American Painting – The Influence Of Düsseldorf And Munich

IT was in the beginning of the fifties that American painting came under the influence of Düsseldorf. We have noted already that the landscape painters, James M. Hart and Albert Bierstadt, were students of its Academy, and shall now allude to the two figure-painters, Emanuel Leutze, who was a distinct product of its teaching, and Eastman Johnson, who outlived its influence. Further, we shall note how greatly the importation of Düsseldorf pictures affected the taste of the American public.

The reputation of Düsseldorf as an artistic centre had been the growth of some twenty-five years, since Schadow had been appointed director of its Academy and had gathered around him a body of students who remained faithful to the spot and bound themselves into a community, as interesting as it was unique. Let it be said at once that Schadow’s influence rested upon the fact that he was a real painter; and that, while others were draughtsmen who tinted their drawings with paint, he revived in Germany the art of actually constructing the picture in paint—the art, in fact, of painting. But the characteristic distinction of Dusseldorf, at first, was a psychological one. This quaint little town upon the Rhine had become, as early as 1830, the nucleus of German Romanticism. Bound together by sympathy with this spirit, the painters spent their days in painting, their evenings and occasions of recreation in reinforcing their imaginations with the reading and discussing Of Romantic poetry and legends. The world of the present did not exist for them, their preoccupation was solely with the past. Mendelssohn, the musician, for a while was a member of the little community; but the one person, not a painter, who exerted the greatest influence on the movement was a certain Judge Immerman, the reformer of the stage at Düsseldorf. Under his direction two performances a week were given, and the younger painters engaged in amateur performances. The stage became a mirror of the past. In it the painters found suggestions for representing the themes derived from literature and legendary tradition.

Such was the inspiration at Düsseldorf. It was not a product of the present that had in it the capacity of further growth. Moreover, its dependence upon literature and the drama had in it the germ of sterility. For, by the time that the original fervour of a Schadow and a Lessing had dwindled to the poetic sentimentality of a Schirmer, what had been an alliance with the written and spoken word sank into a bondage to it. And even when the precise and petty style of brush-work, which since ‘Schadow’s time had characterised the methods of Düsseldorf, was later broadened and enriched by some of its followers who, like Knaus and Vautier, studied subsequently in Paris, their pictures could not escape altogether the taint of their literary inspiration.

Lessing, the strongest of all the school, became the teacher of Emanuel Leutze. Though the latter was a native of Germany, having been born at Gmund, in Württemberg, in 1816, he is reckoned an American painter, since he was brought to Philadelphia as a child, and received his first instruction there, and, in after years, when his course at Düsseldorf had been supplemented by study at Vienna, Munich, and Rome, settled permanently in this country, dividing his time between New York and Washington.

His best-known picture, and, by general assent, his strongest, is (Washington Crossing the Delaware, now in the Metropolitan Museum. It has one virtue : it is simple and sincere, without heroics. It almost illustrates the incident as it may have been conducted by men, far too absorbed in the peril and possible failure of the enterprise to have any thought of arranging themselves in a striking theatrical group. On the other hand, it represents a plodding and constrained method of brushwork, tame even in a small canvas, spread here over one that measures twenty-one feet by twelve. It is worthy of note that with Leutze the attempt of American painters to execute large historical subjects ceased, not to be revived until nearly fifty years later, when it reappeared in Abbey.

While Leutze worked upon this picture in Düsseldorf, Eastman Johnson was one of his pupils. When still a youth in his home at Lovell, Maine, where he was born in 1824, Johnson had begun to make portraits .in crayon, and with so much success that at twenty-one he moved to Washington, and later to Cambridge and Boston, securing patrons in all these cities. He was now in a position to go abroad, and at Düsseldorf improved his drawing and acquired a knowledge of painting. Fortunately he supplemented his study with a four years’ sojourn in Holland, during which he familiarised himself with the Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century. Their influence was twofold. It led him to prefer genre subjects to historical, and developed his own natural gift of colour. At a time when the prime consideration both with painters and the public was that a picture should represent an incident, a poem, or a story, he, following the example of the Dutch artists, learned, while choosing a subject of popular appeal, to treat it as an opportunity of inventing a scheme of harmonious colouring. In a word, he merged the narrator in the artist. After his return to America he painted many pictures of country-life in New York State and Kentucky, and during . the war many subjects of patriotic significance. They are small in size, but broad in handling, having little of the tightness and dry smoothness of surface characteristic of Düsseldorf. They are also very charming in colour, the work of a man who could enrich the mere subject matter with artistic suggestion.

In the portraits also that occupied his later life he exhibited the Dutch faculty of seizing the external character of his sitter, and of depicting it in a forcible and straightforward way. Although they lack the dash and bravura of some modern portraits, they hold their own by their disciplined methods of virility and decision.

At Düsseldorf, as we have hinted, the flames of Romanticism dwindled to the candle light of domestic genre; the drama was superseded by light opera, and a virtuous and picturesque peasantry, seen across the mild effulgence of rose-coloured footlights, thronged the stage. Until Millet pricked the pretty bubble of misrepresentation, and taught men to study human life as it really is,. these fancy idylls of peasant genre, turned out from Düsseldorf or under its influence, flooded our American market. Anyone who is conversant with the operations of the picture salesrooms knows how large a part they have played in the greater number of collections. Their popular appeal may have done much to interest people in pictures, but it certainly postponed for a consider-able time a just appreciation of the true nature of pictorial art.

By the middle of the century the fame of Düsseldorf, as a school, had passed to Munich. The latter’s relation to American art, in point of time, began after the topic which is to be treated in the next chapter; but it will be convenient to dispose of it here, particularly as it represented only a brief phase of foreign study and had no abiding influence. The ideal of Munich was the historical picture: its greatest pride, Piloty. The latter’s training had been enforced by foreign study, especially in Paris, and when he returned home in 1855, he produced a sensation, for among the Munich painters of the day, who had almost lost the sense of colour, he suddenly appeared as a master of what he called ” colouristic realism.” He had, that is to say, a faculty of representing vigorously with broad strokes and juicy brushwork the colour properties and appearances of objects. If he painted a boot, for example, there was no mistaking its bootlike quality; it was leather, sure enough, black and hard and polished, and gleaming with high lights—unmistakably a boot.

Moreover, Piloty was a man of mental vigour, with the German exuberance of temperament, that entered heartily into the grandeur of the historical ideal, and attacked the intricacies of a crowded canvas with the assurance and facility of a man pulling on his gloves. By him the dramatic motive was introduced upon a larger stage with a fuller company of principals and supers, a more magnificent mise-en-scène, and a more grandiloquent libretto. For, though he taught men how to paint, he tightened for a time the bondage of painting to literature. It was not yoked, as at Düsseldorf, to a peasant’s ox cart, but followed behind a triumphal car, on which History sat enthroned. Nor was he a great painter in the modern sense of the term. His realism was of the mannered kind. It did not take account of the appearance of things in real light and atmosphere, but imitated with a plentiful use of the brown pigment, bitumen, the heavy shadows of the old pictures in the galleries, discoloured by time and dirt and varnish. Among the pupils whom his magnetism attracted and who subsequently became professors at Munich were Wagner and Diez, the latter a robust painter of old German scenes in small pictures of delicate tonality, modelled on the genre of the Dutchmen. It was under these three men that a few of our painters received instruction: Frederick Dielman studying with Diez, William M. Chase with Piloty and Wagner, while the latter was one of the teachers of Walter Shirlaw during his six years’ stay in Munich.

The interest of this Munich episode in its relation to the story of American painting centres around Duveneck and Chase because of the influence they have exerted upon others. The former spent ten years in Munich, and during that time himself became a teacher. Among those who studied with him there, and in the little village of Polling in the Bavarian Alps, and in Venice, were John W. Alexander, Frederick P. Vinton, Joseph R. De Camp, and Julian Story. For many years he has been instructor in painting at the Cincinnati Art School.

Indeed, it is as a teacher, rather than as a producer of pictures, that his position is notable. He was the first of American instructors to make the brushwork instead of the crayon-drawing the foundation of the picture; to impart a painter’s rather than a draughtsman’s point of view. In-stead of completing an elaborately shaded drawing and then painting over it with a careful observance of the lines and details and more or less finishing up of each part as one proceeded, he taught the student to cover his canvas with paint, boldly blocking in the large masses of the subject; afterwards superimposing the various succeeding planes to produce the modelling, and, in order to secure an ensemble of effect, gradually advancing the whole canvas through the separate stages to a finish.

Whether Chase learned this process from Duveneck, or acquired it subsequently from the example of the famous French teacher, Carolus-Duran, whose somewhat similar method we shall discuss in another chapter, it has been the one that he also has imparted to innumerable students. But his influence has not been confined to the publie; he has taken a leading part in most of the artistic movements of the last twenty-five years, and has been prominent at exhibitions with his own pictures. In oils, water-colours, pastels, and even etchings he has proved his versatility, revealing an extraordinary dexterity in the use of each medium, and a refined sense for the pictorial qualities of colour, tone, and lighting. Portraits, genre subjects, landscape, and still life have occupied him by turns. A few of his portraits, notably The Woman in a White Shawl, exhibit genuine insight and feeling; but these are qualities one does not generally associate with his work, any more than one looks for evidence of imagination. It is with the external appearances that he is preoccupied; he is primarily and almost exclusively a painter, pure and simple.

It was not until about 1875 that the older of these Munich students made their mark in the exhibitions at home; so that we have anticipated by many years the place which the school occupies chronologically in our story. But as I have said before, it seemed convenient to dispose of this phase of it, that the French influence, which is now to occupy our attention, may be considered without interruption.