IN 1717 Parisians enjoyed two new sensations. Watteau’s diploma picture, Embarking for the Island of Cythera, marked his admission to the Academy of Painting and Sculpture and Mlle. Adrienne Lecouvreur made her début at the Comédie Française. Both events were the heralds of a new era.
The Grand Monarque, dead two years, had been succeeded by his great grandson, Louis XV, a child of five, with the pleasure-loving Duke of Orleans as Regent. The gloom of the Court had been dissipated in sunshine. Relieved of official incubus, the Gallic spirit floated lightly on the freer air. Immediately it found its apotheosis in Watteau’s masterpiece, which pitched the key for the melodies of the Rococo period. At the same time it found expression in the Lecouvreur’s natural, as opposed to the artificial, art of acting. The one was a sublimating of actual conditions by the magic of art, and the other an en-franchisement of art by wedding it with nature. These were the elements which fermented the eighteenth century; the gaysome pursuit of beauty and the serious study of nature. It is the former only that usually occupies the historian of art of this period.
It is customary, in fact, to regard the eighteenth century in France as solely identified with the Rococo style of art and since this, as every other style always and everywhere, declined, to consider the period one of unrelieved decadence and to dismiss it with more or less lack of sympathy and interest. A period of decadence, certainly it was, for there were elements in the social conditions that were moribund ; but also other elements which, however blindly, were making for vitality. The century, indeed, should rather be regarded as one of transition in which old forms were being replaced by new, as the experiment of autocracy was to be succeeded by the later one, still not yet solved, of popular rule. For the point overlooked is, that society at this period was not entirely composed of courtiers and bent on frivolity. This is the mistake which comes of confining historical study to the political intrigues that center round the throne; and taking no account at the same time of a people’s development, as it is expressed in its trend of thought and through its arts, sciences and social conditions.
Society at the opening of the eighteenth century already included intellectual and literary elements. The Grand Monarch had patronized both, while the Academy and coteries increased their prestige. So far, the thinkers and men of letters had been to a considerable extent compelled to obsequiousness by these various forms of beaureaucratic control. Now they were to share in the freer air that pervaded the period. It is significant to recall that at the date with which this chapter opened, Voltaire was twenty-three years old; Montesquieu, twenty-eight; while Diderot and Jean Jacques Rousseau were children, respectively of four and five years. These were shortly to become leaders in a mental revolution which prepared the way for the political and social Revolution. This, it should be re-called, in anticipation, was to suffer from the manner of its bringing on. It had no stability at first, because it was founded, not on the demands and convictions of the masses of the people, but upon theories derived from the thinkers and writers. The latter, as usual, were the leaders, but, unfortunately for France, without a phalanx of thought to back them. They were not giving expression to the masses, but spinning their theories in the atmosphere exhaled by themselves.
The eighteenth century involved a breaking up of recognized conventions and a casting about for panaceas and new standards. Chief of these was what to-day with humorous seriousness we call “a return to nature.” While philosophers argued for it, society practised it. It was fashionable to emulate the simplicity of the country folk; for had not Rousseau declared that if there is any virtue left it must be looked for among the lower classes?
The changed mood of society is closely represented in the painting of’ the time. The painters of the Fête Galantes continue to contribute to the gay dance of’ fashion, though gradually the Gardens of the Luxembourg are replaced by country scenes and the lovers disport themselves with sentimental tenderness in the garb of dainty peasants. Meanwhile Chardin contributes to the change of taste his exquisite bourgeois genre and Greuze commemorates the imagined virtues of the proletariate. These two artists, in fact, are a natural part of their time and not the exceptions to its general trend, as is suggested by those students of art who insist upon viewing the eighteenth century solely as the period of the Rococo.
From the early days of the Regency the soil was ready for the seed of simpler tastes. After the stifling pomp and ponderous gloom of the last years of the Grand Monarch, court society was eager for a freer and fresher elegance. The Luxembourg rather than Versailles became the nucleus of fashion. Moreover, society began to seek relief from the eternal routine of court life in private entertaining, and the hotels of the Faubourg St. Germain rivaled one another in elegance. The smaller apartment and salon were in vogue, and the skill and inventiveness of French designers were expended in converting the heavier and more elaborate furnishings and decorations of Louis Quatorze into the exquisite refinements of the style of Louis Quinze. It is a style that in its elegant exuberance, its airy invention and charm and tact of taste is a direct expression of the Gallic spirit. And it was the setting, it must not be forgotten, of the paintings of the period. Either occupying a panel in the wall or ceiling or added as cabinet pictures, they are in scale and spirit an integral part of the exquisiteness of the ensemble. Today, unfortunately, we see them divorced from it; blossoms plucked from the flower-bed and set in strange and incongruous surroundings. The fact has done much to estrange the sympathy of students from the art of this period, which to Frenchmen seems the purest product of the distinctively French spirit.
Of this beautiful garden of painting Antoine Watteau was the master hand. Born in Valenciennes in 1684, he made his way to Paris and in time entered the studio of Claude Gillot, a painter, designer and draftsman of sprightly and original fancy, who directed his pupil’s attention to the scenes of the Italian Comedy and to decoration. Later Watteau found a home with Claude Audran, one of the first decorative artists of the day and custodian of the Luxembourg. Here he was able to study the Marie de’ Medici decorations by Rubens and feast his imagination on the vistas of landscape in the palace gardens. In 1712 he took up his abode with Crozat, the collector of old masters in whose gallery he became acquainted with Venetian painting. In these particulars we have the summary of Watteau’s external influences: experience in decoration, the impulse of Rubens’s prolific invention and mastery of form and movement, the richness and dignity of Venetian coloring. The rest was Watteau and the Gallic spirit which was incarnated in him. It put the cachet of fine art on his decoration; refined and subtilized the Rubens inspiration and translated the mannered splendor of the Venetians into familiar elegance. Finally the result was impressed with the seriousness of Watteau’s own temperament; that of a consumptive, passionately in love with beauty, haunted with the specter of early death and cherishing hungrily every moment in which he could yet work. Hence the qualities of impersonality and aloofness in his art. The world of sight, transmuted by his poet’s imagination, became purged of its mundane elements, spiritually recreated into a vision of abstract, universal beauty.
The Embarkation, for example (the original picture is 982 of the Louvre; there is an elaborated version of it in the Royal Palace in Berlin), is a poet’s vision of the eternal springtime of youth and love, of happy, care-free yielding to the soft promptings of nature and the loveliness of life. Nature looks her loveliest; the air is aquiver with the fluttering of infant loves; the lovers, gaily hued, and as fancy-free as flowers, dally on the mossy bank, gather to the pleasure-craft or strain their eyes toward the golden horizon of their desires, absorbed in the eternity of the present and the stingless dream of pleasure. Watteau himself at this time was ‘a prey to mental and physical distress. He died four years later.
The Gilles (p. 79), No. 983 in the Lacaze collection of the Louvre, has the distinction of being a life-sized figure. His French name does not hide the fact that he is one of the Italian comedians, whose Commedia dell’arte, so called because it was a performance by professionals, had been popular during the French Renaissance and had done much to extend the scope and subtilize the methods of the French stage. Banished during the latter years of the Grand Monarch, they had returned with the bright days of the Regency. Gilles wears his clown’s costume of creamy white, shadowed to olive in the hollows; rose ribbons garnish his shoes, and his drab hat shows against the delicate blue of the sky. Below the slope of the mound on which he stands appear the black garbed Il Dottore on a donkey, Il Capitano in a rose-colored vest and cap, Columbine and another. The statue of a satyr lurks in the shadow of the orange, tawny trees. The actors of the Italian Comedy, despite the extravagance of their humor and comic business, were serious artists, lifting the spirit of comedy to a high level of finished impersonation. It is this aspect of the actor that Watteau has represented. Hence a suggestion, perhaps for a moment, of incongruity between the grotesquely costumed, foolish-looking figure and the artless seriousness of the mobile face. But to Watteau it was another enigma of life, of the iridescent illusion upon the surface of dire reality: this comedy that hides under light laughter the pain of things. Such was the mission of the artist : to veil the bitterness of life with the mirage of art’s creation. It is as a brother artist that Watteau conceived Gilles.
Poignant seriousness is, then, the measure of Watteau’s superiority to his age and to his successors in the school of Fêtes Galantes. They were imitators of his motives and methods, with none of his aloofness; enamored of the life they depicted and dabbling in its shallowness.
For profligacy reigned at Court. Louis, when he arrived at manhood, having an easy and diffident nature, drifted with the current that surrounded him. His political advisers married him to Maria Leczinski, the daughter of Stanislaus, ex-king of Poland, and provided him with mistresses. The flattery of courtiers styled him the ” first gentleman of France,” and he was satisfied with the dignity. The most famous of his mistresses, Madame de Pompadour, was the actual ruler of France for nearly twenty years, from 1745 until her death in 1764. From her apartments in the Grand Trianon., or the State Rooms of Versailles, she conducted wars, issued decrees and transacted the affairs of government, while Louis frittered away his time in his infamous seraglio of the Parc-au-Cerfs. Relieved of La Pompadour, he sank to the degradation of the Du Barry. It was into the circle tainted with her presence that the young, lovely and virtuous Marie Antoinette was received, as the bride of the Dauphin. The end of the royal shame arrived on May 10, 1774, when Louis, forsaken by all except his three daughters, Mesdames Ade-laide, Henriette and Sophie, died of what was said to be smallpox.
During this shameless reign the world-power of France, built up by the Grand Monarch had sunk to national impotence. Her possessions abroad, won by her captains of war and enterprise in the East Indies and Canada, were wrested from her by the English and, as a last humiliation, she stood by helpless or too indifferent to protest while Russia effected the partition of Po-land. Within her own borders the national spirit seemed to be extinct. Royalty was debauched, while the Church and Aristocracy were grasping for power and repudiating their responsibilities ; institutions of privilege battening on the vitals of the country. The commercial classes were sucked by the leeches of taxation and the horde of usurers, bred from the exhaustion of society, while the agricultural population, the natural backbone of every country and of France in particular, was brutalized and beggared.
It was on this national rottenness that Rococo art, the most sprightly flowering of the Gallic spirit, flourished. The fact seems food for cynicism; an illustration of the esthete’s trite contention that art has nothing to do with morals and of the philistine’s scornful retort that the fairest periods of art are associated with the foulest conditions of national life. Incidentally the esthete and the philistine alike are partial in their choice of examples and superficial in their reasoning. Both point to such periods as the fifteenth century in Florence, the sixteenth in Venice and the eighteenth in France. They ignore the seventeenth in Holland, when a new art was fostered side by side with the growth of a new nationalism, and the fiber of both was moral. Not in the sense of didactic morality, but in that vigor and stanchness of pride and purpose which represent the highest coefficient of moral character.
But at the time the Dutch were freeing themselves from political and religious absolutism, the Grand Monarch had been forging the clamps of autocracy upon an exhausted feudalism. His grip removed, autocracy and feudalism declined rapidly to decay and dissolution. The Rococo was the afterglow of The Sun King, and of such color and life as still lingered in the privileged aristocracy. That the latter was not entirely corrupt is proved by the frequent heroism of individuals of the old noblesse during the Days of Terror that were to follow. It was Aristocracy as an institution that had become moribund ; cankered with licentiousness. But in its individual members it still retained something of beauty and worth, though. enfeebled by the general atrophy. Its art was the dying, transient gleam that passed and ceased; whereas the dawning light of Holland, though interrupted in the eighteenth century, persisted to re-illumine the. following century. While the intimate artistocratic art of the Rococo died with the death of privilege, the democratic art of Holland, the intimate product of burgher home life, has survived to extend its roots into modern art in every country. One was an art of life, the other of dissolution. But for that reason let us not overlook the beauty that the latter possessed, nor what it had of worth. It is instinct with that gaiety and grace of spirit that was to irradiate the chaos of the Revolution; and to enable France to burst forth again into a new life which once more should make her the intellectual and artistic leader of the nations.
But justice is not done to the art of the Rococo even by these reflections unless one accepts at its own estimate the qualities of the Gallic spirit. The genius of the Teutonic is seriousness ; of the Celtic, for all its humor, sadness. One can fathom both; but not the Gallic genius. That, to be realized, must be surprised in its flight in mid air. It does not engender on the ground; but, like the Queen-bee, seeks its nuptials in the whirl of ascent into the empyrean. Its environment is light and liberty of airy movement; its essence, love and life. The spirit most akin to it is the American, which has the aerial, sprightly qualities of a manhood that is still youth. But, as a nation, we are only old enough to be very serious about business and success therein; too young to be philosophers; too puritanic still to dare to be frank about life and love. Yet one of the oldest and most highly respected editors in America told me once that the whole secret of the art of novel-writing was to recognize that all human life has its origin and its meaning in the love of a man and a woman. For business purposes of successful writing we accept the principle of life being love and love being life, but wrap our acceptance of it in cloaks of pharisaical discretion. Accordingly, we sniff pruriently like a Tartuffe at what we term the frivolity and libidinage of the Fêtes Galantes.
Watteau we tolerate. Rightly we appreciate that his peculiar genius distilled the finest poetry from the Gallic spirit; but with his followers, Pater, Lancret, Lemoine, Boucher and Fragonard the case is different. The Gallic spirit has grown increasingly salacious. So prates our Puritanism. Meanwhile, let the American Podsnap scan the covers and pages of our own magazines, examine the book illustrations or lift his eyes to the ‘catch-penny appeals of our posters and advertisements. Everywhere he will find the changes rung upon the theme of sex attraction. But, this being “God’s Country,” Podsnap regards it as part of the providential scheme, whereas in France it is salacious. Or, possibly, Podsnap is in process of moral reformation; he sees no harm at home because none is meant. In time he may extend the same tolerance to the Gallic point of view as expressed in the Rococo.
Watteau’s chief pupils were his fellow townsmen, Jean Baptiste Joseph Pater (16951736) and Nicolas Lancret (15901743). Both were conscious imitators of the master, whose anger was aroused when Lancret’s Bal du Bois was taken for his own. It is possible that this picture is the one now known as Fête in a Wood, No. 448 of the Wallace Collection. The latter also contains a Conversation Galante and Italian Comedy Scene, which closely imitate the rich delicacy of Watteau’s coloring and catch, too, a gleam of his poetic feeling. These early examples of Lancret, perhaps because their inspiration is not his own, represent his style at his best. He is more himself in the four Seasons of the Louvre, in which abstract poetic feeling is superseded by a lively interest in concrete touches of incident. In the scene of Autumn, for example, fashion is disporting itself at a picnic and one of the young men addresses a passing country-girl, who modestly lowers her eyes. Here one gets a glance at the affectations of society in favor of rural life and virtue. The poetry of Watteau has fluttered down to a pretty sentimental bathos : and, corresponding to the triviality of the motive, is the character of technique. It has become more mannered in composition, less supple in brushwork, more positive and less harmonious in color; qualities which grew into a hardness of style, as Lancret settled down to a more or less mechanical repetition of gallant subjects. Even more dry in method is Pater, though he again shows to better advantage in the Wallace Collection than in the Louvre. His Fête in a Park, Conversation Galante and Fête Galante of the former collection are still close to the Watteau model and catch a little of its mingling of piquancy and subtlety.
François Boucher (17041770) was the typical painter decorator of the period. After studying with Lemoine, the Italianate decorator of the great ceiling in the Salon d’ Hercule at Versailles, Boucher, though he missed the Prix de Rome, visited Italy on his own account in the company of Van Loo. Returning thence, he rap-idly won Academic distinction and attracted the notice of La Pompadour, who advanced him at Court and consulted him on all questions of art. While he was epicurean in his tastes, his habit of work was indefatigable, involving ten hours a day of steady application. His output, therefore, was enormous, much being of necessity hastily conceived and executed. His reputation has suffered in consequence, as well as from the fact that, being decorative, it is seen at a disadvantage when disassociated from the space and the surroundings for which it was originally designed. It was in the patterning of surfaces that he excelled; as a draftsman and designer; but his color is often insipid, his brushwork entirely lacking in virtuosity; while flesh parts, draperies, clouds, rocks and trees have a soft monotony of texture. He was correspondingly indifferent to the diverse expressions of human life. The human form was simply a model for decorative arrangements; now draped, now nude; here posing as a shepherdess, there as a suggestion of some mythological personage of Olympus. Thus he turned out an unconscionable quantity of artificial and mechanical figure-subjects, interesting mainly for the fluency and fecundity of their decorative invention. Perhaps, after all, his greatest claim to recollection is that he was one of the masters of Fragonard.
Jean Honoré Fragonard (17321806) won the Prix de Rome, spent some time in Sicily, and returned to make a great success with a large historical canvas, Le Grand Pretre Croesus se Sacrifice pour Sauver Callirihoe. This, however, was his last essay in the historical academic style. Henceforth he became indentified with gallant and amorous subjects, distinguished by largeness and facility of execution as well as by brilliant virtuosity. More than any other painter of the period does he reveal the influence of Rubens, whose series of canvases in the Luxembourg, commemorating Marie de’ Medici, was more or less the School of Painting for the eighteenth century, as it again became for the Romanticists in the early part of the nineteenth. Rubens him-self represented the Italian influence interpreted by the Northern genius, and, as participators in the latter, the French now began to accept the lesson of Italy through the example of the Flemish master. The result was to train a succession of great painters, Watteau, Chardin, Fragonard and later Delacroix; artists who, however much they may differ in personal characteristics, are united in being masters of color and brushwork.
This mastery is the source of Fragonard’s superiority to Boucher in decorative composition. Boucher emulated the inventive faculty of Rubens, but overlooked the latter’s realization of form and movement, qualities in which Fragonard excelled. Thus the latter’s Cupids Sporting and Cupids Reposing, which adorn the grand staircase in the Wallace Gallery, while they bear a cursory resemblance to Boucher’s decorations, are immeasurably more vital. The flesh tones are rosy and limpid ; the bodies, supple and plastic, are enveloped in a silvery transparent vapor; while the exquisite decorativeness is enhanced by the suggestion of life and the luxuriousness is tempered with virility. The same masculine grasp and handling invigorate the delicate fabric of the smaller panel pictures. Their subjects are trivial, skimming over the surface of passion with airy persiflage; but the trifles are immeshed in a web of virtuosity, as sure as it is dainty: the creation of a master, though he chose to work in petto.
Fragonard is the artist most characteristic of the period. Watteau spiritualized his vision of love and life; breathed a soul into gallantry; but Fragonard saw it as it had become a graceful artifice. For, as the century proceeded, society grew satiated with license; passion became exhausted and was replaced, on the one hand, by sentimental yearnings after simpler and purer conditions and, on the other, by a cynical trifling with the affairs of the heart. Coquetry and gallantry be-came opposing pieces in the game of love-making, in which the attack and the defense were regulated partly by the rules of the game and partly by the nimble wit of the players. Artifice superseded feeling and was mirrored most delightfully in the finesse of Fragonard’s art.
When we turn from imagined scenes, in which the spirit of the age is enshrined, to the portraits of the personages who lived and had their being in it, we meet as chief interpreter, Jean Marc Nattier (1685-1766). He is to the Rococo what Rigaud and Largillière were to the period of The Sun King. Pomp has yielded to elegance; character to fashion; stamina to grace of style ; virility to virtuosity. If the pretensions of the Grand Siécle oppress us, the mincing prettiness and affectations of the eighteenth cloy. For it is essentially a woman’s age in the worst sense ; that manhood has capitulated to femininity, and that the latter exercises its domination through the most obvious and trivial qualities of sex attraction. The Pompadour wields a kind of power, yet it is exerted to deprave and to pull down; après nous le deluge. But power is for the most part in abeyance. The age has succumbed to silken fetters. Passion is exhausted, life has become a shallow comedy. The scene may be set in the open, but the air is laden with attar of roses and the powder of complexions and hair. The lumber-room of mythology as well as the farmyard has been drawn upon for proper-ties ; and the stage manager appears as a dancing and deportment master. The puppet players, with set smiles and gestures à la mode, attitudinize and languish ; miracles of dainty artifice, as seductive as the porcelain bric-à-brac of Sèvres. But, for all its superficiality and insipidity, this playing with life had its charm; and it was Nattier’s gift to render it with a grace and fluency of style that preserve its flavor.
While Nattier is well represented in the Louvre, it is in Versailles, in the gallery devoted to his portraits, that he can be studied to best advantage. Here are the portraits of Queen Marie Leczinsky and her daughters, Mesdames Elizabeth, Adelaide, Henriette, Sophie and Louise. Some of them are what the French call portraits d’apparat; pictures of state display, with voluminous rich draperies, and the paraphernalia of hangings and columns; representing fine ladies rather than grandes dames and in a rhetorical style, more characterized by volubility than impressiveness. They are, how-ever, admirably decorative; for Nattier shared the genius of design which distinguished the age and was a thoroughly accomplished, if superficial, painter and colorist. He excelled particularly in his effective handling of large surfaces of unbroken color, his favorite hues being blue and red; captivating in the purity, choiceness and nuance of their tones. That all the faces seem to belong to one family and are rather insipid in expression, is, perhaps, less his fault than a result of the modishness of the time and the stereotyped method of dressing the hair and making up the face. Nor is he responsible for the vogue that impelled ladies to pose as beings from Olympus or as nymphs, condescending to assist the processes of nature. That these fads of society did not escape the ridicule of contemporaries appears in a quotation from the satirical journal, Mercure. “Our ladies are represented,” it says, “almost indecently naked, their only garment a tunic, which leaves throat, arms and legs uncovered. This garb, which is in reality none, is eked out by a piece of silk, wrapped about them in such a way as to serve no useful purpose, though it must be cumbersome to wear for it contains many yards of fine stuff. Some of these ladies are crowned with ears of wheat or other rustic adornment, most appropriately fastened with strings of pearls. Their common amusement; it appears, is to lean upon earthenware pots, filled with water, which they are invariably tipping over so as to water the gardens at their feet. This leads us to believe that they are fond of horticulture; a supposition confirmed by the fact that they are always represented in the open country. Another of the favorite recreations seems to be the raising of birds, even of those kinds most difficult to tame, such as eagles, which we frequently observe them trying to nourish with white wine out of golden goblets. They seem, however, to be most thoroughly successful in the breeding of turtle doves, for these gentle birds flutter about some of them, especially those of more melancholy humors, in great numbers.”
Nattier’s vogue, as the magician who could be “true to life” and yet make all his sitters beautiful, was imitated at a distance by the other portrait painters of the period. Chief among these were Jean Baptiste Van Loo (16841745) and his three sons, Charles André, called Carle, (17051765) ; Louis Michel (17071771) and Charles André Philippe (1718 to about 1785). Of the family Carle was the most skilful painter. On one occasion he represented with a good deal of spirit the halt of a party of hunters for luncheon (889, Louvre). The gentlemen’s costumes are point device and the ladies are fresh from the ceremonies of the toilette ; the whole scene is amazingly artificial and impossible from any sportsman’s point of view; but possibly for that reason thoroughly characteristic of the age.
The picture is an interesting record of manners and so are Carle Van Loo’s portraits. But the faces, while no less conventionally treated than Nattier’s, are without the latter’s esprit, while the rendering of the costumes is correspondingly uninspired. In fact, beside his con-temporaries, Nattier is the magician that he claimed to be. He is alone among the portrait painters in oils who catches the glamour of society’s elegant routine. In this his only rivals are the artists in the newly invented medium of pastel.
Side by side with the painters of fashionable portraits and of the Fêtes Galantes were two who depicted subjects drawn from the bourgeois and humbler classes; Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin (16991799) and Jean Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805). The former, though he secured little notice from his contemporaries, outside the ranks of the artists and one or two critics, is to-day held in high esteem as an original artist and accomplished colorist; while the latter, after enjoying an exceptional popularity, suffered during the Revolution an eclipse from which he has never really emerged. For Greuze’s popularity declined with the passing of the conditions which inspired it.
His pictures, indeed, chiefly interest the modern student for the light they cast upon the state of mind of the society of his time. In 1755 Greuze astonished and delighted society with his Salon picture, The Village Bride. Five years later A Father Reading the Bible to his Children created another sensation. They were followed by A Father’s Curse and The Son Chastened and others of like import. Greuze, in fact, established the vogue of the sentimental-moral picture, at the same time that Jean Jacques Rousseau was charming the sensibilities of society with La Nouvelle Heloise; and Diderot in his criticisms contended that “to render virtue amiable and vice odious was the proper aim of art.” Moreover, Greuze drew the models for his story-telling subjects from that third estate, which Rousseau declared to be the only surviving repository of virtue. The groups were theatrically arranged, the actors playing their several parts to the top of their bent, so that the compositions represent a tangle of excessive gestures. One of them, representing a mother surrounded by her offspring, was wittily satirized as a “fricassee of children.” The very intensity of the emotions depicted served to stimulate the jaded sensibilities of. society, while their moral and sentimental tendency was a feature of the contemporary movement, partly sincere, partly an elegant fad, which advocated the resort to simpler and sweeter conditions of living.
Greuze’s popularity was enhanced by his single figure subjects of young girls, in various phases of tearful and languishing emotion. They are of that fascinating age, when childhood is ripening into first woman-hood and innocence is bubbling with wistfulness and fluttered with faint shadows of awakened sensibility. With caressing tenderness the artist’s brush lingers over the soft hair and the ringlet that has strayed from its ribbon; the soft down that grows above the fore-head; the full and melting eyes, on the lashes of which a tear-drop often lingers; the curving nostrils, the kiss-inviting lips, the rounded cheeks and neck and the firm small bosom, peeping from chemise or drapery. Adorable simplicity! Innocence, most inviting! For these subjects, with all their affectation of modesty, are more symptomatic of moral decadence than any other pictures of the period. Whether you interpret them as appealing to a sentimentality that needs the stimulus of exaggerated loveliness, or to an appetite that can be stimulated only by an invitation veiled with innocence, they equally are products of an exhausted moral sense. Nor is there any escape from the consciousness of their artificiality and artistic trickery. The motive palls by repetition; the few devices, learned from Rubens, are concentrated upon the points that will gain the readiest acceptance, while the backgrounds, draperies and shadows are treated perfunctorily and the color is heavy and uninspired. The claims of art, indeed, have been sacrificed to a tickling of the popular taste.
It is particularly in this respect that Chardin proves himself superior to his successful contemporary. The motive of his work is sincerely and unequivocally artistic and his technique correspondingly sound. In 1728 Chardin showed at one of the open-air exhibitions in the Place Dauphin some twelve pictures, among which was The Ray Fish, now in the Louvre. For a time he confined himself to subjects of still-life, until, as the story goes, he was stung by the remark of a portrait painter: “You seem to think that a portrait is as easy to paint as a sausage.” The suggestion is that this was the reason Chardin turned to the painting of figures ; and produced those genre pictures of bourgeois life which rival the beauty of Vermeer’s, but are thoroughly French in feeling and original in method. “For his manner of painting,” as one of his contemporaries re-marked, “is singular. He places his colors alongside of one another almost without mixing them, so that his work looks like mosaic or patchwork or like that hand-made tapestry called point-carre.” Chardin, in fact, had devoted much study to the relation of colors and their effects upon one another, being in this respect far in advance of his day. “He is the painter,” wrote Diderot, “who understands the harmony of colors and reflections. O Chardin, it is not white, red or black that you grind to powder on your palette; it is the very substance of the objects themselves. It is the air and light that you take on the point of your brush and fix upon the canvas. At times your painting is like a vapor breathed upon the canvas and again it resembles a light foam which has been thrown upon it. Go close to it; everything is confused and disappears; draw off, and all is reproduced, recreated. It is said that Greuze, entering the salon and seeing one of Chardin’s pictures, looked at it and passed on, sighing. This brief praise is more eloquent than mine.” Diderot’s appreciation of Chardin has been confirmed by posterity, as also, to some extent his later attitude toward Greuze : “I no longer care for Greuze.”
In an age, abounding in artificiality and lack of poise, Chardin displayed the distinctively French gifts of discretion, moderation, sobriety, harmony, and esprit. His art represents that soundness and sanity in the French character and life which inured, notwithstanding the frippery and meretricious sentiment and decadence of society at large; which beneath the shallow currents of thought and conduct represented what is constant in the race and was to rise to the surface and survive after the upheavals of the Revolution.