SO far in following the progress of modern French painting we have passed unnoticed many a quiet backwater where the artist has liberated his spirit in seclusion from the swift main stream. The present chapter, therefore, shall be in the nature of a retrospect, gathering up some of the personalities that the logic of events compelled us for the time to over-look.
The dominant features of the nineteenth century, scientific research and material progress, tended for a time toward rationalism, and materialism, to a belief in nothing that could not be submitted to the evidence of the senses. This attitude toward life was reflected, as we have seen, in the painter’s attitude toward art. Romanticism, at least in its origin, had been an expression of soul. Naturalism and Impressionism, however, were to a great extent the products of that “chair and table” view of life which confines its interest to what can be seen and handled. A vast quantity of modern painting in France, as indeed elsewhere, presents a spectacle of the most barren materialism. Nor is this quality characteristic only of much naturalistic and impressionistic work; it is equally so, though in a different and perhaps less tolerable way, of a great deal of the academic output. In fact, if a visitor, arriving from another planet, were to base his estimate of modern civilization on the exhibits of picture galleries, he might easily be led to the conclusion that the modern man was without imagination and devoid of any conscious need of higher thinking and feeling. He would, of course, be mistaken, even misjudging the evidence of pictures. For the modern has exhibited his imagination in discovering beauty in things of common experience and has through his study of light and color subtilized, it is even proper to say spiritualized, his feeling for beauty. Still, in the main, he has limited his appreciation of beauty to the visible and tangible.
It is in contrast with this main tendency that the imagination of certain painters, conscious that reality is not solely an affair of eyesight, has penetrated beyond the palpable into the confines of the spiritual ; into that penumbra where fact and faith join mysterious hands.
Some have introduced obscurity into their pictures, creating a physical penumbra in which the forms are partly merged; while all suggest a feeling, aloof from the stir of things in a sort of penumbra of the spirit. Jean Charles Cazin (18411900) in a measure represents both these phases, as well in his figure subjects as in his better-known landscapes. It is not obscurity in the sense of darkness that wraps his night scenes, twilights and moonlights. But the facts of things are slumbering, merged in the impression of the scene, as it affects the spirit. These village streets, and sandy dunes, quiet by day, become in the phantom half-light ghosts. And ghosts are impressive, as some one has said, because they are silent. It is the silence of these vacant spaces that so poignantly arrests one’s spirit. A corresponding impressiveness characterizes his earlier subjects in which figures play important part; his Biblical scenes, for example, such as Hagar and Ishmael in the Wilderness; and also his modern figure studies. In one case the spirit of the scene, in the other the spirit of the individual, is detached from outside contact, alone with its own silence.
In a strain of elegant lyricism which unfortunately sometimes lapses into prettiness, Edouard Aman Jean (1860) renders the graceful forms of women, haunting the stillness of quiet gardens. He began with themes of legendary and historic lore, Jeanne d’Arc and St. Geneviève, and something of the mystic still lingers in his presentment of the modern Parisienne.
The works of René Ménard, born about 1858, are impregnated with a consciousness of the subtlety of beauty. The portrait of his uncle, the philosopher, Louis Ménard, in the Luxembourg, is that of a man whose eyes look beyond the evidence of the material and temporal with a gaze of strangely tender penetration. Meanwhile, Ménard’s landscapes, with or without figures, present an alluring combination of objective nature with the subjective expression of a spirit that in its essence is Hellenic. Yet it is a modern spirit. The exquisite nudes, whose presence personifies the spirit of the mountains, lakes and trees are no mere Oreads and Dryads revivified. They are the living, palpitating abstractions of nature’s loveliness as today we may know and feel it.
The mystery latent in things very familiar has been explored by Henri Sidaner (1862–) . He has become most characteristically identified with subjects in which still-life plays a chief part. The corner of a city garden, for example, shows a table spread with a white cloth and garnished with glass and silver, flowers and fruit. These reflect in a thousand nuances the warm glow of a rose-shaded lamp; the whole forming a jewel of tender radiance set in the pale uncertain luminosity of the moonlit garden. Sometimes it is the drear homeliness of a village street that the moonlight invests with tender poetry, or the outworn grandeur of a Venetian palace which in the soft clair obscure palpitates with the melody of bygone memories.
Two artists of choice vision are Adolphe Monticelli (18241886) and Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904). Both loved music; Monticelli, the ravishing irresponsibility of gipsy music, while Fantin Latour was among the first Frenchmen to appreciate Wagner and an enthusiastic devotee of Berlioz, Rossini and Brahms. During the days of the Third Empire Monticelli ruffled it bravely in Parisian life; but after the disasters of 1870 retired to Marseilles and lived a life of seclusion that to outsiders seemed pathetic. But he lived within himself a life which, while its mental basis may have been insecure and fantastical, was one of inspiration to his art. Just as he filled his consciousness with rich luxurious fantasies, so he peopled the spaces of his pictures. For Monticelli’s impressionism differed radically in technique from the Manet type. He was not an embroiderer of surfaces, but a great space constructor, the builder of concaves whose limits merge in the infinite. And this without any use of grays or usual effects of penumbra. His colors burn like molten jewels, his light, whether moonlight or otherwise, does not pass into an aura of obscurity. The light passes into light, suggesting interminable vistas of mysterious pleasure. And these vistas, avenues and corridors of living light are thronged with votaries of joyousness, as real and yet as detached from ordinary reality as Watteau’s gallants and their ladies. Substitute, how ever, for Watteau’s exquisite logic, typically French, the passionate rhythms and harmonies so purely those of instinct, which characterize Hungarian gipsy music, and you begin to account for the exceptional phenomenon of Monticelli.
Fantin-Latour owed much to the example of Ingres. Acting upon his own choiceness of temperament it tempered to fineness the naturalistic motive which he shared with others of his day. His Portrait of Manet (p. 193) exhibits the intimacy of his feeling and simple directness of treatment ; but it scarcely reveals that deeper penetration of the subject’s personality and the capacity to place him aloof in an intimate atmosphere of his own which characterizes Fantin Latour’s best portraits. Of these there is none finer than the Portrait of Edwin Edwards and his Wife in the National Gallery. The man sits absorbed in the study of a print, the lady, standing beside him with folded arms, has lifted her gaze from the work of art and fixes it on a far vision. Around the two figures is an aura of highly refined abstraction. This picture is the work of an artist whose temperament led him not only to a fine conception of his subject but also involved a quiet directness that enabled him to realize the conception simply yet fully. The same happy union of conception and achievement characterizes those figure-subjects which were inspired by his love of music. Some were executed in pastel, more by lithography; the latter medium helping him technically, since the grain of the stone served to break up the surfaces, which, when he handled paint, were rather inclined to tightness. But in these groups of nude and draped figures, the lights scintillate and the shadows are lustrous; the surfaces tremble and glow in the variety of rhythmic and melodious movement. These exquisite interpretations of the very spirit of dance and music are touched with the dignity of Ingres and the naïve grace of Prud’hon, while they vibrate to the naturalness of Fantin Latour’s own mingled joyousness and seriousness of temperament.
It was under the shadow of Rembrandt that Eugène Carrière (18491906) matured. As a young man he had come under the spell of Rubens and Velasquez and his earlier pictures are distinguished by a delicate manipulation of blues, rose and pale yellow, harmonized with neutral browns and grays. Gradually his color scheme became more austere, until he developed his matured style, which floats the light and shade in an embrowned penumbra, while out of it emerge those parts of the forms which are essential to interpret the expression. The subjects become variations on the theme of Maternity, with occasional portraits and religious pictures, such as the Crucifixion of the Luxembourg. One and all are impregnated with profoundly reverential tenderness, a, reflection of the artist’s own moral beauty of character, which so deeply endeared him to his intimate friends. Notwithstanding the spiritualized atmosphere, there is no lack of plasticity in such parts of the figures as are revealed. There is no evasion of form but a control of it, so as to subordinate the mere facts to expression. It is his feeling regarding the subject that Carrière was bent upon interpreting.