Textures And Qualities
( Originally Published 1920 )
The word textures in art is applied to the rendering of the peculiar qualities of any and all objects that are shown in a painting, whether they be silks, clouds, trees, or human beings. In nature there is a difference in material appearances, and all forms are distinguished one from the other by some peculiarity of make-up. To represent nature as she appears is an object of the painter, and he must represent her truly even though he have nothing but a brush and a few poor pigments wherewith to reproduce the likeness of the universe.
By way of illustrating the meaning of textures, let us suppose three bricks of the same size, one of gold, one of wood, and one of baked clay, placed in a row before us. The size, form, outline, or drawing will not mark them apart. The color may and does distinguish them somewhat, but we can easily imagine a red clay brick painted on canvas so smoothly that it would look as though molded of glass, or a gold brick rendered so flabbily that it would look as though carved out of a pumpkin. With color it is necessary to give textures and qualities, and the three bricks have distinct peculiarities in these respects. For in-stance, the one of clay has rough surfaces and edges, is hard, porous, and reflects little or no light ; the one of wood is of softer material, possesses grain and fiber, is not hard in outline, and, though smooth in surface, shows very little sheen; the one of gold is solid, metallic, heavy, has a smooth exterior, no veins or pores, and has a good deal of luster. These are the features whereby we distinguish the bricks apart in nature, and good art requires that these distinguishing features appear in a painting of them.
The severest test of the textures of a picture is to shut out with your hand a part of an object from the rest of the picture, and then ask yourself of it : Does that look like flesh, or wood, or stone, or cloth? The answer will not always be satisfactory. The artist who cannot make his wood look like wood, and his flesh like flesh, and his cloth like cloth, is a person very often met with ; but the majority of us are very charitable toward his shortcomings through our own ignorance and lack of perception. Because the side of a house is divided up into small squares appearing eight inches by three inches in size, we take it for granted that the squares are clay bricks and not paintedboards ; and in another glaring white structure our imagination recognizes a marble palace, though our eyes cannot say if it be of snow, abominable stucco, or simply one of Benjamin-Constant's lumps of magnesia. The world of picture viewers (especially the English world) meets the artist more than half way, and pieces out with its imagination his imperfections. A tree passes for a tree if it is correctly drawn, no matter whether its trunk be made of rock, brown mud, or cardboard ; and a dress passes for a dress if it have the necessary number of plaits and folds in it, regardless of whether it be made of marble, as Sir Frederick Leighton paints it, or of leather, as Raphael and the Florentines represented it, or of muddy paint, as many of the Germans paint it.
The truth is that we have all been educated on line, and have totally overlooked or disregarded what is quite as important in art—that is, substance. An oval with some shadows and cross lines passes through the crucible of our mind and is metamorphosed into a human face, when it may not possess a single quality representing humanity. Even without our accommodating imagination how many of us are deceived by the pink and white portraits that yearly flood the exhibitions ! We think they are true to life ; but are they ? There is a difference between the face of a wax doll and a face made up of bones, sinews, flesh, and blood. The wax is smooth, hard, shiny, immovable; the flesh is porous, covered with slight roughnesses which serve to cast over it a blur about the out-lines, is transparent, pliable, and palpitating with life. You have an admiration for Bouguereau's picture of the " Infant St. John," * but now if you will look at it critically some of your admiration will evaporate. Look at the flesh, and does it look like flesh or oiled tissue-paper ? Has it life and blood in it? is it transparent? is it pliable ? Certainly not, and yet you are right in thinking Bouguereau a famous artist. He is one of the most perfect draughtsmen that ever lived; but he cannot paint.
Turn from his flesh notes to those of Jules Breton, and we shall see something truer to nature in the picture of these girls " Returning from the Fields." t Flesh is here rendered as it should be in all the glow and flush of young healthy life. The color and texture are as they appear in nature. The scratch of a corn-stalk upon the cheeks will not tear them open ; nor the sickle edge of the stubble cut the bare brown feet. There is pliability, strength, and endurance in such flesh. You think the tones too dark, too red, too coarse, but you must remember that they are peasants living in the open air, and again you are comparing their faces with the face of your friend close at hand. You cannot appreciate the darkness of flesh until you see it at a distance, for the depth of color beneath the skin is not apparent at close range. If you would understand what I mean, let your friend place her face close to a face in the picture, and then you go across the room to the end of the gallery and look at them. At a distance the skin becomes transparent, and we see even in a pale face a shade of red that surprises us by its depth. Oftentimes when near to view the flesh-tints of pictures look exaggerated ; but if we stand back at the proper range we shall find they are not overdone.
This same Breton is an admirable technician in almost every respect. His large picture of the " Communicants," though rather extravagant in conception and a little forced in sentiment perhaps, is nevertheless well painted throughout. The figures are truthfully done, the clothes look like clothes, the hair like hair, the flesh like flesh. Even the woods and stones and grasses and trees are well rendered, and for a striking piece of naturalism look at the straw thatching on the distant roofs. Nothing could look more like straw than that. Now if your admiration, the Verboeckhoven sheep picture, had any such qualities it might be esteemed in some sense a work of art, but it has not ; the boards are not boards of wood, nor the man a man of flesh and bones, nor the sheep covered with wool. As I said be-fore, I cannot understand why people should ad-mire such a profundity of crass ignorance. But they do—they always do. A little cheap glitter and glare are wonderfully effective in attracting attention, and the dunce is often crowned with glory where merit is treated like a court lackey.
Besides Breton, you will find scores of good painters of textures among the modern artists in France, Spain, Italy, and America. The English, as a rule, are not so good ; in fact, to put it harshly, they are bad painters, however excellent they may be as composers and draughtsmen. The annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy seem to grow more desert-like in dreariness each year, and it is only by the presence of such painters as Holt, Alma-Tadema, Carolus-Duran, Clara Montalba, Sargent, Parsons, and F. D. Millet that any interest at all is awakened in them. Menzel, Leibl, and some of the Munich painters seem to be the salvation of German art in the same way, for, with few exceptions, it is even more fatiguing than English art. For texture-painting pure and simple, the Dutchmen, Jan Steen, Terborch, Dou, Hals, Netscher, have never been surpassed ; and, among the moderns, such painters as Vollon, Stevens, Gerome, Alma-Tadema, Madrazo, Ulrich, William M. Chase, may be called the leaders in producing realistic effects of texture and quality.
Fortuny was the equal of any one of them. The splendid painting shown in the "Spanish Marriage "* and " The Academicians of St. Luke" in many respects has never been excelled. Even in so light a thing (comparatively speaking) as the water-color of the " Rare Vase," he shows his great mastery of the brush. To be sure, it is only a picture of a gouty-looking old gentleman in knee-breeches examining a vase in the middle of the room, and, aside from the color and the handling of it, is about as forcible as would be a picture of a horse-post looking at the curbstone; but then we are not seeking for great ideas just now, and this piece is capital in texture. There is not a great deal in the art of the Fortuny followers aside from its show of manual dexterity. In fact, its exponents have been called the school of the hand ; but, to give them credit for what they succeed in doing, it may be said that they are unrivaled in the rendering of jewels, tapestries, fabrics, rugs, furs, feathers, vases, marbles, and things of that nature. Madrazo can paint silks and satins quite as well as Vollon can pumpkins, table-clothes, and dishes of fruit ; but it takes something more than texture painting to make great works of art. It is a much to-be-lamented fact in all art that those who can paint are always expending time and energy on tea-trays and Dresden china; and those who cannot paint are forever aspiring skyward in search of sublime ideas.
In examining pictures for the rendering of textures you must not imagine that excellence in this line is confined to figure-pieces, interiors, and genre paintings. Where Vollon showed his brush-power in armor, flowers, and the wettest-looking fish ever brought out of the water, Courbet showed the same power in his marines and deer pictures, De Nittis in his street scenes, and Troyon in his river-banks and meadows. There is no better place for the display of texture painting than in landscape. There is a difference between a gray rock and the gray trunk of a tree, between sand and water, between cloud and smoke ; and it is much more of the landscape painter's art to emphasize these differences by textures and qualities than to stretch out miles of land or water before us, or to picture snow-clad mountains and beetling precipices in which we find not one particle of human interest or pleasure.
Leaves as they hang upon a tree do not appear flat and hard as they do when lying on the desk before us, and moreover they have an essential quality of motion. The slightest breath will sway them. Look at the photographs of a landscape, and see how often the foliage is blurred. Nature is ever movable, pliable, ductile, and it has been truly said that she possesses few lines because she is not only rounded in form but ever moving. The lines appear only when she is hushed or dead. Yet still, in spite of what you know to be true, you insist upon admiring that Arabian Night landscape with its glimpse of a fairy city—an " ideal " city, I presume—in the distance. You like the hazy Indian-summer dawning, the golden mist, and the great tree in the foreground (which never could have grown, for it never moved) with its every leaf picked out with white paint. There is no air in the picture, for the leaves would sway slightly, and that haze is a most palpable scumbling of gray paint against which warning was offered some time ago. The picture, again, is de-void of values ; the tree is flat, not round, and its trunk might be made of iron or gray stone for aught one could tell from the texture of it. Compare it with the rock or earth in the foreground, and aside from the forms what is the difference between them ? The tree, the woods, the fairy city, the sky, the air, are all made out of one thing, and remind one of no material quite so much as dirty paint. The whole is a part inheritance of the traditions of Thomas Cole and John Kensett—good American artists for their time, but the time was very bad.
Now, Corot, Rousseau, and Diaz never painted landscapes in any such superficial or empty manner. They sought to get at, not the outside shell, the exterior appearance of things alone, but their essence and substance. Line was nothing to them as compared with color, atmosphere, light, and the sense of motion, features which are utterly lacking in your Arabian Night picture. But you think the pictures of these artists are not at all well done. Corot's trees, in particular, you think are nothing but "daubs ; " and you have made up your mind that he must have been a poor painter if he could do no better than that. Well, Corot lived a long life and painted in several different styles. All his earlier pictures are finished in detail, which would seem to disprove your theory that he did not elaborate his trees and leaves because he did not know how. Do not imagine that after painting foliage for nearly fifty years Corot had not a perfect knowledge of the forms of branches and leaves. He, with Rousseau, Diaz, Troyon, Daubigny, and others of the great French landscapists, knew very well how to paint " finely," if you mean by that minute finish; but after years of experience they learned that there was one thing more important than exploiting the detail of nature ; namely, to bring forth to view her hidden beauties.
You do not, like them after all that I. may say. I know it; and I know you do not like the paintings of Rembrandt and Velasquez, nor Wagner's music, nor Goethe's poetry. But if you will only give them some study you will learn to like them by appreciating their great truth, power, and beauty. These men stand on lofty heights and seem to be lost in clouds ; but if we could only rise to their level and stand beside them we should see farther, clearer, truer than we ever dreamed the mind's eye capable of seeing. One cannot judge correctly at a glance of that which has taken genius years to produce.
Water is another feature of landscape often painted with a curious disregard of its nature and texture. The limpid, transparent quality of it is hard to reproduce, and, moreover, its color is evanescent, iridescent, opalescent, according as the light strikes it or as we see it. Seen from a height, looking down, the local color of the water itself will appear. Seen from a horizontal vantage point, if the surface be smooth it will always reflect whatever may be directly over it—a flying bird, a flying cloud, the blue, gray, pink, or red sky, the branches of a tree, the rushes that fringe the banks. If roughened by wind the image is broken, and though each tiny wave reflects something, like the pieces of a broken mirror, yet there is no uniformity regarding the general effect.
Clouds, again, which are supposed to recede in a landscape and give the effect of distance, have perspective the same as the mountains or meadows. They likewise have values, light and shade, fleecy vapory transparent textures, and are affected in color and tone by atmosphere. They recede horizontally along the sky until lost on the horizon; they do not run up and down the back of the canvas like a curtain of cotton-bats, nor do they resemble clouds of factory smoke, sometimes put in the background of pictures to shut out the distance.
The bare ground, too, is a feature hard to render. Some of the country roads or turnpikes seen in pictures are but so many muddy streams along which the ever-present oxen with their cart seem to travel without sinking or drowning. The great difficulty seems to be that the road is made to appear smooth as a newly washed beach of sand, when in reality it is rough and characterized by many tints of color and checkered by innumerable lights and shades. Meissonier and Troyon show the texture of the earth about as truthfully as any of the painters, and even they occasionally find trouble with it, for it is an exceedingly difficult subject to handle.
The word qualities is often used in another sense than that of textures—in fact, is most generally used to denote characteristics of tone, color, light. For instance, Corot is spoken of as having good qualities of light ; Troyon, of atmosphere; Diaz, of color. Again, it is used to denote moral or intellectual properties of art. Thus Michael Angelo possessed qualities of power ; Leonardo, of majesty; Raphael, of beauty ; but this last use of the word is not the common one.