Art

WE had occasion last month to notice the predominating influence of English art on our own in architecture, and the paradox that this should be the result where the foreign training, so far as it came in the way, was mainly French. In painting, however, at least among Boston artists, the result is quite opposite, and the English influence almost nothing. Two exhibitions and sales held lately in Boston have been very significant of this, both in the character of the works offered, and in the interest of purchasers. The first was the sale several weeks ago of paintings by Messrs. William M. Hunt, F. H. Smith, Robinson, and one or two others ; the second, the sale on March 12th and 13th of the works of Mr. J. Foxcroft Cole. In both of these exhibitions the French influence was not merely dominant but supreme, all the artists we have mentioned having studied in Paris, and the pictures being virtually French pictures painted in America ; and the two sales were, we believe, far the most profitable, in money, that have ever been in Boston. And the most ardently American art-lover among us who has noted the general passion of our people for vivid effect, and who remembers the kind of trophies which our travelers abroad are apt to gather up, especially in Italy, may be thankful for the tempering influence of an art so well studied and balanced as that of the French landscape painters, even though for the moment it is the cause of some one-sidedness and mannerism. We incline to believe that the former of these two exhibitions was on the whole the best exhibition of works of our own painters which we have ever had here. Our readers’ recollections, however, are likely, as well as our own, to be too much dimmed by this time for any special consideration of the pictures in it. Two or three of Mr. Hunt’s pictures are not easily forgotten, it is true, as, for example, the singularly vital, pathetic picture entitled Elaine, — a misnomer, by the way, to our thinking, — and a landscape with a strip of yellow sand-beach beside a bit of water, the middle distance filled with solemn woods, a wonderful suggestion of depth of space and mystery. Mystery, we may stop to say, is an effect in nature of which our painters rarely seem to have any conception or even perception. It is utterly antagonistic, in fact, to the practical American mind (except sometimes in the form of spiritualism), which wishes to realize with biting distinctness whatever it notes at all. Kensett had a great feeling for mystery in his landscapes, and Inness has shown the same, but they are exceptions. We recall also, among the pictures we were speaking of, a fine, serious, richly toned composition of Mr. Robinson, a large cattle piece, the largest in the room, with a curious effect of repetition between the cattle in light and in shadow, and a small group of French horses painted with great force and spirit ; also a charming Twilight at Auxerre by' Mr. Smith, and by him too a large water picture with Venice in the distance, full of the damp freshness of the Venetian morning, the colorplay and quiet heaving of the lagoon.

The occasion of the sale of Mr. Cole’s pictures is his return to France, a return at which the observer of his painting will hardly be surprised, so French is it in style and feeling. He is thoroughly a pastoral painter, not of the Strephon and Chloe kind, — his figures are rarely prominent and always of the homeliest types, — but fond of sheep and cattle, and of the simplest country landscapes, quiet, meditative, and tender. His pictures are rarely cheerful, and never gay ; commonly rather melancholy, and even sombre. Hence he never expresses the bright exhilarations of an American scene in its most characteristic phases. He paints no clear, bracing northwesterly weather, if we may judge by the pictures we have seen in this exhibition and elsewhere, and shuns the smallest approach to wildness ; but confines himself to roadside nooks, still ponds, or slow rivers, or hides in the corners of orchards and gives us the most subdued moods of nature. We have seen him compared in some newspapers to Cuyp, but we hardly know why, unless that he paints cattle. There is in his painting none of the brightness of Cuyp, none of the dewy freshness, the luminousness of Cuyp’s morning pictures. Mr. Cole’s light is always subdued and seldom broad ; the utmost he allows himself is a few square inches of white wall, to “focus” the sunlight on a stretch of green turf ; and he never paints the morning or the evening, but the subdued light of a cloudy day, and the sultry languor of a summer noon. If he paints a mist, it is not the luminous mist of Turner or Cuyp, but a brooding, dog-day mist, full of heaviness. Evidently he does not enjoy a brilliant American or Italian atmosphere, but turns gladly to the softened air of France.

The making up of Mr. Cole’s pictures is in accord with his choice of subject. He is careful to bring everything into keeping and balance, to avoid anything like glare or even brilliancy. The fastidious adjustment of values in his pictures gives a very pleasant feeling of harmony and repose, though it is carried so far as to banish any great vigor of effect. The greatest breadth is generally in shadow or in half tint, and the shadows are often deficient, it has seemed to us, in accentuation. Among the best examples in point of light, as we remember, were a picture called the Boardman Pasture, the Farm of St. Simeon, Harfleurs, and a small view near Providence. This last, and especially one of the Boardman Farm in Saugus, were charming, instances of Mr. Cole’s peculiar low-toned treatment of American landscape and sky. The ever-pleasant contrast of warm lights and cool shadows was nicely rendered in an Interior of Woods, numbered 7 in the catalogue.

Mr. Cole’s color is always good, though low in tone. One of the very best of his pictures, in this as in other respects, was the lovely Distant View of Melrose. The light was well concentrated, balanced by breadth of shadow, the coloring rich and true, the handling more graphic than in many of his works, — the whole more than usually vigorous in effect. In some of the larger pictures the handling seemed too slight for the size of the canvas, as particularly in one called Under the Willows, where everything that was told could have been better given on a quarter of the surface, and the picture looked weak.

As a painter of cattle and sheep Mr. Cole is remarkably clever. The work is apt to be rather thinly done, so that the anatomy is but indistinctly suggested and the texture not very characteristic. But the attitudes and general forms of his animals he usually gives with skill, as well as their groupings. An admirable cattle picture in these respects was No. 50, Cattle Drinking at the Mouth of the Seine. Anxiety to preserve the breadth and relation of his masses sometimes leads Mr. Cole to an unfortunate sacrifice of relief and modeling, as notably in a picture called Norman Cattle, where an ox (or cow) in the foreground shadow seemed fairly imbedded in the turf he should be standing upon. In some of Mr. Cole’s larger sheep also, we noticed a lack of modeling and of texture which we ascribed to the same cause; but as far as they go they are well done ; if he lacks the vigor of Troyon, he is equally far removed from the smug smoothness of the popular Verbockhoven. In sheep, again, there is a nervous sensitiveness and a quickness which are very characteristic of their movements, and to which we think Mr. Cole hardly does justice. We ought to except the somewhat large picture, one of the most excellent in all respects, called an Ancient Sheepfold. Here a flock folded in the vaulted cellars of an old castle is feeding from a cart, with a struggling eagerness that is altogether admirable.

In speaking of the landscapes, we should have mentioned a Street Scene in Picquigny which is one of the most characteristic in the exhibition— solidly painted, very true to the color and feeling of an old northern French town.

— The Corcoran Gallery at Washington is now fairly opened, and a beginning made of an art-exhibition which, in the almost utter absence of anything of man’s making worth looking at in the national capital, may be called respectable. It would be a mistake every way, to suppose that the Corcoran Gallery in its present condition is a thing for Washington to crow too much over. In fact, that it is crowed over at all is an unfortunate evidence of our national poverty in galleries, museums, and collections of art. Even the Metropolitan Museum of New York city, or the smaller collection of the Boston Athenæum, — in neither of which is there much rubbish, while there is in both a deal that is valuable, — might serve as hints that all opportunity for laying the foundation of a public museum of art was not lost when Mr. Corcoran had once established his. In justice to the trustees of the Corcoran Gallery, it ought to be understood that they have had nothing to do with the foolish, fulsome praise that has been lavished upon the collection. It was not their wish to have the gallery opened to the public until all its contents were in place, whereas they were obliged, by the pressure of so-called public opinion, to open the rooms, while many things of interest and value, that had been bought in Europe for the collection, were still packed up on the other side, and waiting Shipment.

It would not be gracious to dilate upon the character of the works of art that form the nucleus of the gallery, — Mr. Corcoran’s original gift. No doubt the gift was kindly and generously meant, nor is there any doubt that the giver believed it to be valuable. Yet it is enough to say of it, — too much, perhaps, — that its chief treasure was the late Mr. Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave, and from the Pygmy’s foot the value of the whole collection, as art, may be known. What has been added to the original gift thus far is simply material that can be bought in open market, and whatever its use may be, or whatever the value or beauty of the individual objects, the want of relation between these objects, and their want of relation to any common end, must long give the collection a motley, aimless air. There is, of course, the staple of all such collections in our country : casts from the antique and the Elgin marbles, things which no gentleman’s library can be without, but the possession of which no longer implies any' love of art, more than the possession of The Decline and Fall implies a love of learning.

Frankly, we think the purchase of these casts might have been adjourned, or, if casts there must be, we wish some others than those with which we have so many opportunities to become familiar could have taken their place. Early Italian sculpture and the sculpture of the Renaissance in Italy and France are nowhere represented in this country, yet casts of the best works are easily' procured. The gallery does indeed possess a copy of the Ghiberti Gates ; we wish it could show us all three gates of the Baptistery. Our minister to Italy, the lion. George P. Marsh, a gentleman toward whom the Italian government is never weary of showing its sense of his attainments as a scholar, and his worth as a man, would no doubt use his influence to get us casts botli of Ghiberti’s earlier gate and of the Southern Gate executed by Audrea Pisano. When we think of all the fine things there are in Italy, which the income of the Corcoran Gallery could, by degrees, enable it to have cast or copied, we grudge tiie room and money given to these stale Greek and Roman casts, which are now to be found in every large city in America,— even in San Francisco.

Next to the casts from the antique, the gallery seems proudest of its bronzes by Barye, and certainly it is good to have these; only, to our thinking their value is lessened by the fact that they can be bought in open market, at least as long as the artist lives and continues to make them for sale. The newspaper writers seem bent on throwing an air of exclusiveness and mystery over the contents of the Corcoran Gallery, though we believe that there is neither exclusiveness nor mystery connected with a single thing in it. The casts of the Ghiberti Gates, we are told, are a great treasure; there are only two or three other copies in existence, and there can never be any more, because the Italian government is afraid the gates will be hurt if any more casts are taken ! We suppose there was never but one cast made of these gates, and from that matrix, which is in the possession of the authorities of the South Kensington Museum, the few copies that have been sold have been taken ; but there is the matrix, and copies may be made at will, without much hurting the gates themselves ! But, supposing it were true that no more were to be had, would that so much increase the value of a copy in plaster of a famous work still existing in perfection in the very place for which it was designed, and of which we have at least one other copy in the country — at Yale College, namely ? Then, again, for Gérome’s large study for the Mart de Cesar, we are told that this, too, is a great treasure ; that Gérome was hardly persuaded to part with it; that he wanted it to belong to some national collection somewhere, and that it was only when the Corcoran Gallery had been duly magnified to him, that he was brought to consent, etc., etc. Now it does not detract a whit from the merit of the study for the Death of Cæsar that while it is true it was bought for the Corcoran Gallery from Gérome, and true that he had desired it should be purchased for the Luxembourg by the French government, yet it is also true that the picture was a long time in this country seeking for a purchaser, and that until it was sent back to Paris because it could not find one, there was nothing heard of Gérome’s unwillingness to part with it. The Dead Cæsar is a picture that does not need this flavor of hum buggery to give it value. So, too, with Ary Scheffer’s Count Eber hard of Würtemberg mourning over his Dead Son. This picture would seem to have as many originals as the Greek Slave, for there is one in the Luxembourg, this one in the Corcoran Gallery, and every Bostonian is familiar with the one that has so long been in the Athenæum. It is to know very little of the current estimate of Ary Scheffer’s art, in any country, to plume one’s self upon the possession of a picture by him, especially when that picture is one the artist copied and re-copied. To conclude, the Corcoran Gallery can boast nothing remarkable as yet, or anything particularly useful. But there is certainly a beginning, and as the institution has a good income and a body of trustees who know its wants, and the best way to supply them, we have reason to hope that when the crude period of hobbledehoyhood shall have passed, the manly age of the collection will be something worth contemplating.