FRENCH Romanticism both in literature and painting was no exception to the rule that Romanticism appears as a protest and is of brief duration. Gusty with passion and inflamed with a love of the unusual, the surprising and the tempestuous, and usually inspired by what seems to be the glamour of the past, it lacks the elements of continuity and advance. Long before Delacroix’s death in 1863 the mantle which he had received from, Géricault had outworn its usefulness and the fashion of the time-spirit. Even Victor Hugo was being regarded as the “Pater Bombasticus” of French literature. The Revolution of 1830, in a political sense, had been a triumph of the bourgeoisie, and the reign of Louis Philippe, the “bourgeois-king,” had been a period of compromise, characterized by the worship of the “juste-milieu.” This had been upset by the Revolution of 1848 and France had plunged into the meretricious splendor and extravagance of the Second Empire, an era of nabobs and financial adventurers and of crass philistinism.
Romanticism, which had begun as a Revolution, had passed into an evolution; its heat no longer central but diffused. In its original form it had been inspired by, and largely drew its subjects from, legends and poetry; not to illustrate but to interpret them through the separate art of painting. Now, however, the sources of inspiration were rather those of history and nature. Taking advantage, on the one hand, of the vogue created by the new school of historians, comprising Thiers, Guizot and Michelet, the successors of Romanticism were indulging their milder emotions in scenes of history. On the other hand, the inspiration of nature, which, as we have noted, the writings of Chateaubriand did so much to popularize, was being differently employed. It had attracted the early Romanticists to nature’s grand, sublime and more phenomenal appearances; under the influence of Constable and the old Holland landscapists whom his example had lead the French artists to study, a new motive had been evolved : the poetical rendering of the “paysage intime.” ” Corot, Rousseau, Dupré, Daubigny, Troyan, Diaz and Millet were representative of the spirit of 1830, in that they also revolted against the conventions of the Academy. They possessed, in their several ways, a measure of the Romantic spirit; but instead of painting subjects from poetry, which demand for a full appreciation of their import a knowledge of the original, they infused with the enchantment of poetic quality scenes of nature that need no literary background.
Thoroughly characteristic of the period of the “juste-milieu” was Paul Delaroche (17971856) who attempted the rôle of being all things to all men. He coquetted with the taste for historic-romantic pictures in such subjects as The Assassination of the Duke of Guise, Oliver Cromwell Viewing the Body of Charles I, The Young Princes in the Tower; and squared himself with the Academy by his Hemicycle of the Arts in the École des Beaux Arts. In all, one feels the influence of the model and the reliance upon the costume cupboard and property room. Industriously correct in costuming and drawing, the historical subjects never reach the depth of tragedy, but have a mild emotional propriety, calculated to interest without shocking. Correct also but absolutely null is the effect in the Hemicycle of the wise men of all times, brought together by the art of the costumier, and waiting in a classic anteroom for nothing whatever to happen.
Another, though a more skilful, trimmer was Thomas Couture (18151879) whose Romans of the Decadence won for him a sensational reputation which he was unable to maintain. But, seen today, this bacchanalian orgy of men and women, classically grouped around, over and under the tables, while it has some distinction of color, rings very hollow. It has neither classical dignity nor the love of sensuous abandon. No figure really lives its part ; all are stage supers, whose attitudes and expressions have been systematically rehearsed.
Still other examples of men who, though out and out Academicians, took advantage of the historical vogue and of the growing importance of the nature-motive, were Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889) , William Adolphe Bouguereau (18251905) and Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). Cabanel was the best painter of the three; but, except in the case of his portraits, expended his skill on the tricking up of a model in various draperies and attitudes of seduction, posed to suggest this or that heroine of historical scandal. While these tickled one kind of taste of the newly rich, the innocent prettiness of Bouguereau’s girls and children, rendered in an enlarged manner of china-painting, pleased another; while Gérôme indifferently played to all the foibles of those who see nothing in a picture but the subject. The three became painters-in-ordinary to rich Americans and enjoyed every honor that French officialdom bestows on its successful, as opposed to its great, painters.
For convenience we may here anticipate the vogue of the neatly painted costume picture, the small child of the historical canvas, fathered so profitably for himself by Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier (18151891) . A skilful and untiring craftsman without an atom of imagination, he shared the enthusiasm of the crowd for microscopic detail and a furniture-polish finish, and charmed from the pockets of nabobs extravagantly fancy prices which it is pretty safe to say his works will never again fetch. The popularity of these little Rococo pictures was equaled by that of his cycle commemorating the Great Napoleon. He had begun by flattering the third Napoleon’s vanity to emulate the military glory of his uncle, painting him surrounded by his staff, witnessing the Battle of Sol f erino. In 1870 Meissonier accompanied his patron to the front, but after the disaster of Sedan, returned to Paris and enlisted for its defense in the artists’ corps. When peace was resumed he commenced his series on the Napoleonic theme. They represented the same method as his smaller pictures, multiplied to cover the larger surface, and were for the same reason equally popular. Meissonier could paint only what he saw in front of him at close range, and could not refrain from reproducing everything that he saw in it. His eye was a human camera, and the results are those of photography, when uncontrolled by selection and elimination on the part of the operator.
From this digression we may revert to our subject by way of another painter of the Napoleonic legend, Denis Auguste Marie Raffet (1804-1860), whose work reflects the ardor and imagination of Romanticism. He was a pupil of Gros and also of Nicolas Toussaint Char-let (1792-1845). The latter was indefatigable in presenting with pencil and brush the person of “the little corporal” and the types of veterans of the Grand Army. His drawings and pictures were for the most part clearly recorded facts of keen observation. But in at least one of his subjects Charlet displays imagination. Of his Episode in the Retreat from Russia, which appeared in the Salon of 1836, Alfred de Musset wrote that it was “not an episode but a complete poem” in which the artist had realized “the despair in the desert.” It was a similar quality of fathoming the reality of war, such as Gros had also exhibited, which characterizes the works of Raffet, in which he follows, step by step, as it were, the fortunes of Napoleon and the Grand Army, in its glories and its scarcely less glorious humiliation. The last of the cycle is The Midnight Review, in which the ghost of Napoleon has summoned from eternity his spectral hosts, which surge about him in dashing waves of silence. It reveals Raffet’s power of handling masses of troops, so as to realize the effect of their mass and its collective fire and force. His genius was, in fact, the very opposite of Meissonier’s niggling with details which impair the impressiveness of the whole. Equally he excelled in sincerity the rapid fire dexterity of Horace Vernet (17891863) . The latter’s Mazeppa, popularized by lithographs, showed some-thing of the Romantic spirit; but Vernet, the pupil of his father and accustomed to the brush from childhood, had an extraordinary facility, which outran his art and left him merely an exceedingly versatile practitioner. His series of battle canvases in Versailles show how thoroughly he had mastered the externals of the soldier’s career, but also that he had missed its spirit. His pictures suggest little of the reality of war and seem rather like martial exhibitions in a hippodrome.
A strangely interesting by-product of the Romantic period is Honoré Daumier (18081879). His pictures are comparatively few in number, one of the finest being Le Wagon de Troisième Classe, owned in America by Mr. Borden. The row of people, crowded on the seat of the bare coach, represents familiar types of the lower classes, characterized with an unerring grasp of physiognomical essentials and brushed in with a free stroke that glides over unessentials and fixes emphatically the salient features. Similar qualities distinguish the drawings for the comic papers, notably for Charivari, which form the bulk of Daumier’s work. In these the brushwork is replaced by lines of extraordinary integrity, meaning and power. These periodic records of the human comedy during the reign of Louis Philippe, while they hit off the follies of the time, throb with an undertone of the tragedy of life. In his Emotions Parisiennes and Bohemiens de Paris he reveals the horrors of hunger and suffering as well as the impudence of vice; in his Histoire Ancienne he parodies the absurdities of classicalism, while Le Ventre Legislatif dealt such a blow at the smug hypocrisy and compromise of the bourgeois rule that it materially contributed to the Revolution of 1848. When Daubigny visited the Sistine Chapel and viewed the ceiling of Michelangelo, he is said to have exclaimed, “It looks as if it had been done by Daumier.” There is an aptness in the suggestion, for, beneath the laugh, in Daumier’s drawings lie trenchant force, a vital economy of means, magnificence of plastic realization and grim intensity of purpose. Within his province, Daumier was a master of the truly grand style, whose influence, as we shall note later, helped to mold the art of Jean François Millet.
After Delacroix had set the example by his visit to Morocco, Egypt and the East became to the Romanticists what Italy had been to the Classicists. Here in the actual facts of life and the presence of nature they could see the glow and color and stir of movement, which hitherto had fermented only in their imagination, assisted by the promptings of poetry and legend. None derived from the experience more inspiration, suited to his particular needs than Alexandre Decamps (18031860). For he was first and last a painter to the finger tips ; to whom everything that possessed color and movement was sufficient for a subject. And such he found at ‘every turn in the wonderland of the East. Among his earliest examples in this vein is the beautiful Night Patrol at Smyrna of the Metropolitan Museum. He is inadequately represented in the Louvre, and to study him in the variety of his Oriental and Biblical subjects and in his water-colors a visit must be paid to the Wallace Collection. One of the finest here is The Watering Place: a row of Arab horsemen watering their horses at a trough, beneath a high wall which catches the light. It comes, perhaps, nearest to justifying the reputation Decamps held among his contemporaries of being a painter of light ; but at the same time shows that he was not one in the modern sense. For it is rather through the contrast of deep masses of shadow that he renders a suggestion of light, and the shadows have darkened. His effects, indeed, are obtained not so much by rendering nature as by device of art ; which in these days, when art is so often sacrificed to nature, may tend rather to in-crease one’s estimate of Decamps.
With less of the latter’s color sense and virtuosity of brushwork, Prosper Marilhat (18111847) rendered the East in a spirit of quiet poetry. Between the years 1883 and 1844 he was the only serious rival of Decamps in the Oriental genre. But after the latter date he disappears. Failure to be awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor brought on a melancholy, resulting in insanity from which he died at the age of thirty-six.
With Eugène Fromentin (18201876) the original fervor of the Oriental painter evaporates into elegant refinement. The esprit gaulois reasserts itself in the grace, distinction and nervous poise of these Oriental compositions, where the loveliness of the landscape is sprinkled with Arab chivalry, as dainty as groups of delicate and gaily-colored flowers.
Meanwhile, unattracted by the lure of the East, Paul Huet (18041869) and Georges Michel (17531843) found a vent for their emotional temperaments in painting the home landscape. Huet, though the younger man, may be mentioned first, since in his day he was recognized as a part of the Romantic movement. – Some-thing of the Byronic attitude toward nature possessed him; a passion for splendor of colored skies, for stormy movement of clouds and water, contrast and shocks of storms; and the struggle of humanity with the vicissitudes of nature. His earlier works are not free from the criticism of being theatrical in effect, while the simpler ones which followed found themselves in competition with the Barbizon landscape and suffered by comparison.
Michel, on the other hand, entirely unknown to his generation, has attained through the vogue of the Barbizon pictures a posthumous fame. The appearance of some of his landscapes at the International Exhibition of 1889, attracted attention to this solitary artist, whose genius had hitherto been overlooked save by a few connoisseurs. The meager facts of his life were unearthed : “that at twelve years old he had shirked school to go drawing; at fifteen had run away with a laundress and was the father of five children at the age of twenty; that he had married again when he was sixty-five and worked hard until his eightieth year.” It was recalled that after the Revolution he painted many landscapes in the classical style, but had certainly disappeared from the Salon since 1814. In later life he gained a livelihood by restoring pictures, and may in this way have been drawn to study the Dutch seventeenth century landscapes. At any rate they seem to have directed him to the painting of the simple landscape in its natural aspects. “The man who cannot find,” he is reported to have said, “enough to paint during his whole life in a circuit of four miles is in reality no artist. Did the Dutch ever run from one place to another? And yet they are good painters, and not merely that, but the most powerful, bold and ideal artists.” He found his own circuit in the plains of Montmartre. His pictures play upon the theme of level sweeps of land, interrupted by low, undulating hills; seamed with long winding roads, pricked here and there with a church or farm house house house, or occasionally thrusting a dark windmill against the wide expanse of sky. The earth, brown-soiled, its yellow herbage scantily varied with deep green, now basks beneath a whitish sky, now shivers in the gloom of a leaden-purple storm-cloud, fringed with rain, or under the shifty cloud-currents is streaked with light and shadow. Over all broods a spirit, large, aloof, elemental.
Michel is the link between the earlier Romanticists and the poetry of the paysage intime.