W.C. Brownell

CLASSIC AND CONTEMPORARY PAINTING AND SCULPTURE

by W.C. Brownell

It is at least an approximation to ascribe the primacy of realism to Courbet, though ascriptions of the kind are at best approximations. Not only was he the first, or among the first, to feel the interest and importance of the actual world as it is and for what it is rather than for what it suggests, but his feeling in this direction is intenser than that of anyone else. Manet was preoccupied with the values of objects and spaces. Bastien-Lepage, while painting these with the most scrupulous fidelity, was nevertheless always attentive to the significance and import of what he painted.

Chapu, who died a year or two ago, is perhaps the only eminent sculptor of the time whose inspiration is clearly the antique, and when I add that his work appears to me for this reason none the less original, it will be immediately perceived that I share imperfectly the French objection to the antique. Indeed, nowadays to have the antique inspiration is to be original ex vi termini; nothing is farther removed from contemporary conventions. But this is true in a much more integral sense.

Of the realistic landscape painters, the strict impressionists apart, none is more eminent than M. Cazin, whose work is full of interest, and if at times it leaves one a little cold, this is perhaps an affair of the beholder's temperament rather than of M. Cazin's. He is a thoroughly original painter, and, what is more at the present day, an imaginative one. He sees in his own way the nature that we all see, and paints it not literally but personally.

M. Paul Dubois, for example, in the characteristics just alluded to, presents the greatest possible contrast to Chapu; but he will never, we may be sure, give us a work that could be called insignificant. His work will always express himself, and his is a personality of very positive idiosyncrasy. M. Dubois, indeed, is probably the strongest of the Academic group of French sculptors of the day. The tomb of General Lamoricière at Nantes has remained until recently one of the very finest achievements of sculpture in modern times.

More than that of any other modern people French art is a national expression. It epitomizes very definitely the national æsthetic judgment and feeling, and if its manifestations are even more varied than are elsewhere to be met with, they share a certain character that is very salient. Of almost any French picture or statue of any modern epoch one's first thought is that it is French. The national quite overshadows the personal quality.

So thoroughly has the spirit of realism fastened upon the artistic effort of the present that temperaments least inclined toward interest in the actual feel its influences, and show the effects of these. The most recalcitrant illustrate this technically, however rigorously they may preserve their point of view. They paint at least more circumspectly, however they may think and feel.

It is agreeable in many ways to turn from the rounded and complete impeccability of M. Dubois to the fancy of M. Saint-Marceaux. More than any of his rivals, M. Saint-Marceaux possesses the charm of unexpectedness. He is not perhaps to be called an original genius, and his work will probably leave French sculpture very nearly where it found it. Indeed, one readily perceives that he is not free from the trammels of contemporary convention. But how easily he wears them, and if no "severe pains and birth-throes" accompany the evolution of his conceptions, how graceful these conceptions are!

Furthermore, the qualities and defects of French painting—the predominance in it of national over individual force and distinction, its turn for style, the kind of ideas that inspire its substance, its classic spirit in fine—are explained hardly less by its historic origin than by the character of the French genius itself. French painting really began in connoisseurship, one may say. It arose in appreciation, that faculty in which the French have always been, and still are, unrivalled. Its syntheses were based on elements already in combination. It originated nothing.

Syndicate content