England (part V)

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This whole art from van Dyck, its initiator, to the pre-Raphaelites, moves between two reefs, which it strikes against alternately, without ever succeeding in avoiding both completely: the insufficiency of the form and the tenacity of a poetic sentiment which words alone could express. With Reynolds, with Gainsborough, with Raeburn, with Hoppner, and with Opie, the richness of the color manages to conceal the void which it covers, and makes us forget the poverty of the sentiment in which English lyricism, when turned aside from its path, is swallowed up. But Ruskin arrives, and tears contemporary painters from their worldly courses, to cast himself, with them, upon the primitives of Italy, and to exhaust himself in resuscitating a dead soul—succeeding only in scattering upon its tomb the artificial flowers of a poetic sentiment which still fails to comprehend its means. An incredible misunderstanding! He preaches ingenuousness, and is followed only by liars. This time the repulse is far more complete and far more manifest than at the time of Reynolds, the virtuoso. When the English were following the Venetians or the Flemings, who are painters above all, their gift of color, at least, could expand. When they follow the Florentines, they forget their gift of color, and try researches in line, for which they are not fitted. The reasons for the check sustained by English painting are all to be found in that impotence to construct in depth, which drives it either to the false step of wrecking itself against form, or that of seeking in color and in literature its development and its purpose.

The English soul is not plastic. Painting demands a faculty for objective generalization which is not called forth either by the activities characteristic of Englishmen or by their surroundings. That power of meticulous and direct observation which distinguishes them and which renders their novelists, their actors, and their clowns incomparable, raises the obstacle between great painting and themselves which is most difficult to overcome. If the Anglo-Saxons are the foremost illustrators and caricaturists of the world, it is precisely because their observation of detail, of action, and of character excludes the faculty of embracing, in their ensemble, the great expressive surfaces and the essential volumes. The peoples of painters and of sculptors have neither the gift of illustrating books, nor that of gathering up into a stroke or a point the detail which fixes the dominant note of a race, of a profession, of a gesture, or a temperament. Among such peoples the Japanese alone possess the gift, and their whole art, precisely, has been, since archaic times, leaning toward the spirit of caricature, and flowing into it.

That faculty, which the Englishman has for observing and describing, is transported entire into the external characteristics of his painting, which, at bottom, has never been, except for Constable, more than imitation. It is in part responsible for that museum art which, for more than a century, has raged over Europe, and which consists in giving to fresh paint the appearance of the smoked and rancid paint of the great masters of oils, an error into which Reynolds was forever falling, although he pointed out its gravity to his pupils, and against which the French, from Delacroix to the Impressionists, will not cease to struggle. A picture by Rembrandt must have flamed like a tropical landscape—with fruits of dark gold, flowers of scarlet, and birds of topaz and of fire—perceived through a silvery haze, or through the russet light in some poor home. A canvas by Veronese, if we were to see it again in its original freshness, would doubtless make the boldest colorist seem timid and sad. When new, it streamed with flame. Even in the shadow, it must have been resplendent and have illuminated everything.

The English artist, one must confess, imitates with such perfection, and produces work of such close resemblance—the cathedral in the Middle Ages, and painting, for the last two hundred years—that it is capable of giving the illusion of original force. Never were noncreators "artistic" to this point. Never have counterfeit masterpieces been produced with equal skill. Reynolds draws upon the Venetians and Rembrandt, Gainsborough upon van Dyck, the early Turner upon Claude Lorrain, and the result of their study of the earlier masters is something incomparably better than a servile copy or a successful imitation. They resemble those virtuosi of the piano, the violin, and the violoncello who conjure forth from silence the soul of the masters of music, and with it the acclamations of the public. Later, it is true—and I have said why—Ruskin's disciples fail. Burne-Jones is only a sentimental Mantegna entangled with a Botticelli infected by Puritanism. Rossetti shelters his chlorosis under the aegis of the Platonic aesthetes. Watts produces a learned but cold mingling of Michael Angelo, Sodoma, and Titian with the precursors of Raphael. Stevens in turn enters with perfect ease into the garments of Michael Angelo, and breathes the tempest of the Last Judgment and of the Creation into an English hunting horn. The last to arrive of the Anglo-Saxon painters, who moreover violently reacts against pre-Raphaelism, Whistler, in his irresolute flights from the Japanese to Velasquez, and from Courbet to the Impressionists, succeeds at least in keeping the virtuosity of his race away from the danger of form, in bathing subtle harmonies in mystery and fog, and in surprising phantoms in them, and trembling lights. He is the prince of amateurs. He "arranges" with sagacity his grays, his blacks, and his pinks. One step more and the art of Veronese and of Rubens will empty into the modern print and into the desire to please the milliners and dressmakers.

No matter. The intention of English art and the effort made by its painters to express their too narrow vision has resounded over all the great painting which has come after them. Constable, the least incomplete of them, transmitted to Delacroix a part of his science; Turner, the most enterprising of them, liberated through his revolt, the successors of Delacroix. Later on, Ruskin, despite his incapacity for loving the forces of the present day, saw that the machine was crushing the workman, the artist of the people, that utilitarian liberalism was rendering life ugly, and that the critical and scientific mind was killing living sensation. And if French romanticism attained, through sculpture and painting, one of the essential moments of the spirit, it owes it as much to the poets and painters of England as to German music, and to the idealistic and warlike expansion of the Revolution. 

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