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Promenades of an Impressionist By James Huneker Characters: 7151

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Poor "Fada"! The "innocent," the inoffensive fool-as they christened that unfortunate man of genius, Adolphe Monticelli, in the dialect of the South, the slang of Marseilles-where he spent the last sixteen years of his life. The richest colourist of the nineteenth century, obsessed by colour, little is known of this Monticelli, even in these days when an artist's life is subjected to inquisitorial methods. Few had written of him in English before W.E. Henley and W.C. Brownell. In France eulogised by Théophile Gautier, in favour at the court, admired by Diaz, Daubigny, Troyon, and Delacroix, his hopes were cracked by the catastrophe of the Franco-Prussian war. He escaped to Marseilles, there to die poor, neglected, half mad. Perhaps he was to blame for his failures; perhaps his temperament was his fate. Yet to-day his pictures are sought for as were those of Diaz two decades ago, though there was a tacit conspiracy among dealers and amateurs not to drag his merits too soon before the foot-lights. In 1900 at the Paris Exposition a collection of his works, four being representative, opened the eyes of critics and public alike. It was realised that Monticelli had not received his proper ranking in the nineteenth-century theatre of painting; that while he owed much to Watteau, to Turner, to Rousseau, he was a master who could stand or fall on his own merits. Since then the Monticelli pictures have been steadily growing in favour.

There is a Monticelli cult. America can boast of many of his most distinguished specimens, while the Louvre and the Luxembourg are without a single one. The Musée de Lille at Marseilles has several examples; the private collections of M. Delpiano at Cannes and a few collections in Paris make up a meagre list. The Comparative Exhibition in New York, 1904, revealed to many accustomed to overpraising Diaz and Fromentin the fact that Monticelli was their superior as a colourist, and a decorator of singularly fascinating characteristics, one who was not always a mere contriver of bacchanalian riots of fancy, but who could exhibit when at his best a justesse of vision and a controlled imagination.

The dictionaries offer small help to the student as to the doings of this erratic painter. He was born October 24, 1824. He died June 29, 1886. He was of mixed blood, Italian and French. His father was a gauger, though Adolphe declared that he was an authentic descendant of the Crusader, Godefroy Monticelli, who married in 1100 Aurea Castelli, daughter of the Duca of Spoleto. Without doubt his Italian blood counted heavily in his work, but whether of noble issue matters little. Barbey d'Aurevilly and Villiers de l'Isle Adam, two men of letters, indulged in similar boasts, and no doubt in their poverty and tribulations the oriflamme of aristocracy which they bravely bore into the café life of Paris was a source of consolation to them. But it is with brains, not blood, that painters mix their pigments, and the legend of high birth can go with the other fictions reported by Henley that Monticelli was an illegitimate offshoot of the Gonzagas; that he was the natural son of Diaz; that Diaz kept him a prisoner for years, to "steal the secret of his colours."

Like many another of his temperament, he had himself to thank for his woes, though it was a streak of ill-luck for him when the Prussians bore down on Paris. He was beginning to be known. A pupil of Raymond Aubert (1781-1857), he was at first a "fanatic of Raphael and Ingres." Delacroix and his violently harmonised colour masses settled the futur

e colourist. He met Diaz and they got on very well together. A Southerner, handsome, passionate, persuasive, dashing, with the eloquence of the meridional, Monticelli and his musical name made friends at court and among powerful artists. In 1870 he started on his walk of thirty-six days from Paris to Marseilles. He literally painted his way. In every inn he shed masterpieces. Precious gold dripped from his palette, and throughout the Rhone valley there are, it is whispered-by white-haired old men the memory of whose significant phrases awakes one in the middle of the night longing for the valley of Durance-that if a resolute, keen-eyed adventurer would traverse unostentatiously the route taken by Monticelli during his Odyssey the rewards might be great. It is an idea that grips one's imagination, but unfortunately it is an idea that gripped the imagination of others thirty years ago. Not an auberge, hotel, or hamlet has been left unexplored. The fine-tooth comb of familiar parlance has been sedulously used by interested persons. If there are any Monticellis unsold nowadays they are for sale at the dealers'.

In him was incarnate all that we can conceive as bohemian, with a training that gave him the high-bred manner of a seigneur. He was a romantic, like his friend Félix Ziem-Ziem, Marcellin, Deboutin, and Monticelli represented a caste that no longer exists; bohemians, yes, but gentlemen, refined and fastidious. Yet, after his return to his beloved Marseilles, Monticelli led the life of an August vagabond. In his velvet coat, a big-rimmed hat slouched over his eyes, he patrolled the quays, singing, joking, an artless creature, so good-hearted and irresponsible that he was called "Fada," more in affection than contempt. He painted rapidly, a picture daily, sold it on the terrasses of the cafés for a hundred francs, and when he couldn't get a hundred he would take sixty. Now one must pay thousands for a canvas. His most loving critic, Camille Mauclair, who, above any one, has battled valiantly for his art, tells us that Monticelli once took eighteen francs for a small canvas because the purchaser had no more in his pocket! In this manner he disposed of a gallery. He smoked happy pipes and sipped his absinthe-in his case as desperate an enemy as it had proved to De Musset. He would always doff his hat at the mention of Watteau or Rubens. They were his gods.

When Monticelli arrived in Marseilles after his tramp down from Paris he was literally in rags. M. Chave, a good Samaritan, took him to a shop and togged him out in royal raiment. They left for a promenade, and then the painter begged his friend to let him walk alone so as not to attenuate the effect he was bound to produce on the passersby, such a childish, harmless vanity had he. His delight was to gather a few chosen ones over a bottle of old vintage, and thus with spasmodic attempts at work his days rolled by. He was feeble, semi-paralysed. With the advent of bad health vanished the cunning of his hand. His paint coarsened, his colours became crazier. His pictures at this period were caricatures of his former art. Many of the early ones were sold as the productions of Diaz, just as to-day some Diazs are palmed off as Monticellis. After four years of decadence he died, repeating for months before his taking off: "Je viens de la lune." He was one whose brain a lunar ray had penetrated; but this ray was transposed to a spectrum of gorgeous hues. Capable of depicting the rainbow, he died of the opalescence that clouded his glass of absinthe. Pauvre Fada!

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