Art

MR. THOMAS MORAN, who two years ago painted a remarkable picture of the Canon of the Yellowstone,—now the property of the nation, — has just completed another large work representing the Chasm of the Colorado, and lately on exhibition in New York, at the gallery of Goupil & Co., Fifth Avenue.

The subject of this important work is the chasm or pit worked by the Colorado River in the sandstone rock over which it flows at this point, as the subject of the other picture was the chasm worked in the limestone rock by the Yellowstone River. The landscape of Mr. Moran’s first picture was equally awful and desolate with that shown us in the present work, but its terror was lessened by the beauty and variety of the color with which nature veiled her work of change and destruction. Here, we have no such charm. We are led into a region where the eye has hardly a resting-place, no resting-place, in fact, unless it be turned upward to the sky. For this serene heaven — serene except where in one portion it darkens with the wrath of thunder clouds and the stream of deluging rain — looks down upon the very pit of hell. Only Dante’s words seem fit to describe this scene: “There is a place in hell called Malebolge, all of stone, and of an iron color, like the barrier which winds round it. Right in the middle yawns a well exceeding wide and deep, whose structure its due place shall tell. The border therefore that remains, between the well and the foot of the high rocky bank, is round; . . . as is the form that ground presents, where to defend the walls successive ditches begird a castle; such images these made here.” 1 It is remarkable how in a few words this passage gives us a good description of the Chasm of the Colorado. The color of the rock is there, the yawning well at the bottom of which the unseen river ploughs its way deeper still, and most strange of all, the mightyrock that rises in the middle-distance, a gigantic castle of stone to which all these yawning cracks are the horrible moats! Did Dante in his wanderings ever see such a country? Perhaps Vesuvius or Etna might show something as full of fear if one climbed down into their craters. But, even there, the limited area of the desolation would not allow the mind to forget utterly the supreme loveliness of the nature that lies so near. Here, there is no loveliness for hundreds of miles, nor anything on which the healthy human eye can bear to look (the scientific eye excepted), and this scene is only the concentrated ghastliness of a ghastly region. Some years ago Mr. John Henry Hill went to Nevada and made a number of sketches of the scenery. Among them were several of the region about Virginia City. We had been getting our notions of this country from the conventionalists, and were a little shocked at the naked truth as we saw it on Mr. Hill’s canvas. We remember that when the artist was asked what the country looked like, he, who never wasted words, said quietly, “ Like hell.” Mr. Moran, who is also a truth-teller, brings the same report of a land which is of the same character, only four hundred miles to the southeast.

The spectator stands on a sort of bluff or ledge, and looks across the upheaved land from what may ho called the gallery of a huge amphitheatre. The cliffs at his left rise more than a thousand feet from the level on which he stands, but Mr. Moran has not succeeded in impressing us with the fact of such an altitude. The ledge from which we look is all strewed with broken rocks, and at the right there is seen the base of cliffs that answer to those at the left, but their abruptness is replaced by the sloping bank of débris left by the action of the water. The river in working its way down to the lower level (where it is seen in one or two places shining in its bed like a harmless silver snake) has acted with the caprice of water, and eating into and around the rock has left the most fantastically shaped hills, hillocks, crags, and islands, so that the aspect of things is as if a raging ocean had suddenly turned to stone, and the billows stood fixed, with icebergs and leviathans caught in their huge swing and play. Only a minute description could give its topography. As for the imaginative impression, it needs a poet to translate that into words. Only a word will complete what little picture we may have been able to convey to the reader’s mental eye by these hints. Beyond the edge of the chasm we look along the great plain in which it is hollowed, and see the air-drawn tops of the far-sailing mountains shining in soft splendor under a sky streaked with cirrus cloud. This vision of a fairer world is all there is to relieve the impression of turbulent uproar and desolation that oppresses us in the main subject; and the delight expressed in the beauty of this portion, and in the beauty with which it is painted, seems to teach that human beings do not care to look out from the real gloom and sadness of life and experience, upon a landscape that only repeats these shadows. They long for something that speaks of peace and rest.

Although the places depicted in the two paintings are several hundred miles apart, and though the geological structures of the two are widely different, there is yet a superficial resemblance between the two subjects, owing chiefly, no doubt, to the fact that in both we are shown the tremendous action of water, first, in denuding a vast tract of country, and then in boring and cutting its way down to a lower level through immensely thick layers of stratified rock; but another element that undoubtedly adds to the resemblance is a certain mannerism which the artist has contracted, and which shows itself most conspicuously in the treatment of foreground rocks and trees. It would be unfair, however, to give the impression, or, what is the same in effect, to allow the impression to be gathered, from what we have just said, that this mannerism is sufficient to affect the essential truth of Mr. Moran’s work. It is perhaps not enough to make it even superficially untrue, but it is felt as mannerism, and this may mean, we suppose, either a way of doing things, or a way of seeing things. Of course, the two do not, as a rule, long remain distinct. Who gets a habit of seeing things a certain way—and how few do not! —in the end gets a habit of doing them a certain way. Mr. Moran has not yet become a mannerist in his observation, but he may easily become so; the only way to escape the danger is to insist on seeing many things, and as different things as possible.

As we study these pictures we feel that the artist has set himself the task (and it is a very difficult one) of representing the scenes as they look to him; he has not merely taken what nature has done here as a theme, on which to show off his skill in flourishes and variations. Mr. Bierstadt painted the Rocky Mountains and the Yo-Semite in such a way that people of culture who had lived long in those regions could never he brought to tolerate the pictures that for a time drove us all wild with enthusiasm. As there is no clap-trap about Mr. Moran, so there is none about his pictures, and the faults we discover in this latest work are the result of trying to do too much — at least, this is our way of explaining the difficulty. The picture not only crowds too much incident into its comparatively narrow frame, but the subject it deals with is one that never should have been attempted— partly because it is impossible to do justice to it, and again because art is not concerned with it, if it were possible. Mr. Moran showed wiser in his first picture, He chose a simpler subject, or at any rate one with more unity. Perhaps we may go so far as to say that the first picture had a subject, and that this one has none. It was said by one who looked at it, “ There is no use in trying to paint ail out-of-doors.” But all out-of-doors might be painted. Turner did it several times in “Chateau Gaillard” (Rivers of France) for instance. But, to he painted, all out-of-doors must he behaving itself. And the country round about the great Chasm of the Colorado is, not to speak it profanely, on a bender. It is a demoralized land, and the lover of nature will turn his head away from the spectacle until the tantrum is over. Of course, if Mr. Moran set out to give us an accurate survey of this dreary, uninhabitable land—to let us know exactly how it looks — there is no doubt that, apart from the necessary exaggeration that comes of grouping the horrors together that in nature are more widely separated, he has done us all a scientific service, and we admit that the work on this score was well worth doing, lint no artist we have is better aware than Mr. Moran that, to do this alone, is not to make a picture, it is to make a map ; and he meant to make not a map, but a picture. The Canon of the Yellowstone was a picture, and Mr. Moran showed how much he is an artist by the successful way in which, while he satisfied all the demands of the scientific, and produced a portrait of the spot that satisfied the literal, and that geologists stood ready to swear by, he gave to the eerie scene

— ” the light that never was on sea or land,
The consecration, and the poet’s dream.”

The Cañon of the Yellowstone, albeit it did not please those critics who insist on applying laws they have codified from the practice of contemporary French artists to the whole art of landscape-painting, no matter where produced, was a singularly beautiful and original work. The composition was very skillfully managed, and the harmony of color had its instinctive centre — as unconsciously and happily felt, not reasoned, as the key word of a true poet’s verse — in the glint of the sapphire river that swept with all its garnered sunshine down to the bottom of the monstrous world.

Mr. Moran’s new picture is wanting almost entirely in the beauty that distinguished his earlier work, and, to many, when that has been said, all has been said. We, too, feel that, great as is the praise of truth when it can as in this case he justly given to a picture, it would he greater praise to be able to say that the truth has been told, not of a land that makes real the darkest picture Dante has drawn of hell, but of the common world. We confess to being weary of sensation landscapes, and we feel that the delight many of our countrymen take in them is an indication of a somewhat childish apprehension of the true end of art, a condition of mind however in which we are of course by no means solitary. The only aim of art is to feed the sense of beauty; it has no right to meddle with horrors and desolations.

But we must not leave Mr. Moran’s scholarly and earnest work without giving it, for our own sake, the praise we feel to he its due. Though the composition is muddled and confused, and the color monotonous, and the sense of height absent, yet there is distance wonderfully expressed, most exquisite painting of sky and cloud over the plateau at the right, and lovely lightness and motion in the mist that forms in the clefts of the rocks, and rises to ho dispersed in the palpitating heat of the upper air. All that is most difficult to be expressed by paint is expressed here with a skill that approaches perfection, and if, as we think, Mr. Moran has failed to cope with the difficulties of his subject, he has yet in this picture given new evidence, if any were needed, of his ability to deal with the beauty and the serenity of the nature we all know and love.

— Mr. John La Fargo has lately exhibited in Boston some pictures which could not fail of giving delight and satisfaction to those who recognize with pleasure a poetic reflection of nature in the art of the painter. We did not find concise or consecutive design in them; but that we hardly cared to look for in productions of a genius so refreshingly unique as this. There were two figure-subjects, three flower-pieces, three landscapes, in the group, Of the landscapes, we liked best that representing the clearing-off of fog on the sea-shore. A rich, rusty, orange passage of weed and lichened rock, on the left, draws the eye to the white mist, thick and warm, ascending beyond it. This mist passes into a very faintly tinted mauvecolored mass, in the right background, which moves slowly off, under a pale green sky, from the level face of the sea. The mist seems actually to move. The sea is slowly revealed from under it, so that we hardly determine at what point the eye pauses in its glimpse, feeling in advance the sight of that expanse not yet visible. At the hither edge of the sea a breadth of yellow sand is drawn distantly across the picture. Nearer to us is a rock, from which grows a low, dark-green cedar, with a deep shadow of resinous red beneath it, — a true effect we do not remember to have seen noticed by our landscape painters heretofore. The foreground is a luxurious, expansive outspreading of rich, soft, sea-side green, with a dull, pale streak of still water near by. The painter’s sympathy with color in every part is intense and exquisite ; but one feels also, that while yielding himself to its delicious influence, he has somehow wooed from it a secret of interior truth and significance only partially surmised by the spectator. This is hardly a clear statement, but comes as near as anything will, to conveying a sense of the mystical character of Mr. La Farge’s coloring.

Another of the landscapes, a small winter-scene, is in some respects one of the most remarkable we have ever seen. It gradually unfolds a nearly endless variety where one would expect, if not monotony, at least closely limited resources. The horizon is placed at about half-way up the picture : all below is a sloping field covered with snow; all above, snowy sky. There is no impossible, conventional multiplication of white specks, to indicate the falling flakes, but the air is nevertheless full of snowiness. It is the spirit of winter which has been seized and depicted, along with all sufficient sensible and visible elements of such a scene. The materials of the picture, however, are almost ludicrously scanty, for description. The only distinct incident in the whole piece is a little tree (a scruboak ?) in the foreground, with a half-dozen or more clusters of brown leaves hanging to it. At some distance behind, is the slightly curving outline of the hill, along which grows a dim, bare wood, blinded with filmy white. The gradations of the blue-gray snowy sky above, and of the field below, are extraordinary. There is discoverable in the snow on the ground an ethereal tinge of pink; so ethereal, that it only appears at instants, in an evanescent way. Between the tree and the wood, there is a tint of green in it. On the left, the snow has been trampled, or else scattered a little by winds, and has become blue. Also a little brook-bed, or other depression in the ground, is faintly marked by blue and violet. It will be seen at once that such a picture as this is not a composition; and yet these little fluctuations in the color of the snow become as important, if we once drop into the mood of the painter, as more striking events in works where the scale of interests is less delicately graduated. Glanced at casually, among other pictures, this small canvas would not attract a moment’s attention from the average amateur. Yet, as we let our eyes fall into it, the impression becomes increasingly stronger that there is invention in it, somewhere. That is, we are not altogether sure that Mr. La Farge saw just this, and no more, no less, out of his window, and then sat down to match the different parts, with carefully mixed colors; on the contrary, we get a feeling that he has developed this little reverie of faint tones as a tender fantasy, improvising, as he went on, turns and inflections of hue, as they became necessary to the general harmony.

Of the flower-pieces the most successful was that in which three June-roses appear among thick-clustering leaves. The blossoms mark the points of a triangle, one being at the bottom, and two above. The pervading tone is rich, subdued, and sweet; and the skill with which one of the rose-leaves, lighted with very bright yellow, is worked into harmony with the rest, is admirable. The other two flower-pieces are more unique, and in some ways more attractive, but not so completely wrought out. Both are experiments in the same direction, that of placing a small tray or saucer of various flowers in close juxtaposition with white hangings; in one case window-curtains, with a vague vista out of the window. The window-curtains, however, are too heavy an accompaniment, and degenerate into a disproportionate mass of whiteness. In the other piece, the flowers — a yellow rose, with some pink ones, and pansies, and a few small crimson blossoms — lie on a Japanese tray, and are delicately reflected in the lacquered surface; while the white draperies behind are sustained by a soft seeking-out of blue and purplish shadow and yellow light, as characteristic as the color-blendings already noticed in the little winter-piece. The flowers, considered apart, are painted with exquisite grace. A primrose is clearly much more than a primrose to Mr. La Farge: at a little distance, these blossoms are deliciously fair and fragile and evanescent, yet, when scrutinized closely, they prove to be drawn with greatest care and nicety.

Of the figure-pieces, one portrayed a reclining woman, and was distinguished by a certain dreamy languor of coloring and sentiment; as a picture, it savored somewhat of influence from Japanese decorative art. The other presented a crimsongowned, green-turbaued man, sitting in a field under trees, and strumming upon a long-handled guitar. A slight, pervasive mist causes the spectator to feel his way slowly into the background of green inclosure and castle-walls. The theme, as usual, is very slight; the treatment suggestive, and at the same time far from hasty or sketchy. Mr. La Farge’s genius evidently prefers a strict moderation in materials, and spends its reserve of sweet, brooding feeling in the distillation from these slender substances of all their most subtle pictorial virtue. He displays, we think, a kind of Oriental contentment with a few beautiful, sensuous impressions, delighting to accumulate appreciation of their simple satisfactoriness, to the utmost of his own and the spectator’s capacity. It is a result of his intense sensitiveness to visual beauty. Physical nature is to him an inexhaustible provider of dainty and delicate color-modulations; and his acute detection of them makes him a true discoverer. A noticeable fact in his work is his devotion to smooth, deep green; showing as it does his vital delight in pure color, which should by no means be confounded with a pampered or fastidious seeking of unusual inflections. His special insight has its dangers, entailing sometimes a too entirely physical devotion to color, expressed in the rich, creamy heaping on of his pigments, — a too great confidence in the efficacy of simply spreading color on to the canvas in decorative combinations. But the tendency which he illustrates is, on the whole, extremely valuable, and we should be fortunate could we count among American painters many of such genuine feeling and poetic sympathy, united with so much technical ability, as Mr. La Farge possesses.

If anything in regard to these pictures of Mr. La Farge could be more surprising than their singular goodness, it must be the fact that they were rejected by the hanging-committee at the last exhibition of the New York National Academy of Design, although Mr. La Farge is himself an Academician, and (as the Academy has since declared in some published resolutions) holds a position in virtue of his membership “ behind which the Academy cannot go, either by itself or any committee.” The Academy in this declaration of course disclaims the action of the hanging-committee, but an indignity has nevertheless been offered to a painter of refined genius and high repute, which no one can see these pictures and not resent. The office of a hanging-committee is one of such difficulty and thanklessness that few artists are willing to accept places on it, and the gentlemen who did so in this case distinguished their unfitness for it not only by rejecting Mr. La Farge’s pictures, but by hanging the picture of one exhibitor sidewise, by putting a contribution of Mr. Whistler’s out of sight, and by giving the best position to five pictures by one of their own number. Their action obliged Mr. La Farge to appeal to the council of the Academy, the members of which recognized the case as their own, and passed the resolutions of disapproval referred to. In taking this course with the hanging-committee, to whose unintentional errors every artist of right feeling would be lenient, Mr. La Farge has acted in the interest of the public and of all the painters. In New York, at least, the Academy is the last refuge from the dealer and from inadequate criticism. After long neglect of the Academy exhibitions the artists had generally begun to recognize this fact, and the contribution of pictures to the exhibition of this year was unusually large and full. It was therefore the moment in which such an eccentricity — to call it by the mildest possible name — could be most injurious, and every one must be glad that it was promptly disowned and rebuked.

  1. “ Luogo è in Inferno — " Iaferno, canto xviii. 1-13, Carlyle’s Translation.