French Art – Louis Quinze

FANCIFUL as the Louis Quinze art seems, by contrast with that of Louis Quatorze, it, too, is essentially classic. It is free enough—no one, I think, would deny that—but it is very far from individual in any important sense. It has, to be sure, more personal feeling than that of Lesueur or Lebrun. The artist’s susceptibility seems to come to the surface for the first time. Watteau, Fragonard—Fragonard especially, the exquisite and impudent—are as gay, as spontaneous, as careless, as vivacious as Boldini. Boucher’s goddesses and cherubs, disporting themselves in graceful abandonment on happily disposed clouds, outlined in cumulus masses against unvarying azure, are as unrestrained and independent of prescription as Monticelli’s figures. Lancret, Pater, Nattier, and Van Loo—the very names suggest not merely freedom but a sportive and abandoned license. But in what a narrow round they move ! How their imaginativeness is limited by their artificiality ! What a talent, what a genius they have for artificiality. It is the era par excellence of dilettantism, and nothing is less romantic than dilettantism. Their evident feeling—and evidently genuine feeling—is feeling for the factitious, for the manufactured, for what the French call the confectionna. Their romantic quality is to that of the modern Fontainebleau group as the exquisite vers de sociétê of Mr. Austin Dobson, say, is to the turbulent yet profound romanticism of Heine or Burns. Every picture painted by them would go as well on a fan as in a frame. All their material is traditional. They simply handle it as enfants terribles. Intellectually speaking, they are painters of a silver age. Of ideas they have almost none. They are as barren of invention in any large sense as if they were imitators instead of, in a sense, the originators of a new phase. Their originality is arrived at rather through exclusion than discovery. They simply drop pedantry and exult in irresponsibility. They are hardly even a school.

Yet they have, one and all, in greater or less degree, that distinct quality of charm which is eternally incompatible with routine. They are as little constructive as the age itself, as anything that we mean when we use the epithet Louis Quinze. Of everything thus indicated one predicates at once unconsciousness, the momentum of antecedent thought modified by the ease born of habit ; the carelessness due to having one’s thinking done for one and the license of proceeding fancifully, whimsically, even freakishly, once the lines and limits of one’s action have been settled by more laborious, more conscientious philosophy than in such circumstances one feels disposed to frame for one’s self. There is no break with the Louis Quatorze things, not a symptom of revolt ; only, after them the deluge ! But out of this very condition of things, and out of this attitude of mind, arises a new art, or rather a new phase of art, essentially classic, as I said, but nevertheless imbued with a character of its own, and this character distinctly charming. Wherein does the charm consist? In two qualities, I think, one of which has not hitherto appeared in French painting, or, indeed, in any art whatever, namely, what we understand by cleverness as a distinct element in treatment—and color. Color is very prominent nowadays in all writing about art, though recently it has given place, in the fashion of the day, to ” values ” and the realistic representation of natural objects as the painter’s proper aim. What precisely is meant by color would be difficult, perhaps, to define. A. warmer general tone than is achieved by painters mainly occupied with line and mass is possibly what is oftenest meant by amateurs who profess themselves fond of color. At all events, the Louis Quinze painters, especially Watteau, Fragonard, and Pater—and Boucher has a great deal of the same feeling—were sensitive to that vibration of atmosphere that blends local hues into the ensemble that produces tone. The ensemble of their tints is what we mean by color. Since the Venetians this note had not appeared. They constitute, thus, a sort of romantic interregnum—still very classic, from an intellectual point of view—between the classicism of Lebrun and the still greater severity of David. Nothing in the evolution of French painting is more interesting than this reverberation of Tintoretto and Tiepolo.

By cleverness, as exhibited by the Louis Quinze painters, I do not mean mere technical ability, but something more inclusive, something relating quite as much to attitude of mind as to dexterity of treatment. They conceive as cleverly as they execute. There is a sense of confidence and capability in the way they view, as well as in the way they handle, their light material. They know it thoroughly, and are thoroughly at one with it. And they exploit it with a serene air of satisfaction, as if it were the only material in the world worth handling. Indeed, it is exquisitely adapted to their talent. So little significance has it that one may say it exists merely to be cleverly dealt with, to be represented, distributed, compared, and generally utilized solely with reference to the display of the artist’s jaunty skill. It is, one may say, merely the raw material for the production of an effect, and an effect demanding only what we mean by cleverness ; no knowledge and love of nature, no prolonged study, no acquaintance with the antique, for example, no philosophy whatever — unless poco-curantism be called a philosophy, which eminently it is not. To be adequate to the requirements—rarely very exacting in any ease—made of one, never to show stupidity, to have a great deal of taste and an instinctive feeling for what is elegant and refined, to abhor pedantry and take gayety at once lightly and seriously, and beyond this to take no thought, is to be clever ; and in this sense the Louis Quinze painters are the first, as they certainly are the typical, clever artists.

In Louis Quinze art the subject is more than effaced to give free swing to technical cleverness ; it is itself contributory to such cleverness, and really a part of it. The artists evidently look on life, as they paint their pictures, as the web whereon to sketch exhibitions of skill in the composition of sensation-provoking combinations — combinations, thus, provoking sensations of the lightest and least substantial kind. When you stand before one of Fragonard’s bewitching models, modishly modified into a great—or rather a little—lady, you not only note the color—full of tone on the one hand and of variety on the other, besides exhibiting the happiest selective quality in warm and yet delicate hues and tints ; you not only, furthermore, observe the clever touch just poised between suggestion and expression, coquettishly suppressing a detail here, and emphasizing a characteristic there ; you feel, in addition, that the entire object floats airily in an atmosphere of cleverness ; that it is but a bit, an example, a miniature type of an environment wholly attuned to the note of cleverness—of competence, facility, grace, elegance, and other abstract but not at all abstruse qualities, quite unrelated to what, in any profound sense, at least, is concrete and vitally significant. Artificiality so permeated the Louis Quinze epoch, indeed, that one may say that nature itself was artificial—that is to say, all the nature Louis Quinze painters had to paint at least all they could have been called upon to think of painting. What a distinction is, after all, theirs ! To have created out of nothing, or next to nothing, something charming, and enduringly charming ; something of a truly classic inspiration without dependence at bottom on the real and the actual ; something as little indebted to facts and things as a fairy tale, and withal marked by such qualities as color and cleverness in so eminent a degree.

The Louis Quinze painters may be said, indeed, to have had the romantic temperament with the classic inspiration, They have audacity rather than freedom, license modified by strict limitation to the lines within which it is exercised. But there can be no doubt that this limitation is more conspicuous in their charmingly irresponsible works than is, essentially speaking, their irresponsibility itself. They never give their imagination free play. Sportive and spontaneous as it appears, it is equally clear that its activities are bounded by conservatory con-fines. Watteau, born on the Flemish border, is al-most an exception. Temperament in him seems constantly on the verge of conquering tradition and environment. Now and then he seems to be on the point of emancipation, and one expects to come upon some work in which he has expressed himself and attested his ideality. Bat one is as constantly disappointed. His color and his cleverness are always admirable and winning, but his import is perversely —almost bewitchingly—slight. What was he thinking of ? one asks, before his delightful canvases ; and one’s conclusion inevitably is, certainly as near nothing at all as can be consistent with so much charm and so much real power. As to Watteau, one’s last thought is of what he would have been in a different aesthetic atmosphere, in an atmosphere that would have stimulated his really romantic temperament to extra-traditional flights, instead of confining it within the inexorable boundaries of classic custom ; an atmosphere favorable to the free exercise of his adorable fancy, instead of rigorously insistent on conforming this, so far as might be, to customary canons, and, at any rate, restricting its exercise to material à la mode. A little landscape in the La Caze collection in the Louvre, whose romantic and truly poetic feeling agreeably pierces through its elegance, is eloquent of such reflections.

( 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