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Imaginary portraits, p.4

Imaginary Portraits, page 4


Imaginary Portraits

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oflife--yes! perhaps of infinite littleness also. And it is the outwardmanner of that, which, partly by anticipation, and through pureintellectual power, Antony Watteau has caught, together with aflattering something of his own, added thereto. Himself really of theold time--that serious old time which is passing away, the impress ofwhich he carries on his physiognomy [34]--he dignifies, by what in himis neither more nor less than a profound melancholy, the essentialinsignificance of what he wills to touch in all that, transforming itsmere pettiness into grace. It looks certainly very graceful, fresh,animated, "piquant," as they love to say--yes! and withal, I repeat,perfectly pure, and may well congratulate itself on the loan of afallacious grace, not its own. For in truth Antony Watteau is stillthe mason's boy, and deals with that world under a fascination, of thenature of which he is half-conscious methinks, puzzled at "the queertrick he possesses," to use his own phrase. You see him growing evermore and more meagre, as he goes through the world and its applause.Yet he reaches with wonderful sagacity the secret of an adjustment ofcolours, a coiffure, a toilette, setting I know not what air of realsuperiority on such things. He will never overcome his early training;and these light things will possess for him always a kind ofrepresentative or borrowed worth, as characterising that impossible orforbidden world which the mason's boy saw through the closed gatewaysof the enchanted garden. Those trifling and petty graces, the insigniato him of that nobler world of aspiration and idea, even now that he isaware, as I conceive, of their true littleness, bring back to him, bythe power of association, all the old magical exhilaration of hisdream--his dream of a better world than [35] the real one. There, isthe formula, as I apprehend, of his success--of his extraordinary holdon things so alien from himself. And I think there is more realhilarity in my brother's fetes champetres--more truth to life, andtherefore less distinction. Yes! the world profits by such reflectionof its poor, coarse self, in one who renders all its caprices from theheight of a Corneille. That is my way of making up to myself for thefact that I think his days, too, would have been really happier, had heremained obscure at Valenciennes.

  September 1717.

  My own poor likeness, begun so long ago, still remains unfinished onthe easel, at his departure from Valenciennes--perhaps for ever; sincethe old people departed this life in the hard winter of last year, atno distant time from each other. It is pleasanter to him to sketch andplan than to paint and finish; and he is often out of humour withhimself because he cannot project into a picture the life and spirit ofhis first thought with the crayon. He would fain begin where thatfamous master Gerard Dow left off, and snatch, as it were with a singlestroke, what in him was the result of infinite patience. It is thesign of this sort of promptitude that he values solely in work ofanother. To my thinking there is a [36] kind of greed or grasping inthat humour; as if things were not to last very long, and one mustsnatch opportunity. And often he succeeds. The old Dutch paintercherished with a kind of piety his colours and pencils. AntonyWatteau, on the contrary, will hardly make any preparations for hiswork at all, or even clean his palette, in the dead-set he makes atimprovisation. 'Tis the contrast perhaps between the staid Dutchgenius and the petulant, sparkling French temper of this new era, intowhich he has thrown himself. Alas! it is already apparent that theresult also loses something of longevity, of durability--the coloursfading or changing, from the first, somewhat rapidly, as Jean-Baptistenotes. 'Tis true, a mere trifle alters or produces the expression.But then, on the other hand, in pictures the whole effect of which liesin a kind of harmony, the treachery of a single colour must needsinvolve the failure of the whole to outlast the fleeting grace of thosesocial conjunctions it is meant to perpetuate. This is what hashappened, in part, to that portrait on the easel. Meantime, he hascommanded Jean-Baptiste to finish it; and so it must be.

  October 1717.

  Anthony Watteau is an excellent judge of literature, and I have beenreading (with infinite [37] surprise!) in my afternoon walks in thelittle wood here, a new book he left behind him--a great favourite ofhis; as it has been a favourite with large numbers in Paris.* Thosepathetic shocks of fortune, those sudden alternations of pleasure andremorse, which must always lie among the very conditions of anirregular and guilty love, as in sinful games of chance:--they havebegun to talk of these things in Paris, to amuse themselves with thespectacle of them, set forth here, in the story of poor ManonLescaut--for whom fidelity is impossible, so vulgarly eager for themoney which can buy pleasures such as hers--with an art like Watteau'sown, for lightness and grace. Incapacity of truth, yet with suchtenderness, such a gift of tears, on the one side: on the other, afaith so absolute as to give to an illicit love almost the regularityof marriage! And this is the book those fine ladies in Watteau's"conversations," who look so exquisitely pure, lay down on the cushionwhen the children run up to have their laces righted. Yet the pity ofit! What floods of weeping! There is a tone about it which strikes meas going well with the grace of these leafless birch-trees against thesky, the pale silver of their bark, and a certain delicate odour ofdecay which rises from the soil. It is all one half-light; and theheroine, nay! the [38] hero himself also, that dainty Chevalier desGrieux, with all his fervour, have, I think, but a half-life in themtruly, from the first. And I could fancy myself almost of theircondition sitting here alone this evening, in which a premature touchof winter makes the world look but an inhospitable place ofentertainment for one's spirit. With so little genial warmth to holdit there, one feels that the merest accident might detach that flightyguest altogether. So chilled at heart things seem to me, as I gaze onthat glacial point in the motionless sky, like some mortal spot whencedeath begins to creep over the body!

  And yet, in the midst of this, by mere force of contrast, comes back tome, very vividly, the true colour, ruddy with blossom and fruit, of thepast summer, among the streets and gardens of some of our old towns wevisited; when the thought of cold was a luxury, and the earth dryenough to sleep on. The summer was indeed a fine one; and the wholecountry seemed bewitched. A kind of infectious sentiment passed uponus, like an efflux from its flowers and flower-likearchitecture--flower-like to me at least, but of which I never felt thebeauty before.

  And as I think of that, certainly I have to confess that there is awonderful reality about this lovers' story; an accordance betweenthemselves and the conditions of things around them, so deep as to makeit seem that the course of [39] their lives could hardly have beenother than it was. That impression comes, perhaps, wholly of thewriter's skill; but, at all events, I must read the book no more.

  June 1718.

  And he has allowed that Mademoiselle Rosalba--"ce bel esprit"--who candiscourse upon the arts like a master, to paint his portrait: haspainted hers in return! She holds a lapful of white roses with her twohands. Rosa Alba--himself has inscribed it! It will be engraved, tocirculate and perpetuate it the better.

  One's journal, here in one's solitude, is of service at least in this,that it affords an escape for vain regrets, angers, impatience. Oneputs this and that angry spasm into it, and is delivered from it so.

  And then, it was at the desire of M. de Crozat that the thing was done.One must oblige one's patrons. The lady also, they tell me, isconsumptive, like Antony himself, and like to die. And he, who hasalways lacked either the money or the spirits to make thatlong-pondered, much-desired journey to Italy, has found in her work theveritable accent and colour of those old Venetian masters he would sowillingly have studied under the sunshine of their own land. Alas! Howlittle peace have his great successes given him; how little of [40]that quietude of mind, without which, methinks, one fails in truedignity of character.

  November 1718.

  His thirst for change of place has actually driven him to England, thatveritable home of the consumptive. Ah me! I feel it may be thefinishing stroke. To have run into the native country of consumption!Strange caprice of that desire to travel, which he has really indulgedso little in his life--of the restlessness which, the
y tell me, isitself a symptom of this terrible disease!

  January 1720.

  As once before, after long silence, a token has reached us, a slighttoken that he remembers--an etched plate, one of very few he hasexecuted, with that old subject: Soldiers on the March. And the wearysoldier himself is returning once more to Valenciennes, on his way fromEngland to Paris.

  February 1720.

  Those sharply-arched brows, those restless eyes which seem larger thanever--something that seizes on one, and is almost terrible, in hisexpression--speak clearly, and irresistibly set one on the thought of asumming-up of his life.

  [41] I am reminded of the day when, already with that air of seemlythought, le bel serieux, he was found sketching, with so much truth tothe inmost mind in them, those picturesque mountebanks at the Fair inthe Grande Place; and I find, throughout his course of life, somethingof the essential
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