The True Impressionism
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
WHEN instantaneous photography was first discovered, some thirty years ago, high hopes of it were entertained by the artists. It was thought, for instance, that it would prove of inestimable value to such painters as Meissonier and Schreyer, men who delighted to portray the horse in violent action. But to the surprise of everybody these great expectations were not fulfilled. At first, the artists themselves were puzzled to account for this and to explain why the curiously contorted attitudes now disclosed for the first time, conveyed so little the impression of motion. But when the instantaneous photographs were subjected to a process of selection and elimination, it was finally discovered that there were practically but two instants in the stride of the galloping horse that conveyed any idea of rapid flight to the human eye. The first of these was at the very beginning of the stride, when, with all four legs bunched together under the belly, the animal was preparing for the forward leap; and the second was at the end of the impulse, when, with legs outstretched to the limit, the horse was ready to take the ground again for another stride. Both of these periods, it will be seen, were the instants of arrest of motion—instants when the human eye could readily seize the action without the intervention of the kodak. Then at last was perceived the fundamental law which underlay the phenomenon : the human eye, and the human brain behind it, declined to accept as a symbol of motion anything which the eye had not been able to see for and by itself unaided. In this case, of course, it was only during the two instants of arrest of motion that the eye had been able to note the position of the horse's limbs. And these two positions of comparative inaction had, through long association, become the permanent and fixed symbols of action in the racing horse. The kodak had revealed hitherto unsuspected facts and aspects of motion, but the eye would have none of them, and clung only to that which was visual.
It was this experience with the earliest kodaks which finally made plain the reason why, from time out of mind, artists desiring to convey the concept of motion had instinctively chosen the end or the beginning of the stroke or impulse—the axe poised in mid-air ready for its downward sweep, or the stroke completed in the heart of the tree—the lifting wave poised for the fall, or the breaker that has crashed to its turbulent end upon the beach. Shortly also, it began to be seen that the marine painter who depended upon the kodak for his drawing, lost all sense of motion in the waves, that the wind-blown drapery of a photograph was nearly as rigid as a sheet of crumpled tin; that the impression, in fact, which the eye received from nature was not that which was rendered by the camera; and that, therefore, the human brain could never accept the photograph as a thoroughly satisfactory transcript of nature.
It is to be feared that the hopes which are at present being built upon color-photography are doomed to like disappointment—for the simple reason that the photographic lens in no way resembles the lens of the human eye. The very fact that it is a more perfect instrument is against it. It gives us scientific facts; and scientific facts are generally artistic lies. Art has nothing to do with things as they are, but only with things as they appear to be, with the visual not the actual, with impressions, not with realities. It is a scientific fact, for in-stance, that trees are green, and yet it is only under the rarest combination of favoring circumstances that a tree is really green to the visual sense. It is much more likely to be pearly-gray or royal-purple or rich amber or sapphire-blue, according as it happens to be seen under the pale effulgence of dawn, the shimmering blaze of noonday, the gold-en glow of sunset or the azure mystery of night. And it is the same with every other landscape feature under the great blue arch of heaven. Each rock, each tree, each waving field of grain has, of course, its fixed and definite local color, but the appearance of each of these objects changes a thousand times a day. And it is with this equation—this fleeting, intangible, ever-shifting, ever-varying appearance, that artists have to do. The facts of nature are to him nothing, the mood everything.
By an ironical chance he has it in his power to convince the most uncompromising and unimaginative scientific purist of the truth of his statement that the most unquestionable facts of science are often the most shameless of visual lies—and this by the simplest sort of a scientific demonstration. In the diagram on page , two upright lines of equal length are traced side by side, and near enough together to allow of easy visual comparison. To No. I have been affixed but their direction has been reversed so that they extend toward the centre of the diagram instead of away from it. Now no amount of didactic statement will convince the human eye that those two central lines are of the same length.
Here the scientific fact has become a visual lie. If an artist should by any chance be using these two forms as units in a decorative frieze wherein it was essential that they should be of the same length, he would unhesitatingly lengthen the central line of No. 2 and shorten that of No. 1, so that visually they would become equal; and in so doing he would be telling the truth in his own way; whereas had he allowed the foot-rule to control him he would have been guilty of an artistic lie.
The Greek architects, observing that the horizontal architrave surmounting the columns on their temples appeared to sag, corrected the fault by giving their architrave a slightly upward arch, thus by means of a curve securing a straight line; or at least a line which was architecturally and visually straight.
Here then clearly lies the division line between science and art—the one gives us actual truths, the other visual truths; the one facts, the other moods, impressions, visions; each in its place admirable, each ministering to one of the two great needs of humanity, the physical and the spiritual. If only a pact could be signed between them, by the terms of which each should agree to abide peaceably within the bounds of its own legitimate sphere, all would be well. But alas! science is a conscienceless freebooter. So much the sturdier of the two, he encroaches constantly on the domain of art; insists on recognition where he has no right to a hearing, and monopolizes the whole front of the stage. Even the artists are unable to escape his importunities ; and the younger ones especially are often misled and lured to a false allegiance.
This is small wonder of course, when you remember that ever since the day of our birth we have been storing our minds with thousands upon thousands of facts—very useful facts, too, in their way, facts whose possession and unconscious daily use are essential to our very physical existence. But when, as artists, we go into the open, to study and to dream, they rise before us like a miasma, a deadly cloud that obscures the whole face of nature; so that we see the landscape not as it is, but as we have been taught in some former stage of existence that it should be.
Among the facts that have thus been clamped upon us there are two alas! which have been learned by everybody —that trees are green and that the sky is blue. It matters not that the sky is often pale green, or violet, or pearl-gray or opal, blue it is painted forever and forever ; and the trees are painted green.
And these blue and green monstrosities not only find a ready sale but much loving appreciation. There are in the world so many others who as children learned that the sky was blue and the trees were green and have never since opened their eyes. To tell the truth, so strong is the hold upon us of these early traditions that it takes many years of the severest training to overcome them. In many cases, and not infrequently in the case of some truly great painter, the fifty-year mark is chalked up against him before the scales fall utterly from his eyes and he is able at length to look out straight before him with a vision that is clear and unobscured. Take my word for it, technique is not the difficult thing in art. Any reasonably capable youth can readily master all of the technical problems in existence in a few short months, but it requires many a long and weary year to learn to see.
And to think that but for those stored-up facts it would all have been so easy. f painters, gazing upon nature, could only look forth with the simplicity of a newborn child, which opens its eyes for the first time on a fresh and virgin world, the principal problem of art would be solved in an instant. Give us, Oh, Lord ! to see! and we will find the means of expression.
It is a simple platitude to say that an artist can always paint as much as he sees. All of the fumbling, and struggle, and hard work connected with a picture comes of the effort to see just a little more, just a little better. Technique truly is mere child's play. It is a question, moreover, if too much technique is not a serious handicap to any artist—if indeed it does not tend to degrade him to the level of the mere handcraftsman. At any rate, Millet's previously quoted saying to the effect that technique should never open shop for itself, that it should always hide modestly behind the idea to be ex-pressed is one of the eternal truths of art. In the work of his own great period the technique is so rough as to prove conclusively his personal contempt for mere surface quality. And this crudity must have been voluntary. We may go even further and say that it was intentional; for in his own brilliant youth there were none so clever, none so habile as he.
In the case of our own Winslow Homer also, the thing to be said is often so vital, the vision so clear-cut, that although the paint is simply flung at the canvas, we don't care a fig. The mood has been rendered—the message has carried, and we do not stop to consider the phraseology.
But, as I have before intimated, each painter must look at all times out of his own eyes, and not through the eyes of his brother. In fact, in the modern scheme of things, the artist is the last rank individualist to survive. For him the merger and the combination spell ruin. Again we insist, and insist yet once again, that the very essence and marrow of art is personality. Any surrender of personality, therefore, can lead only to one goal—the abyss of artistic worthlessness.
Under these circumstances it becomes interesting to inquire just how much the young painter may accept with safety from his master; in what manner he may best acquire the thorough and intimate knowledge of technique which is so essential to his success, without sacrifice of that personal integrity which is still more essential. Let us at once concede the fact that there is no perfect system of art instruction. But without question the system most nearly approaching the ideal is that which has the great art school or institute for its central idea. To begin with, students learn much more from each other than they do from their masters. The constant attrition and stimulation, the wholesome emulation of the school keeps every mental fibre on the full jump, every nerve alive and tingling. The progress made by each helps the other forward. The student sees here a technical point, there a trick or an idea, and, like the young barbarian that he is, he promptly appropriates them all to his own use. And this is just so much to the good, for the callow cub is putting on technique much as a young animal puts on flesh. The system has only one serious draw-back. The tendency of all schools is to develop a school. This is bad, because the whole intent of art training should be to develop individual artists, each differing from the other to the full breadth and extent of personal temperament. This danger, it is true, arises only toward the end of the school period when the youths' eyes are at last open and they are beginning to " take notice" of things about them. But it is nevertheless a very genuine and menacing danger, which is to be guarded against and combated in every way possible.
When in the course of human events it came my own turn to fulfil the universal duty of the older to the younger generation, I had this danger writ large before me. One day there came the inevitable little deputation of students, asking if the master would kindly consent to paint a study before the class, " just to show the way he would go about it" to obtain this effect or that. My reply, I remember, was somewhat brusque. "Not on your life," I said. "I will tell you all that I know of the fundamental principles which underlie all good art, and which are everywhere and eternally the same. I will tell you also as much as I personally know of the infinite variety of technical methods which abound in oil painting, and from which it is yours to select at will such as may best suit the temperament or the personal point of view of each of your number. But I will never do you the unkind service of putting you in the way to imitate a technique which, though serviceable to me personally, could no more fit your aesthetic needs than would an old coat of mine fit your bodies. Remember that art is nature as the artist sees it, and it is no more possible for two human beings to see nature in the same way than for the same two people to have exactly similar features. As our brains vary, so does our point of view. Cling desperately to your own vision, therefore. Accept no advice, take no criticism that does not harmonize with it. In this way only can you hope to be original. Turn the mind to nature like a mirror and let it reflect exactly what is thrown upon it. He who attempts to improve upon nature either lacks judgment or is endowed with a conceit so colossal that there is no health in him. Be reverent before nature and honest with yourself, and your art will ring true every time. All of you, it is true, will not sing the song of the nightingale, because you were not all born nightie gales; but the blackbird's lay is sweet, and the thrush and the oriole fill the woods with melody. Even the homely robin and the linnet have modest little notes of their own which are pleasant to the ear of a dewy April morning. Of all the songsters in creation there is only one, I believe, whose lay is universally condemned—and that is the parrot."
The greater the artist, I think, the more certain is he to cling religiously to nature, not only for his inspiration, but for the actual material of his creations. Rodin not long since said to an inter-viewer, "All my attention as an artist is devoted to reproducing exactly what I see in nature. I do not endeavor to `express something.' Those who have a preconceived idea-an inspiration as they call it—are seldom able to render their ideal. Those, on the contrary, who charm us by their talent have done nothing throughout the ages but repro-duce nature. They copy as closely as ever they can the most beautiful, the most admirable, the most perfect thing in the world—which is nature."
This does not mean, however, that an artist must necessarily be a mere machine, that he has no intellectual liberty of choice in regard to what he shall rep-resent and how he shall represent it. Art includes every object of intrinsic beauty that was ever created by human hands. The Turkish rug, the Chinese keramic, the Moorish carving, the Japanese color-print and the Gothic cathedral are just as truly art in the highest sense as the Greek marble or the mod-ern painting. But there are certain limits beyond which an artist may not step, and all art which has attained to greatness has been the sincere expression, not only of the individual artist, but of the race to which he belongs, and the epoch in which he lives. It will not do for Americans to make Oriental rugs or Japanese color-prints; and we have all seen and deplored the Japanese attempt to assimilate and reproduce our own occidental art have shuddered indeed at the brilliant and hollow shell without a soul. Is it not enough for us to admire without attempting to imitate, to surround ourselves with the beauty of all ages and all peoples while calmly pursuing the type of beauty which it is given to us to see as none others have been able to see it ? Now, if I am not much mistaken, the form of beauty which appeals to us as it has appealed to no other race in any other epoch of the world's history is the poetry of out-of-door nature, her mystery, and her ever-varying and shifting moods. Surely in this wide field there remains to us a sufficient latitude of choice both as regards the subjects we shall paint and the manner in which we shall render our impressions. It is always open to us to choose our direction. In each of us there is a Dr. Jekyll and a Mr. Hyde, and in art as in life it depends on ourselves which shall rule.
When I was a student in Paris away back in the seventies, a group of young artists who were at that time making some stir in the art world asserted with a great deal of unnecessary noise and bluster that good painting could glorify the most revolting subject. The subject was nothing, the craftsmanship everything. I remember that I was temporarily caught up in the swirl of the movement and that for a time I ran with the shouting iconoclasts; and the memory of this makes me still lenient with any youngster who raises the old cry—false as it is. It is a phase—one of the growing pains of adolescence which are normal and to be expected. f we only remember that, we shall have no cause to worry. I believe that every young painter must at some time worship at the shrine of technique, just as every youth who is to grow up to true and generous manhood must at some period of his boyish career be a socialist. But it is a sign of mental atrophy—of arrested development, when the youth or the artist fails to graduate out of this chrysalis stage.
Nature is not all beautiful by any means. But why should we choose to perpetuate her ugly side ? I believe it to be one of the artist's chief functions, as it should be his chief delight, to watch for the rare mood when she wafts aside the veil of the commonplace and shows us her inner soul in some bewildering vision of poetic beauty. I should not care personally to hold a brief for the opponents of this view—nor should I know how to support it. Yet a painter of world-wide reputation once said to me that he positively hated a picture in which there was a moon. He declared that any picture which depended for its appeal upon the beauty of the subject was weak-kneed art, publicly advertising its own weakness. The very perfection of craftsmanship could not save such a picture, he said. The best and only answer to this sincere critique is that the painter who made it has remained all his life a craftsman —a craftsman of the highest distinction if you will, but never an artist.
Now from all that has been said above, it would appear that originality must be the easiest of all qualities to attain.
But this is, unfortunately, not the case. The facility is only apparent. The hard and sober reality is that the personal note is the most difficult of all things for an artist to grasp and to hold. It is only necessary to count over the number of our truly original artists (it can be done upon the ten fingers) to see how true this statement is. One of the oldest of our proverbs says that to err is human. It is also human, unfortunately, to be a sheep—to do as you see others do—to imitate the thing which you admire; and the sad result of this is that few ever learn to see the thing which lies out in the sunlight under their own very eyes. And this is why originality—why true impressionism will ever remain one of the rarest and most precious qualities in art.
Now it has doubtless been objected that the present chapter, while professing to deal with impressionism, says mighty little about the impressionists. But I have failed singularly in my intention if, by this time, I have not made it clear that anyone who honestly and sincerely records his impressions of nature is in the truest sense an impressionist—that Velasquez and Titian and Rembrandt were as truly impressionists as were Manet or Monet or Sisley—because, in the canvases of these great masters of the Renaissance, there rings the true note of personality —proof positive of their honesty, their reverence, and their humility before nature. To tell the truth, the so-called French impressionists were far more accurately termed luminarists, or painters of light. Their special achievement in art was a purely technical triumph—the discovery that by the use of broken color in its prismatic simplicity the pulsating, vibrating effect of light could be transferred to the surface of a can-vas. But they were neither the fathers of impressionism nor were they especially distinguished in this line. As a matter of fact, they were somewhat deficient in the quality of personal vision, and their rage to secure the effect of light at all hazards led to a certain monotony of technique which tended to blunt the personal note in their work.