WHEN “The Brook by Moonlight” (Fig. 83), by Ralph A. Blakelock, sold at auction this year (1916) for twenty thousand dollars the picture-loving public added another chapter to the tragedy of artists’ lives. It is an old, old story, this indifference to workers with God-given talents. The workers are not many who produce the masterpieces of the world, yet far too often their struggle for bare existence is more than body or brain can endure ; then, too late, comes recognition.
After sixteen years, the cloud being partially lifted from his distracted mind, Mr. Blakelock says of “The Brook by Moonlight” : “I remember now how I pondered the trunk of that tree for a long time, wondering if I had made it thick enough to support all the mass of top branches and foliage.” Is it not pathetic that one whose keen common sense kept his picture true to nature should have been subject to junk dealers? One such dealer said to Mr. Daingerfield, when showing him thirty-three pictures : “Ralph Blakelock painted every one of them, and I got the lot for one hundred dollars.” Oh, the pity of it! And we must all bear the blame.
Ralph A. Blakelock (b. 1847) is, or rather was, a man of many parts in his art. His innate love of colour has given him an individual command of pigments most characteristic, and with no eccentric qualities to mar our pleasure in them; then, too, he has a subtle genius for leading us by a mysterious hint of untold beau-ties. The wonderful light draws us in “Ecstasy” (Fig. 84), though we feel that, like Wordsworth’s
…light that never was on sea or land,”
it is a will-o’-the-wisp that is leading us and that in the depths beyond is a world where fancy alone can feel at home. Such pictures express an exaltation that few of us can attain, yet it is good for our souls to contemplate the mysteries that haunt these solitudes. I once rode alone into the forest primeval above El Capitan. The lingering memory of those quivering depths of light and shadows is quickened by this picture of “Ecstasy”; the same spirit of solitude draws and repels, while that curious feeling of wanting to know but hesitating to intrude is present.
Our American landscapists certainly awaken a great variety of emotions in us. They seem almost to vie with each other in presenting the various moods of nature at times she is frankly outspoken, and then shyly reticent, and in the latter mood Dwight William Tryon (1849) seems to know her best. Like Corot, Mr. Tryon thinks it no hardship to be up be-fore sunrise to surprise nature as she dons her morning dress. We are out-of-doors with her “Before Sunrise, June” (Fig. 85), Museum of Art, Detroit, but we feel like intruders invading a sacred shrine. The hush in the air fairly stifles our breath; not even the birds are awake. How tenderly he has lifted the veil, that we, too, may see the trees all shimmering in their early bath and the grass still wet with the glistening dew and the flowers lifting their heads. The sky is beginning to smile ; all are making ready to greet the great orb of day. We linger long before this morning anthem. Tenderly and lovingly it has lifted our souls into the very presence of the Creator and sends us forth stronger men and women because of its influence.
Who can look at Mr. Tryon’s “November Morning” (Fig. 86), John Herron Art Institute, Indianapolis, without feeling the thrill of the stiff breeze lifting and swaying the tall grass and crisp bushes? Was there ever such riot in shades of brown, soft, luscious cream tints deepening into glistening chestnut and rich seal brown, yet with the summer’s green still making itself felt?’ Everywhere and over all hangs a grey tone as elusive as the odour of rosemary off the coast of Spain. I doubt if many persons could look out on a chilly November morning, after seeing his picture of it, and grumble, “Oh, what a disagree-able morning!” as shivers creep up and down the spine. Mr. Tryon has revised Thomas Hood’s description of “November.” Of course Hood was correct so far as the mere facts are concerned, but his angle of vision saw only the drear, and Mr. Tryon is just as correct in picturing the cheer.
Mr. Tryon has a way of arranging his composition that is very pleasing. He uses some permanent and familiar landmark, such as a row of trees or an old fence, as the sequence of long lines, and encloses all between the distant sky-line and an intimate bit of dooryard or meadow-brook at our very feet.
When a painter makes “quality” his ideal regardless of time, of mental exertion or yearly output, his pictures are bound to be master-pieces. We are not surprised, therefore, to learn that Mr. Tryon considers quality the sumum bonum of all art. In reply to the inquiry, “How many pictures do you paint in a year, Mr. Tryon?” the artist, with an indulgent smile at the inane question, replied, “Some-times as many as four and again only one. It is quality I want, not quantity.” Then he added, “Not long ago I finished a picture after working on it four years.” What a comment on the hustle and bustle of to-day, in art as in everything else. If only artists could understand that masterpieces are the products of the concentration of trained powers. Thomas Gray worked seven years on his “Elegy” and Leonardo da Vinci, after four years, pronounced “Mona Lisa” unfinished.
Peace comes to us in the presence of “Autumn Sunset,” in the Worcester Art Museum (rig. 87). My Tryon, for years, has been filling his soul from the bounties of old “Sol” and has gathered into this sunset the glory-essence of all autumn time. A mystery hovers over the scene where the problem of life through death is being solved by nature’s silent forces. We bow our heads a moment and then lift our eyes to the glory in the great beyond.
Mr. Tryon has an exceedingly sensitive understanding of God’s wide out-of-doors. No one knows better than he how to stimulate through our imagination the sense of motion in his pictures. In his sea pieces we feel the swish and swirl of waters, though a mysterious film hides the actual movement; and the quivering atmosphere caressing the slow moving clouds and soft luminous sand of the fore-ground gives an added sense of motion.
And Mr. Tryon’s colour ! In it is the mystery of all colours. It has been my privilege to see unfinished canvases of the artist where the colour note was exceedingly bright. In answer to my surprised inquiry, he said, “Yes, I begin my pictures in a rather high key, but in finishing I bring the tone down to a sense of mystery.” A sense of mystery ! That is the element that holds us in My Tryon’s pictures. To him colour and motion are illusive something not quite within our grasp. Our quickened imagination pursues these sprites that sparkle in all his pictures.
What better can we do than stand quietly and drink in the beauty of the artist’s “Spring Morning” (Fig. 88), Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio? Spring morning ! The words themselves mean everything that is delicate, fresh, full of joy, the joy that “cometh in the morning.” Mr. Tryon, with Inness and Homer and men like them, stands for American landscape painting. These men have given the national spirit that proclaims to the world our independence. Never was there a more individual interpretation of a spring morning than this lovely, tender picture of it. The light creeping up the horizon is lifting the mist, though it still lingers in the feathery tree-tops to kiss each tiny leaf-bud. The moist air is fragrant with the delicious odours of spring flowers and the tender grasses. All nature is singing praises to Him whose mercies are new each morning. For years Mr. Tryon has been gently and persistently leading the American people into an appreciation of the beautiful in nature. It has been a steady growth with the artist and his followers clean, pure, upright, and progressive, never losing sight of the fundamental lessons of the masters of the past, but adding to those fundamentals a bet-ter understanding of God’s first temples.
Mr. Tryon, a native of Hartford, Conn., is professor of art at Smith College. From the beginning of his career he was a pupil of Charles Daubigny of the Barbizon school there was a lyric note in his art that has strengthened with years. Then, too, Mr. Tryon has kept abreast of the modern spirit and in his own inimitable way.
Turning to J. Francis Murphy (1853), we are conscious of a mysterious element that is tantalising in its illusiveness. Self-taught, Mr. Murphy works out the dominant note in his landscapes through his own inner vision. He sees nature in the very act of transformation and, catching with his sensitive brush the filmy something she uses, he paints pictures of morning and evening, springtime and autumn that fill us with questionings. His golden tints, suggestive greens and delicious cream-browns elude analysis. Truly “At Sunset” (Fig. 89), City Art Museum, St. Louis, is a melody on the harp. As delicate and tender as the wind sighing in the trees, it draws us irresistibly, for we enter the very realm of the artist’s own vision. Never were the lingering tints of sun-set or the first gleam of the morning enveloped in a more caressing atmosphere than in Mr. Murphy’s pictures. His perception of nature is like that of the lover for his ladylove. He sees her as through a veil, where the light reveals only to confuse the vision. We enjoy “At Sunset” as we enjoy a dream. The moment we try to make it real the bloom is gone.
In his “Woodland Boundary” (Fig. 90), Museum of Fine Arts, Syracuse, he is just as elusive as to how he produces his effects.
Those gnarled and broken trees, reinforced by a tangled mass of undergrowth, stand as defiant guardians warning away intruders. The piled logs and scattered chips mark their powerlessness against man’s incessant war on forests. That stretch of boggy land and storm-broken woodland is not an attractive scene in nature, yet Mr. Murphy has trans-formed it into an exquisite picture. See how the cloud-flecked sky smiles as it tenderly stoops to kiss the denuded soil, and how the mellow light covers all with a mantle of gladness.
A truly rural scene is “Summer Niantic Hills” (Fig. 91), Carlton Wiggins (1848). We recognise at once that Mr. Wiggins has been with George Inness, but no whit of his individuality is lost. The wind-swept hill loses none of its native charm under the artist’s strong, sane brush. No wonder this is a favourite browsing place, with the wind swaying tree and bush and tall grass. What care the sheep for the fable of the wind and the sun if only they argue their strength together and not give a trial of their skill separately. And what splendid sheep they are long wool, I suspect. Mr. Wiggins, born at Turners, Orange County, New York, was largely trained in America, in the National Academy and under George Inness, though he studied in France for a time. In his broad handling of landscapes he gives the sense of expansive hill-sides and wide fields, fit pasture grounds for his splendid sheep and cattle.
Charles Melville Dewey (1849) is a poet with his brush. Under the influence of his “October Evening” (Fig. 92) the twilight gathers around us and we are conscious that in the little church,
“The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,”
and never with a shyer grace has
“The moon pull’d off her veil of light That hides her face by day from sight”
The scene is indeed a poet’s dream quiet, restful and full of beauty but a poet with a true sense of reality. No one could look at that little grove without realising that the artist knew the significance of trees. The deep wheel tracks in the dirt road and the overcast sky both bear witness that the moisture-ladened soil is a direct consequence of a well-wooded country. And how well balanced are the dark mysterious trees against the luminous sky. We feel the quiet splendour of it all and are soothed and comforted that our artists are recording such scenes as this. We need to be reminded that “night unto night sheweth knowledge” if only we would lift our eyes to behold the glory of the night season in God’s great out-of-doors. There is a wholesome independence about Mr. Dewey. Largely self-taught, though he spent some time under the influence of Carolus Duran in Paris, he says his say in no uncertain tone.
These interpreters of nature, who for more than a quarter of a century have been opening our eyes to the wonders of the morning and evening, the sun and the moon and every living thing, are strong, health-restoring physicians. They treat nature tenderly and lovingly, with no trace of sentimentality. Individuality marks each man and when once the individual characteristics are known it is comparatively easy to designate the work of each.