American Painting – Further Study Of Light And Progress Of Landscape

WE have already seen how American painting has been affected by the influence of Velasquez. By an age that had become enamoured of realism he was discovered to have been the most distinguished of realists; not only in his way of seeing his subject, but of rep-resenting it. Modern painters imitated his impressionistic way of comprehending and summarising the subject, and his method of painting the ” values,” or varying quantities and qualities of light given off from every part of the figure and scene. In one respect, however, they carried the realism of painting a step further than Velasquez. He had painted for the most part in the grey light of Philip the Fourth’s palace; they, however, ex-tended their studies of light into the open air and experimented in the representation of all kinds and degrees of light. This has been the special contribution of modern times to the art of painting.

It represents the final emancipation of the painter not only from the restrictions of Academic draughtsmanship, but also from subservience to the Old Masters in the picture galleries. He would be free of all conventions and see the world for himself ; no longer through the medium of varnish and the dirt and discoloration of time that disfigured the old pictures, but in all the freshness of its real colouring. It was, on the one hand, a logical extension of the nature-study of the Barbizon men ; and, on the other, the painter’s conformity with the realistic and scientific tendency of the time.

Manet’s study of sunlight started the vogue of plein air. Men began to paint in the open air. Among the earliest and best of the pictures produced under this condition were those of Alexander Harrison, a native of Philadelphia. In Arcady, for example, represents a fragment of a meadow, interspersed with gnarled trunks and slender tree stems, among which, in easy natural attitudes, are grouped three nude girls. The sunlight filters through the canopy of leaves, dappling the grass and gilding here and there a leaf or blade of grass, glancing over the human forms and touching the delicate flesh tones with shafts of radiance. It was the product at once of keen observation and of sure and dainty craftsmanship, while it breathed a spirit of poetry that lifted the whole scene into an idyl. Even more decisive, however, both in its virtuosity and in its effect upon contemporary painting, was his later picture, The Wave, which is now in the galleries of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. For the first time the true colouring of the blue water, curling over a smooth, sandy shore, had been searched into and recorded; the light that glinted on its crest, lay on the shining curve of the swell, or nestled in the hollow of the trough—each aspect had been rendered in its true relation. And the result of this truthful rendering of the passage of light over the wave was to increase the suggestion of the latter’s movement. The picture was a beautiful lesson in colour, light, and movement.

This trinity of qualities became the faith of the moderns. It is literally a three in one : light the source, colour the product, movement the spirit or expression. Let the Academicians be satisfied to keep to a convention in which art is divorced from life. It was the aim of the new men to effect a union of the two, to make art an expression of nature and of human life, and, incidentally, of their own temperaments, or souls. The secret of this they had discovered in the study of that element wherein things live and move and have their being. It was no longer form alone that had to be considered; but firm in relation to and as affected by the surrounding, that it has in nature, of lighted atmosphere. And this study gave a more definite meaning to Impressionism. It is realism extended by study of what the French call the milieu—the surrounding conditions, through which the subject is .viewed. And this is the principle that distinguishes the newer realism from such realistic pictures as those, for example, of the Düsseldorfians. The latter represented scenes of peasant life, in which the characters are playing more or less natural parts; but the realism is confined to the forms, and does not embrace a representation of the actual conditions of light and atmosphere in which they would appear in nature. They painted realistic pictures, but they did not represent the real manifestations of life.

The latter, in all their infinite ‘degrees from seriousness to triviality, became the study of the moderns. The result has been a general extension of skilful craftsmanship, of a painter-like way of seeing and rendering the subject, which has not always been put to any very interesting purpose. A vast majority of modern pictures, including many American ones, are nothing more than studies of light as it filters through muslin curtains, creeps between the slats of Venetian blinds, or in full sun-shine pours over the lace caps of peasant women or the white gowns of first communicants. These devices, multiplied a thousandfold, have engrossed the attention of the painter. He has been applauded by his brother painters, because they recognise the subtlety of his observation, and his manual dexterity, but to the laymen, who regard such excellences as, after all, but a means to an end, these pictures have become more than a little wearisome. It is as if a speaker should utter an inter-minable string of well-turned phrases, with not one idea involved in them to stir either one’s intelligence or imagination—vacant chaff.

The best fruits of this new method of study and practice have been furnished, at any rate in America, by the landscape painters. It is to their ad-vantage that they do not have to hunt up or invent subjects for pictures. Nature offers them an in-exhaustible choice, and their own love of nature keeps their sympathies active. The fascination of technical proficiency seldom monopolises their interest; they feel constantly the stirring of emotion in themselves, and delight to express it in their pictures. The latter are rarely without some quality of idealism.

The modern landscape, as a rule, is characterised by an absence of strong contrasts. The colours of shadows have been carefully analysed, and found to contain more light and a greater variety of colour than had previously been suspected. The shadow is regarded no longer as a dark spot, but as a spot from which more or less light has been intercepted. Therefore, it varies in density ac-cording to the quality of light that pervades the scene, as well as according to the amount of light that is intercepted. The colours of shadows also are not uniform; they depend upon the local colour of the object on which they lie; the shadow on grass, for instance, differing from that on snow. Moreover, the colour may be affected in tone by the reflections from other adjacent objects. For instance, the shadow on a girl’s face, if she is seated in the sunshine upon grass, may receive from the latter a green tone. In this discrimination of the colour and tones of shadows, the quality of the prevailing light, as we have remarked, is a most essential ingredient.

It is, in fact, in analysing the different kinds and degrees of light that modern painters have made a new and important contribution to art. They have not been satisfied with general distinctions between bright and dull light, or cold and warm, but have pushed their investigations into its varying aspects, under different conditions of weather, season, locality, and, even, time of day.

In this close analysis of the varying manifestations of light, no one has surpassed the Frenchman, Monet. He carried forward the study begun by Manet; and there are few modern landscapes that do not owe something to his example, although they may not follow his method. The latter represents a manner of laying on the paint to which the French have given the name pointilliste, since it covers the canvas with innumerable little points or dabs. This method was suggested to him and his friends, Seurat and Pissarro, by the writings of the late Professor Rood of Columbia University. For they recognised that in this study of light the discoveries of scientists might aid the vision of the artist. Among the experiments described by Rood was the following:

Two or three pigments having been selected, they were first mixed together, as a painter would mix them on his palette, and applied to a white card. Secondly, each pigment, in the same pro-portion as before, was painted directly on to a white disc, so that the latter was covered with the two or three segments of pure colour. When this disc was revolved rapidly, these blended into one tint, that corresponded in hue with that obtained by mixing the pigments on the palette, but was found to be more intense, for it contained more light. Monet and his friends, whose prime end was to represent light, derived a hint from this experiment. Instead of mixing their colours on the palette, they would lay them separately on the canvas, very close together, and rely upon the eye of the spectator, at the requisite distance, to effect the blending. For an actual mingling they substituted a visual impression of it.

Some eyes, however, seem to be physically unable to effect this blending; many more are offended by the spottiness of the method ; moreover, a great many of Monet’s canvases suggest experiment rather than realisation, and are embarrassing even to those who admire his best work. Consequently his method has not been popular either with painters or with the public.

The latter, however, have made the mistake, since Monet is an impressionist, of confounding this method with impressionism, with which it has absolutely nothing to do. It would be just as reasonable to conclude that every impressionist painter wears a sweater, and loose trousers turned up over strong shoes. The one is Monet’s method of dressing, as the other is of painting; neither has anything to do with the’ principles which underly his motive as an artist. He is an impressionist be-cause, to quote the definition given above, he has ” extended realism by a study of the milieu.” He is a leader among impressionists because he has been foremost in pushing the study, so as to include an extended variety of surrounding conditions, and to discriminate between them with such subtle refinement. It is chiefly due to his influence that modern landscapes are so pure and fresh in colour, and exhibit such a subtlety of observation and expression.

Among the very few Americans who have directly followed his method the most distinguished is Childe Hassam. His earlier efforts are marked by the crudity that is inseparable from experimentation; but of late years he has mastered the difficulties of the process, and his pictures now present a unity of effect, a vibrancy of colour, and a delicate esprit both of style and feeling, that render them almost unique in American art.

Courbet in the early days of realism used to affirm that the main thing for each painter to aim at was the emancipation of the individual; and in modern landscape this has certainly been achieved. The close study of the actual phenomena of nature, seen necessarily through the painter’s own eyes and affected by his own peculiarity of temperament, has produced over the wide field of landscape a great variety, and in the pictures of each man an equally notable individuality. This latter fact makes it impossible to enumerate examples. Any attempt to characterise our landscape painters in batches, according to some assumed similarity of motive or method, would be arbitrary as well as inexact. To single out a few names would work injustice to many others, and be outside the purpose of our story, which has been to note the progress of our painting, in hope that the reader may find in the general statement a clue to the appreciation of particular individuals.

Nevertheless, I will conclude this summary of modern American landscape with a particular in-stance. It is that of the late John H. Twachtman, whose work revealed a quality of idealism that may be said to represent the most modern note in painting. Earlier in our story we touched upon the landscape painter’s study of the forms of nature, as a basis for any subsequent expression of sentiment: It is not the least of the enjoyment to be derived from many pictures that they make one conscious of the strong-ribbed substance of the earth, the force and vigour of the trees and vegetation, the reach of sky, the volume and buoyancy of clouds, and the weight and movement of water. Before such pictures we experience that stir of blood and suggestion to the imagination which we may feel in the presence of nature itself, and often in a heightened form.

On the other hand, there may be pictures in which the artist has so thoroughly comprehended the facts of nature that for his own need and ours he can lay aside the consideration of them. He has extracted from them their essential abstract significance, so that he interprets that highest kind of sentiment, which is not a product of the individual and personal, but a whisper from the universal. To anyone who esteems of highest value the abstract expression in a picture, some of John H. Twachtman’s landscapes are of superlative interest.

Living upon a farm near Greenwich, Connecticut, he absorbed the facts of his surroundings so completely that their very spirit entered into him, and it was the spirit that he strove to render on can-vases that are marvels of delicate tonality. In examples like the Brook in Winter (for he seems to have had a partiality for winter scenes), it is the soul, as it were, of the still, cold, dormant world that he has rendered. Never has been bet-ter expressed through the subtle resources of modern methods of painting the suggestion of the abstract. For Twachtman, in technical matters, was a modern of the moderns, and ahead of all but a few of them in what he sought to express. He realised, as Whistler, for example, did, that if painting in the future is to hold its own alongside the developments of modern music, it can only be by finding its motive in the abstract.

His best work, like Whistler’s, has in it the latest modern note of idealism. It represents the effort of the artist to free himself from the encumbrance of the material, by giving expression to the spirit that abides in matter.