The Paris Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

On the French School of Painting

With appropriate anecdotes, illustrations, and philosophical disquisitions.

IN A LETTER TO MR. MACGILP, OF LONDON.

The three collections of pictures at the Louvre, the Luxembourg, and the Ecole des Beaux Arts, contain a number of specimens of French art, since its commencement almost, and give the stranger a pretty fair opportunity to study and appreciate the school. The French list of painters contains some very good names — no very great ones, except Poussin (unless the admirers of Claude choose to rank him among great painters) — and I think the school was never in so flourishing a condition as it is at the present day. They say there are three thousand artists in this town alone: of these a handsome minority paint not merely tolerably, but well understand their business: draw the figure accurately; sketch with cleverness; and paint portraits, churches, or restaurateurs’ shops, in a decent manner.

To account for a superiority over England which, I think, as regards art, is incontestable — it must be remembered that the painter’s trade, in France, is a very good one; better appreciated, better understood, and, generally, far better paid than with us. There are a dozen excellent schools which a lad may enter here, and, under the eye of a practised master, learn the apprenticeship of his art at an expense of about ten pounds a year. In England there is no school except the Academy, unless the student can afford to pay a very large sum, and place himself under the tuition of some particular artist. Here, a young man, for his ten pounds, has all sorts of accessory instruction, models, &c.; and has further, and for nothing, numberless incitements to study his profession which are not to be found in England:— the streets are filled with picture-shops, the people themselves are pictures walking about; the churches, theatres, eating-houses, concert-rooms are covered with pictures: Nature itself is inclined more kindly to him, for the sky is a thousand times more bright and beautiful, and the sun shines for the greater part of the year. Add to this, incitements more selfish, but quite as powerful: a French artist is paid very handsomely; for five hundred a year is much where all are poor; and has a rank in society rather above his merits than below them, being caressed by hosts and hostesses in places where titles are laughed at and a baron is thought of no more account than a banker’s clerk.

The life of the young artist here is the easiest, merriest, dirtiest existence possible. He comes to Paris, probably at sixteen, from his province; his parents settle forty pounds a year on him, and pay his master; he establishes himself in the Pays Latin, or in the new quarter of Notre Dame de Lorette (which is quite peopled with painters); he arrives at his atelier at a tolerably early hour, and labors among a score of companions as merry and poor as himself. Each gentleman has his favorite tobacco-pipe; and the pictures are painted in the midst of a cloud of smoke, and a din of puns and choice French slang, and a roar of choruses, of which no one can form an idea who has not been present at such an assembly.

You see here every variety of coiffure that has ever been known. Some young men of genius have ringlets hanging over their shoulders — you may smell the tobacco with which they are scented across the street; some have straight locks, black, oily, and redundant; some have toupets in the famous Louis-Philippe fashion; some are cropped close; some have adopted the present mode — which he who would follow must, in order to do so, part his hair in the middle, grease it with grease, and gum it with gum, and iron it flat down over his ears; when arrived at the ears, you take the tongs and make a couple of ranges of curls close round the whole head — such curls as you may see under a gilt three-cornered hat, and in her Britannic Majesty’s coachman’s state wig.

This is the last fashion. As for the beards, there is no end of them; all my friends the artists have beards who can raise them; and Nature, though she has rather stinted the bodies and limbs of the French nation, has been very liberal to them of hair, as you may see by the following specimen. Fancy these heads and beards under all sorts of caps — Chinese caps, Mandarin caps, Greek skull-caps, English jockey-caps, Russian or Kuzzilbash caps, Middle-age caps (such as are called, in heraldry, caps of maintenance), Spanish nets, and striped worsted nightcaps. Fancy all the jackets you have ever seen, and you have before you, as well as pen can describe, the costumes of these indescribable Frenchmen.

In this company and costume the French student of art passes his days and acquires knowledge; how he passes his evenings, at what theatres, at what guinguettes, in company with what seducing little milliner, there is no need to say; but I knew one who pawned his coat to go to a carnival ball, and walked abroad very cheerfully in his blouse for six weeks, until he could redeem the absent garment.

These young men (together with the students of sciences) comport themselves towards the sober citizen pretty much as the German bursch towards the philister, or as the military man, during the empire, did to the pékin:— from the height of their poverty they look down upon him with the greatest imaginable scorn — a scorn, I think, by which the citizen seems dazzled, for his respect for the arts is intense. The case is very different in England, where a grocer’s daughter would think she made a misalliance by marrying a painter, and where a literary man (in spite of all we can say against it) ranks below that class of gentry composed of the apothecary, the attorney, the wine-merchant, whose positions, in country towns at least, are so equivocal. As, for instance, my friend the Rev. James Asterisk, who has an undeniable pedigree, a paternal estate, and a living to boot, once dined in Warwickshire, in company with several squires and parsons of that enlightened county. Asterisk, as usual, made himself extraordinarily agreeable at dinner, and delighted all present with his learning and wit. “Who is that monstrous pleasant fellow?” said one of the squires. “Don’t you know?” replied another. “It’s Asterisk, the author of so-and-so, and a famous contributor to such and such a magazine.” “Good heavens!” said the squire, quite horrified! “a literary man! I thought he had been a gentleman!”

Another instance: M. Guizot, when he was Minister here, had the grand hotel of the Ministry, and gave entertainments to all the great de par le monde, as Brantôme says, and entertained them in a proper ministerial magnificence. The splendid and beautiful Duchess of Dash was at one of his ministerial parties; and went, a fortnight afterwards, as in duty bound, to pay her respects to M. Guizot. But it happened, in this fortnight, that M. Guizot was Minister no longer; having given up his portfolio, and his grand hotel, to retire into private life, and to occupy his humble apartments in the house which he possesses, and of which he lets the greater portion. A friend of mine was present at one of the ex-Minister’s soirées, where the Duchess of Dash made her appearance. He says the Duchess, at her entrance, seemed quite astounded, and examined the premises with a most curious wonder. Two or three shabby little rooms, with ordinary furniture, and a Minister en retraite, who lives by letting lodgings! In our country was ever such a thing heard of? No, thank heaven! and a Briton ought to be proud of the difference.

But to our muttons. This country is surely the paradise of painters and penny-a-liners; and when one reads of M. Horace Vernet at Rome, exceeding ambassadors at Rome by his magnificence, and leading such a life as Rubens or Titian did of old; when one sees M. Thiers’s grand villa in the Rue St. George (a dozen years ago he was not even a penny-a-liner: no such luck); when one contemplates, in imagination, M. Gudin, the marine painter, too lame to walk through the picture-gallery of the Louvre, accommodated, therefore, with a wheel-chair, a privilege of princes only, and accompanied — nay, for what I know, actually trundled — down the gallery by majesty itself — who does not long to make one of the great nation, exchange his native tongue for the melodious jabber of France; or, at least, adopt it for his native country, like Marshal Saxe, Napoleon, and Anacharsis Clootz? Noble people! they made Tom Paine a deputy; and as for Tom Macaulay, they would make a DYNASTY of him.

Well, this being the case, no wonder there are so many painters in France; and here, at least, we are back to them. At the Ecole Royale des Beaux Arts, you see two or three hundred specimens of their performances; all the prize-men, since 1750, I think, being bound to leave their prize sketch or picture. Can anything good come out of the Royal Academy? is a question which has been considerably mooted in England (in the neighborhood of Suffolk Street especially). The hundreds of French samples are, I think, not very satisfactory. The subjects are almost all what are called classical: Orestes pursued by every variety of Furies; numbers of little wolf-sucking Romuluses; Hectors and Andromaches in a complication of parting embraces, and so forth; for it was the absurd maxim of our forefathers, that because these subjects had been the fashion twenty centuries ago, they must remain so in saecula saeculorum; because to these lofty heights giants had scaled, behold the race of pigmies must get upon stilts and jump at them likewise! and on the canvas, and in the theatre, the French frogs (excuse the pleasantry) were instructed to swell out and roar as much as possible like bulls.

What was the consequence, my dear friend? In trying to make themselves into bulls, the frogs make themselves into jackasses, as might be expected. For a hundred and ten years the classical humbug oppressed the nation; and you may see, in this gallery of the Beaux Arts, seventy years’ specimens of the dulness which it engendered.

Now, as Nature made every man with a nose and eyes of his own, she gave him a character of his own too; and yet we, O foolish race! must try our very best to ape some one or two of our neighbors, whose ideas fit us no more than their breeches! It is the study of nature, surely, that profits us, and not of these imitations of her. A man, as a man, from a dustman up to Æschylus, is God’s work, and good to read, as all works of Nature are: but the silly animal is never content; is ever trying to fit itself into another shape; wants to deny its own identity, and has not the courage to utter its own thoughts. Because Lord Byron was wicked, and quarrelled with the world; and found himself growing fat, and quarrelled with his victuals, and thus, naturally, grew ill-humored, did not half Europe grow ill-humored too? Did not every poet feel his young affections withered, and despair and darkness cast upon his soul? Because certain mighty men of old could make heroical statues and plays, must we not be told that there is no other beauty but classical beauty? — must not every little whipster of a French poet chalk you out plays, “Henriades,” and such-like, and vow that here was the real thing, the undeniable Kalon?

The undeniable fiddlestick! For a hundred years, my dear sir, the world was humbugged by the so-called classical artists, as they now are by what is called the Christian art (of which anon); and it is curious to look at the pictorial traditions as here handed down. The consequence of them is, that scarce one of the classical pictures exhibited is worth much more than two-and-sixpence. Borrowed from statuary, in the first place, the color of the paintings seems, as much as possible, to participate in it; they are mostly of a misty, stony green, dismal hue, as if they had been painted in a world where no color was. In every picture, there are, of course, white mantles, white urns, white columns, white statues — those obligé accomplishments of the sublime. There are the endless straight noses, long eyes, round chins, short upper lips, just as they are ruled down for you in the drawing-books, as if the latter were the revelations of beauty, issued by supreme authority, from which there was no appeal? Why is the classical reign to endure? Why is yonder simpering Venus de’ Medicis to be our standard of beauty, or the Greek tragedies to bound our notions of the sublime? There was no reason why Agamemnon should set the fashions, and remain [Greek text omitted] to eternity: and there is a classical quotation, which you may have occasionally heard, beginning Vixere fortes, &c., which, as it avers that there were a great number of stout fellows before Agamemnon, may not unreasonably induce us to conclude that similar heroes were to succeed him. Shakspeare made a better man when his imagination moulded the mighty figure of Macbeth. And if you will measure Satan by Prometheus, the blind old Puritan’s work by that of the fiery Grecian poet, does not Milton’s angel surpass Æschylus’s — surpass him by “many a rood?”

In the same school of the Beaux Arts, where are to be found such a number of pale imitations of the antique, Monsieur Thiers (and he ought to be thanked for it) has caused to be placed a full-sized copy of “The Last Judgment” of Michel Angelo, and a number of casts from statues by the same splendid hand. There IS the sublime, if you please — a new sublime — an original sublime — quite as sublime as the Greek sublime. See yonder, in the midst of his angels, the Judge of the world descending in glory; and near him, beautiful and gentle, and yet indescribably august and pure, the Virgin by his side. There is the “Moses,” the grandest figure that ever was carved in stone. It has about it something frightfully majestic, if one may so speak. In examining this, and the astonishing picture of “The Judgment,” or even a single figure of it, the spectator’s sense amounts almost to pain. I would not like to be left in a room alone with the “Moses.” How did the artist live amongst them, and create them? How did he suffer the painful labor of invention? One fancies that he would have been scorched up, like Semele, by sights too tremendous for his vision to bear. One cannot imagine him, with our small physical endowments and weaknesses, a man like ourselves.

As for the Ecole Royale des Beaux Arts, then, and all the good its students have done, as students, it is stark naught. When the men did anything, it was after they had left the academy, and began thinking for themselves. There is only one picture among the many hundreds that has, to my idea, much merit (a charming composition of Homer singing, signed Jourdy); and the only good that the Academy has done by its pupils was to send them to Rome, where they might learn better things. At home, the intolerable, stupid classicalities, taught by men who, belonging to the least erudite country in Europe, were themselves, from their profession, the least learned among their countrymen, only weighed the pupils down, and cramped their hands, their eyes, and their imaginations; drove them away from natural beauty, which, thank God, is fresh and attainable by us all, today, and yesterday, and tomorrow; and sent them rambling after artificial grace, without the proper means of judging or attaining it.

A word for the building of the Palais des Beaux Arts. It is beautiful, and as well finished and convenient as beautiful. With its light and elegant fabric, its pretty fountain, its archway of the Renaissance, and fragments of sculpture, you can hardly see, on a fine day, a place more riant and pleasing.

Passing from thence up the picturesque Rue de Seine, let us walk to the Luxembourg, where bonnes, students, grisettes, and old gentlemen with pigtails, love to wander in the melancholy, quaint old gardens; where the peers have a new and comfortable court of justice, to judge all the émeutes which are to take place; and where, as everybody knows, is the picture-gallery of modern French artists, whom government thinks worthy of patronage.

A very great proportion of the pictures, as we see by the catalogue, are by the students whose works we have just been to visit at the Beaux Arts, and who, having performed their pilgrimage to Rome, have taken rank among the professors of the art. I don’t know a more pleasing exhibition; for there are not a dozen really bad pictures in the collection, some very good, and the rest showing great skill and smartness of execution.

In the same way, however, that it has been supposed that no man could be a great poet unless he wrote a very big poem, the tradition is kept up among the painters, and we have here a vast number of large canvases, with figures of the proper heroical length and nakedness. The anticlassicists did not arise in France until about 1827; and, in consequence, up to that period, we have here the old classical faith in full vigor. There is Brutus, having chopped his son’s head off, with all the agony of a father, and then, calling for number two; there is Æneas carrying off old Anchises; there are Paris and Venus, as naked as two Hottentots, and many more such choice subjects from Lemprière.

But the chief specimens of the sublime are in the way of murders, with which the catalogue swarms. Here are a few extracts from it:—

7. Beaume, Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. “The Grand Dauphiness Dying.

18. Blondel, Chevalier de la, &c. “Zenobia found Dead.”

36. Debay, Chevalier. “The Death of Lucretia.”

38. Dejuinne. “The Death of Hector.”

34. Court, Chevalier de la, &c. “The Death of Caesar.”

39, 40, 41. Delacroix, Chevalier. “Dante and Virgil in the

Infernal Lake,” “The Massacre of Scio,” and “Medea going to
Murder her Children.”

43. Delaroche, Chevalier. “Joas taken from among the Dead.”

44. “The Death of Queen Elizabeth.”

45. “Edward V. and his Brother” (preparing for death).

50. “Hecuba going to be Sacrificed.” Drolling, Chevalier.

51. Dubois. “Young Clovis found Dead.”

56. Henry, Chevalier. “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew.”

75. Guérin, Chevalier. “Cain, after the Death of Abel.”

83. Jacquand. “Death of Adelaide de Comminges.”

88. “The Death of Eudamidas.”

93. “The Death of Hymetto.”

103. “The Death of Philip of Austria.”— And so on.

You see what woful subjects they take, and how profusely they are decorated with knighthood. They are like the Black Brunswickers, these painters, and ought to be called Chevaliers de la Mort. I don’t know why the merriest people in the world should please themselves with such grim representations and varieties of murder, or why murder itself should be considered so eminently sublime and poetical. It is good at the end of a tragedy; but, then, it is good because it is the end, and because, by the events foregone, the mind is prepared for it. But these men will have nothing but fifth acts; and seem to skip, as unworthy, all the circumstances leading to them. This, however, is part of the scheme — the bloated, unnatural, stilted, spouting, sham sublime, that our teachers have believed and tried to pass off as real, and which your humble servant and other antihumbuggists should heartily, according to the strength that is in them, endeavor to pull down. What, for instance, could Monsieur Lafond care about the death of Eudamidas? What was Hecuba to Chevalier Drolling, or Chevalier Drolling to Hecuba? I would lay a wager that neither of them ever conjugated [Greek text omitted], and that their school learning carried them not as far as the letter, but only to the game of taw. How were they to be inspired by such subjects? From having seen Talma and Mademoiselle Georges flaunting in sham Greek costumes, and having read up the articles Eudamidas, Hecuba, in the “Mythological Dictionary.” What a classicism, inspired by rouge, gas-lamps, and a few lines in Lemprière, and copied, half from ancient statues, and half from a naked guardsman at one shilling and sixpence the hour!

Delacroix is a man of a very different genius, and his “Medea” is a genuine creation of a noble fancy. For most of the others, Mrs. Brownrigg, and her two female ‘prentices, would have done as well as the desperate Colchian with her [Greek text omitted]. M. Delacroix has produced a number of rude, barbarous pictures; but there is the stamp of genius on all of them — the great poetical INTENTION, which is worth all your execution. Delaroche is another man of high merit; with not such a great HEART, perhaps, as the other, but a fine and careful draughtsman, and an excellent arranger of his subject. “The Death of Elizabeth” is a raw young performance seemingly — not, at least, to my taste. The “Enfans d’Edouard” is renowned over Europe, and has appeared in a hundred different ways in print. It is properly pathetic and gloomy, and merits fully its high reputation. This painter rejoices in such subjects — in what Lord Portsmouth used to call “black jobs.” He has killed Charles I. and Lady Jane Grey, and the Dukes of Guise, and I don’t know whom besides. He is, at present, occupied with a vast work at the Beaux Arts, where the writer of this had the honor of seeing him — a little, keen-looking man, some five feet in height. He wore, on this important occasion, a bandanna round his head, and was in the act of smoking a cigar.

Horace Vernet, whose beautiful daughter Delaroche married, is the king of French battle-painters — an amazingly rapid and dexterous draughtsman, who has Napoleon and all the campaigns by heart, and has painted the Grenadier Français under all sorts of attitudes. His pictures on such subjects are spirited, natural, and excellent; and he is so clever a man, that all he does is good to a certain degree. His “Judith” is somewhat violent, perhaps. His “Rebecca” most pleasing; and not the less so for a little pretty affectation of attitude and needless singularity of costume. “Raphael and Michael Angelo” is as clever a picture as can be — clever is just the word — the groups and drawing excellent, the coloring pleasantly bright and gaudy; and the French students study it incessantly; there are a dozen who copy it for one who copies Delacroix. His little scraps of wood-cuts, in the now publishing “Life of Napoleon,” are perfect gems in their way, and the noble price paid for them not a penny more than he merits.

The picture, by Court, of “The Death of Caesar,” is remarkable for effect and excellent workmanship: and the head of Brutus (who looks like Armand Carrel) is full of energy. There are some beautiful heads of women, and some very good color in the picture. Jacquand’s “Death of Adelaide de Comminges” is neither more nor less than beautiful. Adelaide had, it appears, a lover, who betook himself to a convent of Trappists. She followed him thither, disguised as a man, took the vows, and was not discovered by him till on her death-bed. The painter has told this story in a most pleasing and affecting manner: the picture is full of onction and melancholy grace. The objects, too, are capitally represented; and the tone and color very good. Decaisne’s “Guardian Angel” is not so good in color, but is equally beautiful in expression and grace. A little child and a nurse are asleep: an angel watches the infant. You see women look very wistfully at this sweet picture; and what triumph would a painter have more?

We must not quit the Luxembourg without noticing the dashing sea-pieces of Gudin, and one or two landscapes by Giroux (the plain of Grasivaudan), and “The Prometheus” of Aligny. This is an imitation, perhaps; as is a noble picture of “Jesus Christ and the Children,” by Flandrin: but the artists are imitating better models, at any rate; and one begins to perceive that the odious classical dynasty is no more. Poussin’s magnificent “Polyphemus” (I only know a print of that marvellous composition) has, perhaps, suggested the first-named picture; and the latter has been inspired by a good enthusiastic study of the Roman schools.

Of this revolution, Monsieur Ingres has been one of the chief instruments. He was, before Horace Vernet, president of the French Academy at Rome, and is famous as a chief of a school. When he broke up his atelier here, to set out for his presidency, many of his pupils attended him faithfully some way on his journey; and some, with scarcely a penny in their pouches, walked through France and across the Alps, in a pious pilgrimage to Rome, being determined not to forsake their old master. Such an action was worthy of them, and of the high rank which their profession holds in France, where the honors to be acquired by art are only inferior to those which are gained in war. One reads of such peregrinations in old days, when the scholars of some great Italian painter followed him from Venice to Rome, or from Florence to Ferrara. In regard of Ingres’s individual merit as a painter, the writer of this is not a fair judge, having seen but three pictures by him; one being a plafond in the Louvre, which his disciples much admire.

Ingres stands between the Imperio-Davido-classical school of French art, and the namby-pamby mystical German school, which is for carrying us back to Cranach and Dürer, and which is making progress here.

For everything here finds imitation: the French have the genius of imitation and caricature. This absurd humbug, called the Christian or Catholic art, is sure to tickle our neighbors, and will be a favorite with them, when better known. My dear MacGilp, I do believe this to be a greater humbug than the humbug of David and Girodet, inasmuch as the latter was founded on Nature at least; whereas the former is made up of silly affectations, and improvements upon Nature. Here, for instance, is Chevalier Ziegler’s picture of “St. Luke painting the Virgin.” St. Luke has a monk’s dress on, embroidered, however, smartly round the sleeves. The Virgin sits in an immense yellow-ochre halo, with her son in her arms. She looks preternaturally solemn; as does St. Luke, who is eying his paint-brush with an intense ominous mystical look. They call this Catholic art. There is nothing, my dear friend, more easy in life. First take your colors, and rub them down clean — bright carmine, bright yellow, bright sienna, bright ultramarine, bright green. Make the costumes of your figures as much as possible like the costumes of the early part of the fifteenth century. Paint them in with the above colors; and if on a gold ground, the more “Catholic” your art is. Dress your apostles like priests before the altar; and remember to have a good commodity of crosiers, censers, and other such gimcracks, as you may see in the Catholic chapels, in Sutton Street and elsewhere. Deal in Virgins, and dress them like a burgomaster’s wife by Cranach or Van Eyck. Give them all long twisted tails to their gowns, and proper angular draperies. Place all their heads on one side, with the eyes shut, and the proper solemn simper. At the back of the head, draw, and gild with gold-leaf, a halo or glory, of the exact shape of a cart-wheel: and you have the thing done. It is Catholic art tout craché, as Louis Philippe says. We have it still in England, handed down to us for four centuries, in the pictures on the cards, as the redoubtable king and queen of clubs. Look at them: you will see that the costumes and attitudes are precisely similar to those which figure in the catholicities of the school of Overbeck and Cornelius.

Before you take your cane at the door, look for one instant at the statue-room. Yonder is Jouffley’s “Jeune Fille confiant son premier secret à Vénus.” Charming, charming! It is from the exhibition of this year only; and I think the best sculpture in the gallery — pretty, fanciful, naïve; admirable in workmanship and imitation of Nature. I have seldom seen flesh better represented in marble. Examine, also, Jaley’s “Pudeur,” Jacquot’s “Nymph,” and Rude’s “Boy with the Tortoise.” These are not very exalted subjects, or what are called exalted, and do not go beyond simple, smiling beauty and nature. But what then? Are we gods, Miltons, Michel Angelos, that can leave earth when we please; and soar to heights immeasurable? No, my dear MacGilp; but the fools of academicians would fain make us so. Are you not, and half the painters in London, panting for an opportunity to show your genius in a great “historical picture?” O blind race! Have you wings? Not a feather: and yet you must be ever puffing, sweating up to the tops of rugged hills; and, arrived there, clapping and shaking your ragged elbows, and making as if you would fly! Come down, silly Daedalus; come down to the lowly places in which Nature ordered you to walk. The sweet flowers are springing there; the fat muttons are waiting there; the pleasant sun shines there; be content and humble, and take your share of the good cheer.

While we have been indulging in this discussion, the omnibus has gayly conducted us across the water; and le garde qui veille a la porte du Louvre ne défend pas our entry.

What a paradise this gallery is for French students, or foreigners who sojourn in the capital! It is hardly necessary to say that the brethren of the brush are not usually supplied by Fortune with any extraordinary wealth, or means of enjoying the luxuries with which Paris, more than any other city, abounds. But here they have a luxury which surpasses all others, and spend their days in a palace which all the money of all the Rothschilds could not buy. They sleep, perhaps, in a garret, and dine in a cellar; but no grandee in Europe has such a drawing-room. Kings’ houses have, at best, but damask hangings, and gilt cornices. What are these to a wall covered with canvas by Paul Veronese, or a hundred yards of Rubens? Artists from England, who have a national gallery that resembles a moderate-sized gin-shop, who may not copy pictures, except under particular restrictions, and on rare and particular days, may revel here to their hearts’ content. Here is a room half a mile long, with as many windows as Aladdin’s palace, open from sunrise till evening, and free to all manners and all varieties of study: the only puzzle to the student is to select the one he shall begin upon, and keep his eyes away from the rest.

Fontaine’s grand staircase, with its arches, and painted ceilings and shining Doric columns, leads directly to the gallery; but it is thought too fine for working days, and is only opened for the public entrance on Sabbath. A little back stair (leading from a court, in which stand numerous bas-reliefs, and a solemn sphinx, of polished granite,) is the common entry for students and others, who, during the week, enter the gallery.

Hither have lately been transported a number of the works of French artists, which formerly covered the walls of the Luxembourg (death only entitles the French painter to a place in the Louvre); and let us confine ourselves to the Frenchmen only, for the space of this letter.

I have seen, in a fine private collection at St. Germain, one or two admirable single figures of David, full of life, truth, and gayety. The color is not good, but all the rest excellent; and one of these so much-lauded pictures is the portrait of a washer-woman. “Pope Pius,” at the Louvre, is as bad in color as remarkable for its vigor and look of life. The man had a genius for painting portraits and common life, but must attempt the heroic; — failed signally; and what is worse, carried a whole nation blundering after him. Had you told a Frenchman so, twenty years ago, he would have thrown the démenti in your teeth; or, at least, laughed at you in scornful incredulity. They say of us that we don’t know when we are beaten: they go a step further, and swear their defeats are victories. David was a part of the glory of the empire; and one might as well have said then that “Romulus” was a bad picture, as that Toulouse was a lost battle. Old-fashioned people, who believe in the Emperor, believe in the Théâtre Français, and believe that Ducis improved upon Shakspeare, have the above opinion. Still, it is curious to remark, in this place, how art and literature become party matters, and political sects have their favorite painters and authors.

Nevertheless, Jacques Louis David is dead, he died about a year after his bodily demise in 1825. The romanticism killed him. Walter Scott, from his Castle of Abbotsford, sent out a troop of gallant young Scotch adventurers, merry outlaws, valiant knights, and savage Highlanders, who, with trunk hosen and buff jerkins, fierce two-handed swords, and harness on their back, did challenge, combat, and overcome the heroes and demigods of Greece and Rome. Notre Dame à la rescousse! Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert has borne Hector of Troy clear out of his saddle. Andromache may weep: but her spouse is beyond the reach of physic. See! Robin Hood twangs his bow, and the heathen gods fly, howling. Montjoie Saint Denis! down goes Ajax under the mace of Dunois; and yonder are Leonidas and Romulus begging their lives of Rob Roy Macgregor. Classicism is dead. Sir John Froissart has taken Dr. Lemprière by the nose, and reigns sovereign.

Of the great pictures of David the defunct, we need not, then, say much. Romulus is a mighty fine young fellow, no doubt; and if he has come out to battle stark naked (except a very handsome helmet), it is because the costume became him, and shows off his figure to advantage. But was there ever anything so absurd as this passion for the nude, which was followed by all the painters of the Davidian epoch? And how are we to suppose yonder straddle to be the true characteristic of the heroic and the sublime? Romulus stretches his legs as far as ever nature will allow; the Horatii, in receiving their swords, think proper to stretch their legs too, and to thrust forward their arms, thus —

[Drawing omitted]

Romulus’s is in the exact action of a telegraph; and the Horatii are all in the position of the lunge. Is this the sublime? Mr. Angelo, of Bond Street, might admire the attitude; his namesake, Michel, I don’t think would.

The little picture of “Paris and Helen,” one of the master’s earliest, I believe, is likewise one of his best: the details are exquisitely painted. Helen looks needlessly sheepish, and Paris has a most odious ogle; but the limbs of the male figure are beautifully designed, and have not the green tone which you see in the later pictures of the master. What is the meaning of this green? Was it the fashion, or the varnish? Girodet’s pictures are green; Gros’s emperors and grenadiers have universally the jaundice. Gerard’s “Psyche” has a most decided green-sickness; and I am at a loss, I confess, to account for the enthusiasm which this performance inspired on its first appearance before the public.

In the same room with it is Girodet’s ghastly “Deluge,” and Gericault’s dismal “Medusa.” Gericault died, they say, for want of fame. He was a man who possessed a considerable fortune of his own; but pined because no one in his day would purchase his pictures, and so acknowledge his talent. At present, a scrawl from his pencil brings an enormous price. All his works have a grand cachet: he never did anything mean. When he painted the “Raft of the Medusa,” it is said he lived for a long time among the corpses which he painted, and that his studio was a second Morgue. If you have not seen the picture, you are familiar probably, with Reynolds’s admirable engraving of it. A huge black sea; a raft beating upon it; a horrid company of men dead, half dead, writhing and frantic with hideous hunger or hideous hope; and, far away, black, against a stormy sunset, a sail. The story is powerfully told, and has a legitimate tragic interest, so to speak — deeper, because more natural, than Girodet’s green “Deluge,” for instance: or his livid “Orestes,” or red-hot “Clytemnestra.”

Seen from a distance the latter’s “Deluge” has a certain awe-inspiring air with it. A slimy green man stands on a green rock, and clutches hold of a tree. On the green man’s shoulders is his old father, in a green old age; to him hangs his wife, with a babe on her breast, and dangling at her hair, another child. In the water floats a corpse (a beautiful head) and a green sea and atmosphere envelops all this dismal group. The old father is represented with a bag of money in his hand; and the tree, which the man catches, is cracking, and just on the point of giving way. These two points were considered very fine by the critics: they are two such ghastly epigrams as continually disfigure French Tragedy. For this reason I have never been able to read Racine with pleasure — the dialogue is so crammed with these lugubrious good things — melancholy antitheses — sparkling undertakers’ wit; but this is heresy, and had better be spoken discreetly.

The gallery contains a vast number of Poussin’s pictures; they put me in mind of the color of objects in dreams — a strange, hazy, lurid hue. How noble are some of his landscapes! What a depth of solemn shadow is in yonder wood, near which, by the side of a black water, halts Diogenes. The air is thunder-laden, and breathes heavily. You hear ominous whispers in the vast forest gloom.

Near it is a landscape, by Carel Dujardin, I believe, conceived in quite a different mood, but exquisitely poetical too. A horseman is riding up a hill, and giving money to a blowsy beggar-wench. O matutini rores auraeque salubres! in what a wonderful way has the artist managed to create you out of a few bladders of paint and pots of varnish. You can see the matutinal dews twinkling in the grass, and feel the fresh, salubrious airs (“the breath of Nature blowing free,” as the corn-law man sings) blowing free over the heath; silvery vapors are rising up from the blue lowlands. You can tell the hour of the morning and the time of the year: you can do anything but describe it in words. As with regard to the Poussin above mentioned, one can never pass it without bearing away a certain pleasing, dreamy feeling of awe and musing; the other landscape inspires the spectator infallibly with the most delightful briskness and cheerfulness of spirit. Herein lies the vast privilege of the landscape-painter: he does not address you with one fixed particular subject or expression, but with a thousand never contemplated by himself, and which only arise out of occasion. You may always be looking at a natural landscape as at a fine pictorial imitation of one; it seems eternally producing new thoughts in your bosom, as it does fresh beauties from its own. I cannot fancy more delightful, cheerful, silent companions for a man than half a dozen landscapes hung round his study. Portraits, on the contrary, and large pieces of figures, have a painful, fixed, staring look, which must jar upon the mind in many of its moods. Fancy living in a room with David’s sans-culotte Leonidas staring perpetually in your face!

There is a little Watteau here, and a rare piece of fantastical brightness and gayety it is. What a delightful affectation about yonder ladies flirting their fans, and trailing about in their long brocades! What splendid dandies are those, ever-smirking, turning out their toes, with broad blue ribbons to tie up their crooks and their pigtails, and wonderful gorgeous crimson satin breeches! Yonder, in the midst of a golden atmosphere, rises a bevy of little round Cupids, bubbling up in clusters as out of a champagne-bottle, and melting away in air. There is, to be sure, a hidden analogy between liquors and pictures: the eye is deliciously tickled by these frisky Watteaus, and yields itself up to a light, smiling, gentlemanlike intoxication. Thus, were we inclined to pursue further this mighty subject, yonder landscape of Claude — calm, fresh, delicate, yet full of flavor — should be likened to a bottle of Château Margaux. And what is the Poussin before spoken of but Romanée Gelée? — heavy, sluggish — the luscious odor almost sickens you; a sultry sort of drink; your limbs sink under it; you feel as if you had been drinking hot blood.

An ordinary man would be whirled away in a fever, or would hobble off this mortal stage in a premature gout-fit, if he too early or too often indulged in such tremendous drink. I think in my heart I am fonder of pretty third-rate pictures than of your great thundering first-rates. Confess how many times you have read Béranger, and how many Milton? If you go to the “Star and Garter,” don’t you grow sick of that vast, luscious landscape, and long for the sight of a couple of cows, or a donkey, and a few yards of common? Donkeys, my dear MacGilp, since we have come to this subject, say not so; Richmond Hill for them. Milton they never grow tired of; and are as familiar with Raphael as Bottom with exquisite Titania. Let us thank heaven, my dear sir, for according to us the power to taste and appreciate the pleasures of mediocrity. I have never heard that we were great geniuses. Earthy are we, and of the earth; glimpses of the sublime are but rare to us; leave we them to great geniuses, and to the donkeys; and if it nothing profit us aërias tentâsse domos along with them, let us thankfully remain below, being merry and humble.

I have now only to mention the charming “Cruche Cassée” of Greuze, which all the young ladies delight to copy; and of which the color (a thought too blue, perhaps) is marvellously graceful and delicate. There are three more pictures by the artist, containing exquisite female heads and color; but they have charms for French critics which are difficult to be discovered by English eyes; and the pictures seem weak to me. A very fine picture by Bon Bollongue, “Saint Benedict resuscitating a Child,” deserves particular attention, and is superb in vigor and richness of color. You must look, too, at the large, noble, melancholy landscapes of Philippe de Champagne; and the two magnificent Italian pictures of Léopold Robert: they are, perhaps, the very finest pictures that the French school has produced — as deep as Poussin, of a better color, and of a wonderful minuteness and veracity in the representation of objects.

Every one of Lesueur’s church-pictures is worth examining and admiring; they are full of “unction” and pious mystical grace. “Saint Scholastica” is divine; and the “Taking down from the Cross” as noble a composition as ever was seen; I care not by whom the other may be. There is more beauty, and less affectation, about this picture than you will find in the performances of many Italian masters, with high-sounding names (out with it, and say RAPHAEL at once). I hate those simpering Madonnas. I declare that the “Jardinière” is a puking, smirking miss, with nothing heavenly about her. I vow that the “Saint Elizabeth” is a bad picture — a bad composition, badly drawn, badly colored, in a bad imitation of Titian — a piece of vile affectation. I say, that when Raphael painted this picture two years before his death, the spirit of painting had gone from out of him; he was no longer inspired; IT WAS TIME THAT HE SHOULD DIE!!

There — the murder is out! My paper is filled to the brim, and there is no time to speak of Lesueur’s “Crucifixion,” which is odiously colored, to be sure; but earnest, tender, simple, holy. But such things are most difficult to translate into words; — one lays down the pen, and thinks and thinks. The figures appear, and take their places one by one: ranging themselves according to order, in light or in gloom, the colors are reflected duly in the little camera obscura of the brain, and the whole picture lies there complete; but can you describe it? No, not if pens were fitch-brushes, and words were bladders of paint. With which, for the present, adieu.

Your faithful

M. A. T.

To Mr. ROBERT MACGILP,

NEWMAN STREET, LONDON.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray/william_makepeace/paris/chapter4.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07