Tendencies In The 19th And 20th Centuries
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The Renaissance Impulse Still Potent — The Cosmopolitan Tendencies of Modern Art — Official Recognition of Art in France — The Pre-Raphaelites in England — The Barbizon School — Sculpture — Greek Revivals in the United States — An American School in Architecture — The Artist and the Patron of Art — The World of Beauty.
IN the American and French Revolutions culminated those aspirations toward Liberty that are ineradicable from the soul of man. He had freed himself of his feudal over-lords, had shaken off the gyves of priestly domination, and now he had refused further allegiance to kings and announced that thenceforward he would be self-governed. This was the goal toward which he had been blindly but instinctively moving for seven centuries. He had had to recover and assimilate all the lost learning of the antique world, develop and adapt its lessons to the problems of his own life, so different from that of the ancients and changing rapidly from decade to decade as the processes of thought became clearer and better organized. He had created new things in the arts as he had in politics and the science of life. After such creative periods, after the stress and tumult of action, there must be a recuperative pause.
I do not believe the tremendous force which called into being that which we name the Renaissance is by any means exhausted; the French Revolution is usually accepted as marking its end, and the beginning of the modern world; but I consider the Revolution merely an episode, merely a pause in the march of human progress, a pause to survey this freedom in which men in America and France faced the veil behind which lay their future-a future in which other thrones would fall and other men stand up as freemen with their destinies in their own hands for weal or woe.
We are yet too close to much that has gone on in architecture, painting, and sculpture, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to appraise it at its true values or to perceive clearly its true direction; however, one major tendency may be discerned—the art of the world is becoming cosmopolitan, losing its strongly marked national traits. This is readily explained not only by the conquest of those physical barriers to ready international intercourse to which I have so often referred, but also by the acknowledged leadership of France in the intellectual and artistic domain. America was an undeveloped wilderness and we were too busy conquering natural obstacles to give much thought to arts and letters. Italy, after giving modern music to the world, had sunk into an obscurity in which she labored to throw off the hateful yoke of the foreigner and take her place again. Neither England nor Spain could lead in art, and art in Germany might be said to be non-existent. This is particularly true of the first quarter of the nineteenth century.
It was only in France that art was a living and active force, and to her were turned the feet that in previous centuries would have journeyed to Rome. In her schools were trained the artists of Europe, and later those of America; the point of view of Paris prevailed and has continued to prevail. Hence, the effect of this common experience, this Gallic training, has been to draw together the sympathies of the artists of the Western world, give them a common point of view, and the strongly racial and national traits that had differentiated them before this cosmopolitanism prevailed became so blurred that a Spaniard's work might easily be mistaken for that of a Frenchman, an Englishman, or an American.
The official school of art in France is the Ecole des Beaux Arts. The system of instruction has a speciously democratic appearance concealing a very effective oligarchy. Study is carried on in a number of ateliers—workshops, studios—which may be organized by a group of students who request a distinguished artist to become their patron and visit their workshop once or twice a week to criticise their work. The studio is self-sustaining and self-governed, and the artist gives of his time and knowledge gratis in recompense for the pension and the honors he has in most cases received from the French Government. The great incentive in the studios of the Ecole—there are many others outside of the School's sphere of authority—is the Grand Prix de Rome, whose winners each year in architecture, painting, sculpture, music, and engraving, go to the Villa Medici, maintained in Rome upon the Pincian Hill by the Government to pursue what we should call in America a postgraduate course of study; at the close of the term of four years they are given a post in France carrying a stipend with it that enables them to live modestly but relieved of the immediate necessity for earning their daily bread. Naturally, most of the patrons in the ateliers of the School have been holders of the Grand Prix. In order to win that prize their work must have con-formed to official, academic standards and formulas in style, composition, color, even handling; the juries who judge the monthly competitions between the studios as well as those for the Grand Prix are composed of the patrons. It is easy to see that the result of such a system is to suppress or re-strain exceptional and progressive talents and reduce them, if they will submit, to a general level, safe, competent in many ways, but cautious and conservative, certainly not, with the shadow of the academic fetiches of theme and treatment lying upon them, stimulating and inspiring. Beyond the Grand Prix, which is at once the guerdon of school work and the portal to a career, is the Institute of France, which may crown that career by admission to its sacred circle.
I have dwelt upon these details to explain the atmosphere in which the French artist has worked for so long; he has either ranged himself with the official, academic group, or has actively or tacitly opposed it and its teachings and ideals. The Annual Salon where the painters, sculptors, and architects exhibit their works—exhibitions of a magnitude unknown in America—are controlled by the official group, the exhibitions being held under governmental auspices. And this has accounted measurably for the rejection by the Salon juries of the work of men of such original force and genius as Jean Francois Millet, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, and many others who declined to be governed by the opinions of academic mediocrities—of far more serious effect upon the fortunes of an artist than rejection by an American jury would have here; for there rejection means failure in the material sense and a restricted livelihood, acceptance means the seal of official approval and possible professional success. For artists must eat in order to live and work; they, like other men, desire the blessings of family life; and the story of the Millets' struggle with poverty is touching in its pathos and inspiring in its courage and devotion to an ideal.
Differences of opinion, disparate aims, opposing theories in color, composition, subject, treatment, form, surface, take on in such an atmosphere a vigor and bitterness that are extraordinary, and in the successive battles between the innovators—whether these be called Romanticists or Classicists or Orientalists or Realists or Impressionists or Cubists or Futurists—and the conservatives of the moment is to be read the history of French art and, because of French leadership, the history of painting and sculpture in the nineteenth century.
In England the principal movement to record is that of the Pre-Raphaelite group, which sought a return to the simplicity of the early Italians before Raphael, as the name implies, led by Ford Madox Brown, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and William Morris.
In the youth of some of our own men, such for example as Frank Duveneck and William M. Chase, the school of Munich contributed to the formation of the taste and the direction of the thought of the American school that was slowly forming.
One of the notable tendencies in painting was the growing interest in landscape with or without figures. A remarkable group, of which Millet, Rousseau, Narcisse Diaz, and others were members, lived and painted at the little village of Barbizon, on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau, which gave its name to the group as the Barbizon school; they are often referred to as the men of 1830; and they were undoubtedly influenced by works of Constable exhibited in Paris in 1824-1825. With them Corot, that poet of the dawn and the silvery mists of France, may be ranged as friend and companion; Daubigny, also. They broke with the academic tradition, the confection of historical pieces, nudes, and compositions inspired by classical legend and the like, and found motifs for their masterpieces in the beauty of plain and forest and in the simple life of the peas-ant folk, epics of the forest, the river, seed-time, harvest, and the fold. And from these men derive a school of landscape-painters that gives promise of rising to great heights here in America and that has been distinguished by such names as Whistler, Inness, Homer, Wyant, Martin, and Murphy.
In the field of decorative painting in America the name of John La Farge is preeminent. A superb colorist, he has had an immense influence upon the American schools of design.
Of the next great group in France, the Impressionists, and their aims, we have given some account in Chapter VII of Part I. Their influence is potent in the work of today.
Of sculpture since the Revolutions one may say that the general tendency has been toward realism. In the early part of the eighteenth century the neo-Classic turn given to thought by the study of Roman institutions as a guide to life produced figures and groups conceived in what was believed to be the spirit of the antique, and called by all the sounding names of ancient story. But the work of such an epoch is doomed to oblivion if not to ridicule, for unless an art has its springs in the life of its own time it is dry, juiceless, barren. The drift of painting away from a pompous and life-less academicism, in which classical story was warmed up for modern consumption very much on the model of the Academy of the Caracci, and toward that point of view which finds beauty and fit subjects for artistic treatment in the living world about us, had its counterpart in sculpture, an( a strong school arose in France whose influence has spread and is brilliantly maturing in America. The names of Fremiet, Falguiere, Dubois, Barye, and Cain are some of the jewels in that triple crown of the arts that France has worr so long.
Of the later French masters the work of Auguste Rodir marks a tendency and a leadership that may easily be fraugh with danger-the danger that lies in the invasion of the fie] of a sister art, that of painting; for while some of his earlie work was extremely realistic—such for example as the famous figure which gave rise to the accusation that it was cast from a living model, not modelled by the sculptor's hand—as he grew older he drew farther and farther away from the rendition of actual form and became interested in the play of light and shade that indicates form. This statement re-quires some explanation. His Saint John gives every fact of muscle and sinew, of sun-dried skin stretched taut over the bony frame, and the light and shade results from this realistic modelling. In such things as The Kiss and The Hand of God the forms are modelled, not with reference to their accuracy as forms and to make the observer think primarily of the forms, but are so handled, so softened, as to create the effect of a glamorous light and shade enveloping the forms as a painter would be forced, by the limitations of his means of expression, to treat them. The result in the hands of this or any master is exquisite. But, as it was with Michael Angelo, danger lies in the exaggeration by followers of the master's personal vision and the neglect of that stern discipline by which a true master attains his ,mastery of form and structure and his consequent right to treat them as he will.
The strong interest that artists have taken of late years fin the solution of problems of light has thus reacted upon sculpture; and in painting, this interest, and that taken in matters of technique, of the mere application of paint and .a neglect of design, is disquieting. The most brilliant improvisation, the cleverest rendition of sunlight, firelight, or ,lamplight, cannot excuse the absence of those principles of design that every work of art must respect.
In architecture in the United States we have had since the Colonial period three separate revivals : the Greek ReVival, which filled the Eastern States, particularly New York, with residences adorned with Grecian porticos of wood, and a simulation of the effect of smooth Pentelican marble walls by the use of matched pine boards; the Gothic Revival, of which Trinity Church in New York is an exemplar; and the Classico-Renaissance Revival due to the turn given architectural thought by the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893-1894. We have been afflicted also with sporadic at-tacks of originality which, like the Greek and Gothic Revivals, withered because they had no roots in American soil. A school of design that shall be firmly rooted in precedent—I mean respect for the past as one respects one's father with-out feeling it necessary to wear his garments—and based upon the eternal principles of design, not upon the outer vesture given these principles by other nations in other times under other conditions of life and living, is yet to come but is coming.
Here in America the danger lies in the tradition of imitation of the historic styles that has governed American de-sign. The teaching of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, to which our architects owe so much, emphasizes the controlling influence of the plan of a structure upon its interior and exterior appearance, and the principle that from a new plan suited to the functions of the building, from new groupings of the several services, will result new masses and new fenestration in elevation. Not only this, but the French artist is free from the timidity that restrains the American from experiments in fresh ways to produce beautiful light and shade in his mouldings and ornament. An examination of the work of the students of the Ecole for the past century reveals a wonderful fecundity of idea and of resource in these matters; that it usually lacks beauty and frequently scale in elevation is undeniable; but it has the equally undeniable virtue that is possessed by a living art striving to express a living and present civilization and to meet its needs material and aesthetic. In this atmosphere of logical plan and logical expression of plan the American architect who has had the privilege of that training steeps himself and, returning here, finds another tradition confronting him—the deplorable practice of first conceiving a building in terms of its exterior appearance, that exterior appearance being some example of some style of the historic past, and then fitting a plan, somehow, to that preconceived or borrowed exterior. He struggles against the tendency, but sooner or later succumbs in some measure to a practice he sees crowned on every hand with material reward and applauded by profession and public alike. Or, at the least, he yields to the drift toward the use of motifs ready to his hand in books instead of searching his mind for fresh and significant forms as he had done when he was a student. Architecture is unhappily the only art in which plagiarism is not considered disgraceful, is raised to the dignity of a fine art in itself, and receives the reward of a fine art for its successful practice. Luckily for the future of our architecture, however, the demands of the new problems, new buildings of new types, are forcing us to use merely borrowed garments from the fathers with which to clothe our native structural skeleton instead of borrowing the entire design bodily as the practice has been. The next step will be to give the same inventive thought to the clothing that is given to the practical requirements of the structure; and in this process of adaptation of the mouldings and ornamental motifs to new conditions of scale, relation, lighting, and character, something new will be gradually evolved, something eclectic, characteristic, national. In the speech of the undergraduate are always echoes of the last book he has been reading—and in the architecture of America the accent of the undergraduate is still to be discerned. But when the American architect has passed the architecture of the past through the crucible of his native genius, has laid aside his books, has learned to utter his own message eloquently and grammatically, there will arise on this continent an architecture thrilling in its dramatic quality, noble in its restraint and vigor.
"Westward the course of Empire takes its way." And with it Western art is destined to culminate in undreamed power and beauty, here, in the land we love.
Will you to whom this book is especially addressed, the future patrons and purchasers of painting and sculpture, the future builders of American architecture, be prepared to enjoy to the full this revelation of beauty when it shall come ? The artist lives in an enchanted world of color and form, and the consciousness that this world is shut away from so many of his fellow beings fills him with regret, and the desire to share it with them. The pursuit of wealth, politics, civics, popular science, and sporst engross the American people to an extent unknown among the citizens of the Old World; one of the chief differences between the societies of Europe and America is that the European finds the time to enjoy the beauties of life as he goes, and comes to middle life with mind and soul nourished and enriched by thoughts beyond mere material things. The American public is frequently arraigned for making a god of business, because we are a commercial people, because the structures upon which the greatest pains and treasure are lavished are commercial buildings, Temples of Mammon, to use an evangelical turn of phrase. This is not entirely just, of course; it may be replied that the desire for wider markets sowed the seeds of Grecian culture along the Mediterranean littoral; the painting of Venice flourished with her trade; the spacious days of the Elizabethan era which gave us the art of Shakspere were made possible by the wealth that England's ships brought home. The art of the world is nourished upon wealth, the wealth that should bring leisure in which to turn to things of the spirit. Every age has been a commercial age. Every age has had its share of the spiritual. And those in which commerce has flagged are also those in which the arts have failed to flourish. But the nation that puts commercial values above the spiritual, excludes beauty from its daily life, has not yet emerged from barbarism, or, what is worse, has sunk again to that level.
Steam-yachts, private cars, luxurious motors—what after all are these but highly developed means of comfortable transportation from place to place ? And, as one moves in them through the world, what sort of world can it be that unrolls itself to a person ignorant of or insensitive to art or to the beauties of that Nature from which art extracts its rarest essence ? To pass through cities rich in the architectural treasures of a thousand years, blind to their beauty and their meaning as records of a race seems incredibly stupid. To live in a formless, colorless world, bereft of pattern, of rhythm, of design, to be conscious merely of the difference between "bright" colors or "dull" colors but with no sense of their relations or harmonies or values, to be ignorant of the beauty of line and its sweep and movement and quality, of the cadences of great music, of the majesty of great literature—how hideous, how stupid, such a life and such a world must be !
If you would enter the world of beauty in which the artist dwells, enter by the artist's door. Look upon this bright and moving world in terms of Proportion, Balance, Symmetry, Rhythm, Pattern, Color, Harmony, Contrast, Beauty, as the artist does. The aesthetician who only writes of art is prone to ascribe to the craftsman in any art save literature all manner of ways of working and thinking that never enter the mind of the artist. The artist is trying to make something beautiful, and to accomplish that he combines selected elements of color and form and line and pattern or sound into a design; his attitude toward his work is just as simple and unaffected as that. And it is this simple attitude the artist invites the layman to share as the key to a true appreciation of art.
In the arts is most of the beauty of the world and of life in the world; they are for all men without even the asking; subtract them and the world is like a waterless desert.
Let us drink deep of the founts of beauty.