Tuesday, January 11, 2011

american art & foreign influence by w. lewis fraser

by Sterner
   It is as difficult to define our individual art creeds as it would be, without the aid of the theologians, to define a religious one. I suppose art, as in religion, one "ought to be able to give a reason for the hope that is within"; but art has not had its colleges, its assemblies of doctors to dogmatize, to settle just what one ought or ought not to believe in.  This is fortunate or unfortunate according to one's individual temperament.
     It is an axion that he who thinks deeply thinks well. Unfortunately, in matters of art, this does not always apply; for Art is a fickle goddess, who smiles upon whom she will--the "b a n a l" sometimes more sweetly than the serious; the untaught boy often times more willingly than the advanced student.
     Are there then, no canons in art in which we may trust? No exponents of its true principles to whom we may look? Plenty, if we accept the "fads," the fashions of the passing moment. I am sure the Byzantine painters had them, and I doubt not that the cognoscenti of their time bowed down before them and worshipped them. But away off in central Italy there lived a shepherd's boy, who drew pictures of his sheep on stones and fences, and with Giotto the canons of the Byzantines were forgotten, and later, with his new methods, there came new canons. So it has been since. The heretic of to-day becomes the canonized saint of to-morrow, to be set aside by new heretics and new saints.
     We are fortunate in our country in having in art no past, and therefore few traditions, or traditions so recent that they have not had time to crystalize. They are still in the waters of crystallization, and are therefore apt, by the addition of a strange substance , to crystallize into a new, a strange shape. Our Copleys, Stuarts, Allstons, Turnbulls, and what has been sneeringly characterized as "the Hudson River school," were all waters of crystallization. They had their half-formed canons based on English models; but the soil of new world introduced the new substance, for it is not favorable, by dint of its indigenous growth, to the propagation of old world plants in old world forms. And before these had time to properly root, the indegenous had, happily for us, choked them.
     It is the fashion to bewail the lack of Americanism in our art. I wonder what is meant by this. American art is intensely American. Our nation has grown by assimilating the best that the whole world afforded--the making of it our own, the pruning and trimming of it, and then incorporating it into our system--and our art has grown on these lines.
     It would be an insult to those who bewail the non-national character of our art, to suppose that because our artists have not yet painted Jersey barns with "Use Brown's Liniment," or "Smith Salvation Oil," on their roofs, they are not American. The truth is, that where the picturesque is to be found our painters have painted it. If this is not the case, then what of our Innesses, our Davises, our Tryons in landscape, our Homers, Kappes, and others in figure? Surely these are as individual as it is possible to be in this age of steam and electricity.
     Is it not barely possible that we are apt to take too seriously in our exhibitions, the tentative efforts of the student just from Paris, and, because they echo the master under whom he has studied, raise the cry, that American art is un-American?
     Our country is a large one, cosmopolitan in its population and customs. When Albert E. Sterner made the charming pictures which accompany the Balcony Stories, lately published in The Century, he drew types of Americans--the Americans of New Orleans. These are as untrue to New England as they would be to Timbuctoo; but yet New Orleans and New England are both American. In "Prue and I," types which would have been utterly false for New Orleans. But it may be said that in the handling of these drawings he is not American. This is equivalent to saying that Sterner has learned his trade--that he can handle his medium without the restraint of imperfect knowledge, without that imperfection which characterized much of the American art of thirty years ago.
     Sterner is a type, and an excellent one, of the American artist--not fashioned by France--but properly directed by French precept and example. He had secured a footing in our art ranks before he went abroad; and while his place in those ranks was but that of a private, we knew that he was certain of promotion. He came back wearing the epaulettes and with the brevet of the Salon. The artist had been awakened in him. He saw things wit wide-open eyes--eyes not dazzled by the glitter of the yellow and the blue of impressionism, yet profoundly impressed by the spirit of modernity. He was a stronger draughtsman, a better colorist, a more artistic artist, a conservative radical in art. His later visits to Paris have but strengthened these qualities.
     Artists do not, save with rare exceptions, arrive at the maturity of their powers at Sterner's age, thirty. He at present thinks better than he does; his works are sometimes faulty in drawing, occasionally show impatience of their subject, and now and then are worried and teased in execution; but, whatever their faults, the artist is apparent, and possessing this quality, they are always valuable.
     Sterner is a keen observer of character, as is well shown in the note-book sketches which accompany this article. What could be more admirable than the thumb-nail sketches which surround page 5, or the head of the French ouvrier on page 7. Unfortunately his quality in composition is suggested rather than shown in the unused sketch for ''Prue and I," one of the most charming illustrated books ever issued form the American press. He is an admirable painter, a soft, rich, and brilliant colorist. This quality of color finds its way into his black and white. But when he is thus characterized, it yet remains to be said, that his chief quality is his artisticness; a quality which cannot be defined or formulated, but without which not great art work was ever accomplished. By W. Lewis Fraser,1894, The Quarterly Illustrator


by Sterner
Note.-- Albert E. Sterner, whose work is reviewed so gracefully in the foregoing paper, is a Londoner born, with a Parisian temperament and an American earnestness of character. He first saw the sun on March 8, 1863, and came to America when he was eighteen years of age. He lived in New York for a while, studying the line of picture-making mostly by himself-until one fine day he pulled up his tent stakes and sailed for Paris. There he studied under Lefebvre and Boulanger. Since this time he has forged to the top of his studious vocation. Mr. Sterner is a member of the New York Water Color Society, and has frequently exhibited at the Academy and the American Fine Arts Society. His picture of "The Bachelor" received honorable mention at the Salon in 1891. Mr. Sterner's draughtsmanship is distinguished by a nervousness of handling and an economic directness of touch. He goes to his subject clear-headed and free-handed, and tells his story simply. He is a vigorous objector to the catch-penny frills of ''popular"picture-making, and even in his earlier days tried to be conscientious in his simplest work.