Romanticism and Materialism (part VII)

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Science had been advancing for half a century. The "fact" itself had been left behind. Progress of a profound nature was being made in the analysis of matter, and each day brought forth some practical miracle. The mind carries on all its elements together, in a block. The science and the art of a given period are never more than particular modes of expression, distinct in their characteristics, but, through their spirit, belonging in common to all the men of that period. The unexpected results of the application to industry and to social life of the discoveries of chemistry, of electricity, and of mechanics were making an impression upon the mobile imaginations of the artists before all the others, and although by habit they are far removed from the utilitarian movement of the century, they showed themselves this time strongly disposed to accept its guidance. The literary men meet at the lectures of Claude Bernard. The painters interest themselves in the discoveries of Chevreul, who really does no more than prove that which had already been guessed by Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Greco, Rubens, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Watteau, Chardin, Reynolds, and Goya, that which was known by Constable and Delacroix, but which, when rigorously demonstrated, will enchant the French mind, enamored, even in the domain of the creative imagination, of clear reasons and of visible truths. The literary constraint to which the romanticists submitted yields, after Courbet, to scientific constraint, and the artist passes almost without transition from the prison of the subject into the prison of the object.

This attempt to return to sources had nothing new about it save its scientific method, which, indeed, was what rendered it decisive. At the very time of the antagonistic triumphs of Ingres and of Delacroix, the painters had left the studios and the Schools to return to "nature," in an outburst of sentiment, whose first origin must be sought in the influence of the Nouvelle Héloise, the Confessions, and the Contrat Social. The city was a place of perdition for the man of sensibility. He could renew the innocence of his vision only by contact with the earth itself, source of the eternal youth of forms in metamorphosis, and of the heart, to which it gives back calmness and purity. An excess—the opposite of the abuse of the Museum and of the creative excitation of the cities—it was an ascetic assent to keep turning in the same circle, to see nothing of the desires and the urge of one's epoch, and to drug oneself slowly with the opiate of a personal formula, and with the increasing shadow of habit and forgetfulness. Delacroix is far more solitary at the center of the brutal cities which he forces to gravitate around his own mind, than are these romantic peasants, exiling themselves in the solitude of the woods, and in the stifling desert of a sentiment which dries up in advance the springs that the fever of living would open up in them each day. A landscapist—Michel—is so solitary that his very life is almost unknown, although the soul of Rembrandt sometimes crosses his path. Two painters remain at Barbizon throughout their lives. Rousseau, so moving at times, when he uses only his pen and notes his direct impressions, those that one keeps for oneself—measured, balanced, clear cut, musical, and composed like all those which the French masters of drawing have left us, from Claude and Poussin to Vernet and Corot—Rousseau falls asleep at the edge of his eternal marshes, whose color, of an uncertain violet, he finds again in the solitary oaks and the moist twilights where his sadness seeks a poetic intoxication, ending in ennui. Millet believes—or rather people believe since the time of Millet—that the reading of the Bible suffices to give them the sense of the world, and that poverty, simply and stoically borne, will render him worthy to sing of the existence of the lowly among whom he lives. A double error, from which there will be no escape, either in his feeling for the country—now epic, now Virgilian, or in his cult of Michael Angelo and of Poussin, or in his admiration for Delacroix, or in his friendship for Daumier, who comes alone from Paris, from time to time, to brandish the flame of his genius over Millet's obstinate habits. It is true that he plowed, when a boy, and that he went about in a blouse and in wooden shoes, but that is of no importance to us. It is true that during a journey in Auvergne, that arid and austere country, stained like an old cloak, he scrupulously studies the inner structure of the earth, and produced some admirable images, as pure as a Japanese drawing, as firm as a German drawing. It is true that in his peasant Georgics, there are reapers bending with the same movement, sowers with their lengthening shadow, men driving their spades into the ground, and all those simple figures of the noble, sad fatefulness of labor, with the feeling of sculptural expression in the forms, which exist in space solely through their broad surfaces and their expressive planes. But with him, this feeling is more poetic than plastic, and too often, when we descend beneath the plane of the idea, the form sounds hollow. And if his drawing is always sober and sometimes decisive, his painting—save for a few superb exceptions, the "Rainbow," the "Church," the "Harrow," and two or three splendid portraits—is muddy and dull. Of all those herds under the moonlight, of all that smoke of half-hidden villages, of all those muffled voices heard at the level of the furrows, and of all those distant murmurs of the "Angelus" and of faint bells, perhaps there will remain one day no more than a few broad flashes, caught by four strokes of the pen, and the memory of a power misled by being put at the service of a sensibility which we must respect, and of the artist's touching character.

If Daubigny, a good landscapist, had not gone to initiate himself in the beauties of the country close to Rousseau and Millet, they would have exercised no influence upon the painters whose art was born at the meeting place of Courbet with scientific and literary materialism. And again, that influence is more moral than sensuous. The men who decide to turn their backs upon the School and the studio, in order to wipe from their eyes the soot of the museums and to ask of outdoor light the secrets of harmony, could not fail to hear that long protest against doctrinaire painting which was arising from the entire century, from Ingres, from Daumier, from Delacroix, and from Courbet, but which the pure landscapists expressed with more ingenuousness, if not with more force, than the others. Pissarro, enamored of theories and of systems, first of all follows Corot and Millet, and it is because he will set up his easel in a furrow, before a plowman with his plow, or before a herd of cattle, that he gradually discovers the nature of light and the quality of shadow, and on these discoveries builds the painting of the morrow.

The studio, the room where one paints, or even the falsified light of the street, all mask the object. The external world alone exists, man excepted, and only outdoor light reveals it as it is. Delacroix, to be sure, is a master; he rediscovered the laws of contrast and of association of colors which had almost been lost, but his imagination whirls him too high and too far, and carries his painting to a point where it is merely a symbolic expression—a step further, and it will be a literary expression—of the universe. And then he paints in the studio, and from memory. Courbet also, although he gets the facts, at least, and expresses them without commentaries. Millet and Rousseau certainly go to the open fields to seek their subjects, and in full daylight, but they limit themselves to making sketches, and then they come home and in the sad light of a cottage or under a lamp, they plaster away at their Christian Georgics and their idealized oaks. Paul Huet sees the fields, the forest, and the sky only through a voluntarily dramatic feeling, whose majestic and grandiloquent melancholy exasperates the young men, who have been brought up in the idolatry of the naked truth and in the increasing noise of the victory of science over mystery, over doubt, over subjective lyricism, and even over lyricism as a whole. Corot, to be sure, has a passionate sentiment for space and for light, but even he paints from pencil- or pen-sketches, which he combines at home; besides, one sees very little of his painting; he keeps the best of it in his studio, the remainder goes to the dealer. And then all have habits from which even the greatest have not been able to rid themselves, and which nature, when directly interrogated, only rarely justifies, save under artificial illuminations and confined atmospheres: they oppose shadow to light everywhere, and connect all their tones by a gamut of intermediate semitones which are not to be derived from daylight.

Pissarro, who is becoming more and more unwilling to paint anywhere but in the open air, and who carries with him certain friends [about 1862]—Claude Monet, Renoir, Sisley, and later Cézanne—discovers a young painter, Edouard Manet, who does not always paint out of doors, but who is the first man in Europe to have the audacity to lay one light color on another light color, to reduce the semitones to their minimum, or even to ignore them, and almost to suppress modeling by juxtaposing or superimposing strokes bound by a line, which is very firm, but which detaches from a background purged of shadows that might serve as adjuncts. It is primitive painting in one sense, with brutal illumination from in front, a sheet of diffused light falling straight down and revealing the objects in brilliant silhouettes placed one on another, or one beside the other, like big pieces of cardboard or of cloth, and cut out clear in the full light.

It is a downright, violent, uncompromising painting, that runs counter to the whole of the routine education which, since the Renaissance, has been given to the eye by the smoke and flame of the museums, and every time that it appears in public it creates an uproar. It is a revolutionary painting which, in order to return to the sources, in order to temper the art of painting in them once more, dares to suppress certain of its profoundest acquisitions for the purpose of establishing it on fresher ground and of strengthening the tradition.

A Parisian of Paris, and belonging to a family of the old middle class, a pupil of Thomas Couture (a painter without intelligence, but gifted, and sometimes powerful) fed on Ingres and Delacroix and saluted by them in his initial efforts, he was perfectly acquainted with the masters; but he had gone instinctively toward those in whom he found anticipated the justification of his boldness, the Spaniards, the Flemings, and Frans Hals above all, who merely for the joy of the eye, without any pretext to anecdote, or the picturesque, or literature, combined colors with the swift movements and the infallible sureness of a woman assembling flowers, or sorting out materials for a dress or a hat. He studies Goya also, the magician who, in a second, by the combination of a few limpid tones, brings out of the void a hand, an arm, a look, a flower, or a violent hallucination. Manet goes to see their work in the place where it was done, and after that he knows his way. Rose on rose, white on white, in strokes that live—the whole thing shimmers like a bouquet; everything sings, nothing marks out the form as projecting, because nothing opposes it among the clear tones in the space surrounding it or grading off behind it in the backgrounds. The picture sings rather loud at times, but it never sings false.

This almost complete suppression of the passage, of the intimate echoing of one tone in the neighboring tone, this vision, pure and cruel, which presents the world like a sheaf of living flowers, gives to Manet's painting a certain lack of continuity, a sense of clashing like a broad piece of light-colored material, in which different pieces, one as light as another, had been sewn in, here and there. The flesh, even that which contains the mouth and the eyes, is of no more importance to him than the pink of the cravat standing out against the black coat, the red slash made by the book whose blood color contrasts with the yellow carpet, the bed sheet with its blue reflections, and the reflections he sets trembling in the mirror of the glasses and of the knives. It is an immense still-life, a trifle scattered, a trifle disjointed, but of such power that, forty years afterward, it is still the channel for the invasion of painting by color and, behind color, the incursion of all the audacities, all the splendors, all the shining and fierce brilliance of the Orient.

And then, of the great painters, since the all too rare essays of Watteau and of Chardin (for Debucourt is only a chronicler, penetrating, witty, and tart, and Boilly is only a spinner of tales of every-day life, with all his simple good humor and all his fine shades), he is the first to seek in the street itself, in the cafés, and in the public gardens the plastic and living emotion which he will interpret directly. And since he is strolling about for three quarters of the day and working the other quarter, like a good, improvising, inquisitive Parisian, he is finding, at every moment, things he was not even looking for. By no means is this any longer the dramatic street that Daumier evokes so powerfully in the burning mud in which he sculptures; it is the street without transposition, with its diffused light, its lively colors, the shimmering mosaic of its flags and of its show windows; it is the café with its tables and its plate glass, its smokers, and its rouged women, and the garden with its groups under the trees, clamorous spots in which the garments, the hands, the hair, and the faces break and re-establish the harmony in a vigorous disorder. Eugène Lami, to be sure, is a fine painter of the movements of the streets, of the race tracks, and of the gardens, but the pomp and the setting overpower his style. Constantin Guys is the only one at that period who knows also how to see forms passing through the dust, as in a dream, the quiver of the sunlight, and the scintillation of jewels and of lamps, and who has left eternal images of the instant caught in its flight. But the art of Manet, which has less of profundity, less of style, and less of mystery, has more of singularity and more of innovating audacity, and it exerts infinitely more influence on its time. And then this is not a matter of sketches in an album; this is a question of great painting. Limpid painting, washed in like a water-color, as hard and cool as a faïence, as full of diversity as a basket full of woolen yarns, as living as a field of flowers, and as firm and pure in form as a Japanese lacquer.

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