French Art – Realistic Painting

ONE element of modernity is a certain order of eclecticism. It is not the eclecticism of the Bolognese painters, for example, illustrating the really hopeless attempt to combine the supposed and superficial excellences, always dissociated from the essence, of different points of view. It is a free choice of attitude, rather, due to the release of the individual from the thraldom of conformity that ruled even during the romantic epoch. Hence a great deal of admirable work, of which one hardly thinks whether it is realistic or not, side by side with the more emphatic expressions of the realistic spirit. And this work is of all degrees of realism, never, however, getting very far away from the naturalistic basis on which more and more everyone is coming to insist as the necessary and only solid pedestal of any flight of fancy. Baudry is perhaps the nearest of the really great men to the Bolognese order of eclecticism. I suppose he must be classed among the really great men, so many painters of intelligence place him there, though I must myself plead the laic privilege of a slight scepticism as to whether time will approve their enthusiasm. He is certainly very effective, and in certainly his own way, idle as it is to say that his drafts on the great Italians are no greater than those of Raphael on the antique frescos. He had a great love of color and a native instinct for it ; with perhaps more appreciation than invention, his imagination has something very personal in the zealous enthusiasm with which he exercised it, though I think it must be admitted that his reflections of Tiepolo, Titian, Tintoretto and his attenuated expansions of Michael Angelo’s condensed grandiosity, recall the eclecticism of the Carracci far more than that of Raphael. But his manner is the modern manner, and it is altogether more effective, more “fetching,” to use a modern term, than anything purely academic can be. Plie Delaunay, another master of decoration, is, on the other hand, as real as the most rigorous literalist could ask of a painter of decorative works. Chartran, who has an individual charm that both Baudry and Delaunay lack, inferior as he is to them in sweep and power, is perhaps in this respect midway between the two. Clairin is, like Mazerolles, a pure fantaisiste. Dubufe fils, whose at least equally famous father ranks in a somewhat similar category with Couture, shows a distinct advance upon him in reality of rendering, as the term would be understood at present.

In other departments of painting the note of realism is naturally still more universally apparent ; but as in the work of the painters of decoration it is often most noticeable as an undertone, indicating a point of departure rather than an aim. Bonvin is a realist only as Chardin, as Van der Meer of Delft, as Nicholas Maes were, before the jargon of realism had been thought of. He is, first of all, an exquisite artist, in love with the beautiful in reality, finding in it the humblest material, and expressing it with the gentlest, sweetest, esthetic severity and composure imaginable. The most fastidious critic needs but a touch of human feeling to convert any characterization of this most refined and elevated of painters into pure panegyric. Vollon’s touch is felicity itself, and it is evident that he takes more pleasure in exercising and exploiting it than in its successful imitation, striking as its imitative quality is. Gervex and Duez are very much more than impressionists, both in theory and practice. There is nothing polemic in either. Painters extol in the heartiest way the color, the creative coloration of Gervex’s ” Rolla,” quite aside from its dramatic force or its truth of aspect. Personal feeling is clearly the inspiration of every work of Duez, not the demonstration of a theory of treating light and atmosphere. The same may be said of Roll at his best, as in his superb rendering of what may be called the modern painter’s conception of the myth of Europa. Compared with Paul Veronese’s admirable classic, that violates all the unities (which Veronese, nevertheless, may readily be pardoned by all but literalists and theorists for neglecting), this splendid nude girl in plein air, flecked with splotches of sunlight filtered through a sieve of leafage, with her realistic taurine companion, and their environment of veridically rendered out-of-doors, may stand for an illustrative definition of modernity ; but what you feel most of all is Roll. It is ten chances to one that he has never even been to Venice or thought of Veronese. He has not always been so successful ; as when in his “Work ” he earned Degas’s acute comment : ” A crowd is made with five persons, not with fifty.” (” Il y a cinquante figures, mais je ne vois pas la foule ; on fait une foule avec cinq, et non pas avec cinquante.”) But he has always been someone. Compare with him L’Hermitte, a painter who illustrates sometimes the possibility of being an artificial realist. His “Vintage ” at the Metropolitan Museum, his ” Harvesters ” at the Luxembourg, are excellently real and true in detail, but in idea and general expression they might compete for the prix de Rome. The same is measurably true of Lerolle, whose pictures are more sympathetic—sometimes they are very sympathetic—but on the whole display less power. But in each instance the advocate a outrance of realism may justly, I think, maintain that a painter with a natural predisposition toward the insipidity of the academic has been saved from it by the inherent sanity and robustness of the realistic method. Jean Béraud, even, owes something to the way in which his verisimilitude of method has reinforced his artistic powers. His delightful Parisiennes—modistes’ messengers crossing wet glistening pavements against a background of gray mist accented with poster-bedizened kiosks and regularly recurring horse-chestnut trees ; élégantes at prayer, in somewhat distracted mood, on prie-dieus in the vacant and vapid Paris churches ; seated at café tables on the busy, leisurely boulevards, or posing tout bonnement for the reproduction of the most fascinating feminine ensemble in the world–owe their charm (I may say again their “fetchingness “) to the faithfulness with which their portraitist has studied, and the fidelity with which he has reproduced, their differing types, more than to any personal expression of his own view of them. Fancy Béraud’s masterpiece, the Salle Graffard-that admirable characterization of crankdom embodied in a socialist reunion—painted by an academic painter. How absolutely it would lose its pith, its force, its significance, even its true distinction. And his “Magdalen at the Pharisee’s House,” which is almost equally impressive—far more impressive of course in a literary and, I think, legitimate, sense—owes even its literary effectiveness to its significant realism.

What the illustrators of the present day owe to the naturalistic method, it is almost superfluous to point out. “Illustrators” in France are, in general, painters as well, some of them very eminent painters. Daumier, who passed in general for a contributor to illustrated journals, even such journals as Le Petit Journal pour Rire, was not only a genius of the first rank, but a painter of the first class. Monvel and Monténard at present are masterly painters. But in their illustration as well as in their painting, they show a notable change from the illustration of the days of Daumier and Doré. The difference between the elegant (or perhaps rather the handsome) drawings of Bida, an artist of the utmost distinction, and that of the illustrators of the present day who are comparable with him—their name is not legion—is a special attestation of the influence of the realistic ideal in a sphere wherein, if anywhere, one may say, realism reigns legitimately, but wherein also the conventional is especially to be expected. One cannot indeed be quite sure that the temptations of the conventional are resisted by the ultra-realistic illustrators of our own time, Rossi, Beaumont, Albert Lynch, Myrbach. They have certainly a very handy way of expressing themselves ; one would be justified in suspecting the labor – saving, the art – sparing kodak, behind many of their most unimpeachable successes. But the attitude taken is quite other than it used to be, and the change that has come over French aesthetic activity in general can be noted in very sharp definition by comparing a book illustrated twenty years ago by Albert Lynch, with, for example, Maupassant’s “Pierre et Jean,” the distinguished realism of whose text is adequately paralleled — and the implied eulogy is by no means trivial—by the pictorical commentary, so to speak, which this first of mod-ern illustrators has supplied. And an even more striking illustration of the evolution of realistic thought and feeling, as well as of rendering, is furnished by the succession of Forain to Grévin, as an illustrator of the follies of the day, the characteristic traits of the Parisian seamy side, morally speaking. Grévin is as conventional as Murger, in philosophy, and—though infinitely cleverer—as “Mars” in drawing. Forain, with the pencil of a realism truly Japanese, illustrates with sympathetic incisiveness the pitiless pessimism of Flaubert, Goncourt, and Maupassant as well.

( Originally Published 1892 )

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