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Painting and A Painter

Charles V. once said, "Titian should be served by Caesar;" and Michael Angelo, we read, was treated by Lorenzo de' Medici "as a son;" Raphael, his contemporary, was great enough to revere him, and thank God he had lived at the same time. In England, in France, in Germany, in Italy, in Spain at this day, the poet and the painter stand hedged about by the divinity of their gifts, and the people are proud to recognize their kingship.

Has "Reverence, that angel of the world," as Shakespeare beautifully says, forgot to visit America? Or must we consider ourselves less capable yet of delicate appreciation, such as older nations possess? Or are we over-occupied in gaining possession of material comforts and luxuries, and so forget to revere our poets and painters till it is too late, and the curtain has fallen upon their unobtrusive and often struggling earthly career? What a millennium will have arrived when we learn to be as faithful to our love as we are sincere!

Questions like these have been asked also in times preceding ours. Alfred de Musset wrote upon this subject in 1833, in Paris: "There are people who tell you our age is preoccupied, that men no longer read anything or care for anything. Napoleon was occupied, I think, at Beresina: he, however, had his Ossian with him. When did Thought lose the power of being able to leap into the saddle behind Action? When did man forget to rush like Tyrtaeus to the combat, a sword in one hand, the lyre in the other? Since the world still has a body, it has a soul."

Monsieur Charles Blanc writes: "In order to have an idea of the importance of the arts, it is enough to fancy what the great nations of the world would be if the monuments they have erected to their faiths, and the works whereon they have left the mark of their genius, were suppressed from history. It is with people as with men—after death only the emanations of their mind remain; that is to say, literature and art, written poems, and poems inscribed on stone, in marble or in color."

The same writer, in his admirable book, Grammaire des arts du dessin, from which we are tempted to quote again and again, says: "The artist who limits himself simply to the imitation of Nature reaches only individuality: he is a slave. He who interprets Nature sees in her happy qualities; he evolves character from her; he is master. The artist who idealizes her discovers in her or imprints upon her the image of beauty: this last is a great master.... Placed between Nature and the ideal, between what is and what must be, the artist has a vast career before him in order to pass from the reality he sees to the beauty he divines. If we follow him in this career, we see his model transform itself successively before his eyes.... But the artist must give to these creations of his soul the imprint of life, and he can only find this imprint in the individuals Nature has created. The two are inseparable—the type, which is a product of thought, and the individual, which is a child of life."

With this excellent analysis before us, we will recall one by one some of the best-known and most interesting works of W.M. Hunt, a painter who now holds a prominent place among the artists of America. We will try to discover by careful observation if the high gifts of Verity and Imagination, the sign and seal of the true artist, really belong to him: if so, where these qualities are expressed, and what value we should set upon them.

First, perhaps, for those readers remote from New England who may never have seen any pictures by this artist, a few words should be said by way of describing some characteristics of his work and the limitations of it; which limitations are rather loudly dwelt upon by connoisseurs and lovers of the popular modern French school. Artists discern these limitations of course more keenly even than others, but their tribute to verity and ideal beauty as represented by this painter is too sincere to allow caviling to find expression. This limitation to which we refer causes Mr. Hunt to allow ideal suggestions, rather than pictures, to pass from his studio, and makes him cowardly before his own work. It recalls in a contrary sense that saying of the sculptor Puget: "The marble trembles before me." Mr. Hunt trembles before his new-born idea. His swift nature has allowed him in the first hour of work to put into his picture the tenderness or rapture, the unconscious grace or tempestuous force, which he despaired at first of ever being able to express. In the flush of success he stops: he has it, the idea; the chief interest of the subject is portrayed before him; the delicate presence (and what can be more delicate than the thoughts he has delineated?) is there, and may vanish if touched in a less fortunate moment. But is this lack of fulfillment in the artist entirely without precedent or parallel? Had not Sir Joshua Reynolds a studio full of young artists who "finished off" his pictures? Were not the very faces themselves painted with such rapidity and want of proper method as to drop off, on occasion, entirely from the canvas, as in case of the boy's head, in being carried through the street? Hunt is of our own age, and would scorn the suggestion of having a hand or a foot painted for him, as if it were a matter of small importance what individual expression a hand or a foot should wear; but who can tell for what future age he has painted the wise, abrupt, kind, persistent, simple, strong old Judge in his Yankee coat; or the genial, resolute, hopeful, self-sacrificing governor of Massachusetts; and the Master of the boys, with his keen, loving, uncompromising face? These are pictures that, when children say, "Tell us about the Governor who helped Massachusetts bring her men first into the field during our war," we may lead them up before and reply, "He was this man!" So also with the portraits of the Judge, of the Master of the boys, of the old man with clear eyes and firm mouth, and that sweet American girl standing, unconscious of observation, plucking at the daisy in her hat and guessing at her fate.

Hurry, impatience and a worship of crude thought are characteristics of our present American life. Hunt is one of us. If these faults mark and mar his work, they show him also to be a child of the time. His quick sympathies are caught by the wayside and somewhat frayed out among his fellows; but nevertheless one essential of a great painter, that of Verity, will be accorded to him after an examination of the pictures we have mentioned.

But truth, character, skill, the many gifts and great labor which must unite to lead an artist to the foot of his shadowy, sun-crowned mountain, can then carry him no step farther unless ideal Beauty join him, and he comprehend her nature and follow to her height. Again we quote from Charles Blanc—for why should we rewrite what he says so ably?—"All the germs of beauty are in Nature, but it belongs to the spirit of man alone to disengage them. When Nature is beautiful, the painter knows that she is beautiful, but Nature knows nothing of it. Thus beauty exists only on the condition of being understood—that is to say, of receiving a second life in the human thought. Art has something else to do than to copy Nature exactly: it must penetrate into the spirit of things, it must evoke the soul of its hero. It can then not only rival Nature, but surpass her. What is indeed the superiority of Nature? It is the life which animates all her forms. But man possesses a treasure which Nature does not possess—thought. Now thought is more than life, for it is life at its highest power, life in its glory. Man can then contest with Nature by manifesting thought in the forms of art, as Nature manifests life in her forms. In this sense the philosopher Hegel was able to say that the creations of art were truer than the phenomena of the physical world and the realities of history."

Now, thought in the soul of the true artist for ever labors to evolve the beautiful. This is what the thought of a picture means to him—how to express beauty, which he finds underlying even the imperfect individual of Nature's decaying birth. To the high insight this is always discernible. None are so fallen that some ray of God's light may not touch them, and this possibility, the faith in light for ever, radiates from the spirit of the artist, and renders him a messenger of joy. No immortal works have bloomed in despondency: they may have taken root in the slime of the earth, but they have blossomed into lilies.

We call this divine power to discern beauty in every manifestation of the Deity, imagination. As it expresses itself in painting, it is so closely allied with what is highest and holiest in our natures that painting has come to be esteemed a Christian art, as contrasted in its development subsequent to the Christian era with the less human works of sculpture. "Christianity came, and instead of physical beauty substituted moral beauty, infinitely preferring the expression of the soul to the perfection of the body. Every man was great in its eyes, not by his perishable members, but by his immortal soul. With this religion begins the reign of painting, which is a more subtle art, more immaterial, than the others—more expressive, and also more individual. We will give some proofs of it. Instead of acting, like architecture and sculpture, upon the three dimensions of heavy matter, painting acts only upon one surface, and produces its effects with an imponderable thing, which is color—that is to say, light. Hegel has said with admirable wisdom: 'In sculpture and architecture forms are rendered visible by exterior light. In painting, on the contrary, matter, obscure in itself, has within itself its internal element, its ideal—light: it draws from itself both clearness and obscurity. Now, unity, the combination of light and dark, is color.' The painter, then, proposes to himself to represent, not bodies with their real thickness, but simply their appearance, their image; but by this means it is the mind which he addresses. Visible but impalpable, and in some sense immaterial, his work does not meet the touch, which is the sight of the body: it only meets the eye, which is the touch of the soul. Painting is then, from this point of view, the essential art of Christianity.... If the painter, like Phidias or Lysippus, had only to portray the types of humanity, the majesty of Jupiter, the strength of Hercules, he might do without the riches of color, and paint in one tone, modified only by light and shade; but the most heroic man among Christians is not a demigod: he is a being profoundly individual, tormented, combating, suffering, and who throughout his real life shares with environing Nature, and receives from every side the reflection of her colors. Sculpture, generalizing, raises itself to the dignity of allegory—painting, individualizing, descends to the familiarity of portraiture."

Let us now return to consider William Hunt's pictures from this second point of view. The gift of Verity having been already assumed, can we also discern that higher power of Imagination whose crown and seal is the Beautiful. To decide this question we have, unhappily, to consider his work as lyrical, rather than dramatic, and for this reason we must study his power under disadvantage. That he possesses dramatic power will hardly be denied by those who know his "Hamlet," "The Drummer-Boy," and "The Boy and the Butterfly;" but the exigencies of life appear to prevent him from occupying himself with compositions such as filled years in the existence of the old painters.

Portraiture being the highest and most difficult labor to which an artist can aspire, to this branch of art Hunt has chiefly confined himself, and from this point of view he must be studied. We do not forget, in saying this, his angel with the flaming torch, strong and beautiful and of unearthly presence, nor the shadowy, half-portrayed figures which dart and flit across his easel; but as we may understand the power of Titian from his portraits, yet never revel in it fully until we look upon "The Presentation" or "The Assumption"—never comprehend the painter's joy or his divine rest in endeavor until the achievement lies before us—we must speak of Hunt only from the work to which he has devoted himself, and not do him the injustice to predict dramas he has never yet composed.

First, pre-eminently appears that worship for moral beauty which suffers him to fear no ugliness. This power allies him with keen sympathy to every living thing. He sees kinship and the immortal spark in each breathing being. The soul of love goes out and paints the dark or the suffering or the repellant faithfully, bringing it in to the light where God's sunshine may fall upon it, and men and women, seeing for the first time, may help to wipe away the stain. This tendency he shares with the great French painter Millet, whom he loves to call Master, and with Dore, whose terrible picture of "The Mountebanks" should call men and women from their homes to penetrate the fastnesses of vice and strive to heal the sorrows of their kind.

This love of moral beauty, which forces painters to paint such pictures, was never in any age more evident. Hunt in his beggar-man, in his forlorn children, and other pictures of the same class, unfolds a beauty that men should be thankful for.

On the other hand, his love of beauty and his power of expressing it should be studied in its direct influence. The beauty of flesh and blood, even the loveliness of children, seems to have slight hold upon him, compared with the significance of character and the lustre with which his imagination endows everything. This lustre is a distinguishing power with him. The depth to which he sees and feels causes him to give higher lights and deeper shadows than other men. White flowers are not only white to him—they shine like stars. His pictures give a sense of splendor.

In his sketch of the poor mother cuddling her child, it is the feeling of rest, the mother's sleeping joy, the relaxed limbs, the folding embrace, which he has given us to enjoy. These are the beauty of the picture—not rounded flesh, nor graceful curves, nor fair complexion; and so with the singing-girls: they are not beautiful girls, but they are simple—they love to sing, they are full of tenderness and music. We might go over all his pictures to weariness in this way. The young girl plucking at the daisy as she stands in an open field must, however, not be omitted. The natural elegance of this portrait renders it peculiarly, we should say, such a one as any woman would be proud to see of herself. Doubtless this young girl, like others, may have worn ear-rings and chains and pins and rings, but the artist knew her better than she knew herself, and has portrayed that exquisite crown of simplicity with which, it should seem, Nature only endows beggars and her royal favorites.

In all the ages since Hamlet was created there appears never to have been an era in which his character has excited such strong and universal interest as in America at this time. William Hunt has thrown upon the canvas a figure of Hamlet beautiful and living. There is no suggestion of any actor in it. Hamlet walks new-born from the painter's brain. His "cursed spite" bends the youthful shoulders, and the figure marches past unmindful of terrestrial presences.

One other picture will illustrate more clearly, perhaps, than everything which has gone before, this gift of imagination. In "The Boy and the Butterfly," now on the walls of the Century Club-house, the loveliness of the child, the power of action, the subtle management of color and light, are all subordinated to the ideas of defeat and endeavor. Energy, the irrepressible strength of the spirit upheld by a divine light of indestructible youth, shines out from the canvas. The boy who cannot catch the butterfly is transmuted as we stand into the Soul of Beauty reaching out in vain for satisfaction, and ready to follow its aspiration to another sphere.

1873