IN this chapter we have to consider the work of two American artists who have become English artists by adoption. Whistler and Sargent; of a number of Scottish artists, who are often and appropriately linked with Whistler ; of certain members, past and present, of the New English Art Club, of which Mr. Sargent has been a member since its foundation ; and then to say what seems desirable in the way of summary and conclusion.
It was a saying of Whistler’s, already quoted, that there is no such thing as nationality in art. The truth in the saying is that art is ever transcending the limits of nationality. No nation lives unto itself. Yet there remain national differences. Even in these dull days, when local differences in dress are dying out, when Paris fashions are discussed in the newspapers of remote towns in the Canadian Far West, and when Paris is only a seven hours’ journey from London, there are marked differences in the dress of both sexes, and of all sections of the community, in these two cities. And dress is a form of art.
Whistler, as Mr. George Moore points out, needed the saying to account for himself. He was an American by birth. To go back further still, he was Irish by ancestry no more remote, indeed, than his grandparents. He himself was born at Lowell, in Massachusetts, in 1834, and was educated at the United States Military School at West Point. He was there for three years, during which period he acquired so little knowledge of chemistry as to call silica an elastic gas or a “saponifiable fat ! ” Thereupon West Point decided that it had no further need of him. He then obtained employment in the United States Coast Survey, but soon found the necessary topographical work so irksome that he frequently absented himself without leave, and again he received his dismissal. He then went to London, and shortly afterwards to Paris, where he became a pupil of Gleyre. He had always shown skill in drawing, and now, at last, he had found his vocation. Among his fellow-students were Degas, Fantin-Latour, and Legros. As we have already seen, he is one of those who, in Fantin-Latour’s Hommage à Delacroix, are grouped before the portrait of the apostle of Romanticism. Delacroix died in 1863 ; the picture is dated 1864.
The portrait of Whistler in this picture is thoroughly characteristic. He stands, leaning on his cane, and half turns his head to look at the spectator out of the corner of his eye, with an expression that may be described as a quizzical note of interrogation. It was thus that he used to watch fresh visitors to his studio, keen to discover if they knew anything about art as he understood it, and whether or not, according to the result of the scrutiny, they were worth consideration.
From 1874 he made London his head-quarters, but he flitted about between London, Paris, Venice, and his native country. It cannot be said that, even yet, his art has found general acceptance in this country, though one of his nocturnes is now to be seen in the National Gallery of British Art. A Pre-Raphaelite leader recently would not so much as look at a fine example of Whistler’s art when it was pointed out to him. Whistler had only been in London about three years when Ruskin wrote, in Fors Clavigera, apropos of an exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery: “For Mr. Whistler’s own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of wilful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now, but never expected to hear a cox-comb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” It was Ruskin, however, that was the Cockney, as elsewhere he has self-critically remarked, saying of himself as a boy : “I began to lead a very small, perky, contented, conceited, Cock-Robinson-Crusoe sort of life, in the central point which it appeared to me (as it must naturally appear to geometrical animals) that I occupied in the universe.”
As is well known, Whistler brought a libel action against Ruskin on account of the Fors Clavigera criticism, and obtained a farthing damages. He insisted on having the farthing, and wore it as a pendant to his watch-chain.
The adverse criticism of Whistler in Fors followed a eulogy of Burne-Jones; and, to the regret of the latter, Ruskin asked him to give evidence at the trial a request that friendship made it impossible to refuse. His evidence was no help to Ruskin’s case. It did nothing to justify such a savage attack, though it would have justified, at any rate as not being libellous, more measured adverse criticism. “I think,” he said, “that nothing but perfect finish ought to be allowed by artists; that they should not be content with anything that falls short of what the age acknowledges as essential to perfect work. I have seen the pictures by Mr. Whistler which were produced yesterday in this court, and I think the Nocturne in Blue and Silver is a work of art, but a very incomplete one ; an admirable beginning, but that it in no sense whatever shows the finish of a complete work of art. I am led to the conclusion because while I think the picture has many good qualities in colour, for instance, it is beautiful it is deficient in form, and form is as essential as colour.” This is but faint damnation. It is really praise, almost remarkable as coming from such a man at such a time. How uncertain was the ground of what was adverse in his statement will be seen from a mere quotation of the phrase, ” what the age acknowledges as essential to perfect work.” He said him-self that he wished Whistler knew that the trial made him sorry. Lady Burne-Jones says, in her biography of her husband: “Whistler, who was quoted to him sometimes, he placed far above any of his followers; his technique he called perfect, and his colour always good.”
The Ruskin-Whistler incident is not a pleasant one to think about, especially for those who hold Ruskin in high esteem on many grounds. But it is too instructive for us to pass it over here ; and the part played in it by Burne-Jones, and his estimate of Whistler’s art, are of great interest as showing that a rapprochement was not; impossible between the second generation of the romantic side of Pre-Raphaelitism and this so different art, so differently derived. Whistler, indeed, has been said to have come under the influence of Rossetti, by whom Burne-Jones was inspired ; there were resemblances as well as differences between the two schools.
Neither of them was realistic ; both sought beauty. Only Whistler was content with beauty alone, desiring not at all that, as in Rossetti and Burne-Jones’s work, there should be a “literary” element as well. Also, he entirely subordinated form to colour, regarding the latter as the main objective of painting; though his paintings show the beauty of line which he pursued in another art, that of etching, from which, in his work, colour is excluded.
Though Whistler was the pupil of Gleyre, he was not to become a classical painter. Probably he would not in any event have done so; but he met Courbet in the studio of Fantin-Latour, saw much of him subsequently, and any slight chance that he could become a Classicist was thereby doubtless swept away. On the other hand, he was as little likely to become a follower of Courbet. There was too great a difference in the physique and temperament of the two men. Courbet was strength itself ; Whistler was frail and nervous. But he would at least be prevented by Courbet from going to history and to myth for his subjects ; he was bound, if he came under the influence of the champion of Realism, to concern himself with what he could see round about him. But Fantin-Latour, the student of tone and atmosphere, was his fellow-pupil ; and he also became acquainted with Manet, who was feeling his way in the same direction ; and the work of these young painters would, if nothing else would, reveal to him where his own strength lay. He was sensitive and impressionable ; hence he be-came, in a broad sense, an Impressionist. He was not destined to give clear accounts of external facts, after the manner of Courbet, but to record only the impressions that the facts made upon him, impressions of colour, tone, and light. The substantial external fact was not entirely suppressed, but it was entirely subordinated to the sensuous emotion it aroused in him. Anything that produced visible harmony was sufficient for his purpose, and to obtain such harmony he was willing to sacrifice much else even to sacrifice truth. For example, he painted a full-length portrait of M. Duret, and in order to get over the stiffness of legs cased in modern trousers, he threw a lady’s domino over the arm of his subject, so that it hung down and partly hid the legs, in addition to providing material for a colour-scheme. When M. Duret’s friends saw the portrait they exclaimed that they did not know he was such a lady’s man ! Nor was he. The domino was not specially appropriate to the man himself ; it was useful pictorially, which was enough for Whistler, and also for M. Duret. A portrait painter who once remarked to the present writer that the practice of his art was not an agreeable thing in a certain provincia]. city, because the people there expected portraits to be good likenesses, was surely, in this at least, a good Whistlerian ! Yet there was no essential untruth in the domino. It is surely quite characteristic of a Parisian gentleman that he should have the courtesy to relieve a lady of the weight of a garment she is not wearing.
It was to emphasise his point of view that Whistler called his pictures Harmonies, Symphonies, Arrangements, and Nocturnes. The portraits of his mother and Thomas Carlyle received the sub-title Arrangement in Black and Grey. Symphony in White, Number I: The White Girl, is the title of one of his earliest exhibited pictures. Yet although it might seem as if Whistler regretted having to mingle any record of fact with colour-music, subtle interpretation of facts is obvious in his pictures. Those who care little for tone and colour may feel the pathos of the two portraits just mentioned. They are deeply sympathetic records of old age, of the time when the fire of life is burning low. They are not only sympathetic, they are reverent. In all his portraits, far removed though they be from illusion of corporeity, there are character and expression, in gesture and attitude as well as in the face. Whether there be detailed likeness or not we may not know ; but the artist referred to in the preceding paragraph as contemptuous of mere likeness is not a true Whistlerian if he be not solicitous of interpreting the mental and emotional nature of his subjects. The spirit of Whistler’s men, women, and children seems to have been exhaled on the canvas and to have become visible there. Was the etcher with marvellous sense of line, the painter who put foremost subtlety of tone and colour, so sensitive also to the outward visible signs of the spirit within that he instinctively selected and recorded them ?
In his landscapes also Whistler may be said to have distilled the essence of the scene he painted, or at least to have distilled one essence from the scene. No one painter, no single method of art, can achieve everything. Whistler could not give what others liad to give, but what he did give was valuable. He separated from what else in nature was beautiful or significant, that to which he was most sensitive, tone, delicate gradations of colour, and significant and beautiful line. A strong adherent of the Pre-Raphaelites recently sought to belittle Whistler’s pictures of the night-time by saying that he himself had appreciated the beauty of lights shining out against the blue blackness of the night long before Whistler sought to fix it upon the canvas. Doubtless many a beautiful thing has been recognised as beautiful before it has been set down by the artist. Its beauty, indeed, must be seen before it can be recognised as a fit subject for art. Whistler, however, was not the first who sought to render in art the beauty of the night-time. He might, indeed, have been led to do so by the example of Holman Hunt, who in the Holy Land had done this before Whistler had completed his studentship in Paris, and not as part of a subject-picture, but with the beauty of the night and the lights shining out in it, for the subject of the picture. His painting The Ship, in which the steamer’s lights, the red glow from the funnel, and the moon and stars in the blue-black sky, are the pictorial subject, was painted in 1875, two years before Whistler exhibited the Nocturne that roused Ruskin’s ire. But in these studies of Holman Hunt’s there was still much form and even incident. Whistler eliminated everything, as nearly as might be, but the tone and colour and light.
Time has its revenges. The painter who made sport for lawyers and public, and whom artists were called upon to declare hardly to be an artist, is now acclaimed as one of the foremost artists of his time.
He was not an Impressionist in the same sense as Monet and Pissarro. e did not use their methods, for he did not seek their ends. He was allied rather to Manet in his earlier style, to Degas and to Fantin-Latour. It must not be overlooked also, that for much of the charm and decorative quality of his art he was, as were his fellow-artists in Paris, indebted to the Japanese.
There is good reason for associating Whistler with the Scottish painters who have become known as the Glasgow school. Pictures by him would look more at home in an exhibition of their works than in any other British exhibition. In fact, almost anywhere else, they would be out of place. And this is due to the fact that these painters have been influenced by Whistler and by other painters, such as Millet, Corot, Manet, and Israels and his fellow-painters in Holland, in whose work, tone, and harmonious if subdued colour are conspicuous features. No pictures by British painters are so easy to hang as those of the Glasgow school. They do not cry out upon the walls. Never does the sky in one of their pictures look from a short distance like a space to let. Natural fact is never allowed to over-ride the claims of art. In this they are akin to Whistler and, as suggested in the last chapter, to Turner. Herr Muther’s criticism of the school is interesting. “The art of the Continent,” he says, “is deeper and more serious, and the union between temperament and nature to be found in it is more spiritual. With its decorative palette pictures this Scotch art approaches the border where painting ends and the Persian carpet begins. For all that, it has had a quickening influence upon the art of the Continent. After an epoch of ‘bright-painting,’ it taught the painter to feel once more the witchery of mood with its full and sonorous harmonies of colour.”
The subordination of the pictorial to the decorative motive is nowhere more evident than in the work of Mr. E. A. Hornel. Some years ago, in the course of a discussion in the Liverpool City Council as to whether a picture by Mr. Hornel should be purchased for the Walker Art Gallery, one of the aldermen said : ” The only motive of Mr. Hornel’s picture is a mode of art, or rather artifice, in introducing a number of colours with the idea of making them harmonise ; and this could be done, and had been done, by means of the palette-knife.” Mr. George Moore says that he has not the least idea what this means. Surely it means exactly what Herr Muther says about the Glasgow school. Mr. Hornel’s pictures have until quite recently looked more fitted for panel decorations than for enclosing in frames. They have been above everything decorative. Recently they have become more pictorial while not ceasing to be decorative ; and Liverpool has purchased one of them. Had the alderman whom Mr. George Moore failed to under-stand some right upon his side ? At least his point was an arguable one.
Many of these Scottish painters have been members of the New English Art Club. Not a few of them were among its first members. For the most, part they have left it. Whatever may have been the reason of this segregation there is fitness in it. Fitness, surely, has been the reason. The Club, as we shall see later, has come to stand chiefly for a certain phase of realism. Mr. Sargent and Mr. Wilson Steer have been dominating personalities in it. Some who used to be members have gone to the Academy. Other new groups have been formed. The Scotchmen have gone their own decorative way.
The word decorative is not wholly appropriate to describe this art. If we were allowed to speak of visible harmony as music we should call the art musical. Mr. John Lavery’s portraits, for instance, are Harmonies, in the Whistlerian sense. At times he gives them titles that simply draw attention to their colour-schemes. So with the landscape painters. They do not, like most of their English brethren, think chiefly of the facts, and try to represent them truth-fully, even though, unable to do everything at once, they must needs make a selection. Mr. Hornel is only an extreme instance, with his children in the woodlands, of the regarding of facts as mere raw material for beautiful designs.
We can think of these painters as redyeing natural objects in order to make them suit their designs. This impression is produced particularly by the work of Mr. James Paterson. If we say that he has seen what he has painted, we must understand a subtle selection of certain features, and even then we more than suspect an inward vision also. Of course this enters into all art ; but here, as with Turner, it asserts itself strongly. Mr. D. Y. Cameron, etcher as well as painter, makes a similar use of colour, though with more reserve. Mr. T. Millie Dow and Mr. Mouat Loudan may be named in the same connexion.
Sir James Guthrie was a pupil of John Pettie, and afterwards studied in Paris. He is one of the leaders of the school, and is now President of the Royal Scottish Academy. Strength and fine characterisation are conspicuous in his portraits and subject-pictures, while with something more of naturalism he still maintains the unity of decorative effect. Arthur Melville achieved his vivid interpretations of town-scenes in Spain and the East by means of variation of the Impressionist methods. Mr. E. A. Walton, in portrait, subject, or landscape painting, delights at times by the pure artistry of his pictures, and at other times admits a larger measure of naturalism. The poetry of strong colour, and of the life and surroundings of working-folk, appeals to Mr. T. Austen Brown. Mr. Alexander Roche, Mr. Coutts Michie, Mr. Joseph Crawhall, and Mr. Grosvenor Thomas are other painters of the group who should be mentioned.
The movement is only some twenty years old, and is being carried on by a younger generation of painters. It is far removed from the older traditions of Scottish art. We have only to think of, among the older contemporaries of the Glasgow men, such painters as the two Faeds, Mr.
McWhirter, and most of those mentioned in the last chapter, to realise how distinct a contribution the Glasgow painters have made to the art of Scotland, and therefore to British art.
During the period covered by this book numerous societies of painters have been formed in London for the purpose of separate exhibition ; but in most cases this has not been done in the way of revolt, but only to emphasise the kindred aims of painters who have also had ready access to the larger and, as they may be styled, official exhibitions. The formation of the New English Art Club, however, signified a revolt. It arose from the growing influence of French art upon that of England. English painters who had studied in Paris felt the need of a rallying point in view of what they held to be the narrowness of the Royal Academy in not giving sufficient recognition to their work. Those who were thus aggrieved were wont to discuss the matter from time to time in Paris and in London. This went on for two or three years without anything being done, but eventually, in the first days of 1886, a meeting was held at the Gallery of Mr. Colnaghi in Pall Mall, at which an offer by him ” to open an exhibition for the better representation of the younger English painters ” was accepted with enthusiasm. A committee, consisting of Messrs. W. H. Bartlett, Gotch, Brown, Solomon, Hacker, and Tuke, was elected to work with Mr. Colnaghi; the name by which the club is still known was decided upon, and the first exhibition was held in the following April.
We have already seen that nonconformity is as inevitable, as necessary, we may say, in art as in religion. Academies and other official bodies, like churches, insist upon traditions which increasing knowledge is steadily rendering not merely useless but harmful, and reform from within never accomplishes all that is necessary. We have seen how strenuously the Romanticists and the Realists opposed themselves to the classical doctrine of the French Academy at Rome. Refused admission to the Salon, the Impressionists and their allies organised separate exhibitions. Today there are two great Salons. Only turnstiled doorways divide them, but they differ widely in character. The Pre-Raphaelite Brethren were nonconformists of art. The formation in 1868 of the Belgian Société Libre des Beaux Arts has already been mentioned. Munich and other places have liad and still have their Secessionists. Instances need not be multiplied. Freedom in art cannot be won save with the help of men who are free from academic restraint.
On the whole the new club was well received, and there was a fair number of visitors to the exhibition. Among these was the official head of the Royal Academy, Sir Frederick Leighton, who ventured the prophecy that the second year would try the men who formed the club, and the third year probably disband them. But though not a few of those who have at one time or another been members of the club are now within the Academy, or have formed other groups, the club is still alive, has attained its majority, and is holding two exhibitions each year ; while Mr. Sargent, who contributes so greatly to the success of the Academy exhibitions, remains a member of it, and one of its regular exhibitors.
The club is democratic in constitution. It dispenses with president and vice-presidents. The members elect annually an executive committee and honorary secretary and treasurer. The selecting jury and hanging committee for its exhibitions are elected by and from the members, and by and from the exhibitors at the previous exhibition. That is to say, as artists who are not members of the club can, on the invitation of two members, submit works to the jury, and thus may become exhibitors, non-members have a voice in the determination of the standpoint of the club. Its very constitution, therefore, is a protest against that of the Royal Academy, where all power is in the hands of the forty members, even the associates being entirely without authority. What would the forty say to a proposal that the selecting and hanging committees for each of their exhibitions should be elected by themselves, the associates and the general body of exhibitors at the previous exhibition ? What they would say to it we know, and this renders it unnecessary to discuss the probable effect of such a change in its working. It may be remarked, however, that there would still be need for separate exhibitions, but that, with the Academy placed on-a more democratic basis, they would not need to be in the nature of revolt.
A gibe that can obviously be made at a club formed in the interest of painters who have studied in France is that the art to be seen in its exhibitions is neither new nor English. The equally obvious reply is that, while this may be true, it may also be true that the art is new to England and a valuable addition to the resources of English art. We who have been following the recent history of painting in France ought to be prepared also with the further reply that much that in recent years it has been possible to learn in France better than in England, is in part a modification of what has been learned by the French from us in England. We ought not to sneer, for example, when we see the name of M. Lucien Pissarro as an exhibitor at the New English Art Club ; for he is the son of Camille Pissarro, the companion of Monet’s brief exile in England during the Franco-German war, and the interested student, with him, of Turner and other English painters. M. Lucien Pissarro’s frankly Impressionist pictures at the New English Art Club may be regarded as in part the acknowledgment of a debt. The preservation of national character in art is not ensured, as we have frequently urged here, by refusal to learn from the art of other nations. The example of some of our greatest masters has been better followed abroad than at home, and we miss some of the best of their influence if we refuse to look abroad.
The mere fact of having studied in France was soon felt to be too general a mark to give the club sufficient distinction to justify its existence, and a somewhat narrower position had to be adopted. Hence, inevitably, there came selection, which also means weeding out. How this was accomplished we need not stay to inquire. It is perhaps not possible to sum up in a phrase what the club has chiefly stood for. One thing it may safely be said to stand for is the reduction to a minimum of the kind of subject in painting to which the epithet literary is often applied. The catalogues of its exhibitions show very few titles composed of quotations from poets, novelists, or historians, and little information that cannot be gathered from the picture itself, beyond mere identity of place or portrait and this is by no means always given can be obtained by reference to the catalogue. We do not now see in the exhibitions subject-pictures by Mr. Frank Bramley, Mr. Stanhope Forbes, Mr. T. C. Gotch, Mr. Arthur Hacker, Mr. Jacomb Hood, Mr. T. B. Kennington, and others who were among the first members and invited exhibitors, nor do we see the same kind of thing from the hands of other painters who have more recently joined the club.
Leighton used the word Impressionist as a general description of the first exhibition held by the club, but even now, when the field has been greatly narrowed, the word, unless used in a very loose manner, would be a misnomer. We certainly do not find Realism in the sense of detail for the sake of detail, though the exhibitors as a rule do not concern themselves with things and people they cannot actually see, and so are Realists in one sense of the word. The description of art as nature seen through a temperament will be useful to us here ; for if there be one thing that the selecting juries of the club do make a sine qua non for the acceptance of picture or drawing it is surely that it shall not merely state facts, but shall express the emotion the facts have stirred in the artist, that it shall tell not merely what the artist has seen, but what he has felt, and, the “literary” or dramatic subject being discouraged if not excluded, it is the feeling awakened by the visible aspect of quite ordinary things and happenings that is chiefly in question. To show that the common is only commonplace to the commonplace is one of the functions of the New English Art Club. The most ordinary landscape, street-scene, interior, or person or group of persons, is seen to possess qualities the selection of which by the painter results in a true work of art. This had been learned in France. In England there had been selection of a fine subject, not of what was fine in any subject. Even such a Realist as Mr. Holman Hunt has said as quoted on an earlier page that Millais and he enforced their aesthetic aims in the themes they treated, “selecting beautiful objects for fastidious discrimination in their portrayal.” This was the “Pre-Raphaelite, English” faith; the New English” faith was the one the French had arrived at, with the help of Turner, Constable, Old Crome, and other English painters, that any theme can be treated aesthetically. There are conditions under which scaffolding is as beautiful as are trees or shipping ; chimneys, as Whistler said, may rival campanili; warehouses may not fall behind palaces, and he must be a sorry specimen of humanity before whose portrait, if it have been intelligently and sympathetically painted, we need to say, ” God made him, and therefore let him pass for a man.”
The older English point of view, that what can ordinarily be seen is not a fit subject for art, really supposes that the artist cannot see more in what is around him than others see ; and when he shows what he has seen, others are either blind to it or charge him with exaggeration if not untruthfulness. The writer stood recently with a fellow-countryman before a painting by Degas of a woman ironing, and was asked, ” What was the use of painting that ?” One could not but think of George Herbert’s saying, that a servant who swept a room as for God’s laws made drudgery divine, for, though one could hardly take Degas for a moralist in paint, he has so faithfully pictured the woman at her work, entirely occupied with it, intent on putting the best gloss on the shirt-front she is ironing, that the picture may certainly be called wholesome, even if we do not attribute to it a moral. It may be that Degas, along with fine drawing of the figure and its action, was concerned with no more than the diffused light coming through the curtained window from a narrow street and the subdued colour-harmonies that it occasioned. By this light and colour the Englishman, narrowly adherent to an older tradition of painting, was entirely unmoved. At the New English Art Club we shall find Mr. Walter Sickert revealing subtle beauties of light, tone, and colour in a mere corner of a dingy London room, or in its reflection in a mirror, and one seems to recollect having seen Mr. Sickert’s work summed up as everything that the average Englishman detests, or something to that effect.
The name of Mr. ‘Wilson Steer is much honoured at the New English Art Club. He was one of its original members, and, whether or not he has been tempted to go elsewhere, he has remained faithful to it. Mr. C. J. Holmes, himself a member of the club, has said, ” Had Claude Monet never lived, even Mr. Mark Fisher might not have painted as he does, while Mr. Clausen, Mr. Stott, and Mr. Steer would have lost their best teacher.” We have already spoken of Mr. Clausen and Mr. Stott, and shall shortly come to Mr. Fisher. What Mr. Holmes says of Mr. Steer is obviously true ; but he follows his Monet with a difference, and the difference is an English one. If we are to think of any one but Mr. Steer when we are looking at his landscape painting, we can as readily think of Constable as of Monet ; for his art remains English, modified only by French influence, which also has resulted chiefly in Mr. Steer’s carrying further the treatment of the effects of light of which Constable was the first investigator. Monet interested himself mainly in tranquil effects of light under unclouded skies, Mr. Steer is a true son of the land of cloud and mist. The alternate light and shadow on a landscape overhung by slowly moving, detached masses of cloud, the blaze of light in clear or misty air, when the spectator faces the sun, trees brilliantly illuminated by the sun and intensifying the solemn blue-blackness of a thunder-cloud behind them, such are the visual memories that remain of Mr. Steer’s pictures. There is mere suggestion, yet abundant suggestion, of nature’s infinite detail, and the broken, crumbly colour ensures the sense of atmospheric vibration. The pictures do not lack composition, but it is not so much a design traced on the surface of the canvas, which it is the artist’s purpose to make us forget, as such an arrangement of forms subordinated to the subtle rendering of varied tones as will convey to the eye a sense of luminous atmosphere stretching far away behind the frame that encloses the picture.
Mr. Steer has applied the same method of painting to portraiture. We may say, and in so saying we go a long way towards summarising the standpoint of the New English Art Club, that he insists upon light colour becoming variety of light truth, which is also beauty, of atmospheric tones and vibration, the suggestion everywhere of movement, either of objects or of light upon objects, and only so much statement of form and detail as is necessary for essential expressiveness under the actual conditions of seeing.
Mr. Steer was a pupil of Cabanel in Paris; Mr. Mark Fisher, an American by birth, was a pupil of Gleyre. They both learned much from painters who were not thus definitely their teachers. Mr. Fisher, after his return to America, found so little encouragement there that he came over to England and settled here. His landscapes, taken usually from cattle-pastures by lowland rivers, show, in the difference between early and later examples, that he consciously set himself to render above everything else the effect of vibrating light. In so doing, however, he confines himself to a narrower range of atmospheric subject than Mr. Steer. Mr. J. Buxton Knight only appears after the earliest lists of the club’s membership, and this is perhaps significant of the club’s specialising on ways of seeing and painting, rather than, as at first, upon the place of training; for Mr. Knight was a pupil in the Royal Academy Schools. Again, it is the quality of light in his forcible landscapes that chiefly arrests us. James Charles, one of the first members of the club, but early leaving it, put the realisation of light in the very front of his art.
An original member of the club who still belongs to it is Mr. Frederick Brown, the Slade Professor at University College ; and not only is he an exponent of the kind of seeing and record sketched above, but he has the training of numerous pupils, whose work plainly declares his influence and that of the group of painters with which he is associated. Mr. J. L. Henry, a painter of landscapes marked by breadth and tone and atmospheric feeling, has also been a member from the first, as also has Mr. W. W. Russell.
This is not the place to chronicle its membership through-out, but Mr. George Henry, who floods his portraits and subject-pictures with light and gleaming colour, and Mr. Bertram Priestman should be mentioned. There is also Mr. A. D. Peppercorn, who has put his own interpretation upon Impressionism. British art would be sorely impoverished if those who at one time or another have been connected with the club could be removed from our annals. Among the younger painters who are now members Mr. William Orpen, who in his portraits and figure-subjects may almost be called a magician of the brush, rendering tone and light and significant form, and the character of those whose portraits he paints, with subtle penetration, deserves to be mentioned first. The fine quality of Mr. William Rothenstein’s portraits of his co-religionists has been officially recognised by the acceptance of one of his paintings for the Tate Gallery. The club counts among its members that painter of delicate colour fantasies, Mr. W. A. Conder; and Mr. A. McEvoy’s interiors, pervaded with atmosphere, are always a welcome feature of its exhibitions. Mr. Francis Dodd should also be mentioned ; and it is interesting to note that Mr. D. S. MacColl, Mr. Roger E. Fry, Mr. C. J. Holmes, and Mr. A. L. Baldry, all of them painters who are still better known as art administrators or as writers upon art, are members of the club.
Mr. Sargent has been kept to the last, as his name appears in the title of this book to mark the point at which we are to halt. No one else, perhaps, could be so appropriately taken as a typical exponent in this country of the movement that, since the days of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, has done more than anything else to vivify the art of painting. At least the century’s close found him, and he still is, much in evidence. We have dated our special period from the time when the French painter Corot reached his artistic maturity ; and we end with an American painter who, like Whistler, was trained in France and made England the country of his adoption. To Corot light was so much exquisite poetry, sweetly or pensively idyllic. The gentle temperament of the man dominated his art. He was content with a world of exquisite, warm or pearly greys and quiet, restful greens. Some of those who, in various countries, beginning with his own, have, like him and like others who were immediately influenced by him, sought light, if not above all things, yet as an essential, have almost challenged. the sun in his splendour. No period in art can be arbitrarily detached from what has preceded it; and the influence of Turner and Constable upon this modern movement has been sufficiently emphasised here. Yet it would at once seem wrong to say “From Constable to Sargent,”
or ” From Turner to Sargent.” The line of advance has not been continuous in this country. The Pre-Raphaelite movement was a protest against a dull formalism that had invaded English art, and if this break were ignored, we still could not get to Mr. Sargent by ‘beginning with Mr. Holman Hunt; but we can get to him, right from Constable and Turner, by way of Corot and Courbet and their successors, who were also their younger contemporaries, the French Impressionists ; for though Mr. Sargent cannot strictly be affiliated to the Impressionist group, the art he learned in Paris was a similar advance to that which they made on what we may call the poetic realism of Corot and the prose realism of Courbet.
Mr. Sargent, it has been said, is by parentage an American. I have already given reasons for not including him in the sketch of American painting given in an earlier chapter. The same thing has had to be done in the case of Whistler and of other painters who are American by parentage. As an artist Mr. Sargent belongs first to France and then to England. He was not even born in America, but at Florence, in 1856. His father was a doctor of medicine who had practised in Philadelphia, but had retired at the time of the birth of his son. The future artist first studied in the Academy at Florence, and then, at the age of seventeen, became the pupil of Carolus Duran in Paris. The drawings that he presented, to show what he could already do, won the approval with reserves of his master and the enthusiasm of his fellow-pupils. He was a facile worker, direct in his methods; and this quality was con-firmed in him by the teacher he had chosen, who was nothing if not economical of labour, which, be it said, the phrase being interpreted, is not the same thing as being economical of work. The method he acquired was, by vigorous, direct, sweeping brushwork, to map out the various planes of his subject, and to add what was necessary to give the illusion of reality with as little labour as possible. He has done this, chiefly in portraiture but also in subject-pictures and landscape, with success, to express which the adjective astonishing, commonly used for the purpose, is quite justifiable. Though his technique differs widely from that of Monet, the general result is the same : that which when closely looked at is a mere daub or smear, as Monet’s paint when thus looked at becomes mere meaningless dabs, seems, when seen from a certain distance, to put it briefly, whatever it is desired to seem. There are form and movement and texture, as well as enveloping atmosphere; in a word, there is a strong illusion of actuality.
Is the result superficial, mere brilliant sketching ? Some of his admirers are so much at pains to prove that it is not so as to make us almost have doubts upon the subject. One critic of his art, a fellow-painter, more than a generation his senior, said that his portraits existed but did not live. By this was probably meant that all we learn from them of their subjects is only what a very brief interview would reveal to us. There is no sense of the understanding and sympathy that come with longer acquaintance. One of his fellow-countrymen, Mr. Charles H. Caffin, while contending that “to say his characterisation is slap-dash and superficial is surely going too far,” can yet say that Sargent is a picture-maker before he is a portraitist, and that his work, notwithstanding its actuality, ” has not the permanence of feeling, either in its characterisation or method ; that suggestion of perennial, stable truth which, so far as we can judge- from the past, would ensure it a place among the great old masters of the future.” Another of his fellow countrymen, Mr. Samuel Isham, whose book on American painting has already been quoted, says his portraits suggest that he does not care at all “for the people he paints, either for their past or future, or for anything except the moment that they stand before him twiddling their watch-chains or spreading their fans,” but that of this moment we have an absolute, and sometimes a terrible record, “for the artist, without illusions himself, is pitiless for those of his sitters.”
But is a portrait painter justified in being pitiless on the strength of little more than a momentary impression ? One can well understand that a fashionable painter may condemn himself to take as subjects persons in whose character he can feel no interest, and whose weaknesses he may cynically emphasise. Thus Mr. Caffin can say, ” The elegant shallowness of so many of his portraits is true enough in a general way, and very likely in the individual case.” But it often seems as if the habit of not getting into intimate personal sympathy with his subjects had become so fixed that even where there is something worth recording he has failed to give more than the expression of his sitter at what may easily not be a self-revealing moment, that, namely, of the sitting. Two of the old masters of portrait painting, Velasquez and Frans Hals, are often mentioned in connexion with Sargent. Actuality, though arrived at by different methods, is a quality of the work of both of them. Yet we do not think of them as not caring for their sitters, their past and their future, or as being pitiless towards them. Were they more fortunate in their sitters than Mr. Sargent, or were their sitters more fortunate in having them as their interpreters ! Tennyson, in well-known lines written after a talk with Watts, describes the portrait painter as poring on a face until he Divinely thro’ all hindrance finds the man Behind it, and so paints him that his face, The shape and colour of a mind and life, Lives for his children, ever at its best And fullest.
One does not find even Mr. Sargent’s admirers claiming such truth as this for his art. Where sympathetic truthfulness is unhesitatingly affirmed of his work is in his portraits of children, and here there is no room for pitilessness or cynicism. If we may not call his portraits superficial, we certainly cannot call them profound. Their vivid actuality nothing but the ravages of time can take from them, and this and their piquant mise en sene may well win admiration for them so long as they endure ; but with this may there not go the regret that as characterisation they are not to be trusted, indeed are to be suspected ? For, to many people, they are even more than suspect already. It is not in this way that we think of any other of our chief portrait painters.
Mr. Sargent’s landscapes have little importance in comparison with his portraits. They are in the nature of recreation. But they are akin to the portraits. They are not the work of one who has lived with the scenes painted. They are records of a traveller’s hasty glimpses, and they are brilliant things of their kind. What a complete contrast there is between them and the landscapes of the Pre-Raphaelite realists ! Mr. Holman Hunt went to Syria and laboriously painted the gullies and defiles of the mountains of Moab beyond the Dead Sea in his picture The Scapegoat. Mr. Sargent goes to Syria, and his picture of the same mountains is a wonderful rendering mainly of quivering light and heat. John Brett went, on Ruskin’s recommendation, to the Val d’Aosta, and painted it, as Ruskin said, so as to give ” the power of visiting a place, reasoning about it, and knowing it, just as if we were there, except only that we cannot stir from our place nor look behind us.” Mr. Sargent goes to the Alps, and paints a picture of them which makes us feel, even when we see it in a London exhibition, as if we were before the scene itself. His record, also, tells us much about the past, and also about the future, of the Alps : it shows that slowly, if surely, they are crumbling to decay. But having told us what a glimpse would reveal, it tells us no more. The New English Art Club Exhibitions contain many such brilliant glimpses by him at natural scenery and at architecture of the towns to which he has gone holiday-making. His portraits go chiefly to the Academy, because that institution enjoys social prestige; and people who can afford to pay large sums for their portraits do not want them to be exhibited in a little room up a Bond Street yard. But whatever Mr. Sargent paints and wherever he exhibits, he keeps us very near to, if not upon the surface, both of things and people. Ile is not an interpreter. We need not complain of this. We can accept him for what he is : a brilliant recorder of swift impressions. Apart from other considerations, his dexterous craftsmanship, his instinct for what is telling in light and colour, are fit things for our delight and admiration. If only we could be sure that indifference in his portraiture does not at least come perilously near to cynicism !
With Mr. Sargent we ought to end. But place must be found to praise the intense actuality, the largeness, vigour and freshness, the subtle draughtsmanship and the sense of colour, and the sympathetic characterisation that marked the portraits and portrait groups of the late Charles W. Furse.
We have come to the end of our survey of the painting of the latter half of the nineteenth century. What has it shown us ? We have seen that there have been some positive gains. The realistic side of the Pre-Raphaelite movement has given us the close study of the marvellous detail of nature, which has at least quickened our sight and added to our means of enjoyment. And, as we have contended, this literalness, though not essential to art, is not necessarily alien to it, but can exist along with beauty. It has been said that Pre-Raphaelitism could only have risen among a Teutonic people. If this be so, still the Teutons have their rights; and were truth, and expressiveness of face and gesture which the movement also secured for us incompatible with beauty, some of us, at least, would not wish to see them banished from art.
We need not labour the contention that Impressionism, giving effects of light and colour and atmosphere as they had never been given before, has not only already accomplished much, but has also added largely to the resources of the art of the future. Again our sight has been quickened, and the visible world, not in exceptional places and under unusual conditions alone, but everywhere and under quite ordinary conditions, has for us a beauty it had not for those who knew not Monet and his friends.
Such are our chief gains. They have value for us. What use the future will make of them, how it will employ them in art, we do not know ; nor can we say how the use made of them by those who first discovered and used them will be estimated in the future. Art has certainly been brought into closer touch with nature and life by means of them.
Has art itself suffered in the process 7 It might be so, and yet we might not need to be cast down. In no sphere of life and thought do new discoveries at once find their proper place.
But, as we have seen, the new has not made the continuance of the old, with such inevitable change as the years must bring, impossible. We found that Classicism struggled in vain for monopoly when Romanticism demanded a place. The demand was enforced, but classical art was not thereby refused a place; and, though modified, it has held on, alongside Romanticism and the later Realism and Impressionism. In all these things we are the heirs of the ages. We have what we ourselves have gained; and none the less we have, or we may have, what the past has bequeathed to us, though inevitably, be it said again, with a difference.
What has been said of the art of our own country attests its vitality and the width of its range, both in subject and in all that can be covered by the word technique. We have our classical, our romantic, our realistic and our impressionist painters. Ruskin, in the Oxford lecture more than once referred to already, maintained that our painters could never be successful in the higher fields of ideal or theological art. But surely such men as Watts, Rossetti, and Burne-Jones have at least gone far to bring this prophecy to naught. It might even be urged that they had anticipated its disproof. May we not also congratulate ourselves on having at least made a beginning of enjoying art for art’s sake? And surely we can do this and yet also enjoy the subject in art.
In one respect our art has failed adequately to develop during the half-century. We have little to show of mural painting; and much of what we have to show is not good, is only easel painting on a large scale. It is lamentable that it can be seriously urged that the attempt should not be made to add to the mural paintings in the Houses of Parliament because we have not artists capable of doing such work. The reply has been made, and rightly so, that we cannot succeed unless we try. The question must not be discussed here. But some of our painters have shown them-selves to be fitted for such work ; and it is to be hoped that the next fifty years will see this reproach removed from our art. Reference to this subject reminds one that no mention has hitherto been made here of an artist who is a master of decorative art, Mr. Frank Brangwyn.
It is perhaps not out of place to mention the great increase in the number of art galleries during the half-century. Not only is there now a National Gallery of British Art in London, but the provincial cities that have long had galleries have been adding to them or building new ones ; and no town that sufficiently respects itself now thinks it can do without an art gallery. This cannot be without effect upon our art. For one thing, it must bring it into closer touch with the people. We may hope that the municipalities will in the future do much to encourage mural painting. We have plenty of examples in foreign countries, and, at home, such instances as the work of Ford Madox Brown in the Manchester Town Hall and the paintings in the Glasgow Municipal Buildings. Painting with us is too much a matter of exhibitions of easel-pictures destined for private houses or for public collections of pictures hung more or less promiscuously on the walls of otherwise empty rooms. The closer alliance of the art with architecture is desirable both in its own interest and for the expressiveness which is thereby given to public build ings. There is abundant opportunity in town-halls, libraries, concert-halls, and other buildings ; and mural paintings might well be more frequently introduced into art galleries also, as in the case of those by Puvis de Chavannes in some of the provincial art galleries of France, Beyond municipal buildings there are also, of course, the national buildings and the churches ; and it is interesting to note the growing tendency to decorate the more important commercial buildings with both painting and sculpture.
It has not been possible to say anything here about the art of water-colour painting, or the related arts of drawing in black-and-white, etching, and engraving. We may just note the tendency there has been for water-colourists to seek almost to rival the strength of oil-painting, with inevitable loss of much of the delicate charm of the art as it used to be practised. Still, no deductions can surely forbid us to affirm that, during the half-century, our art has not been unworthy of its earlier history, has kept well abreast at least of the art of other countries, has accomplished some things that can be called great, and gives us now no reason to fear for its future.