Art Treasures of Washington – Influence Of The Dusseldorf School Upon American Painters

WHILE the Düsseldorf influence operated mainly in the department of figure or genre painting, several of our landscape painters came also under its sway. Whittredge, as well as Hart, were students of the Academy, though Bierstadt is the most significant product of its theories, in this country, and was the one to profit most of its instruction and to hand on the traditions to his followers.

James Hart studied under Schirmer at Düsseldorf, but succeeded in throwing off the cramping effects of the tight, dry smoothness of the method characteristic of the school, gaining with experience more freedom of brush work, and developing some originality of colour. ” The Drove at the Ford,” by James M. Hart, included in the Corcoran Collection, was considered one of the painter’s best efforts. It was acquired for the Gallery immediately after its completion, in 1874.

The American products of Düsseldorf influence were not so individualistic as those of the preceding period, though technique had doubtless improved under foreign tutelage. Worthington Whittredge and R. M. Shurtleff became apt in the faithful delineation of wood interiors, with sunlit patches, and James and William Hart and others worked in the same vein, showing intelligent perception of the beauties of wooded dells and rural scenes, to the study of which they brought, however, more of conscience than of joy.

The practical American mind soon shook off the false note of sentimentalism which was the most pernicious of the Düsseldorf evils. Interest in the development of the country was too great for unwholesome indulgence in idle day dreams ; and another impetus was felt, toward the middle of the century, with the discovery of gold mines in California, which carried thousands of enterprising men to the Pacific Coast, .and stimulated not only commerce, but reacted upon the literature and art of the country. Exploration parties were equipped, and, in their train, followed artists, and, in due course, painters began to reveal to us the peaks of the Rocky Mountains, the glory of the Columbia River and the marvels of Yellowstone Park.

Their great compositions were so absolutely timely, so allied to the glorious pride of country, born of the discoveries of this new territory with its rich mineral resources, that they threw the people into a very ecstasy of delight; and artists like Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, bounded at a step into popularity.

The most permanent, as well as the strongest interpreter of this race of giants, which rose to the occasion presented, was Thomas Moran, who is ably represented in Washington, at the Capitol, with his ” Gorge of the Yellowstone ” and ” Canyon 0f the Colorado.” But the best that came of their efforts was that they taught an appreciation of the beauties of our own country, and offset the insidious call of the platitudinous Düsseldorfers.

Of the best of the Düsseldorf trained painters, Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), the Corcoran Gallery preserves two representative examples. Bierstadt was born at Solingen, near Düsseldorf, of German-American parents, who brought him to this country in his infancy. His resolution to be a painter was taken early in life, and he embarked in 1853, equipped by the proceeds of his own earnings, for Düsseldorf, to seek the protection of his then eminent cousin, Hasenclever, a genre painter of some reputation, whose pictures were at that time very popular in this country. On Bierstadt’s arrival in Düsseldorf, he found that his kinsman had recently died, so that that patronage and assistance in the outset of his career was denied him.

He spent, however, three years there, in association with Lessing, Achenbach, Leutze, and others of the leaders, made some excursions and walking trips through Switzerland ,and on the Rhine, and spent some time in Italy ; returning to New Bed-ford, Massachusetts, in 1857, accomplished in his art, with many trophies of his industry and skill, and with a new zest for landscape painting, which he gave a turn in a new direction.

If the Hudson River painters were content to paint the pastoral landscapes of the country surrounding their farms and homesteads, with occasional trips into the native forests, Bierstadt returned, fired with an enthusiasm for scenery in the newly accepted sense of the word. He accompanied the expedition sent to explore the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains, under General Lander, in 1858, and there executed pictures, exploiting the wonders of a magnificent and hitherto undiscovered country. The prosperity of the country was propitious to the development of just such a type of painter as Bierstadt, who combined with a superb technical equipment, as technique was then understood, the faculty of possessing himself with the spirit of the scene, of representing vast distances and immense mountain masses, in such a way as hit the nation’s patriotic pride in the newly revealed splendours of its possessions. Bierstadt and Church received prices for their work which seem incredible today, and the lesser men were proportionately prosperous.

The more important of the two canvases by Bierstadt, owned by the Gallery, is ” Mt. Corcoran : Southern Sierra Nevada,” painted in 1875, purchased by Mr. Corcoran for $7,000, and presented by him to the Gallery in 1878. The picture is the epitome of the painter’s frigid style, which reproduces with the utmost exactitude, the physical features of the landscape, but which gives nothing of the temperament of either the painter or his scene, so that, in the end, one marvels merely at his temerity in attempting so vast a subject, or at his patience in its execution. The peak seen through the mountain mists, rises 14,094 feet above the sea level, and was named by the painter, it was claimed, in honour of Mr. Corcoran.

” The Last of the Buffalo,” was presented to the Gallery, in 1909, by the artist’s widow.

Bierstadt was a member of the National Academy of Design and had one of his chief works placed in the Capitol at Washington. His foreign honours, of which he enjoyed a number, included the Legion 0f Honour, bestowed upon him for his exhibits made to the Paris Salons.

With Bierstadt’s distinguished contemporary, Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900) the passion for scenery painting became an obsession. Church was born in Hartford, Connecticut. He early manifested a talent for painting which was fostered by his intercourse with the sculptor, Bartholomew, a youth about his own age, and with similar aspirations. In the uncongenial atmosphere which Hartford presented to their enthusiasms, the two found infinite solace in one another’s society. They discussed art, read, studied, and ” dreamed of its divine possibilities, and mutually encouraged each other in self-dedication to its pursuit.”

After some preliminary studies, Church became a pupil of Thomas Cole, and resided with him at Catskill, New York. A more genial and instructive home can scarcely be imagined for a young artist of those days, and the conversation of so noble and true a man, and the mutual study of nature, was a powerful factor in the artistic development of the student.

Much more richly endowed than Cole, Church took up the palette and brushes at the point where his kindly master’s life was so early extinguished, and carried to a fuller fruition than even his ambitious precursor had dreamed possible, his noble aspirations.

Like Cole, the shores of the Hudson and the legendary Catskills were the source of his first inspiration, but he, unshackeled by the thoughts of moral teaching that had retarded his master, lived closer to nature, knew more of the joy of art for art’s sake, and gradually developed an all absorbing passion for the heroic and the sublime, becoming in a sense an historian of nature’s miracles. The influences which Cole repudiated now had their effect upon Church, who was a great admirer of Turner.

The resources of the Hudson having been pretty well exhausted in his early youth, the rage for travel possessed Church, and in 1853 and 1857 the painter visited South America. The fruit of this voyage was his picture, ” The Heart of the Andes,” which created a sensation when it was exhibited in 1859. Later he travelled in Labrador, painting his great ” Icebergs,” which was shown in 1863. Three years later he visited the West Indies, and, in 1868, made his first trip to Europe, going also to Palestine.

On his return from his second expedition to South America, Church painted his large picture of the ” Niagara FaIls,” representing the Horseshoe Fall, as seen from the Canadian shore, near Table Rock, now in the Corcoran collection. This is his best known work, and takes its place amongst the few enduring masterpieces of the day.

Despite its niggling brush work and the inclusion of accurate details of things too far away, in the middle distance, to be minutely seen, Church has been enough of an artist to hold his values so together as to produce at least an effect of massing. The colour of the water is admirable, as is its sense of weight and the illusion of its steady, invincible, onward force. The composition is simple and delightful. The balance of the clouds to the right, with the horseshoe of the falls, the introduction of the suggested rainbow across the stormy sky, lost in the mist of the waters, are evidences of a sure and capable hand and brain, directed by the eye of an artist.

The picture was painted in 1857, and sold to Williams and Stevens, of New York, dealers, for $2,500. Even so late as 1857, picture making was a very different business from what it is now, and Church, alive to the possibilities of an income from his picture, sold to the same dealer ” the copyright for the chromo,” for a like sum.

The picture, extensively exhibited throughout North America and Europe, created something of a sensation wherever it was seen, and received a second-class medal at the Paris Salon of 1867. Ruskin saw and admired it. It once formed part of the collection of John Taylor Johnson, who paid $5,000 for it, and at the sale of his collection, in 1876, brought $12,500 and came into the possession of the Corcoran Gallery. In 1900 the picture was lent to the Metropolitan Museum for an exhibition of the artist’s work, held after his death.

Before abandoning altogether the subject of the influences of the School of Düsseldorf, let us for a moment leave the consideration of landscape, and direct attention to several genre pictures, owned by the Corcoran Gallery, which are typical of the exponents of this school.

The strongest product of Düsseldorf training is Emmanuel Leutze (1816-1868) who is counted as an American artist since he was brought to Philadelphia as a child, though he was a native of Germany, and made his home in Düsseldorf for nearly twenty years. The two Leutze’s owned by the Gallery came into its possession with the original collection. The larger of the two, indeed, ” Cromwell and Milton,” is said to have been painted for Mr. Corcoran, in 1857, as is quite probable, since the painter was vastly admired in the country at this time.

The plot of the picture is founded upon the intimacy which existed between Oliver Cromwell and his Latin secretary, John Milton, the poet. The latter is represented as entertaining, by his skilful performance upon the organ, the protector, his family and his friends. The children in the picture were painted from the artist’s own.

Leutze’s art consisted in his ability to put together a complex composition of many figures, soundly drawn, in fairly accurate costumes and surroundings. It was a common accomplishment in France and Germany, but even in his native country, Leutze was counted clever.

His second canvas in the collection, ” The Amazon and her Children,” is an earlier work.

Leutze is represented on a large scale by a wall decoration in the Capitol, but his best known and most noteworthy picture is his ” Washington Crossing the Delaware,” now in the Metropolitan Museum. This canvas has the virtue of simple sincerity without heroics, and it represents the culmination of a certain type of historical painting in America.

Though Eastman Johnson (1824-1906) was a pupil of Leutze during two years’ residence in Düsseldorf, the influences that obtain in his work are those of his four years’ sojourn in Holland, where he came under the happier spell of the little masters of the seventeenth century. From them he caught the true spirit of the genre subject and a fuller feeling for form and colour, and though he ceded to a popular demand for the literary subject, he contrived to combine the artist with the narrator.

His ” Girl with Pets,” owned by the Gallery, is an admirable example of the quality as well as of the substance of his art. The picture is full of trifling incident and naïve detail, which amuses without detracting from the very solid virtues of a well painted interior. It was painted in 1856, and belongs to the original gift.