French Art – Historical And Portrait Painters

So thoroughly has the spirit of realism fastened upon the artistic effort of the present that temperaments least inclined toward interest in the actual feel its influences, and show the effects of these. The most recalcitrant illustrate this technically, however rigorously they may preserve their point of view. They paint at least more circumspectly, however they may think and feel. An historical painter like Jean Paul Laurens, interested as he is in the memorable moments and dramatic incidents of the past, and exhibiting as he does, first of all, a sense of what is ideally forceful and heroic, is nevertheless clearly concerned for the realistic value of his representation far more than a generation ago he would have been. When Luminais paints a scene from Gaulish legend, he is not quite, but nearly, as careful to make it pictorially real as he is to have it dramatically effective. M. François Flameng, expanding his book illustration into a mammoth canvas commemorative of the Vendean insurrection, is almost daintily fastidious about the naturalistic aspect of his abundant detail. M. Benjamin-Constant’s artificially conceived seraglio scenes are as realistically rendered as is indicated by a recent caricature depicting an astonished sneak – thief, foiled in an at-tempted rape of the jewels in a sultana’s diadem, painted with such deceptive illusoriness by M. Benjamin-Constant’s clever brush. The military painters, Detaille, De Neuville, Berne-Bellecour, do not differ from Vernet more by painting incidents instead of phases of warfare, by substituting the touch of dramatic genre for epic conceptions, than they do by the scrupulously naturalistic rendering that in them supplants the old academic symbolism. Their dragoons and fantassins are not merely more real in what they do, but in how they look. Vernet’s look like tin soldiers by comparison ; certainly like soldiers de convenance. Aimé Morot evidently used instantaneous photography, and his magnificent cavalry charges suggest not only carnage, but Muybridge as well.

The great portrait – painters of the day — Carolus-Duran, Bonnat, Ribot — are realists to the core. They are very far from being purely portrait-painters of course, and their realism shows itself with splendid distinction in other works. Few painters of the nude have anything to their credit as fine as the figure M. Carolus-Duran exhibited at the Paris Ex-position in 1889. Ribot’s ” Saint Sebastian” is one of the most powerful pictures of modern French art. Bonnat’s “Christ ” became at once famous. Each picture is painted with a vigor and point of realistic detail that are peculiar to our own time ; painted to-day, Bonnat’s fine and sculptural “Fellah Woman and Child,” of the Metropolitan Museum, would be accented in a dozen ways in which now it is not. But it is perhaps in portraiture that the eminence of these painters is most explicit. They are at the head of contemporary portraitists, at all events. And their portraits are almost defiantly real, void often of arrangement, and as little artificial as the very frequently prosaic atmosphere appertaining to their sometimes very stark subjects suggests. A portrait by Bonnat blinks nothing in the subject ; its aim and accomplishment are the rendering of the character in a vivid fashion—including the reproduction of cobalt cravats and creased trousers even — which would have mightily embarrassed Van Dyck or Velasquez. Ribot reproduces Ribera often, but he deals with fewer externals, fewer effects, taken in the widest sense. Carolus-Duran, the “swell” portrait-painter of the day, artificial as he may be in the quality of his mind, nevertheless seeks and attains, first of all, the sense of an even exaggerated life – likeness in his charming sitters. They are, first of all, people ; the pictorial element takes care of itself; sometimes even—so overmastering is the realistic tendency—the plush of the chair, the silk of the robe, the cut of the coat, seems, to an observer who thinks of the old traditions of Titian, of Raphael, of Moroni, unduly emphasized, even for realism.

( Originally Published 1892 )

French Art:Romantic Painting – Couture, Puvis De Chavannes, And RegnaultRealistic Painting – RealismRealistic Painting – Courbet And Bastien-lepageRealistic Painting – The Landscape Painters, Fromentin And GuillaumetRealistic Painting – Historical And Portrait PaintersRealistic PaintingRealistic Painting – Manet And MonetRealistic Painting – Impressionism, DegasRealistic Painting – The OutlookClassic Sculpture – Claux SlutersRead More Articles About: French Art