|by Kenyon Cox
Among the modern paintings in the Metropolitan Museum is a brilliant and altogether remarkable little picture by John Sargent, entitled "The Hermit". Mr. Sargent is a portrait-painter by vocation, and the public knows him best as a penetrating and sometimes cruel reader of human character. He is a mural painter by avocation and capable, on occasion, of a monumental formality. In this picture, as in the wonderful collection of watercolors in the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, one fancies one sees the essential John Sargent, working for himself alone without regard to external demands, and doing what he really cares most to do. In such work he is a modern of the moderns and, in the broadest sense of the word, a thorough Impressionist. Not that he shows himself a disciple of Monet or occupies himself with the broken touch or the division of tones - his method is as direct as that of Sorolla and his impressionism is of the same kind - a bending of all his energies to the vivid realization of the effect of the scene rendered as one might perceive it in the first flash of vision if one came upon it unexpectedly. This picture is better than Sorolla - it is better than almost any one. It is perhaps the most astonishing realization of the modern ideal, the most accomplished transcript of the actual appearance of nature, that has yet been produced. It is because of its great merit, because of its extraordinary success in what it attempts, that it leads one to the serious consideration of the nature of the attempt and of the gain and loss involved in the choice that modern art has made.
The picture is exactly square - the choice of this form is, of itself, typically modern in its unexpectedness - and represents a bit of rough wood interior under intense sunlight. The light is studied for its brilliancy rather than for its warmth, and if the picture has a fault, granted the point of view of the painter, it is in a certain coldness of color; but such conditions of glaring and almost colorless light do exist in nature. One sees a few straight trunks of some kind of pine or larch, a network of branches and needles, a tumble of moss-spotted and lichened rocks, a confusion of floating lights and shadows, and that is all. The conviction of truth is instantaneous - it is an actual bit of nature, just as the painter found it. One is there on that ragged hillside, half dazzled by the moving spots of light, as if set down there suddenly, with no time to adjust one's vision. Gradually one's eyes clear and one is aware, first of a haggard human head with tangled beard and unkempt hair, then of an emaciated body. There is a man in the wood! And then - did they betray themselves by some slight movement? - there are a couple of slender antelopes who were but now invisible and who melt into their surroundings again at the slightest inattention. It is like a pictorial demonstration of protective coloring in men and animals.
Now, almost any one can see how superbly all this is rendered. Any one can marvel at and admire the free and instantaneous handling, the web of slashing and apparently meaningless brush strokes which, at a given distance, take their places by a kind of magic and are the things they represent. But it takes a painter to know how justly it is observed. In these days no painter, whatever may be his deepest convictions, can escape the occasional desire to be modern; and most of us have attempted, at one time or another, the actual study of the human figure in the open air. We have taken our model into a walled garden or a deep wood or the rocky ravine of a brook and have set ourselves seriously to find out what a naked man or woman really looks like in the setting of outdoor nature. And we have found just what Sargent has painted. The human figure, as a figure, has ceased to exist. Line and structure and all that we have most cared for have disappeared. Even the color of flesh has ceased to count, and the most radiant blond skin of the fairest woman has become an insignificant pinkish spot no more important than a stone and not half so important as a flower. Humanity is absorbed into the landscape.
Obviously, there are two courses open to the painter. If he is a modern by feeling and by training, full of curiosity and of the scientific temper, caring more for the investigation of the aspects of nature and the rendering of natural light and atmosphere than for the telling of a story or the construction of a decoration, he will, if he is able enough, treat his matter much as Sargent has treated it. The figure will become, for him, only an incident in the landscape. It will be important only as a thing of another texture and another color, valuable for the different way in which it receives the light and reflects the sky, just as rocks and foliage and water and bare earth are valuable. For to the true Impressionist light and atmosphere are the only realities, and objects exist only to provide surfaces for the play of light and atmosphere. He will abandon all attempt at rendering the material and physical significance of the human form and will still less concern himself with its spiritual significance. He will gain a great vividness of illusion, and he may console himself for what he loses with the reflection that he has expressed the true relation of man to the universe - that he has expressed either man's insignificance or man's oneness with nature, according as his temper is pessimistic or optimistic.
If, on the other hand, the painter is one to whom the figure as a figure means much; one to whom line and bulk and modelling are the principal means of expression, and who cares for the structure and stress of bone and muscle; if the glow and softness of flesh appeal strongly to him; above all, if he has the human point of view and thinks of his figures as people engaged in certain actions, having certain characters, experiencing certain states of mind and body; then he will give up the struggle with the truths of aspect that seem so vital to the painter of the other type and, by a frank use of conventions, will seek to increase the importance of his figure at the expense of its surroundings. He will give it firmer lines and clearer edges, will strengthen its light and shade, will dwell upon its structure or its movement and expression. He will so compose his landscape as to subordinate it to his figure and will make its lines echo and accentuate that figure's action or repose. When he has accomplished his task he will have painted not man insignificant before nature but man dominating nature.
For an example of this way of representing man's relation to the world about him, let us take Titian's "Saint Jerome" - a picture somewhat similar to Sargent's in subject and in the relative size of the figure and its surroundings. Titian has here given more importance to the landscape than was common in his day. He also has meant, as Sargent has, to make a great deal of the wilderness to which his saint has retired, and to make his saint a lonely human being in a savage place. But the saint and his emotion is, after all, what interests Titian most, and the wildness of nature is valuable to him mainly for its sympathy with this emotion. He wants to give a single powerful feeling and to give it with the utmost dramatic force - to give it theatrically even, one might admit of this particular picture; for it is by no means so favorable an example of Titian's method, or of the older methods of art in general, as is Sargent's "Hermit" of the modern way of seeing and painting. To attain this end he simplifies and arranges everything. He lowers the pitch of his coloring to a sombre glow and concentrates the little light upon his kneeling figure. He spends all his knowledge on so drawing and modelling that figure as to make you feel to the utmost its bulk and reality and the strain upon its muscles and tendons, and he so places everything else on his canvas as to intensify its action and expression. The gaze of the saint is fixed upon a crucifix high on the right of the picture, and the book behind him, the lines of the rocks, the masses of the foliage, even the general formation of the ground, are so disposed as to echo and reinforce the great diagonal. There is a splendid energy of invention in the drawing of the tree stems, but the effect is clear and simple with nothing of Sargent's dazzle and confusion. As for the lion, he is a mere necessary mark of identification, and Titian has taken no interest in him.
Now, it is evident that there is not nearly so much literal truth to the appearance of nature in this picture as in Sargent's. It is not only that it would never have occurred to Titian to try to paint the glittering spottiness of sunlight splashing through leafage, or to attempt to raise his key of light to something like that of nature, at the cost of fulness of color. It is not merely that he translates and simplifies and neglects certain truths that the world had not yet learned to see. He deliberately and intentionally falsifies. He knew as well as we do that a natural landscape would not arrange itself in such lines and masses for the purpose of throwing out the figure and of enhancing its emotion. But to him natural facts were but so much material, to be treated as he pleased for the carrying out of his purpose. He was a colorist and a chiaroscurist; and he had a great deal more interest in light and in landscape than most of the painters of his time. If he had been pre-eminently a draughtsman, like Michelangelo, he would have reduced his light and shade to the amount strictly necessary to give that powerful modelling of the figure which is the draughtsman's means of expression, would have greatly increased the relative size and importance of the figure, and would have reduced the landscape to a barely intelligible symbol. Had he been a linealist, like Botticelli, he would have eliminated modelling almost altogether, would have concentrated his attention upon the edges of things, and would have reduced his picture to a flat pattern in which the beauty and expressiveness of the lines should be almost the only attraction.
For all art is an exchange of gain against loss - you cannot have Sargent's truth of impression and Titian's truth of emotion in the same picture, nor Michelangelo's beauty of structure with Botticelli's beauty of line. To be a successful artist is to know what you want and to get it at any necessary sacrifice, though the greatest artists maintain a noble balance and sacrifice no more than is necessary. And if a painter of to-day is like-minded with these older masters he will have to express himself much in their manner. He will have to make, with his eyes open, the sacrifices which they made, more or less unconsciously, and to deny a whole range of truths with which his fellows are occupied that he may express clearly and forcibly the few truths which he has chosen.
All truths are good, and all ways of painting are legitimate that are necessary to the expression of any truth. I am not here concerned to show that one way is better than another or one set of truths more important than another set of truths. For the present I am desirous only of showing why there is more than one way - of explaining the necessity of different methods for the expression of different individualities and different ways of envisaging nature and art. But a little while ago it was the modern or impressionistic manner that needed explanation. It was new, it was revolutionary, and it was misunderstood and disliked. A generation of critics has been busy in explaining it, a generation of artists has been busy in practising it, and now the balance has turned the other way. The pressure of conformity is upon the other side, and it is the older methods that need justification and explanation. The prejudices of the workers and the writers have gradually and naturally become the prejudices of at least a part of the public, and it has become necessary to show that the small minority of artists who still follow the old roads do so not from ignorance or stupidity or a stolid conservatism, still less from mere wilful caprice, but from necessity, because those roads are the only ones that can lead them where they wish to go. No more magnificent demonstration of the qualities possible to the purely modern methods of painting has been made than this brilliant little picture of Sargent's. All the more is it a demonstration of the qualities impossible to these methods. If such qualities have any permanent value and interest for the modern world it is a gain for art that some painters should try to keep alive the methods that render possible their attainment.
Article from ARTIST AND PUBLIC
ESSAYS ON ART SUBJECTS
Copyright, 1914, by Charles Scribner's Sons
Site copyright© 2002-2022, Surf-in-the-Spirit. All rights reserved.