MODERN PAINTING – Its Tendency and Meaning (With Images) - S.S. Van Dine - ebook

MODERN PAINTING – Its Tendency and Meaning (With Images) ebook

S. S. Van Dine



This carefully crafted ebook: "MODERN PAINTING – Its Tendency and Meaning (With Images)" is formatted for your eReader with a functional and detailed table of contents. Modern Painting: Its Tendency and Meaning surveys the important art movements of 19th and early 20th century, from Manet and Impressionism to Cubism, with special praise of Cézanne's work. The book is a detailed study of the development of art, with some incredible historical facts. It also predicted a coming era in which an art of color abstraction would replace realism. S. S. Van Dine is the pseudonym used by American art critic Willard Huntington Wright when he wrote detective novels. He was an important figure in avant-garde cultural circles in pre-WWI New York, and under the pseudonym he created the immensely popular fictional detective Philo Vance. Wright was, however, most respected in intellectual circles for his writing about art, best known of which is the book Modern Painting: Its Tendency and Meaning.

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S.S. Van Dine

MODERN PAINTING – Its Tendency and Meaning

(With Images)

Study of the Art Movements from Impressionism to Cubism
e-artnow, 2016 Contact: [email protected]
ISBN 978-80-268-7157-6

Table of Contents




That beneath all great art there has been a definite animating purpose, a single and profound desire to reach a specific goal, has been but vaguely sensed by the general public and by the great majority of critics. And there are, I believe, but very few persons not directly and seriously concerned with the production of pictures, who realise that this animating purpose has for its aim the solution of the profoundest problems of the creative will, that it is rooted deeply in the æsthetic consciousness, and that its evolution marks one of the most complex phases of human psychology. The habit of approaching a work of art from the naïf standpoint of one’s personal temperament or taste and of judging it haphazardly by its individual appeal, irrespective of its inherent æsthetic merit, is so strongly implanted in the average spectator, that any attempt to define the principles of form and organisation underlying the eternal values of art is looked upon as an act of gratuitous pedantry. But such principles exist, and if we are to judge works of art accurately and consistently these principles must be mastered. Otherwise we are without a standard, and all our opinions are but the outgrowth of the chaos of our moods.

Any attempt to democratise art results only in the lowering of the artistic standard. Art cannot be taught; and a true appreciation of it cannot grow up without a complete understanding of the æsthetic laws governing it. Those qualities in painting by which it is ordinarily judged are for the most part irrelevancies from the standpoint of pure æsthetics. They have as little to do with a picture’s infixed greatness as the punctuation in Faust or the words of the Hymn to Joy in the Ninth Symphony. Small wonder that modern art has become a copious fountain-head of abuse and laughter; for modern art tends toward the elimination of all those accretions so beloved by the general—literature, drama, sentiment, symbolism, anecdote, prettiness and photographic realism.

This book inquires first into the function and psychology of all great art, and endeavours to define those elements which make for genuine worth in painting. Next it attempts to explain both the basic and superficial differences between “ancient” and “modern” art and to point out, as minutely as space will permit, the superiority of the new methods over the old. By this exposition an effort is made to indicate the raison d’être of the modern procedure. After that, modern painters are taken up in the order of their importance to the evolution of painting during the last hundred years. I have tried to answer the following questions: What men and movements mark the milestones in the development of the new idea? What have been the motivating forces of each of these schools? To what extent are their innovations significant: what ones touch organically on the vital problems of æsthetics; and what was their influence on the men who came later? Out of what did the individual men spring; what forces and circumstances came together to make their existence possible? What were their aims, and what were their actual achievements? What relation did they bear to one another, and in what way did they advance on one another? Where has modern art led, and what inspirational possibilities lie before it?

Before setting out to solve these problems, all of which have their roots in the very organisms of the science of æsthetics, I have posed a definite rationale of valuation. My principles are based on the quickening ideals of all great art, and, if properly understood, I believe, they will answer every question which arises in the intelligent spectator when he stands before a piece of visual art, be it a Byzantine mosaic, a complicated organisation by Rubens, a linear arrangement by Picasso or an utterly worthless anecdote in paint by an English academician. Necessarily preoccupied with the application of my critical standard, I have had but little time and space to devote to its elucidation. Yet I have striven in this indirect process of statement to make my fundamental postulate sufficiently clear to enable the reader to recognise its truth and unity. Two years ago when I crowded my hypothesis into 7000 words in the Forum, and early last winter when I stated it in even briefer space in the New Age, I found that, although it took a new and difficult stand, there were many who grasped its essentials. Therefore I feel myself entitled to hope that in its present form it will be comprehensible even to those whose minds are not trained in the complexities of æsthetic research.

In stripping art of its intriguing charm and its soothing vagueness it is not my intention to do away with its power to delight. To the contrary, I believe that only by relieving painting of its dead cargo of literature, archæology and illustration can it be made to function freely. Painting should be as pure an art as music, and the struggles of all great painters have been toward that goal. Its medium—colour—is as elemental as sound, and when properly presented (with the same scientific exactness as the harmonies of the tone-gamut) it is fully as capable of engendering æsthetic emotion as is music. Our delight in music, no matter how primitive, is not dependent on an imitation of natural sounds. Music’s pleasurable significance is primarily intellectual. So can painting, by its power to create emotion and not mere sensation, provoke deep æsthetic feeling of a far greater intensity than the delight derived from transcription and drama. Modern painting strives toward the heightening of emotional ecstasy; and my esthétique is intended to pave the way for an appreciation of art which will make possible the reception of that ecstasy. With this object ever in view I have weighed the painting of the last century, and have judged it solely by its ability or inability to call forth a profound æsthetic emotion. Almost any art can arouse pleasing sentiments. Only great art can give us intellectual rapture.

W. H. W.

Paris, 1915


Table of Contents

Throughout the entire history of the fine arts, no period of æsthetic innovation and endeavour has suffered from public malignity, ridicule and ignorance as has painting during the last century. The reasons for this are many and, to the serious student of art history, obvious. The change between the old and the new order came swiftly and precipitously, like a cataclysm in the serenity of a summer night. The classic painters of the first half of the nineteenth century, such as David, Ingres, Gros and Gérard, were busy with their rehabilitation of ancient traditions, when without warning, save for the pale heresies of Constable, a new and rigorous régime was ushered in. It was Turner, Delacroix, Courbet and Daumier who entered the sacred temple, tore down the pillars which had supported it for centuries, and brought the entire structure of established values crashing down about them. They survived the débâcle, and when eventually they laid aside their brushes for all time it was with the unassailable knowledge that they had accomplished the greatest and most significant metamorphosis in the history of any art.

But even these hardy anarchists of the new order little dreamed of the extremes to which their heresies would lead. So precipitous and complex has been the evolution of modern painting that most of the most revolutionary moderns have failed to keep mental step with its developments and divagations. During the past few years new modes and manners in art have sprung up with fungus-like rapidity. “Movements” and “schools” have followed one another with astounding pertinacity, each claiming that finality of expression which is the aim of all seekers for truth. And, with but few exceptions, the men who have instigated these innovations have been animated by a serious purpose—that of mastering the problem of æsthetic organisation and of circumscribing the one means for obtaining ultimate and indestructible results. But the problems of art, like those of life itself, are in the main unsolvable, and art must ever be an infinite search for the intractable. Form in painting, like the eternal readjustments and equilibria of life, is but an approximation to stability. The forces in all art are the forces of life, coordinated and organised. No plastic form can exist without rhythm: not rhythm in the superficial harmonic sense, but the rhythm which underlies the great fluctuating and equalising forces of material existence. Such rhythm is symmetry in movement. On it all form, both in art and life, is founded.

Form in its artistic sense has four interpretations. First, it exhibits itself as shallow imitation of the surface aspects of nature, as in the work of such men as Sargent, Sorolla and Simon. Secondly, it contains qualities of solidity and competent construction such are as found in the paintings of Velazquez, Hogarth and Degas. Thirdly, it is a consummate portrayal of objects into which arbitrary arrangement has been introduced for the accentuation of volume. Raphael, Poussin and Goya exemplify this expression of it. Last, form reveals itself, not as an objective thing, but as an abstract phenomenon capable of giving the sensation of palpability. All great art falls under this final interpretation. But form, to express itself æsthetically, must be composed; and here we touch the controlling basis of all art:—organisation. Organisation is the use put to form for the production of rhythm. The first step in this process is the construction of line, line being the direction taken by one or more forms. In purely decorative rhythm the lines flow harmoniously from side to side and from top to bottom on a given surface. In the greatest art the lines are bent forward and backward as well as laterally so that, by their orientation in depth, an impression of profundity is added to that of height and breadth. Thus the simple image of decoration is destroyed, and a microcosmos is created in its place. Rhythm then becomes the inevitable adjustment of approaching and receding lines, so that they will reproduce the placements and displacements to be found in the human body when in motion.

To understand, and hence fully to appreciate, a painting, we must be able to recognise its inherent qualities by the process of intellectual reasoning. By this is not implied mechanical or scientific observation. Were this necessary, art would resolve itself into a provable theory and would produce in us only such mental pleasure as we feel before a perfect piece of intricate machinery. But once we comprehend those constitutional qualities which pervade all great works of art, plastic and graphic, the sensuous emotion will follow so rapidly as to give the effect of spontaneity. This process of conscious observation in time becomes automatic and exerts itself on every work of art we inspect. Once adjusted to an assimilation of the rhythmic compositions of El Greco and Rubens, we have become susceptible to the tactile sensation of form in all painting. And this subjective emotion is keener than the superficial sensation aroused by the prettiness of design, the narrative of subject-matter, or the quasi-realities of transcription. More and more as we proximate to a true understanding of the principles of art, shall we react to those deeper and larger qualities in a painting which are not to be found in its documentary and technical side. Also our concern with the transient sentiments engendered by a picture’s external aspects will become less and less significant. Technique, dramatic feeling, subject, and even accuracy of drawing, will be relegated to the subsidiary and comparatively unimportant position they hold in relation to a painting’s æsthetic purpose.

The lack of comprehension—and consequently the ridicule—which has met the efforts of modern painters, is attributable not alone to a misunderstanding of their seemingly for extravagant and eccentric mannerisms, but to an ignorance of the basic postulates of all great art both ancient and modern. Proof of this is afforded by the constant statements of preference for the least effectual of older painters over the greatest of the moderns. These preferences, if they are symptomatic of aught save the mere habit of a mind immersed in tradition, indicate an immaturity of artistic judgment which places prettiness above beauty, and sentimentality and documentary interest above subjectivity of emotion. The fallacies of such judgment can best be indicated by a parallel consideration of painters widely separated as to merit, but in whom these different qualities are found. For instance, the prettiness of Reynolds, Greuze and Murillo is as marked as the prettiness of Titian, Giorgione and Renoir. The latter are by far the greater artists; yet, had we no other critical standard save that of charm, the difference between them and the others would be indistinguishable. Zuloaga, Whistler, Botticelli and Böcklin are as inspirational of sentiment as Tintoretto, Corot, Raphael and Poussin; but by no authentic criterion are they as great painters. Again, were drama and simple narrative æsthetic considerations, Regnault, Brangwyn, and Antonino Molineri would rank with Valerio Castello, Rubens and Ribera.

In one’s failure to distinguish between the apparent and the organic purposes of art lies the greatest obstacle to an appreciation of what has come to be called modern painting. The truths of modern art are no different from those of ancient art. A Cézanne landscape is not dissimilar in aim to an El Greco. The one is merely more advanced as to methods than the other. Nor do the canvases of the most ultra-modern schools strive toward an æsthetic manifestation radically unlike that aspired to in Michelangelo’s Slaves. Serious modern art, despite its often formidable and bizarre appearance, is only a striving to rehabilitate the natural and unalterable principles of rhythmic form to be found in the old masters, and to translate them into relative and more comprehensive terms. We have the same animating ideal in the pictures of Giotto and Matisse, Rembrandt and Renoir, Botticelli and Gauguin, Watteau and Picasso, Poussin and Friesz, Raphael and Severini. The later men differ from their antecedents in that they apply new and more vital methods to their work. Modern art is the logical and natural outgrowth of ancient art; it is the art of yesterday heightened and intensified as the result of systematic and painstaking experimentation in the media of expression.

The search for composition—that is, for perfectly poised form in three dimensions—has been the impelling dictate of all great art. Giotto, El Greco, Masaccio, Tintoretto and Rubens, the greatest of all the old painters, strove continually to attain form as an abstract emotional force. With them the organisation of volumes came first. The picture was composed as to line. Out of this grew the subject-matter—a demonstration a posteriori. The human figure and the recognisable natural object were only auxiliaries, never the sought-for result. In all this they were inherently modern, as that word should be understood; for the new conception of art strives more and more for the emotion rather than the appearance of reality. The objects, whether arbitrary or photographic, which an artist uses in a picture are only the material through which plastic form finds expression. They are the means, not the end. If in the works of truly significant art there is a dramatic, narrative or illustrative interest, it will be found to be the incidental and not the important concomitant of the picture.

Therefore it is not remarkable that, with the introduction of new methods, the illustrative side of painting should tend toward minimisation. The elimination of all the superfluities from art is but a part of the striving toward defecation. Since the true test of painting lies in its subjective power, modern artists have sought to divorce their work from all considerations other than those directly allied to its primary function. This process of separation advanced hand in hand with the evolution of new methods. First it took the form of the distortion of natural objects. The accidental shape of trees, hills, houses and even human figures was altered in order to draw them into the exact form demanded by the picture’s composition. Gradually, by the constant practice of this falsification, objects became almost unrecognisable. In the end the illustrative obstacle was entirely done away with. This was the logical outcome of the sterilising modern process. To judge a picture competently, one must not consider it as a mere depiction of life or as an anecdote: one must bring to it an intelligence capable of grasping a complicated counterpoint. The attitude of even such men as Celesti, Zanchi, Padovanino and Bononi is never that of an illustrator, in no matter how sublimated a sense, but of a composer whose aim is to create a polymorphic conception with the recognisable materials at hand.

Were art to be judged from the pictorial and realistic viewpoint we might find many meticulous craftsmen of as high an objective efficiency as were the men who stood at the apex of genuine artistic worth—that is, craftsmen who arrived at as close and exact a transcription of nature, who interpreted current moods and mental aspects as accurately, and who set forth superficial emotions as dramatically. Velazquez’s Philip IV, Titian’s Emperor Charles V, Holbein’s The Ambassadors, Guardi’s The Grand Canal—Venice, Mantegna’s The Dead Christ and Dürer’s Four Naked Women reproduce their subjects with as much painstaking exactitude as do El Greco’s The Resurrection of Christ, Giotto’s Descent from the Cross, Masaccio’s Saint Peter Baptising the Pagans, Tintoretto’s The Miracle of Saint Mark, Michelangelo’s Creation of the Sun and Moon, and Rubens’s The Earl and Countess of Arundel. But these latter pictures are important for other than pictorial reasons. Primarily they are organisations, and as such they are of æsthetic value. Only secondarily are they to be appraised as representations of natural objects. In the pictures of the former list there is no synthetic co-ordination of tactile forms. Such paintings represent merely “subject-matter” treated capably and effectively. As sheer painting from the artisan’s standpoint they are among the finest examples of technical dexterity in art history. But as contributions to the development of a pure art form they are valueless.

In stating that the moderns have changed the quality and not the nature of art, there is no implication that in many instances the great men of the past, even with limited means, have not surpassed in artistic achievement the men of today who have at hand more extensive means. Great organisers of plastic form have, because of their tremendous power, done with small means more masterly work than lesser men with large means. For instance, Goya as an artist surpasses Manet, and Rembrandt transcends Daumier. This principle holds true in all the arts. Balzac, ignorant of modern literary methods, is greater than George Moore, a master of modern means. And Beethoven still remains the colossal figure in music, despite the vastly increased modern scope of Richard Strauss’s methods. Methods are useless without the creative will. But granting this point (which unconsciously is the stumbling block of nearly all modern art critics), new and fuller means, even in the hands of inferior men, are not the proper subject for ridicule.

It must not be forgotten that the division between old and modern art is not an equal one. Modern art began with Delacroix less than a hundred years ago, while art up to that time had many centuries in which to perfect the possibilities of its resources. The new methods are so young that painters have not had time to acquire that mastery of material without which the highest achievement is impossible. Even in the most praiseworthy modern art we are conscious of that intellectual striving in the handling of new tools which is the appanage of immaturity. Renoir, the greatest exponent of Impressionistic means, found his artistic stride only in his old age, after a long and arduous life of study and experimenting. His canvases since 1905 are the first in which we feel the fluency and power which come only after a slow and sedulous process of osmosis. Compare, for instance, his early and popular Le Moulin de la Galette with his later portraits, such as Madame T. et Son Fils and La Fillette à l’Orange, and his growth is at once apparent.

The evolution of means is answerable to the same laws as the progressus in any other line of human endeavour. The greatest artists are always culminations of long lines of experimentations. In this they are eclectic. The organisation of observation is in itself too absorbing a labour to permit of a free exercise of the will to power. The blinding burst of genius at the time of the Renaissance was the breaking forth of the accrued power of generations. Modern art, having no tradition of means, has sapped and dispersed the vitality of its exponents by imposing upon them the necessity for empirical research. It is for this reason that we have no men in modern art who approximate as closely to perfection as did many of the older painters. But had Rubens, with his colossal vision, had access to modern methods his work would have been more powerful in its intensity and more far-reaching in its scope.

However, in the brief period of modern art two decided epochs have been brought to a close through this accumulation and eruption of experimental activities in individuals. Cézanne brought to a focus the divergent rays of his predecessors and incorporated into his canvases both the aspirations and achievements of the art which had preceded him. This would have been impossible had he been born—even with an equally great talent—fifty years before. And a more recent school of art, by making use of the achievements of both Cézanne and Michelangelo, and by adding to them new discoveries in the dynamics of colour, has opened up a new vista of possibilities in the expressing of form. This step also would have been impossible without Cézanne and the men who came before and after him. Once these new modes, which are indicative of modern art, become understood and pass into the common property of the younger men, we shall have achievement which will be as complete as the masterpieces of old, and which will, in addition, be more poignant.

Although the methods of the older painters were more restricted than those of the moderns, the actual materials at their disposal were fully as extended as ours of today. But knowledge concerning them was incomplete. As a consequence, all artists antecedent to Delacroix found expression only in those qualities which are susceptible of reproduction in black and white. In many cases the sacrifice of colour enhances the intrinsic merit of such reproductions, for often the characteristics of the different colours oppose the purposes of a picture’s planes. Today we know that certain colours are opaque, others transparent; some approach the eye, others recede. But the ancients were ignorant of these things, and their canvases contained many contradictions: there was a continuous warring between linear composition and colour values. They painted solids violet, and transpicuous planes yellow—thereby unconsciously defeating their own ends, for violet is limpid, and yellow tangible. In one-tone reproductions such inconsistencies are eliminated, and the signification of the picture thereby clarified. It was Rubens who embodied the defined attributes of ancient art in their highest degree of pliability, and who carried the impulse toward creation to a point of complexity unattained by any other of the older men. In him we see the culmination of the evolution of linear development of light and dark. From his time to the accession of the moderns the ability to organise was on the decrease. There was a weakening of perception, a decline of the æsthetic faculty. The chaotic condition of this period was like the darkness which always broods over the world before some cleansing force sweeps it clean and ushers in a new and greater cycle.

The period of advancement of these old methods extends from prehistoric times to the beginning of the nineteenth century. On the walls of the caverns in Altamira and the Dordogne are drawings of mammoths, horses and bison in which, despite the absence of details, the actual approach to nature is at times more sure and masterly than in the paintings of such highly cultured men as Botticelli and Pisanello. The action in some of them is pronounced; and the vision, while simple, is that of men conscious of a need for compactness and balance. Here the art is simply one of outline, heavy and prominent at times, light and almost indistinguishable at others; but this grading of line was the result of a deeper cause than a tool slipping or refusing to mark. It was the consequence of a need for rhythm which could be obtained only by the accentuation of parts. The drawings were generally single figures, and rarely were more than two conceived as an inseparable design. Later, the early primitives used symmetrical groupings for the same purpose of interior decorating. Then came simple balance, the shifting and disguise of symmetry, and with it a nearer approach to the imprévu of nature. This style was employed for many generations until the great step was taken which brought about the Renaissance. The sequential aspect of line appeared, permitting of rhythm and demanding organisation. Cimabue and Giotto were the most prominent exponents of this advance. From that time forward the emotion derived from actual form was looked upon by artists as a necessary adjunct to a picture. With this attitude came the aristocracy of vision and the abrogation of painting as mere exalted craftsmanship.

After that the evolution of art was rapid. In the contemplation of solidly and justly painted figures the artist began to extend his mind into space and to use rhythm of line that he might express himself in depth as well as surfacely. Thus he preconised organisation in three dimensions, and by so doing opened the door on an infinity of æsthetic ramifications. From the beginning, tone balance—that is, the agreeable distribution of blacks, whites and greys—had gone forward with the development of line, so that at the advent of depth in painting the arrangement of tones became the medium through which all the other qualities were made manifest.

In the strict sense, the art of painting up to a hundred years ago had been only drawing. Colour was used only for ornamental or dramatic purposes. After the first simple copying of nature’s tints in a wholly restricted manner, the use of colour advanced but little. It progressed toward harmony, but its dramatic possibilities were only dimly felt. Consequently its primitive employment for the enhancement of the decorative side of painting was adhered to. This was not because the older painters were without the necessary pigments. Their colours in many instances were brighter and more permanent than ours. But they were satisfied with the effects obtained from black and white expression. They looked upon colour as a delicacy, an accessory, something to be taken as the gourmet takes dessert. Its true significance was thus obscured beneath the artists’ complacency. As great an artist as Giorgione considered it from the conventional viewpoint, and never attempted to deviate toward its profounder meanings. The old masters filled their canvases with shadows and light without suspecting that light itself is simply another name for colour.

The history of modern art is broadly the history of the development of form by the means of colour—that is to say, modern art tends toward the purification of painting. Colour is capable of producing all the effects possible to black and white, and in addition of exciting an emotion more acute. It was only with the advent of Delacroix, the first great modern, that the dramatic qualities of colour were intelligently sensed. But even with him the conception was so slight that the effects he attained were but meagrely effective. After Delacroix further experiments in colour led to the realistic translation of certain phases of nature. The old static system of copying trees in green, shadows in black and skies in blue did not, as was commonly believed, produce realism. While superficially nature appeared in the colours indicated, a close observation later revealed the fact that a green tree in any light comprises a diversity of colours, that all sunlit skies have a residue of yellow, and hence that shadows are violet rather than black. This newly unearthed realism of light became the battle cry of the younger men in the late decades of the nineteenth century, and reached parturition in the movement erroneously called Impressionism, a word philologically opposed to the thing it wished to elucidate. The ancients had painted landscape as it appeared broadly at a first glance. The Impressionists, being interested in nature as a manifestation in which light plays the all-important part, transferred it bodily onto canvas from that point of view.

Cézanne, looking into their habits more coolly, saw their restrictions. While achieving all their atmospheric aims, he went deeper into the mechanics of colour, and with this knowledge achieved form as well as light. This was another step forward in the development of modern methods. With him colour began to near its true and ultimate significance as a functioning element. Later, with the aid of the scientists, Chevreul, Bourgeois, Helmholtz and Rood, other artists made various departures into the field of colour, but their enterprises were failures. Then came Matisse who made improvements on the harmonic side of colour. But because he ignored the profounder lessons of Cézanne he succeeded only in the fabrication of a highly organised decorative art. Not until the advent of the Synchromists, whose first public exhibition took place in Munich in 1913, were any further crucial advances made. These artists completed Cézanne in that they rationalised his dimly foreshadowed precepts.

To understand the basic significance of painting it is necessary to revise our method of judgment. As yet no æsthetician has recorded a rationale for art valuation. Taine put forth many illuminating suggestions regarding the fundamentals of form, but the critics have paid scant heed. Prejudice, personal taste, metaphysics and even the predilections of sentiment, still govern the world’s judgments and appreciations. We are slaves to accuracy of delineation, to prettiness of design, to the whole suite of material considerations which are deputies to the organic and intellectual qualities of a work of art. It is the common thing to find criticisms—ever from the highest sources—which praise or condemn a picture according to the nearness of its approach to the reality of its subject. Such observations are confusing and irrelevant. Were realism the object of art, painting would always be infinitely inferior to life—a mere simulacrum of our daily existence, ever inadequate in its illusion. The moment we attach other than purely æsthetic values to paintings—either ancient or modern—we are confronted by so extensive and differentiated a set of tests that chaos or error is unavoidable. In the end we shall find that our conclusions have their premises, not in the work of art itself, but in personal and extraneous considerations. A picture to be a great work of art need not contain any recognisable objects. Provided it gives the sensation of rhythmically balanced form in three dimensions, it will have accomplished all that the greatest masters of art have ever striven for.

Once we divest ourselves of traditional integuments, modern painting will straightway lose its mystery. Despite the many charlatans who clothe their aberrations with its name, it is a sincere reaching forth of the creative will to find a medium by which the highest emotions may most perfectly be expressed. We have become too complex to enjoy the simple theatre any longer. Our minds call for a more forceful emotion than the simple imitation of life can give. We require problems, inspirations, incentives to thought. The simple melody of many of the old masters can no longer interest us because of its very simplicity. As the complicated and organised forces of life become comprehensible to us, we shall demand more and more that our analytic intelligences be mirrored in our enjoyments.


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The nineteenth century opened with French art in a precarious and decadent condition. To appreciate the prodigious strides made by Géricault and Delacroix, even by Gérard and Gros, one must consider the rabid antagonism of the public toward all ornament and richness in painting and toward all subject-matter which did not inspire thoughts of inflexible simplicity. This attitude was attributable to the social reaction against the excesses of the voluptuous Louis XV. Vien it was who, suppressing the eroticism of Boucher, instigated the so-called classic revival founded on Græco-Roman ideals. The public became so vehement in its praise of this hypocritical and austere art, that Fragonard, that delicious painter of boudoirs, was dismissed as indecent. Even the demure Greuze, who tried to rehabilitate himself by making his art a vehicle for a series of parental sermons, died a pauper. He too lacked the aridity requisite for popular taste. Chardin, the Le Nains and Fouquet were set aside: they were considered too trivial, too insufficiently archæological. Watteau’s canvases were stoned by Regnault, Girodet and the other pupils of David. Lancret, Pater, Debucourt, Olivier, Gravelot, La Tour, Nattier and others met similar fates at the hands of the new classicists.

Such men as these could not find approbation in a public which demanded only allegorical, political and economic art. But David met all its requirements. He represented the antithesis of the sound freedom of the French temperament; and forthwith became the Elija of the new degeneracy. He apotheosised all that is false and decadent in art. But the adulation of him was short-lived. The French imagination is too fecund for only thorns. Ingres superseded him. This new idol, going to the Greeks for inspiration, made David fluent and charming. He studied the Italian primitives and simplified them with Byzantine and Raphaelic addenda. He had a genuine instinct for silhouette entirely lacking in his forerunner, and soon struck the first blow which marked the disintegration of David’s cult.

Gérard and Gros took a further step by loosening slightly Ingres’s drawing; and Géricault and Guérin completed the disruption of the David tradition. Géricault’s Radeau de la Méduse brought its young and highly talented creator immediately into the public gaze, not only because of its implied blasphemy in deviating from the méthode David, but because the tragedy of its subject was still fresh in the national mind. Was this a clever device on the part of the painter to circumvent hostile criticism by clothing his innovations with a sympathetic theme? Perhaps; but the picture’s value to us lies in that it foreshadowed the new idea in art. It forced the gate which made easier Delacroix’s entrance several years later.

In retrospect the reaction against an established order appears simple, but the world’s innovators have required for their task an intellectual courage amounting to rare heroism. Heretics are regarded as dangerous madmen, and generally their only reward is the pleasure of revolt. The credit for greatness falls on those later men who avail themselves of the principles of past reactionary enterprise. So much of the energy of pioneers is spent in combating hostile criticism and indifference, that their fund of creative force is depleted. This was true in the case of Delacroix. Like all the greater painters he was self-taught. The essence of knowledge is untransmittable. True, he occasionally visited the studio of Guérin, but his real education came from the Louvre where he copied Veronese, Titian and Rubens. His insight was keen but not deep, and at first he did little more than absorb the surface aspects of others, though he did this with intelligence. Later, by devious steps both forward and back, he became the bridge from the eighteenth century to Impressionism, just as Cézanne became the stepping stone from Impressionism to art’s latest manifestations.

In 1822 Delacroix exposed his first canvas, Dante et Virgile aux Enfers, one of the finest début pictures ever recorded. Superficially it is his most obvious influence of Rubens whom he deeply respected; and in it are also discoverable the exaggerations and disproportions of Michelangelo. Thiers lauded it, and so great was its popularity that the government bought it for 2,000 francs. Rubens still held him firmly two years later in the Massacre de Scio, although there were in the picture indubitable indications of the advent of Venice. This picture was to be hung in the famous Salon of 1824, where Lawrence, Bonington, Fielding, and Constable (who were to have such a great influence on his later work) exposed. The Massacre de Scio was ready for shipment when, just before the vernissage, Delacroix saw a canvas by Constable done in the divisionistic method. At once he felt the necessity for colour expression, and going home he entirely repainted his picture.

This was the turning-point in his art. He had admired the green in Constable’s landscape, and had spoken of it to the other. Constable explained that the superiority of the green in his prairies was due to the fact that he had composed it with a multitude of different greens. Here Delacroix’s keen perception got to work. In his Journal he wrote: “What Constable says of the green of his prairies can be applied to all the other tones as well.” By this method, primitive as it seems today, he beheld a way of augmenting the dramatic significance of his conceptions. The next year, 1825, he went to London to study the English painters at closer range. There he learned much from Bonington, as he did from Constable, and in one of his letters he wrote: “Grey is the enemy of all painting.... Let us banish from our palette all earth colours.” And later he forecasted the Impressionistic methods by writing: “It is good not to let each brush stroke melt into the others; they will appear uniform at a certain distance by the sympathetic law which associates them. Colour obtained thus has more energy and freshness. The more opposition in colour, the more brilliance.”

Delacroix’s intelligence, reconnoitring along these lines, formulated other principles. Among many observations concerning colour, he wrote: “If to a composition, interesting in its choice of subject, you add a disposition of lines, which augments the impression, a chiaroscuro which seizes the imagination, and a colour which is adapted to the characters, it is then a harmony, and its combinations are so adapted that they produce a unique song.... A conception, having become a composition, must move in the milieu of a colour peculiar to it. There seems to be a particular tone belonging to some part of every picture which is a key that governs all the other tones.... The art of the colourist seems to be related in certain ways to mathematics and music.” That he believed in the exact science of colour is further attested to by the fact that he made a dial on which noon represented red, six o’clock green, one o’clock blue, seven o’clock orange—and so on through the hours with the opposition of complementaries.

Evidences of these experimentations are dimly discerned in a number of his minor canvases done between 1827 and the Revolution. In 1832, after he had painted the admirable La Liberté Guidant le Peuple sur les Barricades, he visited Morocco. Before this event his work had contained many of the elements of sumptuousness and sensuality; but in this eastern land his colour reached maturity. Studying the productions of the native crafts in their relation to colour, he dreamed of making pictures as variegated as rugs and vases. In this he was trespassing on the precincts of Veronese who had made pictorial use of the products of the Orient and of Africa. On his return he painted Les Femmes d’Alger dans Leur Appartement. This picture, one of his best, embodies most of his colour theories. In it we find cold shadows opposed to hot lights, and the contiguous placing of complementaries.


Delacroix looked upon himself as a colourist. But while his theories were in the main sound they did not go far enough. They were important only as a starting point. His colour is hardly noticeable today, and in no wise does it sum up his artistic interest for us. Gauguin once said that we get Delacroix’s full significance in black-and-white reproduction. This comes perilously near being true. Today his pictures appear as devoid of brilliancy as those of the Venetians. Yet, when he first exhibited, he was reproached for his raucous tones. The critics called his Massacre de Scio the “massacre of painting,” and added, “il court sur les toits.” His men and women, the shadows of whose flesh were coloured with blues and greens, were stigmatised “corpses,” and he was accused of having used the morgue for his studio.

All this mattered little. Delacroix’s real significance as an artist lay in his drawing which was his greatest asset. What raised him above the general run of painters, baroque and otherwise, was his slight talent for composition. Often in his Journal he speaks of the “balance of lines.” He knew that with the masters of the Renaissance it was common property, and that modern painting had lost it; and he strove to reintroduce it into art. But he never got beyond the simplest synthesis of the least compounded of Rubens’s figure pieces. For instance, in the Bataille de Taillebourg—an excellent example of his dramatic method—it will be noted that the canvas opens at the bottom-centre to form a triangle of struggling forms, and that in the breach thus made the rearing charger looms white. The identical composition can be found in La Justice, La Liberté, the Janissaires à l’Attaque, La Lutte de Jacob avec l’Ange, the Enlèvement de Rébecca and the Entrée des Croisés à Jérusalem. In this last canvas, his most masterful, the triangle is complicated by a curved line running inward from the centre. This picture recalls, almost to every detail, Rubens’s The Adoration of the Wise Men of the East, in the Antwerp Museum. However, it marks a great progress from the symmetricality of his toile de début, and though in it Rubens is consciously imitated—if not indeed plagiarised, Delacroix gets nearer to the spirit of Veronese than to that of the Flemish master.

Among the paintings wherein the simple, three-sided composition does not appear, the most notable are his animal pictures (in which he substituted the S design) and those canvases in which his momentary admiration for others (as for Veronese in the Retour de Christophe Colomb, and for the Dutch in Cromwell au Château de Windsor) made him forget himself. Even this primitive comprehension of linear balance had passed out of French painting with the death of Poussin, and its reapparition in Delacroix is analogous to the impetus toward rhythm which was given to the stiff Byzantine painting of Venice by Nicolo di Pietro and Giovanni da Bologna in the fourteenth century.

In Rubens we find turbulent movement, as great as in life itself, organised in such a way that all the emotions, exalted, depressive, dramatic, are expressed. But in Delacroix there is merely co-ordinated action. And this action, even in the busiest centres of his canvases, is more suggestive of unrest than of movement. However, the real cause for his failure to express a spirit as modern as Rubens’s lay in his inability to understand the opposition in rhythmic line-balance of three dimensions which is to be found in even the slightest of Rubens’s canvases. His details are always interesting, but he never succeeded in welding them into a sequacious and interrelated whole. His high gift of invention was inadequate equipment for so difficult a feat. Compare Rembrandt’s exquisite bathing girl in the London National Gallery and Delacroix’s La Grèce Expirant sur les Ruines de Missolonghi. In technical treatment these two paintings are not unlike, but the scattered feeling and lack of plastic concentration in the latter emphasises the superior force of the Dutchman.

Delacroix’s work fell between flat decoration and deep painting. Although in his small drawings and details he exhibits a genuine feeling for volume, as his Lion Déchirant un Cadavre shows, his constant refinements of reasoning nearly always resulted in his form being flattened out until it sometimes became commonplace. Simple balance of line defined the limits of his ability for organisation. If he had carried out in other pictures the compositional elements of his Piéta, which had distinct movement, his work would have taken a higher place in the history of art. In many canvases his seeming fullness of form is only a richness of line—a richness, however, which had seldom been found in painting since Masaccio. This voluptuousness in Delacroix (analogous to Wagner’s music) results from the balance of large dark and light masses—the fullness of chiaroscuro. It is particularly appreciable in La Justice de Trajan, La Captivité de Babylone, Repos (reminiscent of Goya’s La Maja Desnuda) and his animal compositions.

Delacroix’s greatest deficiency lay in his inability to recognise the difference between the inventive intelligence and the imaginative instinct. Had he understood this he could have seen that his limitless ambition was incommensurate with his comparatively small capabilities. But his mind was not sufficiently open. In fact his viewpoint at times was a petty one. Even his patriotism was chauvinistic. He was rabidly anti-Teutonic and attempted to compress all the great masters of art into the French mould. He inveighed against style in painting because France had always been barren of it. He pretended to detest Wagner, his musical prototype, and ignoring the latter’s dramatic undulations, criticised him severely for his methods. Beethoven was too long for Delacroix, and Il Trovatore too complicated. However, he had a profound admiration for Titian and Mozart; and in these preferences we have the man’s psychology. Both were great classicists, but both lacked that genuine and magistral fullness which was the propre of Beethoven and Michelangelo.

Delacroix’s thoughts were on deep things rather than deep in themselves. Among the romanticists he was at home: all his life Byron and Walter Scott provided him with themes. And though he had sufficient foresight to see the hopeless trend of the painting of his day, and combated it, he did not advance. His muse was the corpse of Venetian art. He was the brake which put an end to the reactionary tendencies of art. His discoveries did not reach fruition until Impressionism, twenty years after his death.

In all his struggles destiny seemed to conspire to bring about his fame. In 1824, the very year he brought colour into his painting, Géricault, who gave promise of outstripping him, died. Constable and Turner came forward with their achievements. David’s influence had died out, and the painter himself was an exile in Brussels. Fromentin tells us that Géricault helped paint Delacroix’s first canvas. Certain it is that several of the great Englishmen painted some of his second. This, no doubt, taught Delacroix much. In 1827 the government ordered Justinien Composant les Institutes. All France rallied round his standard. He was decorated by Louis Philippe; and at the age of thirty he was proclaimed a great master by one of the leading critics of the day.

From the first he had had the backing of men respected as authorities. But though they helped make his position tenable, they obfuscated his true significance by their purely literary appreciations. Gautier, Dumas, Baudelaire, Stendhal and Merimée—there was none whose temperament was not either romantic or idealistic. They could not see that, though he strove with them for modernity of expression, his language was unmodern. However, Ernest Chesneau, Théophile Silvestre, Eugène Véron and C. P. Landon have all given us side-lights on his methods, and, in this, their expositions are of value.

But, though the men of letters did not understand him thoroughly, several of his fellow painters recognised his eclecticism. Among them was Thomas Couture who, in his highly instructive booklet, Méthodes et Entretiens d’Atelier, had the audacity to point out the painter’s selective habits. In the main his charge was just. Delacroix’s first canvas contains influences of both Rubens and Michelangelo. His second picture echoes Rubens, the Venetians and Goya. Later came more prominent evidences of Titian and Veronese. Delacroix was museum-bred. He absorbed impressions avidly, and did his best work only after he had undergone an intellectual experience. Had his art been truly expressive of all that was within him, he would have been in turn—diluted, to be sure—a Giotto, a Caravaggio, a Rubens, a Rembrandt. He felt the call of these men, but instead of halting at appreciation, he tried to use them. But the old masters, like the lords of the earth, are not amenable to high-handed demands.

The diversity of his pursuits, which sprang from a desire to compete with Leonardo da Vinci, smacks of the dilettante. His great mistake was that he did not separate his capabilities from his desires. Had he done so he would have produced small figure pieces of gem-like richness and voluminous composition. Enthusiasm is not the proper equipment for extended labour. It burns out too soon, and is kept alive only by quick and brilliant results. For this reason his pictures are viewed to better effect framed and in galleries than as mural decorations. In trying to paint monumental subjects on extensive canvases he lost that spirit of organisation which would have been his on more limited surfaces. One of his finest expositions of colour, La Lutte de Jacob avec l’Ange, in a chapel at Saint Sulpice, is ineffective because its surface is too large for his treatment of the theme. Delacroix in reality was a painter of still-life in the broad meaning of the term, just as Rembrandt and Cézanne were still-life painters. He failed in the accomplishment of his larger programme because his vision was too restricted to permit him to weld his details into great ensembles, as Rubens did. His ambition outstripped his power, and strive as he might, he could not make up the discrepancy by reasoning. Undoubtedly he sensed his own weakness, for all his days he was in continual pursuit of system. System was to him what law was to the old masters. Herein he was reflecting the rationalistic philosophers of his day who substituted theory for observation.

Were all Delacroix’s paintings destroyed and his Journal and drawings saved, his apport to art would be but imperceptibly decreased. We should still possess his linear compositions and his colour theories—his two significant gifts to modern art. Without the liberation of draughtsmanship expressed in the former, Courbet’s struggle would have been more difficult, and rhythm in drawing would have had to wait for another resuscitator. Without his colour theories Impressionism would have been postponed for half a century; Van Gogh could not have done his best pictures; and the Pointillists, with their system of complementaries, might never have existed. Delacroix was the first to speak of simultaneity in painting, on which phrase has recently been founded a school; and he sketched a dictionary of art terms and definitions which even now, after fifty years, is far more intelligent than present-day academic precepts.

Let us regard Delacroix as a great pioneer who fought against the zymotic formalism of his day and by so doing opened up a new era of expression. He is the link in the chain which holds the brilliant gems of painting. If he himself fell short of genius, he nevertheless fulfilled a destiny which intrinsically is in many ways more fine: he made genius possible for those who were to come after him.