French Painters Of The Eighteenth Century, Wallace Collections
( Originally Published 1908 )
I must leave you to look for yourselves at Downman's delicate portraits in crayons, at Sully's portrait of Queen Victoria (564), at Stanfield's landscapes and river scenes. I have not space to do more than mention their names.
The eighteenth century in France is what especially appealed to the Marquis of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace. This collection is rich in memorials of that time.
Before we begin to consider the pictures I want you to think for a few moments of what France was like in those days. When the century opened Louis XIV, the ` Grand Monarque' as he was called, was on the. throne. His reign was a time of splendour and luxury. But it was a splendour that was only skin deep, it touched Paris and the court with glory, but it left the peasantry and the less privileged people ignorant and starving. The children that were born out of that charmed circle had the bitterness of poverty and privation in their blood. And when they grew to be men and women they rose in their wrath, and such a bloody drama was played in France as the world had never seen.
Louis XV noticed the little cloud, no bigger than a man's hand, that was hovering over his country, but he congratulated himself that the storm would not break in his day. Big drops of rain were beginning to fall when Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette came to the throne, but these were at first unheeded. The court and the nobility went on enjoying themselves extravagantly, thinking out fresh pleasures to fill in every hour. If you judge France at this time by Watteau's pictures, life would seem to have been one long picnic. So it was for the well-born folk, but for those who had to do all the hard drudgery of the world, it was the sort of meal you would enjoy, if you were in a lonely place and the baskets of provisions had been forgotten. You would not feel very friendly towards the people who happened to have not only their hampers full and running over, but yours as well. They were people who little understood what it was to be hungry, and were either totally ignorant, or wilfully blind to the miseries endured by the poor.
The people are starving for bread' a princess was told one day.
` For bread,' she replied, bewildered. ` How can that be, when one can buy such delicious little cakes for two sous ? '
There are two artists, Clouet and Nicolas Poussin, who belong to an earlier time. To a Clouet picture I shall refer in the chapter on miniatures, but we might look at Poussin's picture of ` The Seasons ' before we pass on to the eighteenth century artists. Poussin (1594—1665) was a classical painter, he went to Italy for his inspiration, not to nature. He composed a picture, arranged it, thought it out in all its smallest details ; but there never was such a scene enacted on sea or land. This picture of ` The Seasons' (108) is an allegory of the flight of time, the everlasting passing of man. If you did not look at it carefully you might think it was just four girls dancing, but it has much more to say to you than that. It is better to look at one picture carefully for ten minutes, and then, if you do not care to go on, go home and remember the subject and think about it, than to look at all the paintings in the gallery for about five seconds each and recollect not one single thing about them. In this picture you will recognise Spring, a dancing girl with pearls in her hair, clasping hands with Summer garlanded with a wreath of roses. The latter in her turn, joins hands with Autumn, whose tresses are adorned with a crown of wheat ; and Winter, who protects her head with a turban, from Autumn turns to Spring. Winter is looking towards old Father Time, at whose feet is a boy watching the sands run out of an hour glass, the symbol of the shortness of life. The boy opposite to him sits under the bust of Janus merrily piping of the happy morning of life and of love, as the seasons dance in their endless round. You will see further imagery in the sky. Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, a star in her forehead, a torch in her hand, rides in a chariot, to withdraw the curtain of night, and let in the light of the sun.
Poussin belonged to a more serious age, but with François Boucher (1704-1770) we are in the midst of frivolity and pleasure.
As you enter Hertford House you go up a fine staircase. It was, as I have told you, taken from the National Library in Paris, and was at one time in the palace of Cardinal Mazarin. It is of wrought ironwork, big scrolls of leaves entwined around cornucopias, from which escape showers of coins. Only one of the balustrades belonged to the great palace, the other is a copy by English workmen, so finely done that I do not suppose many people would be able to guess which was the original. As you stand at the top of this flight of steps you see in front of you two of Boucher's pictures—the two that he considered his master-pieces. ` The Rising of the Sun' (485), in which glide nymphs in the soft light of early dawn, and
The Setting of the Sun' (486), the figures floating dreamily in the grey twilight when all the world seems as if it is singing :
` To sleep ! To sleep !
In looking at these two pictures you must remember that they were originally painted as designs for the Gobelin Tapestry. Boucher was intimately associated with the court of France, at the time of Louis XV, and with Madame de Pompa-dour, whose portrait by him (418) we have here. She is in a delicate pink dress, her hand held out, her hair taken right off her forehead. Madame de Pompadour was the favourite of Louis XV. She was the moving spirit in every sort of entertainment, when kings and queens played at being shepherds and shepherdesses, and leading a pastoral life ; when the court was continually dressing up like so many children for some fête or other. Madame de Pompadour was always planning some fresh amusement for the king. She would send for Boucher in hot haste to come and design the costumes and to help to make all arrangements, so that everything should be done perfectly and artistically. These two worked together, and when the Marquise died it was a great loss to Boucher. Four years after he was discovered dead in his studio, brush in hand, before one of his airy fancies, ` Venus à sa Toilette.'
He was the pupil of Le Moine, and you can see as you turn to this master's two great paintings (on either side of the grand staircase) how much similarity there is in their methods, and their choice of subject. Many of Le Moine's designs remind us of beautiful ceilings. The picture of his that I want you to look at, ` Time revealing Truth' (392), has a melancholy sort of interest. He worked with such desperate energy at it that he went out of his mind, and a few hours after it was finished he killed himself.
What I have told you of the eighteenth century influences in art applies to Fragonard, Boucher's pupil, as much as to any artist of that day. Fragonard was a poet-painter. There is delicate imagination in his renderings of the gay side of life. Here is one of ` Le Chiffre D'Amour' (82)—a lady carving a name on a tree ; is it her initial or that of her lover ? I hope, if it is hers she will write under it the name of the dear dog who sits watching her so patiently. She has already carved an S—Susanne perhaps-and the dog is Fido. Who knows but that on some tree in the forest of Fontainebleau we might still be able to trace, deeply cut into the wood, this little record of the visit of the dog and his mistress who so long ago passed into the shades.
` The Schoolmistress ' (404) is a charming picture. We see a sort of dream school where there is no trouble with lessons, and where the mistress has little else to do than to cut bread and butter for her charges. A pickle of a baby boy is standing in front of her waiting for the first slice. The other scholars are gathered round, none of them capable of the three R's, even in a great emergency.
Fragonard has here ` The Fair-haired Child ' (412) who is very living. He looks at us with his big blue eyes, his quaint hat showing off his light hair, one small hand tucked under the long sleeves, and into his tiny arms he gathers a nosegay of pink flowers.
A contrast to him is another child ` The Boy in Red,' by Madame Le Brun (449). There is real distinction in this boy's bearing. That was one of Marie Le Brun's great qualities as a portrait painter. She was a favourite painter of Marie Antoinette and her court, and lived to hear that many of those heads she had painted had been severed by the guillotine. When troubles came upon her patrons she fled from France, travelling over Europe, though when all was safe she returned to her native land. Jean Baptiste Greuze, of whom I shall tell you later, was one of her masters.
We will now pass on to Antoine Watteau, the prince of court painters, the head of the school known as the ` Fêtes Galantes.' He, like Fragonard, was a poet-painter. His pictures do not seem so much records of the trivialities of the time as of a dreamy sort of existence in which men and women had little to do but to dance and sing and make love under the trees.
Watteau was born at Valenciennes in 1684. He studied much abroad, being specially attracted to the work of Rubens. He had a hard struggle with poverty, for his father did not sympathise with his aims. We hear of him when he was eighteen living in Paris, doing hack work for a shop - keeper to keep himself from starvation. He only earned three livres a week — not worth more than three francs now—and he was grateful for the bowl of soup daily, which was part of the payment. All the time he went on studying, and at last recognition came. He became the rage, his pictures were bought by the king and court.
There is a touch of melancholy in his story in great contrast to the gaiety of his pictures. He worked eagerly, feverishly, for he had in him the seeds of consumption. He was nervous, irritable, disgusted with mankind, though he had money and fame. By the time he was thirty-seven, sixty years before the storm of the Revolution broke over France, his life's work was over.
Let us look at ` The Music Lesson' (377). A lady is sitting glancing over a scroll of music, her son bends over her as if to follow too what the teacher is playing, while two children are listening eagerly to the sounds. We see the same musician at work again in another picture ` The Music Party' (410), where men, women, and children are enjoying themselves. The view is the old Champs Elysées seen from the balcony of the Tuileries. Look at the little black boy in the corner seeing to it that the wine is kept cool till it is wanted. What a delightful life—music and song and freedom from care !
Nicolas Lancret was a friend of Watteau, and copied his methods. But he was neither so great a poet in his conceptions, nor so great a painter. He did not succeed in having Watteau's exquisite charm or beautiful colour. Still he painted so like the master that Watteau was offended and had a bitter quarrel with him. Watteau, as I have told you, was easily moved to anger. In Lancret's ' Mademoiselle Camargo Dancing' (393) we see beauty and grace. She is light and gay—you can almost hear the musicians playing as you see her so bewitchingly floating about—the very poetry of movement. She was a well-known dancer in the 18th century.
From Lancret we pass on to Pater who was a pupil of Watteau, and a pupil of whom he was jealous, though he need not have been. Pater has none of the inspiration, the delicacy of the master. Watteau for a time refused to teach him, but after-wards repented, and gave him most valuable instruction. Pater's life, too, was a contra-diction in its sadness to the gaiety of the subjects of his pictures. He was of an anxious temperament. He worked so hard to depict the pleasure-loving men and women of his day, that he died worn out at the age of forty. Let us look at a game of ` Blind Man's Buff ' (400). One of the players has just been knocked down by the blindfolded girl, but all is good humour and excitement. The heroine is too much occupied with a young man whom she has caught, and whose name she must guess before her eyes are unbandaged, to notice anyone else. I dare say she sees more than we think, and will not make a mistake. It is even possible that she has caught her special victim on purpose. You will find among Pater's pictures, some rustic scenes where the people look all dressed up for the part, and not as if they were really out for a day's merry-making in the country. He shows us a make-believe world, and even the scenery seems a little unreal.
Jean Baptiste Greuze, with whom I must bring this chapter to a close, was born in 1725, and lived to be eighty. He has here pictures of the heads of beautiful girls, with large expressive eyes that make them seem self-conscious and not so innocent or faithful or sorrowful as Greuze would have us believe, eyes more suited to the frolicsome ` L'Espièglerie ' (396) than to the sentimental ` Sorrow' (388). Greuze survived the Revolution, but his style of painting did not. Life had become stern and real. The fidelity and sorrow such as the Revolution brought forth would not be represented by these tender charming girls. Imagine Greuze painting Charlotte Corday, who stabbed Marat : or the noble Madame Roland on the scaffold ; they were real, they were flesh and blood—his heroines were not. He died in great poverty.
Let us look at his portrait of 'Mademoiselle Sophie Arnould' (403), a famous actress of the French opera in those days, the picture that used to hang on one side of the bed of the Marquis of Hertford. ` Sorrow ' (388) is a self-conscious girl, who would not cry more than is becoming, nor have red eyes and swollen cheeks as a result of her grief. I doubt if she would cry at all if there were not someone by to comfort her.
` A Girl with Doves ' (428) is one of Greuze's most exquisite pictures—she is holding them in her gentle hands, they do not want to fly away and be at rest as all properly constituted doves should. Greuze does not touch our heart, he appeals to our desire for what is graceful and lovely, to the dreaming years of youth.
This may be said of all these painters—they are the painters of visions when the heart is young and life is full of joy. They seem to sing to us the rhyme :
` The breeze had taught the flowers ; And the blue-bell chime of eternal time That speeds the dreamland hours.'
They bring back to us as nothing else can, the unreality and the beauty of eighteenth century France.