THE classical reaction that took place in France at the close of the eighteenth century, when David suddenly gave up painting in the manner of Fragonard, strikes us as inconsistent at a first glance, because it was an outcome of the Revolution. It seems a contradiction that the antique should have become a revolutionary symptom, that an obvious retrogression should have been welcomed as the artistic expression of progress. The phenomenon is not to be explained by literary influences alone, nor by the gradual growth of the tendency in the years preceding the Revolution. That at a certain epoch, certain characters in Roman history excited peculiar sympathy and admiration, is not in itself enough to explain the substitution of the toga for modern dress, with a fine contempt for all material differences. What men were seeking in that dramatic moment--the most tremendous, perhaps, in the history of any nation--was a definite form of expression, a speech that could convey something of the dignity to which the people had risen in the Revolution, an art which could fix in plastic form the extraordinary elements of this great period. They were seeking, in fact, the simple ideal of popular art, a sign of the times that all might see from afar.
The art of the great Watteau's successors was altogether alien to such a conception. It found itself suddenly in irreconcilable opposition to its contemporaries. It is surprising that at a time when the guillotine was so busy its exponents should not have fared worse. For they were the faithful representatives of all anti-revolutionary instincts; not merely because they were an embodiment of the seductive period of the Monarchy, the most delicate deposit of the gay rococo style that had delighted the Court of Louis, but because their whole mode of thought and form of expression breathed hostility to the revolutionaries. In one of the many coarse illustrations of the scenes of horror of the closing century, a dainty cavalier is shown looking delightedly at a print in a bric-à-brac shop, while a Jacobin in a toga, the Phrygian cap on his dishevelled hair, laughingly drives a Roman sword into his ribs from behind. No more striking antithesis could be imagined than the delicate dilettante art of Fragonard, the decadent sense of enjoyment that found delight in St. Aubin's marvellous prints, and the Roman ideals of the youthful Republic. It almost seems as if the ancient parts of North and South had been reversed, as if culture had evolved the barbarian, and barbarism the man of culture.
The historical criticism that seems so obvious to us now, that sees salvation in the Rubens-Watteau tradition, and looks upon Classicism as an untoward interruption in the development of modern painting, was totally outside the ken of these Republicans. They had all the ingenuousness of youth; for the social upheaval had made them almost a new people. There was more affinity between a Frenchman and a native of the United States, than between the Parisian of the Monarchy and the Parisian of the Directory. That this youthfulness was a mere rejuvenescence, that the nation was the same in blood and was at the end of its powers, was
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Publication information: Book title: Modern Art:Being a Contribution to a New System of Aesthetics. Volume: 1. Contributors: Julius Meier-Graefe - Author, Florence Simmonds - Translator, George W. Chrystal - Translator. Publisher: G. P. Putnam's Sons. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 1908. Page number: 33.