Sculpture in the United States

A CURIOUS debate in the Senate, during the first session of the Thirty-ninth Congress, resulted in the appropriation of ten thousand dollars for a statue of Abraham Lincoln. It might have been believed that our representatives, buying in behalf of the people the statue of so great an American, would have taken pains to procure it from the wisest and ablest statuary the country affords ; and would rather have given such a man twenty thousand dollars for his labor than one half the sum to an inferior artist, or to one whose ability had not been proved. But after much discussion the work was intrusted to a mere novice in art, a young person who had not received even the training of an apprentice in the handling of clay or bronze or marble. It is, perhaps, doubtful whether even this small appropriation would have been made, had the applicant been a sculptor of repute ; for the youth and inexperience of the artist seemed to affect the minds of Senators as advantages, rather than as drawbacks, in the way of attaining a satisfactory result.

This disposition of the public money, however trivial in itself, illustrates the condition of the plastic art in this country. Various explanatory suggestions were offered. It was said that the hearts of the lawgivers were won by sympathy with struggling genius. Possibly the debate was a little joke. Congress looked over the list of American sculptors, and, finding none worthy, gave money and fame, in a spirit of wholesome satire, to a giovinetta. Or, since so little money could be spared from the country’s need, the government modestly refrained from offering it to a sculptor of experience, knowing that he could get much better wages from private citizens. There are many ways in which we may console ourselves, and avoid the conclusion that our representatives are unwise in matters of art. A sanguine pre-Raphaelite, having at heart the reverent rendering of Mr. Lincoln’s neck-tie and the wart on his cheek, may persuade himself that the young artist, failing to comprehend the whole, will give more careful study to the parts, and do the buttons nicely. The true realist cares little about the matter for itself, knowing that Washington is unlikely to encourage pure art, and that Congress will not adopt his scheme of reformation, at least until it is established. But those who look for results assert that two hundred years of civilization on this continent have not produced an essential difference between the work of the experienced sculptor and the crude efforts of youth, or that, the difference existing, Americans are not wise enough to estimate it. It is perhaps somewhere between these humiliating assertions that the truth may be found ; they are worth the consideration of those who believe that sculpture in America is not necessarily an anachronism, and that it may yet bear an important part in our civilization and culture.

Rejecting, as biassed, the judgment of Congress, can it then be made to appear that our sculptors have done anything which bears the stamp of national excellence ? Is there a first-class portrait-statue in the United States ? Our plastic artists are famous men abroad, as well as here ; they rank as high in Florence and Rome as those of any nation, — we are prone to think a trifle higher, — but can we properly call them American sculptors, or their works American works ? Ward’s fine statue of the Indian Hunter belongs to us, and a few other meritorious statues; the quaint little people of John Rogers are ours, and the productions of Clark Mills and Vinnie Ream ; but may we claim the Lybian Sibyl, the Greek Slave, the Zenobia? The subjects of these are strange to the people, and the workmanship is foreign. American artists dwelling in Europe are in some degree denationalized. While in Rome they must do much as the Romans do, and they cannot respond fully to our needs and sympathies at home. Our best sculptors, devoted to what we call classic art, and loving the flesh-pots of Italy, which take the tempting shape of beautiful marble and excellent workmen, join themselves at last to their idols abroad, and come to care little for popular appreciation in America. Those who emigrate, attaining wider fame, seriously influence those who remain. Few of these are interested in our national art. Being persuaded that their work will be judged by a foreign or classic standard, they almost inevitably render foreign themes, as well as imitate foreign style; and surrounded by casts of the antique, and nothing else, the beginner is led to believe that he must produce something equal to the Quoit-thrower of Myron or the Apollo Belvedere. The absurdity of the attempt is concealed from him ; he forgets that he has no faith in Apollo or any heathen, and that his own gods are remarkably different from those of Greece. Few students are able to perceive the ages of school that lie hidden in the masterpieces of Greek art. Without thorough anatomical knowledge and without anything like a fair opportunity to study the nude figure in action, the sculptor here often attempts to reproduce a kind of art which could develop only in the most favorable climate and under the auspices of a poetic religion. It is clear that this is labor thrown away. Nothing valuable to the American people comes of it. The work has already been thoroughly done ; the best Greek modelling of the human figure is certainly well enough. Sensible men will hardly expect it to be done over again. We, at least, cannot do it, because the people do not want it, and for many other reasons. Compare the modelling of the Torso with the work of the best English and American sculptors, and the difference still seems infinite. Gibson, who spent nearly all his life in the study of the antique, with no lack of facilities, was newly amazed by some fragment of ancient sculpture exhumed at Rome, and declared that he could do nothing approaching it in excellence. What modern Venus, or other ideal female statue, shall be placed with the Venus of Melos ? The nude figure in its antique grandeur being impossible to us, it is still more absurd to try to revive the empty drapery, and labor upon the folds of the extinct toga and tunic, clothing even the busts of private individuals with the robes of Roman senators or Greek philosophers. Yet the copying of the antique, nude and draped, is one of the principal means of teaching adopted by the modern schools, if they may be called schools, of sculpture. Study from life in this country is so limited that it must be considered as comparatively useless.

Such being the course chosen by nearly all our plastic artists, time and money are expended without worthy result. Among the increasing number of modellers in and for America, the earnest students, believing in the present, and working directly from nature, are far too few to develop the popular taste. Good judgment in the formative art, which would seem to be easily acquired, is almost unknown. There is little to serve as a basis. Perhaps the work of Crawford at Richmond and Washington is quite as much admired as any in the country ; and it is not to be doubted that he was an artist of great energy, some invention, and skilful hand ; but his statues, both portrait and ideal, sometimes overstep the modesty of nature in excess of action or execution, and lose the dignity which belongs to any proper subject of sculpture, and in some sense to the material employed. One is forced to the conclusion that such work is not all sculpture, but is alloyed with acting. The statue of Beethoven in the Boston Music Hall is a very noble example of the exceptions in Crawford’s work. Perhaps even here the best taste would have omitted the book which the master is holding, and left him entirely independent of accessories ; if any man may be given the immutability of the gods, it is Beethoven. The likeness of a great man at rest presents the theme of his life upon which the imagination may build ; but if the figure is distorted, it preserves only a moment of his life employed in some transient action, and gives the beholder but one idea or class of ideas. This is the nature of the cardinal fault in the Boston statue of Edward Everett,—the arm being lifted high and the fingers spread apart, in excitement,— representing only a passing emotion instead of the greater thought which underlies all worthy action. Inaccurate modelling of the figure and details is of little importance after this. Reference to the deviations from the law of repose shown in good Greek work affords no satisfactory excuse in this case ; for these deviations were always suited to the subject, and the need.of tranquillity was invariably recognized in likenesses of great men as well as in the statues of the gods. Nearly all modern sculpture seems designed to produce an immediate effect, like that of the instantaneous stereoscope ; there is little patience in it, and less in the spectator. It is humiliating to compare such statues as this of Everett with that of Demosthenes in the Vatican; and, in view of the fact that our sculptor is a man of culture and acknowledged ability in his art, it seems evident that the study of classicism in Italy does not give the modern artist the power of the ancients, or else that it does not make that power available for present needs. Instead of taking root in the new soil, and growing healthily and vigorously from it, the artist who gives himself up to the classic influence flourishes bravely as a parasite on the firm old trunk, but yields us no fruit.

If modern sculpture, by patient following of the antique, could attain its marvellous perfection in the representation of the human figure, could the art by such means hold a rank in our culture equal with that which it held in Greece ? If subjects worthy of such vast science and nice handiwork cannot be found, the acquirement of this branch of technical power is useless. By repetition of antique subjects, sculpture cannot re-establish its proper relation to the people. Statues of the gods cannot inform the American mind, except through its sympathy with the ancient Greeks and their mythology, — a remote and vague influence. The masses regard such marbles as workmanship or ornamentation, and art is more than that. Something must be done to carry the mind beyond externals. Zeus was a vital force to the Greek, he is only a shadow to the American. The ancients saw the ruling god ; the moderns, only the historic representation. These themes belong to literature. This may also be said of subjects chosen from the common life of the ancients. It was no more worthy than our own, and our people care infinitely less about it. There is at Newport, Rhode Island, a splendid copy in marble of the Dying Gladiator, very beautiful and significant; but its presence in this country is known by but very few, and it is not likely to be appreciated by more than a few connoisseurs. The fine collections of casts from the antique in the large cities experience something of the same neglect; the artists study them, but the people look at them curiously, as they regard objects in the galleries of Natural History, and often with a real or affected horror of their nudity.

Those who desire the encouragement of classic art sometimes assume that it is folly for the artist to try to maintain a direct relation to the general public, which cannot appreciate fine art, and that he should model or paint only for those whose culture and taste fit them to be connoisseurs. Here a direct issue may be stated ; for the realists, who also claim the best culture, believe that it is vain to model or paint for anybody else but the people. They say that if art is but the language of the learned, or the toy of the rich, it may as well die utterly, having become a useless luxury. History sustains this position. No really great art has existed, which did not in some degree reflect the inner life of the people ; and no art can help us in America, unless it is based upon the sympathy and criticism of the public. Had there been only half a dozen Athenians who knew what was fitting and beautiful in a statue of Zeus, it is improbable that Phidias would have given his time and toil to the great Parthenon statue for their pleasure. It is even less likely that the splendid figures of athletes, done by the brass-casters of that period, were wrought for the appreciation of a select few, when the games had made the people so familiar with the human form that every man of ordinary perceptive power must have been a true critic. The best Greek work left to us is from the exterior of buildings, where it was placed for the instruction and delight of the nation. That magnificent school of art, so far excelling all other known in the history of the world, though refined to the utmost by the wisdom of the learned, had its foundation in the hearts of the people. Happily, our artists are not often forced to decide between the support of their wise and wealthy patrons and that of the masses; but where such a choice becomes necessary, there can be little hesitation in the minds of those who respect their calling. To model or paint for a person of wealth is comfortable, and to be conscious of the sympathy of a few choice souls is very pleasant; but to model or paint for a nation raises the artist to his true place of a great teacher.

This rank the modern sculptor does not yet hold. When called upon to prophesy, he has only old stories to tell. Many of these are stories of ghosts, and most of them are not cheerful. The people are seldom wiser or happier for them, and do not care to listen. Among the dozen locally notorious portrait-statues at Boston, there are none likely to attain fame beyond a narrow limit, or to serve as models for future workmanship. But it is apparent that such of them as are most real, most nearly literal transcriptions of life, attract most attention from the public, whether such attention results in praise or blame. The classic statues are severely let alone. The extraordinary effigy of George Jupiter Washington, at the national Capitol, is very classic and fine and heroic; but these qualities cannot compensate for the utter confusion of ideas involved in it. Nobody can get from it any notion of Washington as he was, and the inscription alone will show posterity what the marble intends. Take any good specimen of modern classic or Roman plastic art, by an American artist, and set it quietly in the Park at New York or Boston, without any advertising, and it will encounter very little criticism, and excite but the most transitory admiration. Give the full history of the subject in the public prints, and a biographical sketch of the sculptor, and it would attract much more attention ; yet the influence of the figure upon popular thought would be inappreciable, and would lessen year by year. This is not the case with the humblest modelling from life of the patient and literal kind. If the subject is a public man, the public is immediately a sympathetic and a correct critic. It is the same if the subject is taken from our common life. The little groups by John Rogers, simplest realism as they are, and next to the lowest orders of true art, carry more significance than all the classic sculpture in the country, and will possess historic value which we cannot overestimate. Though the classicists and the realists are almost equally Helpless in the great ebb of formative art, — the former in lack of anything to say, and the latter in lack of ability to say anything, — their positions relative to the future are different and opposing,— the realists enjoying possibilities.

It is among the things hoped for that the plastic art may be and will be revived in America, and that it will attain here as good development as it had in Greece, under entirely different conditions, and, of course, in a widely different direction. While the influence of foreign art prevailed in Greece, what was done was comparatively insignificant ; it was not until the transition had been made, and sculpture thoroughly nationalized, that the marvellous gods came forth from the mines and quarries. Such a transition from foreign influence must of course be made here before the true growth begins. It is only a question of the time when the change can be made. Study of Greek art, especially its history and relation to the people, must always retain great influence in the education of our artists ; but the time will come when it cannot denationalize them. The successful sculptors of the future will carefully appraise the work of the ancients, but they will not try to reproduce it. They will know the secret of its power in the land where it was native, and will therefore be able to gauge their own work by a noble standard, worthiest after that of nature and contemporary criticism. They will admit the limits of the plastic art, and not attempt to combine with it forces which belong to painting or acting. If truth requires the rendering of harsh and uncomely costumes, they will patiently deal with these until the muchneeded reform is accomplished ; believing that, however ugly our garments may be, it is better to represent them as they are, than to trick out our marbles with the shreds and patches of antiquity. They will discriminate between facts that are vital and those which are merely accessory ; giving but its due share of time to the work of the tailor and shoemaker, yet taking care to tell the truth about such work as far as they go. They will not spend their lives in copying the work of other artists, nor will they seek beauty in systematic lines or symmetrical proportions, but they will find it in the significance of nature. And, in order to realize it, they will, if necessary, expend study and labor upon the smallest objects, provided those objects are firsthand ; for it cannot be doubted that the great artists of the future will take their models from the best school, with whose works the whole people are familiar. These works they will not blindly try to imitate with their poverty of means ; but they will seek to represent truly, to interpret in art’s beautiful dialect, the glorious handwriting of nature. From the least matters of leaves and flowers, and from the grandest life of the world, the new school will strive to draw the best meaning ; and it will be conscious that this best meaning, or foreshadowing, can only be attained from a firm foundation of tacts. Knowing that the essence of all art for man is in form, the sculptor will reverence his art as the simplest and most immediate interpretation of nature; and though he may feel that in some respects his limits are narrower than those of the poet or the painter, he will be conscious that in an upward direction he has no limitation.

Results so remote from the tendency of prevailing art, it is easy to see, will not be attained in little time. The experiment of realism in sculpture has not been fairly tried since the Christian era, but the opportunity seems to be with us. It is not impossible that the present generation may see the beginning of good formative art. Two thousand years of subjection to classicism has not produced half a dozen great sculptors; and when the grand old Torso has been warmed by the life of the greatest artists, little real advancement of art has been achieved. The inevitable consequence of Buonarotti is Bernini ; of Bernini, Borromini. It cannot be a vain hope that the transition from the old school with its spasmodic revivals to the ever-new school of life is at hand. The American people are capable of giving realism in art a fair trial. They are comparatively untrammelled by established styles. Loving all kinds of art ardently, and eager to avail themselves of its help, they fill their dwellings with cheap daubs from auctions and with plaster casts, rather than allow them to be vacant; but the tendency is in itself sufficient to insure the final success of art in a country whose thought and criticism are comparatively independent, and whose mechanical means are unlimited.

While everything pertaining to sculpture is in its present chaotic state, any attempt to indicate precisely its future course would be presumptuous; but allusion may be made to the most obvious means for its development. Among these its union with architecture is of the first importance. Interior ornamentation of buildings generally includes work only on a flat surface, in light and shade, with or without color, though the formative art might well be combined with it; but the refinement of the exterior depends almost wholly upon raised forms. If ever the laws of fine art have been set utterly at defiance, it is in the so-called decoration of modern architecture. Gross forms, like nothing on earth or in heaven, mechanically multiplied in plaster or wood or iron or zinc, and, worse still, sometimes in clean stone, flaunt from sill to cornice throughout the cities of the United States, — cheap, showy, and senseless. With few exceptions of recent design, there is scarcely a building between the Lakes and the Gulf worth a second glance for the art employed upon it. Many public edifices, of course, deserve the builder’s attention as examples of good construction or as reproduction of Old World styles, but of invention or significant decoration there is an utter dearth. Here the work of the sculptor is wanting, and that only. The meaningless forms should be abolished, and the finer thought of the practised artist woven in. He alone can fill the empty niches, and cover the vacant spaces with intelligible history; he can make the walls respond to the love of nature imprisoned and dying in crowded cities. When the sculptor gets fairly at work on the exterior of buildings he is in a certain sense the agent of the whole people, and may express his thought in the freest and boldest manner, unfettered by the patronage of individuals or cliques. He will not be forced to represent forgotten myths. The source whence the people draw their ideas of the true and beautiful will also furnish his themes. The realist sculptor and the architect of the so-called Gothic or unlimited school having joined hands, good work is at once possible. For such union some sacrifice is necessary, the architect being too often not a sculptor, and the sculptor not an architect; but the one must not hesitate to avow his want, and the other must not hold himself above supplying it. The plan is so far from being impracticable, that, wherever tried, it has been immediately successful ; and of those who have given thought to the subject nearly all are convinced of its feasibility and necessity.

Reform in art also, like all other reforms, depends upon education. False and vague ideas regarding the imitative arts are so common and so little resisted that progress must be necessarily slow. The vulgar idea of genius is that it achieves without effort and without consciousness of its means ; that in art it evokes statues from marble and pictures from pigments by some unknown process and without labor. This is a mischievous and hindering notion. Though art is sometimes called a sport, the definition is inadequate ; and the science of art is certainly a matter of labor and patience. It is in this science that we need education. If a sculptor wishes to represent a wreath of ivy in marble, and has never seen an ivy-leaf, all the genius in the world will not enable him to make his work acceptable to those who know the form of ivy; and, if he copies the work of another artist, his own is second-hand and valueless. Patient study of nature, and the acquired knowledge of representing form in different materials, are just as essential in his work as the inventive power which enables him to make a pleasant adjustment of his facts. Imagination in some degree is given to every one ; but to nobody is given trained sight, which is the chief part of the science of art, and which may be acquired to a little or great extent by all. Confused and misty ideas in the popular mind regarding art seem unnecessary, if the subject be approached in a common-sense way, and treated like any other subject. The science of art is like all other science ; the whole of art is in the union of science and imagination. But it is in the first division that our education must begin, and the imagination must be allowed to take care of itself. If it does not keep in advance of the work of the hand, the worker is no longer an artist. But the child must be taught the alphabet before he can read. Exhibition in marble of genius without facts would be rather a vain show, imagination is not injured by a proper training of the eye and hand; on the contrary, it can only be revealed and cultivated in imitative art by these means ; and when the value of such art in our culture is apprehended, drawing and modelling will be taught the children as one of the elementary branches of knowledge. There is “genius" enough in America to furnish a school equal to the Greek ; but of general culture in the science of art there is very little, and of artists carefully trained in the school of nature there are very few. Drawing from natural objects should be taught in the public schools, not only for the benefit of those who wish to become artists, but as an admirable exercise of the eye and hand, and likely to add greatly to future culture and enjoyment of life. The knowledge thus gained would soon change the character of plastic art in this country. Endowing the public with power to appreciate what is now obscure in the best art, and also to detect blunders in means and execution, it would soon do away with meaningless puffery, and obstinate fault-finding, substituting for these kind and careful criticism. Then the great power ofartists like Greenough, Crawford, Story, and Powers would be utilized, and sculpture could no longer be called an anachronism in America.