Pomps and Circumstances

From The Painter of Modern Life, by Charles Baudelaire, 1863

Turkey too has provided our beloved Monsieur G. with some admirable working-material: the festivals of the Bairam, those gloomy, rain-soaked splendors, in the midst of which, like a pale sun, can be discerned the endless ennui of the late sultan; drawn up on the sovereign’s left, the officers of the civil order; on his right, those of the army, of whom the leader is Said Pasha, sultan of Egypt, at that time present in Constantinople; solemn processions and cavalcades moving in order towards the little mosque near the palace, and in the crowd Turkish functionaries, real caricatures of decadence, quite overwhelming their magnificent steeds with the weight of their fantastic bulk; massive great carriages,I rather like coaches of the time of Louis XV, but gilded and decked out in a bizarre Oriental manner, from which every now and then there dart curiously feminine glances, peeping out from between the strict interval left by the bands of muslin stuck over the face; the frenzied dances of the tumblers of the ‘third sex’ (never has Balzac’s comical expression been more applicable than in the present instance, for beneath this throbbing, trembling light, beneath the agitation of these ample garments, beneath the blazing rouge on these cheeks, in these hysterical, convulsive gestures, in these floating, waist-long tresses, it would be difficult, not to say impossible, to guess that virility lay hid); finally, the femmes galantes (if at least it is possible to speak of ‘gallantry’ in connection with the East), who generally consist of Hungarians, Wallachians, Jewesses, Poles, Greeks and Armenians—for under a despotic government it is the subject races, and amongst them, those in particular that have the most to endure, that provide most candidates for prostitution. Of these women, some have kept their national costume, embroidered jackets with short sleeves, flowing sashes, enormous trousers, turned-up slippers, striped or spangled muslin, and all the tinsel of their native land; others, and these the more numerous, have adopted the principal badge of civilization, which for a woman is invariably the crinoline, but in some small detail of their attire they always preserve a tiny characteristic souvenir of the East, so that they look like Parisian women who have attempted a fancy-dress.

Monsieur G. excels in treating the pageantry of official functions, national pomps and circumstances, but never coldly and didactically, like those painters who see in work of this kind no more than a piece of lucrative drudgery. He works with all the ardor of a man in love with space, with perspective, with light lying in pools or exploding in bursts, drops or diamonds of it sticking to the rough surfaces of uniforms and court toilettes. A drawing representing Independence-day in the Cathedral at Athens provides an interesting example of these gifts. That multitude of little figures, of which each one keeps its place so well, only goes to deepen the space which contains them. The Cathedral itself is immense and adorned with ceremonial hangings. King Otho and his Queen standing upright on a dais, are dressed in the national garb, which they wear with a marvelous ease, as though to give evidence of the sincerity of their adoption and of the most refined Hellenic patriotism. The king’s waist is belted like the most elegant of palikars, and his kilt spreads out with all the exaggeration prescribed by the national school of dandyism. Towards them walks the patriarch, a bent old man with a great white beard, his little eyes protected behind green spectacles, betraying in his whole being the signs of a consummate Oriental impassivity. All the figures which people this composition are portraits, one of the most curious, by reason of the unexpectedness of her physiognomy (which is just about as un-Greek as could be) being that of a German lady who is standing beside the Queen and is part of her private suite.

In the collected works of Monsieur G. one often comes across the Emperor of the French, whose face he has learnt to curtail to an unerring sketch which he executes with the assurance of a personal signature, without ever damaging the likeness. Sometimes we see him reviewing his troops, on horseback at full gallop, accompanied by officers whose features are easily recognizable, or by foreign princes—European, Asiatic or African—to whom he is, so to speak, doing the honors of Paris. Or sometimes he will be sitting motionless on a horse whose hooves are as firmly planted as the legs of a table, with, at his left, the Empress in riding-habit, and at his right the little Imperial Prince, wearing a grenadier’s cap and holding himself like a soldier on a little horse as shaggy as the ponies that English artists love to send careering across their lands apes ; sometimes disappearing in the midst of a whirlwind of dust and light in one of the rides of the Bois de Boulogne; at others walking slowly through the cheering crowds of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. There is one of these watercolors whose magical quality has particularly dazzled me. The scene is a theatre. At the front of a box of a massive and princely opulence is seen the Empress in a relaxed and peaceful attitude; the Emperor is leaning forward slightly, so as to get- a better view of the stage; below him two personal body-guards are standing at attention in a military, almost hieratic state of immobility, while their. brilliant uniforms reflect the splash and splutter of the footlights. OA the far side of the barrier of flame, in the ideal atmosphere of the stage, the actors are singing, declaiming and gesticulating in harmony; on the near side there yawns an abyss of dim light, a circular space crowded with tier upon tier of human figures; it is the great chandelier, and the audience.

The popular movements, the republican clubs and the pageantry of 1848 also provided Monsieur G. with a whole series of picturesque compositions, of which the majority were engraved for the Illustrated London News. A few years ago, after a stay in Spain which was very fruitful for his genius, he put together an album of the same kind, of which I have seen no more than a few fragments. The carelessness with which he lends or gives away his drawings often exposes him to irreparable losses.

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Impressionism, Industrial Revolution


Light and movement as the crux of human perception

1860 – 1900

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