In the last days of the year 1612, on a cold December morning, a young man, whose clothing seemed very thin, was promenading before the door of a house on the Rue des Grands-Augustins, Paris.
After walking back and forth for a long while with the irresolution of a lover who dares not call upon his first mistress, however kind she may be, he at last crossed the threshold and inquired if Maître François Porbus were at home. Upon receiving a reply in the affirmative from an old woman who was sweeping one of the lower rooms, the young man slowly ascended the stairs, pausing from step to step like a courtier of recent date, anxious concerning the reception he may meet with at the king's hands.
When he reached the top of the winding stairway, he stood for a moment on the landing, uncertain whether he should lift the fantastic knocker that embellished the studio in which Henri IV.'s painter, abandoned by Marie de Médicis for Rubens, was in all probability at work. The young man felt the profound emotion which must cause the heart of every great artist to beat fast, when, in the flower of youth and of his love for art, he enters the presence of a man of genius or of a masterpiece. There exists in all human sensations a primitive flower, engendered by a noble enthusiasm which grows constantly weaker and weaker until happiness has become naught but a memory and glory a lie. Among these frail passions, there is none that so closely resembles love as the youthful passion of an artist beginning to undergo the blissful torture of his destiny of glory and disaster - a passion overflowing with audacity and modesty, with vague beliefs and certain discouragement. The man who, with slender purse and genius that is budding, has not trembled with emotion upon presenting himself before a master, will always lack a cord in his heart, an indefinable touch of the brush, true feeling in his work, a certain poetry of expression. If some braggarts, puffed up with their own conceit, begin too soon to trust in their future, they are wise men in the judgment of none but fools.
Upon that theory, the unknown youth seemed to possess genuine talent, if talent is to be measured by this initial timidity, this indefinable modesty which those who are destined to achieve renown are likely to lose in the exercise of their professions, as a pretty woman loses hers in the devious paths of coquetry. Familiarity with triumph lessens doubt, and modesty may perhaps be called a doubt.
Crushed by poverty and surprised at that moment by his own presumption, the poor neophyte would not have entered the studio of the painter to whom we owe the admirable portrait of Henri IV., had not chance sent him an extraordinary re-enforcement. An old man ascended the staircase. By the peculiarities of his costume, the magnificence of his lace ruff, the ponderous self-assurance of his tread, the young man divined that the new-comer was either the patron or the friend of the painter; he stepped back on the landing to make room for him, and examined him with interest, hoping to recognize in him the good nature of the artist or the obliging disposition of those who love the arts; but it seemed to him that there was a diabolical cast to the face, and that indefinable something that makes the artist's mouth water.
Imagine a bald, protruding, prominent brow, overhanging a little, flat nose, turned up at the end like Rabelais' or Socrates'; a smiling, wrinkled mouth, a short chin held jauntily aloft, and embellished with a gray beard trimmed to a point, sea-green eyes which were apparently dimmed by age, but which, in a paroxysm of anger or enthusiasm, were capable of magnetic flashes in striking contrast to the mother-of-pearl sea in which the pupils floated. The face was strangely seamed, too, by the exhaustion of old age, and even more by the thoughts that undermine body and mind alike. The eyes had no lashes, and one could barely detect a trace of eyebrows above their jutting arches. Place that head upon a slender, fragile body, surround it with lace of dazzling whiteness and of a pattern as intricate as that of a silver fish-slice, throw a heavy gold chain over the man's black doublet, and you will have a feeble idea of the personage to whom the dim light of the stairway imparted an even more fantastic appearance. You would have said that it was one of Rembrandt's canvases, without a frame, walking silently through the dark atmosphere which that great painter made his own. The old man cast a knowing glance at his junior, knocked three times at the door, and said to a sickly-looking man of about forty, who opened it:
Porbus bowed respectfully; he admitted the young man, thinking that he had come with the other, and was the less disturbed by his presence because the neophyte could not shake off the spell cast upon born painters by the aspect of the first studio they see, in which some of the material processes of art are disclosed to them. A skylight in the roof lighted Master Porbus' studio. Concentrated upon a canvas which stood on the easel, and which bore only three or four light strokes as yet, the daylight did not reach the black depths of the corners of that vast room; but a few stray gleams lighted up the silvery eye in the centre of a reiter's cuirass hanging on the wall in the ruddy shadow, streaked with a sudden furrow of light the carved and waxed cornice of an old-fashioned dresser laden with curious vessels, or studded with bright specks the rough surface of divers old, gold brocade curtains with heavy, irregular folds, which lay about here and there as patterns. Plaster manikens, trunks and limbs of antique Goddesses, lovingly polished by the kisses of centuries, were strewn over shelves and consoles.
Innumerable sketches, studies in three colors, in red lead or pen and ink, covered the walls to the ceiling. Boxes of paint, bottles of oil and essences, overturned stools left only a narrow passage to the circle of light projected by the high stained-glass skylight, whose rays fell full upon Porbus' pale face and the ivory skull of the strange old man. The young man's attention was soon directed exclusively upon a picture which had already become famous in those days of turmoil and revolution, and which was visited by some of those self-willed individuals to whom we owe the keeping alive of the sacred fire in evil days. The lovely canvas represented Marie the Egyptian preparing to pay the boatman. That masterpiece, painted for Marie de Médicis, was sold by her in her days of poverty.
"I like your saint," said the old man to Porbus, "and I would pay you ten gold crowns over and above the price the queen gives you; but to enter into competition with her - the devil!"
"Do you think well of it?"
"Hm!" exclaimed the old man, "do I think well of it? - yes and no. Your good woman is not badly put together, but she is not alive. You artists think that you have done all that is necessary when you have drawn a figure correctly, and put everything in its place according to the laws of anatomy! You color the features with a flesh tone mixed beforehand on your palette, taking care to keep one side darker than the other, and because you glance from time to time at a naked standing woman standing on the table, you think you have copied Nature, you fancy that you are painters and have stolen God's secret! P-r-r-r! In order to be a great poet, it is not enough to know syntax thoroughly, and to make no mistakes in grammar! Look at your saint, Porbus! At first glance, she seems admirable; but when you look again, you see that she is glued to the canvas, and that you cannot walk around her. She is a silhouette with a single face, a cut out figure, an image which cannot turn or change its position. I feel no air blowing between that arm and the background of the picture; space and depth are lacking; and yet the perspective is perfect, and the gradation of colors in the sky is excellently done; but, not withstanding your praiseworthy efforts, I could never believe that that lovely body was animated by the warm breath of life. It seems to me that, if I should place my hand upon that firm, round throat, I should find it as cold as marble! No, my friend, the blood is not flowing beneath that ivory skin, life does not inflate with its purple dew the veins and arteries entwined in an inextricable network beneath the transparent amber-hued skin of the temples and the breast. In this place, there is palpitating life, but that other is motionless, life and death contend together in each detail: here it is a woman, there a statue, and there a corpse. Your creation is incomplete. You have succeeded in breathing only a portion of your soul into your cherished work. The torch of Prometheus has gone out more than once in your hands, and many portions of your picture have not been touched by the heavenly flame."
"But why do you say so, my dear master?" said Porbus, respectfully, to the old man, while the younger with difficulty restrained a powerful impulse to strike him.
"Ah! there you are," replied the little old man. "You have wavered uncertainly between two systems, between drawing and coloring, between the painstaking phlegm, the stiff precision, of the old German masters, and the dazzling ardor, the happy fertility, of the Italian painters. You have tried to imitate at one and the same Hans Holbein and Titian, Albert Dürer and Paul Veronese. Surely that was a superb ambition! But what has been the result? You have achieved neither the severe charm of sharpness of outline, nor the deceitful fascination of the chiaro-oscuro. In that spot, like bronze in a state of fusion bursting its too fragile mould, the rich, light coloring of Titian has overflowed the meagre Albert Dürer outline in which you cast it. Elsewhere, the features have resisted and held in check the magnificent outpouring of the Venetian palette. Your face is neither perfectly drawn nor perfectly painted, and bears everywhere the traces of this unfortunate indecision. If you did not feel that you were strong enough to melt together in the fire of your genius the two rival methods, you should have chosen definitely one or the other, in order to obtain the unity which corresponds with one of the essential conditions of life. You are true only in the middle portions, your outlines are false, they do not overlap one another, and do not look as if there were anything behind. There is truth here," said the old man, pointing to the saint's breast; "and here," he continued, indicating the point on the canvas where the shoulder came to an end. "But here," he exclaimed, returning to the middle of the throat, "all is false. Let us not analyze it, it would drive you to despair."
The old man seated himself on a stool, his face in his hands, and was silent.
"And yet, master," said Porbus, "I studied that throat with great care in the model; but, unhappily for us, there are genuine effects in Nature which do not seem probable on canvas..."
"The mission of art is not to copy Nature, but to give expression to it! You are not a base copyist, but a poet!" cried the old man, earnestly, interrupting Porbus with an imperious gesture. "Otherwise, a sculptor would end all his labors in merely moulding women. But try to mould your mistress' hand and place it before you; you will find a horrible dead thing without any resemblance, and you will be compelled to have recourse to the chisel of the man who, without copying it for you exactly, will instill movement and life into it. We have to grasp the spirit, the soul, the features, of things and beings. Effects! effects! why they are the accidents of life, and not life itself. A hand - as I have taken that example - a hand is not simply a part of the body, it expresses and continues a thought which we must grasp and render. Neither the poet nor the painter nor the sculptor should separate cause and effect, which are inextricably bound up in each other! There is the real struggle! Many painters triumph instinctively, knowing nothing of this canon of art. You draw a woman, but you do not see her! Not thus do we succeed in forcing Nature to yield up her secrets. Your hand reproduces, unconsciously on your part, the model you have copied in your master's studio. You do not go down far enough into the intimate knowledge of form, you do not pursue it with sufficient love and perseverance in its windings and its flights. Beauty is a stern, uncompromising thing, which does not allow itself to be attained in that way; you must bide its time, keep watch upon it, press it close, and hold it fast to force it to surrender. Form is a Proteus much more difficult to seize, and much more prolific in changes of aspect than the fabled Proteus; only after a long contest can one force it to show itself in its real shape. You are content with the first view that it presents to you, or with the second or the third, at all events: but that is not the way that victorious fighters act! The unvanquished painters never allow themselves to be deceived by these will-o'-the-wisps, they persevere until Nature is driven to show itself to them all naked and in its true guise. Such was the course pursued by Raphael," said the man, removing his black velvet cap to express the respect inspired in him by the king of art: "his great superiority is due to the instinctive sense which, in him, seems to desire to shatter form. Form is, in his figures, what it is in ourselves, an interpreter for the communication of ideas and sensations, an exhaustless source of poetic inspiration. Every figure is a world in itself, a portrait of which the original appeared in a sublime vision, in a flood of light, pointed to by an inward voice, laid bare by a divine finger which showed what the sources of expression had been in the whole past life of the subject. You give your women fine dresses of flesh, lovely draperies of hair, but where is the blood that engenders tranquility or passion, and causes its peculiar effects? Your saint was a brunette, but this one, my poor Porbus, is more nearly a blonde! Your people, therefore, are pale, colored phantoms which you parade before our eyes, and you call that painting and art? Because you have produced something that resembles a woman more than a house, you think that you have gained your end, and, proud beyond measure because you are no longer obliged to write beneath your figures: currus venustus or pulcher homo, as did the early painters, you fancy that you are wonderful artists! Aha! not yet, my excellent friends! you must wear out many brushes, cover many canvases, before you reach that stage! Assuredly a woman carries her head in that way, she holds her skirt so, her eyes have that languishing, melting expression of gentle resignation, the fluttering shadow of the eyelashes wavers so upon her cheeks! It is true and it is not true. What does it lack? a mere nothing, but that nothing is everything. You produce the appearance of life, but you do not express its overflowing vitality, that indefinable something which is the soul, perhaps, and which floats mistily upon the surface - in a word, that flower of life that Titian and Raphael grasped. Starting from the last point you have reached, excellent results in painting might perhaps be attained, but you grow weary too quickly. The vulgar herd admires, and the true connoisseur smiles. O Mabuse, O my master," added this extraordinary individual, "you are a thief, you carried life away with you!--However," he continued, "this canvas is preferable to the paintings of that varlet Rubens, with his mountains of Flemish flesh sprinkled with vermilion, his waves of red hair and his medley of colors. At all events, you have harmonious coloring there, and accurate drawing, and sentiment, the three essential elements of good art."
"Why, that saint is sublime, good man!" cried the young man, in a loud voice, rousing himself from a profound reverie. "The two figures of the saint and the boatman have a subtlety of expression unknown to the Italian painters; I do not know of one who could have represented with such art the boatman's indecision."
"Is this little knave with you?" Porbus asked the old man.
"Alas! master, pray pardon my presumption," replied the neophyte, blushing hotly. "I am unknown, a dauber of canvases by instinct, and only lately arrived to this city, the fountain of all knowledge."
"To work!" said Porbus, handing him a red pencil and a sheet of paper.
The unknown rapidly copied the Marie almost at a stroke.
"Oho!" cried the old man. "Your name?"
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