Art And Color – Part 4

Next to the low-toned pictures we would do well to regard those of deep rich color, for they again are oftener good than the bright ones, and for the same reason. Depth of color, as distinguished from shallowness and crudeness, may be easily detected if we place upon the floor a well-worn Daghestan rug and beside it a new American rug of factory manufacture. The one will be seen to have body, warmth, and richness to it ; while the other will have a surface hue, as though the color were only skin-deep and liable to wash off in the first rain-storm. Of themselves there is nothing tawdry or crude about woods of pine, maple, and cherry ; but place them beside a piece of old mahogany and they suffer by comparison. So again the old Cordova leathers have a quality, a richness about them which is not apparent in the bright English moroccos. As a matter of taste a deep color is almost always preferable to a primary intensity. We do not hesitate to choose an Indian-red in preference to a brick-red, a peacock-blue to a sky-blue, or an olive-green to a grass-green. The lighter hues strike us as too gay, too flippant, too flimsy ; while the deeper tones comport better with dignity and what we call ” good style ” or ” keeping.” It is, for one reason, because depth of color has a quality of beauty in itself that so many artists employ it in their pictures. It was the strength and mellowness of the notes that led Brouwer and Tethers and Pieter de Hooghe to use deep golden browns in their interior pictures ; it was the warmth and glow of garnet reds and Egyptian yellows that led De-camps and Fromentin to use them in their Oriental scenes ; and Diaz, Jacque, Dupre, all chose deep, broken tones of brown, green, and orange, not be-cause they always saw them in nature, but because they always felt that those colors possessed strong character and pure beauty in themselves.

There is another reason why some painters have preferred deep colors to light ones. A color of any grade or degree is primarily used to subserve one of two purposes. Either it represents beauty as color in itself, or it stands as the representation of a certain sentiment or state of feeling. It has been said that one can give a blind man an idea of the color red by telling him that it resembles the blast of a trumpet. In that sense all the colors of the spectrum may be regarded as symbols suited to express different sentiments ; and the strength of a sentiment may be interpreted by the deepening or the lightening of the hues. Thus, while a bright hue may portray a shrill cry of anguish, as, a singer pitches a shriek in the upper scale, so a low tone may disclose a dark despair, a crushing sorrow, such as the singer interprets again in those mellow notes, not loud but deep, which move us to tears of sympathy. It is thus that Delacroix tells us the despair of the lost in the deep blues of the ” Shipwreck of Don Juan,” and in the ” Dante and Virgil ; ” it is thus that Watteau gives us the light airy spirit of his characters in the gay reds, yellows, and light-greens of his fete scenes ; it is thus that Millet speaks the hard uncompromising life of the peasant in the dull browns, mournful grays, and sad yellows of ” The Woodcutter ” and the ” Spaders.” Poet, musician, painter, may all use like means to the attainment of like ends. It is the skilled Timotheus of the lyre whose smooth notes incline the king to love and pleasure, whose sad notes subdue him with the thought of Darius fallen from his high estate, whose clanging notes rouse him like a rattling peal of thunder, and lead him on to revenge and fury. If, then, the poet and the musician strike the deep notes oftenest, it is because they portray the deepest passions ; and if the painter mix warmth and shadow depths with his hues it is often for a similar reason.

This sentiment seems to be an accompaniment to the subject portrayed, and belongs to it by association as much as a blue sky to a bright day. There is, perhaps, a certain appropriateness in the use of gay colors for a ball-room scene, and dull colors for a funeral, bright colors for a comedy, and sombre colors for a tragedy, and many artists have so used them ; at times, indeed, to the distortion of nature which really possesses no sentiment in itself. But there are numbers of brilliant exceptions to any law that might be derived from such a practice. Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens, and Goya offered an atonement for the tragic scenes they portrayed in the splendor of their coloring. With them sky, earth, air, do not weep and grow sad in sympathy with the suffering hero. Christ staggers beneath the cross on the way to Calvary, surrounded by the rich colors of a Caesar’s triumph ; martyrdoms of saints by fire and sword are luminous with light and brilliantly keyed in reds and yellows ; and the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition are pictured in shrewd harmonies of blood and flame.

There is no association of color with the sentiment of the subject in such instances ; but there is, how-ever, a subjective emotion—a state of feeling in the artist. The painter has a way of revealing himself in color, and by color telling us what beauties of nature he loves the best. Regnault, at one time in his career, seemed to live for clear air and bright sunlight. He had a passion for them which was all-absorbing. They were the inclination of his taste, the incarnation of his ideal of beauty. Naturally those bright tones that revealed light and air the best were the ones he oftenest chose to use. The subject mattered little. If ‘ he used red it might be in the form of a brick wall, a silk robe, or a pool of blood. Any one of them served to express his feeling for color. With Courbet it was quite the reverse. His mood appeared almost always sombre. Did he paint the ocean, it was not brilliant with blues and greens, but heavy with tempest and darkened with rolling clouds. Did he paint a combat of deer in a summer woodland, it was with deep browns and greens and heavy shadows, sunlight and blue sky were banished, and light-colored foliage was shunned. Did he paint a portrait, it was again a scheme of solemn, deep tones, a head peering out of gloom, a hand coming out of darkness. But this was the way Courbet felt. His color-notes were the index of his artistic character. They revealed the sentiment and the feeling of the man—those two qualities which he sneered at all his life and intimated had no place in art.

Different again from both Regnault and Courbet was Corot, who looked to the early light of morning as the supreme beauty of the universe. The grays, browns, and pale yellows of his landscapes are but so many notes of a painted lyric—the song of a new Orpheus to the coming dawn. Color and light were never made more direct revealers of personal sentiment than with Corot. His color was not deep like that of Dupre, nor varied like that of Rousseau. In conceptions of beauty he was not so diversified as they were, nor so turbulent in demonstration. His was a clear, pure flame, burning on throughout a long lifetime ; theirs was fitful, flaring up at times with great splendor, and then again sinking down low in the socket. It would not do to say that their sentiment was deeper than his because their color was so. For here none of them attempts to associate color with any extraneous sentiment about the landscape. In each case the color used tells merely the personal sentiment or preference of the painter, and the sentiment depends not upon the depth or height of hue so much as upon the emotional depth or height of the man.

And lastly we come to high color, the harmony of which is, perhaps, the most difficult problem and the most admirable feature of the painter’s art. The very rarity of a high-keyed harmony, the genius required for its production, might be sufficient reason for our admiring it ; but there are other good reasons inherent in the colors themselves. Our applause for the high notes of vocal music is not all given to the difficulty of the accomplishment. The pure beauty of the notes themselves captivates us. It is so with the high notes of color. When harmoniously used they constitute not only climacteric art, but beauty in the superlative degree. They have sweep, resonance, penetration, strength of feeling ; they have the capacity of revealing depth of emotion ; they have the ability to raise us on the wings of the sublime. Infinite in power as Shakespeare’s liquid words, they form the epic language of the Shakespeares of the brush.

But just how one should distinguish the Shakespeares of the brush from the Tuppers of the brush, and just how one should discriminate between the true language and its tawdry imitation would be difficult to tell in words. Every rule that could be formulated would be subject to so many exceptions as to render it quite worthless. We know and feel the quality of good color in contradistinction to bad color, but how we know it we are somewhat at a loss to divine. Were color a reasonable thing it might be subjected to law, but it is decidedly unreasonable, in fact it hardly appeals to reason at all, but rather to a sense or instinct. We turn over different patterns of silks or wall-papers, rejecting dozens to pick out one that pleases us. The mind, practically speaking, has nothing to do with the choice. It is the eye that says instantly whether a coloring is pleasing or not, as the waves of light strike the sensitive nerves of the retina pleasurably or otherwise. All the reason in the world could not make us enjoy the sight of Indian war-paint, nor the sound of grinding glass under foot. The nerves rebel without questioning the faculties of reason, or the theories of science. It is chiefly by the sensitiveness of the eye that we are able to discriminate between good color and bad color, between harmony and discord ; and our classification of color into low tones, deep tones, and high tones, is merely to point out the degrees of color, and to indicate in what proportion their combinations upon canvas have been found harmonious by people of taste. For that purpose the classification may be of service in enabling one to avoid much that is bad in color, and in giving the proper direction in the education of the sense of sight, but no more. Sensitiveness to color is undoubtedly increased by experience, for sight is susceptible of cultivation like any other sense ; and the only way that people ever become good judges of color-harmony is by continually seeing and studying it in the best models. We can learn much by association, for the human being is, after all, of the chameleon breed, assuming readily the coloring of his surroundings.

Though it is impossible to give an adequate rule that will enable one to appreciate readily a harmony of high color, yet there is one point that may be mentioned here, more by way of suggestion than dictum. There is a difference in the qualities of high colors arising from their mixing and their handling, and this difference is easily detected. In the city of New York one may buy on the street corner, for two or three dollars, frame included, what is called a “genuine oil-painting,” as indeed it is. These pictures are usually painted in very florid colors, but if you examine the colors closely you will find them shallow, muddy from bad mixing, lacking in transparency, and utterly devoid of feeling or sentiment. They have on their faces the stamp of crudity, such as we associate with the rampant lion on the tavern sign. On the contrary, if we study some of the pictures of Alfred Stevens, for instance, we shall find the colors quite as high, but of a different quality. His colors are possessed of richness, body, strength. They look pure as jewel lights, or ocean depths, and they seem to sound mellow as cathedral bells. The difference between the two is similar to that between the golden shields of Solomon and the brazen shields of Rehoboam. We should not be led astray by the brazen shields in art. They are the imitations, the counterfeits that pass current for value. Sound them to the eye as one rings the coin to the ear, and their baseness is immediately apparent.

I now wish, before closing with this subject, to speak in brief of some of the chief colorists whose works you may have seen, or may be fortunate enough to see hereafter. Refined color—note the word refined—is not found with any primitive age or people. It seems to belong to the latest period of enlightenment ; it is associated with wealth, luxury, splendor; and it is sometimes looked upon as the forerunner of political and social decay. Egypt, Assyria, Greece, and Rome, so far as we positively know, did not possess it. The colors of the Egyptians and Assyrians were primitive and crude. Those of Greece and Rome are supposed to have been very fine on the hypothesis that painting was on a par with sculpture and architecture ; but such fragments as have been exhumed do not quite warrant this assumption, the colors being decidedly harsh even after centuries of toning down. The Renaissance even did not produce refined color, except at Parma with Correggio and in its after-climax at Venice. The Florentines, if we except a man here and there like Andrea del Sarto, were more remarkable for line than for color. The Venetians, wherever or however they got their color-sense I cannot now stop to inquire, were the first great harmonists, beginning with the Bellini and the Vivarini, running on with Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, Palma the elder, Bonifazio, Paolo Veronese, and finally, in decay, closing with Tiepolo. Though the Venetians handled color in many different ways, yet the general color-characteristics of the whole school are great warmth, brilliancy, richness, depth, and resonance. The earlier painters of the school never showed the splendid qualities of Titian and Paolo Veronese, and the last disciple, Tiepolo, seemed to discard the deep notes of color for light pale hues. You will usually find Tiepolo set down in art history and criticism as a superficial imitator of Paolo Veronese, but a study of his work will convince you that there has been a mistake about him. His color is luminous, cloud-like, and perhaps thin ; but it is harmonious, and, moreover, strikingly appropriate to the ceiling frescos for which he was famous.

German and English art cannot be said to have ever had a great colorist at any time. Some of the early Germans achieved something approximating color ; and in England Mr. Ruskin has made great claims for Turner, but they are hardly substantiated by the works in oil and water-color of that artist in the National Gallery at London. Holland and Belgium, on the contrary, have produced many colorists of varying degrees of excellence. Rembrandt, with his deep ruby reds and garnets, his yellows, grays, and browns, vigorously handled and splendid in their warmth under shadow, was the great leader of the Holland school ; while Rubens, painting in lighter keys, and mingling cool, warm, contrasted, complementary, and accordant tones all together at times, was the leader of the Flemish school. A number of other painters of these schools should be mentioned as colorists in a limited sense, Jan van der Meer of Delft, Jan Steen, Brouwer, Terburg, de Hooghe.

The French painters have always dealt freely with color, but they never attained much success with it until the time of Watteau, a light and graceful painter, with not a little feeling for harmonious effects. His contemporary, Lancret, and his pupil, Pater, followed his methods, and in a somewhat similar, though more conventional vein were Boucher and Fragonard. Chardin, one of the most charming colorists in French art, stands quite by himself. Delacroix, the leader of the Romantic School which began to rise about 1825, to make round numbers, was perhaps the leading colorist in French art. Contemporary with him and after him came a number of painters handling color effectively, like De-camps and Fromentin, the Orientalists Rousseau, Dupre, and Diaz, the landscape painters and Baudry and Millet, the figure painters.

Spanish art has several notable colorists in its history anterior to the present century, chief among them being Velasquez. His work is usually remark-able for pure color handled with great simplicity and directness. Long after him, Goya, with some success, followed his methods, and after Goya, in the 1860′s, came Fortuny, a leader in the brilliant and the dazzling, who possessed much facility and some power, but unfortunately died young, leaving an incompleted record. Fortuny’s example has been followed by the Spanish school of to-day, which claims among its adherents many lovers of bright color, like Madrazo, Villegas, and Rico.

Here in America we never had much art worth considering until some dozen or more years ago ; so we have reason to be proud that we to-day possess painters like La Farge, Sargent, Dewing, who are not inferior in their handling of color to the moderns of Europe whom I have mentioned.