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Mural Painting

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Mural painting occupies a position alone and by itself, midway between the purely conventional decoration and the realistic easel picture. It must be sufficiently real to tell its story; it must not be so real as to destroy the flatness and solidity of the surface upon which it is painted. Mural painting, in fact, must be considered as an adjunct of architecture, and not as a self-dependent creation. First of all, therefore, it must be in harmony with the architectural scheme of the room which it is supposed to decorate and adorn. It must not blatantly insist upon recognition, but must rather modestly invite the attention of the gaze which has at first been occupied with the proportions of the apartment, the hall, or the church which it helps to beautify. It is, in fact, applied art in the highest sense of the term. As a mural painting must always remain in its original position, it is peculiarly dependent upon its surroundings, and the mural painter has not only to consider the form and position of the space which the picture is to fill, but the color of the surrounding walls and the quantity and quality and direction of the light which it will receive. In its most important aspect, therefore, it is the exact opposite of the easel picture; for while the easel picture must, first of all, be true to nature and express nature's mood, the mural decoration must, first of all, be true to the architecture and express its mooa. It must, in other words, pick up the scheme where the architect dropped it, and carry the same motive to still greater heights of beauty. Its first and most important function, therefore, is purely decorative, to fill and satisfy the eye with a surface of graceful line and sensuous and beautiful color. And the mural decorator who forgets this cardinal fact or is temperamentally incapable of working within the prescribed limits, should devote himself to some other line of art. It will be seen, there-fore, that the rigid and enforced conditions under which the mural painter works impose upon him great reserve in his scale of color and of values. If he were to use the full scale of either (or anything approaching it), he would inevitably produce the illusion of the easel picture, which it is essential to avoid. His wall surface would apparently disappear, and one of the chief architectural unities would be violated. For the same reason a carved or gilded frame is not allowable on any purely mural decoration, the gold frame having been replaced by universal consent with a decorative border painted upon the flat surface of the wall, thus helping rather than hindering the sense of support and solidity that must be maintained at all costs. It is probable that the more the artist is willing to limit his scale of color, the more conventional he makes it, the more beautiful will be his result; and it is quite permissible to doubt whether any of the modern highly colored decorations have filled the first essential of mural art so well as the old-time tapestry with its limited scale of gray greens, gray blues, buffs, and yellows. It is quite certain at any rate that when Puvis de Chavannes in his decorations at the Sorbonne and the Pantheon cut the color-scale and the value-scale in half, we were all conscious of an unaccustomed and quite peculiar fitness of the means to the end; of a truth that was higher than the truth of nature, because it was the truth of art.

But although the color-scale of a mural painting may be limited or attenuated, it must still remain true within its limits. Even the tapestry is true so far as it goes. The human eye would repudiate scarlet grass or a grass-green sky. The elements of the decoration must come from nature exactly as they do in the easel picture, the difference being that in the latter case the painter accepts and utilizes practically all that nature gives him, while the mural painter takes from nature only those elements which will best subserve his ends.

It would, however, be absurd to assert that because the convention of the Gobelins, the Beauvais, and the Arras was beautiful and soul-satisfying, it must necessarily be the ultima thule of decorative art. It was simply one good form out of hundreds, many of which are yet to be discovered. The color-schemes that could be utilized for this purpose are simply unlimited in number, and when the demand arises it is almost certain that another convention equally beautiful, though different, will appear right here in our own country. The new conditions of life in this new civilization make it impossible that our American scheme of decoration, when it is finally evolved, should be the same as that which grew out of the life and the conditions of mediaeval Europe.

Those of our artists who are foolishly occupied in copying or transposing the beautiful art of the ancients have entered a blind alley which ends against a blank wall. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but in art it leads only to a fall.

Until very recent years, almost all important mural decorations were figure compositions in which landscape played only a minor part ; but the trend of modern life points clearly to a time—a time in the very near future, I believe—when pure landscape will be largely used in mural work. We can already point to several important and eminently successful attempts of this kind in the city of New York, and there is little reason to doubt that this number will be added to rap-idly as the fitness of the material for the purpose is recognized and the beauty and decorative quality of the result is seen and appreciated.



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