Egotism in Contemporary Art

“What the artist claims is the exercise of personality for the sake of freedom. What he really assumes is the exercise of personality for its own sake.”

Little by little the shackles of imitation have been falling from American art, so that now it enjoys almost complete freedom of initiative. The direction of its destinies appears more and more to lie in the hands of purely native individualities. In the tendencies of the latter may be discerned something of the promise of the future. The tacit repudiation of the French school by the leading painters of America is itself the broadest and most encouraging phenomenon which analysis discovers. In the work of Sargent, Thayer, La Farge, Homer, Inness, and others to whom I shall have occasion to return, there is nothing more interesting than the independence of style illustrated. But taking the school as a whole, an estimate of how much less French influence there is to-day than there was a few years ago would have a cheering but negative significance. The positive value of what we are substituting for the facility and cleverness cultivated under foreign guidance or example is a more definite and more seriously interesting object of criticism. It can be ascertained along two lines: first, by detaching the best artists, and giving a brief survey of the intrinsic weight of the group; and then, by indicating the road which the rank and file, in other words the majority of the school, seem disposed to travel. With the second of these two divisions this paper is intended to be chiefly occupied, because in the second there is expressed most concisely that which most needs to be considered by artists and laymen alike, — the general point of view.

The point of view among the strongest American painters resolves itself into this, that they work with the authority of well-trained craftsmen; but while working from within, while coloring their accomplished art with inspiration passed from nature through every fibre of their individuality, they aim at the expression of beauty for beauty’s sake, and not for any adventitious purpose. They are not preoccupied with themselves or with technique. It is not necessary for the present purpose to consider their works in detail. I will simply state that what gives distinction to such brilliant technicians and stylists as the figure painters Sargent, Homer, Walker, Abbey, and Dewing, or such landscape painters as Inness, Homer Martin, and D. W. Tryon, is that they all put both style and executive ability unaffectedly at the service of a deep feeling for pure beauty. These painters, and with them a few others, — La Farge, George DeForest Brush, F. S. Church, Alexander Harrison (in his sea pictures, not in his figure pieces), Whistler, and, with reservations touching his technique, Abbott Thayer, — form the primary group to which I have alluded. I should describe it briefly as a small group, equal in power to any of similar numbers that could be formed in Europe; a great group by virtue of its including so remarkable a colorist and designer as La Farge, so poetic a painter of landscape as Inness, and so masterly a portrait painter as either Sargent or Whistler; and finally, a national group, inasmuch as no one of its members is affiliated with any foreign school. In this group there are no signs of anything but progress.

Both contingents of American art, the larger and the smaller, stand forth as the outcome of that evolutionary process which was begun centuries ago, and to which such apparently unrelated events as the humanistic movement known as the Renaissance and the French Revolution contributed influence that is potent to-day. Both are crystallizations of personality, self-consciousness, egotism, whichever you choose to call it. Ever since men began to emerge upon a life of liberty and expansion we have learned to read neither their race, nor their nation, nor their state, nor, even primarily, their time, in their performances, but themselves. So, if a picture by Mr. Homer or Mr. Inness, surviving generations hence by virtue of its truth and its abstract qualities of beauty, were to lose the record of authenticity placed upon it in the shape of a signature, the critics would still seek in it and find revelations of a personal, temperamental nature; and these revelations would be, if anything, of a larger value, I think, than those which we find to-day in paintings of even so recent a century as the last. But Mr. Homer represents the remnant, the saving group. Take the majority, the great unheeding majority, and there are indications visible in its characteristics in which not the progress, but the decay of evolution may be detected; because in a work of art from one of the majority the relative value of the personal revelations I have referred to is altogether too large. There you find egotism moving rapidly on towards a goal of self-glorification with a recklessness in which it is not difficult to divine the assurance of ultimate discomfiture and defeat.

Leaving aside, then, the few masters, the significance of personality is now very different from what it was in the historic years of its seedtime. Once it was the keystone of civilization, and in art and literature it produced Michael Angelo and Boccaccio, Leonardo and Machiavelli, Bramante and Petrarch. It could leave such a record as this because what men wanted was freedom of action for the attainment of ends not crassly egotistical. The authors and painters had a disinterested love of art and literature. There was something more involved in the attitude of an artist than a mere fanaticism for self-advertising. Let personality degenerate into the latter ignoble form of egotism, and it becomes an insidious but immensely effective force of disintegration. That is what it has become to-day in many fields of activity. We have in politics the perennially interviewed one, and in literature the “popular” author with his frequent communications to the public as to his methods and his plans. How often, in the course of a year, is it not remarked by some writer of prominence (in response to a pressing inquiry, of course; as though any inquiry should be pressing enough to elicit such talk!) that his forthcoming novel will be one of the best, if not altogether the finest book he has ever written! In music the virtuoso and the prima donna reign supreme. Their ways are known. Consider the present condition of the stage. The star system has left but one theatre in the world free from blight, the Comédie Française. In the house of Molière alone will you see a drama symmetrically enacted (though I understand that the Burg Theatre in Vienna has sought to emulate the French standard), and even there the spirit of the age has endeavored to make itself felt. Only the other day it was rumored that Mademoiselle Suzanne Reichemberg, the celebrated doyenne of the institution, had threatened to resign, because she had not been satisfied with the distribution of rôles, for which the present manager, M. Claretie, was responsible. What is this but a euphemism for dissatisfaction with the theatre’s well-known opposition to one-actor performances? Mademoiselle Reichemberg protested that she would begin her career anew in a different scene. She has since, happily, reconsidered her decision. Had she not done so, it goes without saying that she would have appeared as a star. The leading actors of the time will brook no rival near the throne. When Signora Duse showed the people of New York how unassumingly she could take the stage, how justly she could scale her part to the proportions of the whole, they were amazed as by a revelation. Verily, in the Palace of Art we have grown so morbidly self-conscious, so enamored of ourselves, that we are dissatisfied if our explorations bring us face to face with any image but our own! What the artist claims is the exercise of personality for the sake of freedom. What he really assumes is the exercise of personality for its own sake, or rather, for the sake of the Person, the Personage.

The painter no less than the politician, the author, and the artist of interpretation makes of his personality a fetich. With him, too, personality has grown to be a source of self-advertising; only the advertising is of the less obvious sort. It is not for that reason any the less pernicious. I know of nothing more subtly but surely subversive of the best principles of art than the headlong apotheosis of the “point of view” which is growing in contemporary painting; and its evil influence is increased a thousandfold by its arrival in the guise of an evangel profoundly righteous. The first impulse of the insurgent is to impose his own laws upon the material in which he works. Tersely formulated, the gospel of the Romantic movement started in France about 1830 would be expressed thus: “Know thyself, be thyself; work according to the promptings of thy nature.” To words of this flattering import artists from Géricault’s day to Whistler’s have given a willing ear, especially those who have not, like Géricault and Whistler, the wit to perceive that the license does not cover the whole philosophy of art. It matters not to the average artist that, by following his own bent too closely, he frequently runs the risk of making his art indescribably borné and fruitless. It is enough for him if he realizes himself. This ambition of “self-effectuation,” susceptible of being diverted to now such admirable and now such futile purpose, is almost universally held among modern artists. To oppose it would be to argue with a force of nature. Without it art would cease to be vitalized. It would be folly to sacrifice it, even if that were possible. But it is justifiable to protest against its being made the first and last article of æsthetic faith. To make it all of that is the growing tendency. You can read its manifestations either in specific and more or less independent movements, or in the whole spirit of the time. I will refer first to the former.

In Paris, whence the new dictum was originally sent forth, the Barbizon school of landscape and genre, with its programme of imaginative naturalism plus individuality, has been succeeded by a group of painters whose aim differs from that of their predecessors in that it is for individuality plus unimaginative naturalism. Rousseau, Corot, and Millet proposed to paint nature so as to give as faithful a picture of her as possible; and in order to do that they knew that they could trust only to their eyes and feelings. They would paint in their own ways, they would give themselves free swing, but the first intention of their work would be to reproduce nature with truth. The impressionist’s intention is somewhat the same, but he makes the following distinction. “This is as I see nature,” he declares. “You may tell me that that is an oak, and that those flowers are daisies. Yonder bush may be one of roses. Mais que voulez-vous? I am no maker of catalogues. I do not pretend to tell you just what is there. I tell you what I see there, and what I see is so much tone. I leave it to your cleverness to translate my tone, my beautiful pigments, back into natural facts. Presto! I have looked quickly, because a change in the atmosphere will make me see another thing ten minutes later. There is my picture!” And this synthesis with which he is so contented is not imaginative, not based on spiritual insight and the formative power of a creative genius passing loosely related facts through the alembic of his art, to bring them out knit closely together, a marvelous totality. It is a purely ocular synthesis, a synthesis founded on the baldest visual experience. I do not say this is a worthless kind of art. In the hands of a master of observation and swift generalization, in the hands of a man like Monet, it may be made to yield interesting and even beautiful work. At the same time it marks a step in the wrong direction, in the direction of personality resting satisfied with its own outlook.

After the impressionists have come the symbolists, the members of the Rose-Croix Salon, with the “Sar” Péladan at their head. They carry the impressionistic independence of literal explanation to its extreme limit, and far beyond. During the last two winters they have filled the Durand-Ruel galleries in Paris with scores of designs to which it has been impossible for the uninitiate to attribute any meaning whatever. The pictures have mostly pretended to express the spiritual speculations, so called, of the new Rosicrucians. If the spectator cannot see through their arbitrarily enigmatic propositions, then so much the worse for his groveling soul. The artist has, or thinks he has, an explanation of his own mysticism. Safe in his self-consciousness, he bids the world pass on. The complacency of the type is astounding. I have not by me at present any of the sapient utterances with which the air was thick at the time of the Rose-Croix début, but this artistic group has its exact equivalent among the literary phenomena of the hour, and there comes appropriately to my hand this exquisite deliverance from the décadent school of poets, the school founded by Baudelaire, and continued by Verlaine, Stephane Mallarme, Gustave Kahn, and others: “Les très nombreuses et incessantes polémiques que suscitèrent depuis trois ans les manifestations du groupe symbolist rappellent les grandes lutes qui, en ce siècle, signalèrent l’essor du romantisme et du naturalisme.” As who should say of the recent student riots in Paris, “This commotion recalls the stormy days of ‘93.” Possibly it does, to those for whom noise is in itself something talismanic and potential. But between the lordly lion, shaking his mane in magnificent defiance, which Stendhal loosed and Géricault and Victor Hugo woke to a sense of his own power, — between this romantic and splendid apparition and the hysterical mouse that has limped into life on the tortured strophes of MM. Baudelaire, Verlaine et Cie., there seems to me to be a very great distance indeed.

I have not forgotten the fact postulated above, that American artists are no longer in bondage, as a school, to the French. If I have spoken at length of French phenomena, it is because they provide organisms for illustration. The most flagrant ebullitions of personality in French art are speedily made the basis for a “school.” Neither in England nor in America have any movements of eccentricity similar to those of the Rosicrucians and the impressionists reached an advanced stage of organization, though there are several artists of décadent sympathies in London, and impressionism, as everybody knows, has a recognized body of adherents in this country and in the British capital. Last summer, when an exhibition of pictures by the French impressionists Monet and Besnard was opened in New York, there were found to supplement it pictures by Mr. Alden Weir and Mr. J. H. Twachtman which had plainly been produced in emulation of Monet. What is really a more serious phase of the situation, however, than any such sporadic demonstration as that of Messrs. Weir and Twachtman—more serious because more widely pervasive—is found in an exhibition of the Society of American Artists. I approach it with diffidence, for I have no doubt that some one might arise and gravely remonstrate with me for undervaluing the service to art which is performed by the pillars of that centre of liberated personality. As a matter of fact, no one could admire more than I do the strength and the abundant individuality which may be found there. But in spite of my admiration I cannot avoid the suspicion that among those who are not masters there lurks a vitiating germ. Art happens, says Mr. Whistler. To this there is now tacitly added the intelligence that the material of art happens, also; the implication being that if it happens in fact, it may logically happen on canvas. Logically, perhaps, but not artistically; and Mr. Whistler, the greatest selective genius among living painters, the greatest living master of artistic logic, has said so explicitly enough, besides setting a lasting example to his generation. Example and precept have been of no avail, and when, at the last exhibition of, the Society of American Artists, a prize was to be awarded to the picture considered the best by the artists themselves, they chose a work by Mr. E. C. Tarbell which showed no selective faculty whatever, the composition of a nude woman attended at her bath by a maid having not the slightest grace of line or composition. It was simply an attempt at photographing nature, not at rearranging her in a pictorial design. The explanation of this kind of art, which summed up, by the way, the prevailing aim in the exhibition referred to, I find in the strenuous claims of personality, — claims that outweigh, apparently, all other considerations. The important thing is, not to produce a picture, a composition, interesting in and for itself, but to make the reproduction of some episode in life the vehicle for the expression of the artists point of view. The expression of that point of view is essential to the perfection of a work of art. I do not see how it can be sufficient in itself to make a painting a work of art. This seems to me self-evident, yet you will find it denied in an exhibition like that of which I speak. In other words, you will find again and again some of the chief virtues of graphic art, but rarely the greatest virtue of all, that of construction. Studies you will find ad libitum. Memoranda, casual sketches, unassorted fragments of life and of landscape, — you will find all these. And I cannot insist too strongly that when, in one legitimately artistic way or another, they strike a temperamental note, they are answering a requirement of the best art. Up to a certain point other requirements of a picture will also have been fulfilled. A picture, I take it, is the representation within a given space, through the medium of outline, light, and shade, etc., of an object which will appeal to the intelligence in just that position, without the aid of any extraneous agents. This is the elemental picture, such as one may draw when a figure stands accidentally beneath an arch, or when the clouds pause to model curious shapes against the sky. Any case of temporarily arrested motion will make a picture of this sort, as the kodak has proved. It has points of surplusage, but we do not mind them. Roughly speaking, the pictorial instinct is satisfied. The picture that is also a work of art, however, is one in which a quivering consciousness of the value of each line and shadow has so operated as to make each line form part of an indissoluble unit. Every work of art fulfills its purpose in striking a chord of intellectual, imaginative, sensuous, or emotional significance. The perfection of this chord is conditional upon the subtle correspondence in degree of exciting power between its component parts, upon the flawless harmony of its forces in working to a common end. The secret of creation is nothing if not a secret of construction.

It is the old story of selection versus blind acceptance of anything that comes. The author of any one of the scores of pictures you may choose from one of the current exhibitions will tell you that he has heard it before. Our supposititious artist may ask you, sarcastically, if you suppose he used no discrimination in choosing the stuff of the picture before you. This argument, plausible as it might seem, would miss the real point at issue, which is riot whether a painter has discovered a more or less paintable fragment of nature, or arranged his models in a more or less dramatic and pictorial way. The point is whether or not the various motives have been consciously fused into one symmetrical totality of spiritual and material effect, — an effect from which it would be impossible to make any subtraction with safety. A constructional idea of some sort enters into the composition of the most lawless production, just as the principle of gravitation underlies the chaos of a wrecked machine. It is obvious, inevitable. The constructional idea for which I would plead, against the irresponsible and amorphous type of design now promising to become more and more the favorite stalking-horse of personality, is an idea which makes for the lucid symmetry of an exquisitely adjusted organic unit. It makes for selection, for balance, for synthesis and proportion and reserve. It recognizes temperamental, idiosyncratic factors in the work of art which it informs, not as inferior or superior to any others, but as of exactly the same value. I am aware that this idea is commonly rejected as artificial and paralyzing to the impulses of character. The quick retort is that it savors of classicism; that classicism is out of date, and that so is the Academy. A fierce insistence upon the overwhelming claims of personality takes the shape of a vigorous protest against formalism and routine. But this constructive idea to which I refer is of neither Academic, formal, nor routine import. It is of abstract and universal significance. It amounts to the affirmation of one all-embracing, immutable law, a law of perfect poise. It is classic, if you like, but it is so far from being classic in any narrow sense that it may be found underlying the best monuments of both classic and romantic art. Furthermore, while it is an idea which serves as a corrective and a restraint, and will materially modify the expression of merely idiosyncratic characteristics (or accidents, as I prefer to call them), it will never stifle the elemental qualities of a rich nature. It will leave such a nature with pathos, with humor and grace and dignity and style. It will leave such a nature qualified at every point to minister to the instinct of beauty, — a task which I suppose even the most rabid adherent of free personality will admit is preëminently the task of art.

The testimony of the classic ideal I regard as of peculiar weight, for it seems to me that a clear understanding of it does much to destroy the unnecessary barriers existing between realism and idealism. The naturalism of Greece, if properly comprehended by the naturalist of the modern schools, would soon metamorphose his unelevated art. So remote is he, however, from comprehending it, as a rule, that the antique is to him the synonym for rigidity and vapid stereotyped form. Of course he bows before the Venus de Milo, but that is a momentary concession. The genius of antique art is practically waved away as a beautiful but empty chimera. In so far as it has seduced men into the paths of a Canova or a Thorwaldsen, the prejudice against it is superficially justified. Seriously, closely considered, there could be nothing more absurd than this very prejudice. Nowhere is the rhythm of life, its fluidity, its movement, more superbly simulated than in the plastic art of Greece, which is an ideal of symmetry as well. Turn also to the antique literature. With the Grecian serenity of poise which you find in, say, Theocritus, you will find, too, the last word of animation, of nature.

Theocritus does not offer, perhaps, the last word on personality, nor have I sought it in his poems any more than I would seek it in the Spartan ideal of government, or in the relics of pagan architecture and sculpture. That for which I wish to appeal in briefly touching upon such sources of suggestion is confirmation of one elemental proposition,  — that the classic spirit, the classic idea of construction, is not inimical to the spirit of liberty. Personality in the modern sense may not have thriven in Hellas, but that was because personality in the modern sense was not the order of the day in the golden age of Dorian civilization. Pursue the classically constructional tradition down to its representatives in modern times. With them there is no disloyalty to the classical idea, nor is there any essential sacrifice of personality. You will find equability, constructive integrity, in composers like Cherubini and Glück, in writers like Arnold and Mérimée, in artists like David and Turner, Ingres and Wilson. You will find also animation, virility, and the note of personal charm.

It must be admitted, I think, that art which is produced in obedience to imperative laws of symmetry and equilibrium, which is often art of the sort we are in the habit of calling objective, impersonal, is not necessarily (though it may seem a contradiction in terms) deficient in personality of the most distinctive quality. In fact, no art is more richly endowed with the spirit of its creator than the art of a man whose work is, broadly speaking, thoroughly impersonal. His note, the very color of his soul, survives in his work, and it is not, either, in the mere turn of a sentence or the flight of a line, in any of the minutiae of style or manner. It is there in exactly the same way that it is in the work of a purely subjective artist, with the difference that it is not nearly so aggressive. It is there, in short, as a factor of equal import with other factors. It is not there as a preponderating element. Now, if any further proof were needed of the possibility of reconciling personal and constructive ideals, it is offered by the greatest of the romanticists themselves. A sense of measure and composition lies at the root of the best work of the entire school at Barbizon. It gives to some of Millet’s pictures, to pictures like the familiar Paysage d’Auvergne, with its clump of trees on an elevation near the centre, and the shepherdess with a distaff in the middle distance, such a finality and perfection of grouped lines and masses as we are accustomed to find among the great Umbrians, Raphael and Perugino, or in the mural decoration of Michael Angelo himself.

This precious sense, in the nature of things the sense of the composer as distinguished from that of the improvisatore, permeates the finest plastic art of France; its absence from the great but defective because too abruptly idiosyncratic work of Rodin only proving the need for its presence. It is one of the gifts inextricably wrought into the artistic characters of Puvis de Chavannes, and of Americans like Whistler and Sargent. Is it to be theirs, the giants, alone, or is it to be shared by artists everywhere, according to their ability? That is the question suggested by close scrutiny of the reverse of that medal of contemporary art upon the obverse of which every one is striving to imprint his likeness. We want the likeness there, if it is intrinsically interesting, — an important qualification; and indeed I find nothing more exhilarating, nothing more provocative of enthusiasm for modern art, especially modern American art, than this very exuberance of personality. It is our surest safeguard against losing ourselves in the petrifying labyrinths of conventionalism. But an equal danger threatens us in the dishonoring of laws of sound construction in favor of the caprice and mannerisms of the individual. Through what methods are the endangered laws to be strengthened and reestablished upon an immovable foundation? Every thoughtful critic of such a problem is bound to have his own favorite solution; and for my part, I could wish that the next few years might witness a revival of interest in the works of the great classicists, of Claude, Poussin, Turner, David, and Ingres, and of those Italians I have mentioned whose spiritual and sensitive art was fed by such inexorable habits of Neo-Greek discipline. The Stanze of the Vatican, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Sala del Cambio at Perugia, and Signorelli’s work at Orvieto have much to teach modern artists which, I venture to say, they make, on the whole, very little effort to learn. Perhaps it is impossible for them to learn it in that way. The principle presented in the concrete is fearfully apt to be construed, such is the infirmity of man, as a formula, and therefore a snare. There is a healthy tendency among artists to-day to regard the formula as not only a snare, but an abomination. If, then, the teaching of this school or that is unlikely to be accepted, in the reaction against personality which is the one thing to be safely prophesied, it seems to me that the consummation most devoutly to be hoped for is an increase in general culture. Of course culture exists now among artists, but it exists sporadically, with not any of the living, far-reaching, and omniscient influence it should exert. This is a subject which requires separate treatment, but I may say here that what I mean by culture in art is neither a quantity of book-learning in any field, nor a general familiarity with the schools of Europe. It is an acquaintance with all the branches of æsthetic knowledge in their facts and in their literature, and a close, incessant apprehension of every other thread going to make the iridescent web of this noble human design. There is no other experience which will so certainly enforce upon the mind the divine law of relations which also is the noblest of human laws, the immutable law of construction.