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What Is A Good Picture?

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

IN reply to the above question almost any painter would reply "mine own"; and if the particular painter to whom the question is put chances to be gifted with sufficient temperament, backed by a sufficient training, his claim might very well be justified. But there is an equal chance that his judgment would be at fault in the matter, for artists are notoriously the poorest judges of their own work. All painters willingly concede the correctness of this statement as applied to their brother artists, but there are few, indeed, who will admit its justice when applied to themselves. If this were otherwise the rule which has for years made the exhibitions of the National Academy of Design the poorest of their kind in the United States—that provision which exempts from the action of the jury certain pictures entered by Academicians and Associates—would long since have been abrogated; for, just as no man willingly or wittingly writes himself down an ass, so no painter would wittingly brand himself a duffer. In spite of this peculiar personal blindness (which seems to be incidental to the artistic temperament) when it comes to the work of other artists, painters are the best judges of painting. Of course due allowance must be made for personal idiosyncrasy and variation of taste. In art, as in music or gastronomy, taste varies infinitely according to individual temperament, or training. But just as a wise gourmet, to whose palate terrapin makes no special appeal, would not, for that only reason, deny it a place upon the bill of fare, so no sensible painter would deny the artistic value of a Japanese print or a Persian rug simply because he does not happen to make that brand of art. Indeed, if there is any one rule for the judgment of works of art whose application is universal, it is that which demands of a picture, a print or a keramic that it shall differ from all other work in the same line, that it shall bear the impress not only of race but of individual personality within the racial limits. For it is the personality which makes the art. Nature, however beautiful, is not art. Art is natural beauty interpreted through human temperament.

Here, then, we have at least one in-fallible test, which can be applied to any work under discussion—that it shall be clearly and strongly stamped with the personality of its maker, so that we may know without asking that a drawing is by Hokusai, or a painting by Velasquez, Whistler, or Winslow Homer. And originality thus expressed is only another word for sincerity. Sincerity used in this sense, however, is far from meaning a slavish or mechanical copy of nature. The highest form of sincerity is truth to the artist's own personal vision of beauty.

All true art is the direct result of analysis and synthesis on the part of the artist—whether instinctive, or accomplished with a clear conception of the work to be done. Having analyzed nature's suggestive motive, the artist is at liberty in the synthetic building up of his work to use as many or as few of the elements as his personal sense of beauty tells him will be necessary to the work in hand. He can employ the whole scale or he can reduce his choice to the few conventional symbols used in a beautiful Persian rug; the only imperative law being that he shall go direct to nature for his inspiration; the inevitable penalty of failure in this respect being the limbo of the imitator —the loss of all freshness, spontaneity, and personality. With this one restriction the artist's latitude is practically unlimited, for in a general sense art is any object made by man which is con-ceded by his fellow-man to be beautiful.

In regard to the picture, it is difficult to foresee at present just how far the average cultivated person will follow the artist into the region of pure symbolism; how few of the elements he will demand, and how much his own imagination will supply. When we remember that less than a generation ago the work of Corot and of Millet was nearly incomprehensible to the cultivated French public; that even the artist juries refused it admission to the Salon; that twenty years since those who freely accepted the work of Monet and Sisley were few indeed, we may confidently look forward to a time when only the most essential symbols of beauty will be required of the artist. But what exact direction this synthetic development will take we can only conjecture at the present time. Whether Matisse and his followers in France today are the true prophets crying in the wilderness the future alone can demonstrate. f this group finally makes good it will be because they have discovered some-thing which is fundamentally true and human, something which is sincerely (if blindly) desired by the race at large. It is quite certain that no abnormality masquerading under the name of the "art of the future" will win a permanent place in the regards of humanity. The beauty which is to endure must be sane and wholesome, because the human race is sound at heart and can be counted upon in the long run to reject anything which is essentially unhealthy or decadent.

In the meantime all our aesthetic experience points to the fact that the new beauty does not destroy our love or appreciation of the old. A picture by Rembrandt or Velasquez meets today with as much admiration as if the "luminaries" or the "symbolist" school had not arisen. A thing that is once truly beautiful is always beautiful; and the painters of today can remain calmly confident that if they are true to their own ideals and to the spirit of their times, their output will be accorded the same meed of praise by future generations that we today give to the work of the old masters.

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