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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Charles Blanc (1813–1882)

WE have few personal details of Charles Blanc. We know that he lived in a luminous world of form and thought, a life in harmony with his work; we have books containing his conception of art; we know that art was his one absorbing passion: and this should satisfy us, for it was his own opinion that all which does not tend to illustrate an artist’s conception of art is of but secondary importance in his life.

Of Franco-Italian extraction, Charles Blanc was born in Castres, France, on the 15th of November, 1813. When in 1830 he and his brother Louis, youths of eighteen and nineteen, came to Paris, their aged father, an ex-inspector of finance whose career had been ruined by the fall of Napoleon, was dependent on them for support. Louis soon procured work on a newspaper; but Charles, whose ambition from his earliest years was to become a painter, spent his days in the Louvre, or wandering about Paris looking in the old-print-shop windows, and he thus learned much that he afterwards developed in his works. As his brother’s position improved, he was enabled to study drawing with Delaroche and engraving with Calamatta. His masters gave him but little encouragement, however, and he soon turned his thoughts to literature, his maiden effort being a description of the Brussels Salon of 1836 for his brother’s paper.

Exquisite sensitiveness and responsiveness to beauty eminently fitted Charles Blanc for the position of art critic, and gave a charm to his earliest writings. He brought to his new task the technical knowledge of an artist, and a penetrating critical insight which, aided by study, ripened rapidly. The evidence of talent afforded by his first art criticism induced Louis Blanc to confide to him successively the editorship of several provincial papers. But Charles’s inclinations were toward the calm atmosphere of art; he was, and ever remained, indifferent to politics, and looked upon the fiery, active Louis with astonishment, even while catching his energy and ambition. On his return to Paris he began a history of the ‘French Painters of the Nineteenth Century,’ but one volume of which appeared; and the ‘Painters of All Schools,’ completed in 1876. Very little was then known of the lives of the painters. By illustrating each biographical sketch with engravings of the artists’ pictures, Blanc met a long-felt want. As the work was intended for the general reader, it was not overloaded with erudition: but numerous anecdotes, combined with vivacity of style, aroused interest in painting and created a public for the more purely technical works which followed. Though assisted by others in this undertaking, Blanc himself planned the method of treatment, and wrote the history of the Dutch and French schools; and the work justly retains his name.

The Socialists had taken a prominent part in the events of February, 1848, which led to the overthrow of Louis Philippe; and they yielded to the universal desire by appointing Charles Blanc Director of Fine Arts—a position which he had prophesied to his friends several years before that he would one day fill. When he assumed office, the position of artists was critical; as, owing to social convulsions, government and private orders had dwindled into insignificance. Thanks to his energy, work was resumed on public monuments, and the greater part of the sum of 900,000 francs, voted by the National Assembly for the Champs de Mars festival, was devoted to work which gave employment to a legion of decorative painters and sculptors. After the Salon of 1848, as the government coffers were depleted, he obtained 80,000 francs’ worth of Sèvres porcelain from the Minister of Commerce, to give as prizes. He combated a proposition made by the Committee on Finance to suppress the Louvre studios of molding; he opposed the motion to reduce the corps of professors at the School of Fine Arts, and defended the School of Rome, threatened with suppression.

While Director of Fine Arts, Blanc fought his first and only duel, in defence of his brother, although he had never fired a pistol in his life. During the political agitation of 1848, Louis was condemned by the National Assembly, and fled to London. After his departure, he was abused in very insulting language by one Lacombe, and Charles called the latter to account. In the duel which followed, Lacombe was hit, but the ball struck his pocket-book and glanced off, when Méry, one of the seconds, exclaimed, “That was money well invested!” and there the matter ended.

Another event, which occurred several years previous, has a certain psychological significance. One evening Charles Blanc was visiting a friend who resided a distance of one hundred and fifty miles from Paris. In the midst of conversation, he suddenly grew pale and exclaimed that he had received a shock, adding that something must have happened to Louis. The next day his fears were confirmed by the receipt of a letter, telling him that the latter had been knocked down in the streets of Paris by a blow across the forehead. When Dumas père heard of this coincidence, he utilized it in his ‘Corsican Brothers.’

Notwithstanding his fine record as an administrator and his encouragement of talent, Blanc was sacrificed to the spirit of reaction which set in about 1850. His removal displeased the entire art world, so highly was he esteemed for his integrity, his progressive ideas, and his unerring taste. On his return to private life he resumed his ‘History of the Painters.’ ‘L’Œuvres de Rembrandt’ (1853 to 1863), containing also a life of the artist, was illustrated by the first photographic plates which ever appeared in a book.

The name ‘Peintres des Fêtes Galantes’ was derived by Blanc from the title conferred on Watteau by the French Academy. Of the artists therein mentioned, Watteau occupied the realm of poetry; Lancret that of the conventional, the fashionable; Pater that of vulgar, jovial reality; Boucher, the most distinctively French of artists, that of brilliancy, dash, and vivacity. These painters are a curious study for the historian interested in the external forms of things.

With the exception of Dupré, Blanc knew all the painters of whom he writes in the ‘Artistes de mon Temps’ (Artists of My Time). The work is therefore replete with personal recollections. Here again the general interest is deepened by the warm interest which the author takes in the men and events of the time. There are many charming pages devoted to Félix Duban, Delacroix, and Calamatta; to the contemporary medallions of David d’Angers; to Henri Leys, Chenavard, and Troyon; to Corot, the lover of nature who saw her through a veil of poetry; to Jules Dupré and Rousseau, who saw the poetry innate in her. He introduces us to the caricaturists Grandville and Gavarni; to Barye’s lifelike animals. On reading the lives of these men, one is struck by the fact that they produced their masterpieces at about the age of twenty years.

The ‘Treasures of Art in Manchester,’ and ‘From Paris to Vienna,’ were published in 1857. The latter contained curious information about the sale of art works during the seventeenth century, with the prices they brought, and is enlivened with short spirited sketches of artists and amateurs. In 1867 Blanc became a member of the Académie des Beaux Arts. The ‘Treasures of Curiosity’ is a catalogue of pictures and engravings sold between 1830 and the date of the appearance of the book.

Devoted to purely artistic subjects, the Journal des Beaux Arts, founded by Blanc, rendered great service to art by spreading a taste for it among the cultivated classes. The ‘Grammar of Painting and Engraving’ first appeared in this periodical. Though given up to a consideration of technical subjects, the work abounds in poetic touches and has great interest for the general reader. In 1875 it was discussed in the French Academy, when its author competed for the chair left vacant by the death of Vitel. He was not elected until the following year, though his book met with great success, and led to the revival of engraving in France.

When he began his studies for the life of Ingres, which appeared in 1867, he found many letters of the artist, which enabled him to follow the latter through the various phases of his life: to know the changes of his temper, the inflexibility of his character; his emotions day by day; his momentary discouragements, his great will-power; the heroic efforts he made to reach the heights; his ideas on art, his opinions of others as well as himself: and thanks to these documents, he was enabled to reproduce one of the most remarkable personalities, if not the most original one, of the French school.

In 1870 he was again made Director of Fine Arts. He introduced several reforms in the organization of the Salon, and founded a 4,000-franc prize. But the spirit of reaction could not forgive his political antecedents; and in 1873, on the fall of Thiers, he was removed before he could complete his plan for establishing a museum of copies to reproduce the masterpieces of painting. One well-deserved satisfaction was granted him in 1878 by the creation of a chair of Æsthetics and Art History in the College of France, which he was called by special decree to fill; and there he taught for three years.

The first part of the ‘Grammar of the Decorative Arts’ appeared in 1881; the second part, dealing with interior decorations, in 1882. The third part, ‘The Decoration of Cities,’ was not completed, owing to his sudden death. Elected President of the French Academy in 1882, he did not enjoy this well-deserved honor long. A few weeks before his death—which occurred on February 17th, 1882, from the effects of an operation for cancer—he began a catalogue of the collection presented by Thiers to the Louvre. This was the last work of a pen wielded with unimpaired vigor to the end.

“The great artist,” wrote Blanc, “is he who guides us into the region of his own thoughts, into the palaces and fields of his own imagination, and while there, speaks to us the language of the gods;” and to none are these words more applicable than to himself. In the world of thought he was a man of great originality, though neither architect, painter, nor sculptor. He had all the artist nature from a boy, and never lost the tender sensibility and naïf admiration for the beautiful in nature and art which give such glow of enthusiasm to his writings. His ‘Grammar of Painting and Engraving’ founded the scientific method of criticism. In this work he brought his intellectual qualifications and extensive reading to bear upon a subject until then treated either by philosophical theorizers or eloquent essayists. He has left one of the purest literary reputations in France. He was above all an idealist, and made the World Beautiful more accessible to us.