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An essay by George Augustus Moore

Chavannes, Millet, And Manet

Title:     Chavannes, Millet, And Manet
Author: George Augustus Moore [More Titles by Moore]

Of the great painters born before 1840 only two now are living, Puvis de Chavannes and Degas. It is true to say of Chavannes that he is the only man alive to whom a beautiful building might be given for decoration without fear that its beauty would be disgraced. He is the one man alive who can cover twenty feet of wall or vaulted roof with decoration that will neither deform the grandeur nor jar the greyness of the masonry. Mural decoration in his eyes is not merely a picture let into a wall, nor is it necessarily mural decoration even if it be painted on the wall itself: it is mural decoration if it form part of the wall, if it be, if I may so express myself, a variant of the stonework. No other painter ever kept this end so strictly before his eyes. For this end Chavannes reduced his palette almost to a monochrome, for this end he models in two flat tints, for this end he draws in huge undisciplined masses.

Let us examine his palette: many various greys, some warmed with vermilion, some with umber, and many more that are mere mixtures of black and white, large quantities of white, for Chavannes paints in a high key, wishing to disturb the colour of the surrounding stone as little as may be. Grey and blue are the natural colours of building stone; when the subject will not admit of subterfuge, he will introduce a shade of pale green, as in his great decoration entitled "Summer"; but grey is always the foundation of his palette, and it fills the middle of the picture. The blues are placed at the top and bottom, and he works between them in successive greys. The sky in the left-hand top corner is an ultramarine slightly broken with white; the blue gown at the bottom of the picture, not quite in the middle of the picture, a little on the right, is also ultramarine, and here the colour is used nearly in its first intensity. And the colossal woman who wears the blue gown leans against some grey forest tree trunk, and a great white primeval animal is what her forms and attitude suggest. There are some women about her, and they lie and sit in disconnected groups like fragments fallen from a pediment. Nor is any attempt made to relate, by the aid of vague look or gesture, this group in the foreground to the human hordes engaged in building enclosures in the middle distance. In Chavannes the composition is always as disparate as an early tapestry, and the drawing of the figures is almost as rude. If I may be permitted a French phrase, I will say _un peu sommaire_ quite unlike the beautiful simplifications of Raphael or Ingres, or indeed any of the great masters. They could simplify without becoming rudimentary; Chavannes cannot.

And now a passing word about the handicraft, the manner of using the brush. Chavannes shares the modern belief-and only in this is he modern--that for the service of thought one instrument is as apt as another, and that, so long as that man's back--he who is pulling at the rope fastened at the tree's top branches--is filled in with two grey tints, it matters not at all how the task is accomplished. Truly the brush has plastered that back as a trowel might, and the result reminds one of stone and mortar, as Millet's execution reminds one of mud-pie making. The handicraft is as barbarous in Chavannes as it is in Millet, and we think of them more as great poets working in a not wholly sympathetic and, in their hands, somewhat rebellious material. Chavannes is as an epic poet whose theme is the rude grandeur of the primeval world, and who sang his rough narrative to a few chords struck on a sparely-stringed harp that his own hands have fashioned. And is not Millet a sort of French Wordsworth who in a barbarous Breton dialect has told us in infinitely touching strains of the noble submission of the peasant's lot, his unending labours and the melancholy solitude of the country.

As poet-painters, none admires these great artists more than I, but the moment we consider them as painters we have to compare the handicraft of the decoration entitled "Summer" with that of Francis the First meeting Marie de Medicis; we have to compare the handicraft of the Sower and the Angelus with that of "Le Bon Bock" and "L'enfant a Pepee"; and the moment we institute such comparison does not the inferiority of Chavannes' and Millet's handicraft become visible even to the least initiated in the art of painting, and is not the conclusion forced upon us that however Manet may be judged inferior to Millet as a poet, as a painter he is easily his superior? And as Millet's and Chavannes' brush-work is deficient in beauty so is their drawing. Preferring decorative unity to completeness of drawing, Chavannes does not attempt more than some rudimentary indications. Millet seems even to have desired to omit technical beauty, so that he might concentrate all thought on the poetic synthesis he was gathering from the earth. Degas, on the contrary, draws for the sake of the drawing-The Ballet Girl, The Washerwoman, The Fat Housewife bathing herself, is only a pretext for drawing; and Degas chose these extraordinary themes because the drawing of the ballet girl and the fat housewife is less known than that of the nymph and the Spartan youth. Painters will understand what I mean by the drawing being "less known",--that knowledge of form which sustains the artist like a crutch in his examination of the model, and which as it were dictates to the eye what it must see. So the ballet girl was Degas' escapement from the thraldom of common knowledge. The ballet girl was virgin soil. In her meagre thwarted forms application could freely be made of the supple incisive drawing which bends to and flows with the character--that drawing of which Ingres was the supreme patron, and of which Degas is the sole inheritor.

Until a few years ago Chavannes never sold a picture. Millet lived his life in penury and obscurity, but thirty years of persistent ridicule having failed to destroy Degas' genius, some recognition has been extended to it. The fate of all great artists in the nineteenth century is a score years of neglect and obloquy. They may hardly hope for recognition before they are fifty; some few cases point the other way, but very few--the rule is thirty years of neglect and obloquy. Then a flag of truce will be held out to the recalcitrant artist who cannot be prevented from painting beautiful pictures. "Come, let us be friends; let's kiss and make it up; send a picture to the academy; we'll hang it on the line, and make you an academician the first vacancy that occurs." To-day the academy would like to get Mr. Whistler, but Mr. Whistler replies to the academy as Degas replied to the government official who wanted a picture for the Luxembourg. _Non, je ne veux pas etre conduit au poste par les sargents de ville d'aris_.

To understand Manet's genius, the nineteenth century would have required ten years more than usual, for in Manet there is nothing but good painting, and there is nothing that the nineteenth century dislikes as much as good painting. In Whistler there is an exquisite and inveigling sense of beauty; in Degas there is an extraordinary acute criticism of life, and so the least brutal section of the public ended by pardoning Whistler his brush-work, and Degas his beautiful drawing. But in Manet there is nothing but good painting, and it is therefore possible that he might have lived till he was eighty without obtaining recognition. Death alone could accomplish the miracle of opening the public's eyes to his merits. During his life the excuse given for the constant persecution waged against him by the "authorities" was his excessive originality. But this was mere subterfuge; what was really hated-what made him so unpopular-was the extraordinary beauty of his handling. Whatever he painted became beautiful--his hand was dowered with the gift of quality, and there his art began and ended. His painting of still life never has been exceeded, and never will be. I remember a pear that used to hang in his studio. Hals would have taken his hat off to it.

Twenty years ago Manet's name was a folly and a byword in the Parisian studios. The students of the Beaux Arts used to stand before his salon pictures and sincerely wonder how any one could paint like that; the students were quite sure that it was done for a joke, to attract attention; and then, not quite sincerely, one would say, "But I'll undertake to paint you three pictures a week like that." I say that the remark was never quite sincere, for I never heard it made without some one answering, "I don't think you could; just come and look at it again--there's more in it than you think." No doubt we thought Manet very absurd, but there was always something forced and artificial in our laughter and the ridicule we heaped upon him.

But about that time my opinions were changing; and it was a great event in my life when Manet spoke to me in the cafe of the Nouvelle Athene. I knew it was Manet, he had been pointed out to me, and I had admired the finely-cut face from whose prominent chin a closely-cut blonde beard came forward; and the aquiline nose, the clear grey eyes, the decisive voice, the remarkable comeliness of the well-knit figure, scrupulously but simply dressed, represented a personality curiously sympathetic. On several occasions shyness had compelled me to abandon my determination to speak to him. But once he had spoken I entered eagerly into conversation, and next day I went to his studio. It was quite a simple place. Manet expended his aestheticism on his canvases, and not upon tapestries and inlaid cabinets. There was very little in his studio except his pictures: a sofa, a rocking-chair, a table for his paints, and a marble table on iron supports, such as one sees in cafes. Being a fresh-complexioned, fair-haired young man, the type most suitable to Manet's palette, he at once asked me to sit. His first intention was to paint me in a cafe; he had met me in a cafe, and he thought he could realise his impression of me in the first surrounding he had seen me in.

The portrait did not come right; ultimately it was destroyed; but it gave me every opportunity of studying Manet's method of painting. Strictly speaking, he had no method; painting with him was a pure instinct. Painting was one of the ways his nature manifested itself. That frank, fearless, prompt nature manifested itself in everything that concerned him--in his large plain studio, full of light as a conservatory; in his simple, scrupulous clothes, and yet with a touch of the dandy about them; in decisive speech, quick, hearty, and informed with a manly and sincere understanding of life. Never was an artist's inner nature in more direct conformity with his work. There were no circumlocutions in Manet's nature, there were none in his art.

The colour of my hair never gave me a thought until Manet began to paint it. Then the blonde gold that came up under his brush filled me with admiration, and I was astonished when, a few days after, I saw him scrape off the rough paint and prepare to start afresh.

"Are you going to get a new canvas?"

"No; this will do very well."

"But you can't paint yellow ochre on yellow ochre without getting it dirty?"

"Yes, I think I can. You go and sit down."

Half-an-hour after he had entirely repainted the hair, and without losing anything of its brightness. He painted it again and again; every time it came out brighter and fresher, and the painting never seemed to lose anything in quality. That this portrait cost him infinite labour and was eventually destroyed matters nothing; my point is merely that he could paint yellow over yellow without getting the colour muddy. One day, seeing that I was in difficulties with a black, he took a brush from my hand, and it seemed to have hardly touched the canvas when the ugly heaviness of my tiresome black began to disappear. There came into it grey and shimmering lights, the shadows filled up with air, and silk seemed to float and rustle. There was no method-there was no trick; he merely painted. My palette was the same to him as his own; he did not prepare his palette; his colour did not exist on his palette before he put it on the canvas; but working under the immediate dictation of his eye, he snatched the tints instinctively, without premeditation. Ah! that marvellous hand, those thick fingers holding the brush so firmly-somewhat heavily; how malleable, how obedient, that most rebellious material, oil-colour, was to his touch. He did with it what he liked. I believe he could rub a picture over with Prussian blue without experiencing any inconvenience; half-an-hour after the colour would be fine and beautiful.

And never did this mysterious power which produces what artists know as "quality" exist in greater abundance in any fingers than it did in the slow, thick fingers of Edouard Manet: never since the world began; not in Velasquez, not in Hals, not in Rubens, not in Titian. As an artist Manet could not compare with the least among these illustrious painters; but as a manipulator of oil-colour he never was and never will be excelled. Manet was born a painter as absolutely as any man that ever lived, so absolutely that a very high and lucid intelligence never for a moment came between him and the desire to put anything into his picture except good painting. I remember his saying to me, "I also tried to write, but I did not succeed; I never could do anything but paint." And what a splendid thing for an artist to be able to say. The real meaning of his words did not reach me till years after; perhaps I even thought at the time that he was disappointed that he could not write. I know now what was passing in his mind: _Je ne me suis pas trompe de metier_. How many of us can say as much? Go round a picture gallery, and of how many pictures, ancient or modern, can you stand before and say, _Voila un homme qui ne s'est pas trompe de metier?_

Perhaps above all men of our generation Manet made the least mistake in his choice of a trade. Let those who doubt go and look at the beautiful picture of Boulogne Pier, now on view in Mr. Van Wesselingh's gallery, 26 Old Bond Street. The wooden pier goes right across the canvas; all the wood piers are drawn, there is no attempt to hide or attenuate their regularity. Why should Manet attenuate when he could fill the interspaces with the soft lapping of such exquisite blue sea-water. Above the piers there is the ugly yellow-painted rail. But why alter the colour when he could keep it in such exquisite value? On the canvas it is beautiful. In the middle of the pier there is a mast and a sail which does duty for an awning; perhaps it is only a marine decoration. A few loungers are on the pier--men and women in grey clothes. Why introduce reds and blues when he was sure of being able to set the little figures in their places, to draw them so firmly, and relieve the grey monotony with such beauty of execution? It would be vain to invent when so exquisite an execution is always at hand to relieve and to transform. Mr. Whistler would have chosen to look at the pier from a more fanciful point of view. Degas would have taken an odd corner; he would have cut the composition strangely, and commented on the humanity of the pier. But Manet just painted it without circumlocutions of any kind. The subject was void of pictorial relief. There was not even a blue space in the sky, nor yet a dark cloud. He took it as it was--a white sky, full of an inner radiance, two sailing-boats floating in mist of heat, one in shadow, the other in light. Vandervelde would seem trivial and precious beside painting so firm, so manly, so free from trick, so beautifully logical, and so unerring.

Manet did not often paint sea-pieces. He is best known and is most admired as a portrait-painter, but from time to time he ventured to trust his painting to every kind of subject-I know even a cattle-piece by Manet--and his Christ watched over by angels in the tomb is one of his finest works. His Christ is merely a rather fat model sitting with his back against a wall, and two women with wings on either side of him. There is no attempt to suggest a Divine death or to express the Kingdom of Heaven on the angels' faces. But the legs of the man are as fine a piece of painting as has ever been accomplished.

In an exhibition of portraits now open in Paris, entitled _Cent Chefs-d'Oeuvre_, Manet has been paid the highest honour; he himself would not demand a greater honour--his "Bon Bock" has been hung next to a celebrated portrait by Hals....

Without seeing it, I know that the Hals is nobler, grander; I know, supposing the Hals to be a good one, that its flight is that of an eagle as compared with the flight of a hawk. The comparison is exaggerated; but, then, so are all comparisons. I also know that Hals does not tell us more about his old woman than Manet tells us about the man who sits so gravely by his glass of foaming ale, so clearly absorbed by it, so oblivious to all other joys but those that it brings him. Hals never placed any one more clearly in his favourite hour of the day, the well-desired hour, looked forward to perhaps since the beginning of the afternoon. In this marvellous portrait we read the age, the rank, the habits, the limitations, physical and mental, of the broad-faced man who sits so stolidly, his fat hand clasping his glass of foaming ale. Nothing has been omitted. We look at the picture, and the man and his environment become part of our perception of life. That stout, middle-aged man of fifty, who works all day in some small business, and goes every evening to his cafe to drink beer, will abide with us for ever. His appearance, and his mode of life, which his appearance so admirably expresses, can never become completely dissociated from our understanding of life. For Manet's "Bon Bock" is one of the eternal types, a permanent national conception, as inherent in French life as Polichinelle, Pierrot, Monsieur Prud'homme, or the Baron Hulot. I have not seen the portrait for fifteen or eighteen years, and yet I see it as well as if it were hung on the wall opposite the table on which I am writing this page. I can see that round, flat face, a little swollen with beer, the small eyes, the spare beard and moustaches. His feet are not in the picture, but I know how much he pays for his boots, and how they fit him. Nor did Hals ever paint better; I mean that nowhere in Hals will you find finer handling, or a more direct luminous or simple expression of what the eye saw. It has all the qualities I have enumerated, and yet it falls short of Hals. It has not the breadth and scope of the great Dutchman. There is a sense of effort, _on sent le souffle_, and in Hals one never does. It is more bound together, it does not flow with the mighty and luminous ease of the _chefs d'oeuvre_ at Haarlem.

But is this Manet's final achievement, the last word he has to say? I think not. It was painted early in the sixties, probably about the same period as the Luxembourg picture, when the effects of his Spanish travel were wearing off, and Paris was beginning to command his art. Manet used to say, "When Degas was painting Semiramis I was painting modern Paris." It would have been more true to have said modern Spain. For it was in Spain that Manet found his inspiration. He had not been to Holland when he painted his Spanish pictures. Velasquez clearly inspired them; but there never was in his work any of the noble delicacies of the Spaniard; it was always nearer to the plainer and more--forgive the phrase--yokel-like eloquence of Hals. The art of Hals he seemed to have divined; it seems to have come instinctively to him.

Manet went to Spain after a few months spent in Couture's studio. Like all the great artists of our time, he was self-educated--Whistler, Degas, Courbet, Corot, and Manet wasted little time in other men's studios. Soon after his return from Spain, by some piece of good luck, Manet was awarded _une mention honorable_ at the Salon for his portrait of a toreador. Why this honour was conferred upon him it is difficult to guess. It must have been the result of some special influence exerted at a special moment, for ever after--down to the year of his death--his pictures were considered as an excrescence on the annual exhibitions at the _Salon_. Every year--down to the year of his death--the jury, M. Bouguereau et Cie., lamented that they were powerless to reject these ridiculous pictures. Manet had been placed _hors concours_, and they could do nothing. They could do nothing except stand before his pictures and laugh. Oh, I remember it all very well. We were taught at the Beaux-Arts to consider Manet an absurd person or else an _epateur_, who, not being able to paint like M. Gerome, determined to astonish. I remember perfectly well the derision with which those _chefs d'oeuvre_, "Yachting at Argenteuil" and "Le Linge", were received. They were in his last style--that bright, clear painting in which violet shadows were beginning to take the place of the conventional brown shadows, and the brush-work, too, was looser and more broken up; in a word, these pictures were the germ from which has sprung a dozen different schools, all the impressionism and other isms of modern French art. Before these works, in which the real Manet appeared for the first time, no one had a good word to say. To kill them more effectually, certain merits were even conceded to the "Bon Bock" and the Luxembourg picture.

The "Bon Bock", as we have seen, at once challenges comparison with Hals. But in "Le Linge" no challenge is sent forth to any one; it is Manet, all Manet, and nothing but Manet. In this picture he expresses his love of the gaiety and pleasure of Parisian life. And this bright-faced, simple-minded woman, who stands in a garden crowded with the tallest sunflowers, the great flower-crowns drooping above her, her blue cotton dress rolled up to the elbows, her hands plunged in a small wash-tub in which she is washing some small linen, habit-shirts, pocket-handkerchiefs, collars, expresses the joy of homely life in the French suburb. Her home is one of good wine, excellent omelettes, soft beds; and the sheets, if they are a little coarse, are spotless, and retain an odour of lavender-sweetened cupboards. Her little child, about four years old, is with his mother in the garden; he has strayed into the foreground of the picture, just in front of the wash-tub, and he holds a great sunflower in his tiny hand. Beside this picture of such bright and happy aspect, the most perfect example of that _genre_ known as _la peinture claire_, invented by Manet, and so infamously and absurdly practised by subsequent imitators--beside this picture so limpid, so fresh, so unaffected in its handling, a Courbet would seem heavy and dull, a sort of mock old master; a Corot would seem ephemeral and cursive; a Whistler would seem thin; beside this picture of such elegant and noble vision a Stevens would certainly seem odiously common. Why does not Liverpool or Manchester buy one of these masterpieces? If the blueness of the blouse frightens the administrators of these galleries, I will ask them--and perhaps this would be the more practical project--to consider the purchase of Manet's first and last historical picture, the death of the unfortunate Maximilian in Mexico. Under a high wall, over which some Mexicans are looking, Maximilian and two friends stand in front of the rifles. The men have just fired, and death clouds the unfortunate face. On the right a man stands cocking his rifle. Look at the movement of the hand, how well it draws back the hammer. The face is nearly in profile--how intent it is on the mechanism. And is not the drawing of the legs, the boots, the gaiters, the arms lifting the heavy rifle with slow deliberation, more massive, firm, and concise than any modern drawing? How ample and how exempt from all trick, and how well it says just what the painter wanted to say! This picture, too, used to hang in his studio. But the greater attractiveness of "Le Linge" prevented me from discerning its more solemn beauty. But last May I came across it unexpectedly, and after looking at it for some time the thought that came was--no one painted better, no one will ever paint better.

The Luxembourg picture, although one of the most showy and the completest amongst Manet's masterpieces, is not, in my opinion, either the most charming or the most interesting; and yet it would be difficult to say that this of the many life-sized nudes that France has produced during the century is not the one we could least easily spare. Ingres' Source compares not with things of this century, but with the marbles of the fourth century B.C. Cabanel's Venus is a beautiful design, but its destruction would create no appreciable gap in the history of nineteenth century art. The destruction of "Olympe" would.

The picture is remarkable not only for the excellence of the execution, but for a symbolic intention nowhere else to be found in Manet's works. The angels on either side of his dead Christ necessitated merely the addition of two pairs of wings--a convention which troubled him no more than the convention of taking off his hat on entering a church. But in "Olympe" we find Manet departing from the individual to the universal. The red-headed woman who used to dine at the _Ratmort_ does not lie on a modern bed but on the couch of all time; and she raises herself from amongst her cushions, setting forth her somewhat meagre nudity as arrogantly and with the same calm certitude of her sovereignty as the eternal Venus for whose prey is the flesh of all men born. The introduction of a bouquet bound up in large white paper does not prejudice the symbolic intention, and the picture would do well for an illustration to some poem to be found in _"Les fleurs du Mal"_. It may be worth while to note here that Baudelaire printed in his volume a quatrain inspired by one of Manet's Spanish pictures.

But after this slight adventure into symbolism, Manet's eyes were closed to all but the visible world. The visible world of Paris he saw henceforth--truly, frankly, and fearlessly, and more beautifully than any of his contemporaries. Never before was a great man's mind so strictly limited to the range of what his eyes saw. Nature wished it so, and, having discovered nature's wish, Manet joined his desire with Nature's. I remember his saying as he showed me some illustrations he had done for Mallarme's translation of Edgar Poe's poem, "You'll admit that it doesn't give you much idea 'of a kingdom by the sea.'" The drawing represented the usual sea-side watering place--the beach with a nursemaid at full length; children building sand castles, and some small sails in the offing.

So Manet was content to live by the sight, and by the sight alone; he was a painter, and had neither time nor taste for such ideals as Poe's magical Annabel Lee. Marvellous indeed must have been the eyes that could have persuaded such relinquishment. How marvellous they were we understand easily when we look at "Olympe". Eyes that saw truly, that saw beautifully and yet somewhat grossly. There is much vigour in the seeing, there is the exquisite handling of Hals, and there is the placing, the setting forth of figures on the canvas, which was as instinctively his as it was Titian's. Hals and Velasquez possessed all those qualities, and something more. They would not have been satisfied with that angular, presumptuous, and obvious drawing, harsh in its exterior limits and hollow within--the head a sort of convulsive abridgment, the hand void, and the fingers too, if we seek their articulations. An omission must not be mistaken for a simplification, and for all his omissions Manet strives to make amend by the tone. It would be difficult to imagine a more beautiful syntheses than that pale yellow, a beautiful golden sensation, and the black woman, the attendant of this light of love, who comes to the couch with a large bouquet fresh from the boulevard, is certainly a piece of painting that Rubens and Titian would stop to admire.

But when all has been said, I prefer Manet in the quieter and I think the more original mood in the portrait of his sister-in-law, Madame Morisot. The portrait is in M. Duret's collection; it hangs in a not too well lighted passage, and if I did not spend six or ten minutes in admiration before this picture, I should feel that some familiar pleasure had drifted out of my yearly visit to Paris. Never did a white dress play so important or indeed so charming a part in a picture. The dress is the picture--this common white dress, with black spots, _une robe a poix, une petite confection de soixante cinq francs_, as the French would say; and very far it is from all remembrance of the diaphanous, fairy-like skirts of our eighteenth century English school, but I swear to you no less charming. It is a very simple and yet a very beautiful reality. A lady, in white dress with black spots, sitting on a red sofa, a dark chocolate red, in the subdued light of her own quiet, prosaic French _appartment, le deuxieme au dessus l'entre-sol_. The drawing is less angular, less constipated than that of "Olympe". How well the woman's body is in the dress! there is the bosom, the waist, the hips, the knees, and the white stockinged foot in the low shoe, coming from out the dress. The drawing about the hips and bosom undulates and floats, vague and yet precise, in a manner that recalls Harlem, and it is not until we turn to the face that we come upon ominous spaces unaccounted for, forms unexplained. The head is so charming that it seems a pity to press our examination further. But to understand Manet's deficiency is to understand the abyss that separates modern from ancient art, and the portrait of Madame Morisot explains them as well as another, for the deficiency I wish to point out exists in Manet's best portraits as well as in his worst. The face in this picture is like the face in every picture by Manet. Three or four points are seized, and the spaces between are left unaccounted for. Whistler has not the strength of Velasquez; Manet is not as complete as Hals.

[The end]
George Moore's essay: Chavannes, Millet, And Manet