Poets were lacking in the last century. I do not say rhymers, versifiers and mechanical arrangers of words; I say poets. Poetry, taking the expression in the truth and height of its meaning; poetry, which is an elevation or an enchantment of the imagination, the contribution of an ideal of reverie or gaiety to human thought; poetry, which carries away and suspends above the world the soul of a period and the spirit of a people, was unknown to the France of the Eighteenth Century, and her two only poets were two painters: Watteau and Fragonard.

Corésus and Callirhoé. Fragonard.

Corésus and Callirhoé.

Watteau, the man of the North, the child of Flanders, the great poet of Love! the master of sweet serenity and tender Paradises, whose work may be likened to the Elysian Field of Passion! Watteau, the melancholy enchanter who has made nature sigh so heavily in his autumn woods, full of regret around dreamful pleasure! Watteau, the Pensieroso of the Regency; Fragonard, the little poet of the Art of Loveof the time.

Have you noticed in L'Embarquement de Cythère all those naked little forms of saucy and knavish Loves half lost in the heights of the sky? Where are they going? They are going to play at Fragonard's and to put on his palette the hues of their butterfly wings.

Fragonard is the bold narrator, the gallant amoroso, the rogue with Gallic malice, nearly Italian in genius but French in spirit; the man of foreshortened mythology and roguish undress, of skies made rosy by the flesh of goddesses and alcoves lighted with female nudity.

Upon a table beside a bunch of roses let us allow the leaves of his work to be ruffled by the wind of a lovely day: from landscapes where robes of satin are escaping in coquettish flight, our glance skips to meadows guarded by Annettes of fifteen years, to granges where the somersaults of love upset the painter's easel, to pastures where the milk-maid of the milk-jug reveals her bare legs and weeps like a nymph over her broken urn, for her sheep, her flocks, and her vanished dream. Upon another page a maiden in love is writing a beloved name on the bark of a tree on a lovely summer evening. The breeze is always turning them over: now a shepherd and shepherdess are embracing before a sun-dial which little Cupids make into a pleasure-dial. It keeps on turning them; and now we have the beautiful dream of a pilgrim sleeping with his staff and gourd beside him, and to whom appears a host of young fays skimming a huge pot. Does it not seem that your eye is upon a vision of a fête by Boucher, shown by his pupil in Tasso's garden? Adorable magic lantern! where Clorinde follows Fiammette, where the gleams of an epic poem mingle with the smiles of the novellieri! Tales of the fay Urgèle, little comic jests, rays of gayety and sunshine which one might say were thrown upon the cloth upon which Béroalde de Verville made his cherry-gatherer walk. Tasso, Cervantes, Boccaccio, Ariosto (Ariosto as he has drawn him, inspired by Love and Folly), it recalls all his genii of happiness. It laughs with the liberties of La Fontaine. It goes from Properce to Grécourt, from Longus to Favart, from Gentil-Bernard to André Chénier. It has, so to speak, the heart of a lover and the hand of a charming rascal. In it the breath of a sigh passes into a kiss and it is young with immortal youth: it is the poem of Desire, a divine poem!

It is enough to have written it like Fragonard for him to remain what he will always be: the Cherubino of erotic painting....

He leaped into success and fame at one bound, with his picture of Callirhoé, that painting of universal approbation, which caused him to be received into the Académie by acclamation; that painting which aroused public enthusiasm at the Salon in the month of August, and which had the honour of a Royal command for its reproduction upon Gobelin tapestry.

Imagine a large picture nine feet high by twelve feet long, where the human figures are of natural size, the architecture in its proper proportion and the crowd and sky have their own space. Between two columns of a shining marble with its iris-coloured reflections, above the heavy purple of a tapestry with golden fringe spread out and broken by the ridge of two steps, opens the scene of an antique drama which seems to be under the curtain of a theatre. On this tapestry, on this pagan altar-cloth, stands a copper crater near an urn of black marble half veiled with white linen. A column cuts in half a large candelabra smoking with incense and ornamented with goats' heads, a superb bronze which must have been taken from the lava of Herculaneum. A young priest has thrown himself on his knees against this candelabra and embraces its pedestal; in terror he has allowed his censer to fall to the earth. Standing by his side is Corésus, the high priest, crowned with ivy, enveloped in draperies, and seemingly floating in the sacerdotal whiteness of his vestments; a beardless priest, of doubtful sex, of androgynous grace, an enervated Adonis, the shadow of a man. With a backward turn of one hand he plunges the knife in his breast; with the other he has the appearance of casting his life into the heavens, whilst across his effeminate face pass the weakness of the agony and grief of violent death. Opposite the dying high-priest is the living though fainting victim, nearly dead at the belief that she is about to die. With her head resting on her shoulder, she has glided before the smoking altar. Her body has lost all rigidity on her bending legs, her arms hang down at her side; her glance is distracted; she has lost all volition in the use of her limbs; and she is there, sinking motionless, her throat scarcely distending with a breath, turning white under her crown of roses, which the painter's brush has made to pale in sympathy. Between her body and the altar a young priest is leaning in horrified curiosity. Another, upon one knee, perfectly terrified, with fixed gaze and parted lips, holds before the young girl the basin used to receive the blood of the victims. In the background are visible figures of old grey-bearded priests, aghast at the horrible spectacle. Above them the smoke of the temple, the flames, the perfumes, and the incense of the altar mingle with the cloudy sky, a sky of a night of miracles and hell, wild and rolling, a sky of fiery and sombre whirlwind, in which a genie brandishing a torch and dagger bears Love away in sombre flight enveloped in a black mantle. From that shadow, let us go to the shadow at the base of the picture: two women, writhing with fear, shrink back veiling their faces; a little boy clings about their knees and holds fast to them, and a ray of sunlight, falling across the arm of one of the women, illumines the hair and the little rosy hands of the child.

Such is Fragonard's great composition, that striking unexpected production, for which he must have taken the idea, and, perhaps, even the effect from one of the revivals of Callirhoé by the poet Roy;27 a painting of the opera, and demanding from the opera its soul and its light. But what a magnificent illusion this picture presents! It must be seen in the Louvre so that the eyes may feast upon the clear and warm splendour of the canvas, the milky radiance of all those white priestly robes, the virginal light inundating the centre of the scene, palpitating and dying away on Callirhoé, enveloping her fainting body like the fading of day, and caressing that failing throat. The rays of light and the smoke all melt into one another; the temple smokes and the mists of incense ascend everywhere. Night is rolling above the day. The sun falls into the gloom and casts a reflected glare. The gleams of sulphur flames illuminate the faces and the throng. Fragonard lavishly threw the lights of fairyland upon his masterpiece: it is Rembrandt combined with Ruggieri.

And what movement, what action are in this agitated and convulsive painting! The clouds and the garments whirl, the gestures are rapid, the attitudes are despairing, horror shudders in every pose and on every lip, and a great mute cry seems to rise throughout this entire temple and throughout this entire lyrical composition.

This cry of a picture, so new for the Eighteenth Century, is Passion. Fragonard introduces it into his time in this picture so full of tragic tenderness where we might fancy the entombment of Iphigenia. The phantasmagoria raises his art to the level of the emotion of the Alceste of Euripides; it reveals a future for French painting: pathos.

L'Art du Dix-Huitième Siècle (3d ed., Paris, 1882).


27 Callirhoé by Pierre-Charles Roy, was written in 1712.—E.S.