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The Dawn of American Art.
Passing from Room 63 into Room 60 is a logical step. You enter from the source of the first American art - the British school - into the midst of examples of that early period when the foundation of our own particular mansion was laid in the house of art.
Painters who were, in fact, British subjects, having been born in pro-Revolutionary days, and living and dying in their first allegiance, aided in the solid placing of that foundation.
The greet names of that period are Benjamin West, John Singleton Copley, Charles Wilison Peale, and Gilbert Stuart. They are all represented in this room.
Other names which bulk largely in the history of the dawn of our native art, and which also are to be found in Room 60, are Joseph Wright, Matthew Pratt, Washington Aliston, Thomas Sully, Thomas Doughty, William Mount, Charles Loring Elliott, Asher Brown Durand, and G. P. A. Healy.
They recall the two great interests of painting which first claimed attention in this country, portraiture and landscape - in both of which American art has won eminent success. They span a stretch of time from 1734, when Pratt was born, to 1894, when G. P. A. Healy, who was born in 1808, laid down a brush which had been trained to work in a style that is now historical.
Benjamin West is represented by his "Mary Magdalene," which hangs in the center of Wall C, an example of his tendency toward imaginative works uninspired by authentic imagination, moved merely by a somewhat meretricious, melodramatic fancy. His more worthy and enduring work was in portraiture. An example (No. 2783) hangs near-by.
Born in a Quaker village near Philadelphia in 1738, and entirely without artistic surroundings, Benjamin West is an extraordinary instance of the way in which the spirit of art claims its votaries. He felt within himself an irresistible desire to be a painter. He watched the Indians daubing their bodies with their crude pigments, and absorbed his first instructions. A present of a paint-box enabled him to produce results that secured him commissions for portraits, and in his twenty-second year he was in Rome. From there he went to London. He received the Order of Knighthood and died President of the Royal Academy, in 1820, and was buried with pomp and ceremony in St. Paul's. But while seated amid the mighty in London, West, to his lasting honor, remembered back with humility and sympathy to his hard days in crude America, and he was of great service to other American artists, among them Matthew Pratt and Gilbert Stuart. However, his influence upon American art was not permanent, nor along the lines of its major developments.
John Singleton Copley (1737-1815), one of whose portraits (No. 2785) hangs on Wall C, has remained a more vital influence than West. Of Irish parentage, born in Boston, and almost entirely self-taught, he recorded with his virile portraits the pro-Revolutionary leaders of society and affairs. He went to Rome and to London when his style was well formed. He remained in England, preferring its cultured life to that of his own cruder country - the first of a numerous band of artists who took the same course. West, leaving America before the break with England was even suggested, was not a similar case of deliberate expatriation.
Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) was the most famous resident American painter of his period. His portrait of Colonel Charles Pettit, who was George Washington's quartermaster, hangs on Wall C (No. 2791). A native of Maryland, he studied under Copley in Boston, and West in London. He executed on his return the first life-size picture of Washington. Patriot as well as painter, Peale fought under the command of his sitter at Trenton and Germantown. In all, he did fourteen portraits of his hero. He organized the first exhibition of paintings given in America, and was one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the oldest of all existing art institutions in the United States.
Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) may be studied in no less than five examples, portraits, hanging upon Wall A (Nos. 2763, 2764, 2765, 2767 and 2768). Among his subjects are President Monroe and General Dearborn.
Stuart's is the greatest light in the galaxy of that period. Born at Narragansett, he was taken out of the United States by his Tory parents, and entered West's studio in London, where he studied for eight years. But he was singularly unaffected by the more famous man. He remained sturdily himself. He was one of the first of the painters of character, as differentiated from exterior appearances. A hero-worshiper, despite his calm, cautious Scotch blood, he gave up immense success in London to return to the United States, impelled by his admiration for George Washington, and by his compelling desire to paint this man among men. Settling in Boston, Stuart remained there until his death in 1828. He was perhaps the first of the American artists to regard his work from a painter's point of view, rather than from that of a pictorial historian or story-teller.
Washington Aliston (1779-1843), a native of South Carolina, studying in Rome, became thrall to Raphael; which no doubt was a healthful influence, but he also succumbed to the later Italian painters of the affected "grand style," which was fatal for him. Through him and John Vanderlyn the lessons of Rome reached America, to help those who could assimilate them, and to injure those who merely imitated. His "Bacchanal" hangs on Wall A.
Charles Loring Elliott (1812-1868), of Auburn, N. Y., a self-taught genius, is represented by three portraits, of which that of "Mrs. Goulding" - a work of "extraordinary truth and technical power,' as one of the most competent of observers said to the writer - is the most remarkable. Elliott anticipated by a species of intuitive divination the method of brush-work now employed by the best men, but which in his own day was not employed. The painter's method, as differentiated from a draughtsman's method. How his work, with that of Copley and other early Americans, impresses by virtue of innate power and truth! If the Americans derived front the English painters, they do not for that reason become inferior. Indeed, in many classes they rise above them.
With Thomas Doughty and Asher Brown Durand we reach two names of the first consequence in American landscape painting.
They were pioneers in the field since so splendidly productive. They began the "Hudson River School." Despite its deficiencies, it was a frank and sturdy expression of a national spirit. The men of this school went to nature, and took pride in the beauty and interest of their own country.
Thomas Doughty (1793-1856) bears by general consent the title of first American landscape painter, although it was Thomas Cole (1801-1848) who popularized the new movement. We will find Cole's work in Room 59, which continues the current which had its well-spring in this room. Asher Brown Durand (1796-1886) was another leader of this school. In this room he is represented only by a portrait of himself (No. 2795), his landscapes hanging near Cole's in Room 59. Two of Doughty's canvases (Nos. 2777 and 2778) hang on Wall B. The school derived its name from the fact that its pioneers began by working in the valley of the Hudson, though their disciples, like Bierstadt, Kensett and Moran, wandered far and wide into the Rocky Mountains, and in the case of Bierstadt and Moran, even to California. Let us follow this western trail into Room 59.
Room No. 59.
Thomas Cole, whose enduring claim to remembrance is based upon the fact of his having aroused an artistic appreciation of the Catskills in particular and of American landscape in general, is represented by one of his typical landscapes (No. 2721), and by the sketches for his famous and popular, but less artistically satisfactory painting, "The Voyage of Life" (No. 2737).
A. B. Durand is recalled by two large paintings; one in his weaker allegorical manner, "The Morning of Life," hanging upon Wall C. and the other, a much simpler and stronger piece of original observation, "The Thunderstorm: Catskills," upon Wall D.
Pictures by J. F. Kesnett (Nos. 2716 and 2718) and J. M. Hart (No. 2714), both on Wall A, are further examples of the Hudson River school.
We will encounter other characteristic products of this school in galleries still to be visited, such as the work of Albert Bierstadt in Room 58. Landscape painting has progressed far beyond the highest point of this school, but, as Charles H. Caffin well says: "These pictures had in them the true stuff that has made landscape painting the sincerest form of modern expression; what they lacked was skill in the craftsmanship of painting and the painter's point of view. * * * Meanwhile, it is very cheap criticism to decry these men; * * * rather should they be remembered as the leaders among its in that return to nature which, unknown to them, had also lead Rousseau and his followers to Barbizon, and was to become in literature and painting the strong, distinctive characteristic of the nineteenth century."
There are three Henry Inmans, a portrait of Henry Pratt hanging on Wall A (No. 2715), a genre painting (No. 2747) on Wall D, and a landscape (No. 2726) on Wall B.
There are several items which illustrate the less artistically memorable tendencies of the past, such as the still popular painting of "Old Ironsides" by James Hamilton on Wall A, and W. H. Beard's well-known picture of bears at a picnic.
Of greater interest to the people of the West are the two examples of the work of Thomas Hill (Nos. 2748 and 2756).
Both these little pictures are California landscapes. Hill lived in San Francisco from 1861 to 1867, and from 1871 to his death in 1908. One of the pioneers of painting in the West, and influenced by Bierstadt, although at the same time an artist of distinct originality, Thomas Hill was a link of much consequence in the chain of art in its first westward trend.
Room No. 58.
Several important names and tendencies are illustrated by the canvases shown here.
We have already talked about Bierstadt, who carried the influence of the Hudson River school into the West, and was one of its most characteristic exponents. He was a German by birth, trained at Dusseldorf, and his huge pictures display at once his ability in rendering a panoramic view of nature, and his inability to treat nature in the modern way, from the point of view of a single, synthetic impression, or a mood. His two gigantic pictures of Colorado scenery face each other on Walls B and D.
On Wall C hangs Emanuel Leutze's "Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne" (No. 2698). Lentze is another of the gifts of Germany to this country. He is better known as a painter of historic pictures than as a portraitist. An example, "Columbus Discovering America," hangs in Room 64, Wall B (No. 2950). His best work is the famous "Washington Crossing the Delaware." Through him the influence of the genre school of Dusseldorf reached this country, where it had profound results, some of them deplorable; for America was flooded with anecdotal, sentimental, trashy pictures which postponed popular appreciation of the true nature of art.
Among Leutze's pupils at Dusseldorf was Eastman Johnson (1824-1906), of whose work there are several typical canvases on Wall A (Nos. 2678, 2680, and 2681). One is a portrait of Edwin Booth, our most famous actor. Johnson was one of the best artists of the Dusseldorf school, and his portraits still hold their own amid more modern work.
One of H. J. Breuer's mountain paintings hangs on Wall C. This powerful and impressive work by a contemporary artist of San Francisco does not appropriately belong in this room, and we will find it more logical to treat of him with his fellow moderns later on.