Wednesday, October 24, 2012

65. Alphonse Legros (3)

Earlier, I referred to an exhibition of paintings, drawings and etchings by Alphonse Legros that was held at the Dutch Gallery in London and that was reviewed by Ricketts in The Saturday review of  17 April 1897. The review has not been reprinted.
Catalogue of the Exhibition of pictures, watercolour drawings & etchings of Alphonse Legros (1897) (detail of the title-page)

In 1859, M. Legros painted "L'ex Voto" and "L'Angélus." In the waning of subsequent years and of many fashions in art, we find his work, with added powers of realization and control, characterized to-day by the same dignity of outlook that made it remarkable thirty-eight years ago. To men who, like Baudelaire, were the first to hail experiments in painting that have since distinguished schools, the work of Legros appealed with a definitive aspect of reticent mastery, at that time rare in art. To-day, in the Babel of methods and aims his pictures remain as a survival from a finer epoch. As is the case with most enduring work, their force has long been felt; but from habit their appeal to old admirers would seem to have slackened with the approach of the first grey hairs and the falling away of some cultured illusions. The appreciation of his work, like the qualities that work embodies, would seem to belong to an epoch of greater enthusiasm and refinement, such as we find incarnated in those collections, now, unfortunately, for the most part dispersed, in which were to be found pictures by Rossetti, Watts, Burne-Jones and Whistler - collections that cannot be formed again. So much for the conditions under which M. Legros's public appearances have become more and more rare, till the fortunate coincidence of this small, but representative, show at Mr. Van Wisselingh's with the purchase of an important picture for the nation has at last given us an opportunity of seeing some of his work in its many phases.
Catalogue of the Exhibition of pictures, watercolour drawings & etchings of Alphonse Legros (1897) (detail of title-page, note the raised space between '14' and 'Brook Street')
We miss, it is true, an adaquate collection of the portraits, by virtue of which M. Legros takes rank among the great portraitists of the world. There are charming drawings of children's heads, but no portion of that gallery of the notable men of our time which can be compared in its own way - that is to say, within the conditions of line work - with the series painted by Mr Watts. With a disdain for that casual aspect of things which keeps the modern realist busy upon the solution of problems that are unnesessary, M. Legros has sought, even in the deliberate choice of such conventional mediums as etching and silverpoint, for the serious forces that underlie the peculiarities of complexion or lighting, and so has noted the mansuetude of Newman, the intense inward disillusion of Manning as intimately as the elemental energies of Carlyle or Berlioz. This collection contains several landscapes, remarkable for a sense of structure in the rendering of ground and trees - along grey roads, beneath the rising of a hill, nestles the quiet of old houses becoming absorbed by the ground; here, the majesty of ancestral trees strikes across the stress and movement of the sky; there, we have the action of repose of figures, thrown into those "antique" gestures that hang about the washing of linen, the hewing of wood, or the rest of the wayfarer. By lovers of the rosy, the sentimental, a touch of sadness will be felt beneath the steady vision of growth and change that we admire in the art of Alphonse Legros. If at times he notes the desolation of the season, or those tragic vicissitudes of the storm and the quarry, we must remember that no sane or quite sincere view of nature should disregard the other side of things - an over-insistence upon sorrow may sometimes, have been a weakness in the great art of Eugène Delacroix, a total disregard of it is often an element of weakness in the best English art.
Alphonse Legros, 'Cardinal Manning' (photograph by George P. Landow)
In the picture "Femmes en Prière," now the property of the nation, we will note a total absence of false sentiment. A row of women at prayer - such is the subject. These women have come to the church to think about their troubles, to find consolation; perhaps merely for the cool and quiet of the walls; and, by their sides are the bundles and umbrellas of the market place. Think of the rendering of a like matter by a common artist. The too-pretty peasant girl, sop for the male susceptibilities, and the "human" interest for those touching home instincts of ladies - a child gazing at a careful sunbeam that cheers with its spilth of pink the natural quiet of the place. M. Legros has pleased himself with a set of hands which are delicate portraits that alone would point to a real study of Holbein. His picture touches one with its quiet and sincerity. There are delightful things for the art lover, common things but charming; the homely plaid upon a scart reminds one that Titian found a small check quite fine enough for the significance of the supper at Emmaus.

Some drawings  of a Progress of Death are at once spontaneous in handling and also in conception. Death forgets his nature (or, perhaps, remembers it) in love, and with youth - Death becomes an enchanter in the music of church service. Here we would instance one marvellously tender drawing, a musician playing to a crowd, that in its admirable rendering of poise and gesture, and in some kindred undercurrent of thought, would seem to belong to this set of Death and the passing of things.

If, glancing round the walls, one is tempted to define the peculiar excellence of the work shown here, an essential quality forces itself upon our attention that makes a difference between the incalculably rich in art and the very poor - the difference between Puvis and Burne-Jones on the one hand and workers with loud recent reputations on the other. That quality is design - design underlying the initial impulse. These designs were remarkable, worth the doing, before they were actually carried out, and the gifts of a rare temperament have been controlled to retain and enhance them. Mr. R.A.M. Stevenson, in his sympathetic note to the Catalogue, quotes le père Corot in support of those powers of memory, that independence of models which separates the master from the workman. This should be insisted upon, for in showing this independence M. Legros has only followed what has been the almost universal practice of artists from Giotto to Tiepolo.

A Burgundian by birth, M. Legros adds to a study of great students in art, such as Raphael, Mantegna, and Poussin, that native raciness of observation found in the realistic sculptors of Burgundy and the mediaeval painter Foucquet. In Burgundy the Roman brick is still turned up in the hoeing of the old vine soil, and, like that of his compatriot, M. Puvis de Chavannes, the work of M. Legros is tinged with an element of breeding, an element of antique taste, the heritage of a race that was civilized more than a thousand years ago. With much that is excellent in French art he combines the faculties of the sculptor, and so we find here medals that would have charmed Matteo da Pasti, and a torso that might have been found at Arles, Nîmes, or Vaucluse. We are told that sculpture can no longer find room in our spaceless houses, yet these medals that might go down to our children as evidences of our own refinement may be held in the hollow of a hand, the frail torso could be niched anywhere.

A contemporary of Manet, Faintin, and Degas, owing to a great precocity his début as an artist belongs to the year in which Millet exhibited "Les Glâneuses" and Courbet began to attract attention. Though in the course of years, like Puvis de Chavannes, he might have achieved a tardy reputation in France, it is in England that he has chosen to remain, and it is here that he won the friendship and admiration of such men as Watts and Rossetti.
                                                                                     Charles Ricketts

Charles Ricketts, 'Legros', in: The Saturday review, 17 April 1897, p. 406-407 [review of an exhibition at the Dutch Gallery, London, April-May 1897].
Catalogue of the Exhibition of pictures, watercolour drawings & etchings of Alphonse Legros (1897) (page xiii)