IF the infant Sargent or Whistler had been marooned with a savage tribe and brought up beyond the furthest confines of civilization, what would their art have amounted to ? We may presume that they would have carved the totem pole just a little more cleverly than their savage mates, or have given the idol’s features a twist more of deviltry or of intelligence. But this would have been the limit of their performance, for art is the child of time and of precedent. It inherits the ages; but unless the artist comes into his inheritance, he is helpless. At best, can he go but one little step beyond the fathers, add one little stone to the edifice; and in order to accomplish even this much, he must know well the work of his predecessors. If by some dreadful catastrophe all the art of the world should suddenly be destroyed and all knowledge of it blotted from the minds of the survivors, it would require ten thousand years for humanity to recover the lost ground. As an artist is dependent upon the past, it is evident that he must strive to see and to study all of the past art that he can findto feed his mind constantly upon it. In the old days when the painter was a craftsmana little higher than the workers in iron or in brass, in wood, or in the precious metals, but still in the same categoryit was customary to apprentice lads to some well-known master. Velasquez was thus apprenticed at the age of thirteen, Perugino at nine, and Andrea del Sarto at the tender age of seven. Constantly under the master’s eye, they learned their craft much as a tailor’s apprentice learns his trade. When they were not grinding colors or stretching canvas, or sweeping out the studio, they were allowed to copy the master’s work or possibly to fill in backgrounds for him, and they received his instruction in return for their labors. We do not hear of anything resembling the modern art school until the time of the brothers Carraci; and it thus happens that the graduates of the first genuine school of art were the painters of the Italian Decadence. There would seem to be a sinister significance in this coincidencea significance which has been a facile argument in the hands of those who hold that schools of art exert a pernicious influence upon the student, destroying his individuality and his personal outlook. They forget that the effect of the school atmosphere is a bagatelle in comparison to the overwhelming influence of the private master, whose dominant personality must have been felt at every hour of the day for years at a stretch. The truth is that where an artist is born with the three essentialstemperament, character, and sincerityit is impossible to destroy the personal note in him. Nothing can sub-merge it. The main thing is for him to acquire knowledge and more knowledge and still more knowledge, and the source of his information matters not one whit.
Personally, I am convinced that the synchronous arrival of the art school and the Decadence of Italian art was a mere coincidence, and that the modern system of art instructionthe great art school with its corps of intructorsis a distinct improvement over the ancient method.
It will be readily seen and understood, for instance, that, unless a master chances to be exceptionally intelligent, he will be apt to insist upon the student’s using his own palette and his own technical methods, and this will delay the acquisition of the personal color-scale and the personal technic most fitted to the individual needs of each different student. This can be, and often is, corrected by the outside study and investigations of students them-selves, but it were better that the influence had never been exerted.
On the whole it may be said that our great schools both here and abroad are singularly free from this defect, and that they give to the really serious student ample facility for a thorough training in drawing, painting, composition, and all the fundamentals of art as understood by the great masters of other times. The schools, however, have in some respects not kept pace with the progress of modern art, and the student graduating from the class has still many things to learn for and by himself before he can put into his work the qualities which distinguish the art of our own times from that of the past. My own experience of twenty-five years ago is still very generally the experience of students leaving the schools to-day.
I left the Ecole des Beaux Arts, after six years of hard and conscientious labor, and drifted down to Brittany, fully prepared, as I believed, to paint medal pictures for the Salon.
I gathered together a collection of stunning subjects, laid them in bravely, and set to work to develop them into pictures, according to the rules and standards which I had learned in Paris.
I confess that I was somewhat surprised when, at the end of a year’s work, I had not a single satisfactory canvas to show. At the end of eighteen months I began to suspect that something was radically wrong, and when, at the end of two years, I was still without a picture worthy of the name, I became genuinely discouraged.
About this time I was at work on another huge “Salon,” a canvas some twelve by eight feet in dimension, if I remember rightly, which depicted the interior of a birchwood in autumn, with a single figure of a peasant girl raking up the dead leaves. The work was well toward completion. It was, I knew, well drawn, sound in values, and at least as true and delicate in color as the average picture. It was an honest endeavor, at any rate, and my very best; yet down deep in my heart I felt that it was a failure, like all the others. But the heart-breaking part of it was that I could not guess why it was a failure.
One day, as I was painting away conscientiously, a friend strolled bya Scandinavian painter for whose work I had the most profound admiration. After studying my effort for awhile he remarked : “Harrison, that thing of yours is so good it is a pity it is not a d-d sight better.”
” Well, for Heaven’s sake, U.,” I said, “tell me what is the matter with it.”
“I am not sure that I could tell you,” he replied, “but if you will lend me your palette for ten minutes I might, perhaps, be able to show you.”
He selected an area of eighteen inches in the left centre of my composition, and in fifteen minutes had entirely repainted it. His work, as I studied it, did not vary in color, in tone, or in value from the surrounding portions of the picture which I had painted myself ; yet it was as if a window had been opened in the centre of the canvas. U.’s work vibrated and sparkled with light and with atmosphere, while mine lay flat and dead. It was also as if a window had been opened in my own soul. U. had shown me the secret of atmospheric paintinghad made clear to me in a single lucid demonstration the importance of vibration and re-fraction in landscape painting. I threw aside the canvas upon ‘which I was at work and started another, which I carried through with such enthusiasm and verve as I can never remember having put into another workusing, of course, the new knowledge which had come to me so opportunely.
This picture really went to the Salon. It was hung upon the line, received a medal, and was bought by the French government for one of the national museums, where, doubtless, it still hangs.
I then and there made up my mind that if it ever came my turn to instruct young students I should endeavor to teach them those things for which we painters of the older generation had to grope blindly for years, unaided and in the darkthings which are of equal value and importance in a picture with good drawing, good composition, and good color, but which, for some reason, have never been taught in the regular art schools.