Art Treasures of Washington – Links In The Chain Of American Painters

WITH Church, the Hudson River painters reached their limit of expression and most nearly achieved the ideals for which they strived. Church had no logical succession, and after him the dynasty of American landscape painters split into several factions. During his lifetime Constable had no followers, and though he died in 1837, it was not until the forties ,and fifties, when the Barbison School was already flourishing, that his pictures became known. With the new movement, earlier influences ceased to operate — the note of the Norwich School with its weather-beaten trees, old woods, deserted huts, and stretches of heath, in the style made memorable by Old Crome, and which had its effect upon our landscape art, was relegated to oblivion.

The new thought turned into three main channels, of which the group headed by Inness was the only one to develop any pronounced vigour of originality. The others split into the commercial vendors of the Barbison discoveries, or carried on to the point of disintegration the theories of the Hudson River painters.

Inness is the one great artist of his generation. He alone of all his epoch makes actual contributions to the history of art. He is the one painter whose works will live beyond all peradventure.

Although George Inness (1825-1894) was so exactly contemporary with Church and Bierstadt, his recognition as the greatest American landscape painter of his period came so much later in life than did the plaudits that fixed the popularity of the more easily assimilated work of his confrères in early manhood that in the chronological development he belongs to quite another epoch.

Inness was fully fifty before he began to be appreciated, and it was not until 1878 that his works began to be known. Once started his ascent to fame was incredibly swift. As an instance of his meteoric rise to popularity, it is recorded that his picture entitled ” A Gray Lowering Day,” which was sold in 1879 for $300, was purchased ten years later by Henry Sampson, who paid for it $10,150.

Inness ties in with the Hudson River School of painters from the fact of his birth, which occurred at Newburgh on the Hudson, though his youth was passed in Newark, New Jersey. His only direct instruction was a month’s study with Regis Gignoux, a Frenchman, from whom, it is supposed, he received his first bent toward the painters of the Barbison School, which led to his later intimacy with Corot, Rousseau and Millet, with whom on his second trip to Europe, in 1850, he was much associated.

His development was logical and slow, and much of his youth was spent in assimilating the things he had seen. In 1871 he went abroad for the third time, and spent four years in Paris and Rome; but while he subjected himself to the influences of European art, both old and new, there is no man whom he can be said to have copied, or even imitated. He evolved, from much meditation and study of the great masters, the sound principles which governed his later work, and which form the basis of the difference between himself and his predecessors. Inness was the first in this country to realize the now generally accepted theory that the aim of art is not to edify or to instruct, but to awaken an emotion.

The Corcoran Gallery preserves a large example of the work of George Inness, painted in 1891 three years before his death — and representing his mature style, with a possible tilt toward decadence. It was purchased by the Gallery in the year that it was painted.

” Sunset in the Woods,” as the title suggests, depicts an interior of the woods, through which the sun strikes a path, lifting into prominence the trunk of a great tree, in the foreground, thence carrying the eye to a sunlit passage in the distance, beyond a great rock. The canvas presents a rich treatment cif a fine subject, and develops all the curious features of the painter’s method — the baffling technique attained by a well defined process of working, which included glazing and scumbling bright colour over dark.

In the method itself there does not appear to be anything particularly meritorious, on the contrary, one is inclined to say that the end does not always justify the means. The canvases themselves, and this one in particular, have often a sticky quality in itself repellent, proving, indeed, a real obstacle to enjoyment of the serious message that Inness had to deliver.

Certain it is, however, that Inness directed public attention into a new and more wholesome quarter, and he figures as a very definite milestone in the century of progress. He broke away by virtue of his own originality from the traditions of his forebears, when there was everything to push him into the stereotyped mould; and this at great personal sacrifice, for his early work —thin, smooth and meagre, like that done about him — found ready sale, while his change of style meant struggle and adversity. For this we owe him much.

But Inness is a separate and isolated figure, and if he made easier the route of those who were to come after him, it was not as a path finder. His discoveries, such as they were, he utilized himself in his own way, leaving nothing that posterity has been able to push any further. What he started he carried to completion in his own life and work, and though he had many imitators he does not count as an influence in the big scheme of the development of American landscape painting.

There is a canvas by Inness in the private collection of Mr. Charles C. Glover, the president and treasurer of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, that throws a new and refreshing light upon this painter. The title is ” Winter Morning at Montclair,” and it it signed and dated, 1882. This rare and beautiful canvas is absolutely simple and direct in its painting, and justifies what he himself once said of his work that he ” seemed to have two opposing styles, one impetuous and eager, the other classical and elegant.”

” Winter Morning at Montclair ” belongs to the first category — it is impetuous and eager, and so far as the writer’s knowledge of the painter’s work goes, appears to be the very gem of his middle period. The canvas would seem to have been, perhaps, an experiment in a complete discard of all mannerism. Here is nothing of Inness’ usual involved style of expression. Each brush mark stands unaltered in the painter’s charming résumé of the scene before him. It is winter; as may be noted from the bare ground and the occasional snow patches; from the cold colour of the sky, the bleak trees, or the figure of the old woman, who, huddled into her shawl, makes her way across the middle distance, with her armful of faggots. The picture is the essence of what the French call the paysage intime. Ever so cleverly and intimately does the painter lead the observer through his landscape, calling his attention to the stump of the newly felled tree in the foreground; to the tree itself, lying a little beyond ; to the old woman with her fire-wood; to the white patches, where a recent light snow fall has left its trace upon the frozen ground. On beyond is a house, and across the background stretches a wooded country. The sky is lit with the fresh blue of morning, and across its smooth surface lie thin, white clouds. The canvas is pervaded with a sense of openness, of clear, wintry morning, of country familiar and beloved by the . painter, who holds our interest in its smallest detail by virtue of his own enthusiasm in the rendering. The canvas has that delightful quality that makes one long to touch it, to follow with the fingers those brush marks so lovingly made, and to possess it.

Upon the original research work of George Inness a chain of his contemporaries was content to hang, repeating his utterances, and striving for some of the glory which his effulgence reflected. Of these the Gallery preserves examples of the most notable. In Alexander Wyant (1836-1892) the thinning out process begins. His ” Landscape : View from Mount Mansfield,” was received in 1901, and is considered a masterpiece.

Wyant was born in a small town in Ohio, where he was subject to the usual artistic privations until at the age of twenty years he removed to Cincinnati, where, it is to be supposed, he first came into contact with artistic productions worthy the name.

Though Inness was at this time a comparatively obscure painter, Wyant sensed his importance, and feeling within himself something responsive to the greater painter’s articles of faith, made the trip to Perth Amboy, where Inness then lived, and sought his advice and aid.

As a painter, Wyant had not the powerful execution nor the varied repertoire of his distinguished prototype. Glimpses of sunny, rolling country, seen between slender wood grown trees, form the theme upon which he develops many variations. The Corcoran Gallery’s example is purest pastoral.

With Inness, Wyant, and Homer Martin (the latter not represented in the Gallery) comes the culmination of the early American school of landscape painting. In J. Francis Murphy (1853-) we trace a less intelligent leaning upon the methods of Inness. His ” October,” painted in 1888-1893, reflects the subject, style, and mannerisms of the older painter to a marked degree. It came to the Gallery from the Thomas B. Clarke sale in 1899.

William Lamb Picknell (1852-1897), who is represented in the Gallery by two large landscapes, studied for two years with Inness in Rome, and afterward with Gérôme, in Paris. He lived and painted in Brittany, working under Robert Wylie until the death of that artist. ” The Road to Con-carneau,” considered the painter’s masterpiece, was painted in 1880, and purchased by the Gallery from the Thomas B. Clarke sale, in 1889. The picture is clear and brilliant, more like the atmospheric effect of Arizona, in the sharpness of its detail and the intense blue of the sky, than like France. Picknell’s style was realistic and his method of painting direct and courageous. ” En Provence,” bequeathed to the Gallery by the artist’s widow, is a work of a later period.

Of the army of painters dependent upon the Barbison School for the source of inspiration, we have here Henry W. Ranger (1858—) whose ” Top of the Hill,” formed unimaginatively upon the art of Diaz, is a fair representation of his thoroughly commercial work.

The cold literary ideals of the Hudson River painters are eminently preserved in the work of William T. Richards (1833-1905), of which the Corcoran Gallery contains three examples. ” On the Coast of New Jersey ” was painted to order for the Gallery in 1883. Richards is a notable example of an artist who achieved his great success during his lifetime. His work was received and hung in the Royal Academy, in London, in 1869, 1878, and 1881, and at the Paris Salon in 1873. He was medalled at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, in 1876. The pictures owned by the Corcoran Gallery are characteristic examples of his tight, photographic manner, and absence of temperament.

A certain tonal affinity appears to unite the work of Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847—) with his senior painter William Keith (1839-1911). Blakelock is, however, the more original painter. He is an extreme example of the fad for developing the intrinsic beauties of pigment, as such, without attempting accurate transcripts of nature, which at this juncture began to take possession of certain painters. Blakelock is much more adequately represented in the Evans Collection at the National Museum in Washington, and will be more fully considered in the chapter dealing with that gallery. The exam>ple owned by the Corcoran Gallery, ” Colorado Plains,” is small, but handsome in its effect of light, and warmth of colour.

William Keith was a Scotsman, born in Aberdeenshire in 1839. He studied with Achenbach and Carl Marr, and came to New York in 1851, where he worked at engraving until 1859. In that year he went to California, and before his death became the leading painter of the Pacific Coast.

” By the Creek : Sonoma ” was received by the Corcoran Gallery in 1911, and may be considered a characteristic example of his style. Keith also achieved some prominence as a portrait painter, and the Gallery owns his portrait of Irving M. Scott, the shipbuilder.

Of the figure painters of this period we have a good example of George Fuller (1822-1884), whose ” Lorette ” was painted in 1882, and bought at the William T. Evans ,sale in February, 1900.

Fuller is amongst the most original and important of our native artists. His career was a strange one. Born in Deerfield, Massachusetts, he made his start in life as an itinerant artist, painting portraits for a pittance, and eking out his talents by a few months’ study in Boston and New York. In 1857 he was sufficiently recognized to be made an associate of the National Academy of Design, but his art was so unremunerative that two years later, when the death of his father and brother made him the head of his family, he was obliged to return to the old place in Deerfield, and to assume charge of the farm in order to provide for its wants.

Painting became thenceforth a secondary consideration, but Fuller worked at it for his own amusement and ‘solace, developing in his isolation a strength of personality that had been lacking in his previous work. Before he returned to the farm he made a six months’ trip to Europe, to visit the galleries in an effort to absorb enough inspiration to last him through the years of contemplated sacrifice. He seems to have grasped something of Hunt and of Millet in this flight and in his work is a considerable robust affinity with that of those sturdy masters.

In 1876 the failure of his efforts as farmer to yield an adequate living, for himself and for those dependent upon him, forced Fuller to send a few pictures to a Boston dealer. These canvases bore no relation to his previous careful, prosaic work, and their success was instantaneous. For the remaining eight years of his life he had purchasers for whatever he did.