American Painting – The Beginning Of French Influence: The Barbizon

FROM the middle of the century onward France has been the main source of influence, as well for American painting as for that of other` countries. In a word, painting has been affected like other departments of thought and culture by the centripetal tendencies of modern times. The ease and rapidity of modern communication has drawn the world into closer and more intimate consciousness of what is being thought and accomplished elsewhere, so that a free trade in ideas, resulting in a kind of cosmopolitan-ism, is the characteristic of the day. And for painting, the clearing house of the world has been Paris.

This, however, is not to be understood as implying that American painting is to-day merely an offshoot of French art, having no character or quality of its own. Later on in our story we may be able to discover some traits sufficiently marked and widespread to constitute an American characteristic, and without doubt we shall find plenty of evidence of individuality on the part of separate painters; yet it is no less true that the foundations of our progress have been derived from Paris. They consist in motive and method.

It is from the conflict of opinions upon these topics, which has occupied Paris for the past fifty years, that our painters, like those of other nations, have derived, on the one hand, their point of view, their way of looking at their sùbject; and, on the other, their manner of representing it. The particular use which they have made of both is the measure in each case of the painter’s individuality.

Nor is the conflict of which Paris has been the centre founded upon entirely novel principles; it has been largely concerned with the readjustment to its own times of old ones. Briefly, it has been the modern phase of the old perpetual struggle between conservatism and progress ; and to appreciate it properly we must recognise the advantage alike of the one and of the other: of conservatism as the expression of something fundamentally and perennially desirable, of progress as the adaptation of this to the forward spirit of the age. Painting, no more than any other art, can afford to detach itself from the past, still less stand still in the face of the present. If it is to be vital, it cannot be a stagnant pool; its tributary streams and tidal movements must be related to the ocean of great waters.

The conservative element in modern art has been supplied by the Academic system, notably in Paris by that of the French Academy and its official school, the École des Beaux Arts; while the progressive involves the various efforts which individuals or groups have made to combat it. At the middle of the century, when the three pioneers of Paris-seeking students—Hunt, Inness, and La Farge-went abroad, the issue was between the École on the one hand and the Barbizon movement on the other. A generation later, individualism having adopted a number of cries, was exhibiting itself under various aspects of realism, impression-ism, ” art for art’s sake,” and plein air; all of which, like the earlier Barbizon movement, were but at-tempts to render nature naturally, rather than in accordance with certain principles, adhered to arbitrarily, as it was thought, by the Academy.

The latter, with its École des Beaux Arts, has been officially maintained in order to preserve a standard of excellence and a system of teaching. Both are based upon the pre-eminence of line over colour, of drawing over painting. Such an out-and-out doctrinaire as Ingres asserted that Form is everything, colour nothing.” Whether the doctrine be applied to landscape or figure painting, it implies the superiority of art over nature, and the need of modifying the forms of nature that they may be made to emulate the perfection of classic models. Thus the so-called classic landscape is an elaborate piecing together of natural and architectural features, selected from various sources, including the imagination, and assembled on the canvas to produce an ideal composition, that shall affect us in a purely abstract way by the dignity of line and massing.

It was this attitude towards nature that the painters of the Barbizon group opposed, both in their lives and in their art. They set out, not to improve upon nature, but to learn from it. Anticipating the spirit of scientific research which became the leading characteristic of the age, they substituted for abstract and typal generalisations an intimate study of individual appearances. In studying the individuality of nature they became themselves intensely individual—thus embodying another leading characteristic of the age. They discovered also a new conception of the ideal.

It was founded, not, as in the case of the Academicians, upon fancied perfection, but upon truth. It was the result of a new principle of selection. Instead of borrowing from many sources or of modifying the forms to produce an arbitrary perfection, it selected from the scene itself its salient features, eliminating the unessentials and compressing the whole into a vivid synthesis. And the latter included not merely the external appearance, but the inward spirit of the scene.

Through communing with nature, these men acquired ‘so strong a sympathy with their subject that the mood of their own spirit became reflected in nature; their works interpreted their own souls in terms of nature; they were nature-poets. It was in this respect that their idealism was of a new kind, based, not upon a material perfection, but on spiritual expression. This again was a very wonderful anticipation of what came to be the need of the nineteenth century. In the rapid advance of materialism, the claims of spirit were being overlooked; and not the least of the benefits conferred on painting by the men of Barbizon, was this restoration of spirit to its proper relation to matter. They became, one might almost say, the religious painters of the century. Add to this loftiness of motive the fact that they were in a technical sense excellent craftsmen, and the importance of the influence which they exerted upon the first of our France-seeking students may be realised. It was fortunate also that these students —William Morris Hunt, George Inness, and John La Farge—were men of commanding ability. The impressions gleaned at Barbizon were transmitted by them to other painters in this country, and to the general public, with a degree of authority and persuasiveness that have given the principles involved a firm and lasting hold upon the American imagination.

Hunt, the oldest of the trio and the first to go abroad, was born at Brattleboro, Vermont, in 1824. He entered Harvard, but was compelled by poor health to seek the benefit of a change of climate, and accordingly ‘went to Düsseldorf and joined the Art Academy, with the intention of becoming a sculptor. This was in 1846. Nine months later he moved to Paris, suddenly altered his plans for the future, and determined to be a painter. Perhaps the fame of a certain picture, Romans of the Decadence, and the extraordinary interest which its appearance at the Salon of 1847 aroused, had something to do with stimulating his imagination in a new direction; at any rate it was the painter of this picture whom he sought as a teacher. He joined the studio of Couture. The latter, a pupil of Delaroche, had been trained in the ” classic” manner of drawing the figure, which may be summed up in Tennyson’s description of Maud:

“Faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null, Dead perfection, no more.”

But in Couture’s case the frigid and sculptor-like character of the so-called ” ideal ” figure was warmed with a romantic ardour and enriched with colour. It was this combination of qualities that had created a sensation; for it seemed to reconcile the conservatism of the older men with the eager throb of younger life. Yet as a matter of fact, the picture, like its subject, belonged to an older order of things and had no relation to the spirit of the age. The latter, in scientific and mechanical affairs, was directed to an exact study of the cause and effect of natural phenomena; in literature, like-wise, to a realistic examination of present life. This picture, with its elaborate classic setting, composed of fragments of Roman architecture cemented together by the painter’s imagination, with its crowd of voluptuaries, men and women, under the influence of liquor, in shameless abandonment, contained an element of perennial truth. By inference men could draw from it a moral for the present, but it was hidden under a masquerading of the past. Zola, presenting the same moral, clothed in the actual forms of the rich and poor of his own time, thereby made it sting the conscience of the public. That was shocking, for people. do not like the naked truth. In this picture there was no such violation of propriety; the truth was, as it were, only nude ; nakedness diffused through a prism of make-believe perfection—art not life.

But there was a contemporary of Couture’s whose ideal was art and life; life in art, art vitalised by the expression of life. As yet, however, he was only that ” wild man of the woods,” Jean François Millet, unheeded. He, too, in his early struggle for bread had painted ” ideal nudes “; now his subjects were the peasants of Barbizon, rough-hewn types of men and women, coarsened and twisted out of shape by toil, as far removed as possible from Couture’s.

Yet Hunt, and it is a strange fact, became, during the latter part of his sojourn in France, as strongly influenced by Millet as he had been by Couture. Perhaps it may be explained in this way : Starting out with the intention of being a sculptor, he had evidently a prior sensitiveness to form; then, as he came to know pictures, the feeling for colour was aroused; he found both satisfied in Couture’s work. Moreover, he had come out to learn, and the student’s first craving is for definite formularies. Couture, well equipped with set methods and maxims, could show his pupils exactly ” how to do it,” and in his studio Hunt remained for several years, an enthusiastic follower of the master’s technique.

But gradually the eagerness of the mere student abated. The influence of Millet, coming later, touched a maturer need. Firstly, it gave him the inspiration of a motive. Millet’s uncouth simplicity of truth struck a vein of sincerity in himself. It taught him a notion of the ” ideal ” very different from the one aimed at and inculcated in Couture’s studio—an idealisation, not of unnatural perfection, but of human nature as it is, not of high-wrought passion and romance, but of the fulfilment of the daily routine of duty. It was a motive at once artistic and moral, based on Truth. And secondly, it was presented with a correspondingly simple sincerity of technique. Millet’s strong, broad generalisation was as far removed from the exquisite refinement of Couture’s method as from the niggling exactness of the Düsseldorfians; its grand sweep of line and dignity of masses were not obviously enforced, but to be discovered under the guise of clumsy forms; it was a method in which nothing is sacrificed to truth of nature, and yet commonplace is always overcome by art.

It was a technique so peculiarly the product of Millet’s own conscience that it was not to be learned by anyone else; and the principle which it involved, of beginning with nature and ending in art, was so different from Couture’s, which was art only, first, last, and all the time, that Hunt never wholly emerged from the conflict of these two influences. He attempted to affect a compromise, but with only. partial success, and remained to the end a painter of whom more might have been expected than he actually achieved, since he never gained the assurance of belief in himself which is possessed by many a smaller man.

Returning home, he settled in Newport, Rhode Island, and then moved to Boston, where the remainder of his life was spent. Around him gathered a number of pupils, impressed by the charm of his personality and the dignity of his artistic ideals. This-in itself helped to impede his own technical advancement, since it kept him over-occupied with theories and limited his opportunities for the actual practice of painting.

Yet this sacrifice of himself certainly redounded to the benefit of others, for he sowed the seed which has since grown and multiplied. The gist of his teaching was that it is not the subject but the way in which the subject is rendered, that determines the artistic merit of a picture ; that in the hands of an artist, any subject, no matter how simple and insignificant, can be made artistic, and that this artistic quality, a product and expression of him-self, is what the painter should aim chiefly to em-body in his pictures. Furthermore, that the ideal of good brushwork is not to concern one’s self with niggling precision of detail for detail’s sake, but to obtain truth of character and expression.

A writer in the ‘sixties describes his work as “naïve,” which, from our present point of view, it certainly was not. There is nothing in it of the child-spirit ; on the contrary, very much of the virile and intellectual. But it displayed, what was an unfamiliar quality to his contemporaries, a capacity for seeing artistic possibilities in the simplest subjects.

Turn to the accompanying reproduction of The Bathers. There is here involved no elevated conception, as in Cole’s Course of Empire, nor grandeur of visible appearance, as in Church’s Cotopaxi, yet, as a picture, it is vastly superior to either. The reason is that in the making of it the artist’s motive was a joy in the possibilities of beautiful expression that the subject offered. First, the poise of the figure, the elastic force of the body and limbs, suspended rather than resting in perfect ease of balance ; secondly, the charm of colour as the sunlight plays over the nude form, glistening upon the ripples of flesh, illuminating the shadowed parts and kindling all the tones into a healthy, vigourous glow. Everything else in the picture is made contributory to these two possibilities of beautiful expression—poise and sunlit flesh-colour—so that, if you had the good fortune to see the original at the recent Comparative Exhibition, I think you will agree that it communicated a heightened sense of joy in life.

If this is so, then, you will observe this picture after ‘all has an idea involved in its subject that appeals to the imagination. We perhaps reach the heart of the matter when we realise that an idea may be an abstract one, not connected with any definite individual or incident, about which a great deal can be said in words, or which can be described in the form of a story. But the trouble is that so many people are lacking in imagination, or, even if they have imagination, it is not stirred by feeling, it needs to have the idea conveyed to it through a tale of words. I wonder how many people cared about Millet’s Man With a Hoe before Mr. Markham versified its appeal, and, on the other hand, how many of those who had appreciated it already found the appreciation increased by the verbal exposition?

Hunt’s pictures included portraits, figure-subjects, and landscapes, some of the last named containing sheep, which are painted with a truth of character that recalls the work of Jacque. At a time when precision of detail was apt to be considered the highest requisite in a picture, Hunt substituted for it truth of character and expression. Some of his portraits are said to have been indifferent likenesses, but the representation, as it appears in the picture, is invested with distinction and seeming individuality. His last important works were two decorative paintings for the Capitol at Albany, which, owing to a threatened collapse of the dome, have been hidden by a ceiling, and have perished. They were executed under a very severe pressure of having to be finished by a certain date, and the strain proved too much for the artist. He died the following year (1879), at the Isle of Shoals.

George Inness was a pathfinder whose originality and fiery zeal for nature blazed a new trail that has led on to the present notable expansion of American landscape painting. Born at Newburg, New York, in 1825, the son of a retired grocer, he was apprenticed as a youth to an engraver. This, as we have seen, was the profession in which those landscape painters of the Hudson River School, Kensett, Durand, and Casilear, began by achieving success. In fact, at that time it was the one branch of art most likely to yield a comfortable livelihood, but it was of too exacting a nature for the frail health of George Inness. His father would have set him up in business, but the son’s heart was resolutely fixed on things artistic, and he sought instruction from a French painter residing in New York. For the rest, Inness was his own teacher, though the tenor of his career was changed into a new direction by the influence of the Barbizon artists.

He went abroad in 1850, and again for a longer period in 1870. We will attempt to summarise the impressions derived from the two visits.

Hitherto he had been chiefly engaged in studying form, in learning to draw the appearance of trees and rocks and ground, of water and sky. It may have been his short experience in engraving or the example of Durand and Kensett that set his study in this direction, but the thoroughness with which he pursued it was from within himself, an instinct for analysis, derived perhaps from his Scotch ancestry.

He learned, first of all, that principle of synthesis, of selection and arrangement, to which I have already alluded, that the best art does not consist in representing everything in sight, but in discovering what are the salient and essential characteristics, and in setting these down in a masterly summary. He learned, in effect, the value of omitting details so as to secure additional force for the ensemble; and his previous rigour of minute study now helped him, for it is recognised among artists that only he who has learned to put in, can be successful in leaving out.

He learned, in the second place, a new motive : no longer to look for ” views ” in nature, but to study fragments of it intimately; to render portraits of nature, in which the local facts should be of importance, not as facts, but as vehicles of expression. It was a mood of nature, or a mood aroused in himself, that he strove to embody; and, by thus becoming a subjective painter, he cut him-self off entirely from the objectivity of contemporary American landscape. And the peculiar quality of his subjective motive is interesting.

In his temperament the logical was combined with the spiritual. He was given to reasoning upon the eternities, and for many years was a professed Swedenborgian. Thus he was particularly drawn toward Corot, in whose work he recognised the spirituality. In fact, Corot and Inness both approximated to what we shall later find to be one of the underlying principles of motive in Japanese art. It is, in effect, to distinguish between ” appearance ” and ” reality “; to regard the material visibilities of nature, subject as they are to change, as being mere appearance, while the reality is the inward spirit, a portion of the Universal, Eternal Spirit, that is embodied in the impermanent appearances of matter. Both Corot and Inness came in time, like the Japanese painter, Hashimoto Gaho, to discover for themselves a method of painting in which they carried the principle of synthesis as far as possible, so as to subordinate the assertion of form to a suggestion of its essence or spirit. And lest some reader have no sympathy with this transcendental attitude toward nature, I would remind him that, if he is fond of nature, he must have experienced some occasion when to lie upon the ground and let the beauty of the scene, irrespective of this or that feature of the landscape, soak into him, was pleasure enough. If so, it was the result of physical .contentment, leading to a satisfaction of the emotions; and from the latter to a consciousness of spiritual refreshment or elation is but a step, to many temperaments a natural and inevitable one.

This progression of Inness’s motive and manner of painting, however, was a gradual one. Not all at once could he free himself from the habit of minute representation. His earliest pictures are liney, filled with details carefully drawn in with the brush. Later, his style, of which Peace and Plenty at the Metropolitan Museum is a good example, becomes broader; he no longer draws, but paints, with the brush; the objects begin to count as masses. Notwithstanding the large size of the canvas and the multiplying of features, which prevent us grasping the scene as a whole, the impression which it produces on the imagination is a tolerably single one, very well summed up in the title. It is a notable step in the direction of rendering the expression of the landscape. But compare the other example illustrated here, Midsummer, and note the progress which has been made in the way of synthesis. How masterful is the characterisation of the great oak tree ! We recognise at once its lusty vigour and the luxuriant opulence of its massy green foliage. Yet note how little detail or even modelling it presents ; it is painted flatly in broad, simple masses of tones of green, differing from one another in the amount of light which they reflect.

Later his pictures have still less solidity of painting; the pigment has been spread thinly with a large brush, and at close range the broad flat spaces of colour may seem to be perfunctory and careless. In reality, they are a mingling of subtly differentiated tones, pricked here and there with an accent of detail; and, when viewed from the proper stand-point, a short distance from the frame, are full of meaning and suggestion. These landscapes are the product of a mind that, in the matter of painting, had freed itself from the necessity – of conscious intellectual processes and entered into liberty of spirit, and of a hand become so facile by practice that it moved in immediate and faithful response to the suggestion of the mind. They are the expressions, not of what is palpable and material, but of an emotional or spiritual mood.

The artist died suddenly, during a visit to Scot-land, in 1894.