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MONET, SISLEY, PISSARO, AND THE DECADENCE
by George (Augustus) Moore


Nature demands that children should devour their parents, and Corot
was hardly cold in his grave when his teaching came to be neglected
and even denied. Values were abandoned and colour became the unique
thought of the new school.

My first acquaintance with Monet's painting was made in '75 or
'76--the year he exhibited his first steam-engine and his celebrated
troop of life-size turkeys gobbling the tall grass in a meadow, at the
end of which stood, high up in the picture, a French château.
Impressionism is a word that has lent itself to every kind of
misinterpretation, for in its exact sense all true painting is
penetrated with impressionism, but, to use the word in its most modern
sense--that is to say, to signify the rapid noting of illusive
appearance--Monet is the only painter to whom it may be reasonably
applied. I remember very well that sunlit meadow and the long coloured
necks of the turkeys. Truly it may be said that, for the space of one
rapid glance, the canvas radiates; it throws its light in the face of
the spectator as, perhaps, no canvas did before. But if the eyes are
not immediately averted the illusion passes, and its place is taken by
a somewhat incoherent and crude coloration. Then the merits of the
picture strike you as having been obtained by excessive accomplishment
in one-third of the handicraft and something like a formal
protestation of the non-existence of the other two-thirds. Since that
year I have seen Monets by the score, and have hardly observed any
change or alteration in his manner of seeing or executing, or any
development soever in his art. At the end of the season he comes up
from the country with thirty or forty landscapes, all equally perfect,
all painted in precisely the same way, and no one shows the slightest
sign of hesitation, and no one suggests the unattainable, the beyond;
one and all reveal to us a man who is always sure of his effect, and
who is always in a hurry. Any corner of nature will do equally well
for his purpose, nor is he disposed to change the disposition of any
line of tree or river or hill; so long as a certain reverberation of
colour is obtained all is well. An unceasing production, and an almost
unvarying degree of excellence, has placed Monet at the head of the
school; his pictures command high prices, and nothing goes now with
the erudite American but Monet's landscapes. But does Monet merit this
excessive patronage, and if so, what are the qualities in his work
that make it superior to Sisley's and Pissaro's?

Sisley is less decorative, less on the surface, and though he follows
Monet in his pursuit of colour, nature is, perhaps, on account of his
English origin, something more to him than a brilliant appearance. It
has of course happened to Monet to set his easel before the suburban
aspect that Sisley loves, but he has always treated it rather in the
decorative than in the meditative spirit. He has never been touched by
the humility of a lane's end, and the sentiment of the humble life
that collects there has never appeared on his canvas. Yet Sisley,
being more in sympathy with such nature, has often been able to
produce a superior though much less pretentious picture than the
ordinary stereotyped Monet. But if Sisley is more meditative than
Monet, Pissaro is more meditative than either.

Monet had arrived at his style before I saw anything of his work; of
his earlier canvases I know nothing. Possibly he once painted in the
Corot manner; it is hardly possible that he should not have done so.
However this may be, Pissaro did not rid himself for many years of the
influence of Corot. His earliest pictures were all composed in pensive
greys and violets, and exhaled the weary sadnessof tilth and grange
and scant orchard trees. The pale road winds through meagre uplands,
and through the blown and gnarled and shiftless fruit-trees the
saddening silhouette of the town drifts across the land. The violet
spaces between the houses are the very saddest, and the spare furrows
are patiently drawn, and so the execution is in harmony with and
accentuates the unutterable monotony of the peasant's lot. The sky,
too, is vague and empty, and out of its deathlike, creamy hollow the
first shadows are blown into the pallid face of a void evening. The
picture tells of the melancholy of ordinary life, of our poor
transitory tenements, our miserable scrapings among the little mildew
that has gathered on the surface of an insignificant planet. I will
not attempt to explain why the grey-toned and meditative Pissaro
should have consented to countenance--I cannot say to lead (for,
unlike every other _chef d'école_, Pissaro imitated the disciples
instead of the disciples imitating Pissaro)--the many fantastic
revolutions in pictorial art which have agitated Montmartre during the
last dozen years. The Pissaro psychology I must leave to take care of
itself, confining myself strictly to the narrative of these
revolutions.

Authority for the broken brushwork of Monet is to be found in Manet's
last pictures, and I remember Manet's reply when I questioned him
about the pure violet shadows which, just before his death, he was
beginning to introduce into his pictures. "One year one paints violet
and people scream, and the following year every one paints a great
deal more violet." If Manet's answer throws no light whatever on the
new principle, it shows very clearly the direction, if not the goal,
towards which his last style was moving. But perhaps I am speaking too
cautiously, for surely broken brushwork and violet shadows lead only
to one possible goal--the prismatic colours.

Manet died, and this side--and this side only--of his art was taken up
by Monet, Sisley, and Renoir. Or was it that Manet had begun to yield
to an influence--that of Monet, Sisley, and Renoir--which was just
beginning to make itself felt? Be this as it may, browns and blacks
disappeared from the palettes of those who did not wish to be
considered _l'école des beaux-arts, et en plein_. Venetian reds,
siennas, and ochres were in process of abandonment, and the palette
came to be composed very much in the following fashion: violet, white,
blue, white, green, white, red, white, yellow, white, orange,
white--the three primary and the three secondary colours, with white
placed between each, so as to keep everything as distinct as possible,
and avoid in the mixing all soiling of the tones. Monet, Sisley, and
Renoir contented themselves with the abolition of all blacks and
browns, for they were but half-hearted reformers, and it was clearly
the duty of those who came after to rid the palette of all ochres,
siennas, Venetian, Indian, and light reds. The only red and yellow
that any one who was not, according to the expression of the new
generation, _presque du Louvre_, could think of permitting on his
palette were vermilion and cadmium. The first of this new generation
was Seurat, Seurat begot Signac, Signac begot Anquetin, and Anquetin
has begotten quite a galaxy of lesser lights, of whom I shall not
speak in this article--of whom it is not probable that I shall ever
speak.

It was in an exhibition held in Rue Lafitte in '81 or '82 that the new
method, which comprised two most radical reforms--an execution
achieved entirely with the point of the brush and the division of the
tones--was proclaimed. Or should I say reformation, for the execution
by a series of dots is implicit in the theory of the division of the
tones? How well I remember being attracted towards an end of the room,
which was filled with a series of most singular pictures. There must
have been at least ten pictures of yachts in full sail. They were all
drawn in profile, they were all painted in the very clearest tints,
white skies and white sails hardly relieved or explained with shadow,
and executed in a series of minute touches, like mosaic. Ten pictures
of yachts all in profile, all in full sail, all unrelieved by any
attempt at atmospheric effect, all painted in a series of little dots!

Great as was my wonderment, it was tenfold increased on discovering
that only five of these pictures were painted by the new man, Seurat,
whose name was unknown to me; the other five were painted by my old
friend Pissaro. My first thought went for the printer; my second for
some _fumisterie_ on the part of the hanging committee, the intention
of which escaped me. The pictures were hung low, so I went down on my
knees and examined the dotting in the pictures signed Seurat, and the
dotting in those that were signed Pissaro. After a strict examination
I was able to detect some differences, and I began to recognise the
well-known touch even through this most wild and most wonderful
transformation. Yes, owing to a long and intimate acquaintance
with Pissaro and his work, I could distinguish between him and Seurat,
but to the ordinary visitor their pictures were identical.

Many claims are put forward, but the best founded is that of Seurat;
and, so far as my testimony may serve his greater honour and glory, I
do solemnly declare that I believe him to have been the original
discoverer of the division of the tones.

A tone is a combination of colours. In Nature colours are separate;
they act and react one on the other, and so create in the eye the
illusion of a mixture of various colours-in other words, of a tone.
But if the human eye can perform this prodigy when looking on colour
as evolved through the spectacle of the world, why should not the eye
be able to perform the same prodigy when looking on colour as
displayed over the surface of a canvas? Nature does not mix her
colours to produce a tone; and the reason of the marked discrepancy
existing between Nature and the Louvre is owing to the fact that
painters have hitherto deemed it a necessity to prepare a tone on the
palette before placing it on the canvas; whereas it is quite clear
that the only logical and reasonable method is to first complete the
analysis of the tone, and then to place the colours which compose the
tone in dots over the canvas, varying the size of the dots and the
distance between the dots according to the depth of colour desired by
the painter.

If this be done truly--that is to say, if the first analysis of the
tones be a correct analysis--and if the spectator places himself at
the right distance from the picture, there will happen in his eyes
exactly the same blending of colour as happens in them when they are
looking upon Nature. An example will, I think, make my meaning clear.
We are in a club smoking-room. The walls are a rich ochre. Three or
four men sit between us and the wall, and the blue smoke of their
cigars fills the middle air. In painting this scene it would be usual
to prepare the tone on the palette, and the preparation would be
somewhat after this fashion: ochre warmed with a little red--a pale
violet tinted with lake for the smoke of the cigars.

But such a method of painting would seem to Seurat and Signac to be
artless, primitive, unscientific, childish, _presque du Louvre_--above
all, unscientific. They would say, "Decompose the tone. That tone is
composed of yellow, white, and violet turning towards lake"; and,
having satisfied themselves in what proportions, they would dot their
canvases over with pure yellow and pure white, the interspaces being
filled in with touches of lake and violet, numerous where the smoke is
thickest, diminishing in number where the wreaths vanish into air. Or
let us suppose that it is a blue slated roof that the dottist wishes
to paint. He first looks behind him, to see what is the colour of the
sky. It is an orange sky. He therefore represents the slates by means
of blue dots intermixed with orange and white dots, and--ah! I am
forgetting an important principle in the new method--the complementary
colour which the eye imagines, but does not see. What is the
complementary colour of blue, grey, and orange? Green. Therefore green
must be introduced into the roof; otherwise the harmony would be
incomplete, and therefore in a measure discordant.

Needless to say that a sky painted in this way does not bear looking
into. Close to the spectator it presents the appearance of a pard; but
when he reaches the proper distance there is no denying that the
colours do in a measure unite and assume a tone more or less
equivalent to the tone that would have been obtained by blending the
colours on the palette. "But," cry Seurat and Signac, "an infinitely
purer and more beautiful tone than could have been obtained by any
artificial blending of the colours on the palette--a tone that is the
exact equivalent of one of Nature's tones, for it has been obtained in
exactly the same way."

Truly a subject difficult to write about in English. Perhaps it is one
that should not be attempted anywhere except in a studio with closed
doors. But if I did not make some attempt to explain this matter, I
should leave my tale of the decline and fall of French art in the
nineteenth century incomplete.

Roughly speaking, these new schools--the symbolists, the decadents,
the dividers of tones, the professors of the rhythm of gesture--date
back about ten years. For ten years the division of the tones has been
the subject of discussion in the aesthetic circles of Montmartre. And
when we penetrate further into the matter--or, to be more exact, as we
ascend into the higher regions of _La Butte_--we find the elect, who
form so stout a phalanx against the Philistinism of the Louvre,
themselves subdivided into numerous sections, and distraught with
internecine feuds concerning the principle of the art which they
pursue with all the vehemence that Veronese green and cadmium yellow
are capable of. From ten at night till two in the morning the
_brasseries_ of the Butte are in session. Ah! the interminable bocks
and the reek of the cigars, until at last a hesitating exodus begins.
An exhausted proprietor at the head of his waiters, crazed with
sleepiness, eventually succeeds in driving these noctambulist apostles
into the streets.

Then the nervous lingering at the corner! The disputants, anxious and
yet loth to part, say goodbye, each regretting that he had not urged
some fresh argument--an argument which had just occurred to him, and
which, he feels sure, would have reduced his opponent to impotent
silence. Sometimes the partings are stormy. The question of the
introduction of the complementary colours into the frames of the
pictures is always a matter of strife, and results in much
nonconformity. Several are strongly in favour of carrying the
complementary colours into the picture-frames. "If you admit," says
one, "that to paint a blue roof with an orange sky shining on it you
must introduce the complementary colour green--which the spectator
does not see, but imagines--there is excellent reason why you should
dot the frame all over with green, for the picture and its frame are
not two things, but one thing." "But," cries his opponent, "there is a
finality in all things; if you carry your principle out to the bitter
end, the walls as well as the frame should be dotted with the
complementary colours, the staircases too, the streets likewise; and
if we pursue the complementaries into the street, who shall say where
we are to stop? Why stop at all, unless the neighbours protest that we
are interfering with their complementaries?"

The schools headed by Signac and Anquetin comprise numerous disciples
and adherents. They do not exhibit in the Salon or in the Champ de
Mars; but that is because they disdain to do so. They hold exhibitions
of their own, and their picture-dealers trade only in their works and
in those belonging to or legitimately connected with the new schools.

If I have succeeded in explaining the principle of coloration employed
by these painters, I must have excited some curiosity in the reader to
see these scientifically-painted pictures. To say that they are
strange, absurd, ridiculous, conveys no sensation of their
extravagances; and I think that even an elaborate description would
miss its mark. For, in truth, the pictures merit no such attention. It
is only needful to tell the reader that they fail most conspicuously
at the very point where it was their mission to succeed. Instead of
excelling in brilliancy of colour the pictures painted in the ordinary
way, they present the most complete spectacle of discoloration
possible to imagine.

Yet Signac is a man of talent, and in an exhibition of pictures which
I visited last May I saw a wide bay, two rocky headlands extending far
into the sea, and this offing was filled with a multitude of gull-like
sails. There was in it a vibration of light, such an effect as a
mosaic composed of dim-coloured but highly polished stones might
produce. I can say no good word, however, for his portrait of a
gentleman holding his hat in one hand and a flower in the other. This
picture formulated a still newer aestheticism--the rhythm of gesture.
For, according to Signac, the raising of the face and hands expresses
joy, the depression of the face and hands denotes sadness. Therefore,
to denote the melancholy temperament of his sitter, Signac represented
him as being hardly able to lift his hat to his head or the flower to
his button-hole. The figure was painted, as usual, in dots of pure
colour lifted from the palette with the point of the brush; the
complementary colours in duplicate bands curled up the background.
This was considered by the disciples to be an important innovation;
and the effect, it is needless to say, was gaudy, if not neat.

A theory of Anquetin's is that wherever the painter is painting, his
retina must still hold some sensation of the place he has left;
therefore there is in every scene not only the scene itself, but
remembrance of the scene that preceded it. This is not quite clear, is
it? No. But I think I can make it clear. He who walks out of a
brilliantly lighted saloon--that is to say, he who walks out of
yellow--sees the other two primary colours, red and blue; in other
words, he sees violet. Therefore Anquetin paints the street, and
everything in it, violet--boots, trousers, hats, coats, lamp-posts,
paving-stones, and the tail of the cat disappearing under the _porte
cochère_.

But if in my description of these schools I have conveyed the idea of
stupidity or ignorance I have failed egregiously. These young men are
all highly intelligent and keenly alive to art, and their doings are
not more vain than the hundred and one artistic notions which have
been undermining the art-sense of the French and English nations for
the last twenty years. What I have described is not more foolish than
the stippling at South Kensington or the drawing by the masses at
Julien's. The theory of the division of the tones is no more foolish
than the theory of _plein air_ or the theory of the square brushwork;
it is as foolish, but not a jot more foolish.

Great art dreams, imagines, sees, feels, expresses--reasons never. It
is only in times of woful decadence, like the present, that the
bleating of the schools begins to be heard; and although, to the
ignorant, one method may seem less ridiculous than another, all
methods--I mean, all methods that are not part and parcel of the
pictorial intuition--are equally puerile and ridiculous. The
separation of the method of expression from the idea to be expressed
is the sure sign of decadence. France is now all decadence. In the
Champ de Mars, as in the Salon, the man of the hour is he who has
invented the last trick in subject or treatment.

France has produced great artists in quick succession. Think of all
the great names, beginning with Ingres and ending with Degas, and
wonder if you can that France has at last entered on a period of
artistic decadence. For the last sixty years the work done in literary
and pictorial art has been immense; the soil has been worked along and
across, in every direction; and for many a year nothing will come to
us from France but the bleat of the scholiast.

 

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