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The Database of Ornament

Never was great work more destitute of charm for the
vulgar than that of MM. Edmond and Jules de
Goncourt. To the few, to artists in fact, their
studies, aphorisms, epithets, are exquisite beyond
praise; but by no effort can they prevail upon the
applauding public to perform its proper functions.
For the multitude they are far too mature. Work-
ing upon a formula still young, broad work was
necessary in order to be generally appreciated. If
Zola found it so great a task to force his way,
shouting through the main thoroughfares in the
language of the trottoir; smiting with heavy fists
the heads insensible to any other influence, where
shall MM. de Goncourt be found? With every
quality so fresh, so rare, words so daintily chosen
and attuned, small wonder they make mediocrity
nervous and irascible. It takes the mass of people
whole decades to get rid of habitudes once
thoroughly acquired; and we must not forget that while
readers of the XIXth Century, frequenters of artistic
salons, and those who go to supper with leading men of
science, are in the year 1889, people on the outer
edges of culture circles are beginning to recommend
George Eliot to their young friends, talking about Millet
in subdued voices, and quoting the Duke of Argyll on
the theory of evolution.

But though their work is appreciated, however
warmly, by comparatively few only, its indirect influence
can already be widely traced. It has shown the present


eneration of realists most unmistakably that there is no salvation in a
formula. Work great in itself is helped by being erected upon a sound
scientific basis; it has better chances of being understood if it rests upon
a foundation consistent with the spirit of its time; but poor, it gains
nothing from the advantage in question.

The artist is always an abnormal creature, a being with an over-
developed brain, or diseased nerves, as some express it. As specially
distinguished from the literary grocer, he cannot choose but give his own
personality in his work. His greatness is in the insight that discovers
new motives, and in the earnestness with which he carries them out. It
is quite the rule that the really great only gain their place after fierce
struggling; for apart from the actual work, they have to create a taste for
it, a task generally tedious in proportion to its worth.

If the Goncourts not only announce, but also give effect to, their in-
tention to war with conventionality, no exception will be made in their
case, that those whose united tastes and opinions makes conventionality
should be defeated at the challenge only—on the contrary.

Documentary fiction is now accepted. The real thing, and variously
pretentious imitations of it, are even fashionable. The realist, as we
sometimes call him, is sent out to tell us what he sees and hears and
feels, but the commission includes authority to select at his discretion.
Now the peculiar temperament of the Goncourt personality, its passion
for the choice, the rare, makes it produce results too strange. Though
they believed strongly in the far superior value of the actually seen and
felt, their particular predilections sometimes came in to defeat the imme-
mediate purpose, when they reproduced what they, and but a very few
similar temperaments, feel and see. I do not mean to say that they
exaggerate. Where there is unusual insistance over trivialities, it is
merely nature seen by two exceptional organisms of peculiarly rare
culture. What they give us is, as a rule, intelligible to any sentient
being, which is enough; for writings all of nerve are not for readers
made all of gristle.

When we know their aims, how could we remain apathetic towards
their work? Understood that the description of some actual scene is
preferable to that of one purely imaginary or faintly remembered; agreed
that a study of some individual dustman has a higher artistic value than
a character composed of the second-hand sentiments of a dozen Christian
gentlemen, they carry the superior aim in each case a little farther than
it has been carried before. Developing in a direction different from that
Zola and Balzac have taken, they do not care so much to include a great
variety of types as to exaustively study a few. So closely is the
specimen examined, that the description rendered seems fanciful to the
superficial. And for figures so patiently observed, so exquisitely drawn,
their artistic minds demand equally perfect environments.

How they manage their still life! The whole art with which they
arranged backgrounds and accessories was largely their own invention,


True, the revolt against conventional artistic surroundings was
already begun elsewhere. Some of the best English art, for
instance (the Preraphaelite work affords a notable example), had been
strongly characterised by its freedom from the trammels of tradition. At
the present moment, alas! the movement seems to have died down in
our midst, and when it returns it will be through France. In moments
of supreme emotion, a trivial or irrelevant fact, a strange shape, an
unexpected sound, have a value the artist cannot afford to neglect. If the
Goncourts were not the first to discover this principle, at all events no
one hitherto has so thoroughly understood and consciously applied it as

By the judicious use of apparently accidental surroundings, and,
secondarily, of epithets quite fit, touching the very essence of the thing
described, they sought to retain about an incident precisely those details
the absence of which usually distinguishes a description from the
recollection of an event. And with what success! Certain of their
scenes seem to throb with the very emotion proper to them; that, for
instance, where Germinie sits immobile in her room watching the hands
of the dispassionate cou-cou, so deliberate in its utterance to-night.
Quite a detail in Cherie; the mother is tending the last hours of her
soldier husband in some fetid shed, where, from beneath blankets thrown
over corpses, rats dart with bloody whiskers. All war in one swift

The Goncourts saw clearly how poverty-stricken was the contempo-
rary novel; and their dream was, no doubt, that the obvious superiority
of their work would, as soon as it appeared, hurry them to a high seat
of honour. Their reception by the public was at first almost favourable;
early historical works are praised in a guarded way. Their first novel,
published by an ill-chance on the morning of the Coup d’Etat, was entirely
overlooked. Then frank hostility met every succeeding volume, until
“Manette Salomon,” when the sudden change of attitude on the part of
the critics might very well have persuaded them that patient persistence
had overcome their opponents, and that at last they had arrived. But
if they suffered the illusion, how brief it was! At the theatre their
experience was very similar. To get “Henriette Marshal” requested for
the Frantçaise looked like unmixed appreciation of their talents; but, the
great day of its production arrived, the gallery is filled with shrieking
students, assembled by circular to hoot the play before the rising of
the curtain; it being alleged that it is only put on through Imperial
patronage. The brilliancy, the originality of the first act (it is not
worth while adding, the grace of the arrangement, the swiftness of the
dialogue) fail to shame the supporters of the cruel conspiracy, who
patiently yell until the piece is withdrawn. Immediately afterwards the
printed play sells phenomenally.

One sees very clearly the reason of their being hissed one day and
bought the next, congratulated in the salons, and spit at in the journals.


The fact is, the more enlightened of the critics could not with any con-
science at once defer to the popular opinion; and perhaps the herd at
first thought that the originality of the Goncourts was of that
specious kind with which the lover of the commonplace likes to be
tickled occasionally. But soon, when their seriousness is doubted by no
one, when the vulgar find that these authors absolutely refuse to flatter
and soothe, the vote of the majority takes effect. No; this sort of thing
cannot be tolerated a moment! Life is stern enough as it is; we want
the sugary, the ideal, in our scanty leisure. Why these descriptions, so
accurate, so irresistible? Who wants to be wrung with another’s
agony? Unpleasant! Nauseating!

And what shall we, we English, say? we the chosen? we who
understand so well that a book, to be good, must recount a series
of good actions? we who like the shadow thrown across the hero’s
path only for the pleasure of seeing it swept away again?
who feel impatient if the wedding is delayed? Germinie Lacerteux
stayed out late at night? stole from her mistress? Manette Salomon
was not married to Coriolis? Put it away! put it away! Dear me!
if Freddy should get hold of it! Shocking blemishes, happily so soon
discovered. Let us beware of the glittering poison.

To more intelligent people in England they give the same impres-
sion as, now, to the corresponding class in France; except perhaps that
the English aversion to the exotic is stronger than the French. The
concentration, the devotion to the subject, that enables the Goncourts to
impart to the reader’s nerves the smart of the pain they describe, is con-
demned, because it is “unpleasant,” with more persistence here than
there. For the French can certainly claim a higher average artistic
intelligence than we, in that at least some appreciable proportion of them
understand the phrase “art for art’s sake.”

Beyond their mere literary achievements, we owe them much. It
was they who discovered the youthfulness in the art of the last century;
a truth yet to reach us.

Then theirs was the appreciative discovery of the art of Japan,
which has so improved the best modern art; has helped us out of our
artificial horizons, the conceited tameness of our landscape; has shown
us the surprise, the instantaneousness, of action; taught us the great
value of blank space, and what a large motive the surface itself can be
in the decoration of material.

The example is an unique one, of literary men influencing the man-
ner of seeing, not thinking, of contemporary painters. As opposed to it,
see how the German literature has dragged the whole German school
into their ponderous pictorial tracts and sermons. It is true they had
an advantage in the possession of no ordinary graphic skill; but com-
pared with their contemporaries, the impartiality of their eyes is simply
marvellous. The artistic penetration displayed in “Manette Salomon ”
astonishes us in this year of grace 1889; and it must be remembered


that when it was written the mass of French art seemed devoted to a
pleasant “officialism,” exhausted with the previous efforts of romanticism,
while the tenets of the school of Barbizon had drifted into a mannerism
for Goupil.

Rising from realism merely, they seem at some moment to have
definitely chosen for their task the study of woman. If we know them at
all intimately, we can imagine how the rarity of the undertaking (as they
undertook it), and the greater complexity of the feminine nature, would
have allured those who said, “Where woman is a masterpiece she is the
greatest objêt d’art. To the time of Jules’ death they had drawn Soeur
Philomdle, René Mauperin, Germinie, Manette, Madame Gervaisais.
Years afterwards, when Edmond again writes, it seems as if he is only
impelled by a desire to make a plunge while any force remains in him,
to complete a series of portraits planned long since; for he gives us La
Faustin, La fille Elisa, Cherie.

Besides their admirable studies of historic women, which cannot here
be noticed, what a gallery their fiction affords! The devoted hospital
nurse; the robust Rende ; Germinie, a triumph of psychological analysis;
the terrible Jewess; Madame Gervaisais, whose femininity is for a time
obscured in learned pursuits, but afterwards asserts itself in Rome, the
seat of learning and art, but also of the Christian religion; the superb
list finishing with the most audaciously rare (I do not mean the best) of
all in its ambitiousness, the short life of the young mondaine, grand-
daughter of Napoleon III.’s War Minister, Cherie.

                                                                        JOHN GRAY.


MLA citation:

Gray, John. “Les Goncourt.” The Dial, vol. 1, 1889, pp.9-13. Dial Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.