French Painting – Revolution

IN 1785, about midway between the accession of Louis XVI in 1774 and his execution in 1793, Jacques Louis David exhibited at the Salon The Oath of the Horatii. The following year Marie Antoinette’s toy village, Le Hameau, was finished in the Park of Versailles, and the Queen and her ladies of honor played the innocent rôle of dairy maids. While this fact is typical of the feebleness into which had sunk the old order, David’s picture forms an epoch in the advance of the new. Indeed, from this time on-ward, during nearly a century, epochs become symptomatic of the political life of France and the painters will be forced to contribute their evidences of the succession of shocks of change.

For hitherto, since the beginning of the French Renaissance, painting in France has been mainly an expression of the fashion and whims of society; its genesis and motive being aristocratic, representing the taste of royalty and the privileged classes. But now, at the close of the eighteenth century, the era of undisputed privilege is passing. France is about to throw off the yoke under which one third of the land was owned by the nobility, one third by the Church, and the remaining third bore the entire burden of taxation. The democratic ideal, cherished sporadically throughout the Middle Ages by the free cities, asserted by the Hollanders in the seventeenth century and reasserted by the American Colonies in 1776, is to be acclaimed in France. Henceforth it is the collective needs and ideals of the community that, at least in theory, are to be considered; and it is to these that painting, in so far as it keeps pace with the expression of the national genius in other manifestations of art, will respond.

While the surface of French society had been iridescent with the film of color, reflecting the immorality, unmorality and more or less vacuous innocence of high life, the depths below for nearly a quarter of a century had been in ferment with ideas of sanity and reformation. True to its racial origin, the French mind, in its effort toward national betterment, had reverted to the Roman and thence to the Spartan ideal. Philosophers had reiterated the need of returning to the example of the Re-public of Rome; the schools and colleges had urged it and the theses of schoolboys had rung the changes on the patriotism and the austere virtues of Roman citizens. In the disintegration that had come upon France the Gallic mind was instinctively directed toward the cohesion and organization of the Roman Republic. It was seeking in its Roman origin an ideal and the architectonics to realize it.

Meanwhile, the gathering energy had not as yet coalesced. It was still only fluent in the community and the ripple of its movement, had as yet stirred only a little elegant froth upon the surface. For example, the beautiful and talented Madame Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) , whose sentimental and innocently refined portraits are characteristic of what is pathetically purest in the age, indulged her friends in the novelty of a supper à la Grecque. The guests, arrayed in their hostess’s studio properties, reclined amid flowers, singing Gluck’s chorus from The God of Paphos while the cook prepared the viands according to the Greek recipes, described in the Abbé Barthélemy’s recent novel, “Voyage du Jeune Anacharsis.” The repast must have been of Spartan frugality, since according to madame its total cost did not exceed fifteen francs. It was the fact that the sprightly mind of the gay young artist was playing upon the surface of the thought-movements of the time which gave the affair a social vogue. In contrast with this trifling was the part played almost immediately afterwards by David.

David was the favorite pupil of Joseph Marie Vien (1716—1809) who had already responded to the Classical trend of the time by declaring that painting should adopt “the noble style.” With Vien, however, the “noble style” was a question purely of style; an affair of externals, clothing empty forms. It reflected the influence of the German critic, Winckelmann (1717—1768) , the founder of scientific archeology and of the history of classic art. His “Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture” (1755) and “History of the Art of Antiquity” (1764) are the products of a rarely cultured mind and highly systematized thinking and of an imagination which, as if by instinct, penetrated the genius of the Classic. Nevertheless, the value of some of his conclusions is impaired by their unquestionable parti-pris; notably his doctrine that painting reaches its highest possibilities by imitating sculpture; that the “marble manner” and not the union of color and form and the accompaniments of tone and light and atmosphere, must be the painter’s aim. Meantime this doctrine was obtaining currency and affected David.

After two unsuccessful attempts David won the Prix de Rome. He had had some experience in painting decorations after the style of Boucher; but with his sojourn in Rome his manner underwent a complete change. Like Poussin, he was affected by the marble bas-reliefs. In following these models he was no doubt influenced by Winckelmann, but even more by the bias of his own taste. For David was already a Re-publican at heart. Vowed to austere ideals and lofty patriotism, his study gravitated naturally to the Roman art rather than to that of the Italians, and to the bas-reliefs as the examples of the pictorial use of sculpture. Their severity accorded with that of his Republican ideals; moreover, they often represented, as in the case of Trajan’s column, actual incidents of Roman triumph, and David was at heart a naturalist. He proved this in the early portrait of himself and in the later ones of other subjects, many of which are also in the Louvre. They are the work of a keen, clear-eyed student of the actual, who recorded what he saw with complete frankness as well as decisive force. This grasp of actuality, accompanied, as it was, with ardor of patriotism, explains David’s fitness to become the man of the hour.

The Oath or the Horatii was instantly found to visualize what had long been in the minds and on the tongues of so many of his countrymen. David was accepted forthwith as the artist of their ideals and the arbiter of public taste. This in a country like France which so inevitably translates its feeling and aspiration into forms of art meant that he was able to exert an in-calculable influence in stimulating the one and pointing direction to the other. Terms of patriotism and frugal living, of devotion to country and civic duty, passed into the vernacular of the crowd; men and women accosted one another on the streets as citizens; the Roman fashion extended to clothes, furniture and other accessories of living ; the Roman example was extolled in the market-place and became the text of orators in the First National Assembly. The latter had come into being and discovered its power within four years of the appearance of David’s pictures ; so rapidly did events move when once the fluent emotions, desires and aspirations had been precipitated into some degree of cohesion.

It has been seldom given to an individual artist to realize so fully the latent thought of his time and bring it forth into action; and it is this which makes David memorable and confers on this particular picture a phenomenal importance. For otherwise it is singularly jejune. Viewed solely as a picture, the group formed by the father and his three sons is stiff and frigid in its theatrical posturing, while the women at the side are sentimentally attitudinizing. But because of these very faults it was all the more expressive of the spirit pre-ceding the Revolution, which found its voice in torrents of oratory and appeals to sentiment; in the passionate reasoning of Mirabeau; Danton’s biting and fiery diatribes and the acrid invocations of Marat; Robespierre’s uncompromising enunciations of principles and Saint Just’s tirades, saturated with sensibility.

It is a matter of history that the momentum of ideas, let loose in this torrent of words, submerged the old landmarks of thought and action in a welter of confusion out of which Napoleon was needed to wrest order. That he succeeded was due to his possessing in a marked degree the potent qualities of his race. He was an artist with a genius for architectonics. Gifted with a command of language, as distinguished by logical decision as by picturesqueness and wit, he appealed to the imagination of his countrymen and backed up his inspiration with organization. He replaced chaos with order and private ambition with patriotism; substituted for vague generalities of “Liberty, Fraternity and Equality,” the concrete facts of a France united and once more paramount in the counsels of Europe; and satisfied the taste of his countrymen for hero-worship and faith in the Roman tradition by accepting the pomp and circumstance of an Emperor. Moreover, in this character he played the high Roman rôle of a constructor. While, toward other countries he acted the destroyer; at home he was a great builder; not of aqueducts, baths and amphitheaters, but of a nation and national character, under a codified system of law, modeled on that of the Roman Emperor, Justinian. With an eye for the capacity of every man, he showed special favor to David, as the head of official authority and organized system in the Fine Arts. For David is said to have had as many as four hundred pupils, with whom his relations were so cordial that he bound them heart and soul to the principles of classicalism. The result was a unifying and strengthening of the Academy of Painting and Sculpture, which has enabled it to maintain its prestige as the official bureau of the Fine Arts, not only for France, but through its schools for the rest of the civilized world. To this day the Academy and its École are the strongholds of tradition and authority and the dispensers of official patronage. Meanwhile, the active elements of the story of French painting during the nineteenth century represent revolt against the tenets of Academic classicalism.

For it is a significant fact that the first fruits of the Revolution, so far as art is concerned, were the very opposite of what the political and social conditions would seem to have demanded. The Revolution had been directed against privilege and on behalf of the rights of man, that is to say, of individualism; whereas the result in the domain of art was collectivism in defense of privilege. The immediate and continuing effect of the upheaval was to release the individual and foster forceful personalities; but the classicalism of David was founded upon the impersonal. “The highest beauty is that which is proper neither to this person nor to that.” It was based on form; that is to say upon externals and upon the latter without reference to color. It aimed at coordinated perfection, a norm of beauty, avoiding the irregularities and accidents of personality. It made, at its best, for style instead of character.

In establishing these ideals and a system to maintain them the French were true to their racial genius for logic and organization. The only premise on which it is possible to base a system of instruction in the Fine Arts is that of form. Color is too much a matter of temperament and individual feeling to be reduced to a science and regulated by comprehensive methods. Nor can the subjective attitude be permitted toward form. That would be to substitute the exceptional for the norm. Form must be studied objectively in reference to a standard, outside oneself. What standard can be better than the generalized type evolved by the Greeks and Romans? And here again the French were true to the Roman tradition of their race. The Romans were not originators in the domain of the Fine Arts. They took their models from the Greeks, modified them to their own needs and so organized the reproduction of them, that the work could be effectively done by skilled craftsmen. Similarly the French system has diffused a skill of craftsmanship throughout the whole nation, the influence of which is not confined to the higher departments of literature, drama, painting, sculpture and architecture but extends into all the minor branches of intellectual and artistic production.

It has affected even the independent spirits who have broken away from the system and developed their personality in directions opposed to its principles. They, too, in their revolt, exhibit an instinctive regard for logic and a certain architectonic force and classical restraint which distinguish them as Frenchmen. Meanwhile the Academy has shown an aptitude to modify its classical-ism and in a measure to accommodate its traditional policy to outside suggestions. For around this Bastile of the arts, as its opponents have regarded it, or this beleaguered acropolis, as it has appeared to its stanch defenders, war has surged throughout the nineteenth century. With an ardor of conviction and fierceness of onslaught such as only Frenchmen can import into artistic conflicts, since they are artists by nature of their race and therefore must perforce be vitally in earnest, the Academy has waged battle successively with Romanticism, Naturalism, Realism and Impressionism.

Early in the century David abandoned the austerity of his Roman method for the superior grace and refinement of the Greek models. But his designs for furniture and costumes in the so-called Empire style, his Rape of the Sabine Women and Portrait of Madame Recamier (p. 97) are alike affected by a cold and formal precision. They have nothing in them of Gallic esprit or of the ardor that was fermenting in the new France. Madame Récamier, who was as conscious of her sway over male hearts as of being the intellectual leader of a salon, turned to Baron François Pascal Gérard (1770–1837) who, though a pupil of David, proved more gracious than his master toward his fair sitter’s particular charms of femininity. It is, in fact, through his portraits that Gérard’s reputation has survived; for his historical subjects were stagey and his Greek pictures insipid. The finest exponent of this Greek reaction was Pierre Prud’hon (1758–1823) .

Prudhon, beside being a student of Greek sculpture and drawing some of his subjects from Greek mythology, spent some time in Italy where he felt especially the influence of Da Vinci, Correggio and Canova. But it was the Gallic. in him which determined his particular style. For in it lives again the spirit of the Rococo; the dainty grace of Watteau, tinged with poetic melancholy, only clothed in classic draperies; the allurement of Boucher, but impregnated with the seriousness of passion. For Prud’hon’s life was a sad one, embarrassed until toward its close with poverty, and embittered by an unfortunate early marriage. Yet the breath of most of his pictures is that of eternal youth. Only an imagination still fresh with the ecstasy of youth could have conceived the exquisite figure of the maiden in the Rape of Psyche. Like his other masterpieces, Justice and Vengeance Pursuing Crime, Venus and Adonis and The Swinging Zephyr, it was painted during his attachment to Constance Mayer, who occupied a studio ad-joining his in the Sorbonne. The allegorical subject, Justice, won the attention of Napoleon who commissioned the artist to execute the Portrait of the Empress Josephine; now in the Louvre, where it may be compared, to its manifest advantage, with the portraits alluded to above, by David and Gérard. After the death of Constance by her own hand Prud’hon, broken utterly in spirit, survived but two years, during which he painted his only religious subjects: The Assumption of the Virgin and the Crucifixion. These, like all his pictures, have been blackened by time. He also finished The Unfortunate Family which had been begun by Constance Mayer. He is buried beside his lady of love and sorrow in the cemetery of Père-Lachaise.

Prud’hon, and, in a minor degree, Gérard and Anne Louis Girodet (1767–1824) , represent the first dawning light of the hot day of Romanticism which was soon to kindle the ardor of the young generation. Before considering it we may delay for a moment and consider its great opponent, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867).

When the struggle began Ingres had already reached middle age. But he was of the kind who are born old and make up for the lack of imagination and youthful freshness by indomitable patience and perseverance. He was David’s most distinguished pupil, though he incurred the master’s ire by mollifying the strictness of classicalism with a mingling of the Italian, particularly of Raphael. Hence, at first, his work was rejected at the Salon. But he clung to his “heresy”: “I count upon my old age,” he said; “it will avenge me.” And it did most amply, for Ingres became the acknowledged champion of the Academic. To his students he enforced the doctrine, “form is everything, color is nothing”; and when he guided them around the Luxembourg and they reached the Rubens Gallery, he would say, “Saluez, messieurs, mais ne regardez pas.” The caliber of his mind was small, but its grasp of the science of drawing and composition so elaborated by persistent effort that, however cold one may feel toward his work in general, certain examples of it arouse enthusiasm. These are scarcely to be found among his costume subjects or religious pictures; but, on the one hand, among the classical subjects and, on the other, among his portraits. His OEdipus and the Sphinx, notwithstanding the unpleasant color, exercises a strange fascination, due apparently to its subtle blend of the concrete and the abstract. The figure of the youth, as he interrogates the oracle, has all the charm of young manhood in the pliant vigor of the limbs, yet the pallor of the flesh which is not that of life imparts an abstraction to the form that removes it into an aloofness from human suggestion. More human is the girl’s nude figure in The Source; as she stands fronting us with raised arms, supporting a pitcher on her shoulder. And the pose throughout is one of. natural grace. Yet the expression of the whole is abstract; it is the blossoming loveliness of girlhood that is rendered, pure of all reference to the personal. The secret of the spell that it exerts is that the lure of life has been translated into lines of Academic perfection; and that color, which is life, plays no part in the conception or expression. One may discover the truth of this by comparing the Odalesque Bathing with Manet’s Olympia, which are now hanging in the same gallery in the Louvre. The Ingres again allures by its beauty of line and mass, until one turns to the Manet, which, though you may not care for the character of the subject, excels the other in distinction by reason of the living quality of its color scheme. The woman of Manet’s picture is weedy and anemic, while the Odalesque is amply and wholesomely formed; so that the expression of life in the former is less a matter of personality than of the artist’s vision and use of color.

Among the portraits by Ingres in the Louvre the finest is that of Madame Rivière (p. 109), which again fascinates by the exquisite elaboration of its lineal composition. Nor is it destitute of color charm; the dress cream; the Indian shawl, embroidered in dull red and green; the cushions blue; a carefully organized scheme of color pattern. On the other hand; the well known Portrait of M. Bertin, editor of Le Journal des Debats, because of the inertness of its flesh-color, shows to better advantage in black and white reproduction than in the original. For there it counts purely as form, so that nothing impairs the stolid force of character expressed in this very representative personage of the bourgeois era.

The merit of these and other portraits by Ingres has tended to divert attention from his excellence in other subjects, and it is only beginning to be realized that Ingres is a great master of the French School. For the force outside the Academy which he combated was born of the needs and conditions of the time and it submerged his influence and the memory of him in its overwhelming torrent. Meanwhile, in these later days a reaction has set in, with the result that the reputation of Ingres is coming back into its own.

The whole matter resolves itself around the eternal question of the relation of art to life. Ingres upheld the superiority of art to life to an extent that almost implied independence of the one from the other. Today we are discovering that painting has reached the opposite extreme: that in its rendering of life it has well-nigh achieved its separation from art. Hence, pending some modern compromise between art and life, between the claims of the abstract and the concrete, interest has been revived in the Academic compromise, so masterfully achieved by Ingres.

Meanwhile, looking back, one sees that he was erecting a dam to stem the living current of his age. The water was brimming with life, swollen with passions; a torrent of human energy, let loose by the Revolution, following the direction of its own momentum, compelled to self-expression. For the time being at least, the cold, calculating, impersonal art of Ingres could not avail against this force of nature, represented in the outburst of personal, individualized energy. The conscious sense of life had been newly awakened with all the glory of its possibilities and the younger generation of artists was necessarily in revolt against Academic restrictions, as against all other official contrivances for shackling the liberty of the spirit. Inevitable, therefore, was the Revolution of the Men of 1830.