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  The American SchoolWednesday, September 20th, 2017  
by Kenyon Cox

In the catalogues of our museums you may find entries like this: "John Smith, American school; The Empty Jug" or what-not. In such entries little more than a bare statement of nationality is intended. John Smith is an American, by birth or adoption; that is all that the statement is meant to convey. But the question occurs: Have we an American school in a more specific sense than this? Have we a body of painters with certain traits in common and certain differences from the painters of other countries? Has our production in painting sufficient homogeneity and sufficient national and local accent to entitle it to the name of American school in the sense in which there is, undoubtedly, a French school and an English school?

Under the conditions of today there are no longer anywhere such distinctive local schools as existed in the Renaissance. In Italy, in those days, there were not only such great schools as the Venetian, the Florentine, and the Umbrian, differing widely in their point of view, their manner of seeing, and their technical traditions - each little town had a school with something characteristic that separated its painters from those of other schools in the surrounding towns. today every one knows and is influenced by the work of every one else, and it is only broad national characteristics that still subsist. Modern pictures are singularly alike, but, on the whole, it is still possible to tell an English picture from a French one, and a German or Italian picture from either. We may still speak of a Dutch school or a Spanish school with some reasonableness. Is it similarly and equally reasonable to speak of an American school? Does a room full of American pictures have a different look from a room full of pictures by artists of any other nationality? Does one feel that the pictures in such a room have a something in common that makes them kin and a something different that distinguishes them from the pictures of all other countries? I think the answer must be in the affirmative.

We have already passed the stage of mere apprenticeship, and it can no longer be said that our American painters are mere reflections of their European masters. Twenty or even ten years ago there may have been some truth in the accusation. today many of our younger painters have had no foreign training at all, or have had such as has left no specific mark of a particular master; and from the work of most of our older painters it would be difficult to guess who their masters were without reference to a catalogue. They have, through long work in America and under American conditions, developed styles of their own bearing no discoverable resemblance to the styles of their first instructors. To take specific examples, who would imagine from the mural paintings of Blashfield or the decorations by Mowbray in the University Club of New York that either had been a pupil of Bonnat? Or who, looking at the exquisite landscapes or delicate figure pieces of Weir, would find anything to recall the name of Gérôme? Some of the pupils of Carolus Duran are almost the only painters we have who acquired in their school-days a distinctive method of work which still marks their production, and even they are hardly distinguishable today from others; for the method of Duran, as modified and exemplified by John Sargent, has become the method of all the world, and a pupil of Carolus simply paints in the modern manner, like the rest. Those American painters who have adopted the impressionist point of view, again, have modified its technic to suit their own purposes and are at least as different from the Impressionists of France as are the Impressionists of Scandinavia. We have painters who are undeniably influenced by Whistler, but so have other countries - the school of Whistler is international - and, after all, Whistler was an American. In short, the resemblances between American painting and the painting of other countries are today no greater than the resemblances between the painting of any two of those countries. And I think the differences between American painting and that of other countries are quite as great as, if not greater than, the differences between the paintings of any two of those countries.

Another accusation that used to be heard against our painters has been out-lived. We used to be told, with some truth, that we had learned to paint but had nothing to say with our painting, that we produced admirable studies but no pictures. The accusation never was true of our landscape-painting. Whatever may be the final estimation of the works of Inness and Wyant, there can be no doubt that they produced pictures - things conceived and worked out to give one definite and complete impression; things in which what was presented and what was eliminated were equally determined by a definite purpose; things in which accident and the immediate dominance of nature had little or no part. As for Winslow Homer, whether in landscape or figure painting, his work was unfailingly pictorial, whatever else it might be. He was a great and original designer, and every canvas of his was completely and definitely composed - a quality which at once removes from the category of mere sketches and studies even his slighter and more rapid productions. And our landscape-painters of today are equally painters of pictures. Some of them might be thought, by a modern taste, too conventionally painters of pictures - too much occupied with composition and tone and other pictorial qualities at the expense of freshness of observation - while our briskest and most original observers have, many of them, a power of design and a manner of casting even their freshest observations into pictorial form that is as admirable as it is remarkable.

No one could enter one of our exhibitions without feeling the definitely pictorial quality of American landscape-painting, but these exhibitions do less justice to the achievement of our figure-painters. The principal reason for this is that many of our most serious figure-painters have been so much occupied with mural decoration that their work seldom appears in the exhibitions at all, while the work that they have done is so scattered over our vast country that we rather forget its existence and, assuredly, have little realization of its amount. It is one of the defects of our exhibition system that work of this kind, while it is, of course, on permanent exhibition in the place for which it is painted, is hardly ever "exhibited," in the ordinary sense, in the centres where it is produced. The regular visitor to the Paris salons might know almost all that has been done in France in the way of mural painting. The public of our American exhibitions knows only vaguely and by hearsay what our mural painters have done and are doing. It is true that such work is infinitely better seen in place, but it is a pity it cannot be seen, even imperfectly, by the people who attend our exhibitions - people who can rarely have the necessary knowledge to read such collections of sketches, studies, and photographs as are shown at the exhibitions of the Architectural League, where, alone, our mural painters can show anything. If it were seen it would surely alter the estimation in which American figure-painting is held. Such work as was done by the late John La Farge, such work as is being done by Blashfield and Mowbray and Simmons and a dozen others, if not, in the most limited sense of the word, pictorial, is even further removed from the mere sketch or study - the mere bit of good painting - than is the finest easel picture.

But it is not only in mural decoration that serious figure-painting is being done in this country. I do not see how any one can deny the name of pictures to the genre paintings of Mr. Tarbell and Mr. Paxton unless he is prepared to deny pictorial quality to the whole Dutch school of the seventeenth century; and the example of these men is influencing a number of others toward the production of thoroughly thought-out and executed genre pictures. We have long had such serious figure-painters as Thayer and Brush, Dewing and Weir. The late Louis Loeb was attempting figure subjects of a very elaborate sort. today every exhibition shows an increasing number of worthy efforts at figure-painting in either the naturalistic or the ideal vein. We have pictures with subjects intelligently chosen and intelligibly treated, pictures with a pattern and a clear arrangement of line and mass, pictures soundly drawn and harmoniously colored as well as admirably painted.

The painters of America are no longer followers of foreign masters or students learning technic and indifferent to anything else. They are a school producing work differing in character from that of other schools and at least equal in quality to that of any school existing today.

If so much may be taken as proved, the question remains for consideration: What are the characteristics of the American school of painting? Its most striking characteristic is one that may be considered a fault or a virtue according to the point of view and the prepossessions of the observer. It is a characteristic that has certainly been a cause of the relatively small success of American work at recent international exhibitions. The American school is, among the schools of today, singularly old-fashioned. This characteristic has, undoubtedly, puzzled and repelled the foreigner. It is a time when the madness for novelty seems to be carrying everything before it, when anything may be accepted so long as it is or seems new, when the effort of all artists is to get rid of conventions and to shake off the "shackles of tradition." Here is a new people in the blessed state of having no traditions to shake off and from whom, therefore, some peppery wildness might be expected for the tickling of jaded palates. Behold, they are sturdily setting themselves to recover for art the things the others have thrown away! They are trying to revive the old fashion of thoughtful composition, the old fashion of good drawing, the old fashion of lovely color, and the old fashion of sound and beautiful workmanship.

This conservatism of American painting, however, is not of the kind that still marks so much of the painting of England. Excepting exceptions, English painting is somewhat stolidly staying where it was. America's conservatism is ardent, determined, living. It is not standing still; it is going somewhere as rapidly as possible - it might, perhaps, be more truly called not conservatism but reaction. We have, of course, our ultramodernists, but their audacities are mild compared to those of the French or German models they imitate. We have, even more of course, the followers of the easiest way - the practitioners of current and accepted methods who are alike everywhere. But our most original and most distinguished painters, those who give the tone to our exhibitions and the national accent to our school, are almost all engaged in trying to get back one or another of the qualities that marked the great art of the past. They have gone back of the art of the day and are retying the knots that should bind together the art of all ages.

This tendency shows itself strongly even in those whose work seems, at first sight, most purely naturalistic or impressionistic. Among those of our painters who have adopted and retained the impressionist technic, with its hatching of broken colors, the two most notable are Mr. Hassam and Mr. Weir. But Mr. Hassam, at his best, is a designer with a sense of balance and of classic grace almost equal to that of Corot, and he often uses the impressionist method to express otherwise the delicate shimmer of thin foliage that Corot loved. Nay, so little is he a pure naturalist, he cannot resist letting the white sides of naked nymphs gleam among his tree trunks - he cannot refrain from the artist's immemorial dream of Arcady. As for Mr. Weir, surely nothing could be more unlike the instantaneousness of true impressionism than his long-brooded-over, subtle-toned, infinitely sensitive art.

There is little dreaminess in the work of Mr. Tarbell and the growing number of his followers. Theirs is almost a pure naturalism, a "making it like." Yet, notably in the work of Mr. Tarbell himself, and to some extent in that of the others, there is an elegance of arrangement, a thoroughness in the notation of gradations of light, a beauty and a charm that were learned of no modern. Their art is an effort to bring back the artistic quality of the most artistic naturalism ever practised, that of Vermeer of Delft.

Others of our artists are going still further back in the history of art for a part of their inspiration. Mr. Brush has always been a linealist and a student of form, but his earlier canvases, admirable as they were, were those of a docile pupil of Gérôme applying the thoroughness of Gérôme's method to a new range of subjects and painting the American Indian as Gérôme had painted the modern Egyptian. In recent years each new picture of his has shown more clearly the influence of the early Italians - each has been more nearly a symphony of pure line.

Even in purely technical matters our painters have been experimenting backward, trying to recover lost technical beauties. The last pictures of Louis Loeb were underpainted throughout in monochrome, the final colors being applied in glazes and rubbings, and today a number of others, landscape and figure painters, are attempting to restore and master this, the pure Venetian method, while still others, among them Emil Carlsen, are reviving the use of tempera.

But it is in our mural painting even more than elsewhere that the conservative or reactionary tendency of American painting is most clearly marked. John La Farge was always himself, but when the general movement in mural painting began in this country with the Chicago World's Fair and the subsequent decoration of the Library of Congress, the rest of us were much under the influence of Puvis de Chavannes. Even then the design was not his, but was founded on earlier examples of decorative composition, but his pale tones were everywhere. Little by little the study of the past has taught us better. American mural painting has grown steadily more monumental in design, and at the same time it has grown richer and fuller in color. today, while it is not less but more personal and original than it was, it has more kinship with the noble achievements of Raphael and Veronese than has any other modern work extant.

And this brings us to the second characteristic of the American school of painting: it is rapidly becoming a school of color. We have still plenty of painters who work in the blackish or chalky or muddy and opaque tones of modern art, but I think we have more men who produce rich and powerful color and more men who produce subtle and delicate color than any other modern school. The experiments in reviving old technical methods have been undertaken for the sake of purity and luminosity of color and have largely succeeded. The pictures of Mr. Tarbell are far more colored than those of the European painter whose work is, in some ways, most analogous to his, M. Joseph Bail. Mr. Hassam's color is always sparkling and brilliant, Mr. Dewing's delicate and charming, Mr. Weir's subtle and harmonious and sometimes very full. Even Mr. Brush's linear arrangements are clothed in sombre but often richly harmonious tones, and the decorative use of powerful color is the main reliance of such painters as Hugo Ballin. But the note of color runs through the school and one hardly needs to name individual men. Whether our landscapists glaze and scumble with the tonalists, or use some modification of the impressionist hatching, it is for the sake of color; and even our most forthright and dashing wielders of the big brush often achieve a surprising power of resonant coloring.

Power, fulness, and beauty of coloring are hardly modern qualities. Much as impressionism has been praised for restoring color to a colorless art, its result has been, too often, to substitute whitishness for blackishness. Color has characterized no modern painting since that of Delacroix and Millet as it characterizes much of the best American painting. The love for and the success in color of our school is, after all, a part of its conservatism.

It may seem an odd way of praising a modern school to call it the least modern of any. It would be an odd way of praising that school if its lack of modernness were a mere matter of lagging behind or of standing still and marking time. But if the "march of progress" has been down-hill - if the path that is trod leads into a swamp or over a precipice - then there may be most hopefulness for those who can 'bout face and march the other way. I have, elsewhere in this volume, given at some length some of my reasons for thinking that modern art has been following a false route and is in danger of perishing in the bog or falling over the cliff. If it is so we may congratulate ourselves that those of our painters who are still following the rest of the world have not so nearly reached the end of the road, and that those who are more independent have discovered in time what that end is and have turned back.

It is because it is least that of today that I believe our art may be that of tomorrow - it is because it is, of all art now going, that which has most connection with the past that I hope the art of America may prove to be the art of the future.

Article from ARTIST AND PUBLIC AND OTHER ESSAYS ON ART SUBJECTS
Copyright, 1914, by Charles Scribner's Sons




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