AS soon as an individual or a people has reached the stage of development that calls for a recognition from the world, it gives an impetus to the whole being that raises each part to a much higher standard. When the United States celebrated its hundredth anniversary at Philadelphia, in 1876, and the nations of the earth came to congratulate, the whole body politic assumed a new dignity, and each part became conscious of its own importance. This was particularly true of the fine arts. Our position as an agricultural people, as a manufacturing people, as an inventive people, and as a generally progressive people had been recognised and commented upon, but, except in individual cases, our standing in the art world as a nation had attracted no special attention. From this time in our history we are to be reckoned with from the artistic stand-point as well, although it has taken another twenty-five years before the artistic training could be gained in our art centres.
They were not all young artists who came under the spell of the new activity by the celebration of the nation’s birthday, but artists who for a quarter of a century had been keeping abreast of the times and were keen for any movement where the trend was toward progress. Not all of the men, however, were working before the eyes of the public. Take a man like George Fuller (1822-1884), an artist whose pictures are being justly recognised. He was born in Deerfield, Mass., and the little training he ever had was gained in Albany and Boston. When his “Quadroon,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, was exhibited in the early sixties, or possibly in the fifties, the criticism was so adverse, it is said, that for eighteen years the artist sent nothing more to the exhibition.
Fuller was seeing beauty in the hazy atmosphere and mist-covered fields. To him the luminous morning veil and the dull shadows of evening were softening influences of nature. We feel in the “Quadroon” that the girl’s dull soul is hidden under a transient veil rather than that the artist has taken this means to soften the tragedy of a clouded mind.
During the formative years of work Fuller was struggling to support his family on a mortgaged farm, but making of himself a sane, well-balanced man. Though his efforts to wrest a living from the land failed, in 1876, his pictures, the by-products of farming, saved the day. The point of view after a score of years had changed, and the public now bought with enthusiasm. For the remaining eight years of his life he had purchasers for every-thing he did. Fuller was unique in his work; without the fundamental of all art, drawing, he produced with colour and atmosphere a sentiment in his pictures that contains the very essence of poetry.
“The Fuller Boy” (Fig. 40), City Art Museum, St. Louis, has a charm that nothing can mar. He is a real child, with the quaint earnestness of one used to hearing and instinctively understanding the family problems. This boy could have felt intuitively the father’s hurt over a rejected picture, but could only express his sympathy in a dumb, childlike devotion.
Eastman Johnson (1824-1906) was big enough to study at Düsseldorf without losing his personality. Association with Leutze a man of generous impulses strengthened rather than weakened his artistic independence.’ After studying the old masters in Italy and Paris and spending four years at The Hague, he settled in New York and painted American subjects in his own American manner.
Johnson’s genre pictures of the Southern negro before the war are real bits of history. They are original and unusual in their portrayal of the negro’s natural traits of character and give us a better understanding of them and their future development. One of his strongest paintings is “The Old Kentucky Home” (Fig. 41), New York City Public Library, which was exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1867 and again at the Centennial of 1876. Johnson knew just how to picture the shiftless surroundings of the slave, and yet retain that picturesque quality that was the charm of the slave quarters. Time may come and time may go, but the glamour of Uncle Remus and Bre’r Rabbit, the strumming of the banjo and the dancing of the cake-walk, the cheer of the wide fireplace and the odour of the hoe-cake will still hang over those ramshackle cabins.
As a portrait painter, Mr. Johnson was a man of no mean merit. His good taste and fine judgment made a place for him among the young men of genius, and his knowledge of modern methods kept him in touch with their plan of work in any particular line.
The most striking thing about Elihu Vedder (1836-) is that he is a man of ideas. He is perfectly independent in his choice of subjects, rather whimsical at times, but truthful in his mode of presentation and ideal in motive. The material which he gathered from the old Italian masters has served him merely as suggestions in working out his composi tions, with no hint of the counterfeit in the manner of work. In “The Sphinx” (Fig. 42), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, a subject used by several older artists, he is unique in his idea of infinity in the vastness of the outlying desert and of unsatisfied questionings in the silent, mysterious watcher that so long defied the inquisitive excavator. The riddle of the Sphinx is one of the myths of Ancient Greece.
The Sphinx, a monster with a lion’s body and the upper part a woman, crouched on top of a rock on a highroad of Thebes and stopped every traveller to solve her riddle and if the answer was not correct she killed the victim. The king and queen of Thebes, Laius and Jocasta, had one son, but an oracle prophesying that he was dangerous to the throne, Laius left him on Mount Cithaeron with feet pierced and tied together. A herdsman of Corinth found the child and took him to king Polybus, who adopted him and, because of his swollen feet, called him OEdipus.
When OEdipus was grown he met Laius in a narrow road on his way to Delphi. Neither would give place to the other and OEdipus killed Laius, not knowing that he was his father. The Sphinx was afflicting the country at the time with her riddle. OEdipus, nothing daunted, went to hear the riddle. She said: “What is that which in the morning goes on four feet, at noon on two, and in the evening on three?” OEdipus answered, “man, who in childhood creeps on hands and knees, in man-hood walks erect, and in old age with the aid of a staff.” The Sphinx was so angry at his wisdom that she threw herself from the rock and died. The people of Thebes were so grateful that they made OEdipus their king and he married Jocasta, not knowing that she was his own mother. A terrible pestilence and famine soon overtook Thebes and when OEdipus learned from the oracle what he had done, he put out his own eyes and wandered forth at-tended by no one but his daughter Antigone.
Another example of Mr. Vedder’s peculiarly original work is “Lazarus,” in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It is a weird, strange picture full of miraculous spirit. Mr. Vedder al-ways gives the impression of invisible powers stirring in the garments and of mysterious happenings among surrounding objects. A swish of wings is heard in the swirling drapery.
The friendship of Elihu Vedder and Charles Caryl Coleman (1840) is that where two
“Great souls by instinct to each other turn, Demand alliance, and in friendship burn.”
One of Mr. Coleman’s earliest paintings is that of Mr. Vedder in his (Coleman’s) studio in New York City. Today these two artists are living within a stone’s throw of each other at Capri, Italy. Wonderful old villas these two men have chosen as their homes snuggling against the steep hills, smothered with vines heavy with luscious fruit, with wide windows for peep-holes sweeping the Bay where to “see Naples and die” means to live in God’s Paradise.
Mr. Coleman is so intimate with old Vesuvius that its travails of pain are choicest moments of inspiration to him. Just let the old giant begin to belch forth and Mr. Coleman is ready with canvas and brush to record her convulsions. His series of paintings of the last great eruption when the vomitings continued for days is a historic record of untold value. In fact, not since the younger Pliny’s time has there been so vivid a picture given of Vesuvius in action.
But Mr. Coleman records things near his studio door with equal skill. “The Oil Mill” (Fig. 43) has stood its ground against the powers of Old Vesuvius since the year One (A.D.) and is still pouring out pure, unadulterated olive oil a rebuke to volcanic spite. The charm of Mr. Coleman’s pictures is the warm, personal note that like a gold thread binds them to us. Rich in colour, the old walls and stone jars and brick-paved floors glow under his brush. Again and again he lets us look into some workshop and beyond to the sunlit court giving glimpses of private affairs as intimate as the Little Masters of Holland.