THE exhibition held by the Boston Art Club at the close of the season brought together some two hundred pictures again, a good proportion of which were foreign and antique. Among the works of native artists, three pictures by Kensett and two by Inness, painted at different periods, furnished a basis for certain comparative observations not without interest. We have never chanced to see anything so genuine from Kensett’s hands as the little view near the Thames, England, painted many years ago. It shows a trustful earnestness from which the artist afterward wholly receded in accomplishing those plausible effects of tone by means of which especially he became known. Here we have simply a line of stunted willows, and the white under-sides of their leaves, and a shallow brook flowing beneath their boughs, with flat meadows at the left. It is not strong, but its sunny gray-greenness, just subdued by mist, is rendered with a fair degree of faithfulness. In the second piece, we see how the painter had already begun to make compromises. He leaves his rocks flat, his sea dead, for the sake of a harmony scarcely deserving this sacrifice. But an influence was at work upon Kensett which, it is to be feared, lurks in the way of many American painters. The lack of proper academical training, prevailing for many years, has left the public without standards to which they may refer new work. The demand for ripeness and completeness is, at the same time, unstinted, and the temptation is for the painter to strain at pleasing effects, before he has the requisite strength in drawing for achieving meritorious results. These conditions are in process of alteration ; but it is nevertheless wise to receive, now and then, some such unconscious warning as we find in these relics of Kensett. The third example is an autumnal scene. Through a softly-tinted wood breaks and oozes a hazy Indian-summer brightness, lighting in particular a shimmering birchtree on the left ; while on the right a conventional brook debouches into the foreground. Taken for itself, apart from ideal standards, it is very pretty, and the entire combination of colors harmonious. But the tree-boughs are, in this instance, too much drawn, rather than lacking in form ; there is a studious angularity and confusion about them that is meretricious. All the modulations of color, too, are suited to an arbitrary standard of taste. It is decidedly decorative in its effect, and we might also persuade ourselves that it is like enough to nature, did we not know that it has but little more claim to even such faint praise than an India shawl. It borders on the Sonntag manner, in fact; and we conceive that nothing more peremptorily derogatory could be said. There is an inverse proportion between the modifications of style observable in Kensett and those of Inness. Of the latter painter we have a landscape dated 1861,—a lake among hills, with white spire and low-roofed farm-house on the left, illumined by changing lights from the broken clouds of the sky. It is excellent in parts, but soiled with conventional reds and browns m the foliage, that remind one of Fuller in the more excessive of his imbrowning moods. It affords us a contrast which repays, however, when we examine the small canvas of eight years later. Here, a soft white light blooms from the centre-background upon a parklike piece of scenery, with a delicious distance on the right; its clustering trees daintily persuaded into a rosy haze ; and a cool glimpse of dark water on the left, over which broad violet shadows and dim green shrubbery, together with high elmboughs wrought out in slender grace. Inness himself has brokenly reflected the examples of other masters more than once ; but he preserves his strong individuality through all, and constantly surprises by his advances and alterations. At present, he shows in his painting something of Jules Breton, a touch of the hard old Italian landscape-art, and occasionally something akin to what may be found in the landscapes of Walker in London ; and yet it is difficult to say when these traces of other men are the result of direct influence, and when merely resemblances arising from similar but independent tendencies.
Mr. F. D. Williams made several contributions to the exhibition ; but in only one of these has he achieved a real success, to our thinking ; and this is a massive rock, with a sombre group of trees beside it, and a white, glistening sea thrown directly above it in perspective. In his New England Brook and A Ride in the Woods, he gives evidence of a growing conventionality. A peculiar theory of rendering foliage, glimpses of which we have caught in previous productions, asserts itself in these with undesirable prominence ; the branches and trunks of the trees are let into thick masses of green body-color which have absolutely a low relief approaching that of lacquer-work.
The difference between Lambinet’s recent landscape of two years since and that painted in 1866 is noteworthy. There is deep knowledge and nice play of skill in the latter, which represents a simple piece of farm country, supported by a white sky that the eye reaches only after passing over several miles of meadow, all present upon that receding surface of painted grass ; but, beside the later work, it is as if dust had been scattered over everything. The picture, dated 1871, refers, in the simplest and most direct manner, to the unaffected greens and the speechless blue of an almost cloudless day by the river-side. Comparing the two, we say to ourselves, This is a study, the other a picture. Nevertheless, it is this strong sunny chord that the master, in his maturity, insists upon striking most frequently. Must this inimitable freshness, then, be always lost in calculating the relations of a finished picture ? Lambinet’s practice we take to be the proof of possible exceptions ; but Daubigny by no means satisfies us, in the piece which here represents him, as to his ability to make a thoroughly reposeful picture, without first straining his elements through a fold or two of temperate conventionality.
M. Ziem also enters the lists of this controversy (and what contemporary young landscapist does not?) with a large canvas on which is spread, speaking literally, a feast of color; but its digestibility must be a matter of some question. A pale green expanse of grass occupies the foreground, through which flows a quiet streamlet into the harbor, behind a dark company of trees running directly across the scene. On the meadow stands a little white temple, and around it are figures made up of blue, red, crimson, bright yellow. The dim gray goldenness of the leaves above them seems to grow more ardent in color as they rise against the clear but not too intense blue of the sky. A strip of blue sea glimmers through the trees, and faint salmon-colored houses rise beyond it on the left side, passing off toward that corner. A soft and velvety Jacques, made up of dark, knotted trees on the left, with a moist light breaking from the sky behind, deep dove-colored clouds on the right, and sheep in the foreground, presented a sufficiently strong contrast to Ziem. But perhaps the most valuable of the foreign paintings was a small sketch by Couture, a sort of Holy Family group in Henry the Eighth costume. If one can reconcile one’s self to a portentous tumor in the child’s cheek, inflicted by too hasty a dash of the brush, much still delight may, we think, be found in the dim, rich harmony subsisting between the white puff of cloud and gray-green trees at the back, and the abundant brownness of the foreground tree at the left, under which are seen the shimmering lavender mother, the babe in dingy white, a woman kneeling, in drowsy yellow, with a red pouch at her side, and the red-jacketed man between them, standing slightly behind.
Mr. Babcock is represented by a picture called The Pet, —a woman feeding a rabbit ; and by a Boy with Canaries. In the first we find a decidedly morbid blue sky at the upper left-hand corner; and the greenish yellow of the woman’s turban coming directly against this, as also the dull olive of her dress and the red scarf wound around her, together with the green of the leaves the rabbit is eating, are all wanting in sobriety and healthy accord. A branch of red and bronze leaves hangs over the woman, and a boy stands at the side, with red hair, and red shadows in his face. Somehow this does not all fall into a satisfactory unity, but looks as if each part had been worked out under some special hyperæsthesia of the artist’s eye. The other is much more pleasing, though by no means a fair instance of Mr. Babcock, who, though fond of treading dangerous ground, derives from the dangers overcome, when he does succeed, additional force. A not ungraceful boy, in this case, with face of a faint, dusty red, and feminine contour, holds a nest of very small and callow canaries, a larger one, which he is about to kiss, being perched upon his hand.
We should have mentioned before this a little scene on Tremont Street, in winter, by Mr. F. H. Smith. The darkening of the snow into blue under late twilight, the solemn lingering of that sere orange tint in the west, and the gaunt forms of trees in the Granary Burial-ground are all well given; but there is a suspicion of too liberal a conventionalism in the varnished brown bestowed in such good measure upon some of the buildings. The independence of this effort to make something acceptable out of modest and easily accessible materials is, however, praiseworthy.
Besides the pictures already noticed, several old Flemish and Italian works were to be seen. In the Christ in the Manger attributed to Ludovico Caracci, the child is a marvel of softness and light held still within the grasp of concise, clear drawing ; though there is a superfluity of widespread fingers and strained eyes, and a general confusion of limbs, about the figures which complete the composition. A Saint Barbara, thought to be by Lucas van Leyden, has a grace and finish in the face, and draperies of the figure which seem almost worthy of one of the Van Eycks. In one hand she holds a peacock plume, with the other she turns the pages of a missal; her auburn hair is encased in a network of pearls ; and the dress is dull red, with curious slashed and embroidered sleeves, and square-cut about the neck, where again are pearls in a fine chain. She has a flowing sash of gauze gilded in transverse bands.
In the outer room were a number of charcoal drawings by pupils of Mr. William Hunt, which were interesting as specimens of novice-work under a system of tuition more decidedly French than that pursued in the schools of industrial drawing authorized by the State of Massachusetts.