PRINT January 1972

Boston Painting 1880-1930

THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS in Boston has had a show of Boston painters of about the turn of the century, which was interesting on several counts. One, of course, was local: one learns a great deal about an important period in the past of a city to which one may be attached, as I certainly am—and not such a remote past either, since most of these painters did not die until about 1940 or later. But the fact is that even today Boston is not just another city, and at the time represented by the show it was only a decade or two beyond its finest period since Colonial times: this was the world of Mrs. Jack Gardner and of Charles William Eliot, of William James and William Dean Howells, a world which even then, as much in the writing of Henry James attests, could hold its own against what was happening in New York. In sum I think that the show cast interesting light on an important episode in American social history and, what is more relevant in this context, greatly clarified some basic aspects of the history of American art.

Who were these artists? By far the best were Edmund Tarbell, the only one who could claim a place in the extra regional history of American art, and Joseph DeCamp, who was much less like Chase than was Tarbell and was probably the most skillful American portraitist of his day to work in the French academic manner of the later 19th century. Frank Benson is, or was, also known outside of Boston—with DeCamp and Tarbell he was one of the Ten American Painters who showed in New York in 1895, the group including such others as Hassam, Dewing, and Twachtman. Finally, Dennis Bunker, who died in 1890 at the age of twenty-nine, has in the last three or four years been vigorously promoted by a dealer in New York and does deserve some promotion if his work is not seen in very large quantity. The remainder of the Boston show is made up of things by Philip Leslie Hale and his wife, Lillian Westcott Hale, by Charles Hopkinson, William McGregor Paxton, Leslie P. Thompson, Frederick Porter Vinton, and Charles Woodbury.

Does that grab you? If it doesn’t, it should, in however discreet a way, because a great deal is going on in the work of these painters. Here it is possible to pick out only a couple of its salient aspects, especially since one of the difficulties of treating minor figures is that, if they do not transcend their time, they can recapitulate it and very often do; and that is the case here, to a large extent. It is true, most importantly, in respect to the quality that makes this work so very attractive and that, presumably more than anything else, caused the show to be well-attended—the inextricable mixing of a certain pictorial style with a repertory of images that connotes a certain life style. We have many and obvious reasons to feel its charms, as we do those of work that derives from it or from the same elements as it, whether it is Vuillard, Fairfield Porter, or even the representational paintings of Richard Diebenkorn. Certainly, there are moments in this show when the subject seems too transparently false—for instance, Philip Leslie Hale’s The Visit, in which a lady dressed in some luminous stuff waits at the top of the landing while another white lady half hands, half throws her a pinkish bouquet, perhaps the first cherry blossoms of the season: color me refined, but think of me as commonplace!

Still, even this painting is interesting, as it is typical, on two counts. The first is that it shows how very conscious these painters were of what they were doing, in the sense of what they stood for. Culturally or socially this was everywhere being pushed aside, yet these painters did manage to select their motifs and present them so that the world they represent is, on balance, much more actual than it is nostalgic—with the exception of this picture by Hale and one other by Paxton, it is far from being blatantly unreal; and I think that while the portraits are nearly always of thoughtful people, they are much less idealized than those of Sargent usually are.

These painters were very well aware of Sargent, of course, as they were of Manet and Degas, and they were thoroughly familiar with Sargent’s characteristic mingling of academic and progressive devices. But, like Duveneck, they inclined much more to the former—in fact some of them, like DeCamp, had either studied with Duveneck or studied in Munich under the same people Duveneck had. On balance, what they took from the French was lightness and care in their brushing—the solid poses and somber tones are derived from the much more conservative tradition of Truebner, Schuch, and Lenbach. It is the same in still life and genre. Oriental porcelain, for example, is a very frequent motif and sometimes, as in DeCamp’s The Blue Cup, it is the picture’s reason for being. These porcelains assuredly evoke echoes of advanced taste—of japonisme and of the French avant-garde painters who had admired things oriental. Yet here it is no longer a militant esthetic principle: instead, the motif connotes a quiet but strongly felt domesticity, a kind of gentle security that some part of nearly all of us would like. It is important to keep in mind that when these pictures were painted a taste for the Orient was no longer so very advanced—it showed cultivation, yes, but orientalism had been around too long to be in any way radical. In other words, what the motif involves is a combination of enlightened and establishmentarian taste, of modernism and gentility; and this is what so much of the art produced in the latter third of the nineteenth century is about.

As it was with motifs, so was it with pictorial procedures. Hale’s The Visit, to return to that, most certainly was painted by an artist who had looked at Degas: it has the same eccentric placing, the same interruption of important elements by the frame, a similar reliance on diagonals. Similar but not identical, since instead of angling back into a taut and shallow depth, as in Degas, the diagonal of Hale’s banister parallels the surface, as does his tapestry; and everywhere something is done to rectify imbalance and center the design, making it less dynamic. In fact, sometimes the “advanced” elements are even more adventitious than they are here: the motif in DeCamp’s Guitar Player recalls the interest in Spanish baroque painting that had been so intense some fifty years earlier, as in the early work of Manet, but in this painting it is simply a clue to a kind of introspective sensitivity and a token of the finer pleasures of life. We are very far indeed from any radical experimentation in this beautiful portrait so completely dominated by Fantin and Carolus-Duran.

For if these painters had looked at and responded to advanced painting, they had not studied under advanced painters—their teachers had been men like Leibl in Munich and Bonnat or Boulenger in Paris, and the position they occupied in this country, when they returned, was correspondingly equivocal: in 1895 the Ten American Painters (who as I said included Tarbell, DeCamp, and Benson) were in the very forefront of developments, yet after the exhibition of the Eight in 1908 they played a conservative role. My opinion, which I have tried to argue on earlier occasions (see The Burlington Magazine for January 1968, p. 56), is that in the equivocation of their place is to be found the principal contribution of American painting at the end of the last century.

It has always to be kept in mind that for “serious” American painters (i.e., those who didn’t paint the West), and especially for those who worked in still life or portrait rather than in landscape, painting necessarily meant European painting. It didn’t so much matter whether it was Munich or Paris, and as I tried to suggest one of the accomplishments of these painters was to effect a kind of fusion of the two; in either case it wasn’t home. Art for these artists was something to be learned, not something with which one started. They were on the outside looking in, and this not only made possible but effectively encouraged an extreme eclecticism, in which anything could be usable and was used: Spanish Caravaggism, academic realism and neoclassicism, Impressionism, society portraiture. . . . For this reason it was among Americans, far more than in any other group, that there developed what is seen to such perfection in the work of Duveneck or William Merritt Chase, as in that of Sargent, namely a kind of avant-garde academism or academic modernage. It is important, also, that these Americans were not interested only in art—as we learn so clearly from Henry James, they were interested above all in culture, of which art was very correctly thought to be only one aspect. They were interested above all in a way of living, and they felt that this had to be acquired by the assimilation of earlier and alien models or sources. And this imitativeness gave a necessarily and profoundly conservative cast to even the most experimental modernism of American art, as indeed of American culture. To my mind it was this alloy of progressiveness and conservatism that characterizes the best American painting of about the turn of the century and constitutes its real achievement. What is so interesting about the Boston show is that it demonstrates that the same thing was to be found among Americans in this country as among those abroad.

Jerrold Lanes