French Art – Greuze And Chardin

WITH Greuze and Chardin we are supposed to get into so different a sphere of thought and feeling that the change has been called a ” return to nature “—that ” return to nature ” of which we hear so much in histories of literature as well as of the plastic arts. The notion is not quite sound. Chardin is a painter who seems to me, at least, to stand quite apart, quite alone, in the development of French painting, whereas there could not be a more marked instance of the inherence of the classic spirit in the French aesthetic nature than is furnished by Greuze. The first French painter of genre, in the full modern sense of the term, the first true interpreter of scenes from humble life—of lowly incident and familiar situations, of broken jars and paternal curses, and buxom girls and precocious children—he certainly is. There is certainly nothing régence about him. But the beginning and end of Greuze’s art is convention. He is less imaginative, less romantic, less real than the painting his replaced. That was at least a mirror of the ideals, the spirit, the society, of the day. A Louis Quinze fan is a genuine and spontaneous product of a free and elastic aesthetic impulse beside one of his stereotyped sentimentalities.

The truth is, Greuze is as sentimental as a bull-finch, but he has hardly a natural note in his gamut. Nature is not only never his model, she is never his inspiration. He is distinctively a literary painter ; but this description is not minute enough. His conventions are those not merely of the littérateur, but of the extremely conventional littérateur. An artless platitude is really more artificial than a clever paradox ; it doesn’t even cast a side-light on the natural material with which it deals. Greuze’s genre is really a genre of his own—his own and that of kindred spirits since. It is as systematic and detached as the art of Poussin. The forms it embodies merely have more natural, more familiar associations. But compare one of his compositions with those of the little Dutch and Flemish masters, for truth, feeling, nature handled after her own suggestions, in-stead of within limits and on lines imposed upon her from without. By the side of Van Ostade or Brauer, for example, one of Greuze’s bits of humble life seems like an academic composition, quite out of touch with its subject, and, except for its art, absolutely lifeless and insipid.

In a word, his choice of subjects, of genre, is really no disguise at all of his essential classicality. Both ideally and technically, in the way he conceives and the way he handles his subject, he is only superficially romantic or real. His literature, so to speak, is as conventional as his composition. One may compare him to Hogarth, though both as a moralist and a technician a longo intervallo, of course. He is assuredly not to be depreciated. His scheme of color is clear if not rich, his handling is frank if not unctuous or subtly interesting, his composition is careful and clever, and some of his heads are admirably painted—painted with a genuine feeling for quality. But his merits as well as his failings are decidedly academic, and as a romanticist he is really masquerading. He is much nearer to Fragonard than he is to Edouard Frère even.

Chardin, on the other hand, is the one distinguished exception to the general character of French art in the artificial and intellectual eighteenth century. He is as natural as a Dutchman, and as modern as Vollon. As you walk through the French galleries of the Louvre, of all the canvases antedating our own era his are those toward which one feels the most sympathetic attraction, I think. You note at once his individuality, his independence of schools and traditions, his personal point of view, his preoccupation with the object as he perceives it. Nothing is more noteworthy in the history of French art, in the current of which the subordination of the individual genius to the general consensus is so much the rule, than the occasional exception—now of a single man, now of a group of men, destined to become in its turn a school—the occasional accent or interruption of the smooth course of slow development on the lines of academic precedent. Tyrannical as academic precedent is (and nowhere has it been more tyrannical than in French painting) the general interest in sthetic subjects which a general subscription to academic precedent implies is certainly to be credited with the force and genuineness of the occasional protestant against the very system that has been powerful enough to popularize in-definitely the subject both of subscription and of re-volt. Without some such systematic propagandism of the æsthetic cultus as from the first the French Institute has been characterized by, it is very doubtful if, in the complexity of modern society, the interest in æsthetics can ever be made wide enough, universal enough, to spread beyond those immediately and professionally concerned with it. The immense impetus given to this interest by a central organ of authority, that dignifies the subject with which it occupies itself and draws attention to its value and its importance, has, à priori, the manifest effect of leading persons to occupy themselves with it, also, who otherwise would never have had their attention drawn to it. It would scarcely be an exaggeration to say, in other words, that but for the Institute there would not be a tithe of the number of names now on the roll of French artists. When art is in the air—and nothing so much as an academy produces this condition—the chances of the production of even an unacademic artist are immensely in-creased.

So in the midst of the Mignardise of Louis Quinze painting it is only superficially surprising to find a painter of the original force and flavor of Chardin. His wholesome and yet subtle variations from the art à la mode of his epoch might have been painted in the Holland of his day, or in our day anywhere that art so good as Chardin’s can be produced, so far as subject and moral and technical attitude are concerned. They are, in quite accentuated contra-distinction from the works of Greuze, thoroughly in the spirit of simplicity and directness. One notes in them at once that moral simplicity which predisposes everyone to sympathetic appreciation. The special ideas of his time seem to pass him by unmoved. He has no community of interest with them. While he was painting his still life and domestic genre, the whole fantastic whirl of Louis Quinze society, with its aesthetic standards and accomplishments-accomplishments and standards that imposed themselves everywhere else—was in agitated movement around him without in the least affecting his serene tranquillity, his almost sturdy composure. There can rarely have been such an instance as he affords of an artist’s selecting from his environment just those things his own genius needed, and rejecting just what would have hampered or distracted him. He is as sane, as unsentimental, as truthful and unpretending as the most literal and unimaginative Dutchman of his time or before it ; but he has also that feeling for style, and that instinct for avoiding the common and unclean which always seem to pre-vent French painters from ” sinking with their subject,” as Dutch painters have been said to do. He seems never to let himself go either in the direction of Greuze’s literary and sentimental manipulation of his homely material, or in the direction of supine satisfaction with this material, unrelieved and unelevated by an individual point of view, illustrated by the Brauers and Steens and Ostades. One perceives that what he cared for was really art itself, for the æsthetic aspect and significance of the life he painted. Affectionate as his interest in it evidently was, he as evidently thought of .its artistic potentialities, its capability of being treated with refinement and delicacy, and of being made to serve the ends of beauty equally well with the conventionally beautiful material of his fan-painting con-temporaries. He looked at the world very originally through and over those round, horn-bowed spectacles of his, with a very shrewd and very kindly and sympathetic glance, too ; quite untinctured with prejudice or even predisposition. One can read his artistic isolation in his countenance with a very little exercise of fancy.

( 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