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Promenades of an Impressionist By James Huneker Characters: 9434

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


It is only a coincidence, yet a curious one, that two such dissimilar spirits as Stendhal and Monticelli should have predicted their future popularity. Stendhal said: "About 1880 I shall be understood." Monticelli said in 1870: "I paint for thirty years hence." Both prophecies have been realised. After the exhibition at Edinburgh and Glasgow in 1890 Monticelli was placed by a few discerning critics above Diaz in quality of paint. In 1892 Mr. Brownell said of Monticelli in his French Art-a book that every student and amateur of painting should possess-that the touch of Diaz, patrician as it was, lacked the exquisiteness of Monticelli's; though he admits the "exaggeration of the decorative impulse" in that master. For Henley Monticelli's art was purely sensuous; "his fairy meadows and enchanted gardens are that sweet word 'Mesopotamia' in two dimensions." Henley speaks of his "clangours of bronze and gold and scarlet" and admits that "there are moments when his work is as infallibly decorative as a Persian crock or a Japanese brocade." D.S. MacColl, in his study of Nineteenth-Century Painting, gives discriminating praise: "Monticelli's own exquisite sense of grace in women and invention in grouping add the positive new part without which his art would be the mannerising of Rousseau," while Arthur Symons in his Studies in Seven Arts declares all Monticelli's art "tends toward the effect of music… his colour is mood … his mood is colour."

It remained, however, for Camille Mauclair, a Parisian critic in sympathy with the arts of design, literature, and music, to place Monticelli in his proper niche. This Mauclair has done with critical tact. In his Great French Painters, the bias of which is evidently strained in favour of the impressionistic school, in his L'Impressionisme, and in his monograph on Watteau this critic declares that Monticelli's art "recalls Claude Lorraine a little and Watteau even more by its sentiment, and Turner and Bonington by its colour… His work has the same subtlety of gradations, the same division into fragments of tones (as in Watteau's 'Embarkment for Cythera'), the same variety of execution, which has sometimes the opaqueness of china and enamel and sometimes the translucence of precious stones or the brilliancy of glass, metal, or oxides and seems to be the result of some mysterious chemistry… Monticelli had an absolutely unique perception of tonalities, and his glance took in certain shades which had not been observed before, which the optic and chromatic science of the day has placed either by proof or hypothesis between the principal tones of the solar spectrum thirty years after Monticelli had fixed them. There is magic and high lyric poetry in his art." I wrote of the Monticellis exhibited at the Comparative Exhibition in New York: "At the opposite end of the room there is A Summer Day's Idyll, upon which Monticelli had squeezed all his flaming tubes. It seems orchestrated in crushed pomegranate, the light suffusing the reclining figures like a jewelled benediction. Marvellous, too, are the colour-bathed creatures in this No Man's Land of drugged dreams… Do not the walls fairly vibrate with this wealth of fairy tints and fantasy?" But it must not be forgotten that he struck other chords besides blazing sun-worshipping. We often encounter landscapes of vaporous melancholy, twilights of reverie. 8888 Monticelli once told an admiring young amateur that in his canvases "the objects are the decorations, the touches are the scales, and the light is the tenor," thereby acknowledging himself that he felt colour as music. There was hyper?sthesia in his case; his eyes were protuberant and, like the ears of violinists, capable of distinguishing quarter tones, even sixteenths. There are affiliations with Watteau; the same gem-like style of laying on the thick pate, the same delight in fairy-like patches of paint to represent figures. In 1860 he literally resuscitated Watteau's manner, adding a personal note and a richness hitherto unknown to French paint. Mauclair thinks that to Watteau can be traced back the beginnings of modern Impressionism; the division of tones, the juxtaposition of tonalities. Monticelli was the connecting link between Watteau and Monet. The same critic does not hesitate to name Monticelli as one of the great quartet of harmonists, Claude, Turner, Monet being the other three. Taine it was who voiced the philosophy of Impressionism when he announced in his Philosophie de l'Art that the principal personage in a picture is the light in which all things are plunged. Eugène Carrière also asserted that a "picture is the logical development of light." Monticelli before him had said: "In a pain

ting one must sound the C. Rembrandt, Rubens, Watteau, all the great ones have sounded the C." His C, his key-note, was the magic touch of luminosity that dominated his picture. Like Berlioz, he adored colour for colour's sake. He had a touch all Venetian in his relation of tones; at times he went in search of chromatic adventures, returning with the most marvellous trophies. No man before or since, not even those practitioners of dissonance and martyrs to the enharmonic scale, Cézanne, Gauguin, or Van Gogh, ever matched and modulated such widely disparate tints; no man before could extract such magnificent harmonies from such apparently irreconcilable tones. Monticelli thought in colour and was a master of orchestration, one who went further than Liszt.

The simple-minded Monticelli had no psychology to speak of-he was a reversion, a "throw back" to the Venetians, the decorative Venetians, and if he had possessed the money or the leisure-he hadn't enough money to buy any but small canvases-he might have become a French Tiepolo, and perhaps the greatest decorative artist of France. Even his most delicate pictures are largely felt and sonorously executed; not "finished" in the studio sense, but complete-two different things.

Fate was against him, and the position he might have had was won by the gentle Puvis de Chavannes, who exhibited a genius for decorating monumental spaces. With his fiery vision, his brio of execution, his palette charged with jewelled radiance, Monticelli would have been the man to have changed the official interiors of Paris. His energy at one period was enormous, consuming, though short-lived-1865-75. His lack of self-control and at times his Italian superficiality, never backed by a commanding intellect, produced the Monticelli we know. In truth his soul was not complicated. He could never have attacked the psychology of Zarathustra, Hamlet, or Peer Gynt. A Salome from him would have been a delightfully decorative minx, set blithely dancing in some many-hued and enchanted garden of Armida. She would never have worn the air of hieratic lasciviousness with which Gustave Moreau inevitably dowered her. There was too much joy of the south in Monticelli's bones to concern himself with the cruel imaginings of the Orient or the grisly visions of the north. He was Oriental au fond; but it was the Orientalism of the Thousand and One Nights. He painted scenes from the Decameron, and his fêtes galantes may be matched with Watteau's in tone. His first period was his most graceful; ivory-toned languorous dames, garbed in Second Empire style, languidly stroll in charming parks escorted by fluttering Cupids or stately cavaliers. The "decorative impulse" is here at its topmost. In his second period we get the Decameron series, the episodes from Faust, the Don Quixote-recall, if you can, that glorious tableau with its Spanish group and the long, grave don and merry, rotund squire entering on the scene, a fantastic sky behind them.

Painted music! The ruins, fountains, statues, and mellow herbage abound in this middle period. The third is less known. Extravagance began to rule; scarlet fanfares are sounded; amethysts and emeralds sparkle; yet there is more thematic variety. Voluptuous, perfumed, and semi-tragic notes were uttered by this dainty poet of the carnival of life. The canvas glowed with more reverberating and infernal lights, but lyric ever. Technique, fabulous and feverish, expended itself on flowers that were explosions of colours, on seductive marines, on landscapes of a rhythmic, haunting beauty-the Italian temperament had become unleashed. Fire, gold, and purple flickered and echoed in Monticelli's canvases. Irony, like an insinuating serpent, began to creep into this paradise of melting hues. The masterful gradations of tone became bewildered. Poison was eating the man's nerves. He discarded the brush, and standing before his canvas he squeezed his tubes upon it, literally modelling his paint with his thumb until it almost assumed the relief of sculpture. What a touch he had! What a subtle prevision of modulations to be effected by the careless scratch of his nail or the whip of a knife's edge! Remember, too, that originally he had been an adept in the art of design; he could draw as well as his peers. But he sacrificed form and observation and psychology to sheer colour. He, a veritable discoverer of tones-aided thereto by an abnormal vision-became the hasty improviser, who at the last daubed his canvases with a pasty mixture, as hot and crazy as his ruined soul. The end did not come too soon. A chromatic genius went under, leaving but a tithe of the gleams that illuminated his brain. Alas, poor Fada!

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