Open Letters From New York
THE Society of Decorative Art, of which I spoke as a coming influence, made itself felt in December with much suddenness and force. It burst out of its narrow quarters in Twentieth Street, planted its loan exhibition in that artistic citadel the Academy of Design, occupied other strategic points with private collections opened for the occasion, instituted morning lectures, and was the subject of such a fusillade of newspaper comments that its objects in the community must have been greatly furthered.
The Academy presented a decidedly Cluny-ish appearance. The exhibition consisted, for the most part, of the highest types of decorative articles of the kind proposed for our emulation. We have had the exotic sensation of walking through rich, dark rooms littered with carved cabinets, keramics, enamels, ivory carvings, illuminated missals, armor, jewelry, and laces, and hung with old tapestries, Gobelin and other, such as figure in the backgrounds of pictures. This subtle infusion, combined of age and softened glitter and harmoniously faded color, does not fail to penetrate a little even into those who venture into it for the first time and are puzzled by its unlikeness to the spirit of the fashionable furnisher. The notable aspect of the show, next to its educating influence, is its revelation of the extent to which the appreciation and acquisition of really precious rarities has already reached in New York. The contributors themselves, I think, were astonished at their consolidated affluence. The possession of these articles argues not only money but excellent taste, and the maintenance of a scale of living somewhat commensurate with them. I wish I could think the glimpse it gave into the private life of the first families did not have so much to do with its success. This private life appears to have made a considerable approximation to the palatial scale. There are properties of noble and even royal personages in these American households, — table ware of Napoleon III., laces of a duchess of Parma, others from the wardrobe of Queen Anne, — duly authenticated by fascinating little seals. Out-of-doors the absence of a law of entail has hindered palatial development; our most ambitious dwellings hardly yet surpass the rank of large houses, but this luxurious development within will force its way outwards. The merchant princes will have, I doubt not, before long, porches to their homes, with polished columns, as spacious as that of the Church of the Heavenly Rest, which juts out so quaintly among them on Fifth Avenue. They will welcome through such porches throngs of guests to apartments adorned in earnest with these tapestries, carvings, and plaques of majolica and Nuremberg brass.
The circumstances of the picture department gave occasion for an interesting contrast. The north gallery was filled with the choicest late acquisitions of friends of the exhibition. In the south gallery was shown for a while, free, preliminary to its sale by auction, the private collection of Mr. Robert M. Olyphant, apparently closed up long since. Thus could be seen side by side what a New York collector used to do and what he does now.
The loaned pictures were foreign, of course. The rainbow brightness of a Rossi, a strong representative of the Spanish-Italian school, newer than most of his contemporaries, in these parts, with a Pinchart above it, reduced almost everything else in the room to comparative. middle tint. The Rossi showed one of the characteristic luxurious scenes of the school. It chooses them not for splendor alone, but splendor accompanied by a certain piquancy. This is the rococo magnificence of Louis Quatorze. In a great saloon with gilt and sprawling scroll-work decorations, an old prince, surrounded by courtiers like porcelain figurines, watches with a senile interest the dancing of a minuet, for his amusement, by two girls, one habited as a boy and one in the high heels and flowered farthingale petticoat of the date. The figures are small and flatly painted, and, the heads especially, like bits in a mosaic. Or they recall those embroideries on silk, in which the faces are painted while the garments are wrought with the needle. This came from Mr. J. J. Astor’s; the Pinchart — another variation, in colors pure and unmixed to the point of chilliness, upon the classic maiden swathed in scarfs of white, pink, yellow, and violet embroidered in red, whom he is so fond of depicting — from Mr. Benjamin J. Arnold’s. The critics cannot attack the respectability of their references.
There was another smaller Rossi sent by Mr. W. B. Dinsmore, peculiar even for this peculiar kind. It is called The Picnic, though it is certain that only the briefest sort of a picnic, as we understand it, could ever have taken place under such circumstances. A little party of antique fashionables in Watteau costumes have thrown themselves upon a Geordez rug spread upon the ground of a sterile upland for an informal repast. Tufts of grass and a wild flower here and there spring from the poor soil, but no tree or shade of any kind. The edge of the moor is at half the height of the canvas. There is a deliciously grateful sky of rolling cloud masses about it. Two dark figures, one near and one distant, stand boldly up against it. A white umbrella, connecting with the sky, cuts a circle out of the group, and serves to bring down the lighter upper tones to the front. Minute reminiscences of the principal colors in the dresses and the carpet are distributed about in the flowers, a pale blue hill rising over the edge of the moor, and patches of blue sky showing through the gray. There is none of the seriousness of life here. The people are thoroughly artificial, and they know it so well that there is a humor in their being there instead of the honestly lumpish peasants in whom the Millets, or Freres, or Bretons would have enlisted our sympathy. But for the moment they bloom there as bright and cheerful to look at as if they had been some evanescent product of nature, like the flowers and the passing shadows.
You next turn toward a number of small pictures, under glass to enhance the idea of their preciousness, — Meissonier, Gues, Steinheil, — exquisitely finished works, with rich, dark tones suggestive of the flavor of old wines. They are archæological, but of an archæology that, revives not only the externals but the human nature of bygone periods. There was a Doré, which would go far to convert yon to the estimate that he is a great book illustrator but cannot paint, and two Gérômes, L’Almée and the Egyptian Butcher, familiar from Goupil’s photographs.
Bouguereau seems to me to pursue an ideal policy which is worth pointing out to aspirants in other fields as well as art, who are desirous of substantial returns together with the appreciation of connoisseurs. He has great ability, and he knows just where to put it. He chooses a subject that appeals to the nine tenths who care nothing about art, and then he captures the remainder, who care about nothing else, with his treatment. His Maternal Solicitude, from Mr. T. R. Butler’s, is a mother bending over a naked infant. The rose tints and pearly grays of the tender flesh are wonderfully delicate and correct. As if the normal difficulties of the task were not enough, the soft shadow of a curtain is thrown over half the little body, and in this there are reflected lights and reconcilements of shadow with local color of astonishing subtlety. The atmosphere and roundness are almost illusive, ft is not a startling projection, but winning in its soft naturalness.
You, my dear madam, would buy this picture in a minute for the consummate skill you would discover in it, and your neighbor just as quickly for the surprising likeness it bears to the latest addition to her own interesting family. When I write a book, — that is what I purpose to do, — I shall bear Bouguereau in mind. I shall strike a subject that will draw the populace away from the RedHanded Avenger of the Spanish Main, and I purpose to treat it in a manner that will awaken the respectful attention of Mr. Henry James Jr. himself.
I have said that the Olyphant collection bore the air of having been completed some years back. It goes without saying, therefore, that it was American and mainly landscapes. How helpless our poor early attempts at genre looked, coming away from the modern splendors in the other room! In Huntington’s Counterfeit Note, one of the first, — you know it by engravings, — everything else is positively slaughtered and jumped on afterwards in the eagerness to tell the story.
Mr. Olyphant seems to have had a penchant for Kensetts; there were no less than thirty. The largest of them brought the highest price at the sale, though it had the competitorship of the very much more important figure - piece of Henry Peters Gray, the Judgment of Paris. One could not much disparage this taste, however he may have been dazzled in the north room. The Kensetts have genial qualities that endure. He loved gray rocks and blue skies and water and simple lines of composition, avoided florid greens, and maintained a sobriety in the midst of his richest autumn woods. He was contented to be a poet in his landscapes, and did not try to be a fiveact tragedian or a Fourth of July orator. It cannot be done. A dismal Hurricane of Thomas Cole and an expansive composition of faded topography of the. oldfashioned sort by Church — so like to Cole, his master, that you could hardly trust the signature — were there to prove it. Landscapes breathe a varied sentiment, it is true, but local pride and all that kind that inheres in convulsions of nature is much better to be got out of the human figure. Perhaps with a fuller equipment in its use, fewer attempts in any other direction would have been made. As our life schools increase, an abatement in the spread-eagle style may be confidently looked for. The mission of landscape, meaning now landscape and not water, which is incarnate restlessness any way, is peace. This implies no restriction upon conceptions of grandeur. The gentlemen who desire to show that we are the greatest nation that ever trod shoe - leather, by the exploitation of our Western frontiers, need not find their mission gone. But mere topography will not do it. There is simplicity and idyllic peace in the desolation of the Yellowstone, and sunshine and shadow play as softly on the dizzy heights of the Sierras as on the flesh of Bouguereau’s baby.
In Henry Peters Gray, who died the other day, departed “ the American Titian.” His Judgment of Paris showed the sort of work from which he derived his sobriquet, and its validity. Should some of the young women who delight to do so come along and recognize it with effusion, as an old master from Dresden or the Uffizi, you would almost seem to recognize it yourself. A beautiful white goddess, a Cupid holding back her drapery, at the right; Paris, in warm shadow and a mantle of Venetian red bending forward with the apple, from the left, — one fourth light, one fourth dark, one half middle tint, all in regular form. It is one of those conventional subjects, adopted as a pretext for luxurious painting, which had a certain meaning in a Renaissance age, but not much in America in Gray’s time.
It has the excuse of being a good thing of its kind, however; you know how good it is when you go down-stairs and see Mr. Page’s Aphrodite, which, with a little group of his other works, constituted a private side-show to the exhibition. It is a very slim-waisted figure, posturing on a sea-shell in the mincing attitude of a pretty milliner crossing Broadway in the mud. It is highly varnished, and the cold, yellowish-green sky has the tone of an old county map. You could have paid ten thousand dollars once for this picture. It is far below that now, but perhaps Aphrodites with better constitutions and something of the real sparkle and dainty freshness of the fabled genesis from sea-foam could be brought from abroad as reasonably, even yet.
Our ideal art is yet to come, but for the present both of these pictures seem more foreign to American requirements than the battered Venus Anadyomene in Union Square, unearthed in a New Orleans beer saloon and attributed to Annibale Caracei, — as, in a free country, there is no reason why it should not be.
Mr. Farjeon, the English novelist, is to be counted among the distinctively holiday features, by reason of his publication of a Christmas story and his attention to the charitable aspects of the season in his public readings. A good many people who had never read his books will have done so since his installment for the moment as a literary sensation of the metropolis. They have attractive titles, and are scattered about, in the paper editions of tlie Harpers, upon every stationer’s counter.
Mr. Farjeon’s notices from the press are highly eulogistic. When you really come to know the state of the case, you find it another instance of the great amiability and lack of a sliding scale of adjectives prevailing in not a few newspaper offices. He is freely compared to Dickens. By one authority he is thought to surpass Dickens in his deeper insight “ into the secrets of soul life.” In the thinking of the Derby Mercury (English), his stories are “ the most perfect in our language. ’ ’
It was at Steinway Hall that Dickens read. The spell of pathos and humor cast by that somewhat grotesque figure, with its horn-like hair, its bizarre waistcoat and jewelry, and its red face subdued against the maroon screen, would, suffice to draw one back to any entertainment that promised a reminiscence of it.
In the corridors speculators drove a trade now as then in the author’s works and photographs. But within the reminiscence was faint indeed. The newcomer is of the school of Dickens in treating of low life, in copying a few of his names, and in reading from his own works. There the parallel ends.
Mr. Farjeon exhibits in his principal work, Blade o’ Grass, a sympathy with poverty that is very creditable; but he lectures in costume, he does not create. His personages move about for the sake of saying or doing this or that, not of being this or that. His benevolent people are so very impressible, his good children so passionately fond of rectitude and of going to bed punctually on time, that their likenesses will be eyed with distrust in quarters of average perversity. Nor has he anything but the palest reflection of Dickens’s humor, and nothing at all of his weirdness.
Perhaps some such foil was needed. Were we not drifting into the habit of disparaging Dickens too sweepingly for artificiality? He exaggerates, caricatures; but then good caricature is only the heightening of natural features. There must be a basis to go upon. When you compare him with Mr. Farjeon you find a vital spark of something in every least one of his characters that makes them characters, and not paper-dolls.
The excuse for an author’s coming forward as a reader is either some decided elocutionary talent or a reputation that makes him worth seeing for his own sake. The really first-class celebrity could, if sturdy enough to disregard the slight impairment of dignity the fastidious might deem it, traverse the country and collect gate-money everywhere for simply standing on the platform, without so much as opening his lips. In a histrionic way Mr. Farjeon falls as short of his prototype as in others, though the difficulty of throwing yourself into a conception when there is no conception to throw yourself into cannot be overlooked. His talent is confined to a facility in presenting the cockney accent and cringing servility of a couple of London street beggars, who wander through his story, hand in hand, like the unhappy De Quincey and Ann.
The Christmas story, Solomon Isaacs, has more color than the others; indeed, it is interesting new material, an account of modern Jewish low life from an understanding and appreciative witness. There are curious customs and viands., and old Moshé who has lived most of his life in Jerusalem and cannot speak English. The heroine is the daughter of one old-clothes man, and the lover is the son of another and salesman in a “ gents’ ” furnishing store. Here is life, such as you may see it any day you like to go and look at the bargains in Chatham Street. We find that there is in it sensitiveness to social depreciation, love affairs and day-dreams, charitable impulses, and appreciation of the comparative values of life as if it were our own. The descriptions are given with a zest and reality, as if here at last the author were upon familiar ground, with a decided tenderness for it.
A Christmas story composed entirely of Jews is, of course, with all allowances and without prejudice a wild absurdity. Mr. Farjeon recognizes this in a preliminary word or two in a way that reminds you of those people who preface disagreeable remarks with “ I suppose I ought not to ask ” or “ to say so,” and then go on and do it.
Blade o' Grass is a case of poverty and crime of the hopeless sort detailed in the story of the reform-school girl in The Atlantic, last summer. She is born in Stony Alley, nobody’s child. She grows up in the gutter, with never any other ideal than how to appease the gnawings of hunger. At eighteen she is the mother of an infant, brought into the world with one more term in the geometrical progression of misery added to the curse of its inheritance. At this stage the benevolent Mr. Merrywhistle — who has had an opportunity to do so all along, and strangely neglected it — would like to redeem Blade o’ Grass, but it is too late. She knows nothing, can learn nothing, and clings to her criminal associations.
The dark problem is thus opened up to the very bottom to show that duplicity and even crime ought not to be a bar to the good offices of the kind-hearted, since in the nature of things the graduates of such a life could not be different from what they are. It is true, and if this reduced estimate of Mr. Farjeon, in opposition to the Derby Mercury, should prevent a single person from acting upon the deductions he has made from it in this cheerful Christmas season, I shall never be able to repent of it enough. There are Stony Alleys in New York, — sink-holes where every figure and building is sinister, where you breathe gingerly as if they were filled with carbonic acid gas, — and there whoever will go in search of them may find Bladeso’ Grass in plenty.