Our Books

Modern Art

Author: J.-K. Huysmans

Translator: Brendan King   Cover design: Marie Lane  

Modern Art by J.-K. Huysmans

An extract from the chapter: Exhibition of the Independents in 1880

It now only remains for me – before coming to the work of M. Degas who I’ve saved until last – to say a few words about the two female painters of the group: Mlle. Cassatt and Mme. Berthe Morisot.
A student of Degas – I see his influence in that charming painting in which the back of a redheaded woman, dressed in yellow, is reflected in a mirror on the crimson backdrop of a theatre box – Mlle. Cassatt is clearly also a student of the English painters, because her excellent canvas, two ladies taking tea in an interior, makes me think of certain works exhibited in 1878, in the English section of the Exposition Universelle.
Here, we’re still with the middle class, but it’s not that of M. Caillebotte; it’s a world that’s equally comfortably off, but more refined, more elegant. In spite of her personality, which still hasn’t completely emerged yet, Mlle. Cassatt nevertheless has a curious quality that is especially attractive, because there’s a frisson of nervous female tension in her painting that is more balanced, more tranquil, more intelligent than that of Mme. Morisot, a student of M. Manet.
Left in the unfinished state of sketches, the works exhibited by this artist are a chic jumble of white and pink. They’re like Manet-esque Chaplins, with the turbulence of nervous agitation and strain added in. The women Mme. Morisot shows us at their toilette smell of ‘New Mown Hay’25 and frangipani; one divines silk stockings beneath their dresses, which seem to be designed by dressmakers of renown. A heady, fashionable elegance escapes from these morbid sketches, these astonishing improvisations, which might justly, perhaps, be qualified by the epithet ‘hysterical’.
I now pass in front of the soft, whitish painting by Mme. Bracquemond, in front also of the portrait of Edmond de Goncourt executed by M. Bracquemond, a portrait done à la Holbein though of an excessive harshness in the flesh, especially the pores which are like the grain in marble, but an interesting portrait nevertheless because it captures the writer at home in the middle of his collection of precious objets d’art; and, neglecting a series of etchings on fine China paper destined to decorate a set of dinner plates, intriguing, it’s true, but taken almost wholly from the sketchbooks of Hokusai, I finally stop in the room in which the canvases by Degas shine out.
I don’t remember ever having experienced a shock similar to that I felt in 1876, the first time I found myself opposite the work of this master. For me, who had only ever been attracted to paintings of the Dutch school, in which I found my need for reality and scenes of private life were satisfied, it was truly as if I was possessed. The modern, which I would search for in vain in the exhibitions of the time and which was only beginning to break through in fragments here and there, appeared to me here in its entirety, in a single blow. In the Gazette des Amateurs,26 the journal cultivated by M. Bachelin-Deflorenne in which I made my writing debut, I wrote these lines:
M. Degas exhibits two canvases representing dancers at the Opera Garnier: three girls in yellow tulle skirts, arms intertwined; in the background, the scenery rises and we glimpse the pink costumes of the corps de ballet; these three girls are poised on their hips and on pointes with an extraordinary fidelity.
No creamy, artifical skin here, but real flesh, a little tarnished by a layer of pastes and powders. It’s absolutely realistic and it’s truly beautiful. I also recommend the painting above this one, the torso of a woman leaning forward and two drawings on pink paper, one of a ballerina seen from the back and the other of one tying the lace of her ballet shoe, which are carried off with a rare suppleness and vigour.
The joy I experienced then, wholly boyish, has since increased with each exhibition in which Degas has featured.
A painter of modern life has been born, and a painter who doesn’t derive from anyone, who doesn’t resemble anyone, who brings a wholly new flavour to art, wholly new techniques of execution. Washerwomen in their shops, dancers at their rehearsals, café-concert singers, theatre scenes, racehorses, portraits, American cotton merchants, women getting out of their baths, the paraphernalia of bedrooms and theatre boxes, all these diverse subjects have been treated by this artist, who nevertheless has acquired a reputation for only painting dancers!
This year, however, ballet scenes do in fact dominate, and this man of so fine a temperament, of so vibrant a nervous disposition, whose eye is so curiously obsessed and preoccupied by the human figure in movement, whether in the artificial illumination of gaslight or in the pallid daylight of rooms lit by the melancholy glow of a courtyard, has surpassed himself – if that’s possible.
Look at his Dance Examination, a bending dancer who is retying a ribbon, and another, head down, her aquiline nose, visible beneath a russet-red mane, pointing to the floor. Near them, a friend in ordinary clothes, a girl of the people, freckled cheeks, a mop of hair drawn back under a hat bristling with red feathers, chats during the interlude with one of the girls’ mothers, who is wearing a bonnet and a floral shawl and has the face of an old concierge. What truth! What life! How all these figures are arranged, how the light bathes the scene so perfectly, how the expressions on these faces, the boredom of tiresome mechanical work, the searching look of the mother whose hopes are raised when her daughter’s body strains, the dancers’ indifference to the tiredness they feel, are all laid bare, noted with the perspicacity of an analyst who is both cruel and subtle.
Another of his paintings is more lugubrious. In an immense room in which they are exercising, a girl sits on the floor, her jaw resting on her fist, a statue of annoyance and fatigue, while her comrade, the back of her tutu puffing out over the backrest of the chair she’s sitting on, stares stupefied at the group frolicking about to the sound of a squeaky violin.
But here now are the canvases in which they take up their double-jointed acrobatics again. The rest period is over, the music grinds up again, the torture of legs starts over and, in these paintings whose subjects are often cut off by the frame as in certain Japanese prints, the exercises accelerate, legs are raised in time, hands grip the bar that runs the length of the room, while the pointes of ballet shoes beat the floorboards frenetically and lips smile automatically. The illusion becomes so complete when the eye fixes on these leaping dancers that everything comes to breathless life, one can almost hear the shouts of the teacher, cutting through the shrill din of the violin: ‘Push out those heels, tuck in those hips, raise those wrists, and extend those legs’, and at this last command the grand développé is performed, and the raised foot, carrying with it the seething mass of the tutu, rests, straining, on the high bar.
Then the metamorphosis is complete. The gangly giraffes who couldn’t bow, the dumpy elephants whose knee joints refused to bend, are now supple and broken in. The time for training is over and here they are appearing in public, on the stage, pirouetting, leaping, advancing and retreating on pointes, in the glare of the gaslights, in beams of electric light; and here again, at least until such time as they become usherettes, fortune-tellers or walkers-on,27 M. Degas vividly depicts them at the front of the stage, captures them in mid-flight when they leap, or taking their bows to left and right, blowing kisses to the public with their hands.
His observation of the girls in this series is so exact that a physiologist could make a curious study of the physical idiosyncrasies of each of them. Here, the plump ones who have slimmed themselves down and whose complexion fades under a miserable diet of meatloaf and cheap wine; there, the original anaemic types, pitiful consumptive girls who have to lie down in the wings, exhausted by the exercise of their craft, worn out by all that practising in their youth; and over there, the nervous, wiry girls, whose muscles bulge under their tights, true mountain goats built to jump, true dancers, with tendons of steel and hams of iron.
And how delightful they all are, delightful with a special beauty made up of working class lubricity and grace! How ravishing, how almost divine they are amidst all these canvases of little slatterns ironing or carrying linen, amidst these singers in black gloves their mouths agape, amidst these acrobats who ascend into the roof of a circus.
And what a study of the effect of light! In this regard I could point out a pastel of a theatre box, an empty box next to the stage, the cherry-red screen half raised and the darker purple wallpaper in the background, and then the profile of a woman leaning over the balcony above, looking at the ham actors yapping below; the colour of her hot face in the heat of the room, the blood rising to her scarlet cheeks, burning up to her ears and attenuating at the temple, is of a singular exactitude in that beam of light that strikes her.
The exhibition by M. Degas this year comprises a dozen pieces; I’ve already cited a few, but I will point out two more superb drawings: one, a head of a woman that would absolutely be worthy to figure among the drawings of the French school at the Louvre; and the other – which I will now stop in front of for a few minutes – a portrait of the late-lamented Edmond Duranty.28
It goes without saying that M. Degas has avoided the idiotic background so dear to portrait painters, those hangings – scarlet, olive green, tulip-blue, purple, greeny-brown or ash grey – that tear a big hole in the fabric of truth, because at the end of the day one has to paint the person one’s doing a portrait of in their home or in the street, in a real setting, anywhere, except in the middle of a polished sheet of bland colour.
M. Duranty is there, in the middle of his prints and his books, sitting at his table, and his slender nervous fingers, his keen, mocking eye, his searching, piercing look, his comical English primness, his little dry laugh into the stem of his pipe, pass through my mind again at the sight of this canvas in which the character of this meticulous critic is so well rendered.
It’s difficult with a pen to give even a very vague idea of M. Degas’ painting, it has its equivalent only in literature; if a comparison between these two arts were possible, I would say that M. Degas’ accomplishment reminds me in many ways of the literary accomplishments of the Goncourt brothers. These men will turn out to have been, the former as much as the latter, the most refined and most exquisite artists of the century.
In the same way that to make visible, almost palpable, the exterior form of the human animal in the milieu in which he lives, in order to show the mechanism of his passions, to explain the march and the phases of his thoughts, the aberration of his devotions, the natural blossoming of his vices, to express the most fugitive of his feelings, Jules and Edmond de Goncourt had to forge an incisive and powerful tool, to create a new tonal palette, an original vocabulary, a new language; likewise, in order to express a vision of beings and things in an atmosphere proper to them, to show their movements, their postures, their gestures, their facial expressions, the various aspects of their features and their makeup according to the attenuation or the intensity of light, to translate effects that were misunderstood or considered impossible to paint hitherto, M. Degas had to fabricate an instrument that was at one and the same time both broad and fine, flexible and firm.
He also had to borrow from all the vocabularies of painting, to combine various elements of oil and pigment, of watercolour and pastel, of tempura and gouache, to forge neologisms of colour, to break with the accepted arrangement of subjects.
An audacious and singular painting style that tackles the imponderable, from the slightest breeze that ruffles gauze on tights, to the wind of an entrechat that fans out the layers of tulle in a tutu, an intelligent and simple style of painting nonetheless, devoting itself to the most complicated and boldest poses of the body, to the tensing and relaxing of muscles, to the most unforeseen effects of perspective, and daring – in order to give an exact sensation to the eye that follows Miss Lola ascending by force of her teeth to the heights of the Cirque Fernando – to slant the roof of the circus completely to one side!
And what a definitive abandonment of all the techniques of light and shade, of all the old imposture of tones prepared on the palette, of all that trickery taught over the centuries. And what a new application of Delacroix’s theory of ‘optical mixing’, which is to say producing a tone absent from the palette but achieved on the canvas by the juxtaposition of two others.
Here, in the portrait of Duranty, it’s patches of an almost bright pink on the forehead, of green in the beard, blue in the velvet collar of the suit; the fingers are done with yellow bordered by episcopal purple. Up close, it’s a slashing crosshatch of colours that clash and shatter against each other, that seem to overlap each other; at the distance of a few steps, all this harmonises itself and melts into the precise tone of flesh, of flesh that breathes, that lives, and that nobody in France has known how to do until now.
It’s the same with his dancers. The one I spoke about above, the redhead whose aquiline nose almost touches her chest, has a neck shadowed in green and the curve of her calf outlined in purple; up close, her tights are a crush of pink pencil; at a distance, they are cotton stretched over a flexing leg muscle.
No painter since Delacroix – who he’s studied for a long time and who is his true master – has understood the marriage and the adultery of colours like M. Degas; no one today has a drawing style so precise and so broad, a touch for colouring so delicate; just as, in a different art, no one has the exquisiteness that the Goncourts put into their prose; no one has fixed, like them, in a deliberate and personal style, the most ephemeral of sensations, the most fleeting finesse and nuance.
A question now arises. When will the high place that this painter should occupy in contemporary art be recognised? When will it be understood that this artist is the greatest we have today in France? I am not a prophet, but if I judge by the ineptitude of the enlightened classes – who after having reviled Delacroix for so long still don’t even suspect that Baudelaire is the poet of genius of the 19th century, that he is head and shoulders above everyone else, including Hugo, and that the masterpiece of the modern novel is Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education,29 even though literature is supposedly the art most accessible to the masses – I can well believe that this truth about M. Degas, which I am the only person to write today, will probably not be recognised as such for many, many years.
One can say, however, that a change has taken place in the attitude of the public, who in the past just split their sides at the exhibitions of the rebel Impressionists, making no allowance for failed efforts, for the ravages of colour blindness30 and other afflictions of the eye, not appreciating that these pathological cases weren’t laughable, but were simply interesting to study. Nowadays, they wander more peacefully through the rooms, still scared and irritated by works whose innovation unnerves them, totally unaware of the unfathomable abyss that separates the modern as M. Degas and M. Caillebotte conceive it, and that manufactured by Messrs Bastien-Lepage and Henri Gervex, but in the main, in spite of the public’s longstanding stupidity, they nevertheless stop and look and are astonished, and are even gripped a little by the sincerity these works exude.
One can even add that these days the visitors’ laughter is directed at certain other canvases scattered throughout this exhibition, at mediocre canvases that are neither Impressionist, nor modern; and I wish, while we’re on this topic, that the former would cleanse itself as quickly as possible, and sweep out the withered fruits that have escaped, how I don’t know, from the official Salon.
One must also hope that at the same time as this banishing of the worthless is carried out, new talents will emerge and come to ally themselves with the Independents. The whole of modern life is still to be studied; if some of its multiples facets have been glimpsed and noted, it is barely a start. Everything is to do: official galas, soirées, balls, scenes of domestic life, lives of artisans and of the middle classes, shops, markets, restaurants, cafés, bars, in short, all of humanity, in whatever class of society it belongs and whatever function it fulfils, at home, in a hospital, in a dancehall, at the theatre, in public squares, in impoverished streets or in those vast boulevards whose Americanised aspect forms the obligatory backdrop to the desires of our time.
Besides, if some of the painters who we’ve occupied ourselves with have, here and there, reproduced a few episodes of contemporary existence, what artist will now render the imposing grandeur of our industrialised cities, will follow the way opened by the German, Adoph Menzel, by going into huge foundries, and into railway stations (which M. Claude Monet has, it’s true, already tried to paint, but without managing to capture in his hesitant shorthand the colossal size of locomotives or depots), what landscape artist will render the terrifying and imposing solemnity of blast furnaces burning in the night, of gigantic chimneys crowned at their summit by pale fires?
All the work of man, striving in mills and factories, all the modern fervour that industrial activity presents, all the magnificence of machines – all this is still to paint and it will be painted, provided that modernists truly worthy of the name agree not to demean themselves or mummify themselves in the eternal reproduction of the same subject.
Ah, the beautiful part they have to play! The last pupils of Cabanel and Gérôme continue to patch up the moth-eaten finery of previous centuries in order to get a medal; among the most celebrated, a certain number have installed themselves in their studios, like courtesans, and, to the profit of their art dealer, give themselves up to vulgar ‘quick ones’ of painting.
Others still sit in their windows, working for themselves like the tarts in Amsterdam,31 knocking out titillating works for the middle classes, who they arouse by lavishing on them the sentimental caricatures of real life that they adore.
To conclude, French art is at rock bottom; everything has to be rebuilt; never has a more glorious task been reserved to artists of talent, such as these painters whose submissions I’ve just looked at in the rooms of the Rue des Pyramides.


RRP: £10.99

No. of pages: 313

Publication date: 14.02.2019

Re-print date: 27.05.2020

ISBN numbers:
978 1 910213 99 5
978 1 912868 07 0

Dedalus World Rights in this translation