Chicago, The Art Institute – American and French

ONE of the finest, if not the finest collection of paintings by George Inness in America is in the Art Institute of Chicago. Only when we can see a number of Inness’ landscapes consecutively do we fully appreciate his words about the purpose of his pictures: “Some persons suppose that a landscape has no power of conveying human sentiment. The civilized landscape peculiarly can; and therefore I love it more and think it more worthy of reproduction than that which is savage and untamed. It is more significant.” Now turn to “Peace and Plenty” and “The Delaware Valley” (see Figs. 30, 31), examples of his earlier works, and note how passionately full they are of the life of our kind. Man has redeemed the soil—the curse is removed and the earth is bringing forth her increase; it is nature harnessed. Wide in conception, it leads the mind into the beyond, but anchors it in the green fields at our feet. As years passed Inness narrowed the expanse of country represented and deepened the significance of each special scene. There is no mistaking the “human sentiment” that every landscape of his breathes forth. The earth is man’s to have dominion over.

Who has not looked across the valley “After a Spring Shower” and watched the clouds lift and drift away as the sun broke through the rifts? Again the artist’s own words index his art: “I would not give a fig for art ideas except as they represent what I perceive behind them Rivers, streams, the rippling brook, the hillside, the sky, clouds—all things we see—will convey the sentiment of the highest art if we are in the love of God and the desire of truth.”

As we linger before his “Early Morning” (Fig. 169) a feeling of reverence steals over us, for surely it is a morning prayer of thanks-giving. Tenderly and lovingly the rising mist kisses the green things as it passes, and the trees and the grass sparkle with joy at the caress. It is not a sentimental scene, this early morning, but a familiar one that finds an echo in our hearts.

When Inness selected the “Home of the Heron” (Fig. 170) as a bit of nature to be interpreted he told plainer than words could tell his love for the out-of-the-way places where the mists and vapors hang low and the ever-varying atmosphere, illuminating and enveloping the whole, is like a veil revealing and concealing the charms of a beautiful woman. So intimate and familiar is he with this particular spot that even the heron, timid as she is, does not fly far from her home.

The collection of Inness landscapes gives us the very best idea of the works of this innovator—this artist who was the leader and founder of the American landscape. One critic says, “To see a collection of his pictures is to get a purely modern impression, an idea of the capture of illusive beauty, a beauty that flies yet lingers, a beauty about to go yet caught and held for one eternal embrace.” Inness worked standing, very rapidly at first, then more and more slowly as he neared the completion of his picture, to secure the best results. It was his custom to stand at his easel from twelve to fifteen hours.

As we leave the Inness paintings let us stop a moment to look at “The Coming Storm” (Fig. 171), by William Keith (1839-1911). A very close friendship existed between this Scotch-American artist and Inness. At one time Inness made a long stay in California and while there shared Keith’s studio. That these two men influenced each other more or less is probably true. They were too original, however, and too genuinely in earnest to express themselves in their pictures other than individually, yet with a poetic spirit so characteristic of true nature artists.

A mysterious brooding of thoughts too deep for words lingers around “The Coming Storm.” The soft green that forms the setting reminds us of Herculaneum bronzes in richness of color, and the banked clouds, tinged with the sun’s golden rays, like a great uncut topaz vary with every wind puff. The quiet peace of the tiny cottages snuggled close to the protecting oaks is undisturbed—the storm is only transient. Keith once said, “The sentiment is the only thing of real value in my pictures, and only a few people understand that.” To really appreciate this artist we must see a number of his paintings, and we shall do so in the galleries of California (see page 346).

Three very individual portrait painters are represented in the museum. In Gilbert Stuart we have the man who, upon seeing David’s “Napoleon,” said, “How delicately the lace is drawn; did one ever see richer satin? the ermine is wonderful in its finish; and, by Jove, the thing has a head !” This sentence tells the whole story of Stuart’s dislike of anything done for effect. A well-known remark of his, when even an intimate friend dared criticize his accessories, “I copy the works of God, and leave the clothes to the tailor and mantuamaker.” The portrait of “General Dearborn” (Fig. 172) is an example of Stuart’s very best work. George C. Mason, in his biography of Gilbert Stuart, in describing the painting of General Dearborn, says : “The mouth painted as only an artist of the highest order could paint it, with a faint smile lurking around the corners, gives the idea that the figure is about to speak in reply to some remark that has been made.” Stuart painted on mahogany panels prepared under, his special direction. The surface of the panel was made to look like can-vas by passing the plane over the whole face, then across the surface at right angles.

Of Whistler’s portrait rules “an arrangement” came first, then later the individual’s personality. “In the Studio” (Fig. 173) is merely “an arrangement” pure and simple, only that the Whistler personality in his own figure is so compelling that, after all, it is, a portrait too. Though basically American, was ever an artist more cosmopolitan than Whistler? Unique to the point of being eccentric as an individual, he never dropped to the vulgar to express his desire for something new in his art.

Egotistic he was in the extreme, but always holding to a definite idea of wholesome beauty. We may not agree personally with his ideas of what is beautiful and attractive, but we al-ways feel the sweet purity of his artistic conceptions. That many of his themes were mere personal expressions of some abstract ideas floating in his fertile brain is undoubtedly true, and when extreme Whistlerians are ecstatic-ally enthusiastic over his symphonies we feel like tapping our foreheads with a sly grin. There really is not much that we can say of “In His Studio,” and he himself challenging us in a rather contemptuous manner—but is it contemptuous or only a challenge by one who is sure of himself?

“Alice” (Fig. 174), by William M. Chase, attracts us. She is so girlish and wholesome. Like a beautiful cultivated flower, she is the product of the guiding and pruning of a wise parent-a beautiful cultivated child of nature. She moves with the ease and grace of a young faun in his native home, perfectly unconscious of self, which is the height of perfected art. Mr. Chase commands our admiration and respect whatever his subject. It is his dignified reserve and moderation and his insistent originality that give him the place of honor today.

Henry O. Tanner is peculiarly interesting as an artist with negro blood in his veins. He was born in Pittsburgh and was trained both in this country and in Paris. He is a man of real talent in painting, and his exalted ideas have found expression in his many religious subjects. His painting of “The Two Disciples at the Tomb” (Fig. 175) is decidedly original. The disciples are undoubtedly Peter and John, who ran together to the tomb, and the moment when “that other disciple which came first to the sepulchre saw and believed.” John has the vision in his eyes and the calm assurance in his face that marked his career as the beloved disciple, the St. John of the Revelations and the Gospel. The artist has caught the spirit of one who “saw and believed.”

The Chicago Institute has a most comprehensive collection of the paintings of French art. We shall note just a few of the well-known masterpieces of the Barbizon artists and Manet’s famous painting of “The Beggar.”

In “The Song of the Lark” (Fig. 176) Jules Breton attained his highest point of excellence. He and Millet began painting peasant life about the same time, but Breton was not a deep thinker and rarely did he go below the surface in his peasant scenes. His religious processions—and he painted a number—accurately represent what actually occurred, and in a style decidedly his own, yet there is little depth of religious fervor in the ceremony. He has struck a deeper note in the “Song of the Lark.” The girl is a simple peasant with the natural dignity of a Greek goddess. She sees the lark ascend, and eagerly listens to the receding song as he rises higher and higher and is finally lost to sight in the blue depths above. We are lifted out of ourselves by this peasant goddess, for Breton has here revealed a true child of nature simply and forcefully.

To one brought up on a farm and whose sympathies are with the helpless babies of the domestic animals Millet’s “Bringing Home the New Born Calf” (Fig. 177) arouses vivid mental pictures. How often has the favorite heifer or staid bossy of a dozen years been missing at the morning or evening milking-time, only to be found in some out-of-the-way place guarding her new-found treasure. And how eagerly the son and father place the help-less little creature on the soft straw bed in the barrow and carry it home, as the sun comes over the hill or in the gloaming when the night air is cool and damp. True, that is a French setting, but Millet has made it universal; wherever is found the true farmer, there this homey picture will touch a sympathetic chord in the heart of the household. Though a scene of toil and anxious care, yet the poetry of it is there, for it radiates possibilities and hope and mother-love—the three elements that make life worth living.

Troyon more often used his animals as part of a landscape rather than as an animal picture with a landscape setting. Even in the “Returning from the Market” (Fig. 178), where the sheep and horses fill the larger part of the canvas, his broad conception of the big out-of-doors dominates the picture. The west-ern sky is aglow with the long rays of the setting sun. The flying dust particles, acting as prisms, set the air aquivering, tinting trees and roadside with a rainbow glory. Yet he under-stood animals and has given a true insight into their characteristic traits. His pictures are poems of nature’s animate and inanimate objects rejoicing over the joy of existing; Millet’s pictures are poems of man’s ability to earn his daily bread. One awakens the imagination, the other touches the heart.

“The Beggar” (Fig. 179), by Edouard Manet (1833-1883), is so insistent that unless we expect to put a coin in the outstretched hand we had better move on. When Manet painted his impressions of people in such portraits as this and the “Boy with a Sword” (see Fig. 50), he was at his best. The very essence of the nature of each is revealed in a broad simple manner.