The New Dispensation of Monumental Art: The Decoration of Trinity Church in Boston, and of the New Assembly Chamber at Albany


THE industrious Signor Brumidi at Washington has grown gray in the service of art while covering the walls of the National Capitol with Italian decorations, carried to a point of manual perfection which leaves nothing to be desired as regards technical qualities, but which has proved itself absolutely barren of results. The art of the country is no better for it, and possibly no worse. When we are told that the aged artist is now crowning his long labors by painting upon the frieze or belt which encircles the rotunda, under the dome, the history of American civilization, in an imitation of bas-relief so admirable as to deceive even the elect, we can comprehend the mechanical spirit which underlies his work; we can understand why the excellent conventionalities which occupy the walls and vaults of the corridors and committee-rooms, —here in one style, there in another, and all correctly set forth, —have not served as fruitful examples of high inspiration. They were born of a cold artisan spirit, which has not in it any principle of life. Each example of strong, original artistic convictions in history has given direction more or less sensibly to the currents of contemporary art. But such work as this is not inspired by such convictions; it has therefore furnished to the art of mural decoration in this country no impulse and kindled no enthusiasms.

Our opportunities for heroic work in this department of art have been frequent enough, but few intelligent efforts have been made to improve them until within the last two years, when Mr. John La Farge, at Trinity Church in Boston, and Mr. William Hunt, in the Assembly Chamber of the State Capitol of New York, have for the first time given to the country examples which may prove to be the seed planted upon good ground. It is a duty of civilization to subject such examples as these to serious critical examination. The results of good examples of mural decoration are so beautiful and so profuse, and bad examples, if they are inspired with any strength of enthusiasm, are so fruitful in errors, that to suffer them to fructify in either direction without a word of thoughtful praise or blame would be the loss of a golden opportunity. Indifference is a quality of barbarism.

We propose, therefore, to study these examples of mural decoration candidly, to the end that we may awaken a spirit of inquiry, that we may know in what direction they are apt to lead us, and that we may be duly forewarned if they have in them any element of danger.

The architecture of Trinity Church is particularly hospitable to high decorations in color, because it affords large interior surfaces, and because its features of construction, unlike the conventional Gothic of the churches, do not make too large a demand upon the decorative scheme. When the architect was permitted to call Mr. La Farge to his assistance in completing this work, the latter found at his disposal, in the first place, ample dimensions and broad, suggestive spaces; and, in the second, he had the intelligent sympathy of those for whom and with whom he worked. He undertook, however, a heroic task, with limitations of time and means, — such perhaps as no painter of monumental art had ever subjected himself to in previous works. He brought to this labor a genuine artist’s spirit, strong in its convictions and brave in its hopes, but unused either to the study or to the production of architectural effects.

Let us now consider the architectural conditions of his work; for without a thorough comprehension of the theme as affected by the spirit of the place, we can arrive at no just conclusion regarding the result. The church is cruciform, nave, transepts, and chancel being each about fifty feet wide within the walls, and the interior dimensions being about one hundred and forty feet in extreme length and one hundred and fifteen feet in extreme width. The interior height is somewhat more than sixty feet. The tower which arises over the crossing of the nave and transepts is nearly fifty feet square within, and its ceiling, which is open to view from the interior, is one hundred feet from the floor. The ceilings of the auditorium are of light furrings and plaster in the form of a continuous barrel vault of trefoil section, abutting against the great arches of the crossing, which are furred down to a similar shape, with wooden tie-beams encasing iron rods carried across on a level with the cusp of the arches. The four great granite piers which sustain the weight of the tower are encased with furring and plastering, finished in the shape of grouped shafts with grouped capitals and bases. The whole apparent interior is thus, contrary to the convictions of the modern architectural moralist, a mask of the construction. We do not propose here to enter upon the question as to whether or to what extent the architect was justified in thus frankly denying his responsibility to the ethics of design as practiced and expounded by the greatest masters, ancient and modern ; it suffices for our immediate purpose to note that the material of actual construction being nowhere visible in the interior, to afford a key of color to the decorator, or to affect his designs in any way, he had before him a field peculiarly unembarrassed by conditions.

The exterior architecture of the church is a very vigorous and masculine form of round-arched Romanesque, affected by traditions from Auvergne and Salamanca, and with a good deal of later mediæval detail, the whole well amalgamated and a proper work for an architect of the nineteenth century. Thus, even in respect to style, the painter had no reason to yield anything of his freedom to archæological conventions; he was left at liberty to follow the same, spirit of intelligent eclecticism which had guided the architect.

The tone of the interior, as regards color, being thus left open to some arbitrary solution, the desire of the architect for a red effect was accepted as a starting-point, and this color was adopted for the walls throughout, its quality being solemn and neutral. Either in fact, or by effect of light, or by variation of surface, this color submits to variations in tone, so that it really has different values in different parts of the church; and thus, in the very beginning, we seem to be spared the homely virtue of mechanical correctness and equality of workmanship. The vaulted surfaces of the ceiling are divided into narrow cross-sections by small moldings of black walnut or black walnut color, and these sections very properly receive the complementary color of red, namely, a greenish blue, with the value of bottle green. These sections or strips are cut up by transverse lines into quarries or squares, each of which is occupied with a form or device of conventional character, appealing rather to the imagination than to the intellect, rather to the material than to the moral sense. There are perhaps a dozen of these devices, some of them apparently cabalistic or vaguely mysterious in character, distributed among the quarries with a certain Oriental irregularity, and carefully avoiding geometrical recurrences. These forms are in various shades of olive, brown, and buff, here and there accentuated capriciously with gold. Out of this complication results a very rich, quiet, and original effect, — an effect cunningly conceived and artfully executed, but legitimate and worthy of study by all decorators who know not how to be sober without being wearisome. It is really surprising to see with how many elements of color and form this serious result is achieved. It indicates a very intelligent study of Oriental methods. The same colors are used in the decoration of the four arches of the tower, so that their important representative function of support is not defined and recognized with that force and dignity which the circumstances require ; but the four great grouped piers at the angles of the intersection of nave, transepts, and chancel have received a treatment in dark bronzegreen, — very broad and simple, with gilded capitals and bases, — an arrangement remarkable alike for its reserve and its strength, and for its harmony with the prevailing tones around. The cornice which forms the important line of demarcation between the dull red of the walls and the dark green of the ceiling is weak and insufficient, and it encounters the moldings of the capitals of the great piers in a manner which would be called artless and innocent if this were the work of an architect of the twelfth century, but which under the present circumstances must be considered careless or defiant. As regards color, which might have been so bestowed as to condone these faults of weakness and insufficiency in the cornice, it rather enhances them by emphasizing and separating its unfortunate details.

The decoration of the walls of the nave, so far as it has been developed, is conceived in an independent and original spirit, with the result of a very rich surface effect. It is mostly confined to the clere story wall over the aisle arches, and is composed of a belt under the cornice and on a line with the impost of the windows, with painted pilasters of various device between the windows, inclosing spaces which in two cases are occupied by pictorial subjects, and in others by an enrichment of diapers. The architectural motifs of this decoration are Italian in character, very freely treated, and the belts and pilasters are embellished with Raphaelesque scrolls and foliage, conventionalized in the Italian manner, with variations of green and rose colors. Portions of the backgrounds behind the pilasters are treated with patterns and colors borrowed from Oriental carpets. The amount of design lavished upon the detail of this part of the work, the absence of repetitions and stencilwork, the disregard of the non-essentials of symmetry, the multiplicity of parts, with the general effect, however, of sober richness and repose, — all these characteristics combine to render this work a remarkable departure from the perfunctory and more or less mechanical styles of surface enrichment to which we have been accustomed. The very imperfections of execution and design, — such, especially, as are shown in a want of decision in the treatment of the architectural motifs employed, — and the numerous offenses against the conventionalities of decoration, give to these walls a certain charm of individuality, for the prime result of a harmonious and jeweled enrichment of color is obtained, and the quality of this harmony of color is just such as could have been obtained by no mechanical methods. As compared with the best sort of modern conventional surface decoration, with its accuracy of craftsmanship and its precision of method, this is remarkable for the evidence it contains not only of the personality of the artist, as exhibited in his manner of thought and study, but of his characteristics of manipulation, such as never could have been delegated to artisans or handicraftsmen, however skilled and sympathetic, unless under his immediate supervision.

The two pictorial subjects — one our Saviour and the Woman of Samaria at the Well, and the other our Saviour with Mary Magdalene, — are treated in an academical manner, with great solemnity of feeling in line and color, and with all the restraint and reserve which comes of respect for consecrated types. In this regard they exhibit a curious contrast to the naïveté and independence of precedent exhibited in their more conventional surroundings. These compositions have light, shade, shadows, and perspective, and as such are an offense to the higher æsthetics which do not recognize as correct any wall decorations which are not flat. But the purist could hardly find it in his heart to blame a fault which is condoned by the fact that there is no distance to the pictures, the figures being defined against a screen surface or wall in each case, — by the fact that they make no marked spot on the wall, and that they form an integral and not an exceptional part of the general scheme of color.

The details of the decorations in the tower, which, as we have said, is open from the area of the auditorium to the height of one hundred feet, where it has a flat, green ceiling divided into caissons or panels by crossing beams, are on a much larger scale, as is befitting their greater distance from the eye. There are three round-arched windows in each wall of this tower resting upon a molded string-course, perhaps ten feet above the crowns of the four supporting arches. It is thus, as it were, a box filled with light. It is pervaded by the dull red tone of the walls, and upon this background has been placed a profuse enrichment, which in line and color borrows much from the works of the pupils of Raphael, belts and panels being disposed according to the architectural opportunities very much as they would have disposed them. But in parts, notably above the crown of the great arches, there is a certain boldness of contradiction between the lines of the square panels and those of the archivolt which recalls the decorative methods of the Japanese. But if there are parts which remind one of the work of Giotto at Assisi, of the altar screens of Fra Angelico, of the Stanze of the Vatican, or the panels of the Villa Madama, there is still more which could have been thought and done only by a scholarly painter of the nineteenth century. Much of the detail is invisible from below, especially the studied Raphaelesqucs in the tympana of the tower windows; but one can see that the panels in the corner piers of the window-stage are filled with the emblematical creatures of the evangelists,

—the lion of St. Mark, the eagle of St. John, and so on, ramping or perching upon curious conventional frets, scrolls, or diapers; and one can read written upon the belt of gold under the windows the solemn inscription: “ Blessing, and Honour, and Glory, and Power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the Throne, and unto the Lamb forever and ever.” The archivolt of the great arches is also marked by a broad golden belt, and the spandrels between are occupied in the upper parts by adoring angels leaning out of square windows, as it were, and by gigantic figures of apostles and prophets. The arrangement, as a whole, is not according to any old master exactly, as we have said; still less does it imitate any pagan or Oriental manner. But it has absorbed enough of all pertinent precedent to create an effect which belongs to the times in which we live. The red fond is never quite obliterated, and against it is projected a system of decoration which, though complex in motive and abounding in various color, is harmonious in general result.

The six great figures of prophets and apostles, although conceived with learning and with a marked degree of religious feeling, although suggesting a certain grandeur of sentiment, such as one who knows the prophets and sibyls on the pendentives of the Sixtine Chapel must needs have in mind when undertaking any similar scheme, are wanting in vigor and correctness of drawing. Their outlines are hesitating and indecisive, the hands are badly drawn, there is no human structure under the robes, they have no clearness or freshness of color, and in execution they seem crude and hasty; but they are by no means conventional or commonplace, as works much more correct than these might well be, and as decorative accessories they are large, bold, and effective. They are in harmony with the general scheme of color, and they add to the total effect a human interest of the very highest kind. But technically they furnish another and a very significant instance of the timidity and irresolution which the learned and conscientious artist of modern days is apt to exhibit in the presence of the august ideals which, by careful study, he has compacted out of the achievements of all the old masters. The execution lags far behind the intent. But better the serious aspiration and noble thought, though imperfectly set forth, than the dull perfection of the disciplined hand, otherwise uninformed and uninspired. “ What we are all attempting to do with great labor,” said Sir Joshua Reynolds, “ Velasquez does at once.” This remark is pregnant with suggestions of the inadequacy of modern art, under its common conditions, when called upon to do really great work. It explains not only the indirectness and indecision of the productions of the most thoughtful modern artists, but also the state of incompleteness in which they are compelled to leave much of their most ambitious work. Their process of composition, especially in work conceived upon a heroic scale, seems to be challenged at every step by a spirit out of the past. They are deprived of the virtue of simplicity, and the joy of their initiative is tempered with doubts.

As to the significance and interest of this remarkable example of interior decoration as a whole, there cannot be a moment’s question. When the vacant red fields in the transept walls have been completed like the nave, when the empty hemicycle of the apse has been filled with its processional glories, and the whole interior thus brought to a condition of unity, it will be found that the experiment of bringing to bear upon our public monuments a higher form of art, such as that which made illustrious the Italian walls in the sixteenth century, is fully justified. But even in its present state of incompleteness, even as a record of curious tentative processes, more or less successful, in the art of decorating wall spaces, this effort, like every other bit of true art, is a point of departure for a new series of developments. It has in it a principle of life capable of indefinite expansion. It breaks away from traditions of mere craftsmanship, and opens a new field for the artist of learning, experience, and poetic feeling. It shows to what noble uses he may put the resources of his memory and invention. It encourages the study of great examples. It suggests, moreover, how the decoration of the simpler wall surfaces in domestic work may be rescued from the hands of the mechanical painter, and how, by a judicious bestowal of thought upon details, a more subtle adjustment of colors, a more intelligent recognition of its capacities, it may be developed into a work of art.

The work of Mr. William Hunt at Albany is conceived upon a very different scale, and is adjusted to architectural conditions far less fortunate. We have observed that Mr. La Farge’s work at Boston was especially free from embarrassments or conventional limitations. The whole scheme of color in the interior was at his command; the place and the opportunity were in every way favorable to the greatest liberty of design in color and form; and this liberty, as we have seen, notwithstanding the artistic and perhaps constitutional timidity or reserve of which we have spoken, and notwithstanding his abridged conditions of time and moans, he has used with great discretion and religious respect, — qualities which were not violated when be was bold enough to mingle so much of Orientalism, so much that was at least not ecclesiastical, in the very substance and fibre of his work.

The Assembly Chamber at Albany is a monumental hall of vast proportions, walled and vaulted with yellowish stone, very bold in its general design, and charged with a great abundance of incised decoration colored with red, blue, black, and gold. This decoration, though uninteresting in detail, is rich, and indeed almost Moorish, in general effect. The constructive features are Gothic, the carving is conventional and coarse, but the whole design is carried out with great boldness and intelligence, and the whole result is bright, large, noble, and, though wanting in sentiment of detail, is eminently fitting for a great civic hall. Two opposite walls of this chamber are occupied by round-arched windows in two stages, the lower stage having three openings, and the upper being a continuous arcade of six openings. Between the arches of this arcade and the broad, pointed ceiling vault which abuts against the wall above is a triangular space or tympanum forty feet wide and perhaps half as high, and, we should suppose, about forty feet from the floor of the chamber. In this high space, on either side of the hall, Mr. Hunt has painted two decorative and pictorial compositions,—the most important of the kind yet executed in this country. We propose to consider these pictures from a purely decorative point of view, not as independent easel pictures, but as monumental accessories to a great architectural composition.

When the artist undertook this important work, the conditions of entourage had already been fixed. The style of the work was uncompromising Gothic; the lower boundary of each tympanum was an arcade of bright windows; the upper boundary was the outline of the great inclosing vaulting arch. This vaulting surface was decorated with a series of ornamental belts with sunk patterns of coarse design enforced with the crude colors of which we have spoken. These belts abutted against the field of the proposed picture at right angles, and there was no vaulting rib or molding to mark the line between the wall and ceiling. To meet these conditions of light and color, Mr. Hunt was compelled to paint his pictures on a very high key, and to give to his outlines an accent of exceptional vigor. We cannot but think, however, that he was deceived as to the amount of light which these surfaces would receive from the opposite windows, and that the mass of the staging upon which he painted made a twilight to which he adapted his work; for the broad light of the morning betrays a coarseness of outline and color which is veiled in the waning light of the afternoon, when apparently the pictures are in their most favorable aspect. But even then there is a fatal rawness in the decorative effect, which is readily accounted for by the absence of a distinct line of demarcation, or frame, to separate the aerial spaces of his compositions from the hard colored lines of the belts in the vaulting, which attack the very edges of his clouds. The pictorial character of the designs is another reason for their isolation by some such device from this unsympathetic neighborhood. The greatest masters of decoration fully understood this principle, and always used an inclosing frame wherever their work ceased to be continuous. The loggie of the Farnesina and the Vatican, the ceiling of the gallery of Apollo at Paris, of the council chamber at Venice, of the Sixtine Chapel at Rome, and innumerable other examples, clearly prove that the masters were not content with a mere angle as a boundary for the separate compositions of which their decorations were composed. The only example of high art which we can recall in which this principle has not been observed is that of the Last Judgment of Michael Angelo, which occupies the whole end of the chapel; and the failure of this great work as a decoration is to be attributed almost entirely to the rawness of its boundary lines. But in Roman work, as at Pompeii, in Romanesque work, as at Byzantium and St. Mark’s, and in the art of the early Christian painters, the same effect of isolation is obtained by placing the composition upon a background of gold, or of flat conventional color, sufficiently contrasting with the surrounding colors to establish a separate area.

“ Artistic races,” says Eugène Vèron, “ have regarded monumental painting as illuminated and but slightly modeled drawing; when it gives us good design wedded to harmonious colors, it has done all that we should expect.” “ In the decorative painting both of ancient times and of the Middle Ages,” he elsewhere observes, “ the greatest care was taken to avoid everything which seemed to be an attempt at impossible illusion.” This principle was observed up to the time of the magnificent apostasy of Michael Angelo, who admitted into his wall decorations effects of perspective and realism of treatment. These great examples have seduced nearly all subsequent art from a fair recognition of the flat surfaces which it occupies, and have tempted it to feats of illusion which are not in harmony with the principles of decorative as opposed to pictorial design. The mediæeval setting of Mr. Hunt’s compositions, instinctively suggesting the flat treatment which the medæval decorators invariably used, and the shape and position of the tympana which they occupy, seem to render their free pictorial treatment even more incongruous. The conditions not only suggest a return to antique and mediæval principles, which require illuminated and but slightly modeled drawing, such indeed as Mr. Hunt has very properly confined himself to in this work, but compositions of figures grouped with a certain regard to formal symmetry, even to the extent of a central figure or mass with supporters. The emergency is one of architecture, which is better suited by a treatment of conventionalities than by one of romantic illusion in color, modeling, and movement. We do not mean to say that such pictorial illusion as Mr. Hunt has attempted is absolutely inadmissible; that there are not unoccupied surfaces still left in this chamber which are less architectural, that is, less beset by structural conditions, and less inaccessible to the eye, and which therefore would be much more hospitable to compositions of this kind.

We have hitherto discussed these compositions purely in their function as architectural decorations, for such in their highest artistic uses they should be. We cannot but consider that the opportunity has been misunderstood in a fundamental point, and that work of a far lower grade than that of Mr. Hunt would have better served the purpose. With all his strength of will, with all his skill in the adaptation of his tones, and all his fiery determination of drawing, he has been unable to conquer a right to fill such spaces with such work. It is a waste of great resources.

The consideration of these works of art simply as pictures calls into play a different set of critical faculties from those required in the consideration of them as decorations. The artist has symbolized the simultaneous occurrence of the revival of letters and the discovery of America by the allegories of the Flight of Night and the Discoverer. The former has in its elements long been familiar to those who frequented Mr. Hunt’s studio. It is in fact a flying cloud, the substance and movement of which is figured by the suggestion of an aerial chariot drawn by three plunging steeds, to the mane of one of which clings a torch - bearing groom, rather guiding than restraining the downward flight. High upon the cloudy seat sits a female figure, directing the vision with a gesture of her hand; and below, enveloped in a shadowy fold of fleecy drapery, dimly portrayed, is a sleeping woman with a child, and over her hovers a little protecting spirit. The visionary character of the composition is unencumbered by any material appliance; there are no reins, no harness, no chariot, no wheels. It is a precipitous movement of vapor poetically set forth with a superb flight of horses, and enough of human interest in the figure to suggest a meaning which each can interpret in his own way. It is a very fine point in the sentiment of the picture that the allegory is not forced upon the spectator by the insistence of vulgar accessories. The horses are drawn with magnificent spirit and with the confidence and élan of a master. The human figures are little more than suggestive; they are fleeting visions,— a part of a cloudy pageant. When illuminated by bright sunlight, or by the artificial lighting of the chamber at night, the vigorous mechanism of outline and color which are contrived to produce an effect are somewhat unpleasantly betrayed. In the half-light of the afternoon, as we have said, the very qualities which are crudities at other times contribute to make up a pictorial harmony of the most effective and poetic kind. The same may be said with even greater force of the Discoverer. A Hamlet - like man, in armor and cloak, stands conspicuous in a boat, riding half disclosed upon a billowy swell of the ocean. Behind him, at the helm and holding a bellying sail of drapery, stands a winged female figure in an attitude of dignity somewhat like that suggested by the Venus of Milo; and upon the prow, with her outlines defined against a bright rift in the western sky, leans a spirit of the water, with a frank, onward look and a gesture significant of confident hope. This figure seems to us the best in the group; it is beautifully drawn, and plays a happy part in the composition. Two other female figures float upon the waves. We have thus Fortune at the helm and Hope at the prow. The guide-books shall interpret the rest of the allegory, which, to us, as compared with that portrayed on the opposite wall, is wanting in significance, and made up of too many elements and of too much of materialism to leave upon the mind a concrete poetic image. The composition is wanting in simplicity, and the effect of the whole depends upon a momentary incident; the next instant of time be yond that depicted, the next wash of the uncertain billows, will evidently throw the whole group into confusion. This impending catastrophe seems in some way to detract from the dignity of the allegory. The masters of the Renaissance, when they chose a sea-pomp for their subjects, such as the Triumph of Galatea, the Rape of Europa, and the Venus Anadyomene, managed to spare us from doubts of this kind by a more multitudinous grouping of figures capable of falling into new combinations without loss of harmony. But Mr. Hunt’s allegory is disjointed, and appears to need some harmonizing element to give us that feeling of security which accompanies the floating and flying groups of Guido, Rubens, and Annibale Caracci. The idea of the Flight of Night is in this respect admirable; in a moment the cloudy vision will have departed, leaving a serene sky, and space for all the succeeding pageants of civilization.

These remarks are made with a constant reservation of confidence that the vigor and truth of this master’s artistic convictions and his practiced hand and eye will bear him on with safety into regions of " high emprise; ” that in qualities of technique, even in this last essay, there are few modern painters who can surpass him. He has proved his capacity for great achievement in far wider fields than those bounded by the gold frame of an easel picture. The confident boldness and enthusiasm with which he has entered into those fields, and the masculine breadth of comprehension which he has exhibited there, are an admirable forecast of still greater triumphs. We sincerely trust that his genius may have better scope in his next trial, and may not again be condemned to a “ pentup Utica” under a high vault, with a blaze of windows beneath and a semibarbarous pomp of crude color above, — a place which should only be treated with an artifice of conventionalities too strict in their limitations for the endurance and self-denial of a spirit so bold and a hand so free.

Henry Van Brunt.