French Art – Realism

To an intelligence fully and acutely alive, its own time must, I think, be more interesting than any other. The sentimental, the’ scholastic, the speculative temperament may look before or after with longing or regret ; but that sanity of mind which is practical and productive must find its most agree-able sensations in the data to which it is intimately and inexorably related. The light upon Greek literature and art for which we study Greek history, the light upon Roman history for which we study Latin literature and art, are admirable to us in very exact proportion as we study them for our ends. To every man and every nation that really breathes, true vitality of soul depends upon saying to one’s self, with an emotion of equivalent intensity to the emotion of patriotism celebrated in Scott’s familiar lines, This is my own, my native era and environment. Culture is impossible apart from cosmopolitanism, but self-respect is more indispensable even than culture. French art alone at the present time possesses absolute self – respect. It possesses this quality in an eminent, in even an excessive degree ; but it possesses it, and in virtue of it is endued with a preservative quality that saves it from the emptiness of imitation and the enervation of dilettantism. It has, in consequence, escaped that recrudescence of the primitive and inchoate known in England and among ourselves as pre-Raphaelitism. It has escaped also that almost abject worship of classic models which Winckelmann and Canova made universal in Germany and Italy — not to speak of its echoes elsewhere. It has always stood on its own feet, and, however lacking in the higher qualities of imaginative initiative, on the one hand, and how-ever addicted to the academic and the traditional on the other, has always both respected its aesthetic heritage and contributed something of its own thereto.

Why should not one feel the same quick interest, the same instinctive pride in his time as in his country? Is not sympathy with what is modern, instant, actual, and apposite a fair parallel of patriotism ? Neglect of other times in the ” heir of all the ages ” is analogous to chauvinism, and indicative of as ill-judged an attitude as that of provincial blindness to other contemporary points of view and systems of philosophy than one’s own. Culture is equally hostile to both, and in art culture is as important a factor as it is in less special fields of activity and endeavor. But in art, as elsewhere, culture is a means to an actual, present end, and the pre-Raphaelite sentiment that dictates mere reproduction of what was once a genuine expression is as sterile as servile imitation of exotic modes of thought, dress, and demeanor is universally felt to be. The past—the antique, the renaissance, the classic, and romantic ideals are to be used, not adopted ; in the spirit of Goethe, at once the most original of modern men and the most saturated with culture, exhibited in his famous saying : “Nothing do I call my own which having inherited I have not reconquered for myself.”

It would indeed be a singular thing were the field of æsthetics the only one uninvaded by the scientific spirit of the time. The one force especially characteristic of our era is, I suppose, the scientific spirit. It is at any rate everywhere manifest, and it possesses the best intellects of the century. A priori one may argue about its hostility, essential or other, to the artistic, the constructive spirit ; but to do so is at the most to beat the air, to waste one’s breath, to Ruskinize, in a word. Interest in life and the world, instead of speculation or self-expression, is the ” note ” of the day. The individual has withered terribly. He is supplanted by the type. Materialism has its positive gospel ; it is not at all the formulated expression of Goethe’s ” spirit that denies.” Nature has acquired new dignity. She cannot be studied too closely, nor too long. The secret of the universe is now pursued through observation, as formerly it was through fasting and prayer. Nothing is sacred nowadays because everything receives respect. If absolute beauty is now smiled at as a chimera, it is because beauty is perceived everywhere. Whatever is may not be right—the maxim has too much of an ex cathedra sound—but whatever is is interesting. Our attitude is at once humbler and more curious. The sense of the immensity, the immeasurableness of things, is more intimate and profound. What one may do is more modestly conceived ; what might be done, more justly appreciated. There is less confidence and more aspiration. The artist’s eye is ” on the object” in more concentrated gaze than ever hereto-fore. If his sentiment, his poetry, is no longer “inevitable,” as ‘Wordsworth complained Goethe’s was not, it is more reverent, at any rate more circumspect. If he is less exalted he is more receptive—he is more alive to impressions for being less of a philosopher. If he scouts authority, if even he accepts somewhat weakly the thraldom of dissent from traditional standards and canons, it is because he is convinced that the material with which he has to deal is superior to all canons and standards. If he esteems truth more than beauty, it is because what he thinks truth is more beautiful in his eyes than the stereotyped beauty he is adjured to attain. In any case, the distinction of the realistic painters-like that of the realists in literature, where, also, it need not be said, France has been in the lead—is measurably to have got rid of solecisms ; to have made, indeed, obvious solecisms, and solecisms of conception as well as of execution, a little ridiculous. It is, to be sure, equally ridiculous to subject romantic productions to realistic standards, to blind one’s self to the sentiment that saturates such romantic works as Scott’s and Dumas’s, or Géricault’s and Diaz’s, and is wholly apposite to its own time and point of view. The great difficulty with a principle is that it is universal, and that when we deal with facts of any kind whatever, universality is an impossible ideal. Scott and Géricault are, nowadays, in what we have come to deem essentials, distinctly old-fashioned. It might be well to try and imitate them, if imitation had any salt in it, which it has not ; or if it were possible to do what they did with their different inspiration, which it is not. Mr. Stevenson is, I think, an example of the danger of essaying this latter in literature, just as a dozen eminent painters of less talent—for no one has so much talent as Mr. Stevenson—are examples in painting. But there are a thousand things, not only in the technic of the romanticists but in their whole attitude toward their art and their material, that are nowadays impossible to sincere and spontaneous artists. Details which have no importance whatever in the ensemble of the romantic artist are essential to the realist. Art does not stand still. Its canons change. There is a constant evolution in its standards, its requirements. A conventional background is no more an error in French classic painting than in tapestry ; a perfunctory scheme of pure chiaro-oscuro is no blemish in one of Diaz’s splendid forest landscapes ; such phenomena in a work of Raffaelli or Pointelin would jar, because, measured by the standards to which modern men must, through the very force of evolution itself. sub-scribe, they can but appear solecisms. In a different set of circumstances, under a different inspiration, and with a different artistic attitude, solecisms they certainly are not. But, as Thackeray makes Ethel Newcome say, ” We belong to our belongings.” Our circumstances, inspiration, artistic attitude, are involuntary and possess us as our other belongings do.

In Gautier’s saying, for instance, “I am a man for whom the visible world exists,” which I have quoted as expressing the key-note of the romantic epoch, it is to be noted that the visible world is taken as a spectacle simply—significant, suggestive or merely stimulant, in accordance with individual bent. Gautier and the romanticists generally had little concern for its structure. To many of them it was indeed rather a canvas than a spectacle even—just as to many, if not to most, of the realists it is its structure rather than its significance that altogether appeals ; the romanticists in general sketched their ideas and impressions upon it, as the naturalists have in the main studied its aspects and constitution, careless of the import of these, pictorially or otherwise. In-deed one is tempted often to inquire of the latter, Why so much interest in what apparently seems to you of so little import ? Are we never to have your skill, your observation, your amassing of ” documents ” turned to any account? Where is the realistic tragedy, comedy, epic, composition of any sort? Courbet’s “Cantonniers,” Manet’s “Bar,” or Bastien-Lepage’s ” Joan of Arc,” perhaps. But what is in-disputable is, that we are irretrievably committed to the present general aesthetic attitude and inspiration, and must share not only the romanticists’ impatience with academic formulæ and conventions, but the realists’ devotion to life and the world as they actually exist. The future may be different, but we are living in the present, and what is important is, after all, to live. It is also so difficult that not to take the line of least resistance is fatuity.