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Imaginary portraits, p.2

Imaginary Portraits, page 2


Imaginary Portraits

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study so wellhere at Valenciennes.


  June 1705.

  Young Watteau has returned home--proof, with a character so independentas his, that things have gone well with him; and (it is agreed!) stayswith us, instead of in the stone-mason's house. The old people supposehe comes to us for the sake of my father's instruction. French peopleas we are become, we are still old Flemish, if not at heart, yet on thesurface. Even in French Flanders, at Douai and Saint Omer, as Iunderstand, in the churches and in people's houses, as may be seen fromthe very streets, there is noticeable a minute and scrupulous air ofcare-taking and neatness. Antony Watteau remarks this more than everon returning to Valenciennes, and savours greatly, after his lodging inParis, our Flemish cleanliness, lover as he is of distinction andelegance. Those worldly graces he seemed when a young lad almost tohunger and thirst for, as though truly the mere adornments of life wereits necessaries, he already takes as if he had been always used tothem. And there is something noble--shall I say?--in hishalf-disdainful way of serving himself with what he still, as I think,secretly values over-much. There is an air of seemly thought--le belserieux--about him, which makes me think of one of those grave oldDutch statesmen in their youth, such as that famous William the Silent.And yet the effect of this first success [12] of his (of moreimportance than its mere money value, as insuring for the future thefull play of his natural powers) I can trace like the bloom of a flowerupon him; and he has, now and then, the gaieties which from time totime, surely, must refresh all true artists, however hard-working and"painful."

  July 1705.

  The charm of all this--his physiognomy and manner of being--has touchedeven my young brother, Jean-Baptiste. He is greatly taken with Antony,clings to him almost too attentively, and will be nothing but apainter, though my father would have trained him to follow his ownprofession. It may do the child good. He needs the expansion of somegenerous sympathy or sentiment in that close little soul of his, as Ihave thought, watching sometimes how his small face and hands are movedin sleep. A child of ten who cares only to save and possess, to hoardhis tiny savings! Yet he is not otherwise selfish, and loves us allwith a warm heart. Just now it is the moments of Antony's company hecounts, like a little miser. Well! that may save him perhaps fromdeveloping a certain meanness of character I have sometimes feared forhim.


  August 1705.

  We returned home late this summer evening--Antony Watteau, my fatherand sisters, young Jean-Baptiste, and myself--from an excursion toSaint-Amand, in celebration of Antony's last day with us. Aftervisiting the great abbey-church and its range of chapels, with theircostly encumbrance of carved shrines and golden reliquaries and funeralscutcheons in the coloured glass, half seen through a rich enclosure ofmarble and brass-work, we supped at the little inn in the forest.Antony, looking well in his new-fashioned, long-skirted coat, andtaller than he really is, made us bring our cream and wild strawberriesout of doors, ranging ourselves according to his judgment (for a hastysketch in that big pocket-book he carries) on the soft slope of one ofthose fresh spaces in the wood, where the trees unclose a little, whileJean-Baptiste and my youngest sister danced a minuet on the grass, tothe notes of some strolling lutanist who had found us out. He isvisibly cheerful at the thought of his return to Paris, and became fora moment freer and more animated than I have ever yet seen him, as hediscoursed to us about the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens in the churchhere. His words, as he spoke of them, seemed full of a kind of richsunset with some moving glory within it. Yet I like far better thanany of these pictures of Rubens a work of that old Dutch [14] master,Peter Porbus, which hangs, though almost out of sight indeed, in ourchurch at home. The patron saints, simple, and standing firmly oneither side, present two homely old people to Our Lady enthroned in themidst, with the look and attitude of one for whom, amid her "glories"(depicted in dim little circular pictures, set in the openings of achaplet of pale flowers around her) all feelings are over, except agreat pitifulness. Her robe of shadowy blue suits my eyes better farthan the hot flesh-tints of the Medicean ladies of the great PeterPaul, in spite of that amplitude and royal ease of action under theirstiff court costumes, at which Antony Watteau declares himself indismay.

  August 1705.

  I am just returned from early Mass. I lingered long after the officewas ended, watching, pondering how in the world one could help a smallbird which had flown into the church but could find no way out again.I suspect it will remain there, fluttering round and rounddistractedly, far up under the arched roof, till it dies exhausted. Iseem to have heard of a writer who likened man's life to a bird passingjust once only, on some winter night, from window to window, across acheerfully-lighted hall. The bird, taken captive by the ill-luck of amoment, re-tracing its issueless circle till it [15] expires within theclose vaulting of that great stone church:--human life may be like thatbird too!

  Antony Watteau returned to Paris yesterday. Yes!--Certainly, greatheights of achievement would seem to lie before him; access to regionswhither one may find it increasingly hard to follow him even inimagination, and figure to one's self after what manner his life movestherein.

  January 1709.

  Antony Watteau has competed for what is called the Prix de Rome,desiring greatly to profit by the grand establishment founded at Romeby King Lewis the Fourteenth, for the encouragement of French artists.He obtained only the second place, but does not renounce his desire tomake the journey to Italy. Could I save enough by careful economiesfor that purpose? It might be conveyed to him in some indirect waythat would not offend.

  February 1712.

  We read, with much pleasure for all of us, in the Gazette to-day, amongother events of the great world, that Antony Watteau had been electedto the Academy of Painting under the new title of Peintre des FetesGalantes, and had been named also Peintre du Roi. My brother, [16]Jean-Baptiste, ran to tell the news to old Jean-Philippe and MichelleWatteau.

  A new manner of painting! The old furniture of people's rooms mustneeds be changed throughout, it would seem, to accord with thispainting; or rather, the painting is designed exclusively to suit oneparticular kind of apartment. A manner of painting greatly prized, aswe understand, by those Parisian judges who have had the bestopportunity of acquainting themselves with whatever is most enjoyablein the arts:--such is the achievement of the young Watteau! He looksto receive more orders for his work than he will be able to execute. Hewill certainly relish--he, so elegant, so hungry for the colours oflife--a free intercourse with those wealthy lovers of the arts, M. deCrozat, M. de Julienne, the Abbe de la Roque, the Count de Caylus, andM. Gersaint, the famous dealer in pictures, who are so anxious to lodgehim in their fine hotels, and to have him of their company at theircountry houses. Paris, we hear, has never been wealthier and moreluxurious than now: and the great ladies outbid each other to carry hiswork upon their very fans. Those vast fortunes, however, seem tochange hands very rapidly. And Antony's new manner? I am unable evento divine it--to conceive the trick and effect of it--at all. Only,something of lightness and coquetry I discern there, at variance,methinks, [17] with his own singular gravity and even sadness of mienand mind, more answerable to the stately apparelling of the age ofHenry the Fourth, or of Lewis the Thirteenth, in these old, sombreSpanish houses of ours.

  March 1713.

  We have all been very happy,--Jean-Baptiste as if in a delightfuldream. Antony Watteau, being consulted with regard to the lad'straining as a painter, has most generously offered to receive him forhis own pupil. My father, for some reason unknown to me, seemed tohesitate at the first; but Jean-Baptiste, whose enthusiasm for Antonyvisibly refines and beautifies his whole nature, has won the necessarypermission, and this dear young brother will leave us to-morrow. Ourregrets and his, at his parting from us for the first time, overtookour joy at his good fortune by surprise, at the last moment, just as wewere about to bid each other good-night. For a while there had seemedto be an uneasiness under our cheerful talk
, as if each one presentwere concealing something with an effort; and it was Jean-Baptistehimself who gave way at last. And then we sat down again, stilltogether, and allowed free play to what was in our hearts, almost tillmorning, my sisters weeping much. I know better how to control myself.In a few days that delightful new life will have [18] begun for him:and I have made him promise to write often to us. With how small apart of my whole life shall I be really living at Valenciennes!

  January 1714.

  Jean-Philippe Watteau has received a letter from his son to-day. OldMichelle Watteau, whose sight is failing, though she still works (halfby touch, indeed) at her pillow-lace, was glad to hear me read theletter aloud more than once. It recounts--how modestly, and almost asa matter of course!--his late successes. And yet!--does he, in writingto these old people, purposely underrate his great good fortune andseeming happiness, not to shock them too much by the contrast betweenthe delicate
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