French Art – Tyranny Of Style

WELL, then, speaking thus absolutely and positively, the cardinal defect of the Institute sculpture—and the refined and distinguished work of M. Mercié better perhaps than almost any other assists us to see this—is its over – carefulness for style. This is indeed the explanation of what I mentioned at the outset as the chief characteristic of this sculpture, the academic inelasticity, namely, with which it essays to reproduce the Renaissance romanticism. But for the fondness for style integral in the French mind and character, it would perceive the contradiction between this romanticism and any canons except such as are purely intuitive and indefinable. In comparison with the Renaissance sculpt-ors, the French academic sculptors of the present day are certainly too exclusive devotees of Buffon’s “order and movement,” and too little occupied with the thought itself—too little individual. In comparison with the antique, this is less apparent, but I fancy not less real. We are so accustomed to think of the antique as the pure and simple embodiment of style, as a sublimation, so to speak of the individual into style itself, that in this respect we are scarcely fair judges of the antique. In any case we know very little of it ; we can hardly speak of it except by periods. But it is plain that the Greek is so superior to any subsequent sculpture in this one respect of style that we rarely think of its other qualities. Our judgment is inevitably a comparative one, and inevitably a comparative judgment fixes our attention on the Greek supremacy of style.

Indeed, in looking at the antique the thought itself is often alien to us, and the order and movement, being more nearly universal perhaps, are all that occupy us. A family tombstone lying in the cemetery at Athens, and half buried in the dust which blows from the Piræus roadway, has more style than M. Mercié’s ” Quand-Même ” group for Belfort, which has been the subject of innumerable encomiums, and which has only style and no individuality whatever to commend it. And the Athenian tombstone was probably furnished to order by the marble-cutting artist of the period, corresponding to those whose signs one sees at the entrances of our own large cemeteries. Still we may be sure that the ordinary Athenian citizen who adjudged prizes between Aeschylus and Sophocles, and to whom Pericles addressed the oration which only exceptional culture nowadays thoroughly appreciates, found plenty of individuality in the decoration of the Parthenon, and was perfectly conscious of the difference between Phidias and his pupils. Even now, if one takes the pains to think of it, the difference between such works as the so-called ” Genius ” of the Vatican and the Athenian marbles, or between the Niobe group at Florence and the Venus torso at Naples, for example, seems markedly individual enough, though the element of style is still to our eyes the most prominent quality in each. Indeed, if one really reflects upon the subject, it will not seem exaggeration to say that to anyone who has studied both with any thoroughness it would be more difficult to individualize the mass of modern French sculpture than even that of the best Greek epoch — the epoch when style was most perfect, when its reign was, as it sometimes appears to us, most absolute. And if we consider the Renaissance sculpture, its complexity is so great, its individuality is so pronounced, that one is apt to lose sight of the important part which style really plays in it. In a work by Donatello we see first of all his thought ; in a Madonna of Mino’s it is the idea that charms us ; the Della Robbia frieze at Pistoja is pure genre.

But modern academic French sculpture feels the weight of De Musset’s handicap—it is born too late into a world too old. French art in general feels this, I think, and painting suffers from it equally with sculpture. Culture, the Institute, oppress individuality. But whereas Corot and Millet have triumphed over the Institute there are—there were, at least, till yesterday—hardly any Millets and Corots of sculpture whose triumph is as yet assured. The tendency, the weight of authority, the verdict of criticism, always conservative in France, are all the other way. At the Êcole des Beaux-Arts one learns, negatively, not to be ridiculous. This is a great deal ; it is more than can be learned anywhere else nowadays—witness German, Italian, above all English exhibitions. Positively one learns the importance of style ; and if it were not for academic French sculpture, one would say that this was something the importance of which could not be exaggerated. But in academic French sculpture it is exaggerated, and, what is fatal, one learns to exaggerate it in the schools. The traditions of Houdon are noticeably forgotten. Not that Hou-don’s art is not eminently characterized by style ; the “San Bruno ” at Rome is in point of style an antique. But compare his ” Voltaire ” in the foyer of the Comédie Française with Chapu’s “Berryer ” of the Palais de Justice, to take one of the very finest portrait-statues of the present day. Chapu’s statue is more than irreproachable, it is elevated and noble, it is in the grand style ; but it is plain that its impressiveness is due to the fact that the subject is conceived as the Orator in general and handled with almost a single eye to style. The personal interest that accentuates every detail of the “Voltaire “—the physiognomy, the pose, the right hand, are marvellously characteristic—simply is not sought for in Chapu’s work. Of this quality there is more in Houdon’s bust of Molière, whom of course Houdon never saw, than in almost any production of the modern school. Chapu’s works, and such exceptions as the heads of Baudry and Renan already mentioned, apart, one perceives that the modern school has made too many statues of the République, too many ” Ledas ” and ” Susannahs and ” Quand-Mêmes ” and ” Gloria Victis.” And its penchant for Renaissance canons only emphasizes the absolute commonplace of many of these.

On the other hand, if Houdon’s felicitous harmony of style and individual force are forgotten, there is hardly any recognized succession to the imaginative freedom, the verve, the triumphant personal fertility of Rude and Carpeaux. At least, such as there is has not preserved the dignity and in many instances scarcely the decorum of those splendid artists. Much of the sculpture which figures at the yearly Salons is, to be sure, the absolute negation of style ; its main characteristic is indeed eccentricity ; its main virtues, sincerity (which in art, of course, is only a very elementary virtue) and good modelling (which in sculpture is equally elementary). Occasionally in the midst of this display of fantasticality there is a work of promise or even of positive interest. The observer who has not a weak side for the graceful conceits, invariably daintily presented and beautifully modelled, of M. Moreau-Vauthier for example, must be hard to please ; they are of the very essence of the article de Paris, and only abnormal primness can refuse to recognize the truth that the article de Paris has its art side. M. Moreau-Vauthier is not perhaps a modern Cellini ; he has certainly never produced anything that could be classed with the “Perseus ” of the Loggia de’ Lanzi, or even with the Fontainebleau “Diana ;” but he does more than anyone else to keep alive the tradition of Florentine preciosity, and about everything he does there is something delightful.

Still the fantastic has not made much headway in the Institute, and it is so foreign to the French genius, which never tolerates it after it has ceased to be novel, that it probably never will. It is a great tribute to French ” catholicity of mind and largeness of temper” that Carpeaux’s “La Danse” remains in its position on the façade of the Grand Opéra. French sentiment regarding it was doubt-less accurately expressed by the fanatic who tried to ink it indelibly after it was first exposed. This vandal was right from his point of view—the point of view of style. Almost the one work of absolute spontaneity among the hundreds which without and within decorate M. Garnier’s edifice, it is thus a distinct jar in the general harmony ; it distinctly mars the “order and movement” of M. Garnier’s thought, which is fundamentally opposed to spontaneity. But imagine the devotion to style of a milieu in which a person who would throw ink on a confessedly fine work of art is actuated by an impersonal dislike of incongruity ! Dislike of the in-congruous is almost a French passion, and, like all qualities, it has its defect, the defect of tolerating the conventional. It is through this tolerance, for example, that one of the freest of French critics of art, a true Voltairian, Stendhal, was led actually to find Guido’s ideal of beauty higher than Raphael’s, and to miss entirely the grandeur of Tintoretto. Critical opinion in France has not changed radically since Stendhal’s day.

( Originally Published 1892 )

French Art:Classic Sculpture – Jean GoujonClassic Sculpture – StyleClassic Sculpture – Clodion, Pradier And EtexClassic Sculpture – Houdon, David D’ Angers, And RudeClassic Sculpture – Careaux And BaryeAcademic Sculpture – Its Italianate CharacterAcademic Sculpture – ChapuAcademic Sculpture – DuboisAcademic Sculpture – Saint Marceaux And MercieAcademic Sculpture – Tyranny Of StyleRead More Articles About: French Art