The Rationalist Passion

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THE sun which rose from the depth of Lorrain's canvases, amid their severe architecture, was Watteau. An autumn sun, lighting up russet foliage. A profound sigh of nature, delivered from a corset of iron, and at the same time dying from having been so long compressed, and giving herself up to the desires of the poet with the concentrated and fiery heat of a flame which is burning out. In reality, they are still there, the severe architectures; the fête of the Regency installs itself in the great palaces; Saint-Simon and Montesquieu, iconoclasts, both belong, by birth and by activity, to the castes which guarded and cared for the icons; and the teaching of the school, until the end of the century and beyond it, will reign officially. Its aspects are controlled by the mind. When Poussin gave order to his ideas and his images, he could not purge his flesh of the memory of the forms and the nymphs whom Jean Goujon and Ronsard encountered in the woods. When Watteau came forth from the alleys to explore these woods, full of forms and of shadow, the will of Poussin and the harmony of Racine penetrated there with him.

He arrived, with the freedom of the senses and with a thirst for mystery, in a world which had swept mystery from all its avenues and had forbidden the senses to go beyond the limits of reason. He accepted the exterior of this world, so as to keep intact his whole strength and his melancholy, and overturn their spiritual intimacy in order to send blood coursing through the marble of the statues, bathe the trees of the gardens with mist and light, and wring ardor and tears from the costumed personages who, for fifty years, had been crossing the stage, refusing to lend to it their dissimulated passion, and to borrow its well-schooled tremors. He still wears the wig, but he will have no more to do with pensions and offices. Instead, his lot is wretched poverty, a life of wandering, consumption, and the tenacious presentiment of death. That was enough to make him seek the shelter of the leaves, listen to music as it circled round, and surprise, in words overheard by chance and fleeting forms, the illusion of love and the flight of the hours.

What a mystery is a great artist! Whether Watteau wished it or not, his sentimental comedy in the eternity of nature is the image of existence of us all, seen by an ardent nature across his bitter destiny. Here is the confronting, without respite and with admirable love, of life, too short, and of the infinite desired. Trembling soul, adoring soul—the burned-out pinks and the pale blues quiver like his poor soul. He feels that he is going to die. Between two flutters of an eyelid which mark the awakening of consciousness and the repose which comes too soon, he expresses the happy appearances and the poignant realities of the adventure to which he is condemned.

The resigned pessimism of the Italian farce, the cruel reality which prowls through the masquerade and masks itself with black velvet, came at their destined hour to afford distraction to a dying aristocracy and to the profound man who hides this death struggle under flowers. The whole century will feel it, Tiepolo, Cimarosa, Guardi, and Longhi will reply, later on, to Watteau, from the center of the fête; and from Spain herself, somber, ruined, and seeming almost dead, comes the bantering laugh of Goya. But with Watteau, it is the prelude, intimate, delicate, drunk with tenderness, wildly desirous of making the illusion endure. He listens to the wind. He wanders and chats with the comedians. Like them he embroiders upon any canvas. Never did subject have less importance in itself. It is always the same, like the relationship of man and woman with love and with death. Since that is so, how monotonous! The groups posed on the moss, like leaves torn dying from the trees, or like ephemeral butterflies, will be carried away by the breeze which hurries them on to the abyss, with the forgetfulness and the phantoms, the plaint of the violoncellos, the sigh of the flutes, the perfumes, and the sound from the jets of water. When one isolates from its frame the talk of all these charming creatures, dressed in satin, powdered, rouged, having nothing in life to do but make love and music, everything expresses the joy of the instant seized on the wing. Here is nothing but prattle, rockets, and cascades of laughter, and an intricate cross-fire of gallantries and confessions. The round dance turns, the innocent games are organized and, when the concert begins, the flute and the mandolin scarcely cause voices to be lowered. Why does the ensemble give that sensation so near to sadness? The spirit of the poet is present. Slow steps and swayings, scattered words, necks that turn aside to seize a phrase of gallantry, throats bending to escape or to offer themselves, inclined and laughing faces resembling flowers only half open, all will pass, all will pass! How quickly a society appears and disappears under the trees a hundred years old, which, themselves, will die one day! Nothing is eternal but the sky, from which the clouds will disappear. The costumed comedy reveals a terrible ennui with life; it is only the song of the sonorous instruments which can cradle the despair of those who have nothing to do but amuse themselves. Not one of us will arrest the impalpable instant when love transfixed him, and he who comes to tell of it with tones which penetrate one another and lines which continue one another, still burns with a desire that he will never satisfy.

To tell all this, he had therefore placed that which is most fugitive amid that which is most durable among the things seen by our eyes—space and the great woods. He died at Nogent, under the fog and the trees, quite near the water. He had brought back from his Flemish country, and from a visit he had made to England, the love of moist landscapes where the colors, in the multiplied prism of the tiny suspended drops, take on their real depth and their splendor. Music and trees, the whole of him is in them. The sonorous wave, rising from tense strings, itself belongs to the life of the air, with the light vapor which sets its azure haze around the scattered branches, the slender trunks which space themselves or assemble in clusters near the edge of the deep forests, and the luminous glades away toward the distance and the sky. The sound does not interrupt the silence, but rather increases it. Barely, if at all, a whispered echo reaches us from it. We do indeed see the fingers wandering upon the strings; the laughter and the phrases exchanged are to be guessed from busts leaning over or thrown back, and from fans that tap on hands—the actors in the charming drama are at a distance from their painter, and scattered to the depth of the clearings which flee toward the horizon, whose blue grows deeper, little by little. And the genius of painting resolves into visual harmonies the sound of the instruments which hovers above the murmurs of the voices. The green, the red, or the orange of the costumes of comedy or of parade, and the dark and silky spots made by the groups of people conversing, are mingled with the diffused silver which trembles and unites the tips of the near-by leaves with the sunny spaces which stretch away among the dark trunks.

One suspects that he remained chaste, among these assemblies of lovers whom he sees only from afar. One guesses it from his statues of nude women, from his mule women themselves, from his groups of actresses and prattling ladies of high birth who have no other concern than love and talk of love. His ardent adoration of them always keeps him at a distance. He fears to hurt them, to penetrate their mystery, to know them from too near by, to tear the aërial veil which trembles between them and him. He caresses them only with his wandering harmonies, stolen here and there—as would some bee from the north, living in the damp forests, or under the lights of the fête—with the powdered gold of the hair, with the rose of the bodices, with blued and milky haze, with the flowered moss on which rest skirts and mantles of satin, with the nocturnal phosphorescence given to jewels and velvets by the gleam of the moon and of waving torches. It is the irised air which models the marble, which quivers when it touches breasts or necks, and which carries the same poignant agitation to the sprightly faces, to the fingers picking at the guitars, and to the delicate, pure legs under the stockings of transparent silk. But he never approaches; he is steeped in the breath of nature, and its ardor consumes him, but the vision of nature which issues from him is as distant as an old dream. Observe it in its detail. The vast structure of the forms, solid, turning, and substantial, makes them appear to be on the plane of man; he builds his little personages as great as his desire; he paints with the breadth, the fire, and the freedom of Veronese, of Rubens, of Velasquez, or of Rembrandt. Move away from the picture. The harmony moves away also; man and the woods are no more than a passionate memory for this being who dies of phthisis, alone in his room, embittered, in pain, hating every one who approaches him, but loving from afar everything he has seen along his path, forgiving all for the pettiness of their minds because of the power of their instincts, and because of the splendor of the earth, peopled with leaves and waters.

This man who had sent forth over the world swarms of Amors to scatter roses through the azured mist that is touched with gold, who had seized in flight, from perfumes and from smiles, all that is subtlest and most secret in the confessions of low voices, and stolen all the transparent stones of rings and necklaces, to mingle them with the blood of the skin and the light of the eyes, had remained immersed through all his senses in the earthiest of existences. One divines in him the wandering poet of the street who spends an hour watching boxes nailed up, amuses himself at shop entrances with the coming and going of buyers, or, covered with mud, goes on to the near-by storehouse, to see a nag unharnessed there, soup being prepared, and straw being unloaded from carts, or a troop of soldiers, dripping with mud and water. The nature he paints is by no means "opera scenery." From the roots of the tree to the clouds in the sky, it trembles with the life which runs through it. No one had ever breathed with such intoxication the strong odor of the damp woods, listened with so much surprise to the murmur of words in the silence of the great trees, or discovered with so much enchantment the gay spots formed by lovers, and people chatting among the dark trunks, and under the green shadow of the leaves. The "opera scenery" is only a pretext calculated to bring about the acceptance of the man who comes to break it down. In reality, he reacts against everything which, at the time when he came into the world, brought about the success of the preachers, the style of the artists, and the fortune of the shopmen. The muzzled aristocracy which, in the preceding century, had consented to discipline its original roughness, in order to give to the state that façade, straight and bare, behind which politics and thought expressed their desire to imprison the soul of France, had matured rapidly in luxury, intrigue, and the exercises of the mind. Feeling itself about to die, it unchained its instincts. And immediately, at the instant when it was about to reach the height of an expansion of grace and of intelligence on the other slope of which its decline was forecast, it found, to represent it, a great artist who preferred to die in a charity hospital rather than live with it, but who found it adorable from afar. The clear vision of La Rochefoucauld, the pain of Pascal, and the bitterness of Molière excused in it two centuries of hypocrisy and of baseness for the sake of that second when a man of their race breathed its purest fragrance. And Montaigne recognized the aptitude of France to unite, in the same artistic expression, the most intimate despair and the loftiest elegance of the mind.

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