Some Examples Of Modern Portrait Painting
( Originally Published 1907 )
AFTER long gazing into the past centuries of portrait painting, it is difficult to readjust the focus to more recent times. There is a tendency with some critics to belittle the work of the nineteenth century, as compared with that of the great periods which went before. On the other hand there is danger of overestimating the prize winners of the hour. In the matter of mere craftsmanship certainly the modern painter has shown himself an adept. Many problems which puzzled his predecessors have long since been solved. There is an inexhaustible stock of types from which to select his methods. For the rest, it remains for a later century to determine whether technical acquirement has been, matched by the higher gifts of imagination and insight which characterized the old portrait masters. For our present purpose it will be sufficient to set down in order a few important names, of several nationalities, which stand for distinct-ive achievement in this line.
Paris has been generally regarded as the art centre of the modern world, the great training school in the painter's craft. And Paris has produced some notable portrait painters. Bonnat is a name revered by many men of the younger generation who have come in touch with him in the École des Beaux Arts. He is regarded as a fine draughtsman, and a vigorous portrayer of character. Three of his portrait works in the Luxembourg illustrate his best points : Léon Cogniet, his master Aimé Millet, the sculptor, and Cardinal Lavigerie, late primate of Algeria. Masculine portraits have been his specialty.: his gifts are not for the interpretation of feminine character. His list of sitters includes some of the greatest French names of the century: Victor Hugo, Dumas, Gounod, Thiers, Grévy, Carnot, Pasteur, Puvis de Chavannes.
France may justly be proud of such a noble historical series.
Carolus Duran is another master beloved of the art student in Paris. His special distinction has been in the brilliant use of colour. Many beautiful women have lent themselves to his art, and he has distinguished them with delicacy and insight. His portrait of his wife, La Dame au Gant, of the Luxembourg, is a beautiful full-length work. Fluttering across the canvas with exquisite grace, she pauses to glance at us with an enchanting smile. M. Carolus Duran has paid one visit to the United States and has had many American patrons.
With Bonnat and Duran is classed Cabanel, each one of the trio having a large following more or less in rivalry. Cabanel's portraits of women are especially beautiful. He is known in this country by the fine portrait of Miss Catherine Wolfe in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Benjamin Constant, who died in 1902, was also known in his last years for portrait painting though primarily devoted to oriental subjects. He had the honour of painting the portrait of Queen Victoria in 1899.
Paris is also the headquarters of Boldini, the most widely distinguished portrait painter of the Italians. He has a very acute perception of character and imparts a vivid sense of animation to his sitters. Specially notable are his portraits of the Princess Ponialowski, and of the German painter Menzel. Another Italian portrait painter, at one time long in Paris is Vittorio Corcos, a native of Leghorn. He later returned to his own country, and in 1892, in Florence, painted the portrait of the poet Carducci. The recognized leader of the modern Italian school was the Neapolitan Domenico Morelli, who died in 1901. Distinguished especially for his great religious works he was likewise a portrait painter of great merit. In the gallery of modern art at Turin is his portrait of the statesman Quintino Sella, standing at the ministerial bench in the senate at Rome. In the same gallery is a portrait of Cavour by Gordigiani. The well-known portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Browning were painted by this latter artist, whose studio was long a favourite resort in Florence.
One of the most important portrait painters of the early nineteenth century was from Germany. This was Winterhalter, a pupil of the Munich Academy, who went to Carlsrube in 1828 and was made court painter. In 1834 he settled in Paris, and in the following years painted many crowned heads of Europe : Louis Philippe and his queen, Leopold of Belgium and his queen, the Emperor and Empress of Russia, Napoleon and Eu-génie, and various members of the English royal family. A series of portraits represent the present King Edward in his boyhood and youth. The artistic character of the work is not remarkable enough to have made the name famous, but in a period which knew not photography the portraits have served as valuable historical records.
The most prolific German portrait painter in the nineteenth century was undoubtedly Franz von Lenbach. From humble birth (1836) , as one of seventeen children of a poor stone-mason, he rose by his own efforts to fame and fortune, and all the rewards of honour and success. Throughout his life he retained much of the rugged and unpolished manner or the class in which he was born, and was often rude and sarcastic in speech. But his tremendous ambition, energy, and self-confidence carried him forward. His later years were passed in a splendid marble palace at Munich, filled with treasures of art, and here he died in 1903 after sixty-five years of eventful and successful living. The roll-call of Lenbach's sitters includes practically all the German celebrities of his day. Among the most notable are : the old Emperors William, and Franz Josef, Theodore Mommsen, the historian, Paul Heyse, the poet, Björnsterne B Björnson, the novelist, Frans Liszt and Wagner, the musicians, Count von Moltkë and Prince Bismarck. In Italy he made portraits of Queen Margherita and the Pope Leo XIII.
The name of Lenbach is indissolubly associated with Bismarck. The relations between the two men covered a long period of years during which over one hundred portraits of the Iron Chancellor were produced. The painter had all the privileges of an intimate family friend, making frequent visits in the prince's household, and sketching his host in any time or place as the fancy seized him. Seldom in the history of art has there been such devotion on the part of a painter to a single subject. It is like the service of Velasquez for Philip IV. The character of Bismarck has been shaped for posterity in this series of portraits. With every variety of pose there is always the same inflexibility of purpose stamped on the face. Whether the eyes are turned full upon you, or look aside under their shaggy, beetling brows, they see every-thing and tell nothing. The lines of thought in the forehead, the lines of determination about the chin, express the iron will of the man whom everybody feared.
Early in his career Lenbach became an ardent admirer of the old masters, and copied many of their portraits. He made it his aim to secure in his canvases the same effects of rich, mellowed, and subdued colour which characterize these works of past centuries. His success in this respect was quite wonderful. The face of the sitter was of first importance to him ; the surroundings were of no account. Concentrating all his power upon the character and expression, especially upon the eyes, he made the countenance emerge, as it were, from nothingness. His forte lay with men, and with men of stern fibre. The solemn introspective gaze of Mommsen, the hard impenetrable mask of Von Moltke, the meditative aspect of Bjornson, were subjects of his own kind. The seriousness of the German race is reflected in his art. He was, as a rule, much less successful with women. The artistic methods of Lenbach were open to criticism in many respects: the questionable practice of using photography, his careless draughtsman-ship, his slurring of details. On the other hand his admirers emphasize, not without reason, the intense vitality of his portrait work, and the strong note of psychic interest.
In England, as we have seen, portrait painting has always been of great importance, as the branch of art best understood by the average Anglo-Saxon. In the early part of the Victorian reign Sir George Hayter was portrait painter to the queen and had the honour of painting the girl sovereign taking the oath of office. In the following years the royal family have patronized a succession of painters, often from other lands, and not always with much artistic discrimination. Excellent portrait work has been done by a group of Englishmen too numerous to mention, including Sir John Millais, Herkomer, Fildes, and Orchardson.
George Frederick Watts was in many respects the most notable English portrait painter of the nineteenth century. His works show us the best of Victorian England. In addition to his large number of commissioned portraits from people of importance he under-took as a labour of love a series of representative Englishmen, including statesmen, lawyers, artists, musicians, men of letters, and divines. It was in such high company that the painter was most at home. Nature made him a gentleman of the finest fibre, a dreamer of noble dreams, a philosopher, and a thinker. He began his artistic career as a mural painter, and his preference was always for allegorical and decorative subjects. Portrait painting was forced upon him for commercial reasons, but he accepted it as a valuable discipline, and put into it the same imaginative and decorative gifts which inspired his ideal subjects. He had a peculiar power for interpreting genius, seizing the essential character, and accentuating it by the accessories. The rugged head of Carlyle, at once noble and dogmatic, with the melancholy eyes and aggressive chin, the cold, austere face of John Stuart Mill, with the absent gaze of intense concentration, the meditative pose of Tennyson, rapt in the poet's vision, express to a marvel the men themselves. Others of this distinguished company are: Matthew Arnold, with forehead creased with lines of unrest, Robert Browning, in all the magnificence of his fully developed manhood, Rossetti, almost childlike, in his look of dreamy irresponsibility, Sir Andrew Clark, with the air of authority and self-restraint which belongs to the man of science and secrets. Motley, scholarly, modest, and in-tensely serious, William Morris, with Jove like head thrown back to confront the difficulties of art reform, and Lord Lytton, hand-some and romantic. The delicately chiseled features of George Meredith's sensitive high-bred face, the long narrow countenance of Leslie Stephen, with the look of incisive thought, the well cut profile of Walter Crane, lifted with the air of inspiration, remain with one permanently as ideal types of novelist, critic, and artist. Cardinal Manning is also among these celebrities, a noble old man. The sunken cheeks, deep-set eyes, and thin compressed lips are the marks of the ascetic, while the expression is that of the mystic.
A critic has cleverly said that Watts " scarcely ever painted a man without making him about five times as magnificent as he really was," adding that the portraits made the men themselves " look like mean and unsympathetic sketches from the Watts originals." This glorifying process was not because the painter intentionally flattered his sitters, but because he saw in them the highest of which they were capable. It was by no means a subjective glamour which he cast about them in the manner of Titian and Van Dyck. Each portrait shows what the man " was worth to God." Five portraits of Tennyson, majestic and godlike, attest the long and devoted friendship between the painter and the poet, and certainly poet was never more fortunate in an interpreter.
Watts also showed himself a student of character in portraits of women. Mrs. Percy Windham was one of his most successful subjects, a truly grande dame, painted in full length, leaning on the balustrade of her garden terrace. The decorative character of the panel is almost Venetian in beauty. The figure is drawn in long rhythmic lines, while the mass of foliage behind the head and the jar of flowers on the pavement unite with the green robe to form a rich colour ensemble. Mrs. Nassau Senior was the subject of another full-length portrait. Lovely in character as in person, the artist chose a felicitous motive in representing her watering a potted flower. The rippling hair drawn over her ears, and dressed low in the neck, frames a face of angelic sweetness and purity. Mrs. Hughes is another sweet spirit among women, gentle, placid, motherly, comfortable. Her portrait is a bust, with a distant landscape suggested in the background. Portraits of Mrs. Leslie Stephen, Lady Granby, Lady Mount Temple, and Mrs. Ellice are others which have been highly praised by critics. The academic training of Watts was extremely meagre, and he never attained complete technical proficiency. Nevertheless there are certain points of craftsmanship in which he was unsurpassed, and in higher gifts of poetic imagination he stood alone in his generation.
Classed among the English painters, al-though American by birth and early education, was James McNeill Whistler. No man was ever more original - or more egotistic. During his life-time, it seemed impossible to hold middle ground in regard to him. One must either be an ardent admirer or a bitter enemy. His eccentricities and ironies have passed into proverbs. He divided humanity into two classes, artists, and the rest, declaring that the " rest " should never write, speak, or think about artists. Since his death in 1903 however the " rest " have taken upon themselves to discuss exhaustively his merits and his weaknesses ; and exhibitions of his works have given a more complete idea of his aims and his methods. Whether as an etcher, a landscape painter or a portrait painter, his name will always be of great importance.
Whistler's chief preoccupation was with colour, in the most subtle neutral tints: blacks, blues, browns, and greys. Within this range he discovered a countless number of delicate gradations. He was indeed closely akin to the Japanese in this fondness for low-keyed harmonies. His portraits were painted with the main idea of making up a beautiful piece of decoration from his favourite palette. For this purpose he preferred a full-length life-size figure in a tall panel like a kakemono. Often the picture seems quite flat, the figure scarcely emerging from the background, which is made of the same hue as the drapery. The personality is thus rather ghostly, not warm and living. The name of the subject is immaterial. The picture is the " Yellow Buskin," instead of a portrait of Lady Archibald Campbell, or " An Arrangement in Black and Brown," instead of Miss Rosa Corder. What matters it who these ladies were who lent their figures as motives for a decorative design? Their portraits, however, have be-come famous among the painter's finest works.
The patron who accepted the Whistlerian point of view was rewarded for his pains and his money by a beautiful work of art. He was sure of a picture whose subdued colour harmony would never jar, and would always be restful. Characterization and vitality might be lacking, but in their place a certain fine distinction could be counted on. Such refinement in colour must inevitably impart refine-ment to the subject.
Whistler's first important portrait work was the " White Girl," rejected by the Paris Salon (1863), but creating a great stir when exhibited in the Salon des Refusés. A girl dressed in white was seen standing against a white background with a white lily in her hand. A second study in the same key was the Little White Girl. Here a young girl in white is standing on a white rug before a fireplace. The face, outlined in profile, is reflected in full front in the mirror over the mantle. This was the picture which inspired Swinburne's poem " Before the Mirror," which was printed on strips of gilded paper and fastened to the frame of the picture. A third Symphony in White was a composition of two girls in white; one lounging on a couch, the other seated on the floor leaning against it. Graceful young figures such as these lent themselves readily to Whistler's motives, but he had wonderful versatility in adapting to his ends sitters of every age. He was remarkably successful with children.
Miss Alexander is one of the most beautiful child portraits in the world. The little maid, in short stiff white frock, stands in a dancing school pose, hat in hand, looking out at the spectator. Two yellow butterflies flutter above her, not more airy and evanescent than the dainty little creature herself, poised as if to fly from the field of vision. The Rose of Lyme, the frail wide-eyed little girl of the Boston Art Museum, looking out at us with such pathetic sweetness, is a child to remember.
An amusing story is told of a child portrait Whistler attempted to paint for the father of four little girls. So long was he about the task, that each daughter had to sit for him in turn, at the desired age, and the picture was finally completed from the child of a neighbour. The painter's demand for sittings was the cause of much faultfinding among his patrons. It is said that Sir Henry Irving posed twenty times for the portrait in the part of Philip II, each time finding the canvas as bare as at the beginning, except for a small piece of linen. " How is it," he asked, " that in all this time you have painted only this piece of linen? " " Ah," said Whistler, " who save the Master could have painted that linen? Surely that is excuse enough." It is said that during this sitting Irving caught the peculiar laugh of Whistler and used it effectively in the part of Mephistopheles.
It has seldom been given to an artist to paint childhood and old age with equal success, but Whistler achieved this feat. He seems to have reserved all his tenderness for the two extremes of life. Among his most notable works are beautiful and sympathetic portraits of his mother and of Thomas Carlyle. Both pictures are designed on the same plan: in the interior of a room the entire seated figure is seen in profile. The bareness of the surroundings and the severity of the straight-backed chair suggest the puritanic simplicity of both these fine old natures, and the linear composition accentuates this effect. Only the lace-edged ties of her cap, and the touch of lace at the wrists, relieve the plainness of the " Mother's " dress, which falls in scanty folds about her. The smooth hair, the folded hands, the lines about the drooping mouth, the fixity of gaze and the inclination of the head all express an intensity of character which is almost poignant. No one but Henry James could so fully interpret such a nature. Whistler's first title for the picture was An Arrangement in Grey and Black, describing the colour scheme, which was too sombre to call forth immediate enthusiasm. The Academicians even classed it with the black and white drawings when it was exhibited. When it was at length purchased for the Luxembourg everybody began to praise it. Whistler, who always resented the praise of any single picture as implying disparagement of his other works, was impatient of the encomiums heaped upon the " Mother." " Wait," he said, " till the Sarasate is as old as the ` Mother,' with a skin of varnish upon it that has mellowed --then you will call that my chef d'oeuvre."
The Carlyle portrait shows the philosopher sunk in a melancholy revery. It is as if he had given up the battle in utter weariness and discouragement, and with mind and body relaxed, had fallen into a sorrowful apathy. Here we have the pathos of the Chelsea sage without his fighting qualities. Whistler was for some time a neighbour of Carlyle at Chelsea, and the two came to know each other well. Though following aims so widely different, both were alike strenuously opposed to sham. The old man was much impressed with Whistler's professional outfit, for the painter used brushes as big as a house-painter's, a large canvas, and a table for a palette. " You are indeed a workman," said the sitter, for your tools are the tools of a workman." The Carlyle portrait was in progress at the same time that little Miss Alexander was being painted. The old man and child met at the door one day as the former had just ended a wearisome sitting. " I am Miss Alexander," announced the little girl, demurely, " I am having my portrait painted." " Puir lassie, puir lassie," said Carlyle, compassionately, as he went on his way. His own comment on his completed portrait was " Weel, man, you have given me a clean collar, and that is more than Meester Watts has done." Some years after his death Carlyle's portrait was bought for the corporation of Glasgow. The sage was also painted by Sir John Millais, who made him much handsomer, less rugged, and less bitter, though not without a certain sternness and melancholy.
The portrait work of Whistler suggests inevitably a comparison with that of another Anglicized American, John Singer Sargent. It is not impossible to admire both men, but it is well-nigh impossible to imagine a greater contrast. While Whistler's art is almost feminine in delicacy, Sargent's work is pronouncedly masculine ; the one inclines some-what to the eccentric and anemic, the other is sane and robust. While Whistler's portrait figures almost melt into their environment, Sargent's fairly jump out of the canvas with vitality. Beside the subtle reticence of Whistler's folk, Sargent's seem almost vulgarly self-assertive. While the former regard you impassively with a proud reserve, the latter fasten their eyes insistently upon you with the highest degree of intimacy. The Whistler world is one of calm repose, but the Sargent atmosphere is charged with electricity. Whistler looked through smoke-coloured glasses, and made his patrons array themselves in all sobriety : but Sargent's subjects are gorgeously attired in extremes of fashion and the painter's colour range seems as wide as 'nature's own. From time to time each found a sitter who was born, so to speak, for his special benefit. There is a singular correlation between subject and artist when a Sara-sate sits for a Whistler or a Henry Higginson for a Sargent, the musician slender, sensitive, poetic, the man of affairs, big, burly, forceful.
To one who has seen these two portraits, a Higginson by Whistler, or a Sarasate by Sargent, is almost unthinkable. Yet Velasquez, to whom both these men have for different reasons been compared, might equally well have done either.
John Singer Sargent is the son of a Boston physician, but was born in Florence, where his father was practising his profession. His artistic training was in Paris, under Carolus Duran. He has for some years lived in London, but making occasional visits to the United States, he is claimed by ties on both sides of the water. His work is almost exclusively in portraiture, with the important exception of the mural paintings in the Boston Public Library. Since the death of Whistler and Watts he is entirely unrivalled in his chosen field. Working with great ease and rapidity, and besieged with patrons, he has already produced an immense number of portraits representing the grand monde. No recent painter has ever enjoyed more fully the appreciation of his contemporaries except perhaps the German Lenbach. At the Spring exhibition of the Royal Academy his portraits are now the most conspicuous and attractive feature, and the Sargent exhibitions in Boston, in 1899 and 1908, drew people from all over the country.
His most characteristic style is the three-quarters figure, though he has had to meet the demand for bust portraits as well. In full-length figures he has perfect scope for his best. His bold brush-work requires large surfaces. In fact, because of their size and broad execution, his canvases are scarcely suitable for ordinary houses. They are designed rather for great establishments where long, spacious galleries afford the proper distance for vision. At the height of his popularity, Sargent has naturally become something of an autocrat. His prodigious' prices would astound even the keen Reynolds. He usually has his own way in every particular as to costume, pose, and method. One can scarcely say whether his preference is for men, women, or children, so facile and brilliant is his touch through the whole range of human life.
To begin with children. The Honourable Laura Lister has become, like Whistler's Miss Alexander, a world favourite, to class with such masterpieces as Velasquez's Princess Margaret. The child is dressed quaintly in a satin skirt which reaches to the floor, and wears a mob-cap over her pretty, short curls. The shy sweetness with which she regards you out of her big eyes is inexpressibly winning. Her American counterpart is little Miss Beatrice Goelet, painted six years before. She has the same picturesque quaintness of dress — the long full skirt — and the same shy wistfulness with a difference. There is mischief lurking in the big eyes of English child, but Beatrice is one of the timid little spirits whose rare charm only a great painter could divine. The famous " Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose " is another charming picture of child-life. Two little girls, in simple white frocks, stand amid the tall lily-stalks of the garden, intent upon lighting some Chinese lanterns. The scheme is like a tapestry in decorative effect.
Sargent's brilliant virtuosity is inevitably associated with superb toilets. For the play of light on folds of satin, and for the suggestion of diaphanous draperies, this painter is a very wizard. That he takes delight in such work is quite evident, and he fairly revels in portrait groups where two or three sisters in evening dress make a radiant bouquet of colour. In such compositions there is apt to be some straining after effect : the motive often lacks spontaneity. Such for instance is the' much admired Mrs. Meyer and her Children, and such the Ladies Acheson, and the Misses Hunter.
But with all his delight in texture work and sheer dexterity Sargent has far higher gifts of portraiture. His characterization is so fine that we can read the nationality at a glance : English or American, French or Italian or Hebrew. How subtly does he distinguish between the nervous vivacity of the American heiress and the languid grace of the English peeress; between the alert acumen of - the American financier and the easy equipoise of the English gentleman. He even suggests the essential Bostonian in the spare erect figure of the lady of Beacon Hill. Scholars like Miss Cary Thomas, artists like William M. Chase, actors like Booth and Jefferson, Ada Rehan and Ellen Terry, musicians like Wolff, bear the unmistakable stamp of their professional gifts, with the added touch of their own individuality.
Sargent is generally regarded as a remarkable psychologist. His gift in character revelation is sometimes appalling. He discovers secrets with an insight as searching as the x ray. Any one with an unpleasant secret had better keep away from him. It is said that a physician once diagnosed a previously unsuspected malady from Sargent's portrait of his patient! Complaint is sometimes made that in his cleverness at seizing a transitory expression, the painter crystallizes a mood which is too trivial for permanence, that his art loses in dignity by exalting the momentary above the more lasting elements. Such feats, however, secure an amazing effect of lifelikeness. The expression fairly vibrates on the countenance, never hardening into setness.
Scarcely too much can be said of the vitality of Sargent's portraits. To enter a gallery of his works is like entering the town hall at Haarlem among the great portrait groups of Frans Hals. We come into a room full of living, breathing, human beings. Wherever we go their eyes follow us, smiling, serious, or intent, and as we approach them, they seem to speak to us. And when we come close to the canvas, and find that these creatures of flesh and blood are composed of broad streaks of paint, we feel that we are witnessing a creative process which is not short of a miracle.
Though deriving much from foreign study and foreign residence, our American painters are tending more and more to build up the art of portraiture in our own country. William M. Chase of New York is the dean of American portrait painters, the honoured teacher of many of the younger men. In technical mastery and in real distinction many of his works deserve highest praise. J. W. Alexander and J. J. Shannon are most successful in a style of portrait work which, for lack of a better term, is called pictorial. The decorative composition is their raison d'être. A certain sameness of type, and that of a very ideal character, makes the pictures less convincing as likenesses. In Philadelphia Miss Cecilia Beaux carries on her professional life with a force and virility which place her among the leading portrait painters of the day. Time would fail to enumerate explicitly the names of the groups in Boston and New York who are raising the art of portrait painting to a higher level. The annual exhibitions show a growing interest in this line of work, and here without doubt is one of the most promising fields for the future of American art.