American Painting – The Growth Of The National Spirit

WHILE the struggle for independence was proceeding it had little or no effect upon the story of American painting. Its influence became apparent later in the resultant growth of national consciousness, and it is this phase of the story that occupies our present study. Again we will select a date as a vantage point from which to obtain a survey ; and, as in the previous chapters we adopted that of 1783, when the first peace with Great Britain was con-firmed, so now it shall be the conclusion of peace in 1815, after the second War of Independence.

There are two good reasons for the choice. In the thirty-one years which had elapsed, the idea of Independence had been fully realised, especially during the three years of the later struggle, when the succession of victories by sea and land rein-forced the patriotism of the people with a new sense of national confidence. Moreover, out of the latter developed two new phases of independence : the one industrial, which was born immediately; the other, to appear some twenty years later, in its character spiritual or intellectual The second war was scarcely over before the need of industrial independence was felt. Already, while hostilities were proceeding and the cotton of the South was debarred from exportation to Liver-pool, and the cotton and woollen goods of England from importation to this country, mills for the manufacture of cotton and woollen goods had been started in New England. These, upon the conclusion of peace, when the markets were glutted with foreign importations, found themselves threatened with extinction. The manufacturers immediately demanded protection, and in the following year obtained from Congress an act establishing a tariff. It was the beginning of a new idea, that political independence involved the need of industrial independence. Nor was it long before the idea of economic independence, originating in the necessities of the moment, discovered its relation to the spiritual and intellectual aspirations of the new nation. In 1837, before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Cambridge, Emerson delivered that ad-dress entitled, ” The American Scholar,” which was hailed by Oliver Wendell Holmes as ” Our Intellectual Declaration of Independence.” In it Emerson sounded a new note. ” Our day of dependence,” he said, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close. The millions that around us are rushing into life can-not always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests. Events, actions arise, that must be sung, that will sing themselves.”

The utterance represents a singular combination of fallacy and truth. For in the kingdom of thought, wherein Emerson himself dwells and of which painting is a province, there are no boundaries of oceans or continents, no disabilities of dependence. or alienship, but a community of free intercourse. Before another generation had passed away Americans would realise the need of this and begin to take full advantage of it. Mean-while, in their pertinence to the conditions of the time in which they were spoken, those were true words.

For, by the wars with England and the restoration of the monarchy in France, this country was isolated. Moreover, the problems before it, political, industrial, and educational, were peculiar to itself and to be wrought out only by self-reliance. So this utterance had all the power of an exhortation and all the encouragement of a prophecy. For the time being, too, its application to painting rang true; for the feet of the painters of this period were turned toward Rome, and the decadent art of Italy, whence certainly was to be derived no source of strength for our infant art.

This new spirit of intellectual and spiritual in-dependence and that other of economic independence, accompanied by so marvellous a territorial expansion, were reflected, as we shall see, in the growth of an American school of landscape painting. Meanwhile, before considering it, we must look back from our vantage point and attach the new phase of our story to the preceding one. The connecting link is John Trumbull.

Born in 1756, in Lebanon, Connecticut, a son of the Colonial Governor of that State, he was twenty years old when the Declaration of Independence was signed. A graduate of Harvard University, he had been influenced by the portraits of Smibert and Copley, and was already learning to become a painter when the War of the Revolution began. Immediately he joined the army, and, his skill in drawing being noted by Washing-ton, he was set to making plans of the enemy’s works. From this he was promoted to a position upon the general staff, with the rank of brigadier-major, and subsequently served as colonel under Gates. But aggrieved at the date which Congress assigned to his commission, he resigned from the army, made his way to France, whence he proceeded to England, and under West recommenced the study of painting. The execution of Major André, however, had aroused in England a spirit of retaliation, and Trumbull was arrested and imprisoned as a spy. The intercession of West saved his life, and after eight months’ imprisonment secured his release, on condition that he leave the country. When peace was established, however, he went again to England and continued his studies with West, not returning to the United States until 1789.

It must be admitted that his qualifications as a painter were not commensurate with the scope of his ideals. Moreover, he approached his subject from the patriot’s rather than the painter’s point of view. He was filled with the seriousness of his time, with the sense of responsibility to the grave issues through which the young nation was progressing, moreover, with that self-consciousness of the part which it behooved a patriot to play. His nearness to the great events made it impossible for him to view them apart from their political significance and to regard them, as a painter should, principally as an opportunity for a painter-like presentation. Further, the very temper of the time was antagonistic to any other view than the immense importance of the facts as facts, and nothing he could have learned from West tended to modify this unpainter-like point of view. For upon the point of view from which a painter approaches the subject of a historical painting, hinges the whole matter.

It may appear to some a hard saying that painting is a vehicle of doubtful suitability for the commemoration of great historical events, such as the Battles of Bunker Hill and Trenton, which among others Trumbull essayed to picture ; still more hard, that patriotism, so far from being a stimulus to the painter in his art, may be a cause of weakness. But look at the illustration here reproduced of Trumbull’s picture of the Battle of Bunker Hill, and ask yourself if the effect it produces upon your imagination is in any way comparable to, say, that of Longfellow’s poem, ” Paul Revere’s Ride.” If it is not, what is the reason?

We have already noted one reason, in the painter’s preoccupation with accuracy of facts, so. that the spirit of the occasion is ungrasped. There is another; that the poet had the advantage because his medium was words, by the sound and rhythm of which, as well as by their meaning, he could present picture after picture to our imagination, kindling it more and more by each successive appeal to our emotions, until we seem to hear the very clang of the horse’s hoof, its laboured panting, and the heavy breathing of its rider; see the startled faces appearing at the windows, as each quiet village is awoke, and feel the torrent of patriotic ardour that swept through the country-side on that fateful night. It is conceivable that a painter might paint a picture of this incident which should move us as much as the poem does. But recognise at the outset the odds against him. Instead of the impetuous variety of words and tramp and rhythm of the lines, he must fix on some one action of horse and rider; instead of villages flying past, some one set scene for a background; instead of a gradual working up of fervour to a point of culmination, some one fixed, first and final, display. If he does, after all, succeed in awakening our emotions, it will not be through his restricted array of facts so much as through some suggestion to the imagination, by means of the impressiveness of the picture’s composition and of its colour and light and shade. In a word, not by accuracy of detail or emulating the artifices of the stage manager, but because of the painter’s reliance upon those qualities which are peculiar to his own craft.

That the first requisite of a picture should be to have pictorial qualities, that is to say, that it should embody a subject which can be more vitally expressed in paint than in any other medium, and should be so treated as to bring out to its full possibilities the craft of the painter, would never have occurred to Trumbull, any more than it did to West, or, for that matter, to Reynolds. The latter, fortunately for his subsequent reputation, was held by his public almost exclusively to portraits, otherwise he would have squandered his talent, as more than once he did, over ambitious canvases based on mythological, historical, or religious themes. For the eighteenth century in England was characterised by the growth of English prose, culminating in enthusiasm for oratory and stage representations. It was a period of triumph for the written and spoken word, especially for the latter, and the ambition of the painter was to emulate this triumph in his pictures. Similar conditions prevailed in this country, and even in a heightened form, owing to the stimulus of national events. Consider the hold which the phraseology of the Declaration of Independence still has upon the imagination, and how much more powerfully it must have possessed those who had witnessed the realisation of its principles. Its phrases, familiar and oft repeated, gave an impetus to the worship of the written and spoken word that has continued to our own day, and it is a fact to be noted that the first genuine art expression of the new nation was not in the form of painting or sculpture, but of literature and oratory.

That Trumbull recognised the power of the word is illustrated amusingly in one of his letters. It was addressed to his agent in Washington, through whom he was expecting to make sales of the engravings of his pictures. Apparently, the results were not satisfactory, for he urges his correspondent to go about among the Senators and Congressmen, and talk, talk, talk. ” You must remember,” he adds, ” that we are living under a logocracy.”

His attitude toward painting may be gathered from another of his letters :

” I am fully sensible,” he wrote, ” that the profession [of painting], as it is generally practised, is frivolous, little useful to society, and unworthy a man who has talents for more serious pursuits. But to preserve and diffuse the memory of the noblest series of actions which have ever presented themselves in the history of man, is sufficient war-rant for it.”

Thus, his highest conception of a painter was to be a historian in paint; and his pictures illustrate it.

Very different from this practical man of affairs who practised painting, was his contemporary, Washington Allston. The latter in one of his letters describes his sensations in presence of the works of the Venetian colourists, Titian, Paul Veronese, and Tintoretto. He tells how the magic of the colouring affected him irrespective of the subjects ; that he recognised in it an abstract language, comparable to that of music. In a word, he acknowledged the independence of painting as a medium of expression; and, idealist, dreamer, romanticist, that he was by nature, had most of the qualifications that distinguished the great roman-tic painter, Delacroix. But he lacked the capacity of the latter to keep himself detached from the literary alliance, while yet drawing from literature his inspiration. It was the tragedy of Allston’s life that he was subservient to the dominion of the word; moreover, he was a man of frail physique, whose ideas outstripped his strength.

An exception to the rule that the South, while patronising art, did not produce artists, he was of good Southern family, born at Waccamaw, South Carolina, in 1779. At seven years old, in consequence of the frailty of his constitution, he was sent to the more bracing climate of Newport, Rhode Island, where his school days were passed in the companionship of Edward S. Malbone. The latter, a native of Newport, two years his senior, had early displayed that skill in drawing which resulted in his becoming an excellent miniature painter, and his example confirmed the young Allston’s own taste for drawing. Also there was much in the latter’s gentle nature, with its love for the marvellous and the poetic, that fitted in with the refined abstraction of Malbone’s disposition. The result was an ardent friendship between them, that continued while Allston was studying at Harvard and the older youth was working as a portrait painter in Boston. His college days over, Allston returned to South Carolina and found Malbone successfully engaged in Charleston, and the two planned a visit to England ; Allston, with characteristic imprudence. disposing of his share in the family estate for a small sum of ready cash. They were together in London for a few months, and there Malbone painted The Hours, three girl figures representing the Past, Present, and Future, circling in a dance, which is regarded as his most important work. Then the companionship ended, for Malbone returned home, and six years later, after a vain attempt to restore his shattered health by a voyage to Jamaica, died at Savannah in 1807.

During four years’ sojourn in Rome, where, in companionship with Vanderlyn, Allston enjoyed the intimacy of many famous men, among others of Keats, Shelley, Byron, Hans Anderson, Washington Irving, and Turner, he came under the spell of Raphael, “the greatest master,” as he put it, of the affections in our art,” and of Michelangelo, ” of whom I know not how to speak in adequate terms of reverence—even Raphael bows before him.” The grace of the one may well have been dangerously seductive; the terrific power of the other, engulfing to a young man whose instruction in the actual rudiments of his art had been so limited, and whose mind was already apt to be overoccupied with reverie and contemplation. One result of his Italian experience, therefore, was to direct his thoughts to conceptions beyond his ability and strength to body forth, many of them more adapted to poetic than to pictorial expression. He left numerous drawings of studies for his pictures, in which the æsthetic intention shines forth spontaneously and clearly, whereas in the finished work it became laboured over and obscured. Thus in the Dead Man Restored to Life (by touching Elijah’s bones as he was being buried), not-withstanding the general handsomeness of the composition, there is evidence of a laboured piecing together of its several parts, so that the total effect is rather one of pose and artifice, reminiscent of the mechanics of the Italian ” grand style,” but without that comprehending grasp which welds all into an appearance of having grown into being, spontaneously and inevitably.

Allston married a sister of the celebrated divine, Dr. Channing, and settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he ;lived a life of very beautiful seclusion in the society of a few choice friends. Twenty-six years before his death he had made what he called ” a highly finished sketch ” of a very large picture, Belshazzar’s Feast. He had been still working over the unfinished canvas on the day that he died, in 1843. It remained a pathetic memorial to the magnitude of his ideals and the insufficiency of his personal accomplishment.

To this early period of the Republic belongs another notable name, associated also with promise only partially realised, that of John Vanderlyn. Though he painted many excellent portraits, his fame rests chiefly on two pictures, Marius Among the Ruins of Carthage, and the nude figure of Ariadne. Born in Kingston, New York, in 1776, he worked as a boy with a local blacksmith. His brother was established in New York as a physician, and through his influence and that of Aaron Burr Vanderlyn studied under Stuart, and then, with his patron’s help, paid a visit to Paris. He revisited that city in 1803, when he became intimate with Allston, the two friends later, as we have seen, living together in Rome. It was there that he painted the two pictures mentioned above. The Marius was shown at the Paris Salon of 1808, where it attracted the notice of Napoleon, who personally selected it for one of his gold medals. The Ariadne is in the old-fashioned style of painting of that period, being neither a study of life such as we are accustomed to to-day nor invested with that quality of abstract beauty that characterises the work of the Italian masters, on which it was modelled. It is, however, a picture of considerable distinction, both in drawing and colour.

Though an early work, it was nevertheless the last of Vanderlyn’s notable achievements. Whether it were a fact that he was an instance,, and there are many in painting, of quickly reached maturity as quickly exhausted, or that the times in America were not yet ripe for works of imagination, or that the slowness with which he painted interfered with his popularity as a portrait painter, certain it is that Vanderlyn became an unsuccessful and disappointed man. One day, in 1852, he reappeared at Kingston and borrowed a shilling of a friend to pay for the transportation of his baggage to the hotel. Arrived there, he retired to his room, and the following morning was found dead. The brief vitalising influence of his career, as of Allston’s, had been the ” grand style ” of Italian art. In Vanderlyn’s unfulfilled promise, in Allston’s later years as he sat in front of his never-to-be-finished picture, impotently trying to re-enact the miracle of the dead restored to life, and to make the present live by contact with the dead bones of the past, there is a deep pathos. Both looked backward, while all the energy of their countrymen and of their time was bent in a direction forward. They were also by instinct cosmopolitan and aloof from the spirit of independent nationalism, which had became the guiding influence of their contemporaries. Meanwhile this spirit, encouraged by Emerson, had inspired a group of painters, who are remembered as the ” Hudson River School.”