PRINT Summer 1978

Domestic Tranquility

EDWARD LAMSON HENRY PAINTED a workmanlike portrait of John Bullard and his wife in their parlor on Brooklyn Heights in 1872. Bullard was a prominent leather merchant. He wanted to be seen as a man who could have what he chose from anywhere he wanted. The newspaper he is studying is not the only way in which the world is brought into his front room. With an obsessive meticulousness, the painting depicts the diversity of periods and styles in the ornamentation of his home with possessions. Bullard is seated like an emperor on a throne, surrounded by silk-covered chairs, rosewood inlaid doors and fireplace mantle, a plain ladder-backed rocker, tiers of paintings in ornate frames, and Medusa, a bust by the then-fashionable sculptress Harriet Hosmer.

Everything in the room, even the woman, is organized around him to reflect and confirm his status at the center of his world. He is haloed on the ceiling by an ornate classical medallion with gilt trim. The merchant’s retentiveness is precisely paralleled by the painter’s fussy, cluttered touch. The artist even seems to have displaced the perspective of the room in such a way that the walls and all its contents appear to be about to revolve around the seated man. Through the rear window, one sees the river which separates Bullard’s interior, private life from his exterior, public one. In the distance is the skyline of the city, where his fortune has been made.

One of the earliest—and finest—examples of this sort of painting is Van Eyck’s The Betrothal of the Arnolfini (1434) which also shows a merchant and his wife in a domestic interior. This constituted the first “complete illusion of a uniform spatial atmosphere” in a picture, an illusion that made Arnolfini fully the subject of the space in which he stood. Of course, Henry’s picture is not remotely of that caliber; it is a lowly example, appearing at the opposite end of the tradition of oil painting. Together with a number of other portraits of the bourgeoisie in their interiors, it was included in the Hirschl and Adler Gallery’s exhibition “American Genre Painting in the Victorian Era,” which also offered a mixed assortment of 19th-century “modern life” paintings, including a detailed reconstruction of the siege of a Confederate fort, sentimental images of blacks and Indians, and depictions of “picturesque” activities like hunting, skating, haymaking and goldmining.

The genre scene clarifies the function of the Fine Art tradition in 19th-century America. In the first half of the century, an emerging bourgeoisie began to require trained professional artists to depict its world from its point of view. During this period, the schools, institutions, and market structure through which such a professional tradition is established came into being. For the first time in American history it becomes possible to differentiate sharply between the work of the trained professionals, and that of the great army of untrained artists who made a living from selling paintings, amateurs who sold work from time to time, and the so-called “folk” and “primitive” artists.

The production of genre scenes, in particular, was encouraged in the second quarter of the 19th century by the American Art Union, which was essentially a lottery with paintings as prizes and engravings as consolations. Between 1838 and 1852, when it was declared illegal, the Art Union distributed 2,400 paintings, and 150,000 engravings.

Jane Richards points out in her catalogue introduction that “stylistically the work of many artists in this exhibition looks alike.” The optic, or set of pictorial conventions, through which the new American professionals composed their pictures was imported from the academies of Paris, Dusseldorf, and Munich, where it had been evolved in order to give visual expression to the experience of a narrow, but powerful, sector of society. In America it served the same function. In this show one saw several paintings of beggar children, one of Indians, another of black tenant farmers and cotton pickers. But in all such pictures a gulf divides the experience of those depicted from the conventions by which they are depicted. Mr. Bullard may be the pivot of his painted world, able to recognize and approve himself even in the way the paint has been handled, but John Brown’s winking, smiling beggar boys and girls never saw this picture of them; and if they had, they could not have believed that it had anything to do with themselves, or their world. The easy, bright conventional picture is the antithesis of the hard, dreary, brutal life of a street child.

The industrial proletariat did not put in an appearance in this exhibition, except in a small oil study for one of the figures in Anshutz’s great Ironworkers: Noontime. Because the proletariat’s regular life experience stood in direct opposition to that of the bourgeoisie there was generally no way in which the former could credibly be depicted from the latter’s point of view, through its optic. The working class was thus largely excluded from the dominant visual tradition, despite its historic importance.

Some of the American professional painters did attempt to wrench this imported bourgeois optic in such a way that it could bear witness to experiences beyond the narrow range for which it was intended. The most courageous of these was Winslow Homer, 14 of whose works were included in this exhibition. Certainly Homer could sentimentalize, as his drawings of child shepherds and shepherdesses here showed. But Homer, who worked for much of his life as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, was not wholly dependent on the picture market. In his best work—when he paints woodsmen, soldiers, and fisherwomen—one feels his attempt to bear witness to their way of being in the world. Homer was perhaps never wholly successful in this. Pictorial conventions belonging to a specific point of view were not adequate for other purposes.

The irony of American painting, however, is that no sooner had this professional tradition become fully established than it was rendered obsolete. By the later 19th century the American bourgeoisie was already ceasing to look to the painter to represent its experience of the world. With the advent of monopoly capitalism, the new professionals in photography—and later cinema and television—came to do that increasingly effectively. Henry’s image of Mr. and Mrs. Bullard has its contemporary equivalents, but they are not produced by painters: they are features in House and Garden, or advertisements promising a desirable life-style through the purchase of particular furniture or furnishings. Similarly, the equivalents of Homer’s fisherwomen become the images of the imaginative, independent photographers, the successors of Hine, Strand and Evans. Only Edward Hopper proved able to make a comparable contribution to that of Homer through painting.

The introduction to a catalogue of new paintings by Olitski at André Emmerich’s last March began, apparently without irony—“Whereas the 19th-century artist took us to the window to look at the view, the 20th-century artist takes us to the window to look at the window.” The text went on to claim that this change occurred “because painters gradually realized that the pictorial unity of the easel picture is achieved by the canvas rectangle first, and only secondly is it achieved by paint.” In fact, neither in Europe nor America was the half-promise of Cubism fulfilled. A new way of representing experience of the world failed to emerge through painting. With the rise of new visual media, the bourgeoisie effectively evacuated the Fine Art tradition altogether. Thus, as the 20th century progresses, this tradition begins to manifest what a Christologist would recognize as a “kenotic,” or self-emptying process. The signifying conventions of the emptied tradition tend to be manipulated arbitrarily, although they now cease to refer to lived experience (beyond the experience of painting itself) at any point. Imagine the right-hand third of Homer’s A Fisherman’s Family Awaiting the Return of the Boats inflated to, say, one hundred times its present size, and hung in an actual room which was the modern-day equivalent of Bullard’s parlor: that gives some idea of the usual function of the 20th-century artist, and also of what he “puts in brackets” when pursuing his art.

The solution is not, of course, the revival of the 19th-century optic to produce 20th-century genre scenes, although I would rather be taken to the window to look out on, say, a Duane Hanson, than yet again on the window itself. It is rather to seek, through paint, a “moment of becoming” for those ways of seeing and representing the world that will prevail in the historical future. And precisely because he made the attempt in his own day, I am convinced that there is much more to be learned from, say, Winslow Homer (or Hopper) than from Olitski—who, on the admission of his own protagonist, cannot take us beyond the “window” itself. What is to be learned, however, lies not in Homer’s physical handling of details, but in his relationship to the “objective” experiences of others, and to history, which he expressed through that handling.

Peter Fuller