The scene is probably happening in the tower of the steeple of a village church, a day of festooned feast. This is the moment to announce the office: the altar boy has already put on the white surplice and the scarlet cassock. At the rope that sets the bell in motion, four vigorous peasants are hung up and pulling all the strength of their arms. Part of this ardor, they have probably drawn from the bottles that can be seen strewing the ground, next to a heap of clothes. In the heat of the action, one of them dropped his slipper and his stockings, pulled by the effort, go down and tug on his skinny legs. All these fellows look like happy fellows for whom the bells ringtone seems to be an opportunity to empty some bottle. The painter did not locate his episode; no doubt it is a reminiscence of his stay in the South. In any case, we are in a country where wine is in honor. Close to the stained glass window, one sees the sacristan who, the glass in hand and with an evident bliss, is right to a young man sitting in front of him in the embrasure. The altar boy himself, near the door, holds a bottle which he is about to go and drink secretly in some corner.
This little picture is of a charming fantasy; the muscular effort of the bellmen is translated with a truth, a perfect realism. By the small importance of the episode, by the abundance of detail and the meticulousness of the execution, this work ranks among the best of that form of art called genre painting, and in which excelled Decamps.
“To this painting are missing,” wrote M. Charles Clement, “all or part of the great qualities of art, the importance and elevation of the subject, the strength, the nobility of the composition, the beauty of the types, the gestures, adjustments, but it redeems its inferiority by the truth of the details, the skill of the invoice, the approval of the color, the accuracy of the pantomime, the arrangement, in a word, by the excellence of this which depends above all on observation and execution. A genre painter has wit, know-how, talent. He astonishes, interests, seduces; it does not move, it is not for nothing in those numerous and admirable creations of the genius which, from century to century, populate the imagination of those who know and who think.“
In this respect, Decamps is much better than a genre painter. If he were only the brightest and most amusing of our anecdotiers, we would not understand the unanimous admiration his work enjoys. But he ennobles the most vulgar of his compositions by an admirable understanding of light. Few painters have possessed to such a high degree the gift of capturing the sun and illuminating its canvases. It was his constant study and most of his paintings have no subject, they are only an excuse for him to play virtuoso with the rays and the shadows. He has brought the art of chiaroscuro to a perfection which is apparent to the greatest masters. We find precisely the proof in the Sonneurs where vibrates an intense light which animates the darkest corners of the canvas.
Decamps dreamed all his life of being something other than a genre painter. He tried his hand at painting style and showed real qualities. One could mention, among these works of a higher order the Miraculous Fishing, the Defeat of the Cimbri, and especially the Christ in the Praetorium. He even thought of painting with a fresco: “I did not lack inventiveness,” he wrote, “and I would have taken advantage of the most absurd idea, if I had been allowed a room of any kind… What I had produced would have been very attackable, I admit; finally organized in a particular way, what I had produced was a little out of this system of used ceiling … I have the conviction that the necessity where I found myself to produce only easel paintings totally turned me away from my natural way…”
He is perhaps a chance, for the glory of Decamps, that he was not able to measure himself in the mural: he had too much the passion of the detail to bend to the necessities of the fresco which sacrifice precisely the detail to the mass; in addition, the fresco requires a clear, lively, light shade and Decamps still paints in a dark range dominated by chiaroscuro. Finally, the fresco is affordable only impeccable designers; but, too often, missing the study, Decamps’ drawing lacks safety.
But what does it matter what he could or wanted to be? It is not so slim to find a painting in a tiny episode of the intimate life and to be interested in it by force of wit, fantasy, humor and science.
To judge Decamps well, we must remember that he formed himself alone, without a master, if not without study. But for lack of master, his study was incomplete. He is almost never irreproachable, but his defects, which are indisputable, can not make him forget his eminent and rare qualities. He pleases and charms by the somewhat bitter taste of his talent, and by the originality of his invention, and the picturesque backdrop of his anecdotes.
The Sonneurs were bought by M. Tomy-Thierry; it appears in the Louvre in the rooms of the second floor, reserved for the rich collection of the donor.
Height: 0.58 – Width: 0.48 – Figures: 0.32.