BLESSED youth be you an individual or a nation who is impervious to your charm is petrified in soul. Your awkward growth more pleasing to behold than correct but creaking courtly graces. Your bubbling effervescenceoften misplacedsends thrilling pulsation through rational veins.
Quite naturally American painting is at first an off-shoot of European. The earliest influence is Spanish. The first real school is in Mexico City, the Academy of San Carlos, founded by Fray Pedro de Gante in 1529. An interesting line of Spanish artists painted in Mexico from then on. There developed also a considerable amount of native genius. In the seventeenth century an Indian of the province of Oaxaca, Cabrera by name, painted Madonnas with such skill and beauty that he was considered a rival of Murillo.
Thus Mexico had art and culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Upper North America had neither. Since then the condition has been somewhat reversed.
Colonial America showed some Dutch influence, though the field for art in the New Netherlands was none too favorable. Nor was the situation any better in religion-soured New England. When the New Netherlands was ceded to England the influence of that country began to be felt. In time wealthy colonists developed a taste for portraits. European artists crossed the ocean to supply the demand. Native painters cropped up. Some of these, like West, Copley and Stuart, sailed from the new country to the old and there established reputations. On the whole, late eighteenth and early nineteenth century American painters were offshoots of the British school. They also borrowed freely from all the old and some contemporary Europeans.
Gilbert Stuart, however, stands out as a real genius. A born portrait painter, he excelled all but Gainsborough and Reynolds. Almost exclusively a painter of heads, he knew this work thoroughly. Figures and costumes were to him mere accessories. In the posing of his heads there is no great originality. But there certainly is in his painting of them. They are usually in cool, diffused light, without heavy shadows or dark back-grounds. Few tricks of the craft are employed. These portraits possess genuine simplicity. In them is also a sureness of construction and an insight into character scarcely approached by any of Stuart’s contemporaries. Gilbert Stuart is best known in the United States for his portraits of George and Martha Washington. Of one of his Washington portraits he made a goodly number of replicas, which he sold to wealthy admirers of the president. He called them his hundred-dollar bills.
His color is of rare purity and freshness, with a pearly brightness which lends charm to his work. His half-tones are both firm and exceedingly delicate. He paints thinly and with remarkable sureness of touch.
At this point permit me a thought on the subject of portraiture. How often people look at a portrait of Alice, Mary or Jane and say “That smile isn’t at all like hers.” Really, it is of no great consequence whether the smile be like hers or not. A portrait need not be a perfect likeness. Leave that to the camera. Character study, the deeper phases of personality, these plus artistic effect justify portraiture. There are elements of expression above and beyond likeness which the camera cannot get. Real portraiture requires intimate reactions: the pulsing, vibrant feelings of another human mingling his soul with that of the sitter and recording his impressions and emotions in line and color. All this I know is vague. It well might be. For in attempting to portray the depth of portraiture I am groping as the artist who attempts a portrait must grope for the depths in his subject. We deal in intangibles. But they are as real as life itself. To get the full meaning of this do not hereafter ask if a portrait is a likeness. Look for bigger things.
With the exception of Gilbert Stuart, American painters of his time did considerable work with historical subjects. This was the vogue. John Trumbull, for one, often attained a high degree of skill in historical painting, both in coloring and grouping.
Some worthy painters of that day achieved even greater renown in other fields of endeavor. Charles Wilson Peale was a scientist. Robert Fulton invented the first practical steamboat. S. F. B. Morse, a portraitist of no mean ability, first president of the National Academy of Design, was the inventor of the telegraph.
Benjamin West had his school in London. It attracted a horde of American aspirants. Washington Allston and John Vanderlyn were among West’s most notable pupils. Gradually, however, this American-administered English influence lost its hold. About the middle of the nineteenth century, due to the popularity in New York of Dusseldorf painters, the German impulse was taking root in America. Facility of style, popularity of subject and low prices combined in establishing a place for this Teutonic art. But though it was fetching it was essentially mechanical. America soon tired of it.
There arose then a native school, the Hudson River School. Essentially American it was. America’s scenic beauty its concern. Landscape now came in for a good deal of attention. A host of artists were at work along the Hudson, in the White Mountains, the Adirondacks and the Catskills. The resulting quality was variable. Yet because of monotonous repetition of subjects, critics tired of the entire movement. Whence the derisive turn to the name of the school.
Yet while considerable of the painting was inferior, this school produced a line of colorists all its own. America will always be proud of men like Kensett, Bierstadt, Howland, Hunt and Inness. Scores of artists were valiantly striving to interpret the beauty, charm and glory of America’s outdoors. Many hit the mark admirably. Some painted their native scenery as they found it. Others placed facts of their own alongside of those of nature. Still others through nature expressed their own deep thoughtsor they toyed and sported with fleeting sun-beams.
But the outstanding fact is the deep sincerity of these men; their idealism; their lofty aspirations. Whether they were inspired at home or abroad is of no consequence. That they were inspired is what matters.
Many splendid names must needs be omitted from the list of American artists of the last half of the nineteenth century. I pause but too briefly before that of John La Farge. So varied is his work, so skillful in execution, so full of mood, charm, feeling and individuality, it is deserving of as many chapters as I have lines at my command.
A versatile artist was La Farge. Water-color, easel painting, minute book illustrations, carving, sculpture, murals and finally stained glassall found examples of his genius. His draftsmanship has real power. His color is vibrant, alive. He combines the “purest, strongest colors into a harmony that lifts the spectator for an instant out of himself and into an enchanted world.” The quotation is from Isham’s History of American Painting. Isham himself is a painter of no mean ability. Farther on he speaks of the carrying power of La Farge’s color: “One of the little Samoan water-colors will sparkle and glow like sapphire or opal on a gallery wall eighty feet away, making the other pictures look dull and lifeless.” In his mural decorations, as at Trinity Church and the Church of the Ascension in New York, La Farge was enabled to give his ability full sway. Much of this work is comparable to that of the great Italian masters of the Renaissance. But he achieved the highest excellence in his opalescent glass. Here, says Isham, he gave the world a new and splendid art, the “richest color creations that have yet been fashioned.” La Farge knew as few artists have ever known the glory and radiance in light streaming through glass.
James McNeill Whistler belongs to that blessed group of realists who attempted the interpretation of the visible world about them without regard to academic tradition. His guiding star was his own personality. Wherefore life for him was no bed of roses in straight-laced Mid-Victorian England, where he chose to make his home. For some forty years did he live among the pre-Raphaelites. With them he was as popular as the well-known little black-and-white animal at a lawn party.
But you may not know of these pre-Raphaelites. They were an English cult who believed that art had been on the decline sinceand includingRaphael. Seeking to emulate early simplicity, they worshipped crudity as holy. Filled with sincerity of purpose, they were totally lacking in humor. Not altogether unlike the modernists of today. But I must not get ahead of my story.
To return to Whistler. It was a forbidding atmosphere in which the refined, the exquisite artist of psychic sensation found himself. No wonder he was so misunderstood. No wonder he was everlastingly a storm-center. Independent, self-assertive, destroyer of tradition, the wonder is that he survived amid such hostile surroundings. Yet his name must be ranked with the greatest in creative art of all times.
To attempt to enumerate the qualities which are Whistler’s is like trying with Peter Pan to capture the shadow. A few points I may offer. For the rest go to his work. To begin with, he had a most rare sensitiveness to impressions. With that he combined a fastidious selectivity. From nature, from life, he picked with utmost care whatever suited his purpose. He eliminated, simplified, refined. Starting out with rich, ringing notes, gradually he discarded the robust qualities in his art and by most fastidious gradations toned it down to the merest phantom suggestion of fact. “Though Whistler began a realist, he ended a spiritistwhat he achieved is the purest alchemy of art.”
In its open frankness, energy and sobriety, his early work shows the influence of the Dutch masters. Courbet, Manet, then ethereal Fantin take their turn. From the last named he received his inspiration for producing music with brush and paint. And Whistler came closer than anyone else to the interpretation on canvas and even on paper from copper plate of the rhythm and harmony of vibration of sonata and symphony. But how do we get the essence of music in color? Your answer is in Whistler’s “The Music Room,” in the “Little White Girl,” in his various “symphonies.” Also in that most lovely, appealing and sensitive apparition in delicate white and gray, with black ribbon in her hair and two butterflies over her head, entitled “Miss Cicely Henrietta Alexander.” In all these you feel the force of color suppressed. You sense strains of melodies sublime.
Then there is Whistler’s spiritual quality, as in his “Mother.” This “arrangement in gray and black” is an adagio of old ageand more. It is the spirit of religious mysticism. His portraits are full of truths “less physical than psychic. . . . The body appears to recede, the soul to glide forward, inviting confidence and under-standing.”
Harmony and color are in his incomparable etchings. In finely tuned creations of exquisite black and white this rare draftsman expresses all the moods and feelings and “sounds” of wharf and wave and rising mast.
In his later work Whistler takes us into realms beyond all the known limits of pictorial art. “Black, the universal harmonizer, begins to spread its sombre, aristocratic allure over figure and background.” Subject as a complete entity has almost entirely disappeared. A suggestion, a bare hint of outline or colorthese tell all. An emotion, a vibrant touch on AEolian harpWhistler thus ends his immortal saga.
Turning from Whistler to Winslow Homer, the first thought that comes to mind is that here we have a more typical American painter. Yet I do not like it. I would rather say that he is another type of painter American born. Were I to attribute nationality to his work, I should want to think of Homer as a Norseland Viking despite the accident of his American birth. True, there was in him something of the stolid independence of New England. But more was there the briny daring of Norwegian mythology.
Rugged as the coasts he painted, powerful as his billowing seas, Homer’s work stands out before future art like one of his lighthouse beacons on Maine’s rock-bound shore. With what simplicity does this man pro-duce effects! No attempts at delicacy here, no highly sensitized refinements. All is elemental. Like a great wave breaking on the rocks? And in the sure, swift stroke we read the ecstasy of the man who sought to please himself rather than any dealer or collector in pictures. He revelled in his facts, the facts he loved.
In his water-colors as well as oils, the two qualities which stand out most are sincerity and power. Add mastery of technique, sobriety, enthusiasm for his subjectand you have the rest of Homer as a painter. It was his doctrine that to paint anything worth while an artist should never look at a picture by anyone else. This meant throwing all ideas on the cumulative up-building of art to the winds. Originality was essential. And by means of his own originality he taught us to enjoy new beauty on land and water. He enables those of us who are not privileged to live a life on the ocean wave keenly to feel the surge and power and poetry of the sea.
Winslow Homer does by no means exhaust the list of great American painters of his day. Not while we have Blakelock, Abbott Thayer, George Bellows, Duveneck, Twachtman and so many other real artists. Bear in mind, however, that I am merely picking examples. My next and last in this series will be John Singer Sargent.
But here I am faced with a problem in musical composition. Closing a chapter with Sargent is like ending a work for the concert stage with tricks of orchestration. I prefer more substantial, simple chords. The audience should be left with a feeling of solidity. Yet this is but a movement in a suite. My next movement concerns it-self with things of todayin which pure craftsmanship plays a leading rolein which tricks are almost every-thing. It is just as well, therefore, that the last impression here be one of technique.
Sargent, then, is a dazzling, brilliant workman. Like Whistler and Homer be cares not for convention. But his individuality expresses itself in a far different way. Sargent bathes in the glory of his technical perfection. He delights in bringing out to the utmost the beauty to be found on the surface of things. Shape, form and textureto him these are both the means and the end. Thought and feeling are brushed aside. He regales him-self with mere looks.
Mastery of craftsmanship came quite easily to Sargent. Perhaps too easily. With ready facility and rare dexterity he hurdled problems the solving of which would have involved for anyone else arduous and most painstaking study. Early in his career he mastered the art of representing the figure in mass rather than outline. He was gifted with the faculty of instantaneous perception. But art too easily mastered is quite likely to stay on the surface. Most sure of his stroke, a line draftsman par excellence, Sargent contents himself with fleeting impression and vivacious likeness rather than seeking to plumb the depths of human nature. On the other hand, he uses his rare magic to give us action. In a way never before achieved he produces motion on canvas. Christian Brinton, in Modern Artists, thus speaks of Sargent’s portraits:
“Women are in the act of starting from their chairs and men are on the very point of speaking. Here is a dancer whose yellow skirt still swirls in elastic convolutions; there stands a painter lunging at the canvas with sensitively poised brush. All is restless, vivid, spontaneous. One and all these creatures vibrate with the nervous tension of the age. Other artists have given us calm, or momentarily arrested motion. Sargent gives us motion itself.”
Here is an artist who has carried the mechanics of painting as far as anyone has ever done. And there he stops. Nor is this altogether to be deplored. A tapestry is not judged alone by its subject. The weaving itself may delight. So with intricacies of composition, the pattern in a symphony. There is much to be said in favor of art for art’s sake.
For those who appreciate fine art regardless of message there is endless enjoyment in Sargent’s water-colors. I fancy that he worked at these for relief from the tedium of wealthy but boresome sitters. How he toyed with blazes of color in these water-colorsI What wonderful chords he struck. What fine harmonies he produced and with fewest possible strokes. Be-hold a patchwork of bright-colored, haphazard lines. Stand back a bit. We have a camping scene, and a camp fire. There is a tent, a few hardy woodsmen, all the incidentals of foliage and accessories. And not a line out of place. The drawing is perfect. The scene complete. That is Sargent. If he brings no deeper message, he does bring something.