Romanticism and Materialism

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WHEN the nineteenth century opens, two forces sustain the word—German thought and the French Revolution. Outside of these, in political Germany, Russia, England, Italy, and Spain, everything is confusion, irresolution, sordid interest, stammering, stagnation, or half-sleep. And in France itself, the activity is too powerful for a dawn of the spirit. With the voice of Lamarck stifled, there is, in the Occident, but one thought, that of Kant; one word, that of Goethe; one cry, that of Beethoven. The only man who replies to them, the only one whose imagination is sufficiently vast to give to action the grand face of the dream, the inner order sufficiently master of itself to assemble into a living symphony all hearts—which are happy in their obedience, the mind sufficiently imperious and rapid to stamp strategic marches and the movements of armies with the continuity of line and the harmonious grouping of mass which define a picture, effaces all, in France, who around him attempt to exist by themselves, and makes demi-gods of all who, by habit, are the most humble of men. Moreover, Beethoven is vexed but admires, Goethe understands and acquiesces, Byron flies in the wake of the lightning, Goya grinds his teeth under the hot iron, but. to gain his victory, rises still higher. The rumblings of the thunder will not die down for a century; they will unite the fragments of the peoples, will break the last bonds of the Middle Ages, and will plunge into the soul of the great pessimists of Europe, Chateaubriand, Stendhal, Schopenhauer, Delacroix, Wagner, Dostoievski, and Nietzsche, the image of the only power, since the power of Christ, capable of giving direction to the world. Napoleon the poet, leading the aroused crowds, determines the character of the century, and, if he drains the peoples of their blood, he injects such a ferment into their souls that they seem to date from him.

A romanticist through his original culture, his love for Rousseau, for Goethe, and for the Ossianic poems, through his need to turn his eyes toward the Orient, toward Egypt, toward India—the whole Empire of the sun, a romanticist through his great, pitiless dream, which handles multitudes and souls like lights and shadows on a surface to be sculptured, through his violent lyricism which precipitates conquest on the heels of desire, and through his vision of the final nothingness, which causes him to go through life with passion alone as his object, and fatality as his law, he unchains romanticism. The mothers curse him. But their womb trembles from the moment when he appears on the horizon. Every man who will be great in France, during the century—Corot, Vigny, Delacroix, Michelet, Balzac, Hugo, Berlioz, and Daumier—to speak only of artists, and who is there that counts between such a man and the artists?—is born, and grows up between the Italian Iliad of 1796 and the hour when he reaches his summit.

When they attain maturity, the sentimentalism of Rousseau has ripened in all hearts; Chateaubriand brings into literature the art of the Middle Ages, the Orient, the forest, the virgin rivers, and legendary Christianity; Madame de Staël brings the unknown soul of the north, with its metaphysical torment, and with its vertiginous need for color, for the exception, and for the vague intoxication of religion; and the whole of literature rushes upon its course of lyric passion, along which the individual, indifferent to everything which is not himself, surrenders himself to the torrent of the forces and of the eternal images of the universe and of love. The stamp of Catholicism, and the reaction of form and of desire against the abstract rationalism of the preceding century are of but little importance. By its capacity for passion, by hurling itself with its wild exaltation into the conquest of the earth, of history, of the light, and of death, romanticism contributes to break the ancient forms of religion and of the law, which science, with its slower, stealthier step, attacks at the same time. France, who for two centuries had been a reasoner, suddenly becomes an artist again, and launches forth wildly toward life, which reveals its new rhythms, and bursts the old molds. In the domain of sensation she equals the effort which the preceding age had made in the direction of war and liberty. The philosophical investigation of the French, the metaphysical analysis of the Germans, and the impotence for action after the greatest moment of action in history have produced intellectual despair, and also the sensation that it is increased by its indifference to the moral problem; but again there is consolation for that in the endless splendor which has been achieved. France has inundated the world, which flows back from everywhere. Here is the whole terrestrial universe, and all the skies and all the oceans, all the adventures of the men of the olden time and of to-day, all the ancient or distant myths of the sun and of the mist, the Inferno of Dante, the pitiless, clear sight of Goethe, and the immense reverie, enchanted and poignant, of Shakespeare. Sebastian Bach, Mozart, Gluck, and the last to come, Beethoven, contribute, to the troubled depths of existence the tumult of the great harmonies of nature, which turn confusedly into new elements expressive of the delirium of the intelligence and of the tragedy in men's hearts.

Painting offers itself to the artist. It is music in its power of expressing the form of sentiment, by color, by its multiple reflections which answer one another, by its gradations, its passages, its immense keyboard, from black or colored shadow at the bottom of the abyss, to the brilliant summits of the most strongly marked projections. The sensation of sonority and the sensation of color merge in it, the tempest of the orchestra unchains in it a rhythmed tumult of subtle sense impressions in which one perceives clamors, moans, cries of anger, and sighs of voluptuousness, even as one sees grand architectures arising, and forms mounting and descending like a sea when the power of an orchestra forces one to close one's eyes. In this century, the poets will be painters. The whole surface of the world breaks up and vibrates and moves in the work of Hugo; and in the work of Baudelaire, the whole burning spirit of matter, of perfumes, and of colors pours forth from the heart, like a lava of blood, following each throb of the arteries. In the music of Berlioz, the face of nature appears like a violent drawing, in which decisive strokes cross their flames, or crawl like reptiles, leaving a wake of fire. But painting is an object in itself, an object which France has kept under her eyes constantly for three hundred years, while Germany, who never really loved it, has, for two hundred years, no longer had the vision for it, while in Italy it is falling to dust, and while Spain no longer perceives it save in the glare of a single flash of lightning. The dictatorship of David bears its fruits at once. While the Academy claims to follow him, in order to drag on for two generations more its insolent and servile poverty, everything strong and green turns to David to seek the structure which Delacroix will break in places, will brutally twist, and will combine in a hundred fashions, in order to sustain the burning flesh and the movement of his fever, and which Ingres will purify and vivify, little by little, in order to inclose in it the concrete and definite object of his desire. Down to Courbet—and including the time of Courbet—David will hold the regency of painting. Under him the sculptor Rude studied the anatomical nude and learned how to set a violent body in equilibrium on legs which seem to hold to the ground like trunks of oak trees, and how to hurl into the stone his democratic enthusiasm—a trifle hollow, but living—which sets up a vibration on the face of the walls. The "Raft of the Medusa" of Géricault, the "Barricade" of Delacroix, and the first plates of Daumier bear the traces, quite as manifestly, of the lessons of the old regicide, who would have recognized his spirit in their mountainous modeling, which throws the muscles and the skeleton into relief, and so brings these masters nearer to him than Ingres ever was. And it is from him that Gros will borrow, for his military poems, the solid, but too stiff and too fixed, architecture which will end by paralyzing their movement and stifling their flame.

It is certain that the man was born a great painter. Whereas the fire of Watteau was no longer giving forth more than a few intermittent gleams in the painting of Greuze and of Fragonard, whereas Davidian discipline concentrated itself entire upon the rendering of brute matter and upon following the contours of Roman sculptures, Gros felt the warrior energy of his time burning in his veins. Rubens, the man who launched his own life like a great river into all future time, had dazzled him. He had followed Bonaparte on foot, from the Alps to the Tyrol, lived in the tumultuous crowd of the camps and of the marches that struck like thunderbolts, seen the slender boy with the eyes of fever seizing a flag amid the bullets and pass through death, in order to gain possession of the right to command men and to subjugate the future. There is no abstraction in his desire. He painted war horses with open nostrils, bloody eyes, and hair matted by blood and dust, while their breath and sweat mingle with the reddened haze of smoke of the northern battlefields. He copied cadavers in the blood-stained snow. While Bonaparte was annexing to the moral domain of Europe the desert peopled with sphinxes and with tombs, and the oldest adventure of the world. Gros experienced the chagrin of remaining exiled in France, imagining the burning sand, the leaden expanse of the mirages, the storm of the horsemen with the wind whipping their bernouses, and, in the damp, ill-smelling shadow of some mosque where the lamps have burned out, where the dulled glaze of tiles is soiled by disease, the dying men who crawl there, their faces turning green, and their bandages spotted with black blood around open sores. With the blue steel of the cuirasses, the cloth and the velvet of the multicolored uniforms, with the flashes of the firing, and with bits of sky seen amid flying manes, he had acquired the power of organizing dramas full of the color and movement of war; in them life was exalted by war, whose brutal movement was carried into the young and lyrical souls which were opening up everywhere.

Had Gros already possessed the mastery needed to project outside himself his furious gestures and his powerful harmonies, as a free and unified symbol of the storms of his heart, romanticist painting would have been finished at a single blow. But he hesitated. He hesitated between the object too closely pursued and the magisterial doctrine to which he gave too servile attention. The two things clashed. A too direct realism enchained the tragedy. The overtense drawing of the School arrested the living sentiment which was ready to bound from the soul, paralyzing its flight in a tangle of bizarre and factitious forms. Gros's work stands as a passage full of anguish between the immobility of David and the tumult of Delacroix. He kept on stubbornly till the end, and even seemed to comprehend the situation less and less. While around him, with Géricault, and soon with Delacroix, the flame of revolt was rising, he made it his point of honor to defend the School of the old master, exiled in Brussels by the Restoration. But the old master was, in his letters at this very time, confessing to him his admiration for Rubens. Against the young men who were taking him as a point of departure, almost against David, and, above all, against himself. Gros remained obstinate in establishing his art at the antipodes of his being. Upon a certain day, in despair at the oblivion into which he was sinking, bleeding from all the wounds which the art he had revealed was inflicting upon him at each new exhibition, incapable of breaking the matrix which was hardening around his genius and was crushing him little by little, he killed himself. He died a romanticist, at the very moment when, through Hugo, through Berlioz, and through Delacroix, Romanticism was affirming itself.

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