Atmosphere Versus Art


ATMOSPHERE is the cheapest intrinsically and the dearest financially of our various æsthetic commodities. Everybody wants it, wants it quick, and is prepared to pay for its speedy delivery. From Naples to Edinburgh, ceilings or entire decorations of old rooms are being ripped out of ancient buildings and set up again in brand-new American buildings which in style are French flamboyant, Tudor Gothic, Italian or Spanish Renaissance — heaven knows what. And in the antique linings of these pseudo-antique shells men and women of reasonable intelligence are listening in on radio, drinking synthetic cocktails, dining, or playing bridge — all in a costly glamour of the installation created for people who played their own music on their own instruments, and drank sound liquor.

And many of our art museums are far keener for atmosphere than they are for art. They feature ‘period’ rooms — complete interiors with the appropriate furniture and utensils, fine works of art being generally excluded. The museums are becoming the formidable rivals of the architects and interior decorators in exploiting a borrowed picturesqueness at the cost of looting through bribery much of the real picturesqueness of the old countries. I am perfectly aware that, as the director of a tiny and poverty-stricken museum necessarily without atmospheric pretensions of whatever sort, I shall seem to many to be a decrier of the more abundant grapes of my betters. I hope to show that the grapes really are sour — that the pursuit of atmosphere is unsatisfying and really alien to the cultivation of art, that too many of our museums are mistaking their mission and retarding or even missing entirely their real development.

Of course the whole argument rests on what is conceived to be the purpose of a museum of art. A museum — that is, a place dedicated to the Muses — I think everyone will agree is primarily a place where works of art of whatever sort are safely kept; and, secondarily, where such works of art are effectively shown, chiefly for purposes of culture and delight, secondarily for purposes of formal education. We are still, however, far from a real definition, for what are works of art? We may narrow the matter down by saying that traditionally, and in fealty to its patronesses, the Muses, a museum in the strict sense of the word should concern itself chiefly if not exclusively with the fine arts. And here again we face a new issue of definition. Historically speaking and practically, the fine arts for museum purposes have been sculpture, painting, and the allied graphic arts. The reason for this exclusion of the applied or industrial arts has been, first, practical — that by the time the fine arts have been cared for there is no more space; and, second, theoretical — that the fine arts rest upon and convey a far wider human experience, hence make more fully for culture. In this regard, until quite recently, the industrial arts seemed far less important.

Here we are at the very nub of our problem. Until less than fifty years ago no one would have seriously challenged the superior value of the fine arts. Then the arts and crafts movement went strong, and such critics as Whistler and Oscar Wilde, with the French impressionist critics, appeared, with the result of a confusion of all aesthetic values. We were assured that all that really mattered in any work of art was exquisite handling by the artist. Velásquez’s ‘Las Meniñas’ was exquisitely handled; so might be a nutcracker or a Chelsea snuffbox. They were all exquisite works of art, and there really was nothing to choose between them. What old-fashioned people called the spirit of the artist was nobody’s business — not even that of oldfashioned people. An artist might be a saint, a ruffian, a degenerate — nothing of that mattered to his art. Puvis was thoughtfully making great poems on French walls; Jean Carriès was thoughtfully inventing new glazes for little pots in his kilns. The same critics wrote of these two as entirely equals. To find symbols for a civilization or to find a new kind of gray glaze — it all came to the same thing. If both were exquisite, nothing more was to be thought or said of either.

While this obviously crude and narrow view is gradually giving way to better values, I think it still too much dominates the policy of most of our art museums. I find among many friends in museum positions a dislike of acting on the principle of a hierarchy of æsthetic values. Ask such people if they are really willing to equate a fine Chippendale chair with a fine portrait by Gainsborough, and they will answer, ‘Certainly not,’ but they will also betray an uneasy consciousness that the Chippendale chair is being badly treated. The point is, of course, that while to appreciate the Gainsborough portrait is an advance in culture in the widest sense, to appreciate the Chippendale chair is merely a gain in minor archæology or in dilettantism. Both experiences have their value, but the values are not equal. A man can hardly know fine painting without having some notion of fine design in furniture, while he may be an accomplished connoisseur of furniture and blind to the great painters and sculptors. In short, what is important is the quality of spirit involved in the act of creation and in that of appreciation, and the only measure for this is personal spiritual experience guided by delicate common sense. In the equalitarian æsthetics of the 1890’s in which I was nurtured there was little enough of either.


What is the duty of the museum toward the work of art? First, obviously, to preserve it. Primarily a museum is simply a high-class storehouse — or, more politely, a treasure house. Why preserve the work of art? Evidently that it may continue to convey to the sympathetic spectator the creative ecstasy that went to its making. Thus it is a collateral duty to show the work of art and show it well. Here difference of opinion arises. What, after all, is exhibiting well? We may get at it by recalling a peculiar quality of all works of art in a museum — their homelessness. Very few works of art, and those not the best, were made in order to be exhibited in a museum. Most sculpture and most painting were in one way and another associated with architecture; in any case they were made for surroundings and eyes quite different from ours. From those surroundings they have been torn; frequently the original environment has been destroyed; their old home has gone beyond recall; the museum provides on an artificial basis a new home.

If this fact were accepted simply, most of the errors in exhibition would be avoided. We should realize the folly of trying to reproduce around the thousands of exhibits in a museum some mere travesty of their original environment. The more artificially and contemporaneously museum exhibits are treated the better. As the late Benjamin Ives Gilman writes in his admirable book, Museum Ideals, the guiding principle of selection and exhibition should be ‘anthological.’ Now an anthology is a literary convention. No poet ever wrote for an anthology. But it is, however conventional, one of the best ways of making the treasures of past poetry available for the present.

The prevailing antiquarian sentimentalism resents so simple a view. The poor works of art are indeed homeless; let us do something to make them feel at home. Something like this a prominent architect said to me only the other day.

Let us follow out what this making at home actually involves in practice. A worried curator awakes to the fact that a fine big altarpiece is homeless in his gallery. It was painted for an altar. So he buys an altar of the period and sets the picture on it. I write feelingly, for I have seen it done. But the altarpiece and its, at best, borrowed altar are together mildly ridiculous in the gallery. What to do? Why, take the further steps toward putting the altarpiece at its homely ease! If funds permit, buy a chapel of the period — they are, unhappily, for sale — and set up therein the altarpiece and the altar.

Now, according to my architect friend and approved museum practice, the picture is ideally at home. What a delusion! It stands over an altar and in a chapel for which it was not created; its being at home is an archæological fraud. Why not introduce a priest, waxen or in the flesh? Why not hold a Mass, oral or phonographic? Why not revive the gallants strolling amid fair devotees? If a masquerade be worth making at all, it is worth making thoroughly. To maintain the fiction of reviving its home for any altarpiece all that I have suggested and much more would be necessary — and the sum of it all would be merely an elaborately false installation, more proper to romantic opera than to the museum.

No, the problem is far simpler. From the moment that a work of art made for a particular place is moved therefrom, an original set of associational values drops forever away from it. The attempt to recover them otherwise than through the historical imagination is entirely futile. It is the business of the museum to ascertain and exploit the values that remain. The picture, say, is now an exhibit in a museum; the task is to bring out to the full its museum values. It now is, or should be, in a neutral environment — in which, however, it is probably far better seen than it was in the gloom of its chapel. If it has lost by the move, it has also gained. And the museum value, while it lacks much that was important to the artist, also dispenses with much that was adventitious and confusing. The primary value is imperishable: the passing of a high creative impulse to an understanding soul — all this is intact. Indeed, through a degree of generalization and the dropping away of local associations, there has often come a new value of universality. It is by no means to be assumed that the Sistine Madonna was better seen in her chapel at Vicenza than she has been seen for generations in her museum sanctuary at Dresden. And it is even less to be supposed that she would be seen better at Dresden if the German Republic could persuade the Honorable Mussolini to cause the original chapel, still extant, to be taken down and set up again in the Dresden Gallery. In short, the way to run a museum successfully is to treat it as a museum and not as a congeries of antiquarian compilations.


In contrast with the usual human tendency to magnify one’s office, many a museum director of to-day is a man ashamed of his museum. He wants to sugar-coat it, to take off some imaginary curse. It is n’t really a museum he is running; it’s a homey place, ganz gemüthlich, as intimate and livable as the Rathskeller of yesteryear, as easy as the Spanish smoking room in the mansion of Mr. Average Man’s employer. So the painless museum is added to that noble company which includes decaffeinated coffee, denicotinized cigars, and griefless funeral rites. That this is a cheapening of the museum’s function need hardly be argued. A museum is properly a somewhat formidable place. One goes there to gain contact with personalities far greater than those we meet in ordinary life. It is no light matter to make the acquaintance of Rembrandt. All the museum really needs to offer is opportunity — and that means getting the right things and exhibiting them skillfully.

So far from vainly attempting to recover the forever lost atmosphere of time and place, the more nearly the great work of art is shown in a neutral atmosphere the better its exhibition will be. Give it time, and it wall rebuild its new atmosphere in the museum. It is idle to hurry up the process. Much effort is wasted in decorative arrangements of pictures and sculpture, often at the sacrifice of their being seen well. Good lighting, avoidance of obvious clashes, generous spacing, simple and neutral backgrounds — this is all that is necessary to enjoyment. The elaborately decorative appointment and hanging of an art gallery is largely labor lost. It is based on a false psychology — that the ensemble is highly important. It is really of very slight importance. The visitor, if he knows his business, makes an act of concentration by which he sees only one object at a time. Unless he is capable of such concentration, he is helpless in a museum, however exquisitely arranged. It really does n’t matter what is alongside or opposite the masterpiece he is contemplating, so long as he can isolate it for enjoyment.

What, then, is the use of elaborate arrangements and tenuous suggestions of historic atmosphere that can only keep the untrained visitor away from his goal of appreciation, while the trained visitor probably ignores them from the first and in any case promptly thinks them away? Such expedients are better left to interior decorators, with atmosphere to sell, or to amateurs of decorative bent. For such it is a reasonable enough diversion.

The late Mrs. John L. Gardner carried this creation of harmonious ensembles to its ultimate perfection. Everything in a gallery — pictures, sculpture, furniture, the vases on the tables and the flowers in them, the scarf thrown over a chair, the type of pedestal or picture frame — everything was exquisitely calculated. Nothing in her galleries could be changed or moved without involving a complete rearrangement. As I had the pleasure of going about with her, she would carefully move heavy chairs which in the cleaning had been misplaced a quarter of an inch one way or the other. I once wrote her that she had invented a new decorative art the raw material of which was chefs-d’œuvre, and I don’t think it displeased her.

I cite this instance because Mrs. Gardner carried the ideal of the intimate gallery much further than any museum ever has or ever will carry it. She was too intelligent to think for a moment that she was in any strict sense re-creating the atmosphere of Florence, Venice, France, or Flanders. She was creating her own atmosphere, and it is startling and instructive to note how her studied and exquisite installations, which are still piously maintained, have lost significance now that she is no longer here as their explanation. The museum that attempts to emulate Mrs. Gardner will at best build up decorative ensembles which are the atmosphere merely of a director or a curator. Such an atmosphere will mean nothing to the student and will be merely distracting to the naïve art lover. It rests on a mistake of function. The reasonable exhibition of great works of art does not involve practising a competitive art of exhibition. Within the modest scope of perceptive showmanship there is plenty to exercise the taste and the wits of the most ingenious curator.


But it will be argued that the period rooms are immensely liked, and the readiest means of drawing a reluctant public to the museums. Recently the Pennsylvania Museum has taken a vote and has found that a comfortable plurality of its visitors are most interested in the period rooms, with a good minority for the picture galleries.

Before weighing the issue whether it is the business of the art museum to join the moving-picture theatre in giving the public what it wants, just a word on the conditions of the much advertised Philadelphia vote. At the time of the vote, the only organized and fairly complete department in the Pennsylvania Museum was the period rooms. In every other branch the exhibitions, while not without fine items, were incomplete and spotty, and, owing to radical faults in the design of the galleries, on the whole unattractively displayed. In short, there was really nothing to vote for departmentally except the period rooms. Much as I disapprove of them, I should have had to vote for them myself. So the vote was without significance of any general sort, except for the very gratifying and surprising fact that under rather unfavorable conditions the pictures got so many suffrages. But let us suppose the vote really indicated a deep longing on the part of our museum-visiting public for the delights of historicoæsthetic atmosphere as offered by the period room — would that be a good reason for giving the public what it wants?

This question is best answered by indirection — by following out what happens concretely when museums engage in this course. All our art museums, with the possible exception of that of Newark, New Jersey, give a certain, however grudging, preference to the fine arts. Practically that means that if they had a picture gallery and a Dutch room, and came into possession of a fine Rembrandt, they would hang it rather in the picture gallery than in the Dutch room. Why? Because they know it would be better seen in the gallery than in the Dutch room, and they deem a masterpiece of this sort worth the seeing. Now suppose, instead of a Rembrandt, the museum bought a fine but not great picture — say, a Metsu. Should it go into the Dutch room or into the gallery? Evidently the decision would rest on the director’s judgment of the picture. If it was a very fine Metsu that deserved to be studied and contemplated, he would, if he had any sense at all, put it in the gallery. If, on the contrary, it seemed to him just an ordinary Metsu that deserved no concentrated observation, he would properly make it a part of the decorative ensemble of his Dutch room.

And now we reach the centre of our discussion. Galleries by honored use and wont contain objects of the fine arts for the purpose of delectation and contemplation. Period rooms contain such objects of the minor arts and such minor examples of the fine arts as can be combined into an atmosphere which may be respired and enjoyed without concentration, contemplation, or taking thought of any kind. Here we capture the simple secret of the vogue of the period room both with the public and with a certain type of museum official: it can be enjoyed — nay, it can be created — by persons relatively without taste and too busy for reflection of any sort. For the tired business man it is indeed the ideal art museum, and so it is for the bewildered museum director at his wit’s end.


Let me remind the reader that whatever is said here about ideals concerns the museum of fine arts only. Much of the trouble, as I have tried to show in a recent article,1 comes about from the failure of the American museum to recognize and limit its function. There is, of course, a place for museums of applied arts, and there is no reason why complete interiors, when they can be come by ethically, — as in the case of old buildings being destroyed, — should not be preserved in such museums. These collections of the industrial arts have evident historical value for everybody, and they serve most practically the collector and designer. In particular, the record of our own past should be preserved. The various American museums, whether independent or associated with general museums, deserve all encouragement and support. All that is contended for in this article is that this activity is alien to that of a museum of the fine arts, hence that it should be conducted independently.

The line of demarcation may seem vague, but under the parable above, the principle emerges: whatever needs to be contemplated deeply belongs in a museum of fine arts; what merely needs to be observed passingly or to be studied technically belongs in a museum of minor arts. In the first instance an attempt to re-create the original atmosphere is impertinent; in the second instance it may be reasonable to combine the numerous small and miscellaneous objects into an ensemble which shall give some illusion of the atmosphere of the period. But a sensible curator knows that it is an illusion, and that if he makes people think they are breathing the air of Rembrandt’s Amsterdam he is merely fooling them. Even if you could transport a Dutch room with all its own fittings and furniture, — which is virtually impossible, — a Dutch room on the Schuylkill does not look like the same room on the Amstel.

It has frequently been my hap to pass through a suite of period rooms in order to see particular pictures. I reach the end, and recall with a jolt that I have missed half a dozen pictures which I came to study. Where are they? I ask a guard. Of course the Correggio is in the Italian Renaissance room. It had been so decoratively subordinated that my fairly alert and trained eye completely overlooked it. What I actually saw was a carved stone chimney piece and some yellow majolica jars of no remarkable quality. So the ‘sympathetic’ or atmospheric installation of a fine work of art is really just as confusing to the student as it is to the disinterested art lover. And while an art museum ministers to the student only in second order, still he has claims to reasonable consideration.

It would be unfair to leave this matter without admitting that much of the enthusiasm for atmosphere has had its causes in the frequently preposterous management of our art museums. A city becomes ambitious. It helps a board of museum trustees to build an immense structure, which is put in the hands of an architect who, without guidance from museum experts, builds himself an imposing and very costly monument. As a museum, it will inevitably be a shocking and extravagant misfit. Many of our museums are of this sort; it is unnecessary to name them. Tardily the trustees, with an enormous building on their hands, wake up to the fact that they have n’t a director or collections. A director comes fairly easy — they hire him. Collections come hard. What is the director to do? His position depends on his making a prompt public impression. The empty halls haunt his dreams. Instead of thinking in terms of fine objects one after another, as a real director of fine arts must, he thinks in terms of galleries. There are many empty galleries, there are many periods of decoration — period rooms are the quick and easy solution. They are in the market; as compared with great works of art, they are both abundant and cheap. So, ho for period rooms, and the long-eared public behind you! In this fashion one might readily make a great art museum which would not contain a single great work of art.

Now the fact that this is a natural way of extricating one’s self from certain awkward situations does not excuse it. If the aim of a museum is to extend culture through the understanding of great art, we have to do with a complete negation of its main purpose. At best we care dealing with a thoughtless sentimentality, at worst with a cynical disloyalty. I suppose that museum directors have to live, — I have to, — but I think some of them would be wise to let blundering trustees and overbearing architects stew in their own juice. A self-respecting director might well refuse to take a new museum readymade. A medical director would make himself heard about his hospital. A mill manager would want a voice in his mill. It would be an admirable example simply to let some board of trustees manage the unfit building they have erected, with only the aid of their architect and their social secretaries. There are two ways out of confusion — to start a fresh confusion, or to sit down and think. In the already chaotic realm of the American art museum the advocates of atmosphere are successfully producing a new confusion. Is it not rather the moment to sit down and think?

  1. See ‘Smaller and Better Museums,’ in the December 1929 Atlantic. — EDITOR