THE fifty-first annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design at New York is a step ahead of the exhibition of any previous year. This advance is not measured solely by the general character of the display, although there is a much larger number than usual of pictures which may he pronounced good, but it is marked by proofs of a broader feeling on the part of those who have had the management of the exhibition, shown in the generous reception of the works of the younger artists and in a desire to treat their contributions with the consideration due them. We believe the causes which have led to this change of spirit are generally known; at all events it is hardlv worth the while to discuss them here. Every one at all devoted to the interests of art in this country will welcome even the slightest progress in the direction of breaking down the harriers between artists of different cities or of different circles in any city. There could be nothing more directly calculated to exert a vitalizing influence on the production of works of art than the establishment of an annual exhibition which should be national, cosmopolitan, and conducted for the benefit of the artists of the whole country. The stimulating influence of the salons of Erance, Belgium, and Germany, and the Royal Academy of England, cannot he overestimated. Especially arc these exhibitions beneficial to the younger men, who have a reputation to make or a fortune to gain. There is no reason why the exhibition of the Academy of Design should not do like service for this country ; indeed, in the exhibition of this spring AVC see signs promising much for the future. It depends only on a continuance of the present progressive spirit in the managers of the institution to make the National Academy justify its title. When it becomes the open tilting-ground for artists of every school, and the yearly event in our art world looked forward to and talked of and worked for, then it will have accomplished its highest purpose.
There is certainly enough distinctively American art in the exhibition to gratify the most patriotic citizen. Couture has never ceased to cry that the present age has never been painted, but is full of pictorial possibilities. Everybody says yes, and no artist takes the hint. There is a constant cry here — and with good reason, too — that American artists should paint characteristic American subjects. Thus far there has been no one of eminence in the profession who has been inspired by the picturesqueness found here to immortalize types and scenes in the same way that Millet, Breton, Israels, and other men have been called to perpetuate certain characteristics of their countrymen. We are not yet advanced enough in art to expect much, perhaps, but there are already noteworthy attempts made in this direction which demand consideration even if they deserve condemnation. John Mulvany’s Preliminary Trial of a Horse-Thief is described in its title. It only remains to say that the types of Americans gathered in the shanty are of that worst possible class of Western ruffians whose small virtues have been extolled by Bret Harte and Joaquin Miller, whose vices are even plainer in paint than in print, and whose brutal faces would put to shame the most villainous heads ever drawn upon canvas. It is a scene that is tolerated because it is a necessity of our Western civilization, and the sooner it is forgotten the better for public morals. Jan Steen and David Teniers hit off the Dutch character with a nobility of expression that exalted the most brutal and revolting scenes. In their tavern brawls there is little that is vicious, there is always something to sympathize with. Mr. Mulvany has given us cut-throats and thieves and desperadoes steeped in vice and without a redeeming trait. His lesson is the triumph of villainy, his picturesqueness the distortion and the brutalizing of the human face. The artist’s training in Antwerp has given him just the touch for the illustration of the subject, and there is some good painting in the picture if one can endure the inspection long enough to discover it.
L. E. Wilmarth has sought his principal subjects in a walk of life but little higher than Mr. Mulvany has chosen to represent. Practical Joke on the Pioneer : An Incident on the Morning of a Target Excursion, is the title of his picture. A party of redshirted men drinking beer in a room more curious and unaccountable in form than picturesque. One of their number, the central figure of the composition, starts back horrified at the sight of a great green spider hanging before his nose. Two halfnaked bakers are crouching in a doorway behind the pioneer and holding a fishingrod from the line of which dangles the huge insect, — this is the solution of the joke. Some excellent finish in detail and occasional bits of fair drawing are the only elements of a picture that can be conceded to the painting. Subject apart, the artist’s second and smaller work is superior. A negro filing a saw in the presence of a musician, who holds both hands to his ears in agony, is named There is Music in all Things if Men had Ears. It is less pretentions and more complete as a composition than the first one, and in other respects is very much like it.
Several quiet canvases by E. Wood Perry represent a great deal of conscientious work somewhat narrowly directed. One of the best of them is called Waiting for a Spark, a young woman seated by a quaint fireplace striking fire in an old-fashioned tinder-box. There is not much of the conventional picture-making skill shown in any of Mr. Perry’s works. Their naïveté of expression and labored execution stamp them as strongly individual efforts inspired by American country life and unhampered by too many traditions of foreign schools. One may forgive the hardness of outline, but he cannot make friends with the figures, for they have no human interest. Their quaintness may amuse one, and the details of costume of the last century satisfy his curiosity, but all the while he is sure that the figures are models posed to paint and conscious of their position. We cannot believe that Mr. Perry takes any interest in the subjects other than from their aspect as so much still-life to be imitated with exactness and religious care.
Eastman Johnson has, on the other hand, given us a representation of a scene in which he has taken a sincere delight. It is a husking-bee, with a crowd of men and women husking the yellow corn, seated in two rows, facing one another, on a broad carpet of stalks. The landscape is simple and well subordinated to the figures, the light is skillfully concentrated, and the composition is artistically arranged. The frank, firm, touch, the unobtrusive strength of color, and the well - expressed bustle and busy movement make it welcome as a contrast to a wooly interior with figures, that hangs beside it, so different in every respect that one can scarcely believe them to be both by the same hand. The Husking-Bee is no insignificant step in the right direction.
Winslow Homer’s contributions, however full of life they may be, leave the spectator always unsatisfied. The most prominent fault of his pictures has always been their baldness. In the examples before us this quality is less evident than usual in the execution, but the subjects are still without interest. If we except one, A Fair Wind, the study of a fishing-boat dashing along through the rough sea with a stiff breeze on the quarter, the pictures compel a query as to the reasons for the choice of subject. If there is anything worth illustrating in a Zouave struggling with a frisky calf, Mr. Homer has found it out and put it on canvas. With his positive touch and truth of opposition he has done more with such bald subjects than any one we could name, but with the same skill more wisely employed better results might follow.
The very opposite of Mr. Homer’s work are the Liliputian figure pictures by A. Wordsworth Thompson. The largest is from a motive found in the history of the Revolution, a body of cavalry in the streets of Annapolis in July, 1776, about departing to join General Washington’s army on Long Island. The tiny figures are painted with remarkable skill, but the artist is seen more at home in several smaller canvases where the figures are fewer in number and the expression is more marked.
William Magrath’s small figures are almost beyond reproach. If they have any fault it is that they have just that degree of excellence that raises a doubt, before the signature is seen, as to whether they are moderately representative examples of some well-known master, or very good pictures by one who has yet something to gain from experience.
The two most noticeable life-sized studies are William Morgan’s Song without Words, and Miss M. R. Oakey’s Woman Serving. The former, an Italian girl leaning on a tambourine, is painted with such a serious purpose that it calls for and receives quick recognition. The latter is a most creditable production, just short, in fact, of a masterpiece. The figure is full of grace, but there is grace without strength. The hands support the heavy salver without apparent effort, and the body leans forward as if it were not overbalanced by the weight, but in natural free motion. Titian gave a similar figure the privilege of leaning back to support the weight. But the execution is so admirable that one hesitates to admit any fault in the pose. In the painting there is a little anxiety about the flesh, compensated, however, by the ease with which the rich brocades are handled, and the satisfaction with which the artist has placed certain oppositions of color. The picture has, best of all, the charm of dignity and refinement.
The landscapes, by themselves, would scarcely carry the exhibition. There is quite the usual proportion of many square feet of canvas to a grain of merit. There are few landscapes that would not be better if the artists were limited to the size of their color-boxes. The sole contribution of John La Farge is a landscape which he calls New England Pasture-Land, It is a broad, simple slope reaching to the sea, dotted here and there by the accidents of the ground, pasture walls, distant trees, and sheep feeding. The far-off sea shimmers in the flood of strong light, its opal tones in delicate contrast with the green fields that meet the water. The picture, apparently, is simplicity itself, for its complex construction is successfully concealed. Mr. La Farge brings us to a land where it is always afternoon, and no one can fail to receive the conviction that he painted what has impressed him with religious love and ever fresh zeal. In placing his horizon very high, Mr. La Farge has taken it for granted that this will add to the effect of a vast distance seen from an eminence. It is easier to deny this than to prove the truth of the opposite, but the landscape would have doubtless gained in effect if a broader expanse of simple sky had been given. The Wilds of the Adirondacks, by A. H. Wyant, is an interpretation of nature more in the ordinary way, but still quite as earnest and loving. It is a nook in the forest, with a brook tumbling into a pool in the foreground and a distant passage of warm sunlight with a repeated note on the cool gray of the rocks in front. It suggests an intimacy with nature, a love of her minutest forms, and a long and painstaking study of them. The execution is pushed just far enough, for without being trivial it is careful and conscientious. The picture represents a distinct impression of nature, as strong in its own way as the broader and more frank interpretations — such as we find, for example, in the landscape by Rubert C. Minor, Afternoon on the Moosup River, a strongly realistic gray study of a rushing stream with wooded banks, distinguished for solid painting and good color. The three pictures above spoken of, with others by the two latter artists, are distinctively original in conception and well out of the ordinary rut of landscape work. W. Whittredge has a pleasant domestic view with meadows and mountains; Jervis McEntee several autumn scenes, all of them excellent; Edward Moran and M. F. H. De Haas marines which repeat without addition the favorable testimony of former exhibitions, and Charles H. Miller a number of landscapes — eclectic landscapes we had almost said — interesting and complete as pictures. The action of the hanging committee in grouping together the works of each artist has in almost every case proved unfavorable to the appearance of the pictures so assembled.
That portrait-painting is an occupation pursued more as a trade than a profession is witnessed by a large list of portraits, the majority of them indifferent, and very few having any merit beside a certain conventional, easily expressed resemblance to the sitter. The elements of agreeable arrangement of accessories and picturesque management of light, which give value to the work as a picture distinct from the personal interest in the subject, are noticeably absent in almost every portrait. Page’s President Eliot makes up in dignity and earnestness what it lacks in execution. In style it is impressive, and as a portrait it has strong character and a great personal presence. It has one quality, too, which is a welcome one. It does not pall on long acquaintance, but rather increases in interest. Alexander Lawrie’s portrait of a lady in black velvet is gracefully posed and an attractive picture in spite of the doubtful taste of covering both hands with deforming yellow gloves. Daniel Huntington’s portraits are all up to a standard of excellence that is high enough to lift them above commonplace without placing them in the first rank of portraiture. They are all good, but in rather a mild way. Of the contributions by younger men the list of the most remarkable comprises a small head by Francis Lathrop, distinguished for strength of color and vigorous handling, a strongly realistic half-length of a lady by George W. Maynard, a portrait study head by Oliver J. Lay, and two full-length portraits by F. D. Millet, of Boston.
The pictures sent by the artists abroad deserve consideration apart, because they naturally form a class by themselves. Produced under circumstances most favorable to picture-making, and selected from the best works of each artist, they represent most satisfactorily the relative position of their authors as compared with those who are working at home. It is not always safe to make a prediction for the future of an artist at home which should be based on the promise of the works executed during his stay abroad. Every artist knows the difficulties of practicing his profession in America with any singleness of purpose or religious devotion. The reasons for this are found in the conditions of our civilization and are well understood. We can say confidently of most of the young artists abroad who have exhibited at home, that they paint quite well enough to return and give their fellow-workers the benefit of their experience and acquirements. Expatriation for a time seems to be a necessity of the study of art, but the tendency to settle abroad and remain there is contagious. We have Whistler, Boughton, Wyllie, Neal, Rosenthal, Bridgman, Bacon, and a host of others who are Americans only by birth. It is bad for our art at home that this is so, and the only immediate remedy is a more generous appreciation of talent without regard to name. The day of the cheap imported trash is nearly over, and with the decline of this trade must increase the patronage of our own artists. The history of the picture auctions in Boston, this season, shows a wonderfully increased general interest in home productions. In the Academy exhibition, the best piece of flesh painting we have seen for a long time, and certainly the best in the display, is by William Sartain, of Philadelphia, now a student under Bonnat in Paris. It is the head of an Italian girl, with a strong effect of light. In color, texture, modeling, and refinement of drawing it is exceptional, and the type of the face is beautiful withal. T. Hovenden and Edgar M. Ward both find their motives among the peasants of Brittany, and both paint with great facility. Yan and Aline, by the former, is a pastoral love scene reproduced with fidelity. In fact, one turns from admiring the expression of the peasant girl as she smiles archly at her lover, to wonder at the skill with which the drapery is painted and the foreground managed. The tendency of this style, still more marked in Mr. Ward’s work, is to reduce everything to the grade of still-life study, like the Munich heads, where all is skillful imitation of texture, color, and form, and choice of motive is secondary, and meaning of the subject last.
D. R. Knight’s French Washerwomen, shown at the last Paris salon, is capitally painted in parts. The picturesque figures of the women on the river bank are charmingly drawn, and if it were not that they are in a landscape much too large and weak and uninteresting, the picture would be complete. William S. Macy sends from Munich four landscapes of a great deal of strength, but quite German in character.
A farm-yard scene is perhaps the best of them, although all are almost equally good.
In the line of sculpture a vigorous bronze bust by William R. O’Donoven, J. S. Hartley’s small plaster figures and bas-reliefs, and Page’s portrait of Shakespeare from the death mask of Darmstadt arc the only remarkable works. The latter has too few artistic qualities to make it a success, but is interesting, nevertheless.
— Not content with producing three or four books every year, Mr. Hamerton shows the alertness and activity of his intelligence in the monthly numbers of The Portfolio,1 which he succeeds in making one of the most interesting of the journals devoted to the popularizing of art. Its interest, as is very suitable, lies, however, more in its illustrations than in its literary contents. The annual volume makes a very handsome drawing-room picture-book, and contains some work worthy of preservation after it has served its immediate purpose of entertainment. The illustrations are in the main of two classes. Each number of the volume for 1875 gives an etching, and what, by an inexact rendering of the more correct French term, photogravure, is called a facsimile engraving. The etchings have a wide range of artist and of subject, while the photogravures represent exclusively works by recent, mostly living, French painters. As works of engraving proper they have slight value, but they render sufficiently some of the most popular designs of the present Parisian school. One gets from them a good impression of the skill and cleverness of execution displayed in recent French work, and not less of the common lack of poetic imagination, of distinct perception of beauty, and of definite motive of expression. Such pictures as those represented in this volume of Breton, of BillEt, of Bouguereau, of Corot, of Jacques, of Gérôme, betray the externality of their art in their scenic effectiveness quite as much as in their falsity of aim. One recognizes that the pictures are painted for a dainty public of the salon. The sentiment is artificial, the idyl lacks simplicity, and the romance is unreal. The figures pose, waiting for applause, and nature is turned into a stage with foot-lights and drop-scene.
The etchings in The Portfolio afford excellent specimens of the present practice of the art which Mr. Hamerton has for years taken under his patronage, but there is a wide difference in their merit. No other form of engraving is so delusive as etching ; it looks so easy and it is so difficult. Though it tax the powers of Turner or Van Dyck, it is yet the favorite resort of careless and untrained draughtsmen, whose wretched scribblings, mistaken sometimes by the amiable public for works of art, are in fact but exhibitions of ignorance or idleness. Such an etching as that by Le Rat, in this volume, of the Doge Leonardo Loredano, from Bellini’s portrait, is a true masterpiece, excellent in firmness and deli cacy of line, in truth of drawing, in skillful rendering of light and shade and of quality of texture. Flamery’s etching from Masaccio and Rajon’s Knight in Armor, from Giorgione’s little picture, are both good, but inferior to Le Rat’s work. The Drawing Lesson, by Lalauze is brilliant, but in a style that easily runs to extravagance of tone, and leads to that common defect of second-rate etching, the want of gradation of light and harmony of light and shade. These etchings in The Portfolio form a good supplement of illustrations to Mr. Hamerton’s Treatise on Etching. The beginner in the art will find here examples of the work of some of the most accomplished masters, as well as of work which may teach him what to avoid, for Mr. Hamerton is so liberal as not to insist on uniformity of excellence. The circulation of The Portfolio ought to be large among us. The price is moderate.
- The Portfolio. An Artistic Periodical. Edited by PHILIP GILBERT HAMERTON. With numerous Illustrations, London. 1875.↩