SIDE by side with the academic current in French art has moved of recent years a naturalist and romantic impulse whose manifestations have been always vigorous though occasionally exaggerated. In any of the great departments of activity nation-ally pursuedas art has been pursued in France since Francis I.there are always these rival cur-rents, of which now one and now the other constantly affects the ebb and flow of the tide of thought and feeling. The classic and romantic duel of 1830, the rise of the naturalist opposition to Hu-go and romanticism in our own day, are familiar instances of this phenomenon in literature. The re-volt of Géricault and Delacroix against David and Ingres are equally well known in the field of painting. Of recent years the foundation of the periodical L’Art and its rivalry with the conservative Gazette des Beaux Arts mark with the same definiteness, and an articulate precision, the same conflict between truth, as new eyes see it, and tradition. Never, perhaps, since the early Renaissance, how-ever, has nature asserted her supremacy over convention in such unmistakable, such insistent, and, one may say, I think, such intolerant fashion as she is doing at the present moment. Sculpture, in virtue of the defiant palpability of its material, is the most impalpable of the plastic arts, and therefore it feels less quickly than the rest, perhaps, the impress of the influences of the epoch and their classifying canons. Natural imitation shows first in sculpture, and subsists in it longest. But convention once its conqueror, the return to nature is here most tardy, because, owing to the impalpable, the elusive quality of sculpture, though natural standards may everywhere else be in vogue, no one thinks of applying them to so specialized an expression. Its variation depends therefore more completely on the individual artist himself. Niccolô Pisano, for example, died when Giotto was two years old, but, at the other end of the historic line of modern art, it has taken years since Delacroix to furnish recognition for Auguste Rodin. The strong-hold of the Institute had been mined many times by revolutionary painters before Dalou took the grand medal of the Salon.
Owing to the relative and in fact polemic position which these two artists occupy, the movement which they represent, and of which as yet they themselves form a chief part, a little obscures their respective personalities, which are nevertheless, in sculpture, by far the most positive and puissant of the present epoch. M. Rodin’s work, especially, is so novel that one’s first impression in its presence is of its implied criticism of the Institute. One thinks first of its attitude, its point of view, its end, aim, and means, and of the utter contrast of these with those of the accepted contemporary masters in his artof Dubois and Chapu, Mercié and Saint-Marceaux. One judges generally, and instinctively avoids per-sonal and direct impressions. The first thought is not, Are the “Saint Jean” and the “Bourgeois de Calais ” successful works of art ? But, Can they be successful if the accepted masterpieces of mod-ern sculpture are not to be set down as insipid? One is a little bewildered. It is easy to see and to estimate the admirable traits and the shortcomings of M. Dubois’s delightful and impressive reminiscences of the Renaissance, of M. Mercié’s refined and graceful compositions. They are of their time and place. They embody, in distinguished manner and in an accentuated degree, the general inspiration. Their spiritual characteristics are traditional and universal, and technically, without perhaps often passing beyond it, they exhaust cleverness. You may enjoy or resent their classic and exemplary excellences, as you feel your taste to have suffered from the lack or the superabundance of academic influences ; I cannot fancy an American insensitive to their charm. But it is plain that their perfection is a very different thing from the characteristics of a strenuous artistic personality seeking expression. If these latter when encountered are seen to be evidently of an extremely high order, contemporary criticism, at all events, should feel at once the wisdom of beginning with the endeavor to appreciate, instead of making the degree of its own familiarity with them the test of their merit.
French aesthetic authority, which did this in the instances of Barye, of Delacroix, of Millet, of Manet, of Puvis de Chavannes, did it also for many years in the instance of M. Rodin. It owes its de-feat in the contest with him for like the recalcitrants in the other contests, M. Rodin has definitively triumphedto the unwise attempt to define him in terms heretofore applicable enough to sculptors, but wholly inapplicable to him. It failed to see that the thing to define in his work was the man himself, his temperament, his genius. Taken by themselves and considered as characteristics of the Institute sculptors, the obvious traits of this work might, that is to say, be adjudged eccentric and empty. Fancy Professor Guillaume suddenly sub-ordinating academic disposition of line and mass to true structural expression ! One would simply feel the loss of his accustomed style and harmony. With M. Rodin, who deals with nature directly, through the immediate force of his own powerful temperament, to feel the absence of the Institute training and traditions is absurd. The question in his case is simply whether or no he is a great artistic personality, an extraordinary and powerful temperament, or whether he is merely a turbulent and capricious protestant against the measure and taste of the Institute. But this is really no longer a question, however it may have been a few years ago ; and when his Dante portal for the new Palais des Arts Décoratifs shall have been finished, and the public had an opportunity to see what the sculptor’s friend and only serious rival, M. Dalou, calls ” one of the most, if not the most original and astonishing pieces of sculpture of the nineteenth century,” it will be recognized that M. Rodin, so far from being amenable to the current canon, has brought the can-on itself to judgment.
How and why, people will perceive in proportion to their receptivity. Candor and intelligence will suffice to appreciate that the secret of M. Rodin’s art is structural expression, and that it is this and not any superficial eccentricity of execution that definitely distinguishes him from the Institute.
Just as his imagination, his temperament, his spiritual energy and ardor individualize the positive originality of his motive, so the expressiveness of his treatment sets him aside from all as well as from each of the Institute sculptors in what may be broadly called technical attitude. No sculptor has ever carried expression further. The sculpture of the present day has certainly not occupied itself much with it. The Institute is perhaps a little afraid of it. It abhors the baroque rightly enough, but very likely it fails to see that the expression of such sculpture as M. Rodin’s no more resembles the contortions of the Dresden Museum giants than it does the composure of M. Delaplanche. The baroque is only violent instead of placid commonplace, and is as conventional as any professor of sculpture could desire. Expression means individual character completely exhibited rather than conventionally suggested. It is certainly not too much to say that in the sculpture of the present day the sense of individual character is conveyed mainly by convention. The physiognomy has usurped the place of the physique, the gesture of the form, the pose of the substance. And face, gesture, form are, when they are not brutally naturalistic and so not art at all, not individual and native, but typical and classic. Very much of the best modern sculpture might really have been treated like those antique figurines of which the bodies were made by wholesale, being supplied with individual heads when the time came for using them.
This has been measurably true since the disappearance of the classic dress and the concealment of the body by modern costume. The nudes of the early Renaissance, in painting still more than in sculpture, are differentiated by the faces. The rest of the figure is generally conventionalized as thoroughly as the face itself is in Byzantine and the hands in Giottesque painting. Giotto could draw admirably, it need not be said. He did draw as well as the contemporary feeling for the human figure demanded. When the Renaissance reached its climax and the study of the antique led artists to look beneath drapery and interest themselves in the form, expression made an immense step forward. Color was indeed almost lost sight of in the new interest, not to reappear till the Venetians. But owing to the lack of visible nudity, to the lack of the classic gymnasia, to the concealments of modern at-tire, the knowledge of and interest in the form remained, within certain limits, an esoteric affair. The general feeling, even where, as in the Italy of the quattro and cinque centi, everyone was a connoisseur, did not hold the artist to expression in his anatomy as the general Greek feeling did. Everyone was a connoisseur of art alone, not of nature as well.
Consequently, in spite of such an enthusiastic genius as Donatello, who probably more than any other modern has most nearly approached the Greeksnot in spiritual attitude, for he was eminently of his time, but in his attitude toward nature the human form in art has for the most part remained, not conventionalized as in the Byzantine and Gothic times, but thoroughly conventional. Michael Angelo himself certainly may be charged with lending the immense weight of his majestic genius to perpetuate the conventional. It is not his distortion of nature, as pre-Raphaelite limitedness glibly asserts, but his carelessness of her prodigious potentialities, that marks one side of his colossal accomplishment. Just as the lover of architecture as architecture will protest that Michael Angelo’s was meretricious, however inspiring, so M. Rodin declares his sculpture unsatisfactory, however poetic-ally impressive. “He used to do a little anatomy evenings,” he said to me, “and used his chisel next day without a model. He repeats endlessly his one typethe youth of the Sistine ceiling. Any particular felicity of expression you are apt to find him borrowing from Donatellosuch as, for instance, the movement of the arm of the `David,’ which is borrowed from DonateIlo’s ` St. John Baptist.’ ” Most people to whom Michael Angelo’s creations appear celestial in their majesty at once and in their winningness would deny this. But it is worth citing both because M. Rodin strikes so many crude apprehensions as a French Michael Angelo, where-as he is so radically removed from him in point. of view and in practice that the unquestionable spiritual analogy between them is rather like that between kindred spirits working in different arts, and because, also, it shows not only what M. Rodin is not, but what he is. The grandiose does not run away with him. His imagination is occupied largely in following out nature’s suggestions. His sentiment does not so drench and saturate his work as to float it bodily out of the realm of natural into that of supernal beauty, there to crystallize in decorative and puissant visions appearing out of the void and only superficially related to their corresponding natural forms. Standing before the Medicean tombs the modern susceptibility receives perhaps the most poignant, one may almost say the most intolerable, impression to be obtained from any plastic work by the hand of man ; but it is a totally different impression from that left by the sculptures of the Parthenon pediments, not only because the sentiment is wholly different, but because in the great Florentine’s work it is so overwhelming as wholly to dominate purely natural expression, natural character, natural beauty. In the Medici Chapel the soul is exalted ; in the British Museum the mind is enraptured. The object itself seems to disappear in the one case, and to reveal itself in the other.
I do not mean to compare M. Rodin with the Greeksfrom whom in sentiment and imagination he is, of course, as totally removed as what is in-tensely modern must be from the antiqueany more than I mean to contrast him with Michael Angelo, except for the purposes of clearer understanding of his general aesthetic attitude. Association of any-thing contemporary with what is classic, and especially with what is greatest in the classic, is always a perilous proceeding. Very little time is apt to play havoc with such classification. I mean only to indicate that the resemblance to Michael Angelo, found by so many persons in such works as the Dante doors, is only of the loosest kind–as one might, through their common lusciousness, compare peaches with pomegranatesand that to the discerning eye, or the eye at all experienced in observing sculpture, M. Rodin’s sculpture is far more closely related to that of Donatello and the Greeks. It, too, reveals rather than constructs beauty, and by the expression of character rather than by the suggestion of sentiment.
An illustration of M. Rodin’s affinity with the an-tique is an incident which he related to me of his work upon his superb “Âge d’Airain” He was in Naples, he saw nature in freer inadvertence than she allows elsewhere ; he had the best of models. Under these favoring circumstances he spent three months on a leg of his statue; “which is equivalent to saying that I had at last absolutely mastered it,” said he. One day in the Museo Nazionale he noticed in an antique the result of all his study and research. Nature, in other words, is M. Rodin’s material in the same special sense in which it was the antique material, and in which, since Michael Angelo and the high Renaissance, it has been for the most part only the sculptor’s means. It need not be said that the personality of the artist may be as strenuous in the one case as in the other ; unless, indeed, we maintain, as perhaps we may, that individuality is more apt to atrophy in the latter in-stance ; for as one gets farther and farther away from nature he is in more danger from conventionality than from caprice. And this is in fact what has happened since the high Renaissance, the long line of conventionalities being continued, sometimes punctuated here and there as by Clodion or Houdon, David, Rude, or Barye, sometimes rising into great dignity and refinement of style and intelligence, as in the contemporary sculpture of the Institute, but in general almost purely decorative or sentimental, and, so far as natural expression is concerned, confining itself to psychological rather than physical character.
What is it, for instance, that distinguishes a group like M. Dubois’s ” Charity ” from the genre sentiment or incident of some German or Italian ” professor ? ” Qualities of style, of refined taste, of elegance, of true intelligence. Its artistic interest is purely decorative and sentimental. Really what its average admirer sees in it is the same moral appeal that delights the simple admirers of German or Italian treatment of a similar theme. It is simply infinitely higher bred. Its character is developed no further. Its significance as form is not insisted on. The parts are not impressively differentiated, and their mysterious mutual relations and correspondences are not dwelt on. The physical character, with its beauties, its salient traits of every kind, appealing so strongly to the sculptor to whom nature appears plastic as well as suggestive, is wholly neglected in favor of the psychological suggestion. And the individual character, the cachet of the whole, the artistic essence and ensemble, that is to say, M. Dubois has, after the manner of most mod-ern sculpture, conveyed in a language of convention, which since the time of the Siennese fountain, at all events, has been classical.
The literary artist does not proceed in this way. He does not content himself with telling us, for example, that one of his characters is a good man or a bad man, an able, a selfish, a tall, a blonde, or a stupid man, as the case. may be. He takes every means to express his character, and to do it, according to M. Taine’s definition of a work of art, more completely than it appears in nature. He recognizes its complexity and enforces the sense of reality by a thou-sand expedients of what one may almost call contrasting masses, derivative movements, and balancing planes. He distinguishes every possible detail that plays any structural part, and, in short, instead of giving us the mere symbol of the Sunday-school books, shows us a concrete organism at once characteristic and complex. Judged with this strictness, which in literary art is elementary, how much of the best modern sculpture is abstract, symbolic, purely typical. What insipid fragments most of the really eminent Institute statues would make were their heads knocked off by some band of modern barbarian invaders. In the event of such an irruption, would there be any torsos left from which future Poussins could learn all they should know of the human form ? Would there be any disjecta membra from which skilled anatomists could reconstruct the lost ensemble, or at any rate make a shrewd guess at it ? Would anything survive mutilation with the serene confidence in its fragmentary but everywhere penetrating interest which seems to pervade the most fractured fraction of a Greek relief on the Athenian acropolis ? Yes, there would be the débris of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture.
In our clay the human figure has never been so well understood. Back of such expressive modelling as we note in the ” Saint Jean,” in the ” Adam ” and ” Eve,” in the ” Calaisiens,” in a dozen figures of the Dante doors, is a knowledge of anatomy such as even in the purely scientific profession of surgery can proceed only from an immense fondness for nature, an insatiable curiosity as to her secrets, an inexhaustible delight in her manifestations. From the point of view of such knowledge and such hand-ling of it, it is no wonder that the representations of nature which issue from the Institute seem superficial. One can understand that from this point of view very delightful sculpture, very refined, very graceful, very perfectly understood within its limits, may appear like baudrucheinflated gold-beater’s skin, that is to say, of which toy animals are made in France, and which has thus passed into studio argot as the figure for whatever lacks structure and substance. Ask M. Rodin the explanation of a movement, an attitude, in one of his works which strikes your convention-steeped sense as strange, and he will account for it just as an anatomical demonstrator wouldpointing out its necessary derivation from some disposition of another part of the figure, and not at all dwelling on its grace or its other purely decorative felicity. Its artistic function in his eyes is to aid in ex-pressing fully and completely the whole of which it forms a part, not to constitute a harmonious de-tail merely agreeable to the easily satisfied eye. But then the whole will look anatomical rather than artistic. There is the point exactly. Will it? I remember speculating about this in conversation with M. Rodin himself. “Isn’t there danger,” I said, ” of getting too fond of nature, of dissecting with so much enthusiasm that the pleasure of discovery may obscure one’s feeling for pure beauty, of losing the artistic in the purely scientific interest, of becoming pedantic, of imitating rather than constructing, of missing art in avoiding the artificial ? ” I had some difficulty in making myself understood ; this perpetual see-saw of nature and art which enshrouds æsthetic dialectics as in a Scotch mist seems curiously factitious to the truly imaginative mind. But I shall always remember his reply, when he finally made me out, as one of the finest severings conceivable of a Gordian knot of this kind. ” Oh, yes,” said he ; “there is, no doubt, such a danger for a mediocre artist.”
M. Rodin is, whatever one may think of him, certainly not a mediocre artist. The instinct of self-preservation may incline the Institute to assert that he obtrudes his anatomy. But prejudice itself can blind no one of intelligence to his immense imaginative power, to his poetic ” possession.” His work precisely illustrates what I take to have been, at the best epochs, the relations of nature to such art as is loosely to be called imitative artwhat assuredly were those relations in the mind of the Greek artist. Nature supplies the parts and suggests their cardinal relations. Insufficient study of her leaves these superficial and insipid. Inartistic absorption in her leaves them lifeless. The imagination which has it-self conceived the whole, the idea, fuses them in its own heat into a new creation which is “imitative” only in the sense that its elements are not inventions. The art of sculpture has retraced its steps far enough to make pure invention, as of Gothic griffins and Romanesque symbology, unsatisfactory to everyone. But, save in M. Rodin’s sculpture, it has not fully renewed the old alliance with nature on the old termsDonatello’s terms ; the terms which ex-act the most tribute from nature, which insist on her according her completest significance, her closest secrets, her faculty of expressing character as well as of suggesting sentiment. Very beautiful works are produced without her aid to this extent. We may be sure of this without asking M. Rodin to admit it. He would not do his own work so well were he prepared to ; as Millet pointed out when asked to write a criticism of some other painter’s canvas, in estimating the production of his fellows an artist is inevitably handicapped by the feeling that he would have done it very differently himself. It is easy not to share M. Rodin’s gloomy vaticinations as to French sculpture based on the continued triumph of the Institute style and suavity. The Institute sculpture is too good for anyone not him-self engaged in the struggle to avoid being impressed chiefly by its qualities to the neglect of its defects. At the same time it is clear that no art can long survive in undiminished vigor that does not from time to time renew its vitality by resteeping itself in the influences of nature. And so M. Rodin’s service to French sculpture becomes, at the present moment, especially signal and salutary because French sculpture, however refined and delightful, shows, just now, very plainly the tendency toward the conventional which has always proved so dangerous, and because M. Rodin’s work is a conspicuous, a shining example of the return to nature on the part not of a mere realist, naturalist, or other variety of ” mediocre artist,” but of a profoundly poetic and imaginative temperament.
This is why, one immediately perceives in studying his works, Rodin’s treatment, while exhausting every contributary detail to the end of complete ex-pression, is never permitted to fritter away its energy either in the mystifications of optical illusion, or in the infantine idealization of what is essentially sub-ordinate and ancillary. This is why he devotes three months to the study of a leg, for examplenot to copy, but to possess” it. Indeed, no sculptor of our time has made such a sincere and, in general, successful, effort to sink the sense of the material in the conception, the actual object in the artistic idea. One loses all sense of bronze or marble, as the case may be, not only because the artistic significance is so overmastering that one is exclusively occupied in apprehending it, but because there are none of those superficial graces, those felicities of surface modelling, which, however they may delight, infallibly distract as well. Such excellences have assuredly their place. When the motive is conventional or otherwise insipid, or even when its character is distinctly light without being trivial, they are legitimately enough agreeable. And be-cause, in our day, sculptural motives have generally been of this order we have become accustomed to look for such excellences, and, very justly, to miss them when they are absent. Grace of pose, suavity of outline, pleasing disposition of mass, smooth, round deltoids and osseous articulations, and perpetually changing planes of flesh and free play of muscular movement, are excellences which, in the best of academic French sculpture, are sensuously delightful in a high degree. But they invariably rivet our attention on the successful way in which the sculptor has used his bronze or marble to decorative ends, and when they are accentuated so as to dominate the idea they invariably enfeeble its ex-pression. With M. Rodin one does not think of his material at all ; one does not reflect whether he used it well or ill, caused it to lose weight and immobility to the eye or not, because all his superficial model-ling appears as an inevitable deduction from the way in which he has conceived his larger subject, and not as ” handling ” at all. In reality, of course, it is the acme of sensitive handling. The point is a nice one. His practice is a dangerous one. It would be fatal to a less strenuous temperament. To leave, in a manner and so far as obvious insistence on it goes, ” handling ” to take care of itself, is to incur the peril of careless, clumsy, and even brutal, modelling, which, so far from dissembling its existence behind the prominence of the idea, really emphasizes itself unduly because of its imperfect and undeveloped character. Detail that is neglected really acquires a greater prominence than detail that is carried too far, because it is sensuously disagreeable. But when an artist like M. Rodin conceives his spiritual subject so largely and with so much intensity that mere sensuous agreeableness seems too insignificant to him even to be treated with contempt, he treats his detail solely with reference to its centripetal and organic value, which immediately becomes immensely enhanced, and the detail itself, dropping thus into its proper place, takes on a beauty wholly transcending the ordinary agreeable aspect of sculptural detail. And the ensemble, of course, is in this way enforced as it can be in no other, and we get an idea of Victor Hugo or St. John Baptist so powerfully and yet so subtly suggested, that the abstraction seems actually all that we see in looking at the concrete bust or statue. Objections to M. Rodin’s “handling ” as eccentric or capricious, appear to the sympathetic beholder of one of his majestic works the very acme of misappreciation, and their real excusewhich is, as I have said, the fact that such ” handling “is as unfamiliar as the motives it accompaniessingularly poor and feeble.
As for the common nature of these motives, the character of the personality which appears in their varied presentments, it is almost idle to speak in the absence of the work itself, so eloquent is this at once and so untranslatable. But it may be said approximately that M. Rodin’s temperament is in the first place deeply romantic. Everything the Institute likes repels him. He has the poetic conception of art and its mission, and in poetry any authoritative and codifying consensus seems to him paradoxical. Style, in his view, unless it is something wholly uncharacterizable, is a vague and impalpable spirit breathing through the work of some strongly marked individuality, or else it is formalism. He delights in the fantasticality of the Gothic. The west façade of Rouen inspires him more than all the formule of Palladian proportions. He detests systematization. He reads Shakespeare, Schiller, Dante almost exclusively. He sees visions and dreams dreams. The awful in the natural forces, moral and material, seems his element. He believes in freedom, in the absolute emancipation of every faculty. As for study, study nature. If then you fail in restraint and measure you are a ” mediocre artist,” whom no artificial system devised to secure measure and restraint could have rescued from essential insignifinance. No poet or landscape painter ever delighted more in the infinitely varied suggestiveness and exuberance of nature, or ever felt the formality of much that passes for art as more chill and drear. Hence in all his works we have the sense, first of all, of an overmastering sincerity ; then of a prodigious wealth of fancy ; then of a marvellous acquaintance with his material. His imagination has all the vivacity and tumultuousness of Rubens’s, but its images, if not better understood, which would perhaps be impossible, are more compact and their evolution more orderly. And they are furthermore one and all vivified by a wholly remarkable feeling for beauty. In spite of all his knowledge of the external world, no artist of our time is more completely mastered by sentiment. In the very circumstance of being free from such conventions as the cameo relief, the picturesque costume details, the goldsmith’s work characteristic of the Renaissance, now so much in vogue, M. Rodin’s things acquire a certain largeness and loftiness as well as simplicity and sincerity of sentiment. The same model posed for the ” Saint Jean ” that posed for a dozen things turned out of the academic studios, but compared with the result in the latter cases, that in the former is even more remarkable for sentiment than for its structural sapience and general physical interest. How perfectly insignificant beside its moral impressiveness are the graceful works whose sentiment does not result from the expression of the form, but is conveyed in some convention of pose, of gesture, of physiognomy ! It is like the contrast between a great and a graceful actor. The one interests you by his intelligent mastery of convention, by the tact and taste with which he employs in voice, carriage, facial expression, gesture, diction, the several conventions according to which ideas and emotions are habitually conveyed to your comprehension. Salvini, Coquelin, Got, pass immediately outside the realm of conventions. Their language, their medium of communication, is as new as what it expresses. They are inventive as well as intelligent. Their effect is prodigiously heightened because in this way, the warp as well as the woof of their art being expressive and original, the artistic result is greatly fortified. Given the same model, M. Rodin’s result is in like manner expressly and originally enforced far beyond the result to-ward which the academic French school employs the labels of the Renaissance as conventionally as its predecessor at the beginning of the century employed those of the antique. “Formerly we used to do Greek,” says M. Rodin, with no small justice ; ” now we do Italian. That is all the difference there is.” And I cannot better conclude this imperfect notice of the work of a great master, in characterizing which such epithets as majestic, Mil-tonic, grandiose suggest themselves first of all, than by calling attention to the range which it covers, and to the fact that, even into the domain which one would have called consecrate to the imitators of the antique and the Renaissance, M. Rodin’s informing sentiment and sense of beauty penetrate with their habitual distinction ; and that the little child’s head entitled ” Alsace,” that considerable portion of his work represented by “The Wave and the Shore,” for example, and a small ideal female figure, which the manufacturer might covet for reproduction, but which, as Bastien-Lepage said to me, is “a definition of the essence of art,” are really as noble as his more majestic works are beautiful.
( Originally Published 1892 )
French Art:Academic Sculpture – Falguiere, Barrias, Delaplanche, And Le FeuvreAcademic Sculpture – Emmanuel FremietAcademic Sculpture – The Institute School In GeneralThe New Movement In Sculpture – RodinThe New Movement In Sculpture – DalouRead More Articles About: French Art