AMONG the one hundred and twelve pictures and sketches recently exhibited by Mr. Gay at Doll and Richards’ were examples of his manner at each successive period of his career, from the time when fresh from the atelier of Troyon he began to paint from nature in that great open-air academy, the Forest of Fontainebleau, down to the very recent date of his last visit to Europe and his voyage up the Nile. Besides his early French studies there were scenes in Switzerland and Holland, Bavaria and Egypt, at Rome and at Venice, though American subjects were much more numerous, while by far the greater part of these, and more than half the whole number of pictures and sketches exhibited, were studies of scenery in the immediate vicinity of Massachusetts Bay.
Here, especially along the south shore of the bay, in Hingham, his birthplace, and in the adjoining town of Cohasset, with its rock-bound coast, its dense woods and sunny pastures, its weird cedars and wealth of clambering vines and way-side flowers, has ever been Mr. Gay’s favorite field of study. Here, in more than one sense, he was at home; here his talent found its most congenial material and its best development.
Mr. Gay is commonly spoken of as a pupil of Troyon ; and he did indeed pass a few months in that painter’s atelier. He was, however, quite as much influenced by other contemporaneous French landscape painters, belonging to what has sometimes been called the school of Fontainebleau. To the sound traditions of that most excellent school Mr. Gay has always held fast ; having once found a good method and a style which suited him he has never been tempted to try new and perhaps dangerous experiments. Any differences that may be noticed between his earlier and ins later works are due to the gradual development of his own peculiar tastes and sympathies rather than to any change in his methods of working or in his way of looking at nature. There has been no change of base.
In their execution, Mr. Gay’s paintings occupy a safe middle-ground between the careful finish once so much insisted on and the freer handling now becoming popular. His drawing is always correct, though sketchy, missing sometimes the more delicate refinements of form, especially in his trees; always excepting, however, his cedars, which are rendered with rare fidelity and skill. He suggests rather than attempts to express multiplicity of detail; he makes no attempt to simplify Nature; he rather rejoices in her complexity and fullness. He is apt, indeed, to indulge this feeling to excess, to the detriment of the unity and repose of his pictures. He seems to feel but slightly the charm of broad spaces of uniform or delicately graded tint, but loves to break up all his surfaces by a thousand little sparkling accidents; he rarely, if ever, paints a perfectly clear sky. Only in some of his sea-beaches do we remember to have seen a simple treatment of surface.
Though he does not at once and inevitably claim admiration as a colorist, Mr. Gay’s color is almost always satisfactory: it is refined and delicate as well as true, an exquisite tender gray running like an undertone through it all, making its occasional richness and fullness all the more effective. His artistic range, both as to choice and treatment of subject, is perhaps somewhat narrow. It is not indeed a broad, but it is certainly a pleasant path in which he has chosen to walk; and if his pictures do not strongly impress us with their power, they please by their uniform excellence. He delights in the simpler aspects of nature, bright, sparkling, and joyous, rather than grand, solemn, or gloomy. Even the low tone of some of his paintings fails to convey the slightest suggestion of melancholy. He rarely, if ever, has painted a storm, and very seldom rainy or threatening weather. The morning hours are his favorites, as though he had more sympathy with the opening than with the closing day. If he does not appeal to our deeper feelings, if his pictures are wanting in sentiment, they are at least wholly free from sentimentality. Their poetry comes from the simple, sincere, and hearty love of nature.
— Immediately after Mr. Gay’s exhibition and sale, eleven pictures by Mr. Hamilton Wilde were shown together at Doll and Richards’. All represented Egyptian subjects, and in most of them the Nile was a prominent feature.
Of several American painters who have recently given us their interpretations of the scenery of that ancient river, none, we are inclined to think, have been more successful than Mr. Wilde in reproducing the local color. The prevailing tints in the landscape and in the costumes of the human figures are the various shades of blue and green, relieved only by the rich brown of the river - banks still wet with the recent floods, the golden sands of the desert, the lilac and purple of distant mountains, the roseate flush of sunset, or the saffron and pearl of early morning.
In these pictures it is evident that the color of natural objects is to Mr. Wilde the chief source of their attractiveness, and that the rendering of that color is the chief object and ambition of his art. He has an intense appreciation of the inherent beauty of certain colors, and a fondness for them for their own sake. With unerring instinct his eye singles out the richest, the purest, the most exquisite tints; and he has the skill to represent these colors with the broad and simple truths about an object seen partly in and partly out of sunshine. No one can better paint that most beautiful object in nature, a shadow thrown upon a white wall. With him chiaroscuro and color seem to be inseparable and, as it were, interpenetrative. His color never loses itself in the light nor becomes obscured in the dark portions of his pictures. He never reaches to the top nor descends to the bottom of the scale of light and shade, but keeps in the quiet middle of the gamut, where alone color can be distinguished. In this safe middle of the scale his values are always approximately and relatively true (absolutely true they could not be); the earth and whatever rests upon it is one thing, and the sky another ; what is near is clearly to he distinguished from what is distant by differences both in tone and in quality of color. In simple subjects, such as Mr. Wilde usually selects, the result is an extraordinary degree of truthfulness and actuality, but in more complicated scenes, in which a considerable number of successive planes (to anglicize the French plan) are to be represented, the resources of his method are apt to prove insufficient. There is nothing in his pictures of what the French call papillotage; no juxtaposition of vivid and contrasting colors fatiguing alike to the eye and the mind. His colors, though extraordinarily pure, with no taint of muddiness, are never crude, but are toned to harmony, as though by the intermingling of atmospheric tints as pure as themselves. He has a keen eye for the texture of his surfaces, and understands perfectly its effect upon the quality of their color. Some of the faults which thus disturb the pleasure which Mr. Wilde’s works afford are so obvious to every one (except, as it would seem, to the artist himself) that it is alike superfluous and useless to point them out. These eleven pictures are, however, tolerably free from the faults in drawing and perspective to which Mr. Wilde is somewhat prone. But in the group of pigeon-houses in the middle distance of the Afternoon near Bellianeh there is a wholly impossible combination of perspective lines, which, together with the incomprehensible rendering of the bank upon which the buildings appear to stand, makes all that part of the picture a bewildering and annoying puzzle.
Mr. Wilde sometimes, in aiming at simplicity, gives us an abstract rather than a generalization of nature. He leaves out rather than condenses. He delights in, as much as Mr. Gay seems to dislike, broad and simple spaces and masses, and his skill in rendering them stands him in good stead in his skies, the wide open heavens, which he paints with rare ability through all the imperceptible gradations from horizon to zenith. It serves him admirably in his Desert at El Kab at Sunset, where a solitary camel is the only object that breaks the solemn unity of the sandy waste below and the glowing heavens above. But in other subjects the effect is not so satisfactory, as in the picture entitled Morning Prayer, in which the river-bank, reduced to its simplest expression and stripped of all the débris that would naturally be left by the receding waters, has a preternaturally clean-swept aspect ; while, probably from the omission to note them carefully in the original sketch, the forms of the various accidents of the surface are much too vaguely rendered to be at all intelligible.
— Mr. W. E. Norton has recently had an exhibition and sale at the gallery of Messrs. Williams and Everett, His collection, not so numerous as Mr. Gay’s, from the greater preponderance of large canvases occupied much more space, and also represented the work of years.
Like his brother artist, Mr. Norton has his own narrow path in which he is content to walk, though in a different and more limited sense. The sea is literally his element : with few exceptions the one hundred and three pictures and sketches in his exhibition were strictly marine views, dealing almost exclusively with the sea and with ships. There were indeed a few studies of rocky or sandy sea-coast, and one or t wo inland sketches, but in most cases there was no land whatever in his pictures, or only a distant line of coast.
Whatever may be Mr. Norton’s claims as a painter, he has not only a thorough acquaintance with all that pertains to the construction of a ship, but an absolute familiarity with all the details of practical seamanship. He knows when to " carry ” and when to “ shorten sail, ” and the precise effect of every change of position in rope or canvas. But his perfect seamanship, so to speak, does not render him insensible to the poetry of the sea and of sea life. He has an eye for whatever there is of effective in the varying position of the ship itself and of its several parts. He feels the poetry of a vessel’s motion, especially when she is seen bounding toward the spectator, her hull and spars inclined by a “ stiff breeze ” and, as sailors say, “ carrying a bone in her mouth,” — a position, and an effect, which seems to be a favorite with the artist. He knows how to take advantage of all the incidents that break the monotony of a long voyage, the meeting and exchanging signals with or speaking another ship, and the bustle attending the taking in of the light sails to make ready for an approaching squall. He catches for our benefit the moment of picturesque disorder — sails partly filled and partly aback, some in light and some in shadow — which occurs in Heaving to for a Pilot, or he shows us the good ship, her long voyage over, “ coming to anchor,” with all sails fluttering. He excels in fogs, and perhaps his best pictures were Among the Fishermen, George’s Banks, and Crossing the Graud Banks. In each a large ship with all sails spread to catch the scarcely perceptible breeze is making her way through a fleet of fishing boats at anchor amidst a dense fog: but in one the ship is receding from the spectator, in the other she is approaching, “ bows on.” In the last there is an awfulness in the slow but sure approach of the huge bulk, threatening to override the small craft that obstruct its path. The rocking motion of the boats at anchor is marvelously suggested even to the difference of the movement in those which have no sail set and those which have a mainsail to steady them.
But perfect familiarity with ships and shipping, mere accurate delineation of every part, together with even a keen eye for picturesque incidents, is not sufficient to make of the marine painter a true artist. Like all who in whatever department aspire to that title, he must have at his command what a recent French critic calls “ la gamme harmonieuse,” that scale of harmonious color without which, he goes on to say, all possible merit of drawing, the most consummate skill in composition, fail to move. Mr. Norton has yet to add to the solid acquirements he has already mustered the crowning grace of harmonious, refined, and delicate color.