American Painting – Summary Of Results

HAVING traced the various influences which have affected the development of American painting during the past fifty years, we may reasonably attempt a summary of the results. Since our art has aligned itself with that of other countries, how does it stand in comparison with theirs?

Frequently one hears the question asked in a somewhat different form. Is there yet a distinctly American school of painting; and, if so, how does it compare with other schools? But, strictly speaking, there are no longer distinct schools anywhere, since the reasons which accounted for their existence in the past no longer exist to-day. As we have seen in the previous pages, the whole trend of modern art has been toward a free-trade in motives and methods, the clearing-house of which for all the world has been Paris. Yet, while the age of close communities of artists, following some distinct tradition or influenced by some one leader, and producing work which bears the stamp of a common sentiment and manner of expression, is past, it is unquestionably true that the local conditions of race temperament and natural environ-ment do still , stamp with a certain general distinction the work of each country. It is not difficult, for example, in the presence of a given picture, to be secure in the conclusion that it is Dutch or German, French or English. Is there, then, any corresponding mark by which we could feel equally sure that such and such a picture was by an American painter? I believe there is; but let us try to make this question answer itself.

The Dutch picture is readily identified; firstly, because the subject in almost every case is drawn from the natural and human life of Holland, the externals of which are so distinctly characteristic; and, secondly, because the spirit as well as the external is reproduced. The country, in fact, is small enough to have a spirit that is recognisable as characteristic. Its low-lying land and immense skies, the richness of vegetation due to the prevalence of moisture, both in rain-laden clouds over-head and in the canals and ditches that interthread the soil, the fitfulness of sunshine, now glinting crisply between the showers, or lambent over the polders, now chastened by the silky atmosphere or shrouded in vapour till its light and warmth are chilled to greyness—all these and many other conditions, so frequent and expressive, give a distinction to Holland and form the most affectionate study of her artists. They are all in love with the same mistress, and she shows to each the same changes of moods, so that their various renderings of her spirit bear a likeness to one another.

Recognising this, we see at once that there can scarcely be a similar unity of feeling in the work of American artists. Even if the devotion to the pictorial aspects of their own country were as single-hearted, the country itself presents no such compact synthesis of suggestion. Both in topographical features and in the still more significant matter of atmospheric conditions, wherein reside the moods and changes, the actual expression and spirit of the scene, the country offers a wide range of differences. The intelligent student of pictures, especially if he is also, as he should be, a student-of nature, can recognise at once this scene drawn from California, that from the Middle West, another from Pennsylvania, and still another from the East. These are broad distinctions ; nor are closer ones less recognisable. ‘Te use the. general term New England, but the landscapes from each State in the group, both in form and feeling, differ from those of the others. When we realise this, and the further fact that it is in the subtle differentiation of these variations of natural and spiritual manifestations that the best art of to-day is displayed, we are admitting the impossibility of there being such family resemblance among American pictures as among the Dutch.

Then, again, there is the general resemblance that may characterise the work of painters of one country through idiosyncrasy of racial temperament. We recognise, for example, in the artists grouped about Munich, a prevalence of exuberant and original imagination, and a direct and often somewhat exaggerated mode of expression; traits of the Teutonic temperament, sufficiently prevalent to make it almost possible to speak of a Munich school. But you will find no counterpart of this among American painters, If anything they are rather distinguished for the opposite: a certain kind of cosmopolitanism of feeling, and an independence of one another in their methods.

On the other hand, although it might be impossible to discover any positive indications of uniformity, certain negative resemblances are notable. It did not escape the notice of careful observers at the Paris Exposition of 1900, when there was ample opportunity of comparing the art of different countries, that that of the United States made a very separate impression. Trying to analyse it, one found one’s self recurring to phrases: capability, moderation, sanity, and perhaps a lack of individualism. There was a general high standard of craftsmanship, the equivalent of which was to be found perhaps only in the French and Dutch exhibits. But, unlike the French, our artists seldom, if ever, seemed to use their technical skill with ostentation, either to display mere prowess with the brush or to attract attention by the meretricious device of a startling subject ; while, on the other hand, unlike the Dutch, they failed, as a group, to suggest a marked individuality. I say as a group ; for, of course, there were particular examples of notable individuality. But the general impression of the ensemble was of a moderation, grateful in comparison with the ostentation and vagaries that abounded elsewhere, but in itself open to the suggestion of being too negative a virtue, a little fibre-less and lacking in marrow. To be candid, a similar lack of positive moderation may be charged against our annual exhibitions of native work. For there is all the difference in the world between a; strong man, adjusting his output of strength to the work in hand, while holding a portion in reserve, and another whose moderation seems to be the result of not having an abundance of either force or conviction.

One may find a counterpart of this in American fiction. Publishers are fond of preaching moderation. Both in illustration and in writing they discourage much that is original, vital, and born of convictions, fearing that it may shock the sensibilities of their public. Since the latter is overwhelmingly composed of young girls, they may exhibit an appropriate canniness, but the result upon a great deal of our literature is to confuse purity with prudishness and sincerity with dilettanteism -to crush conviction on the part alike of author and of reader. The actual plague spot of this disease centres around the relation of the sexes in literature and the use of the nude in art, but its morbid effects spread through the whole body of fiction and painting, inducing a flacid condition of self-consciousness and insincerity. It has taken such grip of artists and public that to a consider-able extent moderation has been supplanted by repression, and tamely to hold back is esteemed worthier than to put forth with a reserve of power.

The effect of this condition which has become fluent in the public conscience is to be discovered in our painting.’ For its prevalence one can scarcely blame the painters. They represent a comparatively small number of men and women, in the midst of a community impregnated with this insincerity. With a few exceptions they are unable to resist the effect of what is in the atmosphere around them; and the less so because, as illustrators, a majority of the figure-painters, at any rate, have become: directly infected with the prevailing pseudo-ethics of the publishers. The necessity of prettiness, of not giving offence to ” the most fastidious,” and of exploiting the obvious, has been urged upon them, until it is small wonder that a great deal of American painting is characterised, if I may be allowed the expression, by irreproachable table-manners rather than by salient self-expression; by a desire to be amiable rather than convincing. The portrait-painter, for example, if he would make a living, is tempted by the vogue of the pretty face in periodicals to sacrifice truth of art and of human character to the glib exploitation of prettiness of face and form and flashiness of costume. The figure-painter will meet his readiest reward if he confine himself to subjects of trite propriety, represented with insistent regard for the obvious; while even the painter of landscape is lured into the pleasant moods of innocuous sentimentality. The taste of our time, in fact, runs to superficial sentimentality, and consciously or unconsciously the painter is apt to respond to it.

Among those who have maintained a vigorously independent course and whose pictures, whenever they appear in exhibitions, create a pronounced interest, none is more conspicuous than Gari Melchers. To a French cleverness of brushwork he has added from his frequent sojourning in Holland, a conscientiousness truly Dutch. Yet, al-though he has spent many years in depicting subjects of the Dutch peasantry, he has, unlike many others who have been similarly drawn to Holland, avoided all imitation of the modern Dutch technique. His own, indeed, has more kinship with that of the old Flemish painters in its enforcement of character, elaboration of detail, and fondness for the qualities of texture. Avoiding alike the summariness of much modern impressionism, and the perfection of finish which in a Bourguereau, for example, is so tame and unlifelike, he recognises the importance of detail in the make-up of the whole, and by his frank and resolute rendering of it gives to all his pictures a markedly individual personality. In this respect he might be ranged alongside of Thomas Eakins, for his insight of observation and fidelity of statement are correspondingly sure; but he. differs from the older painter in having essentially a modern point of view. This leads him to study his figures and accessories under the effect of real light, for the most part a cool, evenly diffused light which admits of little shadow and avoids any spots of heightened piquancy. Again, it draws him into sympathy with his subject. He has put himself in touch with the lives of the people, the young peasant women and men, whom he represents, and recognises the sweetness and sadness that underly its ruggedness. His expression of this sentiment is marked by the same comprehension and fidelity to truth that distinguish his method of painting. It is as far as possible from the sentimentality that mars the work of so many painters of the peasant-subject, just as his technique is equally devoid of sloppiness and superficiality.

This distinction, one should observe, is a measure of Melchers’ own character. It is the personality of his own mental distinction, investing everything he does with original directness and scrupulous truth. The importance of this fact cannot be over-stated: that character counts in painting as much as in any other department of life. But how few people seem to realise this ! Because a painter must be sensitive to certain aspects, such as those of colour and form, beyond the habit of men en-gaged in other pursuits, they take it for granted that he must be an emotionalist at the mercy of his sensibilities, and make allowances accordingly. Yet, if we study the lives and works of artists, not in painting only, but in music; sculpture, and literature, we shall find, perhaps without exception, that the greatest results, those, I mean, that endure and most appeal to the largest number of thoughtful students, are those which are the product of sensibility controlled. Not by any means has all strong work been the output of artists physically strong; indeed, the balance, if one carefully reckoned it, might be found on the other side; but whether physically weak or strong, they have been strong in character. They have had a mental poise that sustained them, and set the standard of their endeavour and accomplishment. And the mental poise is the product of a clear and vigorous mind remaining true to itself and enlarging its scope by contact with what is sane and true in surrounding art and life.

It is on this ground that art and morality really meet; namely, in the person of the artist himself. For I will not admit that view held by many, that art must be moral in its purpose and suggestion; by which, apparently, it is meant that art must directly assist the cause of morality by presenting subjects in which the virtue of morality is explicitly set forth. Although, at one time, art did splendid service for the church in picturing the truth of doctrine and the beauty of the Bible story and of holy living, that was only one of the glorious incidents in its career. But the real domain of the arts is not that of the preacher, the philosopher, or the moralist. It is to make known, not the beauty of holiness, but the holiness of beauty, to a world overmuch occupied with the material or purely intellectual sides of life. It is, if you will, to sanctify the senses by drawing them off from merely carnal and material gratification, to a realisation of the abstract essence of beauty that pervades nature and human life. Viewed in this light, it is as important a factor in the betterment of the whole man, the body, mind, and soul that are in all of us, as are the labours of the preacher, the philosopher, the moralist, and the purveyors of the material necessaries and embellishments of life. The labours of all are necessary to the nurturing of the whole man, of the full life. They work mutually, and often in aim and result impinge upon one an-other’s domains. But each is separate.

Yet, even if this be so, there is a definite alliance between art and morality, if by the latter we understand the being true to what is best in us and the reaching after the best of which we are capable. And the highest form of this, as I have already hinted, is based upon superior mental qualities, controlled by strength of mind. A man may be faithful unto death, but unless his acts are prompted and controlled by strength of mind, his faithfulness differs in degree, perhaps, but not in quality, from that of a dog. It would be idle to affirm that mental form is of small account in the qualification of a preacher, a philosopher, or a business man. All our experience is to the contrary. Yet in an artist we customarily overlook both the need and the lack of it, and are content to regard him as a chartered emotionalist. His training tends to affirm the emotionalist in himself. Early discovering an aptitude for drawing and a peculiar sensitiveness to beauty, he enters upon a course of instruction, too much limited to the pro-motion of these qualities, and escapes from rough contact with men and things and the discipline which it involves. He learns, not to repress, but to express himself ; to take his feelings as a guide to conduct, and to nurse and pamper them as his most valuable assets in life. But in art, as in other vocations of life, it is the man who is endowed with intellectuality and by self-discipline preserves the integrity of this endowment, that accomplishes the vital thing. He is in his treatment of himself a moral man, and his morality is declared in the poise and vigour of his art.

It would be obviously out of place in a work of this kind to cite all the men who seem to one’s self, as Gari Melchers does, to represent this union of artistic sensibility with intellectual integrity. To attempt such a thing would be to pass a very serious slight upon the names omitted; and it has been my intention to avoid as far as possible all personalities. Yet, because of the general comment that it suggests, I will cite one other instance, that of a younger painter, whose work so far has not received the consideration to which it seems to me entitled. He is Robert David Gauley, a pupil of F. W. Benson and Edmund C. Tarbell in Boston, and of Bouguereau and Ferrier in Paris. Subsequently he studied Velasquez in Madrid, and worked and studied in Holland. This variety of influences and the resolute personality of Gauley himself may account in part for the slowness of his acceptance by the public.

The latter is more readily attracted to a painter whose style it can identify immediately, whereas this one has been assimilating his impressions with deliberation, experimenting in various methods of technique, and holding himself back from the acquisition of any formula or fixed mode of painting. Thus the public is thwarted in its quite intelligible satisfaction of being able to exclaim, as it visits an exhibition: ” Look, that is a Gauley! ” On the other hand, he may fail to attract general attention because there is nothing of the obvious in his pictures, none of those elegant little irrelevances of costume or pose which so gladden the superficial amateur of art. The ideal toward which he is working is by contrast a severe one. It involves in the matter of composition a search for choiceness as well as dignity of line, and for a movement or pose of the figure that unites subtlety with simplicity. A corresponding subtlety and choiceness distinguish the expression of the whole. The jealousy with which he tries to keep his art pure of any meretriciousness determines his attitude toward his sitter. Whether the latter be a man or woman, he approaches his subject with a reverence none too usual in the portrait painter.

For, in the presence of so many portraits, especially of women, one is conscious of a lack of reverence in the mental attitude of the painter. Frequently the subject, for all her finery, or possibly because so much stress has been put upon it, does not even look like a lady. She has been made to flaunt her person and costume upon one’s notice after the fashion of those who go to market with their personal wares. This blatant form of vulgarity, not uncommon in the portraits by foreigners, is, it must be acknowledged, rarely seen in those by Americans. Their tendency in this direction is confined for the most part to a preoccupation with frippery and to an exploitation of skill of painting for its own sake. The result may be not so blatantly vulgar, but it none the less indicates irreverence. And, mark you, irreverence on the part of a painter toward the manhood or womanhood of his subject is irreverence toward what at least should be sacred to him—his own art. For peculiarly true of the painter’s case is that old saying of Novalis :

There is but one temple in the universe, and that is the body of man.” Human nature, its fabric of flesh and its indwelling spirit, is the highest object of the artist’s study, the richest treasury of his artistic ideals. If he hold it in little honour, the price he pays is the prostitution of his art. But for this prostitution, to the existence of which in American painting the thoughtful student cannot shut his eyes, the American public is in part responsible. One could name painters whose ideals were true enough at the start, but who have been -driven on to the streets of easy virtue by hard conditions. The public demand for honest art is so small, the reward it offers to meretriciousness so cordial and handsome. Why not? You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. A society sprawling on materialism and wallowing in ostentatious display —what should it care for, or even know of, choiceness of taste and reverence for what is true in art? Naturally, since it pays the piper, it calls the kind of tune it likes; and the piper accordingly must debauch his art or step aside and rot. Under such circumstances the artist needs to have a more than commonly stout heart to continue to be true to him-self and to preserve confidence in a saving residue of taste in the public.

For that there is such a residue one knows. While present American conditions in the gross are not favourable to the highest possibilities of native art, here, there, and everywhere throughout the country knowledge and taste are growing, and the still, small voice of true appreciation is gathering volume. It is on people with knowledge enough to dare to have opinions of their own, and with the taste that can distinguish between what is meretricious and what is sterling, that the future of American art depends.