England (part III)


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What remains of all those elegant painters who spent almost as much time in writing about painting—with much competence, distinction, and sagacity, it is true—as in trying to attain the profound purpose of painting, like those whom they imitated, men who had never written about it—Rubens, Rembrandt, Titian, Veronese, and Velasquez? There remains the superficial, but sincere and clear-sighted love for color of a century during which, since Watteau, not a painter in western Europe, save Chardin, Goya, and the last of the Venetians understood the voluptuousness of color. There remains an effort, insufficient but unanimous, to bring the art of painting back to its sources, which are space, light, shadow, and the tangle and play of reflections on forms in movement. There is a progressive reconciliation with the real trees, the real flowers, the real grasses of the country, and the real clouds in the sky, at the hour when all the litt√©rateurs, all the artists, and all the philosophers of the Continent, caught in the current of fashionable and ideological scene-painting, no longer saw anything but artificial, weak, and sentimental symbols.

The lordly castles, which the painter follows as his model, are buried under ivy and ampelopsis at the center of those great parks which William Kent, during the first third of the century, was designing as a reaction against the fashion for Italian or French gardens. The dryness of southern Europe, the canalizations which it necessitates, the basins, the jets of water, the thinness, the well-determined form of the cypresses and the umbrella-shaped pines, the aloes, and all the somber plants which grow in the sun and the dust, impose on the mind a clear and sharply cut image which French rationalism was to carry to its highest point of stylization and arrangement. Here, on the contrary, there is almost eternal rain, a soil into which the roots burrow deeply to carry nourishment to the luxuriant masses of leaves; and here is the forest, its dense leafage gathering every drop of water that comes with the fog; here are wide-spreading boughs dividing into many branches; here are enormous black trunks covered with moss and lichens. Disorder imposes itself, and savage strength, and verdure, heavy with water. Amid smooth lawns, as lustrous as a deep velvet, the majestic trees seem to absorb the silence. The majority of them are isolated in groups, like peaceful giants. Some of them trail their mantle of branches upon the ground. Leaves fall on the greensward, and the birds that drink and go marauding there whirl by in swarms. Flower beds appear like carpets cast here and there to affirm, amid the pantheistic disorder and the impassable vigor of the world, the presence of calm and of will. Man imposes nothing on Nature; he takes care that she shall follow, with his aid, the hints which she gives him. From winter to summer, he enhances the effect of the obedient multitude of the plants and the brooks which await the decisions of the wind and the sun in order to change their appearances.

Milton, in "Paradise Lost," sings of the natural garden. The natural garden is the most powerful expression of the domestic style of the English. In France and in Italy it expresses an artistic aristocracy, in their cult of intellect and of design, and within these limits it stops short. In England it originated with a practical aristocracy, which extends, by way of the collective wealth of the country, to all the men of the city, even to the poor, for whom the garden remains open and for whom its lawns are accessible; it submits to daily contact with herds of sheep and oxen, whose wool and whose meat clothe and feed the nation. Outside the flights of imagination expressed in its lyric power over words, far from its violent trading and its practical destiny, England carries its effort for aesthetic organization into everything which assures comfort and repose to man—the garden, the house with its furnishing, its clean and almost bare rooms where nothing useless is dragged in, its definite solid furniture, its flowered windows, and its walls of red brick or of white painted wood. With the work of art among other peoples, political and domestic styles are to be renewed incessantly, but like the work of art again, they preserve, through revolutions and conquest, a traditional character. There is little or nothing for the mind. Everything is for the body and the soul, and their health and their well-being. Morals, sport, religion, and business are in complete agreement.

The art of the English landscape was born of that indifference of almost all Englishmen to that which is not virginal nature, suppleness of muscles, and rectitude of morals. It already appears in the gardens which Gainsborough opens wide behind his somewhat distant apparitions of great ladies and of blond children. Indeed, he has often seen a romantic landscape, suns setting over pools, and rays of light piercing the clouds after summer rains. At the decline of the most skeptical century in history, the English soul finds itself even by the aid of painting, which expresses it insufficiently. It waxes enthusiastic over the novelists of poverty, and over peasant poets. It has such a need of nature and of reverie that it listens with exaltation to a literary impostor because he claims to have rediscovered the barbaric poems of the first men of its fjords and its mountains in their struggle with the voices and the phantoms of the ocean, of the storm, and of the fog. The Revolution in France arouses those who are falling asleep, and renders feverish those who awaken. Byron and Shelley flee England out of hatred for her commercial and bigoted positivism. Wordsworth takes refuge on the shores of a solitary lake, where he will no longer hear anything but the fall of the rain and the cry of the water birds, where he will no longer see anything but the forest on the hill slope, the mist in the hollows, and the universal awakening of silent life at each return of the springtime.

It is at this moment that the English painters, leaving Lawrence, the most mediocre among them, to continue their tradition of fashion into the heart of the nineteenth century, scaled the walls of the parks to explore the countryside and to consider the sky at their ease. Old Crome, whose father was a weaver, never even left the part of the country where he was born, and, like Burns, alone, without guide and without companion, crossed the threshold of the mystery of the world. The broad English land, with its covering of damp earth, its soil kneaded of clay and water, is contained entire in each one of his visions. With earth on the soles of his shoes and a stick in his hand, he goes over it like a peasant who loves it for the difficulties it gives him and for the bread that he knows how to get from it; the blood comes to the surface of his shaven cheeks, as the mist enters his nostrils. That is all; his painting expresses nothing more; but at that moment, when the Hollanders are silent, when the French and the Italians—Vernet, Moreau, Hubert Robert, Canaletto, and Guardi—are writing their careful pages about cities and stylized ruins, and mythological countries illumined by a pale reflection from the sun of Claude Lorrain, when Wilson, himself an Englishman, cannot tear himself from their seductive domination, this is a revolution. The odors of the earth, all its aspects determined by the weather and the season, the shadows which the rain clouds carry across it, and the darkening caused by the wind blowing over the earth and by the approach of evening, all of that together enters human sentiment, with Crome.

A landscape when it is painted contains no transposition, especially when imagination adds nothing to its effects. One must look at it. One cannot describe it. The greatest achievement of English landscape, in the work of Old Crome, Cotman, Bonington, and Constable, above all, furnishes Delacroix with certain of the technical elements of the lyricism which animated French painting for eighty years and which has not yet died out. When Delacroix saw Constable's landscapes, the year when he was painting the "Massacre of Scio," he repainted his immense canvas in four days. He discovered in them a principle, that of the division of colors, almost realized by instinct by Veronese, by Vermeer of Delft, and by Chardin, but whose fecundity Constable, with the severity and the thoroughness of the Englishman, consciously demonstrated in his works. Near by one sees reds, oranges, greens, blues, and yellows, a confused mingling of juxtaposed colors, without apparent relationship with the distant coloration which they claim to imitate in nature, and the well-defined form which they try to evoke. From afar, one sees the great sky, washed and limpid, where the pearly clouds sail like ships; one sees the watery veil ever suspended and trembling above the plain; one sees the blue haze growing denser and stretching away to the distance. Here is the infinite countryside, in England so rich and green after the rain, that it seems as if spread out on a giant palette, pearly with drops of water. Everything, the thick greensward, the deep mass of the oaks, the red and white houses appearing amid green copses, space with its azure and silver, and the flowers sprinkled with dew, everything shines and trembles and scintillates, like a world rising into the daylight at the coolest and the most transparent of the hours. To Constable the scenes of his country spoke the words, "I am the resurrection and the life." And his soul plunged into these scenes as the fairest woman's body plunges into the water.

It is when Constable arrives at that transparence that he touches great painting most nearly, and perhaps he is a greater painter when he works with watercolor than when he tries to render, by means of the oil so lavishly used by Reynolds and his group, the moist and glistening splendor of English landscape. Watercolor, by its slightness of body, its liquid freshness, and its incapacity for rendering oversubtle shades, is the material best suited to the Englishmen. Constable owes to it his most luminous notes, Turner his most translucent jewels, and Bonington uses it with such mastery that he reaches the point of incorporating with his oil painting—blond, ambered, and accented by reds and greens which seem to die out, little by little as if under a layer of water—something of its gleam, and to offer a reflection of it to the flaming and funereal color of Delacroix. Oil-paints, on the contrary, are almost always dangerous for the English painters. The uniform splendor of their atmosphere does not harmonize well with that complex material, of a profundity so rich and agitated. They become victims of it. They desperately insist upon rendering with it their sky laden with vapors and, at the same time, the transparence of the air so frequently revealed to them by the sun after the rain. They triturate it, they thicken it, deprive it of its savor by trying to make it too savory, and by becoming exclusively absorbed in the study of it, get caught in its creamy mud, and confuse the pearl and the silver which they have gathered from the air. English landscape, even with Constable, often sinks into the heavy cookery in which Reynolds left almost all his gifts.

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