DO not bemoan the sad plight of art lacking a source of inspiration, when no forces exist to try the spirit, no Church to uplift the soul. The every-day life of everyday folks is always at hand great art to inspire.
In England the art of painting comes quite late. Not until the eighteenth century do we find much that is worthy of the name. For this there are many reasons. The first, perhaps, lies in the fact that the English are less emotional, less impressionable than the Latins and therefore less susceptible to the appeal of color and line. Secondly, in England the Church did not employ painting for teaching the gospel. There was therefore no illustrated gospel to teach a people the value of art. No great frescoes here, no emotional and devotional murals to inspire religion or love of art. Of other reasons I shall name but one. In England a picture was entirely a private affair, for the enjoyment of its owner and his friends. Like the typical estate in which it was housed, by tall fences was beauty hidden from view. Nor did the sale of engraved copies of famous paintings at high prices help to make art popular.
Patrons of art interested only in their own enjoyment, it was natural that the portrait should receive much consideration. At no time are people of means lacking in a proper appreciation of their own fine qualities. Besides, there was the duty of handing down to generations to come a true record of their glorious ancestry. What landscapes were produced by early artists were painted for the love of painting. Nobody would buy them. Yet it was in this field that England was really expressing her-self pictorially. In meadows and silent woods, in grazing cattle, gently rounded hills, winding streams and harbors and sails, her artists lauded the England they loved.
English paymasters of art would have none of this. Nor were matters helped much by the introduction of country children or tavern groups to complete a “landscape with figures.” Country life and cottage doors and ragged childrenall this was not only dull, it verged on the vulgar. But “those who are not interested in art as decoration are quick enough in comprehending art as narration.” Hence the popularity of the story-telling picture. Characters of fiction, episodes of poem or play, these were in great demand. A story is something anyone may understand. Besides, among this people of literary mind art naturally would take a literary turn.
Of the story-telling artists of the eighteenth century there was none greater than William Hogarth. Hogarth was far more than a gossip in’ colors. He was a real painter. More of a painter was he in some respects than the great court favorite who preceded him, Van Dyck. But he struck out for favor and popularity in a way that he knew would take. He painted and engraved the follies of the time. His more serious efforts having failed of financial reward, he set about with brush and graver to tell the world what he thought of it. The world listened, discussed, laughed, and paid. But with all its appreciation of the whimsical, satirical or moral message, England did not stop to examine into the technique with which the message was delivered. Hogarth was deeply hurt by the lack of appreciation for the finer qualities of his work. Yet he went on in real art to give England what it wantedthe story, the moral, the dramatic climax.
His most serious efforts were by no one taken seriously. Hogarth deplored the fact that connoisseurs would not see the qualities in his work and give him his due rank with Continental artists who painted in the “grand manner.” A painter of unusual ability, his artist’s soul had to content itself with putting what he could of his best into popular subjects. Yet while he accepted the subject as a means to success he was embittered by it. So that oftentimes his satire becomes the more biting.
Somewhat crude and theatrical in composition and grouping, uneven in drawing, as harsh at times as he was refined at others, Hogarth was nevertheless exceedingly skillful. He could handle color. His tones are pure and clear. So well did he put them into his canvases that they still stand out in all their original beauty and freshness. This is much more than others have done. Lastly, he knew how to place his figures in atmosphere.
I do not vouch for the accuracy of this statement, yet it comes from a famous American artist: “Let them talk as they please, but the English never had but one artist, and that artist was Hogarth.”
Next we come to a more conforming painter, more calm and perhaps a bit less brilliant, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Sir Joshua concerned himself almost entirely with portraits. His easy manner and gentlemanly bearing gained him many friends among those who could afford his wares. So plentiful were commissions that at one time he painted as many as a hundred and fifty portraits a year. His fame is due as much to his subjects as to any other cause. For Sir Joshua was a born painter of pretty ladies. He loved them. So well did he portray their charms he made everyone else love them.
This may or may not be true art. The great Italians used peasant models and Bible text to paint their own genius. Many painters today seek but to strut their soul on canvas, regardless of subject matter. Reynolds chose to present the fine points of his sitter. And he was fortunate in the number of captivating subjects with which he had to work.
His style was not altogether original. He was hesitant, uncertain. His brushwork was often labored. His strokes lacked the sweep of genius. He borrowed quite freely from Correggio, Titian, Veronese, Guido and other Italian masters whose work he had the opportunity of studying. He could not draw the nude figure. His composition was generally faulty. His color was always in an experimental stage. Yet his work lives. It has charm. Why?
For one thing, Sir Joshua with all his borrowing and shortcomings possessed some of the most important at-tributes of the portrait painter. He could draw a face or a hand with great skill. For his lack of technique in other respects he made up by good taste. He was as keen to grasp the essentials of character in his sitter as anyone. And he deliberately chose to portray the best. He was known as the painter of beautiful women, because he loved to paint the beauty of womanhood. Himself a man of breeding and refinement, he indulged a preference for accentuating the more pleasing qualities.
And if portraiture must needs be a matter of selectivity, why is it not as well to choose the pleasing as the ugly? Joshua Reynolds handed down to posterity the enjoyment of the beauty and charm in a large number of the beautiful women of his day. Possibly his work is instrumental in our seeing a little more of the fine qualities in the more favored ladies of our own acquaintance.
Thomas Gainsborough, painter of delicacy and refinement, is another Englishman noted for his portraits of women. But his manner of treatment was quite different from that of Reynolds. Instead of the latter’s rugged, happy characterizations, we have in those of Gains-borough a softness and delicacy, a quiet dignity combined with almost pathetic wistfulness. Even in his landscapes there is that ever-present strain of melancholy. The sentimentalist is evident in all his canvases. In his portraits of men there is a vein of softness with an admixture of something bordering on effeminacy. And always that refined sadness.
These characteristics, which are of the essence of the artist’s own personality, are distinguishing features of Gainsborough’s paintings. His portraits attract us be-cause they charm and haunt. A landscape painter of no mean ability, he usually represents Nature in her pensive, sombre moods. At first he would place small figures, tree trunks and sundry objects into his landscapes for spots of color. Later he enlarged his rustic figures, made the landscape subservient to them. But during his life-time no one cared much for these works. He therefore sought gratification of his love for landscape by using it as background for portrait figures. More recently, how-ever, his neglected earlier works have come to be prized as wonderful studies from nature.
Neither as a craftsman nor as a draftsman was Gains-borough to be compared with any of his great forerunners. But he ranks high as a colorist. Faulty in composition, he was expert at posing a single figure. Struggling against technical imperfection in presenting objects by means of lines, he tried to make up for it by producing outline in color and texture. Often by this means he turned a failing into marked success. His use of color was individual, distinguished. He produced his own harmonies. He is particularly noted for his effects in the cool tintsgray, yellow and blue being his favorites. A charming combination of pale, cool notes in color lent a soothing harmony to Gainsborough’s sweet melancholy.
George Romney, contemporary of Gainsborough and Reynolds, was another successful portrait painter. For twenty years he enjoyed popularity and an income of four thousand pounds a year or better. That, by the by, was quite a formidable income in the days of the American Revolution.
In temperament Romney was not at all like his two great contemporaries. He was an untamed genius. Fiery, impulsive, enthusiastic, passionate, he rose to heights of ecstasy and at times achieved results quite brilliant. Yet his work always shows the absence of proper training. His drawing is as faulty as his painting is clever. If to keenly sensitive eye and buoyant spirit had been added proper schooling he might have been England’s greatest painter. As it is, there is much to admire in his freedom, his effervescent impulsiveness and his unbridled love of beauty.
Lack of space prevents even the most brief consideration of some very important artists; for instance, Hoppner, Raeburn, Morland, and Lawrence. Reluctantly I skip many other worthy names, and stop before that of John Constable.
Constable was a landscape painter who stuck by his guns. He refused to be swayed by the temptation of portrait commissionspreferring to paint and keep the things he liked rather than to be well paid for doing what he did not like.
He was a realist. He painted of nature whatever he sawand loved. Devoted to nature for its own sake, to blue skies and traveling clouds and atmosphere, light, mist, wave and rockhe clung to it all with great tenacity. And while at best his reward was meagre the effects of this zeal have been far-reaching. For his broad treatment of light exerted a considerable influence on the Impressionist school of France. And his basic truth and fidelity to nature has meant much to landscape art in America.
“Light and shadow never stand still.” This lesson from Benjamin West, Constable never forgot. And most fervently he busied himself with moving air, clouds and water, and nature poetic in repose. Yet he received very little for his work. His art had nothing popular or catching about it. It had no drama, no romance, no passion. He loved simplicity, the subdued charm of meadows, trees and clouds. His work is broad, simple, unaffected, poetic. Constable was the Wordsworth of painting.
What a wide gulf lies between Constable and his brilliant contemporary, J. M. W. Turner! The latter was like an eagle soaring in a blaze of sunlight. No slave to nature he. Facts of nature, its laws, truththey were but materials for his canvases, to be used as he saw fit. Instead of interpreting nature he used nature to interpret Turner. He, too, influenced the Impressionist school, but in a different way than Constable. The latter painted poetic truth broadly. Turner discarded truth altogether for poetic phantasy. What cared he if his native heath was unlike anything in England, or if his Venice was not the Venice seen by traveler or native? He sought grandeur of composition, strong light, brilliant colors. He “probably distorted and falsified more facts than any painter in the history of art.” No matter. He was after effects. “Give me a canvas, colors, a room to work in with a door that will lock, and it is not difficult to paint pictures.” Thus spoke Turner. This man was no copyist. Not that he could not copy if he would.
Yet those who insist that art must be faithful to fact will do well to weigh some of the higher truths in Turner’s effect. His “Rain, Steam and Speed” may not look like any steam train on a bridge that ever was in England. But it has a more important veracity than fact; a greater, nobler truththe truth not as seen through eyes of barnyard hen, but of the eagle.
We have come to the middle of the nineteenth century. We shall go no farther into English painting. If you feel that you have not had enough my object is to that extent attained. I would rather leave you a trifle hungry than overfed. For then you will want more of the subject. And as I have before stated that is what I am trying to lead you to do.