Realistic Painting - Manet And Monet
But to go back a little and consider the puissant individualities, the great men who have really given its direction to and, as it were, set the pace of, the realistic movement, and for whom, in order more conveniently to consider impressionism pure and simple by itself, I have ventured to disturb the chronological sequence of evolution in French painting —a sequence that, even if one care more for ideas than for chronology, it is more temerarious to vary from in things French than in any others. To go back in a word to Manet ; the painter of whom M. Henri Houssaye has remarked : " Manet sowed, M. Bastien-Lepage has reaped."
Manet was certainly one of the most noteworthy painters that France or any other country has produced. His is the great, the very rare, merit of having conceived a new point of view. That he did not illustrate this in its completeness, that he was a sign-post, as Albert Wolff very aptly said, rather an exemplar, is nothing. He was totally unheralded, and he was in his way superb. No one before him had essayed—no one before him had ever thought of—the immense project of breaking, not relatively but absolutely, with the conventional. Looking for the first time at one of his pictures, one says that customary notions, ordinary brushes, traditional processes of even the highest authenticity, have been thrown to the winds. Hence, indeed, the scandal which he caused from the first and which went on increasing, until, owing to the acceptance, with modifications, of his point of view by the most virile and vigorous painters of the day, he became, as he has become, in a sense the head of the corner. Manet's great distinction is to have discovered that the sense of reality is achieved with a thousand-fold greater intensity by getting as near as possible to the actual, rather than resting content with the relative, value of every detail. Everyone who has painted since Manet has either followed him in this effort or has appeared jejune.
Take as au illustration of the contrary practice such a masterpiece in its way as Gérôme's " Eminence Grise." In this picture, skilfully and satisfactorily composed, the relative values of all the colors are admirably, even beautifully, observed. The correspondence of the gamut of values to that of the light and dark scale of such an actual scene is perfect. Before Manet, one could have said that this is all that is required or can be secured, arguing that exact imitation of local tints and general tone is impossible, owing to the difference between nature's highest light and lowest dark, and the potentialities of the palette. In other words, one might have said, that inasmuch as you can squeeze absolute white and absolute black out of no tubes, the thing to do is first to determine the scale of your picture and then make every note in it bear the same relation to every other that the corresponding note in nature bears to its fellows in its own corresponding but different scale. This is what Gérôme has done in the Eminence Grise "—a scene, it will be remembered, on a staircase in a palace interior. Manet inquires what would hap-pen to this house of cards shored up into verisimilitude by mere correspondence, if Gérôme had been asked to cut a window in his staircase and admit the light of out-of-doors into his correspondent but artificial scene. The whole thing would have to be clone over again. The scale of the picture running from the highest palette white to the lowest palette dark, and yet the key of an actual interior scene being much nearer middle-tint than the tint of an actual out-of-doors scene, it would be impossible to paint with any verisimilitude the illumination of a window from the outside, the resources of the palette having already been exhausted, every object having been given a local value solely with relation, so far as truth of representation is concerned, to the values of every other object, and no effort being made to get the precise value of the object as it would appear under analogous circumstances in nature.
It may be replied, and I confess I think with excellent reason, that Gérôme's picture has no window in it, and therefore that to ask of him to paint a picture as he would if he were painting a different picture, is pedantry. The old masters are still admirable, though they only observed a correspondence to the actual scale of natural values, and were not concerned with imitation of it. But it is to be observed that, successful as their practice is, it is successful in virtue of the unconscious co-operation of the beholder's imagination. And nowadays not only is the exercise of the imagination become for better or worse a little old-fashioned, but the one thing that is insisted on as a starting-point and basis, at the very least, is the sense of reality. And it is impossible to exaggerate the way in which the sense of reality has been intensified by Manet's insistence upon getting as near as possible to the individual values of objects as they are seen in nature—in spite of his abandonment of the practice of painting on a parallel scale. Things now drop into their true place, look as they really do, and count as they count in nature, because the painter is no longer content with giving us change for nature, but tries his best to give us nature it-self. Perspective acquires its actual significance, solids have substance and bulk as well as surfaces, distance is perceived as it is in nature, by the actual interposition of atmosphere, chiaro-oscuro is abolished—the ways in which reality is secured being in fact legion the moment real instead of relative values are studied. Something is lost, very likely —an artist cannot be so intensely preoccupied with reality as, since Manet, it has been incumbent on painters to be, without missing a whole range of qualities that are so precious as rightly perhaps to be considered indispensable. Until reality becomes in its turn an effect unconsciously attained, the painter's imagination will be held more or less in abeyance. And perhaps we are justified in thinking that nothing can quite atone for its absence. Mean-time, however, it must be acknowledged that Ma-net first gave us this sense of reality in a measure comparable with that which successively Balzac, Flaubert, Zola gave to the readers of their books----a sense of actuality and vividness beside which the traditionary practice seemed absolutely fanciful and mechanical.
Applying Manet's method, his invention, his discovery, to the painting of out-of-doors, the plein air school immediately began to produce landscapes of astonishing reality by confining their effort to those values which it is in the power of pigments to imitate., The possible scale of mere correspondence being of course from one to one hundred, they se-cured greater truth by painting between twenty and eighty, we may say. Hence the grayness of the most successful French landscapes of the present day—those of Bastien-Lepage's backgrounds, of Cazin's pictures. Sunlight being unpaintable, they confined themselves to the representation of what they could represent. In the interest of truth, of reality, they narrowed the gamut of their modulations, they attempted less, upheld by the certainty of accomplishing more. For a time French landscape was pitched in a minor key. Suddenly Claude Monet appeared. Impressionism, as it is now understood, and as Manet had not succeeded in popularizing it, won instant recognition. Monet's discovery was that light is the most important factor in the painting of out-of-doors. He pushed up the key of landscape painting to the highest power. He attacked the fascinating, but of course demonstrably insolvable, problem of painting sunlight, not illusorily, as Fortuny had done by relying on contrasts of light and dark correspondent in scale, but positively and realistically. He realized as nearly as possible the effect of sunlight—that is to say, he did as well and no better in this respect than Fortuny had done —but he created a much greater illusion of a sunlit landscape than anyone had ever done before him, by painting those parts of his picture not in sunlight with the exact truth that in painting objects in shadow the palette can compass.
Nothing is more simple. Take a landscape with a cloudy sky, which means diffused light in the old sense of the term, and observe the effect upon it of a sudden burst of sunlight. What is the effect where considerable portions of the scene are suddenly thrown into marked shadow, as well as others illuminated with intense light? Is the absolute value of the parts in shadow lowered or raised? Raised, of course, by reflected light. Formerly, to get the contrast between sunlight and shadow in proper scale, the painter would have painted the shadows darker than they were before the sun appeared. Relatively they are darker, since their value, though heightened, is raised infinitely less than the value of the parts in sunlight. Absolutely, their value is raised considerably. If, therefore, they are painted lighter than they were before the sun appeared, they in themselves seem truer. The part of Monet's picture that is in shadow is measurably true, far truer than it would have been if painted under the old theory of correspondence, and had been unnaturally darkened to express the relation of contrast between shadow and sunlight. Scale has been lost. What has been gained? Simply truth of impressionistic effect. Why ? Because we know and judge and appreciate and feel the measure of truth with which objects in shadow are rep-resented ; we are insensibly more familiar with them in nature than with objects directly sun-illuminated, the value as well as the definition of which are far vaguer to us on account of their blending and in-finite heightening by a luminosity absolutely over-powering. In a word, in sunlit landscapes objects in shadow are what customarily and unconsciously we see and note and know, and the illusion is greater if the relation between them and the objects in sun-light, whose value habitually we do not note, be neglected or falsified. Add to this source of illusion the success of Monet in giving a juster value to the sunlit half of his picture than had even been systematically attempted before his time, and his astonishing trompe-l'oeil is, I think, explained. Each part is truer than ever before, and unless one have a specially developed sense of ensemble in this very special matter of values in and affected by sunlight, one gets from Monet an impression of actuality so much greater than he has ever got before, that he may be pardoned for feeling, and even for enthusiastically proclaiming, that in Monet realism finds its apogee. To sum up : The first realists painted relative values; Manet and his derivatives painted absolute values, but in a wisely limited gamut ; Monet paints absolute values in a very wide range, plus sun-light, as nearly as he can get it—as nearly as pigment can be got to represent it. Perforce he loses scale, and therefore artistic completeness, but he secures an incomparably vivid effect of reality, of nature—and of nature in her gayest, most inspiring manifestation, illuminated directly and indirectly, and everywhere vibrant and palpitating with the light of all our physical seeing.
Monet is so subtle in his own way, so superbly successful within his own limits, that it is time wasted to quarrel with the convention-steeped philistine who refuses to comprehend even his point of view, who judges the pictures he sees by the pictures he has seen. He has not only discovered a new way of looking at nature, but he has justified it in a thousand particulars. Concentrated as his attention has been upon the effects of light and atmosphere, he has reproduced an infinity of nature's moods that are charming in proportion to their transitoriness, and whose fleeting beauties he has caught and permanently fixed. Rousseau made the most careful studies, and then combined them in his studio. Courbet made his sketch, more or less perfect, face to face with his subject, and elaborated it afterward away from it. Corot painted his picture from nature, but put the Corot into it in his studio. Monet's practice is in comparison drastically thorough. After thirty minutes, he says—why thirty instead of forty or twenty, I do not know ; these mysteries are Eleusinian to the mere amateur—the light changes ; he must stop and return the next day at the same hour. The result is immensely real, and in Monet's hands immensely varied. One may say as much, having regard to their differing degrees of success, of Pissaro, who influenced him, and of Caillebotte, Renoir, Sisley, and the rest of the impressionists who followed him.
He is himself the prominent representative of the school, however, and the fact that one representative of it is enough to consider, is eloquent of profound criticism of it. For decorative purposes a hole in one's wall, an additional window through which one may only look satisfactorily during a period of thirty minutes, has its drawbacks. A walk in the country or in a city park is after all preferable to anyone who can really appreciate a Monet—that is, anyone who can feel the illusion of nature which it is his sole aim to produce. After all, what one asks of art is something different from imitative illusion. Its essence is illusion, I think, but illusion taken in a different sense from optical illusion-trompe-l'oeil. Its function is to make dreams seem real, not to recall reality. Monet is enduringly admirable mainly to the painter who envies and endeavors to imitate his wonderful power of technical expression—the thing that occupies most the conscious attention of the true painter. To others he must remain a little unsatisfactory, because he is not only not a dreamer, but because he does nothing with his material except to show it as it is--a great service surely, but largely excluding the exercise of that architectonic faculty, personally directed, which is the very life of every truly æsthetic production.
( Originally Published 1892 )
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