7. Seeing is Believing

After visiting the art gallery at the Philadelphia Centennial, William James wrote to his brother Henry to tell him how pleased he was with the high average of the American paintings. The great majority of them were landscapes, he noted, and in almost every case the animating spirit was "a perfectly sincere effort to reproduce a natural aspect" which in some special way had affected the painter's sensibility.

James's description of the animating spirit in these paintings is significant. It emphasizes the literalness in American paintings which almost all critics agreed was characteristic, whether or not they approved of it. William Dean Howells felt that the American paintings were "too often unstoried, like our scenery," and that their subjects "were seen, not deeply felt and thought." Similarly, the Art Journal's critic preferred the English landscape paintings to the American because so many of the best of ours appeared like pictures seen in the camera. (An odd converse to this statement appears in a comment by Hermann Wilhehn Vogel, one of the German judges, on the exhibit at Photographic Hall: the Americans, he noted, expect from the photographer "work which in Europe would belong to the artist.") As early as 1856 John Ruskin, complaining of the ugliness of some American paintings he had just seen, acidly noted that he could see "that they were true studies and that the ugliness of the country must be Unfathomable." The art critic James Jackson Jarves, too, objected to the literalness of our painters, and gave as an example Bierstadt's "Rocky Mountains," in which the realism was so factual "that the botanist and geologist can find work in his rocks and vegetation." And in 18'79 S. G. W. Benjamin was complaining that the influence which had given birth to our landscape art had been prosaic, exacting, and uninspiring.

The "topographical and mechanical" notions of art to which Benjamin and the others objected, had-as a matter of fact-been come by honestly enough in the case of many of the painters. An extraordinary large percentage of American artists were originally apt in, or dependent upon, mechanical skill; Peale, Durand, Palmer, Chapman, and Kensett were all disciplined for pictorial work by workmanship in machinery, watchmaking, carving, or engraving. Several of our early sculptors, too, were mechanics by training. Joel Tanner Hart was a stonemason before he did his bust of Henry Clay (1847), based on exact measurements and a number of daguerreotype studies, and he later invented and patented a measuring machine to make his work more precise. Hiram Powers, late in his career, liked to reminisce in Florence about his early training in America as a mechanic simplifying and improving a machine for cutting clock wheels, and finishing brass plates for organ stops so smoothly and accurately that when one was laid on another and then raised it would lift the other-as he proudly put it "by mere cohesive attraction." So mechanically did Powers work in marble that he could sum up his philosophy of art by saying baldly that "He that can copy a potato precisely can copy a face precisely." The limitations of Powers' once-famous "Greek Slave" and other statues are evident enough to anyone who has seen them. But-like the familiar and universally popular "Rogers Groups" of the sixties 1--they serve to illustrate the same sort of perfectly sincere effort to reproduce nature which James noted in American landscape painting.

In one of the most interesting studies of American painting Alan Burroughs makes it clear that a distinctively American--as distinguished from the parent English--approach to art had become apparent as early as 1750; and this distinction appeared not in the South but in New England, where the "best society" (that is, the patrons of art) was in close contact with the yeomanry. In painting, as in furniture design and architecture, there was a new emphasis on, simplicity, reality, and serviceability. In the work of Copley, Smibert, and the other mid-eighteenthcentury New England portrait painters, Burroughs writes, "what took the place of beauty and consciously artistic structure was simply good eyesight." And if one traces the course of American painting thereafter, it becomes clear that the only attitude which is traditional in American art is, as Burroughs concludes, "dependence on fact." There are, of course, different kinds of realism: realism of the eye, of the emotions, and of the mind; but there is only one fundamental attitude which permits any kind of realism, and that is respect for the thing seen, the feeling aroused, or the attendant thought.

This respect, this dependence upon fact, appears variously in the work of both the ablest and the least accomplished technicians. To analyze it carefully and fully would require more space than we have here at our disposal; but it will be familiar to anyone who has seen the work, for example, of William Sidney Mount, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, or of the numerous so-called primitive painters.

American primitive paintings have been eagerly collected and frequently exhibited during the past few years, and more than a hundred of the best of them (from widely scattered private and public collections) have been reproduced by jean Lipman in a handsome volume published by the Oxford University Press in 1942. Miss Lipman admires these paintings primarily because of what she calls their "purely aesthetic qualities of abstract design," which, she asserts, "entirely accounts for" the widespread contemporary interest in them. One may suppose, therefore, that she has selected for inclusion those pictures which best illustrate those qualities.

Yet anyone who examines the pictures soon discovers that there are two quite divergent types among them. On the one hand there are some which are indeed highly abstract and free from any apparent concern with visual reality, such as the formal little landscapes and still-life groups, frequently executed by means of stencils, or the conventionalized memorials like the one by Eunice Pinney (see Fig. 23), from Miss Lipman's own collection. These are in every sense abstract patterns of forms and colors. There is no optical reality about them.

On the other hand, a sizable majority of the paintings seem to represent a quite different attitude upon the part of the artist. In them one senses a diligent and often rather touching effort to make a literal and detailed record of the thing seen. Joseph H. Headley's oil on wood painting of Poestenkill (see Fig. 23) is obviously an attempt to record specific houses, barns, fences, roads, and landscape. Whatever deviations from actuality such a painting contains are imposed by the painter's lack of technical mastery. They are not the result of indifference to exact appearance, or of an instinctive preference for abstract design. If one of the barns in the painting is red, one feels sure that Headley did not paint it so because his sense of design required it but because that particular barn in Poestenkill in 1850 was red.

The point I am insisting on here is that in the two different types of primitives the absence of an accurate "representation of normal visible reality," which Miss Lipman and many other contemporary critics admire, results from two quite different causes. In pictures like Eunice Pinney's "Memorial" the painter had no intention of representing optical reality; she was out to create a lugubrious design, not a picture of a specific tomb. But in paintings like Headley's, actuality was the painter's primary concern-so much so that, within the limits of his craftsmanship, he often represented it even if he couldn't see it from where he stood, just because he knew it was there.

As one would expect, these two opposed attitudes are reflected in the kind of subject matter chosen. When the painter was concerned primarily with abstract design he drew his subjects from literature, or copied conventional designs in popular prints and pictures, or simply arranged stencils in agreeable patterns. But when the painter was concerned primarily with actuality, he turned for his subjects to real landscapes and to houses, ships, trains, and people that he knew.

In the former case composition is primarily the product of the artist's design sense, and the details are selected in terms of the design. In the latter, the composition exists almost independently of the artist; in a sense he merely selects or discovers it. One painter imposes a satisfying design upon pleasing conventionalized elements; the other imposes upon himself a satisfying relationship with an already existing design.

Those primitives in which fact is subordinate to design are always on the fringes of the cultivated tradition, and many of them are echoes if not mere unskilled imitations of professional work. The anonymous painting of "The Runaway Horse" (Plate 43 in Miss Lipman's volume) is an obvious echo of the academic English landscape school; Edward Hicks's notable "Penn's Treaty with the Indians" (Plate 69) is a memory image of Benjamin West's muchreproduced painting of the same scene; and the anonymous painting of "Cleveland's Public Square" (Plate 62) was certainly done by someone familiar with the expert aquatint engravings of the early nineteenth century. Amy, in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, was in a sense the type of all the cultivated primitives. When she took up "poker-sketching," you may remember, "Raphael's face was found boldly executed on the under side of the moulding board, and Bacchus on the head of a beer barrel," and her later paintings were of swarthy boys and darkeyed madonnas suggesting Murillo or "buxom ladies and dropsical infants" which were meant to look like Rubens. Even when she got the mania for "sketching from nature" she haunted river, field, and wood, "sighing for ruins to copy."

It seems clear, then, that there are two distinct categories of paintings which are generally lumped together as American primitives: unprofessional paintings reflecting the impact on the artist of some aspect of the cultivated tradition, and paintings which, seeking to reproduce optical reality, create a tone and feeling which relate directly to the thing seen.

These same qualities appear also in the work of our professional painters. Two pictures which provide a striking example of these divergent approaches were included in the loan exhibition, "Life in America," which was shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art during the New York World's Fair in 3.939, and are illustrated on facing pages of the catalogue of that exhibition. James M. Hart's "The Old Schoolhouse" and Henry Inman's "Dismissal of School on an October Afternoon" are similar in subject matter and were both painted in the 1840s--(See fig. 24) Both contain a schoolhouse among trees at the right of the scene, a group of children in the center foreground, and at the left a stream flowing into a distant landscape of hills and fields. In, Inman's painting the whole effect is misty; the October atmosphere is an essential part of the artist's intention. The schoolhouse is partly obscured by trees; the children, though nearer to the artist than in Hart's painting, are less clearly observed and seem to be on loan from an inferior canvas by Sir Thomas Lawrence or George Romney; and the distant hills and fields are reminiscent of many of the romantic English landscapes of the period. Hart's schoolhouse, on the other hand, is sharply defined, revealing the warped and split clapboards and each shingle of the roof; the children look as country children may well have looked, not too tidy; and the landscape is familiar farmland.

Both Inman and Hart learned to paint in upstate New York, but Inman was taught by John Wesley Jarvis, the fashionable portrait painter, and became so successful that, under the patronage of wealthy admirers, he went to England in 3.844 (the year before "Dismissal of School" was painted) and was warmly received by Mulready, Leslie, and other fashionable English artists. Hart, however, learned painting as a trade, both from his brother William, who was a carriage painter, and as an apprentice to a sign and banner painter. It was not until after "The Old Schoolhouse" was painted that he went to Diisseldorf for formal training.

No question of relative merit is involved in this discussion of these two canvases. The point is simply to demonstrate that the same diverse streams of art which we find t in our architecture can be traced also in American painting. The fact happens to be that all during the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth art critics here and abroad have admired few of those painters, European or American, who have been dominated by a devotion to literal' representation. Those who loved and understood the western European tradition of painting, and those who worked in it, were naturally drawn to Americans like Whistler and Mary Cassatt, whose work-done chiefly abroad-related directly to the development of that tradition. When Edgar P. Richardson made his scholarly study of The Way of Western Art(1939) , he was concerned to "relate American art to the tradition to which it belongs." Inevitably, therefore, he omitted William Sidney Mount altogether, and gave only about a page each to Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins.

Yet Homer and Eakins are towering figures in American painting, as Richardson would undoubtedly agree, and Mount's clear, explicit genre pictures and open-air landscapes are more and more coming to be recognized as an important link in a characteristic American tradition of precise representation. In 1846 Mount wrote in his journal: "There has been enough written on ideality and the grand style of Art, etc., to divert the artist from the true study of natural objects." But Mount was not to be diverted. Note after note in his journal records that his pictures were painted "out of doors," "on the spot," or "in the open air," and he designed an "artist's waggon," or portable studio with large glass windows, "to sketch and paint in during windy and rainy weather." It is this outdoor clarity which makes "Long Island Farmhouse" (Metropolitan) one of Mount's most effective paintings: an honest, literal record of plain structures in November sunlight.

Eakins saw his subjects with the eye of a trained scientist, rather than a mere observer, but his knowledge and understanding of them never led him to compromise with the absolute integrity of visual reality. As Lloyd Goodrich has said, he "worked from the core of reality out into art." Or, to say it another way, he knew-as Whitman knewthat "out from the well-tended concrete and physical-and in them and from them only-radiate the spiritual and heroic."

His interests were strongly scientific and mechanical. When, during his brief sojourn as an art student in Paris, he visited the International Exposition of 1867, it was the exhibits of locomotives and machinery which attracted him, rather than the art galleries. Throughout his life the most creative influence on his painting was the study of anatomy, in which he became almost a professional, contributing papers on his research to the published Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. One of these papers, on "The Differential Action of Certain Muscles Passing More Than One joint" (1894) , clearly shows Eakins' mechanical-scientific bent. Having observed the muscles in a horse's leg when the beast was straining to start a horsecar, he noticed that they did not act as they would if they conformed to the description of them in standard works on muscular action. He therefore constructed "a model of the entire limb with flat pieces of half-inch pine board, catgut for tendons and ligaments, and rubber bands for muscles, all attached to their places and properly restrained." With this mechanism and with dissection on the leg of a dead horse, he demonstrated the true action of the muscles and showed how they must be considered not only in relation to the bones to which they are attached, "but with relation to the whole movement of the animal . . . . One is never sure," he concluded, "that he understands the least movement of an animal, unless he can connect it with the whole muscular system, making, in fact, a complete circuit of all the strains . . . . On the lines of the mighty and simple strains dominating the movement, and felt intuitively and studied out by him, the master artist groups, with full intention, his muscular forms. No detail contradicts. His men and animals live."

This interest in anatomical movement also led Eakins to carry out important experiments with photography. Muybridge's photographs of galloping horses, taken in California with a battery of twenty-four cameras, attracted a great deal of interest, and in 1884 (partly through Eakins' influence) he was invited to continue his experiments at the University of Pennsylvania. Eakins himself designed and helped to build a special camera which recorded successive phases of motion on a single film, thus approximating the effect of a series of movie stills.

Eakins' ideal of a painting was one in which "you can see what o'clock it is, afternoon or morning, if it's hot or cold, winter or summer, and what kind of people are there, and what they are doing, and why they are doing it" The great painter, he believed, learns what nature does with light, color, and form and appropriates these tools to his own use. They serve him, as he wrote to his father, as "a canoe of his own, smaller than Nature's, but big enough for every purpose," in which he can sail parallel to nature. But if the painter ever thinks he can "sail another fashion from Nature or make a better shaped boat, he'll capsize or stick in the mud." To many of Eakins' contemporaries, here and abroad, the study of light and atmosphere became an end in itself; but to him it was, like his knowledge of anatomy, merely an instrument. Speaking of the role of anatomical dissection in his teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts he made it clear that for anatomy as such he cared nothing whatever. Dissection was hard and dirty work, of value to the artist simply because it increased his knowledge of how animals and human beings are put together and thus enabled him to "imitate" them. "Even to refine upon natural beauty-to idealize," he added, "one must understand what it is that he is idealizing; otherwise his idealization-I don't like the word, by the way-becomes distortion, and distortion is ugliness."

Eakins himself did not idealize; the unparalleled series of portraits he painted in the eighties and nineties are a record of his relentless understanding of human character and his objective respect for it. And "Max Schmitt in a Single Scull" (Metropolitan Museum of Art), with its precise representation of the light-modeled forms of the Girard Avenue Bridge in the background, and "The Agnew Clinic" (University of Pennsylvania), with the figure of Dr. Agnew standing out sharply against the background of student observers, are masterpieces of scientific realism in our nineteenth-century painting. Nor are they isolated phenomena, as they have sometimes been presumed to be. Something of the same point of view toward reality, with less depth of emotional understanding but none the less unmistakably, had appeared earlier in Audubon's paintings of animals and birds, and reappeared in isolated works of Eakins' own time, like Henry Alexander's "The Laboratory of Thomas Price" (Metropolitan Museum).

Related to Eakins' scientific realism was another pictorial approach which might be called reportorial or journalistic realism. The painter who best represented this approach was Winslow Homer, who found his way into painting through work as an illustrator-correspondent for Ballou's Pictorial and Harper's Weekly during the Civil War. It is in his early paintings, especially, that one senses the reporter's concern with visual accuracy. Precise and tight in brushwork, these pictures of rural schools, factories, and home scenes were less concerned with interpretation than were Eakins' paintings, but they searched out and recorded significant surfaces and forms with an integrity which not even Eakins could surpass. In "The Morning Bell," for instance, there is something suggestive of Eakins in the way angular planes of light and shadow are employed to record the factory and the plank footbridge leading to it across the millpond. It is apparent that here, as in many of the unschooled primitive paintings of the same mid-century period, the arrangement of forms and colors was discovered and reported by the painter, rather than created by him. "When I have selected the thing carefully," Homer insisted, "I paint it exactly as it appears."

The tradition, if I may call it that, of respect for actuality can be traced in the work of many other painters than those mentioned here. It is clear that factualism has been a powerful force in the visual arts in this country, and that even when the influence of French painting asserted itself here at the turn of the century, men like Luks, Glackens, and Sloan (all of whom had, incidentally, been influenced by Eakins' teaching and all of whom also had been newspaper artists, trained in pictorial journalism) applied the techniques which they learned from abroad in reporting precisely and honestly what they saw about them.

Nor does the matter rest there. Horatio Greenough said a century ago that America had been born in the Age of Reason, and had been fed from the beginning with "the stout bread and meat of fact"; America was Europe's giant offspring, to be sure, but "every wry face the bantling ever made had been daguerreotyped." And this domination by fact is still effective. It appears most blatantly, perhaps, in the work of some of our popular illustrators like John Falter and Norman Rockwell. In describing his methods of painting Rockwell has said, in words reminiscent of those quoted from Winslow Homer, "It has never been natural j for me to deviate from the facts of anything before me . . . . If a model has worn a red sweater, I have painted it red-I couldn't possibly have made it green. I have tried again and again to take such liberties, but with little success." And even an artist like George Grosz, who came here from Germany in 1932, found that his work became, as he described it, "more realistic." "I became easily influenced," he wrote ten years later, "by the great sense of fact in America."

But dependence on fact does not in itself make a tradition of art. At most it is only the traditional basis of an attitude toward painting, or sculpture, or architecture, or literature. Nor does "the American scene" or American subject matter provide the basis for an American tradition. Neither patriotic pictures like Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware" nor the work of local-colorists like Grant Wood or Thomas Benton has sufficed.

The determinant in such a tradition in any art is, as Constance Rourke said of painting, not subject but form. It is by the use of form "that the individual artist makes his art distinctive. It is the consistent print of form in successive periods which gives a national tradition its character." Going one step beyond this, it is the consistent print of form which gives character to a civilization, and it is therefore to forms that we must look for the emergence of the vernacular tradition in our painting.

Seen from this perspective, it is no mere coincidence that good eyesight and respect for optical reality have been so large an element of American painting. Instinctively artists have known that they must discover forms which are significant to their contemporaries, and the search for such forms-indigenous to the new civilizationdemanded respect for the thing seen and put a premium on good eyesight, on honest reporting, and on scientific analysis. America has, to be sure, produced important painters-and painters whose work was in other ways as distinctively American as Homer's or Eakins'-whose achievements depended not at all upon these qualities. But these have been isolated figures who, like Albert Pinkham Ryder, sought to express their own inner worlds of imagination rather than the concrete reality of the world about them.

Inevitably, perhaps, those Americans who achieved the greatest technical mastery in painting were those like Whistler, Mary Cassatt, and La Farge who turned from the crude actualities of American life to the heritage of Europe and the Orient. And it was probably also inevitable that their work, divorced from dominant concerns of contemporary life and lacking the inner integrity of Ryder's dream canvases, should seem somehow thin. and lacking in substance. On the other hand it was likewise inevitable that those who worked outside the older traditions would, like Mount, Homer, and Eakins, and even Ryder himself, have had to cope with technical limitations which sometimes encumber the structural interest of their work.

It is these limitations, one suspects, which in our own time lead a painter like Charles Sheeler to deny any stimulus from Homer or Eakins. Certainly the painters from whom Sheeler learned most have all been Europeans. But anyone who looks at his work will recognize that although the modes in which he paints have their chief source in France, in postimpressionism and cubism, the forms which give character to his work are the product of the vernacular tradition-the unself-conscious architecture of barns and factories, the unornamented furniture and buildings of the Shakers, the structure of ships and machines. His large drawing of "The Open Door" and the much earlier tempera painting of the "Bucks County Barn" (Fig. 25) are fine compositions, almost abstract in quality, not unrelated to the spatial and linear studies of the postimpressionists and cubists. But in a very real sense they have roots in the tradition of respect for actuality. They have something in common with even such utilitarian pictures as the lithographs which illustrated so many of the county histories published in the nineteenth century. Notice, for instance, in the detail from the anonymous 1878 lithograph of the "Residence and Stock Farm of J. F. Blair & Son" (Fig. 25) how the group of barns is rendered in terms of planes of light and shadow.

Many twentieth-century painters, in both Europe and America, have been primarily concerned with the problems of achieving formal strength. In Europe this interest in the elements of structure in painting led chiefly to the study of primitive art of all kinds-African sculpture, medieval stained glass, and prehistoric pictographs. In America it led chiefly to increased interest in vernacular forms, particularly those of technology and industry. Even Lyonel Feininger, who spent most of his creative life in Germany before the war, as a member of the Bauhaus group, used cubist line and plane to express that love of mechanical and architectural form which he had developed as a young man in New York. (See especially "Side Wheeler" in the Detroit Institute of Arts, and "Old American Locomotive," both illustrated in the catalogue of the Museum of Modern Art's Feininger-Hartley exhibit in 1944.) It is not without significance that the good eyesight which goes into the discovery of such forms was in Sheeler's case supplemented by his meticulous and careful work as a photographer. Not that he confuses the art of photography with the art of painting; no one has more concretely defined the scope of each. But his eye, like Eakins' before him, had been disciplined in part by the exactness of the camera lens. Whatever rank may be assigned to Sheeler's paintings, it seems clear that in them, as effectively as in those of any of his contemporaries, the cultivated and vernacular traditions have merged into a distinctive creation.


1 Typical examples were "The Returned Volunteer," "The Council of War," and "Weighing the Baby." John Rogers their reator, had studied civil engineering, worke in a New Hampshire machine shop, and been boss of a railroad repair shop in the West. Return

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