THE Belgian master, Alfred Stevens, was wont to say that a picture in order to be truly great must excel from two different points of view. When seen from a distance it must be handsome in color, fine in composition, and true to the scene depicted; and when examined at close range the pigment must reveal that precious and jewel-like surface which is described by the word “quality.”
Jean Francois Millet, on the contrary, abhorred quality, and vehemently protested that any painter who concerned himself with surface prettiness was little better than an artisanat best a jeweler out of his element. Personally, I am inclined to think that both of these great masters were in the wrong, but that Millet came nearer to the truth than Stevens. It is quite certain, at any rate, that his instinct was correct in so far as it applied to his own work. Preciosity of surface could only detract from such a picture as the “Sower” or the ” Shepherdess,” while it would be a positive offence in a picture such as the “Man with a Hoe,” Millet, of course, was too great and true an artist to fall into this error. His pictures give evidence of an infallible instinct for the eternal fitness of things, and as he was concerned always with the thing to be said, he used every resource at his command to reinforce the dominant idea of the work, suppressing every thing which might distract the attention from the central motive. The epic of labor was his message; and the coarse and often repellent surface texture of his pictures was in absolute harmony with the character of his subjects. These, while not precisely tragic, were invariably sober and serious, with the large dignity of primitive things.
But the fact that an enamel-like beauty of surface was not in keeping with the art of Millet is no valid proof that it has not a legitimate place of its own in painting. Indeed, the whole question of the relative value of things in art is here involved. The time is no longer when the figure painter can look down upon the landscape painter, when the painter of vast historical compositions has his special place reserved for him at the head of the board, while the painter of mere portraits must be content with a seat below the salt. It is the intrinsic beauty of the work itself that decides its value, and neither the size of the canvas nor the character of the subject counts. A portrait by Velasquez, a landscape by Corot, or a tiny still-life by Chardin may very well be worth a dozen great figure compositions by Le Brun or Van Loo. To withhold praise therefore from one of the bewilderingly beautiful pipe-dreams of Monticelli would be to deny the value of all the decorative art in the world; to say that the mere sensuous beauty of the flower or of the peacock’s feather has no value because it delivers no intellectual message; to brush aside as worthless the keramic art of Japan, the textiles of Persia, and the cathedral glass of the Middle Ages.
But just as we should deprecate the presence of a precious surface quality in one of Millet’s noble and homely can-vases, so we should resent any attempt at a didactic or serious message in a picture by Monticelli or Watteau. And herein lies the mistake of Alfred Stevens. Throughout all the ages the great masters have been content to say but one thing upon one canvas; to subordinate everything else in the picture to the one dominant idea, and to eliminate everything which does not contribute to reinforce it. As I have already said in the chapter on Composition, any attempt to convey two ideas at one and the same time leads to inevitable con-fusion. Each idea may be beautiful in itself, but the beauty of one will nullify the beauty of the other. Indeed, the fact that a secondary idea in a picture is especially interesting is the strongest argument for its suppression. If the idea is of sufficient beauty it deserves a canvas by itself, and should be reserved for another picture to be painted later on.
Of the works of Monticelli, Watteau, Gaston La Touche, and their fellows, we therefore ask no more than they have given us. We are content to saturate our souls in their sensuous loveliness; to take deep draughts of this intoxicating wine of beauty and to dream the day away. We do not say that their work is greater or less great than that of Millet or Winslow Homer or the other master painters of humanity. We only say that it is different, and we are glad that it is as it is and not otherwise. In the garden of art there are many mansions. We love to wander from one to another under the wide and bosky shade, and are happy that we must not dwell always in the same palacebe it ever so beautiful.
Now there is no question but that this elusive and exquisite surface beautythis so-called “quality”is peculiarly at home in some forms of landscape art. Of this we have indubitable proof in the work of Claude and Turner and in the pictures of our own painters, Ranger, Dearth, and Bunce. One thing, however, must not be lost sight of. When the picture is intended to de-liver a message-to convey some poetic or strongly dramatic “mood” of nature, the unreserved use of quality may lead to the pitfall of the double motive. But when the character of the subject is quiet and idyllic, the sensitive appreciation of surface beauty on the part of the artist and his dexterous manipulation of pigment to secure it is not only legitimate but practically mandatory. Some of the most enduring works of beauty in painting owe their charm almost wholly to this one thing.
It is sometimes objected that there are various receipts by the use of which quality can be secured by the first-comer. If this were true, it would be the greatest of boons to the artistic profession. But, alas ! the only real receipt for quality is to be born a colorist. The kind which is secured by simple recourse to the varnish-pot is a sadly spurious article, which will bring little pleasure to any one with a sensitive artistic organization. Quality which is obtained at the expense of truth is dearly bought, and varnish in itself does not make art.
When, therefore, I am asked by students for the best way to secure quality in a picture, I feel inclined to paraphrase the reply of Oliver Wendell Holmes to the reporter who asked him the best way to make sure of a long life. ” The best way,” said the Autocrat, “is to select long-lived parents.”