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Courbet, Whistler, And Manet
Courbet, In a vigorous and crude style of painting which was a little shocking, but none the less effective, strove for a return to nature without the accompaniment of poetry. He wished to be prosaic and literal. He disclaimed any pretension to intellectuality. He declared that he was not familiar with classical lore and that never having seen a man with wings, could not paint angels. The romanticism of Delacroix bored him. He was only a painter, he protested, not a story teller.
In reality his art is of that subtle, imaginative brand possessed by Rembrandt. The noisy overabundant gesturing of Delacroix would have annoyed Rembrandt as much as it did Courbet. The sensitive painter who wishes to express only truth will present that facet of truth which is lit up by his own keen unliterary imagination. In spite of all Courbet's protestations for an impersonal., calm, detached, scientific observation of objects and affairs he was innately a dramatist with the restraint of Giotto, a character analyst with the incisiveness of Rembrandt and Leonardo. The eminent French critic Mauclair says of him: "His astonishing psychological studies of faces are worthy of the most perfect modern pages of Flaubert, and correspond precisely with the impression which Madame Bovary produced in French literature in the face of sentimental romance. Such a painter has nothing in common with the realism which followed in his name. He saw true and not exact; his work is not a painted photograph, a dry, useless copy of obvious details. It is bathed in golden light and warm shadows, it presents the larger aspects of nature, it moves us by its superb mastery."
Nevertheless Courbet was more objective than the Dutch. Where the Dutch painters sought for the beauty in unimportant objects, more often than otherwise giving beauty to them by deft handling and understanding of atmospheric light, Courbet painted without any attempt to add charm by cleverness or skill. Much of his landscape is even ugly, just as many spots in nature are ugly. For this reason his work is distasteful to those who think it is the business of the artist to refine nature or to present only her better moods and aspects.
Assuredly Courbet's paintings are not distinguished by any lofty or profound thought. They are not spiritual in the sense that Giorgione's are for instance, nor are they motivated by any sentiment, religious, human, romantic. Their worth lies in the impression of power, in the painting qualities which leap from the canvas. His paintings are beautiful, not by reason of their message, but by their force and great, almost moral, sincerity.
In the face of all sorts of discouragement, rejections by official exhibition juries, the raillery of the public, the attacks of critics, he continued to paint his "Copies of Nature." Discouragement only served to hold him to his purpose. He was by temperament a revolutionist. And not only did he stand by his guns as an artist, but such was his political radicalism that the government found it expedient to exile him from France in his later years.
By his crusading spirit and persistency in his course Courbet established a point of view which years later affected a group of painters of real and vital ability: the Post-Impressionists. The experiments of Cezanne, whose studio was a laboratory for the production of beauty by color, form and space, are largely the outgrowth of Courbet's new approach. The latter's Man with the Pipe led to many men with pipes by the master of Aix. The buxom nudes (painted for form and not illustration) that shocked the French public of 1850 and 1860 because they did not conform to the svelte type popular among Frenchmen, served as models to the greatest of all painters of nudes, Renoir. Courbet was, therefore, the forerunner of Modernist figure painters.
If he was slow in awakening Paris to the value of his point of view, it was partly because sophisticated Parisians found it difficult to take a rough provincial seriously. It remained to his most promising pupil to take up cudgels in his defense-and the only cudgels effective were the bitter polemics smart people can understand. Edouard Manet was a person of the proper background to meet critics and society on their own field. Just as in London the American painter Whistler brilliantly defended his art by attacking his clumsy critics, so Manet belabored the Philistines with the sharp blade of his vocabulary. He wrote and talked and enlisted in his cause the service of literary celebrities.
In spite of his energetic defense of his art, or perhaps because of it, he was denounced even more than his teacher had been. His pictures were thrown out of exhibitions by members of the Academy who saw their institution reduced to impotence by his daring attacks and brilliant masterpieces. Many considered him a madman because he painted a group of his friends picnicking in the woods in the company of a nude young lady. Life for a time was an incessant battle, a series of insults, hoots and attacks by journalists. But with the exhibition of his Olympia it became evident to Parisians that, criticize as they might, they numbered among them a genius of the first rank. Manet became celebrated. Young art students recognized his dominance in matters of art; they forsook the schools for his guidance. With their defection official French painting passed into a secondary position where it has remained to this day.
There are several periods in Manet's work. Courbet taught him, but his youthful nature responded to the drama of Goya. Spain lured him. Spanish life fascinated him. For a time young Manet devoted his talents to the painting of bullfights and toreadors and Spanish dancers. His travels always left vivid impressions upon him, so that Spain affected him romantically while Italy awakened in him a religious spirit. There was a period in which he painted pictures of Christ. Finally the influence of the Dutch School made itself felt and he struck his proper stride. Impressed by Rembrandt's point of view, he decided to place character above everything else. He discovered in himself a certain Rembrandtesque ability to express the traits of people in portraits. And to better attain a positivity of statement, he eliminated every detail unnecessary to his purpose. He worked with a large brush, in great flat masses, with the sharp values (the distinct black and white) of the Spaniards.
But instead of making his masses melt into each other, in the manner of Velasquez and Goya, he introduced, with the aid of Whistler, a new treatment. He kept his darks and lights in sharp decorative patterns linked with each other, or "tied together." Raphael had innovated this system of pattern in European painting, as we saw in his School of Athens. But Manet and Whistler carried it to a degree of breadth and simplification that plainly derived from the Japanese print. The pictorial pattern of the Japanese had always been prized by European connoisseurs; but no one suspected that it could be incorporated in Western art. With characteristic dash and defiance, the two painters successfully applied it to their work.
Let us leave Manet for a moment to speak of his contemporary, Whistler, the legends of whose wit and eccentricities have served to obscure somewhat his greater significance as a painter. His exact place in the history of painting has not yet been established. American by birth and English by adoption, he remains essentially French by virtue of his training in art and his own predisposition for the French point of view or attitude. Most English and American painters who are French taught, once they are out of Paris, quickly return to their native traditions. They go to Paris in the first place to learn how a thing is done, not what is worth doing. Whistler was unlike them. Because he adhered to the French tradition, not to the Anglo-Saxon (advertisement of the subject, sentiment, or moral and social propaganda), his name belongs beside Manet's.
In actual sparkle of performance, Manet surpassed Whistler. The American had learned his art by careful study of Velasquez. The Spanish master's subtly painted heads taught him an appreciation for soft modeling and for nuances in flesh tones. Manet, as we have seen, was in his maturity inspired by Rembrandt. The Dutch master was more dramatic, and drama in any form appealed to the Frenchman. So that when the two painters startled Paris by their Japanese design, the restrained and sensitive Whistler seemed a mild rebel in comparison with the bold Manet.
The very range of Manet's versatility detracts from his character as a painter. Whatever style or subject he attempted he executed with distinction; but no sooner had he demonstrated his mastery of a particular kind of painting than he was off on a new tack. The feverish urge to startle the public must have been brought about largely by a defiance toward a hostile reception of anything coming from his brush. Where many painters succumb to mediocrity by trying to please their public, Manet ran the risk of weakening his powers by trying to shock his public.
The Olympia referred to is an apt illustration of both his brilliance and his defiance of public conventions. The picture follows closely one of Titian's celebrated compositions in which a nude lies outstretched upon her bed. For his nude, Manet selected a well-known sophisticated society woman and gave her face an expression of quizzical boredom. The atmospheric subtlety of Titian's picture is discarded. The bold flat masses are as striking as his model. While the realism of the scene grips us, the literary quality of the picture is obvious; it is even shocking literature and as such responsible for the animosity of critics. But no one can deny that it is great painting.
The stir occasioned by his Olympia moved Manet to an even more dashing way of painting. He developed a shortcut technique that seemed inspired by . a kind of braggadocio, an effort to surpass Hals in economy of means. By a few deft strokes he was able to recreate the person or scene before him. This deftness eventually became the systematized sleight of hand of Carolus Duran, and of the latter's pupil, Sargent. But where Manet's genius, like Rembrandt's, lay in his psychological ability to ferret out the secrets of one's character, the later experts made smartness of technique the end of art.
By going beyond the simplified brushwork of Franz Hals, Manet virtually established impressionism. The wellplaced stroke supplanted conscientious modeling; it was able to suggest an entire surface, a figure, or a mass of moving figures.
The appeal of this sort of impressionism is readily apparent. The charm lies in its vaudeville qualities. You walk close to the canvas and see only a blob. You step back and there, as real as life, is a moving figure. Now you see it, now you don't. How is it done?
Manet was the first impressionist, yet he does not belong to that group officially known as Impressionists. The latter were his own pupils. But they were motivated by aims entirely different from his own.