THE “Free Art League of America” has recently printed an open letter, in which it congratulates the American people on the triumph of free art and rejoices over the certitude that valuable collections of old masterpieces will soon be brought to this country, and that beautiful carvings, bronzes, ivories, and antiques of all descriptions will drift into our museums, and into private collections all over the country. It finds particular satisfaction in the fact that these objects will now be at the service of our manufacturers for use as models, and that as a natural consequence “all of our manufactured products in which design plays an important part will be better able to compete with those of Europe.”
We may indeed rejoice if we are at last to come into our heritageso long withheld; if we may hope soon to se-cure our fair share of the treasures of the world. But if our only use for them is to copy them, to use them for models, it were better they should remain across the water. It is certain, I think, that America will one day have a school of decorative art that will win the universal admiration of the world; but if this is ever to happen, it will be because she has developed an art that is wholly her own; an art that is purely American; an art whose symbols will be the American flora and fauna as seen by American eyes and felt through the American temperament.
There is only one path by which an individual or a nation can hope to attain to eminence in art, or even in the “arts and crafts”and that path always leads direct to nature. We may study the antiques, and joy in them, and fill our souls with their beauty, but for our inspiration we must ever hark back to nature and get as near her heart as ever we can. She has a special message of beauty for every sincere questioner, and the message she gives to me will differ from that which she holds for you, and the message she delivers to the Dutchman will not be the same as that which she gives to the Spaniard.
The decorative art of the Japanese is nature as the Japanese see it; the decorative art of the Hindoos is nature as that strangely subtle and occult people see it; the decorative art of the Moors was nature as the Saracens saw it; and the decorative art of America must be nature as the Americans see it. There is no art so synthetic, so conventional, that it does not derive from nature, and the difference between the art of Persia and the art of Europe is the mental and temperamental difference between the Persian and the European. This is the foundation and explanation of all art, whatever period it rep-resents, or from whatever country it emanates, and it applies with equal force to the decoration on a porcelain jug or to the greatest mural painting in the world.
Sincerity ! Sincerity ! that is the key to it all.
Of course it was comparatively easy for the Hindoo or the Japanese or the Persian to be sincere and naive because the arts of other countries were unknown to them. But our wider knowledge is no handicap, no disadvantage to us if we only preserve our own integrity.
This we must do in absolute sincerity and without any mental reservation. Even in the development of the conventional forms, which are the basis of all decorative art, we cannot with safety use the rules which were in-vented and tabulated by the older craftsmen. We must invent our own systems. Having analyzed our bird or our leaf or our flower, we must select as the groundwork of our conventional design the particular form or tint that appeals to us as the most beautiful or the most graceful or fitting ; and just because we are Americans, just because of the mental difference between ourselves and the men of other nations, our selection would be different’ from the selection made from the same basic elements by a Japanese, a Persian, or a Hindoo, or a Frenchman, an Englishman, or a German; and in this slight difference at the beginning of things lies the germ of all that is distinctive and characteristic, and therefore of all that is truly beautiful in art.