American Painting

AMERICAN ART: It is hardly possible to predicate much about the environment as it affects art in America. The result of the climate, the temperament, and the mixture of nations in the production or non-production of painting in America cannot be accurately computed at this early stage of history. One thing only is certain, and that is, that the building of a new commonwealth out of primeval nature does not call for the production of art in the early periods of development. The first centuries in the history of America were devoted to securing the necessities of life, the energies of the time were of a practical nature, and art as an indigenous product was hardly known.

After the Revolution, and indeed before it, a hybrid portraiture, largely borrowed from England, began to appear, and after 1825 there was an attempt at landscape painting; but painting as an art worthy of very serious consideration, came in only with the sudden growth in wealth and taste following the War of the Rebellion and the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. The best of American art dates from about 1878, though during the earlier years there were painters of note who cannot be passed over unmentioned.

THE EARLY PAINTERS: The “limner,” or the man who could draw and color a portrait, seems to have existed very early in American history. Smibert (1684—1751), a Scotch painter, who settled in Boston, and Watson (1685 ?—1768), another Scotchman, who settled in New Jersey, were of this class—men capable of giving a likeness, but little more. They were followed by English painters of even less consequence. Then came Copley (1737—1815) and West (1738-1820), with whom painting in America really began. They were good men for their time, but it must be borne in mind that the times for art were not at all favorable. West was a man about whom all the infant prodigy tales have been told, but he never grew to be a great artist. He was ambitious beyond his power, indulged in theatrical composition, was hot in color, and never was at ease in handling the brush. Most of his life was passed in England, where he had a vogue, was elected President of the Royal Academy, and became practically a British painter. Copley was more of an American than West, but a mannerist with a dry brush and a rigid pose in portraits characteristic of the unskilled. He had some artistic feeling in the matter of costume and in the massing of colors in drapery. C. W. Peale (1741-1827), a pupil of both Copley and West, was perhaps more fortunate in having celebrated characters like Washington for sitters than in his art. This is substantially true of Trumbull (1756-1843). The Revolutionary history of America was partly preserved on canvas by Trumbull in a hard, ill-drawn manner. Many of his paintings are in the Yale Art School. They are valuable more for what they rep-resent than for the manner of their representation.

Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828) was the best portrait-painter of all the early men, and his work holds very high rank even in the schools of today. He was the first man in American art-history to show skilful accuracy of the brush, a good knowledge of color, and some artistic sense of dignity and carriage in the sitter. He was not always a good draughtsman, and he had a manner of laying on pure colors without blending them that sometimes produced sharpness in modelling ; but as a general rule he painted a portrait with force and with truth. He was a pupil of Alexander, a Scotchman, and afterward an assistant to West. He settled in Boston, and during his life painted most of the great men of his time, including Washington.

Vanderlyn (1776—1852) met with adversity all his life long, and perhaps never expressed himself fully. He was a pupil of Stuart, studied in Paris and Italy, and his associations with Aaron Burr made him quite as famous as his pictures. Washington Allston (1779—1843) was a painter whom – the Bostonians have ranked high in their art-history, but he hardly deserved such position. Intellectually he was a man of lofty and poetic aspirations, but as an artist he never had the painter’s sense or the painter’s skill. He was an aspiration rather than a consummation. He cherished notions about ideals, dealt in imaginative allegories, and failed to observe t h e pictorial character of the world about him. As a result of this, and poor artistic training, his art had too little basis on nature, was badly drawn, harshly colored, and falsely lighted. Rembrandt Peale (1787 — 1860), like his father, was a painter of Washing-ton portraits of mediocre quality. Jarvis (1780—1834) and Sully (1783—1872) were both British born, but their work belongs here in America, where Most of their days were spent. Sully could paint a very good portrait occasionally, though he always inclined toward the weak and the sentimental, especially in his portraits of women. Leslie (1794–1859) and Newton (1795–1835) were Americans, but, like West and Copley, they belong in their art more to England than to America. In all the early American painting the British influence may be traced, with sometimes an inclination to follow Italy in large compositions.

THE MIDDLE PERIOD in American art dates from 1825 to about 1878. During that time, something distinctly American began to appear in the landscape work of Doughty (1793–1856) and Thomas Cole (1801–1848). Both men were substantially self-taught, though Cole received some instruction from a portrait-painter named Stein. Cole during his life was famous for his Hudson River landscapes, and for two series of pictures called The Voyage of Life and The Course of Empire. The latter were really epic poems upon canvas, done with much blare of color and literary explanation in the title. His best work was in pure landscape, which he pictured with considerable accuracy in drawing, though it was faulty in lighting and gaudy in coloring. Brilliant autumn scenes were his favorite subjects. His work had the merit of originality and, moreover, it must be re-membered that Cole was one of the beginners in American landscape art. Durand (1796–1886) was an engraver until 1835, when he began painting portraits, and afterward developed landscape with considerable power. He was usually simple in subject and realistic in treatment, with not so much insistence upon brilliant color as some of his contemporaries. Kensett (1818–1872) was a follower in landscape of the so-called Hudson River School of Cole and others, though he studied seven years in Europe. His color was rather warm, his air hazy, and the general effect of his landscape that of a dreamy autumn day with poetic suggestions. F. E. Church (1826–) was a pupil of Cole, and has followed him in seeking the grand and the startling in mountain scenery. With Church should be mentioned a number of artists—Hubbard (1817-1888), Hill (1829-), Bierstadt (1830–), Thomas Moran (1837-)—who have achieved reputation by canvases of the Rocky Mountains and other expansive scenes.

Some other painters of smaller canvases belong in point of time, and also in spirit, with the Hudson River landscapists—painters, too, of considerable merit, as David Johnson (18274 Bristol (1826-), Sandford Gifford (1823-1880), McEntee (1828-1891), and Whittredge (1820–), the last two very good portrayers of autumn scenes ; A. H. Wyant (1836-1892), one of the best and strongest of the American landscapists ; Bradford (1830–1892) and W. T. Richards (1833–), the marine-painters.

PORTRAIT, HISTORY, AND GENRE-PAINTERS: Contemporary with the early landscapists were a number of figure-painters, most of them self-taught, or taught badly by foreign or native artists, and yet men who produced creditable work. Chester Harding (1792–1866) was one of the early portrait-painters of this century who achieved enough celebrity in Boston to be the subject of what was called “the Harding craze.” Elliott (1812–1868) was a pupil of Trumbull, and a man of considerable reputation, as was also Inman (1801–1846), a portrait and genre-painter with a smooth, detailed brush. Page (1811–1885), Baker (1821–1880), Huntington (1816–), the third President of the Academy of Design ; Healy (1808–), a portrait-painter of more than average excellence ; Mount (1807–1868), one of the earliest of American genre-painters, were all men of note in this middle period.

Leutze (1816–1868) was a German by birth but an American by adoption, who painted many large historical scenes of the American Revolution, such as Washington Crossing the Delaware, besides many scenes taken from European history. He was a pupil of Lessing at Dusseldorf, and had something to do with introducing Dusseldorf methods into America. He was a painter of ability, if at times hot in color and dry in handling. Occasionally he did a fine portrait, like the Seward in the Union League Club, New York.

During this period, in addition to the influence of Dusseldorf and Rome upon American art, there came the influence of French art with Hicks (1823–1890) and Hunt (1824–1879), both of them pupils of Couture at Paris, and Hunt also of Millet at Barbizon. Hunt was the real introducer of Millet and the Barbizon-Fontainebleau artists to the American people. In 1855 he established himself at Boston, had a large number of pupils, and met with great success as a teacher. He was a painter of ability, but perhaps his greatest influence was as a teacher and an instructor in what was good art as distinguished from what was false and meretricious. He certainly was the first painter in America who taught catholicity of taste, truth and sincerity in art, and art in the artist rather than in the subject. Contemporary with Hunt lived George Fuller (1822–1884), a unique man in American art for the sentiment he conveyed in his pictures by means of color and atmosphere. Though never proficient in the grammar of art he managed by blendings of color to suggest certain sentiments regarding light and air that have been rightly esteemed poetic.

THE THIRD PERIOD in American art began immediately after the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia in 1876. Undoubtedly the display of art, both foreign and domestic, at that time, together with the national prosperity and great growth of the United States had much to do with stimulating activity in painting. Many young men at the beginning of this period went to Europe to study in the studios at Munich, and later on at Paris. Before 1880 some of them had returned to the United States, bringing with them knowledge of the technical side of art, which they immediately began to give out to many pupils. Gradually the influence of the young men from Munich and Paris spread. The Art Students’ League, founded in 1875, was incorporated in 1878, and the Society of American Artists was established in the same year. Societies and painters began to spring up all over the country, and as a resultthere is in the United States to-day an artist body technically as well trained and in spirit as progressive as in almost any country of Europe. The late influence shown in painting has been largely a French influence, and the American artists have been accused from time to time of echoing French methods. The accusation is true in part. Paris is the centre of all art-teaching today, and the Americans, in common with the European nations, accept French methods, not because they are French, but because they are the best extant. In subjects and motives, however, the American school is as original as any school can be in this cosmopolitan age.

PORTRAIT, FIGURE, AND GENRE PAINTERS (1878-1894) : It must not be inferred that the painters now prominent in American art are all young men schooled since 1876. On the contrary, some of the best of them are men past middle life who began painting long before 1876, and have by dint of observation and prolonged study continued with the modern spirit. For example, Winslow Homer (1836–) is one of the strongest and most original of all the American artists, a man who never had the advantage of the highest technical training, yet possesses a feeling for color, a dash and verve in execution, an originality in subject, and an individuality of conception that are unsurpassed. Eastman Johnson (1824–) is one of the older portrait and figure-painters who stands among the younger generations with-out jostling, because he has in measure kept himself informed with modern thought and method. He is a good, conservative painter, possessed of taste, judgment, and technical ability. Elihu Vedder (1836–) is more of a draughtsman than a brushman. His color-sense is not acute nor his handling free, but he has an imagination which, if somewhat more literary than pictorial, is nevertheless very effective. John La Farge (1835–) and Albert Ryder (1847–) are both colorists, and La Farge in artistic feeling is a man of much power. Almost all of his pictures have fine decorative quality in line and color and are thoroughly pictorial.

The ” young men,” so-called, though some of them are now on toward middle life, are perhaps more facile in brush-work and better trained draughtsmen than those we have just mentioned. They have cultivated vivacity of style and cleverness in statement, frequently at the expense of the larger qualities of art. Sargent (1856–) is, perhaps, the most considerable portrait-painter now living, a man of unbounded resources technically and fine natural abilities. He is draughtsman, colorist, brushman—in fact, almost everything in art that can be cultivated. His taste is not yet mature, and he is just now given to dashing effects that are more clever than permanent ; but that he is a master in portraiture has already been abundantly demonstrated. Chase (1849–) is also an exceptionally good portrait painter, and he handles the genre subject with brilliant color and a swift, sure brush. In brush-work he is exceedingly clever, and is an excellent technician in almost every respect. Not always profound in matter he generally man-ages to be entertaining in method. Blum (1857–) is well known to magazine readers through many black-and-white illustrations. He is also a painter of genre subjects taken from many lands, and handles his brush with brilliancy and force. Dewing (185 1–) is a painter with a refined sense not only in form but color. His pictures are usually small, but exquisite in delicacy and decorative charm. Thayer (1 849–) is fond of large canvases, a man of earnestness, sincerity, and imagination, but not a good draughtsman, not a good colorist, and a rather clumsy brushman. He has, however, something to say, and in a large sense is an artist of uncommon ability. Kenyon Cox (1856–) is a draughts-man, with a strong command of line and taste in its arrangement. He is not a strong colorist, though in recent work he has shown a new departure in this feature that promises well. He renders the nude with power, and is fond of the allegorical subject.

The number of good portrait-painters at present working in America is quite large, and mention can be made of but a few in addition to those already spoken of—Wyatt Eaton, Alden Weir, Tarbell, Beckwith, Benson, Vonnoh. In figure and genre-painting the list of really good painters could be drawn out indefinitely, and again mention must be confined to a few only, like Simmons, Shirlaw, Smedley, Brush, Millet, Hassam, Reid, Wiles, Mowbray, Reinhart, Blashfield, Metcalf; Denman.

Most of the men whose names are given above are resident in America ; but, in addition, there is a large contingent of young men, American born but resident abroad, who can hardly be claimed by the American school, and yet belong to it as much as to any school. They are cosmopolitan in their art, and reside in Paris, Munich, Lon-don, or elsewhere, as the spirit moves them. Sargent, the portrait-painter, really belongs to this group, as does also Whistler (1834–), one of the most artistic of all the moderns. Whistler was long resident in London, but has now removed to Paris. He belongs to no school, and such art as he produces is peculiarly his own, save a leaven of influences from Velasquez and the Japanese. His art is the perfection of delicacy, both in color and in line. Apparently very sketchy, it is in reality the maximum of effect with the mini-mum of effort. It has the pictorial charm of mystery and suggestiveness, and t h e technical effect of light, air, and space. There is nothing bet-ter produced in mod-ern painting than his present work, and in earlier years he painted portraits like that of his mother, which are justly ranked as great art. E. A. Abbey (1852–) is better known by his pen-and-ink work than by his paintings, howbeit he has done good work in color. He is resident in England.

In Paris there are many American-born painters, who really belong more with the French school than the American. Bridgman is an example, and Dannat, Alexander Harrison, Hitchcock, Melchers, Pearce, Julius Stewart, Weeks, J. W. Alexander, Walter Gay, Kenneth Frazier have nothing distinctly American about their art. It is semi-cosmopolitan with a leaning toward French methods. There are also some American-born painters at Munich, like C. F. Ulrich, but the artists, as a body, prefer Paris as a place of residence.

LANDSCAPE AND MARINE PAINTERS, 1878-1894: In the department of landscape America has had since 1825 something distinctly national, and has at this day. In recent years the impressionist plein-air school of France has influenced many painters, and the prismatic landscape is quite as frequently seen in American exhibitions as in the Paris salons ; but American landscape art rather dates ahead of French impressionism. The strongest landscapist of our times, George Inness (1825-*), is not a young man except in his artistic aspirations. His style has undergone many changes, yet still remains distinctly individual. He has always been an experimenter and an uneven painter, at times doing work of wonderful force, and then again falling into weakness. The solidity of nature, the mass and bulk of landscape, he has shown with a power second to none. He is fond of the sentiment of nature’s light, air, and color, and has put it forth more in his later than in his earlier canvases. At his best, he is one of the first of the American landscapists. Among his con-temporaries Wyant (already mentioned), Swain Gifford, Colman, Gay, Shurtleff, have all done excellent work uninfluenced by foreign schools of to-day. Homer Martin’s landscapes, from their breadth of treatment, are popularly considered rather indifferent work, but in reality they are excellent in color and poetic feeling.

The ” young men ” again, in landscape as in the figure, are working in the modern spirit, though in substance they are based on the traditions of the older American landscape school. There has been much achievement, and there is still greater promise in such landscapists as Tryon, Platt, Murphy, Dearth, Crane, Dewey, Coffin, Horatio Walker, and others. Among those who favor the so-called impressionistic view are Weir, Twachtman, and Robinson, three landscape-painters of undeniable power. In marines Gedney Bunee has portrayed many Venetian scenes of charming color-tone, and De Haas has long been known as a sea-painter of some power. Quartley, who died young, was brilliant in color and broadly realistic. The present marine-painters are Maynard, Snell, Rehn, Butler, Chapman.

PRINCIPAL WORKS : The works of the early American painters are to be seen principally in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Athenaeum, Boston Mus., Mass. Hist. Soc., Harvard College, Redwood Library, New-port, Metropolitan Mus., Lenox and Hist. Soc. Libraries, the City Hall, Century Club, Chamber of Commerce, National Acad. of Design, N. Y. In New Haven, at Yale School of Fine Arts, in Philadelphia at Penna. Acad. of Fine Arts, in Rochester Powers’s Art Gal., in Washington Corcoran Gal, and the Capitol.

The works of the younger men are seen in the exhibitions held from year to year at the Academy of Design, the Society of American Artists, N. Y., in Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, and elsewhere throughout the country. Some of their works belong to permanent institutions like the Metropolitan Mus., the Pennsylvania Acad., the Art Institute of Chicago, but there is no public collection of pictures that represents American art as a whole. Mr. T. B. Clarke, of New York, has perhaps as complete a collection of paintings by contemporary American artists as anyone.