The French Monarchy and the Aesthetic Dogma (part II)

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With Nicolas Poussin, the writing is of far greater power. Here is a man who knows where he is going, sometimes too well; he expounds and demonstrates with an eloquence in which his compatriot Corneille could have recognized his power of coining maxims, and of inclosing, in a, uniform and vigorous rhythm, everything which, in life, is unprecise and fugitive, in order that he may impose upon it the form of his will. Heroic and lyric unity is the sole point of departure; everything groups and orders itself around that. The plastic unity is simply the result of an intellectual labor of conscious elimination, and of construction through the idea, wherein form and gesture, local tone, the general tonality, and the distribution of the volume and the arabesque respond to the central appeal of reason. And, when one has looked for a long time at his direct studies, their forms sculpturing the void like bas-reliefs wrought by light and shadow, when one knows that upon his return from excursions to the Campagna where the wrecked aqueducts, the circular edifices, the flat-topped pines, and the line of the pure hills impose clear-cut contours and decisive formulas upon the intelligence, "he brought back, in his handkerchief, pebbles, moss, flowers, and other things of the kind which he desired to paint exactly, from nature," one cannot do less than obey, as he did, that all-powerful appeal. "I have neglected nothing," he said to his friends. His character is as lofty as his faculty for comprehending, a faculty whose progression is the result of a desire to comprehend the universe, and which is ever ready to spiritualize its gains. Grapes, ripe fruits, bread, wheat, the golden russet of autumn, or the pure water of summer, or the springtime foliage which the wind silvers and sets trembling, are the sensuous center of his abstract symphony, whose grave coloration responds to a preoccupation with voluntary unity; and this gives but additional splendor to that recumbent body of a woman, to that lyre of gold shining upon a dark bosom, to that copper, fired by the fall of day, or to that laurel leaf, gleaming like a green bronze. As Homer compared the waist of a girl to the stem of a tree, he rediscovered the form of columns in the feminine torso. His constant and faithful penetration of the world filled him with moral harmonies as well ordered as a temple, and the tree and the round breasts and the arris of a monument or of a rock against the sky, entered the rhythm of the dancers to unite their curve with the resonance of music, and to purify them as a whole by their passage through the mind.

Whether he carries his lucid revery over the stormy landscape of the bacchanals, under the gray and black clouds and the deep azure and the thick foliage, or whether he leaned over the waters in order to surprise, in their motionless darkness, the silvered silhouette of the gods, never did antique myth and Italian ardor fail to appeal to French measure and definiteness, in order to express the nobility of his calm sentiment. The regular tiers made by the houses on the hills, the straight front of the colonnades, and the enormous round towers crowning the heights, all lead him to rediscover in the disposition of the trees, the mass of the earth's undulations, and even in the form of the sky laden with powerful clouds, that architectural sense of the world which is peculiar to the artists of his race and which they translate with the same sustained lyricism and the same firm intellect, from the Romanesque church and from the Gothic nave to the gardens of Le Nôtre, to the château of Mansard, to the music of Rameau, to the palaces of Gabriel, and to the poems of de Vigny. Everything contributes thereto and submits itself thereto. Human attitude and form are an admission that there is, in the elements of nature, a rigorous subordination which unites the movement of the heavenly bodies with the succession of the seasons and the beating of hearts. One finds this in the gesture of an arm plucking fruit from the branches, pouring wine into a cup, supporting a burden on an erect head, reaping wheat, leading a horse to the plowing, casting a line into the water (while turning halfway around to listen to a singer), bending a bow, shaking the thyrsus, or placing upon a brow a crown of oak. From that superb submission to the higher will which establishes the hierarchy of Nature in order to bring forth intelligence as her highest function, every function borrows an affecting purity. A yoke of galloping horses, an ox raising its head, a mute herd under the moon, the swelling udder of a goat to which a child is clinging, or the muzzle of a horse raised above the water are events that echo to the extreme limits of the waves of secret harmony which the contemplation of the universe causes to arise within us. The tree with the black trunk, which mounts as pure as the column of the temple, is a hymn of gratitude to the prodigious order of the world. The giant voice of the gods murmurs in it with the wind, and with the wings of the bees; and the gleam of the daylight on the silvered bark and on the edge of the trembling leaves is a glance of pride from the royal orb. The earth, space, love, the games of man and woman, the sacred submission of the beasts, all is sublime and all is innocent. Everything purifies itself and grows greater when one acquiesces in everything, thereby bringing it into contact with that which is highest and noblest within oneself, that which has the greatest faculty for giving admiration.

This great man, like all the great men of his century, is to be understood only upon close acquaintance. He frowns on one's approach, his tone is severe. The deep soul appears suddenly when one is almost ready to give up trying to seize it, the idyllic, amorous, and sensual soul of a being resolved to accept the poetry and the immorality of the world upon condition that he remain the master in tracing its sure courses and its accessible summits. In order not to love him when one has understood him, one must have failed to feel that in his purified heart is reborn the illusion of the singers of our distant dawn, whose desire perceived nude women passing under the branches, and mirages trembling in the water, when the labors and the games rhythmed by the course of the heavenly bodies gave to life the appearance of a sacred poem which everything on earth participated in ennobling. Pure arms open in space to invoke voluptuousness or to cradle sleep; round heads of children lie on the naked belly or on the warm shoulder of the mothers; heads crowned with flowers arise to look straight before them or to sink again on swelling breasts; walking, and kneeling, and the supplication of hands, the whole of the drama and of the eclogue, are inscribed on a superb scroll which passes across life like an indefatigable affirmation of gratitude and faith. Massacre as well as love is a pretext for glorifying form, whose calm splendor appears only to those who have penetrated the indifference of nature before massacre and love. Two profound memories haunt Poussin. He has seen performed, in the woods, where the shadow is burning, the orgiastic wedding of Titian and the universe. "The Fire in the Borgo" has revealed to him how sculptural limbs, spread wide by terror or made tense by prayer, can introduce among men a harmony superior to pity, because it creates hope. That was his starting point for the establishing of French tragedy and for joining the wild soul, the musical and trembling soul of Racine, by way of the order created by Corneille.

And that is not all. His track is deep. All Frenchmen, down through the strongest and most radiant century of their painting, will follow it passionately. Here is the rosy child, the Dionysiac child of Boucher and of Bouchardon. Here is the religious sentiment of woods and meadows, the nude forms and the branches reflected in sleeping waters, the harmony of the bacchanal and the eclogue with the architecture of the clouds and of the thickets, the heroic tree with outspread leaves, Watteau, Vernet, Ingres, Corot, Puvis de Chavannes, Cézanne. Here are the downy colors of the ripening fruits of France to which Watteau, Chardin, Corot, and sometimes Ingres, will come to get the temper of their harmonies. Here are the raised arms, the convulsed masks, the tragic cadavers, and the sensual and funereal drama which thunders around Delacroix.

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