Mr. Hunt's Teaching
THE value of advanced instruction in art depends quite as much on the personal magnetism of the teacher as on any other quality. His patience may be unlimited, his knowledge of the profession thorough and comprehensive, and he may still be unable to instruct his pupils with any success. This quality of personal magnetism is too subtle to be measured with any precision, but its presence in a teacher is felt by every student. It impresses itself more than any other element of an artist’s character on the productions of his imagination and of his susceptibility. The attractive advantages of personal assistance from the leaders in the profession are due largely to this power of personal magnetism. In most cases this may be nothing more than the communication of a spirit of enthusiasm; but it is always of the greatest service in the advanced study of art, where so much depends on guidance and so little on direct teaching. Whoever has witnessed the earnestness of one of the foreign masters cannot have failed to be struck with the intensity of the conviction that gave strength to every gesture, made the criticisms golden, the dictates more precious than diamonds. Instruction of this sort is nothing more than exciting in the students an enthusiasm for their work, and supplementing this enthusiasm with a cultivation of the powers of observation. In other words, the master only teaches the students how to see.
Mr. Wm. M. Hunt had a great deal of personal magnetism, and, more than any other artist in America, he had the firm conviction of positive belief that Americans needed to learn to see. This conviction was so strong in him that he could not help giving it to the world in every way and by every means that was in his power. He spread a veritable con-
tagion of single-minded devotion to art for art’s own sake. A thorough analysis of his methods of teaching would doubtless reveal many weaknesses and disclose many apparent contradictions. His pupils were with him heart and soul, and they forgot the details in admiring the grand motive of the whole scheme. It is doubtful whether Mr. Hunt ever made the full extent of his ideas comprehensible to the majority of his students. Their own performances show that they understood very well a part, and only a part, of his idea. He was very impatient of all systems and processes. His quick apprehension and keen sensibility were in the fever heat of excitement all the time, and he threw himself into his work with a complete and possessing impulse. Teaching the elementary steps of the profession was exceedingly distasteful to him, and he rarely or never undertook it. Few of the students who composed his classes had mastered the rudiments. The material he had to work with there was not altogether to his mind, but it had the one great necessary qualification,— unwavering faith in the master. His studio approached nearest to the foreign ateliers of anything we have in this country. But abroad the students are not admitted into the atelier of a master unless they are proficient in drawing. If Mr. Hunt had taken his pupils only after they had learned to draw, he would have created a school that would have flavored the whole mass of our art, instead of leaving behind him a large number of beginners, who, with all their proficiency in one direction, have few or no attainments in any other. An examination of his Art Talks will show that the difficulty he had to deal with was not so much that the pupils did not readily learn to see, but that they had no power to execute what they did see. He seemed unconscious that he was teaching Americans, who had, perhaps, never drawn a stroke before in their lives, and not Frenchmen, who had passed all the evenings of their youth in the municipal drawing-schools, But stray remarks now and then proved that he was conscious of his position all the time. He has been known to recommend his pupils in a mass to go to the art schools to learn how to draw, and then come back to him. After years of experiment and diligent practice, he had gained a facility in putting in rapidly the effect of any object with economy of labor and material. What he tried principally to impress on his pupils was that their salvation in art consisted in being able to accomplish a similar result at once. This was beginning at the end. Better begin at the end than begin wrongly or not at all. The chief thing was to see and to feel. All the skill in the world would not make an artist of a student if he did not see aright. It was beginning at the end, because the master arrived there after a severe training, after passing through various stages of intense application to the practice of the purely mechanical part of the work, He reasoned, doubtless, that what he had learned after years of trial was the one thing that his pupils most needed to know, and he considered all other knowledge subordinate to this. His criticisms of his pupils’ work indicate that this was his idea. He often told them that they would never learn to paint drapery until they learned anatomy ; that they would never learn to draw until they knew what was under the skin. And yet he did not begin by teaching them this. Students in other countries would have known it before they came into his studio.
He had but few simple precepts in his method of instruction. The first great principle was that truth only is of value in art; truth, not to the commonplace aspect of nature, but truth to the highest and noblest attributes; absolute fidelity to that phase of nature that worthily inspired the desire to seize and preserve it. It might have been a glow of color, a combination of lines, an arrangement of light and shade, or a vital point of character. Whatever it was that was worth perceiving, that he thought was the thing to try and put down. His own performances were impulsive and enthusiastic. He communicated this spirit to his pupils to such a degree that they were prone to mistake, as all beginners are, the glamour of a more or less imperfect impression for the best they could do. Because it was done impulsively and had the stamp of frankness and genuine appreciation in it, a study, rough and incomplete as it might be in execution, often passed for a successful effort. Many of the pupils will remember how the master was delighted at certain qualities in a study, and ignored the defects entirely, until at the end of his criticism, or later, he would give it its proper measure by some peculiarly fit remark, showing that, while he had been pleased at the success of certain parts, he had not lost sight of the incompleteness of the whole. His second great precept was that whatever is painted well must be painted from the impulse of love for nature. George Sand’s human trinity, sensation, sentiment, and knowledge, was the trinity in his religion of art, and he taught the doctrines of this religion with the zeal of a born propagandist.
It cannot be gainsaid that the conversion to his beliefs of a large number of students has been of the greatest service in the development of artistic culture in this community. By his example and precept no less than by his direct teaching, he carried on a vigorous crusade against the mechanical and soulless practice of the profession, and fought with keen weapons against the tendency to conventionality that is rooted in the very subsoil of American art. One reason why his own teaching was so valuable is because it introduced the antidote for conventionality. He saw that the mechanical turn of mind of the American art student needed to be balanced by a course of free thinking, so to speak. Americans incline to dryness in execution, and Mr. Hunt’s instruction was of just the necessary kind to correct this fault. His own work was always a sufficient example to illustrate to students the force of his precepts, and to show them exactly in what way the pursuit of his methods led him. By the use of charcoal they learned to study picturesque arrangements of light and shade, and to jot down broadly and freely impressions of nature, without carrying the studies further than this. Mr. Hunt himself was a master of this material, and he knew that the proper use of it by his pupils would correct all tendency to dryness of execution, and enable them to arrive at the limited result sought with much less mechanical difficulty than with the stump or point. There is a wide difference between the degrees of precision to be obtained by the use of different materials. The etching point can be successfully employed only by those who are sure of their hand. Charcoal is the material that requires the least command of the hand in its use, for it may be readily erased and worked over with ease. That Mr. Hunt did not insist on precision of line is evident from his general principles of teaching. His pupils gained considerable skill in the employment of charcoal, and in using color in the same line of study. Their color studies are, however, comparatively less complete than the ones in charcoal, because new and complicated difficulties came in with the use of pigments.
In thus summing up the result of Mr. Hunt’s teaching it must not be forgotten that he was never satisfied with it. He always felt that he could have been a thousand times more useful in a different field. The few artists who have received assistance and advice from him
testify by their works to the inestimable value of his instruction. The pity is that more serious students, who were far enough advanced to digest and assimilate his teachings, should not have availed themselves of the great privilege of his leadership. He did certainly succeed in converting all his students to belief in the right principles of art, and was fortunate in imparting to them some of his own grand faith. Their legacy from him is a noble one. But they remain like people who have learned the beauties of a language before they can write or speak it. Their works show that they see aright, and that their intentions are the best. But they can be called neither realists, idealists, nor impressionists, for their performances go little further than intentions. For this they may be descriptively named intentionists. With this legacy of the master who has so recently died there is but one thing to do: keep it by every means in our power, and supplement it by the encouragement of the study of the a, b, c of the profession. The rigorous systems of art academies have resulted, as the world knows to its loss, in the development of artists distinguished chiefly by the uniform excellence of their mechanical performances, and by their almost universal lack of the higher artistic capabilities. There is something in the nursing process of an academy that retards the growth of a true artist. Those who have had the highest success in the profession have gained it by their devotion to their own impulses, and not to the continued teachings of any school. The fault of academies is that they go too far ; they carry the student beyond the rudiments, and cramp him with traditions and rules. The elements of the profession are more cheaply and more conveniently acquired in an academy than elsewhere; but when the rudiments are learned, there academic training should stop. The moment the academy begins to train the student in any system of execution, that moment it begins to hamper his freedom and distort bis vision. There is no royal road to proficiency in art. The drudgery of the profession is enough to kill the ambition of nine tenths of those who enter it. The real triumph of an artist’s life is at the moment when he can forget his tools, and paint conscious only of the beauties of nature before him. No artist ever attained this height in his profession except through a hard and wearisome experience, and the only safe rule to follow is one set down by Ingres: Approach the study of art only on your knees. When we can show a single student well trained in the rudiments of the profession, and directed by the assimilation of such knowledge as Mr. Hunt imparted, then we shall know that we are keeping up with the tide of general artistic development that is now gathering such momentum all over the country.
F. D. Millet.