The Future Of American Art
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
WE hear with increasing frequency to-day the statement that art is universal and without a country ; that, being the record of abstract beauty, it cannot be confined within stated geographical limits ; that the terms " French art," "English art," etc., are therefore absurd. Art is art tout bonnement, and that is all there is to it.
According to these critics, the mere fact that a man with the temperamental sense of beauty chances to be born in France or in Holland does not necessarily make him a French or a Dutch painter. If the Frenchman were brought up in Holland, and the Hollander in France, the Frenchman would then inevitably belong to the Dutch school and the Dutchman would develop as a French impressionist. Each, being temperamentally sensitive to beauty, would simply respond to the appeal of his environment.
Now, if this is correct, there could, of course, be no such thing as American art. But that there is such a thing—an art which would have been impossible but for the evolution of the American man, as distinct from the men of Germany, France, Spain, or even England —is precisely what I hope to demonstrate in this final chapter. And that this American art is destined to grow rapidly in power and distinction, until it occupies for its little time the fore-most place in the world of art, is not, I think, beyond the power of reasonable demonstration.
Let us first clear the ground by rehearsing those points upon which both parties are agreed.
All admit, of course, that art is the record of beauty in some one of its myriad forms, be it a Persian rug, a Japanese keramic, a Greek statue, or a modern oil-painting. In each case, if the beauty be of a sufficiently high order, the result is art. We all admit also that art is personality—that nature is only the crude material from which art is made. This crude material must be fused in the alembic of the human soul, mixed with the alloy of temperament, and colored with the artist's personality before it can be poured out into the final mould and receive the name of art. It is the artist's personality, in other words, that makes the art. And just according to the beauty or the individuality of his temperament will be the beauty or the individuality of the artistic result. If he be a poet, like Corot, the result will be a poetic and delicate interpretation of nature. If he be a colorist, like Monticelli, the result will be some such gorgeous mosaic of splendid color as that wonderful painter gave us. f he be a purist of the fine, clean-cut intellectual type, such as Saint-Gaudens, the result will be something akin to the Sherman monument that dignifies the entrance to Central Park in New York.
But just here comes the dividing line between the contending factions. What is personality? One group declares that personality is simply temperament which plays freely within the artist's soul; and, working upon whatever chance material its environment affords, transmutes this crude material into the fine gold of art. The opposing group, while admitting that the basis of artistic personality is temperament, asserts that this temperament is bound hand and foot by the inherited traits and characteristics of a thousand ancestors, and that the Frenchman brought up in Holland would therefore always remain essentially a Frenchman, in spite of his Dutch surroundings. They claim also that racial personality is just as important a factor in all good art as individual personality. They assert, more-over, that no artist can possibly shake off the racial chains that bind him, and that any attempt to do so could only result in some monstrous hybrid or some feeble imitation not deserving the name of art.
Each artist is, first of all, a unit of some specified human group or race. Therefore, if he truly and conscientiously records his own impressions, he will also record the accumulated impressions of the race to which he belongs. That he does this is amply proved by the fact that any reasonably expert judge will tell you whether a picture belongs to the French or the Dutch or the Scandinavian school, without knowing the name of the painter, or anything more of the picture than the canvas itself discloses.
It is impossible, therefore, to avoid the conclusion that racial individuality in art is fact—and a very real and solid fact at that. In some of our modern schools of painting, this racial character is so strong as quite to dominate and submerge the individual note, so that it is often difficult to distinguish the work of one well-known painter from that of some equally celebrated fellow-artist. This is particularly true of the Dutch school, for instance. In fact, the whole art of the Netherlands is so intensely "Dutch" that we may know the characteristics of the Dutch people as well by studying their art as by reading all that has been written about them.
Now, it is a curious thing that, while we in America have, for the past twenty years, been discussing the question of whether any such thing as a national school of art exists here, in Paris "l'Ecole Americaine" has for fully as long a time been recognized as a distinct school, with a marked personal note of its own. And it must be remembered that this verdict was based upon a very partial and imperfect knowledge of American art even as it then existed; for the "American School," as it was known to the French writers of 1885, embraced only a certain number of young American artists who were living in France, and whose whole art training had been received in Paris under exclusively French influences. In spite of this fact, the French critics felt in the work of Sargent, of John Alexander, of Melchers, of Alexander Harrison and of Saint-Gaudens, an exotic note, anew point of view, whose chief characteristic was an unusual directness and clarity of vision, coupled with a corresponding simplicity of statement.
A great French painter once said to me: "You Americans have one advantage over all others. You have no traditions. You can look straight at nature out of your own eyes, while our vision is clouded and obscured by the inheritance of a thousand years."
If to the above list of names we add a few others—Winslow Homer, Homer Martin, John La Farge, George Inness, Alexander H. Wyant, all those of painters who were at that time at the full height of their powers, but who were established at home on this side of the Atlantic—it will be seen that the French were not mistaken in announcing the appearance on the Western horizon of a new and original school of art.
Since the date above mentioned, art in America has made such rapid strides that a roll-call of American artists of the first class taken to-day would have to include three or four times as many names as could have been mustered in 1885. And it is a significant fact that this increase in the number of American artists, and in the quality of their output, has been coincident with a phenomenal decrease in the number of really great artists at present practising abroad. This decrease has been particularly marked in France, which, during the larger part of the nineteenth century, certainly led the world in all matters connected with art. Yet in France today we will search in vain for any such body of painters as made up the wonderful school of Barbizon, which, in the fifty years beginning with 1830 and ending with 1880, gave the world the greatest art it has seen since the Italian, Dutch, and Spanish Renaissance of the sixteenth century.
It could hardly be expected, I suppose, that this glorious time of blossom and fruitage should repeat itself in France during our own time. Indeed, all history has shown that things do not so happen in the domain of art. Art is a plant whose seed germinates only under certain special and favoring conditions. These conditions are really epochal in their character, and they rarely recur in the life of any one nation; or, if by some specially happy chance they do repeat themselves, it is only after the lapse of many centuries.
To every energetic people there comes sooner or later a time of great material prosperity; it may be as the result of successful wars, of territorial expansion or of commercial supremacy. Whatever the cause, this period of prosperity is invariably accompanied by a tremendous mental stir and awakening, and this, in turn, is followed by a magnificent outburst of art, which lasts for fifty, or maybe a hundred years, and dies away as it came.
Now, if ever in the history of the world conditions have been ripe for the birth of a great art movement, they are so in America today. Titanic forces have been at work for a century preparing the way, extracting untold wealth from a virgin soil; increasing this wealth an hundredfold by the help of marvellous scientific and mechanical genius; conquering, with the irresistible impulse of a new people, every physical obstacle that lay in their way, and building up the richest and most powerful community the world has ever known. Its early struggles are now apparently over, and its surplus wealth is daily increasing. The average of comfort is high and the physical well-being of the people seems practically assured. Whenever in the course of history a nation attains to this stage of development, it begins to reach out toward the ideal, to demand more of life and better than simple food and shelter.
This is precisely what is taking place in America today. There is a growing demand for beauty in all its forms; for the adornment of our public buildings; —for galleries of paintings and statuary, for museums containing porcelains, bronzes, textiles, prints and objects of art of all kinds—a demand so insistent that our municipalities and our legislatures are everywhere beginning to respond to the call of the people. This movement, which may be said to have started a scant ten years ago, is spreading rapidly all over the country. To the art museums in cities of the first class, such as New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, and St. Louis, have already been added museums or regular yearly exhibitions in many cities of the second or third class. Among these may be mentioned Pittsburg, Worcester Buffalo, Toledo, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Atchison, Richmond, Charleston, Atlanta, Memphis, Oakland, and Seattle; while every year a number of names is added to the list. Unless all signs fail, therefore, we may expect during the current century an unprecedented demand for art in the United States, and we are certainly justified in assuming that native artists of the first rank will arise to meet the demand.
Conceding this much, it will be interesting, and also I think quite possible, to forecast the general trend of the movement and the general character of the new art—for new it is bound to be.
If the American painters of thirty years ago had been separated into two groups, the figure-painters on one side and the landscape men on the other, the balance would have been found to be fairly even. f the same thing were repeated today, fully two-thirds of our ablest painters would be found in the camp of the landscapists. This shifting of the balance is most significant, for it shows a new drift, a tendency on the part of our artists to carry their easels out into the open; to paint, or to try to paint, all of the shimmering, iridescent effects that happen only under the great blue arch of the sky; the glory of the noonday sunlight, the pale beauty of the dawn, the golden glow of sunset and the brooding mystery of night.
Why, we may ask, this change of direction ? The answer is simple: the artists have discovered that most of the unsolved problems of art lie in the open air. They know by instinct that art, to be alive, must move ever forward toward some new goal. If it remains in one rut, it stagnates or dies. The end of every great art movement has come when its living, rushing, turbulent waters have been congealed into icy formulas—rules of thumb by the use of which the mere artisan can produce a sort of "near-art" which is necessarily without vitality or charm. The true artist must always be an innovator, a pioneer in fresh fields, an adventurer seeking new Eldorados. If he now goes afield, therefore, it is because he knows that in the domain of indoor figure-painting there are few undiscovered countries. This branch of art was exploited long ago by the old masters, and their achievements were so transcendent that any modern painter who sets out to equal or excel them in their own chosen line must be endowed with a large share of courage and self-confidence.
Another cause of this universal return to nature is doubtless the fact that our lives are not, humanly speaking, so beautiful as they once were. Our clothing is no longer picturesque. The ad-vent of farm machinery has destroyed much of the pastoral and bucolic beauty of country life. The sowing and reaping and binding and threshing that were done by hand in the old days with such splendid rhythmic swing of muscle are now matters of revolving wheels and clattering chains and knives. Even our buildings have deteriorated—at least from the artist's point of view; for the comfortable villa farmhouse of the present day does not cling lovingly to the soil and become part of the environing landscape, as did the spreading, low-hung buildings of our fathers. And so, to quench the eternal thirst for beauty, we must needs return once more to kindly nature, whose beauty is exhaustless and everlasting. Her skies have lost none of their early crystal-line charm of color; her hills and her rock-bound coasts are as grand as ever ; her trees, her rivers and her spreading fields are as beautiful and as appealing now as in the days of Hesiod. But, precious beyond all other things, her exquisite and ever-varying effects —that happen because of the change from night to day and from day to night again—are spread out always before us, an endless feast of beauty for those who have eyes to see and minds to appreciate.
Nevertheless, it is quite possible that, in the very changed conditions of our civilization, there may lurk wonderful and hitherto unsuspected opportunities for our future artists, and especially our figure-painters. There is certainly a strange picturesqueness in some of our modern steel mills, with their cyclopean forces at work against backgrounds of whirling steam and glowing furnace. Even our sky-scrapers have an unusual beauty of their own, and the sky-line of lower New York is far from being ugly or uninteresting. Another field that is replete with possibilities is the teeming and kaleidoscopic life of our city slums, which the inexorable law of migration has crowded with strange peoples from the far corners of the earth; peoples who are as yet unassimilated, who still wear their exotic costumes and live their strange, foreign lives in our very midst. There has already been some attempt to use this exhaustless material (unfortunately, as yet, without adequate technical skill), but when the trained master shall paint for us the life of our streets with all its vital and original character, we shall welcome his pictures as a priceless addition to the world's store of precious things.
I have as yet made no mention of mural painting, which is, of course, des-tined to occupy a very important place in the art of the future. Thousands of new public and private buildings all over the country will call for decoration, and I have no hesitation in predicting that the opportunity thus afforded will result in some bewilderingly great discovery in advance of our present-day knowledge of that art—a step in advance at least as important as that made by Puvis de Chavannes when he painted the out-of-door atmosphere upon the walls of the Pantheon in Paris. It is at least certain that the movement in this same direction will be pushed much farther than at present, and that open-air effects and open-air tones will be used with increasing frequency by our mural painters, because on this line only can they hope to achieve any not-able advance over their predecessors.
The fact is that the open has claimed us as a people ! We devote ourselves with ever-increasing enthusiasm to out-of-door pleasures and out-of-door pursuits; we have learned to love out-of-door nature and out-of-door beauty. It is our best achievement as a nation; and our artists in this are, therefore, simply keeping step with the march of modern civilization.