Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
( Originally Published 1915 )
TO try to represent the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts with six illustrations is simply absurd. We can only sketch briefly one of the several special themes of art represented in the gallery, then suggest some others to take up as we have time and opportunity.
As a portrait gallery the Academy has few if any equals in America—possibly the "Who are you?" is responsible for this. And the portraits of beautiful women, many of them famous, are a marked characteristic of the collection. Another interesting feature is that America's distinguished woman portrait painter, Miss Cecilia Beaux, a native of Philadelphia, is represented in the Academy with one of her inimitable portraits.
For the sake of a little system we will begin our study with Gilbert Stuart, the first American portrait painter. The likeness of "Mrs. James Madison" (Fig. go) is not only very attractive as representing a beautiful woman but as portraying a woman of whom we have a vivid word picture in a letter of a contemporary, and probably a personal friend of Mrs. Madison's. Mrs. W. W. Seaton wrote of her: "I would describe the dignified appearance of Mrs. Madison, but I cannot do her justice. 'Tis not her form, 'tis not her face; it is the woman altogether whom I should wish you to see. She wears a crimson cap that almost hides her forehead, but which becomes her extremely and reminds one of a crown, from its brilliant appearance, contrasted with the white satin folds and jet black curls; but her demeanor is so far removed from the hauteur generally attending on royalty that your fancy can carry the resemblance no further than her dress. In a conspicuous position every fault is rendered more discernible to common eyes, and more liable to censure ; and the same rule certainly enables every virtue to shine with more brilliancy than when confined to an inferior station in society; but I, and I am by no means singular in my opinion, believe that Mrs. Madison's conduct would be graced by propriety were she placed in adverse circumstances in life."
After Gilbert Stuart painted the portraits of President and Mrs. James Madison they hung on the walls of Montpelier until 1817, and later they were sold. The portrait of Mrs. Madison then went to her niece of Baltimore.
Thomas Sully was born in England, but as most of his time was spent in America, he is classed among our artists. Not always did his portraits of women represent the true woman-hood that America is so proud of, but occasionally there were genuine sparks of inspiration in his brush, and then he would produce a masterpiece of portraiture. One of his really good portraits is "Frances Anne Kemble" (Fig. 91), better known as Fanny Kemble.
A beautiful and a brilliant woman was Fanny Kemble, with a heart warm and tender for the misfortunes of others. When twenty years old (1829) she began her public career at Covent Garden, London in Romeo and Juliet, under her father's management, to re-claim the fortune of her family. She took the part of Juliet; her father was Romeo and her mother the nurse. From the first she was a complete success and in three years reclaimed the family exchequer. She came to America with her father in 1832 and was enthusiastic-ally received; from then until her death in 1893, she spent much time in this country. Her marriage to a Georgia planter, Pierce Butler, in, 1834, was not a success and after fifteen years she was divorced and resumed her maiden name. Her writings are well known, and her grandson, Owen Wister, is one of our distinguished authors today.
Sully has certainly pictured the woman of genius in the glorious eyes, wide-set and shining with love and sympathy. How modern in composition ; everything is subordinated to the head, yet the contour of neck and shoulders, firm hand and arm give strength to the well-poised head. Sully was practically self-taught. From his ninth year, when his parents came from England, until grown to man-hood he lived in South Carolina, away from art centers. The influence of his talents was soon felt, however, when his likenesses . of Southern beauties and men of affairs became known.
Naturally there is a marked contrast between Sully's portraits and those of William M. Chase. The latter stands as a trained master, but individual and original. It matters not one whit who this "Lady with a White Shawl" (Fig. 92) is ; she is every inch a woman and gently born. It is the shawl that designates the woman's character, for only one to the manner born can wear a shawl characteristically. My friends of the round-shouldered type, did you ever try to wear a shawl and have it bunch around your neck? It is not surprising that, in the Paris Exhibition of 1900, the place of honor was given to the "Lady with the White Shawl." Mr. Chase's portraits give the ensemble of the person. It is pose, natural not artificial, that the artist seeks. An amusing story is told of his little daughter's understanding of her father's quickness to catch a subject at the right moment. One day as she stood by the window looking at the sky, she called, "Papa, come quickly! here's a cloud posing for you." The vitality of his figures testifies to his keenness in grasping individual characteristics. Mr. Chase's success as an artist has been phenomenal Even as early as 1869 (he was then thirty) a St. Louis gentleman said to a friend, "Come with me; I have a young man who paints so well that I dare not tell him how good his work is." The St. Louis people were so impressed with his genius that they gave him a purse for a long stay in Munich. That his early promise has been more than fulfilled it is needless to add.
"A New England Woman" (Fig. 93), by Cecelia Beaux, was one of the paintings exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1896 that took the French people by storm. In acknowledgment of her talents she was given the honor of associate membership in the Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts and four years later, after exhibiting in the Paris Exhibition, she was selected an associataire, a rare honor for a woman. Miss Beaux inevitably keeps in close sympathy with her sitters—she is not representing a type but a particular person. The article "a" gives exactly the idea, for though no name is given we feel that the New England Woman is some one the artist knew, and she has, made us know her too. There is much that is New England, however, in this special woman. She may not live in the Eastern States but she has the air that marks the descendants of Puritan blood. This portrait belongs to the earlier years of the artist's work when she often made her pictures studies in white, black and gray. These studies show just that intimate quality that portrays character—this woman's habit was white; she decked herself, her chair, her bed, her stand, her doorway in white because white suited her. The touches of color that peep out at us are like flashes of humor that come unexpectedly in the conversation.
Miss Beaux literally forged her way to success. Nothing was too small for her to use in gaining a definite end. At first it was certain geological survey work, then china painting, then crayon portraits f rom photographs, and much of the time teaching, always gaining knowledge and applying it to her art. Completely absorbed in doing her best, whatever her task, inch by inch she gained power, and in the words of William James, she suddenly became conscious that she was one of the competent ones of the world and that the world acknowledged her as a masterpainter.
But for the stories of the wonderful precocity of Benjamin West as a boy-artist, and his painting of Indians in their native dress in the "Death of General Wolfe," it is doubtful if he would have been considered an American artist at all. It is true that he was born near Philadelphia and spent his boyhood in the Quaker City; and he may have painted his baby sister with a brush from pussy's tail, but that this early precocity did not bear much artistic fruit in later life his many hundred canvases testify. If it had not been for his business ability, clever success with George III and his presidency of the Royal Academy one wonders if as an artist he could claim any special attention—probably not.
"Death on the Pale Horse" (Fig. 94), West's most widely known picture, is painted in the grand style he assumed in his large compositions, 'possibly thinking to follow in the footsteps of Michael Angelo. He has taken his theme from Rev. 6:8, "And I looked, and beheld a pale horse; and his name that sat on him was Death,, and Hell followed after him, and power was given unto him over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with the sword, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth." In looking at the painting we find that West has literally followed the words of St. John. While the few simple words of the evangelist leave a clear picture of horror in our minds, this painted picture of West's is so full of confusing details that the significance of the scene is lost in the chaos of figures. What a picture this would have been if Michael Angelo had conceived it!
Here is a Dutch painting, "The Violinist" (Fig. 95), of rare excellence. The artist, Bartolomeus van der Helst (1613-1670), ex-celled as a portrait painter pure and simple. The people of Amsterdam wanted their likenesses made and van der Helst was ready to please them ; they wanted guild pictures in which each man had equal prominence, and again this artist was ready to humor them. Of one of these guild pictures, "The Banquet of the Civic Guards" (see "Pictures and Their Painters," Fig. 143), Sir Joshua Reynolds said, "This is, perhaps, the first picture of. portraits in the world, comprehending more of those qualities which make a perfect portrait than any other I have ever seen." It was just such a series of portraits in a large guild picture that Rembrandt refused to paint; he was making a picture, not recording individual likenesses. Consequently, van der Helst became popular and prosperous, and Rembrandt lost prestige and faced poverty.
But when we look at "The Violinist" we realize that van der Helst could also paint a pleasing picture. The beautifully modeled head and hands are in perfect harmony with the picturesque costume van der Helst knew so well how to paint. The velvet breeches and satin doublet gleam and shimmer in a most illusive manner; the loose blouse with its full sleeves is perfectly simple, yet very effective. There is nothing eccentric in this young violinist; his face is that of the born artist—the wide-set eyes, fullness above the eyelids, generous nose, broad forehead, shapely mouth and chin, and his absorbed air—all are of one whose whole soul goes out in his music.
"The Violinist" is one of van der Helst's most characteristic pictures and in a measure represents the rather unique place this artist held in Dutch art. He lived at the time of Hals and Rembrandt and the little Dutchmen, but his- art is more that of the generation before, when to make a precise likeness was the aim and end of a portrait painter. That "The Violinist" is a treasure of rare value to the Academy is especially true because of the small number of Dutch pictures in the permanent collections of America.
The numerous canvases of the American landscape painters in the Fine Arts Academy are of great interest because of the beauty of the examples of the individual men. "The Brook," by Charles H. Davis, has the soft singing quality of running water slipping along over the pebbles content with its lot. "The Skaters," by Gari Melchers, shows the bell-like crispness of the artist's best work. "The Fox Hunt," by Winslow Homer, is a typical work of this most original of American artists. "Sailing in the Mist," by John Twachtman, is so delicate and ephemeral that it seems like a dream caught on the canvas or some wandering spirit held for a moment. It was with a spiritual vision that the late Mr. Twachtman saw nature, a vision given to few artists and understood by few.