French Painters Of The Nineteenth Century, Wallace Collections
( Originally Published 1908 )
We have spent so much time over the gaieties and frivolities of France before the Revolution, that we shall not be able to look long at the work of thirty comparatively modern French artists, many of whom were born at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Europe was then in the throes of the great wars of Napoleon. All the world was trembling at his name, shuddering at his successes. Would he be master of Europe ? Would he be a second Alexander and sigh for more worlds to conquer, would he look longingly at the stars, and plan a campaign against the inhabitants of Mars ? It was thoughts of war, of the triumph of France, of the great conqueror that were in the minds of some of those artists of whom I am going to tell you. It was no longer of love feasts and pleasant hunt breakfasts, it was battle, murder, and sudden death.
We will begin by looking at one or two pictures which were painted rather before this time. There is one by Van Loo (477) of Louis XV in his robes of state. Here he is in all his regal trappings, selfish, and indifferent. If clothes make the man, and they have a great deal to do with what the world thinks of him when he is alive, here he is in his splendour. Though now Louis and his fine raiment alike have gone to dust, his character is laid bare. He did nothing to help the people of his country who were desolate and oppressed.
I want you to look at Boilly's little picture `The Dead Mouse' (435). You see it held up by a child, the cat licking her lips with eagerness, a small boy clinging frightened to his mother. Boilly, who lived in both the 18th and 19th centuries, had something of the sentimentality of the one, and the realistic spirit of the other, and he looked before and after for his inspiration.
The first Napoleonic picture is by Baron Gros, ` General Napoleon reviewing Troops' (303). Gros was a boy at the time of the Revolution. He lived to see the meteoric rise and the tragic fall of Napoleon, lived to hear of his death at St. Helena. Poor Baron Gros, himself, to end in tragedy ! He out-lived his popularity and was so broken-hearted at the want of appreciation of his pictures that he threw himself into the Seine. He had been a pupil of David, the great classical painter, and was much influenced by him. Art has its fashions as well as anything else and classical painting was no longer wanted. We see here Napoleon and his troops —the picture represents him before he was made Emperor, when he was marching on to power with giant strides.
Baron Gros had for pupil, Paul Delaroche, an historical painter, who was born in 1797. Delaroche loved the drama of history, painting his pictures rather as if the figures were grouped for a play. You do not feel it is exactly what the scene would be like had you been there. Here is the dramatic episode ` The Assassination of the Duc de Guise ' (738). Do you remember the story of this great nobleman, who was born in 1550, and became the head of the Catholic party in France ? He was associated with the massacre of St. Bartholemew. The King of France was jealous of his power and plotted this murder, which took place in one of the rooms of the Duke's castle in the great hall. Notice the hangings of tapestry, through which the Duc de Guise has just passed, the weight of his body is dragging them down. The nobles who are looking on are indifferent. He would have served them in much the same way had it suited his convenience.
If you want more tragedy you must pass, on to The Execution of Marino Faliero' (282) by Delacroix. Delacroix, who was a year younger than Delaroche, was a romantic painter, by which is meant a painter who seeks to delineate life and colour, as contrasted with the coldly classical school of Daird. Marino Faliero was a doge of Venice in the 14th century. He had plotted against the government, and was beheaded as a traitor. We see him here dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs, the executioner stands by him impassive, crowds are watching the scene from the top of the stairs and the balcony. There is no pity on their faces. ` He deserved it,' they say to one another, as they cheerfully troop off to dinner.
Léon Cogniet, whose water-colour of ` The Retreat from Moscow' (685), I want you to notice, is an artist of the modern French school. He painted military scenes as a rule. This picture reminds us of one of the saddest events of the Napoleonic wars, Napoleon with his half million of men travelled through Russia in the bitter winter, on to the capital. The men died of disease and cold on the march—but on they went till they saw the city in flames.
One of Napoleon's generals is standing in the deep snow, footprints as of blood at his feet. In the background the flames of the burning city, from which he has retreated, light up the sky.
But you will be tired of endless war so we will look at a beautiful landscape by Corot. Though this bears the title ` Macbeth and the Witches ' (281) the figures seem to play but a small part in it. Corot was born in 1796. He studied in Paris and in Rome, where he learnt much from the old masters, but his great teacher was nature. He loved her in all her moods. He renders with exquisite skill the subtle effect of light on the trees and the sunshine filtering through them. This picture of the ` blasted heath,' with its air of mystery, is a fitting spot for the Weird Sisters to prophesy to Macbeth ` Thou shalt be King hereafter.'
We must now travel far away from barren moors to the gorgeous East, with Decamps as a guide. He was able to put the spirit of that mystic land into his canvases as no other French painter has ever done. He loved the country of cloudless skies and brilliant sunshine. His pictures are bathed in light, and the spell of the desert is upon them. The little Turkish children skip out gleefully into the open air in ` Released from School ' (692). They are ready to dance and play after their lessons.
I want you to notice specially the lighting of the picture, in that quality Decamps excelled. If you want a contrast to these happy youngsters you must look for yourselves at his terrible picture of torture ` The Punishment of the Hooks ' (345). I have dwelt too often on tragedy to describe it to you.
Lami, a pupil of Baron Gros, looked behind him for his subjects. He painted in water-colour with great delicacy. We have here ` Before the Great Revolution ' (663) . We see the people in this picture sitting and lolling about round a table where they have been having a mighty feast, they are exhausted with too much eating and drinking. In his other picture ` The Great Staircase at Versailles' (653), we see them in their splendour trooping up the stairs ; look at the gorgeous costumes of the men and women who were invited to the king's reception on that great night.
Versailles was not to last very long, and we have a reminder of it in Raffet's water-colour of ` The trial of Marie Antoinette ' (737). The queen, who, whatever were her faults, did not fail in courage at this terrible time, is a striking contrast to the rough republican assembly. Raffet, who was born in 1804, was another of Baron Gros's pupils, and a celebrated French painter of historic subjects.
We must now pass on to one of the great names of this time, Meissonier, who was born in the year of Waterloo and died in Paris in 1891, so he is, except for a few living painters, the most modern of the artists we are seeing today. There is wonderful finish in his pictures, yet they are painted broadly and vigorously.
I shall only be able to describe one or two of his canvases, but I expect you will enjoy looking at them all. Here is a gallant man ` A Musketeer ' (287), his gun is slung over his shoulder, his slouched hat shades his face, the coat is thrown back to give his arm free play, and the sword is sticking out behind. I expect you will be wondering whether Dumas's three musketeers were dressed like this man, and whether he could tell or such fascinating adventures as fell to the lot of Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. If you want specially to notice the exquisite finish of Meissonier's work, you should look closely at the bravely dressed ` Cavalier of the time of Louis XIII ' (291), with his long flowing hair, and notice the exquisite collar, and the fine lacing on the leather coat and shoes. In some such costume as this the squires and noble gentle-men who followed Charles I were dressed. It is a great contrast to the sombre clothes of our own day. There are times when watching the black- coated, black-hatted men in London going their ways, we think how fascinating it would be if they were gaily clad. Immersed in the busy world around them they seem to choose their clothes solely because they will not show splashes of ink.
` The Print Collector ' (325) is a picture that must have especially appealed to Sir Richard Wallace, for he too, like the man who is looking at the print, lived to collect. Notice the exquisite painting of the portfolio, the pictures on the walls, and the treasures on the mantelpiece.
And now let us come out into the fresh air and stand by ` The Roadside Inn' (328), where, under the trees, the sunlight and shadow throwing a dappled shade on the ground, two men are refreshing themselves. They have had a delightful canter in the sunlight, they stop for a moment or two, then they will gallop along the avenue and out of our sight for ever. Meissonier caught them at that moment, and here they are for evermore, enjoying the halt by the wayside.
You must look for yourselves at a very minute picture of ` Napoleon and his staff' (290). Among the group, no doubt, is Marshal Ney, destined to have five horses shot under him at Waterloo, and six months later to be shot as a traitor. We see the group of officers in their fine military array, destined to fight nobly and to lose one of the battles of history—but still to be remembered among the heroes of France.
Before we leave the French painters you must notice the head of a faithful sheep dog (365) by Rosa Bonheur, (1822-1899). She is one of the great animal-painters, and understands dumb creatures as few artists have done.
We will look at a peaceful landscape of the Forest of Fontainebleau (283) by Rousseau. He loved the forest in all its moods, seeing it in sunshine and storm, at dawn and dusk, and letting himself absorb the spirit of the place. He is one of the artists who went into the open air to paint nature, and did not try to remember the effects within the walls of his studio. He was influenced by our English painter, Constable, and has himself influenced the modern French landscape artists. He had to bear great disappointment before he was recognised, but this is part of the education of many an artist.