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OUR AMERICAN “OLD MASTERS”
BY CHARLES L. BUCHANAN
IN AN age, the dominant character. nerableness and integrity of some istic of which is a premature and past accomplishment particularly love over-precipitant preoccupation with able to us. It is natural that we novelty for the sheer sake of the should do this. To the intense lover novelty and quite regardless of in of lovely things the attitude of trinsic qualifications, the sensitive reverence is so precious a sensarespecter of beautiful things is in tion that it is not easy to subject clined, perhaps, to accord a dispro. to a close and searching scrutiny portionate amount of importance to work upon which Time appears established and commonly accepted to have set a permanent mark of reputations at the expense of a just approval. regard for contemporary artistic All the more reason why we must achievement. The supreme difficulty force ourselves to this task. In the confronting the honest worker in and present instance, I have in mind recorder of artistic activities is the those of our dead painters that are difficulty of maintaining an equitable accorded conventional recognition, balance between a too comfortable too often, I suspect, from the mere acquiescence in the old, a too indis reason of their being dead, and not, criminating indorsement of the new. as we should like to believe, because One's inclination is almost uncon. of their incontestable merit. What trollably in the direction of one ex the verdict of fifty years from now treme or the other at the
will be on Inness, Martin, Wyant, normal middle-ground. Those of us Homer, Blakelock,* Twachtman, Ful. that are disturbed and irritated by ler and Ryder, we can, of course, the over-emphasis laid by shallow have not the slightest idea (and we and ignoble minds upon inconsequen- might be considerably unhappy if we tial and meretricious effort, those of knew), but, very gradually, revaluaus that cannot ease our bewilderment tions are taking place, and it is cerat the spectacle of the palpably coun tain that the old, easy acquiescence terfeit winning acceptance over the in a wholesale, take-it-for-granted legitimate, are, perhaps, over-inclined indorsement of these men is over and to believe that there is an indefinable done with for all time. We have something inherent in precedent that begun to pick and choose, to encourlends it both a perpetual potency of age close discriminations, to formu. appeal and, what is more to the point, late, in other
other words, something a kind of excellence, unassailable in approximating a fixed scale
scale of its supremacy, that
values. fixed standard by which we may The common comprehension has compare, to its disadvantage, the more or less unreservedly accepted lesser work of art. We should like to the general impression that these give the lie to those gentlemen of men achieved a degree of excellence impetuous and excessive inclination,
far and away beyond the work of our radical reviewers, suspecting our contemporary painters. This them, as we so often do, of an innate incapacity for fine feelings, loyalties
*In view of the lamentable fact that and consistencies of opinion. We
Blakelock's powers have been irreparably
impaired by disease, the writer feels justishould like to insist upon the invul. fied in including him in the present article.
serve as a
point of view, however popular it shock. The thought riots through may be, is open to argument. Two your sensibilities, “Good heavens! of them, Inness and Winslow Homer, this can't be Wyant!” Six or eight represent, it is true, a breadth of out or ten canvases rebuff you in similar look that no contemporary effort fashion, and you have reached a sort parallels. We are not premature in of comatose, don't-care-a-hang attiaccording them an exclusive posi- tude toward the whole affair, when tion, unassailable and unique. They traditional opinion revives your demerit a special consideration, for bilitated enthusiasm with the assurthey are, very probably, the two ance that these are wretched examgreatest painters this country has ples of Wyant-oh, no! these are not produced. It is with those painters the real things at all! Mr. So and with whom they are commonly, and So's Wyants or Mr. Somebody Else's perhaps somewhat carelessly, asso Wyants !—those are the Wyants! A ciated that we are at present con little later you draw up before an cerned.
Inness. (We are talking now of bad Let us unburden ourselves, in so Innesses, not good ones.) You do so far as it is humanly possible, of pre- wish you could possess an Inness. conceived points of view, prejudices, You have seen photographs of bits of information unthinkingly ac Inness's pictures, and they are indiscepted into the system, and let us putably head and shoulders above walk together through an average anyone else's pictures.
But somecollection of American paintings. thing seems to have got out of gear. The press has probably ignored it, Figuratively speaking, you rub your largely, I suppose, because it is an eyes and polish up your sensibilities. American collection. If, however, it What is wrong? Is this the famous does happen to supply you with a Sunshine and Clouds you have so couple of perfunctory paragraphs long deferred to in your valuations devoted to the affair, you will prob- of American painting? Here are ably find that the prestige of the tones hard as nails and absolutely written word has been utilised to call artificial. Here is an utter absence your attention to the beauties of of that envelope of atmosphere that some particular Inness, Wyant or you cannot help associating with the Martin, names you have had dinned legitimate trend of modern landscape into your consciousness ever since painting. Undeniably a mediocre you were born. Tryon, Dearth, picture. You may say “rather a big Weir, Lawson and Murphy may be conception,” but of charm there is beautifully in evidence, but your at very little, if any at all. Traditional tention is not directed to them, your opinion bobs up again. It tells you attention is directed to Inness, that this is no representative Inness. Wyant and Martin.
It says, “Oh! my dear fellow, I wish So far, so good. But now comes you could see the Innesses I have the rub. (And mind you this is not seen! Take your breath away! prejudice airing itself; it is the con Halsted's--for instance, those were centrated essence of innumerable the cream; I helped him select disappointments.) You stand, for them.” A little later you stand beexample, before a Wyant. Your sus fore a Homer Martin, consisting of ceptibilities are tuned for joyous re a couple of dreary tones for shore actions. You have fed on imaginary and sky, and a few scrawny figures. Wyants, conjuring miraculous pre The Mussel Gatherers. Somebody visionings out of your hero worship. says to you, “I'm one of those perWell, what happens? Four times out sons that believe Homer Martin of five you experience a palpable couldn't paint a bad picture.” You
are tempted to believe he never tin (Wyant and Martin particularly painted more than two or three good so) that is rebuffed and permanently ones.
disappointed when you come face to Now here is the point. You ap- face with the original. Of course, proach this trio of American painters too much must not be argued from with every instinct in you keyed to this highly suggestive and, I believe, an hospitable, enthusiastic pitch of incontrovertible fact, but it would expectancy. You do not question certainly seem to indicate a lack in their sovereignty until they have re- the painting of these men of those peatedly betrayed your trust. You beauties and legitimate gratifications hope, perhaps, to possess a Wyant, inherent in an adroit manipulation an Inness, a Martin. You go through of their material. To my taste, I find the dispiriting drudge of your days this to be the case. I am never satiswith their images beckoning you fied by the sum-total of a Wyant or You encounter years of disillusion. a Martin as I am by an Inness, a You administer tonics to your cred. Winslow Homer, a' Tryon or a ulity and your optimism. But alas! Murphy. I think the genesis of this a time comes when you suddenly find resides in the fact that what an yourself face to face with the awe. Inness, a Homer, a Murphy set out to some issue: Do these legendary In accomplish, they accomplish withnesses, Wyants and Martins really out faltering, without lopsidedness, exist? Are they not, perchance, self. presenting us at the end with that created illusions, bred a bit on per- perfect fusing of components, that sonal affection and the legitimate but miraculous equilibrium that marks sometimes overworked prestige of the the superior achievement. This acheretofore?
complishment does not always charWhat is the answer to all this? acterise the work of Inness, but, at Irreverence on my part? No, a thou his greatest, the grandiose concepsand times no! I venerate these men tion, the prodigious panoramic ecdeeply, consistently, but I do not stasy is revealed to us superbly, satishesitate to say that from a technical fyingly, poised in perfection. Marstandpoint they are often inadequate tin, on the other hand (a painter -infirm was the word I had origi- somewhat similar to Inness in bigness nally intended. Nor can there be the of outlook--the cosmical visioning, slightest doubt that their work, when
so to speak) seldom achieves the injudged from the standpoint of a spirational poise of inevitability, sheerly sensuous loveliness, falls far Subject to revision (as all honesty of short of the best work being pro- opinion must be), I would call him duced in our immediate time by such a stammerer, as it were, in his mepainters as Hassam, Tryon, Murphy, dium of expression, not infirm, as I Lawson and Weir. Notice, for ex often feel Wyant to be, but ungainly ample, the curious fact that whereas through the possession and the exeryou can gain no impression whatso cise of a fine, noble strength uncoever of the textural beauty of a Weir, ordinated. It is by what he attempts a Hassam or a Murphy from a photo- rather than by what he achieves that graphic reproduction (the whole Martin excites our good wishes; but, spirit of the picture eliminated, as a alas! there is a special hell in art matter of fact, and nothing but the paved with good intentions. Martin dry husk of line remaining), yet nine has good intentions, but, as some one times out of ten you gain an enjoy- says somewhere about nature, he ment, a quiver of expectancy, so to cannot carry them out. His vision speak, out of a photographic repro may be Homeric; his handling is too duction of an Inness, a Wyant, a Mar. often atrocious. He stumbles over
the wide and windy spaces of the and supplication before the majesty world with huge, inaccurate foot of the universal.” Opinions differ, falls. The strength of his inspiration do they not? I am not alone in find. is the strength of a veritable Samson ing this picture distinctly unpleasant, of paint, muscle-bound, ungainly of I had almost said offensive. I am not limb and uncertain like some blind. alone in seeing no beauty in a colour folded thing of his very direction. scheme blatant rather than beautiful, His palette is unfortunate when it and I can find no loveliness whatsopermits itself in its higher register ever in these clumsily deformed a kind of vanilla yellow and a blue trees. There is a kind of beautytoo fluent, too voluble, however justi perverted beauty, if you will—inherfied by nature, to carry a conviction ent in a characteristic ugliness (the to us of its integrity when repro older masters instinctively divined duced on canvas. In his lower keys this secret), but it must be ugliness (The Mussel Gatherers, for exam dexterously dominated by technical ple) we are confronted by a positive efficiency. In Martin we find the muddiness from which beauty is ugliness, but we do not often find the surely expelled, however, a certain technical efficiency. I cannot think, , sombreness and severity may afford at the moment, of an instance in a partial impression of greatness. Martin where he copes successfully Stand before the Newport at the with that most difficult problem of Lotus Club (hung in so close a the landscape painter, the adroitly proximity to an example of that beautiful handling of the complisomewhat analogous but far firmer cated anatomy of trees. The famous and sturdier painter,
Winslow picture up
picture up at the Metropolitan, Homer), and ask yourself if some View on the Seine or The Harp thing–I care not one whit how in of the Wind, as it was originally definable, how infinitesimal that named, supplies us with an example something be-does not offend your of this chronic incapacity. It is persense of the fitness of things, does not haps Martin's finest picture (the intrude a barely perceptible but Westchester Hills I do not know), none the less potent insinuation of and I am second to none in my addiscrepancy upon you. And the an miration of its fluent if somewhat swer will be found, I think, in the too mellifluous quality of paint and incompatibility of the colour scheme simulation of atmospheric vitality, and the handling of the paint with but I nevertheless cannot persuade so big a conception of low tides, a myself that either its colour scheme lank, surly shore and the salt smack or the draughtsmanship it exhibits is of the marshes. I would call particu- of that kind of impeccable and ultilar attention to The Sun Worship- mate assurance that we find in the pers as an example of that curious work of Homer, Inness and Murphy. and irreconcilable combination we From the human standpoint I would find in Martin of a so great greatness, rather pin my faith to Martin than a so deplorable deficiency. Writing to any painter this country has proof this picture, a critic of American duced; for the evidence would seem painting has this to say: “The repro to indicate the possession on his part duction fails to suggest adequately of a degree of gracious cultivation, the golden glory of the evening sky both intellectual and spiritual, that and the softness of the silhouette of is mostly lacking in the practitioners the brownish trees. Hence it missed of the art of painting. What their somewhat the suggestion of the origi- associates and biographers mistake nal, as of time-tried creatures, for cultivation is usually merely a warped by fate, bending in adoration kind of clairvoyant shrewdness of the
senses, an aboriginal acuteness, a istence, warp and woof, so to speak, rough poetry, a sort of unsophistica- of quotidian cares, infirmities and tion, absolutely essential, no doubt, disadvantages. I am often tempted to the painting of landscape, but to believe that Wyant's art was the somewhat monotonous socially. Cu- inevitable reflex of a strength de. riously enough, some of the greatest pleted by early privation and hardartists the world has ever known ships. Í remember once hearing have been ignoramuses. (Why does George Bellows refer to him as the Nature choose such incongruous me most over-rated reputation in Ameridiums for the transferrence, hint by can painting. I agree with this estihint, of her miraculous beauty?) mate, but I do so full of pity for the Whistler seems to have been the primitive fineness of feeling inherent most successful instance of an artist in Wyant's work. that lived charmingly and painted ward him is similar to my attitude charmingly. In some ways, perhaps toward MacDowell. Both men apthe noblest, richest temperament in parently possessed a keen kind of American painting, Martin pro- sensitiveness, a ' reticent, delicate gressed from the parochial simplici- kind, and both men suffered, no ties, the earnest, reproductive fideli- doubt, from an unresponsive enties of the Hudson River School into vironment. (The old, sad story!) a cosmopolitanism of vision emi. Wyant in his later years, so I am nently fine, if not with the highest told, was infirm mentally. An inkind of fineness, yet commendably stinctive sensitiveness imagines the so. Under the delicately quickening rebuffs he must have encountered, influences of the French environment the lonely hurt of desires unsatisfied, (at a time when the dominant tend. of desires never to be realised. But ency of modern landscape in the di- affection is for the man; as artist, rection of higher, keener percep. both men fall short of that superior tions of light was projecting itself force, that cogency of appeal characinto the consciousness of every teristic of the superlative achieveartist), Martin developed from the ment. We are likely to be overpainter of the banal and archaic vul- lenient in our appraisal of their garities of On the Hudson to a sheerly artistic values. A waterpainter of creamy skies and golden, colour of Wyant's is as satisfying, to opalescent sands, delicious often all intents and purposes, as one of his from the sheer copiousness of the oils. A black and white would have paint, if unconvincing somewhat served the purpose equally well. We There is the word I have been seek- are fascinated by Wyant's point of ing-unconvincing, the thing the
the thing the view as we remember it in our consuperlative artist never, never is. sciousness, but we are unsatisfied by Martin's conception of things (tre- it when he presents it to us on canmendous!) and his ability to con vas. The reticence of his colour summate his conception remained scheme and compositional sense does (tragically, for all we know) ir- not seem, as in the case of Corot, to reconcilable.
be the result of temperamental conI have always considered it ex tinence and conscious selection, pedient to study a man's art in the rather do we suspect it to be the relight of the concrete facts of his life. sult of an inherent incapacity. The To the High Priests of Art for Art's least ample and sumptuous of Amerisake this will, no doubt, subject me can landscape painters, we are likely to criticism. I am convinced, how- in our preoccupation with his “tenever, that a man's art is part and par- der lyricism” (that stereotyped cel of the events of his physical ex- phrase so often applied to him) to