The French Monarchy and the Aesthetic Dogma

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THE cavalier king, the favorite of prelates who capture strongholds and command squadrons, had no painter of his own. Van Dyck, a Fleming, by the way, and, at bottom, light and servile, dwelt in England, where he had united his fortunes with those of that other gentleman-king who lived ill and died well. On the other hand, Marie de' Medici appealed to Rubens to decorate the Italian palace which she had just built in Paris. Italian plastics and Spanish literature were entering everywhere; the French mind was undergoing one of those crises, so brief and so frequent in its history, when it asks the surrounding peoples for weapons, which it will sharpen, polish, shape, and adapt to its hand. It was taking its repose through war, wherein its artistic faculties were developing through action, the joy of wild fighting, soldierly elegance, battles as courteous as tournaments, trenches opened to the sound of violins, and duels to the death which were considered a game.

The only man of that epoch to understand its ardent force and its dry grace kept away from the scene and detested the performance which religion and politics imposed upon his actors. Jacques Callot, who sees the poor world pillaged, broken on the wheel, burned, and hanged, weeps over it, is indignant, and rages against the unhappiness of the time. Jacques Callot curses war, but he loves the soldier. With his lean veterans in threadbare cloaks, his pikemen in their top-boots, their rakish felt hats and battered plumes, one would say that it is with a point of a rapier that he engraves his copper. The trooper, the trooper before the days of the uniform, who belts in his empty belly with a golden baldric, and the muddy swaggerer of whom one sees no more, when he advances, than the cock spurs and the eagle face, are brothers to the cripple and the beggar with whom he has tramped the roads, and to the wandering comedians whom he has heard rehearsing, in barns, the rôles of Scaramouche, Fracasse, and Arlequin. In their company he has eaten his soup from the top of an old drum. He has boiled herbs in the kettle of fifteenth-century witches, and the story-tellers of the sixteenth have regaled him with their half-spoiled wine. He has accompanied Jerome Bosch and Breughel amid grinning skeletons, the monsters, and the bloated personages of the sideshows. He has discovered Rosinante, of the knight Don Quixote, harnessed to the cart of poor Romanies. He has followed the musketeers from the Hôtel de Troisville to the Hôtel de Rambouillet. This lean wolf is a proud man. Had he not lived, there would have been a gap in this century, despite Cyrano, despite Théophile and Scarron. We should hardly know its setting. We should not comprehend the fever of living that there was between the ferrule of Malherbe and the ax of Richelieu. The official painters knew nothing of their age. Simon Vouet is a phrasemaker. The good engraver Abraham Bosse is a Boileau who would attempt to correct Molière and to tame Tabarin. Jean Boullongne, whose taste for the dregs of life might have brought him close to the crowd, thinks himself obliged to reside in Rome, and to employ his verve in aping Caravaggio. Italy will return our artists to us only after having misled them.

Indeed, they all go there, and any way they can go, on foot with bands of men picked up by chance, if there is no other way. Callot himself, when a mere child, goes there with some gypsies and stays there for twelve years. The other man of Lorraine, Claude Gelée, engages himself with a company of cooks in order to make the trip, and, having reached his goal, hires out as a domestic. Parrocel gets there only after having been a prisoner of the corsairs. Courtois leaves his native Burgundy at the age of fifteen to go off to Rome, live there, paint his romantic battles, and die there. The two brothers Mignard sojourn there for a long time, Nicolas for a third of his mature life. Sébastien Bourdon incurs the hostility of Claude by imitating his pictures there. Noël Coypel, who goes to direct the Academy there, brings with him his son Antoine, at the age of eleven. Duquesnoy of Brussels, Pierre Puget of Marseilles, Girardon, and the Coustous—all the sculptors of the century—go to take counsel from the shade of Michael Angelo, and lessons from the chevalier Bernini. Le Brun returns only after having for several years solicited the generous domination of Poussin, who will live there all his life in a little house on the Pincio, where, with Claude, he will represent the profound soul of France in exile under its own sky—René Descartes living in Holland or in Sweden, and Corneille being obliged to wrap himself in a Spanish cape in order that his passion might exert an influence there.

As the centralization of the monarchy had driven forth this soul from the woods and the river banks, as, with the disintegration of the art of stained glass, it had forgotten the profound fineness and the diffused illumination of its sky, and, with the progressive decline of its corporations of artists, the mysterious correspondence which unites the sculptured image with the inner fire of living, it seemed to be sending its two best painters upon the mission of once more learning from Italy the sense of light and of volume through which space and the form of the world shape our will. They had not, visibly, a great deal in common, neither in origin, nor in character, nor in culture. Poussin is a Norman, Claude is a Lorrain. The one is a great reader, the other hardly knows how to read, and writes his very name badly. The one is of a firmly ordered mind, meditative, a bit doctrinaire, tending to intellectual generalizations and plastic abstractions, pursuing in the universe the invisible plane which unrolled in his brain, always master of his vision, regular of face, that grave and strong face that is modeled like a monument. The other has ill-set features and a hunched figure, clumsy and heavy; he goes on from dawn to dusk as a beast goes to the drinking ford, and is kept above the level of labored work and of confused conception by a continuous lyric exaltation capable of carrying him, without apparent effort, across the threshold of the superior harmonies wherein intuition and intelligence are in close communion. But both were in love with rhythm and measure, at a period when the need for method and for style was everywhere reacting against the political and intellectual fermentation which had torn the sixteenth century from the organism of the Middle Ages; and both were determined to ask from Italy the discipline to which her masters, the first to free themselves from ancient servitudes, were tending irresistibly, amid the confusion of isolated researches and the antagonisms of passion.

It was they who were to gather together the secret teaching of Rome, so dangerous for those who are weak of will or of mind. Italy, debilitated by her effort, divided into twenty hostile camps, now sought in this teaching no more than a willing, hollow slavery, without hope of a compensating intimacy. Spain, exhausted by pride, refused to move. England was organizing her merchant class and the practical religion destined to enrich her. Germany, devastated, chopped to pieces, and emptied by a horrible war, no longer felt anything, no longer understood anything. France, who was rapidly mounting toward political unity through which she would try to gain a substitute for her lost unity of soul, was the only one in Europe who could profit by the intellectualism offered by the Italians, and arrest the world, on its road to renewal, in the illusion of an hour. When, in the long-sustained studies of Claude and Poussin, one has followed their will to subject the tree and the water and the body and architecture to the same profound law of structural likeness, which the one divines and the other discovers in a universe patiently interrogated at all hours of the day, we hear arising by itself the regular and powerful echo of the alexandrine of Corneille, and the presentiment of the geometrical system which Descartes will formulate, and we catch a glimpse of the overwhelming shadow of the aesthetic and administrative edifice which Colbert and Louis XIV will build from top to bottom.

Only, the edifice is in process of building; it does not yet inclose them. Better even than in Poussin's drawings—among the finest in the world, but where the spontaneous force of emotion, of verve, and of life never dissimulate his sculptural research—one sees the character of the moment in Claude's drawings—lines of fire, burning spots, strangely shaped and powerful visions of the landscape before him, an intoxicating apparition, moist in its coolness, bursting with sap, bathed in air, in shadows, and in light, which he hurls on his sheet of white paper with his black ink. Their roots plunge to the richest and best-nourished loam of their soil. They form part of a strength that is growing, and not of a strength that is dying because of its desire to become fixed. The passionate search for a new equilibrium gives them nobility, and a flame which holds the work upright and causes it to pass beyond its frame, exalting the will and illuminating the heart. Amid the rotting virtuosity of the Italians, they preserve their calm, remounting to the great works and remaining faithful to the mission which France has intrusted to them. The problem is that of establishing the structure of the world wherein the French mind, which persists, will, with admirable ease, introduce into its retarded evolution the old southern rhythms renewed by Italy, and will play the rôle of conciliator and arbiter between the men of the north and the men of the south. It is necessary to give to the whole of Europe something which shall replace, in the body of the élite, the broken backbone of the dead Middle Ages. It is necessary to impose upon humanity, whose adventure has carried it out of its earlier paths, the harmonious order which shall permit it, for a century, to believe that it has found new paths, and, in any case, to prepare for their discovery. The dawn and the end of day, all that which gives to the universe its intensity of sentiment, illuminate, in the heart of a landscape redolent of the ancient world, a humanity determined upon seizing, amid the gleam of things, the magnificent appearances which sustain its hope.

Oh, lyricism of Claude Lorrain, you did not know what your rôle would be! You did not know what your bristling masts, your pennants, and your sails in the flaming sky would represent to us. You did not suspect the meaning assumed, in the minds of men who had reached the extreme limit of intellectual anarchy, by your straight-lined ray, sweeping along the scene to the foreground, lighting a brief flame on the crest of the hastening waves bringing to men the immense weight of the water, the salt wind, and the horizon of purple and of mist where the other face of the globe is gradually sinking. You knew nothing of that, you only felt; when your eye, ever raised toward the circular line of the Roman desert, fixed a central point of red and gold in the haze, whence luminous dust spread out in every direction, and into an ever more tenuous rain, you felt that banks of stone and a double row of palaces, churches, and ruins, were giving to the flight of your dream a regular form wherein it was perhaps acquiring more of persuasive power and of the strength that sweeps us with it. It is always the same — that dream; its power to stir us grows and swells from work to work as we observe so much innocence and so much incessant aspiration toward the glory of the daylight, and note its determination never to abandon those irreproachable avenues which lead to harmony, and which betray nothing of the evil life, the doubt, the struggle, and the suffering which they must, however, traverse. The standards are always flying from the peak of the towers, there is always the forest of the rigging, the oriflammes, and the foam caught by the light, the rippling expanse that flees in the reek of purple gold, and the molten sun which governs the swelling or dying symphony according to whether it rises or sets. Claude permits Filippo Lauri to people this world of glory, to garnish the peristyles and the staircases of his temples with crowds, not even perceiving them in the radiance of the sunlight which bathes everything in a translucent aerial mist whose fiery center is merged with the center of his being. Claude dwells in the sun, he darts forth with its rays, and from the moment when it begins to set he never takes his eyes from the hills, the motionless tops of the trees, and the uncrowned capitals which it floods with somber gold, at the moment when it is about to die. This poor peasant lives in the heart of an impressive hour, which he does not hear sounding. The orb declines, the shadow, still flaming, extends over the ebullient youth of Occidental society, but it gilds a proud and regular fairyland of edifices and colonnades, a world of stone and of marble arising from the paved shores, toward which the ship of the spirit, believing itself at last and forever master of itself, approaches with majesty—black against the redness of the sky.

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