Elihu Vedder's Pictures
A PATH so steep and thorny as that of the ideal in painting is entered by none but the brave. The obstacles are many and vast, the pitfalls deep, the precipices dizzy and dreadful. One must be strong indeed to dwell always in the rarefied atmosphere of great ideas. How may the intangible be grasped, the unspeakable described ? Is it not, in fine, chimerical for a painter, bound down as he is by the almost inflexible conventions of his craft, to aim so high ? These are some of the natural doubts and questions that arise when Elihu Vedder’s pictures are seen. For Vedder is, more frankly and thoroughly than any other American painter, an idealist; in this age of naturalism and realism he has set his face squarely in the contrary direction, not wholly from choice, but because of an innate propensity.
Unhappily, it is not possible to separate entirely the artist’s aspirations from his outward manner. The thinker and the workman must be regarded as one. The art of painting is the religion of the eye, and, like all other religions, it has its formulas. Invisible merits are of no worth in this cult; whereas beauty is in some sort obligatory, and certainly covers a multitude of sins. If it happens sometimes that men of superior intellects make indifferent painters, such instances may be set down as the exceptions that prove the rule ; for in art a small spirit cannot run a great career, and it is the intense desire to utter truths strongly felt which lends an orator the most telling eloquence.
Better than any modern painter, Vedder unites with a wonderful vein of imagination the necessary command over his means of expression. It is true that he is an artist before he is a painter, but his manner of workmanship is uncommonly well suited to his ideas ; and it is not at all likely that Rubens’s fluency and unction, or the brilliancy of a Veronese, would add any desirable quality to his particular effects.
His palette is peculiarly his own, and holds some remarkable hues of blue, red, pink, brown, and green, which we shall see very positively and frankly used, but in combinations full of surprises and extraordinary effects of contrast. His style is severe and elevated. Nothing is left to chance or to the moment’s caprice. The lines in all his groups have a studied grace of curves. He dreams, but seldom forgets himself. There is calculation and method in his loftiest flights. The mysteries of life, the unknown and the preternatural, symbols and allegories, themes grand and terrible, allure him, and he undertakes to translate into intelligible form and color the unsubstantial pictures of the mind. To this labor of love, above all other merits, he brings the gift of expression, one of the rarest endowments of the artist. His pencil causes the very souls of his characters to shine forth in their faces, whether the mood be of grief, of joy, of anger, or of resignation. No fiery passions consume his people, but a slow, deep tide of thought and feeling, more often mournful than merry, moves throughout the tableaux vivants of his creation, like a solemn symphony in the minor key.
There are successes in painting which appear to overthrow many of the established standards of judgment, but the old tests should not be discarded too hastily. No art is more conventional than painting, and a man must be as great as the greatest to be a law unto himself. (Are not the critics still disputing over Rembrandt’s Night Watch ?) In view of this, not the least of Vedder’s virtues as an artist is that he is still an humble student of nature. No matter how high among the clouds his head may be, since his feet are planted upon this terra firma, there is no danger of a fall. Millet well said that the spiritual “ can be expressed only by the observation of objects in their truest aspect,” which is a painter’s way of stating that Nature “ never did betray the heart that loved her.” There is thus no quarrel between Nature and such idealism as Vedder’s. He understands perfectly well that one cannot walk on air. The precision of his manner is observable in his most audacious excursions into the unreal. There is something not a little piquant in this contrast between the sense and the style. The most astounding declarations, full of novelty and weirdness, are made in a quiet tone and the most approved language, without vagueness as without passion. This method is very convincing. In the accompaniment to the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám we find the profound meditative fatalism of the Orient expressed in forms of classical purity and dignity. These drawings are marvels of invention and composition. They are free from the venial faults of execution which appear occasionally in the paintings. No one likes an infallible artist. Vedder’s power of expression finally causes the sympathetic critic almost to regard a certain heaviness and dryness as merits. When it comes to this pass, the immense influence of a strong personality is revealed in a way which proves that the style is not all of the man.
The bent of Vedder’s mind may be understood in a general way from the very titles of his works. One of his early successes, a pictorial conceit which won a wide celebrity for him, was The Lair of the Sea Serpent. So rare is imagination among painters that this morsel was welcomed greedily. There was in it only a slight promise of the strongcreative fancy which animates his later paintings. The Lost Mind, the Fisherman and the Afrite, the Arab listening to the great Sphinx, Young Marsyas, Identity, Genii, and kindred subjects which followed will be remembered by thousands in connection with Vedder’s name. Since the completion in 1884 of the drawings inspired by Omar’s poem, he has painted on a large scale four motives drawn from the same source, — the Fates gathering in the Stars, the Cup of Death, the Last Man, and the Cup of Love. Two other works belonging to the same period, The Soul between Doubt and Faith, and Love Ever Present, have been exhibited lately.
The extraordinary picture of The Fates is Vedder’s own thought rather than the Persian’s. It is an impressive page from the No-man’s-land of dreams. Upon the wrinkled nightmare peak of a dead world, such as the eye of man has never seen, aloft in the boundless blue spaces of the night, the three celestial fisherwomen are soberly pursuing their unheard-of task, — hauling in a vast net, in whose meshes are entangled the stars, gleaming like molten copper, a miraculous draught indeed. The time of reckoning has come ; the spindle, distaff, and shears, with which the omnipotent sisters have so long spun out and cut off the thread of human life, are laid aside ; and now the stern goddesses are executing the final decree of destiny. The strange coloring suits the fable well. It is an arrangement of deep blues, browns, and greens, with touches of pink, and here and there silver and coppery points of light for the stars. Has ever a painter, since old Signorelli, had such a startling vision as this ; or, having it, has he dared to set it down ? The wonder of it is that the mind very soon accepts the myth, and believes in it. Unreality has never been made more real.
The Cup of Death, less novel as a conception, is imbued with a sense of heavy sorrow, — a sorrow profound but not incurable. The artist has approached this solemn subject with a reverential spirit. The idea of an irresistible force is embodied in the majestic form of the dusky angel of Death, who holds up with averted glance the cup from which the maid must drink. Death is portrayed, however, not as a cruel conqueror, not as the fell sergeant, “ strict in his arrest,” but as a merciful spirit, whose bowed head, downcast eyes, and protective attitude bespeak a humility approaching pity. It is a figure of Dantesque proportions, full of might and mildness. She who is about to die leans already upon the stout arm of her liberator ; her pallid features (surmounted by the floral emblems of innocence), her unseeing eyes and increasing languor, show too plainly that life is well-nigh past. But a roseate light from the farther side of the valley touches even Death’s wide wings with an unearthly glow. It is the blessed hue of hope. The artist has painted this theme twice ; the chief difference between the two versions is in the color. In the canvas to which reference has been made the light brown, blue, and pink tones are delicate and agreeable, but the wan and ghastly tints of the replica are perhaps more appropriate.
The Last Man, as may be supposed, is not a cheerful object. A stalwart, nude, brown figure, he stands upon a mountain top, with folded arms, leaning against a post, grimly awaiting his turn to die. Love lies dead at his feet, but the loathsome serpent Evil survives to poison his last hours on earth with bitter taunts and rebellious hints. All about him in this ashen solitude are strewn the bones of dead friends and kindred, to emphasize his frightful loneliness. The fragments of a broken ladder symbolize the failure of cherished hopes and ambitions. It is no wonder that the Last Man frowns, and in his wrath and melancholy dares to reproach his Creator ; but if he could turn and look at the blue sky behind him, it would doubtless give him some consolation. Campbell’s Last Man, though similarly surrounded by “ the skeletons of nations,” defied the darkening universe “ to quench his immortality, or shake his trust in God ; ” but this work of Vedder’s contains no ray of hope, and is so intensely sad that it might almost be called a visible description of despair. Another artist — assuming that any other artist would think of painting the Last Man — might stir the imagination in another way, by the modern device of a calculated passage of mystery in the painting, a felicitous negligence ; but Vedder has preferred to explain everything with his customary precision, stating a poetical idea in a quaint and formal prose language.
The Cup of Love is a very beautiful little painting, full of a genial concord of warm tones, extremely happy in design, and unusually easy in execution. Greens, blues, reds, browns, and whites frame a delightful bit of flesh-color with a solid and well-ordered harmony. In this sweet idyl all is joyous, care is forgotten, and the gloomy images that have been haunting the artist’s brain give place to a perfect pagan paradise. On a sculptured sarcophagus, in which lies buried the Past, sits a handsome brown youth, wearing a Greek costume of red and blue cloth and a crown of vine leaves. To him comes the woman, — a fine figure, with a mass of auburn hair, whose back is alone visible, — holding aloft in her right hand the enchanted cup, through whose crystal side we see the magic red none gleam. At the right Dan Cupid looks on, approving, — a pretty blonde boy, with a charming pair of red wings, his bow and arrows at his side, and, upheld in his hand, a shining globe, to show the lovers that the whole earth is theirs. Blue mountains rise to meet the blue sky in the distant background. About the base of the sarcophagus flowers and vines and deep green grass flourish luxuriantly.
An allegory of universal application, impregnated with that sad poetry which is the distinguishing mark of the artist’s temperament, is the Soul between Doubt and Faith, something like a pictorial version of Tennyson’s Two Voices, — a picture of a divided will, of a mental struggle, of a human soul in anguish. A woman’s face darkened by the shadow of a great sorrow, and piteously worn by a moral conflict, appears between two symbolic heads, — the serene and radiant head of Faith on the one hand, surrounded by a golden nimbus, and on the other side the shrewd, wrinkled visage of graybearded Doubt, who seems to be as vigorous as ever in spite of his great age. In either ear these opposing spirits pour their inconclusive arguments. The simplicity of this thought is perfect, and the delineation of a painful psychological mood is a triumph of expression. Into these haggard features Vedder has poured a world of mournful meaning, which touches the heart, and moves it to pity for poor humanity thus typified. The color of this picture is deep, pure, and brilliant. Red, white, blue, green, yellow, and brown hues are audaciously juxtaposed in an arrangement which glows in its quaint frame like a splendid old Venetian decoration.
In the painting called Love Ever Present, we are brought back to the ancient mythology, with its ingenious and poetical system of symbolism. The jocund young god of love is seen standing, as a statue, upon a pedestal formed of a carven Janus head, facing two ways, towards the past and towards the future. Green leaves of flourishing vines and blood-red poppies grow rank about the shrine. An overturned amphora lies empty on the ground, near by. Cupid’s rosy wings are spread against a luminous blue sky. The color and sentiment of this work are pretty rather than beautiful. So many of the minor emblems are obscure to the ordinary apprehension that parts of the rebus are as hard to read as a hieroglyphic, but happily no one needs an introduction to Cupid, so that the central point is clear beyond all question.
The effect of living many years in Italy is apparent in all Vedder’s pictures. Add this influence to his native temperament, and each quality and feature of his work is explained. The immortal masters of the Renaissance have left their indelible impression upon his mind, and his work partakes of the spirit of the sixteenth century, with some curious modifications; as, for example, while it has much of the gravity and serious impersonal quality of the old works, it is as totally devoid of Christianity as if Vedder had been living in that portion of the Eternal City from which the laborers are even now removing the earth that has covered its treasures for so many ages. With much that is vital in the art of long ago he has imbibed some manners which easily degenerate into mannerisms, — his method of paintingdraperies, for instance, derived from the practice of antique sculptors. But because he paints, not for display alone, nor for amusement, but to reveal a vision which to him is beautiful, his grim earnestness impresses the mind, and his strange, weird chimeras take a permanent place in the memory. His lofty purpose commands respect and sympathy, and predisposes the most censorious observer to look with leniency upon the unavoidable shortcomings in an endeavor of such a scope and purport. Although some of his paintings may be described as the efforts of a painter to express a poet’s ideas in a form more or less foreign to their nature, the conceptions being almost too purely ideal to be adequately embodied in painting, Vedder never falls from the sublime to the ridiculous, and, in his best hours, gives us thrilling glimpses and hints of the Ur known World, “with thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls.”
Fromentin says of Rembrandt that he is a spirit whose domain is that of ideas, and whose language is the language of ideas, and he adds that even Rembrandt’s color is a bold and studied spiritualization of the material elements of his art. Such words as these may be with strict justice applied to Vedder. Though he may remind us for a moment of some other artist, — of Blake or of Watts, perchance. — it is, after all, not so much by a real as by an apparent similarity of feeling and manner, and the intimate study of his works only serves to lead us back to our first impression, that he is one of the most completely original of modern artists. As Northcote said of Gainsborough, he has “ the saving grace of originality, and you cannot put him down for that reason.”
William Howe Downes.