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than so many _tours de force_ in the arts. But on vases, dinner-sets,
and all ornamental furniture of this nature, in which we look for the
peculiarities of the material, they produce a magnificence of effect
that I cannot describe. Vases of the value of ten or fifteen thousand
francs, or even of more money, are not uncommon; and at the exhibition
there was a little table, the price of which I believe was two thousand
dollars, that was a perfect treasure in its way.

Busts, and even statues, I believe, have been attempted in this branch
of art. This of course is enlisting the statuary as well as the painter
in its service. I remember to have seen, when at Sèvres, many busts of
the late Duc de Berri in the process of drying, previously to being put
into the oven. Our cicerone on that occasion made us laugh by the
routine with which he went through his catalogue of wonders. He had
pointed out to us the unbaked busts in a particular room, and on
entering another apartment, where the baked busts were standing, he
exclaimed - "Ah! voilà son Altesse Royale toute cuite." This is just the
amount of the criticism I should hazard on this branch of the Sèvres
art, or on that which exceeds its legitimate limits - "Behold his Royal
Highness, ready cooked."

The value of some of the single plates must be very considerable, and
the king frequently, in presenting a solitary vase, or ornament of the
Sèvres porcelain, presents thousands.

The tapestry is another of the costly works that it has suited the
policy of France to keep up, while her ploughs, and axes, and carts, and
other ordinary implements, are still so primitive and awkward. The
exhibition contained many specimens from the Gobelins that greatly
surpassed my expectations. They were chiefly historical subjects, with
the figures larger than life, and might very well have passed with a
novice, at a little distance, for oil-paintings. The dimensions of the
apartment are taken, and the subject is designed, of course, on a scale
suited to the room. The effect of this species of ornament is very noble
and imposing, and the tapestries have the additional merit of warmth and
comfort. Hangings in cloth are very common in Paris, but the tapestry of
the Gobelins is chiefly confined to the royal palaces. Our neighbour the
Duc de - - has some of it, however, in his hotel, a present from the
king; but the colours are much faded, and the work is otherwise the
worse for time. I have heard him say that one piece he has, even in its
dilapidated state, is valued at seven thousand francs. Occasionally a
little of this tapestry is found in this manner in the great hotels;
but, as a rule, its use is strictly royal.

The paper for hangings is another article in which the French excel. We
get very pretty specimens of their skill in this manufacture in America,
but, with occasional exceptions, nothing that is strictly magnificent
finds its way into our markets. I was much struck with some of these
hangings that were made to imitate velvet. The cloth appeared to be
actually incorporated with the paper, and by no ingenuity of which I was
master could I detect the means. The style of paper is common enough
everywhere, but this exhibition had qualities far surpassing anything of
the sort I had ever before seen. Curiosity has since led me to the
paper-maker, in order to penetrate the secrets of his art; and there,
like the affair of Columbus and the egg, I found the whole thing as
simple as heart could wish. You will probably smile when you learn the
process by which paper is converted into velvet, which is briefly
this: -

Wooden moulds are used to stamp the designs, each colour being put on,
by laying a separate mould on its proper place, one mould being used
after another, though only one is used on any particular occasion. Thus,
all the black is put on now, the green to-morrow, and the yellow next
day. As to the velvets, they are produced as follows: - Wool is chopped
fine, and dyed the desired hue. I am not certain that cotton, or even
other materials, may not be used. This chopped and coloured wool is
thrown into a tub; the mould is covered with some glutinous substance,
and, when applied, it leaves on the paper the adhesive property, as
types leave the ink. The paper passes immediately over the tub, and a
boy throws on the wool. A light blow or two, of a rattan, tosses it
about, and finally throws all back again into the tub that has not
touched the glue. The _printed_ part, of course, is covered with blue,
or purple, or scarlet wood, and is converted, by a touch of the wand,
into velvet! The process of covering a yard lasts about ten seconds, and
I should think considerably more than a hundred yards of paper could be
velvetized in an hour. We laughed at the discovery, and came away
satisfied that Solomon could have known nothing about manufacturing
paper-hangings, or he would not have said there was nothing "new under
the sun."

But the manufacture of France that struck me as being strictly in the
best taste, in which perfection and magnificence are attained without
recourse to conceits, or doing violence to any of the proprieties, are
the products of the Savonnerie, and the exquisitely designed and
executed works of Beauvais. These include chair bottoms and backs,
hangings for rooms, and, I believe, carpets. At all events, if the
carpets do not come from these places, they are quite worthy to have
that extraction. Flowers, arabesques, and other similar designs,
exquisitely coloured and drawn, chiefly limit the efforts of the former;
and the carpets were in single pieces, and made to fit the room. Nothing
that you have ever seen, or probably have imagined, at all equals the
magnificence of some of these princely carpets. Indeed, I know nothing
that runs a closer parallel to the general civilization between France
and England, and I might almost add of America, than the history of
their respective carpets. In France, a vast majority of the people
hardly know what a carpet is. They use mud floors, or, rising a little
above the very lowest classes, coarse stone and rude tiles are
substituted. The middling classes, out of the large towns, have little
else besides painted tiles. The wooden _parquet_ is met with, in all the
better houses, and is well made and well kept. There is a finish and
beauty about them, that is not misplaced even in a palace. Among all
these classes, until quite lately, carpets were unknown, or at least
they were confined to the very highest class of society. The great
influx of English has introduced them into the public hotels and common
lodging-houses; but I have visited among many French of rank and
fortune, in the dead of winter, and found no carpets. A few of a very
coarse quality, made of rags, adroitly tortured into laboured designs,
are seen, it is true, even in indifferent houses; but the rule is as I
have told you. In short, carpets, in this country, until quite lately,
have been deemed articles of high luxury; and, like nearly everything
else that is magnificent and luxurious, at the point where they have
been taken up, they infinitely exceed anything of the sort in England.
The classical designs, perfect drawings, and brilliant colours, defeat
every effort to surpass them, - I had almost said, all competition.

In all America, except in the new regions, with here and there a
dwelling on the frontier, there is scarcely a house to be found without
carpets, the owners of which are at all above the labouring classes.
Even in many of the latter they are to be found. We are carpeted,
frequently, from the kitchen to the garret; the richness and rarity of
the manufacture increasing as we ascend in the scale of wealth and
fashion, until we reach the uttermost limits of our habits - a point
where beauty and neatness verge upon elegance and magnificence. At this
point, however, we stop, and the turn of the French commences. Now this
is the history of the comparative civilization of the two countries, in
a multitude of other matters; perhaps, it would be better to say, it is
the general comparative history of the two countries. The English differ
from us, only, in carrying their scale both higher and lower than
ourselves; in being sometimes magnificent, and sometimes impoverished;
but, rarely, indeed, do they equal the French in the light, classical,
and elegant taste that so eminently distinguishes these people. There is
something ponderous and purse-proud about the magnificence of England,
that is scarcely ever visible here; though taste is evidently and
rapidly on the increase in England on the one hand, as comfort is here
on the other. The French have even partially adopted the two words
"fashionable" and "comfortable."

One of the most curious things connected with the arts in France, is
that of transferring old pictures from wood to canvass. A large
proportion of the paintings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
were done on wood or copper, and many of the former are, or have been,
in danger of being lost, from decay. In order to meet the evil, a
process has been invented by which the painting is transferred to
canvass, where it remains, to all appearance, as good as ever. I have
taken some pains to ascertain in what manner this nice operation is
performed. I have seen pictures in various stages of the process, though
I have never watched any one through it all; and, in one instance, I saw
a small Wouvermans stripped to the shirt, if it may be so expressed, or,
in other words, _when it was nothing but paint_. From what I have seen
and been told, I understand the mode of effecting this delicate and
almost incredible operation to be as follows: -

A glue is rubbed over the face of the picture, which is then laid on a
piece of canvass that is properly stretched and secured, to receive it.
Weights are now laid on the back of the picture, and it is left for a
day or two, in order that the glue may harden. The weights are then
removed, and the operator commences removing the wood, first with a
plane, and, when he approaches the paint, with sharp delicate chisels.
The paint is kept in its place by the canvass to which it is glued, and
which is itself secured to the table; and although the entire body of
the colours, hardened as it is by time, is usually not thicker than a
thin wafer, the wood is commonly taken entirely from it. Should a thin
fragment be left, however, or a crack made in the paint, it is
considered of no great moment. The Wouvermans alluded to, was pure
paint, however, and I was shown the pieces of wood, much worm-eaten,
that had been removed. When the wood is away, glue is applied to the
_back of the paint_, and to the canvass on which it is intended the
picture shall remain. The latter is then laid on the paint; new weights
are placed above it, and they are left two or three days longer, for
this new glue to harden. When it is thought the adhesion between the
second canvass and the paint is sufficient, the weights are removed, the
picture is turned, and warm water is used in loosening the first canvass
from the face of the picture, until it can be stripped off. More or less
of the varnish of the picture usually comes off with the glue, rendering
the separation easier. The painting is then cleaned, retouched, and,
should it be necessary, varnished and framed; after which it commonly
looks as well, and is really as sound and as good as ever, so far, at
least, as the consistency is concerned.

Among other wonders in the exhibition, was the coronation coach of
Charles X. This carriage is truly magnificent. It is quite large, as
indeed are all the royal carriages, perhaps as large as an American
stage-coach; the glass, pure and spotless as air, goes all round the
upper compartments, so as to admit of a view of the whole interior; the
panels are beautifully painted in design; the top has gilded and
well-formed angels blowing trumpets, and the crown of France surmounts
the centre. The wheels, and train, and pole, are red, striped with gold.
All the leather is red morocco, gilt, as is the harness. Plumes of
ostrich feathers ornament the angles, and, altogether, it is a most
glittering and gorgeous vehicle. The paintings, the gildings, and all
the details are well executed, except the running gear, which struck me
as clumsy and imperfect. The cost is said to have been about sixty
thousand dollars.

Many new rooms in the Louvre were thrown open on this occasion, in order
that the paintings on their ceilings might be viewed; and as I walked
through this gorgeous magnificence, I felt how small were our highest
pretensions to anything like elegance or splendour. The very extreme of
art, of this nature, may, of itself, be of no great direct benefit, it
is true; but is should be remembered, that the skill which produces
these extraordinary fruits, in its road to the higher points of
magnificence, produces all that embellishes life in the intermediate
gradations.

In America, in the eagerness of gain, and with the contracted habits
that a love of gain engenders, which by their own avidity, as is usual
with the grosser passions, too often defeat their own ends, we overlook
the vast importance of cultivating the fine arts, even in a pecuniary
sense, to say nothing of the increased means of enjoying the very money
that is so blindly pursued, which their possession entails. France is at
this moment laying all Christendom under contribution, simply by means
of her taste. Italy, where the arts have flourished still longer, and
where they have still more effectually penetrated society, would drive
the English and French out of every market on earth, were the national
energy at all equal to the national tastes. These things do not as
exclusively belong to extreme luxury as they may at first seem. Science,
skill of the nicest investigation, and great research, are all enlisted
in their behalf; and, in time, implements of the most homely uses derive
perfection, as by-plays, from the investigations consequent on the
production of luxuries. It is true, that, by blending a certain amount
of information with practice, as in the case of the American labourer,
our wants find the means of furnishing their own supplies; but, apart
from the fact that the man who makes a chair is not obliged to sit in
it, and is therefore content to consult his profits merely, the impulses
of practice are much aided by the accumulated knowledge of study. The
influence that the arts of design have had on the French manufactures is
incalculable. They have brought in the aid of chemistry, and
mathematics, and a knowledge of antiquity; and we can trace the effects
in the bronzes, the porcelain, the hangings, the chintzes, the silks,
down to the very ribands of the country. We shall in vain endeavour to
compete with the great European nations, unless we make stronger efforts
to cultivate the fine arts. Of what avails our beautiful glass, unless
we know how to cut it? or of what great advantage, in the strife of
industry, will be even the _skilful_ glass-cutter, should he not also be
the _tasteful_ glass-cutter? It is true that classical forms and
proportions are, as yet, of no great account among us; and the great
mass of the American people still cling to their own uninstructed
fancies, in preference to the outlines and proportions of the more
approved models, and to those hues which art has demonstrated to be
harmonious. This is the history of every society in its progress to
perfection; and, cut off as we are from the rest of the civilized world,
it is not to be expected that we are to make an extraordinary exception.
But, while we may be satisfied with our own skill and taste, the happy
lot of all ignorance, our customers will not have the same
self-complacency, to induce them to become purchasers. We find this
truth already. We beat all nations in the fabrication of common
unstamped cottons. Were trade as free as some political economists
pretend, we should drive all our competitors out of every market, as
respects this one article. But the moment we attempt to print, or to
meddle with that part of the business which requires taste, we find
ourselves inferior to the Europeans, whose forms we are compelled to
imitate, and of course to receive when no longer novel, and whose hues
defy our art.

The wisest thing the United States could do, would be to appropriate
thirty or forty millions to the formation of a marine, not to secure the
coast, as our hen-roost statesmen are always preaching, but to keep in
our own hands the control of our own fortunes, by rendering our enmity
or friendship of so much account to Europe that no power shall ever
again dare trespass on our national rights: - and one of the next wisest
measures, I honestly believe, would be to appropriate at once a million
to the formation of a National Gallery, in which copies of the antique,
antiques themselves, pictures, bronzes, arabesques, and other models of
true taste, might be collected, before which the young aspirants for
fame might study, and with which become imbued, as the preliminary step
to an infusion of their merits into society. Without including the vast
influence of such a cultivation on the manners, associations,
intellects, and habits of the people - an influence that can scarcely be
appreciated too highly - fifty years would see the first cost returned
fifty-fold in the shape of the much-beloved dollars. Will this happen?
Not till men of enlightened minds - _statesmen_, instead of _political
partizans_ - are sent to Washington. It is the misfortune of America to
lie so remote from the rest of the civilized world, as to feel little of
the impulses of a noble competition, our rivalry commonly limiting
itself to the vulgar exhibitions of individual vanity; and this the more
to our disadvantage, as, denied access to the best models for even this
humble species of contention with the antagonists we are compelled to
choose, victory is as bad as defeat.

One of the great impediments to a high class of improvement in America,
is the disposition to resent every intimation that we can be any better
than we are at present. Few, perhaps no country, has ever enduced so
much evil-disposed and unmerited abuse as our own. It is not difficult
to trace the reasons, and every American should meet it with a just and
manly indignation. But, being deemed a nation of rogues, barbarous, and
manifesting the vices of an ancestry of convicts, is a very different
thing from standing at the head of civilization. This tendency to repel
every suggestion of inferiority is one of the surest signs of provincial
habits; it is exactly the feeling with which the resident of the village
resents what he calls the airs of the town, and that which the inland
trader brings with him among those whom he terms the "dandies" of the
sea-board. In short, it is the jealousy of inferiority on the exciting
points; whatever may be the merits of its subject in other matters, and
furnishes of itself the best possible proof that there is room for
amendment. The French have a clever and pithy saying, that of - "On peut
tout dire à un grand peuple." "One may tell all to a great nation."[17]

[Footnote 17: - Every one was telling me that I should find the country so
altered after an absence of eight years, that I should not know it.
Altered, indeed, I found it, but not quite so evidently improved. It
struck me that there was a vast expansion of mediocrity that was well
enough in itself, but which was so overwhelming as nearly to overshadow
everything that once stood prominent as more excellent. This was perhaps
no more than a natural consequence of the elasticity and growth of a
young, vigorous community, which, in its agregate character, as in that
of its individuals, must pass through youth to arrive at manhood. Still
it was painful and doubly so to one coming from Europe. I saw the towns
increased, more tawdry than ever, but absolutely with less real taste
than they had in my youth. The art of painting alone appeared to me to
have made any material advances in the right direction, if one excepts
increase in wealth, and in the facilities to create wealth. The
steam-boats were the only objects that approached magnificence; but
while they had increased in show, they had less comfort and
respectability. The taverns, as a whole, had deteriorated; though the
three first I happened to enter might well compete with a very high
class of European inns, viz. Head's, Barnum's, and Gadsby's.]




LETTER XIV.

False Notions. - Continental Manners. - People of Paris. - Parisian Women.
- French Beauty. - Men of France. - French Soldiers.


To JAMES STEVENSON, ESQUIRE, ALBANY.

I cannot tell you whence the vulgar notions that we entertain of the
French, which, with many other pernicious prejudices, have made a part
of our great inheritance from England, have been originally obtained.
Certainly I have seen no thing, nor any person, after a long residence
in the country, to serve as models to the flippant _marquis_, the
overdressed courtiers, or the _petites maîtresses_ of the English
dramatists. Even a French _perruquier_ is quite as homely and plain a
personage as an English or an American barber. But these Athenians
grossly caricature themselves as well as their neighbours. Although
Paris is pretty well garnished with English of all degrees, from the
Duke down, it has never yet been my luck to encounter an English dandy.
Now and then one meets with a "_dresser_," a man who thinks more of his
appearance than becomes his manhood, or than comports with good
breeding; and occasionally a woman is seen who is a mere appendage to
her attire; but I am persuaded, that, as a rule, neither of these vulgar
classes exists among people of any condition, in either country. It is
impossible for me to say what changes the revolution, and the wars and
the new notions, may have produced in France, but there is no sufficient
reason for believing that the present cropped and fringeless,
bewhiskered, and _laceless_ generation of France, differs more from
their bewigged, belaced, and powdered predecessors, than the men and
women of any other country differ from their particular ancestors. Boys
wore cocked hats, and breaches, and swords, in America, previously to
the revolution; and our immediate fathers flourished in scarlet coats,
powder, ruffled fingers, and embroidered waistcoats.

The manners of the continent of Europe are more finished than those of
England, and while quiet and simplicity are the governing rules of good
breeding everywhere, even in unsophisticated America, this quiet and
simplicity is more gracious and more graceful in France than in the
neighbouring island. As yet, I see no other difference in mere
deportment, though there is abundance when one goes into the examination
of character.

I have met with a good many people of the old court at Paris, and though
now and then there is a certain _roué_ atmosphere about them, both men
and women, as if too much time had been passed at Coblentz, they have
generally, in other respects, been models of elegant demeanour. Usually
they are simple, dignified, and yet extremely gracious - gracious without
the appearance of affability, a quality that is almost always indicative
of a consciousness of superiority. The predominant fault of manner here
is too strong a hand in applying flattery; but this is as much the fault
of the head as of breeding. The French are fond of hearing pleasant
things. They say themselves that "a Frenchman goes into society to make
himself agreeable, and an Englishman to make himself disagreeable;" and
the _dire_ is not altogether without foundation in truth. I never met a
Frenchman in society here, who appeared to wish to enhance his
importance by what are called "airs," though a coxcomb in feeling is an
animal not altogether unknown to the natural history of Paris, nor is
the zoological science of M. Cuvier indispensable to his discovery.

I shall probably surprise you with one of my opinions. I think the
population of Paris, physically speaking, finer than that of London.
Fine men and fine women are, by no means, as frequent, after allowing
for the difference in whole numbers, in the French, as in the English
capital; but neither are there as many miserable, pallid, and squalid
objects. The French are a smaller race than the English, much smaller
than the race of English gentlemen, so many of whom congregate at
London; but the population of Paris has a sturdy, healthful look, that I
do not think is by any means as general in London. In making this
comparison, allowance must be made for the better dress of the English,



Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperRecollections of Europe → online text (page 18 of 29)