French Art – Lebrun And Lesueur

IT is a sure mark of narrowness and defective powers of perception to fail to discover the point of view even of what one disesteems. We talk of Poussin, of Louis Quatorze art—as of its revival under David and its continuance in Ingres—of, in general, modern classic art as if it were an art of convention merely ; whereas, conventional as it is, its conventionality is—or was, certainly, in the seventeenth century—very far from being pure formulary. It was genuinely expressive of a certain order of ideas intelligently held, a certain set of principles sincerely believed in, a view of art as positive and genuine as the revolt against the tyrannous system into which it developed. We are simply out of sympathy with its aim, its ideal ; perhaps, too, for that most frivolous of all reasons because we have grown tired of it.

But the business of intelligent criticism is to be in touch with everything. ” Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner,” as the French ethical maxim has it, may be modified into the true motto of aesthetic criticism, “Tout comprendre, c’est tout justifier.” Of course, by “criticism “one does not mean pedagogy, as so many people constantly imagine, nor does justifying everything include bad drawing. But as Lebrun, for example, is not nowadays held up as a model to young painters, and is not to be accused of bad drawing, why do we so entirely dispense ourselves from comprehending him at all ? Lebrun is, perhaps, not a painter of enough personal importance to repay attentive consideration, and historic importance does not greatly concern criticism. But we pass him by on the ground of his conventionality, without remembering that what appears conventional to us was in bis case not only sincerity but aggressive enthusiasm. If there ever was a painter who exercised what creative and imaginative faculty he had with an absolute gusto, Lebrun did so. He interested his contemporaries immensely ; no painter ever ruled more unrivalled. He fails to interest us because we have another point of view. We believe in our point of view and disbelive in his as a matter of course ; and it would be self-contradictory to say, in the interests of critical catholicity, that in our opinion his may be as sound as our own. But to say that he has no point of view whatever–to say, in general, that modern classic art is perfunctory and mere formulary—is to be guilty of what has always been the inherent vice of protestantism in all fields of mental activity.

Nowhere has protestantism exhibited this defect more palpably than in the course of evolution of schools of painting. Pre-Raphaelitism is perhaps the only exception, and pre-Raphaelitism was a violent and emotional counter-revolution rather than a movement characterized by catholicity of critical appreciation. Literary criticism is certainly full of similar intolerance ; though when Gautier talks about Racine, or Zola about “Mes Haines,” or Mr. Howells about Scott, the polemic temper, the temper most opposed to the critical, is very generally recognized. And in spite of their admirable accomplishment in various branches of literature, these writers will never quite recover from the misfortune of having preoccupied themselves as critics with the defects instead of the qualities of what is classic.

Yet the protestantism of the successive schools of painting against the errors of their predecessors has something even more crass about it. Contemporary painters and critics thoroughly alive, and fully in the contemporary æsthetic current, so far from appreciating modern classic art sympathetically, are apt to admire the old masters themselves mainly on technical grounds, and not at all to enter into their general æsthetic attitude. The feeling of contemporary painters and critics (except, of course, historical critics) for Raphael’s genius is the opposite of cordial. We are out of touch with the “Disputa,” with angels and prophets seated on clouds, with halos and wings, with such inconsistencies as the ” Doge praying in a picture of the marriage of St. Catherine, with the mystic marriage itself. Raphael’s grace of line and suave space – filling shapes are mainly what we think of ; the rest we call convention. We are become literal and exacting, addicted to the pedantry of the prescriptive, if not of the prosaic.

Take such a picture as M. Edouard Detaille’s ” Le Rêve,” which won him so much applause a few years ago. M. Detaille is an irreproachable realist, and may do what he likes in the way of the materially impossible with impunity. Sleeping soldiers, without a gaiter-button lacking, bivouacking on the ground amid stacked arms whose bayonets would prick ; above them in the heavens the clash of contending ghostly armies—wraiths born of the sleepers’ dreams. That we are in touch with. No one would object to it except under penalty of being scouted as pitiably literal. Yet the scheme is as thoroughly conventional—that is to say, it is as closely based on hypothesis universally assumed for the moment—as Lebrun’s ” Triumph of Alexander.” The latter is as much a true expression of an ideal as Detaille’s picture. It is an ideal now become more conventional, undoubtedly, but it is as clearly an ideal and as clearly genuine. The only point I wish to make is, that Lebrun’s painting —Louis Quatorze painting—is not the perfunctory thing we are apt to assume it to be. That is not the same thing, I hope, as maintaining that M. Bouguereau is significant rather than insipid. Lebrun was assuredly not a strikingly original painter. His crowds of warriors bear a much closer resemblance to Raphael’s ” Battle of Constantine and Maxentius ” than the ” Transfiguration ” of the Vatican does to Giotto’s, aside from the important circumstance that the difference in the latter in-stance shows’ development, while the former illustrates mainly an enfeebled variation. But there is unquestionably something of Lebrun in Lebrun’s work—something typical of the age whose artistic spirit he so completely expressed.

To perceive that Louis Quatorze art is not all convention it is only necessary to remember that Lesueur is to be bracketed with Lebrun. All the sympathy which the Anglo-Saxon temperament withholds from the histrionism of Lebrun is instinctively accorded to his gentle and graceful con-temporary, who has been called—faute de mieux, of course—the French Raphael. Really Lesueur is as nearly conventional as Lebrun. He has at any rate far less force ; and even if we may maintain that he had a more individual point of view, his works are assuredly more monotonous to the scrutinizing sense. It is impossible to recall any one of the famous San Bruno series with any particularity, or, except in subject, to distinguish these in the memory from the sweet and soft “St. Scholastica ” in the Salon Carré. With more sapience and less sensitiveness, Bouguereau is Lesueur’s true successor, to say which is certainly not to affirm a very salient originality of the older painter. He had a great deal of very exquisite feeling for what is refined and elevated, but clearly it is a moral rather than an æsthetic delicacy that he exhibits, and aesthetically he exercises his sweeter and more sympathetic sensibility within the same rigid limits which circumscribe that of Lebrun. He has, indeed, less invention, less imagination, less sense of composition, less wealth of detail, less elaborateness, no greater concentration or sense of effect ; and though his color is more agreeable, perhaps, in hue, it gets its tone through the absence of variety rather than through juxtapositions and balances. The truth is, that both equally illustrate the classic spirit, the spirit of their age par excellence and of French painting in general, in a supreme degree, though the conformability of the one is positive and of the other passive, so to say ; and that neither illustrates quite the subserviency to the conventional which we, who have undoubtedly just as many conventions of our own, are wont to ascribe to them, and to Lebrun in particular.

( Originally Published 1892 )

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