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Modern Schools Of Painting

( Originally Published 1920 )



BY LINA WRIGHT BERLE.

THE distinctive tendency of modern painting is one curiously traceable in all the imaginative arts of our time,-literature and painting share it equally. This is the interest in reality, both of life and of representation. The story of its development is the story of the intellectual movement of the past forty years.

The painting of earlier centuries was characterized, to a large extent, by the representation of mythological, historical, and allegorical subjects, varied by purely pastoral scenes, and with a large preponderance of religious art, as was to be expected of the times when the church was the greatest patron of the arts. With the revolutionary spirit which swept over Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and increased all through the first half of the century, art received a new impulse, not directly from events themselves, but through the influence of literature, which is necessarily much more responsive to all such currents in the thought and feeling of its contemporaries.

The Revolution in France swept away much of the tradition of the previous regime; and there grew up a generation which was forced to learn by painful experiment the secrets of color and technique, which the older artists had thoroughly mastered, but which died with them in the Terror, and which have not been recovered, in many cases. This produced an abnormal situation, and one in which new theories found ample room to expand. The older forms of painting were felt to be out of harmony with the modern spirit, and new technical methods were devised to meet the new condition.

Out of this experimental phase two distinct movements had developed by the middle of the century. One of these, the wider in its scope, was the so-called "Impressionist" movement, which originated in France; the second was the Pre-Raphaelite movement in England. Both of these have profoundly affected modern art, and have between them comprehended the advances of the present day.

The Pre-Raphaelite movement started in England under the influence of Millais, who, with Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and others, formed the "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood," with the avowed object of going back to the masters before Raphael, and imitating their literal fidelity to detail, their idealistic spirit, and their symbolic manner. It is a matter of no little significance that many of these men were distinguished as poets and writers, as well as in their capacity as painters; no single fact so well indicates the interrelation of the arts.

Perhaps the simplest way of indicating somewhat the character of painting which followed the principles of this group, is to quote a stanza or more from a poem by the most notable writer of the group, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, which shows, in its handling, its visual conception, its definiteness in matters of insignificant detail, the same traits which characterize the painting of these men. The poem is "The Blessed Damosel," which may well be read in this connection.

"The blessed damosel leaned out

From the gold bar of heaven;

Her eyes were deeper than the depth Of waters stilled at even;

She had three lilies in her hand,

And the stars in her hair were seven.

* * * * * *

"Circlewise sit they, with bound locks, And bosoms covered;

Into the fine cloth, white like flame, Weaving the golden thread;

To fashion birth-robes for them Who are just born, being dead."

Here we have the description of what might well be a typical Pre-Raphaelite picture. Many of Rossetti's poems, indeed, are written to accompany the pictures which he or his friends had painted.

In France the same revolt against the conventional standards of the time showed itself in a more striking and characteristic form, and one which foreshadowed the distinctive development of the first years of the twentieth century. The Impressionist school arose out of the desire of certain of the younger painters to escape entirely from the formalism of the schools, and to represent nature in her broad effects rather than in her petty details. Under this general classification, two extremes have formed, the idealists, and the realists. Both represent what they have observed in its broader aspects, but each limits itself to some particular phase of observation. The revolt, however, had begun before their time.

In France, unlike England, every literary or artistic revolt becomes articulate, stating its principles and its theories aloud for the discussion of the public at large. Thus literary questions receive public notice as they do not in England or America, and elaborate controversies acquire a profound significance which they do not have in the English-speaking countries. Such was the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, which started in the French Academy somewhere in the seventeenth century, and which has not altogether died 'out yet; and the revolutionary theory and practice of the Impressionists, which created a new outlook on the world for its followers.

The revolt from convention took many forms. It was most effective among the landscape painters, whose art had been most profoundly trammeled by convention; but it affected figure painters as well. It was then, as now, the special skill of French painters to represent the nude in all its phases with special skill and charm; and the criticism was sometimes made that they knew nothing else. Certainly the art of the studios was a thing independent of the life of its own time; and this was what the modern spirit could not tolerate.

Standing alone as the supreme expression of this modern spirit, in-dependent of special groups and special theories, is Jean Francois Millet, born in 1814, who, after a training in technique, found himself out of sympathy with the prevailing artistic ideals, and set himself to learn a truer appreciation of art and all that it might do and be. In his case the revolt had nothing to do with insufficient skill in the accepted, line; his drawings and paintings of the nude are exquisite bits of craftsmanship, perfect in their own kind. It was merely that his inner consciousness of true art demanded a different mode of expression; and this he found in his studies of the French peasantry.

Millet's pictures of peasant life are more than merely studies of men at work; they are in essence studies of labor itself, in its dignity and in its completeness. Many of the pictures are familiar to the school children of the country, through reproductions and copies; and their fascination is perennial. The subjects are drawn from the life of the people, and would be remarkable for their faithfulness and accuracy if they had not a greater claim to distinction. This is the singular dignity and largeness of human feeling which makes of every scene the epitome of that special phase of human labor. One need only re-view the titles to see what this means,-"The Man with the Hoe," "Man Spreading Manure," "The Reapers," The Gleaners," "The Angelus," "Bringing Home the Calf," "The Grafter," "The First Steps,"-these are enough to show the range of his work. Simple subjects all, yet through them mankind is analyzed and interpreted in its unchanging heroic aspects. The dignity and inevitableness of toil, its massive and epic position in the life of the race,-all this finds final expression, once and for all, in the pictures which Millet has created.

His singular genius for an original and remarkable view of artistic possibilities is exemplified in one other painting, which is important for its spiritual kinship with the work of the Impressionist school, the landscape "Spring," which is reckoned by many critics one of the finest landscapes of any painter. Here is a wonderful effect of light and space and air, enough to delight the most ardent Impressionist. The same qualities appear in the backgrounds of his pictures, which convey with striking directness the various effects of heat, sunlight and shadow as they occur in the fields.

It was in the treatment of light and air that the Impressionists showed their greatest divergence from the older schools. With Edouard Manet, (1832-1883) the movement was really inaugurated. He stands as a connecting link between the two extremes of impressionism, the realistic and the idealistic, a middle course which he adopted after trying both forms. His work is connected especially with the so-called "Plein Air" school of impressionism, recognizable especially in its treatment of landscape.

The artists who were responsible for this school were anxious to represent color and light as they saw them, without regard to the conventional interpretations which had come down to them from their predecessors. Under their initiative there developed a mastery of the technique of painting light and cloud effects, a broad and free treatment of landscape, without any trace of formality. In this group several names are important. Gustave Courbet, who lived from 1819 to 1877, was a distinctive influence on the group. Claude Monet, born in 1840, is another distinguished member of this school. His canvases are notable for their rendering of light and atmosphere, and for the blue and violet tones in the color-harmonies of nature which he saw and made others appreciate. Renoir, born in 1841, should be mentioned here, though the unevenness of his work and its markedly individual character set him in a class by himself. Of them all, Monet is probably one of the most important, since his landscapes exhibit all the marked 'characteristics of the school.

The men at this extreme of impressionism dealt by preference with landscape. The figure painters took a different line. They too sought to represent nature as they saw her, not according to the doctrinaire interpretations of the schools. The more original of them carved out for them-selves distinctive genres, as Millet had; the others applied their principles to the interpretations each of what suited his immediate conception of beauty. In general this divided into those who saw harmony in the humblest portraiture, beggars, criminals, humble folk, and those who turned instinctively to symbolic painting. Thus impressionist art may be found most sympathetically employed in the treatment of allegorical subjects, or in a penetrating form of character-portraiture. Individual painters have shown remarkable gifts in this especially.

In the class of those whose work is most characteristically symbolic, the most notable modern name by far is that of Puvis de Chavannes. Master of technique, he developed a delicate, ethereal harmony of color and a lightness of design which is marvellous. He was born in 1824, and first won recognition with a pair of companion pictures, "Peace" and "War," which were promptly purchased by the French government. They are to be seen in the museum at Amiens, where they were placed, and around them are four panels which were painted to complete their effect. These smaller paintings bear the following titles: "The Standard-bearer," "Woman Weeping Over the Ruins of her Home," "A Reaper," and "A Woman Spinning." The city of Amiens was so pleased with these that it commissioned the artist to add other deco-rations, and in addition he gave two studies, "Labor" and "Repose." Later on he painted still another picture for the same building in which the fertility of the country was symbolized under the title, "Ave Picardia Nutrix." This was completed in 1865.

He was engaged to paint the history of Ste. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, for that city; and this he did in a series of pictures showing her childhood. The series was received with great approbation, and he was commissioned to complete them with the "Old Age of Ste. Genevieve," the whole forming a series of mural decorations of marked dignity and spirituality, the great characteristic of his work.

The story of Ste. Genevieve is one which makes a strong appeal to a painter of this type. As a child, Genevieve is supposed to have dedicated herself to a religious life; and so great was her sanctity that when the city was threatened with attack by the Huns, under the leadership of Attila, she persuaded the inhabitants to remain where they were, and promised them that the attack would not harm them. This was in the sixth century. After her death, she became the patron saint of Paris. The great picture of the series illustrates her in this character, overlooking the city in her charge. The coloring in all these pictures is in the pale, misty tones which Puvis de Chavannes loved, soft blues and greens, atmosphere in which the figures move idealized and glorified.

Of special interest to Americans is the only one of his works which is to be seen in America, the series of paintings on the walls of the Boston Public Library, the last of his work. It was finished shortly be-fore his death, in 1898, and may justly be regarded as one of the greatest art treasures of this country. It represents the progress of mankind, showing all the intellectual faculties in appropriate symbolical forms. The coloring is especially noteworthy, similar to that of the Ste. Genevieve pictures, although colder, soft tints in which the blues predominate, and which give a certain remote and ideal quality to the whole,-like a vision seen from a great distance, and none the less lovely for that.

Among the artists whose personalities and whose work alike combine to make a distinctive impression, James Abbott MacNeill Whistler holds high rank. Around him and his art some of the stormiest battles of modern art criticism have raged. He himself was a personality of the most decisive sort, a controversialist of the first order. By birth he was an American, though his work was all done in Europe. His career is interesting for what it shows of the development of recent artistic understanding.

Born in 1834, Whistler received his education for his profession in the French schools, and learned what they had to teach of technique, and with it the impressionist theory of color, which had pointed the way for more perfect representation of the various effects of light. A part of this theory lay in the manipulation of successive tones of color to produce a desired gradation of effect. Whistler, however, did not begin with painting, but with etching. In this the power of his work was soon apparent. There was notable in it a sensitiveness to the powers and limitations of his medium, which was a great factor in the success of his work. It is a commonplace among critics, whose business it is to analyze works of art, that the same subject cannot always, or indeed often, be successfully treated in several different mediums. What is suitable for treatment in oils will not serve for watercolors or for etching. In the applied arts, these differences become more than ever marked, as in the case of the real laces, where flower designs which are perfectly adapted to Brussels lace cannot be carried over into Valenciennes, and so forth, because the traditional designs have developed through years of searching to find the exact type which will harmonize with the technical limitations of the medium. This subtle point of difference Whistler understood as it applied to the various types of art which he undertook, with the result that his work exhibits a sureness of handling accordingly, and never is subject to failures or partial successes because these peculiarities have not been fully grasped or understood.

In Whistler's oil paintings he developed a style distinctively his own. It was his habit to suggest the meaning of his pictures by adopting the terminology of another art than painting; and therefore we find him naming a picture of Valparaiso Harbor a "Nocturne," and referring to another picture as a "Nocturne in Blue and Silver." These eccentricities were the jest of his critics, but we have come to regard them as desirable indications of the interrelation of all the arts. It is now no strange thing for a musician of high reputation to name his compositions after the manner of the painter, "Moonlight," "Goldfishes," "A Day in Seville," and the like.

In some respects this treatment shows the modern attitude most completely. The older artists, whether in speech, in music, or in oils, were eager to emphasize the separateness of their art from the other arts; they clung to the differences, and they resented any attempt to show how all arts blended and joined one another along those fluid lines which marked the boundaries of all art. When the musicians first heard the title "tone-poem," they were shocked at the implied comparison, exactly as the painters were over Whistler's "Nocturnes"; now we are only mildly interested to learn that a symphony is written to give a picture of Chicago from the angle of a baby in a perambulator.

Whistler's treatment of portraits was another of the characteristic expressions of his skill which has been of profound significance in the world of art. Among his most notable portraits are those of Carlyle, and the particularly famous one of his mother, the latter remarkable for handling masses of black and gray tones. His manner of posing his subject, with an eye for background and setting, is important, involving as it does the absence of formal treatment which had been the practice of earlier painters. "The Music Room" is an example of this.

Important as was the work of the revolutionary group in the treatment of landscape and symbolic themes, it was not less so in portraiture. Everyone who remembers the portraits of the early nineteenth century, stiff, formal, uncomfortable, representing commonplace people standing or sitting in unnatural attitudes, will appreciate the necessity for reform. The new spirit in art endeavored to correct this, by introducing the type of portraiture which, in the endeavor to catch some portion of the character of the sitter, adopted intimate settings, natural scenes, and everything which might enhance the individual personality of the subject. There are, as a result of this attempt, a number of notable names of portrait painters among the recent leaders in the world of art.

One of the most distinguished painters of the present is John S. Sargent, whose portraits may best be described in the words of Ken-yon Cox, himself a talented painter and critic. The passage quoted comes from an essay in the volume "Artist and Public," on "Two Ways of Painting."

"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 water-colors in the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, one fancies one sees the essential John Sargent, working for himself alone without regard for 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. His method is as direct as that of Sorolla and his impressionism is of the same kind,-a bending of all 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."

The picture which is analyzed in the succeeding portions of the es-say is one in which the human figure is subordinated entirely to the natural background, and in which it is necessary to look again and again to find the human form. This abstract interest in man as a part of the order of nature, but not dominating it, is what Cox describes as the characteristic development of modern art.

In the Boston Public Library is an example of what has been indicated as "monumental formality." The decorations of the walls to represent the "Pageant of Religion" show this. In one part are depicted the prophets of ancient Hebrew tradition in a noble sequence; and in another part of the same corridor is a series showing the Christian tradition in its diverse expression. Whereas the first series was distinguished by its severity and simplicity, and the austere and somber dignity of its representation, the second is full of traditional symbolisms and complicated with elaborate allegory.

So far we have spoken mainly of French and English painters; but there are two Spanish painters whose work is of such an individual kind that they have become the recognized leaders of the Spanish school. These are Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida and Ignacio Zuloaga. Zuloaga follows the national tradition of Spain, that which is familiar in the works of Velasquez and Goya. Both Sorolla and Zuloaga have proved themselves revolutionaries, and instead of repeating the huge historical scenes which were familiar in the works of their predecessors,-scenes in which there was evident a certain love of the emotional and the dreadful,-they devoted themselves to depicting the life of their countrymen and women as they saw it before them in the streets and in the hedgerows. Hence arose a new and vital art. Sorolla's first picture to achieve recognition was a "Fishing Scene," which was full of a gravity and dignity which had hitherto been conspicuously absent from the work of Spanish painters. In the case of Zuloaga, the public was very slow to appreciate him, until after he had been acclaimed by foreign artists. His work takes largely the portrait form, selecting and representing the common folk of the cities and towns, old women, peas-ant girls, and their like.

When we come to the discussion of American art, several interesting facts become apparent. Whistler and Sargent, of course, are Americans; but their work is of the international kind which does not count as distinctively national. Until the last twenty years, a student was forced to go abroad for his training, and often he received a tone which separated him from his country.

Nevertheless, a national school has developed in America, and one which is unique among contemporary schools by its vital conservatism. It is a living, active growth, and holds a great promise for the future. I quote Kenyon Cox once more (op. cit. "The American School"). "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...We have, of course, our ultra-modernists, 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 all en-gaged 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."

Among American painters, the work of mural decorators is especially interesting, and little appreciated, because so scattered throughout the country. If they could be brought together, their mass would be remarkable and significant. Sargent, Abbey, John La Farge, and many others have contributed to produce a body of work which Kenyon Cox characterizes as having "more kinship with the noble achievements of Raphael and Veronese than has any other modern work extant."

The work of Abbey is interesting, especially so because his pictures illustrating the story of the Holy Grail are widely known through copies and reproductions. These are in the Boston Library, and are among the treasures of the building. They cover the walls of a beautiful, high-studded room, panelled half-way to the ceiling with dark oak. Above this are the pictures, glowing with rich color and exquisite forms. The wounded king, longing for deliverance from his pain, is shown with his knights about him; then the lonely rider setting out on his quest, guided by his pure heart. He is shown alone, waiting to be invested with the sanctified armor, shown in his triumphant entrance to the Castle of the Maidens, who owe their deliverance from captivity to him; and he is shown as he leaves his lovely young bride to follow the vision of the Grail.

In all these pictures the coloring is remarkable, and this is one of the developing characteristics of American painting as it grows more and more authoritative. Abbey, indeed, spent most of his life in England, and is nominally an American only. Yet the love of color seems to be a marked element in American work today.

The fine arts in America, indeed, have had but a short time to develop as such things are reckoned in the history of the arts. During the early period of colonization and settlement, there was no time to spare for such things. John S. Copley, who was born in 1737 and died in 1815, is the earliest painter of note. Among modern names George Inness, John LaFarge, Homer Martin and Winslow Homer may be mentioned as representative American names.

The earliest of these men, Inness, is distinctively American in mind and temperament. He was born in 1825, and spent most of his life in New York, New Jersey, and New England, of which he made many sketches. He early experienced the difficulty of getting adequate instruction in this country, as a result of which he was always handicapped by a lack of the technical skill to achieve the effects which he desired. His paintings never satisfied him, and he was in the habit of working them over and over again, using whatever medium came to hand, in the vain attempt to realize his ideal conception. At his best his work recalls that of Corot, in its idealism and its treatment of open air and color. He died in 1894. His work is exceedingly uneven, full of strange variation of mood, and reflecting the temperament of the man himself.

Another powerful figure in American art is John LaFarge, born of French parents in New York, in 1835. He studied abroad, and began his professional work with illustrations to the poets. Then his work broadened to include landscape, still-life, and figures. For several years following 1866, he was unable to do anything, and when he began again, it was in decorating Trinity Church in Boston. The natural transition was from church decoration to stained glass, and he produced many notable stained-glass windows, in addition to designing the panels for the Library of Congress, ceilings and other mural decorations for private residences, and windows for a large number of churches. At the same time he painted freely in oils and watercolors, and found opportunity to lecture before societies of artists. He exerted a tremendous influence on the younger generation of artists, among whose members were included St. Gaudens, Wilton Lockwood, and others. His work was, at all times, original and individual. He died in 1910.

in 1836 was born Winslow Homer, a painter of distinction in several fields. His work began with lithographing, but was interrupted by the Civil War. He was in the army, and served at the front, and here he saw Southern life, and learned what he later reproduced with such skill. His pictures, too, show a decided and uncompromising Americanism, and are almost all of them American in subject. There are a few English water-sketches, "Inside the Bar," "The Voice from the Cliffs," "Tynemouth,"-in addition to his popular studies of the South, "Eating Watermelon," "The Cotton-pickers," "Visit from the Old Mistress, Sunday Morning," and the like. His work in water-colors took the form of marine sketches, studies of the Gloucester fishermen, and the Atlantic in its various phases. His death occurred in 1910.

Comparable to, and often classed with, Inness, is Homer Martin, a painter who was born in 1836 and died in 1897. He devoted himself to landscape work, some of it in France and some in America. Among his more famous pictures are his "Adirondack Scenery," "Westchester Hills," "Sand Dunes," and " Newport Landscape."

The common idea in all modern art, and in all the arts, is that of freedom from technical or traditional restraints. We no longer feel it necessary to represent what another has seen, or to see as he did, but to define our own vision boldly; without reference to what any other per-son has decreed to be the case. We no longer feel it necessary to con-fine our observation to conventional ranks of society; and accordingly our painting has been enriched by the inclusion of much material that was formerly disregarded as unworthy of a great artist. , The work of Millet is an instance of this; and there is another, a virgin field, which has just begun to show the extent of the possibilities which it offers to the artist of talent and discrimination. This is the beauty which is a part of the rugged framework which masks engineering works, and which envelops the great industries of the day. In the frantic attempt to advertise the economic and industrial achievements of the nations at war, artists discovered this new line of approach, and it promises to be one of the most interesting developments in contemporary art.

The multifarious employments of men offer no less real an opportunity for the exercise of an artist's vision than did the primitive, universal activities of the French peasant to Millet. Whereas Millet saw in the peasant the man dominating his task, however, modem art will have to show, as the few pictures we have do, the task dominating the man. We shall have pictures of the industries, not of industry. In the mass of iron girders and steel bars that make up these pictures, the man is lost, as he has been to an appreciable extent in actual industrial fact, in the machine.

A sound art will recognize these changes, and will look narrowly at its conceptions and ideals of beauty, with the hope that they may coincide with its perception of truth; and it will square all these with its perception of social forces as they operate in the world at the present. It will realize that the fine arts are of necessity aristocratic, and it will take great care that its conception of aristocracy shall be governed by right standards of excellence, and not by arbitrary ideas of position.

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