New York

“The American Vision, 1825–1875”

Knoedler and Co.

The Public Education Association, following what is by now an estab­lished practice, has had a benefit show of American paintings divided among three galleries. The show is called “The American Vision, 1825–1875,” with figure and still life on exhibit at Knoedler, genre at Hirschl and Adler and landscape at Paul Ro­senberg. In a general way, it was a good show, rather more balanced than either the Whitney’s or the Met’s big American shows of the last few years, but it left one with more reservations about the quality of American paint­ing than either of those two shows did. This is partly due, of course, to the simple fact that the Met and the Whitney showed better paintings, but I think it is also owing to the division of the work according to subject matter. Under the circumstances, I suppose this was the only feasible way to do things. A division according to artist would have been impossible, and actually I think it ought to have been avoided more than it was—it would have been instructive to show Allston as more than a portraitist or Bingham as more than a painter of genre. A division according to some period of time, such as decades, might conceivably have been more valid; an example of the successful use of this approach was the catalog of the show “Barbizon Revisited” that Robert Herbert wrote several years ago. But of course Herbert’s catalog is a book, and nothing less than that would have been needed to justify the periods of time into which this American work might have been divided, even supposing that such periods exist.

So the division into subject matter won out by default. Of course it invites questions about the selection of the paintings––any large show does and a show that is based on categories of subject invites them explicitly. To me it seems pointless to quibble. I will just say that there seem to be too few interesting paintings, by which I mean things that, even if they are well enough known, one does not usually think much about although one should. For myself, I found Rimmer’s Lion in the Arena (is it history or genre?!), Goodes’ Fishbowl Fantasy, Robert Weir’s The Microscope, Cropsey’s Bridge at Tivoli and William Hart’s Upland Meadow the only paintings of this sort. Somebody else, of course, would have named others, but in any case there are not many for a show of a hundred and eleven pieces. I also thought that some few artists were not represented by either their best or their most characteristic work (Salmon is an example of this); and, what is more serious, that other painters, whose production is more varied, were presented in a way that is misleading because it is so very partial. Some of the biggest names—Morse, Allston, Bingham, Kensett—were in this category, and even allowing for the cruel limit on the number of paintings any one artist can be represented by in a survey show, I think this fault might have been attenuated if not avoided altogether. And people like Homer and Eakins were of course ruined by the bell, by which I mean the final date for the period covered by the show.

The impression made by the portraits and still lifes at Knoedler was disastrous, and the reasons for this provide what was really the great lesson of the exhibition. The fact is that in the period covered by this show, 1825 to 1875, all the major developments in American painting took place in landscape. They were of course worked out also in genre, but with the exception of Bingham and Mount (who is not properly represented here) the genre painters merely reflected developments that must be looked for primarily in landscape. Still life had never been—and for that matter was never to be at any subsequent period—especially important in this country, and neither, between Copley and Eakins, was portraiture. A worthwhile point might have been made if this show had not been confined to what we agree to call “serious” art but had included some examples of popular art as well, although probably that would have swelled the size of the exhibition impossibly. The point is that any show of the American art of this period that does not include popular art along with serious is bound to be misleading, since popular art had such an enormous influence on serious artists. In the last century most serious artists everywhere were aware of popular art and allowed themselves to be influenced by it, but in Europe the forms that popular art took were very largely determined by developments in high art––the lithographs on which, as George Hamilton has shown, Delacroix based himself in painting his Liberty Leading the People may claim to be mere reportage, but their postures and designs were in reality drawn from the tradition of baroque history painting. In America this was much less true, and with the Jacksonian sort of democracy the predominance of popular art was not limited merely to quantity.

In the field of portraiture it might have had especially important lessons to teach. Portraitists like Ingham, Waldo and Inman did such very unresolved things because they could not choose between a linear technique that they had learned from the neoclassical tradition and that was reinforced by the prevalence of engraving among American art forms, and a very painterly approach they got from such British portraitists as Lawrence and Hoppner and that found an unreserved expression in this country only in the work of Sully (unfortunately the Sully in this show is one of his worst things). Among “primitive” and popular portraitists, on the other hand, one finds a much more consistent style, especially because of a cultural lag. By 1825, which is when this show begins, they were really just beginning to know the neoclassical style, and they found in its linearity an approach that perfectly complemented the sharp, hard clarity that “primitive” work generally has and that the medium of engraving, on which popular production in the 19th century naturally depended, accorded with so perfectly.

The same thing was happening in still life. The several members of the Peale family are especially notable for their attempts to work these problems out, and one can regret that they are not more amply represented; at any rate, from Neagle, Cephas Thompson or G.P.A. Healy one cannot look for much boldness or initiative in portraiture, or from Roesen or J.F. Francis in still life. On the other hand, the Fishbowl Fantasy by Goodes, which I mentioned above, takes on particular significance as an astonishingly bold attempt by a professionally trained painter to incorporate popular traditions into his work, and so do the flower pieces of Heade, wretchedly painted though they are. It was very good to see such things here, although they would have seemed even more meaningful if they had been hung alongside the kind of thing one finds in the Garbisch and Jetté collections, instead of most of what was shown at Knoedler. And perhaps—I offer the suggestion only very tentatively—even Harnett would seem less anomalous if he were viewed in the light of this fusion of neoclassical linearity and the sharpness that is characteristic of popular style in art.

With the genre pieces at Hirschi and Adler professional American painting is on much more advantageous terrain. If, as I have suggested, Mount is not very adequately represented, Bingham comes across rather better, and the Clonney and the two fine Caleb Wards make up in part for what Mount was not allowed to show—all three paintings are very firm and geometric in their design, certainly not far from David. Seth Eastman was very intelligently represented, with a Chippewa scene done in the hard style that an illustrator had almost inevitably to work in—and that, in him as in Audubon and Catlin, goes very well with a pronounced neoclassicism—and also by the more painterly rendering of the lacrosse game, with all its echoes of Rubens and its similarity to Degas’ early history piece of the Spartan youths on the exercise-field. It is a similarity that stops short of subject matter, and to my mind that is the interesting thing about the comparison, which illustrates very well the remarkable tenacity of classical ways of seeing as well as of painting and the ingenuity that American painters were able to bring to bear on the use of them in rendering what were, in art, very new subjects. Deas, Woodville and Blythe are all represented by rather painterly work, once again with echoes of Rubens, as one can see from a comparison of Deas’ Voyageurs with Bingham’s The Concealed Enemy: the colors are similar in both works, but the handling and even the design are much more baroque in the Deas.

On the other hand, I do not think it is necessary to invoke the traditions of high art—in this case such Dutch caravaggesque painters as Honthorst and Schalcken—when considering Robert Weir’s The Microscope, which was lent by Yale, any more than it is when one considers Rembrandt Peale’s so-called Candlelight Self-Portrait or Lane’s Moonlight Fishing Party (neither of these is in the show). We know that Peale probably knew Honthorst and Schalcken, since he knew Robert Gilmor, the collector who owned work by them and by still others like them; but all things considered it seems a more prudent, and a perfectly adequate, explanation not even to say that similarities of basic cultural values (in this case a generally naturalistic, scientific attitude) led the Americans to choose the Dutch as models. I think that cultural similarities led the Americans to invent the same pictorial devices without having to refer to the Dutch at all. The climactic works of the Hirschi and Adler section of the show are of course the four lovely Homers from the late sixties and early seventies, with their dry, powdery light and firmness of flat design; and this brings us to the landscapes in the exhibition, which are shown at Paul Rosenberg.

I suggest elsewhere in this issue what I think was the central development in landscape painting during the period of American art that is covered by this show: it has to do with the gradual change from a highly idealized and even literary kind of historical landscape based on notions of the sublime and the picturesque, to a far more naturalistic kind based on the study of perceived effects of light. Not that a concern with light is new—light was the lifeblood of the Claudian tradition, and Claude’s kind of diffuse, golden glow is found in this exhibition in such works as Cole’s Monte Video or the Doughty lent by Andover; Cropsey’s Bridge at Tivoli is interesting in that it shows how massive a dose of Morland Cropsey had taken as historical landscape settled down to the picturesque.

But as I suggest in my article on Kensett in this issue, a preoccupation with light not as an idea but as a perception is rather a different thing. One of the first instances of it, certainly, is to be found in Church: his Beacon off Mt. Desert Island of 1851, lent to this show from a private collection in New York, is among a number of paintings done by him as early as the early fifties in which sensation at least holds its own against concept. As John Baur has suggested one can find a similar tendency in Bingham, as one could in Mount had he been properly represented in this exhibition. The tradition of marine painting also played a large part in the development I am trying to characterize, and that is why I find the choice of this particular Salmon so regrettable, although actually the Birch, which is excellent, makes much the same point. From what these painters had done there is really not much more than a step to Fitz Hugh Lane, and it is taken magnificently in this show by Lane’s Schooners before Approaching Storm of 1860, from a private collection. Heade’s well-known rendering of An Approaching Storm goes much further, of course, but it has the advantage of eight additional years of gestation, during which the study of perceived light was the central preoccupation of American painting. Inness’ Delaware Water Gap of 1859 had already suggested how brief such triumphs were to be, and Inness was helped in his orientation back to the ideated light of Claude by the later work of Church and by a great number of Church’s followers, who are well-represented here by a Mignot from Detroit; even the very late Kensett, Passing off of the Storm (Metropolitan) is rather slightly perceptual and surprisingly close to Whistler’s Venetian lagoons.

But there are many splendid things among these landscapes: the other Heades; the Haseltine, which is wellknown but not seen often enough, all the same; the Richardt, and Gifford’s Acropolis, which for all its precision shows how stubborn the tradition of historical landscape really was; the William Hart Upland Meadow, fascinatingly similar to Winslow Homer’s work of about the same time (the early seventies); the David Johnson, so close to Courbet but in my opinion—and to return to a point that I tried to make earlier, à propos of Weir—quite independent of Courbet. But one would have to mention every painting in a section that was certainly the climax of the show as a whole.

Jerrold Lanes

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