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A non-fiction by Elbert Hubbard


Title:     Meissonier
Author: Elbert Hubbard [More Titles by Hubbard]

I never hesitate about scraping out the work of days, and beginning afresh, so as to satisfy myself, and try to do better. Ah! that "better" which one feels in one's soul, and without which no true artist is ever content!

Others may approve and admire; but that counts for nothing, compared with one's own feeling of what ought to be.

---Meissonier's Conversations

Life in this world is a collecting, and all the men and women in it are collectors.

The question is, What will you collect? Most men are intent on collecting dollars. Their waking-hours are taken up with inventing plans, methods, schemes, whereby they may secure dollars from other men. To gather as many dollars as possible, and to give out as few, is the desideratum. But when you collect one thing you always incidentally collect others. The fisherman who casts his net for shad usually secures a few other fish, and once in a while a turtle, which enlarges the mesh to suit, and gives sweet liberty to the shad. To focus exclusively on dollars is to secure jealousy, fear, vanity, and a vaulting ambition that may claw its way through the mesh and let your dollars slip into the yeasty deep.

Ragged Haggard and his colleague, Cave-of-the-Winds, collect bacteria; while the fashionable young men of the day, with a few exceptions, are collecting headaches, regrets, weak nerves, tremens, paresis--death. Of course we shall all die (I will admit that), and further, we may be a long time dead (I will admit that), and moreover, we may be going through the world for the last time--as to that I do not know; but while we are here it seems the part of reason to devote our energies to collecting that which brings as much quiet joy to ourselves, and as little annoyance to others, as possible.

My heart goes out to the collector. In the soul of the collector of old books, swords, pistols, brocades, prints, clocks and bookplates, there is only truth. If he gives you his friendship, it is because you love the things that he loves; he has no selfish wish to use your good name to further his own petty plans--he only asks that you shall behold, and beholding, your eye shall glow, and your heart warm within you.

Inasmuch as we live in the age of the specialist, one man often collects books on only one subject, Dante for instance; another, nothing but volumes printed at Venice; another, works concerning the stage; and still another devotes all his spare time to securing tobacco-pipes. And I am well aware that the man who for a quarter of a century industriously collects snuffboxes has a supreme contempt for the man who collects both snuffboxes and clocks. And in this does the specialist reveal that his normal propensity to collect has degenerated. That is to say, it has refined itself into an abnormality, and from the innocent desire to collect, has shifted off into a selfish wish to outrival.

The man who collects many things, with easy, natural leanings toward, say, spoons, is pure in heart and free from guile; but when his soul centers on spoons exclusively, he has fallen from his high estate and is simply possessed of a lust for ownership--he wants to own more peculiar spoons than any other man on earth. Such a one stirs up wrath and rivalry, and is the butt and byword of all others who collect spoons.

Prosperous, practical, busy people sometimes wonder why other folks build cabinets with glass fronts and strong locks and therein store postage-stamps, bits of old silks, autographs and books that are very precious only when their leaves are uncut; and so I will here endeavor to explain. At the same time I despair of making my words intelligible to any but those who are collectors, or mayhap to those others who are in the varioloid stage.

Then possibly you say I had better not waste good paper and ink by recording the information, since collectors know already, and those who are without the pale have neither eyes to see nor hearts to incline. But the simple fact is, the proposition that you comprehend on first hearing was yours already; for how can you recognize a thing as soon as it comes into view if you have never before seen it? You have thought my thought yourself, or else your heart would not beat fast and your lips say, "Yes, yes!" when I voice it. Truth is in the air, and when your head gets up into the right stratum of atmosphere you breathe it in. You may not know that you have breathed it in until I come along and write it out on this blank sheet, and then you read it and say, "Yes--your hand! that is surely so; I knew it all along!"

And so then if I tell you a thing you already know, I confer on you the great blessing of introducing you to yourself and of giving you the consciousness that you know.

And to know you know is power. And to feel the sense of power is to feel a sense of oneness with the Source of Power.

Let's see--what was it, then, that we were talking about? Oh, yes! collectors and collecting.

Men collect things because these things stir imagination and link them with the people who once possessed and used these things. Thus, through imagination, is the dead past made again to live and throb and pulse with life. Man is not the lonely creature that those folks with bad digestions sometimes try to have us believe.

We are brothers not only to all who live, but to all who have gone before.

And so we collect the trifles that once were valuables for other men, and by the possession of these trifles are we bounden to them. These things stimulate imagination, stir the sympathies, and help us forget the cramping bounds of time and space that so often hedge us close around.

The people near us may be sordid, stupid, mean; or more likely they are weary and worn with the battle for mere food, shelter and raiment; or they are depressed by that undefined brooding fear which civilization exacts as payment for benefits forgot--so their better selves are subdued.

But through fancy's flight we can pick our companions out of the company of saints and sinners who have long turned to dust. I have the bookplates of Holbein and Hogarth, and I have a book once owned by Rembrandt, and so I do not say Holbein and Hogarth and Rembrandt were--I say they are.

And thus the collector confuses the glorious dead and the living in one fairy company; and although he may detect varying degrees of excellence, for none does he hold contempt, of none is he jealous, none does he envy. From them he asks nothing, upon him they make no demands. In the collector's cast of mind there is something very childlike and ingenuous.

My little girl has a small box of bright bits of silk thread that she hoards very closely; then she possesses certain pieces of calico, nails, curtain-rings, buttons, spools and fragments of china--all of which are very dear to her heart. And why should they not be? For with them she creates a fairy world, wherein are only joy, and peace, and harmony, and light--quite an improvement on this! Yes, dearie, quite.

* * * * *

Ernest Meissonier, the artist, began collecting very early. He has told us that he remembers, when five years of age, of going with his mother to market and collecting rabbits' ears and feet, which he would take home, and carefully nail up on the wall of the garret. And it may not be amiss to explain here that the rabbit's foot as an object of superstitious veneration has no real place outside of the United States of America, and this only south of Mason and Dixon's line.

The Meissonier lad's collection of rabbits' ears increased until he had nearly colors enough to run the chromatic scale. Then he collected pigeons' wings in like manner, and if you have ever haunted French market-places you know how natural a thing this would be for a child. The boy's mother took quite an interest in his amusements, and helped him to spread the wings out and arrange the tails fan-shape on the walls. They had long strings of buttons and boxes of spools in partnership; and when they would go up the Seine on little excursions on Sunday afternoons, they would bring back rich spoils in the way of swan feathers, butterflies, "snake-feeders" and tiny shells. Then once they found a bird's nest, and as the mother bird had deserted it, they carried it home. That was a red-letter day, for the garret collection had increased to such an extent that a partition was made across the corner of a room by hanging up a strip of cloth. And all the things in that corner belonged to Ernest--his mother said so. Ernest's mother seems to have had a fine, joyous, childlike nature, so she fully entered into the life of her boy. He wanted no other companion. In fact, this mother was little better herself than a child in years--she was only sixteen when she bore him. They lived at Lyons then, but three years later moved to Paris. Her temperament was poetic, religious, and her spirit had in it a touch of superstition--which is the case with all really excellent women.

But this sweet playtime was not for long--the mother died in Eighteen Hundred Twenty-five, aged twenty-four years.

I suppose there is no greater calamity that can befall a child than to lose his mother. Still, Nature is very kind, and for Ernest Meissonier there always remained firm, clear-cut memories of a slight, fair-haired woman, with large, open, gray eyes, who held him in her arms, sang to him, and rocked him to sleep each night as the darkness gathered. He lived over and over again those few sunshiny excursions up the river; and he knew all the reeds and flowers and birds she liked best, and the places where they had landed from the boat and lunched together were forever to him sacred spots.

But the death of his mother put a stop for a time to his collecting. The sturdy housekeeper who came to take the mother's place, speedily cleared "the truck" out of the corner, and forbade the bringing of any more feathers and rabbits' feet into her house--well, I guess so! The birds' nests, long grasses, reeds, shells and pigeons' wings were tossed straightway into the fireplace, and went soaring up the chimney in smoke.

The destruction of the collection didn't kill the propensity to collect, however, any more than you can change a man's opinions by burning his library. It only dampened the desire for a time. It broke out again after a few years and continued for considerably more than half a century. There was a house at Poissy "full to the roof-tiles" of books, marbles, bronzes and innumerable curios, gathered from every corner of the earth; and a palace at Paris filled in like manner, for which Ernest Meissonier had expended more than a million francs.

In the palace at Paris, when the owner was near his threescore years and ten, he took from a locker a morocco case, and opening it, showed his friend, Dumas, a long curl of yellow hair; and then he brought out a curious old white-silk dress, and said to the silent Dumas, "This curl was cut from my mother's head after her death, and this dress was her wedding-gown."

A few days after this Meissonier wrote these words in his journal: "It is the Twentieth of February--the morning of my seventieth birthday. What a long time to look back upon! This morning, at the hour when my mother gave me birth, I wished my first thoughts to be of her. Dear Mother, how often have the tears risen to my eyes at the remembrance of you! It was your absence--the longing I had for you--that made you so dear to me. The love of my heart goes out to you! Do you hear me, Mother, calling and crying for you? How sweet it must be to have a mother, I say to myself."

* * * * *

"I would have every man rich," said Emerson, "that he might know the worthlessness of riches."

Every man should have a college education, in order to show him how little the thing is really worth. The intellectual kings of the earth have seldom been college-bred. Napoleon ever regretted the lack of instruction in his early years; and in the minds of such men as Abraham Lincoln and Ernest Meissonier there usually lingers the suspicion that they have dropped something out of their lives.

"I'm not a college man--ask Seward," said Lincoln, when some one questioned him as to the population of Alaska. The remark was merry jest, of course, but as in all jest there lurks a grain of truth, so did there here.

At the height of Meissonier's success, when a canvas from his hand commanded a larger price than the work of any other living artist, he exclaimed, "Oh, if only I had been given the advantages of a college training!"

If he had, it is quite probable that he never would have painted better than his teacher. Discipline might have reduced his daring genius to neutral salts, and taken all that fine audacity from his brush.

He was a natural artist: he saw things clearly and in detail; he had the heart to feel, and he longed for the skill to express that which he saw and felt. And when the desire is strong enough it brings the thing--and thus is prayer answered.

Meissonier while but a child set to work making pictures--he declared he would be an artist. And in spite of his father's attempts to shame him out of his whim, and to starve him into a more practical career, his resolution stuck.

He worked in a drugstore and drew on the wrapping-paper; then with this artist a few days, and then with that. He tried illustrating, and finally a bold stand was made and a little community formed that decided on storming the Salon.

There is something pathetic in that brotherhood of six young men, binding themselves together, swearing they would stand together and aid each other in producing great art.

The dead seriousness of the scheme has a peculiar sophomore quality. There were Steinheil, Trimolet, Daumier, Daubigny, Deschaumaes and Meissonier, all aged about twenty, strong, sturdy, sincere and innocently ignorant--all bound they would be artists.

Two of these young men were sign-painters, the others did odd jobs illustrating, and filled in the time at anything which chance offered. When one got an invitation out to dinner he would go, and furtively drop biscuit and slices of meat into his lap, and then slyly transfer them to his waistcoat-pockets, so as to take them to his less fortunate brethren.

They haunted the galleries, made themselves familiar with catalogs, criticized without stint, knew all about current prices, and were able to point out the great artists of Paris when they passed proudly up the street.

They sketched eternally, formed small wax models, and made great preparations for masterpieces.

The reason they did not produce the masterpieces was because they did not have money to buy brushes, paints and canvas. Neither did they have funds to purchase food to last until the thing was done; and it is difficult to produce great art on half-rations. So they formed the brotherhood, and one midnight swore eternal fealty. They were to draw lots: the lucky member was to paint and the other five were to support him for a month. He was to be supplied his painting outfit and to be absolutely free from all responsibility as to the bread-and-butter question for a whole month.

Trimolet was the first lucky man.

He set diligently to work, and dined each evening on a smoking mutton-chop with a bottle of wine, at a respectable restaurant. The five stood outside and watched him through the window--they dined when and where they could.

His picture grew apace, and in three weeks was completed. It was entitled, "Sisters of Charity Giving Out Soup to the Poor." The work was of a good machine-made quality, not good enough to praise nor bad enough to condemn: it was like Tomlinson of Berkeley Square.

On account of the peculiar subject with which it dealt, it found favor with a worthy priest, who bought it and presented it to a convent.

This so inflated Trimolet that he suggested it would be a good plan to keep right on with the arrangement, but the five objected.

Steinheil was next appointed to feed the vestal fire. His picture was so-so, but would not sell.

Daubigny came next, and lived so high that inspiration got clogged, fatty degeneration of the cerebrum set in, and after a week he ceased to paint--doing nothing but dream.

When the turn of the fourth man came, Meissonier had concluded that the race must be won by one and one, and his belief in individualism was further strengthened by an order for a group of family portraits, with a goodly retainer in advance.

Straightway he married Steinheil's sister, with whom he had been some weeks in love, and the others feeling aggrieved that an extra mouth to feed, with danger of more, had been added to the "Commune," declared the compact void.

Trimolet still thought well of the arrangement, though, and agreed, if Meissonier would support him, to secure fame and fortune for them both.

Meissonier declined the offer with thanks, and struck boldly out on his own account.

The woman who had so recklessly agreed to share his poverty must surely have had faith in him--or are very young people who marry incapable of either faith or reason? Never mind; she did not hold the impulsive young man back.

She couldn't--nothing but death could have stayed such ambition. His will was unbending and his ambition never tired.

He was an athlete in strength, and was fully conscious that to be a good animal is the first requisite. He swam, rowed, walked, and could tire out any of his colleagues at swordplay or skittles.

But material things were scarce those first few years of married life, and once when the table had bread, but no meat nor butter, he took the entire proceeds of a picture and purchased a suit of clothing of the time of Louis the Grand: not to wear, of course--simply to put in the "collection."

Small wonder is it that, for some months after, when he would walk out alone the fond wife would caution him thus: "Now Ernest, do not go through that old-clothes market--you know your weakness."

"I have no money, so you need not worry," he would gaily reply.

Of those times of pinching want he has written, "As to happiness--is it possible to be wretched at twenty, when one has health, a passion for art, free passes for the Louvre, an eye to see, a heart to feel, and sunshine gratis?"

But poverty did not last long. Pictures such as this young man produced must attract attention anywhere.

He belonged to no school, but simply worked away after his own fashion; what he was bound to do was to produce a faithful picture--sure, clear, strong, vivid. He saw things clearly and his sympathies were acute, as is shown in every canvas he produced.

Meissonier had the true artistic conscience--he was incapable of putting out an average, unobjectionable picture--it must have positive excellence. "There is a difference," said he, "between a successful effort and a work of love." He painted only in the loving mood.

No greater blessing than the artistic conscience can come to any worker in art, be he sculptor, writer, singer or painter. Hold fast to it, and it shall be your compass in time when the sun is darkened. To please the public is little, but to satisfy your Other Self, that self that leans over your shoulder and watches your every thought and deed, is much. No artistic success worth having is possible unless you satisfy that Other Self.

But like the moral conscience it can be dallied with until the grieved spirit turns away, and the wretch is left to his fate.

Meissonier never hesitated to erase a whole picture when it did not satisfy his inward sense--customers might praise and connoisseurs offer to buy, it made no difference. "I have some one who is more difficult to please than you," he would say; "I must satisfy myself."

The fine intoxication that follows good artistic work is the highest joy that mortals ever know. But once let a creative artist lower his standard and give the world the mere product of his brain, with heart left out, that man will hate himself for a year and a day. He has sold his soul for a price: joy has flown, and bitterness is his portion. Meissonier never trifled with his compass. To the last he headed for the polestar.

* * * * *

The early domestic affairs of Meissonier can best be guessed from his oft-repeated assertion that the artist should never marry. "To produce great work, Art must be your mistress," he said. "You must be married to your work. A wife demands unswerving loyalty as her right, and a portion of her husband's time she considers her own. This is proper with every profession but that of Art. The artist must not be restrained, nor should even a wife come between him and his Art. The artist must not be judged by the same standards that are made for other men. Why? Simply because when you begin to tether him you cramp his imagination and paralyze his hand. The priest and artist must not marry, for it is too much to expect any woman to follow them in their flight, and they have no moral right to tie themselves to a woman and then ask her to stay behind."

From this and many similar passages in the "Conversations" it is clear that Meissonier had no conception of the fact that a woman may possibly keep step with her mate. He simply never considered such a thing.

A man's opinions concerning womankind are based upon the knowledge of the women he knows best.

We can not apply Hamerton's remark concerning Turner to Meissonier. Hamerton said that throughout Turner's long life he was lamentably unfortunate in that he never came under the influence of a strong and good woman.

Meissonier associated with good women, but he never knew one with a spread of spiritual wing sufficient to fit her to be his companion. There is a minor key of loneliness and heart hunger running through his whole career. Possibly, in the wisdom of Providence, this was just what he needed to urge him on to higher and nobler ends. He never knew peace, and the rest for which he sighed slipped him at the very last. "I'm tired, so tired," he sighed again and again in those later years, when he had reached the highest pinnacle.

And still he worked--it was his only rest! Meissonier painted very few pictures of women, and in some miraculous way skipped that stage in esthetic evolution wherein most artists affect the nude. In his whole career he never produced a single "Diana," nor a "Susanna at the Bath." He had no artistic sympathy with "Leda and the Swan," and once when Delaroche chided him for painting no pictures of women, he was so ungallant as to say, "My dear fellow, men are much more beautiful than women!"

During the last decade of his life Meissonier painted but one portrait of a woman, and to America belongs the honor. The sitter was Mrs. J. W. Mackay, of California.

As all the world knows, Mrs. Mackay refused to accept the canvas. She declared the picture was no likeness, and further, she would not have it for a gift.

"So you do not care for the picture?" asked the great artist.

"Me? Well, I guess not--not that picture!"

"Very well, Madam. I think--I think I'll keep it for myself. I'll place it on exhibition!" And the great artist looked out of the window in an absent-minded way, and hummed a tune.

This put another phase on the matter. Mrs. Mackay winced, and paid the price, which rumor says was somewhere between ten and twenty-five thousand dollars. She took the little canvas in her carriage and drove away with it, and what became of the only portrait of a woman painted by Meissonier during his later years, nobody knew but Mrs. Mackay, and Mrs. Mackay never told.

Meissonier once explained to a friend that his offense consisted in producing a faithful likeness of the customer.

The Mackay incident did not end when the lady paid the coin and accepted the goods. Meissonier, by the haughtiness of his manner, his artistic independence, and most of all, by his unpardonable success, had been sowing dragons' teeth for half a century. And now armed enemies sprang up, and sided with the woman from California. They made it an international episode: less excuses have involved nations in war in days agone. But the enemies of Meissonier did not belong alone to America, although here every arm was braced and every tongue wagged to vindicate the cause of our countrywoman.

In Paris the whole art world was divided into those who sided with Meissonier and those who were against him. Cafes echoed with the sounds of wordy warfare; the columns of all magazines and newspapers bulged with heated argument; newsboys cried extras on the street, and bands of students paraded the boulevards singing songs in praise of Mrs. Mackay and in dishonor of Meissonier, "the pretender." The assertion was made again and again that Meissonier had fed sham art upon the public, and by means of preposterous prices and noisy puffing had hypnotized a world. They called him the artist of the Infinitely Little, King of Lilliput, and challenged any one to show where he had thrown heart and high emotion into his work. Studies of coachmen, smokers, readers, soldiers, housemaids, chess-players, cavaliers and serenaders were not enough upon which to base an art reputation--the man must show that he had moved men to high endeavor, said the detractors. A fund was started to purchase the Mackay portrait, so as to do the very thing that Meissonier had threatened to do, but dare not: place the picture on exhibition. To show the picture, the enemy said, would be to prove the artist's commonplace quality, and not only this, but it would prove the man a rogue. They declared he was incapable of perceiving the good qualities in a sitter, and had consented for a price to portray a person whom he disliked; and as a result, of course, had produced a caricature; and then had blackmailed his patron into paying an outrageous sum to keep the picture from the public.

The argument sounded plausible. And so the battle raged, just as it has since in reference to Zola.

The tide of Meissonier's prosperity began to ebb: prospective buyers kept away; those who had given commissions canceled them.

Meissonier's friends saw that something must be done. They inaugurated a "Meissonier Vindication," by making an exhibition of one hundred fifty-five "Meissoniers"--and the public was invited to come and be the jury. Art-lovers from England went in bodies, and all Paris filed through the gallery, as well as a goodly portion of provincial France. By the side of each canvas stood a gendarme to protect it from a possible fanatic whose artistic hate could not be restrained.

To a great degree this exhibition brought feeling to a normal condition. Meissonier was still a great artist, yet he was human and his effects were now believed to be gotten by natural methods. But there was a lull in the mad rush to secure his wares. The Vanderbilts grew lukewarm; titled connoisseurs from England were not so anxious; and Mrs. Mackay sat back and smiled through her tears.

Meissonier had expended over a million francs on his house in the Boulevard Malesherbes in Paris, and nearly as much on the country-seat at Poissy. These places were kingly in their appointments and such as only the State should attempt to maintain. For a single man, by the work of his right hand, to keep them up was too much to expect.

Meissonier's success had been too great. As a collector he had overdone the thing. Only poor men, or those of moderate incomes, should be collectors, for then the joy of sacrifice is theirs. Charles Lamb's covetous looking on the book when it was red, daily for months, meanwhile hoarding his pay, and at last one Saturday night swooping down and carrying the volume home to Bridget in triumph, is the true type.

But money had come to Meissonier by hundreds of thousands of francs, and often sums were forced upon him as advance payments. He lived royally and never imagined that his hand and brain could lose their cunning, or the public be fickle.

The fact that a "vindication" had been necessary was galling: the great man grew irritable and his mood showed itself in his work: his colors grew hard and metallic, and there were angles in his lines where there should have been joyous curves.

Debts began to press. He painted less and busied his mind with reminiscence--the solace of old age.

And then it was that he dictated to his wife the "Conversations." The book reveals the quality of his mind with rare fidelity--and shows the power of this second wife fully to comprehend him. Thus did she disprove some of the unkind philosophy given to the world by her liege. But the talk in the "Conversations" is of an old man in whose heart was a tinge of bitterness. Yet the thought is often lofty and the comment clear and full of flashing insight. It is the book of Ecclesiastes over again, written in a minor key, with a little harmless gossip added for filling. Meissonier died in Paris on the Twenty-first of January, Eighteen Hundred Ninety-one, aged seventy-six years.

* * * * *

The canvas known as "Eighteen Hundred Seven," which is regarded as Meissonier's masterpiece, has a permanent home in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The central figure is Napoleon, at whose shrine the great artist loved to linger. The "Eighteen Hundred Seven" occupied the artist's time and talent for fifteen years, and was purchased by A. T. Stewart for sixty thousand dollars. After Mr. Stewart's death his art treasures were sold at auction, and this canvas was bought by Judge Henry Hilton and presented to the city of New York.

There are in all about seventy-five pictures by Meissonier owned in America. Several of his pieces are in the Vanderbilt collection, others are owned by collectors in Chicago, Cleveland and Saint Louis.

There are various glib sayings to the effect that the work of great men is not appreciated until after they are dead. This may be so and it may not. It depends upon the man and the age. Meissonier enjoyed full half a century of the highest and most complete success that was ever bestowed upon an artist.

The strong intellect and marked personality of the man won him friends wherever he chose to make them; and it probably would have been better for his art if a degree of public indifference had been his portion in those earlier years. His success was too great: the calm judgment of posterity can never quite endorse the plaudits paid the living man. He is one of the greatest artists the Nineteenth Century has produced, but that his name can rank among the great artists of all time is not at all probable.

William Michael Rossetti has summed the matter up well by saying: "Perfection is so rare in this world that when we find it we must pause and pay it the tribute of our silent admiration. It is very easy to say that Meissonier should have put in this and omitted that. Had he painted differently he would have been some one else. The work is faultless, and such genius as he showed must ever command the homage of those who know by experience the supreme difficulty of having the hand materialize the conceptions of the mind. And yet Meissonier's conceptions outmatched his brush: he was greater than his work. He was a great artist, and better still, a great man--proud, frank, fearless and conscientious."

[The end]
Elbert Hubbard's Writings: Meissonier