England (part II)

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A single flash. Before him, no one in England suspected that manner of painting. There had been only van Dyck, and those who succeed Hogarth, with their ease and their careless grace, as if they were representing the climax of a long effort, will not often give expression to any such fancies, but will rather follow the Fleming. He is easier to understand, more soft and empty, and far less a master of character. He is the master needed by a group evolving essential genius of its race. Here are noble faces, each one a little bit similar to the others, and interchangeable hands emerging from fine clothes. An enriched and distant aristocracy, ignorant of the people, without intellectual connection with the lofty national thought which burned out a hundred years before, are well adapted to love and patronize such an art. They are narrowly practical in their purposes, and meet their need for an ideal with the foreign culture enthroned by the Restoration in its effort to combat the Puritan. They are touched by French fashions and ideas, and when a kind of moral beauty comes to them with the perpetual war, with the continual and brutal expansion in distant lands and on the sea, Reynolds and Gainsborough will have formed the generation of painters needed for their great, comfortable luxury. The whole of English painting gravitates around the peerage, and is created for it, for its women, and for its gardens. Born at the moment when the lords gather the fruits of their allegiance and of their privileges, it is only one of its fruits. It resembles the lords, it models itself from them. It does not have to bend to their caprice, it forms a part of their domain, outside of which it would not exist. It is not annexed to them for an hour, it is determined by their needs. The English painter is not, as in France, an artisan still retaining his traditions, but domesticated for a time by the double tyranny of money and of fashion. In France, the painter is a workman of art at the service of the man of society. In England, the painter is a society man who practices painting as an amateur.

And that brings about its inferiority, even to the French painting of the same period—of a secondary order, though it was. It was in England, perhaps, that this century, so little of an artist—save for the music of the Germans—shows itself to be most devoid of creative force. There is not a Watteau, not a Chardin, not a Goya, not even a Tiepolo, perhaps, or a Canaletto. Not only is the intellectual atmosphere, here as in other places, unfavorable to painting, since here, as in other places, everything tends toward criticism, journalism, society correspondence, the literature of information, scientific essays, and moralizing novels, but here, in addition, man is not a painter, or rather he is so in too narrow a sense. When his eye is satisfied, the English painter stops. Not one passes beyond the expression of the superficial harmonies quickly revealed to him by the study of Flemish and Venetian painting, and of which he quite easily finds confirmation in his beautiful, well-washed landscapes and his skies laden with vapor; not one attains the expression of the profound, turning volumes which lead us, little by little, to discover the architecture of the world, and thus the architecture of the mind. In the course of his travels on the Continent, Reynolds was not able to see, in Rembrandt, whom he pillages, and in the Venetians, whom he treats loftily in his Discourses, anything but a creamy and triturated paste, melting tones, and lights with warm shadows, in which reddened gold plays over the thick whites. He treats his admirable gifts as a painter like frippery to crumple with the tips of the fingers. Under that crust of painting, the form is soft and spongy, like a fruit swollen with water. The material of the flesh and the structure of the bones are similar to those of the dresses. And as soon as one has pierced the artificial patina, the work sounds hollow.

After him, all the painters resemble one another. A little more charming or a little more disdainful, a little more animated or a little more cold, a little more savory or a little more insipid, a little more graceful or more awkward, all are empty and facile; and the delicate gray harmonies which some, like Raeburn, harmonize with the dresses and the neckcloths of taffeta, of silk, or of muslin, with space, and with powdered hair, cannot cause us to forget a wearisome monotony of attitudes, a quality of pigment like pasteboard or like plaster, and form without a skeleton, without muscles, and without density. The fall is as rapid as the effort to rise was easy in appearance and factitious in reality. The charming color engraving everywhere current at that time is perhaps the thing which best interprets the spirit of English plastics, which, after all, sees color only as a means of giving its bloom to the home, and of there transforming into cool and comfortable harmonies the woods, the fields, and the skies of the country, its tall, elegant women, their beautiful horses, their hunting dogs and pet dogs, all bathed in clear light and the open air. But all the portrait painters, Romney, Raeburn, Hoppner, and Opie, sink, step by step, when one thinks of the initiators, Reynolds, Hogarth, and van Dyck. Lawrence, the last to arrive, is, as soon as he gets past his sketch, which is sometimes charming, only a dispenser of cold syrups.

In this group, Gainsborough alone retains a certain bearing. His psychological sense of the portrait, which the study of the French painters of his time has permitted him to affirm and to extend, makes of him a nobler amateur, one who lives in the provinces, apart from the others; he is a man who loves his art. If there is, in this England of the eighteenth century, rebellious within and conquering abroad, carrying on, along the same front, the satire of Swift when it lifts its mirror to its face, and the practical epic of Defoe when its eye follows its sailors and its traders, if there is some aristocratic retreat for noble modesty and for pride, it is in him that we must seek it. Whether the lord leads the soldiers of the oligarchy to the Continent, or, in Parliament, enters the practical debates of the merchants and the legists, his wife remains an object of luxury which he keeps for himself in the majestic frame of the castles and the parks. Blue of the thickets, gray of the clouds, and space of humid silver, all the delicate and distant beings who cross the monotonous backgrounds which you form have really the air of belonging to a race unknown before him, and which no one will see again when he shall have ceased to be. If those ethereal robes were torn, if the dulled tones of the crossed neckcloths, the high, powdered coiffures, the laces, the blue ribbons, and the scarfs of pink pearl were to mingle their impalpable dust with the ashes of the airy harmonies which always accompany them, we should doubtless see, appearing for a second and instantly fleeing beneath the trees, tall, chaste huntresses who would not reappear. For the first and the last time in England, where all music and all painting pass through the heart of the lyric poets before reaching us, a little undefined music passes into painting itself. Gainsborough seems to be the only one really to have heard, resounding in England, the sonorous poem that Handel had brought there from Germany and which cradled his contemplative life. In his melancholy, there is a little of the grand solemnity, and in the gentle and delicate honesty of his vision, a certain echo of the mystic positivism of the old musician.

Unfortunately, the quality of his meditation on nature is not on the same height as his instincts and his intentions as an artist. Like the others, he is forced to obey the suggestions of his country, to which its living verdure, its limpid coolness of tone, its long undulations covered by grasslands and by trees too well nourished, perhaps, too richly endowed, give neither the firmness of geological construction nor the infinite movement of the air which are both necessary to the formation of the great painter. He is forced to follow the suggestions of his epoch, the one least spontaneously English in the whole history of the English, with its universal criticism, its negation of all that is most distinctly English in the English soul (the writer imitates France, and Garrick corrects Shakespeare), and the systematic sensualism of its philosophers, which cuts one of the wings of lyricism and condemns plastics never to go beyond sensation. He is forced to yield to the temperament of his race, which, as soon as it abandons itself to poetic flight, transposes all the matter borrowed from the vast world, to realms of sentiment in the mind, where the word reigns as master but where the architecture of form lacks a base, and where sculpture and painting vacillate and whirl, like a tuft of smoke at the mouth of a volcano.

Thus English painting dies of that which causes the English poet to live and reign in the imagination of men. If the English novel of manners and customs justifies the enthusiasm of Diderot, the English people, through its love for Greuze, shows that it understood painting as badly as did Diderot—who understood it so well as soon as he consented to consider it according to the painters. English sentimentalism disheartens itself by borrowing the language of painting, in which reverie and tears have no place. Reynolds could pass for a great painter —thanks to his portraits of men especially, sometimes sturdy and broad enough to give a living idea of the soldier, the sailor, or the despot of letters of that time—were his soul not that of a shopgirl grown insipid by foolish dreaming. Hence his cats and dogs bedecked with ribbons, his chubby little girls with cherries at their ears; hence the eyes he paints swimming with tears, the clasped hands, and the faces pink with shame hidden under round and pretty arms. It is a painting that causes old ladies to weep and young girls to sigh; impotent, ambiguous, and perverse, it trails the mantle of Rembrandt through streams of perfumery and of caramel sauce.

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