New York

“The Triumph of Realism”

Brooklyn Museum

“The Triumph of Realism” at the Brooklyn Museum places late 19th-century American painting in the context of its contemporary European sources. Although Courbet is the pivotal figure, the Leibl Kreis, with the exception of Thoma, seems to have developed independent of his influence, if not of his example. Its members grouped themselves around Wilhelm Leibl, a naturalist who seceded from the Munich Academy, with its hierarchy topped by history painting. Two American students at Munich also joined this rebellion. Frank Duveneck was the older and apparent leader of the two, although William Chase had a longer and more eventful career.

The Leibl Kreis of radical naturalists was the equivalent of an avant-garde in the Germany of the 1870s. With the exception of the early In the Studio, Leibl is not represented at his best in this show. Schuch can be seen in a number of first-rate pieces. He was famous in his own day for his slowly painted still lifes and landscapes, although the large premier coup (46 1/2” x 57 1/2”) is most striking. Alt is represented by an extremely beautifully brushed portrait of the artist’s father, and although the Hagemeister is an unfortunate and uncharacteristic jumble, the Trubner portraits have his characteristic quality. The realism of these German artists and of the early Duveneck and Chase reveals itself at this distance less as a triumph than as a successful conceptualization about life and art, owing much to memories and strivings toward Frans Hals, Titian, Rembrandt, Velasquez and Strozzi’s paintings. To use a big brush as Schuch did is neither more nor less naturalistic than to use a little one, like Knaus, but represents a different concept of the artist and his activity. French painting, however, continues to reign supreme in its tonal clarity and plastic subtlety. You may be able to smell Chase’s fish, but they look flabby and dull beside the Manet nearby.

While the early Duvenecks and Chases are comparable to the finest of the German paintings, and the Sargent portraits with their Carolus Duran-inspired elegance outshine them, the American work as a whole looks provincial. The Homers are consistently placed next to European paintings of similar subject and size and consistently become magazine illustrations by comparison. His landscapes seem to illustrate rather than convincingly represent romantic and naturalist emotions borrowed from European sources. This is not to deny his very real accomplishment, but rather to aver that it was the accomplishment of a provincial, an American who, given his lack of training and exposure to art, accomplished a great deal. While Snap the Whip may be admired in these terms, the simple, direct, almost primitive statement of Croquet Players can be admired for qualities which the European painters did not possess.

This is even more true of Eakins. Studying the Gêrome (Eakins’s teacher), L’Eminence Grise, a masterful piece of theater in which the painting, lighting, spatial structure and arrangement are so deft that they can be entirely overlooked in deciphering the attitudes of the courtiers as they pass the grey monk on the staircase, it becomes obvious that structure was an unquestioned and apparently effortlessly improvised means towards a dramatic end. The Meissonier Friedland, 1807 aims at a similarly non-pictorial end: the evocation of the shouted salute given Napoleon by his cavalry officers as they rode past. Eakins in Mending the Net and The Pathetic Song, despite his genre subjects, seems more concerned with a slowly developing structure. The spatial placement of his forms, the ocular arabesque, the general tonality of the canvas seem to be his true subjects. He is not so much a proto-abstract painter as an honest shoemaker sticking to his last and working toward refinement of his product; a true provincial who needs no excuses. Despite his technical indebtedness to French painting his pictorial aims were established by the egalitarian and utilitarian bias of American bourgeois society.

While we cannot help preferring our American predecessors, the Germans formed a distinctly successful national school whose viewpoint can at this distance enrich our experience. A look at the schools of Berlinand Dusseldorf, Menzel and Spitzweg would enlighten further. Eventually we may get around to the various layers of non-avant-garde French painting. Nevertheless, the great standard for 19th-century accomplishment remains the accepted canon of Delacroix, Gericault and Ingres, Corot and Courbet, and the other acknowledged 19th-century French masters.

Gabriel Laderman