Romantic Painting - The Fontainebleau Group
DELACROIX'S color deepens into an almost musical intensity occasionally in Decamps, whose oriental landscapes and figures, far less important intellectually, far less magistrales in conception, have at times, one may say perhaps without being too fanciful, a truly symphonic quality that renders them unique. " The Suicide " is like a chord on a violin. But it is when we come to speak of the "Fontainebleau Group," in especial, I think, that the æsthetic susceptibility characteristic of the latter half of the nineteenth century feels, to borrow M. Taine's introduction to his lectures on " The Ideal in Art," that the subject is one only to be treated in poetry.
Of the noblest of all so-called " schools," Millet is perhaps the most popular member. His popularity is in great part, certainly, due to his literary side, to the sentiment which pervades, which drenches, one may say, all his later work—his work after he had, on overhearing himself characterized as a painter of naked women, betaken himself to his true subject, the French peasant. A literary, and a very powerful literary side, Millet undoubtedly has; and instead of being a weakness in him it is a power. His sentimental appeal is far from being surplusage, but, as is not I think popularly appreciated, it is subordinate, and the fact of its subordination gives it what potency it has. It is idle to deny this potency, for his portrayal of the French peasant in his varied aspects has probably been as efficient a characterization as that of George Sand herself. But, if a moral instead of an esthetic effect had been Millet's chief intention, we may be sure that it would have been made far less incisively than it has been. Compare, for example, his peasant pictures with those of the almost purely literary painter Jules Breton, who has evidently chosen his field for its sentimental rather than its pictorial value, and whose work is, perhaps accordingly, by contrast with Millet's, noticeably external and superficial even on the literary side. When Millet ceased to deal in the Correggio manner with Correggiesque subjects, and devoted himself to the material that was really native to him, to his own peasant genius—whatever he may have thought about it him-self, he did so because he could treat this material pictorially with more freedom and less artificiality, with more zest and enthusiasm, with a deeper sympathy and a more intimate knowledge of its artistic characteristics, its pictorial potentialities. He is, I think, as a painter, a shade too much preoccupied with this material, he is a little too philosophical in regard to it, his pathetic struggle for existence exaggerated his sentimental affiliations with it somewhat, he made it too exclusively his subject, perhaps. We gain, it may be, at his expense. With his artistic gifts he might have been more fortunate, had his range been broader. But in the main it is his pictorial handling of this material, with which he was in such acute sympathy, that distinguishes his work, and that will preserve its fame long after its humanitarian and sentimental appeal has ceased to be as potent as it now is—at the same time that it has itself enforced this appeal in the subordinating manner I have suggested. When he was asked his intention, in his picture of a maimed calf borne away on a litter by two men, he said it was simply to indicate the sense of weight in the muscular movement and attitude of the bearers' arms.
His great distinction, in fine, is artistic. His early painting of conventional subjects is not without significance in its witness to the quality of his talent. Another may paint French peasants all his life and never make them permanently interesting, because he has not Millet's admirable instinct and equipment as a painter. He is a superb colorist, at times--always an enthusiastic one ; there is something almost unregulated in his delight in color, in his fondness for glowing and resplendent tone. No one gets farther away from the academic grayness, the colorless chiaro-oscuro of the conventional painters. He runs his key up and loads his canvas, occasionally, in what one may call not so much barbaric as uncultivated and elementary fashion. He cares so much for color that sometimes, when his effect is intended to be purely atmospheric, as in the " Angélus," he misses its justness and fitness, and so, in insisting on color, obtains from the color point of view itself an infelicitous —a colored—result. Occasionally he bathes a scene in yellow mist that obscures all accentuations and play of values. But always his feeling for color betrays him a painter rather than a moralist. And in composition he is, I should say, even more distinguished. His composition is almost always distinctly elegant. Even in so simple a scheme as that of " The Sower," the lines are as fine as those of a Raphael. And the way in which balance is pre-served, masses are distributed, and an organic play of parts related to each other and each to the sum of them is secured, is in all of his large works so salient an element of their admirable excellence, that, to those who appreciate it, the dependence of his popularity upon the sentimental suggestion of the raw material with which he dealt seems almost grotesque. In his line and mass and the relations of these in composition, there is a severity, a restraint, a conformity to tradition, however personally felt and individually modified, that evince a strong classic strain in this most unacademic of painters. Millet was certainly an original genius, if there ever was one. In spite of, and in open hostility to, the popular and conventional painting of his day, he followed his own bent and went his own way. Better, perhaps, than any other painter, he represents absolute emancipation from the prescribed, from routine and formulary. But it would be a signal mistake to fail to see, in the most characteristic works of this most personal representative of romanticism, that subordination of the individual whim and isolated point of view to what is accepted, proven, and universal, which is essentially what we mean by the classic attitude. One may almost go so far as to say, considering its reserve, its restraint and poise, its sobriety and measure, its quiet and composure, its subordination of individual feeling to a high sense of artistic decorum, that, romantic as it is, unacademic as it is, its most incontestable claim to permanence is the truly classic spirit which, however modified, inspires and infiltrates it. Beside some of the later manifestations of individual genius in French painting, it is almost academic.
In Corot, anyone, I suppose, can see this note, and it would be surplusage to insist upon it. He is the ideal classic-romantic painter, both in temperament and in practice. Millet's subject, not, I think, his treatment—possibly his wider range—makes him seem more deeply serious than Corot, but he is not essentially as nearly unique. He is unrivalled in his way, but Corot is unparalleled. Corot inherits the tradition of Claude ; his motive, like Claude's, is always an effect, and, like Claude's, his means are light and air. But his effect is a shade more impalpable, and his means are at once simpler and more subtle. He gets farther away from the phenomena which are the elements of his ensemble, farther than Claude, farther than anyone. His touch is as Iight as the zephyr that stirs the diaphanous drapery of his trees. Beside it Claude's has a suspicion, at least, of unctuousness. It has a pure, crisp, vibrant accent, quite without analogue in the technic of landscape painting. Taking technic in its widest sense, one may speak of Corot's shortcomings—not, I think, of his failures. It would be difficult to mention a modern painter more uniformly successful in attaining his aim, in expressing what he wishes to express, in conveying his impression, communicating his sensations.
That a painter of his power, a man of the very first rank, should have been content—even placidly content—to exercise it within a range by no means narrow, but plainly circumscribed, is certainly witness of limitation. "Delacroix is an eagle, I am only a skylark," he remarked once, with his characteristic cheeriness. His range is not, it is true, as circumscribed as is generally supposed outside of France. Outside of France his figure-painting, for example, is almost unknown. We see chiefly variations of his green and gray arbored pastoral—now idyllic, now heroic, now full of freshness, the sky-lark quality, now of grave and deep harmonies and wild, sweet notes of transitory suggestion. Of his figures we only know those shifting shapes that blend in such classic and charming manner with the glades and groves of his landscapes. Of his "Hagar in the Wilderness," his " St. Jerome," his " Flight into Egypt," his "Democritus," his "Baptism of Christ," with its nine life-size figures, who, outside of France, has even heard ? How many foreigners know that he painted what are called architectural subjects delightfully, and even genre with zest?
But compared with his landscape, in which he is unique, it is plain that he excels nowhere else. The splendid display of his works in the Centenaire Exposition of the great World's Fair of 1889, was a revelation of his range of interest rather than of his range of power. It was impossible not to perceive that, surprising as were his essays in other fields to those who only knew him as a landscape painter, he was essentially and integrally a painter of landscape, though a painter of landscape who had taken his subject in a way and treated it in a manner so personal as to be really unparalleled. Outside of landscape his interest was clearly not real. In his other works one notes a certain débonnaire irresponsibility. He pursued nothing seriously but out-of-doors, its vaporous atmosphere, its crisp twigs and graceful branches, its misty distances and piquant accents, what Thoreau calls its inaudible panting. His true theme, lightly as he took it, absorbed him ; and no one of any sensitiveness can ever regret it. His powers, following the indication of his true temperament, his most genuine inspiration, are concentrated upon the very finest thing imaginable in landscape painting ; as, indeed, to produce as they have done the finest landscape in the history of art, they must have been.
There are, however, two things worth noting in Corot's landscape, beyond the mere fact that, better even than Rousseau, he expresses the essence of landscape, dwells habitually among its inspirations, and is its master rather than its servant. One is the way in which he poetizes, so to speak, the simplest stretches of sward and clumps of trees, and long clear vistas across still ponds, with distances whose accents are pricked out with white houses and yellow cows and placid fishers and ferrymen in red caps, seen in glimpses through curtains of sparse, feathery leafage—or peoples woodland openings with nymphs and fawns, silhouetted against the sunset glow, or dancing in the cool gray of dusk.
A man of no reading, having only the elements of an education in the general sense of the term, his instinctive sense for what is refined was so delicate that we may say of his landscapes that, had the Greeks left any they would have been like Corot's. And this classic and cultivated effect he secured not at all, or only very incidentally, through the force of association, by dotting his hillsides and vaporous distances with bits of classic architecture, or by summing up his feeling for the Dawn in a graceful figure of Orpheus greeting with extended gesture the growing daylight, but by a subtle interpenetration of sensuousness and severity resulting in precisely the sentiment fitly characterized by the epithet classic. The other trait peculiar to Corot's representation of nature and expression of himself is his color. No painter ever exhibited, I think, quite such a sense of refinement in so narrow a gamut. Green and gray, of course, predominate and set the key, but he has an interestingly varied palette on the hither side of splendor whose subtle-ties are capable of giving exquisite pleasure. Never did anyone use tints with such positive force. Tints with Corot have the vigor and vibration of positive colors—his lilacs, violets, straw-colored hues, his almost Quakerish coquetry with drabs and slates and pure clear browns, the freshness and bloom he imparted to his tones, the sweet and shrinking wild flowers with which as a spray he sprinkled his humid dells and brook margins. But Corot's true distinction—what gives him his unique position at the very head of landscape art, is neither his color, delicate and interesting as his color is, nor his classic serenity harmonizing with, instead of depending upon, the chance associations of architecture and mythology with which now and then he decorates his landscapes ; it is the blithe, the airy, the truly spiritual way in which he gets farther away than any-one from both the actual pigment that is his instrument, and from the phenomena that are the objects of his expression—his ethereality, in a word. He has communicated his sentiment almost without material, one may say, so ethereally independent of their actual analogues is the interest of his trees and sky and stretch of sward. This sentiment, thus mysteriously triumphant over color or form, or other sensuous charm, which nevertheless are only subtly subordinated, and by no manner of means treated lightly or inadequately, is as exalted as any that has in our day been expressed in any manner. Indeed, where, outside of the very highest poetry of the century, can one get the same sense of elation, of aspiring delight, of joy unmixed with regret—since "the splendor of truth" which Plato defined beauty to be, is more animating and consoling than the " weary weight of all this unintelligible world," is depressing to a spirit of lofty seriousness and sanity ?
Dupré and Diaz are the decorative painters of the Fontainebleau group. They are, of modern painters, perhaps the nearest in spirit to the old masters, pictorially speaking. They are rarely in the grand style, though sometimes Dupré is restrained enough to emulate if not to achieve its sobriety. But they have the bel air, and belong to the aristocracy of the painting world. Diaz, especially, has almost invariably the patrician touch. It lacks the exquisiteness of Monticelli's, in which there is that curiously elevated detachment from the material and the real that the Italians--and the Provençal painter's inspiration and method, as well as his name and line-age, suggest an Italian rather than a French ssociation—exhibit far oftener than the French. But Diaz has a larger sweep, a saner method. He is never eccentric, and he has a dignity that is Iberian, though he is French rather than Spanish on his aesthetic side, and at times is as conservative as Rousseau—without, however, reaching Rousseau's lofty simplicity except in an occasional happy stroke. Both he and Dupré are primarily colorists. Dupré sees nature through a prism. Diaz's groups of dames and gallants have a jewel-like aspect ; they leave the same impression as a tangle of ribbons, a bunch of exotic flowers, a heap of gems flung together with the felicity of haphazard. In general, and when they are in most completely characteristic mood, it is not the sentiment of nature that one gets from the work of either painter. It is not even their sentiment of nature--the emotion aroused in their susceptibilities by natural phenomena. What one gets is their personal feeling for color and design—their decorative quality, in a word.
The decorative painter is he to whom what is called "subject," even in its least restricted sense and with its least substantial suggestions, is comparatively indifferent. Nature supplies him with objects ; she is not in any intimate degree his subject. She is the medium through which, rather than the material of which, he creates his effects. It is her potentialities of color and design that he seeks, or at any rate, of all her infinitely numerous traits, it is her hues and arabesques that strike him most forcibly. He is incurious as to her secrets and calls upon her aid to interpret his own, but lie is so independent of her, if he be a decorative painter of the first rank—a Diaz or a Dupré—that his rendering of her, his picture, would have an agreeable effect, owing to its design or color or both, if it were turned upside down. Decorative painting in this sense may easily be carried so far as to seem incongruous and inept, in spite of its superficial attractiveness. The peril that threatens it is whim and freak. Some of Monticelli's, some of Matthew Maris's pictures, illustrate the exaggeration of the decorative impulse. After all, a painter must get his effect, whatever it be and however it may shun the literal and the exact, by rendering things with pigments. And some of the decorative painters only escape things by obtruding pigments, just as the trompe-l'oeil or optical illusion painters get away from pigments by obtruding things. It is the distinction of Diaz and Dupré that they avoid this danger in most triumphant fashion. On the contrary, they help one to see the decorative element in nature, in " things," to a degree hardly attained elsewhere since the days of the great Venetians. Their predilection for the decorative element is held in leash by the classic tradition, with its reserve, its measure, its inculcation of sobriety and its sense of security. Dupré paints Seine sun-sets and the edge of the forest at Fontainebleau, its "long mysterious reaches fed with moonlight," in a way that conveys the golden glow, the silvery gleam, the suave outline of spreading leafage, and the massive density of mysterious boscage with the force of in almost abstract acuteness. Does nature look like this? Who knows? But in this semblance, surely, she appeared to Dupré's imagination. And doubtless Diaz saw the mother-of-pearl tints in the complexion of his models, and is not to be accused of artificiality, but to be credited with a true sincerity of selection in juxtaposing his soft corals and carnations and gleaming topaz, amethyst, and sapphire hues. The most exacting literalist can hardly accuse them of solecism in their rendering of nature, true as it is that their decorative sense is so strong as to lead them to impose on nature their own sentiment instead of yielding themselves to absorption in hers, and thus, in harmonious and sympathetic concert with her, like Claude and Corot, Rousseau and Daubigny, interpreting her subtle and supreme significance.
Rousseau carried the fundamental principle of the school farther than the others—with him interest, delight in, enthusiasm for nature became absorption in her. Whereas other men have loved nature, it has been acutely remarked, Rousseau was in love with her. It was felicitously of him, rather than of Dupré or Corot, that the naif peasant inquired, " Why do you paint the tree ; the tree is there, is it not ?" And never did nature more royally reward allegiance to her than in the sustenance and inspiration she furnished for Rousseau's genius. You feel the point of view in his picture, but it is apparently that of nature herself as well as his own. It is not the less personal for this. On the contrary, it is extremely personal, and few pictures are as individual, as characteristic. Occasionally Diaz approaches him, as I have said, but only in the very happiest and exceptional moments, when the dignity of nature as well as her charm seems specially to impress and impose itself upon the less serious painter. But Rousseau's selection seems instinctive and not sought out. He knows the secret of nature's pictorial element. He is at one with her, adopts her suggestions so cordially and works them out with such intimate sympathy and harmoniousness, that the two forces seem reciprocally to reinforce each other, and the result gains many fold in power from their subtle co-operation. His landscapes have in this way a Wordsworthian directness, simplicity, and severity. They are not troubled and dramatic like Turner's. They are not decorative like Dupré's, they have not the solemn sentiment of Daubigny's, or the airy aspiration and fairy-like blitheness of Corot's. But there is in them "all breathing human passion ; " and at times, as in " Le Givre," they rise to majesty and real grandeur because they are impregnated with the sentiment, as well as are records of the phenomena, of nature, and one may say of Rousseau, paraphrasing Mr. Arnold's remark about Wordsworth, that nature seems herself to take the brush out of his hand and to paint for him "with her own bare, sheer, penetrating power."
Rousseau, however, is French, and in virtue of his nativity exhibits always what Wordsworth's treat-ment of nature exhibits only occasionally, namely, the Gallic gift of style. It is rarely as felicitous as in Corot, in every detail of whose every work, one may almost say, its informing, co-ordinating, elevating influence is distinctly to be perceived ; but it is always present as a factor, as a force dignifying and relieving from all touch, all taint of the commonness that is so often inseparably associated with art whose absorption in nature is listlessly unthinking instead of enthusiastic and alert. In Rousseau, too, in a word, we have the classic strain, as at least a psychological element, and note as one source of his power his reserve and restraint, his perfect self-possession.
In Daubigny a similar attitude toward nature is obvious, but with a sensible difference. Affection for, rather than absorption in her, is his inspiration. Daubigny stands somewhat apart from the Fontainebleau group, with whom nevertheless he is popularly and properly associated, for though he painted Normandy mainly, he was spiritually of the Barbizon kindred. Ile stands, however, somewhat apart from French painting in general, I think. There is less style, more sentiment, more poetry in his landscapes than in those of his countrymen who are to be compared with him. Beyond what is admirable in them there is something attaching as well. He drew and engraved a good deal, as well as painted. He did not concentrate his powers enough, perhaps, to make as signal and definite a mark as otherwise he might have done. He is a shade desultory, and too spontaneous to be systematic. One must be systematic to reach the highest point, even in the least material spheres. But never have the grave and solemn aspects of landscape found a sweeter and serener spirit to interpret them. In some of his pictures there is a truly religious feeling. His frankness recalls Constable's, but it is more distinguished in being more spiritual. He has not Diaz's elegance, nor Corot's witchery, nor Rousseau's power, but nature is more mysteriously, more mystically significant to him, and sets a deeper chord vibrating within him. He is a sensitive instrument on which she plays, rather than a magician who wins her secrets, or an observer whose generalizing imagination she sets in motion. The design of some of his important works, notably that of his last Salon picture, is very distinguished, and in one of his large can-vases representing a road like that from Barbizon through the level plain to Chailly, there is the spirit and sentiment of all the summer evenings that ever were. But he has distinctly less power than the strict Fontainebleau group. He has, in force, less affinity with them than Troyon has, whose force is often magnificent, and whose landscape is so sweet, often, and often so strong as well, that 'one wonders a little at his fondness for cattle—in spite of the way in which he justifies it by being the first of cattle painters. And neither Daubigny nor Troyon, nor, indeed, Rousseau himself, often reaches in dramatic grandeur the lofty landscape of Michel, who, with Paul Huet (the latter in a more strictly historical sense) were so truly the forerunners and initiators of the romantic landscape movement, both in sentiment and chronology, in spite of their Dutch tradition, as to make the common ascription of its debt to Constable, whose aid was so cordially welcomed in the famous Salon of 1824, a little strained.
( Originally Published 1892 )
Classic Painting - Character And Origin
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Romantic Painting - Gericault And Delacroix
Romantic Painting - The Fontainebleau Group
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