Philadelphia, Wilstach Gallery
( Originally Published 1915 )
ONE unique circumstance connected with the Wilstach collection of paintings is that its first public home was in Memorial Hall, which during the Centennial Exposition in 1876 contained the first world exhibition of paintings in America. The collection itself embraces the works of artists through a wide range of time, who represent the development of art in various countries in Europe and America.
Giovanni Battiste Tiepolo (1696-1770), born a hundred years after Paolo Veronese, founded his art on that great decorative painter's work, and brought the Venetian school in the seventeenth century to a standard of excellence far in advance of his time.
In the "Last Supper" (Fig. 96) Tiepolo has given a scene of activity; each actor plays an individual part, yet perfectly harmonious in its relation to the central thought. The Savior's appearance is more that of the "Transfiguration" by Raphael and "The Last Judgment" by Michael Angelo than of the "Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci. The disciples lack the marvelous facial characteristics of da Vinci, yet they express great variety of emotions as they ask the question, "Is it I?" As a piece of decoration this "Last Supper" has never been surpassed by any artist, and few have equaled it in expressing genuine questioning.
Tiepolo's brush work was of that transparent quality that gave lightness and verve to his compositions, which they still retain. His wonderful inventive power was combined with a wide knowledge of what constitutes pictorial art. And to-day painters are recognizing the rare value of his mural decorations and brilliant easel pictures.
The paintings from the Spanish artists are specially characteristic. In Ribera's "St. Sebastian" (Fig. 97) the heavy shadows, so marked a feature of his paintings, are very evident, yet he has given a fine example of his instinctive color sense. He has treated the gruesome subject with a restraint quite unusual for him. The peculiar dark tone that seems to belong to the Spanish school is specially pronounced in Ribera, and when used, as -he sometimes was accustomed, against blood-red in his martyr subjects, often intensified his torture scenes to the point of horror. It is not so in "St. Sebastian." The sympathy of the attending women is so genuine and ten-der and the lovely baby angels are so much like human children that the scene simply awakens a sense of pity.
Much of the story of St. Sebastian is founded on history. He was a noble Roman youth, a commander of the Pretorian Guards and a great favorite of the Emperor Diocletian of the third century. When the emperor found that Sebastian had become a Christian, in his love for him he tried to persuade him to give up his faith. But Sebastian replied: "O Caesar, I have ever prayed in the name of Jesus Christ for thy prosperity, and have been true to thy service; but as to the gods whom thou wouldst have me worship, they are devils, or at best, idols of wood and stone." Diocletian ordered him bound to a stake and shot to death with arrows. The archers pierced him with many shafts and left him for dead. At night the widow of one of his friends who had been martyred came to take his body to bury it, but found him still alive. She took him to her house and cared for him. Upon his recovery he went to the palace and stood where he knew Diocletian could see him. The amazed emperor exclaimed,
"Art thou not Sebastian?" and he answered :
"I am Sebastian, whom God hath delivered from thy hand, that I might testify to the faith of Jesus Christ and plead for his servants." The angry emperor commanded that he be beaten to death and his remains thrown into the Cloaca Maxima. His body was found by the Christians and buried in the catacombs. No saint has been more often represented by the old artists than St. Sebastian with the arrows.
Ribera, called Lo Spagnoletto, the little Spaniard (1588-1656), early went to Italy to study. He was so poor that a cardinal, taking pity on him, attached him to his retinue, but Ribera, finding that the spur of poverty helped him to do better in his art, soon left his easy life. He was the forerunner of Velasquez.
Murillo has painted several pictures of St. Anthony of Padua, but most of them represent the saint with the Christ child. In this picture of "St. Anthony" (Fig. 98) the lilies and crucifix designate that the artist is representing St. Anthony of Padua and not St. Anthony of Egypt of the fifth century.
St. Anthony, a Portuguese by birth, became a Franciscan monk and went to Morocco to convert the Moors. His health failed and he was compelled to return to Europe, but diverse winds landed him in Italy and he came to Assisi just as St. Francis was holding the first chapter of his Order. St. Anthony became next in authority to the founder and was noted for his wonderful eloquence as a preacher. He died when only thirty-six. Many miracles are attributed to him. One of the most unique states that once when preaching the funeral sermon of a rich man and denouncing his love of money, he exclaimed, "His heart is buried in his treasure chest; go seek it there and you will find it." The friends opened the chest and sure enough there was the man's heart; then they examined the man's chest and no heart was there.
Murillo's (1618-1682) religious pictures lack the spontaneous originality of his beggar boy subjects. They have a certain sweetness and pietistic fervor that often appeals to the votaries of the church, but they come too near to the sentimental to live as great master-pieces.
Of the modern Spanish artists Sorolla leads the van with a splendid example of his work in "The Young Amphibians." Sorolla is particularly happy in representing bathing and swimming scenes. The effect of the dazzling light of a hot day on moist bodies, tumbling waves and dripping hair gives him special delight. He plays with it like a magician and produces results that are just as startling.
Landscape for its own sake was not used as a picture motive until the Netherland artists came to the front in the seventeenth century. The latest of these Dutchmen, Ruisdael and Hobbema, painted many pictures of the Dutch country, though they found little favor among their own people. Their pictures went to England and there influenced the growth of landscape painting.
The "River Scene with Barges" (Fig. 99), by Jacob van Ruisdael (1625-1682), is one of the pictures of which Fromentin, writing of Ruisdael, says, "He has left us of Holland a portrait which I will not call familiar but intimate, lovable, admirably faithful, which never grows old." Water in Holland is such a part of the country that a landscape without including it as a dominant feature would be untrue. Ruisdael rarely painted sunlight—the sun's influence is felt in this picture—which gives his skies a gloomy effect and darkens his shadows. Almost nothing is known of the artist's life except that he was neglected by his countrymen and died in the almshouse.
We will now go over into England and see what Constable, the English artist (1776-1837), has done. Of "Old Brighton Pier" (Fig. 100), his own words are the best introduction when he says, "Tone is the most seductive and inviting quality a picture can have" Constable confined his working hours chiefly to the period of the day from ten to five, though, as he says, his great desire as a painter of nature was to paint "light—dews—breeze--bloom and freshness—not one of which has been perfected on the canvas of any painter in the world." He was a close student of the Dutch landscapists ; unlike them, however, he saw vivid green mixed with brown as he looked on the fields and tree-covered hills. But it is the sky with its varying aspects that we re-member in Constable's pictures. He gave it such a personal quality that to say a "Constable sky" brings it before us.
He could scarcely have chosen a spot where a wide expanse of sky gave him a greater variety of cloud effects than at Brighton Beach. His marvelous skill in picturing " . . the daughter of the earth and water, And the nursling of the sky" is comparable with that of Shelley in verse. Probably the artist's early employment in a windmill was the beginning of his intimate understanding of the moods of the clouds. When his "Hay Wain" was exhibited in Paris in 1824, it greatly impressed the French landscape painters, the founders of the Barbizon school of 1830. They recognized that here was a man who saw nature through seeing eyes.
Naturally we turn next to one of these 1830 men, and in looking at "Solitude" (Fig. ioi) recognize that Millet has here expressed his true self. He was wont to say, "The gay side of life never shows itself tome. I do not know where it is. The gayest thing I know is the calm silence which is so sweet both in the forest and in the fields." The solitude of a great mind is expressed in the profound silence that hovers over this lonely spot. That it has been the habitation of man in the past the wall, with its solitary standing gateway pillar, testifies, but the fallen stones of its companion and the unbroken snow now intensify the lonely scene.
It is just the reverse in the "Short Cut" (Fig. 102) by George Inness. There is the quiet countryside where nature is in her laziest mood, but the rushing train in the distance and the tottering old man crossing the "Short Cut" mark the unrest of the human element. In this lovely idyl Inness has touched the keynote to the world's progress ; the moving train is the connecting link that binds the quiet village to the throbbing heart of the great city. George Inness was the forerunner of our American school, which today leads in landscape painting. He was a man of deep thought and of distinct individuality. Even at the end of his career, after many changes in style, he had lost none of his artistic enthusiasm or originality. To know one work of George Inness is to know all his works, though some of them did not come up to the full standard of merit.
In the Corcoran Gallery are many of the works of the later landscapists of the American school.
A most illusive portrait by Whistler is the "Lady with the Yellow Buskin" (Fig. 103). She turns as she passes, seemingly to glance at us, but where she is going or where she came from are entirely beyond our knowledge. Her personality is tantalizing. She uses no art to draw us, yet we would follow, if only to solve her identity. Certainly Whistler has here brought together simplicity and skill in the most perfect manner.
Yes, Mr. John C. Van Dyke is right, "It is the maximum of effect with the minimum of effort" that places Whistler among the great portrait painters of the world. The mysterious essence we call personal charm that hovers around his people is of the spirit, for it is rarely that he represents beautiful women or handsome men. In fact, the reverse is so prominent that we almost feel an impatience at his perverseness, then we smile for we know that he has made us admire his people in spite of ourselves.
One of the most curious instances of the sudden reversal of fortune is connected with the painting of "The Last Day of the Condemned" (Fig. 104) by Michael de Munkacsy (1846-1900). Munkacsy was a Hungarian. Early in life he was left an orphan in extreme poverty but, nothing daunted, he determined to be educated and to become an artist. Then came a trial that would have defeated a lesser man. He was attacked with a disease of the eyes. For six months, in a hospital with the thought of total blindness continually before him, he dreamed and planned this picture, which he called his masterpiece. When he came from the hospital, poverty again stared him in the face. He started his picture on the back of an old church pew, but was too poor to buy paints to finish it. His friends advised him to give up art and go back to his trade, that of a carpenter. Just at this crisis Mr. Wilstach, the collector of this gallery of pictures, visited Munkacsy's studio. He recognized the young man's merit and bought the picture. When it was completed, he sent it to the Paris Salon. Instantly Munkacsy was recognized as a great genius, and immediately poverty and obscurity gave place to wealth and to world-wide fame.
The picture represents a Hungarian custom. It is the prisoner's last day before execution. Relatives and friends and the simply curious are allowed to visit the condemned. Some have brought offerings for a mass, others human sympathy. Around the wife and little daughter center the pathos of the scene. Munkacsy's richness in color adds greatly to the dramatic quality of his compositions. He is probably best known by his "Christ Before Pilate, though his genre pictures are well loved because they represent the homely human side of life.
"Barbaro After the Hunt" (Fig. 105) is without question a fine picture of a vigorous dog exhausted from great excitement and pro-longed action. Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) knew animals well, yet she lacked the artistic quality of the Barbizon animal painters. Possibly much of her popularity was due to the fact of being a woman artist. Her position was unique to say the least. Dressed in the blouse and pantaloons of the French peasant boy she frequented the various fairs and studied the animals in their natural surroundings. As a woman she stood, and still stands, for all that is womanly, and as an artist she was the first woman to receive the Cross of the Legion of Honor. When Emperor Napoleon III decided that her sex should not interfere with her receiving the cross, the Empress Eugenie came to her studio and, says the artist, "Saluting the new knight with a kiss, she pinned the decoration to my black velvet jacket."