American Painters – Alexander – Blum

ONE of John White Alexander’s (1856-1915) most exquisite harmonies in colour and feeling is “Isabella and the Pot of Basil” (Fig. 120), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The long lines of the soft greyish-green filmy robe, the graceful curve of the lovely arm and the pathos of the sad, pale face make a picture to be remembered. We love it as a work of art and also because it brings to mind that pitiful story as told in Keats’ poem of “Isabel.”

Isabella was a beautiful Florentine maiden living with her two brothers. They had planned to marry her “to some high noble and his olive trees.” They found, however, that one Lorenzo, their servant, had dared to love her and that she, “Fair Isabel, poor simple Isabel !” returned his love. It was nothing to the brothers that these two loved each other. Lorenzo must die. They beguiled him out of Florence beyond the Arno to a forest where they slew him and buried him. They told their sister that Lorenzo had been sent in haste to foreign lands. She waited until her heart grew sick, but no Lorenzo came. At last, in a vision of the night, Lorenzo stood by her bed-side. He told her of his murder and just how to find his grave. In the morning, with an aged nurse, she followed her lover’s description until she came to the large flint stone, the whortleberries, the beeches, and the chestnuts and under the fresh mound she found her lover. She took the precious head and kissed it.

“Then in a silken scarf She wrapped it up; and for its tomb did choose A garden-pot, wherein she laid it by, And covered it with mould, and o’er set Sweet Basil, which her tears kept wet.”

Her brothers, wondering why she always sat by her pot of Basil, stole it, and when they found Lorenzo’s head, they fled from Florence. Isabella pined and died with the pitiful wail on her dying lips,

“O cruelty, to steal my Basil-pot away from me.”

As we stand before “The Ring” (rig. 121), in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we feel like saying of Mr. Alexander as did Sir Joshua Reynolds of his rival, Gainsborough, “I cannot think how he produces his effects.” There is something impalpable about this picture, something that baffles explanation. Exquisitely beautiful, it satisfies because it gives the feeling of simplicity – no overcrowding and nothing uninteresting to mar the joy of the picture. Mr. Alexander is originality itself in his arrangement. His poses are perfectly natural to each individual represented, yet the moment any one in real life uses them naturally, that person is accused of being Alexandrian in manner. It is interesting to ex-amine Mr. Alexander’s coarse canvas and see how the unglazed surface responds to his varying brush strokes, thus adding interest to the work. His pictures are individually his, regardless of any influence from Germany, Italy or France. It would have been impossible for one so filled with the artistic instinct, as was Mr. Alexander, not to have given to the world an art peculiar to himself.

Mr. Alexander, a native of Allegheny, Pa., and an orphan at five years of age, was brought up by his maternal grandparents. When scarcely in his teens he found school work very irksome, so at an early age went to New York City, where he acquired consider-able fame as an illustrator. He then made the usual tour of inspection of the European art centres, until he finally settled in Paris for an extended stay. His exhibitions in the Champ de Mars took the French people by storm. While for many years he continued to spend half of each year in Paris, he never lost that peculiar charm that belongs to a true American.

In Mr. Alexander’s portraits we find a combination of the purely decorative with the personality of the sitter; the latter is revealed through the expression of the face and figure. He is most original in the extraordinary effects of colour he secures with a limited use of pigments, and in the marvellous likenesses he evolves through peculiar poses, marking special moods of the individual sitter.

“Walt Whitman,” by John W. Alexander (Fig. 122), dominates the room, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Possibly because Whitman was our most typical American poet we thus feel his presence, but more probably because Mr. Alexander has preserved his own nationality in representing this true American man of fourscore years. Just such typical pictures as this, and scores of others by our own men, show our nationality and give us an American art. Foreign influences may guide but they do not obliterate our inheritance.

Can you not hear this brave old poet repeat that heart-rending tribute to our martyred hero

“O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done; The ship has weathered every rock, the prize we sought is won.

But O heart ! heart ! heart ! Leave you not the little spot, Where on the deck my captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.”

And now in this magnificent portrait of “Auguste Rodin” (Fig. 123), Cincinnati Museum, we see the artist’s mastery of French traits. It is a master-portrait of a master-sculptor. Was ever anything more original than that pose? A thinker has stopped as he crosses the room, for a special thought has come and he must examine more carefully the bit of work he has in his hand. Almost can we fathom the intent of that master mind, but not quite, for he is too deep for the most of us. Very few, indeed, are the pigments that Mr. Alexander uses, but with those few he obtains results that are simply marvellous. Original, individual and distinguished are the attributes of Mr. Alexander and his work.

To have a portrait of “Robert Blum” (Fig. 124), and by Alexander, too, is a mark of special good fortune, the Cincinnati Museum.

As we look in his face, it is easy to understand why this man could remain himself in his work, and still gather inspiration from his associates and strength from the old masters. Those clear dark eyes are seeking for truth, but their steady depths index a mind that is reasoning and analysing and absorbing. Then, too, there is a genial quality shining out at us that ac-cords well with the easy and, without doubt, natural attitude he has taken to converse with a friend. And that Mr. Alexander knew Robert Blum intimately we have a right to assume from the warmth of personality of this portrait.

Quite naturally we turn next to the works of a native of Cincinnati, Robert Frederick Blum (1857-1903). After his death in 1903, his sister Mrs. Haller assisted in collecting a large number of his paintings and studies for the museum. The addition of these representative works by Blum was an acquisition of immense value to the students and lovers of art. Mr. Blum was less than twenty when he settled in New York City, and almost immediately success came to him. He was a man of keen perceptive powers, alive to the merits of others, ready to be influenced, but never dominated by the genius of other artists. He made many journeys to Europe and one to japan.

The results of these visits are seen in the subjects of his paintings, but not unduly in his manner of work.

One of the most attractive of his pictures is the “Venetian Lace Makers” (Fig. 125). So true to life is this group of young women gossiping over their pillows, as their deft fingers manipulate the thread and pins, that we scarcely believe it is only a picture before us. How many times have we stood in the doorway of some lace room back of San Marco, Venice, and watched just such a scene as this. See the sun stealing in through the cracks in the Venetian blind and boldly pouring through the open door and window. And how it brings out the eagerness of the faces and plays with the hair and sparkles on the beads and makes each dress and apron and basket like an illusive elf of first one tint then another. Firmly and delicately the artist has placed the scene before us with no superfluous details; simply and clearly the story, if we may call it a story, of the Venetian lace-maker is made a reality to us.

Mr. Blum’s studies of Japan were really the first to introduce the American people to the charm of that land of the cherry blossom and chrysanthemum.