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Character

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



IF you should ask a dozen painters what mental qualification was most essential to an artist's success, the chances are that every man of them would reply "temperament"—in other words, genius and imagination. Transposed, these terms all mean the same thing—a peculiarly sensitive subconscious organization—one that is at once keenly alive to beauty, and capable of that rapid and intuitive coordination of impressions whose visible and tangible result is the work of genius. And in a way the painters would be right; for without temperament no man can be an artist; but temperament alone will not suffice. f I were myself asked to supply a formula for the making of an artist, my receipt would be, one part genius and nine parts hard work. I sometimes glance back to my student days and wonder what has become of all the clever and brilliant chaps over whose easels the rest of us were used to hang in awe and admiration. One by one they have all dropped out. Things came too easy to them. They were not obliged to "plug" and "grind," and so they never learned their trade. Their places have been taken by others—the plodders who stuck to their studies throughout the whole week with grim determination, dropping their brushes only at the stroke of twelve on Saturday. One ugly duckling in particular I remember well. His work was so hopeless that the whole Latin Quarter was sincerely sorry for him. Finally his master in despair urged him to give up art and go into the grocery line. That man is at present one of the most famous artists of the day—a truly great painter. Down deep in his nature, of course, he had temperament. He could not have achieved his distinguished place in art without it. But he also had character; character, which means the ability to work when it would be easier to play ; the ability to say "No," when it would be far easier to say "Yes"; the ability to stand out in the sun and sweat over a study when it would be so much pleasanter to lie in the shade and read a book; the ability to live on a dollar a week and be con-tent; the ability to surrender all of the little present pleasures of life, in order one day to achieve that greater pleasure which comes with success in one's chosen profession.

I met recently a schoolboy companion who as a man has won an enviable position in life. He told me that at one time he was a cub engineer in the employ of Andrew Carnegie. An important part of one of the important machines having broken, he was detailed to secure a duplicate fitting, with stringent orders to return with the missing part before nightfall. He hustled off with the determination to make a record, and scoured both Pittsburg and Allegheny City without result. He then telephoned to Cincinnati, Cleveland and Louisville with no better success. Finally he called up New York; and there at last got on the track of the much wanted cam. He could have caught a late afternoon train and been back in the morning, but, all things considered, he thought it would be best to report at headquarters, and then take the midnight express if ordered to do so. He was pretty proud of himself on the whole, and did not mind having missed his dinner. Seeking out Mr. Carnegie he started in to tell him all that he had done in his strenuous day. The iron-master interrupted him brusquely.

"Young man," he said, "I care nothing for explanations. I demand results. I will give you another twenty-four hours. If by that time you have not procured the cam, you leave the works."

My friend left the iron master's presence somewhat crestfallen; but he then and there made up his mind to demand as much of himself in future as was now demanded of him. He never failed again in a serious undertaking; and he rose to be one of the chief steel experts of the country, with an income anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 a year.

Now if that kind of character and determination are necessary to success in business life, they are infinitely more necessary to an artist. He has no task-master to hold him to his job. He is the slave of no factory bell or whistle. No desk or office calls him daily at 9 A. M. He is as free as the air to come and go as he likes, and when he likes. He can work as little or as much as he pleases. He can loaf at his own sweet will. And for this very reason, he is in honor bound to work, and to work hard and seriously. It is a case of noblesse oblige.

Moreover, it is a case of necessity. If you would "arrive," you must work always to the limit of your force—and just a little beyond. It is not all cakes and ale. There is no especial fun for instance in grinding away month after month, and year after year, at drawing, which is not your forte; in cramming up on values, refraction and other technical things which are not always remarkably interesting, but which you must have at your finger-ends before you can "let yourself go." And even when you have reached that happy stage, the necessity for hard and unremitting labor has not ceased. Sargent will tell you that he has frequently scraped out a single head twenty times. For the optimistic student who looks forward to the happy time when the necessity for hard work shall be ended there is inscribed over the portals of the palace of art this special motto : "All hope abandon ye who enter here."

A young painter once stood behind the veteran Jules Breton, while he was at work upon one of his important pictures—his favorite subject of little maids in their white communion robes. It was delightful to observe the ease and dexterity of his every stroke. The youth spoke enviously of the joy it must be to have attained to his perfect facility of technic and to know every time a picture was begun that it could be carried through easily to a successful end.

"My dear boy," was the reply, "you will never reach that happy land here below. I sweat blood over every one of my pictures, and there is never a one that is not at some time a failure. Every new picture brings a new problem, and who knows if we may be able to solve it. But if there were no new problems we should all cease painting; for there would be no more art."

The true artist, after all, is greedy for work. He needs no spur to goad him to his best endeavor. The danger lies upon the other side. Cazin used to say, "An artist has no time to care for his health." And this is literally true; for the conditions of artistic creation often demand that a painter or a sculptor shall frequently work far beyond the limits of his strength during a long period—shall draw heavy drafts upon the future; and these drafts must either be paid by a shortened life, or made up later by prolonged periods of rest. As it is not possible for the artist to work as other men work, a given number of hours each day, this hardest of all workers frequently gains the reputation of being an idler.

I cannot think, however, that erratic hours are either necessary or excusable in the routine of student life. The student's business is to learn all he can—to train the subconscious servant to be the valuable helper that he must needs be later on; and this can be done day by day with as much adherence to regular hours as the business man demands of his assistants. Moreover, the habit thus acquired will tend to reduce to a minimum the irregularity which to a certain extent is inevitable later on. Let the student who feels within his soul the divine fire of genius beware of pitfalls. If he is wise, he will bottle up that fire for future use, and in the meantime apply himself (like the diligent apprentice) to the acquisition of knowledge.



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