A book that has had its day in Germany describes Rembrandt as teacher (Rembrandt als Erzieher), but I think an honest survey of any considerable group of his paintings, such as that exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum, would only warn off the wise artist in whatever medium. Rembrandt seems so solitary, inapproachable, inimitable. In his wake lies nothing but shipwreck for us. Possibly our painters and men of letters would do better to take counsel of that more accessible genius, Claude Lorrain. I once had the privilege of turning over many sheets of his sketches, not such superb examples as Mr. Roger E. Fry has illustrated in his admirable monograph on Claude, but just a lot of those little notes which he constantly made to record his impressions or fix his memories.
It would be hard to imagine anything more edifying than these little notes in ink and sepia. On a palm’s breadth of paper you see a river valley winding its way into the roots of distant mountains. Or again you catch the sense of wind and rain and broken light over square miles of rolling champaign. Or, perhaps, a few sparse objects-a tree, a castle, a mountain ridge-are set down so justly that one feels the vast stretches of intervening air. These, despite his detractors, are the well-recognized merits of Claude in his slightest as in his monumental work.
But the defects of these drawings seem even more instructive. Yes, Ruskin, brutally in error on the main issue, was right in minuter specifications of dissent. How perfunctory are the tree forms and foreground indications generally; any one of a score of League students could give these objects more character. The handling of the wash is slow, timid, and almost casual; fifty contemporary illustrators could do the thing more crisply. In short, the magic of the hand is almost absent from these sketches. They are in a manner ill done-and supremely, inapproachably lovely. The fact may well give pause to a generation of artificers that has sought salvation mainly in the cunning of the hand.
The superlative detail has long been assiduously preached. It has almost been assumed that the law and gospel of the literary art were summed up in the commandment: Make unique and lovely phrases; of painting, in the formula: Let your touch be exquisite. Perhaps this particularism is based on a rather stupid adherence to the talk-not the practice, mind you-of Flaubert in letters and of Manet in painting. There seem to be souls simple enough to imagine that Madame Bovary is a great book because of its incidental rhetoric. As a matter of fact, only its relentless movement and massiveness have kept it alive. The intolerable labor of the file with which Flaubert tortured himself is largely labor lost. Manet is, indeed, exquisite in every detail, but the merit lies always in the balanced impact of the whole composition. In other words, it is the intellectualized vision of the man, and that only, which gives worthy employment to the sensitive hand.
Now, the dilemma of every artistic life is to strike the just balance between reflection and execution. Obviously, execution cannot safely be neglected. Even Claude attained a decent adequacy in this regard. And because he refused to do more, his case is peculiarly instructive. It is as if he felt so keenly the importance of the original constructive vision that he declined to blunt or complicate it through executive processes too painful or too prolonged.
Ingres once said rather stupidly that to draw a picture was everything, and that the painting went of itself. Claude may be imagined as saying that to see pictures was everything-to see them with utmost clarity and fervor-and that the rest was largely a tedious superfluity. The doctrine is perilous, but, as a personal maxim at least, Claude’s practice fully justifies it.
Yes, the constructive side of art is the important one, and, today, whether in criticism or in formal instruction, the most neglected. Let no one who has thought and felt a work clearly, despair lest adequate means of expression be denied him. Let him merely beware of mistaking diffused ambition for clarified vision. History gives us no record of a truly creative soul denied adequate means of expression. We may amuse ourselves by wishing for a more athletic Claude or a Watts obedient to the teachings of Couture, but it is folly. What painter who talks glibly to this end would venture practically to alter or efface a single stroke of a Claude seaport or a Watts portrait ? No, we must take our geniuses as they come. The danger is quite the other way that hundreds of aspirants with really nothing to say may attain a specious technical facility, and thus impose their emptiness upon us.
And right here I counsel every young person who is painting or writing to study Claude drawings. You, sir, accomplished spinner of phrases; you, sir, skilful combiner of planes and values, may test yourself against these little sheets of yellowed paper. If you loftily scorn these modest works for the phrases you fancy you could amend, there is no hope for you. Go on being just one more clever, futile person, and pray merely that the abyss of your own emptiness may never be fully revealed to you. If, on the contrary, you can feel the large harmony of design, the fervid sanity of conception, in these little drawings, the experience may mark for you the beginning of artistic righteousness.
To regain the lost capacity for monumental design is the problem of modern art in what-ever branch. Claude may well be a leader to take us from the levels of cheese-paring ideas to the upland of genial creation. From him, and partly, as we have seen, in virtue of his defects, we may learn that it is composition and mass and meaning, in the broadest sense, that really count in picture, novel, or pediment. Withal-again by reason of his defects-Claude is a most available guide. What heights he reached, although troubled by a certain weakness of heart ! Some such vantage-point surely must be accessible to those of us who boast of our temperament, if only we can subordinate it to a fine and purposeful intelligence. We need, in short, to look inward toward the springs of vision, and concern ourselves less with doing. Long before Claude, the ordeal of the artist was suggested in the words: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” When an artist thinketh nothing in his heart, the art, whatever its specious appearance or repute, will be-according.