Elihu Vedder's Pictures
THERE is as much difference between painting for painting’s sake and the use of brush and colors to express some idea as there is between constructing verses for the perfection of the rhythm and writing poetry in order to convey in the noblest manner some sentiment worth the utterance. It is from the marked absence of any expression of ideas in most modern works of art that our picture exhibitions are such barren and desolate wastes of colored canvases. With all the monotony of subject found in a collection of old masters, with the endless succession of holy families and saints and martyrs, there is enough earnestness of purpose and sincerity of expression to give to these worn-out stories a kind of human interest which rarely flags, even though the eye be wearied by the repetition of compositions on the same theme. In the present stage of art there is a reaction against the idealism of the past, and the demand is for execution; for a degree of technical skill which few of the old masters attained, and which for the last two centuries has never been equaled. The natural result of this reaction is a poverty of ideas in painting; not that there are fewer subjects at the command of the artist than in the days when the Bible was his sole inspiration, but because he is preoccupied with the use of his material, and finds that after he has gained satisfactory skill both the demands of the public and his own acquired taste prevent him from painting what is really in his heart. The academic training of the present day contrasted with that of the studio system of two or three centuries ago shows how the conditions of apprenticeship have changed. There are arguments enough in favor of either scheme, but the result proves that our modern rigid system of art education, comprehensive and intelligent as it is, has accomplished nothing more notable than the suffocation of individual impulse.
Mr. Elihu Vedder, whose pictures have been recently exhibited in Boston, has had an artistic career, distinguished less by his popular success than by his vigorous and consistent protest against the modern limitations of the profession. The collection embraced a large part of the work produced by the artist during the past decade, and readily divided itself into two parts: the one decidedly realistic, the other dependent for its interest on the subject illustrated more than on the execution. Without bearing evidence of a deliberate scheme of argument, the collection showed at a glance the condition of mind which made the variety of execution and the difference of motives not only a possibility but a necessity to the artist. Mr. Vedder as he is seen in his pictures has a strong literary taste; he is overwhelmed by the profusion of subjects. The rush of his ideas can find but inadequate expression in the limited number of pictures which he, with all his diligence, can produce. From the beginning he has been moved by two faiths: the one, and the stronger, a conscious belief that the purpose of art is to express something that will add to the high enjoyment of mankind ; and the other an intelligent appreciation of the value of a skillful means of expression, which will make the artistic language not only intelligible, but attractive. With most men one or the other of these beliefs would have been a sufficient impulse to direct the whole course of their career. Mr. Vedder has been loyal to them both. In his earliest pictures there were peculiar and strong qualities of tone and color, an originality of arrangement and composition, and a skill with the brush that might almost have been called extraordinary. To find such elements of technical skill in the illustration of the ideas which are commonly associated with carelessness, or total ignorance of the methods of execution, was as gratifying as it was rare, and Mr. Vedder went abroad to continue his studies with a unique reputation and a small but devoted circle of appreciators. Italy, with its museums of masterpieces of painting and sculpture, and its moral atmosphere in the highest degree stimulating to the imagination, furnished just the conditions most congenial to the growth and perfection of the branch of art Mr. Vedder had chosen as his own. There, nourished by the traditions of the sympathetic art of the past, he had the impulse to conceive and the courage to produce the pictures which are the expression of his intimate convictions and of the cherished creations of his imagination. Naturally enough, he found that in the fervor of his zeal to put down on canvas the ideas that came to him he often forgot the tricks of the handicraft, and again and again the eloquence of the story was marred by incomplete and unsatisfactory execution. Then, with the humility of a beginner, he sat down before a still-life or a model, and copied it with the patience and persistence of a man who knows what he has to accomplish and is sure of his result. Whatever he did in this way — whatever, indeed, he achieved in matterof-fact, simple execution — was more or less a relief to him, satisfying him that he was able to keep up a reasonable skill with the brush, and bringing him nearer all the time to the accomplishment of his purpose, namely, to the combination of the two great elements of his art, which were each a power in themselves. In the presence of his pictures this experience is related by the unmistakable testimony of the canvases. Here is a still-life, composed of a few objects of bricabrac, a vase or two, backed by rich draperies thrown carelessly down, making a composition full of contrasting colors, textures, and forms. Every detail is studied with conscientious care, and the textures are imitated with almost the skill of a Gerard Dow. With the eye full of the elaborate finish and mechanical completeness of the still-life canvas, turn to a small, square panel with two figures in white floating through murky space. The wide eyes and vacant expression of one and the searching gaze of the other are haunting in their intensity. The vision of the earthball below and the sombre sky stretching away into horizonless distance is a fitting background to the weird figures. The story is too well told to need a quotation to show that these are the “ hurrying shapes ” from Mr. Aldrich’s poem of Identity. It is but a rapid and incomplete sketch ; no more suggestive of mechanical skill than some of Blake’s hurried notes, which, indeed, in general idea, the picture strongly suggests. Beside the elaborate and painstaking completeness of the still-life, this little panel is, from one point of view, a childish performance. It is the nobility of the conception that puts out of sight the feeble execution, and makes the spectator forget that only paint and canvas are before him. The two examples just quoted are, to be sure, the furthest extremes in the collection, but similar contrasts were everywhere noticeable. With the instincts of a painter quite as strong as the impulses of an artist, Mr. Vedder shows in these safety-valves of realistic work a scheme of color quite his own, and remarkable more for the exquisite harmony of the parts tban for the particular and prosaic truth of the whole.
The Young Marsyas and the Cumæan Sibyl, the two most important works in the exhibition, are undoubtedly well known to the public through the numerous descriptions of them which were published at the time of Mr. Vedder’s controversy with L’Art, the French illustrated journal of art, and scarcely need more than a brief review. They gave the artist the broadest field for the exercise of his skill, and may be considered as in some respects the climax of his endeavors and the highest result of his studies and long practice. The young Marsyas is seated in a wintry landscape, playing on a pipe. Around him wild rabbits are gathered to listen to the enticing music of their sylvan prince. In every attitude of attention the little creatures pause in their nervous motions, and are spellbound by the notes of the pipe. There are few similar landscapes more impressive in their aspect than the one which forms the background of this little group. It is painted with no attempt at finish further than is necessary to give the character of the scene. The figure of Marsyas, with his nude torso and goat legs, is drawn with knowledge and modeled with a firm touch, though it be a trifle lacking in mobility. But the triumph of painting in this picture is seen in the rabbits, where the character and variety of individual position is given with unusual power and a skill that painters of animals might well be proud of. The Cumæan Sibyl is seen hurrying away, after she has burned one of the books of fate, to offer the remaining ones to Tarquin. The landscape is rigid and weird, the figure of the old woman full of action and swing, and the general tone of a mellow richness like the landscapes of the old masters. It is somewhat stringy in execution, a fault that — to be precise even at the risk of being trivial in criticism — is due to the prominent texture of the twilled canvas, which gives the picture somewhat the appearance of a tapestry. The story is told with a force and vigor that cannot be too highly commended.
A subject quite in harmony with the spirit of life in Italy is In Memoriam, a single draped figure standing in the midst of dry and withered trifles, a skull on a pedestal and shriveled stalks of flowers forming a dreary but suggestive group of accessories to the figure, and adding by contrast to its grace and classical dignity. The Sphinx of the Seashore carries still further the grim notions of which In Memoriam is but a mild utterance. The cruel woman-tiger crouching on a flat rock in the midst of whirling waters, watches for new victims, the very spirit of destruction. Skulls and other relics of the dead surround her, and the landscape, with its foreboding aspect, seems only fit for the habitation of such creatures as she. Whether it be a picture which the average connoisseur would care to hang in his collection, or whether, indeed, there be sufficient excuse for its production, is scarcely worth while to discuss. It is a good example of one of the vagaries of imaginative painting, to which it seems as if a certain element of the awful and the weird was as necessary as salt is to food.
Whenever Mr. Vedder has attempted religious subjects he has invested them with the full strength of his appreciation of the wonderful beauties which a study of the theme has opened to him. The Star of Bethlehem he has treated in such an original way that the spectator almost feels as if he sees it illustrated for the first time. The landscape, broad and simple in the foreground, stretches away to a distant valley, where a dark strip, upon which descends a single ray from a luminous spot in the heavens, shows the situation of the Saviour’s birthplace. The three wise men, almost lost in the immensity of the landscape, march steadily toward the guiding ray of light. In the heavens a great bank of cumulose clouds, reaching from the distant horizon, sweeps up and encircles the brilliant luminary. The cloud-forms, lighted by the star, take the shapes of adoring angels. The idea is worthy a poem, and Mr. Vedder has failed in his illustration of it only in the rigidity of the execution. The sky is dense, the clouds hard and heavy, and the forms too vigorous and pronounced. There is no mystery in the angelic rank ; the light defines them as if they were of marble, motionless and solid. But the landscape, illumined by the reflected light of the heavenly glory, is full of impressive mystery and in thorough sympathy with the spirit of the scene. One of the most famous of the artist’s religious pictures is a small and exceedingly classical sketch of part of the crowd on the hill-side at the crucifixion. It is full of intimations of the awful grandeur of the tragedy, and the violence of the conflicting emotions that possessed the spectators. Still another is a sketch of the group at the foot of the cross, suggestive of a noble composition.
Some of the single heads in the collection have a rare charm of expression, which, like the Identity, overbalanced all questions of drawing or painting. The Young Medusa, unfinished and almost meagre in color, is very fascinating in the peculiar intensity of expression ; and in the same way the head of an Italian girl, not altogether well drawn, but excellent in tone, is sure to make the spectator pause and reflect on the wonderful charm of the face. In simple flesh painting Mr. Vedder has had either too little practice, or he is too much preoccupied with the inviting beauties of the accessories to do justice to the charm of the color and the texture of the skin. His study of a girl posing half nude, however attractive in general tone and however perfect in arrangement, is neither pleasing as an imitation of the characteristic quality of flesh modeling, nor does it possess the unique charms of delicate gradations of color found in the human figure. This picture must be put in the same class with the still-life subjects, since it is apparently painted for the same purpose. It shows at least one thing, — that Mr. Vedder has better mastery of the technique than most painters of a literary turn of mind ; and doubtless it was to prove this to himself that he made the study. He had done nothing more entirely his own than the Questioner of the Sphinx, a small study, the painting from which is owned by Martin Brimmer, Esq. An Arab in an attitude of reverential expectancy places his ear at the mouth of the Sphinx. Alone in the desert, oppressed by the weight of the mystery of past ages, the native seeks to discover the secrets which the stony lips alone seem able to disclose. The picture is an intense and powerful suggestion of the great and lasting mystery that surrounds Egyptian history. The story told on that small canvas is to each spectator satisfying and complete, in proportion as his imagination brings him into sympathy with the idea of the artist. To one it may be little more than a simple study of the Sphinx and a figure; to another it is a whole poem. This is one of the disappointments which every painter of imaginative and literary subjects must continually meet with. A picture which appeals with great force to one class of minds has no weight and brings no suggestion to another class. The artist often finds that his choicest idea has failed to hit its mark, or meet a response in the public appreciation. Mr. Vedder’s own experience is a good example of this. He has had but a small audience even in his native country. Abroad he has had as meagre encouragement as any artist who ever studied seriously. But with a singleness of purpose that is itself the best assurance of ultimate success, he has painted away in his own direction, and, unmindful of critics, has gone on in his own way. The result, it is needless to say, is encouraging enough to make the trials of the past seem hut trifles.
There were among the multitude of pictures in the exhibition a number of direct studies from nature, which, considering the fact that Mr. Vedder had never made a show of his devotion to open-air study, were a surprise even to those who knew his work best. Various little street scenes, views in olive groves, some with figures and some without, a peasant lighting his pipe, — all of them were delicate and truthful representations of nature. It was curious to notice how in several instances he could not help telling his story even in the matterof-fact imitation of architectural grouping or atmospheric effect. A street in sunlight, deserted by human beings at noonday, as all Italian streets are in summer time, is filled by the pomposity of a strutting goose who waddles up the middle of the pavement, monarch of the thoroughfare. Again, in a bit of landscape he has put so much of the mysterious and the uncanny as to suggest the scene of a murder. A fresh and delightful study from nature is a sea-shore view, with the shallow water turbid with the light sand, and on the distant sea horizon a strip of intense blue water. The large landscape of Central Italy is a severely conscientious study, but too full of the influence of the old masters to be pleasing.
Occasionally taken with a decorative fever, Mr. Vedder indulges in a sketch, like the one illustrating a verse from Omar Khayyam, for example, in which a group of carousing figures in rich costumes makes a bouquet of rich color. A painting of a mediæval net-weaver, not shown at the beginning of the exhibition, is a graceful and highly decorative figure. Something of tlie richness of his invention is seen in two bronze cups, very original and elaborate in design and quaint in character. The sketches from which the artist intends to paint pictures in the future are full of rich promise.