Boston, Museum of Fine Arts – Part 2

TO the right of the corridor we enter the rooms of modern painting. One of the pictures that marks the revolution which split French art and set the two factions—classicists and romanticists—at variance is “The Pieta,” by Delacroix (1798-1863), the leading spirit in the romantic movement. The younger artists, his companions, were sick and tired of the rule-by-thumb standard of the Academy and insisted on seeing nature themselves and representing what they saw. The classicists condemned them, insisting that their work was the “massacre of art” and that they simply worshiped the ugly. But the movement grew under opposition and out of the honest striving for simplicity and truth, which was the real underlying principle, after many years came the Fontainebleau-Barbizon School of 1830.

When we speak of the Barbizon artists somehow jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875) is the first man to come to our minds in connection with the little town. Millet was not the first of the 1830 men to find the ideal spot but he was the artist who became the most intimately associated with it. On his first arrival, when he smoked the great initiating pipe with Rousseau and Diaz, his smoke “rings” were so original that he was neither a “classicist nor a colorist,” according to the ideas of his artist friends, but, as he said, “just put me down in a class of my own !” Until his death, he was the living, moving spirit of Barbizon—the tiny village at the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau.

Millet was born a peasant and he always remained a peasant. No one can look at “The Harvesters Resting” (Fig. 10) without feeling the warmth of the close relationship and intimate knowledge that the artist had of these men and women—not, however, in the sense of these particular harvesters, but of all peas-ant laborers who by the sweat of their brow make the soil yield its increase. It is self-evident in Millet’s paintings that he represents the dignity of manual labor and still keeps the laborer a true peasant. Simply because his figures are uncouth and seemingly of the earth does not mean that they are specially downtrodden ; but it does mean that digging and grubbing, sowing and churning, harvesting and spinning to make a living are tasks that bow the shoulders and bend the back and cause physical aches and pains. Doubtless the harvesters gathered against the great straw stacks have expressed themselves as tired, but what a splendid tired it is! Their bodies bend and stretch and twist like sturdy oaks tried by the storms and stress of countless days of exposure. There is, however, no lack of interest in the resting group concerning the little episode of the standing man and girl—whatever it is. The warmth of the personal touch draws us very close to these peasants.

Millet deals with the elemental verities of life. Stop a moment and look at “The Shepherdess.” Yes, she does look stupid! But all day long through numberless days she has watched those sheep alone. She is simply a child of nature as she sits there on the hill-top. If she were restless and uneasy she could not be a shepherdess. Millet has imparted to her just the element that fits her for her work. Listen to his own words : “I would wish that the beings I represent should have the air of being consecrated to their position and that it should be impossible to imagine that the idea could occur to them of their being other than that which they are—the beautiful is the suitable.”

No two artists of the Barbizon school were more unlike than Millet and Corot (1796–1875). That they did not understand each other their own words testify. Millet says :

“Corot’s pictures are beautiful, but they do not reveal anything new.”

Corot says of Millet :

“His painting is for me a new world; I do not feel at home there-I see therein great knowledge, air, and depth, but it frightens me ; I love better my own little music.” If Millet’s work is “The Poem of the Earth,” then Corot’s is “The Music of the Earth.” Every tree branch and twig sing for gladness. If you listen closely when enjoying one of his morning or evening anthems you will surely hear the breeze whispering a ditty to the quivering leaves. And no wonder, for Corot was up to greet the sun and catch the first faint note his vivifying ray awakens. The artist says:

“Barn! the sun is risen. Barn! . . . all things break forth into glistening, glittering and shining in a full flood of light. . . . It is adorable. I paint ! I paint!” A little later his tone changes. “The sun aflame burns the earth. Everything becomes heavy . . We can see too much now. Let us go home.” That is it—a misty mystery hangs over his paintings. The trees drip with moisture; the dew is scarcely gone from the grass.

We need not be surprised at Corot’s trees; he lived among trees and knew them and loved them. His home at Ville-d’Avray (see Fig. 39), a few miles from Paris, is still guarded and caressed by them. Let us stand beside his lake near the house; there are willows in scattered groups, soft gray, smooth-barked, dull green beeches, and silver-leafed poplars hovering on the bank; and across the water Lombardy poplars stand tall and grim like sentinels at a castle gate. The classic landscape of “Dante and Virgil” (Fig. II) is one of Corot’s early morning pictures. The opening words of Dante’s Inferno vividly picture the somber setting of the scene. He writes :

“Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”

Full of sleep he wanders all night and in the morning has come to the foot of a mountain. He begins to ascend the desert slope but is met by

“A panther light and swift exceedingly.”

He thinks to return but

“The time was the beginning of the morning,”

and all nature is astir. A lion comes,

“He seemed as if against me he were coming, With head uplifted and with ravenous hunger.

And a she-wolf, that withal hungerings Seemed to be laden in her meagerness.”

Dante now gives up the ascent, but says,

“While I was rushing downward to the lowlands, Before mine eyes did one present himself.”

It is Virgil. He has come to guide him to his beloved Beatrice, where, he says,

“With her at my departure I will leave thee.”

When James Abbott McNeil Whistler (1834-1903), in his “Gentle Art of Making Enemies,” said, “As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight, and the subject matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound or color,” he no doubt gave the keynote to his religion in art. But when . we come to consider the portraits of his “Mother,” “Carlyle,” “Little Rose of Lyme Regis,” and “The Master Smith of Lyme Regis,” we are not sure that he told the whole truth of his religion. Surely the character of his sitters as the “subject matter” is just as important in these pictures as is his “harmony of color.” We admit that not often was Whistler interested in people per se, but when he was, who could or did show greater insight into their character?

Look at the folded arms of the “Blacksmith of Lyme Regis” (Fig. 12). Was ever a smithy more sure of his strength? We could say of this man,

“He earns whate’er he can; And looks the whole world in the face, For he owes not any man.”

It is possible, however, as we study carefully the sideways glance of the master smith’s eyes, that Whistler is also peering out of those pupils and with that baffling hint of mysterious understanding that held even his creditors at bay. The closer we observe the works of the master painter the more convinced we are that in each work he has left a vital, living part of himself. Even “Little Rose,” in her calm rebellion—that she has pitted herself against the whole world no one will deny—has a suggestion of child understanding far beyond her years. Back of those eyes is an uncanny spirit of mocking self-assurance that only love and faith could conquer. These two small half-length portraits are unusual examples of Whistler’s work, for he usually painted life-sized, full-length figures.

The opalescent tone of the painting of “The Halt of the Three Wise Men” (Fig. 13), by John La Farge (1835-1910), has the same jewel-like quality of his stained glass windows. Prismatic colors were, to La Farge, the strings from which he drew the most exquisite harmony. He interpreted nature through his color sense and whether he wrote with pen or with brush the same vision of delicate shimmering color rises before us. Look at the blending tints hovering over the level plain beyond the Wise Men and their attendants and note the subdued glory gathered into the equipment of the little company in the foreground. Now listen to his color scheme in his “Letters from Japan”: “Our rooms open on the water —that same blue water spangled with sunshine and fading into sky . . . . the white milky sunset which was like a brilliant twilight The still heat of the sun burned across our way, spotted by the flight of many yellow butterflies The heated hills on each side wore a thin interlacing of violet in the green of their pines their highest tops shine through with a pale-faintness like that of the sky. . . . A vivid green against the back-ground of violet mountains except where the sun struck in the emerald hollow above the fall… A rosy bloom, pink s the clouds themselves, filled the entire air the spray, the waves, the boat, the bodies of the men glistening and suffused with pink.”

John La Farge is rightly called the Nestor of our painters. His chief characteristic was “to do” modified by “to know.” He had a “nervous activity, unappeased by any effort, unsatisfied by any experience, and seeking and seeking again.” His insatiable desire to know led to his marvelous discoveries in stained glass—he was the inventor of modern stained glass windows and, by a process entirely original, he made that material as subservient to his needs as the pigments on his palette.

Elihu Vedder (1836- ) is unique and original in his portrayal of “ideas.” Even in “The Sphinx” (Fig. 14), a subject used by several older artists, he preserves the idea of infinity in the vastness of the outlying desert and of unsatisfied questionings in the silent, mysterious watcher that so long defied the inquisitive excavators. The riddle of the Sphinx is one of the myths of ancient Greece.

The Sphinx, a monster with a lion’s body and the upper part a woman, crouched on top of a rock on a highroad of Thebes and stopped every traveler to solve her riddle and if the answer was not correct she killed the victim. The king and queen of Thebes, Laius and Jocasta, had one son, but an oracle prophesying that he was dangerous to the throne, Laius left him on Mount Cithaeron with feet pierced and tied together. A herdsman of Corinth found the child and took him to king Polybus, who adopted him and, because of his swollen feet, called him Edipus.

When Edipus was grown he met Laius in a narrow road on his way to Delphi. Neither would give place to the other and Edipus killed Laius, not knowing that he was his father. The Sphinx was afflicting the country at the time with her riddle. Edipus, nothing daunted, went to hear the riddle. She said : “What is that which in the morning goes on four feet, at noon on two, and in the evening on three?” Edipus answered, “Man, who in childhood creeps on hands and knees, in manhood walks erect, and in old age with the aid of a staff.” The Sphinx was so angry at his wisdom that she threw herself from the rock and died. The people of Thebes were so grateful that they made Edipus their king and he married Jocasta, not knowing that she was his own mother. A terrible pestilence and famine soon overtook Thebes and when Edipus learned from the oracle what he had done, he put out his own eyes and wandered forth at-tended by no one but his daughter Antigone.

Another example of Vedder’s work in the museum is “Lazarus”—a weird, strange picture full of the miraculous spirit. Vedder always gives the impression of invisible powers stirring in the garments and of mysterious happenings among the surrounding objects. A swish of wings is heard in the swirling draperies.

Certainly “arrested action” was never a truer description of any portrait of John S. Sargent’s than in that of “The Misses Boit” (Fig. 15). The children have stopped just for a moment to watch the artist paint; he “dashes it right off carelessly” but with a rapidity of skill that is directed by an acutely trained mind. An Englishman once said of Sargent, “As the Americans say, he works like a steam engine.” Sargent’s concentration of mind is such that when a line is once drawn it remains—he does nothing in a hurry.

The decorative quality of the picture of the Boit children is like that of any harmoniously furnished room after four little girls have entered and given the warmth of childhood to the furniture. These little girls are darlings; but all children are darlings when their lives are regulated by the taste and skill of thinking parents. Taste and skill, yes, those are the qualities that Mr. Sargent puts into his pictures. Nothing is done in a haphazard manner, but the beauty of it all is that no trace of the manner of doing is felt in the result. Each little girl has a definite personality, yet who can fathom the method by which the artist has brought out that personality? We only know that what he has done “lives and breathes and moves and quivers.”

John Singer Sargent was born in Florence, Italy (1856), but he is a true American, the son of a retired Philadelphia physician, and he has never lost his Americanism with all his years of living abroad. His boyhood days were spent among the natural beauties and rare art treasures of sunny Florence, and there he began drinking in that great wealth of lore that comes out so naturally and fascinatingly in everything he does.

Winslow Homer (1836-1910), though trained entirely in American schools, was big enough in spirit to grasp the great essentials of true art and give to the world an art that appeals to humanity. Old ocean was never lashed to canvas in his moods of fury until Homer bound him. At first he used the angry or sullen waves as simple settings for scenes somewhat anecdotal in character but always human in interest. In the “Fog Warning” (Fig. 16) the boatman is one of that company of “shipmen who had knowledge of the sea.” The man shows no hurrying born of fear in the long sweep of the steady arms nor yet does he ignore the danger of fog and storm—his courage, born of experience, is cautious, steady and enduring.

Homer knew the ocean as few people knew it. His home for years was at Scarboro, Me., out on a spit of sand where the sight and sound of the ocean were ever present. Here he made those stupendous masterpieces of old ocean—veritable portraits of the mighty deep “when the floods lift up their waves.”

One of John W. Alexander’s most exquisite harmonies in color and feeling is “Isabella and the Pot of Basil” (Fig. 17). The long lines of the soft grayish-green filmy robe, the graceful curve of the lovely arm and the pathos of the sad, pale face make a picture to be remembered. We love it as a work of art and also because it brings to mind that pitiful story as told in Keats’ poem of “Isabel.”

Isabella was a beautiful Florentine maiden living with her two brothers. They had planned to marry her “to some high noble and his olive trees.” They found, however, that one Lorenzo, their servant, had dared to love her and that she, “Fair Isabel, poor simple Isabel !” returned his love. It was nothing to the brothers that these two loved each other. Lorenzo must die. They beguiled him out of Florence beyond the Arno to a forest where they slew him and buried him. They told their sister that Lorenzo had been sent in haste to foreign lands. She waited until her heart grew sick, but no Lorenzo came. At last, in a vision of the night, Lorenzo stood by her bedside. He told her of his murder and just how to find his grave. In the morning, with an aged nurse, she followed her lover’s description until she came to the large flint stone, the whortleberries, the beeches, and the chestnuts and under the fresh mound she found her lover. She took the precious head and kissed it.

“Then in a silken scarf She wrapped it up; and for its tomb did choose A garden-pot, wherein she laid it by, And covered it with mold, and o’er set Sweet Basil, which her tears kept wet.”

Her brothers, wondering why she always sat by her pot of Basil, stole it and when they found Lorenzo’s head, they fled from Florence. Isabella pined and died with the pitiful wail on her dying lips,

“0 cruelty, to steal my Basil-pot away from me.”

Downstairs in the Museum is a room devoted to the very early schools of painting in Italy and the north. These pictures hold an important place in the history of art and are well worth our inspection, even if our time is limited. It is not the beauty of the pictures that attracts us, but the fact that, after centuries of the so-called dark ages, the art instinct was awakened in individual men at various centers and they began to paint pictures, mostly of religious subjects. Their technical knowledge came, as it were, from their inner consciousness, and after centuries of evolution in painting, this consciousness grew into the skill of the great Renaissance.

Of the early religious painters Fra Angelico (1387-1455) is the one who stands for pure religion, and with him died religious art per se. When the Dominican Brothers came to Florence to their new home in San Marco they felt that their “Angel Brother” was the one to decorate the walls of their cells in the monastery. And today on those walls are the pure, fresh, beautiful frescos by Fra Angelico—as much of an inspiration to us as they were to his brother monks five hundred years ago.

No one can look at this exquisite little gem of Fra Angelico’s, the “Madonna and Child” (Fig. 18), without feeling the sincerity of the artist. The angels on either side of the throne are beings too pure for this earth, but they are perfectly suited to be attendants to the Virgin mother and her divine Child. The face of the kneeling donor is a bit of portraiture that would be amusing were it not that his whole attitude is that of child-like devotion; and St. Peter’s earnest solicitude in his behalf gives the scene a religious significance of importance. The figure of the knight at the right is truly wonderful; he is stiff and formal, but the metal armor covers a real body—not often did Fra Angelico succeed in getting a body inside the clothes of his figures—and his face is that of someone whom the artist knew. Those sharp eyes looking out of the corner of the eyelids are seeing the world. Fra Angelico has given considerable life to this knight, whoever he was; the halo around his head indicates that he was a martyr for Christ’s sake.

There are fine examples of the primitives in this gallery of early paintings—examples that are of rare value to students in the history of art. We are justly proud that now we have in our various museums of America a comprehensive collection of paintings from the earliest periods through successive stages to the Renaissance. In New Haven we shall examine the Jarves collection, at Yale University, and there continue with special pictures of artists who came after Fra Angelico.