Art Treasures of Washington – The William T. Evans Collection

THE William T.. Evans Collection of paintings by American artists numbers, at the present writing, one hundred and thirty-six pictures. It dates from the month of March, 1907, when Mr. Evans announced to the Institution his desire to contribute to the National- Gallery a number of paintings by contemporary Americans of established reputation, naming thirty-six pictures in his personal collection which he had selected for the purpose. The acceptance of this offer made it necessary to secure a place for the temporary installation of the collection outside of the Museum and Smithsonian buildings, since neither of these contained, at that time, any available or suitable space for an exhibition of this character and extent. Accommodations in the atrium of the Corcoran Gallery of Art were at once tendered by the trustees of that institution, and the pictures were installed there until they were removed to the old Museum building in June, 1909.

When the first installment of pictures arrived it was found that Mr. Evans, in order to make a creditable showing in the Corcoran Gallery, had increased his initial gift to the nation to fifty paintings. Placed in a single line, they occupied the entire eastern and southern walls, and part of the western side of the atrium. Additions have been made at frequent intervals, and a few of the original pictures have been replaced by more satisfactory examples of the work of the same artists. The collection must be understood to be always, during the lifetime of the donor, in a plastic condition, and subject to many and frequent changes, additions, and improvements. It is therefore impossible to speak with finality of its compass or even of its intention.

The collection begins with the distinguished coterie of recently deceased artists who link the modern painters with their forebears. Inness, Homer Martin, Wyant, La Farge, Twachtman, George Fuller, Robinson, Hunt, and Winslow Homer are all more or less ably represented.

Of George Inness there are four examples : ” Niagara,” ” Sundown,” ” Georgia Pines,” and ” September Afternoon,” of which the first named is the most unusual and beautiful. Inness’ ” Niagara ” expresses more of the fleeting impression of the gigantic force of nature, and less of photographic accuracy than do any of the few great representations of this difficult theme. Church’s ” Niagara Falls ” is a much more descriptive picture more historically correct, more objective in its feeling. Inness’ presentation is a generalization. Everything is suggested in this idealistic impression of the falls. The colour is opalescent, ethereal, and lovely; the misty envelopment contains a sense of fine spray and seething foaminess, in which the eye recognizes no locality, but comes into the very presence of the misty rush of the mighty cataract, and all else grows hazy and indistinct. Far off, through the envelopment of the picture, a factory chimney discharges a rich column of brown, whirling, roseate smoke, which curls and spreads and mingles with the atmosphere.

Technically nothing could be less direct than this painting by Inness. It appears to have been done by the most involved of systems; to have been finally scraped out, and again scumbled with the palette knife, until what remains is only the spirit of the picture — a dream of Niagara — the very antithesis of Church’s literal rendering. How much of this effect was gained through intention and how much through accident it would be difficult to determine. The picture was painted in 1889.

The other landscapes by Inness are more in accordance with the traditions. ” Sundown,” painted in 1894, is a large pastoral scene under the effect of a colourful sunset. There are farms in the distance, and across the middle plane a woman passes, calling to cows that are coming, grazing, toward her. A big red sun sinks into the smoky horizon. The canvas has less distinction than the other, while it is at the same time, perhaps, more characteristic. ” Georgia Pines ” is even richer in col-our, and shows all the painter’s mannerisms.

The Wyants and Homer Martins are early and immature. Wyant’s ” Flume ” ties in with the work of the Hudson River painters, though it is richer and fresher; in ” Housatonic Valley,” also, Wyant has not yet shaken off the obsession of scenery. The collection catalogues three canvases attributed to Homer Martin (1836-1897), of which the ” Iron Mine: Port Henry, New York,” was concerned in the famous suit brought by Mr. Evans against the dealer from whom the picture was purchased. The suit was settled legally in favour of the dealer, but never to the satisfaction of the profession.

The two canvases by Winslow Homer, represent two antipodal phases in the development of this artist. ” High Cliffs : Coast of Maine ” was painted in 1894, after Homer had established him-self in his isolated life on the Maine coast, where he studied the sea in its dramatic relation to its rocky boundary; and may be said to represent the painter in the fulness of his powers. In this picture the rocks make a handsome diagonal line of composition, and are very rich and colourful, in strong realization of the character of the coast. The sea beyond is foamy with robust activity; full of salt, cold, green, and of elusive colour, and appears to thunder upon the rocks with tremendous force.

The canvas has an amusing peculiarity. As is well known, Homer made frequent use of his signature as a small, but none the less important, feature of his composition. He never signed ‘a picture carelessly, but always placed the name where a line would count in its detail. This canvas bears two signatures : one in red near the lower right hand corner, the other in black upon a patch, below the other, with the date, 1894.

” The Visit of the Mistress ” is an interesting souvenir of Homer’s early manner, well worth pre-serving, and considered one of the best of his numerous pictures of negro life. It was painted as late as 188o and retains the influence of his career as an illustrator, which seems so unrelated to his mature work, and which was yet so successful and dignified.

Though he developed into so forceful a personality, and may be considered one of the greatest figures in the history of American art, Homer’s early experiences were of the most normal. He was born in Boston in 1836 and his trend of thought manifested itself in his childhood. His natural attainments were such that when, at the age of nineteen, he went into a lithographer’s office, he could undertake the more artistic part of the work, making titles for sheet music, and a series of portraits of the Massachusetts Senate. After a few years he set up for himself and made drawings for Ballou’s Monthly and for Harper Brothers. With the breaking out of the war he went to the front as special correspondent and artist for Harpers, and later made a second and independent trip to the Army of the Potomac.

At this time his paintings begin with a series of army scenes, including ” Prisoners from the Front,” which was exhibited in 1865, and has be-come a milestone in his career, since at the Paris Salon of 1867, it was one of the few pictures by Americans that received favourable comment. Then came studies of negro life and character, followed by subjects taken from the life of the country and the little villages. Later came trips to the Adirondacks, whose rugged scenery and guides furnished material of which he has left abundant record. Homer went several times to Bermuda, making a wonderful series of water-colours of the life and character of the southern sea with its strange wildness, its magnificent sports.

While his subjects show an unusual variety, the sea appears as the dominant influence, which toward the close of his life completely absorbed the painter.

However simple and elemental Homer’s little canvas depicting the Old Mistress, who visits her former slaves, may appear in the light of our present sophistication, the picture makes a strong appeal by reason of the humanity of the types presented and the appreciation of their inherent beauty. The story of the picture is unobtrusive, serious, earnest, and human, without gallery play ; and as one studies it one realizes that thus, and not other-wise, the reality must have been.

The collection contains ” The Spouting Whale,” a charming trifle from the brush of William Morris Hunt (1824-1897), a mere fragment of open sea and expanse of sky, dominated by a large white cloud. There is, in this small canvas, something of massive conception indicative of the power of this unique and forceful figure in the history of American painting. The sketch has big quality combined with exquisite subtleties of colour and value.

Brattleboro, Vermont, has the proud distinction of having been the birthplace of Hunt. His father was a member of Congress. The boy was college bred, having been sent to Harvard at the age of sixteen; but he never completed the course, and owing to ill health was taken by his mother to live abroad. Hunt belongs to a kind of aristocracy in art, and had all the advantages that means and culture could procure for him. His artistic life began at Rome, where he studied sculpture with Henry K. Brown.

Talented in various directions, he was attracted to Düsseldorf to study painting, but his individuality soon revolted against the mechanical training of that school, and he escaped to Paris, where he is said to have already worked a short time at sculpture under Barye. In Paris he was so fortunate as to be deflected from his course, and entered the atelier of Couture, where he stayed five years, be-coming one of the most favoured pupils, and working in the private studio of the master.

Later he was attracted to the leaders of the Bar-bison School, and became an ardent disciple of Millet, with whose faith he had everything in common, and by whom he was most wholesomely influenced.

After a few years of this life he returned to America, in 1855, settling first in Newport, but taking a permanent studio in Boston, in 1862. He painted many portraits ,and figure pieces, became a well-known figure in the art world of his epoch, not only as a painter, but as a liberal and intelligent patron. Hunt’s greatest work, the decorations for the assembly room of the Capitol at Albany, became seriously damaged and was finally obliterated in 1888.1 He died at the Isles of Shoals, in 1879.

Every influence to which Hunt was subjected operated to his ultimate advantage. In his work one may trace the wholesome effect of his study of modelling, for he treats form like a sculptor, with an invariable sense of the solidity of things. Couture gave him drawing; from Millet he learned to appreciate the depth of beauty in simplicity of thought and of subject. His digestion was perfect and he assimilated what he took from these masters, without being in any sense a copyist. Hunt’s work is unmistakably individual in its simplicity, its nobility, and its colour.

John La Farge (1835-1910), another typical figure in the history of American art is represented in the collection by a rather unimportant work en-titled ” Visit of Nicodemus to Christ.” Trained by Hunt, his work ties in with that of his master more by historic association than by actual similarity. La Farge achieved his great work in decoration and in stained glass, in which field he was widely known and recognized during his life.

Two heads by George Fuller are but fragmentary. That of his son, Henry B. Fuller, done in 1873, is of some historic interest.

” Etre maitre,” says Burger, ” c’est ne ressembler à personne.” In Twachtman (1853-1902) again we feel the seer, the individualist — that exquisite personality, whose work seems all soul, all emotion and inner consciousness. John Henry Twachtman was the most delicately sensitive of the group of American painters affected by the impressionistic movement of the early eighties. The Evans Collection represents him fairly well with four can-vases, in which the landscape is used as a vehicle for the profound analysis of the subtle nuances of tone, in the mastery of which Twachtman has, not inaptly, been compared to Whistler.

Twachtman died all too young the inevitable consequence of his intense life, which must have consumed his nervous forces and drawn upon his emotional reserves with an extravagance that far exceeded nature’s power to reconstruct. His genius, rare as it was, did not reach its full fruition; and he never attained, probably, with his temperament, never would have attained, a masterly, professional style. This to his credit be it said. His canvases express the spirit of investigation, and there is not one, so far as the writer has observed, that betokens, in the smallest degree, the fatigue that at times slips into the production of even the strongest of painters. Twachtman never lost interest, and each canvas from his brush awakens in the spectator a corresponding thrill of enthusiasm.

The Torrent,” all things considered, may be counted the most interesting of the canvases in the Evans Collection. It has to a degree the quality of air and motion, and yields the essential sensation of this most difficult of themes. The subject he has attacked with even greater interest in his vision of Niagara, one of the most complete and extraordinary of his canvases. His ” End of Win-ter ” has qualities like Mr. Glover’s Inness, but is more poetic, more changeful in colour, more temperamental. In ” Round Hill Road ” are found those sensitive gradations of value, imperceptible save to the most acute eye, which Twachtman manipulated so skilfully, especially, as in this instance, in an effect of snow covered country.

The two examples of Theodore Robinson, a second disciple of the impressionist school, are charming, though fragmentary. ” La Vachère ” has big qualities of both character and colour. ” Old Church : Giverny” is a beautiful sketch in which the subject is treated as it appears above the trees in the little French town in the province of Eure, where Robinson spent some years toward the close of his life.

The collection boasts a masterpiece by Julien Alden Weir, a contemporary and associate of Twachtman and Robinson, and one of the most personal and individual of the group of men that has survived them. Weir was born at West Point, New York, in August, 1852, two months after Robinson and, a year later than Twachtman. His father, Robert W. Weir, succeeded Leslie as professor of drawing at the Military Academy of West Point, in 1832, and continued instructor of that department for forty-two years. Julien commenced his studies at the Academy, under his father, entering later the atelier of Gerome, in Paris.

Weir’s personality stands apart and distinguished. Strongly indifferent to style in painting, he produces his results by means of a laboured technique, involving a thick use of the pigment wherein one colour is laid upon another until the whole surface of the canvas is obliterated. His greatest force and charm lie in his ability to concentrate upon the point of interest in the picture, and to paint the accessories of the canvas in their relation to it, making constant compromise and sacrifice to the attainment of the one big end for which he strives. If art be indeed the expression of emotion, then Weir, before many of his generation of painters, seems most justly to deserve the title of artist.

” The Gentlewoman ” is one of his successful portraits. The canvas has rare distinction and quality. The figure is beautifully placed, and is rendered with keen appreciation of the woman’s beauty of face and character, her dignity and re-pose. The colour is wonderfully handsome in its subtle gradations and nuances. The refinement of the sentiment, the charming way in which every-thing leads up to the head, with its wealth of expressive hair, the quality and relation of the back-ground, and the generalized treatment of the hands and bodice, excite warmest admiration and enthusiasm.

Weir’s treatment of landscape is not to be properly estimated by the ” Upland Pasture,” in the present collection, in which mannerism persists to the detriment of interest in his theme. In this can-vas less than other landscapes by Weir, may be studied those subtle and just relations of tone that so ably. hold the canvas, in its enveloping atmosphere, within the frame, imparting an almost decorative flatness.

The collection contains less fortunate examples of Childe Hassam, whose ” Georgian Chair ” and Spring : Navesink Highlands ” are of indifferent interest; and of Willard L. Metcalf, whose ” Family of Birches ” is one of his slighter canvases. ” Shinnecock Hills,” by William M. Chase, belongs to the painter’s least powerful type of picture.

Emil Carlsen’s ” South Strand ” exhibits refinement and beauty of design, and is an interesting study in degrees of value and colour. The division of the composition leaves a great expanse of blue sky, upon which cumulous clouds are piled. This blue is largely the note of the water, upon which several row boats ply, and a white sail gleams upon the near horizon, for the spectator is low upon the shore.

Four examples of Ralph Albert Blakelock are included in the collection. Of these, ” Sunset ” has a fine quality of light and is a rich example of the painter’s generalized style of working. ” Nature’s Mirror ” is a cool, pretty wood interior with a nude figure. The canvas is roughly done, with a palette knife, but shows much delicacy of thought and feeling in the supple form of the figure seated upon the bank.

Amongst the chef d’oeuvres of the collection must be mentioned ” Caresse Enfantine,” by Mary Cassatt, an admirable example of the most mature period of the work of this robust American woman painter, an associate of the impressionist movement in France, her country by adoption. There is in this canvas vigorous painting, handsome composition, and great beauty of expression. The infant, which stands upon its mother’s lap, is a powerfully drawn nude, and makes a strong mass in the arrangement, giving also play to the painter’s skilful flesh painting and her clever manipulation of contrasting values and textures.

” The Moose Chase ” is a very early example of the work of George DeForest Brush, in a style that he has completely outgrown. The picture was painted in 1885 before he had shaken off the traditions of Gerome.

Elihu Vedder’s ” Cup of Death ” is a recent accession, characteristic of the painter’s classic style and decorative treatment.

The collection includes two marines and a large decorative canvas by Frederick J. Waugh, which represent the later development of an artist who has lived many years in England. Waugh is a skilful technician and a very thorough workman. His attitude toward the sea is a literal one, showing careful drawing of its superficial character, with a penchant for the grandiose in subject which might be the result of his association with English painters. In his ” After a Northeaster,” one feels a sense of arrested motion, as though the ocean had posed for the artist in a state of static fury. Waugh stops the northeast gale at the moment which he wishes to record, and studies for effects which astonish rather than convince. His foam, his spray, his drawing of a wave, all suggest the accuracy of the camera. The weight of the sea is not that of the heavy, living body of water, but relates more closely in substance to metal, while even the colour suggests the patine to be found on bronze.

His painting of the sea is the antithesis of that of his clever young compatriot, Paul Dougherty. Where Waugh leans hard upon his crutches, Dougherty, with the impatience of youth, paints from chic, achieving brilliant brush work, and a suggestion of realities that is in its way very amusing.

Waugh’s ” Knight of the Holy Grail ” was purchased from the Eighty-seventh Annual Exhibition of the National Academy of Design. It illustrates upon a large canvas Tennyson’s poem :

Sometimes on lonely mountain-meres I find a magic bark, I leap on board; no helmsman steers; I float till all is dark. A gentle sound, an awful light. Three angels bear the Holy Grail. With folded feet, in stoles of white, on sleeping wings they sail. Ah, blessed vision, blood of God! My spirit beats her mortal bars As down dark tides the glory slides and starlike mingles with the stars.

The subject is an ambitious one in its attempt to realize upon canvas the grandeur and sublimity of a mental picture, which the poet, in his lines, conjures up for us. It would seem to have been better suited to a genius less hampered, more imaginative and sympathetic.

John W. Alexander’s ” Toiler” is a pleasing note from this artist, whose contribution to the century is his graceful, decorative composition, and his flowing line. In colour and design his work relates to the art nouveau movement. With Alexander manner dominates; he is a masterly draughtsman, a brilliant technician, working in a professional, accomplished way that commands admiration.

” Summer ” is fairly characteristic of Dewing’s refined style. Robert Blum’s (1857-1903) ” Canal in Venice : San Trovaso Quarter ” commemorates the memory of an able painter whose light was early extinguished.

James Henry Moser, a Washington artist, is represented by an oil painting — ” Evening Glow : Mount McIntyre ” a charming example of Moser’s treatment of landscape, dominated by poetic feeling.

The collection includes a portrait of the donor, by Alphonse Jongers, painted in 1902 ; figure pieces by Sergeant Kendall, Robert Reid, Irving R. Wiles, F. S. Church, E. Irving Couse, Kenyon Cox, Henry B. Fuller, Henry Oliver Walker, and Douglas Volk; landscapes by Ernest Lawson, W. L. Lathrop, Charles H. Davis, Albert L. Groll, Will Robinson, Cullen Yates, George Elmer Browne, F. A. Bicknell, George H. Bogert, William Gedney Bunce, W. A. Coffin, J. Foxcroft Cole, Charlotte B. Coman, Bruce Crane, Henry Golden Dearth, Charles Melville Dewey, Charles Warren Eaton, Ben Foster, Edward Gay, Robert Swain Gifford, Robert C. Minor, J. Francis Murphy, Leonard Ochtman, Albert P. Ryder, Henry W. Ranger, Abbott H. Thayer, Roswell Morse Shurtleff, Dwight William Tryon, Alexander T. VanLaer, Horatio Walker, Worthington Whittredge, Carleton Wiggins, and Guy C. Wiggins.

An unusual canvas is ” Entrance to the Harbour,” by Henry W. Ranger, painted in 189o, which in its charming grays, its atmosphere and movement, resembles a Boudin (1825-1898) — that early French painter, before the Barbison School. The canvas is full of beauty, based upon close observation of nature, and unlike the painter’s later work, which appears to be the product of cool calculation of cause and effect, seems to proceed quite simply from inward conviction and subconscious vision. If indeed Boudin influenced Ranger at this early period, the effect upon the younger painter was wholesome. Boudin taught him to see, and he has seen here a little lyric.

The Evans Collection preserves, ,and is, in fact, largely dominated, by the work of that type of artist bred by the exigencies of the American life, with its thirst for wealth, and its impatience of delay. In the work of many of these men, the inherent muse has been early extinguished, while the painter has pursued the thing successfully seen by others at the sacrifice of his own personality. That large class of work built upon the achievement and discoveries of the old masters, or upon the later methods and subjects of the Barbison School — which has still many followers — even where the imitation is most clever, is to be regretted for its meretricious tendency and the fact that, separated from its natural environment, it loses all raison d’être.