English And French Painting
Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
THE painting of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries did not for Europe at large rise above a rather weak reflex of the contemporary movement in literature and in the sister arts. It threw off the last vestige of eighteenth century traits, but did not rise above negative virtues in the main. It was praiseworthy rather for what it did not do than for what it did do. Its great progress was that it had learned to reverence the best Italians, rather than the worst but the very greatness and unapproachable excellence of the newly admired and greatest Old Masters exercised for the time a crippling influence on its efforts. It could not resurrect the Italian art, and it could not assimilate it to modern uses. Modern painting was appreciative but not creative.
The most important revival in the art of figure composition was that of the German Cornelius (frescoes in Munich) and of Kaulbach (frescoes in the Berlin Museum), but neither these artists nor any of their contemporary countrymen were able to reach a corresponding success in warmth or harmony of color. The later artists of Munich, headed by Piloty, were the first among Germans to reach relative success in color. These again were followed by the first and only German who has approached the gorgeous and sumptuous color of the old Venetians, the Viennese Hans Makart.
In France the elegant court life of the eighteenth century had furnished interesting subjects for the brush of Watteau. At its close Greuze had represented a new school of realism, in which one side of the social revolution was reflected, while David represented the classical tendencies of the same period. The portraits of Gérard have handed down to us many of the great characters of this time in pictures worthy of them. Gros and Géricault were later contemporaries of David, in whom a vigorous sense of reality asserts itself, and to these again succeeded Eugene Delacroix, as the artist of passion and of power.
Meantime a colder classical French School was apparently in the ascendant, clinging to tradition and fearing to con-cede the greatness of the true men of genius silently working in obscurity. To these, then more obscure French painters of the years 1825–1850 and later, posterity has now rendered full justice, and the names of Corot, of Millet, of Decamps, of Michel, and of Rousseau are on every lip.
Of the same time, and following the same tendencies, are Dupré, Troyon, Monticelli, and Diaz. The special bias and excellence of this great French School, dating from the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and the greatest of recent times, are best explained by turning back to England in the eighteenth century, where we shall find the connecting link between the older art of the Continent and the greatest modern art of France.
We have seen that England had no painters of renown until the eighteenth century, and that her two most quoted painters of preceding time were foreigners (p. 181). To her great artists of the eighteenth century, on the other hand, Continental Europe can offer no contemporary rivals; a fact which we can place in proper perspective of history only by understanding the backwardness of English culture before this time, and also the way in which a movement of intellect and art passes from one country to another; each fire, as it expires, lighting a new spark for perpetuation elsewhere of the same eternal principles of beauty, of color, and of form.
The worthy perpetuators of the older traditions of European painting were the English artists, Wilson, Morland, Reynolds, Gainsborough, and their school. Through these men and their successors, of whom Constable and Etty were closest in method to their great predecessors, these traditions were handed over to the French School, headed by Rousseau, about 1830, at a time when English fashions were ascendant in France and when these English artists were highly valued and appreciated there. Intermediate in time, between the eighteenth century English and the 1830 School of France, stand the English landscape artists, Constable and Turner. It was the pictures and personal influence of Constable which most powerfully and directly influenced the French.
It is more especially in landscapes that the continuity of influence between the art of Constable and of Rousseau is seen, and in both painters we find the same disposition to look at things in their effects and masses rather than in their details.
To appreciate the greatness of these men of genius, we must remember that some of the most elementary principles are frequently overlooked by those inferior landscapists and their admirers, whose numbers have been large in our century. It is often forgotten that a picture is several or many thousand times smaller than the nature which it includes. To reduce each dimension and object of nature to the proportionate fractional size, and to show it in the same distinctness in which it might possibly, and when separately examined, be seen in nature, is the effort of the inferior landscapist. In this effort such an artist forgets that simultaneous concentration of the eye on a multitude of separate details is not possible in actual vision.
Persuasion, belief, and knowledge that these separate details have a distinct existence are present to us, but we see a tree and not the leaves, a lake, but not its individual waves, a human being, but not the various portions of the raiment, that is when one glance takes in the whole. The possibility exists, because time allows it, of uniting on a canvas surface a series of minimized replicas of the parts which make up a whole in nature. The possibility exists, because the eye can take in the canvas in a few glances or in one, that the eye may take in the parts which make the picture so as to affect the mind with the belief that it sees the whole as it is seen in nature. But the person who knows how he really sees will never be willing to call a work of art in landscape anything which minimizes and emphasizes all its details in fractional proportion and reduction.
In actuality our eye wanders from instant to instant in order to include a whole. The artist who presents this whole as though the eye were fixed on one point is bound, logically, to present all others in the vague way best described by the appearance of an object we are not looking at, as included in the outer circle of view and as it strikes the outer corner of the eye on the extreme edge of vision. But no artist could attempt this feat; therefore the problem of the landscape painter is to present in one view the imaginary result of a series of glances and no one of these will have included a microscopic catalogue of details.
This effort to describe the philosophy of a Claude, a Constable, or a Corot, leaves out the element of color, as being mainly undebatable on paper or at least undebatable without two definite examples of color in mind, one better and one worse.
We may again take refuge in this difficulty by describing an inferior art and an inferior taste in color as that which prefers things in pictures more highly colored, or "sweetened," than they actually are. For instance, we might like to see bootblacks with rosy cheeks or clean faces, but we rarely do in nature, although they more frequently so appear in pictures. One greatness of Millet is that he does not over-color or highly color his peasant. A rough skin and a rough dress cannot be represented by clear or bright colors.
The sin of the commonplace painter is dressing up in bright hues and tints an imaginary picture of rose-colored things or people. It does not follow that a color not actually seen in nature is not admissible in a painting. The colors of nature never can be and never are reproduced in a painting either in mass or in details. In details it would be absurd to attempt it, for reasons already given. In mass the effort is simply beyond possibility when we are speaking of absolute actualities. What the great painter does with his colors is to throw us into the state of mind or sentiment which the sight of nature produces on us, and here it is that the affinities of temperament, which are largely affected by the same colors in the same way, come in play in our preference for one colorist over another. It is at this point that the question of the " low-toned picture" presents itself. Although there are marked distinctions on this head among the French artists we have named, the " low tone " is a general trait of their work.
The " low-toned picture'' appeals to a certain temperament. This temperament is the temperament of Rembrandt, of Ribot, or of Decamps, or of the American Albert Ryder. This temperament prefers a certain mystery of effect, a picture to which one can return without having seen the whole of it the first time it has been looked at. The painting of nature which lasts is the painting in which nature is not revealed too suddenly or too entirely.
In other words, the mystery of nature, which in nature may lie in its magnitude, in its unfathomable space or incomputable variety or in our sense that we have seen it differently yesterday and shall again see it differently to-morrow, or the mystery of character or of an event or episode whose causes are unknown, uncomprehended or not thought out all this may be suggested by the "low-toned picture" of the given subject. Being a piece of canvas taken in by one glance, on which the same lines and colors lie forever, the picture can only suggest the element of the unknown or the infinite by this device.
In all these points which I have tried to suggest as virtues of the greatest French artists of the nineteenth century or of the English School of the eighteenth century, we have applications of principles which are found as far back as Da Vinci, and which were never subsequently abandoned by the great painters of history. In such points lies the supreme excellence of the Old Masters, when they are considered as painters rather than as historic illustrations of general historic facts.
It is interesting to feel that between periods as distinct as the nineteenth century and the sixteenth, there is still a bond in the methods of the great artists, wide apart as is their mission and historic place. In fact, when we consider the deficiencies of patronage, of immediate appreciation, and of adequate reward which the greatest modern artists have labored under, their success and worth cannot be rated below that of their more fortunate brethren of the past more fortunate as regards public support, an assured livelihood, and a subject matter which was ready-made and already at hand.
In what I have said of the philosophy of vision, I have so far mainly confined myself to landscape because it is a class of subject in which the enormous disparity of size between nature and copy is obvious, and in which the distinction between the infinite variety of nature and the amount of that infinitude which can be suggested by a copy is also obvious. It is easiest to show and feel for landscape that some choice has to be made as to what shall be attempted, easiest to show and feel for landscape that the effect of the whole is what must be attempted, and easiest to show and feel that this can be done only by presenting an object in mass or by presenting objects in masses, because the dimensions of the work of art are so greatly minimized as compared with the nature represented.
From this point it is not difficult to move to another. Given the difficulty of relating art to this kind of nature, it is clear that a choice of a point of view in a picture must have much to do with its quality. The panoramic point of view is the one to be avoided; the picturesque, that is, the limited point of view, is the one to be sought. It also follows that atmosphere should be used for contrast, and not for the most important feature of the picture. It is according to these principles, and on account of them, that Claude, Constable, Rousseau and his school, almost in-variably show a foreground composition. Given a fore-ground composition, - there again arises the problem of balance of opposition in objects, and of contrast in colors. Finally, the tone of the picture determines its standing. The gaudily colored picture tires and strains the eye, the low-toned picture rests it and also suggests more of the mystery of nature. Admitting the varieties of individual taste, of varieties of mood in the same taste, and the count-less concessions which have to be made to individual genius and to the surrounding conditions, we may add one more and the most important trait.
The one first condition of all great painting is an honest interest in the work or the theme for its own sake, without reference to mercantile considerations. The mercantile element ruins a painting. The instant we detect in it the quality of being made to sell as opposed to the quality which shows that the artist would rather starve than concede one point of his convictions or even of his own individual preference in the choice of a subject, we have touched the first downward round of the ladder which leads to the corruption of art.
We will now return to the French School of 1825—1850 to observe that what has been said is not only an effort to explain its greatness, but also to bring to the front the numerous artists of our own country who are following the same path. Personal character is the only ultimate determinant in art. The facility of the hand is a matter of practice. It is the eye which controls the hand. But the power of vision is not the only thing in question here. Even in landscape we see that the question of choice is all-important. In other subjects it is still more so.
Let us select the artist Millet as a personality, from which we may draw some lessons as to the choice of subject. Millet's well-known greatness consists in the devotion of his art to the life of the French peasantry but observe that it is always the serious side of the peasant life that he has given us. It is not the peasant in holiday dress or making merry. The life of toil, the dignity, the pathos, and the humility of labor that is the one theme of his pictures. From the recognized standing of Millet in French art we may determine, then, another point of view which may fix the position of the modern artist, viz., the point of view which concerns his purpose and his thought. It is easiest to illustrate this point of view when we are dealing with an intensely serious purpose, such as Millet forces us to recognize; but I should be far from wishing to confine the definition of serious art to that which is serious in subject. Let us note, however, that the sphere of modern art includes among its most important specialties that of the student of daily life in its humble avocations, seeking to exalt and glorify the lowly and the poor in spirit. Why should we hesitate to name our own Winslow Homer as another instance of this same tendency, and one of the greatest of our day? The stamp of the genuine, true, and sturdy spirit is never lacking in his pictures.
In the study of character and human nature in contemporary life, modern art has produced much that is great. Both England and Germany have affected this class of subject more than the French, although without reaching a similar average of technical value, especially in color. The English artists of our day have been foremost among European painters in this class, and they have found their worthy rivals and occasional superiors in this country. Since the days of Wilkie, English art has reveled in the subjects of everyday life as an inexhaustible storehouse of humor, pathos, and interest too often, however, with an over-anxious nicety of details and without due reference to harmonies and tones of color. Color has been the weak point of nineteenth century English, as well as of German, art. The English School of our day cannot compare in this sense either with its own art of the eighteenth century or with the modern French.
To this rule the exceptions are mainly recent, but conspicuous. Sir Frederick Leighton is one of the most obvious, and Alma-Tadema another. Both of these painters tend to the antiquarian, or the classic subject Alma-Tadema with a painstaking minuteness of execution which leaves a somewhat frigid impression. To the same general class may be reckoned the excellent works of Poynter. A far more powerful colorist than any of these is John M. Swan, whose paintings at the Columbian Exposition were a striking revelation of the possibilities of modern and of English art.
In Burne-Jones we find another stamp of genius, imaginative like Leighton, but even more intent on effects of outline and the balance of figures; as a composer of designs, according to architectural schemes, basing very distinctly on the old Italians. The de-ceased Albert Moore had a similar bent and talent.
In George F. Watts we appreciate a greater idealist than Burne Jones, or Rossetti almost Shakespearean in his profound and touching allegories. The titles of his paintings are a key to their the Columbian Exposition. character, and the conception never falls below the subject in suggestiveness and poetic thought. " Love and Death" and " Love and Life" were seen with other works, at the Columbian Exposition. The latter has been presented by Mr. Watts "to the American nation." Briton Riviere is another Englishman holding an important place by the suggestive treatment of subjects like "Daniel in the Lions' Den" or "Circe and the Companions of Ulysses." In this latter picture the companions of Ulysses are turned to swine and crowding about the enchantress. On the whole, we must give a high place to modern English art for its lofty efforts, nobility of purpose, and moral worth. It has produced, however, much that is commonplace, very little that will take high rank in point of view of color, and no recent landscapes that can be compared with the best French or the best American. Many of its highly quoted names of the middle period of the century are almost distressing revelations of the backwardness of English art at that time, after their works have been examined. Among these the animal painter, Landseer, may be quoted as an instance; an artist made widely known by engravings which are generally far superior to his pictures. A very fine Landseer in the possession of Mr. Jesse Haworth, near Manchester, is a notable exception.
It seems worth while, in closing our notice of English art, to return to Turner and the opening of the century for a moment. Turner was undoubtedly a master of supreme genius. It is only to be regretted that Mr. Ruskin's enthusiastic perception of his genius should have led to an exaltation of the master, not to be regretted in itself, but tending to efface the greatness or superiority of other artists like Constable and Etty who were less fortunate in the eloquence of their spokesman or who had not any. As a colorist this painter can neither hold his own with his English predecessors nor with his French successors, and at least in Constable and in Monticelli he has found equals in his daring originality. The deficiency in color sense, of which the "Slave Ship" in the Boston Museum may serve as an example, was national for the given time, and should not be reckoned against Turner in view of his broad and masterly methods and poetic nature.
( Originally Published 1894 )
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