The Magnificence of French Painting

BABELS are more than confusions of speech. Not alone by difference of tongue are peoples separated. Means of expression grow out of that which we have to express. One is born of the other.

What is it that made Italy eliminate the trivial for the portrayal of the ideal? What caused the Dutch to search after beauty in all things, a search for the ideal even in the trivial? What again causes French art to seek the gratification of the aesthetic and purely intellectual sense? The answer is embedded in the nation’s geography, history, ethnology and all that makes for distinction and difference between its inhabitants and those of other countries. We must accept such facts at their face value. And keep them in mind when judging art.

Almost from the first we find in French painting a different standard of values from that of any other country. We are impressed with the high degree of culture that it represents, with its aesthetic achievement. For the art of France is an intellectual art. Yet we may also feel that it is somewhat lacking in imagination, in spiritual quality, in poetry. Still, it may be merely a difference in language, in terminology, in mode of expression. The ideal of aesthetic beauty for its own sake is worthy of consideration. Art for art’s sake is a reality. Why not thought for thought’s sake? Portraying the facts of life may be its own law, and its own ultimate purpose. Perfection of form, mastery of technique, might well serve as ideals sufficient unto themselves. Or is it all part of a nation’s decadence?

W. C. Brownell, in his work on French Art, has this to say of the old French rooms in the Louvre: “Clearness, compactness, measure and balance are evident in nearly every canvas. Everywhere is the air of reserve, of intellectual good-breeding, of avoidance of extravagance, or in other words, they impress one with that indefinable air of what we generally term as culture. From Poussin to Puvis de Chavannes, from Clouet to Meissonier, taste—a refined and cultivated sense of what is sound, estimable, competent, reserved, satisfactory, up to the mark, and above all, elegant and distinguished—has been at once the arbiter and the stimulus of excellence in French painting.”

French painting developed along different lines from that of Italy. No primitives here. No early struggle with crude outline and raw color. No deep roots of an art that grows slowly out of the impulses and heart-fibres of a race. In fact, in France art did not grow up at all. It sprang into being full-grown. Francis I moved his magic wand and Fontainebleau had a famous school of art. Leonardo, Andrea del Sarto, Rossi and Primaticcio were among its founders.

Easy enough done with royal wealth and power, but not quite as effectively as might have been with a back-ground of Italian circumstance and men like Raphael, Masaccio and Giotto. This method of developing an art had the advantage of all short-cuts. It saved the anxiety of fumbling and experimenting and the heart-breaking struggle against failure. On the other hand, it gave rise to an artificiality which it took several centuries to eradicate. When the Italian influence wore off, when France had learned all it could from Holland and Flanders, its art was still of the head and not of the heart. It was far too intellectual.

Among the first outstanding painters of France, the name of Poussin ranks high. He is the one French “old master.” He was a great classicist. Powerful painter, beloved of France, yet he scarcely justifies in eyes other than French the appellation of Shakespearean painter. In his work we see more of his own country than the suggestion of the infinite. But he is the idol of his people. By that, if we are fair, must he be judged. His work shows a predominance of poise rather than poetry. Style with him is of vast importance. But style is a great deal.

For those who may be grinding through this book for an examination, Poussin was born in 1594 and died in 1665.

Then we have Claude, or Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) , the first thoroughly original French painter. His landscapes are still a bit over the heads of a few people. “There are no landscapes in nature like those of Claude,” said Goethe. By that he meant that Claude idealized nature. Ruskin was not over-fond of Claude, though he concedes him the ability to paint a small wave and credits him with being the first painter to set the sun in the heavens. But then, Ruskin also depreciated Whistler. As for Claude, aside from being able to reproduce waves and sunlight, he painted pictures of pure beauty, visions of loveliness. He did not follow nature with the fidelity of the botanist or geologist, but used it to paint effects instead of things. “Light and air were his materials, and ponds and rocks and clouds and trees and stretches of plain and mountain outline.”

We pass by names like Lebrun and Lesueur entirely for lack of space, and come to a delightfully irresponsible group of artists in the irresponsible age of Louis the Fifteenth. Painters like Watteau, Fragonard, Boucher, Lancret, Pater, Nattier and Vanloo. (I simply must ask those with examinations on their mind to seek dates elsewhere.) With them subject loses its last vestige of standing.

Technical cleverness now is everything. Their cleverness is as much in conception as in execution. Their subject—always of a light nature, thoroughly mastered, they play with it as a cat does with a mouse. They paw it so expertly, turn it about, roll it around and exploit it. They have a genius for artificiality. They are gay, spontaneous, careless, vivacious, without a thought in their heads. They are happy in having broken away from convention, and they exult in irresponsibility. But you cannot help loving them.

No thought! But who wants thought with Boucher’s pink-toed cherubs and milk-white goddesses making merry amid happy clouds in azure skies? Or with the exquisite and impudent Fragonard? His playful little ladies and courtiers and mocking Cupids drawn with the daring of the master and presented with no thought but to tease and tantalize—one cannot but enter into their spirit. And they have a fine blending of tone, a variety of warm and delicate hues and tints added to objects that “float airily in an atmosphere of cleverness.”

For this group of painters “created out of nothing or next to nothing something enduringly charming; something of a truly classic inspiration without dependence on the real and the actual; something as little indebted to facts and things as a fairy tale and marked by color and cleverness in so eminent a degree.” Watteau at times seems an exception. He appears to be on the verge of expressing some ideal. But he falls back on color and cleverness. “What was he thinking of? one asks, before his delightful canvases; and one’s conclusion inevitably is, certainly as near nothing as can be consistent with so much charm and so much real power.” These quotations are from Brownell.

About the middle of the eighteenth century, in the midst of the fantastic whirl of a frivolous society, we come to one of those phenomenal creative artists who tower above their time, who live in a world all their own—Chardin. He was the first French painter to interpret every-day humble scenes—painting “lowly incident and familiar situations, broken jars and paternal curses, buxom girls and precocious children.”

His work is characterized by simplicity and directness. And his simplicity embraces a feeling of genuineness and sympathetic understanding that carries our sympathy along. In the midst of the agitated movement about him, he selects what he wants from life and discards the rest. Sane, unsentimental, truthful, he has the characteristic French feeling for style and the instinct for avoiding the common and unclean. He, too, sought mainly for aesthetic gratification. But he found homely settings as capable of being treated with refinement anddelicacy as any gaudy scene of a gaudy court. Chardin’s farmyards serve the ends of beauty fully as well as the subjects chosen by his fan-painting contemporaries.

In the early nineteenth century we come upon a change from impersonal classic detachment to a wave of romanticism. The range of painting is broadened, it grows in interest, in curiosity. Classical exclusion and fastidious selection give way to enthusiasm for the concrete and the actual. In turn, this gives rise to romance and poetry. The element of personality now appears in French art. We begin to perceive in the artist’s work how he himself thinks and feels. In all the varied products of this interesting epoch we are aware of the exhilaration of individual genius set free.

But the romantic painters, inspired though they were by poetic feeling and the release of pent-up emotion, did not at any time sink to the maudlin. For this thanks to that blessed French taste. There was merely a change from sense-and-intellect satisfaction to the effort at stimulating the imagination.

Notable among the leaders of this new school is Delacroix. He combined a deep love of nature with a knowledge of art. His color, clear, open, refined, is thoroughly original. It is elusive and sensitive yet strong in range and vibration. To this he added design firm and expressive, though tempered by culture and refinement.

Further along we come to Millet, and his familiar peasants. By the way, the reason for his taking up rustic subjects may interest you. He had overheard a re-mark that he was merely a painter of naked women! Yet in neither field did he go in for mere sentiment. He was an artist. He dealt in beauty.

Millet knew peasant life. He was one of them, one with them. Possessed of a thorough knowledge of the artistic possibilities in this field, he set about with a vim to portray all its pictorial charm. If in so doing he aroused sympathetic feelings for his peasants and their life, the more glory to him as an artist. But you may as well know that the conscious moralist in pictorial art produces neither art nor morals. In literature it may be different. It works rather well in the parable of the Prodigal Son. In Longfellow’s Psalm of Life, not quite so well.

In separating himself from conventional subjects, Millet did not, as some suppose, break away from all rules of art. ‘While his genius rebelled at some of the more narrow conventions, his work shows a sober reserve and poise, a sense of artistic propriety almost academic. It is simple and broad. He paints with freedom; and he does not everlastingly “tickle” his canvas. Yet the lines of “The Sower” are as fine as those of a Raphael. “The Angelus” is a masterpiece of composition.

Of far different aspect, though not so different in essentials, is the incomparable Corot. Like Claude Lorrain, from whom he received his inspiration, Corot chose light and air for his principal ingredients. But he is at the same time more simple and more subtle in effect than his great predecessor. ‘With touch as light as the breezes that play about his unearthly trees, he most beautifully interprets nature’s spirit yet discards facts of nature. I am not referring now to his almost classic figure-painting and representations of biblical subjects. Few outside of France know anything about these. I am speaking of his landscapes, with their graceful boughs and rustling leaves and misty distance, with forms of flesh and blood that are neither of earth nor of heaven.

In color exceedingly refined, greens and grays pre-dominating, Corot paints poetic thought in woodland setting. He seeks the essence of landscape. He delights our imagination with clear distant ponds and yellow cows and white houses, and fishermen in red caps glimpsed through “curtains of feathery leafage—or he peoples woodland openings with nymphs and fauns, silhouetted against the sunset glow, or dancing in the cool gray of dusk.” His feelings are transmitted to us almost without the aid of his subject or color. There is an ethereality in his canvases; a truly spiritual trans-fusion of beautiful thought which baffles description.

Another distinguished name among the great landscape painters of France in the last century is that of Rousseau. Unlike Corot he undertook to portray nature as he knew it. And he did know nature. He studied most thoroughly the way that things grow. He loved the things that grow and the outloors they, grow in. And he painted accordingly.

The work of this artist is quite painstaking. Yet while he interpreted his mistress, Nature, with dog-like devotion and fidelity, his feeling for the grandeur and vastness of his subject caused him to unite facts with impressions, to produce breadth and harmony rather than cramped detail. Never varying from literal truth he used it for the poetic visioning of broader truths.

With a perfect knowledge of structural detail in the great out of doors Rousseau combined a fine sense of balance and proportion; a feeling for mass as well as line; a keen appreciation of the bigger phases of composition. That is why we find in his work that rare blending of intimate and veracious detail with bigness of out-look. His color work is simple. His draftsmanship is powerful, direct. His treatment of his subjects is extremely sympathetic. And he makes us see and feel and love nature as he does.

In an outline so condensed I am aware of being open to criticism for failing to mention many artists of real worth. Why leave out Couture, Gerome, de Chavannes, Diaz, Daubigny and a score of others of the bulwark of French art of the past century? For the same reason that scores of equally important names in the art of other countries must be left out. This is not an artists’ Who’s Who. I am trying to give you as comprehensive a view of artistic taste in its varying manifestations as for me is possible in one volume. My innermost, secret and ulterior motive is to inveigle you into a thorough study of art. For my present purpose it seems best to take up outstanding artists here and there and through their work illustrate movements and tendencies. If after you have read my last page you feel you have not had enough—bless you, there are other books. My next and last artist of this French group, then, will be Troyon.

Troyon must be known to all my readers—gentle or otherwise—as the famous cattle-painter—though he painted other animals, mainly sheep and dogs. In fact, from the standpoint of draftsmanship his dogs are even better than his cattle. The reason he drew dogs so well is because he loved them for themselves; while his cattle were used as a means to an end. He is also noted for the “bleating truth” of his sheep pictures. But cattle may not be to your liking as a subject for artistic expression. I, on the other hand, prefer the sight of cows grazing on the side of a hill to that of a regiment of young men marching off to war. Not that there is less room for pictorial effect in one than in the other.

“The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea.” Gray knew the art value of cattle. So did Troyon. Each painted them in his own way—as a means to an end, perhaps, but quite a picturesque means. Troyon used his colorful herds to portray the beauty and the glory of nature. He was aided in no small measure by the fact that he was an accomplished landscape painter before he took up animals. In his modeling of these cattle he displays his superb genius for light and shade. In every group of grazing cows along a pond’s edge or in a clearing in the woods he brings us face to face with the solemnity and sublimity of nature. Troyon is a poet quite easy to read. His lines carry a universal appeal. The music of his cadences touches the heartstrings of all. For it is in tune with the music of the universe.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century we come upon a great wave of Impressionist art. Preceded by Manet the movement reached its full force with Monet. Manet advocated the representation of things as they are. His was a realism based on the actual as against the relative value of detail. He insisted on getting at individual values of objects as they are seen in nature. Claude Monet improved on this theme by painting sunlight and all the vivid color effects of nature at its gayest without reserve or hindrance. He threw artistic repression to the winds. He further added the effect of vibrant, palpitating light in motion. Brilliant color and ether vibration are outstanding features of this new school.

Impressionism was not wildly, revolutionary. Indeed, it was a new realism and quite conservative. Its inspiration came from such painters as Hals, Rembrandt and Velasquez. In the sacrifice of detail for general effect, however, it went a few steps beyond its illustrious fore-fathers. Likewise in the introduction into art of out-line affected by the movement of atmospheric vibration.

The Impressionist movement as such is no longer with us. But the school of Impressionism has left an everlasting impress on art. Never again will the reflection of the mast of a ship in the water be stationary. This is an advance of great importance: There is more action, more life in almost everything portrayed on canvas. There is a true feeling of atmosphere, of vibrant, living ether. Physically, at least, we come closer to the rhythmic force which moves the universe. Have we then achieved perfection in art? By no means. We have discovered one of nature’s truths—a truth quite difficult of discovery because it was constantly before our eyes.