Submerged Artists

Is it true that talent will out? Or is it truer to say, as WALTER PACH believes, that there are submerged artists in every generation, painters whose excellence is not recognized until long after their deaths? Artist and author, JJ alter Pctch studied at the New York School of Art and at the Academic Hanson in Paris, and in addition to his one-man shows has exhibited with the Independent Artists yearly since 1917. He is the biographer of Seurat, Duchamp-Villon, Van Gogh, and Ingres, and is the author of widely read studies on modern art.



THERE are ideas which, once grasped, seem so logical and right that we wonder why people had not hit on them before. To be sure, when we learned as children that the earth is round and not flat, we could easily understand how natural was the argument offered to Columbus by the kindly old prelate who said, “But, my son, suppose the world is indeed round like this orange, and you travel down one side of it, how will you ever get back again — how can you travel upward on the other side?” And so in art, when it was discovered that to represent distance, one has to make parallel lines — railroad tracks, for example— run together, no one thinks that means derailing trains: perspective, a great discovery in the past, is now just a natural part of our thinking.

To an extent all artists are discoverers. As Matisse once wrote, they are not discoverers of any new truths, for there are none, essentially: there are only new combinations among old truths. It is this that gives to certain men their air of originality and that makes people call them “ahead of their time.”Even if they cause a stir in that time, the full significance of their work will not be evident till long afterward, and they may be forgotten, submerged under the mass of the world’s interests, for a very considerable while.

How long that can be is attested by the case of El Greco. Though he had many orders for portraits and religious works in Toledo, the opposition of the King prevented a wider success for him, and he remained unknown, except to a narrow circle, until late in the nineteenth century. That was true not alone of countries outside Spain, but of the land of his adoption, and to the extent that two men whom I knew well were able to buy paintings by the master in Madrid for as little as ten dollars apiece.

Van Gogh’s sudden emergence from total obscurity will recur to everyone’s mind, and similarly with Seurat. A friend of mine used to buy drawings by Seurat, back in the nineties, for two francs each, and they were the same kind of drawings that have sold in recent times as high as 30,000 francs (gold value).

The difference in prices, each time, has derived from the old law of supply and demand, which in art matters is principally a result of the degree to which the artist is known.

In beginning to consider our own submerged artists, it may seem absurd to mention John Singleton Copley; even people without an interest in art know his likenesses of Revolutionaiy heroes such as Samuel Adams and Paid Revere, while his portraits of leaders in the business life and the social life of the Colonies have established our notion of what early Americans were like. But suppose that photography had existed at that time; we should have a far more extensive record of the period and its great men, so that to look on Copley just from the historian’s point of view, or that of the antiquarian, is to ignore his importance as an artist. That is what most people ha ve done.

Thus we may perfectly well begin our revaluations by noticing that artists arc often admired for qualities that were in them, to be sure, but are not the most important ones. Especially conspicuous in illustrating this point is Samuel F. B. Morse. His fascination with the telegraph so obscured his admirable work as a painter that it was only some twenty-five years ago that an exhibition of his pictures made the general public aware how distinguished he was in the field to which most of his long life had been passionately devoted. And we have yet to see anything like a. satisfactory showing of the beautiful art of t he man best known for his work in developing the steamship and the submarine, Robert Fulton.

Turning now to a submerged artist who has oo such hold on fame as the telegraph or our maritime progress, we come to a name which, if it. indeed appears in every complete book on our country’s painting, is perhaps not even a name to innumerable Americans of culture. That is John Vanderlyn When I once proposed a show of his work to the director of an important museum entirely devoted to American art, I found that the conscientious person I was addressing knew nothing of this painter.

Yet Vanderlyn had been a marked man in his day. Aaron Burr, in his patronage of the artist, was perhaps inspired by the example of his chief, Thomas Jefferson, so brilliant in his appreciation of art, and even in creating it through his superb architectural work in Virginia. At all events, it was to Paris, where Jefferson had developed his art. ideas, that Aaron Burr sent Vanderlyn, the first of our painters to study there. Not many years later, the young American entered a competition in which some 1500 artists took part, and was awarded the first prize, a gold medal which Napoleon himself pinned on the painter’s coat.

When he returned to New York, his great ambition was to build a museum here — one that would do for his countrymen what the Louvre and other old-world treasure houses had done for him in his desire to know art. He went heavily into debt to put up the building and to obtain works for it. But the scheme was a failure, commercially; and Vanderlyn, entering on a bankruptcy from which he never could extricate himself, went back to Kingston on t he Hudson, whence he had come. He got a living through making portraits of people in the small town and its surroundings, and there, until nearly this day, remained the panels of his panorama of Versailles, as the glorious gardens and palace looked when t he notables of all Europe attended the Emperor’s promenades there. In 1954 the panorama was presented to the Metropolitan Museum by the Senate House of Kingston, once the capital of the state of New York. Since the vast painting had been stored in an old barn for over a century, considerable repairs to it were needed. The first step was to order from a weaver in Belgium 165 feet of special canvas to serve as a support. When mounted on this, the old work showed up extremely well. Even so, more than a year was required forgetting it into final shape for exhibit ion in the museum, where it is shown as it was in “The Rotunda,” the building erected by the painter in New York.

Even more completely submerged was John Quidor. He had no such history as Vanderlyn, nor visits from the eminent persons who at times sat for Vanderlyn. In fact, we know but little of Quidor, save that his long life in New York (1801-1881) was principally occupied with decorative painting of a humbly commercial type, the old-time fire engines on which he lavished his skill being one of the chief sources of his living. A good deal of his time must, have gone into the work of merely keeping alive, for the canvases which tell of his extraordinary talent are few in number despite the persistent search for them in the time since he was discovered for us anew through the study of John I. H. Baur It resulted in the first exhibition ever given of Quidor’s work, held at the Brooklyn Museum in 1942, That his pictures were the real interest of the artist’s fourscore years will never be doubted by anyone who notes the flaming intensity he gave to t he scenes he portrayed. Very often they were inspired by the books of Washington Irving, but the charm of that delicately accomplished writer does not prepare one for the dramatic vehemence of the painter. He occupies a place between Washington Allston and Albert P. Ryder among the authentic visionaries of our art.

Before proceeding with Ryder, we must pause for a moment devoted to William Rimmer. His biographer, Lincoln Kirstein, sums up his position when he writes of the artist: “Well known in his own time, his name today only evokes the question: who was William Rimmer?" Few are the people who could make even a start at an answer by pointing to Rimnier’s statue of Alexander Hamilton, though it, stands in such a distinguished setting as Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue. I remember the astonished admiration of visitors to the Armory Show of 1913 when they came on the drawings by Rimmer that were there; and even more amazement at the man’s powerful spirit and powerful execution was expressed when, in 19461947, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston gave an exhibition of his work. Despite fifty years of passionately concentrated effort and despite recognition of that effort by certain appreciative men in the America of his day, Rimmer was, in later times, a forgotten artist. A well-known critic described the “Hamilton" as a “snow image which had partly melted,” and he could defend his judgment through the words of Rimnier’s follower, Daniel Chester French. That sculptor, who was to help in preserving the work of his early mentor, could however write: “His was an unhappy and unsuccessful life. He just missed being great.” The damning “faint praise” of such pronouncements, like the ridicule of William Howe Downes, the critic quoted just previously, relegated Rimmer to his place among the submerged artists.

Coming back now to Ryder, we must remember that if he painted for a very limited audience, the fact is due far less than in Rimmer’s case to hostility among artists, public, and critics. It arose chiefly from a hermit quality in the man, something that made him prefer the squalor of the tenement house in which he lived to the comfortable surroundings that his friends tried to provide for him. Obstinately staying on, remaining in his slum, he continued with the endless repainting of the few canvases which comprise his lifework. Many a masterpiece was still in his possession when he died, though some of them had been commissioned (and paid for) years previously. There was, indeed, grave misunderstanding of his noble talent on the part of some of the “successful" artists around him; but he was a submerged artist by reason of an exceptional temperament far more than for the usual cause, a failure by the surrounding world to realize what it possessed in him.

Such a failure in our appreciation is what we come upon when we read the record as to Thomas Eakins and Maurice B. Prendergast. Today they are both so well known, so deeply admired, that it is difficult to convince oneself that, only a few years ago, the reverse was true. A leader of society in Philadelphia, where Eakins lived all his life, was giving a dinner in honor of John Sargent , and asked him for any suggestion of guests whom he would care to have present. To his infinite credit, Sargent asked her to invite Thomas Eakins, whom he had never met. The lady turned surprised eyes on the famous portraitist, and said, “Of course, but who is this Mr. Eakins?" — the same question that we have heard as to Rimmer.

Similarly, when I wanted to call on Maurice Prendergast for the first time, forty-odd years ago, I had the greatest difficulty in finding anyone in Boston to inform me of his address. Some did not even know that he lived in the city, as he had done for just about fifty years. Finally John Potter, the Keeper of Paintings at the Museum, said it was somewhere on Mount Vernon Street, and that if I asked from door to door where the two artist brothers had their studio, I should track him down, which 1 tlid. Yet among the people 1 had inquired of was one quite famous art professor who put me olf with something like pained indignation, saying, “Prendergast? Prendergast? Why, his paintings hurt my eyes!" The remark, like the criticisms of Rimmer, leads us to the reason why the artists we are discussing remain outside the current that sweeps others 1o success in terms of fame and fortune. “IIis paintings hurt my eyes" were the words of a Brahmin whose annual trips to Europe had brought him into contact with leading authorities on art. Indeed, already at this time or soon afterward, the advice of a most distinguished collector had led him to buy a Cezanne, the first oil by that painter to reach America. Showing it to me and perhaps misinterpreting my expression of surprise, he said, “Oh, I’ve nothing to worry about, Vollard, the dealer, signed a paper for me that he’d buy it back at any time, and at an advance in price according to the number of years that I kept it.”

Imagine a dealer doing that for a Prendergast! Or indeed, imagine Prendergast having a dealer at all, at that time. It was four years later that he first got more than a pittance for a canvas of his — at the Armory Show in New York. That caused him to move to the latter city, since his own museum of Boston did not then own a picture by him, as it did not for many years afterward.

Eakins, to be sure, could exhibit at the academies of Philadelphia and New York, his standing among artists being very considerable. But with the public he was not, much better off than with the society leader before mentioned. He was known in certain circles, but was so little admired that, more than once, when he had presented works of his to persons visiting his studio, they “forgot" the pictures on leaving the house, and never returned for them. What should they do with things so “dull and ugly"? How could they foresee that, in time, those words of description would be changed to “vital and splendid"? Like most people, his visitors were in the rut of received ideas, and originality was objectionable to them.

To men of corresponding ideas in Paris, it was doubtless a perverse, even blasphemous streak in Cezanne which made him speak of doing over the work of Poussin on a basis of nature. The name of that master of the Grand Siecle in the mouth of the “incompetent" with his travesties of nature! As for his endless studies at the Louvre, his copying a drawing by Signorelli there, and his use of it in compositions of his own, the “guardians of tradition" would have shrugged their shoulders in contempt nous pity.

Such was their attitude toward Gauguin with his admiration for the wayside shrines of peasant sculptors in Brittany, and the even more calamitous influence he brought from South Sea “savages.”For a much longer time, Van Gogh was submerged beneath epithets like madman, pronounced by those who knew of his existence at all. To he sure, Jongkind and Meryon had been mentally disturbed, the former slightly, the latter violently. But during the decades before Van Gogh came to recognition the two older “crazy" men had long since been consecrated by their success in the salesrooms of the dealers.

Possibly it is only fair to recall that Cezanne vigorously expressed his disapproval of Gauguin and Van Gogh. We may recall also that Renoir stood out against Seurat, and that he himself, thirty years before, had been ridiculed by Manet, who in his earlier days had had the same treatment from Courbet. Following on with such instances, we can go back to Michelangelo with his well-documented expressions of antagonism tow ard Leonardo, Raphael, and Titian. But when we come to such opinions of great painters, all it means is that they were absorbed in their own problems to a degree that prevented their seeing the good in the men whose personalities were different, at times opposed, even, to theirs. Michelangelo himself indicated this when he said after Raphael’s early death, “Had he lived longer, we should have been friends.” There is no similarity between the hot resentment of the creative man who, during his travail, feels himself challenged by rival geniuses, and the dull failure of the crowd and its leaders to respond to new inspiration.


ONCE more returning to our country and our time, I want to speak of three men recently deceased and two still among us. They are John B. Flannagan, A. S. llayiinson, M. A. Tricca, George Constant, and George F. Of. Of the five, only Flannagan’s work has been acquired or even shown by New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

That fact scarcely confirms my optimism about an accelerating pace in our appreciation of contemporary effort. More serious even than that admission is the doubt one may feel as to whether the word “modern" in the title of that museum has not hypnotized its officials into substituting it, for “good" or the like, in deciding as to the admission of new work. Or is it that “modern art” is accepted on the terms laid down by its enemies? The latter see it as something queer and abnormal, something whose “abstraction” departs not only from natural appearances but also from the great tradition which, as I maintain, has been continued by all five of these men.

We may rejoice that John Flannagan’s life of heart-rending struggle was rewarded by more than a beginning of success with several of our best museums and collectors before his too early death. But aside from this personal view of the matter, there is a deeper significance to the fact. An illustrated catalogue of the memorial exhibition of Flannagan’s work reached me while I was in Mexico, and I showed it to a number of the very able Mexican artists I knew there. Always pleased when they could find evidence of admiration for the art of their country, ancient or modern, they noted the fact that the subject of a massive Aztec carving, a grasshopper, appeared again in the sculpture by the latter-day American. The unusual theme of the two works led them to think that Flannagan had inspired himself from their “classic.”But we have the testimony of the sculptor that such was not the case, and that his motive in portraying the grasshopper was to expiate a bit of cruelty he had been guilty of as a child, when he had wantonly pulled off the wings of one of those insects. The relationship with the animal world denoted by this long memory is something peculiarly of this continent; so those Mexican artists, inheritors of a past much concerned with animals, were not so wrong, after all, in sensing a kinship between their own sculpture and that of the modern from afar off.

Besides the grasshopper, Flannagan’s subjects included the snake (a chief interest of ancient Mexico), the toad, the alligator, and the goat. The last-named work has, however, to do with the sculptor’s Celtic ancestry, for the Figure of Dignity in the Metropolitan Museum has as its subtitle Irish Mountain Goat, and was a homage to the spirit he felt in the land of his forefathers, when on a visit there. In any event, I believe that Flannagan’s throwing new light on one of the most ancient of human interests — animal life — is ample justification for my ascribing a traditional quality to these very modern men.

If it be objected that subject matter and artistic character are quite separate issues, I will of course agree; and though 1 could very well have dwelt on the “new" quality in Flannagan’s approach to his work, I preferred to emphasize the element of idea with him, and shall, with the second of these artists, particularly discuss the manner of his expression.

A. S. Baylinson was one of our men who very quickly saw the validity of the Cubists’ investigation of form, and who did distinguished painting along such lines. But, as with a number of other men, in various countries, his work evolved through Cubism to a deeper understanding of the possibilities inherent in a naturalistic approach to art. The prime example of such a development is to be seen in Derain, the man who suggested to Picasso and Braque the idea of Cubism, and who did work clearly marking out the directions that were followed by those two admirable painters.

But soon their would-be successors were hollowing out a groove for the “academy of the left,” whose influence has been as deadening as that of the academic bodies of the last century. Naturally the groundlings of today, like the schoolmen of the earlier time, are disconcerted and hostile when a man like Derain turns his back on them. The reason fon his change of direction was his need once more to face the Sphinx that nature continues to be. His case is significant in a discussion of submerged artists because his acclaim, throughout the years before modern art was confused with nonobjective art, has been replaced by a sort of embarrassed silence when his name is mentioned at all. Perhaps now that he is dead, we may witness exhibitions such as he once had and which, of late, have been so conspicuously lacking. Should that occur and his continuing modernity be realized, people may see that Baylinson also, in his far more limited achievement, was contributing to the maintenance of true standards in art.

M. A. Tricca’s delicate but positive work may well be placed beside that of Giorgio Morandi. The latter, one of the best men in Italy’s present renewal of its art, is giving evidence that the excesses of modernism which distorted Italian production for a while are subsiding, and that we are now to see a more balanced expression of the present-day vigor of the country. The same thing is occurring with Tricca, now coming to recognit ion as one of our really fine painters. At the Chicago Art Institute, his powerfully asserted figure of a nude girl rising from her bed is perhaps a token of the more dynamic phase of modern art; the canvas by him at the museum of Hartford, of a gentler mood and of subtler color, though even more firmly constructed than the work mentioned just before, testifies to an increasing calm — due to increasing confidence — among painters who have weathered the rougher years of our time, and can see more clearly its relationship with the classical elements in art.

The last thing to be inferred from such an evolution would be a loss of personality, and one of the last men of whom such a loss could be suspected is George Constant. Indeed, for many people, the very individual quality of his painting may well have seemed its chief quality. The round, wonderfilled eyes of Solitude, that dream-figure of his at the museum of Detroit; the naive, almost childlike personages of his painting in its earlier decades, recurred so often that one could think that insistence on his personal vision might be the explanation of his having developed a public of his own. That was firmly disproved by a later stage in his work. Instead of the moonlight colors he had used before, Constant moved on to full-bodied reds and yellows akin to those of the French Fauves, and yet as personal as his earlier work. These later years have seen him developing a “building block style that could apply admirably to the decoration of our big modern edifices. Their stonework must not lose its integrity or the clarity of function attained when architecture divested itself of the gingerbread frosting of the nineteenth century. But the bare forms that remained have been crying out, also, for more of a human quality; and with the lovers that Constant can see portrayed in his most austere tributes to the beauty of stone, there is indeed a warmth that is lacking in pure geometry, plane or solid.

I first heard of George Of in Paris, many years ago, from Mrs. Michael Stein, the most sensitive member of that family which included Leo and Gertrude Stein. She had been foremost among them in their admiration for Matisse, whose pupil she became. Therefore I think it impossible that she was forgetting the French artist when she told me that Mr. Of’s gifts as colorist went beyond those of anyone else she had known.

He had returned to America some time before, and on my own return I lost no time in looking him up. Mrs. Stein’s description of him seemed to me fully justified, and when he was persuaded to exhibit, in 1914, Arthur B. Davies, a most discerning appreciator, affirmed that the future of American art depended on our discovering more men of the type of George Of. The very skillful older painter might have added: “and giving them opportunity to pursue their work.” Unhappily that was not to be, in Mr. Of’s case, for a very long while. But if he could paint, only in spare time, he did not stand still. The museums and exhibitions provided material for his inner development, and that is what really counts in an artist’s progress.

Therefore, when George Of freed himself from treadmill employment, some seven years ago, he was quite ready to plunge back into painting and to produce work showing such advance over his earlier things that one could imagine the intervening years to have been filled with steady practice. His effects derive from the old magic of form and color and, though still unknown to the general public, there is every likelihood that he is not to remain much longer in the region of the submerged.

For him, that might have been the cause of a certain satisfaction; every artist likes to be in touch with his fellow men. Hence there is something of tragedy in Mr. Of’s very sudden death, in late November of 1954; life was promising still richer things for him, and he had only begun to see full acceptance of the work of his seventy-eight years. Still, it was an enthusiastic reception that the Brooklyn Museum had given him when it, accorded a special exhibition to the beautiful Orpheus, Eurydice and Hermes it had acquired. Perhaps that foretaste of his success in the future was sufficient. After all, he knew the worth of his work. The real import of his emerging into general acquaintance will be for our public. We do not need to be told how many automobiles we produce, how high is our average standard of living as compared with that of the rest, of the world, or even what we are doing to increase security and raise the standard of living in the rest of the world. We know all these things pretty well. What we do not know sufficiently is the extent to which our artists have reached goals beyond the scope of material effort, or even of practical idealism. Necessarily occupied with such matters (as old John Adams said we should be, for a considerable period) we have not had time to prevent the work of some of our best men from being submerged.

The amazing increase in the number of our museums, and the spread of understanding they bear witness to, give promise that art in America is to have the splendid role which it had in the civ ilizations of the past. Our painters and sculptors have proved their capacity for continuing the ancient tradition; its future among us will depend, to a great degree, on the use we make of the fine talent which continues to appear in this country.