« PreviousContinue »
above American art, inasmuch as it appeals to the imagination and the loftiest intellectual and emotional faculties.
Our indigenous art, on the contrary, contents itself simply with imitating the familiar features of the landscape, or with recording the ordinary aspects of life, in compositions intelligible at first view to the most ordinary capacity. It is not suggestive or inspiring. Representation, and not invention, is its chief characteristic. Its cleverness lies in its dexterous deception; it wants the faculty of interpretation. Failing to penetrate the hidden springs of even the prosaic and material life it aspires to illustrate, it is barren of sentiment and feeling. The hand, and not the heart, goes with its pencil. Matter-of-fact is its motto, poetry its aversion. Chilling, pragmatical, and dogmatic in spirit, it arrests attention but finally to disappoint. To it a tree is simply certain solid quantities of wood, bark, and leaf. A tear would be only so many parts of phosphate of lime, chloride of soda, and water. It recognizes no inner life. Seemingly, the artist's highest ambition is to free his work from all sense of attractive mystery, by absence of subtile gradations and shadows. He floods his pictures, as our builders do their houses, with cold or glaring light, so that every object can be distinctly seen, and almost every stroke of the pencil counted across the room. One look suffices, because it stakes all upon surface-value. Even in the chosen field of landscape, there is little sympathy with humanity. Instead, a prosaic opaque repetition of cloud, earth, vegetation, or water, for the most part devoid of animal life, and strangely destitute of associations dear to the mind or heart. American artists seldom favor us with anything better in way of artistic choice than semi-cultivated land or semi-picturesque scenery, which, monotonously reproduced as they are, not only become wearisome in themselves, but chill one's love of the natural landscape itself. Where composition is unideal, invention meagre, and expression vapid, the interest or curiosity excited speedily dies out. Some schools of painting, like the Bolognese and the modern Dusseldorf, attain celebrity on account of their scientific eclecticism and intellectual vigor. But even these fail of permanent influence, because of their slight hold upon the best qualities of the heart or understanding
In America, with a few bright exceptions, — sufficient howerer to show that more hopeful things are in store for us, our artists confine the public taste to a treatment of landscape which is superficial and void of sentiment.
nt. We might quote many examples of their want of tender sympathy and comprehension of their themes, of their impatience of study and labor, of their artifices to attract and deceive the undisciplined eye. But, having suggested the prominent faults of the school at large, we leave our readers to discover for themselves the individual applications. Church is the representative artist of the American school of landscape, partaking largely of its spirit, but by his uncommon skill raising it to the level of a great popular success, though not to the level of the success which the highest landscape art aspires to, as seen in the imaginative compositions, vigorous effectiveness, and magical, varied suggestiveness of Turner. The Englishman was endowed with genius, which is independent of all nationality. The American typifies the peculiar gift of practical success through a commanding will and facile talent; a gift, perhaps, more highly esteemed here than genius. Church's paintings attract, because of their scenic force, the accurate knowledge they display of nature's forms, wonderful memory of things, taste in composition, variety of detail, and effective execution in color. We doubt if any greater success in these respects will ever be attained in this school. Indeed, it is not to be desired. This art is useful in preparing the way for higher motives. But to stop here would be like taking Verdi's works to be the Ultima Thule in music.
There is, however, more hopeful work from our school. We will not now speak of Allston, Greenough, or Cole, men of imagination, fertile in invention, strong, tender or graceful, overflowing with æsthetic feeling, and of keen artistic sensibilities; but of a few names favorably known among our living landscapists, whose works display qualities above the common range. In portraiture, genre, and historical art there are clever artists, though not of sufficient force to establish distinct schools in these branches. American landscape art, however, is creating for itself a national position at home and abroad. On that account we cordially greet artists like Innes
and Kensett, as tending to uplift the public taste above the prosaic and mechanical, into the region of sentiment and feeling. Such men perceive that there is something more valuable than soulless accuracy of lines or opaque masses of bright colors. Inness infuses noontide light into his pictures, glowing with summer's heat, yet full of dreamy stillness and repose. He has an Oriental delight and instinct of color, and has emancipated himself from the art whose end is mere popular sensation, and reached a point in deep, tender feeling and poetical composition, whose promise fulfilled will aid greatly in elevating American art above the dull level of materialism. In gradation, luxuriance, and mellowness of color, few approach him. He is not always in harmony with himself or his subject, and his moods affect his works; but he has the inborn spirit of an artist. His large picture of Rome is a decided success, not only as a composition, but in its rare atmospherical qualities, luminousness, and combined vigor, breadth, and delicacy. There are in it certain qualities of air, distance, light, and shadow, united with a vitality of vegetation and human associations, which few artists have ever equally attained, and which Inness himself may never excel. Occasionally in cloud-forms we find him careless, making them opaque, tough, and smoke-tinted, so that the eye cannot penetrate them, and we know at once that such an atmosphere was never made for human lungs or sight. In one of his pictures we noted that smoke, steam, and cloud were all of the same consistency, color, and shapes. But these are mere technical oversights, not at all affecting his fine artistic feeling and invention. Some of the India-ink and colored sea-side studies of the Quaker artist, Bradford, have proved to us also a revelation in American art. The former, in their picturesque variety, freedom of treatment, and poetical conception, recall Turner's English compositions of similar scenes. To a rare accuracy in his studies of rock and wave forms he unites an active sympathy with his entire theme. Pebble and sea-weed glisten with the brine of the receding wave; the beach-sand is wet and springy; sunlight pierces the heavy masses of clouds, and dances and sparkles over water and shore, which alternate in varied glow and gloom. There are freshness and saltness, gust and pause, a true ocean sentiment and lifelikeness, in Bradford's sketches ; — especially, in his colored studies of shingle, a truthfulness of form and hue, a delicate play of shadow and sunlight, which surprised us, and convinced us that Nature, even in her lowest forms, is alive with beauty and meaning, if the artist but knows how to evoke them. Bierstadt's “Sunlight and Shadow," in the New York Academy of Design, this year, is remarkable for its poetical treatment and sterling qualities of execution. We quote these examples of what we mean by the promise of art here, in contrast with its general forbidding literalness, because they occurred first to our memory. Space does not permit us to give others.
Art stimulates taste, taste reacts upon art, so that one rises or falls with the other. An elevated, exaeting taste is a true friend of art. But it is of slow growth, especially in America, which has no standard of appeal in the past, and must create or borrow examples of excellence. Sympathy and appreciation are the solar light of art. But neither can exist unless the public informs itself of the right meaning and purposes of art, creating for itself an independent standard of criticism, based upon a catholic taste for what is true and beautiful. We need means of comparison, not simply of one sort of art with its fellow, but of one school with another. If we confine ourselves within our own national proclivities, condemning all foreign influences or examples, we repeat the error of the Eastern races in their isolated civilizations. Much of American art criticism is sheer intellectual emasculation. It is apt to be either selfishly interested, or personally amiable. The critic who gravely puts, as we have lately read, any American artist on a level with Titian or Turner in the higher aspects of art, injures his friend, and wrongs those great names. The painter of the “ Venus” of the Athenæum compared with the “ Venus” of the Tribune! “ Moses” with “ Peter Martyr”! “ The Flight into Egypt” with “ Polyphemus”! the portrait of Collector Barney with the “Unknown” of the Pitti! Criticism of this character confuses stay-at-home folk, for they have not the opportunity to detect its absurdity. Genius, too, loses its proper significance, if little or eccentric things are confounded with great, while the American standard of greatness is made ridiculous abroad. Worse than this is the too common practice of obtaining an ephemeral notoriety through interested or uninformed writers. The majority can never comprehend the exact importance to be attached to the common criticisms of the press, because they must be but superficially acquainted with the subjects themselves, and not at all with the personal promptings of the writers. Neither are they familiar enough with the art of composition always to detect the nothingness of the sonorous phrases with which such critics seek to cover up their incapacity. We have been asked by a writer of this calibre the technical meaning of certain words which he had been accustomed to use at hazard, expressing a hope that in his next critique on art-matters he should use them in their proper connection. These blind leaders of the blind are the pest of our progress.
Their vocation leaves them as fast as the public learns to discriminate. Soon, let us hope, there will be no cause for the hesitation once expressed to us by a lover of the old masters, as well as the new, about bringing to this country a Titian, from fear of being made unhappy by the ridicule and scepticism the picture would have to encounter.
We freely confess a predilection for the old masters of Italy, for the same reason that Dante or Shakespeare gives a higher satisfaction than our modern poets. We repeat, that appreciation of them is derived from a higher degree of cultivation than that which is demanded by landscape or genre art. The loftier the theme, the greater must be the effort of the artist to render it, and of the spectator to comprehend it. Hence, while failure in degree is less blameworthy than in lower art, success is infinitely more precious. Nature is indeed unspeakably lovely or wonderful in all her works, and the skill that faithfully transfers to canvas the very least of them deserves our praise. But of how much greater account is that art which, rising above the mere material expression of things, infuses the breath of life into its forms, and gives us glimpses of living souls! It is comparatively easy to copy from Nature's book the lessons she has set so plainly, that he who opens his eyes must see them ; but high art incarnates human faculties and feelings, and so is inventive and creative.
In some sense,