AMERICA, the inheritor of the ages! That certainly sounds promising, but, we may ask, has the inheritance proved wholly a blessing? The cry has been going up for a hundred years and more that in our art we are only imitators of the past. This cry has not been without some truth ; but why, we ask, expect from American painters in so short a time what it has taken older countries centuries to accomplish?
The wonderful scenery of the new country and the picturesque Indian no doubt impressed the artists among the Pilgrim Fathers, if there were any, but both the scenery and the Indian must have lost much of their picture-making quality in the struggle for existence of those early days. Then, too, had the trained artist painted genre pictures of the Indian in his unique costume and unusual surroundings and sent them back to the old home, I suspect the European art world would have tapped its forehead with much the same significance that the inn keeper did at the tales of the returned hunter who first discovered Yellowstone Park.
Again, is it not possible that our art inheritance was one of the real obstacles to be over-come before our native American artist could respond to the wonderful surroundings of natural scenery and native inhabitants ? The very bigness of the country and the unusualness of all that pertained to life ill fitted the traditions of the eighteenth century art work of Europe.
Not until 1738, when Benjamin West opened his eyes in the new world, did American painting have its birth. Immediately there comes to mind a mental picture of the little Benjamin sitting by the cradle painting a picture of his baby sister with a brush made from pussy’s tail. The stories of the early achievements of the boy are as much a part of his identity as that he was born in America, so it matters little whether he was an infant prodigy or not.
Even if he were not a great artist, we are rather proud of the business ability that made him a necessary adviser to King George III, and resulted in his being the real instigator in founding the Royal Academy, London, England in 1767.
The usual jealousies were undermining the art societies of London when the king took matters in his own hands under the direction of West, however and secretly planned his own art academy. He added the last straw to the expiring societies by answering person-ally the request of the president that West’s “Regulus” be sent to one of the exhibitions. “No,” said the king, “it must go to my exhibition the Royal Academy.” The king invited West to be the first president but West felt that the honour belonged to an Englishman, and persuaded Reynolds, who had nothing to do with the preliminaries, to accept the honour.
West at the death of Sir Joshua in 1792 be-came the second president. The king at this time wished to confer the honour of knight-hood upon him, a precedent established with Reynolds, but West, possibly hoping for a “baronetcy and a pension,” gracefully refused and with a note of pride, said, “I think I have earned greater eminence with my pencil than knighthood could confer on me.” Although he retained the royal favour of King George III, he never again was given the opportunity of refusing knighthood nor was he offered a higher honour. West is the only president of the Royal Academy, in its life of one hundred and fifty years, who did not become a “sir” upon accepting the presidency. Throughout the reign of King George III West continued in favour with the court, but upon the accession of King George IV the court patronage ceased.
West spent his boyhood days in Philadelphia, where the Indian in his untrammelled life appealed to his artistic nature, and gave him just the material for picture-making, which material he used when he painted “The Death of General Wolfe.” His audacity in stepping out of the beaten path of art tenets and clothing his characters in the costumes of the people, the country, and the time brought him enthusiastic applause from the people in spite of the disapproval at first of so eminent an artist as Sir Joshua Reynolds. Sir Joshua, after careful examination, said, “West has conquered; he has treated his subject as it ought to be treated; I retract my objections. I fore-see that this picture will not only become one of the most popular but will occasion a revolution in art.” West went to Italy when quite young; after a short sojourn in that country he started for home, stopping in England for a business call. The call extended over the rest of his life, and gave him a final resting place in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London (1820).
Besides a series of large canvases on English history made by request of the king, West began a series of religious pictures. One of the most noted of these is “Death on the Pale Horse” (Fig. I), in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia. It is painted in the grand style he assumed in his large compositions, possibly thinking to follow in the footsteps of Michael Angelo. He has taken his theme from Rev. 6:8, “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.” In looking at the painting we find that West has literally followed the words of St. John. While the few simple words of the evangelist leave a clear picture of horror in our minds, this painted picture of West’s is so full of confusing details that the significance of the scene is lost in the chaos of figures. What a masterpiece this would have been if Michael Angelo had conceived it !
In some of his smaller canvases, however, West has given a touch of reality akin to his own personal charm and Quaker directness.
This is specially true of “St. Peter Denying Christ” (Fig. 2), Hampton Court, England. The apostle’s earnest, deprecating manner, combining both devotion and cowardliness, has a human element that speaks to the heart. West’s artistic ambition was greater than his skill with brush and paint. The reddish-brown colour comes from painting on red grained canvas a legacy from the Italian Eclectics, and unfortunately emphasises the impetuous efforts of one ill at ease with his tools.
While Benjamin West was practically an English painter, except by accident of birth, his friend and contemporary, John Singleton Copley (1737-1815), was a true American. Copley probably had his early training from his stepfather, though his son, Lord Lindhurst, states that his father, Copley, “was entirely self-taught and never saw a decent picture, with the exception of his own until he was nearly thirty.” Among the pictures Copley painted, probably before he left America,, was the “Portrait of John Bours” (Fig. 3), now in the Worcester (Mass.) Art Museum. This young clergyman of Newport (1737-1815) and Copley were nearly the same age and, from the intimate character of the picture, there can be little doubt that a warm friendship bound them together. Seldom did Copley give sympathetic an understanding of the personal element as in the likeness of this gentleman. That it is a likeness, who can doubt? The splendid physique and air of good fellowship mark the man as a strong, helpful friend.
While Copley was still living in Boston – probably in 1766 – he sent a painting, “Boy with a Flying Squirrel,” to his countryman, West, in London, England. The painting arrived unsigned and without the accompanying letter, but West, recognising the American habitat of both the pine wood of the stretcher and the flying squirrel, suspected it was from his friend Copley. He enthusiastically pronounced the colouring to be worthy of Titian. Through West’s influence the picture was hung in the exhibition of the Society of Incorporated artists – though anonymous works were usually prohibited – and at once Copley’s reputation was established in England. It was nearly ten years later before Copley visited the great galleries of Europe and finally settled in London. Here, under the influence of Reynolds and Gainsborough, he gained technical skill in his art, but his portraits of the royal family and English nobility have not brought him the lasting fame of the pictures he painted before leaving America. “The long series of portraits of our colonial dignitaries, divines, judges and merchants” and the strong, self-reliant women of that day mark him as a veritable “American Van Dyck.” Those portraits give us a better understanding of the type of manhood and womanhood that laid the foundation of our Republic than any historians have given us in words.
It is to Charles Wilson Peale’s (1741-1827) credit that after studying under West four years in London, he came home to practise his art. He had the good fortune to have Washington sit for him fourteen times. His portraits were the first ever painted of our first president, and what a pity that they lack that element of sympathetic good-fellowship that an artist with a delicate understanding reveals of his sitters. His “Portrait of Washington” (rig. 4), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, is no doubt a good likeness, but with no soul. It seems strange that Peale could not have given a warm, personal picture of Washington. It is said that he made a miniature of General Washington while in camp “in a room so small and poorly lighted that Peale, who stood by the window, was forced to ask the distinguished model to sit on the bed.” When John Trumbull (1756-1843) was paid $32,000 for four pictures of American historical events, to fill compartments in the Rotunda of the Capitol at Washington, he probably received more than they would bring today, if their value depended upon their artistic merit. As a recorder of American history Trumbull deserves some consideration, but as an artist little can be said in his favour. His active service in the Revolutionary War brought him in contact with the leading men of the times, so that he never lacked for sitters of renown.
To have the honour of making a “Portrait of Alexander Hamilton” (Fig. 5), Metropolitan Museum of Art, was sufficient of itself to claim recognition for the artist. Hamilton’s distinguished bearing was just the quality that appealed to Trumbull, who believed in the dignity of art; then Hamilton’s habitually cheerful, bright face overcame, in a measure, the hard, formal brush of the artist, and his delicate skin and rosy cheeks compelled Trumbull to use agreeable colours.