American Painting – Continuance Of Barbizon Influence And Some Examples Of Independence

IN resuming the story of American landscape, we meet with two men who are usually associated in our mind with George Inness: Alexander H. Wyant and Homer Martin. These three may be reckoned the fathers of modern American landscape. Martin, like Inness, was directly influenced by the Barbizon painters; Wyant indirectly through the example of Inness and of the Barbizon pictures that had reached this country. His artistic career resembled that of Inness, so far as it developed from analysis to synthesis and from the representation of landscape to the rendering of a mood of nature. Otherwise the two men were very different. Inness was versatile, eager, and impulsive, a transcendentalist; Wyant, a lyric poet-painter, in whose mind, as in a still pool, a restricted range of emotions was mirrored, with a suggestion of poignant tenderness and depth.

Wyant was born, in 1836, at Defiance, Ohio. Although as a boy he had the observing eye and the desire to translate into line the forms of things, and, as he grew older, trained himself in drawing, he was twenty years old before he saw any pictures. This opportunity came to him when he visited Cincinnati, and, among the pictures there, one especially attracted him. It was by Inness. It seemed to the young man that one who could paint like that would be able and willing to advise him as to whether he might dare to hope to be an artist. He found means to visit New York, sought out Inness, was most kindly received, and spread out his studies and sketches to await judgment. The verdict was favourable, and Wyant resolved to be an artist.

He went abroad and studied for a time under ” the Norwegian painter, Hans Gude, who had graduated from Düsseldorf and was teaching at Carlsruhe. There seems to have been a mutual attachment between master and pupil ; but, when the former urged an imitation of his own method of painting, Wyant rebelled.

He returned to America, and being in need of funds, joined a Government expedition to explore the West. Hardships overtook the party; his physical strength was unequal to the strain, and, partially paralysed, he was put on board an eastward train. The train passed through his native town; but he reasoned that, if he succumbed to his condition, he might never again be able to emerge and push forward to his goal of being an artist. So he lay still and reached New York. In time he recovered the use of his body, but his right arm remained affected, and henceforth he painted with the left. Moreover, during the rest of his life he was subject always to bodily discomfort, not infrequently to pain, and there hung over him the realisation that his days were numbered. He worked under the intense concentration of feeling that he had so much he wished to do, so little time in which to do it. The remainder of his life, which he shared with a devoted wife and a few friends, Inness pre-eminently among them, he gave to the study of nature, finding companionship all along in the nature-poet, Wordsworth. He worked first in the Adirondacks; then, fearing that he might fall into a mannerism by continuing to represent scenes of similar character, moved to the Catskills. His development, influenced by the Barbizon paintings, that were being imported in increasing numbers, and by the example of Inness, was from analysis to synthesis, from the representation of external nature to the interpretation of a mood. His earlier pictures are marvels of precise mastery of characterisation. By degrees they become broader, simpler, more single-minded, or shall I call it single-hearted? For their emotional quality increased until they become the intense expression of a mood —the artist’s own feeling, interpreted through nature. And the mood grows to be one of absorbing love and lovableness, frequent with sadness, musical lyrics in a minor key.

Throughout his life he was a student, and when he was conscious that the end was drawing near (it came in 1892) , he would exclaim: ” Had I but five years more in which to paint, even one year, I think I could do the thing I long to.”

This is the cry of a true artist, one whose soul was set upon that most evanescent, intangible quality—expression, while his hands were hampered by a medium comparatively clumsy and hard to manage. To others it will seem that he reached achievement; to himself, conscious of what he longed to do, there remained to the end a royal discontent.

In great contrast to Wyant’s tender, poignant lyricism, and to the brilliant improvisation of Inness, is the profound seriousness of Homer Martin’s work. To his club-mates he was a ” fellow of infinite jest,” big-natured in his weakness as in his strength; in the seclusion of his art, a painter of grave purposes and serious imaginings.

He was born at Albany, New York, in 1836, the year also of Wyant’s birth. Except for a few weeks’ instruction from William Hart he was self-taught, and his early work represents a groping of mind and hand, a searching after the thing that was worth doing and some way of doing it. Already, however, it was distinguished by a feeling for colour and expression. He had always been subject to a weakness of the eyes, which debarred him from admission into the army at the opening of the Civil War, and had a marked influence upon the tenor of his art.

There is no doubt that what we recognise in an artist as a mental idiosyncrasy has frequently originated in some defect or peculiarity of ocular vision; for it is how the artist sees the visible world that will determine how the impression, filtered through his mind, will appear in the picture. Now Martin’s imperfection caused him to see nature in mass, not enclosed in sharp outlines ; and since crispness and definiteness were a characteristic of such landscape pictures as he had at first the opportunity of seeing, he distrusted himself. Had he known that Corot, after a. long apprenticeship to certainties of form, had deliberately brought himself to see nature as a pattern of masses, softened against the spaces of the sky; that this was a phase of the process which other artists were going through in their passage from the analytical to the synthetical method of representing nature, he would have been saved much distress and delay. He might have realised the fact, so frequently illustrated in art, and to be exhibited later in his own, that it is out of a man’s weakness that his peculiar strength is evolved. But it was not until after he had been abroad that impressions which he had hesitated to accept became convictions, upon which he could effectually base his self-development.

His first visit was in 1876, to Holland, England, and France, with a short stay at Barbizon. Again in 1881 he went to England, renewing a friendship with Whistler that had been commenced five years before; and thence moved across the Channel to Villerville, a little village near Harfleur in Normandy, where nineteen months were spent. It was during this time that he gathered the impressions which later resulted in some of his finest works—Low Tide at Villerville, Hon fleur Lights, Cinqueboeu f Church, known now as Old Church in Normandy; Normandy Trees, Normandy Farm, the Sun Worshippers, and the landscape in the Metropolitan Museum called, erroneously, a View on the Seine. The Mussel Gatherers was completed a little later at Harfleur.

It is characteristic of Martin’s habit of work that his stay at Villerville, the happiest incident of his career, was a period not of productivity, of giving out, but of taking in impressions, to be realised later. It may have been an instinct for saving his eyes that deterred him from making the colour studies or drawings in the open air with which painters usually equip themselves for subsequent work in the studio. One picture, Westchester Hills, which many people consider his masterpiece, was painted from start to finish in the open air; but this was a single exception to his rule of work. His numerous sketches are little more than summary indications of the anatomy of a scene—its lines and masses, jotted down with a pencil or water-colour brush. His real, studies of nature were made through half-closed eyes, as he lay or sat smoking, apparently doing nothing. But all the time he was absorbing facts and receiving impressions. These gradually took shape and arrangement in his brain, until he obtained a mental vision of his subject; and it was the memory of the latter that occupied his attention when subsequently he came to paint the picture.

In ” A Reminiscence ” of her husband Mrs. Martin testifies to this, which is of extreme interest in helping one to understand his work. Incidentally I may remind the reader that it was in this way that many of Corot’s most beautiful pictures had their beginning. They were painted in Paris from impressions stored up by the artist during the summer time in Ville d’Avray, as he watched the rising of the sun, or saw it to its setting. As with Corot, it was not the landscape but the impression of a mood experienced in himself at nature’s suggestion, that Martin painted. And we have it on Mrs. Martin’s authority, and may find corroboration in the titles of two of his pictures, that the mood was not only an abstract sensation, but that the concrete image of the mood was present to his Imagination. Thus, the View on the Seine was called by himself The Harp of the Winds. The scene had suggested music to him, and the tall poplar stems and their reflections seemed like strings vibrating with the quiver of the foliage. But Martin feared that the title might seem to be sentimental, and, abandoning it, changed also the appearance of the trees, in order, I suppose, that the resemblance to a harp might not be too obvious. For he had a great horror of painting anything that might be suspected of a literary motive, and in the titles of his pictures avoided giving any verbal clue to the mood embodied. The only other exception is The Fire Worshippers; but I believe it is the exception that proves the rule.

For the appearance of these trees, stunted and bent over by the rigour of the wind, extending their lean and withered arms toward the glory of the setting sun, gives a certain obviousness to the title, when once the humour of the artist’s imagination has started the suggestion. But under the obviousness of the title he may have desired to conceal his deeper mood. In the contrast between the splendour of the sky and the cramped, thwarted conditions upon earth, he may well have felt a symbol of the artist’s dream of what he longs to do and of the impotence with which he frequently knows himself to be possessed.

For Martin could only work when the impulse was upon him. ” I do not know where the impulse comes from,” he once said, ” nor why it stays away. All I know is that when it comes I can do nothing but paint; and when it goes away I can do nothing but dawdle.” ” That was absolutely true; and,” his wife adds, ” it was also very inconvenient.” She gives another hint to the understanding both of the man and the artist when she says that Martin was himself a bit of nature.

Without early education, and despite a desultory appreciation of good literature and a taste for music, unregulated by any sort of intellectual discipline, he remained in a very special and unusual way a child of nature; subject to variableness of mood, reckless of consequences. This was the man—a child. It was only the artist in him that grew up and matured; knit by bonds of serious tenderness to the mother earth, from whose loins he had come, and at whose breast he fed, under-standing her voice by instinct, while her heart throbbed to the movement of his own. In a word, he did not absorb nature and then pass it through the prism of his own consciousness, as Inness and Wyant did, and most poetic landscape painters do, but himself passed into nature, and became once more conceived in her, afterwards employing the strength of his intellect to express, as it were, the secrets of the womb. Through this rather fantastical process of thinking, I believe, we can gain a perception of what it is in Homer’s finest pictures that moves one so largely and so profoundly. It is the completeness with which he was able to surrender himself to nature that made him able to recover from her the elemental feeling, and to render it in a. manner at once so large, simple, and profound.

His work is characterised by the qualities of the colourist. In the earliest pictures there is more than a little gaudiness of colour; but this passes with the work of his maturity into a sober harmony of low-toned hues, grave, sonorous, and musically subtle; the earth-parts kneaded into solidity, the skies thrilling with vibration. The sky, however, in the Fire Worshippers is aflame with colour; and again, in the last of all his pictures, Adirondack Scenery, he indulged in a profusion of bright tints. Though blind of one eye and threatened with cataract in the other, irreparably shattered in health, he nevertheless asserted once more the unfaltering jollity of the man in an artist’s colour scheme of gaiety. Ile died in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1896.

While the three men we have been discussing were influenced more or less directly by the Barbizon painters, their pictures bear no resemblance to the latters’. Henry W. Ranger, however, painted for a while in a manner that is visibly reminiscent, now of Rousseau, now of Diaz; Robert C. Minor, a pupil of the latter, was noticeably representative of Barbizon choice and treatment of subjects. He is dead, and Ranger has discovered a style personal to himself. In fact, this early Barbizon influence has run its course, and been replaced, as we shall see, by another, in which, through the example of Manet and the other ” Impressionists,” a closer and more scientific study of light is the main motive. Meanwhile, the salient features of the influence are perpetuated. Our landscape painters still select a fragment of nature, study it intimately, summarise its details into an ensemble, and represent it as a portrait of character and expression.

It will be convenient to mention here those men of remarkable originality, whose development was apart from the influence we have been discussing. Entirely self-taught and detached from this influence, except in so far as it was in the air, and no one could escape some recognition of it, Ralph A. Blakelock remained a curiously isolated figure. The son of a New York physician, born in 1847, he would not follow in his father’s profession, but determined to divide his studies between music and painting. In neither did he receive any instruction, and prepared himself for painting by a trip to the West, where he lived among the Indians and se-cured material that he afterwards introduced into his pictures. He was a born colourist, and such men are usually musical, while, the musician is conscious of colour-quality in sound. Indeed, the modern mind, in its subtle analysis of sensations, has added to the expressiveness of language by using interchangeably the terminology of these two arts. Thus, having by habit ceased to regard it as an affectation, we find, on the contrary, a usefulness and propriety in speaking, for example, of harmonies and tones of color, high key and low key of colour, and so on; similarly of shading of expression in music, of richness of colour and the like. Both sensations reach us by wave movements, and we may recognise a certain correspondence in the way in which they affect us. But Blakelock went further than a mere consciousness of correspondence, and worked out for his own use a chromatic scale of colour equivalent to that of music.

Unfortunately he had never learned the manual trick of painting, and in the details, notably the foliage, used his brush as a pencil, without, apparently, having acquired the trick of drawing. His trees are as hard, flat, and motionless, and often as dark and opaque in colour, as if cut out of japanned tin. Accordingly, considered as portraits of nature, they are unsatisfactory. But this is not the proper way to regard them. Rather they are pictorial arrangements founded upon a theme which he has borrowed from nature; as a musical composer may take some simple folk-tune and use it as the slender thread on which to string his harmonious inventions. If we will divest our minds for a moment of the habit of looking in a landscape for an intimate study of nature, and estimate Blakelock’s simply as pictorial convention, a symphony of colour based upon nature motif, intended to affect us in a purely abstract way, we shall find the best of them extraordinarily original and inspiring.

This is also the best way to estimate the work of another isolated figure, Albert P. Ryder, although he himself is apt to confuse the issue by giving his pictures titles that have a literary suggestion. Among his subjects, for example, will be remembered Jonah and the Whale, Siegfried, Temple of the Mind, Flying Dutchman. This literary allusion is a source of weakness in his pictures. Their real strength consists in the way in which he makes the rendering of the landscape a pattern of colour and form, full of emotional appeal, or the ocean and sky contribute to a symphony of colour; in the Jonah as wild and whirling as a Hungarian Gipsy dance by torchlight, in the Flying Dutchman as weird as the squealing flight of witches. With no thought of nature in his mind, but intent on making every part of the picture beautiful in colour and texture, he embroiders every inch of the canvas, as if his brush were a needle, threaded with brilliant silks or strands of gold and silver, until the whole gleams like precious stones. All this is beautiful, very beautiful, pregnant with imagination.

Ryder has been likened to Monticelli, but scarcely with justice to the latter. For the Frenchman was a master in the rendering of light; his pictures are saturated with it ; nay, more, they are constructed in light, creations of light; the figures moving or fixed in lighted atmosphere. Ryder’s pictures are usually opaque, and radiant on their surfaces alone. But there is another fundamental difference—a racial one. Monticelli’s pictures are creations of pure fancy, while Ryder exhibits the Anglo-Saxon tendency to supplement the music with ideas, and his literary additions are singularly ineffectual. The little figures, boats, fish, and architecture, appear ill-drawn, ill-placed, and curiously childish in conception, and suggest that their author has nothing of the saving grace of humour. His work, notwithstanding its emotional charm, gives the impression of its author being too much pre-occupied with his own seriousness.

The third of the independents, George Fuller, belongs to a generation earlier than that of Ryder and Blakelock, having been born in 1822, three years before the birth of Inness. Yet it was not until 1876 that the work by which he is now remembered was presented to the public gaze. It had been produced under circumstances that render his career a chapter of romance in the story of American painting, and a very unusual variation on the theme of ” art for art’s sake.”

Up to 1859 it was not unlike the careers of other painters in those days of limited opportunity. Some instruction at home in Deerfield, Massachusetts, where his father was a farmer, was gained from a half-brother who had skill as a miniature-painter; later, a little instruction in drawing from the sculptor, Henry Kirke Brown, in Albany, and further help from another sculptor, John Ball. Portraits occupied him principally, though he made some efforts to break away from them and indulge himself in imaginative subjects. In 1857 he was elected an associate of the National Academy. The most notable feature of this period of his life was the determination he made, as expressed in a let-ter to his friend Brown: ” I have concluded,” he wrote, ” to see nature for myself, through the eye of no one else, and put my trust in God, awaiting the result.”

In 1859 the tenor of his life was changed by the death of his father and elder brother. In the interest of the younger children—his mother had died some years previously—his presence was needed on the farm. But before settling down he realised the long-cherished hope of visiting Europe.

In London he made the acquaintance of Rossetti and Holman Hunt; passed on to Paris, and thence travelled from one to another of the principal cities of Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Italy, making sketches in the galleries, and being attracted especially by the works of the Colourists and Rembrandt.

Then he returned home, and went to work as a farmer; and for nearly sixteen years passed out of the ken of both makers and buyers of pictures. Only a few friends knew that in the intervals of superintending the farm he found time to paint; with no thought of selling or exhibiting his pictures, intent simply on trying to express some ideal of his own. It is likely that he would have continued in this voluntary seclusion had not a failure of his tobacco crop brought him to the verge of bankruptcy and compelled him to put some of his pictures on sale in Boston. They were received with acclamation, and during the eight remaining years of his life—he died in 1884—Fuller resumed his career as a professional painter.

He had determined to see nature for himself, and he saw it through the medium of his imagination, veiled with mist. Behind it, the landscape glimmers with subtle colours ; the outlines of the figures are indistinct, their motionless forms scintillate with suppressed light ; their large eyes gaze fixedly, as if trying to pierce the veil.

All these pictures, among the best of which may be reckoned The Turkey Pasture, Winifred Dysart, The Romany Girl, have a quality of distinction, due particularly to the rare quality of the feeling that inspires them. They are expressions of a singularly beautiful condition of soul. Considered, however, purely as painting, they are less satisfactory. In undertaking the technical problem of rendering light and atmosphere he anticipated what we shall see became a motive of the next generation, but, in comparison with modern pictures, his own lack elasticity and clarity of colour. He stood on the threshold of the New Movement, peering, like one of his own figures, through the veil.

It is this New Movement that is now to engross our attention.