MR. MOLLETT ON THE PAINTERS OF BARBIZON.* THE " Illustrated Biographies
of Great Artists" essay to give the general English reader compendious accounts of the life and work of celebrated painters. The results in a series of the kind are bound to be of unequal merit, and the task is, in all conscience, no easy one,—to write simple sense and sober English about painting not being a common gift, nor perhaps a popular method. It is easier to adopt the ways of the picturesque biographer and the picturesque art critic ; to find with the first immense significance in the facts and myths that are called the life of an artist, and with the second to listen to the breezes that sigh through the pictures and palpi- tate with the sentiments that sob behind them. In a word, it is little use to write books on painting unless you have an eye for pictures, and have used your eye to some analytic pur- pose. Without such qualification, the issue can be but book-making. Still, there are degrees in book-making, and the treatises which Mr. Monett has recently put forth are not workmanlike specimens of their crass.
It will be admitted that when a book is published as an English book, it is best to write it in English. And more particularly in a series like this is it desirable to translate where you quote, for the reader, it may be assumed, is often unable to read the original books in their original tongue. But Mr. Monett has a curious trick of leaving the important words, and these sometimes of the simplest kind, in the original French or German, for all the world as if he had had no dictionary at hand to refer to. It is doubtful to the end
• The Painters of Barbizon. By John W. Mollett, B.A. London : Sampson Low and Co. 1895. (Two volumes of "The Great Artists.")
whether it is the French and German or the English that is the trouble, for the writer's English idiom is apt to have the effect of a translation. Here are some examples from a single page of this polyglot way of writing "So, for example, the full brilliance of the day is poured out in einheitlichen Ton with still stronger local colour, over the Lock Gate in the Valley of Opteroz, a picture of most cheer- ful peaceful tone, even in the shadows of the beneficent (kindly wohlthuender) freshness and brightness." "M. Henriet finds this picture un peu noyee in spite of the exquisite tones of it." "It gives you the fresh sensation of inhaling a bouiPe of air and light." "Dr. Meyer goes on, The durchschlagende success
that he had the eye is attracted tief hinein." The first of these extracts would surely have been more intelligible in German throughout, than in this curious kind of translation r.
Then it will be admitted that it does not help the student to have served up to him a jumble of views by a writer who not only can treat their contradictions with no authority, but hardly seems to be aware of them. What is gained by letting a book- maker with no sense of values loose among journalistic dicta on this side and that ? A scientific book-maker would hardly be thought efficient if, say, be were giving an account of the origin of the world, and made up his account of stray quota- tions from Darwin and the reconcilers of Genesis and geology alternately. But when the subject is Corot, it is thought illuminating to quote first M. Edmond About, to the effect that Corot "imitates nothing, not even Nature," and then, with equal approval, another gentleman, who lays it down that Corot "yields to his own two impulses—of poetry and of truth. His pictures always shine with naïve grace, with true observation of Nature," &c. These statements seem comfortably to cancel one another, and to leave the attentive student quite undetermined, as to what, if anything, Corot did to Nature. But on the following page, with the same bland juxtaposition, comes the view of M. Silvestre that Corot's view was "that the soul of each artist is a mirror in which Nature comes to reflect herself in a peculiar manner." But here, even Mr. Mollett revolts. "The sentiment," he says, "might be more clearly expressed." And he proceeds to express it clearly :—" It is the foundation of what was called the 'Impressionist' school of landscape- paysage intime—Stimmungslandschaft, a German critic calls it, wherein the subjective impression is expressed in a Naturbild, and the painter's object is to hold fast, maintain the Stimmung throughout the whole of his picture." On this same subject an aphorism of Mr. Mollett's own may be added from another page :—" The quality of simple truth—and nothing more—is not the highest, although, as the world is, it is very high."
The "German critic," by-the-way, who is quoted above ia among all the host the writer's favourite. He is the owner of a heavy apparatus by which a painter is proved to be the response to a social moral political demand. The social moral political influences arrange a little place for a painter and yearn for him and say, Go to, let us have a painter here,' and strangely enough a painter is neatly produced, equipped' to still the cravings of the grocer or the Minister of Fine Arts, or the Spirit of the Age, or whoever it was who required. him. The coincidence is striking till you master the method. This is simply to take a given painter and then postulate a tendency to bring him forth. The tendency produces the- painter, and to contemplate the process is to have a philosophic- thrill. As a matter of fact, a painter has to produce not only his works but the demand for them, and there is usually a very strong tendency against the new artistic invention. A work of art is very much less a product of its time than a. protest against it.