Letter XI.

From: At Home and Abroad, or Things and Thoughts in Europe (1856)
Author: Margaret Fuller Ossoli
Published: and Company 1856 Boston


France and her Artistic Excellence.—The Pictures of Horace Vernet.—De La Roche.—Leopold Robert.—Contrast between the French and English Schools of Art.—The general Appreciation of Turner’s pictures.—Botanical Models in Wax.—Music.—The Opera.—Duprez.—Lablache.—Ronconi.—Grisi.—Persiana.—“Semiramide” as performed by the New York and Paris Operas.—The Writer’s Trial of the “Letheon.”—Its Effects.

  IT needs not to speak in this cursory manner of the treasures of Art, pictures, sculptures, engravings, and the other riches which France lays open so freely to the stranger in her Musées. Any examination worth writing of such objects, or account of the thoughts they inspire, demands a place by itself, and an ample field in which to expatiate. The American, first introduced to some good pictures by the truly great geniuses of the religious period in Art, must, if capable at all of the mental approximation to the life therein embodied, be too deeply affected, too full of thoughts, to be in haste to say anything, and for me, I bide my time.

  No such great crisis, however, is to be apprehended from acquaintance with the productions of the modern French school. They are, indeed, full of talent and of vigor, but also melodramatic and exaggerated to a degree that seems to give the nightmare passage through the fresh and cheerful day. They sound no depth of soul, and are marked with the signet of a degenerate age.

  Thus speak I generally. To the pictures of Horace Vernet one cannot but turn a gracious eye, they are so faithful a transcript of the life which circulates around us in the present state of things, and we are willing to see his nobles and generals mounted on such excellent horses. De la Roche gives me pleasure; there is in his picture a simple and natural poesy; he is a man who has in his own heart a well of good water, whence he draws for himself when the streams are mixed with strange soil and bear offensive marks of the bloody battles of life.

  The pictures of Leopold Robert I find charming. They are full of vigor and nobleness; they express a nature where all is rich, young, and on a large scale. Those that I have seen are so happily expressive of the thoughts and perceptions of early manhood, I can hardly regret he did not live to enter on another stage of life, the impression now received is so single.

  The effort of the French school in Art, as also its main tendency in literature, seems to be to turn the mind inside out, in the coarsest acceptation of such a phrase. Art can only be truly Art by presenting an adequate outward symbol of some fact in the interior life. But then it is a symbol that Art seeks to present, and not the fact itself. These French painters seem to have no idea of this; they have not studied the method of Nature. With the true artist, as with Nature herself, the more full the representation, the more profound and enchanting is the sense of mystery. We look and look, as on a flower of which we cannot scrutinize the secret life, yet by looking seem constantly drawn nearer to the soul that causes and governs that life. But in the French pictures suffering is represented by streams of blood,—wickedness by the most ghastly contortions.

  I saw a movement in the opposite direction in England; it was in Turner’s pictures of the later period. It is well known that Turner, so long an idol of the English public, paints now in a manner which has caused the liveliest dissensions in the world of connoisseurs. There are two parties, one of which maintains, not only that the pictures of the late period are not good, but that they are not pictures at all,—that it is impossible to make out the design, or find what Turner is aiming at by those strange blotches of color. The other party declare that these pictures are not only good, but divine,—that whoever looks upon them in the true manner will not fail to find there somewhat ineffably and transcendently admirable—the soul of Art. Books have been written to defend this side of the question.

  I had become much interested about this matter as the fervor of feeling on either side seemed to denote that there was something real and vital going on, and, while time would not permit my visiting other precious collections in London and its neighborhood, I insisted on taking it for one of Turner’s pictures. It was at the house of one of his devoutest disciples, who has arranged everything in the rooms to harmonize with them. They were a great many of the earlier period; these seemed to me charming, but superficial, views of Nature. They were of a character that he who runs may read,—obvious, simple, graceful. The later pictures were quite a different matter; mysterious looking things,—hieroglyphics of picture, rather than picture itself. Sometimes you saw a range of red dots, which, after long looking, dawned on you as the roofs of houses,—shining streaks turned out to be most alluring rivulets, if traced with patience and a devout eye. Above all, they charmed the eye and the thought. Still, these pictures, it seems to me, cannot be considered fine works of Art, more than the mystical writing common to a certain class of minds in the United States can be called good writing. A great work of Art demands a great thought, or a thought of beauty adequately expressed. Neither in Art nor literature more than in life can an ordinary thought be made interesting because well dressed. But in a transition state, whether of Art or literature, deeper thoughts are imperfectly expressed, because they cannot yet be held and treated masterly. This seems to be the case with Turner. He has got beyond the English gentleman’s conventional view of Nature, which implies a little sentiment and a very cultivated taste; he has become awake to what is elemental, normal, in Nature,—such, for instance, as one sees in the working of water on the sea-shore. He tries to represent these primitive forms. In the drawings of Piranesi, in the pictures of Rembrandt, one sees this grand language exhibited more truly. It is not picture, but certain primitive and leading effects of light and shadow, or lines and contours, that captivate the attention. I saw a picture of Rembrandt’s at the Louvre, whose subject I do not know and have never cared to inquire. I cannot analyze the group, but I understand and feel the thought it embodies. At somewhat similar Turner seems aiming; an aim so opposed to the practical and outward tendency of the English mind, that, as a matter of course, the majority find themselves mystified and thereby angered, but for the same reason answering to so deep and seldom satisfied a want in the minds of the minority, as to secure the most ardent sympathy where any at all can be elicited.

  Upon this topic of the primitive forms and operations of nature, I am reminded of something interesting I was looking at yesterday. These are botanical models in wax, with microscopic dissections by an artist from Florence, a pupil of Calamajo, the Director of the Wax-Model Museum there. I saw collections of ten different genera, or fifty to sixty species of Fungi, Mosses, and Lichens, detected and displayed in all the beautiful secrets of their lives; many of them as observed by Dr. Leveillé of Paris. The artist told me that a fisherman, introduced to such acquaintance with the marvels of love and beauty which we trample under foot or burn in the chimney each careless day, exclaimed, “’T is the good God who protects us on the sea that made all these”; and a similar recognition, a correspondent feeling, will not be easily evaded by the most callous observer. This artist has supplied many of these models to the magnificent collection of the Jardin de Plantes, to Edinburgh, and to Bologna, and would furnish them to our Museums at a much cheaper rate than they can elsewhere be obtained. I wish the Universities of Cambridge, New York, and other leading institutions of our country, might avail themselves of the opportunity.

  In Paris I have not been very fortunate in hearing the best music. At the different Opera-Houses, the orchestra is always good, but the vocalization, though far superior to what I have heard at home, falls so far short of my ideas and hopes that—except to the Italian Opera—I have not been often. The Opera Comique I visited only once; it was tolerably well, and no more, and, for myself, I find the tolerable intolerable in music. At the Grand Opera I heard Robert le Diable and Guillaume Tell almost with ennui; the decorations and dresses are magnificent, the instrumental performance good, but not one fine singer to fill these fine parts. Duprez has had a great reputation, and probably has sung better in former days; still, he has a vulgar mind, and can never have had any merit as an artist. At present I find him unbearable. He forces his voice, sings in the most coarse, showy style, and aims at producing effects without regard to the harmony of his part; fat and vulgar, he still takes the part of the lover and young chevalier; to my sorrow I saw him in Ravenswood and he has well disenchanted for me the Bride of Lammermoor.

  The Italian Opera is here as well sustained, I believe, as any where in the world at present; all about it is certainly quite good, but alas! nothing excellent, nothing admirable. Yet no! I must not say nothing: Lablache is excellent,—voice, intonation, manner of song, action. Ronconi I found good in the Doctor of “L’Elisire d’Amore. But for the higher parts Grisi, though now much too large for some of her parts, and without a particle of poetic grace or dignity, has certainly beauty of feature, and from nature a fine voice. But I find her conception of her parts equally coarse and shallow. Her love is the love of a peasant; her anger, though having the Italian picturesque richness and vigor, is the anger of an Italian fishwife, entirely unlike anything in the same rank elsewhere; her despair is that of a person in the toothache, or who has drawn a blank in the lottery. The first time I saw her was in Norma; then the beauty of her outline, which becomes really enchanting as she recalls the first emotions of love, the force and gush of her song, filled my ear, and charmed the senses, so that I was pleased, and did not perceive her great defects; but with each time of seeing her I liked her less, and now I do not like her at all.

  Persiani is more generally a favorite here; she is indeed skillful both as an actress and in the management of her voice, but I find her expression meretricious, her singing mechanical. Neither of these women is equal to Pico in natural force, if she had but the same advantages of culture and environment. In hearing Semiramide here, I first learned to appreciate the degree of talent with which it was cast in New York. Grisi indeed is a far better Semiramis than Borghese, but the best parts of the opera lost all their charm from the inferiority of Brambilla, who took Pico’s place. Mario has a charming voice, grace and tenderness; he fills very well the part of the young, chivalric lover, but he has no range of power. Coletti is a very good singer; he has not from Nature a fine voice or personal beauty; but he has talent, good taste, and often surpasses the expectation he has inspired. Gardini, the new singer, I have only heard once, that was in a lovesick-shepherd part; he showed delicacy, tenderness, and tact. In fine, among all these male singers there is much to please, but little to charm; and for the women, they never fail absolutely to fill their parts, but no ray the Muse has fallen on them.

  Don Giovanni conferred on me a benefit, of which certainly its great author never dreamed. I shall relate it,—first begging pardon of Mozart, and assuring him I had no thought of turning his music to the account of a “vulgar utility.” It was quite by accident. After suffering several days very much with the toothache, I resolved to get rid of the cause of sorrow by the aid of ether; not sorry, either, to try its efficacy, after all the marvelous stories I had heard. The first time I inhaled it, I did not for several seconds feel the effect, and was just thinking, “Alas! this has not power to soothe nerves so irritable as mine,” when suddenly I wandered off, I don’t know where, but it was a sensation like wandering in long garden-walks, and through many alleys of trees,—many impressions, but all pleasant and serene. The moment the tube was removed, I started into consciousness, and put my hand to my cheek; but, sad! the throbbing tooth was still there. The dentist said I had not seemed to him insensible. He then gave me the ether in a stronger dose, and this time I quitted the body instantly, and cannot remember any detail of what I saw and did; but the impression was as in the Oriental tale, where the man has his head in the water an instant only, but in his vision a thousand years seem to have passed. I experienced that same sense of an immense length of time and succession of impressions; even now the moment my mind was in that state seems to me a far longer period in time than my life on earth does as I look back upon it. Suddenly I seemed to see the old dentist, as I had for the moment before I inhaled the gas, amid his plants, in his night-cap and dressing-gown; in the twilight the figure had somewhat of a Faust-like, magical air, and he seemed to say “C’est inutile.” Again I started up, fancying that once more he had not dared to extract the tooth, but it was gone. What is worth noticing is the mental translation I made of his words, which my ear must have caught, for my companion tells me he said “C’est le moment,” a phrase of just as many syllables, but conveying just the opposite sense.

  Ah! how I wished then, that you had settled, there in the United States who really brought this means of evading a portion of the misery of life into use. But as it was, I remained at a loss whom to apostrophize with my benedictions, whether Dr. Jackson, Morton, or Wells, and somebody thus was robbed of his due;—neither does Europe know to whom to address her medals.

  However, there is no evading the heavier part of these miseries. You avoid the moment of suffering, and escape the effort of screwing up your courage for one of these moments, but not the jar to the whole system. I found the effect of having taken the ether bad for me. I seemed to taste it all the time, and neuralgic pain continued; this lasted three days yet. For the evening of the third, I had taken a ticket to Don Giovanni, and could not bear to give up this opera, which I had always been longing to hear; still I was in much suffering, and, as it was the sixth day I had been so, much weakened. However, I went, expecting to be obliged to come out; but the music soothed the nerves at once. I hardly suffered at all during the opera; however, I supposed the pain would return as soon as I came out; but no! it left me from that time. Ah! if physicians only understood the influence of the mind over the body, instead of treating, as they so often do, their patients like machines, and according to precedent! But I must pause here for to-day.

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