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Chapter 13

LETTER XIII.

French Manufactures.—Sèvres China.—Tapestry of the Gobelins.—Paper
for Hangings.—The Savonnerie.—French Carpets.—American Carpets.
—Transfer of old Pictures from Wood to Canvass.—Coronation Coach.
—The Arts in France—in America.—American Prejudice.

To JAMES E. DE KAY, ESQUIRE.

In my last, I gave you a few examples of the instances in which the
French have mistaken the relative civilization of their country and
America, and I shall now give you some in which we have fallen into the
same error, or the other side of the question.

There has lately been an exhibition of articles of French manufacture, at Paris; one of, I believe, the triennial collections of this character, that have been established here. The court of the Louvre was filled with temporary booths for the occasion, and vast ranges of the unfinished apartments in that magnificent palace have been thrown open for the same purpose. The court of the Louvre, of itself, is an area rather more than four hundred feet square, and I should think fully a quarter of a mile of rooms in the building itself are to be added to the space occupied for this purpose.

The first idea, with which I was impressed, on walking through the booths and galleries, on this occasion, was the great disproportion between the objects purely of taste and luxury, and the objects of use. The former abounded, were very generally elegant and well-imagined, while the latter betrayed the condition of a nation whose civilization has commenced with the summit, instead of the base of society.

In France, nearly every improvement in machinery is the result of scientific research; is unobjectionable in principles, profound in the adaptation of its parts to the end, and commonly beautiful in form. But it ends here, rarely penetrating the mass, and producing positive results. The Conservatoire des Arts, for instance, is full of beautiful and ingenious ploughs; while France is tilled with heavy, costly, and cumbrous implements of this nature. One sees light mould turning up, here, under a sort of agricultural diligences, drawn by four, and even six heavy horses, which in America would be done quite as well, and much sooner, by two. You know I am farmer enough to understand what I say, on a point like this. In France, the cutlery, ironware, glass, door-fastenings, hinges, locks, fire-irons, axes, hatchets, carpenter's tools, and, in short, almost everything that is connected with homely industry and homely comfort, is inferior to the same thing in America. It is true, many of our articles are imported, but this produces no change in the habits of the respective people; our manufactories are merely in Birmingham, instead of being in Philadelphia.

I have now been long enough in France to understand that seeing an article in an exhibition like the one I am describing, is no proof that it enters at all into the comforts and civilization of the nation, although it may be an object as homely as a harrow or a spade. The scientific part of the country has little influence, in this way, on the operative. The chasm between knowledge and ignorance is so vast in France, that it requires a long time for the simplest idea to find its way across it.

Exhibitions are everywhere bad guides to the average civilization of a country, as it is usual to expose only the objects that have been wrought with the greatest care. In a popular sense, they are proofs of what can be done, rather than of what is done. The cloths that I saw in the booths, for instance, are not to be met with in the shops; the specimens of fire-arms, glass, cutlery, etc., etc., too, are all much superior to anything one finds on sale. But this is the case everywhere, from the boarding-school to the military parade, men invariably putting the best foot foremost when they are to be especially inspected. This is not the difference I mean. Familiar as every American, at all accustomed to the usages of genteel life in his own country, must be with the better manufactures of Great Britain, I think he would be struck by the inferiority of even the best specimens of the commoner articles that were here laid before the public. But when it came to the articles of elegance and luxury, as connected with forms, taste, and execution, though not always in ingenuity and extent of comfort, I should think that no Englishman, let his rank in life be what it would, could pass through this wilderness of elegancies without wonder.

Even the manufactures in which we, or rather the English (for I now refer more to use than to production), ordinarily excel, such as carpets, rugs, porcelain, plate, and all the higher articles of personal comfort, as exceptions, surpass those of which we have any notion. I say, as exceptions, not in the sense by which we distinguish the extraordinary efforts of the ordinary manufacturer, in order to make a figure at an exhibition, but certain objects produced in certain exclusive establishments that are chiefly the property of the crown, as they have been the offspring of regal taste and magnificence.

Of this latter character is the Sèvres china. There are manufactures of this name of a quality that brings them within the reach of moderate fortunes, it is true; but one obtains no idea of the length to which luxury and taste have been pushed in this branch of art without examining the objects made especially for the king, who is in the habit of distributing them as presents among the crowned heads and his personal favourites. After the ware has been made with the greatest care and of the best materials, artists of celebrity are employed to paint it. You can easily imagine the value of these articles, when you remember that each plate has a design of its own, beautifully executed in colours, and presenting a landscape or an historical subject that is fit to be framed and suspended in a gallery. One or two of the artists employed in this manner have great reputations, and it is no uncommon thing to see miniatures in gilded frames which, on examination, prove to be on porcelain. Of course the painting has been subject to the action of heat in the baking. As respects the miniatures, there is not much to be said in their favour. They are well drawn and well enough coloured; but the process and the material give them a glossy, unnatural appearance, which must prevent them from ever being considered as more 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.]

James Fenimore Cooper

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