WHEN Robert Spencer began painting the water-fronts along the canal at New Hope, Pa., he opened our eyes to a new beauty in the commonplace. There is beauty in everything if only we are attune to the effect of light, atmosphere and colour that radiates and envelops and glorifies the world about us. Unfortunately we are so intently grubbing for material possessions that the marvellous pictures in the work-a-day world escape us. We need Mr. Spencer. He gives us a new vision of life.
It was my good fortune to see “On the Canal, New Hope” (Fig. 184), in the exhibition of the National Academy in the spring of 1916. The charm of the picture is indescribable. I was drawn to it with a feeling that the artist had caught what I had missed in these homely scenes, and I was seeing life anew. The beauty of the commonplace! What a message to give to the world! Those weather-worn houses, with plaster broken and hanging and paint al-most a thing of the past, look down into the tiny yards with a smile of content that sets our hearts a-singing. And was there ever a more fascinating design for embroidery work than that bare and leafless tree with its shadow silhouette? But even the most practical minded could find satisfaction in this picture. The sun on the drying clothes, the fitness of the man at the bench and the joy of the woman over the stray bits of coal for her hod, – here is life in the living. Bare facts? Of course they are, but given with the master hand of one who knows when to amplify and where to eliminate. The Detroit Museum of Art is to be congratulated because it owns Mr. Spencer’s “On the Canal, New Hope.”
Another waterfront of Mr. Spencer’s, strong in line and big in composition and design, is “Repairing the Bridge” (Fig. 185), added to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1914. Here also we have the delicious colour that time under the stress of wind and weather gives to stone and plaster and wood. Again it has taken the artist to waken our sense of beauty. The beauty in the scene itself has al-ways been there – we were blind to it. How daring it was to place that square, inflexible house in the very centre of a picture ! But look at the flanking – trees covered with lace-work leaves like a bride under her wedding-veil on one side, and a bit of country on the other. Was ever a homelier subject set in a more delightful frame – a smiling landscape, blue sky, wedding-veil, and strong, wholesome workmen setting to rights jangled forces in the commercial world? The artist has centred the interest in that bridge. See how vitally concerned the crowd in the doorway of the old warehouse is about the completion of the job, yet it is doubtful if it would lift a finger to push the work. And the man leaning on the parapet has plenty of advice to offer ; advice is cheap and costs no effort. But above every-thing else is the joy we feel in the picture. Its power of holding us lies in the individuality of the artist. A photograph of the scene would have but a passing interest. Not so a painting when it comes through the alchemy of an artist’s soul with the mystery of creation still clinging to it.
Mr. Spencer was born in Harvard, Nebraska, in 1879. He was a pupil of William M. Chase and Robert Henri, two men who stand for very definite phases in painting, yet Mr. Spencer has developed an individual art that promises much for the future.
That the picturesque among our American people is not confined to the foreign element of our cities or even to the Indian is being very forcefully proved by James R. Hopkins in his pictures of the Cumberland Mountain folk of Kentucky. Mr. Hopkins is opening our eyes to the wonderful possibilities of these sturdy mountaineers. His pictures are veritable character sketches yet never for one moment does he lose sight of their artistic value.
It is joy to feel the intimate understanding that Mr. Hopkins gives in the portrayal of these people. We realise that his home was among them; their joys were his joys and their sorrows found sympathy in his heart. No one could look at the “Mountain Lovers” (Fig. 186) without feeling a thrill of happiness in the love of these two young beings – true children of the soil. The purple haze creeping to the water’s edge from the wooded slope above, and the laughing, dancing river are as much a part of the romance as the discreet mother whose courtship days are now the daughter’s. How truly the story of woman-hood among nature’s primitives is told in these two – the girl elusive, tempting; the mother cowed, obedient, self-effacing. One can scarcely believe the maudlin, love-lorn, hesitating boy is to become the dominating, over-bearing husband of the future. Over and over again Mr. Hopkins represents the domineering man and the subservient woman. He has caught the elemental spirit that dwells untamed where nature and man are one.
Mr. Hopkins, born in Ohio in 1877, first studied in Cincinnati then in Paris. His comprehensive travel in Japan, China, Ceylon and Egypt has given him a wonderful grasp of spacing and arrangement.
Louis Paul Dessar (1868) is a native of Indianapolis, and lives in New York City. In the “Wood Cart” (Fig. 187), Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mr. Dessar has taken an incident out of the unpoetic life of the toil-worn farmer comparable to that of Millet’s French peasants. To ride on a load of poles drawn across a roadless stony field by a yoke of oxen is anything but a comfortable ride, yet the artist’s picturesque handling has glorified the scene. Under his brush the rough stones and uneven ground glow with warmth; the light plays hide-and-seek over the patient oxen, moving with slow, even gait, regardless of any obstacles, and gleams on the striped poles. His brush has caught the hues that Jack Frost has left in his wake on trees and shrubs. Always individual, Mr. Dessar makes us feel the thrill he felt when selecting a particular spot to set up his easel.
Daniel Garber (1880) is a little disconcerting. His painting of “Tannis,” which was awarded the second Altman prize of the National Academy of Design, is so much a child of nature that it seems as though no fields of his would be interesting without her. Yet “Fields in Jersey” (Fig. 188) is interesting. It may be that the warmth of her presence lingers under those vine-covered trees, and possibly she may be paddling her bare feet in the pond hidden behind the screen of leaves. Or she may be chasing butterflies in the open field beyond. At any rate there is a feeling of intimacy in the picture. Mr. Garber’s landscapes leave a peculiar, haunting green clinging to the memory. One wonders if it is due to the close range of his pictures, if one may use that term to describe them. They seem to invite a look with the artist through the tangled network screen to see the picture spread out there. Sometimes the screen gives place to low bushes or a bordering walk, and these always warn the intruder not to enter, only to look in.
In the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a landscape by Eugene Speicher called “Morning Light” (Fig. 189). It is a representation of early spring when all nature is rejoicing in a new creation. The rejoicing is that of birds twittering to their mates that a new home-making time has come; of the flowers awakening to greet a new world; of leaves bursting their bondage into a new freedom; of grasses bowing and swaying to the passing breezes; of the dew responding to the caresses of the rising sun. The whole hillside is a song of praise sung in a harmony of tender greens. This morning light awakens our better selves and stirs our imagination to higher ideals because in it is the potential element of growth. One of the most marked features of success among our modern American artists is their ability to express motion-change – without their results being restless and unbalanced. They are recognising that life is full of movement, either internal or external, and that it must be ex-pressed although not by sacrificing other essentials. No true artist finds this an easy task. Even Corot must have met with difficulties at first. He said, you remember, “Although when I was young it annoyed me that the clouds would not keep still, now I am glad that they will not, for therein lies their beauty.”
Mr. Speicher was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1883. He laid the foundation of his art in America and then spent some time in Europe. He is doing equally as good work in portraiture as in landscapes. In his modelling of flesh he is firm and convincing and gives his people character. In many of his portrait pictures simplicity is the element of charm.
Roy Brown’s trees have a. personality that reminds one of Rousseau and his beloved trees. These “Poplars” (Fig. 190) surely have been confiding their secrets to Mr. Brown just as the French master wished his trees to confide in him. There is nothing specially attractive about the tall, gaunt, almost branchless trunks swaying to the breeze, yet they speak volumes to us.