American Painting – Some Notes On Mural Painting

IN 1817 Congress gave Trumbull a commission for four paintings to adorn the Capitol. The intention of Congress in appropriating $32,000 for this work was to commemorate certain important events in the history of the new Republic, and the artist conceived and treated his subjects in the manner of historical pictures. It was fidelity to the incident rather than any ideas of making his paintings decorative, that influenced him. Though intended for wall spaces, they were not in the true sense mural paintings. Why they were not, may perhaps be understood by a comparison of the first commission in this country, given and accepted as advisedly a work of mural decoration. The date was 1876; the building, Trinity Church, Boston, and the immediate principals in the transaction were H. H. Richardson, the architect, and the painter, John La Farge.

Two points are of importance : first, that it was the architect then, engaged in building the church, who realised that its interior effect would be improved by a scheme of painted decoration; secondly, that although the scheme might involve the representation of certain persons or incidents of the Bible, its primary and final purpose was to be complementary to the architecture. To these points another may be added, not perhaps essential, but certainly conducive to a successful result, that the whole scheme of interior colouring, its smallest de-tails as well as the important figure compositions, was entrusted to one man.

Here we get an inkling of what mural painting really is. It is not the affixing of a picture to the walls, as we hang a picture on the wall of a living-room to embellish it, or for the separate interest and value of the picture. It becomes an integral part of an architectural unit. Trinity Church, for example, is in design an adaptation of the Romanesque style which in addition to vaulted roofs has an excess of wall over window space. These surfaces in the mediæval churches were frequently overlaid with marble veneer and mosaic. Richard-son determined to substitute a painted decoration, that should at once relieve the barrenness of the interior and unite all its parts into an ensemble of rich harmoniousness. It is indeed as a whole that the interior affects us. Within, as outside, the culmination of the design is the centre tower, crowned with a low spire. To it converge the short nave and side aisles, the transepts and apse-ended chancel. The plan, in fact, is more apparent inside than without, and while the stained-glass windows make intervals of brilliant splendour, the general effect is one of subdued dignity of tone, out of the mystery of which, if you are minded to look for them, the details of the decoration may be discerned. But as I have said, the first and chief impression is of an organic unity of colour growing out of the architecture, the very dimness of the effect seeming characteristic of this particular architectural style, which in its origin belonged to the South and was designed to exclude rather than to admit the light.

Moreover, the Romanesque style of Southern France, which was the particular brand of the Romanesque that Richardson had adopted, had been itself an adaptation by comparatively unskilled Western builders of various influences, only partly digested—the Byzantine, the Roman, and the Greek. There was a peculiar fitness, that probably presented itself to Richardson’s mind and was certainly present in La Farge’s, in choosing this character of construction for the first attempt in the New Western World to combine the labours of the architect and decorator in some scheme that might emulate the traditions of the past. In La Farge’s own words: “It would permit, as long ago it has permitted, a wide range of skill in artistic training; the rough bungling of the native and the ill-digested culture of the foreigner. I could think myself back to a time when I might have employed some cheap Byzantine of set habits, some ill-equipped Barbarian, some Roman, dwelling near by for a time—perhaps even some artist, keeping alive both the tradition and culture of Greece.” And it was under similar conditions of limited experience on the part of the artist, of habits corn-firmed in a wrong direction on the part of available workmen, of low trade ideals and indifferent mate-rials, that the beginnings of a new movement in America were inaugurated. For, although La Farge had been giving some attention to decorative problems, especially to those of colour, his opportunities of practical experience had been small indeed as compared with the magnitude of this one. He was at a moment’s notice launched into what was, under the circumstances, a huge experiment ; the subordinates on whom he had to rely were inexperienced, and, as a climax to these limitations, he was compelled to work amid the discomfort and confusion of a windowless, unfinished budding, under the severe strain of having to conceive, elaborate, and conclude this big scheme in a short space of time.

This tendency to ” rush ” the artist, which is not infrequently characteristic of decorative commissions in our country, was illustrated again two years later in the case of W. M. Hunt. He was requested to paint two decorations of considerable size for the Capitol at Albany, the time allotted him for their inception and completion being thirteen weeks ! He produced the Flight of Night and The Discoverer, but at what cost! The mental and physical strain proved too much for him; the work completed, he noticeably declined, and died the following year. The work, too, has perished, for the plaster had not been allowed to dry out; it was still green,” and the paintings have since decayed and crumbled away.

La Farge, having completed the work in Trinity Church, was almost immediately commissioned to decorate the apse of St. Thomas’ in New York. Here he worked in collaboration not only with the architect, but with the sculptor, thus for the first time in this country asserting practically the inter-dependence and kinship of these three arts of construction and decoration. The reredos was modelled by Saint Gaudens, and on each side of it the painter installed a scene from the Resurrection, enshrining all three in a scheme of colour and of moulded and carved work, designed and partly executed by himself, though the design in its entirety was never completed. Nevertheless, as it stood, it was the most completely noble of La Farge’s schemes of decoration, and its destruction in 1904 by fire was a national calamity. For there is lost to us, not only a great artistic achievement, but one that in the course of years would have had increasing historic interest as a landmark in the progress of American art. It might also eventually have had an influence in checking what I venture to call the ” department store tendencies ” that characterise so largely the present manifestations of our decorative movement.

For, as we pursue the study of the latter, we shall find that instead of the mind of a master-decorator, such as La Farge is by instinct and training, being not only permitted but encouraged to control the whole scheme of internal embellishment, circumstances bring it about that the architects, whose talent and metier are primarily of the constructive order, have become also the decorative designers of the interiors, deputing the execution of their schemes to a variety of subordinates. It is a highly organised system, capable of turning out an immense quantity of work, creditable in quality, but of little personal distinction. Yet, if we study the matter, we shall find that the system has grown inevitably out of existing conditions.

Little more than a quarter of a century ago the ground in our development now occupied by architecture and decoration was a prairie wilderness, spotted here and there with beautiful survivals of a, past taste, such as the examples of Colonial mansions and churches, and of later public edifices, like the White House and the Capitol. For the rest it was a waste upon which modern disfigurements had encroached. ‘ Then two men appeared as pioneers : H. H. Richardson,* already mentioned, and Richard Morris Hunt; both architects who, like some of our painters, had studied in Paris at the famous École des Beaux Arts.

The movement they inaugurated was, from its inception, one of architecture, Hunt representing the constructive, logical phase of the art, Richardson its more notably æsthetic possibilities. The latter, as we have seen, hastened to secure the cooperation of La Farge. But decorators such as he are not to be found by the wayside. There was no other painter in the country to whom an architect could safely have entrusted an important scheme of decoration in its entirety. Moreover, La Farge has always been too much of an investigator and experimentor to adapt himself to the ” driving hurry ” of American methods, and, furthermore, he very soon turned aside into a special department of decoration, that of decorated windows. How in this direction he proved himself to be an original genius, substituting for the usual stained glass the use of opalescent glass, thereby inventing a new kind of window, distinguished by extreme richness and subtlety of colour, has already occupied our notice in a previous chapter. It interfered with his continuing the rôle in which he had already qualified, as a painter who could undertake and carry through an ensemble of mural decoration. There was still another reason. When he was in the prime of his vigour, the period of opportunity in the shape of great public buildings had scarcely begun, and, by the time that it was fairly afoot, the architects were from the circumstances of the case, not only the initiators, but the controllers of the movement.

The event from which this movement has gone on advancing with steadily increasing bulk and momentum was the World’s Fair at Chicago. Previously to this there had been divers instances of mural decoration in the private houses of the rich, and at least one public building, the new Hotel ponce de Leon at St. Augustine, had been elaborately decorated, while the Trustees of the Boston Public Library had already given commissions for mural paintings to the French artist, Puvis de Chavannes, and to Sargent and Abbey. But the effect of this and other sporadic efforts was multiplied ad infinitum by the consolidated grandeur of the ” White City.” It was an object lesson, the virtue of which, though it has been frequently described, may well be continually enforced.

It taught, in the first place, the desirableness, even the commercial value, of beauty. The shrewd, large-minded citizens of a city that is essentially the product and assertion of commerce discovered that they could give expression to their own local pride and attract business from outside, not only by following the old crude idea of attempting the biggest show on earth,” but by trying to make it the most beautiful. They succeeded; for, while millions of tired bodies testified to the former motive, as many hearts were gladdened and as many imaginations stimulated by the presentation of the latter.

In the second place, it exhibited the mutual inter-dependence of the arts of construction and design; the value of combination. Buildings which might have been constructed solely with a view to separate utility were treated also as monuments of architectural design, enriched by sculpture and painting, borrowing extra dignity from one an-other, and placed in a worthy setting by the co-operation of the landscape designer. In a word, the natural beauties of the spot had been utilised and increased; formal features, such as terraces, fountains, and bridges, had been added, and the culminating motive had been the creation of a series of magnificent or alluring ensembles. The result was a triumph, alike for the architects and landscape designers, for the various painters and sculptors who co-operated in the details of the plan, and for the citizens of Chicago who permitted its inception and provided for its completion.

Scarcely more than a decade has elapsed since the passing of that temporarily realised dream of artistic beauty, yet already in thousands of in-stances throughout the country its influence has borne fruit. It is true that its biggest lesson has scarcely yet been recognised. Municipalities either are not yet aroused to the value of a combination of efforts into an ensemble, or have not had the courage or opportunity to realise it. There have been certain notable exceptions, as in the laying out of the water fronts in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York, and in attention given to the regulation of the sky-line of buildings, as in Boston. “Yet, notwithstanding these indications of a civic sense of pride and responsibility, little or nothing has been done toward an organic alleviation of the dire monotony of our gridiron street-plans, or toward a systematic treatment of such open spaces as they niggardly present. In failing to realise the value of ensembles, whether regarded as conveniences or embellishments, we are still far behind the Modern activities of the Old World cities. On the other hand, in respect of the separate building, asserting itself as an independent unit, the activities in this country during the past ten years have been phenomenal.

It would be very interesting, if space permitted to sketch the story of what our architects have accomplished; how in Federal and State buildings, in City Halls and libraries, in churches, hotels, office and trade buildings, and in city and country residences, the motives of utility and beauty have jointly inspired the design; how the skill of the architects, trained in the knowledge of the Old World, has displayed itself both in adapting the various styles and principles to the American requirement, and in inventing new methods of construction to comply with the special conditions that exist here. If adequately told, the story would have the interest and surprise of a romance. But for our present purpose we can only note that the trend of the movement has been toward a superior logic and dignity in the character of the whole building, and toward a more sumptuous and, at the same time, more tactful use of embellishments in the details; and that in these latter the architects have more and more enlisted the co-operation of the painters.

During the past ten years the practice of mural painting in America has spread rapidly. At first it found the majority of the painters unprepared for the particular requirements of this kind of painting. They had been trained in the principles of the easel-picture, within the frame of which the painter may adopt any method of treatment that he chooses, intent solely upon making his picture ; and one, not necessarily decorative. But mural painting does not fulfil the purposes of its existence unless it be decorative and at the same time subsidiary to the general scheme of its surroundings, in which it should occupy the position not of a separate unit but of an integral factor. The character of its subject will partake of that of the building: solemn, serious, elegant, or sportive, according to the spirit in which the architecture, following the purpose of the building, has been planned. The character of its composition will be determined by the shape and position of the space that it is intended to adorn; the choice of its colour regulated to the prevailing colour scheme of the interior. In a word, the mural painting, besides being decorative, should be functional.

The meaning of this may be readily grasped if one remembers that the various parts of the architectural structure are not used arbitrarily, but that each has its separate function to perform in the complex arrangement of supports and resistances that make up the whole system. For example, in the Rotunda of the Library of Congress the eight ribs of the dome sweep upward until they terminate in the broad, smooth surface of the ” collar,” whose function is to clamp them all together and at the same time to form a support for the super-incumbent cupola. Recognising this, the decorator of the collar,” Edwin IL Blashfield, devised a composition which should form a compact and continuous circle of decoration and simultaneously, by the introduction of eight principal figures, recall the eight ribs which the circle terminates. On the other hand, in the Delivery Room of the Boston Public Library, Edwin A. Abbey, commissioned to decorate the frieze and choosing for the subject the Quest of the Holy Grail, has ignored the function of a frieze, which is to counteract the various interruptions down below, of windows, doors, and fireplaces, by an effect above of continuity. Whereas he might have treated the space as a continuous whole, by dividing it into a series of panels that should succeed one another in a rhythmic sequence, he has chopped it up into a variety of different measurements.

The more strictly functional treatment of a frieze may be studied in the same building, in the fine example of John S. Sargent’s Prophets. In them there is a collective effect of continuity, a rhythmic sequence of handsome masses and striking lines. Moreover, the choice of the subject is readily comprehensible, which is a considerable virtue, since it offers no interference with one’s immediate appreciation of the painting as a decoration. The panels above them, however, in the lunette and soffit of the arch, are not so simple. The pattern of their composition presents an exuberance of inter-woven forms. It may be quite appropriate to the idea of turmoil involved in the subject of Polytheism and Apostasy from the Faith in the One God that they are intended to represent, but it is confusing to the eye. Moreover, the forms are associated with a great deal of abstruse symbolism, unintelligible to most people, so that all but a few visitors miss the decorative intention of the paintings and devote the greater portion of their study to the printed key.

Sargent himself would seem to have realised that he las here overdone the literary allusiveness of his subject, for in his latest work, The Dogma of Redemption, the symbolism is comparatively simple, and he has reverted also to simplicity of forms, partly basing his composition upon the examples of the Byzantine decorators, in many respects the finest in the Old World.

For their forms were very simple, and simply handled; not modelled into relief, but kept as a pattern of masses, of coloured masses harmonised into a rich tone, so that the whole painting was very flat. It clung to the wall, proclaimed the fact of the wall beneath, and was in a very strict sense mural.

A consciousness of the value of such principles of painting for the purpose of mural decoration is one of. the distinguished characteristics of the panels by Puvis de Chavannes in the Boston Library. In the Library of Congress it has also prompted the method of Kenyon Cox. But the latter, while an excellent draughtsman, is no colourist. His panels of the Arts and Sciences, with their pale tinting not drawn into harmonic relation, give the impression of a good design not yet completed.

The design itself is a formal arrangement of female figures, each bearing an emblem of the particular art or science which it is intended to symbolise. Were the colour as .effective as the drawing, the result would be exceedingly decorative ; though, in other respects, as impoverished as the present tinting. For the conception displays no imagination and offers little interest to the visitor. In this threadbare affectation of classicalism there is evidence neither of American inspiration nor of the painter himself having any participation in the fulness of our modern life. His aim has been solely decorative.

No doubt the painter himself would admit it, and very likely would defend the position that the whole end of decoration is to be decorative. That, however, was not the characteristic of the great days of Mural Decoration. Many of the finest examples were more or less frankly illustrations, as well as decorations, intended to bring home the truths and doctrines of Christianity to the masses ; while those of a more purely decorative character were of a kind not only to appeal to the taste of cultivated people, but to stimulate their imagination and their personal and local pride. In either case the decoration was significant of the habit of mind and feeling of its era. So far, however, in American Mural Painting there has been little indication even of the modern spirit, much less of the particular genius of America. It is still an exotic, imperfectly acclimatised, and not yet adapted to our soil.

Nevertheless, there have been numerous attempts to make the subject interpret our special conditions. C. Y. Turner, for example, in the Manhattan Hotel, New York, has represented the City as a queenly maiden surrounded by other maidens, typifying the arts and sciences; while in attendance are realistic figures of Indians, Colonials, and portrait-groups of scientists and other distinguished persons. A similar mingling of allegory and fact appears in Albert Herter’s panels of Agriculture and Commerce in a New York bank; and in panels by Ed-win H. Blashfield: at Baltimore of Washington Relinquishing Office; at the Capitol of St. Paul, commemorating the agricultural triumphs of the West, and at Pittsburg, celebrating the steel industries. This last subject has been treated anew, and again with a mingling of allegorical figures and of more or less realistic accessories, in the recent paintings, executed by John W. Alexander, for the Carnegie Institute.

On the other hand, panels illustrating actual incidents and treated with regard for historical accuracy have been painted for the Boston State House by Robert Reid and Edward Simmons, while a corresponding motive influenced the treatment of F. D. Millet’s Treaty of the Traverse des Sioux, for the Capitol of St. Paul, and C. Y. Turner’s Opening of the Erie Canal, for the De Witt Clinton High School, New York.

So far, therefore, as the character of the subject is concerned, we find our painters following the example of the old Italians. Sometimes they treat an incident with the fidelity to facts of an illustration; sometimes they unite allegorical and realistic elements. Evidently, then, neither of these methods is absolutely right or absolutely wrong. The character of the subject, in fact, is only a part of the matter. Of even more importance is the manner in which the subject is represented. In the first place, whether the motive is allegorical or realistic, the treatment must be decorative: the painting must be a pattern of colour, adorning the space and harmonising with the form and spirit of the surrounding architecture. But is this all that is desirable?

Are we to be satisfied merely with an agreeable or sumptuous impression? Shall we not look to receive some stir to our imagination, some fresh insight into or encouragement of the principles we believe in, some enlargement of our mental and spiritual horizon? It is futile to say that the times are changed ; that now, since the majority of people can read, pictures have ceased to be a necessary or suitable way of reaching the imagination and con-science. It is, on the contrary, extraordinary how little essential conditions are changed. Our present age, it is true, is a reading one, of an insatiable hunger for reading; yet was there ever a time when there was so much illustration? Those whose business it is to keep a touch upon the public pulse and diagnose the symptoms of its taste, assert that it craves illustrations and must have them. Certainly it gets them, and one hears no protest.

No, the fault is not with the public, but with the painters themselves. They are, for the most part, out of touch with the vital forces at work in the community, nor possessed of that vigour and originality which characterises the leaders in other departments of life. Too few of them can strike out a truth on the anvil of facts, as Vedder has done in his decorations at Washington, particularly in the one that, with a mingling of allegory and realism, embodies the idea of Corrupt Government. The sleek respectability of the pious-faced briber, the slatternly wantonness of the women whom he prostitutes, the mute protest of the smokeless chimney-stack, the piteous appeal of the destitute, haggard child—at a glance is revealed the hideous loathsomeness of the whole dirty business. It is the work of a man who has a mind to comprehend the fact., and an imagination that can invest it with a new force of meaning, and who, moreover, is a born decorator.

These are unusual qualities, especially in combination, and it is the lack of them that is most conspicuous in American Mural decoration. Nowhere do conditions, present and past, offer more abundant suggestions to the imagination, and nowhere are mural painters receiving so much encouragement of opportunity. Yet, with slight exceptions, they have not yet risen to the occasion. If we seek further reasons, we may find them, first of all, in the fact that most of them are not decorators. The latter are born, not made; the gift is primarily one of exuberant inventiveness. Now, American Art, in all its branches, is so far singularly barren of this quality. Its present phase involves a more or less tactful application of eclecticism. Again, the painters have been trained in a good school ; but one which did not include any separate consideration of mural decoration; nor in this direction is any real provision being made even now for younger students, notwithstanding that this offers them a very large field and a rich one. Moreover, our older men have not recovered from the paralysing effects of the ” art for art’s sake ” formula. Taught in their youth to be afraid of an idea, their ability to conceive or express one has been stunted.

They have nothing of the dare-devil in their conception. And there is another reason. The best development in our painting has been along the lines of the small canvas, intimately treated. The excessive influence of the Barbizon pictures, the preciosity that Whistler’s example fostered, and the mild domesticity of American fiction, only now just yielding place to the romantic imagining of the red-blooded writers, have helped to confine our painting within very sincere but very limited methods of expression.

As compared with this propriety, which is the distinguishing feature of American art, both literary and pictorial, the country itself presents a crudity of contrasts. A virility, not without its flavour of brutality, characterises the active life of the community, while its leisure is gilded and brocaded with a luxuriousness that recalls the splendour of Monarchical France or of Imperial Rome. But deep beneath the myriad lights and shadows of the surface is an earnestness of pride in the past and present of the race, and of confidence in the future, that in its reasonableness is without a parallel in history.

Some day, upon the walls of the buildings that embody this grandeur, we may hope that there will be mural decorations which in magnitude of conception and splendour of decorative treatment will adequately represent the theme.