Holbein’s drunkards fill their glasses in a sort of frenzied desire to put aside the thought of Death, who, unseen by them, acts as their cup-bearer. The wicked rich men of to-day demand fortifications and cannon to put aside the thought of a rising of the Jacquerie, whom art shows them at work in the shadow, separately awaiting the moment to swoop down upon society. The Church of the Middle Ages answered the terrors of the powerful ones of the earth by selling indulgences. The government of to-day allays the anxiety of the rich by making them pay for many gendarmes and jailers, bayonets and prisons.
Albert Duerer, Michael Angelo, Holbein, Callot, Goya, produced powerful satires upon the evils of their age and their country. They are immortal works, historical pages of unquestionable value; we do not undertake, therefore, to deny artists the right to probe the wounds of society and lay them bare before our eyes; but is there nothing better to be done to-day than to depict the terrifying and the threatening? In this literature of mysteries of iniquity, which talent and imagination have made fashionable, we prefer the mild, attractive figures to the villains for dramatic effect. The former may undertake and effect conversions, the others cause fear, and fear does not cure egoism, but increases it.
We believe that the mission of art is a mission of sentiment and love, that the novel of to-day ought to replace the parable and the fable of simpler times, and that the artist has a broader and more poetic task than that of suggesting a few prudential and conciliatory measures to lessen the alarm his pictures arouse. His object should be to make the objects of his solicitude lovable, and I would not reproach him for flattering them a little, in case of need. Art is not a study of positive reality, it is a quest for ideal truth, and the Vicar of Wakefield was a more useful and healthy book for the mind than the Paysan Perverti or the Liaisons Dangereuses.
Reader, pardon these reflections, and deign to accept them by way of preface. There will be no other to the little tale I propose to tell you, and it will be so short and so simple that I felt that I must apologize beforehand by telling you what I think of terrifying tales.
I allowed myself to be drawn into this digression apropos of a ploughman. It is the story of a ploughman that I set out to tell you, and will tell you forthwith.
I had been gazing for a long time and with profound sadness at Holbein’s ploughman, and I was walking in the fields, musing upon country-life and the destiny of the husbandman. Doubtless it is a depressing thing to consume one’s strength and one’s life driving the plough through the bosom of the jealous earth, which yields the treasures of its fecundity only under duress, when a bit of the blackest and coarsest