Nature in the Louvre
An essay by Richard Jefferies, chosen and discussed by Simon Coleman
Jefferies’ writing is littered with references to Classical Greece: we find them in novels, essays and his autobiography. Homer’s hero Odysseus was a continual source of inspiration to him, while Plato and other philosophers furnished his mind with material for true thought. In their human sculpture the Greeks’ genius for combining realism with a serene, almost ‘divine’, quality had a magnetic effect on Jefferies’ imagination. His love of Greek aesthetics is demonstrated in a remarkable essay, ‘Nature in the Louvre’ (Field and Hedgerow). On a rare trip abroad Jefferies chanced upon a sculpture in the Greek galleries of the Louvre that at once awakened his imagination. This was the ‘Venus Accroupie’, or ‘Crouching Venus’, a work that so powerfully expressed Jefferies’ sense of the ideal human life that the much more celebrated works in the Museum appeared as mere polished conventions. They were not true to life. The Accroupie, however, being completely naturalistic in form and pose, casts a spell over Jefferies. The female figure is stooping to allow a child to climb on to her back. This is revealed by presence of the tiny hand still clasping her back which is all that remains of the child. Jefferies describes his discovery of the statue:
“…in the centre of the gallery, was a statue in the sense in which I understand the word—the beautiful made tangible in human form. I said at once, ‘That is my statue. There lies all Paris for me; I shall find nothing further.’ I was then at least thirty yards distant, with the view partly broken, but it was impossible to doubt or question lines such as those. On a gradual approach the limbs become more defined, and the torso grows, and becomes more and more human—this is one of the remarkable circumstances connected with the statue. There is life in the wide hips, chest, and shoulders; so marvellous is the illusion that not only the parts that remain appear animated, but the imagination restores the missing and mutilated pieces, and the statue seems entire. I did not see that the hand was missing and the arms gone; the idea of form suggested by the existing portions was carried on over these, and filled the vacant places.
Going nearer, the large hips grow from stone to life, the deep folds of the lower torso have but this moment been formed as she stooped, and the impulse is to extend the hands to welcome this beautiful embodiment of loving kindness. There, in full existence, visible, tangible, seems to be all that the heart has imagined of the deepest and highest emotions.”
To Jefferies, such beauty is not a mental quality ascribed to things: it is a living principle or essence. The creative mind of the sculptor has communicated this magical ‘truth’ in his work and Jefferies recognises it immediately. It would appear that the minds, or perhaps the hearts, of the sculptor and Jefferies have met in this personification of perfect beauty. Jefferies’ heart sees its own reflection. The work exudes physical strength, vitality and the simple human love expressed by the moment of action it captures: the woman taking the child on her back. Jefferies describes his feelings during his succession of visits to view the statue. It has become a place of pilgrimage, and he was drawn there by the same indefinable impulse that led him to the hills, woods and streams in his youth. By his third visit he is able to gain more insight into his gradually unfolding experience:
“At a third visit it seemed to me that the statue had grown much more beautiful in the few days which had elapsed since I first saw it. Pondering upon the causes of this increasing interest, I began to see that one reason was because it recalled to my memory the loveliness of nature. Old days which I had spent wandering among deep meadows and by green woods came back to me. In such days the fancy had often occurred to me that, besides the loveliness of leaves and flowers, there must be some secret influence drawing me on as a hand might beckon. The light and colour suspended in the summer atmosphere, as colour is in stained but translucent glass, were to me always on the point of becoming tangible in some beautiful form. The hovering lines and shape never became sufficiently defined for me to know what form it could be, yet the colours and the light meant something which I was not able to fix. I was now sitting in a gallery of stone, with cold marbles, cold floors, cold light from the windows. Without there were only houses, the city of Paris—a city above all other cities farthest from woods and meads. Here, nevertheless, there came back to me this old thought born in the midst of flowers and wind-rustled leaves, and I saw that with it the statue before me was in concord. The living original of this work was the human impersonation of the secret influence which had beckoned me on in the forest and by running streams. She expressed in loveliness of form the colour and light of sunny days; she expressed the deep aspiring desire of the soul for the perfection of the frame in which it is encased, for the perfection of its own existence.”
This deepening of his awareness is now followed by the recognition of the human position within nature. It is somehow sad to know that the wonders of the earth have not been put here for our benefit: the leaves cannot love us. This knowledge, however, should help us to see the beauty of human life; the statue in front of him being its very embodiment.
“The sun rolls on in the far dome of heaven, and now day and now night sweeps with alternate bands over the surface of hill, and wood, and sea; the sea beats in endless waves, which first began to undulate a thousand thousand years ago, starting from the other rim of Time; the green leaves repeat the beauty that gladdened man in ancient days. But for themselves they are, and not for us. Their glory fills the mind with rapture but for a while, and it learns that they are, like carven idols, wholly careless and indifferent to our fate. Then is the valley incomplete, and the void sad! Its hills speak of death as well as of life, and we know that for man there is nothing on earth really but man; the human species owns and possesses nothing but its species. When I saw this I turned with threefold concentration of desire and love towards that expression of hope which is called beauty, such as is worked in marble here. For I think beauty is truthfully an expression of hope, and that is why it is so enthralling—because while the heart is absorbed in its contemplation, unconscious but powerful hope is filling the breast. So powerful is it as to banish for the time all care, and to make this life seem the life of the immortals.”
This extraordinary essay is one of the finest examples of Jefferies’ mature style. He superbly controls the tension between artistic sensibility and the ‘higher’ principle suggested by the artwork. There is also the need to communicate a more universal message to humanity as a whole. He concludes his pilgrimage with his fourth visit and calls for human efforts that extend far beyond conventional good works. Something is demanded by the heart; something real that answers to the truth of nature, and of our own nature.
“Returning the next morning, my thoughts went on, and found that this ideal of nature required of us something beyond good. The conception of moral good did not satisfy one while contemplating it. The highest form known to us at present is pure unselfishness, the doing of good, not for any reward, now or hereafter, nor for the completion of an imaginary scheme. This is the best we know. But how unsatisfactory! Filled with the aspirations called forth by the ideal before me, it appeared as if even the saving of life is a little work compared to what the heart would like to do….Though I cannot name the ideal good, it seems to me that it will be in some way closely associated with the ideal beauty of nature.”