Romanticism and Materialism (part V)

View the scanned original illustrations

But that will not be without resistance. France has two faces, whose differences and contrasts are attenuated when one looks at them from afar. It is in the very bosom of this positivist rationalism that we find the source of the current which will unite with itself the vast sense-contribution of romanticism, in order to demand that pure science open up to it the world of brute matter. And it is from this rationalism that there descends the current which will separate from pure science or will ignore it totally, in order to continue demanding of structures scarcely the work of the imagination, well balanced, very solid, and very convincing structures, that they express that French idealism which adheres so closely to real things, and differs from them only by the insensible shades of a continual transposition, which spiritualizes them without seeming to touch them. Taine and Renan issue from the same sources, contribute to what is really the same work, but seem to incarnate the antagonism of the two tendencies of the mind. We shall see Courbet and Puvis, the one with his eyes ever on the ground, the other looking ever toward the line of the horizon, revealing to the France of their period her plastic soul, and to such a degree that if one of them had not been born, she would not know herself.

It is thus that between Ingres and Delacroix, between the dominating, conquering bourgeoisie and the prophetic transport of a people whose desire always outstrips the realization due to the idealism of preceding generations, Corot appears as the truest and purest representative of their movement. He shows us neither the enthusiasm of victory nor the powerful egoism of practical results. The desire of the spirit, which brought him into existence, is still clarifying itself in certain men. In him France continues on a broader wing after his flight, but remaining in the straight line that she followed to Chardin, ever since Poussin and Claude Lorrain offered, to the charming and penetrating soul of Foucquet, the architecture of method. Without being aware of it, perhaps, he retains their historic landscape, or rather he renders it vaguely, as a frame to his idylls, ingenuous and anachronistic, without symbols and without pretension. Through Chardin himself, his trail is easy to follow in Vernet, in Ollivier, in Louis Gabriel Moreau, and in all those delicate Little Masters of the century at the end of which he was born. In him, their strength and their charm are to be multiplied a hundredfold, by all the living growth of that century's great events. He experiences the same joy that they had in watching the houses and the trees trembling in the water, the wooded slopes limiting a calm plain, and light clouds in one of those pink skies touched with amber and silver in which northern France recognizes the smile of the light in the grace of her watercourses and the freshness of her fields. Sometimes, the most subtle spirit of the most delicate romanticism haunts the breaking day that he perceives coming through the black stems of the trees, bursts forth through their pure branches which twist like flames, and circulates in their bushy mass, as it hums with light and air and birds. Like Delacroix and like Ingres, he loves music, and the same music as they, but it is especially from Gluck that he will ask the proportion and measure which music can offer to the mind, and to the heart, that which is most pure and touching. Like Chardin, a Parisian also, and a son of lower middle-class people, and like La Fontaine, he will be a grown-up child, in his enjoyment, throughout his life, without close association with the writers and the artists—the good and sublime Daumier excepted—faithful in his family ties, not fond of talking painting, and each evening under the lamp, till he was nearly sixty years old, continuing in the society of his old father and his old mother. He wanders over the French provinces, where, in each place he has modest friends whose names are now unknown; he stays for weeks with them, not troubling anybody, since, except at the hour of the good meals, he is out all day, with his easel and his pipe. He is regularly received at the Salons, for nothing shocks the public, nor attracts it in this purity without brilliance, this firmness without violence, and this apparent impersonality, which continues and crowns the old French classicism. He is fairly ignorant, but of an exquisite judgment, simple, open of hand and of purse, without rancor, without bitterness, and without envy, of great finesse, and unnoticed as he passes. As he works on his little canvases, he sings, like a house painter. The storms of his heart—and he had some—do not descend into his fingers. He loves, and he admires, but he never makes any outcry, and if, for example, Delacroix is spoken of in his presence, that man who, at the time, represented the loftiest plastic genius of his race, he says with the kind smile on his clean-shaven face, good-natured, broad, and powerful: "He is an eagle, and I am only a skylark. I sing little songs in my gray clouds."

And so he did. He arose at dawn to study the fields, for "the sun extinguishes everything." As soon as the morning mist had fallen, the values asserted themselves in the transparence of the air with their maximum of exactitude, of fineness, and of purity. The morning light, rosy, and so subtle in that Ile-de-France where an impalpable vapor persists, until the golden twilight, making of all space a prism which gives the delicate shades and affording a blond glow as it hangs over everything, flooded the sky and the landscape and streamed over the waters. With the moment which precedes the fall of evening, it is the hour when the air seems to condense its fruity color on trees and stones, to penetrate the trembling firmness of walls, and to marry the tone of the light clouds with that of the soil. The eye of Corot was like a liquid mirror, which reflected faithfully the poetry of those luminous and calm days of France when the rivers, silvered under the silver rain of poplar and willow leaves, the serene air, and the barely undulating line of the hills, seem a crystallization of imponderable harmonies, which the slightest lyric outburst, or the slightest mystic intoxication would shatter. He copied what he saw, but the quality of his vision was divine. It is the halfway meeting place of the objective world in its most unanimously accepted aspects, and of a soul attentively receiving the discreetest and rarest teachings of that world. If the lens of the photographer —by your leave, O Corot!—were endowed with a heart, it is thus that it would doubtless see the world. The world is, indeed, rendered in close likeness; the painter seems to have added nothing to it and taken nothing from it. It seems. . . For the miracle is precisely the invisible work of the mind transposing the elements of the object to the canvas with so much tact and measure that they do not appear to be modified either in their material, or in their local tone, or in their proportions and their relations. His imagination evolves no new schemes, but in the delicate centers of an exquisite intelligence, the purest revelations of sensibility are associated.

He had made three long journeys to Italy, and no one ever made better use of his time there. Before a too hasty production, immoderately sought for toward the autumn of his career, caused him to forget the lesson of its limpid landscapes and produce too many cottony trees and misty ponds, he had understood how well the structure of the land of Italy and of its cities, as precise, as compact, as trenchant, and as clear as a theorem, could serve him when he should be ready to hold the gentleness, the peaceful coolness, and opalescent light of the French landscape within lines firm enough to reveal it to the mind. He had drawn the denuded vertebrae of Italy, the abrupt contours of its promontories, its trees, straight or twisted, but pure as swords, the straight outlines of the houses and of the citadels, and the continuous crest of the mountains of marble, silhouetted by the fire of the sky. He had meditated before the visions of Canaletto and of Guardi, which move one by their profound purity quite as the strain of a violoncello does. On his journeys, each time that at Fontainebleau, at Ville-d'Avray, at Mantes-la-Jolie, at La Rochelle, at Avignon, at Douai, at Rouen, at Arras, or Chartres, or in the Basque country, he found the close and mysterious union of the line without accidentals, of the impeccable value, and of the tone at once the most exact, the most veiled, and the most rare, he remembered. At every place where a street goes down between two huts, where red tiles show at the edge of a wood, where a firm road runs between two rows of young elms, where an old city outlines its gables and its chimneys against the sky, or where the spires of a cathedral point up through the silvered mist, he remembered the terraces where the houses and the towers roll like amber beads, he remembered the immobility of the stones under the incandescent flame of the light, the spread of the pines above roofs and cupolas, and the ruins gilded by the evening. The intimate poetry of things entered the clearness and the force of his memory. I verily believe that he forgets neither a crevice on a scaling façade, nor a round window under a drain pipe, nor the last cluster of leaves which trembles on the last branch; but the crevice or the façade establishes a plane, the window appears as a necessary spot, bluish or pearly, in the mauve or the gold of an old wall, and the leaves suspended between sky and water define the immensity of space. The grays and the blues, the golden reds and the pinks, penetrate one another and reply to one another, in a tremble like mother-of-pearl, as they ripen this fruit of France, whose harmony inscribes itself among waves of melody as limpid as the notes of a flute of crystal.

From this admirable and gentle song to the tone of the idyll of antiquity, the distance is quickly traversed. Here are nymphs under the branches and divine silhouettes leaning over the darkened lakes where the branches which spring forth are seen in reverse with the first or the last star, and the cupola of the sky. How many immortal figures he has met near the springs, and under the wide trees laden with drops of water, with aërial murmurs, with twittering and the sounds of wings! How lightly he stepped that he might look at them at ease, as they dreamed or danced, the lyre or the thyrsus in their hand! And with what mute adoration he contemplated their slumber or their games when he surprised them nude, behind some bush humming with bees, or at the edge of some stream wont to reflect heads crowned with flowers in its pure waters! Since Watteau, there had not been in painting a being so profoundly enamored of the touching grace that emanates from the firm flesh of women, whom he painted from afar, like the older master, and with a troubled reserve, seeking, in the undulation of the volume, and in the arabesque without projections, limbs and bodies in which the blood mingles with the pulp of fruits, and which gleam with the caress of amber and of silver. A hymn as chaste as love, where desire takes on a sacred form. The ardent gravity of the lands of the south here again renders the face of woman dark or calm when she is before him, crosses her beautiful hands at her girdle, and gives to the breast and the neck the firmness of marble columns and of round shields. Under the homespun skirt and the crossed neckcloth of the Italian peasant woman, under the gray dress touched with dull reds and pale blues of the young French woman, in all those little pictures which haunt the memory like veiled and merging sounds of violins, oboes, and harps, the form of the antique is divined, in the embrace of the modern soul, reanimated and all atremble at having been surprised once more.

No comments: