American Painters – Keith – Martin – Wyant – Bunce

VERY close friendship existed between the Scotch-American artist, William Keith (1839-1911), and George Inness. At one time Inness made a long stay in California and while there shared Keith’s studio. That these two men influenced each other more or less is probably true. They were too original, however, and too genuinely in earnest to express themselves in their pictures otherwise than individually and with a poetic spirit characteristic of true nature artists.

Mr. Keith spent his early boyhood in his native highlands, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, on the old estate where the Keith family still owns a feudal castle. He came to America with his parents when about twelve years old and at first worked in a lawyer’s office, but spent his spare time studying wood-engraving. Very shortly the engraver’s needle superseded the lawyer’s pen and when less than twenty he held a position with Harper and Brothers, making plates for both their weekly and monthly periodicals. But the spirit of expansion was in his blood and in 1859 he went to California to live. Here his pencil drawings were inadequate to represent the marvellous effects of colour and light and atmosphere, and he soon began to replace them with water-colour sketches. These found ready purchasers, and by the time he was thirty he had earned enough to make his first trip to Europe. He spent a year studying in Düsseldorf, laying the foundation for his future career. Again and again Keith visited Europe and sought out the great collections of world-paintings, ever re-turning, however, to his beloved Sierras.

That Keith understood the mountains and valleys of the Golden State his numerous paintings bear record. We feel in his “Coming Storm” (Fig. 26), Art Institute, Chicago, a mysterious brooding of thoughts too deep for words. The soft green that forms the setting reminds us of Herculaneum bronzes in richness of colour, and the banked clouds, tinged with the sun’s golden rays, like a great uncut topaz, vary with every wind puff. The quiet peace of the tiny cottages snuggled close to the protecting oaks is undisturbed the storm is only transient. Keith once said, “The sentiment is the only thing of real value in my pictures, and only a few people understand that.”

It was not surprising that he would ask of his “subjective pictures,” as he called them: “You don’t like that picture? Well, I don’t care; it’s good, anyway it’s a ‘crackerjack.’ You say it is irritating, and that proves it is good. If it didn’t arouse any feeling in you at all, it would be worthless. And, I tell you, if you had that picture around all the time, and saw it every day, you would grow to like it you couldn’t help it.” We understand his pictures better after seeing a number of them together. Being a man of moods, his pictures vary greatly in their appeal to us. We may not be able to appreciate the full significance of the “Summit of the Sierras” (Fig. 27), Institute of Art, San Francisco, yet we are lifted into a realm of everlasting snow in spite of ourselves. Were it not for the warm, comforting greens and venerable storm-broken trees, companionable in their very ruggedness, the vision of the mountain tops would be al-most too much for our poor earthbound minds. It is little wonder that he whose pictures were largely subjective should have felt the lure of California. He was steeped in the beauties of that wonderful country, and there found scenes that fitted his every mood. With a mind and heart full of mountains and valleys, trees ever green and a sky whose glories are unthinkable to the uninitiated, it is not surprising that he could say, “I feel some emotion,” and immediately paint a picture to express it.

Many times the mountains called him, sometimes in a mood of exultation and again of quiet and meditation. Of the former mood the “Mountain Top” (Fig. 28), Institute of Art, San Francisco, symbolises a spiritual exaltation that no words could convey. Surely the artist has caught a glimpse of the Great White Throne.

Homer D. Martin (1836-1897) and Alexander H. Wyant (1836-1892) stand with George Inness in the triangle that represents American landscape painting in the nineteenth century. Inness, ten years the elder, did sound the first note, but in so doing he struck a chord in the artistic natures of the other two that responded and gave out notes as clear and original as his own.

Homer Martin truly sings to us on the harp in the “Harp of the Winds” (Fig. 29), Metropolitan Museum of Art. The breeze stealing through the slender poplars must be whispering a sweet melody to the bowing trunks and waving branches, and they in turn are repeating the strain to the placid water where they are mirrored. This picture is a symphony, a poem and a colour harmony.

Martin, excepting a few weeks of instruction, was a self-taught artist. He spent several years in Europe, where he was associated with Whistler, but not even that powerful, magnetic man could change the inner spring of Martin’s artistic nature. There was something inside the man that compelled him to sift out essentials. Almost austere, yet never unkind, in his searching for the elementary, he places before us the very framework of nature. Look again at the “Harp of the Winds.” Sky, rocks, trees and water bare facts. Was there ever sweeter music with fewer details? The suggested hamlet, the clinging bushes, the floating clouds and the all but leafless trees are warm from the hands of the Creator. They draw us close to the beginning “and God saw that it was good.” When this picture was sent to Germany a few years ago to represent America it was a wise choice. It is true that not always are our artists big enough to hold to the essentials; simplicity, like a gold thread, is the fundamental that is raising up masters in our midst.

Although Alexander Wyant was born in a little Ohio village away from art centres, curiously enough he heard of Inness and when probably only twenty saw an original painting by Inness in Cincinnati. This so fired young Wyant’s ambition that he made a trip over the mountains to Perth Amboy to see the master and ask his advice. How Inness, who was ever responding to the enthusiasm of young artists, must have warmed the heart of the Ohio boy and sent him home with an intensified desire to paint scenes around his home ! The first picture Wyant ever exhibited in the National Academy, in 1865, was “A View of the Ohio River.”

Wyant went to Germany in 1864, but, disliking the methods of the Düsseldorf school, turned to the Barbizon masters and Constable and Turner in England. His stay in Europe was short. On returning ‘to America he settled in New York City. When he was at the height of young manhood he met with a disaster that would have ended the art career of a lesser man. Not being well, he joined a government exploring expedition to Arizona and Mexico, hoping to gain strength. But the hardships, exaggerated by the cruelty of the leader, so undermined his health that he was stricken with paralysis and never regained the use of his right hand. But Wyant had something worth while to give the world and no handicap could deter him. The cunning of the right hand was transferred to the left and his art ripened and matured under the inward strength of the seer.

Let us stand before his “Forenoon in the Adirondacks” (Fig. 30), Metropolitan Museum of Art, and watch the light on the distant hills. Listen : we almost hear the whisper of the leaves under the caress of the sun. And the little winding stream, how it babbles as it passes, and how solemnly the tall grey birch tree guards its laughing waters ! No one knew better than Wyant how to harmonise them. Sometimes he gathers the sun’s rays in October into one great mass of golden light and floods a low-lying marsh until the feathery grasses and dignified cat-tails glimmer and glisten like burnished gold; and again the subdued light stealing from a shaded nook is his and only the hilltop feels the sun. His shades are never gloom and his sunshine is ever a benediction. It is not surprising that every year his pictures increase in value, for they are the works of one inspired of God.

William Gedney Bunce (1840-1916), specially known for his Venetian scenes, comes a little closer to modern methods, without breaking with traditions of the past. He has the patience that waits until a scene has literally become a part of himself. This often results in his painting nature as he sees her and not as she is. There is no question but that a “Morning in Venice” (Fig. 31) is a scene of the artist’s vision. It gives the spirit of Venice and a spirit that is insistent in its appeal but it is Mr. Bunce who has conjured up the spirit. His pictures have a true decorative value founded as they are on the mysterious spell of the Venetian colour of sky and water and sail-boats. It matters little what objects are represented with so bewitching a colour element.