American Painters – Abbey – Blashfield – Volk

PRIOR to the World’s Fair at Chicago, in 1893, the American artists had made comparatively little progress in the art of architectural decoration. That exhibition, seconded by the Municipal Art Society of New York and other cities, brought about a Renaissance in this branch of art that already has trans-formed our public buildings, and that may in the future make them close rivals of those grand old buildings of Venice, Florence and Rome. As soon as the opportunity arose there were plenty of American artists ready for the work such men as Blashfield, Abbey, Sargent, Alexander, and a score of others. That these men understood mural decoration simply emphasised the fact of their many-sided powers. Architectural decoration in America, however, is a study by itself.

Possibly Edwin H. Blashfield (1848) is better known through his mural decorations, for, without question, he has attained a rare degree of excellence in this branch of his art. His mural paintings in the Congressional Library, in the new Minnesota Capitol and in the Capitol of Iowa, at Des Moines, are good examples of the versatility of his conceptions ; and in the latter “Westward” his handling of sunlight is a stroke of genius. The long red rays of the setting sun illumine the whole scene with a golden glow, as though the artist had caught some of Old Sol’s rays and mixed them with his paints. The airy lightness of the radiant beings who are the guides into the unexplored West is in fine contrast to the sturdy company of pioneers.

The combination of lightness and strength that Mr. Blashfield knew so well how to man-age in a composition is specially fine in his “Uses of Wealth” (Fig. I10), a decoration in one of the banking houses of Cleveland, Ohio. With perfect ease he unites the purely allegorical with the delver and artificer, so that one supplements the other, making a harmonious whole.

Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911) was born in Philadelphia and trained in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. When only nineteen he began his artistic career as a magazine illustrator. Probably no artist past or present ever has come so near to the heart of the reading public as has Abbey. His wide and comprehensive knowledge of legend, literature, history, and fiction, together with his deep sympathy in the portrayal of character and stories, have endeared him to all.

Mr. Abbey certainly has refuted over and over again the assertion that story-telling pictures could not be true art. His pictorial interpretations of the “Holy Grail” in the Boston Library, “She Stoops to Conquer” and Shakespearian scenes have given those master-pieces in ancient legend and literature a significance undreamed of before. He not only entered into the spirit of the stories as their authors represented them but, adding his own personal characteristics, has given to each an originality that stamps them as master-pieces in art.

Of course we are interested in the story underlying Abbey’s portrayal of special scenes, yet that does not detract from our enjoyment of the picture itself. As we stand before “The Penance of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester” (Fig. III), Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, we feel the fascination of the beautiful, haughty woman. Our instinctive sense of what is due womanhood is being outraged. We recognise that here is represented an elemental truth in civilised life. Even the fact that overweening ambition has brought to pass this punishment does not prevent the artist from centring the charm of the composition around the Duchess.

The story told in Henry VI, Act II, Scene 3, is in outline that Eleanor plotted that her husband, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, Protector of the Kingdom, should supplant his nephew, King Henry VI, and she would step from the rank of second lady in the realm to that of queen. When her schemes were disclosed, her fellow-intriguers were put to death and she, said King Henry,

“Shall after three days open penance done, Live in your country here in banishment.”

The painting represents the moment of Eleanor’s speech to the Duke of Gloucester, who, dressed in mourning, listens with bowed head.

“Ah, Gloster; teach me to forget myself ! For whilst I think I am thy married wife And thou a prince, protector of this land, Methinks I should not thus be led along, Mail’d up in shame, with papers on my back And follow’d with a rabble, that rejoice To see my tears, and hear my deep-felt groans. The ruthless flint doth cut my tender feet ; And when I start the envious people laugh, And bid me be advised how I tread.”

In the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a gorgeous “Scene from King Lear” (Fig. 112), by Mr. Abbey. Cordelia in this picture is one of those marvellous creations of the human brain that exists as a real person to us. Abbey has painted a portrait of Shakespeare’s Cordelia and Cordelia lives, as do Jeannie Dean, Dinah Morris, Uriah Beep, Rip Van Winkle, and scores of others. They are individuals whose influence lives on through all time. What a splendid Cordelia she is ! How noble and dignified and true and womanly. Our hearts burn with indignation against the jeering, flippant, untrue sisters who in their very attitudes of scorn show their unworthiness as daughters.

You will recall the scene King Lear has decided to divide his kingdom in three parts, each daughter a part. He asks, in turn, “Which of you, shall we say, doth love us most? Goneril, our eldest born, speak first.” And then “what say our second daughter, our dearest Regan, wife of Cornwall? Speak.” Both daughters speak honeyed words from false hearts. And when he asks Cordelia he fails to understand that in her answer speaks the true daughter. Abbey has chosen the moment when the poor, deluded, broken-hearted old king, having severed all ties with his youngest, his best beloved daughter, leaves the room. Cordelia turns to her sisters and gives those memorable words of reproof :

“Ye jewels of our father, with wash’d eyes Cordelia leaves you: I know you what you are; And, like a sister, am most loath to call Your faults as they are nam’d. Love well our father : To your professed bosoms I commit him: But yet, alas, stood I within his grace, I would prefer him to a better place. So, farewell to you both.”

The decorative quality of this painting is superb, and in the delineation of character Abbey has rarely equalled the figures of Cordelia and King Lear. Was anything ever more expressive of crushed love and hopes than the bent old man feebly leaving the room in a state of collapse after his denunciation of Cordelia? The picture of the dog is a bit of genre painting of rare excellence.

Some men and some portraits are epoch-making. And if the man and the portrait are one and the same the world delights to give homage. When the “Portrait of Felix Adler” (Fig. 113), Metropolitan Museum of Art, occupied the place of honour at the National Academy of Design, New York City, in 1915, the enthusiasm of the visiting public verified the genius of the artist, Douglas Volk (1856). The personality of the founder of the Society of Ethical Culture pervaded the gallery, That portrait compelled attention, just as the man, Felix Adler, compels his audiences to listen. Mr. Volk, grasping the salient qualities that mark the lecturer, has made us feel the power of the man. The kindly eyes and genial mouth bespeak human sympathy, yet in them lurk the power of righteous scorn against injustice. Almost under our gaze the expression changes and we wonder what great problem is working to solution in the massive brain. Already this portrait and this man belong to the ages.