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The Rediscovery of Paganism

It is a pleasant, and to me novel, experience to find myself made welcome in Bond Street. It never happened before this summer; but it is never too late to learn what it must feel like to be Mr. Berenson. The reason why I am kindly received is that, like all reputable critics, I have for years been urging the rich to buy pictures by the French impressionists. The rich—the English rich I mean, who in matters of art are always some thirty years behind the times—at last give signs of making a start; and the dealers to meet the anticipated demand have laid in a stock of Renoirs, Manets, Monets, Sisleys, Degas and even Cézannes: naturally they hope that the reputable critics, of whom I am one, will continue to urge. 
As a matter of fact, now that they are off, the rich will not need much urging I fancy; for not since the end of the eighteenth century have they had such a chance of buying what they know to be right and at the same time like genuinely. Not since Fragonard have the taste of the beau monde and good painting made so happy a match. Indeed to me the odd thing is that the match was not made years ago; and I can explain it only by supposing that till lately the great still went in too much fear of middle-class earnestness to revel frankly in that paganism, which they recognize in impressionist painting, and which is, I believe, the quality that draws them most strongly to it. It is a genuine and delicious quality and they appreciate it genuinely. Ordinary cultivated people rarely enjoy wholeheartedly aesthetic qualities pure; they would never care much for Mantegna, Raffael, and Ingres were it not their duty to; but, mixed with other more appetizing qualities, fine form and color are by no means distasteful to them, and the impressionists offer color and form of the loveliest, saturated in the sweet, delicious wine of newly tapped paganism.

The cultivated rich seem at last to have discovered in the impressionists what the impressionists themselves rediscovered half by accident. They rediscovered paganism—real paganism I mean—something real enough to be the inspiration and content of supreme works of art. Paganism, I take it, is the acceptance of life as something good and satisfying in itself. To enjoy life the pagan need not make himself believe that it is a means to something else—to a better life in another world for instance, or a juster organization of society, or complete self-development: he does not regard it as a brief span or portion in which to do something for his own soul, or for his fellow creatures, or for the future. He takes the world as it is and enjoys to the utmost what he finds in it: also, he is no disconsolate archaeologist spending his own age thinking how much more happily he could have lived in another and what a pagan he would have been on the banks of the Ilissus. No, paganism does not consist in a proper respect for the pagan past, but in a passionate enjoyment of the present; and Poussin, though he painted bacchanals galore, would have been quite out of place in the world of Theocritus. Your true pagan neither regrets nor idealizes: and while Swinburne was yearning nostalgicly for “the breasts of the nymph in the brake,” Renoir was finding inspiration for a glorious work of art in the petticoats of the shop-girls at the Moulin de la Galette.

I am talking about art and artists, mind you. There have always been plenty of people to delight in shop-girls’ legs; but only an artist can get far enough away from, without losing hold of, this agreeable theme to transmute it into a thing of beauty. The common man when he tries to handle it is merely prurient or pornographic. In Renoir’s pictures or Manet’s there is no taint of anecdote or reminiscence, nothing of Félicien Rops or Van Dongen. They make you feel surely enough that the scene—be it dance or picnic, promenade or bar—is joyous, that “the atmosphere” is delightful; but both are far too much artists to hint at any particular feeling of their own for the model, considered not as a form but as a particular human being, or, worse still, to invite you to share it. All they have to express comes in to them through form and color, and through form and color goes out. If you want to mark for yourself the difference between the feeling of an artist for the gaiety and romance of Montmartre in the latter part of the last century and that of someone who was not, you need only turn first to a picture by Renoir (e.g. Le Moulin de la Galette) and then to Mr. George Moore’s reminiscences (e.g. The End of Marie Pellegrin). The artist never brags and chatters; he creates: whereas all that Mr. Moore can do is to insinuate what a devil of a fellow he was, calida juventu, consule Felice.

I said that the impressionists rediscovered paganism half by accident. They came at it through, of all things in the world, a doctrine—the plein-airiste doctrine. One hardly realizes how contrary to all the rules it was—I don’t say it never was done—for a painter, before the impressionists, to take his canvas out of doors and there complete his picture. Corot himself never made more than sketches sur le motif, and I think the same is true of Constable and Courbet. Daumier, to be sure, went into the street; but to seek, not its beauty and movement, but its tragic significance: if any precursor of impressionist paganism there be assuredly he is not Daumier. Still less is he that occasionally admirable painter Monticelli, who had no sense of actuality at all; but perhaps there is something to be said for the claims of Constantin Guys. The impressionists at any rate, in search of le motif, took their easels out with them; took them into the streets and public gardens, into the country, into railway stations, down the river; and in the motif itself had to find an inspiration to fill their canvas to the brim. For another impressionist doctrine—dogma one might almost say—which made for the rediscovery of paganism was what contemporaries of Claude Monet were pleased to call the doctrine of scientific representation. Claude Monet insisted that the artist should paint only what he saw; he was to put nothing into his picture but what was visible in the object. Now at a picnic or a café-chantant an artist cannot really see nobility or pathos or “the light that never was,” he can only “think them in.” But the impressionists were forbidden to think anything in, so they had to peer hard into picnics and cafés-chantants to find some purely visual quality that would suffice to fill a work of art. They found beauty; and, bettering their instructions, added a lyrical quality—their delight in beauty. They stared and stared again at contemporary life, and the more they looked at it the more they liked it.
The consequences of these plein-airistes and pseudo-scientific theories was that the impressionists gave a vision of life at one remove—transformed by a temperament that is to say—instead of giving it at two as the artist must who works from studies and adds sentiments in a carefully arranged north light. Compare any picnic or garden scene by Renoir with some picture of a fête by Watteau and you will see in a moment what I am driving at. The impressionist painter is so much closer to reality—not in representation of course but in sentiment—that by comparison Watteau seems almost to be giving us the picture of a picnic on the stage. I am not suggesting that there is any superiority m the impressionist method—I do not think there is: but I am suggesting that it led directly to the rediscovery of paganism. The impressionist painters had to extract all the beauty and significance they required from their surroundings: they could depend neither on the intellectual additions and transformations nor on the traditional technical enrichments of the studio; nor were they permitted to eke out an artistic living by drawing on the dignity or picturesqueness of their theme. History and exoticism were taboo. In contemporary life they had to find all that they required, and contemporary life was lavish beyond their needs; so naturally they fell in love with it, and made the most exquisitely civilized of their generation and ours share their emotion.

When I say that the impressionists fell in love with their surroundings I use the expression advisedly. At their best the impressionists are as lyrical as Fra Angelico himself:

The world is so full of such wonderful things
I am sure we should all be as happy as kings.
And you must remember that the wonderful things of which the world was so full had for years been considered inappropriate, if not inimical, to art. Turner, to be sure, had painted a Great Western express rushing over the Thames at Maidenhead in a rainstorm; but there is no question here of accepting contemporary life, the work being—as its title confesses—a poem in praise of rain, speed and steam rather than the picture of a locomotive crossing a railway-bridge. Generally speaking, it is true to say that the implements and fashions of the nineteenth century had been assumed to be without artistic significance. They were uninspiring: they had no secret for the poet’s ear: they were ugly—Ruskin said so. Turn to back numbers of Punch and you will find “our artist” protesting in horror against the railway-trains, iron bridges, factory-chimneys and steam-boats to which “the manufacturer” would draw his attention: for all I know the sort of artist in whom Mr. Punch believes protests to this day, and for all I care.

Be that as it may, in the middle of last century it certainly held that stage-coaches, sailing-ships, classical antiquity, and mediaeval costumes were beautiful, and that contemporary apparel and means of locomotion were not. Now when the ordinary objects of every day life are held to be insignificant and incapable of provoking emotion, you may have a great austere classical art, or a literary and romantic, but pagan art you cannot have. It was the impressionists who gave us that by discovering the beauty of their surroundings, snapping their fingers at Monsieur Ingres, ignoring Ruskin, and overlooking Jehovah.
The impressionist painter was in love with his world. He was in love with the absurd little horse-cab that took him to the Gare St. Lazare, with its yellow body and its driver’s shiny white hat. He was in love with the streets and the passers-by and the garish shop-windows and the architecture of the boulevards even. He was in love with the station when he got there, with the book-stalls and the piles of luggage and the tall carriages and the puffing locomotives. He was in love with the cuttings and embankments and bridges, and the ridiculous little villas, seen from the window, with their palisades and vegetable- plots. “Mon dieu, Mon dieu, la vie est là,” burst the most enchanting, though most penitent, of poets. And their pagan lyricism was not for landscape only. You can follow them into the little banal gargote, and delight in tumblers of red wine half-filled and broken bread and meats and fruit-parings and matchboxes on a white cloth. You can linger over the loveliness of blue cigarette smoke, of the ladies’ funny little frocks, and the sombre would-be correctness of the bearded gentlemen. You can clap your hands in ecstasy (à bas Ruskin) as a steam tug passes under the bridge, and a railway-train potters over it. The world is so full of such wonderful things: the world is lovely: life is delicious.
This is paganism: and this joy in the beauty of what the orthodox considered ugly came to the impressionist painters, I think, largely because they took their canvases out of doors in the laudable determination to paint only what they saw and to find in that an, adequate inspiration. They refused to find in what philosophers call “external reality” a means or a symbol; they loved it for itself and were rewarded with a copious gift of the very stuff of art. This unpretentious, and un-premeditated, paganism is, unless I mistake, what has endeared and still endears them to so many sensitive people who, as a rule, care little for painting. But what makes so many of their pictures masterpieces is, of course, the individual genius of each painter for creating an appropriate form, a combination of lines and colors, in which to envelop and externalize his emotion. May I add, by way of footnote, that, though we, amateurs, are at present thoroughly in the mood to delight in the paganism of the impressionists, the best of our painters are not; or, at any rate, are themselves anything but pagan, being pensive rather and disposed to abstract construction along traditional lines. The severely aesthetic qualities of the great impressionists—their color and drawing—are what they admire, when they admire them at all. Though our “surroundings”—clothes, vehicles, buildings, utensils, etc.—are considerably different from those of the seventies and eighties, Henri Matisse alone of contemporary artists has, I think, done for them what the impressionists did for theirs. He, and perhaps Bonnard, (sometimes called the last impressionist), are today our only pagans; they are as great as any of their contemporaries, but they are not representative or the contemporary movement.