The Rationalist Passion (part II)

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Although Antoine Watteau gave his last days to Pater, and a little of his nervous vivacity to Lancret, it is neither Pater nor Lancret who will continue his course, when he will no longer be there; they will not follow in the very direction taken by that aristocracy of birth and culture which seems to obey some order coming from the living depths which it exploits, and thereby determines its fall and hastens its dissolution. On the contrary, it is, as always, the disciples of the master who try to maintain intact the form he created, around which they have not seen life breaking down and moving. And yet almost everyone else is touched by his grace; they alone live in the setting he discovered. Watteau never ceased to hear the torrent of Rubens's blood, the beat of his heart, and the air murmuring in his breast, and so Rubens will, for a hundred years, breathe into the atmosphere of France a little of that fat and shining fluidity of northern painting the source of which the last painters of Louis XIV went to seek in Flanders and in England, forgetting the road to Rome, whence the School was returning, moreover, in full, though unconscious, revolt. Largillière is still alive. He often sets up his easel out of doors, under the trees, to paint his court people, and when they refuse to pose, one sees clearly, from their somewhat disordered appearance, that they are coming from him or are returning to him. Men like Coypel, Van Loo, de Troy, and a dozen artists around them who represent the School, will assume, in their mythological pictures and their state portraits, a careless elegance and a freedom of accent which indicate that people have been reading the "Lettres persanes," that Voltaire has returned from his journey to England, and that the bad King Louis XV is abandoning the good Queen Leczinska. The assembly of the gods is held in the boudoir of the favorites. All the good sculptors of the century, old Coyzevox first of all, in whom Puget is still felt, and already Clodion as well, then Lemoine, Pajou, Pigalle, Falconet, the brothers Adam, and Bouchardon, will not be quite themselves until they have introduced into the fashionable Olympus, chubby Eros or Venus at her toilette, like a lady of elegance well versed in matters of love. And Nattier will paint the princesses of the blood as rustic divinities, almost disrobed at times, their arms and their feet bare, and with flowers garlanded on their dresses, around their fingers, and in their hair. Rose bushes grow among the yews and the trimmed boxwood of Versailles.

Those roses, moreover, do not lose their petals as soon as they are picked. They will be applied all along the walls, they will encircle the sofas and the ladies who chat there, they will be around mirrors and chandeliers, and will be suspended from the canopies of the beds. Everyone, like Coypel and Caylus, for example, talks of "imitating nature." But upon condition that it submit to the caprice of the society least prepared to feel it living in man, and to experience its mystic intoxication, without which art loses the sole cause of its eternal character. Watteau is a king of the spirit whom the aristocracy of France will obey. But it will take its revenge, in its turn, by giving its orders to those who will succeed Watteau. "'Nature" will reduce itself to a kind of objet d’art placed on a shelf, and destined for the usage of fashion set by those who possess favor and money, which, by the way, they employ with extreme elegance.

Watteau being dead, the eighteenth century is aesthetically bankrupt of taste. The entire élite is furnished with an intense art education, which rises and broadens in it in the measure that creative force declines and shrinks in the souls of the artists, its servitors. It is drawing-room art, which does not pass the limits of the drawing-room (salon). The exhibitions of paintings are themselves "Salons." Painters, sculptors, engravers, jewelers, goldsmiths, cabinet-makers, hair-dressers, tailors, and bootmakers all contribute to surround the fine flower of a highly developed culture with this frail and creeping frame which brings out its splendor, but which tightens around it, gradually causes its natural origins to be lost to view, and exhausts itself in satisfying a spirit which is fading and dying of ingenuity and ennui. Everywhere, around the conversationalist and the coquette, in crystal, unglazed porcelain, marble, and tapestry, from the glass cabinet for bibelots to the tableware, from the carriage to the sedan chair, and from the antechamber to the alcove, this charming art repeats and reflects the words exchanged about love, about new-born science, about Persia, about China, about the spectacles of the day, and about the countryside seen from an opera box. A fashionable art, which uses up and completely drains the amiability of the artist, scatters it with the flights of the Amors and the flowers which are strewn about, disperses it through a thousand toilet articles, and debases it through those same surroundings.

François Boucher is its soul. Fashion insinuates itself and fixes itself around his easy fecundity, which everywhere, on ceilings, screens, carriage panels, and small friezes above doors, on caskets and fans, scatters its monotonous subjects—shepherdesses and pastorals. Charming in manner, generous, one who loved enjoyment and who is adored by men and women, ceaselessly exchanging with his century that which they both need in order to love and be loved, he stands, with the mistress of the king, at the center of his own revolving circle of winged loves and of flowers woven in garlands, which he is quite free—as artists of his race alone are—to bring forth in greatest profusion and to hang up wherever it pleases the alert and spontaneous fantasy of his desire, which is ever in accord with his requirements. In order to yield to the flexible grace of this world, where philosophic and gallant conversation flows on sinuous lines and makes delicate détours, everything adapts itself without effort to the forms imagined by the architect and the cabinet-maker of society, forms tending constantly more toward the circular. The fat, soft roundnesses turn with the woodwork and the frames; there are chubby shepherds, beribboned shepherdesses, and serving maids whom the painter raises to the dignity of goddesses by disrobing them, to show their full-blooded young flesh, their smiles, their dimples, and the elastic and quickly swelling curve of their buttocks and their breasts. The plump children of Bouchardon, the sculptor, are swept into the dance. Fragonard is prefigured; and Boucher, through his savory master Lemoyne, through Watteau, and through the world of decorators and artisans inspired by him, links the whole fragile setting of the French aristocracy with the supreme teaching of the Italian fête which Tiepolo, at the same time with him, is unfurling over the ceiling of Venetian bedchambers and drawing-rooms. Almost freed from form, the aerial harmonies sprinkle, with the rouge of cheeks and the powder from puffs, light skies, where the whirl of the clouds effaces itself little by little in the diffused rose and silver.

Unfortunately, the twisted and serpentine line prevents the decorator from making a complete escape into space and ever recalls him to labor for the tyrannous world of fashion, for which he was born. He remains the prisoner of the prince. For the first time, the artist is admitted to the drawing-room and the table, with the critic who dictates rules, the littérateur who explains, the scientist who diffuses knowledge, and the philosopher who destroys. It is the painter and the sculptor who lose most through these contacts; they are ill at ease between rationalistic analysis and sentimental abstraction; they forget, little by little, the life of the profound volumes and of the colors steeped in rain and in light, when they enter upon moral considerations, where they very quickly lose their way. The only one who gains is the newsmonger of plastics, who grows up somewhere between the rhymer of epigrams and the indiscreet confidant—the engraver of anecdotes of gallantry and of spicy gossip, who pretends that he was present, concealed behind a screen, at the disrobing of the bride, at the consultation of the marquise, and at the vicomte's or the abbé's capture by assault of the chambermaid. The genius for gossip, rendered sharp and subtle by a century of the life of fashion, overflows the drawing-rooms, the suppers, and the teas in the English style, and sweeps over everything that is expressed by pen, pencil, or modeling tool. Cochin, Beaudoin, Moreau the younger, Eisen, Leprince, and the Saint-Aubins create a chronicle of fashion peculiar to this country and this period. Conversations are carried on in exquisite style with a pastel crayon, a luminous engraving, pretty as a blonde—that one finds on turning the pages of a tale of gallantry or of a classic tragedy, or in a delicate, powdered head on a translucent medallion a quarter the size of one's hand. Everything is conversation—letters to the ladies, the article in the Encyclopédie, the short story by Voltaire, and the critique by Diderot. A witty word shakes a world, and a hundred thousand such words are struck off every day.

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