Style And Individuality
( Originally Published 1920 )
If the artist be possessed of thoughts it should make little difference how he expresses them, so that he really does set them fully before us. To be sure, there are rules of action in painting as in all things, and some of them I have already endeavored to point out, but the rules are general in their nature and leave plenty of scope for individual action.
An artist's style is simply his way or manner of saying things, and in this each painter may vary from his neighbor. There is no one inflexible law that can be laid down as a guide for them all. In this age of individualism almost every artist originates a style of his own, and the correctness or incorrectness of it is very much dependent upon whether it pleases or not.
To a great extent, style consists in the manner of putting on paint (though it may also relate to drawing, coloring, or composition), and in this the connoisseur, the amateur, and the artist take a vivid interest. The "average person," however, sees little in method, and, rightly enough from his point of view, considers it lightly. Titian painted with his fingers, Rubens with his palette-knife, and many of the modern French and German pictures look as though they might have been painted with a mason's trowel or a whitewash-brush ; but all that should be of little consequence to you at first. Homer sang poetry, Milton dictated it, Coleridge dreamed it, Goethe wrote it, but what matters it to the reader how the poetry was obtained? He judges only by results. And so with pictures, he usually looks only to that which is accomplished. The seams of the Turkish rug in this picture by Bridgman* are not painted at all; on the contrary, they have been made by the edge of a palette-knife drawn through the thick, wet paint. There are lines cut across the canvas like the ruts in a country road. But stand back, and ask yourself if the effect is not capital. So, again, you may laugh at that ball of yellowish-white paint sticking to the leaves of a tree in Daubigny's "Cooper Shop;" but if you will look at the picture from across the room you will see the startling effect of a sun shaft through the foliage. You should not get too close. to pictures. It has passed into a proverb that the smell of paint is unhealthy. Place yourself at a distance where the picture appears to the best advantage ; and let me protest just here against the visiting of galleries with telescopes, lorgnettes, and magnifying glasses with which to enlarge the view of a picture. If one is near-sighted perhaps such things are permissible, but on general principles they should be condemned. Had the painter wished his audience to see his work on a larger scale he would undoubtedly so have painted it ; as he did not, let us by all means respect his wishes and get the view of it that he intended we should receive. Thus we shall do justice to him and give greater pleasure to ourselves.
It is often supposed that the excellence of a picture consists in the smoothness of the surface, the minuteness of the workmanship, or the thinness of the paint. If you possess that notion you would better abandon it. Nine times out of ten, thinness, smoothness, and the fine finish which give the Carlo Dolci-Denner appearance to a picture mark the weak man instead of the strong. There are writers who spend more time over their punctuation than their ideas, and there are painters of a similar nature. You may have received the idea that smoothness and finish mean greatness because, perhaps, you have seen these features in the works of Raphael and Leonardo ; but if such is the case you are simply admiring the short-comings of those artists and not their excellences. Neither of them was a good painter, using that word literally. They excelled not by the use of the paint-brush, but, primarily, by their great ideas. The earliest painting was but outline filled in with color. Leonardo, Michael Angelo, Raphael, and the Florentine school generally, did but little more. Splendid draughtsmen, fine composers, great thinkers, they were nevertheless thin painters and weak colorists. If you wish painting for paint's sake, by all means look to Titian, Velasquez, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyke, Franz Hals, Watteau, Vollon, Fortuny. These men did some-thing more than fill in inclosed space with color ; they made line less rigid, made paint expressive, and really originated painting as distinguished from tinted drawing. In modern times there are some artists who have run to the other extreme, that is, all paint and no line—Monticelli, for instance ;* but if you are wise you will take the mean course between them and give to the one no more importance than to the other.
Finish often has no other effect than that of making us feel sorry for the time-service and labor of the artist who produced it. We certainly can-not admire the man who paints with twenty strokes what another man paints with one ; and we certainly must realize that a score of weak lines possess not the breadth and simplicity of a single strong one. Many an artist has spent days painting the shining interior of a brass pot; Vollon used to paint it (so says studio tradition) with one sweep of a large brush. Denner and the German painters of his time attempted the painting of hair by minutely drawing separate hairs, thus making each one a hundred times too large; those who followed sought to remedy the difficulty by painting it all in a lump. Here we have the two extremes again. But in the modern artists we find both manners are discarded, and the hair treated for its qualities of light and shade, color, texture, fluffiness, lightness, elasticity. So, again, some painters spend weeks painting the folds of a dress ; Goya did it apparently in a second, with a single downward dash of the brush. Some elaborate a face with every wrinkle and hair in place ; Adriaan Brouwer seems to have made a paint pie upon the canvas, and stirred it into facial expression with his finger.
Finish, as a general rule, argues lack of breadth, simplicity, and power, but this, of course, is subject to many exceptions, such as may be seen in the works of Gerome, Bargue, Meissonier, Baudry, and others. The safe rule for the observer to follow at first is to discard the question of finish. Consider it as a thing neither for nor against, and look at the picture for its deeper meaning. There is a great deal of beauty in pure paint and the manner in which it is manipulated by the artist, but you will not appreciate it until you have been viewing pictures for some years.
There is another kind of style, aside from brush-handling, color, or drawing, to which I wish to call your attention for a moment. I mean the characteristic style, or that which in a larger sense shows the character, or intellectual and moral bent of the man as well as the artist. It has as many forms as there are painters, and would require as many adjectives to illustrate it. For instance, there is the grand style of Michael Angelo and Velasquez, the majestic style of Leonardo, the beautiful style of Raphael, Andrea del Sarto, and Correggio, the ornate style of Titian and Tintoretto, the passionate style of Delacroix, the dignified style of Fromentin, the classic style of David, Ingres, and Bouguereau, the poetic style of Millet and Corot, the brilliant style of Fortuny, the strong style of Vollon and Bonnat, the insipid style of Meyer von Bremen, and the vulgar style of innumerable young Parisians who are to-day trying to make fine ladies out of chamber-maids and studio models. The list might be dragged out indefinitely, but in this case unnecessarily, for you will understand that the painter's style is analogous to that of the author, and that each is peculiar to its possessor and shows most truly the nature of the man. Here you must be your own judge, and like or dislike the artist according as he appeals to you or leaves you cold. If you yourself are insipid, doubtless you will fancy the Madonnas and Magdalenes of Guido and Carlo Dolci, and the sweet children of Meyer von Bremen; if you are robust and strong of mind you cannot fail to like the great Velasquez.
In looking at a picture you must always take into consideration what the artist strives to accomplish, and you must further consider the man, his individual tastes, and the age in which he has lived. William M. Hunt has modestly said: " I might have painted had I lived in an atmosphere of art, but in America every thing resolves itself into the getting of money and selling a poor article instead of a good one;" and there is much truth in the remark. To be sure, the world judges by what is produced, and not by what might have been produced, and that is right enough; but even so, a man must be estimated by his time and surroundings, and not by present or academic standards. To condemn Durer because he placed German barns on Calvary's height, and Rubens because he painted Paris, in the " Judgment of Paris," with a Dutch hat and coat upon him, is very ridiculous. Durer and Rubens in company with the artists of their different times painted only what they saw, and to them a matter of historic detail never was a matter of art. The truth of history in painting is of secondary importance at best, and the continual fire of criticism aimed at pictures because, forsooth, the costume of Henry IV. appears in one when it should be of the time of Francis I., or the face of an apostle in another is Italian when it should be Jewish, is as captious and ill-judged as the criticism of a marine because in it, perchance, a streamer blows one way and a cloud of smoke another way. Do not fret your soul about such trifling matters. Their appearance, of course, does not improve the picture, but they do little harm. You are not sup-posed to be looking for what flaws you can find, but rather for what virtues the picture possesses. If the sun warm you and light you sufficiently you need not find fault because there are some spots upon it.
Judge each man by his own methods, and, again let me say, look for the artist's meaning. You know in the novel we take up Dumas and Sue for plot, Georges Sand and Hugo for narrative and description, Howells and James for character analysis, Poe and Stevenson for the weird and uncanny; and why should we not do the same thing in painting? Bouguereau, for instance, is admirable in what he strives to set forth. He was educated as a classicist and believes in the absoluteness of form, and in this you will note that he is quite perfect. There never was a better draughtsman, and for that accomplishment he deserves much credit. Corot was an entirely different manner of man. Nature to him was a matter of light, and to render this was his endeavor. Michael Angelo's art was simply a revelation of power. He strove to express the strength of his nature in sculpture and in painting, and if you have seen his works you know how well he succeeded. Millet, Vollon, Gerome, Fortuny, Winslow Homer, Dewing, are radically different from one another, and must be credited with the amount of success they have achieved in what they have aimed at. Comparisons are odious, and above all are they odious in art. To denounce Millet because he was not Gerome, or Gerome because he is not Millet, is childish and irrational. A difference in inquisitorial days generally led to the stake, but let us hope we are out of the barbarism of burning one person because not like another person. Each in his place, perhaps, is good, and deficiency, not difference of view, can alone condemn a man.
The first move in the examination of a picture is to look to the work of the fingers—the drawing, coloring, massing, painting. If it is bad there is little use to examine further. The artist may be a deep thinker, a poet of imagination, a creator of no mean ability; but if he knows not how to express himself of what use are his talents, his thoughts, his imaginations ? A thorough knowledge of the language of art is a prerequisite to expression. If, therefore, this prerequisite is shown to be in the possession of the artist the next move is to find out what he wishes to say. You may not like his thoughts, you may not agree with his views of life and nature, but at any rate give him the benefit of a few moments' consideration. If you know him to be a celebrated artist and yet cannot see into the sources of his greatness, by all means find out from artists or competent judges what is the admirable feature of his work, and make a study of it.
You will not comprehend a great artist at first glance any more than you will fully appreciate Shakespeare on the first reading. It takes time and close observation, and in the beginning you will be distracted by seeming blemishes. For in-stance, it will be a long time before you will appreciate the light, air, and poetic feeling of Corot. The "painty" grass and the "splashy" trees will distract your attention, and you will not see other features. So with Millet; the homely, almost stolid, faces of his peasants will not be pretty enough for you, and you will not go further and see the deep meaning of the man. As for Delacroix, one of the greatest of the moderns, it will be many a day be-fore you will be able to see through his " queer" drawing and "queerer" painting to his dramatic force and his expression of moods and passions. Time and the examination of many pictures will alone bring you proficiency in the discernment of an artist's meaning. There is no royal road to knowledge in judging of pictures any more than in other things, and that which is easily known is generally not worth knowing.
And, lastly, it is perhaps unnecessary to suggest that you look for that quality in a picture which you will almost certainly feel whether you will or no—the individuality of the artist. People differ mentally as they do physically. No two are precisely the same, and some we like and some we dislike, and the reason of it is simply that their individuality is pleasing or displeasing to us. This characteristic, which marks every one apart from his fellow man, is apparent in all art as in all life. It is but the appearance of the man in his work, the subjective element, of which I spoke some time ago. The individual is peculiarly constituted, with certain faculties, powers, emotions, motives, and his thoughts, moods, deeds, expressions, are modified by his peculiar make-up. In some cases these limitations of nature or of entourage make the eccentric man, in others the individual man, and again in others the self-reliant, positive, self-assertive man. And somewhat of the man, whatsoever he may be, finds its way into his work and tinctures the whole. This is individuality, and when in art it is so strong that it commands us it is sometimes called genius.
Individualism has become strongly pronounced during the present century; having begun with what is known in history as the Romantic movement, and appearing almost simultaneously in literature, music, sculpture, and painting, so that to day a work of art usually represents only the peculiar view of its creator. We shall find it a pleasing quality in art, notwithstanding the realists and classicists would have us believe in the obliteration of the man in his work. For, after all, the chief satisfaction in work lies in the individual qualities of the worker, whom we come to know through his products.
In a certain sense a picture is but the record of an artist's life, the autobiography of the man. All the power in Michael Angelo's art which so impresses us is but the power of his personal character, and the grandeur of Rousseau's landscapes is only the record of Rousseau's lofty mind. Study the canvas closely, and in it you will find the man. Raphael's character was. as beautiful and fair as his Sistine Madonna; Fra Angelico's was as devout and angelic as his trumpet-blowing angels; Corot's as full of soft radiance as the light of Ville d'Avray; and Millet's " Sower " is but the embodiment of Millet, the peasant-painter. It is chiefly the man, his views and ideas, that make the canvas glow with life, and not the bare facts—the alphabet which he uses in speech.