Pierre and Jean (Bell, 1902)/The Portraits of Guy de Maupassant
THE PORTRAITS OF
GUY DE MAUPASSANT
Like his master, Flaubert, who exercised such a powerful influence on his ideas and his manner of life, Guy de Maupassant was more or less hostile to portraiture, or rather to the publicity of portraiture. He thought that an author's work was all that concerned the multitude, that curiosity about a writer's appearance on the part of a reader was indiscreet and profane to a certain extent, and quite unworthy of serious consideration.
"I have made it a fixed rule," wrote Maupassant about 1885, in a letter to the papers (of which we give a fac-simile), "never to allow my portrait to be published when it was within my power to prevent it. All the exceptions have been due to occasions when I was taken more or less unawares." What was the cause for this scorn for reproductions of his own image on the part of the author of so many tales in which he boldly and habitually put forward his own personality when by so doing he could give greater vivacity to the episode he was relating? Certainly no spirit of pose or desire to be singular, no constitutional timidity, no fear that his outward man might give his admirers a disagreeable impression. Guy de Maupassant was a handsome young Norman, somewhat massive, but firmly knit and well set up, with a resolute and manly face, which in the early days of his vigorous youth was not without a strain of vulgarity in so far as his twisted mustaches, his muscular neck, the hair brushed across his forehead, and his confident expression gave him somewhat the air of a certain type of non-commissioned officer, or of a young squireen of Lower Normandy, irresistible to women. This character of strength, muscular vigour, exuberant health and universal conquest had impressed itself on him without any effort on his part in his rough life in the open air and on the water, long before he had become a successful writer, when he was preparing to enter the government office in which he was a clerk for a short time. In all the portraits of him till after 1880 we note this aspect of overflowing life, of a sanguine temperament, and of a frame made for the healthy exercises of boating, often evidently cramped and ill at ease in a morning coat or a frock-coat. It was this which when he was about twenty-eight gave a somewhat common and clumsy appearance to the man who, ten years later, desired so much to figure as a man of fashion, and to enjoy and to define social success.
Maupassant, whom I knew intimately enough towards the close of his life to he able to judge him, disliked portraits and their reproductions because he did not feel himself to be a "literary man" in the trivial and vulgar sense of the term, and he would have blushed to pride himself on those things which give the greatest satisfaction to the vanity of mediocre writers. He disliked to see his features reproduced for the same reason that he refused decorations and academic honours, and all the distinctions that our French contemporaries seem to desire so eagerly, striving; after paltry honours which would soon become objects of derision, if proud natures like that of the author of Pierre et Jean were less rare.
"A man must be very modest," said Flaubert, "if he thinks himself honoured by honours conferred on him."
There are, then, no painted portraits of Guy de Maupassant, nor any sketches by artists in crayons or water-colours, nor even any medallions and miniatures. On the other hand, he never attracted the attention of the caricaturist. The only presentments that remain to us are certain photographs, full face, profile, and three-quarters face, taken more or less by chance, at some moment when the realistic iconophobe was complaisant beyond his wont. Only once did he deliberately break through his rule of refusing to sit for his own portrait; this was in favour of La Revue Illustrée, which published a study on his works, and asked for a sketch from nature. He allowed this to be taken in his study; he is seated in the attitude usual to him when he talked with characteristic ease, charm and distinction of phrase, his legs crossed, his hands before him, his eyes fixed on his interlocutor. This portrait, which we reproduce, was engraved by Boileau, and is the best we have of the young master whose end was so tragic.
The others are all from photographs, and have the rigidity, the studied attitude, the lack of physical ease and unconsciousness which mark all such works. The drawing we give from a photograph by Liébert taken in 1886 is the most expressive. It is still Maupassant the sportsman and oarsman, the poet of La Lavandière and the story-teller of La Maison Tellier, the hero of amorous adventures, whose doughty feats were retailed at the literary clubs, a Maupassant in the full vigour of manhood, in whom it would have been difficult to predict a future etheromaniac, or a predestined victim of hereditary paralysis. The other versions of him reproduced here from etchings are more fanciful and conventional. They show us Maupassant as he may have appeared in his official hours, his hair divided by a vulgar parting, a mustache destitute of character adorning the smug oval of a self-satisfied countenance, his frock-coat fitting closely over his broad chest, his black cravat with its stiff made-up bow—the general appearance of a functionary from the provinces.
The portrait of 1888, reproduced at the beginning of this note, is the one which bears most likeness to our lost friend. Here we recognise the author of Horla, the owner of the yacht Bel Ami, the writer of the melancholy pages called Sur l'Eau, the man of the world of his later phase, already restless, suffering, and overshadowed by the fatal crisis.
After Guy de Maupassant's death a monument was erected to him in Paris, in the Parc Monceau; it consists of a bust of the master of narrative, utterly wanting in character, below which a Parisian lady reads one of his novels, having first disposed her skirts in a fashion which has engrossed the whole of the sculptor's art. At Rouen, at the entrance of the Museum Gardens, facing the medallion of Flaubert, there is another bust in yellow bronze of poor Maupassant, who seems to be protesting against this desecration of his features in the glare of a public garden.
We mention these posthumous works purely as memorials. The soul, the expression, the animated features of Maupassant have found no interpreter. He put all his life, all his true physiognomy into his imperishable tales, so varied, so richly coloured. It is in these we recognise him. He was right to prohibit the publication of his portraits. They did no depict the real aspect of the man, as it was known and loved by his friends —the mobile face animated by the fine eyes which had a certain bitterness, but also such curiosity, such eagerness, such a passion for the spectacle of men and things. It was impassible to paint such vivacity.
"There is something better than having many portraits and medals," said another famous Norman, Barbey d'Aurevilly, "and that is to have none."
It is everything to set the imaginations of posterity dreaming. Painters as a rule do but disconcert the fertile visions of readers, always ready to create noble forms for the ideal expression of those they love to divine through their books.