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   Chapter 8 EUGèNE CARRIèRE

Promenades of an Impressionist By James Huneker Characters: 14625

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Death has consecrated the genius of three great painters happily neglected and persecuted during their lifetime-Manet, Monticelli, and Carrière. Though furiously opposed, Manet was admitted to the Luxembourg by the conditions of the Caillebotte legacy. There that ironic masterpiece, Olympe-otherwise known as the Cat and Cocotte-has hung for the edification of intelligent amateurs, though it was only a bequest of triumphant hatred in official eyes. And now the lady with her cat and negress is in the Louvre, in which sacrosanct region she, with her meagre, subtle figure, competes among the masterpieces. Yet there were few dissenting voices. Despite its temperamental oscillations France is at bottom sound in the matter of art. Genius may starve, but genius once recognised, the apotheosis is logically bound to follow. No fear of halls of fame with a French Poe absent.

Eugène Carrière was more fortunate than his two famous predecessors. He toiled and suffered hardship, but before his death he was officially acknowledged though never altogether approved by the Salon in which he exhibited; approved or understood. He fought under no banner. He was not an impressionist. He was not a realist. Certainly he could be claimed by neither the classics nor romantics. A "solitary" they agreed to call him; but his is not the hermetic art of such a solitary as Gustave Moreau. Carrière, on the contrary, was a man of marked social impulses, and when in 1889 he received the Legion of Honour, he was enabled to mingle with his equals-he had been almost unknown until then. He was the most progressive spirit among his brethren. Nowadays he is classed as an Intimist, in which category and with such men as Simon Bussy, Ménard, Henri le Sidaner, Emile Wéry, Charles Cottet, Lucien Simon, Edouard Vuillard, the Griveaus, Lomont, Lobre, and others, he is still their master, still the possessor of a highly individualised style, and in portraiture the successor to such diverse painters as Prudhon, Ricard, and Whistler.

Gabriel Seailles has written a study, Eugène Carrière, l'Homme et l'Artiste, and Charles Morice has published another, Eugène Carrière. The latter deals with the personality and ideas of one of the most original thinkers among modern French painters. We have spoken of the acerbity of Degas, of his wit, so often borrowed by Whistler and Manet; we have read Eugène Fromentin's delightful, stimulating studies of the old masters, but we doubt if Fromentin was as profound a thinker as Carrière. Degas is not, though he deals in a more acid and dangerous form of aphorism. It is one of the charms of the eulogy of M. Morice to find embalmed therein so many phrases and speeches of the dead painter. He was both poet and philosopher, let us call him a seer, for his work fully bears out this appellation. A grand visionary, he well deserves Jean Dolent's description of his pictures as "realities having the magic of a dream."

Carrière's career was in no wise extraordinary. He fled to no exotic climes as did Paul Gauguin. His only tragedy was the manner of his death. For three years previous he suffered the agonies of a cancer. His bravery was admirable. No one heard him complain. He worked to the last, worked as he had worked his life long, untiringly. Morice gives a "succinct biography" at the close of his study. From it we learn that Eugène Carrière was born January 29, 1849, at Gournay (Seine-Inférieure); that he made his first steps in art at the Strasbourg Academy; in 1869 he entered the Beaux-Arts, in Cabanel's class. Penniless, he earned a precarious existence in designing industrial objects. In 1870 he was made prisoner by the Prussians, with the garrison of Neuf-Brisach, and taken to Dresden, where he was confined in prison. After peace had been declared he resumed his studies at the Beaux-Arts. In 1877 he married-an important event in his art; thenceforward Madame Carrière and the children born to them were his continual models, both by preference and also by force of circumstances-he was too poor in the beginning to hire professional models. He spent six months in London, which may or may not account for his brumous colour; and in 1879, when he was thirty years old, he exposed in the Salon of that year his Young Mother, the first of a long series of Maternities. He was violently attacked by the critics, and as violently defended. During the same year he attempted to win the "prix de Rome" and gained honours for his sketch. Luckily he did not attain this prize; and, still more luck, he left the school.

In 1884 he received an honourable mention for a child's portrait; in 1885 a medal for his Sick Child, bought by the State; in 1886 Le Premier voile was bought by the State and he was proposed for a medal of honour and-singular dream of Frenchmen-he was decorated in 1889. He died March 27, 1906. Not a long, but a full life, a happy one, and at the last, glory-"le soleil des morts," as Balzac said-and a competence for his dear ones. And it is to the honour of such writers as Roger Marx, Anatole France, Hamel, Morice, Mauclair, Verhaeren, Geffroy, that they recognised the genius of Carrière from the beginning. In 1904 Carrière was made honorary president of the Autumn Salon and was the chief guest of these young painters, who really adored Paul Cézanne, and not the painter of an illusive psychology. I wrote at that time: "Carrière, whose delicately clouded portraits, so intimate in their revelation of the souls of his sitters, was not seen at his best. He offered a large decorative panel for the Mairie of the Thirteenth Arrondissement, entitled Les Fiancés, a sad-looking betrothal party … the landscape timid, the decorative scheme not very effective… His tender notations of maternity, and his heads, painted with the smoky enchantments of his pearly gray and soft russet, are more credible than this panneau." Was Carrière a decorative painter by nature-setting aside training? We doubt it, though Morice does not hesitate to name him after Puvis de Chavannes in this field. The trouble is that he did not make many excursions into the larger forms. He painted a huge canvas, Les Théatres Populaires, in which the interest is more intimate than epical. He also did some decorations for the Hotel de Ville, The Four Ages for a Mairie, and the Christ at the Luxembourg and a view of Paris. Nevertheless, it is his portraits that will live.

Carrière was, first and last, a symbolist. There he is related to the Dutch Seer, Rembrandt; both men strove to seek for the eternal correspondence of things material and spiritual; both sought to bring into harmony the dissonance of flesh and the spirit. Both succeeded, each in his own way-though we need not couple their efforts on the technical side. Rembrandt was a prophet. There is more of the reflective poet in Carrière. He is a mystic. His mothers, his children, are dreams made real-the magic of which Dolent speaks is always there. To disengage the personality of his sitter was his first idea. Slowly he built up those volumes of colour, light, and shadow, the solidity of which caused Rodin to exclaim: "Carrière is also a sculptor!" Slowly and from the most unwilling sitter he extorted the secret of a soul. We speak of John Sargent as the master psychologist among

portraitists, a superiority he himself has never assumed; but that magnificent virtuoso, an aristocratic Frans Hals, never gives us the indefinite sense of things mystic beneath the epidermis of poor, struggling humanity as does Eugène Carrière. Sargent is too magisterial a painter to dwell upon the infinite little soul-stigmata of men and women. Who can tell the renunciations made by the Frenchman in his endeavour to wrest the enigma of personality from its abysmal depths?

As Canaille Mauclair says: "Carrière was first influenced by the Spaniards, then by Ver Meer and Chardin … formerly he coloured his canvas with exquisite delicacy and with a distinction of harmonies that came very near to Whistler's. Now he confines himself to bistre, black and white, to evoke those dream pictures, true images of souls, which make him inimitable in our epoch and go back to Rembrandt's chiaroscuro." Colour went by the board at the last, and the painter was dominated by expression alone. His gamut of tones became contracted. "Physical magnetism" is exactly the phrase that illuminates his later methods. Often cavernous in tone, sooty in his blacks, he nevertheless contrives a fluid atmosphere, the shadows floating, the figure floating, that arrests instant attention. He became almost sculptural, handled his planes with imposing breadth, his sense of values was strong, his gradations and degradation of tones masterly; and he escaped the influences of the new men in their researches after luminosity at all hazards. He considered impressionism a transition; after purifying muddy palettes of the academics, the division-of-tones painters must necessarily return to lofty composition, to a poetic simplicity with nature, to a more rarefied psychology.

Carrière, notwithstanding his nocturnal reveries, his sombre colouring, was not a pessimist. Indeed, the reverse. His philosophy of life was exalted-an exalted socialism. He was, to employ Nietzsche's pithy phrase, a "Yes-Sayer"; he said "Yes" to the universe. A man of vigorous affirmations, he worshipped nature, not for its pictorial aspects, but for the god which is the leaf and rock and animal, for the god that beats in our pulses and shines in the clear sunlight. Nor was it vague, windy pantheism, this; he was a believer-a glance at his Christ reveals his reverence for the Man of Sorrows-and his religious love and pity for mankind was only excelled by his hatred of wrong and oppression. He detested cruelty. His canvases of childhood, in which he exposes the most evanescent gesture, exposes the unconscious helplessness of babyhood, are so many tracts-if you choose to see them after that fashion-in behalf of mercy to all tender and living things. He is not, however, a sentimentalist. His family groups prove the absence of theatrical pity. Because of his subtle technical method, his manner of building up his heads in a misty medium and then abstracting their physical non-essentials, his portraits have a metaphysical meaning-they are a Becoming, not a Being, tangible though they be. Their fluid rhythms lend to them almost the quality of a perpetual rejuvenescence. This may be an illusion, but it tells us of the primary intensity of the painter's vision. Withal, there is no scene of the merely spectral, no optical trickery. The waves of light are magnetic. The picture floats in space, seemingly compelled by its frame into limits. Gustave Geffroy once wrote that, in common with the great masters, Carrière, on his canvas, gives a sense of volume and weight. Whatever he sacrificed, it was not actuality. His draughtsmanship never falters, his touch is never infirm.

I have seen his portraits of Verlaine, Daudet, Edmond de Goncourt, Geffroy, of the artist himself and many others. The Verlaine is a veritable evocation. It was painted at one séance of several hours, and the poet, it is said, did not sit still or keep silence for a moment. He was hardly conscious that he was being painted. What a head! Not that of the old faun and absinthe-sipping vagabond of the Latin quarter, but the soul that lurked somewhere in Verlaine; the dreamer, not the mystifier, the man crucified to the cross of aspiration by his unhappy temperament. Musician and child, here is the head of one of those pious, irresponsible mendicants who walked dusty roads in the Middle Ages. It needed an unusual painter to interpret an unusual poet.

The Daudet face is not alone full of surface character, but explains the racial affinities of the romancer. Here he is David, not Daudet. The head of De Goncourt gives in a few touches-Carrière is ever master of the essential-the irritable pontiff of literary impressionism. Carrière was fond of repeating: "For the artist the forms evoke ideas, sensations, and sentiments; for the poet, sensations, ideas, sentiments evoke forms." Never expansively lyrical as was Monticelli, Carrière declared that a picture is the logical development of light. And on the external side his art is a continual variation with light as a theme. Morice contends that he was a colourist; that the blond of Rubens and the russet of Carrière are not monochromes; that polychromy is not the true way of seeing nature coloured. Certainly Carrière does not sacrifice style, expression, composition for splashing hues. Yet his illuminating strokes appear to proceed from within, not from without. He interrogates nature, but her answer is a sober, not a brilliant one. Let us rather say that his colouring is adequate-he always asserted that a sense of proportion was success in art. His tone is peculiarly personal; he paints expressions, the fleeting shades that cross the face of a man, a woman, a child. He patiently awaits the master trait of a soul and never misses it, though never displaying it with the happy cruelty of Sargent and always judging mercifully. Notwithstanding his humble attitude in the presence of nature, he is the most self-revealing of painters. Few before him ever interpreted maternity as he has done.

Carrière is not a virtuoso. He is an initiator-a man of rare imagination. Above all, he escapes the rhetoric of the schools. His apprehension of character is that of sympathetic genius. He divines the emotions, especially in those souls made melancholy by sorrow; uneasy, complex, feverish souls; them that hide their griefs, and souls saturated with the ennuis of existence-to all he is interpreter and consoler. He has pictured the Weltschmerz of his age; and without morbid self-enjoyment. A noble soul, an elevating example to those artists who believe that art and life may be dissociated. Carrière has left no school, though his spiritual influence has been great. A self-contained artist, going his own way, meditating deeply on art, on life, his canvases stand for his singleness and purity of purpose. On the purely pictorial side he is, to quote M. Mauclair, "an absolutely surprising painter of hands and glances."

In the sad and anxious rectitude of his attire the artistic interest in modern man is concentrated upon his head and hands; and upon these salient points Carrière focussed his art. Peaceful or disquieted, his men and women belong to our century. Spiritually Eugène Carrière is the lineal descendant of the Rembrandt school-but one who has read Dosto?evsky.

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