|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Home|
The French Tradition
Since it was France that drew the eyes of the world to its painters in the last century, let us see where the origins of its national art lay. After the decline of Venetian art Rome had become the center of Italian painting, not because there flourished in the capital city great masters to whom anxious students made their pilgrimage, but because it was rich in collections of masterpieces. It was the last stronghold in Italy of the classical traditions which were being displaced by a sensual materialism on the one hand, and by an enervated false sentimentality on the other. But Rome was overcrowded with painters, as we have seen from the exodus of El Greco.
Nevertheless the ambitious art students of all Europe turned their footsteps to the Eternal City. Among others was a sickly, poverty-stricken youth by the name of Poussin. Poussin had left his little hamlet in the north of France and after many discouraging vicissitudes, had made his way into Italy. He wanted to be a painter in the classical manner; his ambition was not just to paint what he saw, but to set down the stories and legends of antiquity. In Rome he found an environment that encouraged his penchant for the glories of the past. He transferred to his canvases the antique sculpture in which the city abounded; his figures pose lifelessly in splendiferous, imaginary settings. And in addition to borrowing the subject, the pose, the proportions and even the spirit of a distant epoch, he studied well the compositions of the Florentines and the technical methods of the Venetians. He did not succeed in breathing much life into his creations, but he was, together with his exiled compatriot, Claude, responsible for the foundation of a taste in painting which opposed the tendencies of the North. And in addition, he gave an impetus to the art of painting in France that brought about its sudden rapid development. If he added nothing that was precisely new, he at least succeeded in stating with paint the ideals of a great number of his less talented contemporaries.
From his precepts there grew a body of practitioners who were so pleased with their own interpretations of Classicism that they formed an exclusive little society, the French Academy. Their aim apparently was to guard the art of painting against any assault upon its classical intentions. Under the presidency of Le Brun they did prodigious work towards this end by ignoring all painting except their own. If Poussin added little to the art, they added less. They are chiefly important for having opposed the genius of the period, Watteau, and for having voted against him when he competed for the Grand Prix.
Watteau, like Raphael and Giorgione, failed to reach the prime of life. He died at the age of thirty-five. But unlike his illustrious forerunners, his curtailed existence is not a record of gentleness and serenity of soul. He was a stormy, impetuous character who seemed to have divided his time between painting quietly romantic pictures and making enemies of his benefactors and friends. His difficulties with pedantic teachers may have been due to his temperament, but the fact that the precepts of the Classicists were officially and implicitly accepted as fundamental to art in France was no little factor in the conflict between him and other artists.
He was by every natural cause a Romantic. Though born in France in the little town of Valenciennes he was of Flemish ancestry. From this fact we see that the rigidity of the Classicists was antipathetic to his northern nature. And the early opposition of his father, the town plumber, to an art career compelled the boy to learn to draw by sketching people in the street, that is, by observation instead of by an infallible system. Even when his father relented and sent him to study with an obscure painter in the village, it was from the canvases of Rubens' followers, Teniers and the genre painters, that young Watteau absorbed his ideas of color, composition and technique. The tenets and methods of the lowland painters found responses in his own nature. If Vermeer was a classicist in a romantic country Watteau was the very opposite.
The urge to paint things and people in his own way was hampered by a hostile environment. At the age of eighteen he ran away from home, arriving in Paris penniless. He found employment in the service of a decorator, and this fact too sheds some light upon his mannerisms, particularly the stylized elegance of pose and arrangement. Later he found more congenial work making decorations for the Grand Opera. The life of the theater absorbed him. The artificial pageantry, the rhetorical affectation, the elegance of manner, the queer people who loll about and sway and curtsy, all found a place in his pictures. But his artificial world was not an offensive one. It was peopled with figures a little fantastic, charming nevertheless. And the restrained manner of the artist saves him from any criticism with regard to matters of taste. Always he is genteel. This is not to say that he was mild or effeminate. Above everything else, his pictures possess a vitality completely absent in the work of the Classicists whose formal, lifeless figures stand like frozen images in arrested action.
Much of Watteau's vitality is the result of his early sketches of his townsmen. In his drawings of street types he achieved a piquancy and an originality which establish him as the oustanding draughtsman of the eighteenth century. And in his technical grasp upon the problems of paint he is much stronger than his contemporaries. He employed the warm tones of the Venetians and set them off with silvery nuances. Rubens' cool reflections evidently suggested to him the effects to be attained by playing the silvery tones against the deep warm notes of the Italians.
However immeasurably advanced over his contemporaries was Watteau in painting ability, it is in the realm of fancy that much of his significance lies. The human warmth of which we spoke permeates his paintings and is transferred to us with magic ease. If Watteau inspired Cezanne centuries after him to bring the method of contrasting color to a culmination, his vague, half sentimental, unworldly romanticism will continue to distil its subtle charm when theories of color will have been exhausted.
The effect of Watteau's paintings was to break down the influence and the dignity of the Classicists. But little good came of this rebellion. The painting practiced in his name did nothing to raise the standards of French art. The Louvre galleries in Paris have many examples of the work of his followers, notably of Boucher and Greuze. These painters appropriated the technical accomplishments of their predecessor and something of. his preference for the fanciful world. But they fall so far below him in spirit, conception, significance and every other quality not precisely that of craft, that instead of supporting his principles, they serve only to reflect the general spiritual decadence of the times. Greuze slyly preaches morals in an age that has no use for them except academically, and he is careful to select for his holy lessons the most voluptuous models. Boucher invades the Eden of nudes floating on clouds accompanied by angels and cupids. Neither painter understands the important contribution made to the art by Watteau's discovery of the use of warm and cool color.
The painter Fragonard came nearest to the ideals of the master, but only after the movement away from formal Classicism had died of anaemia. The end of the eighteenth century was already too far from Watteau's ascendency for the revival of an art which had suffered so much in the hands of small-spirited men. The star of Classicism began its rise once more, this time under the guidance of David. David went back to the legends of Greece and Rome and painted great compositions of many figures which by comparison made the static creatures of Poussin appear as animated as dancers. He not only contrived to have his posing people suspend all motion, but in his use of cold color he attained the deathly stillness of a marble world. The livid hues of his faces even hint of petrifaction.
But such was the influence of David that at the beginning of the nineteenth century he stood in complete control of French art. Every ambitious student found his way to the studio of this scholar of antique lore. Discussions on theories of art resolved themselves into questions of Greek history and social custom, rather than into problems of color, form., design. But with the entry into David's fold of rebellious and independent spirits the discussions returned to the old argument of Classicism versus Romanticism. The youthful painter Gericault, before he died at the age of thirty-four, split the ranks of David's pupils by his compositions of writhing figures done in the manner of Tintoretto. His Raft o f the Medusa, a tremendous canvas depicting a shipwrecked group of half-dead survivors, shocked all Paris with the tragic realism of that event. But for the most part the picture was viewed by critics as a brutal denial of art, and stared at as a curiosity.
There was no body of criticism to take up a defense of Gericault's principles. It remained for another young painter to carry on his work after he was gone. The genius of Delacroix may not have surpassed that of Gericault, but the way for his progress was already prepared. At the time David's most illustrious student, Ingres, was startling Paris by his unmatched draughtsmanship and ability to reveal character in a portrait by means of the accurate line of the Florentines, Delacroix revived the romantic spirit of the Venetians with force and skill. He and Ingres became the respective champions of Romanticism and Classicism, just as Ruysdael and Claude had been before them.
The two young painters soon became bitter enemies. Throughout their lives they fought, each in his able way, to uphold the precepts of their art. Victory was inevitable for Delacroix, since the time was ripe for a more virile and imaginative art than the stagnant Classicism of David. And the wave of Romanticism would have swept away the whole antiquated school if it had not been for the single genius of Ingres. It was really not Romanticism against Classicism. It was Romanticism against Ingres.
What were the radical principles which drew so many artists to Delacroix's banner? For one thing he believed that art could not be taught. In this respect he antedated the Modernists. He declared that art was a thing innate in the man, a matter of passion and spirit, and not of rules and craft. He set a premium upon originality, upon the creative instinct; and so his theories came to be interpreted as a defense of novelty. The Academicians even today attribute to him the advent of Modernism, since it was he more than any painter of the early half of the century who denied the principles and traditions of the art.
In his own work he was extremely inventive. His composition went back to the source of all romantic, rhetorical figure arrangement, the Venetians. As for his color, he was perhaps the first Frenchman to see in the landscapes of Constable the beginning of a new era; from the Englishman he derived an appreciation of tone and atmosphere and light. And a certain realism, a dramatic way of presenting ordinary facts, must have filtered through to him from the art of the Spanish realist, Goya.
Romanticism to Delacroix meant no more than agitated illustration on a grand scale. There is in his compositions none of the romantic feeling imparted to El Greco's burning canvases for instance; nor is there the quieter romance and drama of Rembrandt's old characters. His romanticism is the romanticism of Rubens-a realistic depiction of events done in exaggerated gestures. But whether or not we thrill to the subjects which thrilled the painter, there remains his leadership of a new and vital cult. Every important movement from his time to Impressionism owes a debt to Delacroix.
The most immediate effect of the Frenchman's energetic campaign for realism was felt among the landscapists. An entire school was founded with him as godfather, Ruysdael as patron saint, and Constable as honorary high priest. The group of painters who settled at Barbizon in the Fontainbleau Forest dedicated their art to atmosphere and the moods of nature. Corot was the outstanding member of this group. Oddly enough, his were the only pictures which retained vestiges of the enemy's methods. In his youth he had learned to people his landscapes with nymphs, cupids and other pagan creatures of fancy. These remnants of a bygone tradition adhered to him but detracted little from his attainments. In his less lyrical subjects, particularly in his pictures of definite places, he loses the fairytale quality of his woodland scenes and shows a command of his medium which stamps him a great painter as well as an innovator. (Although Corot's fame rests upon his landscape, critics are gradually coming to the opinion that his figure painting is his greatest form of expression, placing him in a class with Vermeer and Watteau.)
Another type of realism came to light in the work of Millet. Millet was born in Normandy. In spirit as well as geographically he was closer to the Dutch than to the Italians. He was the first French painter of importance to find in the pursuits of the peasant and the laborer, and in their family life, inspiration for pictures. But unlike the genre painters he was not prompted to regard his subjects from the jovial point of view indispensable to the national art of the Netherlands. His peasants are viewed romantically. They have the sadness and fatalistic stamp of Michelangelo's supermen. They are clods, but they are pious and good. They are close to nature, but are her slaves.
As for Millet's manner of painting, it is as simple and as humble as is his subject matter. There is no virtuosity, no evidence of clever brushwork. The paint is simply stuck on. But the solid qualities of form and draughtsmanship ably express his meaning.
His draughtsmanship is not the draughtsmanship of Ingres. Indeed the Barbizon painter's line was as sharp a contrast to the graceful, precise drawing of Ingres as a rustic's honest speech is to the flattery of a courtier. Where Ingres' line fluidly plays about the anatomical swellings and indentations, always subtle and decorative, Millet's, boldly and massively, without regard for detail, expresses the general mood of the figure. Its power and simplicity inspired the satirist Daumier, who ably appropriated the method for his own ends.
The forcefulness of Millet's line seems indicative of his character. He defied academic formulas. He showed how unimportant mere technique or cleverness was when one had something vital to say. He revealed, in his choice of subject, the possibilities of beauty in the most humble and ordinary truths of nature, a plowed field, an old church in the sunlight, a man leaning on a hoe. Finally in his own manner of living he was an inspiration to a whole class of artists who were moved by his example to seek art close to the people instead of in the studios of Montmartre.
Although Millet was an avowed realist, he was, in common with the rest of the Barbizon School though to a lesser degree, a lyricist. The Fontainbleau landscapists all sang the glories of nature. Some frankly drew upon their imaginations, using nature only as a lay model. Monticelli a century before. Diaz and Rousseau confined their talents to flaming sunsets and somber foliage. If Millet avoided subjects which obviously bid for sentimental rapture, he yet gave to the most humble scene his poetic commentary.
Classicism had been completely crushed, but now the camp of the Romantics was divided. The Realists seceded There was a right wing and a left wing. The radicals believed that the prinicipal aim of their part (and of all painting) was to depict things as they are with comment. Millet, it seemed to them, allowed his poetic emotions to color his presentation of fact. Corot, like the other Barbizon painters, was frankly appealing to our sentimentality. Nature was not all woodland dells with fairy dancers, nor were peasants all patient giants. In some parts of the country peasants were very homely indeed, and not well proportioned. "Let us have the truth," the realists cried. They were influenced of course by the sudden interest in scientific research. It was only a few years before the novelists, Flaubert and Zola, were to show the world how close to actual physical fact literature could get. The romanticism of Victor Hugo was passing out. The prosaic hunters of truth held the field. In their vanguard was the captain of the radical painters, a provincial named Gustave Courbet. A born realist, he had no need for theories. He was destined to influence a later generation as Delacroix had influenced his own.