From still lifes, the early modern fled, and the later modern drew near, passing as did parishioners and holy men through Canaletto’s 1740 Interior of San Marco. I observed a weeping maid before the churchyard grave in Chassériau’s Le souvenir but found in a neighboring piece, Pierre-Eugène-Émile Hébert’s Et toujours! Et jamais! the inversion of its content, as though in a mirror. Indeed, the works played with similar personages, Death and Love, but had shuffled them about, such that Death took the place of Love and Love that of Death. For, in Hébert’s piece, Death had descended from on high to replace the headstone against which Chassériau’s sorrowful maid leaned, her lone support and last reminder of a love lost. In its place, I found Death embodied and the young woman’s sorrows become lust, her fleshy limbs swept up in the Death’s twisted embrace. Leaning in, I could even make out the traces on her skin left by the slight pressure exerted by bony fingers.
The most I could say of it came to something like the following. Although Romanticism had gone, its heights abandoned, the movement was alive albeit in a lesser form. And, perhaps fittingly, this lesser had come to make its home in the ruins left by its great forebears. The 19th century’s end carried latent Romantic gestures and traits, such as I found in James Tissot’s 1877 Octobre. Blended with certain Japanizing tactics, as seen in the vertical format and horizon closed by leafage, the painting entered on a woman of twenty-two years. The information panel identified as the painter’s then-lover, clad in black, stark against the orange fall foliage.
Head turned towards the onlooker and ankle bared, Madame Newton beckoned still from her closed off world. I sought in the autumn leaves something like the sign of her passing, her life expiring with the northern hemisphere’s warm months. Should I look closely enough, perhaps in those paints I might have found traces of the air rushing out of her lungs or even something to suggest that she herself had become just such a puff of air herself, a fancy born of tuberculosis-riddled lungs and revealing itself to the artist. I spent a moment more with this young woman wedded to her own disappearance. It was only on turning away that I noticed the roe deer beyond the left curtain, peering in on tuberculosis beneath the chestnuts.
I found myself before something similarly Japanizing in Corot’s 1868 L’île heureuse. At its right side, against the frame, there stood a stunted tree from which spindly limbs rose. Several ends were home to the season’s last leaves, more wisps than leaves. About the whole, I detected the vaguest hint of a single continuous brushstroke, such as I had seen in Arabic calligraphy traditions. Below the limbs, a woman had placed herself and, by juxtaposition, had taken on something of the tree and so found herself caught in the tree’s slow evaporation. Although her more solid shape and colors faded into the wash of silver, grey and dark brown, her presence alone marked a certain resistance against the general transition from line to wisp. Regardless, for Corot, a tree seemingly proved no more than a brushstroke like another.
Moving on at last to the contemporaries, I paused a moment before Dubuffet’s La légende du sol and took pleasure in the laying of oils and paper pulp, which recalled for me the hard-baked clay, lined with fissures, and which I had often seen of a summer in the North American plains. I could even look upon the piece as a topographical work and follow the branching chasms, were I to place myself at just the right angle off to one side.
This concluded my museum tour, with the exception of what I could only judge to be a long-lost collection of illustrations. So little frequented was this far-flung corner of the basement level, I would have believed it to house, rather than graphite drawings, etchings, and a few lithographs, those works deemed most pernicious for their viewers’ minds. I could imagine myself to have touched on something like the truth with this last supposition, for I found a 1794 George Romney graphite bearing the title Satan Rallying His Host. Begun in the 1790’s, a series of studies inspired by Paradise Lost received considerable attention and effort from Romney, all the more remarkable given his dimming eyesight following a number of strokes.
Despite such circumstances, he undertook these drawings in secrecy, which were only the subject of rare allusion in his correspondence. As I could best guess, this owed to their focus on the epic’s protagonist. The style remained largely impressionistic, hastily drawn, as though more solid forms would have been unable to bottle the seething energies animating the fallen host. Satan proved no exception to this general and himself stood nude, right arm upthrust, eyes barely discernible in his head, musculature traced, left arm bearing aloft a shield round and broad as the moon. The study’s expressivity held me enthralled, in the way that it communicated an energy to which I would otherwise have been insensitive. Perhaps art consisted in such percepts tout court.