Brooklyn, Institute of Arts and Sciences – Part 1

THE Central Museum of the Brooklyn Institute has such splendid examples of particular phases of painting in various countries and of special artists that we shall confine ourselves to some of these in our first study of the pictures. In doing so we shall not only gain a working basis but shall more fully appreciate the wisdom shown in the selection and arrangement of these treasures.

Perhaps the room devoted to the old Italian masters is not so attractive at first as the alcove devoted to Mr. Ryder’s lovely landscapes, but the old masters form the foundation in painting, like the Bible and Shakespeare in literature. Then, too, when we look with comprehension at such a picture as Taddeo Gaddi’s (1300-1366) “Triptych, Scenes from Life of St. Laurence” (Fig. 75), its child-like naivete captivates us. Taddeo knew a number of interesting incidents—legends of course—about St. Laurence and he proceeded to tell them in a simple, straightforward manner, perfectly well understood by the people of his time.

Very little is known of the life of St. Laurence, but it is believed that he lived, and leg-end reports him a Spaniard of the third century. St. Laurence early went to Rome and became a favorite of Sixtus II, then bishop of Rome, and was given charge of the treasures of the church. When Sixtus was condemned to death as a Christian, he besought St. Laurence to distribute the wealth of the church to the poor. When the Emperor Decius, tyrant of Rome, discovered that the treasures were gone he ordered St. Laurence to restore them. St. Laurence promised to do so in three days and, when the time was up, appeared before the emperor with a band of poor people, saying, “Behold, here are the treasures of Christ’s church!” The angry ruler commanded him to be tortured by roasting on a grid-iron until he should confess what became of the treasures. But St. Laurence only cried out, “I am roasted, now turn me and eat me !”

Taddeo Gaddi in the first panel shows St. Laurence before the Emperor Decius, and in the second panel the emperor’s order is being carried out. Was ever a story told more realistically or more effectively? The young saint, unconscious of physical pain in his joy at being allowed to suffer for Christ’s sake, raises his head and smiles at his persecutor, but the young attendant with the bellows, overcome with horror, turns away from the scene. We may smile indulgently at Taddeo’s quaint composition, yet the spirit of sincerity in it sinks deep in our hearts. The third panel is a curious mixture of scenes from the death of St. Laurence and St. Stephen. Legend gives various versions of the burial of these saints, but they all agree that when they were placed in the same coffin St. Laurence moved to the left to give St. Stephen the place of honor. For this act he was called “The Courteous Spaniard.”

The “Triptych, Miracles of St. Laurence” (Fig. 76) refers to certain acts of the saint after death. In the first panel to the left an angel and a demon are contending for the soul of Saint Henry II, Emperor of Germany from 1014 to 1024, when St. Laurence appears with a golden cup. It occurred in this wise: A hermit, hearing a rushing noise outside his hut, opened his window and called. “We are demons,” came the answer. “Henry the emperor is about to die at this moment, and we go to seize his soul.” The hermit begged them to stop on their return and report. A few hours later the fiends knocked at his window and swore that all had gone wrong. St. Michael, the angel of judgment, had laid Henry’s good and evil deeds on the scales and the latter weighed to the earth, but at this point “the roasted fellow,” as the demons called St. Laurence, threw into the light pan the holy cup and defeated them. The central scene represents St. Laurence rescuing souls from purgatory, and the right hand one shows him distributing alms to the poor.

The “Virgin and Child in the Sky” (Fig. 77), by Lorenzo Lotto, nearly two hundred years later, is a charming picture by a most individual Venetian painter. Lorenzo, a deeply religious man, was so true to his convictions that Aretino, the life-long friend of Titian, wrote of him ; “O Lotto, good as goodness, and- virtuous as virtue itself!” Early in life he spent four years in Rome where, under the influence of Raphael, his art deepened and broadened, but in no wise lost its originality.

The charm of the “Virgin and Child in the Sky” is in its entire freedom from cant. The “Adorers on Earth” at the bottom of the picture are sincere worshipers honestly offering their whole beings to the glorified ones. These people are not creatures of Lotto’s brain, but real men and women occupying various positions in the church and state of Lotto’s time. No artist, not even Titian, excelled Lotto as a portrait painter. His deep insight into character and abhorrence of the immorality of the age made him choose his sitters from among the virtuous, and in their faces may be read something of his own sensitive self-consciousness and religious aspirations. Lotto was never married, and spent much of his time wandering over the country, leaving specimens of his art in his wake. He refers once to portraits of Luther and his wife—perhaps he knew the grand reformer personally.

Another picture of special interest among the masterpieces in the Brooklyn Institute is the “Altar-piece,” by Sano di Pietro (1406-1481) . Excepting the “Coronation of the Virgin” (see Fig. 2o), we have no other ex-ample of Sano’s work in America. This “Altar-piece” has never been retouched in the slightest degree, and even the ancient frame has the original gilding, now dulled by age. In 1904 the picture was exhibited in Siena, at the exhibition of Ancient Art, in a room devoted entirely to Sano’s paintings. Although Sano lived in the same century with Masaccio his works belong to the century before; they have the devotional feeling, pure, sincere, childlike, of the Middle Ages. The artists of Siena took no active part in the new movement started in Florence. Their isolation and backwardness literally dropped them out of sight, even in the study of Italian painting, until very recent years.

The most striking picture in the Museum is Giovanni Boldini’s “Portrait of Whistler” (Fig. 78). As we stop before it I hear you exclaim, “So that is Whistler!” Yes, “the Whistler whom the world knew and feared.” Do you remember the portrait of his mother? He has the same flat cheeks and hollow temples; the frontal bone has the same curve over the eyes; the wrinkle that begins at the base of the nose and drops to the chin is there; the mouth is the same, only the son smiles half contemptuously, half kindly, but the mother’s mouth expresses no transient emotion, only the habitual control of years. We feel like asking, “Was this the true Whistler?” Probably not the one his mother knew, but the one Boldini knew. Whistler himself said of it, “They say it looks like me, but I hope I don’t look like that!”

Mr. and Mrs. Pennell, in mentioning this portrait in their biography of the artist, say that “it is, however, a wonderful presentment of him in his very worst mood, and Mr. Kennedy (who went with Whistler to Boldini’s studio) remembers that he was in his worst mood all the while he posed. It is the Whistler whom the world knew and feared.”

Giovanni Boldini, born in 1845 in Ferrara, Italy, has lived in Paris since 1872. In his portrait of Whistler he shows that sensitive appreciation of the caprices of a high-strung, easily irritated nature that has made him famous as a painter of women with nerves. Whistler hated posing and took little naps in between. But Boldini caught him in his waking moment with photographic exactness, so like him that Mrs. Pennell says, “You might be looking at Mr. Whistler’s reflection in the glass as he sits there, his right elbow on the back of his chair, his head resting on the ex-tended fingers of the hand, the other hand holding his hat on his knee . . . . in this sort of achievement no one can be compared to M. Boldini.”

The French school of the nineteenth century is well represented in the Museum, and some of the examples are specially interesting as representing artists not usually found in our galleries—artists, too, who were helpful in bringing about the regeneration of French art. We are all more or less familiar with the re-productions of the “Princes in the Tower,” by Paul Delarouche (1797-1856), but very few of us have thought of him as an innovator. To understand why Delarouche stepped aside f rom the beaten path we must look at the “Portrait of the Artist’s Mother” (Fig. 79). Could the son of that mother conform to Academy rules and regulations? True, Delarouche was not big enough to break away entirely, but he was able to extract the best from both the classic and romantic and use it in his own individual way. He fell short in invention—perhaps he lacked the determined chin of his mother or her far-seeing eyes—but he had her strength to protest and her will to make the protest a constructive one. His eclectic methods, which acted as a check to the excessive freedom to the romanticists who knew no rules, became the name of a school founded by him. That he drew to his studio such young men as jean Francois Millet, Gerome and Israels proves the forcefulness of his personality and that he had something more substantial to offer than dead rules and flighty theories.

Again we look into the face of his mother, for in that face we recognize the power be-hind the throne. What splendid mothers artists have had ! This artist-son, knowing well the mother’s heart-prayers that follow and strengthen his aspirations, must feel the mother-love guiding his hand, for his likeness of her goes straight to’ our hearts. A collection of portraits of mothers by artist sons would be wonderfully inspiring.

Eugene Louis Gabriel Isabey (1804-1886) was a miniature painter of note during Napoleon’s time. One of his pictures, “Isabey’s Boat,” that had immense success at the French Salon in 1820, was a portrait group of himself and family. At this time Eugene was a lad in his teens. The son’s talents turned more to marine-painting. In 1830 he went to Algiers in an expedition of that year as royal marine-painter. This “Street Scene” (Fig. 80) has much of the Algerian spirit in it. That narrow passageway, with its bordering acute-gabled houses serrated against the sky, leads into uncanny byways of the mysterious Orient. The strange fascination thrown over us by a street scene like this is a curious example of the power artists have over our imaginations and emotions.

Another French artist whose individuality marks him as an original thinker was Henri Harpignies (1818- ). He literally forged his way to greatness through the power of his will—he compelled admiration rather than gained it. His picture of the “Cottage in the Woods” (Fig. 81) holds us by its very solidity.

Strong and substantial are fitting words to de scribe it. No cyclonic wind could disturb those trees, but could the evening breeze whisper among their branches? No terrific storm could break down that cottage, but could the per-fumed air or song of the birds penetrate those walls? The solid framework is there but the pleasing nothings ` that, like courtesy, make life run smoothly are lacking. Harpignies’ own career did not always run smoothly. In 1863 his works were refused at the French Salon, which so angered him that he destroyed in a moment of time his picture of “Wild Ducks,” on which he had worked for months. Three years later, however, his “Evening in the Roman Compagna,” now in the Luxembourg, Paris, was accepted with enthusiasm and awarded a medal. We could never love his landscapes, though we are compelled to admire their sturdy qualities.

Leon L’Hermitte (1844- ) is a follower of Millet, but not an imitator of him. He sees beauty and truth in the work-a-day people and has the genius to make us see it. The human element in the “Harvester’s Meal” (Fig. 82) is strong and compelling in its appeal to us. A primitive scene this, almost elemental in its significance, which leads us to the source of labor—to the very beginning of the great industries that make the world hum to-day. Sowing, reaping, repairing, and food supply are centered in the home. The little group expresses the simple content of those whose labors supply the daily needs. L’Hermitte is quick to appreciate the calm that surrounds those who wait on nature for variety, recognizing that the seasons change but that among the French peasants the ceaseless regularity of passing days brings a content rarely disturbed. on his religious pictures (see Fig. 44) the trusting faith of the simple folk takes deep hold of us. I have seen strong business men and gay society women stand reverently before his “Among the Lowly,” in the Metropolitan Museum ; and the little children come near to it as though waiting for the Savior to bless them too.