Recent American Art

BEFORE turning to recent American art we shall do well to guard our position in the matter of methods as so far considered, aside from landscape, lest we appear to exclude from appreciation much meritorious art in small figure composition. The diminution of the field of view carries with itself logically the possibility of greater insistence on detail. There are even paintings where this detail may be conceded the main interest. The Dutch artist, Terburg, was especially famous for his satin dresses. Notice, now, two points. As regards the dimension of the figure, Terburg did not work in life-size ; his figures may average perhaps a foot high. As regards the number of figures, his pictures limit them to two or three. Now the refinement of execution in a satin dress which makes the charm of a Terburg will create a nightmare of ugliness if applied to a life-size portrait. Compare the method of Mr. Sargent in life-size portraits (Fig. 195) for the execution which revives the methods of Velasquez or of Gainsborough. Conceive now of the method of Terburg applied not to one but to twenty or thirty life-size figures, and you produce the style of Brozik, whose colossal picture of Columbus before Ferdinand and Isabella is in the New York Museum. It would be unjust to stigmatize this one painter for a method which has ruined the art of hundreds of conscientious painters of our day. It is evident, then, that not only the dimensions of the original subject, but also the dimensions of the painting itself, outside of landscape art, are or should be controlling elements in the matter of method. In every landscape the actual dimensions of nature may be considered as almost without limit. In anecdotal figure composition on small sized panels and of limited actual extent in original nature, our point of view as to method, whether broad or more minute and literal, be-comes largely one of personal preference. Where the eye can take in within a foot or so an anecdote or episode, the method, whether broad or minute in detail, is a matter of choice at the discretion of the painter, and in both methods good results may be obtained. The controlling question concerns not the method but the matter in such cases, and the ability of the artist within the limits of his chosen method. Where life-size figures or large paintings are in question there can be little question as to choice of methods as between the broad and the minutely detailed. The influence of Mr. William M. Chase, and of his followers, has in this sense been epoch-making for American art especially for the design of the figure; and as against the belittling influences which English art of the middle of the century or earlier had exercised on our own. At an earlier day than that of Mr. Chase, William M. Hunt was one of the few missionaries of the new idea in American art. One of its very greatest exponents in all modern time has been, how-ever, the deceased and long unappreciated George Fuller. This artist was the Hawthorne of American painters, as Wordsworth Thompson and Frederick James are among its Fenimore Coopers.

Among American painters we should give a foremost place to those who have faced that most national of all subjects, when its interest for posterity is kept in view, the American Indian. Mr. Brush’s picture of the “The Sculptor and the King” has even gone back to Aztec days, with rare union of poetic thought and accurate historic suggestion, and his ” Indian and the Lily,” also seen at the Columbian Exposition, conveys, even by the mention of its subject alone, a suggestion of its poetic and yet faithful picture of the socalled American savage. The names of Farny and Remington are familiar to all experts as other vivid portrayers of life on the borders of civilization; and R. A. Blakelock was also among the first to devote his great talents to these subjects.

In religious art, I noticed at the Columbian Exposition the powerful “Christ and the Fishermen” of Mr. Du Mond, and the noble and elevated paintings of La Farge and of Poore. Mr. Thayer’s “Virgin Enthroned” has already achieved the national reputation which it deserves.

In this mention of individual names I am well aware how far I am sinning by omissions and by omissions among the very greatest of our artists. One must publish an entire catalogue in order to do justice to the genius in American art.

In the United States the place of the artist has been hitherto one of extreme difficulty and hard struggle. The natural tendency of a new country to look up to its older predecessors in art and science has led us to ignore or overlook the general equality and frequent superiority of our artists to those of the Old World, to which equality or superiority they have attained in the last twenty years. The art exhibits and sculptured decorative work of the Columbian Exposition offered an excellent opportunity for the contrast of contemporary American art with that of Europe, and in this contrast we had no cause to shun the comparison. Among living artists it appears to me that our own take first rank for the following reasons:

In architectural sculpture and in open air sculpture the modern world has seen nothing to compare with the statuary at Chicago, and as illustrations of the possibilities of sculpture in architectural decoration there are no buildings of modern time which could rival the Agricultural Building and the Administration Building at the Columbian Exposition. In the application of statuary to park or landscape decoration and in its quality, the same superiority may be asserted. The lesson that a work of art needs a definite destination, a definite purpose, and a definite relation to surroundings which demand it and call it into being, was well taught us by the Exposition. No opportunity like it had been offered in modern history.

In the painting exhibits of the Art Palace, American landscape was so superior to that of England, which made an especially fine representative exhibit, that even comparison was out of question. To the French exhibit of landscape it was also far superior, in which statement it should be remembered that the French exhibit was not representative to the same extent as that of other nations.

The American loans of contemporary French pictures showed a finer quality than the French official display. This is also significant for American taste. Among the living French artists represented by American loans only Monet and Raffaelli could be mentioned as men of genius, who surpassed in landscape their American competitors. The works of Monet are extremely unequal and many of them distinctly inferior to contemporary American; some of them superior as works of daring genius to anything that we have yet produced. The average superiority of American landscape to that of recent Germany and Italy is incontestable.

When we come to ideal or suggestive art of the lofty and ambitious type, I have no hesitation in placing Elihu Vedder as first among living moderns. He stands on surer ground in his choice of subjects, as being closer to average popular apprehension, than the Englishman George F. Watts. He is more profound than Leighton, not less suggestive and far more daring than Riviere, more practical and matter of fact than Burne-Jones, and there is no living Frenchman who can be named beside him in his peculiar field. Beside the name of Vedder, that of John La Farge must be mentioned as the worthy rival or superior of any living European artist of our day, Watts alone excepted, when the capacity of a poet and man of thought working through brush and pencil is in question.

In our general estimate of recent American art, we can affirm that only one thing is lacking to it: the appreciative support and sympathy of its own nation, publicly declared by critics, and, above all, attested by public patronage for this is the only test of approval and the only condition of future existence and survival.

It would be absurd to allow patriotism to control or suggest our preferences in art. No more foolish thing could be suggested than to patronize American art simply be-cause it is American. There is a better reason than patriotism or national pride for the appreciation of American art, which is that it deserves appreciation. But all good and genuine art presupposes a relationship between buyer and seller, a community of interests and thoughts. This relationship and this community are mainly dependent upon local contact, upon affinities of literature and language and daily life, upon a common basis of education. National art is not to be encouraged because it is national, but because no other art can take its place.

In recent American architecture the progress affirmed for sculpture and for painting has been fully equaled and perhaps surpassed.

It is in decorative art that American pre-eminence has asserted itself in the most distinct and emphatic way. Outside of Japan or China there is no such school of ceramic decoration in modern art as can be found in the private circles of Cincinnati. I do not speak of the Rookwood pottery alone, which has originally developed from the style and work of a single amateur. Cincinnati is full of original talent in this direction. In its Museum the masterpieces of these amateurs are exhibited, with their dates. The work of Miss McLaughlin is possibly better known in Europe than it is here, although her name is a household word with all experts in decoration. The wood-carvings of Cincinnati have also wide renown, especially as connected with the family name of Fry. In decorative needlework the New York School of Mrs. Wheeler (Associated Artists) is distinctly superior to that of South Kensington in London. In stained glass the names of John La Fare, of Crowninshield, and of Louis Tiffany, are of epoch-making significance for all modern art. The architectural mosaics of the latter are a revival of the best qualities of the Byzantine, and it is doubtful if they have any rivals of importance in modern Europe.

( Originally Published 1894 )

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