American Painting – Remnants Of The English Influence

IN the previous chapter we saw how the development of national consciousness found expression in a native growth of landscape painting. We noted that, while the beginnings of the ” Hudson River School ” were inspired by a simple love of nature, its followers gradually developed an enthusiasm for the grandiose and spectacular; and, moreover, that from first to last the work of these painters was technically insufficient. It will be the topic of the following chapters to show how the technical resources of American painting were fertilised by foreign influence.

For Emerson’s doctrine, that ” our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands draws to a close,” had been put to the test and found wanting. It could arouse a motive, and a good one; but not provide the means to realise it adequately. The fallacy of the doctrine consists in this—that it took account only of the subject matter of an artist’s work. He felt, and rightly, too, that there should be enough in the, accomplishments and aspirations of the American nation to supply all the needed suggestion of ideas. But for a work of art some-thing more is necessary than ideas; of even more importance is the form in which they are ex-pressed. For it is the form in which the poetic idea, or the musical harmony, or the pictorial rep resentation is embodied, that gives each its particular qualification to be reckoned as a work of art. The building must be erected before it can be used for the purpose for which it is intended. Similarly, technique is the necessary structural antecedent to the expression of an idea through a work of art.

Of technical knowledge all that survived in America in the middle of the century was a remnant of the English tradition. It was insufficient for real progress, as the few men who went abroad at the middle of the century discovered. They found new forces in fermentation, and straightway began to assimilate them. Indeed, a convenient way to study the modern development of the story of American painting is to recognise the fermentation which occurred in European art during the past century and to trace how American painting gradually alligned itself with the foreign movement. So far from its being a story of self-sufficient isolation, it has come to be one of complete identification with the strivings of other countries. For, today, so far as concerns technical considerations, painting is an international art with a free trade in methods, the clearing-house of which has been Paris.

Before, however, the latter became generally recognised as the metropolitan centre of art instruction, a few Americans travelled to Düsseldorf and Munich. Therefore the telling of the story demands an allusion to the remnant of the English tradition and to the influence of these other schools, as preparation for the concluding and decisive influence of Paris.

The English influence had never been completely dissolved, notwithstanding the tension of political feeling, which perhaps had somewhat abated, though it was to be tightened again during the period of the Civil War. Our painters were welcomed in England; and English painters, coming over here, were well received. Thus, until the middle of the century, the English tradition still lingered on, especially affecting portraiture and genre painting.

But even in England the great day of portrait painting was past. It had reached its meridian in Gainsborough and Reynolds and in the Scotchman, Raeburn, who in the pure force of painting was often their superior. It had declined through the tender sweetness of Romney and Hoppner, until it reached a sunset of superficial splendour in Lawrence. The latter’s facile skill and exuberant inventiveness delayed the catastrophe, while at the same time it helped to make it inevitable and complete. The study of nature had yielded to sentimentality, that of men and women to an extravagant interest in their clothes, the original vigour of the motive was undermined, and it needed only less skilful practitioners to reduce the art to a mere representation of insipid prettiness or of middle-class banality.

During the second quarter of the nineteenth century portraiture in America, as in England, exhibited hard polished surfaces of colour, a dry regard for details, and little discernment between the textures of flesh and fabrics. Still, to so sweeping a summary there are some exceptions, among which, for our present purpose of studying conditions rather than men, we may mention four—Thomas Sully, Henry Inman, Chester Harding, and Charles Loring Elliott.

The life of Sully covers the extended period of eighty-nine years, and would be memorable if only for its enormous productivity. He was born at Horncastle, Lincolnshire, England, in 1783, his father and mother being popular figures on the English stage. When the son was nine years old they accepted an engagement to settle in Charles-ton, South Carolina, where in time the boy received instruction from his brother-in-law, M. Belzons, a miniature painter. After painting in Richmond and Norfolk he moved to New York, and thence to Boston, where for a few months he studied under Gilbert Stuart. In 1809 he went to London and painted for a little while with West; but from the evidence of his work it is probable that the painter in London who chiefly interested him was Lawrence.

His style, indeed, represents a mixture, considerably diluted with himself, of Lawrence and Stuart. It exhibits the latter’s purity of fresh tones and the other’s tricks of giving the sitter an expression of pleasant prettiness; but misses alike the virility of Stuart’s and Lawrence’s decorative elegance. From 1810 to his death in 1872 he lived in Philadelphia.

Henry Inman was a far stronger painter than Sully, and one whose work hardly receives to-day the recognition that it deserves. No doubt, it was uneven in quality; but some of his portraits of men are remarkably strong in characterisation. That, for example, of Chief Justice Marshall, owned by the Law Association of Philadelphia, is one of those sterling achievements in the presence of which one loses the idea of paint and is conscious only of the living, forceful personality. Yet, if one examines the method of painting, there is no disappointment. It is painstaking without being laboured or fumbling ; very solid and conscientious.

It lacks Stuart’s free-handed happiness of touch that hits off expression as if by improvisation, yet Stuart never painted anything more alive than this.

Inman was born at Utica, New York, in 1803. He became in time a pupil of that eccentric painter, John Wesley Jarvis, an Englishman by birth, who was as much a glutton for work as he was for the delights and weaknesses of the flesh. Inman was elected the first vice-president of the National Academy, and enjoyed unusual success both in Philadelphia and New York. But he was a victim of asthma, and frailty of health reduced his capacity for productiveness. Some friends, among whom was James Lenox, the founder of the Lenox Library and its collection of pictures, arranged for him to visit England to paint the portrait of Wordsworth and other famous men. His visit was altogether a happy episode ; the asthma for the time being ceased to trouble him ; he made many friends ; his portraits were appreciated, and he was urged to settle in England. He returned, how-ever, to America; but a few months later, in 1846, died of heart disease.

The vicissitudes of Chester Harding’s early life present an interesting reflection of the state of the times. He was born at Conway, Massachusetts, in 1792; but when he was fourteen years old the family moved into Western New York. He was a young giant, over six feet in height and of great strength, expending the latter until his twenty-first year in the rough hardships of pioneer work. Then he supported a roving existence by peddling and chairmaking, settling down for a little while as a tavern-keeper, and then moving afield again until he reached Pittsburgh. Here, while engaged as a house-painter, he made the acquaintance of a travelling portrait-painter, who kindled his imagination but refused him any technical instruction. Undeterred, however, by this early symptom of trades unionism, he went to work with brushes and paint and produced what was at least a resemblance of his wife. The rest is a story of steady endeavour. Having gained some facility, he migrated to Kentucky, thence to Cincinnati and St. Louis, every-where securing customers and increasing alike in his skill and prices. Finally he reached Boston, and, meeting with a success that seems to have impaired even the popularity of Gilbert Stuart, established himself in that city, which, except during a visit paid to England, continued to be his home until his death in 1866. Like Inman, he enjoyed in England a very considerable vogue. But, so far as I am acquainted with his work, it never equalled Inman’s at its best, and is rather on a par with that painter’s average work; creditably lifelike, but lacking in distinction either of character or style.

It is in the latter respect that Charles Loring Elliott proved himself in advance of his time. The son of an architect in Auburn, New York, where he was born in 1812, his father wished him to follow his own profession. But, set on being a painter, he was allowed to go to New York, where Trumbull gave him some instruction, which was after-ward supplemented by an indifferent painter named Quidor. But it had involved a good deal of drawing from the cast, and resulted in Elliott becoming a sure and ready draughtsman. His skill in paint, however, must have been the product of a natural gift, for he developed a facility in using the brush, fully charged with paint, that had a character of its own and was expressive also of character in the sitter. He could not have learned this from his contemporaries, and it is not recorded that he ever went abroad, so that this individuality and meaningfulness of brushwork are the more remarkable. He anticipated by some instinct the qualities of painting that, during the generation after his death in 1868, were acquired by others from abroad.

The genre painting of the middle of the century is interesting today chiefly as an illustration of the kind of picture that amused our forebears, and still amuses those of us who care more about some little anecdotal subject-matter than the method of the painting. Because of the perennial nature of this preference and the fact that John G. Brown’s long career bridges the past with the present, we may select him as typical of the many genre painters that might be mentioned.

We shall again have occasion to notice genre painting when we consider the influence of Düsseldorf; for the present let us summarise the English phases of it. It originated with Hogarth in the first half of the eighteenth century ; firstly, in his little domestic groups or ” conversation pictures,” as he called them; secondly, in the scenes from fashionable life or vulgar life, which, as he explains, he composed ” on canvas similar to representations on the stage.” ” My picture is my stage, and men and women my players, who by means of certain actions or gestures are to exhibit a dumb show.”

This was a motive very different from that of the Dutch genre. While the latter was occasionally preoccupied with the rendering of incidents, its best and most usual characteristic was the prime intention of making a picture, in which the incident was assigned to a secondary function of supplying an excuse for a beautiful arrangement of colour and light and shade. The Dutchmen were painters first, illustrators of manners second, but seldom moralists, as Hogarth was. Such picture-dramas, as the series of Marriage à la Mode, proceed from act to act with a logic as relentless, a satire as pungent, a moral force as compelling, as the dramas of Ibsen. On the other hand, like the latter’s, they are saved by their art from being didactic. Hogarth, besides being a moralist, was an excellent painter. Yet the latter quality is the one that was overlooked by the public on whom the didactic, story-telling, literary-dramatic features of his pictures made a deep impression. They helped to confirm the English preference; not, however, exclusively English, for what is intelligible to the understanding rather than suggestive to the imagination, for intellectual concreteness rather than abstract sensations. They established the vogue of the picture which enacts a scene.

Fifty years after Hogarth, Moreland approached nearer to the Dutch genre. He, too, was an excellent painter, and his pictures of rural scenes are thoroughly pictorial in their charm of colour and light. But he lived at a time when the highest thing in art was held to be the painting of the historical or mythological subject in the ” grand manner ” of the Italians, and a public, intent on subject matter rather than on qualities of painting, considered his work vulgar. The same charge was brought still fifty years later against the genre pictures of Wilkie; but by this time the reputation of the bombastic picture was a little stale, the middle class was coming to its own, and popularity with the public meant success to the painter. Wilkie, accordingly, followed by Landseer and Mulready, all three of them clever practitioners with the brush, so far as representing the actual appearances of things, held their own in the popular estimation, and followers of them, less skilful with the brush, confirmed the public in their appetite for the story-telling pictures. The latter were no longer trenchant with satire, but amiably humorous or sentimental: little literary pleasantries in paint. It was this sort of influence that John G. Brown inherited and has continued to transmit.

He was born at Durham, England, in 1831. He attended the schools of the Edinburgh Academy, and also painted in London until 1856, when he transferred his life and work to New York. With the quick eye of a stranger for what is novel to him, he began to paint the types of people around him, and then the street boys of New York. His pictures of the boy upon the sidewalk, selling papers, shining shoes, or larking with his fellows, won admirers, and he has continued to paint them ever since. Such consistency to one subject was no doubt the result, partly of choice, partly of the taste of his public. His genial nature has always gone out to his boy-subjects; he has discovered the best that is in them and represented it with sympathy, though, it must be admitted, with some sacrifice of reality. For his boys have a mildness and ingenuousness that, to the casual observer, at least, is not characteristic of the class. But this very softening of the type pleased a sentimental public, and they insisted on having Brown’s street boys as they had learned through him to know them. In this way not a few painters are compelled, whether they wish it or not, to go on repeating their motives. The public, demanding an example of what it calls one of their ” characteristic ” pictures, will not let them change.

So there are few collectors in this country who have not at some time or other owned a ” Brown “; still fewer who have not in the course of their artistic development disposed of it. The reason of the public, taste is not difficult to trace. In the early stage of our appreciation we are attracted, as I have already said, by the subject matter of the picture. The first consideration is—” What is it about? ” Then, if it is about something with which we are familiar, we take a curious delight in identifying all the little details of resemblance to reality —the bristles in the blacking-brush, the label on the bottle, the seam of the breeches, and the stitches of the patch. It all looks ” so natural,” and we think it a wonderful piece of painting; because in our infancy of appreciation, just as in our infancy of age, we place a high value on the faculty of imitation. To mew like a cat is quite an accomplishment, so also to make a painted boy look like a real boy.

At least we think it looks ” real,” but this is a begging of the whole question. We shall come to this topic of realism later on, when we describe how our painters came in contact with the teachings and study of realism abroad, but meanwhile may briefly anticipate the inquiry, Are these boys of Brown’s regarded as character studies, really like the boys of the streets? Have not their crude mixture of good and bad, of ugliness and attractiveness, their queer, intensely human, if distorted, individuality been scoured to a characterless propriety, and polished into a meek amiability by an application of moral sapolio, until they may be fit for the parlour but are no longer suggestive of the streets? Compare, for example, the studies of street boys which Murillo made, as they lay basking in the sunshine of the market place of Seville. These, indeed, are the real thing, even to the sun-caked dirt on their feet, which so disturbed Ruskin. And the pictures of them have a further pictorial reality. The warm air envelopes their lazy bodies, the sunshine burnishes their limbs. There is no suggestion of air in Brown’s pictures, no light of nature, no burnish save that of varnished paint. Actual boys in actual daylight could not look like his ; the latter have neither realism of character nor realism of representation. Still less have these pictures the capacity to arouse an abstract enjoyment through the qualities of colour, light and shade, and tonality.

In brief, then, it was to learn to look at nature naturally, and to represent it as it is, and yet with such creative artifice of technical charm as shall affect the imagination independently of the subject, that our painters had to seek inspiration from abroad. England had failed them; Düsseldorf and Munich will be tried and found wanting; the lesson, at last, will be acquired in France.