ABOUT a quarter of a century ago Charles H. Davis (1856) returned home from Europe and began studying our American landscape. He has become as familiar a figure around the countryside of his home at Mystic, Conn., as was Wordsworth in the Lake Region, England. With a walking-stick and a bit of grass between his teeth, he may be seen almost any day, summer or winter, wandering over hill and dale, storing his memory full of choice spots where tree and bush and meadow grass are luminous in the light; where water and clouds and undulating ground give harmony of line and where the spirit of beauty dwells. He never makes a pencil sketch or note why should he? His whole being is attune to the harmonies of nature. A nature student? Of course he is, and lives in the country all the year around; in fact, Mr. Davis has never had a city studio, but he is not a literalist. Hear what the artist has to say: “When a man has studied long and earnestly he acquires some skill in making things ‘like,’ but it’s quite another matter to make them combine together to express one’s thought.”
Then, speaking of his “cloud” pictures, Mr. Davis’ words are: “I go through positive agonies in arranging my cloud masses and often struggle days and weeks futilely because the uplift moving quality, which is to me of prime importance, will not come.” Ruskin wrote, – “We look too much at the earth and not enough at the clouds.” It took Mr. Davis in his “Clouds” (Fig. 101), Museum of Fine Arts, Syracuse, to convince us that Ruskin was right, for we, Polonius-like, simply shift our point of view to see in the distorted shapes this animal or that as the mood is on us. It is not a mood with Mr. Davis, but a clear vision that sees in “the daughter of the wind and water” pictures that delight our eyes and gladden our hearts.
The clouds to Mr. Davis are living, moving personalities. Day after day, from season to season, he watches them from his studio window as they float in from the Sound to pose for him. Sometimes his studio is confined within four walls and his window is a limited space, but more often it is the great out-of-doors with the heavens spread out before him. Like the psalmist of old, Mr. Davis looks upon the earth as new every morning, and he makes us feel the freshness of the new creation and awakens in our hearts new hopes and greater aspirations. His clouds lift us out of the sordid and place our feet on firm ground, bidding us go forth to labour with heads erect and eyes steady.
As to the working out of Mr. Davis’ compositions all his pictures are compositions the artist remarks, whimsically :
“The ridiculous thing is that the final results may look as if easily done. Just a little clever brush-work.” His pictures combined the varying aspects of the scene under a great variety of wind and weather and change of seasons. Take his “Evening” (Fig. 102), Metropolitan Museum of Art. Was ever an old oak and meadow brook fuller of lingering memories ! The evening star twinkling in the cloudless sky might have beckoned to the Wise Men of old. Simple in detail and broad in conception, this picture alone would refute the assertion that Mr. Davis is a literalist. The artist’s words are :
“I do not think that a piece of nature in a frame, though wonderfully well done, is very desirable as a picture-effect in decorative arrangement; eloquent arrangement, I may say, is to me the first thing to strive for, then sufficient of the intimate qualities of working out that adds charm to the work.”
Mr. Davis, a native of Amesbury, Mass., even as a little boy had an appreciative sense of good art, and at an early age began his studies in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He then went to Paris for a number of years. His life has been full of romance of that pure, sweet kind that everybody loves. The dear little French wife, whom he married in France, died shortly after they came to America with their two children and were settled in the new home in Mystic. To-day his joy is in a beautiful, talented helpmate who is an artist, too. The home at Mystic is one of those hospitable places where no trouble is too great that gives pleasure to those around them.
No wonder “The Time of the Red-winged Blackbird” (Fig. 103), Museum of Fine Arts, Syracuse, is one of Mr. Davis’ delightful sonnets on a special phase of nature, spring being the particular rule for this sonnet. The red-wing blackbird ! What bird-lover has not watched him sitting quietly on the topmost branch of some bare tree in an inaccessible boggy marsh, watching his mate nesting? We think of him as gregarious, but not always does he love a crowd or is he scraping an acquaintance. It is Mr. Davis and Emerson who listen as
“The red-wing flutes his ‘O-ka-lee.”
How simply Mr. Davis has expressed the security of the bird’s chosen retreat ! The faint wheel-tracks lead to the stream and there stop. Probably the little stream, swollen by the spring rains, washed over the marsh and then settled into a deeper bed, too deep for a wagon to cross we think this might be so. The red-wing knows. This bit of nature is lovely in its soft green garments, tinged with rainbow tints on underbrush and rocky slope.
It is not surprising that Mr. Davis’ pictures are enshrined in a mysterious something that is indefinable. As we look at one of his recent works, “On the West Winds” (Fig. 104), we are conscious that in his communion with nature he has fathomed secrets that we could not have known but for him. Shelley alone has pictured in words the glory and mystery of the clouds that Mr. Davis has pictured on canvas. Those piled masses seem to exclaim as we watch them sailing on the wind :
“Sublime on the towers of my sky bowers Lightning, my pilot sits ;
Over earth and ocean, with gentle motion, This pilot is guiding me,
And I all the while bask in heaven’s blue smile, Whilst he is dissolving in rains.”
And in the “North West Wind” (Fig. 105), The Art Institute, Chicago, Mr. Davis is particularly happy in giving a sense of upward sailing to the clouds which “all the while bask in heaven’s blue smile,” making us glad in spite of ourselves. Caecias has no power to quell the wholesome joy of the fleecy mass, blow as furiously as he can, for the clouds, in their haste, simply tumble over each other with the glee of frolicsome children playing in snow-drifts ruthlessly blown together.
The gladsomeness of “Early Summer” (Fig. 1o6), Minneapolis Institute of Arts, is typical of Mr. Davis’ joy in his art. He paints for the very fun of painting and with a boyish enthusiasm so genuine that he puts new life into us. Then, too, his point of view for the out-ward changes of nature is flexible and sympathetic, yet he never swerves from the definite message he is bringing us. Landscapes and cloudscapes, homey scenes and barren wastes, trees and running brooks, all come from his magic touch singing of the worthwhileness of life.
No American artist is exerting a more wholesome influence on the art of the day than Mr. Davis. He is ever alert to profit by new movements of broad scope, yet his sense of proportion keeps his judgment sane. That he has proved himself a just judge his many memberships on awarding committees bear testimony. His work is of one who loves his art; his principle “to harmonise positive colours” to gain the quality desired and “al-ways without sacrifice of strong blues, greens or other colours,” gives a sense of truth and sincerity that pleases, but with no hint of the Iiteralist to mar the poetry of his pictures. That Mr. Davis is one of the modern old masters the masterpieces from his brush bear record.
Ten years ago an English critic called a group of American landscape-painters “the rising sun in art,” and in the group was Henry W. Ranger (1858-1916). I know you will ex-claim at his “Long Pond” (Fig. 107), Museum of Fine Arts, Syracuse, “How much like Corot !” Yes, it is similar to the great French landscapist, but is it the same ? It took courage to enter the path Corot trod, and only a man who knew his own strength would have dared do it. When we stop to think, however, why should not other artists see nature as Corot saw her? Mr. Ranger’s unafraid frankness wins us at once. He is not imitating another, but expressing his own personality some-what in the same manner of another. It is Corot-like, this “Long Pond,” but it is not Corot; the trees are firmer and more steady, the composition more definite, yet the atmospheric effect is just as luminous and all-embracing. What if it does show the influence of the Barbizon school? Does that make it a less original production by Henry W. Ranger? The controversy still rages that Shakespeare borrowed his plots, but somehow Shakespeare still continues to be the great Bard of Avon, and Ranger, though Corot-like, remains the American artist, and his landscapes are representative of the leading landscapists of America.
That Mr. Ranger and Mr. Davis were personal friends is only another instance of the attraction of opposites. As this century opened these two artists found themselves artistic neighbours, as it were Mr. Ranger at Lyme, Conn., and Mr. Davis at Mystic. And there began the friendly relationship. A few years later Mr. Ranger came still nearer and made his home at Noank, where, for half the year, the two men were within two miles or so of each other.
Naturally their very difference was an element of helpfulness to each. Miss Davis laughingly portrays an amusing picture of Mr. Ranger’s portly form close in front of one of her father’s canvases pointing out some particular spot that pleases him well: “Yes, Charley,” muses Mr. Ranger, “that is just right, just right!” and said “Charley,” a slight man, tries in vain to see the praised spot around, above or through the friendly critic.
We would characterise Mr. Ranger as adhering rather closely to traditions, even at times sacrificing nature’s colours. Pure blues and greens and others it seems must go if they interfere in bringing about a certain quality. Sometimes we wonder about the lasting quality of his work, considering the manipulated brilliancy of his colours to-day. His glorious “Highbridge, New York,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, sparkles with the iridescence of the fire-opal. Incidentally, this picture has no resemblance to a Corot. That Mr. Ranger’s pictures have a charm that is most attractive no one will question.
Possibly none of Mr. Ranger’s pictures has more of the sturdy qualities that mark him as an artist than his “Group of Sturdy Oaks” (Fig. 108), Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo. The oak, the monarch of the forest, has from time immemorial held a peculiar place in civic and religious ceremonies. The Druids venerated it; ancient European peoples held that within its bark lived gnomes and fairies; in Greek myth it is dedicated to the god of thunder ; to wear a chaplet of oak leaves was a special civic honour among the Romans; and England’s oaks of honour commemorate many events of historic importance. These oaks of Mr. Ranger’s invite us to enjoy their cool shade, and as we do so let us recall one of the curious legends that linger around these noble trees.
The monks of Dünwald near the Rhine were rich and avaricious. Near them a young nobleman owned wide ancestral acres which they determined to acquire by fair means or foul. The young nobleman, knowing that his inherited right was centuries old, was determined to hold his property. He tried the judges but they were too afraid of the church to give a just decision. At last he promised to relinquish his estate if the monks would grant him one more season of planting and harvesting his crops. This the monks hastened to grant and gave the young nobleman a legally written contract signed and sealed by them. They now watched with great interest, and considerable glee, to know what kind of crop was to be. harvested. The seeds were sown and the plants appeared when, to their chagrin, they were not wheat or oats but young oaks. The monks were fairly outwitted, for before the trees were grown to the top of their cloisters the monks were all dead ; the cloisters themselves crumbled away while the sturdy oaks still stood.
We feel, as we enjoy Mr. Ranger’s oak trees, that he has pictured Emerson’s trees spreading themselves
“. . . in the air As if they loved the element and hastened To dissipate their being in it.”
There is no question about Mr. Ranger’s love for trees and New England trees, too. These triplets in his “Landscape” (Fig. 109), Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio, form splendid sentinels on the point of land jutting into the water. His understanding of trees grows more intimate with each study of them, and they, in turn, are claiming from him the tenderest and most sympathetic treatment. This could scarcely be otherwise with one who lives with them and loves them.
Mr. Ranger was born in Western New York and lived part of the year in New York City. He studied his art outside of the academies and spent several years abroad in France, England and Holland.