French Painting The 19th Century

THE REVOLUTIONARY TIME: In considering this century’s art in Europe, it must be remembered that a great social and intellectual change has taken place since the days of the Medici. The power so long pent up in Italy during the Renaissance finally broke and scattered itself upon the western nations ; societies and states were torn down and rebuilded, political, social, and religious ideas shifted into new garbs ; the old order passed away.

Religion as an art-motive, or even as an art-subject, ceased to obtain anywhere. The Church failed as an art-patron, and the walls of cloister and cathedral furnished no new Bible readings to the unlettered. Painting, from being a necessity of life, passed into a luxury, and the king, the state, or the private collector became the patron. Nature and actual life were about the only sources left from which original art could draw its materials. These have been freely used, but not so much in a national as in an individual manner. The tendency to-day is not to put forth a universal conception but an individual belief. Individualism —the same quality that appeared so strongly in Michael Angelo’s art—has become a keynote in modern work. It is not the only kind of art that has been shown in this century, nor is nature the only theme from which art has been derived. We must remember and consider the influence of the past upon modern men, and the attempts to restore the classic beauty of the Greek, Roman, and Italian, which practically ruled French painting in the first part of this century.

FRENCH CLASSICISM OF DAVID : This was a revival of Greek form in art, founded on the belief expressed by Winckelmann, that beauty lay in form, and was best shown by the ancient Greeks. It was the objective view of art which saw beauty in the external and tolerated no individuality in the artist except that which was shown in technical skill. It was little more than an imitation of the Greek and Roman marbles as types, with insistence upon perfect form, correct drawing, and balanced composition. In theme and spirit it was pseudo-heroic, the incidents of Greek and Roman history forming the chief subjects, and in method it rather despised color, light-and-shade, and natural surroundings. It was elevated, lofty, ideal in aspiration, but coldly unsympathetic because lacking in contemporary interest ; and, though correct enough in classic form, was lacking in the classic spirit. Like all reanimated art, it was derivative as regards its forms and lacking in spontaneity. The reason for the existence of Greek art died with its civilization, and those, like the French classicists, who sought to revive it, brought a copy of the past into the present, expecting the world to accept it.

There was some social, and perhaps artistic, reason, however, for the revival of the classic in the French art of the late eighteenth century. It was a revolt, and at that time revolts were popular, The art of Boucher and Van Loo had become quite unbearable. It was flippant, careless, licentious. It had no seriousness or dignity about it. Moreover, it smacked of the Bourbon monarchy, which people had come to hate. Classicism was severe, elevated, respectable at least, and had the air of the heroic republic about it. It was a return to a sterner view of life, with the martial spirit behind it as an impetus, and it had a great vogue. For many years during the Revolution, the Consulate, and the Empire, classicism was accepted by the sovereigns and the Institute of France, and to this day it lives in a modified form in that semi-classic work known as academic art.

THE CLASSIC SCHOOL: Vien (1716–1809) was the first painter to protest against the art of Boucher and Van Loo by advocating more nobility of form and a closer study of nature. He was, however, more devoted to the antique forms he had studied in Rome than to nature. In subject and line his tendency was classic, with a leaning toward the Italians of the Decadence. He lacked the force to carry out a complete reform in painting, but his pupil David (1748–1825) accomplished what he had begun. It was David who established the reign of classicism, and by native power became the leader. The time was appropriate, the Revolution called for pictures of Romulus, Brutus and Achilles, and Napoleon encouraged the military theme. David had studied the marbles at Rome, and he used them largely for models, reproducing scenes from Greek and Roman life in an elevated and sculpturesque style, with much archaelogical knowledge and a great deal of skill. In color. relief, sentiment, individuality, his painting was lacking. He despised all that. The rhythm of line, the sweep of composed groups, the heroic subject and the heroic treatment, made up his art. It was thoroughly objective, and what contemporary interest it possessed lay largely in the martial spirit then prevalent. Of course it was upheld by the Institute, and it really set the pace for French painting for nearly half a century. When David was called upon to paint Napoleonic pictures he painted them under protest, and yet these, with his portraits, constitute his best work. In portraiture he was uncommonly strong at times.

After the Restoration David, who had been a revolutionist, and then an adherent of Napoleon, was sent into exile ; but the influence he had left and the school he had established were carried on by his contemporaries and pupils. Of the former Regnault (1754-1829), Vincent (1746-1816), and Prudhon (1758-1823) were the most conspicuous. The last one was considered as out of the classic circle, but so far as making his art depend upon drawing and composition, he was a genuine classicist. His subjects, instead of being heroic, inclined to the mythological and the allegorical. In Italy he had been a student of the Renaissance painters, and from them borrowed a method of shadow gradation that rendered his figures misty and phantom-like. They possessed an ease of movement sometimes called ” Prudhonesque grace,” and in composition were well placed and effective.

Of David’s pupils there were many. Only a few of them, however, had pronounced ability, and even these carried David’s methods into the theatrical. Girodet (1766—1824) was a draughtsman of considerable power, but with poor taste in color and little repose in composition. Most of his work was exaggeration and strained effect. Lethiere (1760–1832) and Guerin (1774-1833), pupils of Regnault, were painters akin to Girodet, but inferior to him. Gerard (1770—1837) was a weak David follower, who gained some celebrity by painting portraits of celebrated men and women. The two pupils of David who brought him the most credit were Ingres (1780—1867) and Gros (1771—1835). Ingres was a cold, persevering man, whose principles had been well settled by David early in life, and were adhered to with conviction by the pupil to the last. He modified the classic subject somewhat, studied Raphael and the Italians, and reintroduced the single figure into art (the Source, and the Odalisque, for example). For color he had no fancy. ” In nature all is form,” he used to say. Painting he thought not an independent art, but “a development of sculpture.” To consider emotion, color, or light as the equal of form was monstrous, and to compare Rembrandt with Raphael was blasphemy. To this belief he clung to the end, faithfully reproducing the human figure, and it is not to be wondered at that eventually he became a learned draughtsman. His single figures and his portraits show him to the best advantage. He had a strong grasp of modelling and an artistic sense of the beauty and dignity of line not excelled by any artist of this century. And to him more than any other painter is due the cultured draughtsmanship which is to-day the just pride of the French school.

Gros was a more vacillating man, and by reason of forsaking the classic subject for Napoleonic battle-pieces, he unconsciously led the way toward romanticism. He excelled as a draughtsman, but when he came to paint the Field of Eylau and the Pest of Jaffa he mingled color, light, air, movement, action, sacrificing classic composition and repose to reality. This was heresy from the Davidian point of view, and David eventually convinced him of it. Gros returned to the classic theme and treatment, but soon after was so reviled by the changing criticism of the time that he committed suicide in the Seine. His art, however, was the beginning of romanticism.

The landscape painting of this time was rather academic and unsympathetic. It was a continuation of the Claude-Poussin tradition, and in its insistence upon line, grandeur of space, and imposing trees and mountains, was a fit companion to the classic figure-piece. It had little basis in nature, and little in color or feeling to commend it. Watelet (1780-1866), Bertin (1775-1842), Michallon (1796-1822), and Aligny (1798-1871), were its exponents.

A few painters seemed to stand apart from the contemporary influences. Madame Vigee-Lebrun (1755-1842), a successful portrait-painter of nobility, and Horace Vernet (1789-1863), a popular battle-painter, many of whose works are to be seen at Versailles, were of this class.

ROMANTICISM: The movement in French painting which began about 1822 and took the name of Romanticism was but a part of the ” storm-and-stress ” feeling that swept Germany, England, and France at the beginning of this century, appearing first in literature and afterward in art. It had its origin in a discontent with the present, a passionate yearning for the unattainable, an intensity of sentiment, gloomy melancholy imaginings, and a desire to express the inexpressible. It was emphatically subjective, self-conscious, a mood of mind or feeling. In this respect it was diametrically opposed to the academic and the classic. In French painting it came forward in opposition to the classicism of David. People had begun to weary of Greek and Roman heroes and their deeds, of impersonal line-bounded statuesque art. There was a demand for something more representative, spontaneous, expressive of the intense feeling of the time. The very gist of romanticism was passion. Freedom to express itself in what form it would was a condition of its existence.

The classic subject was abandoned by the romanticists for dramatic scenes of mediaeval and modern times. The romantic hero and heroine in scenes of horror, perils by land and sea, flame and fury, love and anguish, came upon the boards. Much of this was illustration of history, the novel, and poetry, especially the poetry of Goethe, Byron, and Scott. Line was slurred in favor of color, symmetrical composition gave way to wild disordered groups in headlong action, and atmospheres, skies, and lights were twisted and distorted to convey the sentiment of the story. It was thus, more by suggestion than realization, that romanticism sought to give the poetic sentiment of life. Its position toward classicism was antagonistic, a rebound, a flying to the other extreme. One virtually said that beauty was in the Greek form, the other that it was in the painter’s emotional nature. The disagreement was violent, and out of it grew the so-called romantic quarrel of the 1820′s.

LEADERS OF ROMANTICISM: Symptoms of the coming movement were apparent long before any open revolt. Gros had made innovations on the classic in his battle-pieces, but the first positive dissent from classic teachings was made in the Salon of 1819 by Gericault (1791–1824) with his Raft of the Medusa. It represented the starving, the dead, and the dying of the Medusa’s crew on a raft in mid-ocean. The subject was not classic. It was literary, romantic, dramatic, almost theatric in its seizing of the critical moment. Its theme was restless, harrowing, horrible. It met with instant opposition from the old men and applause from the young men. It was the trumpet-note of the revolt, but Gericault did not live long enough to become the leader of romanticism. That position fell to his contemporary and fellow-pupil, Delacroix (1799–1863). It was in 1822 that Delacroix’s first Salon picture (the Dante and Virgil) appeared. A strange, ghost-like scene from Dante’s Inferno, the black atmosphere of the nether world, weird faces, weird colors, weird flames, and a modelling of the figures by patches of color almost savage as compared to the tinted drawing of classicism. Delacroix’s youth saved the picture from condemnation, but it was different with his Massacre of Scio two years later. This was decried by the classicists, and even Gros called it ” the massacre of art.” The painter was accused of establishing the worship of the ugly, he was no draughtsman, had no selection, no severity, nothing but brutality. But Delacroix was as obstinate as Ingres, and declared that the whole world could not prevent him from seeing and painting things in his own way. It was thus the quarrel started, the young men siding with Delacroix, the older men following David and Ingres.

In himself Delacroix embodied all that was best and strongest in the romantic movement. His painting was in-tended to convey a romantic mood of mind by combinations of color, light, air, and the like. In subject it was tragic and passionate, like the poetry of Hugo, Byron, and Scott. The figures were usually given with anguish-wrung brows, wild eyes, dishevelled hair, and impetuous, contorted action. The painter never cared for technical details, seeking al-ways to gain the effect of the whole rather than the exactness of the part. He purposely slurred drawing at times, and was opposed to formal composition. In color he was superior, though somewhat violent at times, and in brush-work he was often labored and patchy. His strength lay in imagination displayed in color and in action.

The quarrel between classicism and romanticism lasted some years, with neither side victorious. Delacroix won recognition for his view of art, but did not crush the belief in form which was to come to the surface again. He fought almost alone. Many painters rallied around him, but they added little strength to the new movement. Deveria (1805–i865) and Champmartin (1797–1883) were highly thought of at first, but they rapidly degenerated. Sigalon (1788–1837), Cogniet (1794–1880), Robert-Fleury (1797–), and Boulanger (1806–1867), were romanticists, but achieved more as teachers than as painters. Delaroche (1797–1856) was an eclectic—in fact, founded a school of that name— thinking to take what was best from both parties. Inventing nothing, he profited by all invented. He employed the romantic subject and color, but adhered to classic drawing. His composition was good, his costume careful in detail, his brush-work smooth, and his story-telling capacity excellent. All these qualities made him a popular painter, but not an original or powerful one. Ary Scheffer (1797-1858) was an illustrator of Goethe and Byron, frail in both sentiment and color, a painter who started as a romanticist, but afterward developed line under Ingres.

THE ORIENTALISTS: In both literature and painting one phase of romanticism showed itself in a love for the life, the light, the color of the Orient. From Paris Decamps (1803–1860) was the first painter to visit the East and paint Eastern life. He was a genre painter more than a figure painter, giving naturalistic street scenes in Turkey and Asia Minor, courts, and interiors, with great feeling for air, warmth of color, and light. At about the same time Marilhat (1811–1847) was in Egypt picturing the life of that country in a similar manner ; and later, Fromentin (1820–1876), painter and writer, following Delacroix, went to Algiers and portrayed there Arab life with fast-flying horses, the desert air, sky, light, and color. Theodore Frere and Ziem belong further on in the century, but were no less exponents of romanticism in the East.

Fifteen years after the starting of romanticism the movement had materially subsided. It had never been a school in the sense of having rules and laws of art. Liberty of thought and perfect freedom for individual expression were all it advocated. As a result there was no unity, for there was nothing to unite upon ; and with every painter painting as he pleased, regardless of law, extravagance was inevitable. This was the case, and when the next generation came in romanticism began to be ridiculed for its excesses. A reaction started in favor of more line and academic training. This was first shown by the students of Delaroche, though there were a number of movements at the time, all of them leading away from romanticism. A recoil from too much color in favor of more form was inevitable, but romanticism was not to perish entirely. Its influence was to go on, and to appear in the work of later men.

ECLECTICS AND TRANSITIONAL PAINTERS: After Ingres his follower Flandrin (1809–1864) was the most considerable draughtsman of the time. He was not classic but religious in subject, and is sometimes called “the religious painter of France.” He had a delicate beauty of line and a fine feeling for form, but never was strong in color, brushwork, or sentiment. His best work appears in his very fine portraits. Gleyre (1806–1874) was a man of classic methods, hut romantic tastes, who modified the heroic into the idyllic and mythologic. He was a sentimental day-dreamer, with a touch of melancholy about the vanished past, appearing in Arcadian fancies, pretty nymphs, and idealized memories of youth. In execution he was not at all romantic. His color was pale, his drawing delicate, and his lighting misty and uncertain. It was the etherealized classic method, and this method he transmitted to a little band of painters called the NEW-GREEKS, who, in point of time, belong much further along in the century, but in their art are with Gleyre. Their work never rose above the idyllic and the graceful, and calls for no special mention. Ramon (1821–1874) and Aubert (1824–) belonged to the band, and Gerome (1824–) was at one time its leader, but he afterward emerged from it to a higher place in French art, where he will find mention hereafter.

Couture (1815–1879) stood quite by himself, a mingling of several influences. His chief picture, The Romans of the Decadence, is classic in subject, romantic in sentiment (and this very largely expressed by warmth of color), and rather realistic in natural appearance. He was an eclectic in a way, and yet seems to stand as the forerunner of a large body of artists who find classification hereafter under the title of the Semi-Classicists.

PRINCIPAL WORKS: All the painters mentioned in this chapter are best represented in the Louvre at Paris, at Versailles, and in the museums of the chief French cities. Some works of the late or living men may be found in the Luxembourg, where pictures bought by the state are kept for ten years after the painter’s death, and then are either sent to the Louvre or to the other municipal galleries of France. Some pictures by these men are also to be seen in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, the Boston Museum, and the Chicago Art Institute.