Art – The Artist

THERE is current a misuse of the appellation “artist” which it will be well to indicate, and remove at once the misunderstanding that results from it. One hears painters of national reputation refer to themselves and other painters as “artists” and say that So-and-so is not an artist but a sculptor or an architect. This is, of course, merely a care-less or an ignorant use of language; but its constant repetition has had the effect of lodging in the minds of the laity the idea that an artist is only he who paints pictures.

An artist is a practitioner of any of the arts of expression.

The architect, the painter, the sculptor, musician, poet,. writer, dramatist, actor, the designer of decorative objects of use or beauty, all are artists. The artist who paints pictures is a painter, the artist who writes or performs musical compositions is a musician, and so on through all the arts.

Next in rank is the craftsman or the artisan in the artistic crafts or trades, such as: wrought ironwork, bronze and the precious metals, textile weaving and printing, stained and painted glass, pottery, tile work, faience, stamped and tooled leather, book printing and binding, wood and stone carving, furniture. These crafts have been, and in some cases still are, practised with such a degree of imagination, such skill and insight, as to make their products works of art in every sense of the term. Benvenuto Cellini was a gold-smith and jeweller before he became a sculptor; in fact it was the common practice during the Renaissance period to apprentice a boy to a goldsmith as the preliminary step to his becoming a painter, sculptor, or architect. The status of the artist in times past was much nearer that of the artisan than it is today or has been for a century and a half or more. The architect of ancient times was a sort of master builder and was often sculptor as well. The sculptor frequently undertook important works of construction, as witness Phidias, who, besides executing a great deal of the sculpture himself, directed for Pericles all of the work of the architects, painters, and sculptors engaged upon the new buildings on the Athenian Acropolis after the Persians had destroyed the earlier temples. Of the position of the painter in Greece we have little to guide us, but we may judge from the respect with which the works of such men as Apelles and Zeuxis are mentioned that they enjoyed a high measure of consideration. The art of making and painting vases was much esteemed, and the craftsman signed his vase as the painter signs his canvas today.

The identity of the artist was lost, in Assyria and Babylonia, in that of the King, who claimed the credit for every-thing; and in Egypt, in the priesthood which held a monopoly of all intellectual activity; and after the Alexandrian Age, for seven or eight centuries from about 300 B. C., the world was so busy being conquered and reorganized by the Romans, and then in being overrun by the Barbarians, that all record of the identity of the artist with his work was lost. Yet, during the Roman domination some of the most stupendous architectural monuments the world has seen were built—by whom ? And the gardens and villas of the Roman patricians were crowded with thousands of statues by sculptors now unknown, unhonored, and unsung. Then for ages of darkness the civilized Western world was recovering from the blows rained upon its weakened body by the barbarian hordes, and the artist as an individual does not emerge until the Renaissance. During the Middle Ages—the three or four centuries between the close of the Dark Ages at about 1000 A. D. and the dawn of the Renaissance—his identity was merged in the guilds, associations, or unions, of workmen; masons, carvers, carpenters, painters; sometimes stationary in towns, sometimes so organized as to travel from place to place wherever their work was wanted. It was such bands of workmen who built the great cathedrals of France and England, who carved the statuary of the portals and decorated the interiors with vivid color.

When man’s intellect began to awaken, to shake off the domination of the Church and think for itself, and men began to regard themselves as men, rather than as worms of the earth, we find individuality develop like a gourd-vine; and in this new atmosphere we discern the dim forms of Cimabue and Pisano, their contemporaries and immediate successors; the identity of the artist has once more emerged, never again to be lost so long as the printed word shall endure. The artist of the Renaissance did not have a studio in the accepted modem sense—he had a workshop, his bottega, which was also a salesroom. Here he made and sold his wares, and here he often lived and his apprentices with him. He would paint you an altar-piece and design and carve and gild and paint the frame, and deliver it at your house or parish church just as you pleased; or make a wedding-chest, to hold your linen or the hangings of your rooms, and paint and carve and gild that. He was architect, sculptor, painter, goldsmith, craftsman, contractor, shopman, all at once, or separately, as the occasion demanded. Giotto, a great painter, designed and built the Campanile or bell-tower of the Cathedral of Florence, and carved some of the statues that adorn it. The narrow specialism of the present day was unknown. The importance of the artist in the social scale and the body politic is indicated by his position below the Arte, or seven principal guilds, of Florence, ranked thus: notaries, dressers of cloth, changers, wool merchants, physicians, silk merchants, and skin merchants. It is evident that he could give himself few airs, in the early years of the Renaissance at least—although later he won for himself a far more important position, and became the confidant and intimate of statesmen and kings, like the Flemish painter, Peter Paul Rubens, who was ambassador to Spain and lived like a prince.

As time went on specialism gradually became the vogue and less and less did men practise more than one art. Social conditions so developed that an artist depended upon the patronage of a king or of some nobleman; the fulsome dedications of books and prints characteristic of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries indicate a servility on the part of the artist repugnant to the spirit of today. It is only within the past century or so that the artist has shaken off this condition of servitude to a single patron and offered his work to the world at large.

The attitude of the artist toward his work has always been essentially simple. Your true artist looks upon his work as his daily job, like a man, as he should. The tire-some pose, the unspeakable twaddle current about art and artists, are in part an inheritance from the long-haired, romantic, Byronic era; partly the result of the airs of mystery second- and third- and tenth-rate artists have tried to surround themselves with, partly a product of the glamour with which the idea of a studio, where mysterious rites are supposed to be performed, is invested by some minds; the studios of figure painters, too, are filled with all sorts of plunder—stuffs, draperies, weapons, vases, all sorts of things the painter uses in his work and likes to have about him—creating a special kind of atmosphere. We have also to count with the imaginative layman who insists upon interpreting the artist’s work for him, reading into it meanings the artist never dreamed of giving it. The artist is primarily absorbed in making ‘something beautiful, or in working out some problem connected with that aim; if his trade is not in words he is usually inarticulate in direct ratio to his artistic ability. Then too, the painter works alone, shut up by himself because he does not wish to be disturbed—and the inveterate gusher bleats about ” the master,” withdrawn within himself, communing with his dreams. Whatever “the master” may feel in his inmost soul about his dreams, his aspirations, he keeps to himself, and only permits the world to guess at from the indications of his art. Enough has been said to suggest the ways in which an unhealthy impression has grown up.

The sculptor’s studio is a workshop where a good deal of rough work is done with clay and plaster, and where there is apt to be an assistant or two about. And the architect’s ” studio ” is no studio at all, but an office, where a great deal of mere business is transacted and where, at busy times, many draughtsmen, engineers, and office assistants are employed, and where art may very easily be crowded out by the pressure of business matters. Future chapters are devoted to the manner in which the architect, the sculptor, and the painter do their work, and the materials, appliances, and processes they use; but before we go into such technical details, we must have some notion of those physical limitations which restrict the means of expression proper to each of the three arts within pretty well defined bounds; the mode of expression in each art is subject to immense variation according to the taste, temperament, and training of the artist.