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    Painters and Critics of the Eighteenth Century: Diderot Essay

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    The whole doctrine of «rotation waa cunlainod in a phriJM ciiinod slaty yuars before Dir win. organs create wants and want create organs. Yet etenie wля the pseu-d-science of nature at that moment that the on stony ground and did not even gwrminate. Equally aUrila wm the soil in whkh the rcots of relglon and morality thrive. The eighteenth century was religiously and morally indifferent: neither literature nor coo И keep the high level of achiure- meat attained In tho ago Just pisiai Patriotism in the sense of passica for natic and country was negative and out of fashion There was an arid ooemctmlitaniim and a diMiocated, ratinnalixtir philanthropy. It Massed aa if the superb gains of the seventeenth century were to bo dissipated, as if the fertilizing flcod of thought and action were to bo diverted into a thwaand rills irrigating a thiraty desert to produce crops of mare aenauoas ptaaaantnaat.

    Yet there was one pbsnumanua which history finds it very difficult to explain. the spread of art renaissance throughout Prance and England; the pasaing of the sceptre from Italy to the Weet and the inauguration of the proceess which in great measure made the ainetessbth century look for light and leading to Ports, end in о leu degree to the English and Scotch master* of painting. After the campaign» of Char VIII and Lcui XII Prance swarmed with Italian artist and xwam in Italian Influence. Something of it own wan re tained in architecture, but it was not until Henry II that French feeling asserted itaelf. Wrecked by the frightful civil ware and a period of spiritual recuperation after the p«npais campaign of Louie XIV—the French temper averted itaslf in La NMre, Poussin, Claude, Migtard and Puget; but art. like all nUk wa cantered in the absolute monarch and found no sympathy or patronage in the burgher public. Rcccco architecture demanded roxeo thought, or rather was the expression of it. as like- wise! warn tho painting and sculpture of Louie XV’s reign.

    A sort of wilfuln, of clever meandering and surprises of line, of tesbdsrossa and prottimcss in color is everywhere. When we think of Watteau. Fragonard and the rather degenerate Boucher, of the gay oeulpture from the hand of Pajou and Clodion, we have a aort of boudoir. Uwgown, berib boned sensation, a suspicion of xauous femininity rather than a certitude of virile gcnlusw of the manly quality which first appears in Houdon. But the pointing of Greuxe, St. Aubin and their kind marks the transition Into the homely and natural. Thia movement, obscured for a time by the ahadswy yot exquisite classicism of the Empire, kd to naaeipatica of Frcch genius. Until the century was far c its way the situa- tion in England waa much the a regards foreign activity anil influanca As in painting Holblen was the mastor-mind of th« tixWonth century, and Van Dyck of the seventeenth. so Lob’ and Kneller were the greet figures of the early eighteenth.

    Foreign feeling characterized archi tecture as wnil as painting. Sculpture there was little or none. It waa almoat a lightning-burst when Hogarth flashed on the scene with his course, satirical and scathing picture of British morality in high life and taw. Reynold», Ginbrough, Racturn, Romnt7. Hoppoer and Lawrence rovoatad the true Britain to itself In a typo of work csocn tially British and the liberation from the fetters of Continental thought or manner wn» complete. Later the two grtal carrier» of vwUrn civilisation began to interchange relations once again, and the reactions of French and British art upon each other have been and remain a subject of the keen est interval. In any accurate atпае of the word there was w Renaissance in England. There waa do new birth because she had never tocn romanizod There as в conception. 0 pregnancy and a delivery under the auspices and care of Germane and Dutch; but the child was  very distantly, if at all, to the parentage of Frcech art in any of Ita departments.

    To gather ond state facts in chrceotogxal order Is Important, but it is tkK history. Annals have vitae ae sourer*, but for the moat port they are mroaingtas» exctqd to the ochoUr. In the case of bah France and England no adequate explanation of sequences or source* has yet been given. If there be cne, it muat be ecught in the soul of the re spective рмэрЬм, not in their government. nor in the patronage of the educated social magnates of whom there was an abundant suppiy, but in в state of society, all embracing; in a learning which wm do* highly specialized or exclusive; in a political eystasn, without constitutions, nationality or democ racy—society. learning and politics each ond all saturated with the spmt of the middle clans, upger and lower. It may not be forbidden therefore to offer a few observation» oe the interplay of social forces during the sftventewnth cantury. an Intertwining which to-day wcuk! probably be regarded as confured and cntangtad.

    In ecrne departments of living th« interplay proved nugatory and destructive, but in the matter of art thu indarminata environment and general training resulted in a product which was csucntially fine and spiritual, as far as the national весле had secured cohesion and oonsirtoncy. England and France must be regarded Aurauly, and for certain reason» Franca muat taka prece dence: Its experience affords bxh striking con trasts and unexpected parallels with that of England, and aids ив in the analysis of British Iminaing and advance, all of which ara rathar obscure. The seventeenth century in France wag in phikucfcy, the age of Descarte. Pascal and Male branch», in literature the age of Boeeuet and Cor nailla: tha ninrtawnth wa» that of ChiUaubriand. of Lamartine and of Hugo: the intermediate cen tury was in comparison flat and colorkas, in splto of Monteequieu. Vohaire and Rcusseau. This te the d-lilwrate judgment of the few greatest among the critic» of cur day; and even, by implicater, of writers like John Morley and Matthew Arnold. This feeling is due apparently to the yearning of our epoch for something to replace what the mighty iconoclasts who preceded us believed themselves to have destroyed.

    There is a type of infidelity—like that of Pierre Bayle whose dictionary was the reference-book of the century—which rests ap parently serene and content in pure negation. But its self-sufficiency docs not endure. Voltaire was at least a deist and the revolutionary movement begot a dry theism which resulted in a dusty cult. Incredible as it may appear, this broad thinking became so comprehensive in philosophy and science that both reached an ebb low enough to confuse all distinction. Knowing much about everything with a haughty facility, resulted in knowing much about nothing—with the same cocksureness of self-suffi- cichcy. When the writers of the time announce a scientific spirit, it turns out to be metaphysical, as likewise the philosophic spirit always turns out to be pseudo-scientific. In consequence there was worse to come.

    Be tween what was humane and cosmopolitan on one side, patriotic and national on the other, there was likewise no distinction. From the days of Louis XIV down to 1789 there was no political life in France, and not much elsewhere on the continent. The masses did not participate in politics and of course felt no interest. There was for them no state, no constitution and no nation—nothing but a government in which they had no influence and about which no concern. The one single bond which held together the French, the Germans, the Spanish, even the British, was the respective languages common to each people. If the century were in no sense patriotic, it was even less Christian. The reason for this is alike clear and obscure, for it is the day of antinomies. It is obscure because of confusion: it was an age of polymaths, that is, scholars each appropriating the whole field of learning for himself, and also of polygraphs, each writing as a poet, a man of letters, a scientific essayist and a philosopher.

    The seven teenth century had despised the natural and culti vated the mathematical sciences. For Malebranche it was rather a libidinous avocation to pav any atten tion whatever to what would now be called biology. Curiosity about nature bordered on sin! Meta- physics and theology, mathematics and the fine arts —these alone were the permitted fields of the in tellectually elect. Feminism took the form of preci osity. But travel, adventure, discovery, the open ing to enterprise of undeveloped portions of the globe radically transformed this attitude of mind. The study of life and nature gradually supplanted the pure sciences: as the mystical proved to be actual, and the unknown prosaic, so an order or law in the natural world seemed discernible, and the secret of the universe must be. it was vaguely felt, on the verge of revelation! No longer could there be any thing supernatural or metaphysical, nothing reli gious or moral, let alone Christian. Many consider the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes to have been the most detestable event in French history, be cause in Protestantism there was the germ of free thought and free speech. Deprived of this vital element, French life on both sides—the ecclesias tical and the secular—hardened into a fanatical radicalism: between church and so-called science there could be no reasonable interchange of views and no wholesome compromise. To illustrate what seems to our age the prepos- terous confusion of all the departments of intel- lectual activity, take that between painting and literature.

    Here are some titles of pictures then in high esteem: “The Clergy, or Religion in Con- verse with Truth”; “The Third Estate, or Agricul- ture and Commerce Producing Abundance”; “The Sentiment of Love and Nature for a Time Yielding to Necessity”; “Study Desiring to Arrest the Flight of Time”; “Justice Disarmed by Innocence with the Applause of Wisdom”! Could any themes be more purely literary? and yet the painters of the hour felt no hesitancy in attempting to treat th m with the brush. Cautiously considered, such bravado turns out to have some justification; for if painting must, as Whistler contended, be poetry on the one side, so on the other it may be prose, pro vided the treatment of the theme be personal and independent—the bit of nature viewed athwart a human temperament. What is composition in either the picture or the book except just this? the sub ject in the mirror of mind, analyzed and ordered by an expert, produced in unity of form by an author-painter or an author-writer?

    Such talk however was then as it is now caviare to the many. The plight of the painters was much the same as that of the Grub Street writers: both were hacks, both were without any inspiration ex cept what they drew from foreign traditions and foreigners resident at their doors. Newton, Shaftesbury, Pope and other great Englishmen were the inspiration of French literature, while the Italians were the models in painting and sculpture. The confusion of philosophy, theology, science and literature was quite as complete as that to which we have just alluded. It so remained for an age: but that between letters and fine arts did not. The renaissance of painting as purely French, as expres sive of French sentiment, as depicting French life, manners, persons and scenes was due to the work of a literary person, a man permeated by a smattering of all knowledge, the correlation of which made him, in the esteem of everybody except himself, a philosopher; made him apparently anything else than an art critic or connoisseur. This man was a curious compound of incongru ous and unrelated qualities.

    He was born a lower middle class burgher and so remained to the end of a long life. Voltaire was the great burgher, aspir ing to plutocracy and aristocracy. Rousseau was a pure plebeian, while Diderot, French of the French, with the faults and the virtues of the artisans from whom he sprang, was a plain, homely person who by circumstance was turned from an artisan in cutlery to an artisan publisher’s hack. His father was a capable, kindly man, following the trade of six generations preceding him, and his mother appears to have been an affectionate, busy but somewhat over-enthusiastic matron. The boy came under Jesuit influence as a child, and, ex hibiting great liveliness with much versatility, was encouraged to run away, possibly by his teachers, and seek in Paris their higher instruction. But his father caught him on the stairs at midnight, ordered him back to his room and next day ac companied his lad to the capital, placed him in the College d’Harcourt, waited wistfully a fortnight for assurance that his Denis was fit for the work, ar ranged for a two year’s course, and then returned to his apron, his glasses and grinding-wheel. Turned loose in the cruel town at the expiration of that period, young Denis proved to be a reckless, wild and dissipated boy. As he said long after, he caused nothing but pain to his father and sorrow to his mother while they lived.

    He turned ultra radical, courted the society of great ladies, and married a shop-girl to whom he was kind but untrue, for he had two mistresses. His keen, ready wit commended him to the rich, his coarse gluttony and rather vulgar manners were overlooked for the contributions of information, criticism and humor which he made to the life of his day. He was as industrious as any dull clod of a peasant and earned a fairly steady subsistence for his family by writing about anything and everything for which publishers would pay. And he wrote so well that he became the most representative intel lect of his time, with a brain gathering and run ning together into one great sea of erudition; phil osophy, science, literature and the fine arts. His atheism, avowed rather than felt, was confused, not definite; he complacently admitted that he was dubbed the philosopher; but his philosophy was partly a loose scheme of materia! things, concerned little or not at all with the unfolding of origins and plan in the universe, partly a cloudy meta physic.


    They say in the South: to know the Negro you must have been “raised” with him. This is not true of the unprogressive ex master and the slowly progressing ex-slave. For, as the freedman seeks to raise himself to the common level of American citizenship, the barrier of race prejudice is built more and more jealously between them. But Nature is a keen humorist, and in that South where conditions are practically unchanged, through the subtle influences of climate or com panionship or what not, she has molded her tanned and black children of both races into a kinship closer than most of them realize or some of them would acknowledge. In this sense, to know the Negro you must have been “raised” with him, lived beside him through the receptive days of childhood, under the same fervid sun, in the same colorful southern atmos phere.

    One might go even further and say: know the South you must have been “raised” with the Negro. For while the little white child sits listen ing dumbly to its countless song-birds, insensitive to the appeal of his garrulous little “brothers” of the field and forest, the little “nigger” at his side mimics the mocking bird, translates for him the language of the coon, the ‘possum, the fox, the horse, the cow, the chickens with a sense of simple human fellowship and a sympathetic humor which even La Fontaine and later Rostand, Kipling and our own gentle Joel Chandler Harris give us but artificially by comparison. For none of these have gone—perhaps none of our “superior” race can ever go—as simply, as directly, so with “the heart of a little child” to Nature. And of all the aliens grafted on the South from France, Spain and Ire land, everywhere, the Negro is the one exotic whose roots, so fiercely wrenched from their native soil, have taken firmest hold. Enslaved by man, the Southern land adopted him with tenderness and warmth. And he grew so close to her that he became her spokesman, her interpreter. And those of us on whom she looked more coldly, for our sins, have had to get our in spiration through her “colored” medium, to whom we turned instinctively—but in our own crass ignorance, despised. We only saw his “funny” side

    —God help us! Or at most patted him on the head and told sentimental tales of his affection and fidelity and our tolerant appreciation of these qualities, that were well within the limits of our own narrow prejudices. With smut upon our vacant faces, vulgar horse-play and tuneless “coon songs” we have made pretense to represent the Minstrel of the South—the only real Minstrel this noise-deafened country has ever known! And be cause we had neither humanity enough to give him fair play for the full development of his native genius, nor culture enough to see him as the most inspiring artistic “material” that ever spendthrift dullards have wasted—Art herself, now, to shame us, is holding out her hand to him and thrusting us aside. From over-seas and in the words of one of the world’s great writers came the intelligent recogni tion of that exquisite prose-poem “The Souls of Black Folk” by W. E. B. du Bois.

    . . . “It is the greatest piece of literature—perhaps the only piece of literature published in this generation, in America” was the verdict. And now’ another well- known genius—a woman this time and herself an inspired Minstrel, coming to us recently from France, saw at once the Negro’s artistic value and in politely concealed amazement exclaimed at our blindness: “But all you have to give the world in Art that is new—that is American—it is your Nigair!” One may imagine the howl of pained egotism and derision that would greet such words here. “What! The Nigger artistic!” cries the outraged Southerner. “I don’t know what you mean. He’s nuthin’ but a joke.” And so, even with all the treasure George Cable has dug up for us and a few others have sighted, the greater part of the picturesque and dramatic “material” of that “old South” that awaits revival by the new spirit of intellectual democracy lies still unseen around us. “The Negro poetic?” we can hear some of our brave Free-Versifiers exclaim scornfully “why, he’s rhythmical, tuneful—Impossible!” And then, if the devil move them, they will rush off and “do him up” in brutal discords that show artlessly the artless savage in themselves. “The Coon dramatic?”

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