French Art – Romanticism

WHEN we come to Scott after Fielding, says Mr. Stevenson, ” we become suddenly conscious of the background.” The remark contains an admirable characterization of romanticism ; as distinguished from classicism, romanticism is consciousness of the background. With Gros, Géricault, Paul Huet, Michel, Delacroix, French painting ceased to be abstract and impersonal. Instead of continuing the classic detachment, it became interested, curious, and catholic. It broadened its range immensely, and created its effect by observing the relations of its objects to their environment, of its figures to the landscape, of its subjects to their suggestions even in other spheres of thought ; Delacroix, Marilhat, Decamps, Fromentin, in painting the aspect of Orientalism, suggested, one may almost say, its sociology. For the ‘abstractions of classicism, its formula, its fastidious system of arriving at perfection by exclusions and sacrifices, it substituted an enthusiasm for the concrete and the actual ; it revelled in natural phenomena. Gautier was never more definitely the exponent of romanticism than in saying ” I am a man for whom the visible world exists.” To lines and curves and masses and their relations in composition, succeeds as material for inspiration and reproduction the varied spectacle of the external world. With the early romanticists it may be said that for the first time the external world “swims into” the painter’s “ken.” But, above all, in them the element of personality first appears in French painting with anything like general acceptance and as the characteristic of a group, a school, rather than as an isolated exception here and there, such as Claude or Chardin. The “point of view” takes the place of conformity to a standard. The painter expresses himself instead of endeavoring to realize an extraneous and impersonal ideal. What he himself personally thinks, how he himself personally feels, is what we read in his works.

It is true that, rightly understood, the romantic epoch is a period of evolution, and orderly evolution at that, if we look below the surface, rather than of systematic defiance and revolt. It is true that it recast rather than repudiated its inheritance of tradition. Nevertheless there has never been a time when the individual felt himself so free, when every man of any original genius felt so keenly the exhilaration of independence, when the “schools” of painting exercised less tyranny and, indeed, counted for so little. If it be exact to speak of the “roman-tic school” at all, it should be borne in mind that its adherents were men of the most marked and diverse individualities ever grouped under one standard. The impressionists, perhaps, apart, individuality is often spoken of as the essential characteristic of the painters of the present day. But beside the outburst of individuality at the beginning of the romantic epoch, much of the painting of the present day seems both monotonous and eccentric—the variation of its essential monotony, that is to say, being somewhat labored and express in comparison with the spontaneous multifariousness of the epoch of Delacroix and Decamps. In the decade between 1820 and 1830, at all events, notwithstanding the strength of the academic tradition, painting was free from the thraldom of system, and the imagination of its practitioners was not challenged and circumscribed by the criticism that is based upon science. Not only in the painter’s freedom in his choice of subject, but in his way of treating it, in the way in which he ” takes it,” is the revolution—or, as I should be inclined to say, rather, the evolution—shown. And as what we mean by personality is, in general, made up far more of emotion than of mind—there being room for infinitely more variety in feeling than in mental processes among intelligent agents—it is natural to find the French roman-tic painters giving, by contrast with their predecessors, such free swing to personal feeling that we may almost sum up the origin of the romantic movement in French painting in saying that it was an ebullition of emancipated emotion. And, to go a step farther, we may say that, as nothing is so essential to poetry as feeling, we meet now for the first time with the poetic element as an inspiring motive and controlling force.

The romantic painters were, however, by no means merely emotional. They were mainly imaginative. And in painting, as in literature, the great change wrought by romanticism consisted in stimulating the imagination instead of merely satisfying the sense and the intellect. The main idea ceased to be as obviously accentuated, and its natural surroundings were given their natural place ; there was less direct statement and more suggestion ; the artist’s effort was expended rather upon perfecting the ensemble, noting relations, taking in a larger circle ; a suggested complexity of moral elements took the place of the old simplicity, whose multifariousness was almost wholly pictorial. Instead of a landscape as a tapestry background to a Holy Family, and having no pertinence but an artistic one, we have Corot’s ” Orpheus.”

( Originally Published 1892 )

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