Art – The Renaissance In England And America

THE English Channel was just wide enough to check the rapid spread of Continental influences and to delay England’s immediate participation in the successive developments of Continental art, just as the Alps had interposed their physical barrier to the immediate flow of Italian art into neigh-boring lands. The Renaissance therefore came very late to England; while her insularity has permitted her to give a certain local accent to the arts she has borrowed from abroad, she has paid the price of isolation in a considerable measure of provinciality and weakness. The conservatism of the Briton, his determination to be British above all things, have militated against the easy absorption of new ideas whether foreign or domestic. British arts like other British things are slow to change, although the physical geography of England lends itself to the ready interchange of ideas between all her shires. And Scotland early presents some interesting variants due to her long and sympathetic relations with France.

The transition from Mediaevalism to the Renaissance in England marches with the crescent strength and final consolidation of the power of the Tudor line in the reign of Henry VIII, when the arts of Italy were imported through Flemish and German agencies; in the style which resulted, the Tudor Style, the unlovely Teutonic and Flemish versions of Italian design were grafted on to the English Perpendicular stock—a very imperfect union.

When the bitter struggle between Henry VIII and the Papacy resulted in the separation of the English church from Rome and a Protestant England; when English enter-prise awoke under Henry’s able daughter Elizabeth; when Drake and Raleigh and a host of other English seamen began to harry the Spaniard, seize his plate ships, raid his treasure towns on the Spanish Main, and at last, falling upon the Great Armada he had dedicated to the conquest of Britain, scattered it to the winds and broke his power upon the sea, England became the dominant maritime nation of the world; when in her turn she began to explore and to colonize; when security and wealth came to her; then England’s Renaissance began. Neither in architecture, in painting, nor in sculpture did she produce essentially new things; just as her design, in the Gothic architecture built by Englishmen themselves—not by the visiting master builders from France who built the best Gothic she has to show—fails to grasp the true significance of Gothic, so her arts in the Renaissance are merely such variants of the forms transmitted by Italy, France, and Flanders, as could be expected of a nation non-creative in all the arts save literature. Here was England’s real contribution to that vast humanistic. movement we call the Renaissance; as Italy’s had been painting and sculpture and in the eighteenth century was to be music; and as France’s was rationalized architectural design. Even here, in the drama of the great Elizabethans, Italy made herself felt—in plot, in scene, in the dreadful fascination she exercised over the imagination of English writers as a land of intrigue and mysterious death, of stiletto and poison, of strange loves and stranger passions.

English contacts with Italy grew more and more frequent and Italian artisans began to replace Germans and Flemings. Then, in 1573, came Inigo Jones, who went down into Italy toward the close of the sixteenth century and studied her architecture at first hand. He fell at once, in North Italy, under the spell of Palladio, who had but recently died. When he came back he transformed the architecture of England by directing the thought of her architects into another and clearer channel than that clogged by the Teutonries which had been their inspiration theretofore. Every trace of Gothic disappears. Jones was a talented architect, but he appeared at an unfortunate moment, in the decadence of Italian Renaissance architecture, when the essential tranquillity and simplicity of the classical spirit was disturbed and obscured by sixteenth-century ineptitudes.

Between Jones and Wren there is a notable absence of strong designers from the English scene. Christopher Wren was born in 1632 and died, the greatest architect of England’s Renaissance, in 1723. At the age of twenty-nine he was a Fellow of All Souls’ College, Oxford, an astronomer of repute, and as a mathematician was appointed an Assistant Surveyor-General of Works. His first essay in the field of architecture was in Oxford, but five years later the Great Fire of London swept clear an immense field for the exercise of his talents. He not only made a new plan on modern lines for a new London—unhappily never carried out—but built many beautiful churches including the crowning achievement of his career, Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The influence of the new works going on in Paris under Louis XIV, which he studied in person, is plainly visible in Wren’s work, which owes more to French than to Italian models.

The ritual of the Church of England, with the participation by the congregation in the service, materially affected the interior arrangements and character of new Protestant churches ; they had to be light enough that the congregation might see to read the Book of Common Prayer and be of a shape and size that would make the sermon audible every-where. Those which Wren and his pupils and successors built have established a type that has long prevailed in the design of Protestant churches, even those of Dissenting sects, and which reacted to a certain degree upon that of the churches built during the Gothic revivals which occur from time to time. Some of these successors were Nicholas Hawksmoor, Gibbs, Vanbrugh, and Sir William Chambers. Later came the brothers Adam—one of whom, Robert, visited Rome and was a friend of Piranesi, then at the summit of his fame as an etcher of antique subjects—who represented in England the Classical reaction to which Stuart and Revett’s book on the Antiquities of Athens contributed strongly, expressed in France by the Directoire and Empire styles of Percier and Fontaine.

In all this long term of years not one sculptor of quality is to be noted, with the possible exception of Grinling Gibbons, better known as an ornamentist than a sculptor.

For painting there is far more to record. We have already spoken of Holbein, whose intensely personal genius left but little impress upon English art, and of Van Dyck, whose influence was immense and whose supple spirit adapted itself to that of the English social atmosphere. The English school of painting is substantially a brilliant school of portraiture, distinguished by the names of Hogarth, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Gainsborough, Romney, Hoppner, Sir Henry Rae-bum, and Sir Thomas Lawrence. Of these, Hogarth, earliest in point of time—1697 to 1764—struck the first national note in British painting. The works by which he was best known for years, indeed those with which the name of Hogarth is chiefly associated even to-day, were the pictures in which he satirized conditions of English life, such as the Rake’s Progress, and which were engraved and widely distributed. In these we have Hogarth the moralist; but there is another and more agreeable Hogarth who transpires in such portraits as the Shrimp Girl.

So long as English is spoken we may suppose Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough will be acclaimed in England as the bright stars of her artistic firmament, al-though Raeburn outshines them by far, and George Romney is nearly as able as they. Reynolds was born in 1723 and died in 1792, was President of the Royal Academy with all the prestige of that exalted post, and wrote much, sometimes wisely, upon art. With all his pseudo-science he was a poor craftsman and many of his pictures have cracked, faded, or otherwise deteriorated. Gainsborough falls within the span of Reynolds’ life—1727 to 1788—and like him was a various painter; his manner was exceedingly tight in his earlier work, but gained in freedom as he grew older. The positions allotted to these two men in the hierarchy of art by English criticism could only have been possible in a country or at a time deficient in much strong rival talent. It has also been the fashion to decry the work of Sir Thomas Lawrence, who is in many ways a more distinguished painter than either. But in all these matters the student of art should strip himself of all prejudice and, untrammelled by second-hand opinions, judge for himself, fearlessly make up his own mind—and with equal courage change his mind if new light upon the matter in question warrants it.

Henry Raeburn, born in Scotland in 1756 and knighted by George IV in 1822, is at once one of the soundest and most brilliant painters of whom Britain can boast. He was apprenticed in his boyhood as so many great Italian painters were, to a goldsmith, but turned soon to painting; his bent was portraiture and he was far beyond his day and country in the soundness and directness of his technique, a technique amazingly modern in quality, anticipating that freedom of handling we are made familiar with by that great modem master of brushwork, John Singer Sargent. He had very little formal training and left his native country only thrice, one of these occasions being a journey to Italy of some two years’ duration, when he was about forty-four. His portraits of men have strength, those of his women grace and beauty, and all of them have character. His color is warm and sympathetic. I cannot recall a single insipid can-vas by Raeburn, and in such portraits as that of The MacNab he rises to the level of the greatest portraiture the world possesses.

George Romney was more of the votary and celebrant of famous beauties. His ability, like Raeburn’s, was largely native and self-trained. His pictures aside from portraiture are now forgotten, but he painted some of the best-known and most highly prized portraits of the English school. He born in 1734 and died in 1774.

No school of miniature painting excels the English; it is an offshoot of the portrait school, and Cosway and Cooper are the leading figures of the group.

English painting has never been strong in complex figure compositions; in Roman Catholic countries there was always a stimulus to work in that kind, in altarpieces and the like; and at the height of the interest in the themes of antiquity, mythological subjects were in vogue in Italy. Protestant England, like Protestant Holland, fell back upon portraiture, genre, and landscape.

Of English landscape-painters we may particularize John Crome—Old Crome—who was born in the same year as Lawrence, 1769, and died in 1821; Constable, who was born in the year of American Independence and lived until 1837 and whose work strongly affected French landscape-painting after the exhibition of his work in Paris in 1824-1825 ; and J. M. W. Turner, born in 1775, an eccentric genius whose knowledge of the structure of rocks and hills and tree forms was profound and who was interested, long before the Impressionists appeared, in the painting of light; who died in 1851 leaving his unsold works to the British nation; and who left no school and no strong impress upon the artistic thought of the world, despite the extravagant praise accorded him by that least trustworthy of all critics of art, John Ruskin.

The countries of the Old World transmitted to their colonies in the New forms familiar to the colonists who modified them to meet the conditions of climate or the materials they found in their new homes. Spain gave her architecture to Cuba, Porto Rico, Florida, and Mexico; Canada reproduced the gray stone architecture of France; Holland’s children brought with them the roofs, stoeps, and gables still to be found on Long Island and in the valleys of the Hackensack and the Hudson ; but English architectural tradition naturally prevails, for the English capture of New Amsterdam substituted English taste for Dutch in New York; the settlements of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas, gave the entire Atlantic seaboard English customs, traditions, and arts; and when England superseded France politically in Canada, the architecture of the Canadian provinces was measurably affected. In the old French city of New Orleans, the seaport of the vast hinterland that was Louisiana, the traditions of France mingled and often fused with Spanish motifs, with charming results.

Although there were many colonies in North America, the style that is known in the United States as Colonial is of English origin, a child of the English-Renaissance, a descendant of the art of Italy. In England its immediate predecessors or contemporaries are known as Georgian, named from the German Georges who through the humorous fortunes of royal succession so long occupied the English throne. This Colonial Style is in essence a wooden architecture, or wood and brick and occasionally wood and stone in combination. Wood was plentiful, stone and brick difficult to quarry, make, or import. So that the cornices and columns that in England are usually of stone and of stone proportions and dimensions, in America were translated into wood, and in translation became more delicate in scale and assumed aspects in harmony with the limitations and qualities of the material. The style is by no means uniform through all the colonies. It is prim and severe where the Puritan laid his icy hand, grave and sturdy in the Philadelphia of the Quaker, genial and homelike in Maryland and Virginia where the social atmosphere was more Cavalier than Roundhead.

In painting, the American names of note in this early time are Copley, Stuart, and West. Copley would never have been heard of in a country in which art had in any degree matured; Stuart was a very fair portrait-painter in the chalk and rose manner of the time; and West lived and worked in England to no very resplendent effect. Of sculptors and sculpture the record is barren.

With this cursory glimpse of the art of the American colonies we reach the threshold of modern art. The American and the French Revolutions had shaken the entire Western World to the foundations. The freedom man had struggled for throughout the ages seemed at last to be attained, but though there were, alas, many weary years to traverse be-fore his goal could be reached, the shadow of these years did not fall athwart the smiling acres that lay between him and his new and far horizons. With high hope and confident courage he faced the coming years—and who shall say, as yet entirely in vain !