Modern Painting, Its Tendency and Meaning Part 1/
Modern Painting, Its Tendency and Meaning Part 1
Modern Painting, Its Tendency and Meaning.
by Willard Huntington Wright.
That beneath all great art there has been a definite animating purpose, a single and profound desire to reach a specific goal, has been but vaguely sensed by the general public and by the great majority of critics. And there are, I believe, but very few persons not directly and seriously concerned with the production of pictures, who realise that this animating purpose has for its aim the solution of the profoundest problems of the creative will, that it is rooted deeply in the aesthetic consciousness, and that its evolution marks one of the most complex phases of human psychology. The habit of approaching a work of art from the naf standpoint of one's personal temperament or taste and of judging it haphazardly by its individual appeal, irrespective of its inherent aesthetic merit, is so strongly implanted in the average spectator, that any attempt to define the principles of form and organisation underlying the eternal values of art is looked upon as an act of gratuitous pedantry. But such principles exist, and if we are to judge works of art accurately and consistently these principles must be mastered. Otherwise we are without a standard, and all our opinions are but the outgrowth of the chaos of our moods.
Any attempt to democratise art results only in the lowering of the artistic standard. Art cannot be taught; and a true appreciation of it cannot grow up without a complete understanding of the aesthetic laws governing it. Those qualities in painting by which it is ordinarily judged are for the most part irrelevancies from the standpoint of pure aesthetics. They have as little to do with a picture's infixed greatness as the punctuation in Faust or the words of the Hymn to Joy in the Ninth Symphony. Small wonder that modern art has become a copious fountain-head of abuse and laughter; for modern art tends toward the elimination of all those accretions so beloved by the general-literature, drama, sentiment, symbolism, anecdote, prettiness and photographic realism.
This book inquires first into the function and psychology of all great art, and endeavours to define those elements which make for genuine worth in painting. Next it attempts to explain both the basic and superficial differences between "ancient" and "modern" art and to point out, as minutely as s.p.a.ce will permit, the superiority of the new methods over the old. By this exposition an effort is made to indicate the _raison d'etre_ of the modern procedure. After that, modern painters are taken up in the order of their importance to the evolution of painting during the last hundred years. I have tried to answer the following questions: What men and movements mark the milestones in the development of the new idea? What have been the motivating forces of each of these schools? To what extent are their innovations significant: what ones touch organically on the vital problems of aesthetics; and what was their influence on the men who came later? Out of what did the individual men spring; what forces and circ.u.mstances came together to make their existence possible? What were their aims, and what were their actual achievements? What relation did they bear to one another, and in what way did they advance on one another? Where has modern art led, and what inspirational possibilities lie before it?
Before setting out to solve these problems, all of which have their roots in the very organisms of the science of aesthetics, I have posed a definite _rationale_ of valuation. My principles are based on the quickening ideals of all great art, and, if properly understood, I believe, they will answer every question which arises in the intelligent spectator when he stands before a piece of visual art, be it a Byzantine mosaic, a complicated organisation by Rubens, a linear arrangement by Pica.s.so or an utterly worthless anecdote in paint by an English academician. Necessarily preoccupied with the application of my critical standard, I have had but little time and s.p.a.ce to devote to its elucidation. Yet I have striven in this indirect process of statement to make my fundamental postulate sufficiently clear to enable the reader to recognise its truth and unity. Two years ago when I crowded my hypothesis into 7000 words in the _Forum_, and early last winter when I stated it in even briefer s.p.a.ce in the _New Age_, I found that, although it took a new and difficult stand, there were many who grasped its essentials. Therefore I feel myself ent.i.tled to hope that in its present form it will be comprehensible even to those whose minds are not trained in the complexities of aesthetic research.
In stripping art of its intriguing charm and its soothing vagueness it is not my intention to do away with its power to delight. To the contrary, I believe that only by relieving painting of its dead cargo of literature, archaeology and ill.u.s.tration can it be made to function freely. Painting should be as pure an art as music, and the struggles of all great painters have been toward that goal. Its medium-colour-is as elemental as sound, and when properly presented (with the same scientific exactness as the harmonies of the tone-gamut) it is fully as capable of engendering aesthetic emotion as is music. Our delight in music, no matter how primitive, is not dependent on an imitation of natural sounds. Music's pleasurable significance is primarily intellectual. So can painting, by its power to create emotion and not mere sensation, provoke deep aesthetic feeling of a far greater intensity than the delight derived from transcription and drama. Modern painting strives toward the heightening of emotional ecstasy; and my _esthetique_ is intended to pave the way for an appreciation of art which will make possible the reception of that ecstasy. With this object ever in view I have weighed the painting of the last century, and have judged it solely by its ability or inability to call forth a profound aesthetic emotion.
Almost any art can arouse pleasing sentiments. Only great art can give us intellectual rapture.
W. H. W.
ANCIENT AND MODERN ART
Throughout the entire history of the fine arts, no period of aesthetic innovation and endeavour has suffered from public malignity, ridicule and ignorance as has painting during the last century. The reasons for this are many and, to the serious student of art history, obvious. The change between the old and the new order came swiftly and precipitously, like a cataclysm in the serenity of a summer night. The cla.s.sic painters of the first half of the nineteenth century, such as David, Ingres, Gros and Gerard, were busy with their rehabilitation of ancient traditions, when without warning, save for the pale heresies of Constable, a new and rigorous regime was ushered in. It was Turner, Delacroix, Courbet and Daumier who entered the sacred temple, tore down the pillars which had supported it for centuries, and brought the entire structure of established values crashing down about them. They survived the _debacle_, and when eventually they laid aside their brushes for all time it was with the una.s.sailable knowledge that they had accomplished the greatest and most significant metamorphosis in the history of any art.
But even these hardy anarchists of the new order little dreamed of the extremes to which their heresies would lead. So precipitous and complex has been the evolution of modern painting that most of the most revolutionary moderns have failed to keep mental step with its developments and divagations. During the past few years new modes and manners in art have sprung up with fungus-like rapidity. "Movements" and "schools" have followed one another with astounding pertinacity, each claiming that finality of expression which is the aim of all seekers for truth. And, with but few exceptions, the men who have instigated these innovations have been animated by a serious purpose-that of mastering the problem of aesthetic organisation and of circ.u.mscribing the one means for obtaining ultimate and indestructible results. But the problems of art, like those of life itself, are in the main unsolvable, and art must ever be an infinite search for the intractable. Form in painting, like the eternal readjustments and equilibria of life, is but an approximation to stability. The forces in all art are the forces of life, co-ordinated and organised. No plastic form can exist without rhythm: not rhythm in the superficial harmonic sense, but the rhythm which underlies the great fluctuating and equalising forces of material existence. Such rhythm is symmetry in movement. On it all form, both in art and life, is founded.
Form in its artistic sense has four interpretations. First, it exhibits itself as shallow imitation of the surface aspects of nature, as in the work of such men as Sargent, Sorolla and Simon. Secondly, it contains qualities of solidity and competent construction such are as found in the paintings of Velazquez, Hogarth and Degas. Thirdly, it is a consummate portrayal of objects into which arbitrary arrangement has been introduced for the accentuation of volume. Raphael, Poussin and Goya exemplify this expression of it. Last, form reveals itself, not as an objective thing, but as an abstract phenomenon capable of giving the sensation of palpability. All great art falls under this final interpretation. But form, to express itself aesthetically, must be composed; and here we touch the controlling basis of all art:-organisation. Organisation is the use put to form for the production of rhythm. The first step in this process is the construction of line, line being the direction taken by one or more forms. In purely decorative rhythm the lines flow harmoniously from side to side and from top to bottom on a given surface. In the greatest art the lines are bent forward and backward as well as laterally so that, by their orientation in depth, an impression of profundity is added to that of height and breadth. Thus the simple image of decoration is destroyed, and a microcosmos is created in its place. Rhythm then becomes the inevitable adjustment of approaching and receding lines, so that they will reproduce the placements and displacements to be found in the human body when in motion.
To understand, and hence fully to appreciate, a painting, we must be able to recognise its inherent qualities by the process of intellectual reasoning. By this is not implied mechanical or scientific observation.
Were this necessary, art would resolve itself into a provable theory and would produce in us only such mental pleasure as we feel before a perfect piece of intricate machinery. But once we comprehend those const.i.tutional qualities which pervade all great works of art, plastic and graphic, the sensuous emotion will follow so rapidly as to give the effect of spontaneity. This process of conscious observation in time becomes automatic and exerts itself on every work of art we inspect.
Once adjusted to an a.s.similation of the rhythmic compositions of El Greco and Rubens, we have become susceptible to the tactile sensation of form in all painting. And this subjective emotion is keener than the superficial sensation aroused by the prettiness of design, the narrative of subject-matter, or the quasi-realities of transcription. More and more as we proximate to a true understanding of the principles of art, shall we react to those deeper and larger qualities in a painting which are not to be found in its doc.u.mentary and technical side. Also our concern with the transient sentiments engendered by a picture's external aspects will become less and less significant. Technique, dramatic feeling, subject, and even accuracy of drawing, will be relegated to the subsidiary and comparatively unimportant position they hold in relation to a painting's _aesthetic purpose_.
The lack of comprehension-and consequently the ridicule-which has met the efforts of modern painters, is attributable not alone to a misunderstanding of their seemingly for extravagant and eccentric mannerisms, but to an ignorance of the basic postulates of all great art both ancient and modern. Proof of this is afforded by the constant statements of preference for the least effectual of older painters over the greatest of the moderns. These preferences, if they are symptomatic of aught save the mere habit of a mind immersed in tradition, indicate an immaturity of artistic judgment which places prettiness above beauty, and sentimentality and doc.u.mentary interest above subjectivity of emotion. The fallacies of such judgment can best be indicated by a parallel consideration of painters widely separated as to merit, but in whom these different qualities are found. For instance, the prettiness of Reynolds, Greuze and Murillo is as marked as the prettiness of t.i.tian, Giorgione and Renoir. The latter are by far the greater artists; yet, had we no other critical standard save that of charm, the difference between them and the others would be indistinguishable.
Zuloaga, Whistler, Botticelli and Bocklin are as inspirational of sentiment as Tintoretto, Corot, Raphael and Poussin; but by no authentic criterion are they as great painters. Again, were drama and simple narrative aesthetic considerations, Regnault, Brangwyn, and Antonino Molineri would rank with Valerio Castello, Rubens and Ribera.
In one's failure to distinguish between the apparent and the organic purposes of art lies the greatest obstacle to an appreciation of what has come to be called modern painting. The truths of modern art are no different from those of ancient art. A Cezanne landscape is not dissimilar in aim to an El Greco. The one is merely more advanced as to methods than the other. Nor do the canvases of the most ultra-modern schools strive toward an aesthetic manifestation radically unlike that aspired to in Michelangelo's Slaves. Serious modern art, despite its often formidable and bizarre appearance, is only a striving to rehabilitate the natural and unalterable principles of rhythmic form to be found in the old masters, and to translate them into relative and more comprehensive terms. We have the same animating ideal in the pictures of Giotto and Matisse, Rembrandt and Renoir, Botticelli and Gauguin, Watteau and Pica.s.so, Poussin and Friesz, Raphael and Severini.
The later men differ from their antecedents in that they apply new and more vital methods to their work. Modern art is the logical and natural outgrowth of ancient art; it is the art of yesterday heightened and intensified as the result of systematic and painstaking experimentation in the media of expression.
The search for composition-that is, for perfectly poised form in three dimensions-has been the impelling dictate of all great art. Giotto, El Greco, Masaccio, Tintoretto and Rubens, the greatest of all the old painters, strove continually to attain form as an abstract emotional force. With them the organisation of volumes came first. The picture was composed as to line. Out of this grew the subject-matter-a demonstration _a posteriori_. The human figure and the recognisable natural object were only auxiliaries, never the sought-for result. In all this they were inherently modern, as that word should be understood; for the new conception of art strives more and more for the emotion rather than the appearance of reality. The objects, whether arbitrary or photographic, which an artist uses in a picture are only the material through which plastic form finds expression. They are the means, not the end. If in the works of truly significant art there is a dramatic, narrative or ill.u.s.trative interest, it will be found to be the incidental and not the important concomitant of the picture.
Therefore it is not remarkable that, with the introduction of new methods, the ill.u.s.trative side of painting should tend toward minimisation. The elimination of all the superfluities from art is but a part of the striving toward defecation. Since the true test of painting lies in its subjective power, modern artists have sought to divorce their work from all considerations other than those directly allied to its primary function. This process of separation advanced hand in hand with the evolution of new methods. First it took the form of the distortion of natural objects. The accidental shape of trees, hills, houses and even human figures was altered in order to draw them into the exact form demanded by the picture's composition. Gradually, by the constant practice of this falsification, objects became almost unrecognisable. In the end the ill.u.s.trative obstacle was entirely done away with. This was the logical outcome of the sterilising modern process. To judge a picture competently, one must not consider it as a mere depiction of life or as an anecdote: one must bring to it an intelligence capable of grasping a complicated counterpoint. The att.i.tude of even such men as Celesti, Zanchi, Padovanino and Bononi is never that of an ill.u.s.trator, in no matter how sublimated a sense, but of a composer whose aim is to create a polymorphic conception with the recognisable materials at hand.
Were art to be judged from the pictorial and realistic viewpoint we might find many meticulous craftsmen of as high an objective efficiency as were the men who stood at the apex of genuine artistic worth-that is, craftsmen who arrived at as close and exact a transcription of nature, who interpreted current moods and mental aspects as accurately, and who set forth superficial emotions as dramatically. Velazquez's Philip IV, t.i.tian's Emperor Charles V, Holbein's The Amba.s.sadors, Guardi's The Grand Ca.n.a.l-Venice, Mantegna's The Dead Christ and Durer's Four Naked Women reproduce their subjects with as much painstaking exact.i.tude as do El Greco's The Resurrection of Christ, Giotto's Descent from the Cross, Masaccio's Saint Peter Baptising the Pagans, Tintoretto's The Miracle of Saint Mark, Michelangelo's Creation of the Sun and Moon, and Rubens's The Earl and Countess of Arundel. But these latter pictures are important for other than pictorial reasons. Primarily they are organisations, and as such they are of aesthetic value. Only secondarily are they to be appraised as representations of natural objects. In the pictures of the former list there is no synthetic co-ordination of tactile forms. Such paintings represent merely "subject-matter" treated capably and effectively. As sheer painting from the artisan's standpoint they are among the finest examples of technical dexterity in art history. But as contributions to the development of a pure art form they are valueless.
In stating that the moderns have changed the quality and not the nature of art, there is no implication that in many instances the great men of the past, even with limited means, have not surpa.s.sed in artistic achievement the men of today who have at hand more extensive means.
Great organisers of plastic form have, because of their tremendous power, done with small means more masterly work than lesser men with large means. For instance, Goya as an artist surpa.s.ses Manet, and Rembrandt transcends Daumier. This principle holds true in all the arts.
Balzac, ignorant of modern literary methods, is greater than George Moore, a master of modern means. And Beethoven still remains the colossal figure in music, despite the vastly increased modern scope of Richard Strauss's methods. Methods are useless without the creative will. But granting this point (which unconsciously is the stumbling block of nearly all modern art critics), new and fuller means, even in the hands of inferior men, are not the proper subject for ridicule.
It must not be forgotten that the division between old and modern art is not an equal one. Modern art began with Delacroix less than a hundred years ago, while art up to that time had many centuries in which to perfect the possibilities of its resources. The new methods are so young that painters have not had time to acquire that mastery of material without which the highest achievement is impossible. Even in the most praiseworthy modern art we are conscious of that intellectual striving in the handling of new tools which is the appanage of immaturity.
Renoir, the greatest exponent of Impressionistic means, found his artistic stride only in his old age, after a long and arduous life of study and experimenting. His canvases since 1905 are the first in which we feel the fluency and power which come only after a slow and sedulous process of osmosis. Compare, for instance, his early and popular Le Moulin de la Galette with his later portraits, such as Madame T. et Son Fils and La Fillette a l'Orange, and his growth is at once apparent.
The evolution of means is answerable to the same laws as the _progressus_ in any other line of human endeavour. The greatest artists are always culminations of long lines of experimentations. In this they are eclectic. The organisation of observation is in itself too absorbing a labour to permit of a free exercise of the will to power. The blinding burst of genius at the time of the Renaissance was the breaking forth of the accrued power of generations. Modern art, having no tradition of means, has sapped and dispersed the vitality of its exponents by imposing upon them the necessity for empirical research. It is for this reason that we have no men in modern art who approximate as closely to perfection as did many of the older painters. But had Rubens, with his colossal vision, had access to modern methods his work would have been more powerful in its intensity and more far-reaching in its scope.
However, in the brief period of modern art two decided epochs have been brought to a close through this acc.u.mulation and eruption of experimental activities in individuals. Cezanne brought to a focus the divergent rays of his predecessors and incorporated into his canvases both the aspirations and achievements of the art which had preceded him. This would have been impossible had he been born-even with an equally great talent-fifty years before. And a more recent school of art, by making use of the achievements of both Cezanne and Michelangelo, and by adding to them new discoveries in the dynamics of colour, has opened up a new vista of possibilities in the expressing of form. This step also would have been impossible without Cezanne and the men who came before and after him. Once these new modes, which are indicative of modern art, become understood and pa.s.s into the common property of the younger men, we shall have achievement which will be as complete as the masterpieces of old, and which will, in addition, be more poignant.
Although the methods of the older painters were more restricted than those of the moderns, the actual materials at their disposal were fully as extended as ours of today. But knowledge concerning them was incomplete. As a consequence, all artists antecedent to Delacroix found expression only in those qualities which are susceptible of reproduction in black and white. In many cases the sacrifice of colour enhances the intrinsic merit of such reproductions, for often the characteristics of the different colours oppose the purposes of a picture's planes. Today we know that certain colours are opaque, others transparent; some approach the eye, others recede. But the ancients were ignorant of these things, and their canvases contained many contradictions: there was a continuous warring between linear composition and colour values. They painted solids violet, and transpicuous planes yellow-thereby unconsciously defeating their own ends, for violet is limpid, and yellow tangible. In one-tone reproductions such inconsistencies are eliminated, and the signification of the picture thereby clarified. It was Rubens who embodied the defined attributes of ancient art in their highest degree of pliability, and who carried the impulse toward creation to a point of complexity unattained by any other of the older men. In him we see the culmination of the evolution of linear development of light and dark. From his time to the accession of the moderns the ability to organise was on the decrease. There was a weakening of perception, a decline of the aesthetic faculty. The chaotic condition of this period was like the darkness which always broods over the world before some cleansing force sweeps it clean and ushers in a new and greater cycle.
The period of advancement of these old methods extends from prehistoric times to the beginning of the nineteenth century. On the walls of the caverns in Altamira and the Dordogne are drawings of mammoths, horses and bison in which, despite the absence of details, the actual approach to nature is at times more sure and masterly than in the paintings of such highly cultured men as Botticelli and Pisanello. The action in some of them is p.r.o.nounced; and the vision, while simple, is that of men conscious of a need for compactness and balance. Here the art is simply one of outline, heavy and prominent at times, light and almost indistinguishable at others; but this grading of line was the result of a deeper cause than a tool slipping or refusing to mark. It was the consequence of a need for rhythm which could be obtained only by the accentuation of parts. The drawings were generally single figures, and rarely were more than two conceived as an inseparable design. Later, the early primitives used symmetrical groupings for the same purpose of interior decorating. Then came simple balance, the shifting and disguise of symmetry, and with it a nearer approach to the _imprevu_ of nature.
This style was employed for many generations until the great step was taken which brought about the Renaissance. The sequential aspect of line appeared, permitting of rhythm and demanding organisation. Cimabue and Giotto were the most prominent exponents of this advance. From that time forward the emotion derived from actual form was looked upon by artists as a necessary adjunct to a picture. With this att.i.tude came the aristocracy of vision and the abrogation of painting as mere exalted craftsmanship.
After that the evolution of art was rapid. In the contemplation of solidly and justly painted figures the artist began to extend his mind into s.p.a.ce and to use rhythm of line that he might express himself in depth as well as surfacely. Thus he preconised organisation in three dimensions, and by so doing opened the door on an infinity of aesthetic ramifications. From the beginning, tone balance-that is, the agreeable distribution of blacks, whites and greys-had gone forward with the development of line, so that at the advent of depth in painting the arrangement of tones became the medium through which all the other qualities were made manifest.
In the strict sense, the art of painting up to a hundred years ago had been only drawing. Colour was used only for ornamental or dramatic purposes. After the first simple copying of nature's tints in a wholly restricted manner, the use of colour advanced but little. It progressed toward harmony, but its dramatic possibilities were only dimly felt.
Consequently its primitive employment for the enhancement of the decorative side of painting was adhered to. This was not because the older painters were without the necessary pigments. Their colours in many instances were brighter and more permanent than ours. But they were satisfied with the effects obtained from black and white expression.
They looked upon colour as a delicacy, an accessory, something to be taken as the gourmet takes dessert. Its true significance was thus obscured beneath the artists' complacency. As great an artist as Giorgione considered it from the conventional viewpoint, and never attempted to deviate toward its profounder meanings. The old masters filled their canvases with shadows and light without suspecting that light itself is simply another name for colour.
The history of modern art is broadly the history of the development of form by the means of colour-that is to say, modern art tends toward the purification of painting. Colour is capable of producing all the effects possible to black and white, and in addition of exciting an emotion more acute. It was only with the advent of Delacroix, the first great modern, that the dramatic qualities of colour were intelligently sensed. But even with him the conception was so slight that the effects he attained were but meagrely effective. After Delacroix further experiments in colour led to the realistic translation of certain phases of nature. The old static system of copying trees in green, shadows in black and skies in blue did not, as was commonly believed, produce realism. While superficially nature appeared in the colours indicated, a close observation later revealed the fact that a green tree in any light comprises a diversity of colours, that all sunlit skies have a residue of yellow, and hence that shadows are violet rather than black. This newly unearthed realism of light became the battle cry of the younger men in the late decades of the nineteenth century, and reached parturition in the movement erroneously called Impressionism, a word philologically opposed to the thing it wished to elucidate. The ancients had painted landscape as it appeared broadly at a first glance. The Impressionists, being interested in nature as a manifestation in which light plays the all-important part, transferred it bodily onto canvas from that point of view.
Cezanne, looking into their habits more coolly, saw their restrictions.
While achieving all their atmospheric aims, he went deeper into the mechanics of colour, and with this knowledge achieved form as well as light. This was another step forward in the development of modern methods. With him colour began to near its true and ultimate significance as a functioning element. Later, with the aid of the scientists, Chevreul, Bourgeois, Helmholtz and Rood, other artists made various departures into the field of colour, but their enterprises were failures. Then came Matisse who made improvements on the harmonic side of colour. But because he ignored the profounder lessons of Cezanne he succeeded only in the fabrication of a highly organised decorative art.
Not until the advent of the Synchromists, whose first public exhibition took place in Munich in 1913, were any further crucial advances made.
These artists completed Cezanne in that they rationalised his dimly foreshadowed precepts.
To understand the basic significance of painting it is necessary to revise our method of judgment. As yet no aesthetician has recorded a _rationale_ for art valuation. Taine put forth many illuminating suggestions regarding the fundamentals of form, but the critics have paid scant heed. Prejudice, personal taste, metaphysics and even the predilections of sentiment, still govern the world's judgments and appreciations. We are slaves to accuracy of delineation, to prettiness of design, to the whole suite of material considerations which are deputies to the organic and intellectual qualities of a work of art. It is the common thing to find criticisms-ever from the highest sources-which praise or condemn a picture according to the nearness of its approach to the reality of its subject. Such observations are confusing and irrelevant. Were realism the object of art, painting would always be infinitely inferior to life-a mere simulacrum of our daily existence, ever inadequate in its illusion. The moment we attach other than purely aesthetic values to paintings-either ancient or modern-we are confronted by so extensive and differentiated a set of tests that chaos or error is unavoidable. In the end we shall find that our conclusions have their premises, not in the work of art itself, but in personal and extraneous considerations. A picture to be a great work of art need not contain any recognisable objects. Provided it gives the sensation of rhythmically balanced form in three dimensions, it will have accomplished all that the greatest masters of art have ever striven for.
Once we divest ourselves of traditional integuments, modern painting will straightway lose its mystery. Despite the many charlatans who clothe their aberrations with its name, it is a sincere reaching forth of the creative will to find a medium by which the highest emotions may most perfectly be expressed. We have become too complex to enjoy the simple theatre any longer. Our minds call for a more forceful emotion than the simple imitation of life can give. We require problems, inspirations, incentives to thought. The simple melody of many of the old masters can no longer interest us because of its very simplicity. As the complicated and organised forces of life become comprehensible to us, we shall demand more and more that our a.n.a.lytic intelligences be mirrored in our enjoyments.
PRECURSORS OF THE NEW ERA
The nineteenth century opened with French art in a precarious and decadent condition. To appreciate the prodigious strides made by Gericault and Delacroix, even by Gerard and Gros, one must consider the rabid antagonism of the public toward all ornament and richness in painting and toward all subject-matter which did not inspire thoughts of inflexible simplicity. This att.i.tude was attributable to the social reaction against the excesses of the voluptuous Louis XV. Vien it was who, suppressing the eroticism of Boucher, instigated the so-called cla.s.sic revival founded on Graeco-Roman ideals. The public became so vehement in its praise of this hypocritical and austere art, that Fragonard, that delicious painter of boudoirs, was dismissed as indecent. Even the demure Greuze, who tried to rehabilitate himself by making his art a vehicle for a series of parental sermons, died a pauper. He too lacked the aridity requisite for popular taste. Chardin, the Le Nains and Fouquet were set aside: they were considered too trivial, too insufficiently archaeological. Watteau's canvases were stoned by Regnault, Girodet and the other pupils of David. Lancret, Pater, Debucourt, Olivier, Gravelot, La Tour, Nattier and others met similar fates at the hands of the new cla.s.sicists.
Such men as these could not find approbation in a public which demanded only allegorical, political and economic art. But David met all its requirements. He represented the ant.i.thesis of the sound freedom of the French temperament; and forthwith became the Elija of the new degeneracy. He apotheosised all that is false and decadent in art. But the adulation of him was short-lived. The French imagination is too fecund for only thorns. Ingres superseded him. This new idol, going to the Greeks for inspiration, made David fluent and charming. He studied the Italian primitives and simplified them with Byzantine and Raphaelic addenda. He had a genuine instinct for silhouette entirely lacking in his forerunner, and soon struck the first blow which marked the disintegration of David's cult.