To THE EDITOR OF THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY :
Sir,—Many loose statements reflecting upon the conduct of the National Academy of Design have of late appeared in the journals of the day, which on account of their ephemeral and local nature have not been thought worthy of denial; but since these statements have cystallized in a more enduring and more widely circulated form in the columns of The Atlantic, and as the Academy and its officers are thereby injured in the public estimation, a refutal becomes imperative; and I trust that your sense of justice, and your interest in art and in the Academy, will cause you to make the needful correction by the publication of this letter.
The writer of the Art article in your June number states, that “ the artists themselves had so long neglected the interests of their own institution, that it was on the very verge of bankruptcy; ” that “they had wasted in bickerings the time that should have been used in hard work;” that “ there were very few of them who accomplished, in any given year, either all the work they could have done, or work of as good quality as they were able to produce,”etc. Now, as a matter of fact and figures, the Academy has never been on “ the verge of bankruptcy.” Its entire debt is only $35,000, while its real estate and other property are worth at a low valuation at least $400,000. Surely such a condition does not look like bankruptcy.
Of this indebtedness, the sum of $20,000 was contracted in the erection of the building, and the balance, of $15,000, has been incurred for the support of the schools, which are entirely free, and open to all comers, with no distinction on account of age, sex, color, or religion. They have involved an expenditure of nearly $18,000 during the past three years, and the admissions during these years were,
175 students in 1871-72
196 “ “ 1872-73
214 “ " 1873-74.
The business affairs have always been well managed, and I doubt if any other institution in the country, with so little public aid, can show so good a record of public service.
Then I assert that no artist has “ wasted in bickerings the time that should have been used in hard work.”
A few years ago there were differences of opinion respecting the government of the Academy and the policy that should be pursued; but no more personal feeling was engendered than always accompanies radical changes in the government of all institutions; certainly much less than has been exhibited of late in some religious conventions. During the whole of this time, each individual artist pursued the even tenor of his way, working as earnestly and as diligently in any given year as during that just passed, and, making due allowance for improvement, each one has produced as much and as good work. The mistake consists in supposing that the Academy exhibitions contain all of the pictures, or even all of the good ones, produced during the year. The majority of the pictures painted are sold during the season, and the owners are generally averse to sending them to the Academy to serve as the butts of the small wit of the critics.
Until the present exhibition the public has never regarded the Academy as a place where pictures could be purchased; although as many good works have every year been exhibited and returned unsold, as have been sold during this season. So instead of sending their unsold pictures to the Academy, the artists have generally preferred to retain them in their own studios, or to send them to some dealer’s collection, where there were chances of sale, and where they were sure of considerate treatment from the press.
As one instance of this discrimination of the critics, take Benson’s picture of The Strayed Maskers, which during its exhibition at the Century and Union League clubs and at Mr. Avery’s rooms, some four months since, was universally praised ; and now the same picture on the walls of the Academy is as generally condemned.
“What drugs, what charms, what conjurations, and what mighty magic” have the dealers won these critics with ?
The idea of the average American art critic in regard to his functions seems to be that he is to write a spicy article, and that a picture is to be used merely as a warp upon which to weave his woof of wit.
To the ignorant, all art is a sealed book, and the true critic in his relation to the public should stand as the interpreter of the artist’s work, teaching not by the faults but by the virtues of the pictures before him.
Artists are not generally either idiots or knaves ; and it is not to be presumed that they devote months of earnest work either to idiotic drivelings or to dishonest charlatanry, but that they have something to say that they think worth the telling; and the critic should be qualified both by nature and education to read this meaning and to make it known, and to interest the public in the study of pictures. Merely to point out the imperfections of a work of art is hardly the way to interest the public in its good qualities, which most art work has to a greater or less degree, if one can but see it from the artist’s stand-point.
If the critic has the requisite knowledge and wishes to instruct the artist, surely his first and only lesson should not be one of ridicule and abuse, but rather of friendly appreciation. In this way will the critic become the friend of the artist and the instructor of the public.
NEW YORK, July 1, 1874.
Whoever else may have been guilty of making “ loose statements reflecting upon the conduct of the National Academy of Design,” we hope to convince the writer of the above letter, and our readers in general, that we at least are innocent of intention to misrepresent the Academy’s affairs. We made no statement concerning its pecuniary condition in the article of which our correspondent complains, which was not founded on information derived directly both from members of the Academy and from persons outside — not “ dealers,” but gentlemen interested in art and in the welfare of the Academy. Nor were our informants, in saying what they did, moved by any desire to harm the Academy, any more than we were in repeating what they said. Yet, while we admit that, supposing the statement of An Academician to be correct, we certainly have been guilty of a technical error, and regret that we should even by so much have misrepresented the facts, we are disposed to believe we have not done the Academy so serious an injury by our misstatement as our correspondent has done it by his truth-telling. The Academy has been in existence nearly fifty years. During that time what has it done for the advancement of the fine arts among us ? Leaving out of view the first half of its existence when it was struggling, and when it was no doubt doing all that could fairly be expected of it, if it paid the expenses of its yearly exhibition, let us ask what it has done during the latter half, when, according to An Academician, it has been rich and prosperous. It has held a yearly exhibition which during the last twenty years had steadily declined in interest and value, until at last it had come to be almost entirely neglected by the public. The exhibition of the present year has a history of its own, which our correspondent no doubt knows perfectly well, and which explains its exceptional merit and its exceptional pecuniary success. There can be no doubt, however, that in their zeal to encourage a tardy but welcome repentance, the critics of all the journals went to the limits of complaisance; for the exhibition would hardly have received in cold blood the praises that were bestowed upon it in a mood of enthusiasm. So much for the exhibitions : and now, what else has the Academy done for public education ? During the last four years it has put forth for the first time a serious effort to make the schools of art connected with it something more than a mere name. It is only within that time that they have been worth anything to anybody. And even now their continued improvement and progress are put in jeopardy by the foolish face of praise with which their performances are contemplated by the artists and the public. It is only a few days ago that we heard an artist of considerable talent, who was at one time a high officer of the Academy, declare that the drawings of the pupils were fully equal to those of any of the great art schools of Europe, whether it were the Éecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, or the Academy at Dusseldorf, or the Royal Academy in London. When such things are said by people who ought to know better, what wonder that buncombe gets talked by the reporters in the newspapers ? Under the intelligent direction of Mr. Wilmarth, the schools are making reasonable progress, but how can they ever equal such a school as that of the Beaux Arts until they have the splendid opportunities it enjoys, in its corps of professors and teachers, in the coöperation of the best artists of the country, and the criticism of a body of men trained peculiarly for its work ? This yearly exhibition, and the foundation laid for good schools, is the sum total of what the Academy has done for the public education in art. Let us now glance at what it might have done. About ten years ago the Academy erected a building of considerable architectural pretension, which has been paid for by the contributions of individuals exchanging their money for the right to certain privileges in the Academy — season tickets to the exhibitions, tickets to the receptions, the right to send pupils to the schools, etc., etc. This building has never been made of any use to the public proportioned to its cost or to its possibilities. The Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts and Goupil’s Gallery have done more for the education of the public than the Academy has done in all its forty-odd years. Yet, if there had been any intelligent understanding of its own capabilities, or of its own duties, any generosity or largeness of view, the National Academy might have done nearly all that has been done by these two institutions (for Goupil’s Gallery is an institution); nay, it might even have rendered the Metropolitan Museum unnecessary.
An Academician assures us that the Academy is very rich and owes very little money. Yet, with all its means, it has had no money to expend on pictures and statues for the establishment of a permanent gallery ; it has no library worth consulting ; it gives no lectures that are of any value (the interesting lectures of Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins had merely a superficial relation to art) ; it has no scholarships, gives no prizes, and does nothing for the support or aid of young students with small means. In short, it does nothing for art but what we stated in the beginning — it keeps up a yearly exhibition, and it has made a beginning of supporting a free school of art.
We submit that, if the statement of An Academician be true, the inertness and inefficiency of the Academy would have justified much harsher language than we employed. But we have no desire to be harsh, nor do we incline to hold the Academy to any greater responsibility than the facts will warrant. The truth is, that, without being “ idiots or knaves,” the artists here represent, as they do in every country, the average condition of intelligence and education in the community. We shall not blame them for not being geniuses, for not being, in intelligence and farsightedness, head and shoulders above the crowd. Their views have been the views of the society in which they have moved. In New York to be fashionable is to be successful. The artists have desired to be successful, and they have done all that in them lay to be fashionable. As a body, they have taken a mercantile view of their profession, and have used all their influence in a blind hostility to foreign art, merely as such, to subject art and artists in America to the bigotry of protection, to bring into the field of culture the jealousies and rivalries of trade. But in acting thus the artists of New York merely reflected their surroundings, and set in a new light the low-water state of culture in America.
All that we have said on the short-comings of the Academy has been said on the understanding that our correspondent’s statements are to pass unchallenged. If the Academy be as rich as he reports it, is it not a shame that it does no more than it dues for our art education ?
But, in reality, is it so rich ? It has a debt of only $35,000, and it has real estate and other property valued at $400,000; a low valuation, it is said. But whence is its income derived ? How does it pay the interest on its debt, its taxes, and its current expenses ? What interest-bearing capital has it; what rents, what stocks ; what productive business? And if an institution has only a property which is a bill of expense while it remains unsold, and which if sold will deprive the institution of its home, — alienate its buildings, shut up its collections, and cause it to become a bank investment and nothing more, — what is the use of quarreling about the terms in which this condition of things is reported ?
We repeat it: we are not responsible for the word “ bankruptcy ; ” it had been freely used in conversations by members of the Academy, and was freely used in general talk over its affairs; and after all, was it practically so far from the truth as our correspondent would have it appear?
On the other subjects broached by An Academician we do not greatly care to enter. We agree with him that criticism should be real appreciation, and not mere detraction or fault-finding; but it is pretty certain that artists will never acknowledge the competency of critics except when the critics praise them, and we long ago learned never to waste words in trying to defend our honesty of intention or our fitness for our work, against unbelievers.
Unfortunately for our correspondent’s case, the bickerings, jealousies, and intrigues that have disturbed the harmony of New York studios, and that explain the short-comings of the Academy and the poverty of the exhibitions, are so much a matter of notoriety in art-circles that we need not waste words in establishing our Case. Nor do we believe with An Academician that our artists have done every year as much work and as good work as they are capable of. Looking at the exhibition, visiting the studios, frequenting the dealers’ galleries, and in general making out to see what is produced in the year, and finding the result so meagre in quantity and thin in quality, we declared that the artists could do much more work, and far better work, if they would improve their time, would work more in seclusion and give up their social and “ society ” aims altogether. We think our remark more favorable, more complimentary if the reader will, to the artists than that of their would-be defender. At any rate, we said what we did because we believed it to be true.