The Artist - His Need for Appreciation
All art is quite useless. Oscar Wilde.
Art was accepted more gratefully in ancient days than now. Cimabue's picture of the Virgin, which may still be seen in the church of Santa Maria Novella, in the City of Flowers, was the object of so much admiration, we are told, that it was carried in solemn procession, with the sound of trumpets, and other festal demonstrations, from the shouse of the artist to the church, he himself being highly rewarded and honoured for it. Allowing for the changes time has made in our habits of life and thought, it is hardly possible to imagine such enthusiasm now. A fine new picture is regarded with indifference, with admiration only by a few. The town band, the applause, the rewards and honours, are reserved for politicians and professional athletes.
Appreciation is the breath of life to the creative artist, and in spite of modern conditions, there is enough abroad to sustain him. But his name is now legion; he competes with the dead as well as the living; and the rewards and honours seem attenuated by division. He must have appreciation, if only to adumbration of his own conceit. No painter can toil through the years and keep the graphic fruits of his fancy hidden. There was a retired teacher in a cathedral town in England, who devoted his freedom to landscape painting in water-colour. he was a recluse; he never exhibited his work, yet he was satisfied and industrious. His water-colours, he told me, had been refused by the exhibitions, and it was not from choice that he kept them locked away. he was convinced of their excellence, and afraid of criticism, but he made use of posthumous glory for himself by leaving his entire collection to the city, with the ususal stipulation that a gallery should be built to house it adequately. He purred when I praised stray passages of good colour, or skilful bits of drawing, and I fear vanity was the driving force. Take away a painter's vanity, said a famous landscape painter, and he will never touch a pencil again.
It the artist impelled by spiritual forces, by the divine afflatus, by conscious or unconscious emulation of others? Do angles whisper in the ears of the chosen few, and create for them visions of aethereal beauty? Do landscape painters of genius walk the plains of Heaven? Or is it only vanity that urges him to paint? I know of no book more revealing on the psychology of the matter than Benjamin Robert Hayden's Autobiography. he was abnormal; he had no genius as a painter; but if he had been anything but what he was the book never would have been written. yet he wrote glibly of divine help; of working long hours 9in a semi-trance, oblivious of the passage of time, or the demands of his body. He was vanity personified. In his youth he said, "I will be a great artist", not "I will be an artist", forgetting that it is the humble that shall be exalted. Cellini another egoist, insisted the he wore a halo.
Humility counts for much, but it may be that vanity doesn not dispossess that admirable quality.
His attitude -
The syllogism art for art's sake refers to that kind of painting which disregards, or is contrary to, public taste. Since art exists for humanity it is not unreasonable to assume that humanity has some rights in the matter. Who pays the piper calls the tune. An artist cannot be at once a rebel and a comfortable citizen. Haydon tried to force the heroic style upon unwilling patrons, and paid the penalty in poverty and neglect. The great majority of master-painters gave the public what it wanted, and were blessed in return with creature comfort. A few anticipated public taste, and were dead before they were appreciated, like Cotman, who, poor fellow, made desperate efforts to discover what exactly public taste might be.
It is the incompetent and the neglected artist who charges the public with ignorance, stupidity, and indifference. he raves loudly, but he is incomprehensible, even inarticulate, in his work. Such as he consider that popularity in their profession is synonymous with inability. While the application of this theory may be just in some cases, it is not so in all. A small section of the public - let us say the most ignorant section - will accept an artist who may be good or bad according to other standards, but the very fact of acceptance proves him to be intelligible, and shows him able to amuse, to instruct, or to move his public spiritually, though not perhaps in a manner embodying the best of technique. he is a bigger man, however than the long-haired fool who contrives to persuade some gin-drinking clique that his morbid pictorial monstrosities are true art. Schools of artists are forever trying to "educate" the public, and the process often involves the difficult necessity of being convinced of seeing that which does not exist - ghastly distortion, repulsive imperfection, screaming discord, cosmic craziness, and whatnot.
While it is discourteous to try to compel the public to buy this or that, it is the rankest rudeness to descend to vituperation when it refuese. The public is the tribunal before which all art is judged - not the critics or the academies. The public is the artist's only patron, and has certain fundamental rights. It will submit to education, and will respond to suggestion, but it will not be bullied.
If then a young painter's thoughts run plastic triangles or chromatic squares; if he perceives no relationship between nature and art, it is better that he should abandon the expression of his fancies, and escape disappointment. At the same time, it is true that no manner of expression, however crazy, is without its apologists, whose cloudy comprehension, is a mere pretence.
A good story is told of modernistic art. The incident occurred in the old Montrose gallery in New York. Royal Cortissoz, the well-known critic, called the attention of Mr. Montrose to a canvas, which, he felt, must be upside down. He revisited the gallery a few days later, and remarked that the picture had not been righted. But Mr. Montrose replied softly," I wish Royal, you wouldn't say anything about that. I sold the picture the first day."
The portrait painter accepts the situation because he must. If he insults his sitters his occupaiton is gone. Whether he paints the should instead of the features, or the latter with all its natural blemishes, he is as presumptuous as if he shouted "What a face. hide it", which would never do, although it is analogous to what landscape painters are doing every day. They paint pictures far too large to be saleable; they ar gloomy when they should be bright; they are as contrary as they know how to be. They have no reasonable ground for complaint, yet they do complain, because they say, their genius is not enthusiastically acclaimed.
At the same time, I must confess that a commission of any kind, even though I have en entirely free hand, is irksome. Like every man I like to develop may ideas without hindrance, and I do not pander consciously to public taste, but I refrain from flinging paint in the public's face.
the necessity for making a living forced Sir John Millais to modify his views as to the proper attitude of an artist towrrds his patrons. Following a rebellious youth spent in annoying the critics and the academicians, by the production of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, he settled down to prosperous portraiture, and a broader style. "A physician sugars his pills," he said to Holman hunt, "and I must do the same," Yet his development has progressed along natural lines. Later in life he described his braking away from the tenets of the school, which he himself had formulated, as the emergence from his artistic puberty.
There is actually no ground for the theory that Millais prostituted his talents for gain or glory. If his change of style was not the result of this won maturing judgment, if it was imposed by the critical opinion of others, which I doubt - whatever the case it was a change for the better.
I am advocating not a slavish but a sane consideration of public opinion. I would rather emphasize the futility of anarchy in art and the mistake of regarding every new theory flouting tradition, as authentic or doctrinal. Tradition is a prop for social security. The student's ambition should be to become a painter's painter, rather than a popular painter. The approbation of fellow artists based on sympathy and understanding is manifestly better than the fickle or fast homage of the greater public.
Immediate success is another matter, depending upon other qualities than genius, prudence, or skill. Take the case of Thomas Proctor. Born in Yorkshire in 1753, he obtained with great difficulty an education to fit him for the life he desired. He was apprenticed in his youth to a tobacconist in Manchester. After a few months he fled to London, and engaged himself as a clerk in a counting house. In 1784 he contrived to enter the Royal Academy schools as a pupil, but just how he managed it is not recorded. It is a fact, however, that he was awarded the gold medal for his picture "The Tempest" and that enthusiastic fellow-students carried him round the quadrangle of Somerset house, shoulder-high shouting "Proctor, Proctor."
He turned his attention to sculpture, and his "Ixion", was so highly praised by the president, that it found a purchaser. Thus encouraged, Proctor commenced a larger work, "Diomedes devoured by his Horses". This group was exhibited in 1786 at the Royal Academy, and gained great applause. It represented twelve months arduous labour, and it swallowed his previous earnings and the balance of his patrimony. But it remained unsold. He could not pay for a place in which to store the group, after the exhibition. he therefore hammered it to fragments, and, in a fit of despondency, determined to abandon sculpture. By 1794 he had produced a series of paintings which he then exhibited, and which earned for him a scholarship, that would enable him to study in Rome. President West, with kindly sympathy, wanted to carry the news himself, but he could find no one who where Proctor lived. Persistent enquiries finally established the fact that hid lodgings were in Clare Market, where for some time he had subsisted upon a penny roll a day, washed down with water from the neighbouring pump. When West repaired to Clare Marked it was too late. Unable to pay for his attic, Proctor had wandered until his health was gone, and, helped to bed by the friends who sought him, there had died.
Then there was his contemporary John Opie, the Cornish Wonder, who took London by storm in his youth, and enjoyed a tremendous reputation for a while, which vanished, however, as capriciously as it had come, and was regained deservedly in later life, after a long period of hard work.
Many a painter has live in affluence, in high esteem, who lacked the divine spark, and who is utterly forgotten to-day. The psychology of success is the same in all walks of life. The deserving are not always blest. Theat peculiar attribute known as personality is as potent a factor as genius.
Constable considered Thomas Barker his most serious rival, for as steadily as he accumulated unsold canvases, Barker amassed wealth. Few painters were more popular in their day than he, yet who hears of the fortunate and happy Barker of Bath do-day?
The suave Barker received five hundred guineas for "The Woodsman", but Richard Wilson, that difficult and unhappy genius, had a hard job to get sixty of the same for George the Third, for a landscape. He told the king's agent, Lord Bute, to say that he might pay for it in instalments. Wilson was the landscape painter whose poverty and destitution so affected Matthew William Peters, also a fine painter, that he tool holy orders rather than risk such a life.
The attitude of the intolerant artist who, confident of his own worth, dubs the unappreciative layman a fool, is fundamentally wrong. His salvation lies in the wisdom of the biblical injunction to suffer fools gladly.
Art as a profession -
Perhaps the ideal life is that of the week-end artist, who preserves the integrity of his own aesthetic ideals because of his economic independence. He may teach or practice another profession; he may rely upon commerce for a livelihood. hi is in a position to reciprocate the snarls of the critic, to ignore the larger public, and ride his hobby with an easy mind. If his daily grind is hateful he has his weekly solace in art. Altdorfer was a town-architect, Seymour Haden a doctor. Many teach, and an increasing number turn to commercial art. I knew an etcher who was a brewer's traveller, not because he had a passion for breweries, but because the public has ever evidenced a decided preference gor beer over art, considered either as a financial investment or a spiritual stimulus.
As I have pointed out the rewards of art are not always commensurate with its quality. It affords a precarious living.
Mr Brigden and Mr. Carmichael, whose work is considered here, devote the week to commercial art. To such men art means more than a selected profession their short hours of practice are hours of bliss, mitigated only by the fact that art is an exacting mistress, and permits only a momentary sense of satisfied accomplishment in her pursuit. "A day, an hour, of virtuous liberty is worth a whole eternity of bondage," They escape the fate that obliges others to produce innumerable pot-boilers; they accept commissions only when it is impossible to avoid them; and what they paint is done for love, and expresses their intimate ideals without proviso, modification, or the interpolation of undigested theories form other sources. It is not surprising that the week-end artist gives us much of what is best in modern art.
While in every other profession the initiated only are judges, in painting all men except the blind think themselves qualified to give an opinion. - Archdeacon Fisher.
I have tried to define the correct attitude of the painter towards the public. What of the public's attitude towards art? I will also presume to advise on that. An almost universal lack in art appreciation, and aesthetics, forces the artist to bow to the common end confident statement, "I don't know anything about pictures, but I know what I like." I like to hear a sincere if unsophisticated expression of opinion on my own work, but to many unfortunate people the mere sight of an original painting excites a critical attitude of mind, and more often than not a tactless expression of dislike based upon a profound ignorance of art. "Such persons" wrote Constable, "stroll about the foot of Parnassus, only to pull down by legs those who are labouriously climbing its sides." It is not altogether a matter of egoism or conceit, because such pseudo-critics prefer to direct their remarks to the artist - Heaven forgive them - but one due rather to a common impression that such an attitude is the correct one, that all paintings should be figuratively mutilated, and that all artists are fair game, or really grateful perhaps for a few tips. Professional terminology, or what they regard as such, is not difficult to acquire. There are always catch-phrases. At the moment rhythm is being run to death. A few years ago the fad was to hunt for S's in painting, and their absence denoted a shocking state of affairs. I have been assured that a road in pictorial art must always turn to the left. It is all very nonsensical. Rhythm is as necessary in a picture as pigment; it is as much a part of painting as of music. It would have been interesting to have taken the searcher for S's to an exhibition of cubist art. I do not know where else he or she could possibly avoid finding them.
But the sublime impertinence, from an artist's standpoint, is the practice - may it never increase in popularity - of holding up one hand before a work of art for the purpose of elimination offending portions. Direct implication of incompetence! he may as well say outright, "You can't draw, you know. All the years you have been practising have been wasted. Why don't you take up something else?" the artist might as justly say to him, "I like your nose, but your abdomen is a trifle protuberant." Thus like might become a trifle more interesting, though the canons of good behaviour might be travestied.
I set out by describing these critical pests as unfortunate. These who can see something admirable in even a child's attempts to record some aspect of beauty, get more joy out of life. The worst daubs of a backward student, provided they are sincere, contain elements of sublimity, if only the mere evidence of effort, which is itself admirable. It would be a pleasure to let our pestilent critic loose where insincere art is concerned. So contrary, however, is human nature, that this is exactly what pleases him.
Let it not be assumed that the artist is so smug as to dislike true criticism. No sincere artist was ever completely satisfied with his labour. He is usually his own best critic, but continuous and prolonged work on one painting will sometimes dull his judgment. A mistake in drawing becomes difficult to detect when the eye is familiar with it. The critic is in demand, but he must be competent. Ernest Carlos, the famous painter of boy-scout pictures, told me that a child often made an excellent critic. We were studying a large painting of his in which St. Paul ans some Roman soldiers figured. The armour shone gaily, and it was around their brilliance that the discussion arose. A boy, as it happened, was the first to intimate that it was polished unduly. "What a bright helmet" he said. And that truly was a fine example of unsophisticated, constructive, pleasant, and polite criticism.
Universal appreciation of art, I suppose, cannot be inculcated by any forceful means, by any amount of propaganda, or plethoric pleading. It belongs to those countries and those ages which are not, or were not, ruled by materialism. Though travel was never so easy, literature on art never so profuse, and works of art never so widely distributed, a real passion for pictures in encountered but rarely. Sir George Beaumont used to carry favourite paintings with him on his journeys. Dr. Munro carried them in his coach. Nobody carries them now.
Two incredible incidents that came within my own experience, predicate the results of indifference, and may serve to relieve the gloom of this gloomy chapter.
In a western city a very fine painting by Rembrandt was exhibited with a good deal of pomp, and much circumstance. Thousands of people went to see it, who had never before seen a painting by that supreme master. It is safe to say that it was an occasion to remember for many of them. An attendant stood at the door of the room in which it was shown. One afternoon a dear old lady stood in front of him and held out her hand.
"Very god, Mr. Rembrandt" she said, "very good indeed. I do hope that you will be able to sell it."
S short time ago a capitalist from the backwoods entered a dealer's gallery in the same city, and asked to see the most expensive picture he had. A Turner water-colour was placed reverently on an easel in front of him and a price quoted of twelve thousand dollars, or thereabouts. he because inquisitive, and further information was offered regarding its authenticity. Among other things the fact that, on the occasion of its sale out of the collection of Lord So-and-so it fetched fourteen thousand dollars. Here the bucolic patron of art interjected suspiciously.
"Huh, second-hand, is it? I don't want a second-hand picture."
And he walked out.