National Gallery – French Pictures In The British Collection

FRENCH painting, like the Spanish, sprang from miniature beginnings, dotting itself about like gleaming gems in creamy, illuminated volumes, through the earlier centuries, not developing into actual pictorial form until the sixteenth century. The earliest examples in the National Gallery are an archaic Madonna, by an unknown hand, No. 1335, not remarkable for anything except priority, and two stiff panels by a little-known artist, Marmion, Nos. 1302 and 1303. These were originally the shutters to an altar-piece in the Church of St. Bertin, at St. Omer, and are the only known examples of this artist’s work. There has recently been added a tiny brilliant decorative bit of early French painting, No. 1939, which is almost like an illumination, and shows in its well-filled spaces the transition from book illustration to easel pictures.

The first painter to claim our serious attention is the famous François Clouet, to whom two portraits, Nos. 66o and 1190, are ascribed. These, though not fascinating as subjects, are interesting if they are the work of this most significant epoch of French art, for Clouet lived in the time of Francis I., and yet was court painter also in the reign of Henri II. He was entrusted with the delicate task of taking casts of the faces of both of these monarchs after death, to be used for the painted effigies in their funeral pageants. Clouet was famous and quite appreciated in his own day. ” Doctor Janet,” as they called him, was immortalized in verse by Pasquier, Jodelle, and Du Billon, while he was commissioned to paint an ideal portrait of his lady-love for the passionate Ronsard.

This early French painter is exact and careful in his work; his handling appears to be smooth with-out effort, but the closer one observes this unpretentious surface of silvery clearness, the more one realizes that the modelling is really very subtle. There is absolute certainty of touch, and a delicacy which is as telling in its own way as a moire pronounced technique. The French painters at this time all employed rather large flat values, with the shadows hatched on afterwards in thin, close lines ; in all French art this breadth of clear open space has been characteristic. Wilkie alludes to it. “French pictures,” he says, ” seem to have the appearance of outlines filled up, and almost all. I have seen appear to want depth in the light and shadow.”

To him this does not appear as an excellence; to many critics it is regarded as the great message of France to the arts.

A gap occurs in the chronology now, and not until the seventeenth century may we trace the progress of French painting in the National Gallery. The founding of the Academy of Painting and Sculpture in the days of Louis XIV. developed a large number of artists, among whom the three brothers Le Nain were prominent. We have here one picture only by this family, — no one seems to be inclined to say which of the brothers is responsible for any one work. They seem to have laboured in harmony, and the name Le Nain is usually employed collectively. No. 1425 represents a family group, a mother surrounded by a flourishing family. It is a very interesting bit of genre, differing in various ways from the Dutch school, and full of that comfortable bourgeois element of respectable family life in France, which is so little credited to that nation.

” There are very much finer pictures by Nicolas Poussin in our National Gallery,” says C. R. Leslie, ” than in the Louvre.” This is undoubtedly a fact, and it is a delight to use the splendid opportunity of studying this great Frenchman which is afforded us in London.

Born in 1594, in the town of Les Andelys, and brought up in the local school, where his teacher was probably a monk, Poussin’s early surroundings were not those to create an artist, if great latent talent had not already existed in the youth. His parents were advised by the artist Quentin Varin, who was painting some pictures in Les Andelys, to send Nicolas to study art, for he was always sketching, and failing to satisfy the demands of his unappreciative pedagogue; so in 1616 he was sent to Paris, where his genius soon began to proclaim itself. He paid his own journey from his native town to the city by painting, for people living along the road, panels to fit the spaces over doors and between windows. By the year 1623 the great poet Marino saw some of his pictures, and invited him to Italy, where he went as Marino’s guest. The Italian poet introduced Poussin to Cardinal Barberini, in these words : ” Here is a youth who has the virility of the devil.” The cardinal became his patron, and his success was assured. He lived on the Pincian Hill, near Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa, and married the daughter of one Jean Dughet, a Frenchman, who took care of Nicolas during a tedious illness. As there were no children born to them, Poussin adopted his wife’s brothers, one of whom, Gaspar Dughet, became a famous landscape painter, whose work we shall soon observe. Poussin and Dughet spent some profitable time in Paris working together, but they finally returned to Rome to live, and Poussin died there in 1665. In the ” Correspondence de l’Abbé Nicaise,” a letter, probably from P. Quesnil, contains the following account of Poussin’s death : ” I have nothing to send you except the news of the death of the Apelles of our country, the illustrious Nicolas Poussin. He was buried Friday at St. Laurient, in Lucina, where all the amateurs, painters, architects, and sculptors assisted. . . . Some one gave me a candle. . . . Poussin was ill more than six weeks, and always in agony. . . . I shall send you an epitaph which has been made to his memory.” Chennevières also writes : ” He seemed to grow even greater, and kept, even to the last, one of the most powerful minds the world has known,” while Salvator Rosa, writing before Poussin’s demise, says : ” The people here esteem M. Poussin as belonging to another world than this.”

Poussin’s preference for Rome as a residence was based upon the fact that the atmosphere was more congenial for studying historical subjects of early periods; he writes from Paris : ” Studies of ancient life are unknown in Paris, and who would do well should keep away from this place.” Even in Italy the facilities for studying the antique intelligently were limited. In Biblical scenes Poussin clothed his characters in Greek garments, and often introduced Roman detail. The Frenchmen of this type did not analyze their antiquities, — their milieu was often as incorrect as are the Venetian ladies occur-ring in Veronese’s religious pictures.

He had a great admirer in his countryman Scarron, but there was little actual sympathy between the painter and the litterateur. Poussin writes : ” I have received from France a ridiculous book of witty sayings, sent by M. Scarron without any note of explanation. I wish his fancy for my work would cease ; his burlesque is not to my taste, even if my painting be to his. He pretends to make me laugh, but on the contrary I am ready to weep.”

Poussin was a tall, erect figure, and had a striking face. His habits were regular; he always took a walk of one or two hours early in the morning, usually on the Pincian Hill. He was a great reader, familiar not only with history, fable, and erudition of all kinds, but was also learned in philosophy and the liberal arts. In other words, he was a man of great culture, but his work borrows so much from antique sentiment that it is rather stiff and formal in its results. In looking from one to another of his pictures in the National Gallery, it is easy to find this academic spirit, but, considering the art-development of France in his day, he is the most successful interpreter of ancient ideals of his time.

He once said : ” Raphael is an angel as compared with us; he had a soul like one of the ancients.” Look first at Poussin’s landscape, No. 4o, — it is heavy, austere, and uninteresting. But turn to the Bacchanales, Nos. 39, 42, and 62, and a more abandoned whirl of mirth it would be impossible to imagine. There is great life, action, and pagan enjoyment, but a self-consciousness which proclaims that his paganism is acquired, — that it is not the natural ebullition of an unmoral soul, but is intentionally boisterous. Keats’s ” Ode on a Grecian Urn” should be applied to these subjects:

” What men or gods are these ? What maidens loth ? What mad pursuit, what struggle to escape ! What pipes and timbrels, what wild ecstasy!”

Mr. Ruskin considers that the Bacchanales are the best of Poussin’s works, ” Always brightly wan-ton,” as he explains, ” full of frisk and fire.” The gleeful young satyress in No. 42, trying to maintain her seat upon the kicking goat, is a touch of sylvan wit worthy of a Greek ; while the ugly satyr, in No. 62, who is trying to kiss the fallen nymph, suggests that even Arcadia had its bores. Here and there, however, is a figure which lacks vital animation, and betrays the use of the little wax models which Poussin worked from, in order to get the light and shade and the poses in his compositions. The sculpturesque results thus obtained may be noted in his Cephalus and Aurora, No. 65, which has a good deal of classic feeling and repose. He was a close student of effects of chiaroscuro. One of his mottoes was : ” There are two ways of seeing things. One is simply looking at them, and the other means considering them attentively.” He never became careless, and by this very restraint perhaps lost spontaneity, in which less accurate artists have excelled him. As a partial reason for this may be quoted one of his own observations : ” I am not sorry that people blame and criticize me. Blame has brought me not a little profit. It has made me go cautiously, which I have done all my life.”

It is pathetic to see that to the very end of his life Poussin would gladly have grown and developed, had not his physical condition held him back. ” If my hand would only obey,” he writes, ” I could, I think, guide it better than ever; but too often I have occasion to repeat Themistocles’s words, who said at the end of his life : ` Man declines and leaves the world just as he is beginning to do well.’ ”

As a colourist, too, Poussin was restrained and careful. He did not often launch out on daring schemes in the chromatic line. His principle was that, when colour was too luxurious, the eye was satisfied without the brain being stimulated to give attention to the thought of the painter.

The ghastly and gloomy Plague of Ashdod, No. 165, is an earlier work, before Poussin had out-grown the usual morbid preferences of a youth with little actual worldly knowledge.

Of Gaspar Dughet, or, as he is often called, Gaspard Poussin, the adopted son and actual brother-in-law of Nicolas Poussin, there are numerous examples in London. The landscapes of this painter are, however, heavy and unreal. He is an especial bête noire of Ruskin, who satirizes him at every available opportunity. Félibien says that Gaspard’s pictures may be characterized as the remnants of Poussin’s banquet. Look from one to the other, — from the Abraham and Isaac, No. 31, to the view of La Riccia, No. 98, — from Abraham’s Calling, No. 1159, to Dido and Aeneas, No. 95, and the same seventeenth-century artificiality is to be seen in the blowing trees and the uninteresting colour. Dughet was a rapid worker, often finishing a picture in a day. Ruskin considers that his work is full of degraded mannerism. ” Go to Gaspard Poussin,” he fumes, ” and take one of his sprays, where they come against the sky; you may count it all round ; one, two, three, four, — one bunch; five, six, seven, eight, — two bunches; nine, ten, eleven, twelve, — three bunches; with four leaves to each; and such leaves! every one precisely the same as its neighbour, and blunt and rounded at the end, tied together by the stalks, and so fastened on to the demoniacal claws above de-scribed, one bunch to each claw ! ” Of the thin tree against the sky in No. 68, Ruskin says : ” This is a reproduction of an ornamental group of elephant’s tusks, with feathers tied to the end of them.” Hear him again, speaking of No. 98: ” The stem of Gaspard Poussin’s tall tree on the right of the La Riccia is a painting of a carrot or a parsnip, not the trunk of a tree.” One cannot help feeling that this harsh critic is right in these special in-stances!

Philippe de Champaigne was a friend of Poussin, and a man of fine character. He was an artist of much ability, also, and a Foundation Member of the French Academy. He worked much for the con-vent at Port Royal. In the National Gallery are two interesting pictures by him, — both happen to be portraits of Cardinal Richelieu. One of these, No. 1449, is a full-length figure, artificial in pose, but dignified in general effect; while the other, No. 798, is more interesting, being a group of three studies, two profiles and a full-face view, painted for the guidance of the sculptor Mocchi, who was to make a bust of the cardinal. Over the right-hand profile are inscribed the words: ” De ces deux profiles, ce cy est le meilleur.”

Claude Gellée, better known as Claude Lorrain, was born in 1600. He was left an orphan at the age of twelve years. He takes his name from the Duchy of Lorraine, in which he was born, although he lived there less than quarter of his life. In his youth he travelled extensively; he settled in Rome in 1627. His progress was not rapid, but was steady, and built on a genuine study of nature. His pictures are compilations. Samuel Palmer, an etcher, while travelling in Italy, writes : ” I expected to see Claude’s magical combinations ; miles apart I found the disjointed members, some of them most lovely, which he had suited to the desires of his mind.” He never mastered the human figure, and in many cases other artists have painted the figures in his landscapes. He was well aware of his failures in this respect, saying that it was his custom to sell his landscapes, but to throw in the figures for nothing !

Steady, conscientious work was what finally brought Claude to fame. His Narcissus and Echo, No. 19, was his first order from England, and was executed in 1644, and, in spite of Mr. Ruskin’s comment upon the principal tree as being ” a faithful portrait of a large boa-constrictor with a handsome tail,” the picture, though rather darkened by time in the foreground, is a graceful and pleasantly planned conceit. Claude’s works were so popular at last that he experienced some inconvenience from various minor painters, who used to drop into his studio, take mental notes of what he was doing, and paint the same subjects as nearly as they could, and have them exposed for sale before the artist’s own pictures were ready for the market, thus making it appear that Claude had taken their ideas. This caused the artist to protect himself by making careful drawings of all his pictures, with the date, and the name of the owner. The precious collection of these sketches still exists, and is known as the Liber Veritatis. Ruskin has been fairer to Claude in some of his criticisms. For instance, he admits that ” he effected a revolution in art ; this revolution consisted mainly in setting the sun in the heavens. . . . He made the sun his subject “; in other words, Claude was a great student of light, and succeeded better than any one before him in suffusing his compositions with the mellow glow of sunshine. Claude and Nicolas Poussin lived near each other for many years in Rome, but Claude enriched his art more than Poussin did, both with colour and cheerfulness of outward aspect.

Claude Lorrain lived to be about eighty-two years of age, dying in 1682.

” The work of Claude,” says R. A. M. Stevenson, ” affords us an excellent example of the formal rhythmic composition which has proved distasteful of late days to many who still admire its colour.” This defect is especially noticeable in Nos. 1319, 1018, and 12. The latter is one of the paintings beside which Turner wished his works to be placed, as will be mentioned when we come to a study of that artist. So between Isaac and Rebecca, and the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, No. 14, Turner’s pictures were hung. The real object in No. 12 is not to portray this historic scene; it is to show the vista of sunlit country through trees ; in order to emphasize the brightness of the sky, Claude has painted his trees extremely dark, almost to the exclusion of colour. Our attention is thus directed beyond the trees to the stretch of free landscape. No. 14 is the most noted picture ever painted by Claude Lorrain. The sunset glow with the haze of evening is here rendered as he alone could render it. The Queen of Sheba is hardly discernible; the real object of the picture is to paint and to hold light. And the luminous quality is nowhere more wonderfully realized than it is in this brilliant composition. Of course, one must make allowances for the darkening by time. Ruskin, as usual, laughs at the boats ” having hulls of a shape something between a cocoanut and a high-heeled shoe,” and at the ” one schoolgirl’s trunk ” which is to convey the gifts to Solomon; but this rather flippant criticism is unfair to so exquisite a picture. Constable, the great English artist, who could produce great pictures himself, as well as criticize them, exclaimed, as he stood before these paintings : ” The Claudes ! The Claudes are all, all I can think of here ! ” With a deep appreciation he alludes to the St. Ursula, No. 30, as ” probably the finest picture of middle tint in the world.” The sun rises through a thin mist, the light being equally diffused throughout the picture, as if it were seen through gauze. The composition shows no large values of shade. The spots of dark or bright colour are in the little foreground figures, where they do not interfere with the dreamy harmony. As Con-stable continues : ” Every object is fairly painted in a firm style of execution, yet in no other picture have I seen the evanescent character of light so well expressed.”

In the Cephalus and Procris, No. 55, Claude has drawn much better figures than usual ; while in No. 6i, the picture about which there is much discussion as to its subject, the figures are quite spirited, in spite of the fact that no one seems to be quite sure whether they are intended to portray Tobit and the Angel, Hagar Visited by the Angel, or the Annunciation ! The background is singularly peaceful and charming, with its winding river and its castle-capped hill.

Constable made a copy of the Little Grove, No. 58, and in writing to a friend in 1823 he calls it ” a noonday scene which warms and cheers, but which does not inflame or irritate.”

Of the work of Eustache Le Sueur, we have a specimen, rather crude in colour, in No. 1422, — a Holy Family. He has been called the French Raphael, but his work is much more like that of the Eclectic School of Bologna.

No. 903 is a good portrait of Cardinal Fleury, by Rigaud. This ecclesiastic was the tutor of Louis XV., and afterward became prime minister.

We come now to a consideration of an entirely different type of French art, a phase which grew up in the late seventeenth century, full of gallantry, coquetry, brilliant costume, and joyous affected ecstasy, — the stagey but delightful school of Watteau, whose only representative in the National Gallery is the brilliant Lancret. Watteau had been the herald of this school of painters, of fêtes galantes, but Lancret followed him closely, and, since we have no example of the original master, we must perforce examine the follower.

Lancret, born in 1690, began life as a die-sinker, but became so bewitched by the painting of Watteau that he abandoned his craft and devoted himself to painting. He succeeded so well in copying the manner of the master, that Watteau himself was complimented upon having produced such charming works ! This infuriated Watteau, but the Academy admitted Lancret under the same title with Watteau, as a painter of fêtes galantes.

It would be impossible to select four more typical French pictures of their period than these by Lancret in the National Gallery. Perfect epitomes of the fashionable life of the epoch, they display the delights, as then understood, of Infancy, No. loi, in which court children are devoting themselves to sports in imitation of their elders; Youth, in No. 102, where the vanities are beginning to hold sway; Manhood, No. 103, where the more advanced attractions of courtship are engaging the attention of the subjects ; and Age, No. 104, in which the placid older people sit amiably, while those less aged still indulge in airy flirtation near by. These charming little panels are perfect fashion-plates of dress, manners, and ideals of the France of Louis XV.

With the usual reaction, when public taste is delighting in the extreme of high life, a painter of the life of the common people arose, in contradistinction. This was Jean Baptist Simeon Chardin, who was born in 1699, and who worked in a diametrically opposite style from those who produced the fêtes galantes. He painted chiefly still life and animals, but we are fortunate in having a most charming genre subject, The Fountain, No. 1664, as well as a characteristic bit of still life, in a study of a bottle, a loaf, and a glass of wine. In the larger picture, the cosy glimpse of an inner apartment, where a woman is sweeping, and a little child standing in that aimless way that children will when they must make way for a broom, lends an additional effectiveness to the picture, while the chief figure is full of rustic grace, and the details of the painting crisp and attractive. Chardin immortalized the petite bourgeoisie, just as Watteau and Lancret immortalized the gayer life of their day. He was an oasis in his times, — he had no school of followers, for the taste of the early eighteenth century turned more and more toward the luxuries and the extravagances which were destined to be their own epitaph a little later in the country’s history. Chardin was pensioned by the king in 1752, and was provided with apartments at the Louvre.

Boucher, the exponent of the classical whim bred in the court circle, is the painter of the rather sensual and unintellectual Pan and Syrinx, No. 1090. Of Boucher’s painting, no one has given a more complete pen-picture than Austin Dobson :

“A Versailles Eden of cosmetic youth Wherein most things went naked save the Truth”

It is small compliment to the taste of Louis XV. and his court that Boucher was most popular, and that he was one of the most prolific of painters.

By the painter Greuze, so well known to all art-lovers of the world, the National Gallery possesses only four charming heads. Unfortunately we can-not here judge of the great capabilities of this artist in rendering stirring scenes of domestic life, and dramatic studies in emotional subjects. Jean Baptist Greuze was born in 1725, — his life was one long disappointment. He wished to be recognized as a painter of historical subjects; he was admitted to the Academy only as a genre painter. This was a blow to his pride, although there was no reason why this position was not as desirable as the other. He became rich, but had an extravagant wife, and his fortune was squandered so that he came to great want at the last, and died in indigence in 1805.

Affected as many of Greuze’s studies of heads are, this charming Girl Looking Up, No. 1019, is entirely devoid of self-consciousness. The same cannot be said of the mellifluous over-sweet No. 206, with the impossibly inflated drapery about the head, nor No. 1154, in which a simpering child is fond-ling a pet lamb. The bored expression of this animal is probably unintentional, but it is diverting. No. 1020 is perhaps the most familiar picture of this master in England; the fair little child holding an apple and looking off with dreamy, melancholy gaze, might be intended for a prospective and forewarned Eve.

Claude Joseph Vernet may here be seen in varying moods, as an interpreter of nature. He was a landscape-painter and marine artist of some spirit, and, although not attaining to the luminous magic of Claude, he deserves a high place near the earlier master. He was born in Avignon in 1714, and spent the years between eighteen and forty in Italy. He was sent for, in later years, by Louis XV., and on this return voyage a fierce tempest overtook the ship on which he was sailing. Instead of being filled with terror, Vernet was inspired to paint the scene, and had himself lashed to the mast, that he might record his impressions in his sketch-book. So enthusiastic a student as this ought indeed to be able to paint natural phenomena. Diderot likened him in a fantastic way to Lucian’s Jupiter; he was considered a veritable magician of the elements. He was the grandfather of the famous Horace Vernet who worked in the nineteenth century. His pictures in London have not the wild, stormy qualities which characterize some of his works. No. 236 is a peaceful view of a fête at the Castle of St. Angelo in Rome, while No. 1057 is a quiet river scene. In No. 1393, Turkish and Albanian merchants are seen smoking and indulging in gallantries, while a Dutch frigate flying the tricolour lies at anchor at the foot of a fortification. The strong shades and lights are those of sunset.

Of the later French artists, only Rosa Bonheur is represented; her smaller replica of the Horse Fair hangs among the British pictures, No. 621. It is a splendidly virile study of French horses, full of light and vigour.

We close our survey of the French pictures suit-ably with the portrait of a woman, — Madame Vigée le Brun’s famous likeness of herself, No. 1653. Madame Le Brun tells in her fascinating memoirs how she came to paint this picture, which should be compared with No. 852, Rubens’s Chapeau de Paille, among the Flemish painters in this gallery. ” At Antwerp,” says Vigée, ” I discovered in a private collection the famous Straw Hat, which was recently sold to an Englishman for a considerable sum of money. This wonderful painting represents one of Rubens’s wives; its principal effect consists in the different lights given by the sun, daylight, and the sun’s rays. Perhaps only a painter can judge of its merits and wonderful execution. I was enchanted with this picture, and when I re-turned to Brussels I made a portrait of myself, and endeavoured to obtain the same effect. I wore on my head a straw hat, a feather, and a garland of field-flowers, and held in my hand a palette. When the portrait was exhibited in the Salon, I may say that it added a good deal to my previous reputation.”

Madame Le Brun quotes an amusing incident of a very expert rail-fence painter, whom she once complimented upon his diligence and rapidity. ” Yes,” replied the fellow, ” I would undertake to efface in a day all that Rubens painted in his life! ”

Madame Le Brun lived from 1755 to 1842. She was court painter, and passed through thrilling experiences in the French Revolution. She held membership in the academies of Rome, Parma, Avignon, Rouen, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Geneva, and Bologna. No woman had been so honoured by public recognition in her profession. She tells that she had painted nearly seven hundred portraits, fifteen pictures, two hundred landscapes, as well as numerous sketches and pastels.