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Landscape Art In General

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



For some occult reason in which the two factors of race and psychology are intimately blended, landscape art in its best expression is and ever has been confined within the narrow geographical limits of Northern and Western Europe. Oriental art—the art of Persia, Japan, and India—has always been more or less abstract and symbolical; and, as the art of a people invariably reflects the character of the race which gave it birth, we may deduce with certainty the character of the Oriental from the character of his art. By reversing the same reasoning we reach the conclusion that the simple existence of our Aryan ancestors (lived close to nature in the constant companionship of elemental things) has found expression in the landscape art of their remote descendants. The artistic temperament is no growth of a day. It has its roots in the far-away beginnings of a people, and we make no unwarranted presumption in asserting that the landscape or marine painter of today is at last giving expression to the groping instincts and ideals of his cave-dwelling forbears. The blinding storms with which they battled, the mountains they scaled in the pursuit of game, the waves they rode in their primitive canoes, the hard winters that froze their blood, and the soft spring suns that warmed them, have all been woven into the fabric of the race. In this way only can we explain the fact that the peoples of Northern Europe have alone been able to comprehend and place upon canvas the ever-varying moods of nature—savage, cruel, and relentless at times, and at times exquisitely gentle, brooding, and poetic.

What is more difficult to explain, however, is the fact that this ability should only have developed and ripened within the last hundred years. Of course, viewed in the larger sense, European pictorial art, as a whole, is a comparatively modern thing—a mere matter of four or five centuries. But in its earliest development it was in no sense an expression of out-of-door life or of out-of-door feeling.

This, is doubtless in part explained by the fact that the earliest European art was an Oriental derivative (see the Byzantine school), and that it remained throughout the whole of the Italian Renaissance in the service of the Oriental religion which we had imported from Palestine. Moreover, the Italians were themselves more or less Oriental in character, with the subtle southern temperament and the southern mental bias. There was little of the cave-dweller or the viking in their ancestry.

However this may be, it is quite certain that the old masters knew little about landscape—and cared less. Their concern was with humanity; its joys and its sorrows; its loves and its passionate hatreds; its wars; its pageants; its faiths and its superstitions. Landscape to them was never more than a stage setting, a background against which the human actors played their parts. Viewed simply in this light, it was not only adequate, but frequently artistic and admirably beautiful. Nevertheless, it was not landscape at all in the modern sense of the word—landscape as we know it. It was conventional in form, false in color, and devoid of atmosphere and luminosity.

Not until the early years of the nineteenth century, and then in far-away England, did the first true school of landscape make its appearance. A small group of painters, the best known of whom perhaps were Constable, Crome, and Bonington, went out into the fields, and brought back pictures which were the first true impressions of outdoor nature ever placed upon canvas. Their achievement was unique.

Indeed, it was one of the most astounding intellectual feats of all time, and it has never received a fraction of the praise which is its just due.

Art, be it remembered, is a thing of infinitely slow growth, each school building upon the foundations prepared by its forerunners, each generation adding its mite to the general store of knowledge and experience.

The English portrait men of the same period, for instance, although fine painters, simply followed in the tracks of the old masters. There is nothing especially original in the canvases of Reynolds, Gainsborough, or Romney. But this little band of landscapists, with no artistic parents, with no predecessors to point out the way, suddenly evolved a totally new art out of thin air. Their discoveries, it is true, were confined to the realm of color, but their achievements in that domain were sufficiently remarkable to give England a place which she could never otherwise have had among the art-producing nations of the world.

They were the first to see and to record the pearly tones of outdoor nature, and their technical bequest to posterity was an extended gamut of grays and mauves and lilacs which remain upon the artist's palette to the present day.

A scant half-dozen of their pictures drifted over to France, and there became the inspiration of a new art movement, which finally resulted in the great school of Barbizon. Millet and Troyon, Corot and Rousseau incontestably produced greater work than Crome and Constable, but their pictures were all painted on the lines marked out by the Englishmen. Indeed, it is questionable if we should have ever had a Barbizon school had it not been for the iconoclasts across the Channel.

While the great Barbizon school of painters was still in its prime, there appeared upon the artistic horizon another band of innovators who have since become known as the French Impressionists or Luminarists. They were in reality, as their name implies, painters of light, and their technique was founded upon the scientific principle that light is essentially prismatic. White, being made up of the three primary colors—red, yellow, and blue—should so be painted, they declared, the three pure pigments lying side by side upon the canvas—and the same with red, with yellow, and with blue; there could be no blue so powerful that it would not be qualified with touches of red and yellow, no yellow so brilliant that the red and the blue were not felt in its composition, no red so intense that the blue and the yellow did not play across it. The work of these men really seems to vibrate with light, and the word "vibration," first employed by them, has now been permanently added to the artists' vocabulary. Under the leadership of Pissaro, Sisley, and Monet they delivered a message which future artists can never afford to ignore.

But, while their discovery is sound in principle, no entirely satisfactory technical method of applying it to the painting of pictures has yet been discovered. It is certain that the dots and dashes and cross-hatched strokes of pure color generally used by the Luminarists do not render the effect of nature as seen by the ordinary cultivated eye. The veteran Monet himself has lived long enough to recognize this, and in his more recent work he has abandoned his early militant method, while retaining the general principle of broken color.

This is one of the unsolved problems of art that we moderns have to work out. Another is the question of how best to convey the impression of motion upon the rigidly quiescent surface of a canvas. This has never been accomplished, but to assert that it is impossible would be a hazardous statement. Still another problem derives from the limitations of the human eye. A good photographic lens will see every leaf upon a tree or every individual in a crowd of ten thousand people. The human eye can see at best but a dozen or two of leaves or people, the remainder producing the effect of a more or less indefinite blur. How is this blur to be rendered with just sufficient definition to produce the desired effect upon the spectator ? It is quite certain that other problems will arise, problems as unsuspected today as was the prismatic theory of light a hundred years ago. It is impossible of course to particularize. One small discovery frequently leads to a much greater one, and the only thing we can predict with certainty is that the unexpected will occur. But we do at least know that the door is ajar, that the glorious sunlight is out there, just beyond, and that nothing can keep us longer cooped up indoors.



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