American Artists

by Royal Cortissoz. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1923. 12mo. Illustrated. xiv+361 pp. $3.00.
WHETHER it was the art critics or the Christians who summoned it, the word ‘modernism’ is here. Dented on one side by conservatives and puffed up on the other by radicals, it already seems somewhat out of drawing. Its contour is not what it was.
Surely the epithet ‘modern’ cannot be unpleasing to anyone who says with Channing, ‘ I thank God that my own lot is bound up with that of the human race.’ But ‘modernist,’ ‘modernistic’? Each added syllable gives an added slant. Happily we have thus far escaped that still deadlier compound, ‘modern-isticated,’ rhyming with ‘sophisticated,’ and corrugated like the accordion’s hide. Who knows what may yet come?
Modernism being so much with us, Mr. Cortissoz’s book has made a stir in certain circles. His thrust at ‘Ellis Island art’ has roused the ire of radicals; his dauntless initial statement, ‘ I am a conservative,’ has gladdened the Old Guard. It matters little that I myself consider both these points of departure highly courageous, even while I find that the phrase ‘Ellis Island art’ does not — except for those who delve below the surface— do justice to Mr. Cortissoz’s known breadth of mind. What does matter is this: the value of the book lies equally in its combats and in its amenities, its battlefields and its pleasure gardens. A vitalizing purpose has welded these disparate elements into the true metal of criticism.
Having leveled his lance, perhaps not so much against modernism as against degeneracy, that palpable scourge of the creative life, the author presents a thoughtful appreciation of much that is right and fine in our art. His book has vivid chapters on Thayer, Dewing, Fuller, Brush, Eakins, Cox; on Inness, Homer, Hassam, Metcalf, and other outdoor painters; on the lure of technique as seen in Duveneck and Chase; on the slashing stroke of Luks, Bellows, Henri; on poets in paint, such as Vedder, Ryder, Davies. Whistler triumphs.
Five sculptors appear, the strong beside the exquisite. There are glimpses of Stanford White, the friendly dynamo in art; of McKim, the practical visionary seated by a fountain in the Doria Pamphili garden, and gazing skyward in his dream of our American Academy in Rome. These appreciations have a unity flowing naturally from the author’s long-continued, sympathetic study of our plastic arts. No chapter is without its sustained remembrance of the beautiful.
Many of the Acute Alexanders of hebdomadary criticism are warning the world that there is no such thing as beauty. Mr. Cortissoz is kinder. So is Walter de la Mare, who in one magic line singing of ‘beauty that vanishes’ creates beauty anew.
As a masterpiece of luminous interpretation, the chapter on the Freer Museum makes a fit epilogue for the book. It discusses the purpose of the Museum, its architecture, its treasures from the East and West in their interrelation. Near the end, when Freer’s adventures in collecting are mentioned, there is talk of a radiant little bowl — can so lovely a thing be a cheat? Mr. Freer, before buying, begs the immemorial privilege of rapping it with a pencil. The radiant bowl rings false. It is not the gem of rare pottery the dealer pretends: it is merely a bright counterfeit in lacquer, with a false heart of makeweight, metal.
There is a parable here, to be read contrariwise. This book which is a battleground and a pleasure-garden is above all a genuine thing; it is not lacquered; it is of precisely the pottery its jacket declares. It is not a prophecy concerning experiment; it is a chronicle of achievement. As such, it has its own authentic resonance. No knock from the critic’s pencil can make it do otherwise than ring true.