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An essay by George Augustus Moore

Monet, Sisley, Pissaro, And The Decadence

Title:     Monet, Sisley, Pissaro, And The Decadence
Author: George Augustus Moore [More Titles by Moore]

Nature demands that children should devour their parents, and Corot was hardly cold in his grave when his teaching came to be neglected and even denied. Values were abandoned and colour became the unique thought of the new school.

My first acquaintance with Monet's painting was made in '75 or '76--the year he exhibited his first steam-engine and his celebrated troop of life-size turkeys gobbling the tall grass in a meadow, at the end of which stood, high up in the picture, a French chateau. Impressionism is a word that has lent itself to every kind of misinterpretation, for in its exact sense all true painting is penetrated with impressionism, but, to use the word in its most modern sense--that is to say, to signify the rapid noting of illusive appearance--Monet is the only painter to whom it may be reasonably applied. I remember very well that sunlit meadow and the long coloured necks of the turkeys. Truly it may be said that, for the space of one rapid glance, the canvas radiates; it throws its light in the face of the spectator as, perhaps, no canvas did before. But if the eyes are not immediately averted the illusion passes, and its place is taken by a somewhat incoherent and crude coloration. Then the merits of the picture strike you as having been obtained by excessive accomplishment in one-third of the handicraft and something like a formal protestation of the non-existence of the other two-thirds. Since that year I have seen Monets by the score, and have hardly observed any change or alteration in his manner of seeing or executing, or any development soever in his art. At the end of the season he comes up from the country with thirty or forty landscapes, all equally perfect, all painted in precisely the same way, and no one shows the slightest sign of hesitation, and no one suggests the unattainable, the beyond; one and all reveal to us a man who is always sure of his effect, and who is always in a hurry. Any corner of nature will do equally well for his purpose, nor is he disposed to change the disposition of any line of tree or river or hill; so long as a certain reverberation of colour is obtained all is well. An unceasing production, and an almost unvarying degree of excellence, has placed Monet at the head of the school; his pictures command high prices, and nothing goes now with the erudite American but Monet's landscapes. But does Monet merit this excessive patronage, and if so, what are the qualities in his work that make it superior to Sisley's and Pissaro's?

Sisley is less decorative, less on the surface, and though he follows Monet in his pursuit of colour, nature is, perhaps, on account of his English origin, something more to him than a brilliant appearance. It has of course happened to Monet to set his easel before the suburban aspect that Sisley loves, but he has always treated it rather in the decorative than in the meditative spirit. He has never been touched by the humility of a lane's end, and the sentiment of the humble life that collects there has never appeared on his canvas. Yet Sisley, being more in sympathy with such nature, has often been able to produce a superior though much less pretentious picture than the ordinary stereotyped Monet. But if Sisley is more meditative than Monet, Pissaro is more meditative than either.

Monet had arrived at his style before I saw anything of his work; of his earlier canvases I know nothing. Possibly he once painted in the Corot manner; it is hardly possible that he should not have done so. However this may be, Pissaro did not rid himself for many years of the influence of Corot. His earliest pictures were all composed in pensive greys and violets, and exhaled the weary sadnessof tilth and grange and scant orchard trees. The pale road winds through meagre uplands, and through the blown and gnarled and shiftless fruit-trees the saddening silhouette of the town drifts across the land. The violet spaces between the houses are the very saddest, and the spare furrows are patiently drawn, and so the execution is in harmony with and accentuates the unutterable monotony of the peasant's lot. The sky, too, is vague and empty, and out of its deathlike, creamy hollow the first shadows are blown into the pallid face of a void evening. The picture tells of the melancholy of ordinary life, of our poor transitory tenements, our miserable scrapings among the little mildew that has gathered on the surface of an insignificant planet. I will not attempt to explain why the grey-toned and meditative Pissaro should have consented to countenance--I cannot say to lead (for, unlike every other _chef d'ecole_, Pissaro imitated the disciples instead of the disciples imitating Pissaro)--the many fantastic revolutions in pictorial art which have agitated Montmartre during the last dozen years. The Pissaro psychology I must leave to take care of itself, confining myself strictly to the narrative of these revolutions.

Authority for the broken brushwork of Monet is to be found in Manet's last pictures, and I remember Manet's reply when I questioned him about the pure violet shadows which, just before his death, he was beginning to introduce into his pictures. "One year one paints violet and people scream, and the following year every one paints a great deal more violet." If Manet's answer throws no light whatever on the new principle, it shows very clearly the direction, if not the goal, towards which his last style was moving. But perhaps I am speaking too cautiously, for surely broken brushwork and violet shadows lead only to one possible goal--the prismatic colours.

Manet died, and this side--and this side only--of his art was taken up by Monet, Sisley, and Renoir. Or was it that Manet had begun to yield to an influence--that of Monet, Sisley, and Renoir--which was just beginning to make itself felt? Be this as it may, browns and blacks disappeared from the palettes of those who did not wish to be considered _l'ecole des beaux-arts, et en plein_. Venetian reds, siennas, and ochres were in process of abandonment, and the palette came to be composed very much in the following fashion: violet, white, blue, white, green, white, red, white, yellow, white, orange, white--the three primary and the three secondary colours, with white placed between each, so as to keep everything as distinct as possible, and avoid in the mixing all soiling of the tones. Monet, Sisley, and Renoir contented themselves with the abolition of all blacks and browns, for they were but half-hearted reformers, and it was clearly the duty of those who came after to rid the palette of all ochres, siennas, Venetian, Indian, and light reds. The only red and yellow that any one who was not, according to the expression of the new generation, _presque du Louvre_, could think of permitting on his palette were vermilion and cadmium. The first of this new generation was Seurat, Seurat begot Signac, Signac begot Anquetin, and Anquetin has begotten quite a galaxy of lesser lights, of whom I shall not speak in this article--of whom it is not probable that I shall ever speak.

It was in an exhibition held in Rue Lafitte in '81 or '82 that the new method, which comprised two most radical reforms--an execution achieved entirely with the point of the brush and the division of the tones--was proclaimed. Or should I say reformation, for the execution by a series of dots is implicit in the theory of the division of the tones? How well I remember being attracted towards an end of the room, which was filled with a series of most singular pictures. There must have been at least ten pictures of yachts in full sail. They were all drawn in profile, they were all painted in the very clearest tints, white skies and white sails hardly relieved or explained with shadow, and executed in a series of minute touches, like mosaic. Ten pictures of yachts all in profile, all in full sail, all unrelieved by any attempt at atmospheric effect, all painted in a series of little dots!

Great as was my wonderment, it was tenfold increased on discovering that only five of these pictures were painted by the new man, Seurat, whose name was unknown to me; the other five were painted by my old friend Pissaro. My first thought went for the printer; my second for some _fumisterie_ on the part of the hanging committee, the intention of which escaped me. The pictures were hung low, so I went down on my knees and examined the dotting in the pictures signed Seurat, and the dotting in those that were signed Pissaro. After a strict examination I was able to detect some differences, and I began to recognise the well-known touch even through this most wild and most wonderful transformation. Yes, owing to a long and intimate acquaintance with Pissaro and his work, I could distinguish between him and Seurat, but to the ordinary visitor their pictures were identical.

Many claims are put forward, but the best founded is that of Seurat; and, so far as my testimony may serve his greater honour and glory, I do solemnly declare that I believe him to have been the original discoverer of the division of the tones.

A tone is a combination of colours. In Nature colours are separate; they act and react one on the other, and so create in the eye the illusion of a mixture of various colours-in other words, of a tone. But if the human eye can perform this prodigy when looking on colour as evolved through the spectacle of the world, why should not the eye be able to perform the same prodigy when looking on colour as displayed over the surface of a canvas? Nature does not mix her colours to produce a tone; and the reason of the marked discrepancy existing between Nature and the Louvre is owing to the fact that painters have hitherto deemed it a necessity to prepare a tone on the palette before placing it on the canvas; whereas it is quite clear that the only logical and reasonable method is to first complete the analysis of the tone, and then to place the colours which compose the tone in dots over the canvas, varying the size of the dots and the distance between the dots according to the depth of colour desired by the painter.

If this be done truly--that is to say, if the first analysis of the tones be a correct analysis--and if the spectator places himself at the right distance from the picture, there will happen in his eyes exactly the same blending of colour as happens in them when they are looking upon Nature. An example will, I think, make my meaning clear. We are in a club smoking-room. The walls are a rich ochre. Three or four men sit between us and the wall, and the blue smoke of their cigars fills the middle air. In painting this scene it would be usual to prepare the tone on the palette, and the preparation would be somewhat after this fashion: ochre warmed with a little red--a pale violet tinted with lake for the smoke of the cigars.

But such a method of painting would seem to Seurat and Signac to be artless, primitive, unscientific, childish, _presque du Louvre_--above all, unscientific. They would say, "Decompose the tone. That tone is composed of yellow, white, and violet turning towards lake"; and, having satisfied themselves in what proportions, they would dot their canvases over with pure yellow and pure white, the interspaces being filled in with touches of lake and violet, numerous where the smoke is thickest, diminishing in number where the wreaths vanish into air. Or let us suppose that it is a blue slated roof that the dottist wishes to paint. He first looks behind him, to see what is the colour of the sky. It is an orange sky. He therefore represents the slates by means of blue dots intermixed with orange and white dots, and--ah! I am forgetting an important principle in the new method--the complementary colour which the eye imagines, but does not see. What is the complementary colour of blue, grey, and orange? Green. Therefore green must be introduced into the roof; otherwise the harmony would be incomplete, and therefore in a measure discordant.

Needless to say that a sky painted in this way does not bear looking into. Close to the spectator it presents the appearance of a pard; but when he reaches the proper distance there is no denying that the colours do in a measure unite and assume a tone more or less equivalent to the tone that would have been obtained by blending the colours on the palette. "But," cry Seurat and Signac, "an infinitely purer and more beautiful tone than could have been obtained by any artificial blending of the colours on the palette--a tone that is the exact equivalent of one of Nature's tones, for it has been obtained in exactly the same way."

Truly a subject difficult to write about in English. Perhaps it is one that should not be attempted anywhere except in a studio with closed doors. But if I did not make some attempt to explain this matter, I should leave my tale of the decline and fall of French art in the nineteenth century incomplete.

Roughly speaking, these new schools--the symbolists, the decadents, the dividers of tones, the professors of the rhythm of gesture--date back about ten years. For ten years the division of the tones has been the subject of discussion in the aesthetic circles of Montmartre. And when we penetrate further into the matter--or, to be more exact, as we ascend into the higher regions of _La Butte_--we find the elect, who form so stout a phalanx against the Philistinism of the Louvre, themselves subdivided into numerous sections, and distraught with internecine feuds concerning the principle of the art which they pursue with all the vehemence that Veronese green and cadmium yellow are capable of. From ten at night till two in the morning the _brasseries_ of the Butte are in session. Ah! the interminable bocks and the reek of the cigars, until at last a hesitating exodus begins. An exhausted proprietor at the head of his waiters, crazed with sleepiness, eventually succeeds in driving these noctambulist apostles into the streets.

Then the nervous lingering at the corner! The disputants, anxious and yet loth to part, say goodbye, each regretting that he had not urged some fresh argument--an argument which had just occurred to him, and which, he feels sure, would have reduced his opponent to impotent silence. Sometimes the partings are stormy. The question of the introduction of the complementary colours into the frames of the pictures is always a matter of strife, and results in much nonconformity. Several are strongly in favour of carrying the complementary colours into the picture-frames. "If you admit," says one, "that to paint a blue roof with an orange sky shining on it you must introduce the complementary colour green--which the spectator does not see, but imagines--there is excellent reason why you should dot the frame all over with green, for the picture and its frame are not two things, but one thing." "But," cries his opponent, "there is a finality in all things; if you carry your principle out to the bitter end, the walls as well as the frame should be dotted with the complementary colours, the staircases too, the streets likewise; and if we pursue the complementaries into the street, who shall say where we are to stop? Why stop at all, unless the neighbours protest that we are interfering with their complementaries?"

The schools headed by Signac and Anquetin comprise numerous disciples and adherents. They do not exhibit in the Salon or in the Champ de Mars; but that is because they disdain to do so. They hold exhibitions of their own, and their picture-dealers trade only in their works and in those belonging to or legitimately connected with the new schools.

If I have succeeded in explaining the principle of coloration employed by these painters, I must have excited some curiosity in the reader to see these scientifically-painted pictures. To say that they are strange, absurd, ridiculous, conveys no sensation of their extravagances; and I think that even an elaborate description would miss its mark. For, in truth, the pictures merit no such attention. It is only needful to tell the reader that they fail most conspicuously at the very point where it was their mission to succeed. Instead of excelling in brilliancy of colour the pictures painted in the ordinary way, they present the most complete spectacle of discoloration possible to imagine.

Yet Signac is a man of talent, and in an exhibition of pictures which I visited last May I saw a wide bay, two rocky headlands extending far into the sea, and this offing was filled with a multitude of gull-like sails. There was in it a vibration of light, such an effect as a mosaic composed of dim-coloured but highly polished stones might produce. I can say no good word, however, for his portrait of a gentleman holding his hat in one hand and a flower in the other. This picture formulated a still newer aestheticism--the rhythm of gesture. For, according to Signac, the raising of the face and hands expresses joy, the depression of the face and hands denotes sadness. Therefore, to denote the melancholy temperament of his sitter, Signac represented him as being hardly able to lift his hat to his head or the flower to his button-hole. The figure was painted, as usual, in dots of pure colour lifted from the palette with the point of the brush; the complementary colours in duplicate bands curled up the background. This was considered by the disciples to be an important innovation; and the effect, it is needless to say, was gaudy, if not neat.

A theory of Anquetin's is that wherever the painter is painting, his retina must still hold some sensation of the place he has left; therefore there is in every scene not only the scene itself, but remembrance of the scene that preceded it. This is not quite clear, is it? No. But I think I can make it clear. He who walks out of a brilliantly lighted saloon--that is to say, he who walks out of yellow--sees the other two primary colours, red and blue; in other words, he sees violet. Therefore Anquetin paints the street, and everything in it, violet--boots, trousers, hats, coats, lamp-posts, paving-stones, and the tail of the cat disappearing under the _porte cochere_.

But if in my description of these schools I have conveyed the idea of stupidity or ignorance I have failed egregiously. These young men are all highly intelligent and keenly alive to art, and their doings are not more vain than the hundred and one artistic notions which have been undermining the art-sense of the French and English nations for the last twenty years. What I have described is not more foolish than the stippling at South Kensington or the drawing by the masses at Julien's. The theory of the division of the tones is no more foolish than the theory of _plein air_ or the theory of the square brushwork; it is as foolish, but not a jot more foolish.

Great art dreams, imagines, sees, feels, expresses--reasons never. It is only in times of woful decadence, like the present, that the bleating of the schools begins to be heard; and although, to the ignorant, one method may seem less ridiculous than another, all methods--I mean, all methods that are not part and parcel of the pictorial intuition--are equally puerile and ridiculous. The separation of the method of expression from the idea to be expressed is the sure sign of decadence. France is now all decadence. In the Champ de Mars, as in the Salon, the man of the hour is he who has invented the last trick in subject or treatment.

France has produced great artists in quick succession. Think of all the great names, beginning with Ingres and ending with Degas, and wonder if you can that France has at last entered on a period of artistic decadence. For the last sixty years the work done in literary and pictorial art has been immense; the soil has been worked along and across, in every direction; and for many a year nothing will come to us from France but the bleat of the scholiast.

[The end]
George Moore's essay: Monet, Sisley, Pissaro, And The Decadence