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Promenades of an Impressionist By James Huneker Characters: 19538

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The annual rotation of the earth brings to us at least once during its period the threadbare, thriceworn, stale, flat, and academic discussion of critic and artist. We believe comparisons of creator and critic are unprofitable, being for the most part a confounding of intellectual substances. The painter paints, the composer makes music, the sculptor models, and the poet sings. Like the industrious crow the critic hops after these sowers of beauty, content to peck up in the furrows the chance grains dropped by genius. This, at least, is the popular notion. Balzac, and later Disraeli, asked: "After all, what are the critics? Men who have failed in literature and art." And Mascagni, notwithstanding the laurels he wore after his first success, cried aloud in agony that a critic was compositore mancato. These be pleasing quotations for them whose early opus has failed to score. The trouble is that every one is a critic, your gallery-god as well as the most stately practitioner of the art severe. Balzac was an excellent critic when he saluted Stendhal's Chartreuse de Parme as a masterpiece; as was Emerson when he wrote to Walt Whitman. What the mid-century critics of the United States, what Sainte-Beuve, master critic of France, did not see, Balzac and Emerson saw and, better still, spoke out. In his light-hearted fashion Oscar Wilde asserted that the critic was also a creator-apart from his literary worth-and we confess that we know of cases where the critic has created the artist. But that a serious doubt can be entertained as to the relative value of creator and critic is hardly worth denying.

Consider the painters. Time and time again you read or hear the indignant denunciation of some artist whose canvas has been ripped-up in print. If the offender happens to be a man who doesn't paint, then he is called an ignoramus; if he paints or etches, or even sketches in crayon, he is well within the Balzac definition-poor, miserable imbecile, he is only jealous of work that he could never have achieved. As for literary critics, it may be set down once and for all that they are "suspect." They write; ergo, they must be unjust. The dilemma has branching horns. Is there no midway spot, no safety ground for that weary Ishmael the professional critic to escape being gored? Naturally any expression of personal feeling on his part is set down to mental arrogance. He is permitted like the wind to move over the face of the waters, but he must remain unseen. We have always thought that the enthusiastic Dublin man in the theatre gallery was after a critic when he cried aloud at the sight of a toppling companion: "Don't waste him. Kill a fiddler with him!" It seems more in consonance with the Celtic character; besides, the Irish are music-lovers.

If one could draw up the list of critical and creative men in art the scale would not tip evenly. The number of painters who have written of their art is not large, though what they have said is always pregnant. Critics outnumber them-though the battle is really a matter of quality, not quantity. There is Da Vinci. For his complete writings some of us would sacrifice miles of gawky pale and florid medi?val paintings. What we have of him is wisdom, and like true wisdom is prophetic. Then there is that immortal gossip Vasari, a very biassed critic and not too nice to his contemporaries. He need not indulge in what is called the woad argument; we sha'n't go back to the early Britons for our authorities. Let us come to Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose Discourses are invaluable-and also to be taken well salted; he was encrusted with fine old English prejudices. One of his magnificent sayings and one appreciated by the entire artistic tribe was his ejaculation: "Damn paint!" Raphael Mengs wrote. We wish that Velasquez had. What William Blake said of great artists threw much light on William Blake. Ingres uttered things, principally in a rage, about his contemporaries. Delacroix was a thinker. He literally anticipated Chevreul's discoveries in the law of simultaneous contrasts of colour. Furthermore, he wrote profoundly of his art. He appreciated Chopin before many critics and musicians-which would have been an impossible thing for Ingres, though he played the violin-and he was kind to the younger men.

Need we say that Degas is a great wit, though not a writer; a wit and a critic? Rousseau, the landscapist, made notes, and Corot is often quoted. If Millet had never written another sentence but "There is no isolated truth," he would still have been a critic. Constable with his "A good thing is never done twice"; and Alfred Stevens's definition of art, "Nature seen through the prism of an emotion," forestalled Zola's pompous pronouncement in The Experimental Novel. To jump over the stile to literature, Wordsworth wrote critical prefaces, and Shelley, too; Poe was a critic; and what of Coleridge, who called painting "a middle quality between a thought and a thing-the union of that which is nature with that which is exclusively human"? There are plenty of examples on the side of the angels. Whistler! What a critic, wielding a finely chased rapier! Thomas Couture wrote and discoursed much of his art. Sick man as he was, I heard him talk of art at his country home, Villiers-le-Bel, on the Northern Railway, near Paris. This was in 1878. William M. Hunt's talks on art were fruitful. So are John Lafarge's. The discreet Gigoux of Balzac notoriety has an entertaining book to his credit; while Rodin is often coaxed into utterances about his and other men's work. There are many French, English, and American artists who write and paint with equal facility. In New York, Kenyon Cox is an instance. But the chiefest among all the painters alive and dead, one who shines and will continue to shine when his canvases are faded-and they are fading-is Eugène Fromentin, whose Ma?tres d'autrefois is a classic of criticism. Since his day two critics, who are also painters, have essayed both crafts, George Clausen and D.S. MacColl.

Professor Clausen is a temperate critic, MacColl a brilliant, revolutionary one. The critical temper in either man is not dogmatic. Seurat, the French Neo-Impressionist, has defended his theories; indeed, the number of talented Frenchmen who paint well and write with style as well as substance is amazing. Rossetti would no longer be a rare bird in these days of piping painters, musicians who are poets, and sculptors who are painters. The unfortunate critic occasionally writes a play or an opera (particularly in Paris), but as a rule he is content to echo that old German who desperately exclaimed: "Even if I am nothing else, I am at least a contemporary."

Let us now swing around the obverse side of the medal. A good showing. You may begin with Wincklemann or Goethe-we refer entirely to critics of paint and painters-or run down the line to Diderot, Blanc, Gautier, Baudelaire, Zola, Goncourt, who introduced to Europe Japanese art; Roger Marx, Geoffroy, Huysmans, Camille Mauclair, Charles Morice, and Octave Mirbeau. Zola was not a painter, but he praised Edouard Manet. These are a few names hastily selected. In England, Ruskin too long ruled the critical roast; full of thunder-words like Isaiah, his vaticinations led a generation astray. He was a prophet, not a critic, and he was a victim to his own abhorred "pathetic fallacy." Henley was right in declaring that until R.A.M. Stevenson appeared there was no great art criticism in England or English. The "Velasquez" is a marking stone in critical literature. It is the one big book by a big temperament that may be opposed page by page to Fromentin's critical masterpiece. Shall we further adduce the names of Morelli, Sturge Moore, Roger Fry, Perkins, Cortissoz, Lionel Cust, Colvin, Ricci, Van Dyke, Mather, Berenson, Brownell, and George Moore-who said of Ruskin that his uncritical blindness regarding Whistler will constitute his passport to fame, "the lot of critics is to be remembered by what they have failed to understand." Walter Pater wrote criticism that is beautiful literature. If Ruskin missed Whistler, he is in good company, for Sainte-Beuve, the prince of critics, missed Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, and to Victor Hugo was unfair. Yet, consider the Osrics embalmed in the amber of Sainte-Beuve's style. He, like many another critic, was superior to his subject. And that is always fatal to the water-flies.

George III once asked in wonderment how the apples get inside the dumplings. How can a critic criticise a creator? The man who looks on writing things about the man who does things. But he criticises and artists owe him much. Neither in "ink-horn terms" nor in an "upstart Asiatic style" need the critic voice his opinions. He must be an artist in temperament and he must have a credo. He need not be a painter to write of painting, for his primary appeal is to the public. He is the middle-man, the interpreter, the vulgariser. The psycho-physiological processes need not concern us. One thing is certain-a man writing in terms of literature about painting, an art in two dimensions, cannot interpret fully the meanings of the canvas, nor can he be sure that his opinion, such as it is, when it reaches the reader, will truthfully express either painter or critic. Such are the limitations of one art when it comes to deal with the ideas or material of another. Criticism is at two removes from its theme. Therefore criticism is a makeshift. Therefore, let critics be modest and allow criticism to become an amiable art.

But where now is the painter critic and the professional critic? "Stands Ulster where it did?" Yes, the written and reported words of artists are precious alike to layman and cri

tic. That they prefer painting to writing is only natural; so would the critic if he had the pictorial gift. However, as art is art and not nature, criticism is criticism and not art. It professes to interpret the artist's work, and at best it mirrors his art mingled with the personal temperament of the critic. At the worst the critic lacks temperament (artistic training is, of course, an understood requisite), and when this is the case, God help the artist! As the greater includes the lesser, the artist should permit the critic to enter, with all due reverence, his sacred domain. Without vanity the one, sympathetic the other. Then the ideal collaboration ensues. Sainte-Beuve says that "criticism by itself can do nothing. The best of it can act only in concert with public feeling … we never find more than half the article in print-the other half was written only in the reader's mind." And Professor Walter Raleigh would further limit the "gentle art." "Criticism, after all, is not to legislate, nor to classify, but to raise the dead." The relations between the critic and his public open another vista of the everlasting discussion. Let it be a negligible one now. That painters can get along without professional criticism we know from history, but that they will themselves play the critic is doubtful. And are they any fairer to young talent than official critics? It is an inquiry fraught with significance. Great and small artists have sent forth into the world their pupils. Have they always-as befits honest critics-recognised the pupils of other men, pupils and men both at the opposite pole of their own theories? Recall what Velasquez is reported to have said to Salvator Rosa, according to Boschini and Carl Justi. Salvator had asked the incomparable Spaniard whether he did not think Raphael the best of all the painters he had seen in Italy. Velasquez answered: "Raphael, to be plain with you, for I like to be candid and outspoken, does not please me at all." This purely temperamental judgment does not make of Velasquez either a good or a bad critic. It is interesting as showing us that even a master cannot always render justice to another. Difference engenders hatred, as Stendhal would say.

Can the record of criticism made by plastic artists show a generous Robert Schumann? Schumann discovered many composers from Chopin to Brahms and made their fortunes by his enthusiastic writing about them. In Wagner he met his Waterloo, but every critic has his limitations. There is no Schumann, let the fact be emphasised, among the painter-critics, though quite as much discrimination, ardour of discovery, and acumen may be found among the writings of the men whose names rank high in professional criticism. And this hedge, we humbly submit, is a rather stiff one to vault for the adherents of criticism written by artists only. Nevertheless, every day of his humble career must the critic pen his apologia pro vita sua.


Fiction about art and artists is rare-that is, good fiction, not the stuff ground out daily by the publishing mills for the gallery-gods. It is to France that we must look for the classic novel dealing with painters and their painting, Manette Salomon, by Goncourt. Henry James has written several delightful tales, such as The Liar, The Real Thing, The Tragic Muse, in which artists appear. But it is the particular psychological problem involved rather than theories of art or personalities that steer Mr. James's cunning pen. We all remember the woman who destroyed a portrait of her husband which seemed to reveal his moral secret. John S. Sargeant has been credited with being the psychologist of the brush in this story. There is a nice, fresh young fellow in The Tragic Muse, who, weak-spined as he is, prefers at the last his painting to Julia Dallow and a political career. In The Real Thing we recognise one of those unerring strokes that prove James to be the master psychologist among English writers. Any discerning painter realises the value of a model who can take the pose that will give him the pictorial idea, the suggestiveness of the pose, not an attempt at crude naturalism. With this thesis the novelist has built up an amusing, semi-pathetic, and striking fable.

There are painters scattered through English fiction-can we ever forget Thackeray! Ouida has not missed weaving her Tyrian purples into the exalted pattern of her romantic painters. And George Eliot. And Disraeli. And Bernard Shaw-there is a painting creature in Love Among the Artists. George Moore, however, has devoted more of his pages to paint and painters than any other of the latter-day writers. The reason is this: George Moore went to Paris to study art and he drifted into the Julian atelier like any other likely young fellow with hazy notions about art and a well-filled purse. But these early experiences were not lost. They cropped up in many of his stories and studies. He became the critical pioneer of the impressionistic movement and first told London about Manet, Monet, Degas. He even-in an article remarkable for critical acumen-declared that if Jimmy Whistler had been a heavier man, a man of beef, brawn, and beer, like Rubens, he would have been as great a painter as Velasquez. To the weighing scales, fellow-artists! retorted Whistler; yet the bolt did not miss the mark. Whistler's remarks about Mr. Moore, especially after the Eden lawsuit, were, so it is reported, not fit to print.

In Mr. Moore's first volume of the half-forgotten trilogy, Spring Days, we see a young painter who, it may be said, thinks more of petticoats than paint. There is paint talk in Mike Fletcher, Moore's most virile book. In A Modern Lover the hero is an artist who succeeds in the fashionable world by painting pretty, artificial portraits and faded classical allegories, thereby winning the love of women, much wealth, popular applause, and the stamp of official approbation. This Lewis Seymour still lives and paints modish London in rose-colour. Moore's irony would have entered the soul of a hundred "celebrated" artists if they had had any soul to flesh it in. When he wrote this novel, one that shocked Mrs. Grundy, Moore was under the influence of Paris. However, that masterpiece of description and analysis, Mildred Lawson in Celibates-very Balzacian title, by the way-deals with hardly anything else but art. Mildred, who is an English girl without soul, heart, or talent, studies in the Julian atelier and goes to Fontainebleau during the summer. No one, naturally, will ever describe Fontainebleau better than Flaubert, in whose L'Education Sentimentale there are marvellous pictures; also a semi-burlesque painter, Pellerin, who reads all the works on ?sthetics before he draws a line, and not forgetting that imperishable portrait of Jacques Arnoux, art dealer. Goncourt, too, has excelled in his impression of the forest and its painters, Millet in particular. Nevertheless, let us say in passing that you cannot find Mildred Lawson in Flaubert or Goncourt; no, not even in Balzac, whose work is the matrix of modern fiction. She is her own perverse, cruel Mooresque self, and she lives in New York as well as London.

In both Daudet and Maupassant-Strong as Death is the latter's contribution to painter-psychology-there are stories clustered about the guild. Daudet has described a Salon on varnishing day with his accustomed facile, febrile skill; you feel that it comes from Goncourt and Zola. It is not within our scope to go back as far as Balzac, whose Frenhofer in The Unknown Masterpiece has been a model for the younger man. Poe, Hawthorne, Wilde, and Robert Louis Stevenson have dealt with the theme pictorial. Zola's The Masterpiece (L'Oeuvre) is one of the better written books of Zola. It was a favourite of his. The much-read and belauded fifth chapter is a faithful transcription of the first Salon of the Rejected Painters (Salon des Refusés) at Paris, 1863. Napoleon III, after pressure had been brought to bear upon him, consented to a special salon within the official Salon, at the Palais de l'Industrie, which would harbour the work of the young lunatics who wished to paint purple turkeys, green water, red grass, and black sunsets. (Lie down, ivory hallucinations, and don't wag your carmilion tail on the chrome-yellow carpet!) It is an enormously clever book, this, deriving in the main as it does from Manette Salomon and Balzac's Frenhofer. The fight for artistic veracity by Claude Lantier is a replica of what occurred in Manet's lifetime. The Breakfast on the Grass, described by Zola, was actually the title and the subject of a Manet picture that scandalised Paris about this epoch. The fantastic idea of a nude female stretched on the grass, while the other figures were clothed and in their right minds, was too much for public and critic, and unquestionably Manet did paint the affair to create notoriety. Like Richard Wagner, he knew the value of advertising.

All the then novel theories of plein air impressionism are discussed in the Zola novel, yet the work seems clumsy after Goncourt's Manette Salomon, that breviary for painters which so far back as 1867 anticipated-in print, of course-the discoveries, the experiments, the practice of the naturalistic-impressionistic groups from Courbet to Cézanne, Monet to Maufra, Manet to Paul Gauguin. There are verbal pictures of student life, of salons, of atelier and open air. No such psychologic manual of the painter's art has ever appeared before or since Manette Salomon. It was the Goncourts who introduced Japanese art to European literature-they were friends of the late M. Bing, a pioneer collector in Paris. And they foresaw the future of painting as well as of fiction.

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