E-text prepared by Eric Eldred, Marc D’Hooghe, Charles Franks, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team
TO SIR WILLIAM EDEN, BART.
OF ALL MY BOOKS, THIS IS THE ONE YOU LIKE BEST; ITS SUBJECT HAS BEEN THE SUBJECT OF NEARLY ALL OUR CONVERSATIONS IN THE PAST, AND I SUPPOSE WILL BE THE SUBJECT OF MANY CONVERSATIONS IN THE FUTURE; SO, LOOKING BACK AND FORWARD, I DEDICATE THIS BOOK TO YOU.
_The Editor of “The Speaker” allowed me to publish from time to time chapters of a book on art. These chapters have been gathered from the mass of art journalism which had grown about them, and I reprint them in the sequence originally intended_.
CHAVANNES, MILLET, AND MANET
THE FAILURE OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY ARTISTIC EDUCATION IN FRANCE AND ENGLAND INGRES AND COROT
MONET, SISLEY, PISSARO, AND THE DECADENCE OUR ACADEMICIANS
THE ORGANISATION OF ART
ART AND SCIENCE
ROYALTY IN ART
MR. BURNE-JONES AND THE ACADEMY
THE ALDERMAN IN ART
RELIGIOSITY IN ART
THE CAMERA IN ART
THE NEW ENGLISH ART CLUB
A GREAT ARTIST
NATIONALITY IN ART
SEX IN ART
MR. STEER’S EXHIBITION
MR. MARK FISHER
A PORTRAIT BY MR. SARGENT
AN ORCHID BY MR. JAMES
THE WHISTLER ALBUM
SOME JAPANESE PRINTS
NEW ART CRITICISM
LONG AGO IN ITALY
I have studied Mr. Whistler and thought about him this many a year. His character was for a long time incomprehensible to me; it contained elements apparently so antagonistic, so mutually destructive, that I had to confess my inability to bring him within any imaginable psychological laws, and classed him as one of the enigmas of life. But Nature is never illogical; she only seems so, because our sight is not sufficient to see into her intentions; and with study my psychological difficulties dwindled, and now the man stands before me exquisitely understood, a perfect piece of logic. All that seemed discordant and discrepant in his nature has now become harmonious and inevitable; the strangest and most erratic actions of his life now seem natural and consequential (I use the word in its grammatical sense) contradictions are reconciled, and looking at the man I see the pictures, and looking at the pictures I see the man.
But at the outset the difficulties were enormous. It was like a newly-discovered Greek text, without punctuation or capital letters. Here was a man capable of painting portraits, perhaps not quite so full of grip as the best work done by Velasquez and Hals, only just falling short of these masters at the point where they were strongest, but plainly exceeding them in graciousness of intention, and subtle happiness of design, who would lay down his palette and run to a newspaper office to polish the tail of an epigram which he was launching against an unfortunate critic who had failed to distinguish between an etching and a pen-and-ink drawing! Here was a man who, though he had spent the afternoon painting like the greatest, would spend his evenings in frantic disputes over dinner-tables about the ultimate ownership of a mild joke, possibly good enough for _Punch_, something that any one might have said, and that most of us having said it would have forgotten! It will be conceded that such divagations are difficult to reconcile with the possession of artistic faculties of the highest order.
The “Ten o’clock” contained a good deal of brilliant writing, sparkling and audacious epigram, but amid all its glitter and “go” there are statements which, coming from Mr. Whistler, are as astonishing as a denial of the rotundity of the earth would be in a pamphlet bearing the name of Professor Huxley. Mr. Whistler is only serious in his art–a grave fault according to academicians, who are serious in everything except their “art”. A very boyish utterance is the statement that such a thing as an artistic period has never been known.
One rubbed one’s eyes; one said, Is this a joke, and, if so, where is the point of it? And then, as if not content with so much mystification, Mr. Whistler assured his ten o’clock audience that there was no such thing as nationality in art, and that you might as well speak of English mathematics as of English art. We do not stop to inquire if such answers contain one grain of truth; we know they do not–we stop to consider them because we know that the criticism of a creative artist never amounts to more than an ingenious defence of his own work–an ingenious exaltation of a weakness (a weakness which perhaps none suspects but himself) into a conspicuous merit.
Mr. Whistler has shared his life equally between America, France, and England. He is the one solitary example of cosmopolitanism in art, for there is nothing in his pictures to show that they come from the north, the south, the east, or the west. They are compounds of all that is great in Eastern and Western culture. Conscious of this, and fearing that it might be used as an argument against his art, Mr. Whistler threw over the entire history, not only of art, but of the world; and declared boldly that art was, like science, not national, but essentially cosmopolitan; and then, becoming aware of the anomaly of his genius in his generation, Mr. Whistler undertook to explain away the anomaly by ignoring the fifth century B.C. in Athens, the fifteenth century in Italy, and the seventeenth in Holland, and humbly submitting that artists never appeared in numbers like swallows, but singly like aerolites. Now our task is not to disprove these statements, but to work out the relationship between the author of the “Butterfly Letters” and the painter of the portrait of “The Mother”, “Lady Archibald Campbell”, “Miss Alexander”, and the other forty-one masterpieces that were on exhibition in the Goupil galleries.
There is, however, an intermediate step, which is to point out the intimate relationship between the letter-writer and the physical man. Although there is no internal evidence to show that the pictures were not painted by a Frenchman, an Italian, an Englishman, or a Westernised Japanese, it would be impossible to read any one of the butterfly-signed letters without feeling that the author was a man of nerves rather than a man of muscle, and, while reading, we should involuntarily picture him short and thin rather than tall and stalwart. But what has physical condition got to do with painting? A great deal. The greatest painters, I mean the very greatest–Michael Angelo, Velasquez, and Rubens–were gifted by Nature with as full a measure of health as of genius. Their physical constitutions resembled more those of bulls than of men. Michael Angelo lay on his back for three years painting the Sistine Chapel. Rubens painted a life-size figure in a morning of pleasant work, and went out to ride in the afternoon. But Nature has dowered Mr. Whistler with only genius. His artistic perceptions are moreexquisite than Velasquez’s. He knows as much, possibly even a little more, and yet the result is never quite equal. Why? A question of health. _C’est un temperament de chatte_. He cannot pass from masterpiece to masterpiece like Velasquez. The expenditure of nerve-force necessary to produce such a work as the portrait of Lady Archibald Campbell or Miss Alexander exhausts him, and he is obliged to wait till Nature recoups herself; and these necessary intervals he has employed in writing letters signed “Butterfly” to the papers, quarrelling with Oscar over a few mild jokes, explaining his artistic existence, at the expense of the entire artistic history of the world, collecting and classifying the stupidities of the daily and weekly press.
But the lesser side of a man of genius is instructive to study–indeed, it is necessary that we should study it if we would thoroughly understand his genius. “No man,” it has been very falsely said, “is a hero to his _valet de chambre_.” The very opposite is the truth. Man will bow the knee only to his own image and likeness. The deeper the humanity, the deeper the adoration; and from this law not even divinity is excepted. All we adore is human, and through knowledge of the flesh that grovels we may catch sight of the soul ascending towards the divine stars.
And so the contemplation of Mr. Whistler, the author of the “Butterfly Letters”, the defender of his little jokes against the plagiarising tongue, should stimulate rather than interrupt our prostrations. I said that Nature had dowered Mr. Whistler with every gift except that of physical strength. If Mr. Whistler had the bull-like health of Michael Angelo, Rubens, and Hals, the Letters would never have been written. They were the safety-valve by which his strained nerves found relief from the intolerable tension of the masterpiece. He has not the bodily strength to pass from masterpiece to masterpiece, as did the great ones of old time. In the completed picture slight traces of his agony remain. But painting is the most indiscreet of all the arts, and here and there an omission or a feeble indication reveal the painter to us in moments of exasperated impotence. To understand Mr. Whistler’s art you must understand his body. I do not mean that Mr. Whistler has suffered from bad health–his health has always been excellent; all great artists have excellent health, but his constitution is more nervous than robust. He is even a strong man, but he is lacking in weight. Were he six inches taller, and his bulk proportionately increased, his art would be different. Instead of having painted a dozen portraits, every one–even the mother and Miss Alexander, which I personally take to be the two best–a little febrile in its extreme beauty, whilst some, masterpieces though they be, are clearly touched with weakness, and marked with hysteria–Mr. Whistler would have painted a hundred portraits, as strong, as vigorous, as decisive, and as easily accomplished as any by Velasquez or Hals. But if Nature had willed him so, I do not think we should have had the Nocturnes, which are clearly the outcome of a highly-strung, bloodless nature whetted on the whetstone of its own weakness to an exasperated sense of volatile colour and evanescent light. It is hardly possible to doubt that this is so when we look on these canvases, where, in all the stages of her repose, the night dozes and dreams upon our river–a creole in Nocturne 34, upon whose trembling eyelids the lustral moon is shining; a quadroon in Nocturne 17, who turns herself out of the light anhungered and set upon some feast of dark slumber. And for the sake of these gem-like pictures, whose blue serenities are comparable to the white perfections of Athenian marbles, we should have done well to yield a littlestrength in portraiture, if the distribution of Mr. Whistler’s genius had been left in our hands. So Nature has done her work well, and we have no cause to regret the few pounds of flesh that she withheld. A few pounds more of flesh and muscle, and we should have had another Velasquez; but Nature shrinks from repetition, and at the last moment she said, “The world has had Velasquez, another would be superfluous: let there be Jimmy Whistler.”
In the Nocturnes Mr. Whistler stands alone, withouta rival. In portraits he is at his best when they are near to his Nocturnes in intention, when the theme lends itself to an imaginative and decorative treatment; for instance, as in the mother or Miss Alexander. Mr. Whistler is at his worst when he is frankly realistic. I have seen pictures by Mr. Henry Moore that I like better than “The Blue Wave”. Nor does Mr. Whistler seem to me to reach his highest level in any one of the three portraits–Lady Archibald Campbell, Miss Rose Corder, and “the lady in the fur jacket”. I know that Mr. Walter Sickert considers the portrait of Lady Archibald Campbell to be Mr. Whistler’s finest portrait. I submit, however, that the attitude is theatrical and not very explicit. It is a movement that has not been frankly observed, nor is it a movement that has been frankly imagined. It has none of the artless elegance of Nature; it is full of studio combinations; and yet it is not a frankly decorative arrangement, as the portrait of the mother or Miss Alexander. When Hals painted his Burgomasters, he was careful to place them in definite and comprehensible surroundings. He never left us in doubt either as to the time or the place; and the same obligations of time and place, which Hals never shirked, seem to me to rest on the painter, if he elects to paint his sitter in any attitude except one of conventional repose.
Lady Archibald Campbell is represented in violent movement, looking backwards over her shoulder as she walks up the picture; yet there is nothing to show that she is not standing on the low table on which the model poses, and the few necessary indications are left out because they would interfere with the general harmony of his picture; because, if the table on which she is standing were indicated, the movement of outstretched arm would be incomprehensible. The hand, too, is somewhat uncertain, undetermined, and a gesture is meaningless that the hand does not determine and complete. I do not speak of the fingers of the right hand, which are non-existent; after a dozen attempts to paint the gloved hand, only an approximate result was obtained. Look at the ear, and say that the painter’s nerves did not give wayonce or twice. And the likeness is vague and shadowy; she is only fairly representative of her class. We see fairly well that she is a lady _du grand monde_, who is, however, not without knowledge of _les environs du monde_. But she is hardly English–she might be a French woman or an American. She is a sort of hybrid. Miss Rose Corder and “the lady in the fur jacket” are equally cosmopolitan; so, too, is Miss Alexander. Only once has Mr. Whistler expressed race, and that was in his portrait of his mother. Then these three ladies–Miss Corder, Lady Archibald Campbell, and “the lady in the fur jacket”–wear the same complexion: a pale yellow complexion, burnt and dried. With this conventional tint he obtains unison and a totality of effect; but he obtains this result at the expense of truth. Hals and Velasquez obtained the same result, without, however, resorting to such meretricious methods.
The portrait of the mother is, as every one knows, in the Luxemburg; but the engraving reminds us of the honour which France has done, but which we failed to do, to the great painter of the nineteenth century; and after much hesitation and arguing with myself I feel sure that on the whole this picture is the painter’s greatest work in portraiture. We forget relations, friends, perhaps even our parents; but that picture we never forget; it is for ever with us, in sickness and in health; and in moments of extreme despair, when life seems hopeless, the strange magic of that picture springs into consciousness, and we wonder by what strange wizard craft was accomplished the marvellous pattern on the black curtain that drops past the engraving on the wall. We muse on the extraordinary beauty of that grey wall, on the black silhouette sitting so tranquilly, on the large feet on a foot-stool, on the hands crossed, on the long black dress that fills the picture with such solemn harmony. Then mark the transition from grey to white, and how _le ton local_ is carried through the entire picture, from the highest light to the deepest shadow. Note the tenderness of that white cap, the white lace cuffs, the certainty, the choice, and think of anything if you can, even in the best Japanese work, more beautiful, more delicate, subtle, illusive, certain in its handicraft; and if the lace cuffs are marvellous, the delicate hands of a beautiful old age lying in a small lace handkerchief are little short of miraculous. They are not drawn out in anatomical diagram, but appear and disappear, seen here on the black dress, lost there in the small white handkerchief. And when we study the faint, subtle outline of the mother’s face, we seem to feel that there the painter has told the story of his soul more fully than elsewhere. That soul, strangely alive to all that is delicate and illusive in Nature, found perhaps its fullest expression in that grave old Puritan lady looking through the quiet refinement of her grey room, sitting in solemn profile in all the quiet habit of her long life.
Compared with later work, the execution is “tighter”, if I may be permitted an expression which will be understood in studios; we are very far indeed from the admirable looseness of handling which is the charm of the portrait of Miss Rose Corder. There every object is born unconsciously beneath the passing of the brush. If not less certain, the touch in the portrait of the mother is less prompt; but the painter’s vision is more sincere and more intense. And to those who object to the artificiality of the arrangement, I reply that if the old lady is sitting in a room artificially arranged, Lady Archibald Campbell may be said to be walking through incomprehensible space. But what really decides me to place this portrait above the others is the fact that while painting his mother’s portrait he was unquestionably absorbed in his model; and absorption in the model is perhaps the first quality in portrait-painting.
Still, for my own personal pleasure, to satisfy the innermost cravings of my own soul, I would choose to live with the portrait of Miss Alexander. Truly, this picture seems to me the most beautiful in the world. I know very well that it has not the profound beauty of the Infantes by Velasquez in the Louvre; but for pure magic of inspiration, is it not more delightful? Just as Shelley’s “Sensitive Plant” thrills the innermost sense like no other poem in the language, the portrait of Miss Alexander enchants with the harmony of colour, with the melody of composition.
Strangely original, a rare and unique thing, is this picture, yet we know whence it came, and may easily appreciate the influences that brought it into being. Exquisite and happy combination of the art of an entire nation and the genius of one man-the soul of Japan incarnate in the body of the immortal Spaniard. It was Japan that counselled the strange grace of the silhouette, and it was that country, too, that inspired in a dim, far-off way those subtly sweet and magical passages from grey to green, from green again to changing evanescent grey. But a higher intelligence massed and impelled those chords of green and grey than ever manifested itself in Japanese fan or screen; the means are simpler, the effect is greater, and by the side of this picture the best Japanese work seems only facile superficial improvisation. In the picture itself there is really little of Japan. The painter merely understood all that Japan might teach. He went to the very root, appropriating only the innermost essence of its art. We Westerns had thought it sufficient to copy Nature, but the Japanese knew it was better to observe Nature. The whole art of Japan is selection, and Japan taught Mr. Whistler, or impressed upon Mr. Whistler, the imperative necessity of selection. No Western artist of the present or of past time–no, not Velasquez himself–ever selected from the model so tenderly as Mr. Whistler; Japan taught him to consider Nature as a storehouse whence the artist may pick and choose, combining the fragments of his choice into an exquisite whole. Sir John Millais’ art is the opposite; there we find no selection; the model is copied–and sometimes only with sufficient technical skill.
But this picture is throughout a selection from the model; nowhere has anything been copied brutally, yet the reality of the girl is not sacrificed.
The picture represents a girl of ten or eleven. She is dressed according to the fashion of twenty years ago–a starched muslin frock, a small overskirt pale brown, white stockings, square-toed black shoes. She stands, her left foot advanced, holding in her left hand a grey felt hat adorned with a long plume reaching nearly to the ground. The wall behind her is grey with a black wainscot. On the left, far back in the picture, on a low stool, some grey-green drapery strikes the highest note of colour in the picture. On the right, in the foreground, some tall daisies come into the picture, and two butterflies flutter over the girl’s blonde head. This picture seems to exist principally in the seeing! I mean that the execution is so strangely simple that the thought, “If I could only see the model like that, I think Icould do it myself”, comes spontaneously into the mind. And this spontaneous thought is excellent criticism, for three-parts of Mr. Whistler’s art lies in the seeing; no one ever saw Nature so artistically. Notice on the left the sharp line of the white frock cutting against the black wainscoting. Were that line taken away, how much would the picture lose! Look at the leg that is advanced, and tell me if you can detect the modelling. There is modelling, I know, but there are no vulgar roundnesses. Apparently, only a flat tint; but there is on the bone a light, hardly discernible; and this light is sufficient. And the leg that is turned away, the thick, chubby ankle of the child, how admirable in drawing; and that touch of darker colour, how it tells the exact form of the bone! To indicate is the final accomplishment of the painter’s art, and I know no indication like that ankle bone. And now passing from the feet to the face, notice, I beg of you to notice–it is one of the points in the picture–that jaw bone. The face is seen in three-quarter, and to focus the interest in the face the painter has slightly insisted on the line of the jaw bone, which, taken in conjunction with the line of the hair, brings into prominence the oval of the face. In Nature that charming oval only appeared at moments. The painter seized one of those moments, and called it into our consciousness as a musician with certain finger will choose to give prominence to a certain note in a chord.
There must have been a day in Mr. Whistler’s life when the artists of Japan convinced him once and for ever of the primary importance of selection. In Velasquez, too, there is selection, and very often it is in the same direction as Mr. Whistler’s, but the selection is never, I think, so much insisted upon; and sometimes in Velasquez there is, as in the portrait of the Admiral in the National Gallery, hardly any selection–I mean, of course, conscious selection. Velasquez sometimes brutally accepted Nature for what she was worth; this Mr. Whistler never does. But it was Velasquez that gave consistency and strength to what in Mr. Whistler might have run into an art of trivial but exquisite decoration. Velasquez, too, had a voice in the composition of the palette generally, so sober, so grave. The palette of Velasquez is the opposite of the palette of Rubens; the fantasy of Rubens’ palette created the art of Watteau, Turner, Gainsborough; it obtained throughout the eighteenth century in England and in France. Chardin was the one exception. Alone amid the eighteenth century painters he chose the palette of Velasquez in preference to that of Rubens, and in the nineteenth century Whistler too has chosen it. It was Velasquez who taught Mr. Whistler that flowing, limpid execution. In the painting of that blonde hair there is something more than a souvenir of the blonde hair of the Infante in the _salle carree_ in the Louvre. There is also something of Velasquez in the black notes of the shoes. Those blacks–are they not perfectly observed? How light and dry the colour is! How heavy and shiny it would have become in other hands! Notice, too, that in the frock nowhere is there a single touch of pure white, and yet it is all white–a rich, luminous white that makes every other white in the gallery seem either chalky or dirty. What an enchantment and a delight the handling is! How flowing, how supple, infinitely and beautifully sure, the music of perfect accomplishment! In the portrait of the mother the execution seems slower, hardly so spontaneous. For this, no doubt, the subject is accountable. But this little girl is the very finest flower, and the culminating point of Mr. Whistler’s art. The eye travels over the canvas seeking a fault. In vain; nothing has been omitted that might have been included, nothing has been included that might have been omitted. There is much in Velasquez that is stronger, but nothing in this world ever seemed to me so perfect as this picture.
The portrait of Carlyle has been painted about an arabesque similar, I might almost say identical, to that of the portrait of the mother. But as is usually the case, the attempt to repeat a success has resulted a failure. Mr. Whistler has sought to vary the arabesque in the direction of greater naturalness. He has broken the severity of the line, which the lace handkerchief and the hands scarcely stayed in the first picture, by placing the philosopher’s hat upon his knees, he has attenuated the symmetry of the picture-frames on the walls, and has omitted the black curtain which drops through the earlier picture. And all these alterations seemed to me like so many leaks through which the eternal something of the first design has run out. A pattern like that of the egg and dart cannot be disturbed, and Columbus himself cannot rediscover America. And, turning from the arabesque to the painting, we notice at once that the balance of colour, held with such exquisite grace by the curtain on one side and the dress on the other, is absent in the later work; and if we examine the colours separately we cannot fail to apprehend the fact that the blacks in the later are not nearly so beautiful as those in the earlier picture. The blacks of the philosopher’s coat and rug are neither as rich, not as rare, nor as deep as the blacks of the mother’s gown. Never have the vital differences and the beauty of this colour been brought out as in that gown and that curtain, never even in Hals, who excels all other painters in this use of black. Mr. Whistler’s failure with the first colour, when we compare the two pictures, is exceeded by his failure with the second colour. We miss the beauty of those extraordinary and exquisite high notes–the cap and cuffs; and the place of the rich, palpitating greys, so tremulous in the background of the earlier picture, is taken by an insignificant grey that hardly seems necessary or helpful to the coat and rug, and is only just raised out of the commonplace by the dim yellow of two picture-frames. It must be admitted, however, that the yellow is perfectly successful; it may be almost said to be what is most attractive in the picture. The greys in chin, beard, and hair must, however, be admitted to be beautiful, although they are not so full of charm as the greys in the portrait of Miss Alexander.
But if Mr. Whistler had only failed in these matters, he might have still produced a masterpiece. But there is a graver criticism to be urged against the picture. A portrait is an exact reflection of the painter’s state of soul at the moment of sitting down to paint. We read in the picture what he really desired; for what he really desired is in the picture, and his hesitations tell us what he only desired feebly. Every passing distraction, every weariness, every loss of interest in the model, all is written upon the canvas. Above all, he tells us most plainly what he thought about his model–whether he was moved by love or contempt; whether his moods were critical or reverential. And what the canvas under consideration tells most plainly is that Mr. Whistler never forgot his own personality in that of the ancient philosopher. He came into the room as chirpy and anecdotal as usual, in no way discountenanced or put about by the presence of his venerable and illustrious sitter. He had heard that the Chelsea sage wrote histories which were no doubt very learned, but he felt no particular interest in the matter. Of reverence, respect, or intimate knowledge of Carlyle there is no trace on the canvas; and looked at from this side the picture may be said to be the most American of all Mr. Whistler’s works. “I am quite as big a man as you”, to put it bluntly, was Mr. Whistler’s attitude of mind while painting Carlyle. I do not contest the truth of the opinion. I merely submit that that is not the frame of mind in which great portraiture is done.
The drawing is large, ample, and vigorous, beautifully understood, but not very profound or intimate: the picture seems to have been accomplished easily, and in excellent health and spirits. The painting is in Mr. Whistler’s later and most characteristic manner. For many years–for certainly twenty years–his manner has hardly varied at all. He uses his colour very thin, so thinly that it often hardly amounts to more than a glaze, and painting is laid over painting, like skin upon skin. Regarded merely as brushwork, the face of the sage could hardly be surpassed; the modelling is that beautiful flat modelling, of which none except Mr. Whistler possesses the secrets. What the painter saw he rendered with incomparable skill. The vision of the rugged pensiveness of the old philosophers is as beautiful and as shallow as a page of De Quincey. We are carried away in a flow of exquisite eloquence, but the painter has not told us one significant fact about his model, his nationality, his temperament, his rank, his manner of life. We learn in a general way that he was a thinker; but it would have been impossible to draw the head at all and conceal so salient a characteristic. Mr. Whistler’s portrait reveals certain general observations of life; but has he given one single touch intimately characteristic of his model?
But if the portrait of Carlyle, when looked at from a certain side, must be admitted to be not wholly satisfactory, what shall be said of the portrait of Lady Meux? The dress is a luminous and harmonious piece of colouring, the material has its weight and its texture and its character of fold; but of the face it is difficult to say more than that it keeps its place in the picture. Very often the faces in Mr. Whistler’s portraits are the least interesting part of the picture; his sitter’s face does not seem to interest him more than the cuffs, the carpet, the butterfly, which hovers about the screen. After this admission, it will seem to many that it is waste of time to consider further Mr. Whistler’s claim to portraiture. This is not so. Mr. Whistler is a great portrait painter, though he cannot take measurements or follow an outline like Holbein.
Like most great painters, he has known how to introduce harmonious variation into his style by taking from others just as much of their sense of beauty as his own nature might successfully assimilate. I have spoken of his assimilation and combination of the art of Velasquez, and the entire art of Japan, but a still more striking instance of the power of assimilation, which, strange as it may seem, only the most original natures possess, is to hand in the early but extremely beautiful picture, _La femme en blanc_. In the Chelsea period of his life Mr. Whistler saw a great deal of that singular man, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Intensely Italian, though he had never seen Italy; and though writing no language but ours, still writing it with a strange hybrid grace, bringing into it the rich and voluptuous colour and fragrance of the south, expressing in picture and poem nothing but an uneasy haunting sense of Italy–opulence of women, not of the south, nor yet of the north, Italian celebration, mystic altar linen, and pomp of gold vestment and legendary pane. Of such hauntings Rossetti’s life and art were made.
His hold on poetic form was surer than his hold on pictorial form, wherein his art is hardly more than poetic reminiscence of Italian missal and window pane. Yet even as a painter his attractiveness cannot be denied, nor yet the influence he has exercised on English art. Though he took nothing from his contemporaries, all took from him, poets and painters alike. Not even Mr. Whistler could refrain, and in _La femme en blanc_ he took from Rossetti his manner of feeling and seeing. The type of woman is the same–beauty of dreaming eyes and abundant hair. And in this picture we find a poetic interest, a moral sense, if I may so phrase it, nowhere else to be detected, though you search Mr. Whistler’s work from end to end. The woman stands idly dreaming by her mirror. She is what is her image in the glass, an appearance that has come, and that will go leaving no more trace than her reflection on the glass when she herself has moved away. She sees in her dream the world like passing shadows thrown on an illuminated cloth. She thinks of her soft, white, and opulent beauty which fills her white dress; her chin is lifted, and above her face shines the golden tumult of her hair.
The picture is one of the most perfect that Mr. Whistler has painted; it is as perfect as the mother or Miss Alexander, and though it has not the beautiful, flowing, supple execution of the “symphony in white”, I prefer it for sake of its sheer perfection. It is more perfect than the symphony in white, though there is nothing in it quite so extraordinary as the loving gaiety of the young girl’s face. The execution of that face is as flowing, as spontaneous, and as bright as the most beautiful day of May. The white drapery clings like haze about the edge of the woods, and the flesh tints are pearly and evanescent as dew, and soft as the colour of a flowering mead. But the kneeling figure is not so perfect, and that is why I reluctantly give my preference to the woman by the mirror. Turning again to this picture, I would fain call attention to the azalias, which, in irresponsible decorative fashion, come into the right-hand corner. The delicate flowers show bright and clear on the black-leaded fire-grate; and it is in the painting of such detail that Mr. Whistler exceeds all painters. For purity of colour and the beauty of pattern, these flowers are surely as beautiful as anything that man’s hand has ever accomplished.
Mr. Whistler has never tried to be original. He has never attempted to reproduce on canvas the discordant and discrepant extravagancies of Nature as M. Besnard and Mr. John Sargent have done. His style has always been marked by such extreme reserve that the critical must have sometimes inclined to reproach him with want of daring, and ask themselves where was the innovator in this calculated reduction of tones, in these formal harmonies, in this constant synthesis, sought with far more disregard for superfluous detail than Hals, for instance, had ever dared to show. The still more critical, while admitting the beauty and the grace of this art, must have often asked themselves what, after all, has this painter invented, what new subject-matter has he introduced into art?
It was with the night that Mr. Whistler set his seal and sign-manual upon art; above all others he is surely the interpreter of the night. Until he came the night of the painter was as ugly and insignificant as any pitch barrel; it was he who first transferred to canvas the blue transparent darkness which folds the world from sunset to sunrise. The purple hollow, and all the illusive distances of the gas-lit river, are Mr. Whistler’s own. It was not the unhabited night of lonely plain and desolate tarn that he chose to interpret, but the difficult populous city night–the night of tall bridges and vast water rained through with lights red and grey, the shores lined with the lamps of the watching city. Mr. Whistler’s night is the vast blue and golden caravanry, where the jaded and the hungry and the heavy-hearted lay down their burdens, and the contemplative freed from the deceptive reality of the day understand humbly and pathetically the casualness of our habitation, and the limitlessreality of a plan, the intention of which we shall never know. Mr. Whistler’s nights are the blue transparent darknesses which are half of the world’s life. Sometimes he foregoes even the aid of earthly light, and his picture is but luminous blue shadow, delicately graduated, as in the nocturne in M. Duret’s collection–purple above and below, a shadow in the middle of the picture–a little less and there would be nothing.
There is the celebrated nocturne in the shape of a T–one pier of the bridge and part of the arch, the mystery of the barge, and the figure guiding the barge in the current, the strange luminosity of the fleeting river! lines of lights, vague purple and illusive distance, and all is so obviously beautiful that one pauses to consider how there could have been stupidity enough to deny it. Of less dramatic significance, but of equal esthetic value, is the nocturne known as “the Cremorne lights”. Here the night is strangely pale; one of those summer nights when a slight veil of darkness is drawn for an hour or more across the heavens. Another of quite extraordinary beauty, even in a series of extraordinarily beautiful things, is “Night on the Sea”. The waves curl white in the darkness, and figures are seen as in dreams; lights burn low, ships rock in the offing, and beyond them, lost in the night, a vague sense of illimitable sea.
Out of the night Mr. Whistler has gathered beauty as august as Phidias took from Greek youths. Nocturne II is the picture which Professor Ruskin declared to be equivalent to flinging a pot of paint in the face of the public. But that black night, filling the garden even to the sky’s obliteration, is not black paint but darkness. The whirl of the St. Catherine wheel in the midst of this darkness amounts to a miracle, and the exquisite drawing of the shower of falling fire would arouse envy in Rembrandt, and prompt imitation. The line of the watching crowd is only just indicated, and yet the garden is crowded. There is another nocturne in which rockets are rising and falling, and the drawing of these two showers of fire is so perfect, that when you turn quickly towards the picture, the sparks really do ascend and descend.
More than any other painter, Mr. Whistler’s influence has made itself felt on English art. More than any other man, Mr. Whistler has helped to purge art of the vice of subject and belief that the mission of the artist is to copy nature. Mr. Whistler’s method is more learned, more co-ordinate than that of any other painter of our time; all is preconceived from the first touch to the last, nor has there ever been much change in the method, the painting has grown looser, but the method was always the same; to have seen him paint at once is to have seen him paint at every moment of his life. Never did a man seem more admirably destined to found a school which should worthily carry on the tradition inherited from the old masters and represented only by him. All the younger generation has accepted him as master, and that my generation has not profited more than it has, leads me to think, however elegant, refined, emotional, educated it may be, and anxious to achieve, that it is lacking in creative force, that it is, in a word, slightly too slight.
CHAVANNES, MILLET, AND MANET.
Of the great painters born before 1840 only two now are living, Puvis de Chavannes and Degas. It is true to say of Chavannes that he is the only man alive to whom a beautiful building might be given for decoration without fear that its beauty would be disgraced. He is the one man alive who can cover twenty feet of wall or vaulted roof with decoration that will neither deform the grandeur nor jar the greyness of the masonry. Mural decoration in his eyes is not merely a picture let into a wall, nor is it necessarily mural decoration even if it be painted on the wall itself: it is mural decoration if it form part of the wall, if it be, if I may so express myself, a variant of the stonework. No other painter ever kept this end so strictly before his eyes. For this end Chavannes reduced his palette almost to a monochrome, for this end he models in two flat tints, for this end he draws in huge undisciplined masses.
Let us examine his palette: many various greys, some warmed with vermilion, some with umber, and many more that are mere mixtures of black and white, large quantities of white, for Chavannes paints in a high key, wishing to disturb the colour of the surrounding stone as little as may be. Grey and blue are the natural colours of building stone; when the subject will not admit of subterfuge, he will introduce a shade of pale green, as in his great decoration entitled “Summer”; but grey is always the foundation of his palette, and it fills the middle of the picture. The blues are placed at the top and bottom, and he works between them in successive greys. The sky in the left-hand top corner is an ultramarine slightly broken with white; the blue gown at the bottom of the picture, not quite in the middle of the picture, a little on the right, is also ultramarine, and here the colour is used nearly in its first intensity. And the colossal woman who wears the blue gown leans against some grey forest tree trunk, and a great white primeval animal is what her forms and attitude suggest. There are some women about her, and they lie and sit in disconnected groups like fragments fallen from a pediment. Nor is any attempt made to relate, by the aid of vague look or gesture, this group in the foreground to the human hordes engaged in building enclosures in the middle distance. In Chavannes the composition is always as disparate as an early tapestry, and the drawing of the figures is almost as rude. If I may be permitted a French phrase, I will say _un peu sommaire_ quite unlike the beautiful simplifications of Raphael or Ingres, or indeed any of the great masters. They could simplify without becoming rudimentary; Chavannes cannot.
And now a passing word about the handicraft, the manner of using the brush. Chavannes shares the modern belief-and only in this is he modern–that for the service of thought one instrument is as apt as another, and that, so long as that man’s back–he who is pulling at the rope fastened at the tree’s top branches–is filled in with two grey tints, it matters not at all how the task is accomplished. Truly the brush has plastered that back as a trowel might, and the result reminds one of stone and mortar, as Millet’s execution reminds one of mud-pie making. The handicraft is as barbarous in Chavannes as it is in Millet, and we think of them more as great poets working in a not wholly sympathetic and, in their hands, somewhat rebellious material. Chavannes is as an epic poet whose theme is the rude grandeur of the primeval world, and who sang his rough narrative to a few chords struck on a sparely-stringed harp that his own hands have fashioned. And is not Millet a sort of French Wordsworth who in a barbarous Breton dialect has told us in infinitely touching strains of the noble submission of the peasant’s lot, his unending labours and the melancholy solitude of the country.
As poet-painters, none admires these great artists more than I, but the moment we consider them as painters we have to compare the handicraft of the decoration entitled “Summer” with that of Francis the First meeting Marie de Medicis; we have to compare the handicraft of the Sower and the Angelus with that of “Le Bon Bock” and “L’enfant a Pepee”; and the moment we institute such comparison does not the inferiority of Chavannes’ and Millet’s handicraft become visible even to the least initiated in the art of painting, and is not the conclusion forced upon us that however Manet may be judged inferior to Millet as a poet, as a painter he is easily his superior? And as Millet’s and Chavannes’ brush-work is deficient in beauty so is their drawing. Preferring decorative unity to completeness of drawing, Chavannes does not attempt more than some rudimentary indications. Millet seems even to have desired to omit technical beauty, so that he might concentrate all thought on the poetic synthesis he was gathering from the earth. Degas, on the contrary, draws for the sake of the drawing-The Ballet Girl, The Washerwoman, The Fat Housewife bathing herself, is only a pretext for drawing; and Degas chose these extraordinary themes because the drawing of the ballet girl and the fat housewife is less known than that of the nymph and the Spartan youth. Painters will understand what I mean by the drawing being “less known”,–that knowledge of form which sustains the artist like a crutch in his examination of the model, and which as it were dictates to the eye what it must see. So the ballet girl was Degas’ escapement from the thraldom of common knowledge. The ballet girl was virgin soil. In her meagre thwarted forms application could freely be made of the supple incisive drawing which bends to and flows with the character–that drawing of which Ingres was the supreme patron, and of which Degas is the sole inheritor.
Until a few years ago Chavannes never sold a picture. Millet lived his life in penury and obscurity, but thirty years of persistent ridicule having failed to destroy Degas’ genius, some recognition has been extended to it. The fate of all great artists in the nineteenth century is a score years of neglect and obloquy. They may hardly hope for recognition before they are fifty; some few cases point the other way, but very few–the rule is thirty years of neglect and obloquy. Then a flag of truce will be held out to the recalcitrant artist who cannot be prevented from painting beautiful pictures. “Come, let us be friends; let’s kiss and make it up; send a picture to the academy; we’ll hang it on the line, and make you an academician the first vacancy that occurs.” To-day the academy would like to get Mr. Whistler, but Mr. Whistler replies to the academy as Degas replied to the government official who wanted a picture for the Luxembourg. _Non, je ne veux pas etre conduit au poste par les sargents de ville d’aris_.
To understand Manet’s genius, the nineteenth century would have required ten years more than usual, for in Manet there is nothing but good painting, and there is nothing that the nineteenth century dislikes as much as good painting. In Whistler there is an exquisite and inveigling sense of beauty; in Degas there is an extraordinary acute criticism of life, and so the least brutal section of the public ended by pardoning Whistler his brush-work, and Degas his beautiful drawing. But in Manet there is nothing but good painting, and it is therefore possible that he might have lived till he was eighty without obtaining recognition. Death alone could accomplish the miracle of opening the public’s eyes to his merits. During his life the excuse given for the constant persecution waged against him by the “authorities” was his excessive originality. But this was mere subterfuge; what was really hated-what made him so unpopular-was the extraordinary beauty of his handling. Whatever he painted became beautiful–his hand was dowered with the gift of quality, and there his art began and ended. His painting of still life never has been exceeded, and never will be. I remember a pear that used to hang in his studio. Hals would have taken his hat off to it.
Twenty years ago Manet’s name was a folly and a byword in the Parisian studios. The students of the Beaux Arts used to stand before his salon pictures and sincerely wonder how any one could paint like that; the students were quite sure that it was done for a joke, to attract attention; and then, not quite sincerely, one would say, “But I’ll undertake to paint you three pictures a week like that.” I say that the remark was never quite sincere, for I never heard it made without some one answering, “I don’t think you could; just come and look at it again–there’s more in it than you think.” No doubt we thought Manet very absurd, but there was always something forced and artificial in our laughter and the ridicule we heaped upon him.
But about that time my opinions were changing; and it was a great event in my life when Manet spoke to me in the cafe of the Nouvelle Athene. I knew it was Manet, he had been pointed out to me, and I had admired the finely-cut face from whose prominent chin a closely-cut blonde beard came forward; and the aquiline nose, the clear grey eyes, the decisive voice, the remarkable comeliness of the well-knit figure, scrupulously but simply dressed, represented a personality curiously sympathetic. On several occasions shyness had compelled me to abandon my determination to speak to him. But once he had spoken I entered eagerly into conversation, and next day I went to his studio. It was quite a simple place. Manet expended his aestheticism on his canvases, and not upon tapestries and inlaid cabinets. There was very little in his studio except his pictures: a sofa, a rocking-chair, a table for his paints, and a marble table on iron supports, such as one sees in cafes. Being a fresh-complexioned, fair-haired young man, the type most suitable to Manet’s palette, he at once asked me to sit. His first intention was to paint me in a cafe; he had met me in a cafe, and he thought he could realise his impression of me in the first surrounding he had seen me in.
The portrait did not come right; ultimately it was destroyed; but it gave me every opportunity of studying Manet’s method of painting. Strictly speaking, he had no method; painting with him was a pure instinct. Painting was one of the ways his nature manifested itself. That frank, fearless, prompt nature manifested itself in everything that concerned him–in his large plain studio, full of light as a conservatory; in his simple, scrupulous clothes, and yet with a touch of the dandy about them; in decisive speech, quick, hearty, and informed with a manly and sincere understanding of life. Never was an artist’s inner nature in more direct conformity with his work. There were no circumlocutions in Manet’s nature, there were none in his art.
The colour of my hair never gave me a thought until Manet began to paint it. Then the blonde gold that came up under his brush filled me with admiration, and I was astonished when, a few days after, I saw him scrape off the rough paint and prepare to start afresh.
“Are you going to get a new canvas?”
“No; this will do very well.”
“But you can’t paint yellow ochre on yellow ochre without getting it dirty?”
“Yes, I think I can. You go and sit down.”
Half-an-hour after he had entirely repainted the hair, and without losing anything of its brightness. He painted it again and again; every time it came out brighter and fresher, and the painting never seemed to lose anything in quality. That this portrait cost him infinite labour and was eventually destroyed matters nothing; my point is merely that he could paint yellow over yellow without getting the colour muddy. One day, seeing that I was in difficulties with a black, he took a brush from my hand, and it seemed to have hardly touched the canvas when the ugly heaviness of my tiresome black began to disappear. There came into it grey and shimmering lights, the shadows filled up with air, and silk seemed to float and rustle. There was no method-there was no trick; he merely painted. My palette was the same to him as his own; he did not prepare his palette; his colour did not exist on his palette before he put it on the canvas; but working under the immediate dictation of his eye, he snatched the tints instinctively, without premeditation. Ah! that marvellous hand, those thick fingers holding the brush so firmly-somewhat heavily; how malleable, how obedient, that most rebellious material, oil-colour, was to his touch. He did with it what he liked. I believe he could rub a picture over with Prussian blue without experiencing any inconvenience; half-an-hour after the colour would be fine and beautiful.
And never did this mysterious power which produces what artists know as “quality” exist in greater abundance in any fingers than it did in the slow, thick fingers of Edouard Manet: never since the world began; not in Velasquez, not in Hals, not in Rubens, not in Titian. As an artist Manet could not compare with the least among these illustrious painters; but as a manipulator of oil-colour he never was and never will be excelled. Manet was born a painter as absolutely as any man that ever lived, so absolutely that a very high and lucid intelligence never for a moment came between him and the desire to put anything into his picture except good painting. I remember his saying to me, “I also tried to write, but I did not succeed; I never could do anything but paint.” And what a splendid thing for an artist to be able to say. The real meaning of his words did not reach me till years after; perhaps I even thought at the time that he was disappointed that he could not write. I know now what was passing in his mind: _Je ne me suis pas trompe de metier_. How many of us can say as much? Go round a picture gallery, and of how many pictures, ancient or modern, can you stand before and say, _Voila un homme qui ne s’est pas trompe de metier?_
Perhaps above all men of our generation Manet made the least mistake in his choice of a trade. Let those who doubt go and look at the beautiful picture of Boulogne Pier, now on view in Mr. Van Wesselingh’s gallery, 26 Old Bond Street. The wooden pier goes right across the canvas; all the wood piers are drawn, there is no attempt to hide or attenuate their regularity. Why should Manet attenuate when he could fill the interspaces with the soft lapping of such exquisite blue sea-water. Above the piers there is the ugly yellow-painted rail. But why alter the colour when he could keep it in such exquisite value? On the canvas it is beautiful. In the middle of the pier there is a mast and a sail which does duty for an awning; perhaps it is only a marine decoration. A few loungers are on the pier–men and women in grey clothes. Why introduce reds and blues when he was sure of being able to set the little figures in their places, to draw them so firmly, and relieve the grey monotony with such beauty of execution? It would be vain to invent when so exquisite an execution is always at hand to relieve and to transform. Mr. Whistler would have chosen to look at the pier from a more fanciful point of view. Degas would have taken an odd corner; he would have cut the composition strangely, and commented on the humanity of the pier. But Manet just painted it without circumlocutions of any kind. The subject was void of pictorial relief. There was not even a blue space in the sky, nor yet a dark cloud. He took it as it was–a white sky, full of an inner radiance, two sailing-boats floating in mist of heat, one in shadow, the other in light. Vandervelde would seem trivial and precious beside painting so firm, so manly, so free from trick, so beautifully logical, and so unerring.
Manet did not often paint sea-pieces. He is best known and is most admired as a portrait-painter, but from time to time he ventured to trust his painting to every kind of subject-I know even a cattle-piece by Manet–and his Christ watched over by angels in the tomb is one of his finest works. His Christ is merely a rather fat model sitting with his back against a wall, and two women with wings on either side of him. There is no attempt to suggest a Divine death or to express the Kingdom of Heaven on the angels’ faces. But the legs of the man are as fine a piece of painting as has ever been accomplished.
In an exhibition of portraits now open in Paris, entitled _Cent Chefs-d’Oeuvre_, Manet has been paid the highest honour; he himself would not demand a greater honour–his “Bon Bock” has been hung next to a celebrated portrait by Hals….
Without seeing it, I know that the Hals is nobler, grander; I know, supposing the Hals to be a good one, that its flight is that of an eagle as compared with the flight of a hawk. The comparison is exaggerated; but, then, so are all comparisons. I also know that Hals does not tell us more about his old woman than Manet tells us about the man who sits so gravely by his glass of foaming ale, so clearly absorbed by it, so oblivious to all other joys but those that it brings him. Hals never placed any one more clearly in his favourite hour of the day, the well-desired hour, looked forward to perhaps since the beginning of the afternoon. In this marvellous portrait we read the age, the rank, the habits, the limitations, physical and mental, of the broad-faced man who sits so stolidly, his fat hand clasping his glass of foaming ale. Nothing has been omitted. We look at the picture, and the man and his environment become part of our perception of life. That stout, middle-aged man of fifty, who works all day in some small business, and goes every evening to his cafe to drink beer, will abide with us for ever. His appearance, and his mode of life, which his appearance so admirably expresses, can never become completely dissociated from our understanding of life. For Manet’s “Bon Bock” is one of the eternal types, a permanent national conception, as inherent in French life as Polichinelle, Pierrot, Monsieur Prud’homme, or the Baron Hulot. I have not seen the portrait for fifteen or eighteen years, and yet I see it as well as if it were hung on the wall opposite the table on which I am writing this page. I can see that round, flat face, a little swollen with beer, the small eyes, the spare beard and moustaches. His feet are not in the picture, but I know how much he pays for his boots, and how they fit him. Nor did Hals ever paint better; I mean that nowhere in Hals will you find finer handling, or a more direct luminous or simple expression of what the eye saw. It has all the qualities I have enumerated, and yet it falls short of Hals. It has not the breadth and scope of the great Dutchman. There is a sense of effort, _on sent le souffle_, and in Hals one never does. It is more bound together, it does not flow with the mighty and luminous ease of the _chefs d’oeuvre_ at Haarlem.
But is this Manet’s final achievement, the last word he has to say? I think not. It was painted early in the sixties, probably about the same period as the Luxembourg picture, when the effects of his Spanish travel were wearing off, and Paris was beginning to command his art. Manet used to say, “When Degas was painting Semiramis I was painting modern Paris.” It would have been more true to have said modern Spain. For it was in Spain that Manet found his inspiration. He had not been to Holland when he painted his Spanish pictures. Velasquez clearly inspired them; but there never was in his work any of the noble delicacies of the Spaniard; it was always nearer to the plainer and more–forgive the phrase–yokel-like eloquence of Hals. The art of Hals he seemed to have divined; it seems to have come instinctively to him.
Manet went to Spain after a few months spent in Couture’s studio. Like all the great artists of our time, he was self-educated–Whistler, Degas, Courbet, Corot, and Manet wasted little time in other men’s studios. Soon after his return from Spain, by some piece of good luck, Manet was awarded _une mention honorable_ at the Salon for his portrait of a toreador. Why this honour was conferred upon him it is difficult to guess. It must have been the result of some special influence exerted at a special moment, for ever after–down to the year of his death–his pictures were considered as an excrescence on the annual exhibitions at the _Salon_. Every year–down to the year of his death–the jury, M. Bouguereau et Cie., lamented that they were powerless to reject these ridiculous pictures. Manet had been placed _hors concours_, and they could do nothing. They could do nothing except stand before his pictures and laugh. Oh, I remember it all very well. We were taught at the Beaux-Arts to consider Manet an absurd person or else an _epateur_, who, not being able to paint like M. Gerome, determined to astonish. I remember perfectly well the derision with which those _chefs d’oeuvre_, “Yachting at Argenteuil” and “Le Linge”, were received. They were in his last style–that bright, clear painting in which violet shadows were beginning to take the place of the conventional brown shadows, and the brush-work, too, was looser and more broken up; in a word, these pictures were the germ from which has sprung a dozen different schools, all the impressionism and other isms of modern French art. Before these works, in which the real Manet appeared for the first time, no one had a good word to say. To kill them more effectually, certain merits were even conceded to the “Bon Bock” and the Luxembourg picture.
The “Bon Bock”, as we have seen, at once challenges comparison with Hals. But in “Le Linge” no challenge is sent forth to any one; it is Manet, all Manet, and nothing but Manet. In this picture he expresses his love of the gaiety and pleasure of Parisian life. And this bright-faced, simple-minded woman, who stands in a garden crowded with the tallest sunflowers, the great flower-crowns drooping above her, her blue cotton dress rolled up to the elbows, her hands plunged in a small wash-tub in which she is washing some small linen, habit-shirts, pocket-handkerchiefs, collars, expresses the joy of homely life in the French suburb. Her home is one of good wine, excellent omelettes, soft beds; and the sheets, if they are a little coarse, are spotless, and retain an odour of lavender-sweetened cupboards. Her little child, about four years old, is with his mother in the garden; he has strayed into the foreground of the picture, just in front of the wash-tub, and he holds a great sunflower in his tiny hand. Beside this picture of such bright and happy aspect, the most perfect example of that _genre_ known as _la peinture claire_, invented by Manet, and so infamously and absurdly practised by subsequent imitators–beside this picture so limpid, so fresh, so unaffected in its handling, a Courbet would seem heavy and dull, a sort of mock old master; a Corot would seem ephemeral and cursive; a Whistler would seem thin; beside this picture of such elegant and noble vision a Stevens would certainly seem odiously common. Why does not Liverpool or Manchester buy one of these masterpieces? If the blueness of the blouse frightens the administrators of these galleries, I will ask them–and perhaps this would be the more practical project–to consider the purchase of Manet’s first and last historical picture, the death of the unfortunate Maximilian in Mexico. Under a high wall, over which some Mexicans are looking, Maximilian and two friends stand in front of the rifles. The men have just fired, and death clouds the unfortunate face. On the right a man stands cocking his rifle. Look at the movement of the hand, how well it draws back the hammer. The face is nearly in profile–how intent it is on the mechanism. And is not the drawing of the legs, the boots, the gaiters, the arms lifting the heavy rifle with slow deliberation, more massive, firm, and concise than any modern drawing? How ample and how exempt from all trick, and how well it says just what the painter wanted to say! This picture, too, used to hang in his studio. But the greater attractiveness of “Le Linge” prevented me from discerning its more solemn beauty. But last May I came across it unexpectedly, and after looking at it for some time the thought that came was–no one painted better, no one will ever paint better.
The Luxembourg picture, although one of the most showy and the completest amongst Manet’s masterpieces, is not, in my opinion, either the most charming or the most interesting; and yet it would be difficult to say that this of the many life-sized nudes that France has produced during the century is not the one we could least easily spare. Ingres’ Source compares not with things of this century, but with the marbles of the fourth century B.C. Cabanel’s Venus is a beautiful design, but its destruction would create no appreciable gap in the history of nineteenth century art. The destruction of “Olympe” would.
The picture is remarkable not only for the excellence of the execution, but for a symbolic intention nowhere else to be found in Manet’s works. The angels on either side of his dead Christ necessitated merely the addition of two pairs of wings–a convention which troubled him no more than the convention of taking off his hat on entering a church. But in “Olympe” we find Manet departing from the individual to the universal. The red-headed woman who used to dine at the _Ratmort_ does not lie on a modern bed but on the couch of all time; and she raises herself from amongst her cushions, setting forth her somewhat meagre nudity as arrogantly and with the same calm certitude of her sovereignty as the eternal Venus for whose prey is the flesh of all men born. The introduction of a bouquet bound up in large white paper does not prejudice the symbolic intention, and the picture would do well for an illustration to some poem to be found in _”Les fleurs du Mal”_. It may be worth while to note here that Baudelaire printed in his volume a quatrain inspired by one of Manet’s Spanish pictures.
But after this slight adventure into symbolism, Manet’s eyes were closed to all but the visible world. The visible world of Paris he saw henceforth–truly, frankly, and fearlessly, and more beautifully than any of his contemporaries. Never before was a great man’s mind so strictly limited to the range of what his eyes saw. Nature wished it so, and, having discovered nature’s wish, Manet joined his desire with Nature’s. I remember his saying as he showed me some illustrations he had done for Mallarme’s translation of Edgar Poe’s poem, “You’ll admit that it doesn’t give you much idea ‘of a kingdom by the sea.'” The drawing represented the usual sea-side watering place–the beach with a nursemaid at full length; children building sand castles, and some small sails in the offing.
So Manet was content to live by the sight, and by the sight alone; he was a painter, and had neither time nor taste for such ideals as Poe’s magical Annabel Lee. Marvellous indeed must have been the eyes that could have persuaded such relinquishment. How marvellous they were we understand easily when we look at “Olympe”. Eyes that saw truly, that saw beautifully and yet somewhat grossly. There is much vigour in the seeing, there is the exquisite handling of Hals, and there is the placing, the setting forth of figures on the canvas, which was as instinctively his as it was Titian’s. Hals and Velasquez possessed all those qualities, and something more. They would not have been satisfied with that angular, presumptuous, and obvious drawing, harsh in its exterior limits and hollow within–the head a sort of convulsive abridgment, the hand void, and the fingers too, if we seek their articulations. An omission must not be mistaken for a simplification, and for all his omissions Manet strives to make amend by the tone. It would be difficult to imagine a more beautiful syntheses than that pale yellow, a beautiful golden sensation, and the black woman, the attendant of this light of love, who comes to the couch with a large bouquet fresh from the boulevard, is certainly a piece of painting that Rubens and Titian would stop to admire.
But when all has been said, I prefer Manet in the quieter and I think the more original mood in the portrait of his sister-in-law, Madame Morisot. The portrait is in M. Duret’s collection; it hangs in a not too well lighted passage, and if I did not spend six or ten minutes in admiration before this picture, I should feel that some familiar pleasure had drifted out of my yearly visit to Paris. Never did a white dress play so important or indeed so charming a part in a picture. The dress is the picture–this common white dress, with black spots, _une robe a poix, une petite confection de soixante cinq francs_, as the French would say; and very far it is from all remembrance of the diaphanous, fairy-like skirts of our eighteenth century English school, but I swear to you no less charming. It is a very simple and yet a very beautiful reality. A lady, in white dress with black spots, sitting on a red sofa, a dark chocolate red, in the subdued light of her own quiet, prosaic French _appartment, le deuxieme au dessus l’entre-sol_. The drawing is less angular, less constipated than that of “Olympe”. How well the woman’s body is in the dress! there is the bosom, the waist, the hips, the knees, and the white stockinged foot in the low shoe, coming from out the dress. The drawing about the hips and bosom undulates and floats, vague and yet precise, in a manner that recalls Harlem, and it is not until we turn to the face that we come upon ominous spaces unaccounted for, forms unexplained. The head is so charming that it seems a pity to press our examination further. But to understand Manet’s deficiency is to understand the abyss that separates modern from ancient art, and the portrait of Madame Morisot explains them as well as another, for the deficiency I wish to point out exists in Manet’s best portraits as well as in his worst. The face in this picture is like the face in every picture by Manet. Three or four points are seized, and the spaces between are left unaccounted for. Whistler has not the strength of Velasquez; Manet is not as complete as Hals.
THE FAILURE OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY.
In the seventeenth century were Poussin and Claude; in the eighteenth Watteau, Boucher, Chardin, and many lesser lights–Fragonard, Pater, and Lancret. But notwithstanding the austere grandeur of Poussin and the beautiful, if somewhat too reasonable poetry of Claude, the infinite perfection of Watteau, the charm of that small French Velasquez Chardin, and the fascinations and essentially French genius of all this group (Poussin and Claude were entirely Roman), I think we must place France’s artistic period in the nineteenth century.
Nineteenth century art began in France in the last years of the eighteenth century. It began well, for it began with its greatest painters–Ingres, Corot, and Delacroix. Ingres was born in 1780, Gericault in 1791, Corot in 1796, Delacroix in 1798, Diaz in 1809, Dupre in 1812, Rousseau in 1812, Jacques in 1813, Meissonier in 1815, Millet in 1815, Troyon in 1816, Daubigny in 1817, Courbet in 1819, Fromentin in 1820, Monticelli in 1824, Puvis de Chavannes in 1824, Cabanel in 1825, Hervier in 1827, Vollon in 1833, Manet in 1833, Degas in 1834. With a little indulgence the list might be considerably enlarged.
The circumstances in which this artistic manifestation took place were identical with the circumstances which brought about every one of the great artistic epochs. It came upon France as a consequence of huge national aspiration, when nationhood was desired and disaster had joined men together in struggle, and sent them forth on reckless adventure. It has been said that art is decay, the pearl in the oyster; but such belief seems at variance with any reading of history. The Greek sculptors came after Salamis and Marathon; the Italian renaissance came when Italy was distracted with revolution and was divided into opposing states. Great empires have not produced great men. Art came upon Holland after heroic wars in which the Dutchmen vehemently asserted their nationhood, defending their country against the Spaniard, even to the point of letting in the sea upon the invaders. Art came upon England when England was most adventurous, after the victories of Marlborough. Art came upon France after the great revolution, after the victories of Marengo and Austerlitz, after the burning of Moscow. A unique moment of nationhood gave birth to a long list of great artists, just as similar national enthusiasm gave birth to groups of great artists in England, in Holland, in Florence, in Venice, in Athens.
Having determined the century of France’s artistic period we will ask where we shall place it amongst the artist period of the past. Comparison with Greece, Italy, or Venice is manifestly impossible; the names of Rembrandt, Hals, Ruysdael, Peter de Hoogh, Terburg, and Cuyp give us pause. We remember the names of Ingres, Delacroix, Corot, Millet, and Degas. Even the divine name of Ingres cannot save the balance from sinking on the side of Holland. Then we think of Reynolds, Gainsborough, Romney, Wilson, and Morland, and wonder how they compare with the Frenchmen. The best brains were on the French side, they had more pictorial talent, and yet the school when taken as a whole is not so convincing as the English. Why, with better brains, and certainly more passion and desire of achievement, does the French school fall behind the English? Why, notwithstanding its extraordinary genius, does it come last in merit as it comes last in time amongst the world’s artistic epochs? Has the nineteenth century brought any new intention into art which did not exist before in England, Holland, or Italy? Yes, the nineteenth century has brought a new intention into art, and I think that it is this very new intention that has caused the failure of the nineteenth century. To explain myself, I will have to go back to first principles.
In the beginning the beauty of man was the artist’s single theme. Science had not then relegated man to his exact place in creation: he reigned triumphant, Nature appearing, if at all, only as a kind of aureole. The Egyptian, the Greek, and the Roman artists saw nothing, and cared for nothing, except man; the representation of his beauty, his power, and his grandeur was their whole desire, whether they carved or painted their intention, and I may say the result was the same. The painting of Apelles could not have differed from the sculpture of Phidias; painting was not then separated from her elder sister. In the early ages there was but one art; even in Michael Angelo’s time the difference between painting and sculpture was so slight as to be hardly worth considering. Is it possible to regard the “Last Judgment” as anything else but a coloured bas-relief, more complete and less perfect than the Greeks? Michael Angelo’s artistic outlook was the same as Phidias’. One chose the “Last Judgment” and the other “Olympus”, but both subjects were looked at from the same point of view. In each instance the question asked was–what opportunity do they afford for the display of marvellous human form? And when Michael Angelo carved the “Moses” and painted the “St. Jerome” he was as deaf and blind as any Greek to all other consideration save the opulence and the magic of drapery, the vehemence and the splendour of muscle. Nearly two thousand years had gone by and the artistic outlook had not changed at all; three hundred years have passed since Michael Angelo, and inthose three hundred years what revolution has not been effected? How different our estheticism, our aims, our objects, our desires, our aspiration, and how different our art!
After Michael Angelo painting and sculpture became separate arts: sculpture declined, and colour filled the whole artistic horizon. But this change was the only change; the necessities of the new medium had to be considered; but the Italian and Venetian painters continued to view life and art from the same side. Michael Angelo chose his subjects merely because of the opportunities they offered for the delineation of form, Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese chose theirs merely for the opportunities they offered for the display of colour. A new medium of expression had been discovered, that was all. The themes of their pictures were taken from the Bible, if you will, but the scenes they represented with so much pomp of colour were seen by them through the mystery of legend, and the vision was again sublimated by naive belief and primitive aspiration.
The stories of the Old and New Testaments were not anecdotes; faith and ignorance had raised them above the anecdote, and they had become epics, whether by intensity of religious belief–as in the case of the monk of Fiesole–or by being given sublime artistic form–for paganism was not yet dead in the world to witness Leonardo, Raphael, and Andrea del Sarto. To these painters Biblical subjects were a mere pretext for representing man in all his attributes; and when the same subjects were treated by the Venetians, they were transformed in a pomp of colour, and by an absence of all _true_ colour and by contempt for history and chronology became epical and fantastical. It is only necessary to examine any one of the works of the great Venetians to see that they bestowed hardly a thought on the subject of their pictures. When Titian painted the “Entombment of Christ”, what did he see? A contrast–a white body, livid and dead, carried by full-blooded, red-haired Italians, who wept, and whose sorrow only served to make them more beautiful. That is how he understood a subject. The desire to be truthful was not very great, nor was the desire to be new much more marked; to be beautiful was the first and last letter of a creed of which we know very little to-day.
Art died in Italy, and the subject had not yet appeared; and at the end of the sixteenth century the first painters of the great Dutch school were born, and before 1650 a new school, entirely original, having nothing in common with anything that had gone before, had formulated its aestheticism and produced masterpieces. In these masterpieces we find no suspicion of anything that might be called a subject; the absence of subject is even more conspicuous in the Dutchmen than in the Italians. In the Italian painters the subject passed unperceived in a pomp of colour or a Pagan apotheosis of humanity; in the Dutchmen it is dispensed with altogether. No longer do we read of miracles or martyrdoms, but of the most ordinary incidents of everyday life. Turning over the first catalogue to hand of Dutch pictures, I read: “View of a Plain, with shepherd, cows, and sheep in the foreground”; “The White Horse in the Riding School”; “A Lady Playing the Virginal”; “Peasants Drinking Outside a Tavern”; “Peasants Drinking in a Tavern”; “Peasants Gambling Outside a Tavern”; “Brick-making in a Landscape”; “The Wind-mill”; “The Water-mill”; “Peasants Bringing Home the Hay”. And so on, and so on. If we meet with a military skirmish, we are not told where the skirmish took place, nor what troops took part in the skirmish. “A Skirmish in a Rocky Pass” is all the information that is vouchsafed to us. Italian art is invention from end to end, in Dutch art no slightest trace of invention is to be found; one art is purely imaginative, the other is plainly realistic; and yet, at an essential point, the two arts coincide; in neither does the subject prevail; and if Dutch art is more truthful than Italian art, it is because they were unimaginative, stay-at-home folk, whose feet did not burn for foreign travel, and whose only resource was, therefore, to reproduce the life around them, and into that no element of curiosity could come. For their whole country was known to them; even when they left their native town they still continued to paint what they had seen since they were little children.
And, like Italian, Dutch art died before the subject had appeared. It was not until the end of the eighteenth century that the subject really began to make itself felt, and, like the potato blight or phylloxera, it soon became clear that it had come to stay. I think Greuze was the first to conceive a picture after the fashion of a scene in a play–I mean those domestic dramas which he invented, and in which the interest of the subject so clearly predominates–“The Prodigal Son”, for instance. In this picture we have the domestic drama exactly as a stage manager would set it forth. The indignant father, rising from table, prepares to anathematise the repentant son, who stands on the threshold, the weeping mother begs forgiveness for her son, the elder girl advances shyly, the younger children play with their toys, and the serving-girl drops the plate of meat which she is bringing in. And ever since the subject has taken first place in the art of France, England, and Germany, and in like measure as the subject made itself felt, so did art decline.
For the last hundred years painters seem to have lived in libraries rather than in studios. All literatures and all the sciences have been pressed into the service of painting, and an Academy catalogue is in itself a liberal education. In it you can read choice extracts from the Bible, from Shakespeare, from Goethe, from Dante. You can dip into Greek and Latin literature, history–ancient and modern–you can learn something of all mythologies-Pagan, Christian, and Hindoo; if your taste lies in the direction of Icelandic legends, you will not be disappointed in your sixpennyworth. For the last hundred years the painter seems to have neglected nothing except to learn how to paint.
For more than a hundred years painting has been in service. She has acted as a sort of handmaiden to literature, her mission being to make clear to the casual and the unlettered what the lettered had already understood and enjoyed in a more subtle and more erudite form. But to pass from the abstract to the concrete, and, so far as regards subject, to make my meaning quite clear to every one, I cannot do better than to ask my readers to recall Mr. Luke Fildes’ picture of “The Doctor”. No better example could be selected of a picture in which the subject is the supreme interest. True that Mr. Fildes has not taken his subject from novel or poem; in this picture he may have been said to have been his own librettist, and perhaps for that very reason the subject is the one preponderating interest in the picture. He who doubts if this be so has only to ask himself if any critic thought of pointing to any special passage of colour in this picture, of calling attention to the quality of the modelling or the ability of the drawing. No; what attracted attention was the story. Would the child live or die? Did that dear, good doctor entertain any hopes of the poor little thing’s recovery? And the poor parents, how grieved they seemed! Perhaps it is their only child. The picture is typical of contemporary art, which is nearly all conceived in the same spirit, and can therefore have no enduring value. And if by chance the English artist does occasionally escape from the vice of subject for subject’s sake, he almost invariably slips into what I may called the derivative vices–exactness of costume, truth of effect and local colour. To explain myself on this point, I will ask the reader to recall any one of Mr. Alma Tadema’s pictures; it matters not a jot which is chosen. That one, for instance, where, in a circular recess of white marble, Sappho reads to a Greek poet, or is it the young man who is reading to Sappho and her maidens? The interest of the picture is purely archaeological. According to the very latest researches, the ornament which Greek women wore in their hair was of such a shape, and Mr. Tadema has reproduced the shape in his picture. Further researches are made, and it is discovered that that ornament was not worn until a hundred years later. The picture is therefore deprived of some of its interest, and the researches of the next ten years may make it appear as old-fashioned as the Greek pictures of the last two generations appear in our eyes to-day. Until then it is as interesting as a page of Smith’s _Classical Dictionary_. We look at it and we say, “How curious! And that was how the Greeks washed and dressed themselves!”
When Mr. Holman Hunt conceived the idea of a picture of Christ earning His livelihood by the sweat of His brow, it seemed to him to be quite necessary to go to Jerusalem. There he copied a carpenter’s shop from nature, and he filled it with Arab tools and implements, feeling sure that, the manners and customs having changed but little in the East, it was to be surmised that such tools and implements must be nearly identical with those used eighteen centuries ago. To dress the Virgin in sumptuous flowing robes, as Raphael did, was clearly incorrect; the Virgin was a poor woman, and could not have worn more than a single garment, and the garment she wore probably resembled the dress of the Arab women of the present day, and so on and so on. Through the window we see the very landscape that Christ looked upon. From the point of view of the art critic of the _Daily Telegraph_ nothing could be better; the various sites and prospects are explained and commented upon, and the heart of middle-class England beats in sympathetic response. But the real picture-lover sees nothing save two geometrically drawn figures placed in the canvas like diagrams in a book of Euclid. And the picture being barren of artistic interest, his attention is caught by the Virgin’s costume, and the catalogue informs him that Mr. Hunt’s model was an Arab woman in Jerusalem, whose dress in all probability resembled the dress the Virgin wore two thousand years ago. The carpenter’s shop he is assured is most probably an exact counterpart of the carpenter’s shop in which Christ worked. How very curious! how very curious!
Curiosity in art has always been a corruptive influence, and the art of our century is literally putrid with curiosity. Perhaps the desire of home was never so fixed and so real in any race as some would have us believe. At all times there have been men whose feet itched for travel; even in Holland, the country above all others which gave currency to the belief in the stay-at-home instinct, there were always adventurous spirits who yearned for strange skies and lands. It was this desire of travel that destroyed the art of Holland in the seventeenth century. I can hardly imagine an article that would be more instructive and valuable than one dealing precisely with those Dutchmen who went to Italy in quest of romance, poetry, and general artistic culture, for travel has often had an injurious effect on art. I do not say foreign travel, I say any travel. The length of the journey counts for nothing, once the painter’s inspiration springs from the novelty of the colour, or the character of the landscape, or the interest that a strange costume suggests. There are painters who have never been further than Maidenhead, and who bring back what I should call _notes de voyage_; there are others who have travelled round the world and have produced general aspects bearing neither stamp nor certificate of mileage–in other words, pictures. There are, therefore, two men who must not be confused one with the other, the traveller that paints and the painter that travels.
Every day we hear of a painter who has been to Norway, or to Brittany, or to Wales, or to Algeria, and has come back with sixty-five sketches, which are now on view, let us say, at Messrs. Dowdeswell’s Galleries, in New Bond Street, the home of all such exhibitions. The painter has been impressed by the savagery of fiords, by the prettiness of blouses and sabots, by the blue mountain in the distance and the purple mountain in the foreground, by the narrow shade of the street, and the solemnity of a _burnous_ or the grace of a _haik_ floating in the wind. The painter brings back these sights and scenes as a child brings back shells from the shore–they seemed very strange and curious, and, therefore, like the child, he brought back, not the things themselves, but the next best things, the most faithful sketches he could make of them. To understand how impossible it is to paint _pictures_ in a foreign country, we have only to imagine a young English painter setting up his easel in, let us say, Algeria. There he finds himself confrontedwith a new world; everything is different: the costumes are strange, the rhythm of the lines is different, the effects are harsh and unknown to him; at home the earth is dark and the sky is light, in Algeria the everlasting blue must be darker than the white earth, and the key of colour widely different from anything he has seen before. Selection is impossible, he cannot distinguish between the important and the unimportant; everything strikes him with equal vividness. To change anything of this country, so clear, so precise, so characteristic, is to soften; to alleviate what is too rude, is to weaken; to generalise, is to disfigure. So the artist is obliged to take Algiers in the lump; in spite of himself he will find himself forced into a scrupulous exactitude, nothing must be passed over, and so his pictures are at best only the truth, photographic truth and the naturalness of a fac-simile.
The sixty-five drawings which the painter will bring back and will exhibit in Messrs. Dowdeswell’s will be documentary evidence of the existence of Algeria–of all that makes a country itself, of exactly the things by which those who have been there know it, of the things which will make it known to those who have not been there, the exact type of the inhabitants, their costume, their attitudes, their ways, and manner of living. Once the painter accepts truth for aim and end, it becomes impossible to set a limit upon his investigations. We shall learn how this people dress, ride, and hunt; we shall learn what arms they use–the painter will describe them as well as a pencil may describe–the harness of the horses he must know and understand; through dealing with so much novelty it becomes obligatory for the travelling painter to become explanatory and categorical. And as the attraction of the unknown corresponds in most people to the immoral instinct of curiosity, the painter will find himself forced to attempt to do with paint and canvas what he could do much better in a written account. His public will demand pictures composed after the manner of an inventory, and the taste for ethnography will end by being confused with the sentiment of beauty.
Amongst this collection of _documents_ which causes the Gallery to resound with foolish and vapid chatter there are two small pictures. Every one has passed by them, but now an artist is examining them, and they are evidently the only two things in the exhibition that interest him. One is entitled “Sunset on the Nile”, an impression of the melancholy of evening; the other is entitled “Pilgrims”, a band of travellers passing up a sandy tract, an impression of hot desert solitudes.
And now I will conclude with an anecdote taken from one to whom I owe much. Two painters were painting on the banks of the Seine. Suddenly a shepherd passed driving before him a long flock of sheep, silhouetting with supple movement upon the water whitening under a grey sky at the end of April. The shepherd had his scrip on his back, he wore the great felt hat and the gaiters of the herdsman, two black dogs, picturesque in form, trotted at his heels, for the flock was going in excellent order. “Do you know,” cried one painter to the other, “that nothing is more interesting to paint than a shepherd on the banks of _a river_?” He did not say the Seine–he said a river.
ARTISTIC EDUCATION IN FRANCE AND ENGLAND.
Is the introduction of the subject into art the one and only cause for the defeat of the brilliant genius which the Revolution and the victories of Napoleoncalled into existence? Are there not other modern and special signs which distinguish the nineteenth century French schools from all the schools that preceded it? I think there are.
Throwing ourselves back in our chairs, let us think of this French school in its _ensemble_. What extraordinary variety! What an absence of fixed principle! curiosity, fever, impatience, hurry, anxiety, desire touching on hysteria. An enormous expenditure of force, but spent in so many different and contrary directions, that the sum-total of the result seems a little less than we had expected. Throwing ourselves back in our chairs, and closing our eyes a second time, let us think of our eighteenth century English school. Is it not like passing from the glare and vicarious holloaing of the street into a quiet, grave assembly of well-bred men, who are not afraid to let each other speak, and know how to make themselves heard without shouting; men who choose their words so well that they afford to speak without emphasis, and in whose speech you find neither neologisms, nor inversions, nor grammatical extravagances, nor calculated brutalities, nor affected ignorance, nor any faintest trace of pedantry? What these men have to say is more or less interesting, but they address us in the same language, and however arbitrarily we may place them, though we hang a pig-stye by Morland next to a duchess by Gainsborough, we are surprised by a pleasant air of family likeness in the execution. We feel, however differently these men see and think, that they are content to express themselves in the same language. Their work may be compared to various pieces of music played on an instrument which was common property; they were satisfied with the instrument, and preferred to compose new music for it than to experiment with the instrument itself.
It may be argued that in the lapse of a hundred years the numerous differences of method which characterise modern painting will disappear, and that it will seem as uniform to the eyes of the twenty-first century as the painting of the eighteenth century seems in our eyes to-day. I do not think this will be so. And in proof of this opinion I will refer again to the differences of opinion regarding the first principles of painting and drawing which divided Ingres and Gericault. Differences regarding first principles never existed between the leaders of any other artistic movement. Not between Michael Angelo and Raphael, not between Veronese, Tintoretto, Titian, and Rubens; not between Hals or any other Dutchman, except Rembrandt, born between 1600 and 1640; or between Van Dyck and Reynolds and Gainsborough. Nor must the difference between the methods of Giotto and Titian cause any one to misunderstand my meaning. The change that two centuries brought into art was a gradual change, corresponding exactly to the ideas which the painter wished to express; each method was sufficient to explain the ideas current at the time it was invented for that purpose; it served that purpose and no more.
Facilities for foreign travel, international exhibitions, and cosmopolitanism have helped to keep artists of all countries in a ferment of uncertainty regarding even the first principles of their art. But this is not all; education has proved a vigorous and rapid solvent, and has completed the disintegration of art. A young man goes to the Beaux Arts; he is taught how to measure the model with his pencil, and how to determine the movement of the model with his plumb-line. He is taught how to draw by the masses rather than by the character, and the advantages of this teaching permit him, if he is an intelligent fellow, to produce at the end of two years’ hard labour a measured, angular, constipated drawing, a sort of inferior photograph. He is then set to painting, and the instruction he receives amounts to this–that he must not rub the paint about with his brush as he rubbed the chalk with his paper stump. After a long methodical study of the model, an attempt is made to prepare a corresponding tone; no medium must be used; and when the, large square brush is filled full of sticky, clogging pigment it is drawn half an inch down and then half an inch across the canvas, and the painter must calculate how much he can finish at a sitting, for this system does not admit of retouchings. It is practised in all the French studios, where it is known as _la peinture au premier coup_.
A clever young man, a man of talent, labours at art in the manner I have described from eight to ten hours a day, and at the end of six or seven years his education is completed. During the long while of his pupilage he has heard, “first learn your trade, and then do what you like”. The time has arrived for him to do what he likes. He already suspects that the mere imitation of MM. Bouguereau and Lefebvre will bring him neither fame nor money; he soon finds that is so, and it becomes clear to him he must do something different. Enticing vistas of possibilities open out before him, but he is like a man whose limbs have been kept too long in splints–they are frozen; and he at length understands the old and terrible truth: as the twig is bent so will it grow. The skin he would slough will not be sloughed; he tries all the methods–robust executions, lymphatic executions, sentimental and insipid executions, painstaking executions, cursive and impertinent executions. Through all these the Beaux Arts student, if he is intelligent enough to perceive the falseness and worthlessness of his primary education, slowly works his way. He is like a vessel without ballast; he is like a blindfolded man who has missed his pavement; he is blown from wave to wave; he is confused with contradictory cries. Last year he was robust, this year he is lymphatic; he affects learning which he does not possess, and then he assumes airs of ignorance, equally unreal–a mild, sophisticated ignorance, which he calls _naivete_. And these various execution she is never more than superficially acquainted with; he does not practise any one long enough to extract what good there may be in it.
To set before the reader the full story of the French decadence, I should have to relate the story of the great schism of some few years ago, when the pedants remained at the _Salon_ under the headship of Mr. Bouguereau, and the experimentalists followed Meissonier to the Champs de Mars.[Footnote: See “Impressions and Opinions.”]The authoritative name of Meissonier, the genius of Puvis de Chavannes, and the interest of the exhibition of Stevens’ early work, sufficed for some years to disguise the progress and the tendency of the declension of French art; and it was not until last year (1892) that it was impossible to doubt any longer that the great French renaissance of the beginning of the century had worn itself out, that the last leaves were falling, and that probably a long period of winter rest was preparing. French art has resolved itself into pedants and experimentalists! The _Salon_ is now like to a library of Latin verses composed by the Eton and Harrow masters and their pupils; the Champs de Mars like a costume ball at Elysee Montmartre.
In England it is customary for art to enter by a side door, and the enormous subvention to the Kensington Schools would never have been voted by Parliament if the bill had not been gilt with the usual utility gilding. It was represented that the schools were intended for something much more serious than the mere painting of pictures, which only rich people could buy: the schools were primarily intended as schools of design, wherein the sons and daughters of the people would be taught how to design wall-papers, patterns for lace, curtains, damask table-cloths, etc. The intention, like many another, was excellent; but the fact remains that, except for examination purposes, the work done by Kensington students is useless. A design for a piece of wall-paper, for which a Kensington student is awarded a medal, is almost sure to prove abortive when put to a practical test. The isolated pattern looks pretty enough on the two feet of white paper on which it is drawn; but when the pattern is manifolded, it is usually found that the designer has not taken into account the effect of the repetition. That is the pitfall into which the Kensington student usually falls; he cannot make practical application of his knowledge, and at Minton’s factory all the designs drawn by Kensington students have to be redrawn by those who understand the practical working out of the processes of reproduction and the quality of the material employed. So complete is the failure of the Kensington student, that to plead a Kensington education is considered to be an almost fatal objection against any one applying for work in any of our industrial centres.
Five-and-twenty years ago the schools of art at South Kensington were the most comical in the world; they were the most complete parody on the Continental school of art possible to imagine. They are no doubt the same to-day as they were five-and-twenty years ago–any way, the educational result is the same. The schools as I remember them were faultless in everything except the instruction dispensed there. There were noble staircases, the floors were covered with cocoa-nut matting, the rooms admirably heated with hot-water pipes, there were plaster casts and officials. In the first room the students practised drawing from the flat. Engraved outlines of elaborate ornamentation were given them, and these they drew with lead pencil, measuring the spaces carefully with compasses. In about six months or a year the student had learned to use his compass correctly, and to produce a fine hard black-lead outline; the harder and finer the outline, the more the drawing looked like a problem in a book of Euclid, the better the examiner was pleased, and the more willing was he to send the student to the room upstairs, where drawing was practised from the antique.
This was the room in which the wisdom of South Kensington attained a complete efflorescence. I shall never forget the scenes I witnessed there. Having made choice of a cast, the student proceeded to measure the number of heads; he then measured the cast in every direction, and ascertained by means of a plumb-line exactly where the lines fell. It wasmore like land-surveying than drawing, and to accomplish this portion of his task took generally a fortnight, working six hours a week. He then placed a sheet of tissue paper upon his drawing, leaving only one small part uncovered, and, having reduced his chalk pencil to the finest possible point, he proceeded to lay in a set of extremely fine lines. These were crossed by a second set of lines, and the two sets of lines were elaborately stippled, every black spot being carefully picked out with bread. With a patience truly sublime in its folly, he continued the process all the way down the figure, accomplishing, if he were truly industrious, about an inch square in the course of an evening. Our admiration was generally directed to those who had spent the longest time on their drawings. After three months’ work a student began to be noticed; at the end of four he became an important personage. I remember one who had contrived to spend six months on his drawing. He was a sort of demigod, and we used to watch him anxious and alarmed lest he might not have the genius to devote still another month to it, and our enthusiasm knew no bounds when we learned that, a week before the drawings had to be sent in, he had taken his drawing home and spent three whole days stippling it and picking out the black spots with bread.
The poor drawing had neither character nor consistency; it looked like nothing under the sun, except a drawing done at Kensington–a flat, foolish thing, but very soft and smooth. But this was enough; it was passed by the examiners, and the student went into the Life Room to copy an Italian model as he had copied the Apollo Belvedere. Once or twice a week a gentleman who painted tenth-rate pictures, which were not always hung in the Academy, came round and passed casual remarks on the quality of the stippling. There was a head-master who painted tenth-rate historical pictures, after the manner of a tenth-rate German painter in a provincial town, in a vast studio upstairs, which the State was good enough to provide him with, and he occasionally walked through the studios; on an average, I should say, once a month.
The desire to organise art proceeded in France from a love of system, and in England from a love of respectability. To the ordinary mind there is something especially reassuring in medals, crowns, examinations, professors, and titles; and since the founding of the Kensington Schools we unfortunately hear no more of parents opposing their children’s wishes to become artists. The result of all these facilities for art study has been to swamp natural genius and to produce enormous quantities of vacuous little water colours and slimy little oil colours. Young men have been prevented from going to Australia and Canada and becoming rough farmers, and young ladies from following them and becoming rough wives and themothers of healthy children. Instead of such natural emigration and extension of the race, febrile little pilgrimages have been organised to Paris and Grey, whence astonishing methods and theories regarding the conditions, under which painting alone can be accomplished, have been brought back. Original Kensington stipple has been crossed with square brush-work, and the mule has been bred in and in with open brush-work, and fresh strains have been sought in the execution at the angle of forty-five; art has become infinitely hybrid and definitely sterile.
Must we then conclude that all education is an evil? Why exaggerate; why outstrip the plain telling of the facts? For those who are thinking of adopting art as a profession it is sufficient to know that the one irreparable evil is a bad primary education. Be sure that after five years of the Beaux Arts you cannot become a great painter. Be sure that after five years of Kensington you can never become a painter at all. “If not at Kensington nor at the Beaux Arts, where am I to obtain the education I stand in need of?” cries the embarrassed student. I do not propose to answer that question directly. How the masters of Holland and Flanders obtained their marvellous education is not known. We neither know how they learned nor how they painted. Did the early masters paint first in monochrome, adding the colouring matter afterwards? Much vain conjecturing has been expended in attempting to solve this question. Did Ruysdale paint direct from nature or from drawings? Unfortunately on this question history has no single word to say. We know that Potter learned his trade in the fields in lonely communication with nature. We know too that Crome was a house-painter, and practised painting from nature when his daily work was done. Nevertheless he attained as perfect a technique as any painter that ever lived. Morland, too, was self-taught: he practised painting in the fields and farmyards and the country inns where he lived, oftentimes paying for board and lodging with a picture. Did his art suffer from want of education? Is there any one who believes that Morland would have done better work if he had spent three or four years stippling drawings from the antique at South Kensington?
I will conclude these remarks, far too cursive and incomplete, with an anecdote which, I think, will cause the thoughtful to ponder. Some seven or eight years ago, Renoir, a painter of rare talent and originality, after twenty years of struggle with himself and poverty, succeeded in attaining a very distinct and personal expression of his individuality. Out of a hundred influences he had succeeded in extracting an art as beautiful as it was new. His work was beginning to attract buyers. For the first time in his life he had a little money in hand, and he thought he would like a holiday. Long reading of novels leads the reader to suppose that he found his ruin in a period of riotous living, the reaction induced by anxiety and over-work. Not at all. He did what every wise friend would have advised him to do under the circumstances: he went to Venice to study Tintoretto. The magnificences of this master struck him through with the sense of his own insignificance; he became aware of the fact that he could not draw like Tintoretto; and when he returned to Paris he resolved to subject himself to two years of hard study in an art school. For two years he laboured in the life class, working on an average from seven to ten hours a day, and in two years he had utterly destroyed every trace of the charming and delightful art which had taken him twenty years to build up. I know of no more tragic story–do you?
INGRES AND COROT.
Of the thirty or more great artists who made the artistic movement at the beginning of the century in France, five will, I think, exercise a prolonged influence on the art of the future–Ingres, Corot, Millet, Manet, and Degas.
The omission of the name of Delacroix will surprise many; but though Delacroix will engage the attention of artists as they walk through the Louvre, I do not think that they will turn to him for counsel in their difficulty, or that they will learn from him any secrets of their craft. In the great masters of pictorial composition–Michael Angelo, Veronese, Tintoretto, and Rubens–the passion and tumult of the work resides solely in the conception; the execution is always calculated, and the result is perfectly predetermined and accurately foreseen. To explain myself I will tell an anecdote which is always told whenever Delacroix’s name is mentioned, without, however, the true significance of the anecdote being perceived. After seeing Constable’s pictures, Delacroix repainted one of his most important works from end to end.
Of Degas [Footnote: See essay on Degas In “Impressions and Opinions”.] and Manet I have spoken elsewhere. Millet seems to me to be a sort of nineteenth century Greuze. The subject-matter is different, but at bottom the art of these two painters is more alike than is generally supposed. Neither was a painter in any true sense of the word, and if the future learns anything from Millet, it will be how to separate the scene from the environment which absorbs it, how to sacrifice the background, how to suggest rather than to point out, and how by a series of ellipses to lead the spectator to imagine what is not there. The student may learn from Millet that it was by sometimes servilely copying nature, sometimes by neglecting nature, that the old masters succeeded in conveying not an illusion but an impression of life.
But of all nineteenth century painters Ingres and Corot seem most sure of future life; their claim upon the attention and the admiration of future artists seems the most securely founded. Looked at from a certain side Ingres seems for sheer perfection to challenge antiquity. Of Michael Angelo there can never be any question; he stands alone in a solitude of greatness. Phidias himself is not so much alone. For the art of Apelles could not have differed from that of Phidias; and the intention of many a drawing by Apelles must have been identical with that of “La Source”. It is difficult to imagine what further beauty he may have introduced into a face, or what further word he might have had to say on the beauty of a virgin body.
The legs alone suggest the possibility of censure. Ingres repainted the legs when the picture was finished and the model was not before him, so the idea obtains among artists that the legs are what are least perfect in the picture. In repainting the legs his object was omission of detail with a view to concentration of attention on the upper part of the figure. It must not however be supposed that the legs are what is known among painters as empty; they have been simplified; their synthetic expression has been found; and if the teaching at the Beaux Arts forbids the present generation to understand such drawing, the fault lies with the state that permits the Beaux Arts, and not with Ingres, whose genius was not crushed by it. The suggestion that Ingres spoilt the legs of “La Source” by repainting them when the model was not before him could come from nowhere but the Beaux Arts.
That Ingres was not so great an artist as Raphael I am aware. That Ingres’ drawings show none of the dramatic inventiveness of Raphael’s drawings is so obvious that I must apologise for such a commonplace. Raphael’s drawings were done with a different intention from Ingres’; Raphael’s drawings were no more than rough memoranda, and in no instance did he attempt to carry a drawing to the extreme limit that Ingres did. Ingres’ drawing is one thing, Raphael’s is another; still I would ask if any one thinks that Raphael could have carried a drawing as far as Ingres? I would ask if any of Raphael’s drawings are as beautiful, as perfect, or as instructive as Ingres’. Take, for example, the pencil drawing in the Louvre, the study for the odalisque: who except a Greek could have produced so perfect a drawing? I can imagine Apelles doing something like it, but no one else.
When you go to the Louvre examine that line of back, return the next day and the next, and consider its infinite perfection before you conclude that my appreciation is exaggerated. Think of the learning and the love that were necessary for the accomplishment of such exquisite simplifications. Never did pencil follow an outline with such penetrating and unwearying passion, or clasp and enfold it with such simple and sufficient modelling. Nowhere can you detect a starting-point or a measurement taken; it seems to have grown as a beautiful tendril grows, and every curve sways as mysteriously, and the perfection seems as divine. Beside it Duerer would seem crabbed and puzzle-headed; Holbein would seem angular and geometrical; Da Vinci would seem vague: and I hope that no critic by partial quotation will endeavour to prove me guilty of having said that Ingres was a greater artist than Da Vinci. I have not said any such thing; I have merely striven by aid of comparison to bring before the reader some sense of the miraculous beauty of one of Ingres’ finest pencil drawings.
Or let us choose the well-known drawing of the Italian lady sitting in the Louis XV. arm-chair, her long curved and jewelled hand lying in her lap and a coiffure of laces pinned down with a long jewelled hair-pin. How her head-dress of large laces decorates the paper, and the elaborate working out of the pattern, is it not a miracle of handicraft? How exquisite the black curls on the forehead, and how they balance the dark eyes which are the depth and centre of the composition! The necklace, how well the stones are heaped, how well they lie together! How well their weight and beauty are expressed! And the earrings, how enticing in their intricate workmanship. Then the movement of the face, how full it is of the indolent south, and the oval of the face is composed to harmonise and enhance the lace head-dress; and its outline, though full of classical simplifications, tells the character with Holbein-like fidelity; it falls away into a soft, weak chin in which resides a soft sensual lassitude. The black eyes are set like languid stars in the face, and the flesh rounds off softly, like a sky, modelled with a little shadow, part of the outline, and expressing its beauty. And then there are the marvels of the dress to consider: the perfect and spontaneous creation of the glitter of the long silk arms, and the muslin of the wrists, soft as foliage, and then the hardness of the bodice stitched with jewellery and set so romantically on the almost epicene bosom.
It is the essentially Greek quality of perfection that brings Corot and Ingres together. They are perfect, as none other since the Greek sculptors has been perfect. Other painters have desired beauty at intervals as passionately as they, none save the Greeks so continuously; and the desire to be merely beautiful seemed, if possible, to absorb the art of Corot even more completely than it did that of Ingres. Among the numerous pictures, sketches, and drawings which he left you will find weakness, repetitions, even commonplace, but ugliness never. An ugly set of lines is not to be found in Corot; the rhythm may sometimes be weak, but his lines never run out of metre. For the rhythm of line as well as of sound the artist must seek in his own soul; he will never find it in the inchoate and discordant jumble which we call nature.
And, after all, what is art but rhythm? Corot knew that art is nature made rhythmical, and so he was never known to take out a six-foot canvas to copy nature on. Being an artist, he preferred to observe nature, and he lay down and dreamed his fields and trees, and he walked about in his landscape, selecting his point of view, determining the rhythm of his lines. That sense of rhythm which I have defined as art was remarkable in him even from his first pictures. In the “Castle of St. Angelo, Rome”, for instance, the placing of the buildings, one low down, the other high up in the picture, the bridge between, and behind the bridge the dome of St. Peter’s, is as faultless a composition as his maturest work. As faultless, and yet not so exquisite. For it took many long and pensive years to attain the more subtle and delicate rhythms of “The Lake” in the collection of J. S. Forbes, Esq., or the landscape in the collection of G. N. Stevens, Esq., or the “Ravine” in the collection of Sir John Day.
Corot’s style changed; but it changed gradually, as nature changes, waxing like the moon from a thin, pure crescent to a full circle of light. Guided by a perfect instinct, he progressed, fulfilling the course of his artistic destiny. We notice change, but each change brings fuller beauty. And through the long and beautiful year of Corot’s genius–full as the year itself of months and seasons–we notice that the change that comes over his art is always in the direction of purer and more spiritual beauty. We find him more and more absorbed in the emotion that the landscape conveys, more willing to sacrifice the superfluous and circumstantial for the sake of the immortal beauty of things.
Look at the “Lac de Garde” and say if you can that the old Greek melody is not audible in the line which bends and floats to the lake’s edge, in the massing and the placing of those trees, in the fragile grace of the broken birch which sweeps the “pale complexioned sky”. Are we not looking into the heart of nature, and do we not hear the silence that is the soul of evening? In this, his perfect period, he is content to leave his foreground rubbed over with some expressive grey, knowing well that the eye rests not there, and upon his middle distance he will lavish his entire art, concentrating his picture on some one thing in which for him resides the true reality of the place; be this the evening ripples on the lake or the shimmering of the willow leaves as the last light dies out of the sky.
I only saw Corot once. It was in some woods near Paris, where I had gone to paint, and I came across the old gentleman unexpectedly, seated in front of his easel in a pleasant glade. After admiring his work I ventured to say: “Master, what you are doing is lovely, but I cannot find your composition in the landscape before us.” He said: “My foreground is a long way ahead,” and sure enough, nearly two hundred yards away, his picture rose out of the dimness of the dell, stretching a little beyond the vista into the meadow.
The anecdote seems to me to be a real lesson in the art of painting, for it shows us the painter in his very employment of nature, and we divine easily the transposition in the tones and in the aspect of things that he was engaged in bringing into that picture. And to speak of transpositions leads us inevitably into consideration of the great secret of Corot’s art, his employment of what is known in studios as values.
By values is meant the amount of light and shadow contained in a tone. The relation of a half-tint to the highest light, which is represented by the white paper, the relation of a shadow to the deepest black, which is represented by the chalk pencil, is easy enough to perceive in a drawing; but when the work is in colour the values, although not less real, are more difficult to estimate. For a colour can be considered from two points of view: either as so much colouring