Saturday, September 22, 2012

French Artists Village at Barbizon Jean Francois Millet

Jean Francois Millet
French Artists Village at Barbizon Jean Francois Millet
 By Charles DeKay

On the edge of the forest of Fontaine­bleau, looking towards Paris, lies a hamlet that might well be a Mecca of pilgrimage for French artists, did they realize what was done there for French art during the third quarter of the last century. It was there that Millet, Rousseau—yes, Dupre and Diaz, too, and Corot as an occasional visitor, broke all the traditions of modern art, and for a time produced work that was not an imitation of the art of Italy. They felt, they reasoned, they threw off the shackles of official art. They unwittingly made a school of landscape that belonged entirely to France, and as such rose superior to what has been done be­fore and since their day.

Millet, the Norman peasant, after trial of paintings of the nude that make one think of Correggio, but of Correggio with a rich, warm brush and a surface to his fingers not so cloying sweet and smooth, discovered that his career was a failure, and that his path led to the morass where French painting still flounders today. It was not the duty of a painter to compose historical subjects. That he had known as a student; of that his friends and fellows had been vociferously certain back in 1830; nor to paint sensuous figures of women, nor to make the groundlings cry "Ah! " over the dexterity of his hand when imitating figures or landscapes. He felt that he must express the lives of the people with whom he was brought up, not satirically or with Gallic wit dis­covering their weaknesses, but simply and seriously, showing them from the side where they tally with all other peasant­ries and farming folk, divesting them of the ribbons given to their travesties of peasants by Watteau and Fragonard, and of the sentimentalities of Greuze and weaker followers of Greuze; then going farther and rejecting the bour­geois view of peasants, kindly but still false, until he reached the rudimentary peasant, unlettered and somber, who works like the ox and the ass—patient, uncomplaining, and profoundly sad.


A Barbizon Landscape, by Narcisse Diaz
That was alt achievement never known before, all the more striking in the view of strangers who regard the French people through the colored glasses of Paris, and still go on calling them light hearted, careless triflers. The novelty of his act may be measured by the virulence of the feeling towards him on the part of the official art world and the crowd of imitators, the Prix de Rome prodigies, and the whole set of the patronized. It was like Tolstoy to­day,  standing against Russia's church and upper classes, in behalf of Russia's peasantry. Only, Millet was himself a peasant, not an aristocrat profoundly sorry for peasants, as is Tolstoy; he neither overrated them nor greatly ad­mired them, but he saw the big lines of their human essence and tried his best to show them.

Rousseau, a greater painter as far as technique is concerned, was his comrade in that he followed no classical gods but strove to catch the poetry of the French landscape, just as the great Dutchmen wrestled with the landscape of Holland, as Gainsborough and Constable with that of England. Dupre did the same, with the solid pertinacity that marks the serious Frenchman, and Corot, weakening now and then when Italy ex­erted her power over him. Corot made his own discoveries of French atmos­phere and foliage and sunlight, and while in that mood belonged to the band of innovators. Nor can Diaz be excluded, notwithstanding the sugary figure pieces that were confused echoes of Spain, the Moors the Orient.

HOW THEY LIVED IN BARBIZON

A Sifter of Colza, by Jules Breton
There in Barbizon, for the most part, they lived frugal lives, all of them men of the people, close to the soil, rejecting each in his own way the standards of art that were set up in Paris. For that reason they were excluded from the Salon as Goths and barbarians. And yet their work, rejected by the dealers and their clients, spoke a language that some critics understood, that some buyers, and among them chiefly Ameri­cans, appreciated. It is a common com­plaint that Americans have encouraged French art in its shallowest forms of bogus sentiment, realism, and the imi­tation of Italian masters of old; but at least it should be recalled that men like Millet, Barye, Rousseau, Dupre, Corot, Jules Breton, and Diaz found men froth beyond the Atlantic ready to welcome a departure from the fashionable lines.

At the time when Barbizon was pleasantest these landscapists had begun to receive recognition; their hardships in finance were past and the young paint­ers had already divided into camps for and against their work. The fine inn at Barbizon had not been built, how­ever, and the meeting place was at the older building on the outskirts of the straggling little village. Thither Millet would come, modest and quiet, along with Diaz the noisy, and occasionally with Rousseau, uncertain of mood and temper.

I would like to take you into the old inn on a certain day in the sixties, and show you the long table in the room of the kitchen at which no one might sit unless the artists bade him welcome as a special guest. Good French cheer and a peasant simplicity marked this table. On a certain day, had you stood at the door leading from the room where ordinary guests were entertained, you would have heard a terrible rumpus all of a sudden, and a chorus of out­raged voices:

"Ah, les barbares!"

The young American artist with a hatchet face and a mop of light hair, clad in a peasant's blouse, who sat at the end of the long table, had but a moment before snorted audibly above the clatter of knives and forks and the babel of talk. His voice suggested neither sugar nor cream as he threw down the spoon with which he had hoped to eat strawberries that did not come, straw­berries that would not come now, be­cause, to use the quaint French idiom, they were "all."

"Baltimore! Haven't we stood this long enough?" he remarked in tones not crystal clear, but choked by emo­tion, and terrible withal.

At the Edge of the Wood, by Theodore Rousseau
The young man with long locks, dressed in a Bavarian juppe of green with big round buttons of horn, which showed that he had studied at Munich, sprang from his seat at the long table, his red shock rising like the mane of a lion, his blue eyes blazing.

"Yes—let's clear out the whole blamed crowd!"

Suiting action to word, he seized his chair and brought it down on the head of the man next him, who had been the most irritating to his patience for several weeks past.

Now, this might be all very well in a boarding house for factory hands in Baltimore or in a kneipe of rustics in the Bavarian Tyrol. But neither the place nor the persons nor the country round about gave warrant for that berserker rage which inflamed the breasts of these young Americans when they confounded precedent and polite­ness by falling upon a roomful of French artists with their bare fists, or, to be exact, with the vulgar and, one may say, sadly inaccurate chair. Was not the locality Barbizon on the out­skirts of the forest of Fontainebleau?

The time was between our Civil War and the Franco German, and, for the most part, the persons present were men who were being talked about already and have since become famous in art—Millet and Diaz and Rousseau and Jules Breton—together with certain others of whom the annals of modern art make no mention.

THE CABARET MELUSINE

Jules Breton
The tavern stood to one side of the single street of Barbizon, if you may call that a street which is a highway surprised to find itself between high blank walls and assailed with a singular mixture of odors from barnyard and flower garden. At a distance either odor could be counted a fragrance; but near at hand the distinctions became painfully drawn, so that most travelers were glad to pass the hamlet itself and reach the pine woods where the Cabaret Melusine swung its sign from a conve­nient branch, showing a figure of the fairy of that name, painted, so the story ran, by one of the great artists of the epoch gone before, no other than that fastidious gentleman Delacroix.

Nor did the cabaret, with its deep eaves, like an inn of the Black Forest, disappoint one when viewed from with­out; it deserved the legend of Delacroix painting the fair, frail Melusine on the sign board. And within there was noth­ing to break the charm, from the cavernous kitchen, where the copper saucepans lit up the darkness scarcely less than the fires on the hearth, to the dining room, whose panels were painted by a score of famous artists dead and gone, or living and returning no more to the haunts of their youth. Mine host, round, vivacious, ready of rep­artee, and more like a father among a troop of sons and grandsons than a mere aubergiste, and his wife, placid, ever knitting, watchful without seeming to watch, demanding and obtaining a cer­tain regard for her dignity among the babel of talk, some of which was not exactly fit for Sunday schools—madame la patronise and monsieur le patron pre­sided over "La Mel," as the artists called it, with infinite good humor and not without profit, especially now that some of their "young men"—among them fathers of families, by the same token—were winning notice in the world of Philistines, and getting com­missions from the barbarians beyond the sea, who showed more appreciation than the "big beasts" of Paris, in whose hand lay preferment and the sale of canvases to the state.

But this was beyond all imagined barbarities. The barbarians must go.

At the time these things befell, Bar­bizon was a different place from what it is now. Millet had a studio opposite the delightful old, vine covered house where Mme. Millet is ending her days among roses and grandchildren, and that studio house was only part of a stable overlooking a barnyard. La Melusine was the only tavern in Barbizon to speak of, for the other, Le Trou au Mur, did not count. People of wealth had not found their way to Barbizon, or Gres, or Moret, either to buy and build villas, or to stay at costly restau­rants for a month or so. It was a forgotten corner, of whose existence few people knew, and those few were not even afraid to tell about it, as they would be now, lest there should come a rush of art amateurs and seekers for the unusual, or, to use the common but idiotic term, the Bohemian, which would destroy the quiet and the econ­omy and the pleasantness of the spot forever. No, in the time of the Empire there was little danger in telling people about Barbizon, for the number of those who would be likely to come was too small to ruin it.

This is how it happened.

Jules Dupre
The cabaret had a long table down the middle of the chief room, where the painted panels were. It was sacred to the habitu├ęs; it might not be invaded by the revelers of a somewhat humble class who occasionally drifted in from Paris, nor by the rare foreigner, unless he was a friend of one of the steady pa­trons of the place. Now, it happened that the arrival of one of these friends precipitated the Homeric combat in question.

It was in spring, when various things combine to put men on their mettle; when strawberries are barely ripe and apt to be few in the dish; when the blood pulsates free­ly through the veins of youth. The Americans sat at one end of the ta­ble, and the viands would start at the other end, nearest the kitchen, and reach the foreign­ers last. They had noticed a tendency on the part of the Frenchmen to gob­ble all the tidbits, and they more than suspected this was done con­sciously, purpose­ly, and for the sake of flouting the foreigner. However, they said nothing. But this day, alas, there were others pres­ent. A gentleman and his young American wife had been asked to spend a few days at Barbizon, and it was before these guests that a slur was put on the Americans.
               
As the dish of strawberries pass­ed down the table, each person, know­ing that the sup­ply was small, took of it sparingly—until it came to Jules Breton, who sat next to Balti­more. He, with a leer round at his friends, shoveled the whole of what was left on the dish to his plate, remarking in an aside that these nouveaux and for­eigners had better go without.

Then it was that the pale haired son of the West arose and made the above remark to Baltimore, and that Baltimore uttered the classic answer, "Yes—let us clean out the whole blamed crowd."

The guests retired from the room with a promptness only second to that which was shown by Baltimore and the two other Americans in "cleaning out" the Frenchmen. Little did they realize at the time what famous heads they were cracking with stools and crockery, what necks to be decorated with the cordon of the Legion of Honor they were banging with the legs of broken chairs. They "cleaned 'em out" indeed! No­body disputed their victory over the surprised and routed gang. But next day, before breakfast, each one was served with a bill for broken furniture, and a notice that their presence at that hostelry was not expected again.

So they opened negotiations with the other tavern, the despised Trou au Mur, where the lumbermen and woodcutters made their headquarters, and where the snake collector who supplied a Parisian wizard with adders for popular medi­cine took his noonday meal, or sat over his sour wine when the weather was unpropitious for his specialty in reptiles. Here Rousseau used to come when he had a fit of sulks on him and felt that he was about to quarrel, or had already quarreled, with his friends Diaz and Millet.

Narcisse Diaz
It was also hinted that the proprietor was in better odor with certain fellows from Paris who knew more about the deer and rabbits of the forest than was healthy for them, than he was with the rangers and guards of Fontainebleau. These were men who entered Paris without being seen by the officials at the barrier who exact octroi on things eatable, the officials who rummage in baskets and compel the pedestrian to open his knapsack lest bread or cheese or fruit enter untaxed. But whole deer entered Paris un-assessed and unseen, through the magic of these occasional guests of the Trou au Mur.

Unfortunately for our Americans, however, they could not gain the confidence of these gentry at once, and had to wait a long while before learning all they might have told. But the snake collector was communicative, and the woodcutters and charcoal burners soon lost all shyness and regaled them with stories of the "white deer" with a charmed life, and of the ghost that ap­pears at the famous Four Corners, be­ing that of a heretic and wizard who was buried there, impaled in his grave, for certain terrible crimes, and of the nymph who rises from the Fontaine­bleau lake. Curiously enough, these stories had nothing to do with Fontaine­bleau Palace or the monarchs who lived there; the very names of the old kings and queens seemed unknown to these humble rustics. But events of far earlier date (if they ever actually hap­pened) were preserved in their legends and stories. It was as if the long line of France's kings, and even the star­tling episode of her first emperor, were not important enough to move them. These were indeed the unchanging peas­ants whom Millet painted.

Before they became so thoroughly friends of the poachers that temptation to baffle the forest rangers could pre­sent itself, the young Americans were visited by the patron of La Melusine, with a request from la patronne and all the artists that they should return. "All shall be forgiven," they were promised. So, with the clannishness of their tribe, they did return, and were received with open arms. No more wicked French slurs on Yankees, no more gobbling of all the tidbits by Jules Breton; their good right arms had established a title to respect which they enjoyed as long as they made Barbizon their summer home. So it pays, it seemed, to be barbarians.

VENGEANCE ON THE OCTROI

Plowing, by Charles Francois Marchal
The octroi on entering Paris had irri­tated Baltimore and his friends more than once, and a suggestion by one of the trio led to a plan to punish the zealous officers. One day there ap­peared at La Mel a rustic cart, oddly shaped, driven by an old Norman with rosy cheeks like a frosted apple, and a face suggestive of cider. The load was destined for Paris. As soon as Baltimore learned what the Norman had in his straw covered hutches, the plan was formed. "First, the Norman must be plied with applejack and fine champagne till he's helpless; second, his cart must be driven for him to the nearest octroi; and third, suspicion of the contents of the hutches must be roused in the minds of the officials."

The first part was easily arranged. The good Norman, being inclined to get all he could in treats, was readily in­duced to drink with each artist in turn; so that when he was helped into his cart he found it only natural that one of his friends should seat himself by his side and take the reins, while the others followed in a carriage to see that he reached Paris in safety. The proces­sion started whooping through the old oaks of Fontainebleau, past open fields and farms, and through the bare spaces into which Paris has now extended her factories and avenues. As the barrier and the octroi officials came in sight, Baltimore alighted from the carriage, ran swiftly forward, and rummaged about in the Norman's cart, while the artist who was driving the cart made the greatest effort of his life to keep the man's attention directed forward to ob­jects along the road. Coincident with the arrival at the octroi, the artist leaped down and joined his friends, after thrusting the reins into the Nor­man's hands.

The old horse stopped promptly at the barrier. "Anything to declare?" asked the officer, in the tone of one who meant, declaration or not, that a search would be made. His suspicions were al­ready roused by the strange cortege.

The Norman endeavored to explain, as he lolled back, glorious, on his seat; but his remarks were incoherent, and soon became abusive. As the carriage with the artists turned about for flight, the octroi officials stepped to the back of the cart and threw aside the canvas covering the hutches. A low, loud, murmurous sound swelling to an omi­nous growl—and a swarm of bees, wail­ing in their peculiar fashion for their queen, issued from the cart, fell upon the policeman, and extended their min­istrations impartially to the guards gathered near.

The artists were now standing up in their carriage looking back on the fray, waving hats and howling choice impre­cations, while their horses were being urged homeward. They did not wait to learn the upshot of their trick, and for Zany moons they entered Paris by an­other gate.

LIGHTS AND SHADOWS OF BARBIZON

The Angelus, by Jean Francois Millet
Paris is in sight from some parts of Fontainebleau near Barbizon. When you look at the Angelus, the fields are those towards Paris. Here and there one comes on dells and groves of oaks that seem taken from the canvases of Narcisse Diaz, the rough voiced, jovial man who stumped about on a wooden leg; or from those of Rousseau the sus­picious, or (very rarely) of Millet the serious. Barbizon has the advantage of offering the open and the forest, the far stretching plain lighted by night with a pale glare from the city, and the gloom of the woods inhabited by wild things, the wildest and most dangerous of which are men.

At La Mel life went merrily after dinner, when each sought to forget the failures of the day, or perchance was secretly stimulated by what he felt was a success. It was on an eventful eve­ning like this that someone during dinner was inspired to tell an English lady, dining there for the first time, a sad lie about the origin and accomplish­ments of Baltimore.

On hearing that some of the young men at the table were Americans, this lady had showed a commendable interest in America and its redskins, its buffaloes and birds, which induced someone to observe that, despite his red hair, Baltimore was more than half Indian, that he belonged to the famous tribe of the Delawares, and could, if he only would, dance the scalp dance of his an­cestors in a way to set every hair on one's head upright.

Although news to Baltimore, he had become too polite through associating with Diaz and Jules Breton to deny anything they might state as a fact. He simply hung his head, said, "How, how," grunted, and absent mindedly felt of the point of his knife. Little did he know how lucky it was that this suggestion occurred just then. The coincidence could not have been more fortunate, for, if the truth must be told, he had not entirely given up visits to the other cabaret, the Trou au Mur. Unknown to the rest, he had returned thither often, and had become firm friends with certain shady parties who made the inn their haunt. A midnight raid on the deer preserves of Fontaine­bleau had come off the night before, and certain things had happened which made Master Baltimore wish he were out of France for a time.

It was long before the pleadings of the English lady, reinforced by those of the Frenchmen present, could prevail upon Baltimore to consent. He ex­plained that to indulge in the scalp dance without the preliminaries, and without invitation from the proper chief, might expose him to revenge on the part of his tribe, if they should hear of his performance. Finally he retired with his friends to prepare for the dance, after sending mine host for the nearest player of the cornemuse, and engaging a drum belonging to a village boy.

As Baltimore had never laid eyes on an Indian, far less seen an Indian dance, he had all the advantage that untram­meled imagination supplies. An hour later, when the table had been removed and the chairs ranged against the walls, a fearful screech rent the air, the door burst open, and a figure, naked to the waist, barefoot, and brandishing a hatchet, bounded into the middle of the room. Streaks of vermilion and black, a shaven head and a long black scalp lock, a waist from which shells, bells, feathers, and furs jangled and dangled, were the least of a makeup too fearful and wonderful to describe. The artists had painted eyes and mouth with a realism that took away one's breath.

The Palace Gardens at Fountainebleau
At sight of him the English lady turned very pale and seized the arms of the chair in which she had been cere­moniously placed as the guest of honor, for whom and at whose insistence the dance was given. As the drum and fife had struck up before the dance began, and as the dance itself was a combination of acrobatic feats, yells, frothing at the mouth, and buffets liberally bestowed on the Americans and Frenchmen present, the noise was deafening Attention being fixed on the performance, the bystanders failed to notice two things at first, one of which was the increasing paleness of lie poor English lady. The scalp dancer had reached the end of his in­vention. He had driven his hatchet deep in the door jamb and drawn his bowie knife, with which he made grisly gestures as of ripping off the tops of scalps, giving out at the same moment a very realistic snapping sound as of skin violently parted from a cranium.

With a final yell he landed flat on the floor at the feet of the lady, who must have veritably believed that he was uncontrollable, and meant to add her scalp to the trophies at his belt. She swayed on her chair in a dead faint.

The other thing Baltimore did not see was the appearance at the door of a gendarme in all the immaculate get up worn by those gentlemen under the Empire. While the English lady sank from her chair unconscious, and was attended to by her husband, the gendarme pushed his way to the center of the room. The scalp dancer scrambled to his feet, and for a moment paused. "Shall I bang him too over the head?" he asked himself. But when the gendarme spoke, he thought better of it.

"Pardon, messieurs and mesdames," said the officer, bringing his heels to­gether and saluting the company with the utmost politeness. "Pardon, if I disturb your innocent amusements, but duty compels. I am in search of one Baltimore, said to be a foreigner, who pretends also to study art. He is wanted as accomplice in a poaching ad­venture which occurred last night. If he is among you, I summon him."

The Indian had retired panting to one corner of the room, where the drum and fife had ceased playing. The gen­darme went from one man to the other, asking names and jotting them down with persistent politeness, but getting little news. When he came to ask for the Indian, there was none. The dark shades and moonlit aisles of Fontaine­bleau Forest had swallowed him up. Nor were the police ever able to identify exactly the citoyen Americain whose sobriquet was Baltimore with the poacher seen by the spy with a band in Fontainebleau Forest. There was a rumor that he had fled to Germany. Another legend held that he was in Paris working, as Diaz and Dupre be­fore him, at the decoration of porce­lains. But the German war and the Commune came and went before Balti­more returned to America, untroubled by the gendarme.


from Junior Munsey, February 1902