“The Heart of the Andes”/Part 2

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“The Heart of the Andes” by Theodore Winthrop
Part 2 – Introduction
Pages 331–343 of the original publication.

We of the northern hemisphere have a geographical belief in the Andes as an unsteady family of mountains in South America, — a continent where earthquakes shake the peaks and revolutions the people, where giant condors soar and swoop, where volcanoes hurl up orbed masses of fiery smoke by day and flare luridly by night, where silver may hang in tubers at the roots of any bush, and where statesmen protocol, and soldiers keep up a runaway fight, for the honor and profit of administering guano. Long ago, in the dim cycles, Incas watched the snowy Andes for the daily coming of their God, the Sun. Then the barbaric music of those morning oblations died away, and, except for Potosi, the Andes might have been quite forgotten. First again we hear of them as a scientific convenience. That mysterious entity, the Equator, hung, like a more tenacious Atlantic cable, from peak to peak. French savans climbed and measured it, and found it droll to stand at noon on their own shadows no bigger than dinner-plates. The world began to respect these mountains as pedestals for science; but later, as the Himalayas went up, the Andes went down. Chimborazo dwindled sadly in public esteem when it was proved that Kunchinjinga and Gaourichanka could rest their chins upon its crown without tiptoeing. By and by came Humboldt and lifted the Andes again. He proclaimed anew their marvellous wealth of vegetation, and how they carry on their shoulders the forests and gardens of all climes. He told, also, of their grandeur, and invited mankind to recognize it. But their transcendent glory, as the triumph of Nature working splendid harmony out of brilliant contrast, remained only a doubt and a dream, until Mr. Church became its interpreter to the Northern world.

A great work of art is a delight and a lesson. A great artist owes a mighty debt to mankind for their labor and thought, since thought and toil began. He must give token that he is no thankless heritor of the sum of human knowledge, no selfish or indolent possessor of man’s purest ideals of beauty. The world is very tender, but very exacting with genius. True genius accepts its duty, and will not rest short of the highest truth of its age. A master artist works his way to the core of Nature, because he demands not husks nor pith, but kernel. The inmost spirit of beauty is not to be discerned by dodging about and waiting until the doors of her enchanted castle shall stand ajar. The true knight must wind the horn of challenge, chop down the ogre, garrote the griffon, hoist the portcullis with a petard, and pierce to the shrine, deaf to the blandishments of the sirens. Then when he has won his bride, the queen, he must lead her beauty forth for the world’s wonderment, to dazzle and inspire.

Recipients of the boons of Art have their duty co-ordinate with the artist’s. Art gives a bounty or a pittance, as we have the will or the capacity to receive, — copper to the blind, silver to the fond, red gold to the passionate, dense light of diamond to the faithful lover. We gain from a noble picture according to our serenity, our pureness, our docility, our elevation of mind. Dolts, fools, and triflers do not get much from Art, unless Art may perchance seize the moment to illuminate them through and through, and pierce their pachyderms with thrills of indignant self-contempt and awakening love. For divine Art has power to confound conceit into humility, and shame the unwashed into purifying their hearts. Clown Cymon saw Iphigenia, and presently the clown was a gentleman. Even if we have a neat love for the beautiful, and call ourselves by the pretty, modest title of amateurs, we have a large choice of degrees of benefit. We may see the first picture of our cycle, and receive a butterfly pleasure, a sniff of half-sensual emotion; or we may transmute our butterfly into a bird of paradise, may educate our slight pleasure into a permanent joy, and sweetly discipline our passion of the finer senses into a love and a worship. We can be vulgar admirers of novelty with no pains, or refined lovers of the beautiful with moderate pains. Let no one be diffident. Eyes are twice as numerous as men; and if we look we must see, unless we are timid and blink. We must outgrow childish fancies, — we must banish to the garret our pre-Praxitelite clay-josses, and dismiss our pre-Giottesque ligneous daubs to the flames. We may safely let ourselves grow, and never fear overgrowth. Why should not men become too large for “creeds outworn”!

“The Heart of the Andes” demands far more than a vague confidence that we can safely admire without committing ourselves. It is not enough to look awhile and like a little, and evade discrimination with easy commonplaces. Here is a strange picture evidently believing itself to be good; if not so, it must be elaborately bad, and should be massacred. If good and great, let it have the crown of unfading bays; but the world cannot toss its laurels lightly about to bristle on every ambitious pate. If we want noble pictures and progress to nobler, let us recognize them heartily when they come. An artist feels the warmth of intelligent sympathy, as a peach feels sunshine. The applause of a mob has a noisy charm, like the flapping of wings in an army of wild-pigeons, but the tidal sympathy of a throng of brother men stirs the life-blood. When a man of genius asks if he speak the truth, and the world responds with a magnificent “Ay!” thenceforth his impulses move with the momentum of mankind. Appreciation is the cause and the consequence of excellence.

As a contribution toward the understanding of Mr. Church’s great work, I propose in the following pages to analyze its subject and manner of treatment. I shall eschew technicality of thought and phrase. The subject is new, the scenes are strange, the facts are amazing. People in the United States are familiar with solemn pine woods and jocund plains and valleys, and have studied the bridal-cottage picturesque everywhere; but Cordilleras, and the calm of uppermost peaks of snow, and the wealth of tropic forests, they know not. Some commentary, then, on this novel work, seems not impertinent. I am obliged to execute my task in the few last days while the picture ripens rapidly under the final brilliant touches of its creator; and the necessity of haste must be my excuse for any roughness of style or opacity of condensation.

Before proceeding to the direct analysis, let us notice the strength of our position as American thinkers on Art. Generally with the boons of the past we have to accept the burdens of the past. But only a withered incubus, moribund with an atrophy, squats upon our healthy growth in Art. We may have much to learn, but we have little to unlearn. Young artists, errant with Nature, are not caught and cuffed by the despotism of effete schools, nor sneered down into inanity by conservative dilettantism. Superstition for the past is feeble here, to-day. We might tend to irreverence, but irreverence is soon scourged out of every sincere life. We have a nearly clear field for Art, and no rubbish to be burned. Europe has been wretchedly impeded and futilized in Art by worshipping men rather than God, finite works rather than infinite Nature, and is now at pains to raze and reconstruct its theories. Our business is simpler, and this picture is a token of inevitable success, — a proof and a promise, a lesson and a standard. The American landscape-artist marches at Nature with immense civilization to back him. The trophies of old triumph are not disdained, but they are behind him. He is not compelled to serve apprenticeship in the world’s garrets of trash for inspiration, nor to kotou to any fetish, whether set up on the Acropolis, or the Capitoline, in the Court of the Louvre, or under the pepper-boxes in Trafalgar Square.

No lover of Art should be bullied out of his faith in his own instincts and independent culture by impertinencies about old masters and antique schools. Remember that Nature is the mistress of all masters, and founder of all schools. Nature makes Art possible straightway, everywhere, always.

Habits of mind are in every man’s power which will make him an infallible judge of artistic excellence at once. Does some one ask how to form those habits for comprehending landscape Art? If we are pure lovers of the world of God; if we have recognized the palpitating infinite of blue sky, and loved to name it Heaven; if we have been thrilled with the solemnity of violet dawn, and are rich with remembered pageantries of sunrise, and have known the calm and the promise of twilight glories over twilight glooms, and have chosen clouds to be the companions of our brightest earthly fancies; if we have studied the modesty, the stateliness, and the delicate fiery quietness of the world of flowers, and have been showered with sunbeams and shadows in the tremulous woods; if we have watched where surges come, with a gleam on their crest, to be lavish of light and music on glittering crags; if, with the simple manly singer of old Greece, we deem “water best,” — best for its majesty in Ocean, best in the brave dashes and massy plunge of a waterfall, best in every shady dingle where it drifts dimples full of sweet sunlight, and best in twinkling dew-drops on a lily tossed into showers of sparkles by a humming-bird; if we have felt the large grandeur of plains sweeping up to sudden lifts of mountain, and if mountains have taught us their power and energy, and the topmost snow-peaks their transcendent holy calm; if we have loved and studied Nature thus, and kept our hearts undebased by sense and unbewildered by mammon, — then it is to us that noblest Art appeals, and we are its scholars and its tribunal. Then we have no mundane errors to recant, and will not keep up a shabby scuffle with our convictions, and chuckle punily over some pinchbeck treasure-trove of our conceit, some minor fault in a noble work; but, finding that a bold lover has gone nearer to Nature than we, will choose him for our guide, and follow straight in his track to the penetralia of beauty.

There are two questions to be asked regarding “The Heart of the Andes.” 1. Is it a subject fit to be painted? 2. Is it well done? Genius should not choose for its theme, The Model Frog-Pond, and revel there in the clammy ooze. And if Genius paints the Portals of Paradise, they must not be rusty, repulsive, and baleful as the Infernal doors. This picture is a new-comer of imposing port. When a supernatural guest enters, the first question is, — “Ho, the Great Unknown! Art thou Archangel, or Ogre, or overgrown Scarecrow?” Which of these personages have we here?

“Why paint the Andes?” says anybody. “Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Why go among the condors and centipedes for beauty? Cannot Mr. Church stay at home and paint Niagaras? Or the White Mountains, — they are a mile high?”

Why paint the tropics? Every passionate soul longs to be with Nature in her fervor underneath the palms. Must we know the torrid zone only through travelled bananas, plucked too soon and pithy? or by bottled anacondas? or by the tarry-flavored slang of forecastle-bred paroquets? Rosy summer dwells fair and winning beyond our Northern wastes, where winter has been and will be, and we sigh for days of basking in perpetual sunshine. Warmth is the cheer, and sunshine the charm of Nature. Without warmth, we become Esquimaux nibbling at a tallow dip. Without sunshine, color fades away into Arctic pallors. All the blush and bloom and winy ripeness of earthly beauty are the gifts of sunshine. Upon the tropics those gifts are poured out most lavishly.

For some years past, Mr. Church has been helping us to a complete knowledge of the exciting and yet indolent beauty of the tropics. He has learned the passion of those Southern climes, while he has not unlearned the energy of his own. He has painted the dreamy haste of the Magdalena, the cataract of Tequendama, temperate uplands where spring abides forever, and scene after scene of sunny noon and tender evening, with river and plain watched by distant snow-peaks. He has given us already other noble smaller pictures of the Andes, prototypes of the present work.

Men of science have sighed over their bewilderment in tropic zones, where every novelty of vegetation is a phenomenon. Botanists sit there among the ruins of their burst herbariums, and bewail the lack of polysyllabic misnomers for beautiful strangers in the world of flowers. But Art should sing pæans, when it discovers the poetry of form and color entangled among those labyrinths, and hasten to be its interpreter to the world. Mr. Church has attempted to fulfil this duty already, and has painted rich forests by rivers near the sea, where files of graceful cocoa-palms stand above the leggy mangroves, — luxuriant copses where the crimson orchis glows among inland palms, — pulpy-leaved trees all abloom with purple flowers, — delicate mimosas, — ceibas like mounds of verdure, — bowers of morning-glories, so dense that hummingbirds cannot enter, and glades where lianas hang their cables and cords, bearing festoons of large leaves and blossoms with tropic blood shining through their veins. He has happily avoided any feeling of the rank and poisonous. No one calls for quinine after seeing his pictures, or has nightmares filled with caymans and vampires.

So much for the tropical lowlands. “The Heart of the Andes” takes us to the tropical highlands. It claims to convey the sentiment of the grandest scenery on the globe. Through a mighty rift of the South American continent parallel with the Pacific, the Andes have boiled up and crystallized. Under the equator, this Titanic upheaval was mightiest. According to some cosmical law, power worked most vigorously where beauty could afterward decorate most lovingly. Here narrow upright belts of climate are substituted for the breadths of zone after zone from torrid to frozen regions. All the garden wealth of the tropics, all the domestic charm of Northern plain and field and grove, dashed with a richer splendor than their own, are here combined and grouped at the base and along the flanks of bulky ranges topped with snow and fire. Polar scenes are here colonized under the hot equator. Eternal snows climb out of eternal summer. The eye may catch a beam from the scarlet orchis, child of fiery climes, and glance before that rosy light is lost to the solemn white dome of Chimborazo. We can look at the North Pole through the crest of a palm, and cool the fire in our brain by the vision of a frostier than the “frosty Caucasus.” Symbols of passion and of peace face each other. We can see at once what the world is worth. What Nature has deemed man fit to receive, is here bestowed in one largess. All earth’s riches are compacted into one many-sided crystal.

In “The Heart of the Andes,” Mr. Church has condensed the condensation of Nature. It is not an actual scene, but the subtle essence of many scenes combined into a typical picture. A man of genius, painter, poet, organizer in any domain of thought, works with larger joy and impulse when he obeys his creative imagination. Life is too short for descriptive painting; we want dramatic painting. We want to know from a master what are the essentials, the compact, capital, memorable facts which he has had eyes to see and heart to understand in Nature. We should have asked of Mr. Church, after the elaborate studies of his two visits among the Andes, to give us what he has given here, — the vital spirit of these new glorious regions, so that their beauty could become a part of our minds, and all our future conceptions be larger and richer for this new possession.

The first question, then, as to the subject of this picture, is answered. The theme is worthy to be treated. Let us proceed, secondly, to the special analysis.

The picture may be roughly divided into different regions, as follows: —

The Sky.
The Snow Dome.
The Llano, or central plain.
The Cordillera.
The Clouds, their shadows and the atmosphere.
The Hamlet.
The Montaña, or central forest.
The Cataract and its Basin.
The Glade on the right foreground.
The Road and left foreground.

Each of these regions I will take up in order.

The Scene is an elevated valley in the Andes, six thousand feet above the sea; the Time, an hour or two before sunset.

The artist might have chosen an enthusiastic moment of dawn, when peaks of snow over purple shoulders of porphyry confront the coming day. Or he might have exhibited a sunset pageant with marshalling of fiery clouds. Handled with his ability of color, such would have been electrifying effects of power in passionate action. But this picture is to teach the majesty of Power in Repose. The day’s labor is over. High noon is long past, but “gray-hooded even” not yet come. There is rich accumulation of sunshine, and withal an undertone of pensive shadow answering to that consciousness of past and possible sorrow which so deepens every present joy. In a previous great picture, “The Andes of Ecuador” painted after Mr. Church’s first visit, he has depicted the glory of sunset flooding a broad wild valley. There the sun is master, and its atmosphere almost dazzles us away from simple study of the mountain forms. In “The Heart of the Andes” the great snow-peak is master, and its solemn, peaceful light the illuminator of the scene. Any land can see the sun occasionally, but any land cannot see dome mountains of snow. Therefore let the sun retire from this picture, and stand, as we do, spectator; and let us have that moment of day when light is strong and quiet, and shadows deep but not despotic.