily exact. His portraits are absolutely vital characterizations. And in general his sculptural sense, his self-control, his perfect power of expressing what he deemed worth expressing, are really what are noteworthy in his pictures, far more than their monotonous coloration and the coldness and unreality of the pictures themselves, considered as moving, real, or significant compositions. In admiration of these it is impossible for us nowadays to go as far as even the romanticist, though extremely catholic, Gautier. They leave us cold. We have a wholly different ideal, which in order to interest us powerfully painting must illustrate — an ideal of more pertinence and appositeness to our own moods and manner of thought and feeling.

Ingres, a painter of considerably less force, I think, comes much nearer to doing this. He is more elastic, less devoted to system. Without being as free, as sensitive to impressions as we like to see an artist of his powers, he escapes pedantry. His subject is not ” The Rape of the Sabines,” but “The Apotheosis of Homer,” academic but not academically fatuitous. To follow the inspiration of the Vatican Stanze in the selection and treatment of ideal subjects is to be far more closely in touch with contemporary feeling as to what is legitimate and proper in imaginative painting, than to pictorialize an actual event with a systematic artificiality and conformity to abstractions that would surely have made the sculptor of the Trajan column smile. Yet I would rather have ” The Rape of the Sabines” within visiting distance than “The Apotheosis of Homer.” It is better, at least solider, painting. The painter, however dominated by his theory, is more the master of its illustration than Ingres is of the justification of his admiration for Raphael. The “Homer” attempts more, but it is naturally not as successful in getting as effective a unity out of its greater complexity. It is in his less ambitious pictures that the genius of Ingres is unmistakably evident—his heads, his single figures, his exquisite drawings almost in outline. His Odalisque ” of the Louvre is not as forceful as David’s portrait of Madame Récamier, but it is a finer thing. I should like the two to have changed subjects in this instance. His ” Source ” is beautifully drawn and modelled. In everything he did distinction is apparent. Inferior assuredly to David when he attempted the grand style, he had a truer feeling for the subtler qualities of style itself. All bis works are linearly beautiful demonstrations of his sincerity—his sanity indeed—in proclaiming that drawing is “the probity of art.”

With a few contemporary painters and critics, whose specific penetration is sometimes in curious contrast with their imperfect catholicity, he has recently come into vogue again, after having been greatly neglected since the romantic outburst. But he belongs completely to the classic epoch. Neither he nor his refined and sympathetic pupil, Flandrin, did aught to pave the way for the modern movement. Intimations of the shifting point of view are discoverable rather in a painter of far deeper poetic interest than either, spite of Ingres’s refinement and Flandrin’s elevation—in Prudhon. Prudhon is the link between the last days of the classic supremacy and the rise of romanticism. Like Claude, like Chardin, he stands somewhat apart ; but he has distinctly the romantic inspiration, constrained and regularized by classic principles of taste. He is the French Correggio in far more precise parallelism than Lesueur is the French Raphael. With a grace and lambent color all his own—a beautiful mother-of-pearl and opalescent tone underlying his exquisite violets and graver hues ; a color-scheme, on the one hand, and a sense of design in line and mass more suave and graceful than anything since the great Italians, on the other — he recalls the lovely chiaro – oscuro of the exquisite Parmesan as it is recalled in no other modern painter. Occupying, as incontestably he does, his own niche in the pantheon of painters, he nevertheless illustrates most distinctly and unmistakably the slipping away of French painting from classic formulas as well as from classic extravagance, and the tendency to new ideals of wider reach and greater tolerance—of more freedom, spontaneity, interest in “life and the world “—of a definitive break with the contracting and constricting forces of classicism. During its next period, and indeed down to the present day, French painting will preserve the essence of its classic traditions, variously modified from decade to decade, but never losing the quality in virtue of which what is French is always measurably the most classic thing going ; but of this next period certainly Prudhon is the precursor, who, with all his classic serenity, presàges its passion for ” storms, clouds, effusion, and relief.”

( 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