French Art – Dubois

M. PAUL DUBois, for example, in the characteristics just alluded to, presents the greatest possible contrast to Chapu ; but he will never, we may be sure, give us a work that could be called insignificant. His work will always express himself, and his is a personality of very positive idiosyncrasy. M. Dubois, indeed, is probably the strongest of the Academic group of French sculptors of the day. The tomb of General Lamoricière at Nantes has remained until recently one of the very finest achievements of sculpture in modern times. There is in effect nothing markedly superior in the Cathedral of St. Denis, which is a great deal to say — much more, indeed, than the glories of the Italian Renaissance, which lead us out of mere momentum to forget the French, permit one to appreciate. In-deed, the sculpture of M. Dubois seems positively to have but one defect, a defect which from one point of view is certainly a quality, the defect of impeccability. It is at any rate impeccable ; to seek in it a blemish, or, within its own limitations, a distinct shortcoming, is to lose one’s pains. As workmanship, and workmanship of the subtler kind, in which every detail of surface and structure is perceived to have been intelligently felt (though rarely enthusiastically rendered), it is not merely satisfactory, but visibly and beautifully perfect. But in the category in which M. Dubois is to be placed that is very little ; it is always delightful, but it is not especially complimentary to M. Dubois, to occupy one’s self with it. On the other hand, by impeccability is certainly not here meant the mere success of expressing what one has to express—the impeccability of Canova and his successors, for ex-ample. The difficulty is with M. Dubois’s ideal, with what he so perfectly expresses. In the last analysis this is not his ideal more than ours. And this, indeed, is what makes his work so flawless in our eyes, so impeccable. It seems as if of what he attempts he attains the type itself ; everyone must recognize its justness.

The reader will say at once here that I am cavil-ling at M. Dubois for what I praised in Chapu. But let us distinguish. The two artists belong to wholly different categories. Chapu’s inspiration is the antique spirit. M. Dubois, is, like all academic French sculptors, except Chapu indeed, absolutely and integrally a romanticist, completely enamoured of the Renaissance. The two are so distinct as to be contradictory. The moment M. Dubois gives us the type in a ” Florentine Minstrel,” to the exclusion of the personal and the particular, he fails in imaginativeness and falls back on the conventional. The type of a “Florentine Minstrel” is infallibly a convention. M. Dubois, not being occupied directly with the ideal, is bound to carry his subject and its idiosyncrasies much farther than the observer could have foreseen. To rest content with expressing gracefully and powerfully the notion common to all connoisseurs is to fall short of what one justly exacts of the romantic artist. Indeed, in exchange for this one would accept very faulty work in this category with resignation. Whatever we may say or think, however we may admire or approve, in roman-tic art the quality that charms, that fascinates, is not adequacy but unexpectedness. In addition to the understanding, the instinct demands satisfaction. The virtues of ” Charity” and “Faith ” and the ideas of ” Military Courage ” and ” Meditation ” could not be more adequately illustrated than by the figures which guard the solemn dignity of General Lamoricière’s sleep. There is a certain force, a breadth of view in the general conception, something in the way in which the sculptor has taken his task, closely allied to real grandeur. The confident and even careless dependence upon the unaided value of its motive, making hardly any appeal to the fancy on the one hand, and seeking no poignant effect on the other, endues the work with the poise and purity of effortless strength. It conveys to the mind a clear impression of manliness, of qualities morally refreshing.

But such work educates us so inexorably, teaches us to be so exacting ! After enjoying it to its and our utmost, we demand still something else, some-thing more moving, more stirring, something more directly appealing to our impulse and instinct. Even in his free and charming little ” St. John Baptist” of the Luxembourg, and his admirable bust of Baudry one feels like asking for more freedom still, for more ” swing.” Dubois certainly is the last artist who needs to be on his guard against “letting himself go.” Why is it that in varying so agree-ably Renaissance themes—compare the “Military Courage” and Michael Angelo’s ” Pensiero,” or the

Charity ” and the same group in Della Quercia’s fountain at Sienna—it is restraint, rather than audacity, that governs him ? Is it caution or perversity ? In a word, imaginativeness is what permanently interests and attaches, the imaginativeness to which in sculpture the ordinary conventions of form are mere conditions, and the ordinary conventions of idea mere material. One can hardly apply generalities of the kind to M. Dubois without saying too much, but it is nevertheless true that one may illustrate the grand style and yet fail of being intimately and acutely sympathetic ; and M. Dubois, to whose largeness of treatment and nobility of conception no one will deny something truly suggestive of the grand style, does thus fail. It is not that he does not possess charm, and charm in no mean proportion to his largeness and nobility, but for the elevation of these into the realm of magic, into the upper air of spontaneous spiritual activity, his imagination has, for the romantic imagination which it is, a trifle too much self-possession—too much sanity, if one chooses. He has the ambitions, the faculties, of a lyric poet, and he gives us too frequently recitative.

( Originally Published 1892 )

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