Tuesday, January 11, 2011

an american wilkie by clarence cook

by Howard Helmick
      It is, from one point of view, an amusing fact, that in forming our judgment as to the merits of a picture, we need take no account of what artists say about it. Broadly speaking, we may divide the artist-body into two camps, always, however amiably, at war with one another: the men of anecdote and subject, and the men of art-for-art's-sake: who view with silent disapprobation, or with clearly expressed contempt, and attempt on the artist's part to excite an interest in his picture beyond what is due to his way of painting. It may be said, without exaggeration, that, for these men, not a few of them really worthy of distinction for the skill they have attained--not only a goodly number of artists of our own day, but a goodly number of artists of old times who are reckoned famous by a no doubt ignorant world, do not exist at all as artists. They painted subjects, anecdotes: they were themselves interested in the the story they had to tell, and they hoped to interest others in it: this is enough to condemn them with the artists for art's sake.
     For these men an artist like Howard Helmick, whose repertory consists entirely of pictures painted to please his fellow-men by showing them scenes from the drama of actual life, would have no interest whatever. They would class him with our own Mount, with Wilkie, with Defregger, with Smedley-all clever men, no doubt, but outside the sacred pale. We wish, for our part, that the public here at home had had better opportunities for judging Mr. Helmick's merit for themselves. He has too long been one of the army of the expatriated-charmed-and who shall blame him!--by the ease and comfort of life abroad, and finding there all the success he needed and all the appreciation he could desire; and he has not sought the suffrages of his countrymen by the ordinary methods of the exhibition-gallery of the dealers' sales-rooms. His student-days were passed in Paris, where he and Henry Bacon were pupils of Cabanel; and when the Franco-Prussian war fluttered the studios of Paris and sent the artists adrift, he with others went to England, and after some stay in London wandered over to Ireland, where he found, in that land of changing lights and shadows in human life, as in nature, so many picturesque subjects, that before long he had all he could do to supply the demand for his pictures. It was a field till then almost undiscovered--another American, Mrs. Anna Lea Merritt, had found and brought away some nuggets from the mine; but other fields of work had more attraction for her, and Mr. Helmick was left in almost undisturbed possession of the quarry he had opened. To enjoy his pictures it does not need that we should have read Miss Edgeworth, or Charles Lever, or Samuel Lover, or the latest delightful comer in the field of Irish tragedy and comedy, Jane Barlow--they tell their own story. Even the smaller of the specimens we give, "On his own Ground," with the characteristic head "A Blind Man," are evidently true to Irish life; but it is in his larger pictures of family groups and scenes that he shows the most original vein. Artless nature, free and happy with the happiness that only poverty can know, laughs in our "Irish Apollo piping to the Graces;" and a collection of his Irish scenes would show us the same penetrating observation and directness of statement. Helmick is one of the few artists we know who could be trusted to illustrate such books of Irish life as those we have mentioned: his pictures would be as unforced and as free from artificiality as the books themselves.
     And yet, why should an artist of such cleverness neglect his own country-life for that of another people? Why, in fact, should the greater part of our artists be doing one of two things: either painting foreign scenes and manners, or else painting home-scenery and home-scenes in such a fashion that they would never be suspected for our own? by Clarence Cook, The Quarterly Illustrator

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