Syracuse, Museum of Fine Arts
( Originally Published 1915 )
SYRACUSE, may well be proud of its fine collection of representative paintings of American art, now a permanent possession of the museum. Simplicity, the prevailing note in the landscapes of Charles H. Davis (1856) in the museum, could well be taken as the keynote of the whole collection. We recognize the freedom from artificiality and the seeking for simple natural truths that have governed the selection of all the paintings. Themes big with life's truths meet us on all sides, but rarely do we feel that the artists have gone beyond their depths and failed; rather they have frankly expressed an idea full of significance.
"The Time of the Red-Winged Black Bird" (Fig. 127) is one of Mr. Davis' delightful son-nets on a special phase of nature, spring being the particular rule for this sonnet. The red-winged black bird. What bird-lover has not watched him sitting quietly on the topmost branch of some bare tree in an inaccessible boggy marsh, watching his mate nesting? We think of him as gregarious but not always does he love a crowd nor is he scratching an acquaintance often as Tennyson says,
"The red-wing flutes his `O-ka-lee !' '
How simply Mr. Davis has expressed the security of the bird's chosen retreat. The faint wheel tracks lead to the stream and there stop. Probably the little stream, swollen by the spring rains, washed over the marsh and then settled into a deeper bed, too deep for a wagon to cross ówe think this might be so. The red-wing knows. This bit of nature is lovely in its soft green garments, tinged with rainbow tints on underbrush and rocky slope. Mr. Davis is thoroughly at home in his interpretation of these solitary places, for he is often called the hermit of Mystic, Connecticut, where he lives with nature and paints what he sees. His "Clouds" is one of the latest acquisitions to the museum.
Ten years ago an English critic called a group of American landscape-painters "the rising sun in art," and in the group was Henry W. Ranger (b. 1858). I know you will exclaim at his "Long Pond" (Fig. 128), "How much like Corot !" Yes, it is similar to the great French landscapist, but is it the same? It took courage to enter the path Corot trod, and only a man who knew his own strength would have dared do it. When we stop to think, however, why should not other artists see nature as Corot saw her? Mr. Ranger's unafraid frankness wins us at once. He is not imitating another, but expressing his own personality somewhat in the same manner of an-other. It is Corot-like, this "Long Pond, but it is not Corot; the trees are firmer and more steady, the composition more definite, yet the atmospheric effect is just as luminous and all-embracing. What if it does show the influence of the Barbizon school? Does that make it a less original production by Henry W. Ranger? The controversy still rages that Shakespeare borrowed his plots, but somehow Shakespeare still continues to be the great Bard of Avon and Ranger, though Corot-like, remains the American artist, and his landscapes are representative of the leading landscapists of America.
The "Portrait" (Fig. 129), by J. Alden Weir 1852-), is specially interesting as a likeness of the artist's daughter. It is difficult to decide when Mr. Weir is at his best, in portraiture or in landscapes. The museum is fortunate in owning splendid examples in both branches of his art. Again note that it is the simplicity of composition, tempered with a self-restraint which has eliminated everything but the essentials, that charms us. The arrangement of the hair, the gown, the pose-all are in perfect harmony. There is no catering to the ultra-modiste that savors of the ridiculous, either in artist or subject. (See Ten American Painters, page 186.)
In the picture of the "Mother and Child" Wig. 130) Charles W. Hawthorne is at his best. The young woman is a beautiful type of motherhood. The mystery of a new life lies in the depths of those wide-open eyes, yet she scarcely comprehends its meaning. She feels the pride of possession as never before, for a great responsibility is knocking at her heart; the faint smile of ownership is giving place to the awe that comes when the young mother first recognizes that the child is her very own. How lovely is the wealth of sunlit hair that like an aureola frames her face, and how the tender color of her robe emphasizes the warm flesh and draws us very close to her ! We love the baby.
There are little personal incidents connected with Mr. Hawthorne's young days as an artist that endear him to us and help us to better understand his perception of the inner life of his sitters. One of these incidents had to do with his practice days at Shinnecock where Mr. William M. Chase was conducting his famous criticisms before a large and admiring class of students. Mr. Hawthorne's enthusiasm for his chosen work was greater than his worldly means in those days, so he was not among the privileged ones to attend the distinguished teacher's classes. One day, however, he was sketching on the seashore when Mr. Chase came swinging along the beach. Not specially noticing young Hawthorne, but possibly thinking him one of his own students, he stopped and looking closely at the sketch, remarked;
"Young man, why don't you come to my criticisms?" Mr. Hawthorne hesitated, probably not wishing to give the real reason, but Mr. Chase, in his quick nervous manner, added,
"Come to the next one," and walked on. This was the desire of young Hawthorne's heart, but alas, his wardrobe was not as rich as his artistic talent. The Chase students soon understood the state of affairs and young Hawthorne appeared at the next day's criticism well clothed and with his picture. He chose his seat in the corner on the topmost tier of benches, and looked down on the assembled students and the great teacher. It was Mr. Chase's habit to put a canvas on the easel and call out, "Whose picture is this?" The owner would stand up and then the criticism was given. On this day everything proceeded as usual until Mr. Chase put a special picture on the easel and instead of asking the usual question, he turned and faced the corner where Mr. Hawthorne sat, and raising his finger and pointing straight at him, he said,
"Young man, you'll be a painter!" It was several minutes before the enthusiastic students were ready for the next criticism.