SO much of the new city is visible — writes a correspondent from Chicago — that its character, at least in construction, may be readily determined. The bulk of the building is probably much more substantial than that which was destroyed. There appears to be no evasion of the laws prescribing the thickness of walls and prohibiting the use of combustible materials. Two or three “blocks” run up hastily while the ashes were hot are open to the suspicion of insecurity; but this, in the alleged ten miles of new frontage, is very little: the construction generally is quite as thorough as any to which we are accustomed in this country. Its æsthetic value is not so easy of estimation. The rebuilding energy having been expended, so far, on warehouses, the grander combinations of the architect are hardly called for ; his skill must be shown on so many square feet of street-front, and the only notable improvement in general design is the increased use of the arch, which, either round or flat, has become almost universal, adding wonderfully to the grace and cheerfulness of the new exteriors. There is scarcely a straight lintel of stone to be seen in the whole rebuilding ; and although the best stone and brick fronts are generally carried on flat iron supports, looking wretchedly weak, there are many fine exceptions where the arch even in cast-iron gives stability and beauty. Beyond this tendency, equally good in art and construction, it is necessary to notice only the character of ornament employed. Even in narrow street-fronts there is abundance of room for decoration, and the merchants have shown an abundant desire to decorate. Many of the new shop-fronts are quite elaborately wrought, and few are barren or even simple in character. This varied mass of carved, stamped, and moulded forms is quite bewildering, and much of it is placed so high that it is likely to break the beholder’s neck as a first effect, if he wishes to discover its material and character. Having ascertained the material, the task is much abridged. There is no wood and no stucco, no new forms in terra-cotta, very little artificial “ stone,” and but two or three brick fronts which can be called decorative. Unfortunately there is a great deal of iron. (In the use of cast-iron an important and satisfactory change is noted ; it rarely goes beyond the first story.) Sheet-iron “ ornamentis here in its glory. It is paraded on all kinds of building, in window-caps, string-courses, vast projecting cornices, parapets and pinnacles. For decorative value, both kinds of iron, as used here, may be dismissed with a word ; all that is seen is gross and worse than nothing. The character of design for ironwork in building must be radically changed to bring it into the sphere of art. Sheetiron can be beautiful only in refined and delicate forms of hand-work suited to its thinness, and cast-iron cannot be beautiful at all. It may serve as a surface for paint, and where the cast-iron supports are painted with a color differing from that of the stone, thus recognizing the difference of material, the effect is comparatively good. But no kind of painting can make tolerable the monstrous timber-work crowning most of these buildings. One is tempted to wish that the wind would blow it all away. All that can be said in its favor is that it breaks up the sky-lines and renders a distant street-view picturesque.
In stone, the decorative tendencies shown are of quite an encouraging character. Preference is shown for finely finished facing, with ornamentation ; and most of the material employed being a soft sandstone, the carvers have been enabled to produce a great deal in a short time. Unfortunately the Cleveland stone, and its like, which is largely used, is at first too soft to carry a sharp edge, and from this cause and from haste some of the design in relief is poor in execution. But wherever delicate forms have been cut in intaglio, on façades of flat, temperate design, the effect is uniformly good. The sandstone will bear little under-cutting, but it holds the edge of intaglio firmly enough, and it is pleasant to see this style of ornament so extensively used, replacing the coarse projections which make our streets so flaunting and tedious. Perhaps one building in every five, certainly one in every ten, shows reaction from the common intent to overload exteriors with gross forms; and in many there is to be observed a true appreciation of refinement and delicacy of design. Though this does not go so far as to indicate study of nature, with the idea of conventionalizing the best forms for stone, it seems to be the next step to it. Sufficient outlay has been made here to give us representations of fitting organic forms, good suggestions of beauty from fields and woods ; but Chicago is not Venice, nor are these the “ dark ” ages of cathedrals and missals, and it was not foreseen that we should get in return much more than the old tedious columns and mouldings and brackets of the Renaissance. Yet when we come to look closely, there is much more. The fancies of different architects have had fair play. There was no time for them to copy each other. The result is that the street-fronts show an unexpected individuality, making the new Chicago architecturally our most interesting city. Beyond this, there is a much greater tendency to variety in individual work than has been hitherto shown. There are many buildings where each bit of ornament, every keystone and capital, is of an original design. It would seem that this work, which is so graceful, novel, and varied, might help to abolish the weary repetitions which have held sway so long. It is true that even in the best instances the forms are too near the architect’s patterns and too far from nature. Nevertheless, the better interest is evident and a beginning is made. Some of this original ornament is wrought in a hard limestone, and time to cut it properly has not been allowed ; yet the suggestions are good, and the whole effect, even with its roughness, is charming. The same praise cannot be given to the sculptured heads and faces with which some buildings are adorned. They are as ugly as the Norman gargoyles, and probably equally indicative of the spirit of the age, whatever that may be. But if they must be made thus hideous and feeble to represent us, might we not forbear the representation for a time ? Perhaps the coming age will not be so dreadfully out of drawing. It seems better to use the simpler forms of nature while the union of architecture with sculpture and painting is still so incomplete. In the newly built Chicago, there are indications that the desired alliance is progressing : the partial rejection of cast-iron and the growing refinement of forms in stone show at least its possibility. It is to be regretted that there are so few instances of the employment of color in decoration ; but these, whether produced by the painting and gilding of iron, or the use of different tints in stone, are satisfactory, so far as they go. It is not pleasant to record the fact that the largest and most costly buildings show the least improvement and originality in design, but it is quite true. The more money and space, the more Renaissance and monotony.
The backward state of the industrial and fine arts in this country has not been altogether owing to public apathy. For some years there has been a wide-spread consciousness of the imperfection in our civilization arising from our neglect of the arts ; and the painful spectacle has been exhibited of a nation aware of its deficiency, yet not knowing how to supply it. That we should have found ourselves thus impotent appears less surprising, when we reflect that even in Europe scientific art-education is a thing almost wholly of this century, and that the most of the progress effected there has been made within about twenty-five years. Massachusetts has at last done what a community of sharp-sighted manufacturers deserve perhaps little praise for not having done before, in the establishment of a thorough means of artinstruction. Though the system set in operation by act of Legislature in 1870 be yet only in germ, that germ is of the right species ; and we are now furthermore provided with an invaluable book 1 discussing the best methods to be employed in its development and future cultivation. Mr. Walter Smith, State Director of the art education of Massachusetts, is a graduate of the South Kensington Training-School, where he took high honors in the three branches of painting, sculpture, and architecture, before entering his profession of art master, in which capacity he has gained great reputation in England. In 1863 he was commissioned by the British government to examine the various systems of art education on the Continent, and made a report of great thoroughness and value. In 1867 he won, over twenty-seven artists and art masters, the prize offered by his government for the best analysis of the Art Educational Section of the Paris International Exhibition of that year. On the application of the State of Massachusetts and city of Boston to the English Society of Arts and Sciences for a competent person to direct the proposed art education of the State, Mr. Smith was at once chosen for the place, a selection which his vigorous administration since being installed here has fully justified. The special reason which he himself assigns for this choice is, that, though acquainted with the art-educational systems of his own and other European countries, he is not committed to any one of them, but believes that “ in the construction of a system in a country where the subject is new, we can adapt the good parts of all the old methods to the requirements of this country, and omit all the bad parts.” In addition to these various qualifications for his task, we cannot omit mentioning the enthusiasm and hopefulness which pervade the volume under review, and on which we feel disposed to rely for effecting those advances in art which he encourages us to expect.
The scheme of art education described by Mr. Smith, being, with the slight exception that it includes modelling, the same which the act referred to already makes provision for, is a very comprehensive one. It rests on the accepted principle, that the means of refining the industrial and revivi fying the fine arts is the at least approximate identification of the artist with the artisan. To this end artisans are to receive an enlightened art education, the whole bent of the schools being in their favor, and those who study in them to become professional artists being left to assert themselves by the force of peculiar genius. Thus those who devote themselves to painting will hardly be tempted to do so unless their genius is irrepressible, while all will, in default of capacities for more ideal employment, be fitted to become excellent designers, modellers, etc. The leading thought expressed by Mr. Smith is, “ that all kinds of drawing shall be taught as a language, not as an art, and be used as an instrument, not as a plaything.” He advocates that drawing precede writing, in the education of the child, as being a more natural and thus a more easily acquired mode of expression.
To give briefly a clear conception of the work which it is proposed to accomplish in the public schools, we extract Mr. Smith’s schedule of studies appointed for these : —
“ In Primary Schools. — Free-hand, model, and memory drawing, from the blackboard and from copies in books, the objects to be geometrically drawn, i. e. having no perspective effects in them.
“ In Grammar Schools. — Model drawing from the blackboard, and from copies showing the principles of perspective, and from real objects ; memory drawing; geometrical drawing of plane geometrical problems with instruments ; free-hand enlargements and reductions from flat copies of historical and other ornament, in outline, to teach styles of art.
“ In High and Normal Schools. — Memory, model, and perspective drawing; shading, coloring; drawing from casts, from natural plants and elementary designs.”
This, then, is the solid instruction which it is hoped will, in time, be dispensed to the people of every State, as it is now being dispensed to those of Massachusetts, — the foundation of universal good taste and appreciation of art, on which alone it is safe to build hopes of a great future in art for this country. The art school proper begins its work where that of the common high school ceases ; and its object, to which the industrial drawing-classes already organized of course tend also, is described as “ the cultivation of the understanding, and increase of knowledge, of the students in the field of art generally, supplemented by the acquisition of manipulative and technical skill in some branch of art practice.” In such a school all students would pursue for a time a common course, branching off from this into either, (1.) scientific instrumental drawing ; (2.) artistic work in light and shade, color and design ; or (3.) modelling. So that, while all would be united in learning to draw well, without which there can be no good industrial or fine art, the ditterent inclinations of individuals would cause them to become carpenters and architects, machinists and engineers, draughtsmen, lithographers, painters, and sculptors.
The danger of this whole system is one to which all such systems are liable, and that is, that while they provide in perfection the necessary discipline and instruction for producing “original and learned and tasteful work, scholarlike and artistic,” the elaborate means provided for this end may be found rather to thwart than to assist the advancement of peculiar and exceptional genius (genius made idle and wayward by the temperament with which it is combined, or from other causes, is not here meant), which is nevertheless capable of wielding a transcendent power. But systems cannot be based on the needs of exceptional persons, and their inutility to these must be compensated by the spirit in which they are directed. Mr. Smith is an enthusiastic disciple of Ruskin, and we cannot think that any one who carries so much of Ruskin’s noble purpose into this practical work of art education, can be insensible to the claims of such persons as those we allude to. Indeed, he expressly affirms at one point that “ in the adaptation of any scheme of instruction to the development of skill in individual cases, it ought to be possible, and may sometimes be necessary, to turn the whole scheme upside down, beginning at the end, or ending at the beginning, if needs be, any laws or formulæ to the contrary notwithstanding.” It is a matter of moment that this necessity should be thoroughly understood by every one who engages in the work which Mr. Smith has begun ; and we sincerely hope that his feeiing in this regard may be imparted to all present and future assistants. There is sometimes an inherent protestantism in genius which it is criminal to ignore.
The second half of the book appears designed to forward art education in a more indirect way by easy and instructive discussions of ornamental design, surface decoration, modelling, carving, and casting, and symbolism in art and architecture, with many striking suggestions for the coming architecture of this country. It is interesting to observe that Mr. Smith advocates a very general use of terra-cotta in building. The plates scattered through the volume form an excellent illustration to this as well as the preceding part of the work, and the appendices contain a great store of such information as is now being sought in many parts of the United States.
- Art Education, by WALTER SMITH, Boston, J. R. Osgood & Co. 1872.↩