Modern decorative artists have not been unmoved by Van Gogh. His surfaces have proved helpful to the young Parisian painters, Denis, Ranson, Sérusièr, and Bonnard, and his brush-stroke to the most important of modern ornamentists, Van de Velde. Van Gogh has sifted out from the great epoch of the Impressionists not all, but some highly important results, destined to a far-reaching influence even outside the sphere of abstract painting to which this school confined itself.
If we keep this connection in view and trace the road back from Van Gogh to his greatest exemplar, the beloved master of Barbizon appears in a new light deeply intertwined with all that moves us to-day. Van Gogh drew Millet into the radiant circle of Manet, Monet, and Cézanne, who were in danger of forgetting him, and reminded them what Millet’s great fructifier, Daumier, had possessed of pictorial power.
And at the same time, this last of the great Dutchmen who had drifted to a foreign haven maintained his national tradition. He brought back to it what it had lent to the great French generation of 1830, remaining faithful to its noblest law: that we must follow Nature, and more especially our own nature.
For Van Gogh it was a kind of haven, and I pass over the superfluous question how much he added to Millet, or Millet to him. It was not poverty of invention that drew him to Millet and Delacroix, but rather an excess of productive energy, which he was only able to curb by keeping it within the limits of a prescribed alien form. Let us hear what he says himself in one of his letters:
“Eussé-je eu les forces pour continuer, j’aurais fait des saints et des saintes femmes d’après nature, qui auraient paru d’un autre âge: ç’auraient été des bourgeois d’ à présent, ayant pourtant des rapports avec des chrétiéns fort primitifs. –Les émotions que cela cause sont cependant trop fortes. J’y resterais.
“Mais plus tard, plus tard je ne dis pas que je ne viendrai pas à la charge. . . . Il ne faut pas songer à tout cela, il faut faire, fût-ce des études de choux et de salade pour se calmer, et après avoir été calmé, alors . . . ce dont on sera capable.”
Well, he painted his saints, after all. Every picture he painted was holy ecstasy, even when the theme was a bunch of lettuces.
A primitive in a sense we can hardly conceive nowadays, lived in this creature. For years he had dreams of a great association of artists. He believed that an individual could do nothing of permanent value, and longed for works “that transcend the powers of the individual.” He frequently begged his friends Gauguin and Bernard to come to Arles and collaborate with him. One was to undertake composition, another colour, etc.
The project had also become an idée fixe with his brother. Theodore van Gogh, the younger of the two, who provided for Vincent’s material wants with touching affection, had slowly gained over Boussod et Valadon to the Impressionists; he arranged exhibitions of Pissarros, Seurats, Monets, Renoirs and the rest, and contributed not a little to their con- quest of the public. The brothers wished to found a society which should exhibit the best works of the moderns in the large towns of France and of foreign countries, giving fit representation to recognised painters, and the means of living and working to the others. All that was lacking was a generous banker to provide the funds.
Vincent found in Millet the basis of a primitive popular art, models for portraits of humanity. He made the gravity of Millet graver, I might almost say more Lutheran. The ancient Greek spirit which breathes from many of Millet’s soft pencil drawings like a natural sound, gives place in him to a gigantic, almost a barbaric instinct, in relation to which the Millet form appears only as a softening element.
There is nothing classical about him; he reminds us rather of the early Gothic stonemasons; the technique of his drawings is that of the old wood-carvers; some of his faces look as if they had been cut with a blunt knife in hard wood. The ugliness of his personages, the “mangeurs de pommes de terre,” carries the primitive ruggedness of the older painters to the region of the colossal, where it occasionally resembles materialised phantoms of horror. He projected such things as La Berceuse not for amateurs, but for common folks, and it was one of his–all too natural–disappointments, that no peasant would give himself up to sitting. * In his painted portraits, the hard wood of the drawings seems sometimes to be blent with gleaming metal.
Schuffenecker owns the most masterly of his portraits of himself. No-one who has seen this tremendous head with the square forehead, the staring eyes and despairing jaw can ever forget it. It is so full of a terrible grandeur of line, colour, and psychology, that it takes away one’s breath, and it is hard to know whether one is repelled by its monstrous exaggeration of beauty, or by the lurking madness in the head that conceived it.
There was a shorter, simpler, and much safer way, which the calm speculation of great savants had begun to mark out from the beginning of the nineteenth century, and which was ready by the time Monet’s successors set to work. In 1807 the Englishman Thomas Young formulated his theory of the three stimulants of the retina; in 1853 Dove’s study on colour was published; in 1864 Chevreul’s decisive work on colour-contrasts, in which the scientist for the first time demanded obedience from the artist. In the eighties important results followed quickly one on the other. In New York, O. N. Rood, in Germany, Helmholtz and many others, shed a flood of light upon the subject and found solutions for all the points with which science is competent to deal.
For the first time since the primitive periods, not only in France but anywhere, there was a program which brought the will of the individual into subjection to a perfectly organic doctrine. It was the purest abstraction, but in a different sense from that which had become usual. Whereas the painting of Monet abstracted from all the processes of the old masters on behalf of the personality of the author, personality tends to disappear here more and more in a method distinguished from the technical convention of the old masters by deeper research into the laws which the eye obeys. And this doctrine seemed to be not so much the result of research as the product of the art of immediate predecessors, in which the real stimulus to the development so far achieved was rightly recognised. Setting Turner aside, it was enough to point to Delacroix.
In his studies on Delacroix’ diary Signac has shown that Delacroix had recognised the principles of colour-division in Constable’s works, and had attempted to paint in accordance therewith himself. He points out how in the Louvre picture, Women of Algiers in an Interior, the strong colouristic effect is won by gradations and the use of complementary colours, and traces the artist’s progressive efforts in every new picture to clear his palette and to give greater animation to his surfaces by division of the brush stroke and of colour.
It was enough to develop this evident tendency and to sacrifice the rest. The sacrifice was made in respect of the differentiation or texture as taught by the old Dutch masters. Detail of texture, whether that of the skin or of clothing, was entirely subordinated. Even Monet neglected texture, in comparison with Manet, who treated the physiology of flesh, of flowers, and of stuffs all alike admirably. For Seurat there was but one unity of material: color.
If this is indeed the essential thing, the conclusion is irrefutable. But the point is obviously not whether this theorem is true or false, but how far it becomes a means in the hand of the artist for utilising all the capacities he can show. Signac rightly judges Delacroix to have been greatly superior to Monet, inasmuch as he produced greater effects by schematic contrasts and by the avoidance of arbitrary mixtures, although his palette was not composed exclusively of the pure colours used by the Impressionists.
Monet and Pissarro, revolutionaries far more arbitrary than the painter of Dante’s Boat, are often much dirtier in their general effects than Delacroix, and as this occurs in pictures which can only justify their existence by the utmost luminosity of tint, the difference appears a deficiency. Not merely a deficiency according to the doctrines of research, but above all a relative deficiency judged by the standard of the aspirations roused by these pictures. Gold must glitter like gold if we attempt to use it for demonstration.
None of the colourists of Manet’s generation made men forget the colourist Delacroix; everything, or nearly everything, that tends to their glory increases his fame; he was their god. Delacroix’ colour had come too early for the weakness of humanity.
When the trappings of Romanticism were cleared away, his palette was thrown aside as one of its accessories. After the strong and healthy recognition of reality by the great landscape school of 1830 and the realism of the school of Courbet, painters were impelled to get at a right distance from Nature; this was the logical way between the two manifestations that had come to an end.
As soon as it was consciously recognised, the method of Daumier and of Delacroix was necessarily decisive. Why this way is modern, and why it achieves results which respond to vital and weighty needs, I hope at least to indicate in due course. The consciousness of this is a piece of modern culture. It is rooted in the postulate that Manet and his circle gave us not Nature, but the natural, and that all naturalisation of our instincts, i.e., all sharpening, purification, and amelioration, is modern.
Every joy is progress, and so therefore was Manet’s achievement. That achievement and its results had never occurred even to the magician Rubens, and, going through the whole history of art, we may find something similar, but never quite the same decisive consciousness. There are other values, the perfection of which put us to the blush, but in spite of this we would not exchange for them our own, the resplendent symbol of our best aspirations, our happiness, our epoch.
Manet discovered, to the horrified amazement of the world, that a fine feminine skin is neither yellow nor brown, but luminously white in the light, especially in juxtaposition to dark colours, and that blood pulses, that nerves and senses throb beneath it.
Millet painted the repose of life, and found greatness therein; he transmitted to the simple action he represented a very great and very simple thought, which was expressed in like terms by all his washerwomen, mothers, housewives, and workmen of various kinds, and finally carried conviction by constant repetition of the one sound in so many different forms. It was a generalisation that became the more impressive, the more deliberately it was set forth. In comparison, the realists were clumsy folk, more modest than Millet, for they allowed Nature to think for herself, more presumptuous and more limited, for they expounded what seemed to them the thoughts of Nature in their own narrow fashion.
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