“Carolus” by Eliot Gregory
Story type: Essay
In the early seventies a group of students-dissatisfied with the cut-and-dried instruction of the Paris art school and attracted by certain qualities of color and technique in the work of a young Frenchman from the city of Lille, who was just beginning to attract the attention of connoisseurs-went in a body to his studio with the request that he would oversee their work and direct their studies. The artist thus chosen was Carolus-Duran. Oddly enough, a majority of the youths who sought him out and made him their master were Americans.
The first modest workroom on the Boulevard Montparnasse was soon too small to hold the pupils who crowded under this newly raised banner, and a move was made to more commodious quarters near the master’s private studio. Sargent, Dannat, Harrison, Beckwith, Hinckley, and many others whom it is needless to mention here, will-if these lines come under their notice-doubtless recall with a thrill of pleasure the roomy one-storied structure in the rue Notre-Dame des Champs where we established our atelier d’élèves, a self-supporting cooperative concern, each student contributing ten francs a month toward rent, fire, and models, “Carolus”-the name by which this master is universally known abroad-not only refusing all compensation, according to the immutable custom of French painters of distinction, but, as we discovered later, contributing too often from his own pocket to help out the massier at the end of a difficult season, or smooth the path of some improvident pupil.
Those were cloudless, enchanted days we passed in the tumbled down old atelier: an ardent springtime of life when the future beckons gayly and no doubts of success obscure the horizon. Our young master’s enthusiasm fired his circle of pupils, who, as each succeeding year brought him increasing fame, revelled in a reflected glory with the generous admiration of youth, in which there is neither calculation nor shadow of envy.
A portrait of Madame de Portalais, exhibited about this time, drew all art-loving Paris around the new celebrity’s canvas. Shortly after, the government purchased a painting (of our master’s beautiful wife), now known as La Femme au Gant, for the Luxembourg Gallery.
It is difficult to overestimate the impetus that a master’s successes impart to the progress of his pupils. My first studious year in Paris had been passed in the shadow of an elderly painter, who was comfortably dozing on the laurels of thirty years before. The change from that sleepy environment to the vivid enthusiasm and dash of Carolus-Duran’s studio was like stepping out of a musty cloister into the warmth and movement of a market-place.
Here, be it said in passing, lies perhaps the secret of the dry rot that too often settles on our American art schools. We, for some unknown reason, do not take the work of native painters seriously, nor encourage them in proportion to their merit. In consequence they retain but a feeble hold upon their pupils.
Carolus, handsome, young, successful, courted, was an ideal leader for a band of ambitious, high-strung youths, repaying their devotion with an untiring interest and lifting clever and dull alike on the strong wings of his genius. His visits to the studio, on which his friend Henner often accompanied him, were frequent and prolonged; certain Tuesdays being especially appreciated by us, as they were set apart for his criticism of original compositions.
When our sketches (the subject for which had been given out in advance) were arranged, and we had seated ourselves in a big half-circle on the floor, Carolus would install himself on a tall stool, the one seat the studio boasted, and chat à propos of the works before him on composition, on classic art, on the theories of color and clair-obscur. Brilliant talks, inlaid with much wit and incisive criticism, the memory of which must linger in the minds of all who were fortunate enough to hear them. Nor was it to the studio alone that our master’s interest followed us. He would drop in at the Louvre, when we were copying there, and after some pleasant words of advice and encouragement, lead us off for a stroll through the galleries, interrupted by stations before his favorite masterpieces.
So important has he always considered a constant study of Renaissance art that recently, when about to commence his Triumph of Bacchus, Carolus copied one of Rubens’s larger canvases with all the naïveté of a beginner.
An occasion soon presented itself for us to learn another side of our trade by working with our master on a ceiling ordered of him by the state for the Palace of the Luxembourg. The vast studios which the city of Paris provides on occasions of this kind, with a liberality that should make our home corporations reflect, are situated out beyond the Exhibition buildings, in a curious, unfrequented quarter, ignored alike by Parisians and tourists, where the city stores compromising statues and the valuable débris of her many revolutions. There, among throneless Napoleons and riderless bronze steeds, we toiled for over six months side by side with our master, on gigantic Apotheosis of Marie de Médicis, serving in turn as painter and painted, and leaving the imprint of our hands and the reflection of our faces scattered about the composition. Day after day, when work was over, we would hoist the big canvas by means of a system of ropes and pulleys, from a perpendicular to the horizontal position it was to occupy permanently, and then sit straining our necks and discussing the progress of the work until the tardy spring twilight warned us to depart.
The year 1877 brought Carolus-Duran the médaille d’honneur, a crowning recompense that set the atelier mad with delight. We immediately organized a great (but economical) banquet to commemorate the event, over which our master presided, with much modesty, considering the amount of incense we burned before him, and the speeches we made. One of our number even burst into some very bad French verses, asserting that the painters of the world in general fell back before him-
. . . épouvantès-
Craignant ègalement sa brosse et son èpèe.
This allusion to his proficiency in fencing was considered particularly neat, and became the favorite song of the studio, to be howled in and out of season.
Curiously enough, there is always something in Carolus-Duran’s attitude when at work which recalls the swordsman. With an enormous palette in one hand and a brush in the other, he has a way of planting himself in front of his sitter that is amusingly suggestive of a duel. His lithe body sways to and fro, his fine leonine face quivers with the intense study of his model; then with a sudden spring forward, a few rapid touches are dashed on the canvas (like home strokes in the enemy’s weakest spot) with a precision of hand acquired only by long years of fencing.
An order to paint the king and queen of Portugal was the next step on the road to fame, another rung on the pleasant ladder of success. When this work was done the delighted sovereign presented the painter with the order of “Christ of Portugal,” together with many other gifts, among which a caricature of the master at work, signed by his sitter, is not the least valued.
When the great schism occurred several years ago which rent the art world of France, Carolus-Duran was elected vice-president of the new school under Meissonier, to whose office he succeeded on that master’s death; and now directs and presides over the yearly exhibition known as the Salon du Champ de Mars.
At his ch�teau near Paris or at Saint Raphael, on the Mediterranean, the master lives, like Leonardo of old, the existence of a grand seigneur, surrounded by his family, innumerable guests, and the horses and dogs he loves,-a group of which his ornate figure and expressive face form the natural centre. Each year he lives more away from the world, but no more inspiriting sight can be imagined than the welcome the president receives of a “varnishing” day, when he makes his entry surrounded by his pupils. The students cheer themselves hoarse, and the public climbs on everything that comes to hand to see him pass. It is hard to realize then that this is the same man who, not content with his youthful progress, retired into an Italian monastery that he might commune face to face with nature undisturbed.
The works of no other painter give me the same sensation of quivering vitality, except the Velasquez in the Madrid Gallery and, perhaps, Sargent at his best; and one feels all through the American painter’s work the influence of his first and only master.
“Tout ce qui n’est pas indispensable est nuisible,” a phrase which is often on Carolus-Duran’s lips, may be taken as the keynote of his work, where one finds a noble simplicity of line and color scheme, an elimination of useless detail, a contempt for tricks to enforce an effect, and above all a comprehension and mastery of light, vitality, and texture-those three unities of the painter’s art-that bring his canvases very near to those of his self-imposed Spanish master.
Those who know the French painter’s more important works and his many splendid studies from the nude, feel it a pity that such masterpieces as the equestrian portrait of Mlle. Croisette, of the Comédie Fran�aise, the Réveil, the superb full length of Mme. Pelouse on the Terrace of Chenonceau, and the head of Gounod in the Luxembourg, could not be collected into one exhibition, that lovers of art here in America might realize for themselves how this master’s works are of the class that typify a school and an epoch, and engrave their author’s name among those destined to become household words in the mouths of future generations.