J. Andre Smith
( Originally Published 1914 )
RARELY has a newcomer of so much promise and actual accomplishment as J. André Smith made his début more quietly. Fifty odd prints, which is the sum total of his achievement to date, present quite completely the progress of his art, from its tentative beginnings in 1909, when he had mastered some of the first principles of etching after a year of studious experimenting, to the present time.
These early plates testify to his careful study of drawing and of biting, very clearly exemplified in the small oblong plate called The Training Ship, N.Y., done in May of 1910, in which a simple and rather obvious subject has been studied with the care and directness of an early Dutchman and the values have been attained by means no less simple and direct : three bitings of varying intensity serve to differentiate the three planes into which the little picture naturally divides itself. This plate, though tentative in many ways, may be taken as sure evidence of his natural gifts as an etcher. It reveals an eye for the pictorial possibilities inherent in common-place things and has that intimate charm which one expects from etching more than from any other medium.
It is of just such generally unregarded subject-matter that the great masters of etching have made their immortal masterpieces, for in etching it is perhaps more the manner of it than the matter of it that counts in the final result. This is admirably exemplified in one of his later plates, the dry-point of Hempstead Plains, done in 1913, in which the wide expanse of sky and slightly undulating plain has been invested with pictorial interest solely by means of his skillful treatment of the subject. The low-lying "hangars," beyond which soars a mono-plane, a mere speck in the vast infinitude of the sky, the three wind-blown trees, the slight rise of the foreground with its two figures giving scale to the scene, have all been employed with a fine sense of their pictorial value that is no less effective because it has been kept discreetly unobtrusive.
This plate may be taken as an indication of his good taste, of that artistic reticence which disdains to astonish the casual eye with pyrotechnics. How easy it would have been to force the values; to throw the foreground into dramatic shadows, to convert the sky into a theater of threatening clouds in which the tumultuous stroke of the artist would vie with the tumult of nature, and at which every passer-by would stop and stare. We have instead a scene of persuasive serenity, executed with the greatest economy of means. In its lightness of touch, in its dependence upon the paper to do its part, it fore-shadows the Venetian set done a little later in the same year. In this, as well as in certain plates that follow, he approaches the highest ideals of etching.
This synthetic power of suggesting more than he tells has nothing in common with the happy-go-lucky effects of the sketcher who omits long before he has learned how to put in. Mr. Smith has been through the mill, as his tightly drawn, closely studied plates of several years ago convincingly attest. While some of these early efforts, if taken alone, might be regarded as love's labor lost, when considered as the 'prentice work of one who is in a fair way to rank with the best of modern etchers, they be-come significant stones in his edifice of art, and will, no doubt, in time have their particular value in the portfolio of the discerning collector. They furnish the best possible proofs of the integrity of this artist who has shirked no difficulties in his endeavor to master the intricacies of his art.
In these early etchings you see him studying his subject with the most literal adherence to the facts of the scene presented: one thing was as important as the other, and nothing was too mean or trivial to be characterized with the same loving care expended upon the most important and interesting part of his composition. While these plates are dry and matter-of-fact and contribute little or nothing to his reputation as an etcher, the arduous labor expended upon them has stood him in good stead in his later work, in which there is a certainty and firmness of stroke that is undoubtedly the result of his persistent, patient study of form as well as of the resources of his art. Since then he has become not only a very excellent draughtsman, but has made not-able progress in the knowledge of the possibilities of etching. Being self-taught it is natural that he should have been swayed by various influences. He has been as close a student of masterpieces as of nature, but it is always the effect of the latter that predominates in his work. Nowhere do you find him dominated by the personality of one man, and though in his landscape etchings there is a marked resemblance to Seymour Haden, this is perhaps due as much to the very English character of the walks and woods and ponds sheltered in our New England hills as to any conscious adaptation of Haden's manner of interpreting nature.
No doubt he has learned a certain breadth and freedom of treatment from the English master of landscape etching that has lent itself admirably to the interpretation of our New England landscapes. The Wood Road, sun-flecked and shadow-webbed, meandering through leafy arbors that invite one's feet and thoughts to stray from beaten paths; The Bridge at Ouleout, that spans the lazy little river flowing through the Connecticut hills; the placid surface of . the Branford River mirroring sky and distant woods; the little intimate nook of Cornwall Bridge where the road turns into the village, — these and others no less interesting reveal his marked ability as a landscape etcher who is alive to the beauties of his own country. These Connecticut plates, covering a period of three years, show an increasing mastery of the resources of etching, chiefly discernible in a greater simplicity of treatment, a finer coherence in the composition, which is felt more and more as a unit in which the details have been subordinated to the general impression.
As was to be expected, his line has become more vibrantly alive, more instantly responsive to his mood, and, therefore, more expressive. It has attained a certain definitive quality that marks the true etcher: the man to whom the needle is the natural medium of expression. These prints, executed two or three years after he first took up the art of etching, furnish another proof of the fact that the real etcher is to the manner born, and that no amount of laborious toil alone will ever succeed in bringing forth a single plate that can stand the acid test of comparison with established masterpieces.
Who could possibly have predicted the light, suggestive impressionism of the Italian series executed last year from the matter-of-fact and rather monotonously treated West Shore, Hudson River, done in 1909? His line has a vivacity, a lithesomeness of touch that is the very thing with which to convey an impression of the sunlit courts and the joyous abandon of that care-free country, and his work has achieved a personal flavor and distinction which sets it apart from most of the work being done to-day.
If occasionally a print suggests Whistler, it is only to increase your respect for his own individual gifts as an etcher. He has studied Whistler with profit, so much so that most of these Italian prints show the intelligent application of much of Whistler's method without the slightest indication of an attempt to be Whistlerian. In these later prints, as in the earlier efforts, you feel something of the same desire to get down to the truth of things, only now it is the truth of impression rather than of fact that he is seeking. And in these recent Italian plates one feels the spirit of architecture as well as its substance rendered by one who really knows and under-stands architecture, to whom it is a thing of beauty as well as utility. For, however elusively delicate his line, it never fails to fully establish the weight and mass of the architectural monuments whose beauty has compelled his admiration and inspired his needle.
They are not mere impressionistic souffles dashed off by the score on an idle morning. Whether it be a corner of A Venetian Court, glowing in the noonday sun, or the stately Salute, with its terrace of steps leading down to the broad canal, each is studied with a knowing eye for its essential truths of structural line and mass no less than for its most characteristic aspects. His impressionism rests on a solid basis of knowledge acquired through years of rigid training as an architect; hence one is always conscious of a substructure of form, however slight may be the means employed: An Arab Café in Algiers, with its turbaned figures lounging under a sunlit canopy, is no less adequate in its rendering of the essential truths than the more elaborately treated Campo Maria Nova, in which every door and latticed window has been rendered with a loving attention to all its beauty of intricate, lace-like detail that makes of the whole a lightly woven pattern, a filigree-like web of aspiring lines.
Whether it be a mere casual reminiscence of some coign of beauty, glimpsed in passing, as it were, or a more completely realized portrait of a place, lovingly lingered over, there is the same admirable brevity in the telling, which is the soul of etching no less than of wit. But this, as in all matters of general application, has its exception which proves the rule. I refer to the somewhat austere and very precisely treated Campo Fosca, in which the design is marred by an over-accentuation of darks that gives an impression of chiseled severity some-what akin to the work of D. Y. Cameron. It serves its purpose, however, in that it clearly shows the masculine hand, though gloved and nonchalantly airy, still guides the needle across the copper. The next moment it flits like the butterfly, — not Whistler's, by the by, — and like the butterfly it extracts the essence of the scene.
If any doubt exists of his ability to stand on his own feet, one has only to examine the beautiful print of The Riva, a subject immortalized by Whistler, to see how completely he has made the scene his own. In its simple beauty of massed architectural lines, for which the arching bridge serves as a sort of pediment, it vies in interest with many a more pretentious print. It at once reveals the derivations, as well as the differences of his art as judged by the work of his predecessors. He has not been afraid, as have so many blind followers of Whistler, to carry out the composition from side to side of his plate. He has not developed the fetish of the bare plate left bare for its own sake; on the other hand, he has a most discerning eye for the beauty of empty spaces which, however, have never the appearance of emptiness; they always suggest light or atmosphere and serve to enhance the color and delicacy of the design.
Thus the sunlit expanse of The Molo, its pavement suggested by a few adroitly placed lines, evokes the impression of blazing light that obliterates the shadows and gives the figures the appearance of moving filaments of color floating in a golden haze; and is Venice as surely as anything done by Turner or Whistler. It has all the fairy-like aspect of the Pearl of the Adriatic without losing aught of its every-day actuality. This constitutes the chief charm of his work done up to the present time and this would seem to be the direction in which it will develop in the future.
Not the least interesting side of his art to me is the consummate manner in which these proofs have been pulled. A delicate golden film of ink has been retained on the plate without any loss of precision or purity in the line, which remains the dominant factor in the final result. There is no muddling, no "happy accidents," no fuzzy-wuzzy, woolly lines in which the ink has been dragged hither and thither in an attempt to conceal faults of drawing or biting. In everything from his hand there is an engaging frankness, a clearly discernible realzation that whatever may be the subject, it is to be rendered in line with as little reliance as possible on the various expedients frequently employed to enhance the tonality of an etching at the expense of its purity of line. These plates are one and all frankly etchings in the best sense of the word, and he is to be commended for his unswerving fidelity to the highest ideals of his art when cheap and quick successes are to be won so easily.