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An essay by George Augustus Moore

Ingres And Corot

Title:     Ingres And Corot
Author: George Augustus Moore [More Titles by Moore]

Of the thirty or more great artists who made the artistic movement at the beginning of the century in France, five will, I think, exercise a prolonged influence on the art of the future--Ingres, Corot, Millet, Manet, and Degas.

The omission of the name of Delacroix will surprise many; but though Delacroix will engage the attention of artists as they walk through the Louvre, I do not think that they will turn to him for counsel in their difficulty, or that they will learn from him any secrets of their craft. In the great masters of pictorial composition--Michael Angelo, Veronese, Tintoretto, and Rubens--the passion and tumult of the work resides solely in the conception; the execution is always calculated, and the result is perfectly predetermined and accurately foreseen. To explain myself I will tell an anecdote which is always told whenever Delacroix's name is mentioned, without, however, the true significance of the anecdote being perceived. After seeing Constable's pictures, Delacroix repainted one of his most important works from end to end.

Of Degas [Footnote: See essay on Degas In "Impressions and Opinions".] and Manet I have spoken elsewhere. Millet seems to me to be a sort of nineteenth century Greuze. The subject-matter is different, but at bottom the art of these two painters is more alike than is generally supposed. Neither was a painter in any true sense of the word, and if the future learns anything from Millet, it will be how to separate the scene from the environment which absorbs it, how to sacrifice the background, how to suggest rather than to point out, and how by a series of ellipses to lead the spectator to imagine what is not there. The student may learn from Millet that it was by sometimes servilely copying nature, sometimes by neglecting nature, that the old masters succeeded in conveying not an illusion but an impression of life.

But of all nineteenth century painters Ingres and Corot seem most sure of future life; their claim upon the attention and the admiration of future artists seems the most securely founded. Looked at from a certain side Ingres seems for sheer perfection to challenge antiquity. Of Michael Angelo there can never be any question; he stands alone in a solitude of greatness. Phidias himself is not so much alone. For the art of Apelles could not have differed from that of Phidias; and the intention of many a drawing by Apelles must have been identical with that of "La Source". It is difficult to imagine what further beauty he may have introduced into a face, or what further word he might have had to say on the beauty of a virgin body.

The legs alone suggest the possibility of censure. Ingres repainted the legs when the picture was finished and the model was not before him, so the idea obtains among artists that the legs are what are least perfect in the picture. In repainting the legs his object was omission of detail with a view to concentration of attention on the upper part of the figure. It must not however be supposed that the legs are what is known among painters as empty; they have been simplified; their synthetic expression has been found; and if the teaching at the Beaux Arts forbids the present generation to understand such drawing, the fault lies with the state that permits the Beaux Arts, and not with Ingres, whose genius was not crushed by it. The suggestion that Ingres spoilt the legs of "La Source" by repainting them when the model was not before him could come from nowhere but the Beaux Arts.

That Ingres was not so great an artist as Raphael I am aware. That Ingres' drawings show none of the dramatic inventiveness of Raphael's drawings is so obvious that I must apologise for such a commonplace. Raphael's drawings were done with a different intention from Ingres'; Raphael's drawings were no more than rough memoranda, and in no instance did he attempt to carry a drawing to the extreme limit that Ingres did. Ingres' drawing is one thing, Raphael's is another; still I would ask if any one thinks that Raphael could have carried a drawing as far as Ingres? I would ask if any of Raphael's drawings are as beautiful, as perfect, or as instructive as Ingres'. Take, for example, the pencil drawing in the Louvre, the study for the odalisque: who except a Greek could have produced so perfect a drawing? I can imagine Apelles doing something like it, but no one else.

When you go to the Louvre examine that line of back, return the next day and the next, and consider its infinite perfection before you conclude that my appreciation is exaggerated. Think of the learning and the love that were necessary for the accomplishment of such exquisite simplifications. Never did pencil follow an outline with such penetrating and unwearying passion, or clasp and enfold it with such simple and sufficient modelling. Nowhere can you detect a starting-point or a measurement taken; it seems to have grown as a beautiful tendril grows, and every curve sways as mysteriously, and the perfection seems as divine. Beside it Duerer would seem crabbed and puzzle-headed; Holbein would seem angular and geometrical; Da Vinci would seem vague: and I hope that no critic by partial quotation will endeavour to prove me guilty of having said that Ingres was a greater artist than Da Vinci. I have not said any such thing; I have merely striven by aid of comparison to bring before the reader some sense of the miraculous beauty of one of Ingres' finest pencil drawings.

Or let us choose the well-known drawing of the Italian lady sitting in the Louis XV. arm-chair, her long curved and jewelled hand lying in her lap and a coiffure of laces pinned down with a long jewelled hair-pin. How her head-dress of large laces decorates the paper, and the elaborate working out of the pattern, is it not a miracle of handicraft? How exquisite the black curls on the forehead, and how they balance the dark eyes which are the depth and centre of the composition! The necklace, how well the stones are heaped, how well they lie together! How well their weight and beauty are expressed! And the earrings, how enticing in their intricate workmanship. Then the movement of the face, how full it is of the indolent south, and the oval of the face is composed to harmonise and enhance the lace head-dress; and its outline, though full of classical simplifications, tells the character with Holbein-like fidelity; it falls away into a soft, weak chin in which resides a soft sensual lassitude. The black eyes are set like languid stars in the face, and the flesh rounds off softly, like a sky, modelled with a little shadow, part of the outline, and expressing its beauty. And then there are the marvels of the dress to consider: the perfect and spontaneous creation of the glitter of the long silk arms, and the muslin of the wrists, soft as foliage, and then the hardness of the bodice stitched with jewellery and set so romantically on the almost epicene bosom.

It is the essentially Greek quality of perfection that brings Corot and Ingres together. They are perfect, as none other since the Greek sculptors has been perfect. Other painters have desired beauty at intervals as passionately as they, none save the Greeks so continuously; and the desire to be merely beautiful seemed, if possible, to absorb the art of Corot even more completely than it did that of Ingres. Among the numerous pictures, sketches, and drawings which he left you will find weakness, repetitions, even commonplace, but ugliness never. An ugly set of lines is not to be found in Corot; the rhythm may sometimes be weak, but his lines never run out of metre. For the rhythm of line as well as of sound the artist must seek in his own soul; he will never find it in the inchoate and discordant jumble which we call nature.

And, after all, what is art but rhythm? Corot knew that art is nature made rhythmical, and so he was never known to take out a six-foot canvas to copy nature on. Being an artist, he preferred to observe nature, and he lay down and dreamed his fields and trees, and he walked about in his landscape, selecting his point of view, determining the rhythm of his lines. That sense of rhythm which I have defined as art was remarkable in him even from his first pictures. In the "Castle of St. Angelo, Rome", for instance, the placing of the buildings, one low down, the other high up in the picture, the bridge between, and behind the bridge the dome of St. Peter's, is as faultless a composition as his maturest work. As faultless, and yet not so exquisite. For it took many long and pensive years to attain the more subtle and delicate rhythms of "The Lake" in the collection of J. S. Forbes, Esq., or the landscape in the collection of G. N. Stevens, Esq., or the "Ravine" in the collection of Sir John Day.

Corot's style changed; but it changed gradually, as nature changes, waxing like the moon from a thin, pure crescent to a full circle of light. Guided by a perfect instinct, he progressed, fulfilling the course of his artistic destiny. We notice change, but each change brings fuller beauty. And through the long and beautiful year of Corot's genius--full as the year itself of months and seasons--we notice that the change that comes over his art is always in the direction of purer and more spiritual beauty. We find him more and more absorbed in the emotion that the landscape conveys, more willing to sacrifice the superfluous and circumstantial for the sake of the immortal beauty of things.

Look at the "Lac de Garde" and say if you can that the old Greek melody is not audible in the line which bends and floats to the lake's edge, in the massing and the placing of those trees, in the fragile grace of the broken birch which sweeps the "pale complexioned sky". Are we not looking into the heart of nature, and do we not hear the silence that is the soul of evening? In this, his perfect period, he is content to leave his foreground rubbed over with some expressive grey, knowing well that the eye rests not there, and upon his middle distance he will lavish his entire art, concentrating his picture on some one thing in which for him resides the true reality of the place; be this the evening ripples on the lake or the shimmering of the willow leaves as the last light dies out of the sky.

I only saw Corot once. It was in some woods near Paris, where I had gone to paint, and I came across the old gentleman unexpectedly, seated in front of his easel in a pleasant glade. After admiring his work I ventured to say: "Master, what you are doing is lovely, but I cannot find your composition in the landscape before us." He said: "My foreground is a long way ahead," and sure enough, nearly two hundred yards away, his picture rose out of the dimness of the dell, stretching a little beyond the vista into the meadow.

The anecdote seems to me to be a real lesson in the art of painting, for it shows us the painter in his very employment of nature, and we divine easily the transposition in the tones and in the aspect of things that he was engaged in bringing into that picture. And to speak of transpositions leads us inevitably into consideration of the great secret of Corot's art, his employment of what is known in studios as values.

By values is meant the amount of light and shadow contained in a tone. The relation of a half-tint to the highest light, which is represented by the white paper, the relation of a shadow to the deepest black, which is represented by the chalk pencil, is easy enough to perceive in a drawing; but when the work is in colour the values, although not less real, are more difficult to estimate. For a colour can be considered from two points of view: either as so much colouring matter, or as so much light and shade. Violet, for instance, contains not only red and blue in proportions which may be indefinitely varied, but also certain proportions of light and shade; the former tending towards the highest light, represented on the palette by flake white; the latter tending towards the deepest dark, represented on the palette by ivory black.

Similar to a note in music, no colour can be said to be in itself either false or true, ugly or beautiful. A note and a colour acquire beauty and ugliness according to their associations; therefore to colour well depends, in the first instance, on the painter's knowledge and intimate sense of the laws of contrast and similitude. But there is still another factor in the art of colouring well; for, just as the musician obtains richness and novelty of expression by means of a distribution of sound through the instruments of the orchestra, so does the painter obtain depth and richness through a judicious distribution of values. If we were to disturb the distribution of values in the pictures of Titian, Rubens, Veronese, their colour would at once seem crude, superficial, without cohesion or rarity. But some will aver that if the colour is right the values must be right too. However plausible this theory may seem, the practice of those who hold it amply demonstrates its untruth. It is interesting and instructive to notice how those who seek the colour without regard for the values inherent in the colouring matter never succeed in producing more than a certain shallow superficial brilliancy; the colour of such painters is never rich or profound, and although it may be beautiful, it is always wanting in the element of romantic charm and mystery.

The colour is the melody, the values are the orchestration of the melody; and as the orchestration serves to enrich the melody, so do the values enrich the colour. And as melody may--nay, must--exist, if the orchestration be really beautiful, so colour must inhere wherever the values have been finely observed. In Rembrandt, the colour is brown and a white faintly tinted with bitumen; in Claude, the colour is blue, faintly flushed with yellow in the middle sky, and yet none has denied the right of these painters to be considered colourists. They painted with the values--that is to say, with what remains on the palette when abstraction has been made of the colouring matter--a delicate neutral tint of infinite subtlety and charm; and it is with this, the evanescent and impalpable soul of the vanished colours, that the most beautiful pictures are painted. Corot, too, is a conspicuous example of this mode of painting. His right to stand among the world's colourists has never, so far as I know, been seriously contested, his pictures are almost void of colouring matter--a blending of grey and green, and yet the result is of a richly coloured evening.

Corot and Rembrandt, as Dutilleux pointed out, arrived at the same goal by absolutely different ends. He saw clearly, although he could not express himself quite clearly, that, above all painters, Rembrandt and Corot excelled in that mode of pictorial expression known as values, or shall I say chiaroscuro, for in truth he who has said values has hinted chiaroscuro. Rembrandt told all that a golden ray falling through a darkened room awakens in a visionary brain; Corot told all that the grey light of morning and evening whispers in the pensive mind of the elegiac poet. The story told was widely different, but the manner of telling was the same: one attenuated in the light, the other attenuated in the shadow: both sacrificed the corners with a view to fixing the attention on the one spot in which the soul of the picture lives.

All schools have not set great store on values, although all schools have set great store on drawing and colour. Values seem to have come and gone in and out of painting like a fashion. One generation hardly gives the matter a thought, the succeeding generation finds the whole charm of its art in values. It would be difficult to imagine a more interesting and instructive history than the history of values in painting. It is far from my scheme to write such a history, but I wish that such a history were written, for then we should see clearly how unwise were they who neglected the principle, and how much they lost. I would only call attention to how the principle came to be reintroduced into French art in the beginning of this century. It came from Holland _via_, England through the pictures of Turner and Constable. It was an Anglo-Dutch influence that roused French art, then slumbering in the pseudo-classicisms of the First Empire; and, half-awakened, French art turned its eyes to Holland for inspiration; and values, the foundation and corner-stone of Dutch art, became almost at a bound a first article of faith in the artistic creed. In 1830 values came upon France like a religion. Rembrandt was the new Messiah, Holland was the Holy Land, and disciples were busy dispensing the propaganda in every studio.

Since the bad example of Greuze, literature had wound round every branch of painting until painting seemed to disappear in the parasite like an oak under a cloud of ivy. The excess had been great--a reaction was inevitable--and Rembrandt, with his Biblical legends, furnished the necessary transition. But when a taste for painting had been reacquired, one after the other the Dutch painters became the fashion. It is almost unnecessary to point out the influence of Hobbema on the art of Rousseau. Corot was less affected by the Dutchmen, or, to speak more exactly, he assimilated more completely what he had learnt from them than his rival was able to do. Moreover, what he took from Holland came to him through Ruysdael rather than through Hobbema.

The great morose dreamer, contemplative and grave as Wordsworth, must have made more direct and intimate appeal to Corot's soul than the charm and the gaiety of Hobbema's water-mills. Be this as it may, it was Holland that revived the long-forgotten science of values in the Barbizon painters. They sought their art in the direction of values, and very easily Corot took the lead as chief exponent of the new principle; and he succeeded in applying the principle of values to landscape painting as fully as Rembrandt had to figure painting.

But at the moment when the new means of expression seemed most distinctly established and understood, it was put aside and lost sight of by a new generation of painters, and, curiously enough, by the men who had most vigorously proclaimed the beauty and perfection of the art which was to be henceforth, at least in practice, their mission to repudiate. For I take it that the art of the impressionists has nothing whatever in common with the art of Corot. True, that Corot's aim was to render his impression of his subject, no matter whether it was a landscape or a figure; in this aim he differed in no wise from Giotto and Van Eyck; but we are not considering Corot's aims but his means of expression, and his means of expression were the very opposite to those employed by Monet and the school of Monet. Not with half-tints in which colour disappears are Monet and his school concerned, but with the brilliant vibration of colour in the full light, with open spaces where the light is reflected back and forward, and nature is but a prism filled with dazzling and iridescent tints.

I remember once writing about one of Monet's innumerable snow effects: "This picture is in his most radiant manner. A line of snow-enchanted architecture passes through the picture--only poor houses with a single square church tower, but they are beautiful as Greek temples in the supernatural whiteness of the great immaculate snow. Below the village, but not quite in the foreground, a few yellow bushes, bare and crippled by the frost, and around and above a marvellous glitter in pale blue and pale rose tints." I asked if the touch was not more precious than intimate; and I spoke, too, of a shallow and brilliant appearance. But if I had asked why the picture, notwithstanding its incontestable merits, was so much on the surface, why it so irresistibly suggested _un decor de theatre_, why one did not enter into it as one does into a picture by Wilson or Corot, my criticism would have gone to the root of the evil. And the reason of this is because Monet has never known how to organise and control his values. The relation of a wall to the sky which he observes so finely seem as if deliberately contrived for the suppression of all atmosphere; and we miss in Monet the delicacy and the mystery which are the charm of Corot. The bath of air being withdrawn, a landscape becomes a mosaic, flat surface takes the place of round: the next step is some form or other of pre-Raphaelitism.

[The end]
George Moore's essay: Ingres And Corot