French Art – Saint Marceaux And Mercie

Ir is agreeable in many ways to turn from the rounded and complete impeccability of M. Dubois to the fancy of M. Saint-Marceaux. More than any of his rivals, M. Saint-Marceaux possesses the charm of unexpectedness. He is not perhaps to be called an original genius, and his work will probably leave French sculpture very nearly where it found it. Indeed, one readily perceives that he is not free from the trammels of contemporary convention. But how easily he wears them, and if no “severe pains and birth-throes” accompany the evolution of his conceptions, how graceful these conceptions are ! They are perhaps of the Canova family ; the “Harlequin,” for instance, which has had such a prodigious success, is essentially Milanese sculpture ; essentially even the “Genius Guarding the Secret of the Tomb ” is a fantastic rather than an original work. But how the manner, the treat-ment, triumphs over the Canova insipidity ! It is not only Milanese sculpture better done, the execution beautifully sapient and truthful instead of cheaply imitative, the idea broadly enforced by the details instead of frittered away among them ; it is Milanese sculpture essentially elevated and dignified. Loosely speaking, the mere article de vertu becomes a true work of art. And this transformation, or rather this development of a germ of not too great intrinsic importance, is brought about in the work of Saint-Marceaux by the presence of an element utterly foreign to the Canova sculpture and its succession—the element of character. If to the clever workmanship of the Italians he merely opposed workmanship of a superior kind as well as quality—thoroughly artistic workmanship, that is to say—his sculpture would be far less interesting than it is. He does, indeed, noticeably do this ; there is a felicity entirely delightful, almost magical, in every detail of his work. But when one compares it with the sculpture of M. Dubois, it is not of this that one thinks so much as of a certain individual character with which M. Saint-Marceaux always contrives to endue it. This is not always in its nature sculptural, it must be admitted, and it approaches perhaps too near the character of genre to have the enduring interest that purely sculptural qualities possess. But it is always individual, piquant, and charming, and in it consists M. Saint-Marceaux’s claim upon us as an artist. No one else, even given his powers of workmanship, that is to say as perfectly equipped as he, could have treated so thoroughly conventional a genre subject as the “Harlequin” as he has treated it. ‘The mask is certainly one of the stock properties of the subject, but notice how it is used to confer upon the whole work a character of mysterious witchery. It is as a whole, if you choose, an article de Paris, with the distinction of being seriously treated ; the modelling and the movement admirable as far as they go, but well within the bounds of that anatomically artistic expression which is the raison d’être of sculpture and its choice of the human form as its material. But the character saves it from this category ; what one may almost call its psychological interest redeems its superficial triviality.

M. Saint-Marceaux is always successful in this way. One has only to look at the eyes of his figures to be convinced how subtle is his art of expressing character. Here he swings quite clear of all convention and manifests his genius positively and directly. The unfathomable secret of the tomb is in the spiritual expression of the guarding genius, and the elaborately complex movement concentrated upon the urn and directly inspired by the ephebes of the Sistine ceiling is a mere blind. The same is true of the portrait heads which within his range M. Saint Marceaux does better than almost any-one. M. Renan’s “Confessions” hardly convey as distinct a notion of character as his bust exhibited at the Triennial of 1883. Many of the sculptors’ anonymous heads, so to speak, are hardly less remarkable. Long after the sharp edge of one’s interest in the striking pose of his “Harlequin ” and the fine movement and bizarre features of his “Genius” has worn away, their curious spiritual interest, the individual cachet of their character, will sustain them. And so integrally true is this of all the productions of M. Saint-Marceaux’s talent, that it is quite as perceptible in works where it is not accentuated and emphasized as it is in those of which I have been speaking ; it is a quality that will bear refining, that is even better indeed in its more subtile manifestations. The figure of the Luxembourg Gallery, the young Dante reading Virgil, is an example ; a girl’s head, the forehead swathed in a turban, first exhibited some years ago, is another. The charm of these is more penetrating, though they are by no means either as popular or as “important” works as the ” Genius of the Tomb” or the “Harlequin.” In the time to come M. Saint-Marceaux will probably rely more and more on their quality of grave and yet alert distinction, and less on striking and eccentric variations of themes from Michael Angelo like the “Genius,” and illustrations like the “Harlequin” of the artistic potentialities of the Canova sculpture.

With considerably less force than M. Dubois and decidedly less piquancy than M. Saint – Marceaux, M. Antonin Mercié has perhaps greater refinement than either. His outline is a trifle softer, his sentiment more gracious, more suave. His work is difficult to characterize satisfactorily, and the fact may of course proceed from its lack of force, as well as from the well-understood difficulty of translating into epithets anything so essentially elusive as suavity and grace of form. At one epoch in any examination of academic French sculpture that of M. Mercié seems the most interesting ; it is so free from exaggeration of any kind on the one hand, it realizes its idea so satisfactorily on the other, and this idea is so agreeable, so refined, and at the same time so dignified. The “David” is an early work now in the Luxembourg gallery, reproductions of which are very popular, and the reader may judge how well it justifies these remarks. Being an early work, one cannot perhaps insist on its originality ; in France, a young sculptor must be original at his peril ; his education is so complete, he must have known and studied the beauties of classic sculpture so thoroughly, that not to be impressed by them so profoundly as to display his appreciativeness in his first work is apt to argue a certain insensitiveness. And every one cannot have creative genius. What a number of admirable works we should be compelled to forego if creative genius were demanded of an artist of the present day when the best minds of the time are occupied with other things than art ! One is apt to forget that in our day the minds that correspond with the artistic miracles of the Renaissance are absorbed in quite different departments of effort. M. Mercié’s ” David ” would perhaps never have existed but for Donatello’s. As far as plastic motive is concerned, it may without injustice be called a variant of that admirable creation, and from every point of view except that of dramatic grace it is markedly inferior to its inspiration ; as an embodiment of triumphant youth, of the divine ease with which mere force is overcome, it has only a superficial resemblance to the original.

But if with M. Mercié “David ” was simply a classic theme to be treated, which is exactly what it of course was not with Donatello, it is undeniable that he has expressed himself very distinctly in his treatment. A less sensitive artist would have vulgarized instead of merely varying the conception, whereas one can easily see in M. Mercié’s handling of it the ease, science, and felicitous movement that have since expressed themselves more markedly, more positively, but hardly more unmistakably, in the sculptor’s maturer works. Of these the chief is perhaps the “Gloria Victis,” which now decorates the Square Montholon ; and its identity of authorship with the “David” is apparent in spite of its structural complexity and its far greater importance both in subject and execution. Its subject is the most inspiring that a French sculptor since the events of 1870-71 (so lightly considered by those who only see the theatric side of French character) could treat. Its general interest, too, is hardly inferior ; there is something generally ennobling in the celebration of the virtues of the brave defeated that surpasses the commonplace of paeans. M. Mercié was, in this sense, more fortunate than the sculptor to whom the Berlinese owe the bronze commemoration of their victory. Perhaps to call his treatment entirely worthy of the theme, is to forget the import of such works as the tombs of the Medici Chapel at Florence. There is a region into whose precincts the dramatic quality penetrates only to play an in-sufficient part. But in modern art to do more than merely to keep such truths in mind, to insist on satisfactory plastic illustrations of them, is not only to prepare disappointment for one’s self, but to risk misjudging admirable and elevated effort ; and to regret the fact that France had only M. Mercié and not Michael Angelo to celebrate her ” Gloria Victis” is to commit both of these errors. After all, the subjects are different, and the events of 1870-71 had compensations for France which the downfall of Florentine liberty was without ; so that, indeed, a note of unmixed melancholy, however lofty its strain, would have been a discord which M. Mercié has certainly avoided. He has avoided it in rather a marked way, it is true. His monument is dramatic and stirring rather than inwardly moving. It is rhetorical rather than truly poetic ; and the admirable quality of its rhetoric, its complete freedom from vulgar or sentimental alloy—its immense superiority to Anglo-Saxon rhetoric, in fine—does not conceal the truth that it is rhetoric, that it is prose and not poetry after all. Mercié’s ” Gloria Victis” is very fine ; I know nothing so fine in mod-ern sculpture outside of France. But then there is not very much that is fine at all in modern sculpture outside of France ; and modern French sculpture, and M. Mercié along with it as one of its most eminent ornaments, have made it impossible to speak of them in a relative way. The antique and the Renaissance sculpture alone furnish their fit association, and like the Renaissance and the antique sculpture they demand a positive and absolute, and not a comparative criticism.

( Originally Published 1892 )

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