This "Imaginary Portraits" was written by Walter Pater in English language.

Page 1

Imaginary Portraits
Walter Pater

Page 2

The Project Gutenberg EBook of Imaginary Portraits, by Walter Pater
This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with
almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or
re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included
with this eBook or online at
Title: Imaginary Portraits
Author: Walter Pater
Posting Date: March 27, 2009 [EBook #2399]
Release Date: November, 2000
Language: English
Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1
Produced by Bruce McClintock. HTML version by Al Haines.
Walter Pater
4th edition

Page 3

Valenciennes, September 1701.
They have been renovating my father's large workroom. That delightful,
tumble-down old place has lost its moss-grown tiles and the green weather-
stains we have known all our lives on the high whitewashed wall, opposite
which we sit, in the little sculptor's yard, for the coolness, in summertime.
Among old Watteau's workpeople came his son, "the genius," my father's
godson and namesake, a dark-haired youth, whose large, unquiet eyes
seemed perpetually wandering to the various drawings which lie exposed here.
My father will have it that he is a genius indeed, and a painter born. We have
had our September Fair in the Grande Place, a wonderful stir of sound and
colour in the wide, open space beneath our windows. And just where the
crowd was busiest young Antony was found, hoisted into one of those empty
niches of the old Hotel de Ville, sketching the scene to the life, but with a kind
of grace—a marvellous tact of omission, as my father pointed out to us, in
dealing with the vulgar reality seen from one's own window—which has made
trite old Harlequin, Clown, and Columbine, seem like people in some fairyland;
or like infinitely clever tragic actors, who, for the humour of the thing, have put
on motley for once, and are able to throw a world of serious innuendo into their
burlesque looks, with a sort of comedy which shall be but tragedy seen from
the other side. He brought his sketch to our house to-day, and I was present
when my father questioned him and commended his work. But the lad seemed
not greatly pleased, and left untasted the glass of old Malaga which was
offered to him.
His father will hear nothing of educating him as a painter. Yet he
is not ill-to-do, and has lately built himself a new stone house, big and grey and
cold. Their old plastered house with the black timbers, in the Rue des
Cardinaux, was prettier; dating from the time of the Spaniards, and one of the
oldest in Valenciennes.
October 1701.
Chiefly through the solicitations of my father, old Watteau has consented to

Page 4

place Antony with a teacher of painting here. I meet him betimes on the way to
his lessons, as I return from Mass; for he still works with the masons, but
making the most of late and early hours, of every moment of liberty. And then
he has the feast-days, of which there are so many in this old-fashioned place.
Ah! such gifts as his, surely, may once in a way make much industry seem
worth while. He makes a wonderful progress. And yet, far from being set-up,
and too easily pleased with what, after all, comes to him so easily, he has, my
father thinks, too little self-approval for ultimate success. He is apt, in truth, to
fall out too hastily with himself and what he produces. Yet here also there is the
"golden mean." Yes! I could fancy myself offended by a sort of irony which
sometimes crosses the half-melancholy sweetness of manner habitual with
him; only that as I can see, he treats himself to the same quality.
October 1701.
Antony Watteau comes here often now. It is the instinct of a natural fineness
in him, to escape when he can from that blank stone house, with so little to
interest, and that homely old man and woman. The rudeness of his home has
turned his feeling for even the simpler graces of life into a physical want, like
hunger or thirst, which might come to greed; and methinks he perhaps
overvalues these things. Still, made as he is, his hard fate in that rude place
must needs touch one. And then, he profits by the experience of my father,
who has much knowledge in matters of art beyond his own art of sculpture;
and Antony is not unwelcome to him. In these last rainy weeks especially,
when he can't sketch out of doors, when the wind only half dries the pavement
before another torrent comes, and people stay at home, and the only sound
from without is the creaking of a restless shutter on its hinges, or the march
across the Place of those weary soldiers, coming and going so interminably,
one hardly knows whether to or from battle with the English and the Austrians,
from victory or defeat:—Well! he has become like one of our family. "He will go
far!" my father declares. He would go far, in the literal sense, if he might—to
Paris, to Rome. It must be admitted that our Valenciennes is a quiet, nay! a
sleepy place; sleepier than ever since it became French, and ceased to be so
near the frontier. The grass is growing deep on our old ramparts, and it is
pleasant to walk there—to walk there and muse; pleasant for a tame,
unambitious soul such as mine.
December 1792.
Antony Watteau left us for Paris this morning. It came upon us quite
suddenly. They amuse themselves in Paris. A scene-painter we have here, well
known in Flanders, has been engaged to work in one of the Parisian play-
houses; and young Watteau, of whom he had some slight knowledge, has
departed in his company. He doesn't know it was I who persuaded the scene-
painter to take him; that he would find the lad useful. We offered him our little
presents—fine thread-lace of our own making for his ruffles, and the like; for

Page 5

one must make a figure in Paris, and he is slim and well-formed. For myself, I
presented him with a silken purse I had long ago embroidered for another.
Well! we shall follow his fortunes (of which I for one feel quite sure) at a
distance. Old Watteau didn't know of his departure, and has been here in great
December 1703.
Twelve months to-day since Antony went to Paris! The first struggle must be
a sharp one for an unknown lad in that vast, overcrowded place, even if he be
as clever as young Antony Watteau. We may think, however, that he is on the
way to his chosen end, for he returns not home; though, in truth, he tells those
poor old people very little of himself. The apprentices of the M. Metayer for
whom he works, labour all day long, each at a single part only,—coiffure, or
robe, or hand,—of the cheap pictures of religion or fantasy he exposes for sale
at a low price along the footways of the Pont Notre-Dame. Antony is already
the most skilful of them, and seems to have been promoted of late to work on
church pictures. I like the thought of that. He receives three livres a week for
his pains, and his soup daily.
May 1705.
Antony Watteau has parted from the dealer in pictures a bon marche and
works now with a painter of furniture pieces (those headpieces for doors and
the like, now in fashion) who is also concierge of the Palace of the
Luxembourg. Antony is actually lodged somewhere in that grand place, which
contains the king's collection of the Italian pictures he would so willingly copy.
Its gardens also are magnificent, with something, as we understand from him,
altogether of a novel kind in their disposition and embellishment. Ah! how I
delight myself, in fancy at least, in those beautiful gardens, freer and trimmed
less stiffly than those of other royal houses. Methinks I see him there, when his
long summer-day's work is over, enjoying the cool shade of the stately, broad-
foliaged trees, each of which is a great courtier, though it has its way almost as
if it belonged to that open and unbuilt country beyond, over which the sun is
His thoughts, however, in the midst of all this, are not wholly away from
home, if I may judge by the subject of a picture he hopes to sell for as much as
sixty livres—Un Depart de Troupes, Soldiers Departing—one of those scenes
of military life one can study so well here at Valenciennes.
June 1705.
Young Watteau has returned home—proof, with a character so independent
as his, that things have gone well with him; and (it is agreed!) stays with us,

Page 6

instead of in the stone-mason's house. The old people suppose he comes to
us for the sake of my father's instruction. French people as we are become, we
are still old Flemish, if not at heart, yet on the surface. Even in French
Flanders, at Douai and Saint Omer, as I understand, in the churches and in
people's houses, as may be seen from the very streets, there is noticeable a
minute and scrupulous air of care-taking and neatness. Antony Watteau
remarks this more than ever on returning to Valenciennes, and savours
greatly, after his lodging in Paris, our Flemish cleanliness, lover as he is of
distinction and elegance. Those worldly graces he seemed when a young lad
to hunger and thirst for, as though truly the mere adornments of life were its
necessaries, he already takes as if he had been always used to them. And
there is something noble—shall I say?—in his half-disdainful way of serving
himself with what he still, as I think, secretly values over-much. There is an air
of seemly thought—le bel serieux—about him, which makes me think of one of
those grave old Dutch statesmen in their youth, such as that famous William
the Silent. And yet the effect of this first success of his (of more importance
than its mere money value, as insuring for the future the full play of his natural
powers) I can trace like the bloom of a flower upon him; and he has, now and
then, the gaieties which from time to time, surely, must refresh all true artists,
however hard-working and "painful."
July 1705.
The charm of all this—his physiognomy and manner of being—has touched
even my young brother, Jean-Baptiste. He is greatly taken with Antony, clings
to him almost too attentively, and will be nothing but a painter, though my
father would have trained him to follow his own profession. It may do the child
good. He needs the expansion of some generous sympathy or sentiment in
that close little soul of his, as I have thought, watching sometimes how his
small face and hands are moved in sleep. A child of ten who cares only to save
and possess, to hoard his tiny savings! Yet he is not otherwise selfish, and
loves us all with a warm heart. Just now it is the moments of Antony's company
he counts, like a little miser. Well! that may save him perhaps from developing
a certain meanness of character I have sometimes feared for him.
August 1705.
We returned home late this summer evening—Antony Watteau, my father
and sisters, young Jean-Baptiste, and myself—from an excursion to Saint-
Amand, in celebration of Antony's last day with us. After visiting the great
abbey-church and its range of chapels, with their costly encumbrance of carved
shrines and golden reliquaries and funeral scutcheons in the coloured glass,
half seen through a rich enclosure of marble and brasswork, we supped at the
little inn in the forest. Antony, looking well in his new-fashioned, long-skirted
coat, and taller than he really is, made us bring our cream and wild
strawberries out of doors, ranging ourselves according to his judgment (for a

Page 7

hasty sketch in that big pocket-book he carries) on the soft slope of one of
those fresh spaces in the wood, where the trees unclose a little, while Jean-
Baptiste and my youngest sister danced a minuet on the grass, to the notes of
some strolling lutanist who had found us out. He is visibly cheerful at the
thought of his return to Paris, and became for a moment freer and more
animated than I have ever yet seen him, as he discoursed to us about the
paintings of Peter Paul Rubens in the church here. His words, as he spoke of
them, seemed full of a kind of rich sunset with some moving glory within it. Yet
I like far better than any of these pictures of Rubens a work of that old Dutch
master, Peter Porbus, which hangs, though almost out of sight indeed, in our
church at home. The patron saints, simple, and standing firmly on either side,
present two homely old people to Our Lady enthroned in the midst, with the
look and attitude of one for whom, amid her "glories" (depicted in dim little
circular pictures, set in the openings of a chaplet of pale flowers around her) all
feelings are over, except a great pitifulness. Her robe of shadowy blue suits my
eyes better far than the hot flesh-tints of the Medicean ladies of the great Peter
Paul, in spite of that amplitude and royal ease of action under their stiff court
costumes, at which Antony Watteau declares himself in dismay.
August 1705.
I am just returned from early Mass. I lingered long after the office was
ended, watching, pondering how in the world one could help a small bird which
had flown into the church but could find no way out again. I suspect it will
remain there, fluttering round and round distractedly, far up under the arched
roof till it dies exhausted. I seem to have heard of a writer who likened man's
life to a bird passing just once only, on some winter night, from window to
window, across a cheerfully-lighted hall. The bird, taken captive by the ill-luck
of a moment, re-tracing its issueless circle till it expires within the close vaulting
of that great stone church:—human life may be like that bird too!
Antony Watteau returned to Paris yesterday. Yes!—Certainly, great heights
of achievement would seem to lie before him; access to regions whither one
may find it increasingly hard to follow him even in imagination, and figure to
one's self after what manner his life moves therein.
January 1709.
Antony Watteau has competed for what is called the Prix de Rome, desiring
greatly to profit by the grand establishment founded at Rome by Lewis the
Fourteenth, for the encouragement of French artists. He obtained only the
second place, but does not renounce his desire to make the journey to Italy.
Could I save enough by careful economies for that purpose? It might be
conveyed to him in some indirect way that would not offend.

Page 8

February 1712.
We read, with much pleasure for all of us, in the Gazette to-day, among
other events of the world, that Antony Watteau had been elected to the
Academy of Painting under the new title of Peintre des Fetes Galantes, and
had been named also Peintre du Roi. My brother, Jean-Baptiste, ran to tell the
news to old Jean-Philippe and Michelle Watteau.
A new manner of painting! The old furniture of people's rooms must needs
be changed throughout, it would seem, to accord with this painting; or rather,
the painting is designed exclusively to suit one particular kind of apartment. A
manner of painting greatly prized, as we understand, by those Parisian judges
who have had the best opportunity of acquainting themselves with whatever is
most enjoyable in the arts:—such is the achievement of the young Watteau!
He looks to receive more orders for his work than he will be able to execute.
He will certainly relish—he, so elegant, so hungry for the colours of life—a free
intercourse with those wealthy lovers of the arts, M. de Crozat, M. de Julienne,
the Abbe de la Roque, the Count de Caylus, and M. Gersaint, the famous
dealer in pictures, who are so anxious to lodge him in their fine hotels, and to
have him of their company at their country houses. Paris, we hear, has never
been wealthier and more luxurious than now: and the great ladies outbid each
other to carry his work upon their very fans. Those vast fortunes, however,
seem to change hands very rapidly. And Antony's new manner? I am unable
even to divine it—to conceive the trick and effect of it—at all. Only, something
of lightness and coquetry I discern there, at variance, methinks, with his own
singular gravity and even sadness of mien and mind, more answerable to the
stately apparelling of the age of Henry the Fourth, or of Lewis the Thirteenth, in
these old, sombre Spanish houses of ours.
March 1713.
We have all been very happy,—Jean-Baptiste as if in a delightful dream.
Antony Watteau, being consulted with regard to the lad's training as a painter,
has most generously offered to receive him for his own pupil. My father, for
some reason unknown to me, seemed to hesitate the first; but Jean-Baptiste,
whose enthusiasm for Antony visibly refines and beautifies his whole nature,
has won the necessary permission, and this dear young brother will leave us
to-morrow. Our regrets and his, at his parting from us for the first time, overtook
our joy at his good fortune by surprise, at the last moment, as we were about to
bid each other good-night. For a while there had seemed to be an uneasiness
under our cheerful talk, as if each one present were concealing something with
an effort; and it was Jean-Baptiste himself who gave way at last. And then we
sat down again, still together, and allowed free play to what was in our hearts,
almost till morning, my sisters weeping much. I know better how to control
myself. In a few days that delightful new life will have begun for him: and I have
made him promise to write often to us. With how small a part of my whole life
shall I be really living at Valenciennes!

Page 9

January 1714.
Jean-Philippe Watteau has received a letter from his son to-day. Old
Michelle Watteau, whose sight is failing, though she still works (half by touch,
indeed) at her pillow-lace, was glad to hear me read the letter aloud more than
once. It recounts—how modestly, and almost as a matter of course!—his late
successes. And yet!—does he, in writing to these old people, purposely
underrate his great good fortune and seeming happiness, not to shock them
too much by the contrast between the delicate enjoyments of the life he now
leads among the wealthy and refined, and that bald existence of theirs in his
old home? A life, agitated, exigent, unsatisfying! That is what this letter really
discloses, below so attractive a surface. As his gift expands so does that
incurable restlessness one supposed but the humour natural to a promising
youth who had still everything to do. And now the only realised enjoyment he
has of all this might seem to be the thought of the independence it has
purchased him, so that he can escape from one lodging-place to another, just
as it may please him. He has already deserted, somewhat incontinently, more
than one of those fine houses, the liberal air of which he used so greatly to
affect, and which have so readily received him. Has he failed truly to grasp the
fact of his great success and the rewards that lie before him? At all events, he
seems, after all, not greatly to value that dainty world he is now privileged to
enter, and has certainly but little relish for his own works—those works which I
for one so thirst to see.
March 1714.
We were all—Jean-Philippe, Michelle Watteau, and ourselves—half in
expectation of a visit from Antony; and to-day, quite suddenly, he is with us. I
was lingering after early Mass this morning in the church of Saint Vaast. It is
good for me to be there. Our people lie under one of the great marble slabs
before the jube, some of the memorial brass balusters of which are engraved
with their names and the dates of their decease. The settle of carved oak
which runs all round the wide nave is my father's own work. The quiet
spaciousness of the place is itself like a meditation, an "act of recollection," and
clears away the confusions of the heart. I suppose the heavy droning of the
carillon had smothered the sound of his footsteps, for on my turning round,
when I supposed myself alone, Antony Watteau was standing near me.
Constant observer as he is of the lights and shadows of things, he visits places
of this kind at odd times. He has left Jean-Baptiste at work in Paris, and will
stay this time with the old people, not at our house; though he has spent the
better part of to-day in my father's workroom. He hasn't yet put off, in spite of
all his late intercourse with the great world, his distant and preoccupied
manner—a manner, it is true, the same to every one. It is certainly not through
pride in his success, as some might fancy, for he was thus always. It is rather
as if, with all that success, life and its daily social routine were somewhat of a

Page 10

burden to him.
April 1714.
At last we shall understand something of that new style of his-the Watteau
style—so much relished by the fine people at Paris. He has taken it into his
kind head to paint and decorate our chief salon—the room with the three long
windows, which occupies the first floor of the house.
The room was a landmark, as we used to think, an inviolable milestone and
landmark, of old Valenciennes fashion—that sombre style, indulging much in
contrasts of black or deep brown with white, which the Spaniards left behind
them here. Doubtless their eyes had found its shadows cool and pleasant,
when they shut themselves in from the cutting sunshine of their own country.
But in our country, where we must needs economise not the shade but the
sun, its grandiosity weighs a little on one's spirits. Well! the rough plaster we
used to cover as well as might be with morsels of old figured arras-work, is
replaced by dainty panelling of wood, with mimic columns, and a quite aerial
scrollwork around sunken spaces of a pale-rose stuff and certain oval openings
—two over the doors, opening on each side of the great couch which faces the
windows, one over the chimney-piece, and one above the buffet which forms
its vis-a-vis—four spaces in all, to be filled by and by with "fantasies" of the
Four Seasons, painted by his own hand. He will send us from Paris arm-chairs
of a new pattern he has devised, suitably covered, and a clavecin. Our old
silver candlesticks look well on the chimney-piece. Odd, faint-coloured flowers
fill coquettishly the little empty spaces here and there, like ghosts of nosegays
left by visitors long ago, which paled thus, sympathetically, at the decease of
their old owners; for, in spite of its new-fashionedness, all this array is really
less like a new thing than the last surviving result of all the more lightsome
adornments of past times. Only, the very walls seem to cry out:—No! to make
delicate insinuation, for a music, a conversation, nimbler than any we have
known, or are likely to find here. For himself, he converses well, but very
sparingly. He assures us, indeed, that the "new style" is in truth a thing of old
days, of his own old days here in Valenciennes, when, working long hours as a
mason's boy, he in fancy reclothed the walls of this or that house he was
employed in, with this fairy arrangement—itself like a piece of "chamber-
music," methinks, part answering to part; while no too trenchant note is allowed
to break through the delicate harmony of white and pale red and little golden
touches. Yet it is all very comfortable also, it must be confessed; with an
elegant open place for the fire, instead of the big old stove of brown tiles. The
ancient, heavy furniture of our grandparents goes up, with difficulty, into the
garrets, much against my father's inclination. To reconcile him to the change,
Antony is painting his portrait in a vast perruque and with more vigorous
massing of light and shadow than he is wont to permit himself.
June 1714.

show more


Recomended Documents