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ATLANTIC MONTHLY. A MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE, ART, AND POLITICS. VOL. IV. — SEPTEMBER, 1859.—NO. XXIH.
THE LIFE AND WORKS OF ARY SCHEFFER.
No painter of this age has made so deep an impression on the popular mind of America as Ary Scheffer. Few, if any other contemporary artists are domesticated at our firesides, and known and loved in our remotest villages and towns. Only a small number, indeed, of his original works have been exhibited here,—yet engravings from them are not only familiar to every person of acknowledged taste and culture, but are dear to the hearts of many who scarcely know the artist's name. Young maidens delight in their tender pathos, and the suffering heart is consoled and elevated by their pure and lofty religious aspiration. An effect so great must have an adequate and peculiar cause; and we shall not have far to seek for it, but shall find it in the aim and character of the artist. Scheffer has two prominent qualities, by which he has won his place in the popular estimation. The first is his sentiment . His works are full of simple, tender pathos. His pictures always tell their story, first to the eye, next to the heart and soul of the beholder. His admirable knowledge of composition is always made subordinate to expression. His meaning is not merely historical or poetical, but is true to life and every-day experience.
VOl. Iv. 17
"Mignon regrettant sa Patrie" is felt and appreciated by those who have never sung,
"Kennst du das Land wo die Citronen bluhen,"—
and "Faust" and "Margaret" tell their story to all who have felt life's struggles and temptations, whether they have read them in Goethe's version or not. Added to this power of pathos and sentiment is the deep religious feeling which pervades every work of his pencil, whatever be its outward form. His religion is of no dogma or sect, but the inflowing of a life which makes all things holy and full of infinite meaning. Whether he paint the legends of the Catholic Church, as in "St. Augustine" and "St. Monica," or illustrate the life-poem of the Protestant Goethe, or tell a simple story of childhood, the same feelings are kindled, in our heart's faith in God, love to man, the sure hope of immortality. It is this genuine and earnest religion of humanity which has made his works familiar to every lover of Art and sentiment, and given us a feeling of personal love and reverence for the artist. It is now nearly a year since his labors on earth terminated, and yet no adequate account of his life and labors
has appeared. It is very difficult to satisfy the craving desire to know more of the personal life and character of him who has been a household friend so long. Yet it is rather the privilege of succeeding generations, than of contemporaries, to draw aside the veil from the sanctuary, and to behold the works of a man in his greatest art,— tho art of life. But the cold waters of the Atlantic, like the river of Death, make the person of a European artist sacred to us; and it is hard for us to realize that those whom we have surrounded with a halo of classic reverence were partakers of the daily jar and turmoil of our busy age,— that the good physician who tended our sick children so faithfully had lived in familiar intercourse with Goethe, and might have listened to the first performance of those symphonies of Beethoven which seem to us as eternal as the mountains. Losing the effluence of his personal presence, which his neighbors and countrymen enjoyed, we demand the privilege of posterity to hear and tell all that can be told of him. We can wait fifty years more for a biography of Allston, because something of his gracious presence yet lingers among us; but we can touch Scheffer only with the burin or the pen. So we shall throw in our mite to f,ll up this chasm. A few gleanings from current French literature, a few aneedotes familiarly told of the great artist, and the vivid recollection of one short interview are all the aids we can summon to enable our readers to call up in their own minds a living image which will answer to the name that has so long been familiar to our lips and dear to our hearts. Ary Scheffer was born about the year 1795, in the town of Dordrecht, in Holland; but, as at that period Holland belonged to the French Empire, the child was entitled by birth to those privileges of a French citizen which opened to him important advantages in his artistic career. French by this accident of birth, and still more so by his education and long residence at Paris, he yet always retained traces of his Teutonic origin in the form of his head, in his general appearance, and in his earnest and religious character. He always cherished a warm affection for his native land. Many distinguished artists have been the sons of painters or designers of superior note. Raffaello, Albert Diirer, Alonzo Cano, Vandyck, Luca Giordano are familiar instances. It seems as if the accumulation of two generations of talent were necessary to produce the fine flower of genius. The father of Ary Scheffer was an artist of considerable ability, and promised to become an eminent painter, when he was cut off' by an early death. He left a widow, many unfinished pictures, and three sons, yet very young. The character of the mother we infer only from her influence on her son, from the devoted affection he bore to her, and from the wisdom with which she guided his early education; but these show her to have been a true woman,— brave, loving, and always loyal to the highest. The three sons all lived to middle age, and all became distinguished men. Ary, the eldest, very early gave unequivocal signs of his future destiny. His countrymen still remember a large picture painted by him at Amsterdam when only twelve years old, indicating extraordinary talent, even at that early age. His mother did not, however, overrate this boyish success, as stamping him a prodigy, but regarded it only as a motive for giving him a thorough artistic education. He went, accordingly, to Paris, and entered the atelier of Guenn, the teacher then most in vogue. It was in the latter days of the Empire that Ary Scheffer commenced his studies,— a period of great stagnation in Art. The whole force of the popular mind had for many years been turned to politics and war; and if French Art had striven to emancipate itself from slavish dependence on the Greek, it still clung to the Roman models, which are far less inspiring. "The autocrat David, with his correct, but soulless compositions, was more absolute than his
master, the Emperor." Only in the Saloon of 1819 did the Revolution, which had already affected every other department of thought and life, reach the ateliers. It commenced in that of Gudrin. The very weakness of the master, who himself halted between two opinions, lett the pupils in freedom to pursue their own course. Scheffer did not esteem this a fortunate circumstance for himself. His own nature was too strong and living to be crushed by a severe master or exact study, and he felt the want of that thorough early training which would have saved him much struggle in after life. He used to speak of Ingres as such a teacher as he would have chosen for himself. From the pupil of David, the admirer of Michel Angelo, the conservator of the sacred traditions of Art, the student might learn all the treasured wisdom of antiquity,— while the influences around him, and his own genius, would impel him towards prophesying the hope of the future. His favorite companions of the atelier at this time were Eugene Delacroix and Gericault, Delacroix ranks among the greatest living French artists; and if death early closed the brilliant career of Gericault, it has not yet shrouded his name in oblivion. The trio made their first appearance together in the Saloon of 1819. Gericault sent his " Wreck of the Medusa," Delacroix "The Barque of Dante," and Ary Scheffer "The Citizens of Calais." * The works of these friends may be considered as the commencement of the modern French school of Art, still so little known, and so ill appreciated by us, but which is really an expression of the new ideas of Art and Humanity which have agitated France to its centre for half a century. Their hour of triumph has not yet come; but as the poet sings most touchingly of his love, neither when
* This picture is now in the Louvre. It is a composition of great drnmatic power. Mrs. Stowe pives :, graphic description of the effect it produced u i,on her, in her " Sunny Memories of Suuuv Lamlx."
he rejoices in its happy consummation, nor in the hour of utter despair, but when doubt still tempers hope,— so does the artist labor with prophetic zeal to express those sentiments of humanity and brotherhood which are not yet organized into institutions. A careless eye might have perceived little departure from the old models in these pictures, but a keener one would have already discovered that Scheffer and his friends worked with a different aim from that of their predecessors. Not merely to paint a well-composed picture on a classical theme, but to give expression to thought and feeling, was now the object. "The Wreck of the Medusa" of Gericault is full of earnest, struggling life. Delacroix has followed his own bent with such independent zeal as has made him the object of intense admiration to some, of bitter hatred to others. But Ary Scheffer has taken his rank at the head of the Spiritualist school, and has awakened a wider love and obtained a fuller appreciation than cither of them. The spirit which found in them its first expression is continually increasing in power, and developing into richer life. The living artists of France are the exponents of her genuine Christian democracy."The entire collection of Rosa Bonheur's works," says a French writer, "might be called the Hymn to Labor. Here she shows us the ploughing, there the reaping, farther on the gathering in of the hay, then of the harvests, elsewhere the vintage,— always and everywhere labor." Edouard Frere, in his scenes from humble life, which the skilful lithographer places within the means of all, represents the incidents of domestic existence among the poor. "The Prayer at the Mother's Knee," "The Woman at her Ironing Table," "The Child shelling Peas," "The Walk to School amid Rain and Sleet," are all charming idyls of every-day life. With yet greater skill and deeper pathos does the peasant Millet tell the story of his neighbors. The washerwomen, as the sun sets upon their labors, and they go
wearily homeward; the digger, at his lonely task, who can pause but an instant to wipe the sweat from his brow; the sewing-women bending over their work, while every nerve and muscle are strained by the unremitting toil; the girl tending her geese; the woman her cows: — such are the subjects of his masterly pencil. Do not all these facts point to the realization of Christian democracy? If the king is now but the servant of the people, so the artist who is royal in the kingdom of the mind finds his true glory in serving humanity. What a change from the classic subjects or monkish legends which occupied the pencils of David and his greater predecessors, Le Sueur and Poussin!And yet those students of the antique have done French Art good service; they have furnished it with admirable tools, so that to them we are indebted for the thorough drawing, the masterly knowledge, which render Paris the great school for all beginners in Art. Such men as we have named do not scorn the past, but use it in the service of the present. While Scheffer always subordinated the material part of Art to its expression, he was never afraid of knowing too much, but often regretted the loss of valuable time in youth from incompetent instruction. Encouraged by the success of his first essay, Scheller continued to paint a series of small pictures, representing simple and affecting scenes from common life, some of which are familiar to all. "The Soldier's Widow," "The Conscript's Return," " The Orphans at their Mother's Tomb," "The Sister of Charity," " The Fishermen before a Storm," "The Burning of the Farm," and "The Scene of the Invasion in 1814," are titles which give an idea of the range of his subjects and the tenor of his thoughts at this time. The French have long excelled in the art of composition. It is this quality which gives the greatest value to the works of Le Sueur and Poussin. Scheffer possessed this power in a remarkable degree, but it was united to a directness and truth of feeling which made his art the perfection of natural expression. A very charming little engraving, entitled " The Lost Children," which appeared in "The Token" for 1830, is probably from a picture of this period. A little boy and girl are lost in a wood. Wearied with their fruitless attempts to find a path, the boy has at length sunk down upon a log and buried his face in his hands; while the little girl, still patient, still hopeful, stands, with folded hands, looking earnestly into the wood, with a sweet, sad look of anxiety, but not of despair. The contrast in the expression of the two figures is very touching and very true to Nature;—the boy was hopeful so long as his own exertions offered a chance of escape, but the courage of the girl appears when earthly hope is most dim and faint . The sweet unconsciousness of this early picture has hardly been surpassed by any subsequent work. "Naturalness and the charm of composition," says a French critic, "are the secrets of Scheflcr's success in these early pictures, to which may be added a third,— the distinction of the type of his faces, and especially of his female heads,— a kind of suave and melancholy ideal, which gave so new a stamp to his works." These small pictures were very successful in winning popular favor; but this success, far from intoxicating the young artist, only opened his eyes to his own faults. He applied himself diligently to repairing the deficiencies which he recognized in his work, by severe studies and labors. He knew the danger of working too long on small-sized pictures, in which faults may be so easily hidden. About the year 1826 he turned resolutely from his "pretty jewels," as he called them, and commenced his " Femmes Suliotes," on a large canvas, with figures the size of life. M. Vitet describes the appearance of the canvas when Scheffer had already spent eight days "in the fire of his first thought." It seemed to him rather like a vision than a picture, as he saw the dim outlines of those heroic wom
en, who east themselves from the rock to escape slavery by death. He confesses that the finished picture never moved him as did the sketch. Three years earlier Scheffer had sent to the Saloon of 1824, in company with three or four small pictures, a large picture of Gaston de Foix after the Battle of Uavenna. It was a sombre picture, painted with that lavish use of pigment and that unrestrained freedom which distinguished the innovators of that day. The new school were in raptures, and claimed Scheffer as belonging to them. The public judged less favorably; "they admired the noble head of Gaston de Foix, but, uninterested in the remainder of the picture, they turned off to look at ' The Soldier's Widow.'" SchetTer did not listen to his flatterers; but, remembering Michel Angelo's words to the young sculptor, "The light of the public square will test its value," he believed in the verdict of the people, and never again painted in the same manner. It was one of his peculiar merits, that, although open to conviction, and ready to try a new path which seemed to offer itself, he was also readv to turn from it when he found it leading him astray. "Les Femmes Suliotes" did not seem to have lieen designed by the same hind or with the same pencil as the "Gaston de Foix." The first sketch was particularly pleasing,— already clear and harmonious in color, although rather low in tone. Many counselled him to leave the picture thus. "No," said Scheffer, " I did not take a large canvas merely to increase the size of my ligures and to paint large in water-colors, but to give greater truth and thoroughness to my forms." In 1827 this picture was exhibited with ample success, and the critics were forced to acknowledge the great improvement in his style, although he had not entirely escaped from the influence of his companions, anil some violent contrasts of color mar the general effect. The picture is now in the Luxembourg Gallery. M. Vitet divides Scheffcr's artistic life into three portions: that in which he painted subjects from simple life; that
devoted to poetic subjects; and the last, or distinctively religious period. These divisions cannot, of course, be very sharply drawn, but may help us to understand the progress of his mind; and "Les Femmes Suliotes" will mark the transition from the first to the second period. Turning from the simple scenes of domestic sorrow, he now sought inspiration in literature. The vigorous and hearty Northern Muse especially won his favor; yet the greatest Italian poet was also his earnest study. Goethe, Schiller, Byron, Dante, all furnished subjects for his pencil. The story of Faust and Margaret took such hold of his imagination that it pursued him for nearly thirty years. Their forms appeared before him in new attitudes and situations almost to his last hour, so that, in the midst of his labors on religious pictures, he seized his pencils to paint yet another Faust, another Margaret. Nor can we wouder at this absorbing interest, when we reflect on the profound significance and touching pathos of this theme, which may wear a hundred faces, and touch every chord of the human heart. It is intellect and passion, in contrast with innocence and faith; it is natural and spontaneous love, thwarted by convention and circumstance; it. is condemnation before men, and forgiveness before God; it is the ideal and the worldly ; it is an epitome of human life,— love, joy, sorrow, sin,— birth, life, death, and the sure hope of resurrection. How pregnant with expression was it to a mind like Scheffer's, where the intellectual, the affectional, and the spiritual natures were so nicely blended! He first painted "Margaret at her Wheel," in 1831,— accompanied by a "Faust tormented by Doubt." These were two simple heads, each by itself, like a portrait, but with all the fine perception of character which constitutes an ideal work. Next he painted "Margaret at Church." Here other figures fill up the canvas; but the touching expression of the young girl, whose soul is just beginning to be torn by the yet new joy of her love and the bitter consciousness of her lost innocence, fills