French Art – Gericault And Delacroix

GeRICAULT and Delacroix are the great names in-scribed at the head of the romantic roll. They will remain there. And the distinction is theirs not as awarded by the historical estimate ; it is personal. In the case of Géricault perhaps one thinks a little of “the man and the moment” theory. He was, it is true, the first romantic painter—at any rate the first notable romantic painter. His struggles, his steadfastness, his success—pathetically posthumous—have given him an honorable eminence. His example of force and freedom exerted an influence that has been traced not only in the work of Delacroix, his immediate inheritor, but in that of the sculptor Rude, and even as far as that of Millet—to all outward appearance so different in inspiration from that of his own tumultuous and dramatic genius. And as of late years we look on the stages of any evolution as less dependent on individuals than we used to, doubtless just as Luther was confirmed and supported on his way to the Council at Worms by the people calling on him from the house-tops not to deny the truth, Géricault was sustained and stimulated in the face of official obloquy by a more or less considerable æsthetic movement of which he was really but the leader and exponent.

But his fame is not dependent upon his revolt against the Institute, his influence upon his successors, or his incarnation of an æsthetic movement. It rests on his individual accomplishment, his personal value, the abiding interest of his pictures. ” The Raft of the Medusa ” will remain an admirable and moving creation, a masterpiece of dramatic vigor and vivid characterization, of wide and deep human interest and truly panoramic grandeur, long after its contemporary interest and historic importance have ceased to be thought of except by the æsthetic antiquarian. The Wounded Cuirassier ” and the “Chasseur of the Guard ” are not documents of æsthetic history, but noble expressions of artistic sapience and personal feeling.

What, I think, is the notable thing about both Géricault and Delacroix, however, as exponents, as the initiators, of romanticism, is the way in which they restrained the impetuous temperament they share within the confines of a truly classic reserve. Closely considered, they are not the revolutionists they seemed to the official classicism of their day. Not only do they not base their true claims to enduring fame upon a spirit of revolt against official and academic art-a spirit essentially negative and nugatory, and never the inspiration of any-thing permanently puissant and attractive—but, compared with their successors of the present day, in whose works individual preference and predilection seem to have a swing whose very freedom and irresponsible audacity extort admiration—compared with the confident temerariousness of what is known as modernité, their self-possession and sobriety seem their most noteworthy characteristics. Compared with the ” Bar at the Folies-Bergère,” either the ” Raft of the Medusa ” or the ” Convulsionists of Tangiers ” is a classic production. And the difference is not at all due to the forty years’ accretion of Protestantism which Manet represents as compared with the early romanticists. It is due to a complete difference in attitude. Géricault imbued himself with the inspiration of the Louvre. Delacroix is said always to have made a sketch from the old masters or the antique a preliminary to his own daily work. So far from flaunting tradition, they may be said to have, in their own view, restored it ; so far from posing as apostles of innovation, they may almost be accused of ” harking back “—of steeping themselves in what to them seemed best and finest and most authoritative in art, instead of giving a free rein to their own unregulated emotions and conceptions.

Géricault died early and left but a meagre product. Delacroix is par excellence the representative of the romantic epoch. And both by the mass and the quality of his work he forms a true connecting link between the classic epoch and the modern — in somewhat the same way as Prudhon does, though more explicitly and on the other side of the line of division. He represents culture—he knows art as well as he loves nature. He has a feeling for what is beautiful as well as a knowledge of what is true. He is pre-eminently and primarily a colorist—he is, in fact, the introducer of color as a distinct element in French painting after the pale and bleak reaction from the Louis Quinze decorativeness. His color, too, is not merely the prismatic coloration of what had theretofore been mere chiaro-oscuro ; it is original and personal to such a degree that it has never been successfully imitated since his day. Withal, it is apparently simplicity itself. Its hues are apparently the primary ones, in the main. It depends upon no subtleties and refinements of tints for its effectiveness. It is significant that the absorbed and affected Rossetti did not like it ; it is too frank and clear and open, and shows too little evidence of the morbid brooding and hysterical forcing of an arbitrary and esoteric note dear to the English pre-Raphaelites. It attests a delight in color, not a fondness for certain colors, hues, tints—a difference perfectly appreciable to either an unsophisticated or an educated sense. It has a solidity and strength of range and vibration combined with a subtle sensitiveness, and, as a result of the fusion of the two, a certain splendor that recalls Saracenic decoration. And with this mastery of color is united a combined firmness and expressiveness of design that makes Delacroix unique by emphasizing his truly classic subordination of informing enthusiasm to a severe and clearly perceived ideal—an ideal in a sense exterior to his purely personal expression. In a word, his chief characteristic—and it is a supremely significant trait in the representative painter of romanticism—is a poetic imagination tempered and trained by culture and refinement. When his audacities and enthusiasms are thought of, the directions in his will for his tomb should be re-membered too : ” Il n’y sera placé ni emblème, ni buste, ni statue ; mon tombeau sera copié très exactement sur l’antique, ou Vignoles ou Palladio, avec des saillies très prononcées, contrairement à tout ce qui se fait aujourd’hui en architecture.” “Let there be neither emblem, bust, nor statue on my tomb, which shall be copied very scrupulously after the antique, either Vignola or Palladio, with prominent projections, contrary to everything done today in architecture.” In a sense all Delacroix is in these words.

( Originally Published 1892 )

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