French Art – Its Italianate Character

FROM Barye to the Institute is a long way. Nothing could be more interhostile than his sculpture and that of the professors at the École des Beaux-Arts. And in considering the French sculpture of the present day we may say that, aside from the great names already mentioned—Houdon, David d’Angers, Rude, Carpeaux, and Barye—and apart from the new movement represented by Rodin and Dalou, it is represented by the Institute, and that the Institute has reverted to the Italian inspiration. The influence of Canova and the example of Pradier and Etex were not lasting. Indeed, Greek sculpture has perished so completely that it sometimes seems to live only in its legend. With the modern French school, the academic school, it is quite supplanted by the sculpture of the Renaissance. And this is not unreasonable. The Renaissance sculpture is modern ; its masters did finely and perfectly what since their time has been done imperfectly, but essentially its artistic spirit is the modern artistic spirit, full of personality, full of expression, careless of the type. Nowadays we patronize a little the ideal. You may hear very intelligent critics in Paris—who in Paris is not an intelligent critic ?—speak disparagingly of the Greek want of expression ; of the lack of passion, of vivid interest, of significance in a word, in Greek sculpture of the Periclean epoch. The conception of absolute beauty having been discovered to be an abstraction, the tradition of the purely ideal has gone with it. The caryatids of the Erechtheum, the horsemen of the Parthenon frieze, the reliefs of the Nike Apteros balustrade are admired certainly ; but they are hardly sympathetically admired ; there is a tendency to relegate them to the limbo of subjects for aesthetic lectures. And yet no one can have carefully examined the brilliant productions of modern French sculpture without being struck by this apparent paradox : that, whereas all its canons are drawn from a study of the Renaissance, its chief characteristic is, at bottom, a lack of expression, a carefulness for the type. The explanation is this : in the course of time, which ” at last makes all things even,” the individuality, the romanticism of the Renaissance has itself become the type, is now itself become ” classical,” and the modern attitude toward it, how-ever sympathetic compared with the modern attitude toward the antique, is to a noteworthy degree factitious and artificial. And in art everything depends upon the attitude of mind. It is this which pre-vents Ingres from being truly Raphaelesque, and Pradier from being really classical. If, therefore, it can justly be said of modern French sculpture that its sympathy for the Renaissance sculpture obscures its vision of the ideal, it is clearly to be charged with the same absence of individual significance with which its thick-and-thin partisans reproach the antique. The circumstance that, like the Renaissance sculpture, it deals far more largely in pictorial expression than the antique does, is, if it deals in them after the Renaissance fashion and not after a fashion of its own, quite beside the essential fact. There is really nothing in common between an academic French sculptor of the present day and an Italian sculptor of the fifteenth century, except the possession of what is called the modern spirit. But the modern spirit manifests itself in an enormous gamut, and the differences of its manifestations are as great in their way, and so far as our interest in them is concerned, as the difference between their inspiration and the mediæval or the antique inspiration.