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Antique Prints: French Eighteenth Century Engravers
( Original Published 1903 )
THE Eighteenth Century in France witnessed the rise, the development, and the decay or fall of a great School of Art of which the English public remains, even to this day, all but completely ignorant. The easy seductiveness of the maidens of Greuze, with gleaming eyes and glistening shoulders, has indeed secured in England for a certain side of that artist's work a measure of notice in excess of its real importance; and a succession of accidents and the good taste of two or three connoisseurs out of a hundred-they were men of another generation-have made this country the home and resting-place of some of the best of the pictures and drawings of Watteau. But even Watteau is not to be found within our National Gallery. There Greuze and Lancret-Chardin having but lately joined them with but a single pleasant but inadequate picture -there Greuze and Lancret, seen at least in what is adequate and characteristic, share the task of representing French Art of the period when it was most truly French. They are unequal to the mission. And until some can join them who will fulfil it better, the painted work of the French Eighteenth Century will hardly receive its due.
Fortunately, however, French Eighteenth Century artists fared well at the hands of the line-engravers. Even of a painter who possessed more than many others the charm of colour, it could be said by one of the keenest of his critics that the originality of his work passed successfully from the picture to the print. That is what Denis Diderot wrote of Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin, and it is true of them all, from Watteau downwards. Theirs was the century of LineEngraving in France, as it was that of Mezzotint in England. And the practitioners of Line-Engraving and of Mezzotint were something beyond craftsmen. Not only were they artists in their own departmentssome of them painted, some of them designed: they were in sympathy with Art and possessed by its spirit. Hence the peculiar excellence of their work with burin or scraper-the high success of labours which their intelligence and flexibility forbade to be simply mechanical.
An Exhibition which at my suggestion the Fine Art Society was good enough to venture on, eleven years ago-but which attracted so little attention from the great public we wanted to engage, that it must some day, I suppose, he repeated-aimed to show those engravings in which, with fullest effect, the line-engravers of the Eighteenth Century rendered the thought and the impression of painters or of draughtsmen who were, in most cases, their contemporaries. Watteau was the first of these painters. The prints after his pictures were chiefly wrought in the years directly following his far too early death. His friend, M. de Julienne, planned and saw closely to the execution of that best monument to Watteau's memory. Cochin and Aveline, Lo Bas and Audran, Surugue and Brion, Tardieu and Laurent Cars, worked dexterously or nobly, as the case might be, in perpetuation of the master's dignity and grace. Lancret and Pater were often translated by the same interpreters. Chardin's work was popularised-as far as France is concerneda very few years after, and with substantially the same effect. Later in the century, some changes which were not all improvements, began to be discernible in the newer plates. The manly method of which Laurent Cars was about the most conspicuous master, yielded a little to the softer practice of the interpreters of Lavreinco or to the airy yet not inexact daintiness of the method of the translators of Moreau. The later style of engraving was suited to the later draughtsmanship and painting. Probably indeed it was adopted with a certain consciousness of their needs. Anyhow, not one of the conspicuous figures in the history of French Eighteenth Century Design-except Latour, who practically has not been reproduced at all -can be said to have suffered seriously at the hands of his translators. What French pictorial artist thought and saw and tried to tell, upon their canvases and drawing papers, is, in the main, to be read in the prints after their works. In these prints we may note alike the triumphs and the failures of the real French School. There is no denying its deficiencies. But it is as free from conventionality as the great School of Holland-as independent of tradition-and it is as true to the life that it essays to depict.
Along the whole of the Eighteenth Century-not in France only-Watteau, who lived in it but twenty years, is the dominating master. To put the matter roughly and briefly, he is the inventor of familiar grace in Art. His treatment of the figure had its perceptible influence even upon the beautiful design of Gainsborough; and the way in which he saw his world of men and women dictated a method to his successors in France, down to the revival of the more academic Classicism. Artists-when they have been so comprehensive as to occupy themselves with other people's Art-have known generally that Watteau's name has got to stand among only ten or a dozen of the greatest, but the English amateurs, or rather English picture and print buyers, are still but few who are acquainted with his range and feel the sources of his power. He has not been very popular, because, according to ordinary notions, there is but scanty subject in his designs. The characters in his drama are doing little-they are doing nothing, perhaps. But as the knowledge of what real Art is, extends, and as our sensibility to beauty becomes more refined, we shall ask less, in presence of our pictures, what the people are doing, and shall ask more, what they are. Are they engaging?-we shall want to know. Are they pleasant to live with?
Wattoau placed a real humanity in an ideal landscape; but it was still a chosen people that entered into his Promised Land, and the chosen people were ladies of the Court and Theatre, and winning children, and presentable men. His pictures-all the large, elaborate, finely wrought prints after them-are the record of what was in some measure in these people's daily lives, yet it was even more in his own dream. "Toute une creation de poeme et de reve est sortie de sa tete, emplissant son oeuvre de lelegance dune vie surnaturelle." Through all his art he takes his pleasant company to the selected places of the world, and there is always halcyon weather.
Sometimes it is only the comedians of his daywhose mobile faces Watteau had seen behind the footlights of the stage-who make modest picnic, as in the Champs Elyses (the engraving by Tardieu)-find shade as in the Bosquet de Bacchus (the engraving by Cochin), or enjoy at leisure the terraced gardens, the vista, the great trees of the Perspective (the engraving by Crepy). And sometimes-inhabitants no more of a real world-the persons of his drama prepare, with free bearing, to set out upon long journeys. It is now a pilgrimage to Cythera (L'Embarquement pour Cythere, pr the Insula PerJueundu)-suddenly they have been transported indeed to the "enchanted isle" (Lo Bas's drawing of the distant mountains in L'Ile Enehantee, is, I may say in an underbreath, a little indefinite and puzzling). In any case the land that Watteau's art has made more beautiful than ordinary Nature, is peopled by a Humanity keenly and finely observed, and portrayed with an unlimited control of vivacious gesture and of subtle expression.
The unremitting study that made not only possible but sure an unvarying success, in themes so manifestly limited, is evidenced best in such collections of Watteau's drawings as that acquired gradually by the British Museum, and that yet finer one inherited by the late Miss James, and now, alas ! dispersed. There the complete command of line and character is best of all made clear, and the solid groundwork for success in Watteau's pictures is revealed. Elsewhere-in the "Masters of Genre Painting "-I have found space to explain more fully than can be done in these pages, that however manifestly limited were his habitual themes, his range was really great enough, since-not to speak of the "Elysian Fields"-it covered the land scape and the life of the France he knew. He has drawn beggars as naturally as did Murillo; negroes as fearlessly as Rubens ; people of the bourgeoisie as faithfully almost as Chardin. And, far from the cut chestnut-trees on whose trimmed straightness there falls in an unbroken mass the level light of his gardens, Watteau draws at need the open and. common country, peasants and the soldiery, the baggage-train passing along the endless roads from some citadel that Vauban planned. What Watteau saw was the sufficient and the great foundation of all that he imagined, and his art's abandonment of the everyday world was to exalt and to refine, rather than to forget it.
The line-engravings after Watteau-largeish, decorative, vigorous while delicate-remain comparatively inexpensive. A rare impression " ° before letters" attains, perhaps, now and then a fancy price ; but Time has very little affected the money value of the impressions with full title, which, if reasonable care is exercised, can be secured in fine condition, of such a dealer as Colnaghi, here in England, and in Paris, of Danlos, say, or of Bouillon - occupied though they all of them are, habitually, with more costly things. Often two or three sovereigns buy you an excellent Watteau, clean and bright, and not bereft of margin. To have to give as much as £5 for one, would seem almost a hardship. And the work of Lancret and Pateringenious, interesting practitioners in Watteau's School -may be annexed at an expense even less considerable. Lancret was but a follower of Watteau : Pater was confessedly a pupil. We shall have to come to Chardin to find in French Art the next man thoroughly original. And Chardin was a great master. But Lancret and Pater, though they are but secondary, are still interesting figures. Neither of them, imitative though they were in varying degrees-neither of them made any pretentions to their forerunner's inspired reverie. Lancret, as far as his invention was concerned, was at one time satisfied with a symbolism that was obvious, not to say bald. At another, as in the sedate L'Hiver (engraved by Le Bas), and the charming pictures of the games of children, Le Jeu de Cache-cache and Le Jeu des Quatre Coins (both of them engraved by De Larmessin), he was gracefully real, without effort at a more remote imagination than the themes of reality in gentle or in middleclass life exacted. At another time again, he lived so much in actual things, that he could make the portraits, not of deep grave men indeed such as the Bossuets and the Fenelons of the Seventeenth Century, but of the lighter celebrities of his careless day. That day was Louis the Fifteenth's-" e etait le beau temps ou Camargo trouvait ses jupes trop longues pour danser la gargouillade." And Lancret painted Mdlle. Camargo (and Laurent Cars engraved her), springing to lively airs. Voltaire had said to her, distinguishing all her alacrity and fire from the more cautious graces of Salle, the mistress of poetic pantomime-Voltaire had said to her
" Les nymphes sautent comme vous, Et les Graces dansent comme elle."
And the truth of the description is attested by Lancret's picture, and by the rosy and vivacious pastel in Latour's Saint-Quentin Gallery.
Pater, a fellow-townsman of Antoine Watteau's, was his pupil only in Watteau's later years. At that time Watteau suffered from an irritability bred of an exhausting disease and of a yet more exhausting genius. Master and pupil fell out. But, in his last days of all, Watteau summoned to him the painter who had come from his own town, and in a month, for which the younger artist was ever grateful, Pater was taught more than he had ever been taught before. The pupil had the instinct for prettiness and grace, and in culti vating it Watteau was useful. But there was one thing the master could not teach him-originality. And his record of the engaging trivialities of daily life, where pleasure was most gracious and life most easy, was undertaken by a mind wholly contented with its task. The mind aspired no farther. The faces of Watteau, especially in his studies, are often faces of thoughtful beauty; sometimes, of profound and saddening experience. But, like a lesser Mozart-and the Mozart of a particular mood-Pater proffers us his engaging allegro. The aim of all his art-its light but successful endeavour-is summed up in the title of one of the prettiest of his prints and pictures. It is, Le desir de plaire.
Presently we leave that world of graceful fantasy, which Watteau invented, and his pupils prolongeda world in which dainty refreshments are served to chosen companies under serene skies-and, still in the full middle of the Eighteenth Century, we are face to face with the one great artist of that age whom Watteau never affected. Chardin was the painter of the bourgeoisie. With a persistence just as marked as that of the most homely Dutchmen, but with a refinement of feeling to which they were generally strangers and which gave distinction to his treatment of his theme, he devoted himself to the chronicle of prosaic virtues. In his Art, no trace of the selected garden, of the elegant gallantries, of the excitement of Love, in the gay or luscious weather. The honest townspeople know hardly a break in their measured sobriety. They are mothers of families; the cares of the menage press on them; house-work has to be got through; children taught, admonished, corrected. Never before or since have these scenes of the kitchen, the schoolroom, or the middle-class parlour, been painted with such dignity, such truth, such intimacy, and such permissible and fortunate reserve. We see them to perfection in Chardin's prints-in the prints, I mean, that were made after him, for he himself engraved never. There are two other sides of his Art which the contemporary lineengravings do not show. One of them is his mastery of still-life-his great and exceptional nobility in the treatment of it. There is just a hint of that, it is true, in the delicate engraving of L'OEconome, and the broader, richer engraving of La Pourvoyeuse ; but for any real indication of it, and even that is but a partial one, we must come to Jules de Goncourt's etching of the Gobelet d'Aryent, which suggests the luminousness, the characteristic reflects, and the touche grasse of the master. The other side of Chardin's talent which the engravings do not represent, is his later skill in professed portraiture, and especially in portraiture in pastel, to which the fashionable but well-merited triumphs of Latour directed him in his old age. But the deliberate limitations of the Eighteenth Century prints do not in any way invalidate the excellence, the completeness even, of their performance. The collector should address himself to their study. A little diligence, a little patience, and a hundred pounds, and it would not be impossible to form a collection in which nothing should be wanting. I remember that I gave M. Lacroix or M. Rapilly, in Paris, not more than seventy-five francs an impression for pieces in extraordinarily fine condition, and with margins almost intact.
Chardin went on working till he was eighty years old. He enjoyed popularity, and he outlived it. From 1738 to 1757, there were issued, in close succession, the engravings, about fifty in number, which, with all their differences, and with all sorts of interesting notes about them, M. Emanuel Bocher has conscientiously and lovingly catalogued. They were published at a couple of francs or so apiece; their appearance was wont to be welcomed in little notices in the Mercure de France, just as the Standard or the Times to-day might applaud a new Cameron or a new Frank Short; and they hung everywhere on bourgeois walls. The canvases which they translated were owned, some by a King of France, and some by a foreign Sovereign. Little in the work of the whole century had greater right to popularity than the Jeu de l'Oye, with its exquisite and homely grace-Surugue has perfectly engraved it-L'Etude du Dessein, austere and masterly (Le Bas has rendered well the figure's attitude of absorption), Le Benedicite, with the unaffected piety, the simple contentment of the narrow home, and La Gouvernante, with the young woman's friendly camaraderie and yet solicitude for the boy who is her charge.
At last Fashion shifted. Chardin was in the shade. Even Diderot got tired of him ; though it was only the distaste of a contemporary for an excellence too constantly repeated-and the artist betook himself, with vanished popularity, to changed labours. But the vogue had lasted long enough for his method to be imitated. Jeaurat tried to look at common life through Chardin's glasses. But Jeaurat did not catch the sentiment of Chardin as successfully as Laneret and Pater had caught the sentiment of Watteau. And along with a little humour, of which the print of the Citrons de Javotte affords a trace, he had some coarseness of his own which assorted ill with Chardin's homely but unalloyed refinement. Chardin was profound; Jeaurat, comparatively shallow. You look not without interest at the productions of the one; you enter thoroughly into the world of the other. The creation of Chardin-which his engravers pass on to us-has a sense of peace, of permanence, a curious reality.
Reality is that which to us of the present day seems above all things lacking to the laboured and obvious moralities of Greuze, who was voluptuous when be posed to be innocent, and was least convincing when he sought to be moral. Yet Greuze, when he was not the painter of the too seductive damsel, but of family piety and family afflictions, must have spoken to his own time with seeming sincerity. Even a liberal philosophy-the philosophy of Diderot-patted him gently on the back, and invited him to reiterate his commendable and salutary lessons. But the philosophy was a little sentimental, or it would scarcely have continued to Greuze the encouragement it had withdrawn from Chardin. The Greuze pictures chiefly engraved in his own time were his obtrusive moralities. They now find little favour. But Levasseur's print of La Laitiere and Massard's of La Cruche cassee elaborate, highly wrought, and suggesting that ivory flesh texture which the master obtained when he was most dexterously luxurious-these will fascinate the Sybarite, legitimately, during still many generations.
Before the first successes of the painter of that Laitiere and that Cruche cassee, there was flourishing at Court, under the Pompadour's patronage, the "rosewater Raphael," the " bastard of Rubens." This was Francois Boucher. The region of his art lay as far indeed from reality as did Watteau's " enchanted isle," and it had none of the rightful magnetism of that country of poetic dream. It was not, like Watteau's land, that of a privileged and fortunate humanity, but of "False Gods, and Muses misbegot"
Where Boucher tried to be refined, he was insincere; and where he was veracious, he was but picturesquely gross. His notion of Olympus was that of a mountain on which ample human forms might be undraped with impunity. That Olympus of a limited imagination he frequented with industry. But, as a decorative painter, there is no need to undervalue his fertility and skill, his apparently inexhaustible though trivial impulse; and if few of his larger compositions have deserved those honours which they have obtained, of translation into elaborate line-engraving, hosts of the chalk studies which are so characteristic of his facile talent were appropriately reproduced in fac-simile by the ingenious inventions of Demarteau. These fac-similes were very cheap indeed not many years ago, nor are they to-day expensive. Of Boucher's more considered work, engraved in line, La Naissance de Venus, by Duilos, and Jupiter et Leda, by Ryland, are important and agreeable, and, as times go, by no means costly instances.
Fragonard, besides being a nobler colourist than Boucher-as the silvery pinks and creamy whites of the Chemise en levee, at the Louvre, would alone be enough to indicate-was at once a master of more chastened taste and of less impotent passion. He was of the succession of the Venetians. Fragonard came to Paris from the South-from amidst the olives and the flowers of Grasse-and he retained to the end a measure of the warmth and sunshine of Provence. The artistic eagerness, the hurried excitement, of some of his work, is much in accord with his often fiery themes; but in L'Heureuse Fecondite, Les Beignets, and La Bonne Mere (all of them engraved by De Launay) the collector can possess himself of compositions in which Fragonard depicted domestic life in his own lively way.
That is only one side of his mind, and, like his love of dignified and ordered artificial Landscape, it is little known. Elsewhere he showed himself a skilled and an appreciative observer of wholly secular character, and he embodied upon many a canvas his conception of Love-it was not to him the constant devotion of a life, but the unhesitating tribute of an hour. Le Yerre d'Eau and Le Pot au Lait are good gay prints, but not for every one. In Le Chiffre d'Amour, Affection, which with Fragonard is rarely inelegant, becomes for a moment sentimental.
Contemporary with Fragonard were a group of artists who, more than Fragonard, left Allegory aside, and exercised their imagination only in a rearrangement of the real. These were the French Little Masters: amongst them, Lavreince, the Saint-Aubins, Baudouin, Eisen, Moreau le jeune. They had seen the life of Paris-Baudouin, the debased side of it; but even Baudouin had some feeling for elegance and comedy. Eisen was above all an illustrator. Augustin de Saint-Aubin, a man of various talents, displayed in little things, is studied most agreeably in those two pretty and well-disposed interiors, Le Concert and Le Bal pare They are his most prized pieces; and prettiness having often more money value than greatness, they are worth more than any Watteausthey are worth full twenty pounds the pair. And that is all I can afford to say of Augustin de Saint-Aubin. Lavreince and Moreau must be spoken of a little more fully.
Nicholas Lavreince was by birth a Swede, but, educated in Paris and practising his art there, he was more French than the French. Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, the best historians of the Painting of the time, do not much appreciate him: at least in compari son with Baudouin. They say that Baudouin's method was larger and more artistic than Lavreince's, whose way was generally the way of somewhat painful finish. I have seen by Lavreince one agreeable water-colour which has all the impulse of the first intention, and, so far, belies the De Goncourts' judgment. But the judgment is doubtless true in the main. That does not make Lavreince a jot less desirable for the collectors of prints. Both he and Baudouin wrought to be engraved, but Lavreince's work was done with a much larger measure of reference to that subsequent interpretation. The true gouaches of Lavreince are of extraordinary rarity; and if their method is in some respects less excellent than that of the companion-works of Baudouin, their themes are more presentable. Lavreince, in his brilliant portrayal of a luxurious, free-living Society, sometimes allowed himself a liberty our century might resent; but Baudouin's license-save in such an exquisite subject as that of La Toilette, which depicts the slimmest and most graceful of his modelswas on a par with that of Retif de la Bretonne. A proof. before all letters of the delightful Toiletteengraved so delicately by Ponce-is worth, when it appears, some twelve or fifteen pounds: a more ordinary, a less rare impression, is worth perhaps three or four.
Baudouin-in too much of his work-was the portrayer of coarse intrigue in humble life and high: Lavreince and Moreau, masters of polite Genre, with subjects wider and more varied, the chroniclers of conversations not inevitably tet a tete. For vividness and intellectual delicacy of expression in the individual heads, one must give the palm to Moreau. The De Goncourts claim for him also pre-eminence in composition; but in one piece at least-in the Assemblee au Concert, engraved by Dequevauviller-Lavreince runs Moreau hard. And Lavreince, I can't help thinking, has an invention scarcely less refined. What can be gentler, yet what if gentle can be more abundant comedy than his, in the Directeur des Toilettes ? -the scene in which a prosperous Abbe, ; an arbiter of Taste in women's dress, dictates the choice to his delightful friend, or busily preserves her from the chances of error. And very noteworthy is Lavreince's way of availing himself of all the opportunities for beautiful design-beautiful line, at all events-which were afforded him by the noble interiors in which there passed the action of his drama. Those interiors are of the days of Louis Seize, and are a little more severe, a little less intricate, than the interiors of Louis Quinze. Musical instruments, often beautiful of form-harp, harpsichord, and violoncello-play their part in these pictorial compositions. Prints from Lavreince, like prints from Moreau, are too gay and too agreeable not to be always valued. England and America will surely take to them, as France has done long ago.
It has been claimed for Moreau-Moreau "le jeune," to distinguish him from his less eminent brother-that he is yet more exact than Lavreince is, in his record of the fashions of his period in furniture and dress. And sometimes, on this very account, his effect is more prosaic just as at the contemporary theatre the accessories are apt to dominate or dwarf the persons of the drama. Yet Moreau's people have generally some interest of individuality and liveliness, and these characteristics are nowhere better seen than in the two series which he designed to show the life of a great lady from the moment of motherhood and the daily existence of a man of fashion. These prints-such as Cost un Fils, Monsieur; La Sortie de l'Opera; La Grande Toiletteshould be possessed, let me tell the collector, with the "A.P.D.Q:' still upon them: not in a later state. Moreau, besides being a charming and observant draughtsman, was himself a delicate engraver; but he left to others (Romanet, Baquoy, and Malbeste amongst them) the business of reproducing his story of the ruling classes-of the leaders of Society-and it was suffi ciently popularised. Having regard to what it wasa story, to some people, of irritating even though of elegant triviality-perhaps it was as well for those ruling classes of the Ancien Regime that it did not go further-that it was not actually broadcast. Of Beaumarchais'a pungent comedy the saying has since passed round, that it was the Revolution "en action." So envy or contempt might surely have been fostered by the wide-spread perusal of Moreau's exquisite, unvarnished record, and the Revolution have been advanced by a day.
With Moreau's art, the Eighteenth Century closes. There is an end of its luxury and its amenity-an end of the lover who insists and the lady who but lightly forbids. There followed after it the boneless, nerveless, still eminently graceful pseudo-classicism of Prud'hon, and the sterner pseudo-classicism of David, which re called the ideal of men to a more strenuous life. But that life was not of the Eighteenth Century. The inflexible David, like the dreamy Prud'hon, was an artist for another age. The graceful, graceless Eighteenth Century-with its own faults, and no less with its own virtues-had said its last word. Familiar and luxurious, tolerant and engaging, it had expressed through Art the last of its so easily supported sorrows and its so easily forgotten loves.