Trying to be Taught
Friday, September 13, 2013
Reading about the early years in the lives of the Impressionists – the period in the late 1850s and early 1860s when they began to arrive and to meet one another in Paris – I have been thinking about the necessity and difficulty of finding teachers. Unlike writing, the craft of painting has always been passed on in ateliers and schools. Sometimes it seems like every painter in the mid-17th century in the Netherlands spent a productive period in Rembrandt’s studio. Painting is an apprentice trade. You watch the hand of a master and your hand becomes knowledgeable. You practice under a master’s eye and the lines of your drawings lose their clumsiness.
The men and women who became known as the Impressionists were desperate for teachers. As a young man in Le Havre, Monet was fortunate to stumble on Boudin and Jongkind. In Aix, Cézanne, arguing with his banker father to be allowed to study art and confined to the study of “dusty plaster casts” and “black and white engravings after paintings,” was, John Rewald estimates, “in dire need of guidance.”[i]
But in Paris there was a surprising paucity of genuine help. The Ecole des Beaux-Arts, controlled to calcification by the persnickety academicianism of the followers of Ingres, had made a decades-long practice of excluding Delacroix and the fiery energy he would have brought to students in search of more expressive means. Delacroix himself, though his studio was open to any sincere seekers, was isolated and growing old. Teachers like Gérôme were fiercely critical of what seemed to them the ugly uncouthness that resulted when younger painters attempted to render realistically the world around them.
Delacroix, Tiger and Snake, 1862
Ingres, Turkish Bath, 1863
At that time, Courbet was the enfant terrible of realism and the Paris art world was shot through with partisanship. At the end of 1861, some students even left the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in protest and petitioned Courbet to teach them. He tried. For a few crazy months he rented a large space and everyone went there with great enthusiasm and he had horses and bulls brought in to be painted ‘from life’ and cartoons of this ran in the papers. But he was haranguing and repetitive, good at the manifesto of his own work but not at helping students discover their own and the experiment was given up in April of 1862, just at the time that Renoir enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and a few months before the arrivals of Sisley, Monet, and Bazille.
They met instead at the school run by affable, old-fashioned, unimpassioned Gleyre. He looked at a study of a nude that Monet had done and he said, “not bad!... but it is too much in the character of the model – you have before you a short thickset man, you paint him short and thickset – he has enormous feet, you render them as they are. All that is very ugly.” The vigorous, impatient Monet remembered this vividly when he was interviewed about it some forty years later. Gleyre had continued, “I want you to remember, young man, that when one draws a figure, one should always think of the antique. Nature, my friend, is all right as an element of study, but it offers no interest. Style, you see, is everything.”[ii] After that, Monet came to the studio just enough to pacify his family, who were already quite uncertain about letting him pursue painting.
Gleyre’s interaction with Renoir is also illustrative. Renoir remembered, again decades later, that Gleyre had said to him, “No doubt it’s to amuse yourself that you are dabbling in paint?” And light-hearted Renoir replied, “of course… if it didn’t amuse me, I beg you to believe that I wouldn’t do it!” Renoir thought Gleyre was “a second rate schoolmaster but a good man,”[iii] who at least “left them pretty much to their own devices.”[iv] And Gleyre made a place where they could work. Determined to learn, Renoir, Bazille, and Sisley went on diligently in that studio, meeting afterward to talk through all their own ideas.
When these just-emerging painters looked around them in 1862, the teacher who seemed just a few steps ahead of them on the path was Manet. In those first heady conversations as they walked out of Gleyre's, Bazille told Renoir "Manet is as important to us as Cimabue or Giotto were to the Italians of the Quattrocento; and as the Renaissance is beginning again, we must be part of it..."[v]
Part of the excitement of studying Impressionism is to watch how this quite large group of people was able to teach one another and themselves. In the lives of writers, two, three, four friends may have a long effect on one another’s understanding, but in painting, large groups – in this case there are easily twenty figures of great significance, perhaps many more – may teach one another in a very substantial, personal way.
“Each of Renoir’s friend brought him a gift for which he was grateful,” the painter’s son judged later. “Bibesco [a prince and patron] gave him his first opportunity to see the bare shoulders of women in their beautiful evening gowns; Cézanne revealed to him the precision of Mediterranean thought; Monet opened his eyes to the wild imagination of the people of the north European countries; and Pissarro formulated in theoretical terms his own and his friends’ researches… Sisley’s gift was gentleness.”[vi]
Manet, Concert in the Tuileries Gardens, 1862
[vi] Renoir, p107.
Reading Toward Renoir
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Renoir to me has always been the outlier – the one among the Impressionists without austerity enough to make room for me. Too sweet, too voluptuous. All skin, no air. But loved by Leo Stein, Gertrude’s brother, who understood Cézanne’s apples right away. When he and Gertrude split up the household they had for decades shared, both wanted the apples, but were content for her to keep the Picassos, him to take the Renoirs.
Stein was a man for whom sensuality was difficult and I’ve wondered if Renoir seemed to offer in an uncomplicated way, enjoyment. It sounds from the memoir written by the son, Jean Renoir, as if the painter was a rare person, fundamentally tolerant of himself and of other people. It’s true that his paintings show people taking pleasure in life. Who else does that? Perhaps some Dutch painters, though there is often a suspicion that Frans Hals is laughing at his revelers. In Renoir they take a quiet pleasure. Jean Renoir says the sitters have “serenity.” They are settled, but they are still full of the activity of being themselves; they look out on their surroundings and see much to interest them.
When the son spoke to the father of different women he had admired and painted, a great variety of women, society ladies and street walkers, the painter was full of appreciation, his greatest commendation, “she posed like an angel.” In the portraits, the sitter and the painter seem to share a lively and devoted understanding.
There is a Renoir of Monet in a garden painting. I wondered when I saw the reproduction recently if it were a Renoir or a Monet. The flowers have a lot of whites reaching upward in a way that I thought might be Monet, but when I checked the back flap I was not really surprised to see that it was a Renoir. The way to tell would have been to look at the figure, the painter in his hat, all his energy turned toward his craft. Features, soft, almost indistinct, but the impression of the face is of concentration and happiness. He could be humming.
Apparently Renoir loved all craftsmanship. He had himself begun by painting porcelain and then window shades. His father was a very good tailor. Renoir used to lament the passing of know-how and the replacement of hand industries by machines. He had felt grateful to grow up in the old Tuileries neighborhood before it was torn down – all the stairways and niches and small corner carvings of the buildings bespoke the loving care of craftspeople. Women, he told his son, at their daily tasks, know how to live. “Around them I feel happy.”
In a state of happy engagement people are very close to the surface, much closer then we usually are able to be even with close friends, whose faces barricade them in reserve. Perhaps what I have taken for too much luster, too much skin, is really more unsettling, the close presence of people in a state to which we are no longer accustomed, as we may find the unsanitized smells from earlier eras – a barnyard, a field of clover, dried lavender in sheets – overwhelmingly, almost intolerably, sweet.
Reading Toward Renoir II
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
I find that in reading Jean Renoir’s Renoir, my father, I am thinking of Maxim Gorki’s memoir of Chekhov, a most beautiful reminiscence. In particular of a story I have always loved, and which has to be quoted complete with Gorki’s introductory meditation. It is as follows:
I think that in Anton Chekhov’s presence everyone involuntarily felt in himself a desire to be simpler, more truthful, more one’s self; I often saw how people cast off the motley finery of bookish phrases, smart words, and all the other cheap tricks with which a Russian, wishing to figure as a European, adorns himself, like a savage with shell’s and fish’s teeth. Anton Chekhov disliked fish’s teeth and cock’s feathers; anything” brilliant” or foreign, assumed by a man to make himself look bigger, disturbed him; I noticed that whenever he saw any one dressed up in this way, he had a desire to free him from all that oppressive, useless tinsel and to find underneath the genuine face and living soul of the person. All his life Chekhov lived on his own soul; he was always himself, inwardly free, and he never troubled about what some people expected and others – coarser people – demanded of Anton Chekhov. He did not like conversations about deep questions, conversations with which our dear Russians so assiduously comfort themselves, forgetting that it is ridiculous, and not at all amusing, to argue about velvet costumes in the future when in the present one has not even a decent pair of trousers.
Beautifully simple himself, he loved everything simple, genuine, sincere, and he had a peculiar way of making other people simple.
Once, I remember, three luxuriously dressed ladies came to see him; they filled his room with the rustle of silk skirts and the smell of strong sent; they sat down politely opposite their host, pretended they were interested in politics, and began “putting questions”: “Anton Pavlovich, what do you think? How will war end?”
Anton Pavlovic coughed, thought for a while, and then gently, in a serious and kindly voice, replied: “Probably in peace.”
“Well, yes… certainly. But who will win? The Greeks or the Turks?”
“It seems to me that those will win who are the stronger.”
“And who, do you think, are the stronger?” the ladies asked together.
“Those who are the better fed and the better educated.”
“Ah, how clever,” one of them exclaimed.
“And whom do you like best?” another asked.
Anton Pavlovich looked at her kindly, and answered with a meek smile: “I love candied fruits… don’t you?”
“Very much,” the lady exclaimed gaily.
“Especially Abrikossov’s,” the second agreed solidly. And the third, half closing her eyes, added with relish: “It smells so good.”
And all three began to talk with vivacity, revealing, on the subject of candied fruit, great erudition and subtle knowledge. It was obvious that they were happy at not having to strain their minds and pretend to be seriously interested in Turks and Greeks, to whom up to that moment they had not given a thought.
When they left, they merrily promised Anton Pavlovich: “We will send you some candied fruit.”
“You managed that nicely, “ I observed when they had gone.
Anton Pavlovich laughed quietly and said: “Everyone should speak his own language.”
[Maxim Gorky, Reminiscences of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Andreyev. With an introduction by Mark Van Doren. Translator not given. New York: Viking Press, 1959, pp74-76.
Although the translator’s name is, astonishingly, nowhere given in the volume, I assume the translation is a good one and that the tiny hint of condescension in “not having to strain their minds,” is Gorki’s, though perhaps, under the influence of Chekhov, the younger writer felt no such thing and it is at the further remove of translation that the note has entered the composition. I am certain, though, and in part from reading this passage of Gorki’s, that the feeling is not Chekhov’s, as it seems it would not be Renoir’s. Chekhov’s idea of a person may be more complicated than Renoir’s – it does seem that the regrets and struggles of his figures have more bitterness in them – but, as in Renoirs, there is the sense in the stories that it is natural for people to be themselves, and that the task of the painter or the writer is to help them to circumstances in which they are.