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Art In Fiction

( Originally Published 1925 )



Fiction about art and artists is rare — that is, good fiction, not the stuff ground out daily by the publishing mills for the gallery-gods. It is to France that we must look for the classic novel dealing with painters and their painting, Manette Salomon, by Goncourt. Henry James has written several delightful tales, such as The Liar, The Real Thing, The Tragic Muse, in ,which artists appear. But it is the particular psychological problem involved rather than theories of art or personalities that steer Mr. James's cunning pen. We all remember the woman who destroyed a portrait of her husband which seemed to reveal his moral secret. John S. Sergeant has been credited with being the, psychologist of the brush in this story. There is a nice, fresh young fellow in The Tragic Muse, who, weak-spined as he is, prefers at the last his painting to Julia Dallow and a political carver. in The Real Thing we recognise one of those unerring strokes that prove James to be the master psychologist among English writers. Any discerning painter realises the value of -a model who can take the pose that will give him the pictorial idea, the suggestiveness of the pose, not an attempt at crude naturalism. With this thesis the novelist has built up an amusing, semi-pathetic, and striking fable.

There are painters scattered through English fiction can we ever forget Thackeray! Ouida has not missed weaving her Tyrian purples into the exalted pattern of her romantic painters. And George Eliot. And Disraeli. And Bernard Shaw there is a painting creature in Love Am the Artists. George Moore, however, has devoted more of his pages to-paint and painters than any, other of the latter day writers. The reason is this: George Moore went to Paris to study,art and he drifted into the Julian atelier like any other likely young fellow with hazy notions about art and a well-filled purse. But these early experiences were not lost. They cropped up in many of his 'stories and studies. They became the critical pioneer of the impressionistic movement and first told London about Manet, Monet, Degas. He even in an article remarkable for critical acumen declared that if Jimmy Whistler had been a heavier man, a man of beef ,brawn, and beer, like Rubens, he would have been as great a painter as Velasquez. To the weighing scales, fellow-artists! He retorted Whistler; yet the bolt did not miss the mark. Whistler's remarks about Mr. Moore, especially 'after the Eden 'lawsuit, were, so it is reported, not fit to print.

In Mr. Moore's first volume of the half-forgotten trilogy, Spring Days, we see a young painter who, it may be said, thinks more of petticoats than paint. There is paint talk in Mike Fletcher, Moor's most virile book. In A Modern Lover the hero is an artist who succeeds in the fashionable world by painting pretty, artificial portraits and faded classical allegories, thereby winning the love of women, much wealth, popular applause, and the stamp of official approbation. This Lewis Seymour still lives and, paints modish London in rose-colour. Moore's irony would have entered the soul of a hundred "celebrated" artists if they had had any soul to flesh it in. When he wrote this novel, one that shocked Mrs. Grundy, Moore was under the influence -influence of Paris. However, that masterpiece of description and analysis, Mildred Law-son in Celibates very Balzacian title, by the way deals with hardly anything else but art. Mildred, who is an English girl without soul, heart, or talent, studies in the Julian atelier and goes to Fontainebleau during the summer. No one, naturally, will ever describe Fontainebleau better than Flaubert, in whose L'Education Sentimentale there are marvellous pictures; also a semiburlesque painter, Pellerin, who reads all the works on ćsthetics before he draws a line, and not forgetting that imperishable portrait of Jacques Arnoux, art dealer. Goncourt, too, has excelled in his impression of the forest and its painters, Millet in particular. Nevertheless, let us say in passing that you cannot find Mildred Lawson in Flaubert or Goncourt; no, not even in Balzac, whose work is the matrix of modern fiction. She is her own perverse, cruel Mooresque self, and she lives in New York as well as London.

In both Daudet and Maupassant — Strong as Death is the latter's contribution to painter-psychology — there are stories clustered about the guild. Daudet has described a Salon on varnishing day with his accustomed facile, febrile skill; you feel that it comes from Goncourt and Zola. It is not within our scope to go back as far as Balzac, whose Frenhofer in The Unknown Masterpiece has been a model for the younger man. Poe, Hawthorne, Wilde, and Robert Louis Stevenson have dealt with the theme pictorial. Zola's The Masterpiece (L'OEuvre) is one of the better written books of Zola. It was a favourite of his. The much-read and belauded fifth chapter is a faithful transcription of the first Salon of the Rejected Painters (Salon des Refuses) at Paris, 1863. Napoleon III, after pressure had been brought to bear upon him, consented to a special salon within the official Salon, at the Palais de l'Industrie, which would harbour the work of the young lunatics who wished to paint purple turkeys, green water, red grass, and black sunsets. (Lie down, ivory hallucinations, and don't wag your carmilion tail on the chrome-yellow carpet!) It is an enormously clever book, this, deriving in the main as it does from Manette Salomon and Balzac's Frenhofer. The fight for artistic veracity by Claude Lantier is a replica of what occurred in Manet's lifetime. The Breakfast on the Grass, described by Zola, was actually the title and the subject of a Manet picture that scandalised Paris about this epoch. The fantastic idea of a nude female stretched on the grass, while the other figures were clothed and in their right minds, was too much for public and critic, and unquestionably Manet did paint the affair to create notoriety. Like Richard Wagner, he knew the value of advertising.

All the then novel theories of plein air impressionism are discussed in the Zola novel, yet the work seems clumsy after Goncourt's Manette Salomon, that breviary for painters which so far back as 1867 anticipated in print, of course — the discoveries, the experiments, the practice of the naturalistic-impressionistic groups from Courbet to Cézanne, Monet to Maufra, Manet to Paul Gauguin. There are verbal pictures of student life, of salons, of atelier and open air. No such psychologic manuaI of the painter's art has ever appeared before or since Manette Salomon. It was the Goncourts who introduced Japanese art to European literature they were friends of the late M. Bing, a pioneer collector in Paris. And they foresaw the future of painting as well as of fiction.

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