Men I Have Painted/David Croal Thomson
DAVID CROAL THOMSON
THE little portrait of Cosmo Monkhouse, about which Herkomer was so indiscreet in the opinion of Onslow Ford, procured for me a commission from one whose approbation and patronage was dearer to me than any other. David Croal Thomson had already won for himself a premier position among connoisseurs and writers on Art. His intimate knowledge of the various schools of modern Art, which was soon to include a comprehensive view of old painting, and particularly of the masterly English School that thrived under the Georges, and died under Victoria, singled him out as a man eminently fitted to be the historian of the Barbizon School, and of the Modern Dutch School, as he, indirectly, includes its story with that of the brothers Maris—James, Matthew, and William. It is, perhaps, wrong to say that the history of the school is indirectly given in the story of these three painters, because they, with the addition of Mauve, Israels, and Bosboom, express directly the character and achievement of the school.
Even though Croal Thomson may not consider Art hereditary as a matter of course, it is yet interesting to note that he traces downwards from the Old Dutch artists—Ruysdael, Hobbema, and Van der Neer, the English Bonnington, Constable, and Turner, and the Modern French—Daubigny, Corot, and Harpignies. It would be as difficult to prove that Art is hereditary—unless the Japanese artists are proof of it—as to prove, on the Darwinian hypothesis, that physical individual characteristics are inherited and pass from father to son. But it may be said without much fear of contradiction that Art is traditional, and is, unfortunately perhaps, liable to lapses. In Spain Art has fallen from the height which it attained with the ascendancy of Zurbaran and Velasquez, and in Italy from the time when Uccello, Crevelli, Titian, and Veronese held their glorious sway. In fact all Art between the time of Phidias and that of Michael Angelo suffered an ever-increasing eclipse, until Botticelli and Giotto opened the windows anew to a ray of light, which again was shut out before the close of the sixteenth century, to remain extinguished until our own time.
All great Art—I am speaking now of painting—centres around the year 1600. A few names will show that, with the exception of the Van Eycks, who came just a little before them, the great painters of the Low Countries, of Italy, and of Spain, lived in the same period. Franz Hals, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, Raphael, Titian, and other Italians too numerous to mention, and the Spaniard Velasquez, were contemporaneous painters, and great painting expired with them. The English are the only artists that have revived the tradition: and strange enough it is to have to relate that before this revival, which came through Sir Joshua Reynolds, Gainsborough, Romney, Raeburn, Gilbert Stuart, and Benjamin West, the English had produced Hogarth only.
About the time of the end of the reign of the Georges this great revived tradition died again in England, and remained dead until the French Manet took up the threads, and, handling them in a very imperfect way, passed them on to Carolus Duran, and he, not knowing how to weave them into his work, passed them to John Sargent, whose brilliant dexterity almost realized the traditions of 1600. If Sir John Millais had not joined the pre-Raphaelites, who knows what he might have accomplished in great painting? Whistler, Charles Furse, and Thomas Eakins, each in his own way, carried on the traditions for a few years; but there are already signs of another relapse that may prove fatal.
The inspiration of all really great Art, as Ruskin so wisely points out, is religion. Another three centuries may see the end of that—communism and religion cannot exist together. Art in some form, either great or small, lives as a tradition through all the ages, building, either well or ill, upon that which was already laid in varying strata, as civilization proceeded. It has never been spontaneous, and never can be. That this is so can be discovered from an examination of the illustrations of Matthew Mans' work in Croal Thomson's book, which plainly indicate that he blossomed from many grafts upon the same tree. In particular, Cottage Scene shows, if not the German ancestry of his family, the direct influence of German Art, of a period anterior to Menzel; at other times the blossom is the result of a graft from his brother James, and again from William. He is at his best when he is pursuing his own fantasies, his day-dreams of princes and princesses and castles in the air, pictorial expressions of that inner and spiritual life that was in such contrast to his real and bitter experience.
We often wonder if there is a mathematical law governing the phenomena of coincidences. They are so mysterious, and sometimes so startling, as to induce a belief in a direct personal intention. Like Francis Bacon's, my own fateful number seems to be fifty-three. It was on the lintel of the door leading into the grounds of Hawarden Castle when I first sought my way there to paint Mr. Gladstone. It is chiselled on a stone inserted in the wall of the garden of The Hermitage; and if ever I write of the houses I have lived in, it will be shown how coincidences have led me to decide upon buying or leasing them. No. 8, Henrietta Street, had always been known to me as Vine House, where my old friend, Henrietta Hind, lived and cultivated a vine which bore such small, neat, and compact bunches of grapes that I at first thought the vine was artificial; so like painted, hammered iron it seemed to be. On the wall, in the hall, Henrietta had hung a large bunch of grapes, carved in wood, to carry on the raison d'être of the name. When, after an absence of two or three years, I found the name changed to Barbizon House, and my old friend and patron, D. Croal Thomson, installed there among a collection of drawings by Brabazon Brabazon, that clever artist who knew how to breathe on to paper in puffs of coloured smoke the most charming skies and lakes, and mountains and Venetian palaces, I began to wonder what magic carpet had effected the harmonious transformation.
Mr. Thomson greeted me with his well-known, genial smile, and took me through all the familiar rooms. He invited me to show the portraits of "Colonel" House I had painted at the Hotel Crillon in Paris, and with great generosity placed the rooms at my disposal. He was full of anecdotes about himself and his strange experiences with artists and doctors, some of which I cannot discreetly divulge. But there is one that so generously displays his love of fair criticism that it must be recorded. A letter had appeared in the columns of the American Art News, disparaging the work of Duveneck, who had received a special gold medal at the request of the international jurors for his exhibition of portraits and pictures at the Panama-Pacific Exposition, at San Francisco, in 1915—an honour unique in character, and spontaneously offered in recognition of his unusual talents. Mr. Thomson had seen Duveneck's work, in Cincinnati, some time before this, and admired it. With the feeling that an injustice had been done a great painter, he wrote a long letter in praise of Duveneck's Art, and posted it to New York. He had no acknowledgment from the American Art News, and never saw the letter again: but three years afterwards he received, from Cincinnati, a note announcing a proposed memorial to Duveneck, who had died in the interval. The writer said that the family and friends of the painter had never forgotten the generous and courageous defence of his work offered by Mr. Thomson in reply to his detractors. My old friend continued this narrative by telling me that, in one of the galleries at Venice, he and Mrs. Thomson had seen, many years before, a man making a copy of an angel in one of Titian's pictures, and Mrs. Thomson had said enthusiastically, "Look, what a fine copy it is; it is better than the original!" The painter, turning to them, answered, with an American accent and intonation, "I am glad you like it, and I thank you." This was Duveneck—living through the great and sorrowful romance of his youth. He never worked after the romance ended: but he lived forty years more, and saw the work of his youth honoured.
From an early age Mr. Croal Thomson has taken a prominent and an intimate part in the Art life of London. In addition to his connection with the Paris house of Goupil and the London house of Agnew, he edited The Art Journal for a number of years, contributed to The Studio, The Magazine of Art, The Scotsman, The Encyclopædia Britannica, and published The Barbizon School of Painters, The Brothers Maris, Corot, and numerous other important works.