American Painting – French Influence Continued : Realism And Impressionism

AT the conclusion of the previous chapter we spoke of the New Movement. It led up finally to the wedding of art with life, which, as we have more than once noted, was to be the characteristic achievement of the nineteenth century.

We have seen already what the painters of Barbizon did to accomplish this, and how their influence set the course of American landscape on a firm road that has led alike to truth and to spiritual expression. We have now to trace the corresponding development in the domain of figure painting. It is true that Millet had already done for the figure what Rousseau and the other Barbizon painters had done for landscape. He had reconciled what the Academicians regarded as contradictory—art and nature. But, as yet, he was little known outside of Barbizon. It was necessary that someone of more belligerent spirit should carry the war of realism into the enemy’s stronghold—into Paris. The man of the hour was Gustave Courbet.

The reader may be reminded that in France the realistic movement was represented in literature by Flaubert, Daudet, the brothers Goncourt, and Zola. It was reflected in painting by Courbet. The latter, as early as 1855, had thrown down the gage of battle to the Academicians, proclaiming himself a realist, asserting that it was a ridiculous presumption for an artist to paint what he had never seen, that his province is limited to what is visible to the eye, and that it is the familiar facts of life with which he ought to be concerned. Courbet had passed off the stage before the later generation of American students reached Paris, but his turbulent personality had given an impulse to the Realistic movement that was carried forward by others. It even affected the Academy, Gérôme, for example, varying subjects of classic motive with the rendering of actual incidents; while Bonnat, who, as we have seen, had early imbibed the naturalistic tendencies of the old Spanish School, became a conspicuous instance of exact and analytical study. His portraits of men, by reason of their intense objective rendering of the external characteristics, are also, so far as the latter indicate what is below the surface, extraordinary representations of human personality. Of both these men Thomas Eakins was a pupil, and he stands out among our painters as at once the most analytical in his observation and the most representative of the influence of the Realistic movement upon the Academic training.

Born at Philadelphia in 1844, he passed from the schools of the Pennsylvania Academy to the studios of Gérôme and Bonnat, and came back with an eye trained to precise observation, and a hand skilled in precision of drawing. In these particulars he is a master ; beyond them he has shown no disposition to travel; he is as coldly and dispassionately analytical as Gérôme at his strongest, as unflinchingly exact as Bonnat. Under the former’s influence he produced his masterpiece, which is owned by Jefferson College, Philadelphia. As Rembrandt, in his Lesson in Anatomy, portrayed the celebrated surgeon, Dr. Tulp, so Eakins has commemorated the personality of Professor Gross in this picture, representing a Surgical Clinic. It involves an effectively artistic composition, as well of lines and masses as of light and shade, and fine characterisation in the individual figures, but the inherent power of the picture is the product of the artist’s own point of view.

He approached the incident in precisely the same kind of condition of mind as the surgeons engaged in the operation. The patient, for the time being at any rate, is but a ” subject,” toward which their attitude of mind is absolutely impersonal, but on which they concentrate all their knowledge and skill, so that their own personality declares itself masterfully in a complete control of the situation.

Equally objective are the portraits of men by Eakins, which represent a similarly impersonal point of view toward the sitter, and in his best ones an extraordinary display of the artist’s own personality in his grip of the technical problems of the picture. One of the most remarkable examples is the Portrait of Louis N. Kenton; a lean, shambling figure, with the hands thrust into the waist-pockets of the trousers ; the strong, intellectual head bowed in meditation. It suggests that the man has been pacing up and down the room, thinking out some matter, and has suddenly halted, all alert, as he finds himself near to its solution. It is a picture that in its matter-of-factness and in its disregard of the elegancies of line, and of the per-suasiveness of colour and tone, might be charged with ugliness, but as the record of a human individual is extraordinarily arresting and satisfactory. Considered from the more general standpoint of a work of art, it might be the better for some of those tricks of grace in which our young students nowadays are drilled to be proficient. Let us grant it, but with the amendment, that here is an instance where a picture may be superior to a mere work of art; that there is in Eakins a capacity broader and deeper than that of simply being an artist. He has the qualities of manhood and mentality that are not too conspicuous in American painting.

They appear again in Winslow Homer, the painter of the Ocean. He is our greatest exponent of Realism, with nothing, however, of the Academician in his make-up. Rather, one may see in him some traces of the Barbizon influence, and of other later influences yet to be described; but in the main he is a painter who has worked out for him-self his own development.

Independence has been the ruling characteristic of his life. He began his career as an assistant in a lithographic shop in Boston, and there acquired a distaste for doing things according to the dictates of other people. The Civil War broke out, and the Harpers offered him a position as their illustrator at the front. He refused to bind himself by any contract, but joined the Army of the Potomac, and thence sent back to the office drawings of such incidents of camp life as caught his eye and interest, which appeared regularly in ” Harper’s Weekly.” At the same time he practised oil-painting, and at length produced a picture to which the stirring emotions of the time lent a considerable popularity. In this Prisoners from the Front he represented a batch of Confederate troops passing to the rear through groups of Union soldiers. After the war he remained for a time in the South, painting rural scenes, especially of negro life. They reveal a keenness of observation and a certain straightforward method of representation, but are not yet essentially the work of a painter, nor of any considerable artistic merit. To-day they are chiefly interesting as evidence of their author’s resolute intention to see and express things in his own way.

The turning point in his career was reached when he transferred his studies to the characteristics of the Maine coast. There the big, simple heroism of the fishermen and their womenfolk at once attracted him, and prompted a number of pictures, the very titles of which tell their own direct tale. In the Life Line, Undertow, Danger, Eight Bells, All’s Well, and others, he had caught the spirit of the life; the tragedy that underlies its faithful routine of duty; the unconscious bigness of it all, as Kipling did in his word-picture of the Gloucester fishermen in ” Captains Courageous.” To Homer the study of this life meant the enlargement of his own; a deepening of his motive, the gradual realisation of his own power as an artist.

Already these pictures are big work; big in their sympathy with and comprehension of the subject of his study. They were to be succeeded by work that was even bigger, because the interest that impelled it and the impression it produces is more abstract, of a more universal kind. For, it was no longer the ocean, mainly as a background to the human tragedy, but the might and majesty of the ocean itself, that now attracted him supremely. Figures may be introduced, but only as a musician employs a theme in the composition of his fugue; and oftentimes the sole subject of contemplation is the ocean itself. In daily companionship with it, he has led for many years a solitary life upon a spit of coast near Scarboro. Its wild purple and brown rocks, the grey-green seething sea, and the immense skies, laden with wind and moisture, have been his constant and sole inspiration. Their solemn grandeur has entered into his soul, and the work which it has inspired is without any rival in American art for originality and impressiveness.

But the Realism for which Courbet contended was only a transitionary phase of the Realistic movement. While it achieved an accuracy of form, it failed to render accurately the colour of form, and its true appearance as affected by light and atmosphere. In this further contribution to realistic painting Manet was the leader, and he drew his inspiration from Velasquez. It has so profoundly affected the painter’s point of view and method that it must be comprehended by everyone who would understand the general trend of modern painting, and its particular bias in America. For it was enthusiasm for this new teaching that characterised the students who returned home in the late ‘eighties and early ‘nineties ; and while some of them for a time displayed the extravagance of neophytes, the principles for which they stood have prevailed.

To state the matter as briefly as possible, the recovery of Velasquez, dating from 1857, gradually brought about the following changes:

Firstly, it affected the painter’s way of seeing things. It substituted for a realism of observation such as is recorded by the camera, a painter’s way of seeing; for a detailed analysis, a pictorial synthesis or summary. It was realised that Velasquez painted what he could see, not what he knew was present to his eyes. Meissonier, for example, in painting a charge of cavalry, because he knew that every horse had bit and bridle and buckles, every rider sundry buttons on his uniform, represented all and each with microscopic fidelity. Velasquez, on the contrary, making his eyes the standard, took in the figure, or scene, as a whole, with swift comprehensive glance, and then rendered the impression he had received. Following his example, the moderns began to paint ” impressions,” to be, as the phrase was coined, ” impressionists.”.

Secondly, it affected a change in the way painters regarded colour and their manner of laying on the paint. Velasquez’s subdued harmonies of blacks and greys, sparingly relieved with yellows, blues, and old rose, opened their eyes to the fascination of subtleties, as compared with the brilliance of strongly contrasted tints. The long, sweeping contours of his figures promoted a taste for the dignity of ‘simple lines and massy compositions. His manner of relieving the monotony of the large coloured masses—black, grey, or otherwise—by breaking them into several tones, and giving them a character of distinction through the broad and virile handling of a brush, loaded with paint, taught the value at once of subtlety and of effective craftsmanship. It made it clear that the brush and not the crayon was the tool to be relied upon, and gave an impetus to the art of painting, as distinguished from the art of drawing a figure and subsequently tinting it.

Thirdly, the extraordinarily natural appearance of Velasquez’s figures and scenes, summed up by Gautier when in front of the Maids of Honour he exclaimed, ” Where is the picture? ” set the painters to discovering its secret. It was found to be due to the fact that Velasquez placed his figures, as they appeared in nature, within a surrounding envelope of lighted atmosphere; and that his method of doing so had been the accurate rendering of the exact amount of light given off from every visible part of the figure or object represented. So now the painters, coining a new word to explain their intentions, began to occupy themselves with ” values.”

To sum up : these discoveries effected the emancipation of painting from the thraldom of Academic draughtsmanship. It restored the actual craftsmanship of the brush to an honourable standing, and gave the painter thereby an opportunity of developing and exhibiting his individuality. You may recognise a man’s brushwork as you can another’s handwriting. Further, it changed the method of painting. For now, instead of making . an elaborate drawing of the figure, accurately shaded, and then laying on the paint with a careful, almost timorous intention not to lose touch with the original drawing, the painter, satisfied with a preliminary sketch that merely indicates the general form and its position on the canvas, builds up his figure from the start by successive layers of paint, so as to reproduce the successive planes of lighted surface which the figure presents. It is a vigorous method, but yet it admits of the fullest amount of subtlety of observation and representation. It involves also a much more realistic as well as vigorous rendering of the subject—an immense step in the direction of effecting a union of art and life.

From the beginning of the ‘sixties this method of painting spread, until it has become a usual practice of painters and the basis of instruction for students. While Manet and many others influenced the vogue by their example, Carolus-Duran was the first and most distinguished of the regular teachers of it. His most important pupil, at any rate from the point of view of the present story, was John S. Sargent, whose work is in an eminent degree representative of what the most skilful of our modern portrait-painters are doing.

Of New England stock, the son of a physician who had retired from practice in Philadelphia, John Singer Sargent was born in 1856, in Florence, where his boyhood and youth were spent. Brought up amid the advantages of cultured home life and of early and constant familiarity with the artistic treasures of that beautiful city, he learned to draw and paint at the local Academy of Fine Arts. He was already skilful beyond the average of students and grounded in knowledge of great art and trained in taste, by the time that he went to Paris to study under Carolus-Duran. Having rapidly assimilated that master’s teaching, he visited Madrid and studied Velasquez in the Prado, and afterwards moved to Holland, where the portraits of Hals attracted him. Later he was influenced by those of the Scottish artist, Raeburn. His style is a brilliant epitome of these various sources of technical inspiration.

Instead, however, of trying to trace his particular obligation to each of these, it may be more practically useful to attempt a summary of what characterises his own style. Its charm is a combination of vivid impressions and of extraordinarily vital and effective technique.

As becomes a student of Velasquez, what he paints is the impression that the subject produces on his mind. It would seem as if the impression were generally one that had been immediately registered; but, even if he has had to wait for it, by the time it reaches him, it does so with such vividness that it appears to have all the freshness of immediacy. On rare occasions, however, his portraits are laboured and incompletely realised; it is then, we may conjecture, that he has failed to receive a strong impression.

As a rule, his portraits reveal no psychological analysis, or poetry of feeling, nor, except possibly in some of his portraits of children, any sympathy with the subject. Dispassionate as a mirror, for the most part, with equal fidelity and, at times, relentlessness, his mind reflects the surface characteristics of his sitter, the mannerisms of expression, evidence of social or professional caste, the individualities of dress and gesture, suggestions of temperament and of the atmosphere in which the person moves. No painter of the present day can better render the elegance of fashionable femininity. But while he revels in the opportunity of luxurious display, he is never carried away by it. It interests him as a problem for his brush. Consciously he never flatters, unconsciously he may sometimes do less than justice; sometimes also he. fails to secure a likeness, for it is not as an individual, but as a type, that the sitter chiefly interests him.

As a matter of fact, his main interest is in his technique, and in the artistic problem that the subject offers. Because of this he is often, perhaps generally, puzzling to the public, and appreciated best by brother craftsmen, who speak of him as a ” painter’s painter.” Knowing the difficulties of painting, they are alike astonished and enthusiastic at the audacity with which he attacks a problem, and at the masterful ease with which he solves it. Not that this is always the product of a magical facility, but often of exacting self-criticism, indomitable perseverance, and patient renewal of effort. Again and again, if necessary, he will scrape out, until he has realised his intention, by which time the labour of endeavour will have disappeared in the triumph of achievement. The latter, to speak of it in untechnical language, is characterised by a maximum of suggestion and a minimum of apparent means, the latter thrilling with animation.

As to the suggestion. When a painter copies exactly what he sees in front of him, as, for example, Meissonier did, and our own John G. Brown, you can peer into the canvas at close range and find every detail rendered with minute finish. But that is not how we view people in real life; we do not step close up to them and peer into their faces and scrutinise every particle of their costumes. We watch them from a little distance off, and get a general impression of their personality and appearance. It is this that Sargent strives to give us. When you are close to one of his canvases you are confronted with a number of bold dabs or sweeping strokes of paint that to the inexpert eye convey no meaning : but step back, so as to gain, as it were, a perspective, and those dabs and patches resolve themselves into modelling of features and hands, and the delineation of draperies and accessories. But, admitting it is so, you may ask in what consists the advantage of this method? The answer involves a psychological consideration, that this process demands a greater exercise of mentality on the part of both artist and spectator.

The exact imitation of a button gives you no more mental excitation than the original button would. Skill and patient precision were required to manufacture the original, and the same qualities, carried perhaps a little farther, were employed on its imitation; and, while we may exclaim, ” How wonderful ! ” we do so because the wonder is that anyone could have such extraordinary patience. Instead of stimulating the mind, it makes us tired to think of it; just as we have to disguise our boredom when a person insists on telling us every petty detail of some occurrence that to start with was not of much account. On the other hand, to analyse, as Sargent does,. a certain effect, so absolutely that the essential of it is discovered, and then to determine just how that essential may best be rendered, and out of many possible methods to select unerringly the precise one which will put his mental conception into immediate shape—this rep-resents a keen and vigorous mental exercise, the magnetism of which, if we study his work, will stimulate us. Moreover, since, as a rule, in the finished picture each stroke is there as it came hot and straight from his constructive imagination, the whole subject has the thrill of life. And this, you will observe, is something more than being life-like.

Sargent’s eminence has had a great influence upon American painting. On the one hand, it has helped to popularise the new method of painting, and, on the other, to foster the idea that masterfulness of technique may justify a lack of ability or inclination to penetrate the character of the sitter. For, like Carolus-Duran, he is a brilliant exponent of the material and mundane, for the most part engrossed in his impression of externals.

It is the purpose of this story to summarise results, and therefore it may be convenient to divide American portraiture into two classes.

Omitting from our present review a good many portraits which simply represent more or less honest mediocrity, we may sum up the more conspicuously skilful ones as either portraits of ésprit or portraits of character. The former with us, as elsewhere, are in , the majority. They are distinguished by manifest dexterity of brushwork and by animated and piquant rendering of the sitter’s exterior and of such hints of personality as lie near the surface and are expressed by individual mannerisms. The best of such portraits are those of women, which permit the added charm of attractive costumes and of surroundings that are pervaded with the atmosphere of refined elegance. We have elsewhere spoken of portraits of this kind by Chase, and may supple-ment them by the examples of Irving R. Wiles, J. J. Shannon, Cecilia Beaux, Adelaide Cole Chase, and Frank W. Benson. The work of each of these admirably represents the qualities above referred to, and in certain instances may seem to indicate a deeper appreciation of character. It is because of a still more marked intention in this direction that I mention separately the work of John W. Alexander. Nevertheless, he is perhaps more characteristically represented by what I have chosen to call the portrait of ésprit, in his case distinguished by a very decorative composition and a flat manner of painting that enhances the decorative suggestion. He has been happily represented also by many purely figure subjects.

Foremost among the portraitists of character stands Wilton Lockwood, the example of whose work illustrated here exhibits the soundness, subtlety and imaginative insight of his present matured style. Another painter whose portraits, too rarely seen, possess the qualities of depth and force, is Joseph de Camp. They both work in Boston, as also does Frederic P. Vinton, whose portraits of men, while less dexterous in technique, are powerful records of the strong breed that is shaping the life of affairs in modern America.

Indeed, it is worth notice that where psychological insight appears in an American portrait, the subject will usually be a man. The same is true to-day in France, just as it was in England at the close of the eighteenth century. That the de-cline of the English Portrait School was due in a large measure to the excessive popularity of the portraits of women of fashion, with all its temptation to the artist of pre-occupying himself with furbelows and finery in lieu of stronger and deeper qualities, can scarcely be doubted ; and equally in modern America the same cause is at work, retarding the lustier growth of our art.

Parallel ‘with this tendency to lack of character in portraiture runs a poverty of imagination in figure-painting generally. With a few exceptions, it is very apparent in American painting, and for a while was equally characteristic of French art. It has been a perhaps not unnatural result of the attention paid to technique. The new methods were so fascinating that painters became too much enamoured of the skill with which they could render the appearances of things. Many lost sight of the fact that technique is but the means to expression, and extolled it as an end in itself. Hence was started in Paris, and thence imported to America, the confession of faith in ” art for art’s sake.”

It had, as other such rallying cries, a modicum of sanity and much extravagance. It was in its best sense a protest against the dependence of painting upon literature, and against the tendency to consider the subject of more importance than the method of representation. It was an assertion never out of place, that the quality of the artistic form must be the final test of a work of art. But it ran to extravagance in assuming that the artistic form was the only test; that what it might embody was of no account at all; that the method of presentation was the first, last, and only important concern of the artist. It put asunder the twain that should be one flesh—the form and the expression. The result was for a time, sterility; much cry and little wool; plenty of good workmanship, but a poverty of emotional or spiritual significance.

Meanwhile, landscape painting, for the most part unaffected by this tendency, kept steadily on its path of progress. We resume its story in the next chapter.