The New Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Robert Louis Stevenson

Archive for December 2012

Manet, Stevenson and ‘Facture’

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The following (incorporating some corrections and additional information supplied by Roger Swearingen since first posting) collects some ideas stimulated by a recent debate of our essays discussion group concerning a key term in Stevenson’s essay ‘A Note on Realism’ (1883).

Manet, Woman with a Parrot (or: Young Woman in 1866)

Manet“Again as I said by mere vivacity and variety of facture, the public may be cheated into admiration; Manet’s cock and lady that I wanted to buy, is the game; or etching as a parallel for the best sort. That is the true way central to literature; and I believe it must be the true way in painting.” (L4: 180-82, 9 October 1883; to Bob Stevenson).

When did RLS want to buy Manet’s painting?

According to the Metropolitan Museum of New York online catalogue, the painting was in the artist’s studio 1866-72; then at the dealer’s Durand-Ruel, 1872–77; then owned by Ernest Hoschedé (department store magnate) 1877–78; then by artist Henri Hecht, Paris 1878-81.  In 1881 the painting was sold to J. Alden Weir for Erwin Davis, New York, the owner 1881-1889.

After its exhibition at the Paris Salon in 1868, it was included in a London exhibition “Fifth Exhibition of the Society of French Artists”, Winter 1872.

We do not know if RLS saw the painting in 1872: there is no evidence of his being in London during the ‘winter season’, and anyway he would not have been tempted to buy it as before his his twenty-third birthday in November 1873 he only had an allowance of £12 a year (Balfour I, 83). It is more probable that he saw the painting in Paris some time before 1881 (when the painting went to New York): possibly when RLS was with Bob, and when he could think of paying around 2000 Fr. This was the 1877 sale price, i.e. £80 at the time, according to the following information:

Screenshot 2017-06-13 15.36.17

Daniel O’Gorman, Intuitive Calculations (14th Ed., London: Lockwood, 1871), p. 239.

This calculation is confirmed by K. Baedeker, Le nord de la France (1884), ‘Tableau des monnaies’ (opposite title page): £1 = 25 Fr.

The period can be narrowed down to the period after July 1875 when, after being called to the Scottish bar, he received £1000 of his inheritance. As this windfall did not last long, a ‘good fit’ for the occasion when RLS saw and wanted to buy the painting would be at the dealer’s, 1875-77, accompanied by Bob, during one of his various visits to Paris. This painting inspired by Velazquez, would have appealed to Bob, pupil of an admirer of Velazquez, Carolus-Durand, and himself an admirer and future author of a study of the painter, in which he several times links the names of Manet, Carolus-Durand and Velazquez. (If fellow atelier student Singer Sargent was with them, the group would have included another Velazquez admirer.)

Other mentions of Manet by RLS

Manet is also mentioned in The Hair Trunk (1877): the room of one of the bohemian students is full of jumbled works of art, good and bad, one of them is ‘an original Manet in the last stage of impressionalism’ (quote kindly supplied by Roger Swearingen); it is listed between an example of bad art and one of good: the latter, etchings by some good modern artists. (‘Last’ must mean ‘latest’, ‘most recent’; RLS had used ‘impressional’ of landscape that looked like a painting in ‘An Autumn Effect’, written December 1874-January 1875, a few months after the first of use ‘impressionniste’ in French in a review of the 1874 Salon; the first use of ‘Impressionist’ in English is recorded by the OED as by Henry James in 1876.)

The American painter John Le Farge later reports a conversation with Stevenson in Samoa, when he said that he’d been among the first to recognise ‘the value of Manet, the so-called impressionist, upon his first sight of a painting by him’. (La Farge, John. 1894. Stevenson’s Life at Samoa. New York Times (30 December 1894): 4).

What does ‘the game’ mean?

This isn’t well covered by the OED, but with the help of a Google N-grams search, I propose the following definitions:

1. ‘the way to succeed’, ‘what you must aim for’, ‘the right way to do things’ (‘Simplicity is the game of the young, and the more experienced should play down to the capacity of their partners’ (Westminster Papers: A Monthly Journal of Chess, Whist…,  Vol. 11 (1879), p. 66). 2. ‘the best game’, ‘the thing for me’ (‘War is the game, sir—life, honour, glory, are a grand stake’, Noctes Ambrosianae 58 (Blackwood’s Einburgh Magazine 30, 1831, p. ‘The Game of War’).

The first part of the sentence ‘cheated into admiration’ is followed by an ambiguous semicolon; what follows this can be an addition that follows in some way, even by being opposed (‘I go; you stay’). In this case, and bearing in mind the loose structure of a letter, I would see the semicolon as followed by an implied ‘but’ — everything after this is what RLS approves of, in his search for a good example to explain his idea about the true method in art.

An alternative reading is that Manet’s painting is a parallel for the worst sort of ‘facture’, etching of best. This would imply a reversal of his feelings towards the Manet painting between c. 1875 and 1883—possible, but since he is writing to an admirer of Manet, would he not have had to add a few words of explanation?

A third interpetation is that RLS admired the way Manet’s technical skill won over the public: the facture seduced the public out of its prejudices, wooed it out of its reserve (i.e.. ‘cheated’ is not being used with negative connotations). Against this, we might say that the painting was not received well by the public (at least by newspaper reviewers: it was mentioned in only 28 (of 134) reviews of the salon, mostly unfavorably – Arden Reed, Manet, Flaubert, and the Emergence of Modernism, 2003), so there is no question here of ‘people’ and ‘the public’ being wooed/cheated by brilliant technique. In the letter to Bob ‘as I said’ clearly refers back to Gautier. The semicolon that follows ‘Again as I said by mere vivacity and variety of facture, the public may be cheated into admiration;’ can legitimately be taken to be followed by an elided ‘but’–this helps us distinguish the condemned Gautier (see below ‘What does “facture” mean?’), who cheated the public into admiration, and the following comments about a painting that he had been completely bowled over by to the point of thinking of using all the money he had in order to buy it.)

Why did RLS want to buy Manet’s painting?

One attraction must have been its interesting debt to Japanese art, which RLS was fascinated by — the monochrome background and the few clear details (the small bunch of violets, the parrot, the peeled lemon and the long peignoir of a single colour) — so that the overall composition is simple and clear; the flat background reflecting wittily, as in Japanese prints, on the flat painted surface. In a similar way, the thick opaque colour (‘impasto’) tends towards the abstract and draws attention to the material quality of the paint: indeed, the brushstrokes are visible in the dress and parrot. These factors must have appealed to S’s interest in revealing the hand of the artist and emphasizing pattern in his own art. Both Manet and Stevenson were focussed on radically rethinking their art and its techniques and this is clear in the works they produced.

Secondly, the portrait is enigmatic, full of possibly symbolic (and conventional) still-life elements (the violets etc.) and it is placed in an undefined space (like the subjects of many Japanese prints) yet is clearly the portrait of a real woman. Manet here, as elsewhere, blurs the boundaries between portrait and genre scenes (as in ‘The Railway’, 1873) and combines simplicity and immediacy with a fascinating suggested but elusive meaning (as in ‘Déjeuner sur l’herbe’, 1863). The uncertain balance of the real and ideal is also a feature of Stevenson’s own art, if we remember Marcel Schwob’s praise of his ‘réalisme […] parfaitement irréel’ (Spicilège, 1896), and his defence of the expressive force of conventional elements in his essay ‘A Note on Realism’ (1883). His own works often are of uncertain genre have an uncertain and enigmatic meaning: we need only think of The New Arabian Nights with its modern city setting and contemporary characters but completely elusive moral meaning, its almost surrreal atmosphere.

I think what attracted RLS to the painting was its clear exploration of technique, its enigmatic interaction with the viewer, and its combination of ‘significance and charm’ (key terms in ‘A Note on Realism’ and in another theory-of-art letter to Bob of just over a week before the one discussed here, L4: 168-71; ? 30 September 1883), i.e. its combination of the representational and abstraction, the symbolic and the aesthetically pleasing, the realistic and the ideal, that he also found in Japanese prints and that we can find in analogous forms in his own writings.

What is the parallel between etching and literature?

EtchingThe unexplained parallel between etching and literature in Stevenson’s letter to Bob recalls his 1880 draft ‘On the Art of Literature’ (JSS 7, p. 142): here, to a list of chapter titles has been added, inserted at an angle,  an idea for a new chapter or section: ‘style and etching’. Clearly S had ideas on the subject. What could they be?

Well, first of all, the etcher, drawing with his stylus, and the resultant black lines on paper have affinities with writing, but RLS is probably  thinking more of the meticulous attention and the working and reworking required: the way the criss-cross hatchings (meaningless in themselves, with no equivalent in the real world) build up a pictures by working and shaping (by ‘facture’). As in Stevenson’s writing with its foregrounded stylistic effects, both the overall representation (like the story) can be observed and appreciated as well as skill at manipulating the individual marks (like word-choices and orderings). There is also perhaps an appreciation of complexity, as in his idea of the ‘knot’ in his 1885 essay on style.

What does ‘facture’ mean?

RLS uses the word to mean the process by which a work of art is produced (i.e. technique). This is clear from the first paragraph of ‘A Note on Realism’:

What to put in and what to leave out; whether some particular fact be organically necessary or purely ornamental; whether, if it be purely ornamental, it may not weaken or obscure the general design; and finally, whether, if we decide to use it, we should do so grossly and notably, or in some conventional disguise: are questions of plastic style continually rearising.

Instead of ‘plastic style’, S had put ‘facture’.  Henley questioned the word in  proofs and in his reply Stevenson suggested an alternative: ‘To substitute for facture = handling = plastic style; I can think of no others’ (L4: 153). The previous sentence gives us another list of processes involved: ‘the proportion of one part to another and to the whole, the elision of the useless, the accentuation of the important, and the preservation of a uniform character from end to end’. In paragraph 5 he associates with this stage all the decisions concerning ‘the scale, the style, the spirit, and the particularity of execution’.

In other words, for S, ‘facture’ is not the creation of a merely attractive finish, but all the manipulative (plastic) working necessary to realize the work of art, involving many vital decisions (i.e. execution is not merely carrying out of an idea). (Incidentally, this is similar to the practice that Bob describes—in his Introduction to Walter Armstrong’s Raeburn, 1901—for admired painters like Manet, Raeburn, Velzquez and Carolus-Durand: their method ‘passed through one stage, gradually approaching completion by a moulding, a refining, a correcting of the first lay in’). (For further thoughts on ‘facture’, see the comments to this posting.)

When exhibited at the Salon, Manet’s painting was mentioned by few reviewers, mostly unfavourable, but it found a staunch defendant in Emile Zola who proclaimed it, even before the Salon, as ‘a new way of painting’ (”Une nouvelle manière en peinture: Edouard Manet’, 1867), for its multiple ambivalences of reality and representation, its overt paintedness, and because of the way it is ‘vividly coloured and factured’.

In the letter to Bob, however, RLS refers to ‘mere facture’, by which he means the execution of a work of art to display ability of execution, guided by mere considerations of style, in order to obtain cheap admiration. The example of ‘mere facture’ he means is indicated by the opening phrase ‘Again as I said’, which points to the first sentence of the letter, which opens brusquely, carrying on a debate between the two cousins:

In my art, studies can be made to go down by one quality, facture: a person like Gautier — dam bad art — factures to such a point that people take simple unadulterated strings of facts from him.

So ‘As I said’ certainly refers to Gautier, who S never fails to denigrate (in ‘On the Art of Literature’, for example: ‘verbal description of scenery for its own sake (Gautier)’; ‘the defect of this deep human current […] leaves […] all of Gautier, low, cheap, and perishable’).

Stevenson and painting

All this would be an interesting part of a study on ‘Stevenson and painting’—but someone else will have to do that. Now, back to the essays.

Written by rdury

19/12/2012 at 3:12 pm